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Marilynne Robinson Does Politics (Badly)

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). 206 pages. $24.00.

Marilynne Robinson’s third collection of essays is her most political book since Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989). It is also her weakest to date. Absence of Mind, her last book, established Robinson as the most forceful critic of the New Atheism and a thrilling defender of the religious understanding of man. (My review is here.) When she continues to pursue this project, she continues to write brilliantly. Robinson singlehandedly demolishes the “neo-Darwinism” (as she calls it), which denies to human religion anything more than a proneness to error, violence, evil. In her new collection of ten essays, she adds the important biographical detail that she considers herself to be writing in the tradition of liberal 19th-century evangelists like Charles Finney and Theodore D. Weld. In one remarkable passage, she reveals that the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa — the setting of her brilliant novel Gilead and its sequel Home — was modeled upon a historical settlement founded by liberal evangelists “as a fallback for John Brown.” When she turns from defending religion, however (and criticizing its exclusion from the human picture) — when she turns to a practical political application of her thinking — Robinson falters badly.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Robinson’s contradictions is between the “open-handedness” she urges as a social policy and her own failure to extend an open hand to those with whom she disagrees politically. A self-described Calvinist, Robinson founds her “ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity” upon John Calvin’s conviction that “every human encounter is of moment,” because “the other in the encounter is always ‘sent’ or ‘offered.’ ” This is a first principle with her. “It may be mere historical conditioning,” she writes in the book’s title essay, recalling the effect upon her of growing up in Idaho, “but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to stay that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

The mystery dissolves, though, when she glimpses a “pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read DON’T DISTRIBUTE MY WEALTH. DISTRIBUTE MY WORK ETHIC.” The “offering” of the pickup driver, the possibility that he has been “sent” to her, is rejected out of hand. Robinson knows for a certainty what stands behind his bumper sticker: a “grudge against the populace at large,” who are characterized by some ungenerous Americans “as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their ‘values.’ ” The swine! No longer a human being who is seen clearly for a moment, the pickup driver is transmogrified into the symbol of a politics that Robinson reviles. The irony is that her own failure of generosity is entirely invisible to her. For immediately she sniffs: “There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” Very much including the lives of pickup drivers, apparently, if they oppose higher taxes!

This close-fisted attitude toward her political opponents is neither isolated nor accidental. In Absence of Mind, Robinson was relentless with her antagonists, but she was also generous. She joyously embraced the open-handedness of debate, exhibiting a readiness to lay out arguments, to supply evidence, to expose herself to rebuttal, to take the chance of being proved wrong. She named names and quoted offending passages from offensive books. She engaged in a direct face-to-face conflict; she accepted the responsibility of philosophical animus; she herself furnished the materials for an intelligent reply. In When I Was a Child I Read Books, not so much:

On what is conventionally called the conservative side, those attitudes and qualities that are at present revered, or are at least polemically useful, constitute the very slender whole of historical memory. This approach treats context as an impertinence and change as decline. It yields a robust sense of loyalty to certain national values — a loyalty which is inevitably lacking in those whose reading of history leads them to draw up a different set of national values. Its certitudes do not provide the basis for a complex or nuanced view of either the present or the past.

How would anyone begin to go about refuting this passage? The dearth of specifics, the illiberality of paraphrase, the absence of quotation, the lack of integrity toward the other side in debate make it impossible to respond with much beyond an guttural monosyllabic snort.

The most embarrassing moment in the book occurs when Robinson crumples into self-parody while trying to be ironic. In “Wondrous Love,” a long essay that lifts off from a “great old American hymn that sounds like astonishment itself,” she contrasts the doctrine of Christ’s love to a number of contemporary American perversions of it: doctrinal conflicts “within the household of Christ, the family of Christ, that fly in the face of that last commandment” (John 15:12), the “assertion by certain excitable people that this is a Christian country,” the failure to appreciate that freedom of religion really means freedom from established religion. Robinson reserves her deepest scorn, however, for “self-declared patriots.” She tries out several variations of an ironic response to them (whoever they are):

• “I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to believe that most Americans are good people, committed to living good lives. . . .”

• “I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to attach great importance to the day-to-day practical well-being of my fellow citizens.”

To achieve their full effect, these lines should be recited by Margaret Dumont. I know there are writers who feel it is their duty to distinguish themselves from “self-declared patriots,” but must they do so with such farcical self-righteousness?

The partisanship and intellectual negligence of When I Was a Child I Read Books is a pity, because scattered throughout the book are fugitive remarks that throw a rich and satisfying light upon Robinson’s fiction, which is among the greatest written by an American over the past three decades. A challenging revisionist theory of the novel could be built up from the asides in her essays, but someone else will have to do the building. Or Marilynne Robinson will have to abandon political sloganeering and return to her first loves — religion and literature — to accomplish something else worth looking into.

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). 206 pages. $24.00.

