To the Editor:
I write with some trepidation, for I am no literary critic, but merely a lawyer who likes to read some things other than judicial opinions and law-review articles. In “Anti-Americanism & Other Clichés” [April], however, Joseph Epstein challenged my lawyer’s instinct to argue when he wrote: “. . . ask yourself what novel by a contemporary American writer you are much looking forward to.” I agree with the main theme of his article, especially his criticism of minor writers who satisfy their egos by making fatuous remarks equating Disneyland with Auschwitz or who use their “art” to promote their politics. . . . I only find myself in disagreement with Mr. Epstein’s apparent pessimism about the state of the literary arts in America. In the hope that I can successfully contradict his statement that “he never hears people argue strongly about the quality of novels,” let me say a few words in praise of Tennessee Williams, William Styron, Walker Percy, and Judith Guest.
Williams does not fit precisely within Mr. Epstein’s challenge because he is now dead and he was not a novelist. I justify his inclusion because he died so recently and because Mr. Epstein includes both John Cheever and Robert Lowell in his comments. (I looked forward to their works, too.) Williams was not as good at the end as he was at the begining, but even his worst plays contained characters of interest and complexity and his short stories were almost invariably delights. . . .
There is a world of difference between the creator of Blanche Du-Bois and Big Daddy . . . and William Styron, . . . but both Williams and Styron share the ability to personalize the universal and make it more accessible, even if not more understandable. Styron is not afraid of large subjects; give him credit for that. Nor does he shy away from tackling something which he has not experienced. . . . Sophie’s Choice may, at times, be tendentious or melodramatic or itself a repository of clichés, but what a powerful moment when Sophie has to make her dreadful choice. That one incident symbolizes and personalizes the Holocaust in a way that makes the horror of Nazi cruelty at least partially understandable to an innocent like Stingo who has never known and likely never will know a comparable evil.
Walker Percy shares the “Southernness” of Williams and Styron and is able to capture that sense of timeless connectedness which seems characteristic of most 20th-century Southern authors. But he also takes us sanely into madness in ways that can be both surprising and frightening because the manifestations of insanity in his characters are so often banal or merely quirky.
Judith Guest I include because her first two books have intrigued me and I am curious to see how her talent develops. Mrs. Guest is far from being a novelist of the first rank, but she is a writer who is reasonably competent in her craft, who tells a good story, and who has been able to bring some real life to a few of the characters in each book. . . . Mrs. Guest does treat with compassion and not contempt those . . . upper-middle-class Middle Americans who often are the objects of derision in other books.
I do not mean to ascribe to any one of these writers those virtues which assure literary immortality. None is as good, in my opinion, as Faulkner, to mention only one not-so-long-deceased American. They are writers, however, whose talents have brought me pleasure, who manage to say something about the complexities of existence, who can describe the basest aspects of man’s character but who leave us with at least a glimmer of the potential for good. . . .
In sum, I agree with virtually everything Mr Epstein has to say, but I am not as pessimistic as he is about the current state of American literature. . . .
Howard O. Hunter
University of Virginia School of Law
To the Editor:
My statistics, too, are correct. I find that journalists, even scholars and critics, distort facts in their rush to make a point. On every occasion when I myself have known the event, or place, or person described, I have always found the report to be in error. I now never, never believe what I read in magazines or newspapers or hear and see on television. This was brought home once again when I turned up “Anti-Americanism & Other Clichés” by Joseph Epstein.
I was stopped cold in the fifth paragraph, when Mr. Epstein said so casually:
Not long ago Saul Bellow, in an interview, said that he thought American writers no longer had the great subject. The great subject of our day, he said, belonged to those writers who had survived totalitarian regimes and lived to write about it: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Kundera. . . . What Bellow seemed to be saying was that these writers, often wretched in the conditions of their lives, were nonetheless privileged as writers in their experience, for their experience had brought them face to face with terror and evil, goodness and heroism—in short, with the largest human feelings and with destiny played out on the grand scale.
I have recently completed work (as editor) on a gathering of all the prose writings of Saul Bellow, including essays, speeches, reviews, and interviews, beginning with “The Jewish Writer,” that appeared in COMMENTARY in October 1949, coming all the way down to Al Ellenberg’s interview in Rolling Stone, March 4, 1982. Only a few weeks ago I finished my introduction to this volume and so have read and reread some 85 pieces now accumulated and organized, ready for the next stage of production. Thus all that Bellow said, outside the novels, is fresh in my mind and available, in folders, on my shelf. Nowhere can I find anything such as Mr. Epstein ascribes to Bellow.
Preparatory to my own work on a literary study of Bellow’s fiction, I have made a complete index of all Bellow’s allusions, and a phenomenally long list it is, for Bellow is a voracious reader, and neither in the prose or the fiction is there any reference to Kundera. There are two references to Pasternak, one in 1963, one in 1975; there are three references to Solzhenitsyn in 1963, 1973, 1974; there are two references to Sinyavsky, in 1970 and 1978. None of them appears in any interview.