Marilynne Robinson’s third collection of essays is her most political book since Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989). It is also her weakest to date. Absence of Mind, her last book, established Robinson as the most forceful critic of the New Atheism and a thrilling defender of the religious understanding of man. (My review is here.) When she continues to pursue this project, she continues to write brilliantly. Robinson singlehandedly demolishes the “neo-Darwinism” (as she calls it), which denies to human religion anything more than a proneness to error, violence, evil. In her new collection of ten essays, she adds the important biographical detail that she considers herself to be writing in the tradition of liberal 19th-century evangelists like Charles Finney and Theodore D. Weld. In one remarkable passage, she reveals that the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa — the setting of her brilliant novel Gilead and its sequel Home — was modeled upon a historical settlement founded by liberal evangelists “as a fallback for John Brown.” When she turns from defending religion, however (and criticizing its exclusion from the human picture) — when she turns to a practical political application of her thinking — Robinson falters badly.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Robinson’s contradictions is between the “open-handedness” she urges as a social policy and her own failure to extend an open hand to those with whom she disagrees politically. A self-described Calvinist, Robinson founds her “ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity” upon John Calvin’s conviction that “every human encounter is of moment,” because “the other in the encounter is always ‘sent’ or ‘offered.’ ” This is a first principle with her. “It may be mere historical conditioning,” she writes in the book’s title essay, recalling the effect upon her of growing up in Idaho, “but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to stay that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

The mystery dissolves, though, when she glimpses a “pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read DON’T DISTRIBUTE MY WEALTH. DISTRIBUTE MY WORK ETHIC.” The “offering” of the pickup driver, the possibility that he has been “sent” to her, is rejected out of hand. Robinson knows for a certainty what stands behind his bumper sticker: a “grudge against the populace at large,” who are characterized by some ungenerous Americans “as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their ‘values.’ ” The swine! No longer a human being who is seen clearly for a moment, the pickup driver is transmogrified into the symbol of a politics that Robinson reviles. The irony is that her own failure of generosity is entirely invisible to her. For immediately she sniffs: “There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” Very much including the lives of pickup drivers, apparently, if they oppose higher taxes!

This close-fisted attitude toward her political opponents is neither isolated nor accidental. In Absence of Mind, Robinson was relentless with her antagonists, but she was also generous. She joyously embraced the open-handedness of debate, exhibiting a readiness to lay out arguments, to supply evidence, to expose herself to rebuttal, to take the chance of being proved wrong. She named names and quoted offending passages from offensive books. She engaged in a direct face-to-face conflict; she accepted the responsibility of philosophical animus; she herself furnished the materials for an intelligent reply. In When I Was a Child I Read Books, not so much:

On what is conventionally called the conservative side, those attitudes and qualities that are at present revered, or are at least polemically useful, constitute the very slender whole of historical memory. This approach treats context as an impertinence and change as decline. It yields a robust sense of loyalty to certain national values — a loyalty which is inevitably lacking in those whose reading of history leads them to draw up a different set of national values. Its certitudes do not provide the basis for a complex or nuanced view of either the present or the past.

How would anyone begin to go about refuting this passage? The dearth of specifics, the illiberality of paraphrase, the absence of quotation, the lack of integrity toward the other side in debate make it impossible to respond with much beyond an guttural monosyllabic snort.

The most embarrassing moment in the book occurs when Robinson crumples into self-parody while trying to be ironic. In “Wondrous Love,” a long essay that lifts off from a “great old American hymn that sounds like astonishment itself,” she contrasts the doctrine of Christ’s love to a number of contemporary American perversions of it: doctrinal conflicts “within the household of Christ, the family of Christ, that fly in the face of that last commandment” (John 15:12), the “assertion by certain excitable people that this is a Christian country,” the failure to appreciate that freedom of religion really means freedom from established religion. Robinson reserves her deepest scorn, however, for “self-declared patriots.” She tries out several variations of an ironic response to them (whoever they are):

• “I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to believe that most Americans are good people, committed to living good lives. . . .”

• “I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to attach great importance to the day-to-day practical well-being of my fellow citizens.”

To achieve their full effect, these lines should be recited by Margaret Dumont. I know there are writers who feel it is their duty to distinguish themselves from “self-declared patriots,” but must they do so with such farcical self-righteousness?

The partisanship and intellectual negligence of When I Was a Child I Read Books is a pity, because scattered throughout the book are fugitive remarks that throw a rich and satisfying light upon Robinson’s fiction, which is among the greatest written by an American over the past three decades. A challenging revisionist theory of the novel could be built up from the asides in her essays, but someone else will have to do the building. Or Marilynne Robinson will have to abandon political sloganeering and return to her first loves — religion and literature — to accomplish something else worth looking into.

Read Less

Ranking American Novelists in 1929

“The worst thing about American fiction these days is the blah that gets printed about it,” a critic wrote to two psychologists who proposed a ranking system for American novelists — “and here you are, proposing to provide the blah-blah-black sheep with valuable assistance in the guise of a scientific survey!”

Nevertheless, 83 years ago next month, two psychologists went ahead with their plan. They sent questionnaires to 65 critics, asking them to rank the living American novelists in order of merit. Whether their “scientific survey” has any methodological advantages over my own survey of literary scholarship is a good question. Their rankings are fascinating, though, if only as a historical curiosity. The novelists are ranked on the basis of how many critics listed them and how much the critics agreed on them. The results were published in the English Journal in April 1929:

( 1.) Willa Cather (30, 0.96)
( 2.) Edith Wharton (30, 0.78)
( 3.) Theodore Dreiser (31, 2.18)
( 4.) James Branch Cabell (29, 1.85)
( 5.) Sherwood Anderson (30, 1.54)
( 6.) Sinclair Lewis (31, 2.36)
( 7.) Thornton Wilder (24, 1.97)
( 8.) Glenway Wescott (22, 1.95)
( 9.) Joseph Hergesheimer (30, 1.67)
(10.) Zona Gale (29, 1.43)
(11.) Booth Tarkington (29, 1.94)
(12.) Ellen Glasgow (29, 1.99)
(13.) Elizabeth Madox Roberts (20, 2.28)
(14.) Ruth Suckow (27, 2.02)
(15.) William McFee (27, 1.85)
(16.) Robert Welch Herrick (28, 1.31)
(17.) Thomas Beer (26, 1.52)
(18.) Elinor Wylie (28, 2.10)
(19.) Louis Bromfield (27, 1.40)
(20.) Edna Ferber (29, 1.95)
(21.) DuBose Heyward (21, 2.17)
(22.) Hamlin Garland (26, 2.44)
(23.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (28, 1.81)
(24.) Mary Austin (26, 1.44)
(25.) John Dos Passos (28, 2.33)

(Note: The numbers in parentheses indicate, first, the number of critics who ranked the novelist and, second, the degree of agreement among the critics. The smaller the number, the greater the agreement.)

“Ernest Hemingway was not included on the original list,” the psychologists explained, “because we judged him primarily as a short-story writer rather than a novelist.” Nine critics ignored their instructions and ranked him anyway — after all, The Sun Also Rises had been published three years earlier, although A Farewell to Arms was not due out until September 1929 — and the degree of agreement among them would have put him somewhere between Wilder and Glasgow on the final poll.

The critics agreed most strongly on two writers — Edith Wharton and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books. They agreed that Wharton is wonderful and Burroughs is “not worth reading.” Harold Bell Wright, the preacher who wrote The Winning of Barbara Worth, and Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, joined Burroughs at the bottom of the heap.

After studying the results of their survey, the psychologists concluded that an intelligent reader in 1929 who “desires to keep up with The Best” should concentrate on the top 12, also including Hemingway. Today’s quota hawks, who complain about the exclusion of women from the American literary canon, have every reason to cheer the rankings from 1929. Not only do women head the list, but nine of the top 25 are women.

If scholars buckle down to work on Zona Gale (the subject of 36 scholarly items in the MLA International Bibliography since 1947), Ellen Glasgow (419 items), Elizabeth Madox Roberts (117), Ruth Suckow (34), Elinor Wylie (46), Edna Ferber (48), and Mary Austin (148), who knows what the MLA Rankings of American Novelists will look like in another ten years?

“The worst thing about American fiction these days is the blah that gets printed about it,” a critic wrote to two psychologists who proposed a ranking system for American novelists — “and here you are, proposing to provide the blah-blah-black sheep with valuable assistance in the guise of a scientific survey!”

Nevertheless, 83 years ago next month, two psychologists went ahead with their plan. They sent questionnaires to 65 critics, asking them to rank the living American novelists in order of merit. Whether their “scientific survey” has any methodological advantages over my own survey of literary scholarship is a good question. Their rankings are fascinating, though, if only as a historical curiosity. The novelists are ranked on the basis of how many critics listed them and how much the critics agreed on them. The results were published in the English Journal in April 1929:

( 1.) Willa Cather (30, 0.96)
( 2.) Edith Wharton (30, 0.78)
( 3.) Theodore Dreiser (31, 2.18)
( 4.) James Branch Cabell (29, 1.85)
( 5.) Sherwood Anderson (30, 1.54)
( 6.) Sinclair Lewis (31, 2.36)
( 7.) Thornton Wilder (24, 1.97)
( 8.) Glenway Wescott (22, 1.95)
( 9.) Joseph Hergesheimer (30, 1.67)
(10.) Zona Gale (29, 1.43)
(11.) Booth Tarkington (29, 1.94)
(12.) Ellen Glasgow (29, 1.99)
(13.) Elizabeth Madox Roberts (20, 2.28)
(14.) Ruth Suckow (27, 2.02)
(15.) William McFee (27, 1.85)
(16.) Robert Welch Herrick (28, 1.31)
(17.) Thomas Beer (26, 1.52)
(18.) Elinor Wylie (28, 2.10)
(19.) Louis Bromfield (27, 1.40)
(20.) Edna Ferber (29, 1.95)
(21.) DuBose Heyward (21, 2.17)
(22.) Hamlin Garland (26, 2.44)
(23.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (28, 1.81)
(24.) Mary Austin (26, 1.44)
(25.) John Dos Passos (28, 2.33)

(Note: The numbers in parentheses indicate, first, the number of critics who ranked the novelist and, second, the degree of agreement among the critics. The smaller the number, the greater the agreement.)

“Ernest Hemingway was not included on the original list,” the psychologists explained, “because we judged him primarily as a short-story writer rather than a novelist.” Nine critics ignored their instructions and ranked him anyway — after all, The Sun Also Rises had been published three years earlier, although A Farewell to Arms was not due out until September 1929 — and the degree of agreement among them would have put him somewhere between Wilder and Glasgow on the final poll.