But how can Joseph Epstein, chief editor of the American Scholar, be challenged with careless distortion, with, Lord save us!, sloppy scholarship? We depend on his words, and on his supervision of words, for guidance. And these were the same remarks Mr. Epstein presented to the conference, “Our Country and Our Culture,” sponsored by the Committee for the Free World, in February at the Plaza Hotel in New York. . . . Well, I do not presume to wonder why none of the arbiters of American taste and culture raised no question, but I can show from the documents how wrong Mr. Epstein is when he drags Saul Bellow onto the little Milanese flower cart, the neoconservative bandwagon.
Bellow refers to Pasternak first in his essay “On Jewish Storytelling,” used as the introduction to Great Jewish Short Stories, 1963. Reflecting on the tendency among modern Jewish writers to idealize, to sentimentalize and sweeten, ghetto life, Bellow acknowledges that some people may think it wrong of him to object to such lack of realism; he in turn objects to the idea that good public relations require that realistic representations be played down. And he says, “[T]he question is a very ticklish one. It could be shown, I think, that the argument based on need is also the one used by Khrushchev. The Russian oligarchy approves only of what it quaintly calls socialist realism. It would prefer to have us read Simonov rather than Pasternak. Paradoxically, therefore, the American Jewish public buys Uris and Pasternak for entirely different reasons—Exodus because it is good for us and Doctor Zhivago because it is bad for them.” After recounting an anecdote of S.Y. Agnon concerning the need for Bellow to have his works translated immediately into Hebrew, because only then would they survive, Bellow says, “We make what we can of our conditions with the means available. We must accept the mixture as we find it—the impurity of it, the tragedy of it, the hope of it.”
The second reference to Pasternak appears in “An Interview with Myself,” written in 1975, printed in the New Review. Here Bellow is talking about Mayor Daley from whom he received a $500 check on behalf of the Midland Authors’ Society. There is some banter concerning Daley’s not having read Herzog, and Bellow writes: “Art is not the Mayor’s dish. But then why should it be? I much prefer his neglect to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry, phoning Pasternak to chat with him about Mandelstam and shortly afterward, sending Mandelstam to die.” Bellow goes on in his self-interview to say: “I have however visited writers’ clubs in Communist countries and can’t say that I’m sorry we have no such institutions here. . . . Bad as things are here they are not so bad as in . . . writers’ centers, behind the Iron Curtain.” The context of Bellow’s remarks are pertinent, for we can then see how far he is from anything Mr. Epstein reports. Bellow says precisely this at the conclusion of this essay:
At this moment in human evolution, so miraculous, atrocious, glorious, and hellish, the firmly established literary cultures of France and England, Italy and Germany can originate nothing. They look to us, to the “disadvantaged” Americans, and to the Russians. From America there have come a number of great irrepressible solitaries like Poe or Melville or Whitman, alcoholics, obscure government employees. In busy America there was no Weimar, there were no cultivated princes. There were only obstinate geniuses writing—why? For whom? There is the real acte gratuit for you. Unthanked, these writers augmented life marvelously. They did not emerge from a literary culture nor did they create any such thing. Irrepressible individuals of a similar type have lately begun to show themselves in Russia. There Stalinism utterly destroyed a thriving literary culture and replaced it with a horrible bureaucracy. But in spite of this and in spite of forced labor and murder, the feeling for what is true and just has not been put out. I don’t see, in short, why we should continue to dream of what we have never had. To have would not help us. Perhaps if we were to purge ourselves of nostalgia and stopped longing for a literary world we would see a fresh opportunity to extend the imagination and resume imaginative contact with nature and society.
Is this where Mr. Epstein got confused? And did his confusion last from 1975 to April 1983? In fact Bellow does go on to cite Huizinga (Kundera?) who cites Ortega (Kundera?), both of whom are relevant to Bellow’s conviction that “Philistine intellectuals don’t make you stop writing. Writing is your acte gratuit. Besides, those you address are there. If you exist, then they exist. You can be more certain of their existence than of your own.” All—Huizinga, Ortega, Bellow—agree that writers make their best efforts for poetic or anti-poetic people. For the comman man, the mass man.
Bellow refers three times to Solzhenitsyn. First in 1963 in a long essay, “Literature,” written for The Great Ideas Today, where Bellow is arguing that 20th-century literature is wrongly chasing after style, performance, aestheticism, rather than subject matter; always for Bellow, character is the true provenance of the novel—character and feeling—and the pursuit of style for its own sake leads to a dismissal of moral suffering, always the result when the focus is on the anonymity of man. It is in this context that Bellow compares Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line to show what the submergence of the individual can be like. . . .
The second reference to Solzhenitsyn appears in “Literature in the Age of Technology,” a Doubleday lecture presented in 1973. It is slight: “In totalitarian countries, where facts are suppressed, writers of exceptional courage still tell the truth in the old way. (Why was it not a Soviet expert who told the world about the Gulag Archipelago?) But in the Free World, the novelists are peculiarly inhibited. . . . The era of the writer as public sage and as dependable informant has ended.”