The critics agreed most strongly on two writers — Edith Wharton and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books. They agreed that Wharton is wonderful and Burroughs is “not worth reading.” Harold Bell Wright, the preacher who wrote The Winning of Barbara Worth, and Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, joined Burroughs at the bottom of the heap.

After studying the results of their survey, the psychologists concluded that an intelligent reader in 1929 who “desires to keep up with The Best” should concentrate on the top 12, also including Hemingway. Today’s quota hawks, who complain about the exclusion of women from the American literary canon, have every reason to cheer the rankings from 1929. Not only do women head the list, but nine of the top 25 are women.

If scholars buckle down to work on Zona Gale (the subject of 36 scholarly items in the MLA International Bibliography since 1947), Ellen Glasgow (419 items), Elizabeth Madox Roberts (117), Ruth Suckow (34), Elinor Wylie (46), Edna Ferber (48), and Mary Austin (148), who knows what the MLA Rankings of American Novelists will look like in another ten years?

Read Less

My MLA List

Perhaps nothing I have ever written has earned as much attention as what I posted yesterday — the MLA Rankings of American Writers. But I need to clarify, I guess. The rankings were determined by the amount of literary scholarship published on American writers, as listed in the MLA International Bibliography. The Modern Language Association, however, had nothing whatever to do with them. Officially or unofficially. And despite what has been tweeted:

https://twitter.com/#!/FSG_Books

The research behind the rankings was entirely my own. Not only am I not affiliated with the MLA in any way. I quit the organization in disgust over a decade ago.

The rankings are not a kind of coaches’ poll. They do not reflect the “popularity” of certain American writers, but the professional commitments, the devotion of time and energy, on the part of literary scholars. These are the writers who are principally taught in university English departments around the country, the writers who are being handed down to the next generation. If anyone asks, that’s the significance of the rankings.

Perhaps nothing I have ever written has earned as much attention as what I posted yesterday — the MLA Rankings of American Writers. But I need to clarify, I guess. The rankings were determined by the amount of literary scholarship published on American writers, as listed in the MLA International Bibliography. The Modern Language Association, however, had nothing whatever to do with them. Officially or unofficially. And despite what has been tweeted:

https://twitter.com/#!/FSG_Books

The research behind the rankings was entirely my own. Not only am I not affiliated with the MLA in any way. I quit the organization in disgust over a decade ago.

The rankings are not a kind of coaches’ poll. They do not reflect the “popularity” of certain American writers, but the professional commitments, the devotion of time and energy, on the part of literary scholars. These are the writers who are principally taught in university English departments around the country, the writers who are being handed down to the next generation. If anyone asks, that’s the significance of the rankings.

Read Less

Enormous Changes in 25 Years: The Case of Kate Chopin

The MLA Rankings of American Writers that I posted yesterday have been greeted with some skepticism. There are still only five women in the top 25, the quota-minded observe — without bothering to name the women who ought to be ranked or the men who ought to be bumped off the list in their favor. The implication is that nothing has really changed. Despite the rise of literary feminism, despite the calls to shake up the canon, the same male writers are studied in the same old numbers.

Or maybe not. Take the case of Kate Chopin, for example. A minor novelist of the late 19th century who is described in The Oxford Companion to American Literature as belonging to “the local-color movement,” she was rediscovered by the male critic Kenneth Elbe, who wrote an essay on her “forgotten novel” The Awakening in 1956 for the Western Humanities Review. His essay did nothing to resuscitate Chopin’s reputation, however. Nor did the new edition of The Awakening that Elbe saw into print eight years later. Starting in the Seventies, interest in Chopin began to pick up. In 1975, a Kate Chopin Newsletter was founded, although it lasted only two years. (Typical article: Cathy N. Davidson’s comparison of The Awakening to Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing.) By the end of 1986, slightly more than 200 pieces of scholarship had been written on her.

Then came the explosion. In just seven years, the scholarly output on Chopin doubled. While scholars have slowed down, probably because there is less and less to say about a writer who published only four books in her lifetime, the fact remains that more than 550 stretches of scholarly prose have been laid across Chopin’s domain in the past 25 years — nearly four times the amount that was written on the Louisiana novelist over the previous forty years. This chart vividly shows the boom in Chopin scholarship:

The Awakening is a central text for literary feminism because of the main character’s refusal to be treated like “a valuable piece of personal property” by her husband. Edna Pontellier leaves him and their young children and takes up a Bohemian existence in New Orleans, where she experiences a sexual awakening. When confronted by a friend (“think of the little ones”), she hotly announces that she would never sacrifice herself for her children. “I would give up the unessential,” Edna says; “I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” Perhaps needless to say, literary feminists celebrate Edna’s decision, although it is not at all clear that Chopin does so.

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar included The Awakening, complete and unabridged, in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985). And when copious amounts of scholarship poured in afterwards, Chopin’s place in the American literary canon — an enormous change from her almost total obscurity just 15 years earlier — was secure and self-evident. Those who laugh contentedly that race, class, and gender have had small effect upon American literature could not be more wrong.

The MLA Rankings of American Writers that I posted yesterday have been greeted with some skepticism. There are still only five women in the top 25, the quota-minded observe — without bothering to name the women who ought to be ranked or the men who ought to be bumped off the list in their favor. The implication is that nothing has really changed. Despite the rise of literary feminism, despite the calls to shake up the canon, the same male writers are studied in the same old numbers.

Or maybe not. Take the case of Kate Chopin, for example. A minor novelist of the late 19th century who is described in The Oxford Companion to American Literature as belonging to “the local-color movement,” she was rediscovered by the male critic Kenneth Elbe, who wrote an essay on her “forgotten novel” The Awakening in 1956 for the Western Humanities Review. His essay did nothing to resuscitate Chopin’s reputation, however. Nor did the new edition of The Awakening that Elbe saw into print eight years later. Starting in the Seventies, interest in Chopin began to pick up. In 1975, a Kate Chopin Newsletter was founded, although it lasted only two years. (Typical article: Cathy N. Davidson’s comparison of The Awakening to Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing.) By the end of 1986, slightly more than 200 pieces of scholarship had been written on her.

Then came the explosion. In just seven years, the scholarly output on Chopin doubled. While scholars have slowed down, probably because there is less and less to say about a writer who published only four books in her lifetime, the fact remains that more than 550 stretches of scholarly prose have been laid across Chopin’s domain in the past 25 years — nearly four times the amount that was written on the Louisiana novelist over the previous forty years. This chart vividly shows the boom in Chopin scholarship:

The Awakening is a central text for literary feminism because of the main character’s refusal to be treated like “a valuable piece of personal property” by her husband. Edna Pontellier leaves him and their young children and takes up a Bohemian existence in New Orleans, where she experiences a sexual awakening. When confronted by a friend (“think of the little ones”), she hotly announces that she would never sacrifice herself for her children. “I would give up the unessential,” Edna says; “I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” Perhaps needless to say, literary feminists celebrate Edna’s decision, although it is not at all clear that Chopin does so.

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar included The Awakening, complete and unabridged, in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985). And when copious amounts of scholarship poured in afterwards, Chopin’s place in the American literary canon — an enormous change from her almost total obscurity just 15 years earlier — was secure and self-evident. Those who laugh contentedly that race, class, and gender have had small effect upon American literature could not be more wrong.

Read Less

MLA Rankings of American Writers

Since the 1980’s, literary scholars have complained of a “fixed” and “restrictive” canon of American literature. While working on another project, my curiosity was aroused. What actually is the American literary canon, as determined by what literary scholars actually work on?

Over the past 25 years, Henry James has been the top-ranked American writer, according to the latest MLA International Bibliography. More than 3,000 pieces of scholarship have been devoted to him in whole or part since 1987. Only William Faulkner approaches him in volume. If the scholarship is counted since 1947, however (the date of the earliest entries in the Bib), Faulkner is the runaway leader with 7,108 scholarly pieces on him. And James trails with 6,760.

One of the changes over the past 25 years, then, is that James has supplanted Faulkner as America’s best or most important writer. T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville have also swapped places. After that, things get interesting. Vladimir Nabokov has become of the five most talked-about American writers, and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved will be 25 years old in September) has jumped from far back into the top ten. The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright). Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.

Here are the top 25 American writers as determined by the amount of scholarship on each. In brackets is the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Disclaimer: These rankings are based entirely on the research of the author, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Modern Language Association in any way.

Since the 1980’s, literary scholars have complained of a “fixed” and “restrictive” canon of American literature. While working on another project, my curiosity was aroused. What actually is the American literary canon, as determined by what literary scholars actually work on?

Over the past 25 years, Henry James has been the top-ranked American writer, according to the latest MLA International Bibliography. More than 3,000 pieces of scholarship have been devoted to him in whole or part since 1987. Only William Faulkner approaches him in volume. If the scholarship is counted since 1947, however (the date of the earliest entries in the Bib), Faulkner is the runaway leader with 7,108 scholarly pieces on him. And James trails with 6,760.

One of the changes over the past 25 years, then, is that James has supplanted Faulkner as America’s best or most important writer. T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville have also swapped places. After that, things get interesting. Vladimir Nabokov has become of the five most talked-about American writers, and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved will be 25 years old in September) has jumped from far back into the top ten. The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright). Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.

Here are the top 25 American writers as determined by the amount of scholarship on each. In brackets is the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Disclaimer: These rankings are based entirely on the research of the author, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Modern Language Association in any way.

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Britannica Is No More: Britannica Wins!

The news out of Chicago is that the Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publication, at least in ink on paper between boards, after 244 years. This story is being pitched as the triumph of Wikipedia over its elderly rival. “Britannica no more,” Alexander Nazaryan’s blog notice at the New York Daily News was headlined: “Wikipedia wins.”

To be fair, Nazaryan dated Britannica’s decline to an earlier time, when its ranked multiple brown-spined volumes “signified middle-class sophistication.” So true. So obviously true. Say no more. You will easily recognize the bogus middle-class sophistication in this entry on, of all things, Encyclopaedia:

The Greeks seem to have understood by encyclopaedia (έγκυκλοπaιδία, or έγκύκλιος παιδεία) instruction in the whole circle (έυ κυκλω) or complete system of learning — education in arts and sciences. Thus Pliny, in the preface to his Natural History, says that his book treated of all the subjects of the encyclopaedia of the Greeks, “Jam omnia attingenda quae Graeci της έγκυκλοπαιδίας vocant.” Quintilian (Inst. Orat. i 10) directs that before boys are placed under the rhetorician they should be instructed in the other arts, “ut efficiatur orbis ille doctrinae quam Graeci έγκυκλοπαιδείαν vocant.” Galen (De victus ratione in morbis acutis, c. 11) speaks of those who are not educated έν πην έγκυκλοπαιδεία. In these passages of Pliny and Quintilian, however, from one or both of which the modern use of the word seems to be taken, έγκύκλιος παιδεία is now read, and this seems to have been the usual expression.