Third, in 1974, Bellow wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review, joining the appeal of Sakharov and four other Soviet intellectuals to protect Solzhenitsyn from persecution. That is all.
Nowhere yet has Bellow said American writers have lost the great subject, that the great subject of our day belongs to those writers who survived totalitarian regimes and lived to write about it.
Finally Sinyavsky. In “Why Not?,” an address accepting the Emerson-Thoreau Award at the ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 1978, Bellow described the difficulties faced by young Americans who are determined to write. What gives them the right or the courage or the aspiration? Eventually Bellow justifies the commitment by citing Matthew Arnold, Tocqueville, Proust, and . . . Sinyavsky. . . . The other reference to Sinyavsky appears in an unpublished manuscript lecture on Joyce.
A word about comic style: Mr. Epstein tells us that Bellow thought contemporary American writers “had to come at things less directly, more obliquely, with comedy and irony being perhaps their chief literary weapons.” What, in fact, did Bellow say about his comic style? In an interview conducted at Skidmore College in 1973 (printed in Salmagundi, Summer 1975) Bellow is asked, what is the place of comedy in your work? His reply: “There’s mercy and forgiveness in laughter.” And reflecting on our “poor President Nixon on television,” he adds, “What can I do but laugh? It comes natural to me.” What follows is a long conversation about the whole issue of the banality of evil with Bellow reiterating his refusal to accept Hannah Arendt’s position: “[Evil] happens in fact, and those who commit the evil in fact are in fact evil.” Nothing at all about any chief literary weapons.
In the New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1976, Joseph Epstein interviewed Saul Bellow. This may or may not be the “recent interview” referred to. I doubt it, for even Mr. Epstein would remember that he focused on Bellow’s reaction to the Nobel Prize, and was concerned more with the notions of large public and small public, Rudolf Steiner, and the kind of reader Bellow would like for his novels. Nothing here about proper subject matter, decline of American writing, comic style, and what have you.
Now having reproduced exactly what Bellow said, in its proper context, I invite the reader to go on with the rest of Mr. Epstein’s article, and wonder how many more distortions are embedded there. . . . What credence shall I give to his declaration that the self-dramatizing American literary imagination is indeed given to thinking the worst of this country? Why should I believe him when he says, “The contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a crude anti-Americanism”? Shall I trust what Mr. Epstein tells us is the nubbin of Henry James and Tolstoy and Joyce when I know that William Dean Howells never wrote an essay on Dostoevsky, as Mr. Epstein says, but that he did write an essay on an Englishman, E. Hughes, who had published a study of the differences between the English and American novels? When he comes to Hughes’s point that American novels have a good deal of optimistic faith in them, Howells agrees and explains why:
It used to be one of the disadvantages of the practice of romance in America, which Hawthorne more or less whimsically lamented, that there were so few shadows and inequalities in our broad level of prosperity; and it is one of the reflections suggested by Dostoevsky’s novel, The Crime and the Punishment, that whoever struck a note so profoundly tragic in American fiction would do a false and mistaken thing—as false and as mistaken in its way as dealing in American fiction with certain nudities which the Latin peoples seem to find edifying. Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or finally exiled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth; and in a land where journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day, the sum of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to class has been almost inappreciable, though all this is changing for the worse. Our novelists, therefore, concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American and seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests.
If the editor of the American Scholar, the organ of the Phi Beta Kappa associations, cannot get his Howells straight, how shall I believe that literary studies in university literature departments are anything near as he describes them? And why should I believe that the only interesting minds of twenty-five years ago were the ones he cites—Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, F.R. Leavis—and that his second liners, so-called—Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Philip Rahv, Newton Arvin, F.O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, R.P. Blackmur—were indeed second-line?
For those who care about literature, a great deal is indeed at stake.
Department of English
State University of New York
Stony Brook, New York
Joseph Epstein writes:
Counselor Hunter is less, I am more, pessimistic about the current literary scene. We have no reason to enter into literary litigation—at lease none that I can make out. Meanwhile, I enjoyed his observations and the civil tone of his letter.
Ruth Miller’s letter is pedantic, windy, and ill-tempered. One doesn’t come across this combination every day. As for the chief point in her letter, whether or not Saul Bellow said that writers who have lived in totalitarian countries have the great subject—and Bellow did not specify the names, I did—well, Saul Bellow said it to me, in his apartment one afternoon over lunch. He also, as it happens, said it again in an interview printed in the Chicago Tribune magazine in its issue of September 16, 1979. In the Tribune interview Bellow said: “We American writers can hardly expect to compete with those who have known the worst of war in their own cities, or who have been condemned to slave-labor camps. . . . But perhaps we can do in the realm of comedy what we are unable to do in the realm of terror.”
Miss Miller is one of that new breed of scholars whose subject is a writer who is still breathing, talking, walking around. Such scholars have a problem keeping up with everything their author says. But I fear there is nothing for it, except possibly to get their authors to agree to have themselves, in the name of this fine new scholarship, wired for sound.