Try reading that into the earpiece of a half-educated CNN news anchor! Granted, this entry is from the 11th Edition, which Robert Grudin once described as “the queen of books.” (I went out and purchased an entire set of the 11th Edition after reading Grudin’s hilarious academic novel, Book [1992], which counterposes quotations from the 11th against the English department’s Critical Theory to contrast real knowledge to its hip and prolix ersatz.) Yet the entry in the 15th Edition is not much cruder:

In the Speculum majus (“The Greater Mirror”; completed 1244), one of the most important of all encyclopaedias, the French medieval scholar Vincent of Beauvais maintained not only that his work should be perused but that the ideas it recorded should be taken to heart and imitated. Alluding to a secondary sense of the word speculum (“mirror”), he implied that his book showed the world what it is and what it should become. This theme, that encyclopaedias can contribute significantly to the improvement of mankind, recurs constantly throughout their long history.

One suspects that it is precisely this theme which has caused Nazaryan to snort “Wikipedia wins.” He travesties the theme as Britannica’s “underlying belief that ordinary individuals could better themselves intellectually through casual perusal of its tomes.” (From those last five words it’s hard to tell whether Nazaryan is making fun of the Britannica’s uppity middle-class “perusers” or only demonstrating how even a book blog — perhaps a “tome blog,” in his case — can be written pretentiously if you strain hard enough for variation.)

In plain fact, the mission of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is summed up in the two entries I have quoted. On the one hand, it intended to draw together the “whole circle” of human learning in one manageable set of volumes. On the other hand, it sought to improve mankind by making the “complete system” of knowledge readily available to anyone. If and only if Wikipedia has abandoned this mission will I join in the chant “Wikipedia wins!” Truth be told, though, I am pretty confident that Wikipedia exists to pursue the same twin goals — just in a different format.

Britannica wins, after all. The first edition was completed in 1771 and published in three volumes in Edinburgh. It was compiled, according to its title page, on a new plan: the disciplines of human knowledge, the sciences and the arts, were “digested into distinct treatises or systems,” rather than being divided and scattered “under a multitude of technical terms,” as in earlier encyclopaedias. From the beginning, then, the Britannica had the advantage of keeping important subjects together while making cross-reference easier via numerous separate articles. Not quite two-and-a-half centuries later, Wikipedia uses the same plan. Britannica wins!

The second edition was published in ten volumes between 1776 and 1783; the third, in 18 volumes between 1787 and 1797; the fourth, in 20 volumes between 1801 and 1810. The fifth edition was a reprinting of the fourth, but the sixth edition was a top-to-bottom revision. Work began with an article on chemistry by Sir Humphry Davy, and was finally published in 20 volumes in 1823.

From then on, the Britannica was a corporate effort of serious scholarship, enlisting some of the best minds and writers of its day. The authors of the queenly 11th Edition, published in 1910 and dedicated simultaneously to King George V and President William Howard Taft, included Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Matthew Arnold, James G. Frazier, Alfred Russel Wallace, Leslie Stephen, Andrew Lang, Prince Kropotkin, John Muir, the economist Frank Taussig, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, T. H. Huxley, William Graham Sumner, Edmund Gosse, Arthur Waugh (Evelyn’s father), the German theologian Adolf von Harnack, J. S. Haldane, Algernon Swinburne, the musicologist Donald Tovey, Jessie L. Weston (whom T. S. Eliot made famous), Sir James Murray (editor of the OED), the football coach Walter Camp (to explain American football, naturally), George Darwin (Charles’s son), Brander Matthews, and the Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams among many others.

In short, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a literary classic. And since so many sets were purchased in so many places all over the English-speaking world across so many years, the Britannica will be available, in print, for decades to come — as long as there are antique stores and used bookstores and desperate readers (as opposed to casual perusers) to haunt them.

The news out of Chicago is that the Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publication, at least in ink on paper between boards, after 244 years. This story is being pitched as the triumph of Wikipedia over its elderly rival. “Britannica no more,” Alexander Nazaryan’s blog notice at the New York Daily News was headlined: “Wikipedia wins.”

To be fair, Nazaryan dated Britannica’s decline to an earlier time, when its ranked multiple brown-spined volumes “signified middle-class sophistication.” So true. So obviously true. Say no more. You will easily recognize the bogus middle-class sophistication in this entry on, of all things, Encyclopaedia:

The Greeks seem to have understood by encyclopaedia (έγκυκλοπaιδία, or έγκύκλιος παιδεία) instruction in the whole circle (έυ κυκλω) or complete system of learning — education in arts and sciences. Thus Pliny, in the preface to his Natural History, says that his book treated of all the subjects of the encyclopaedia of the Greeks, “Jam omnia attingenda quae Graeci της έγκυκλοπαιδίας vocant.” Quintilian (Inst. Orat. i 10) directs that before boys are placed under the rhetorician they should be instructed in the other arts, “ut efficiatur orbis ille doctrinae quam Graeci έγκυκλοπαιδείαν vocant.” Galen (De victus ratione in morbis acutis, c. 11) speaks of those who are not educated έν πην έγκυκλοπαιδεία. In these passages of Pliny and Quintilian, however, from one or both of which the modern use of the word seems to be taken, έγκύκλιος παιδεία is now read, and this seems to have been the usual expression.

Try reading that into the earpiece of a half-educated CNN news anchor! Granted, this entry is from the 11th Edition, which Robert Grudin once described as “the queen of books.” (I went out and purchased an entire set of the 11th Edition after reading Grudin’s hilarious academic novel, Book [1992], which counterposes quotations from the 11th against the English department’s Critical Theory to contrast real knowledge to its hip and prolix ersatz.) Yet the entry in the 15th Edition is not much cruder:

In the Speculum majus (“The Greater Mirror”; completed 1244), one of the most important of all encyclopaedias, the French medieval scholar Vincent of Beauvais maintained not only that his work should be perused but that the ideas it recorded should be taken to heart and imitated. Alluding to a secondary sense of the word speculum (“mirror”), he implied that his book showed the world what it is and what it should become. This theme, that encyclopaedias can contribute significantly to the improvement of mankind, recurs constantly throughout their long history.

One suspects that it is precisely this theme which has caused Nazaryan to snort “Wikipedia wins.” He travesties the theme as Britannica’s “underlying belief that ordinary individuals could better themselves intellectually through casual perusal of its tomes.” (From those last five words it’s hard to tell whether Nazaryan is making fun of the Britannica’s uppity middle-class “perusers” or only demonstrating how even a book blog — perhaps a “tome blog,” in his case — can be written pretentiously if you strain hard enough for variation.)

In plain fact, the mission of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is summed up in the two entries I have quoted. On the one hand, it intended to draw together the “whole circle” of human learning in one manageable set of volumes. On the other hand, it sought to improve mankind by making the “complete system” of knowledge readily available to anyone. If and only if Wikipedia has abandoned this mission will I join in the chant “Wikipedia wins!” Truth be told, though, I am pretty confident that Wikipedia exists to pursue the same twin goals — just in a different format.

Britannica wins, after all. The first edition was completed in 1771 and published in three volumes in Edinburgh. It was compiled, according to its title page, on a new plan: the disciplines of human knowledge, the sciences and the arts, were “digested into distinct treatises or systems,” rather than being divided and scattered “under a multitude of technical terms,” as in earlier encyclopaedias. From the beginning, then, the Britannica had the advantage of keeping important subjects together while making cross-reference easier via numerous separate articles. Not quite two-and-a-half centuries later, Wikipedia uses the same plan. Britannica wins!

The second edition was published in ten volumes between 1776 and 1783; the third, in 18 volumes between 1787 and 1797; the fourth, in 20 volumes between 1801 and 1810. The fifth edition was a reprinting of the fourth, but the sixth edition was a top-to-bottom revision. Work began with an article on chemistry by Sir Humphry Davy, and was finally published in 20 volumes in 1823.

From then on, the Britannica was a corporate effort of serious scholarship, enlisting some of the best minds and writers of its day. The authors of the queenly 11th Edition, published in 1910 and dedicated simultaneously to King George V and President William Howard Taft, included Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Matthew Arnold, James G. Frazier, Alfred Russel Wallace, Leslie Stephen, Andrew Lang, Prince Kropotkin, John Muir, the economist Frank Taussig, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, T. H. Huxley, William Graham Sumner, Edmund Gosse, Arthur Waugh (Evelyn’s father), the German theologian Adolf von Harnack, J. S. Haldane, Algernon Swinburne, the musicologist Donald Tovey, Jessie L. Weston (whom T. S. Eliot made famous), Sir James Murray (editor of the OED), the football coach Walter Camp (to explain American football, naturally), George Darwin (Charles’s son), Brander Matthews, and the Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams among many others.

In short, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a literary classic. And since so many sets were purchased in so many places all over the English-speaking world across so many years, the Britannica will be available, in print, for decades to come — as long as there are antique stores and used bookstores and desperate readers (as opposed to casual perusers) to haunt them.

Read Less

The Ending of “The Marriage Plot”

In his essay on her in The Novelist’s Responsibility, L. P. Hartley writes that what struck him most upon rereading Jane Austen in old age was “the sadness to be found in all the novels”:

She did not write about Belsen and Buchenwald; she did not, like Dostoevsky, depict a human soul in the last stages of despair and dissolution, but she was acutely aware of suffering and sorrow; and sometimes, I think, in portraying them, she overruns the two inches of ivory which was the limit she set herself.

All of her novels are about getting married, in other words, but the marriage plot cannot contain the human suffering that Austen glimpsed all around her.

Something like this explains the ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which has puzzled and even disappointed a lot of readers. When I taught the novel this quarter at Ohio State University, my students and I devoted an entire class session to sorting out the ending. And when I mentioned the book last week in connection with Edith Pearlman’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award win, several more people emailed to ask about the ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Marriage Plot, you should click away from this page right now (and run to pick up the book). The novel ends, you will remember, when Mitchell Grammaticus realizes his four-years-deferred dream of sleeping with Madeleine Hanna. Their “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” began during their freshman year at Brown, when Mitchell caught a peek of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast” at a toga party. The next year, when she learns that he is going to stay alone in Providence for Thanksgiving, she invites him home to New Jersey to spend the holiday with her family instead. Her parents immediately adore him (“Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty”), and while playing Scrabble one night — Madeleine is dressed in a bathrobe, “looking both homey and sexy” — Mitchell is visited by a sudden thought: “I’m going to marry this girl!”

Four years later she is married to another man, but he has abandoned her. Mitchell returns to New Jersey, sleeping like a monk in the Hannas’ attic by night, helping Madeleine by day to recover from the grief of her loss. One night she steals into his room and ends his years of frustration. Something is wrong, though. Although she is “finally there before him in the flesh,” she seems “odorless and vaguely alien.” Mitchell feels more alone than he did before, not disappointed so much as bewildered. The next morning he hurries to Quaker meeting. He tries to empty his mind:

Instead of his previous happiness, he felt a creeping unease, as if the floor were about to give way beneath him. He couldn’t testify that what he then experienced was an Indwelling of the Light. Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance. A still, small voice was speaking to him, but it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.

The allusion to 1 Kings 19.12 and the “still, small voice” by which God makes himself known to the prophet Elijah — not by wind, not by earthquake, and not by fire — is perhaps the key to Eugenides’s entire novel. Although it has not been generally recognized as such, The Marriage Plot is a religious novel. Its revelations, though, are not mountain-rending. Rather, they have something to do with what William James described as “the reality of the unseen,” which has the power to change a person’s behavior and even cause him to give up his ego.

So Mitchell returns from meeting and asks Madeleine, whom he has wanted to marry for so long, whether from her studies of the English marriage plot she knows of any novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

When Madeleine says there is no novel like that, he asks whether such an ending would be any good. She says “Yes” — it is the book’s last word — and in doing so she affirms not merely the book called The Marriage Plot that Mitchell Grammaticus’s alter ego ends up writing two-and-a-half decades later, but also his message that marriage may remain the fulfillment of moral experience, just as in Austen, but that for an age in which voices must be loud and turbulent to be heard at all, marriage may be the lesser problem.

In his essay on her in The Novelist’s Responsibility, L. P. Hartley writes that what struck him most upon rereading Jane Austen in old age was “the sadness to be found in all the novels”:

She did not write about Belsen and Buchenwald; she did not, like Dostoevsky, depict a human soul in the last stages of despair and dissolution, but she was acutely aware of suffering and sorrow; and sometimes, I think, in portraying them, she overruns the two inches of ivory which was the limit she set herself.

All of her novels are about getting married, in other words, but the marriage plot cannot contain the human suffering that Austen glimpsed all around her.

Something like this explains the ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which has puzzled and even disappointed a lot of readers. When I taught the novel this quarter at Ohio State University, my students and I devoted an entire class session to sorting out the ending. And when I mentioned the book last week in connection with Edith Pearlman’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award win, several more people emailed to ask about the ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Marriage Plot, you should click away from this page right now (and run to pick up the book). The novel ends, you will remember, when Mitchell Grammaticus realizes his four-years-deferred dream of sleeping with Madeleine Hanna. Their “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” began during their freshman year at Brown, when Mitchell caught a peek of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast” at a toga party. The next year, when she learns that he is going to stay alone in Providence for Thanksgiving, she invites him home to New Jersey to spend the holiday with her family instead. Her parents immediately adore him (“Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty”), and while playing Scrabble one night — Madeleine is dressed in a bathrobe, “looking both homey and sexy” — Mitchell is visited by a sudden thought: “I’m going to marry this girl!”

Four years later she is married to another man, but he has abandoned her. Mitchell returns to New Jersey, sleeping like a monk in the Hannas’ attic by night, helping Madeleine by day to recover from the grief of her loss. One night she steals into his room and ends his years of frustration. Something is wrong, though. Although she is “finally there before him in the flesh,” she seems “odorless and vaguely alien.” Mitchell feels more alone than he did before, not disappointed so much as bewildered. The next morning he hurries to Quaker meeting. He tries to empty his mind:

Instead of his previous happiness, he felt a creeping unease, as if the floor were about to give way beneath him. He couldn’t testify that what he then experienced was an Indwelling of the Light. Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance. A still, small voice was speaking to him, but it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.

The allusion to 1 Kings 19.12 and the “still, small voice” by which God makes himself known to the prophet Elijah — not by wind, not by earthquake, and not by fire — is perhaps the key to Eugenides’s entire novel. Although it has not been generally recognized as such, The Marriage Plot is a religious novel. Its revelations, though, are not mountain-rending. Rather, they have something to do with what William James described as “the reality of the unseen,” which has the power to change a person’s behavior and even cause him to give up his ego.

So Mitchell returns from meeting and asks Madeleine, whom he has wanted to marry for so long, whether from her studies of the English marriage plot she knows of any novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

When Madeleine says there is no novel like that, he asks whether such an ending would be any good. She says “Yes” — it is the book’s last word — and in doing so she affirms not merely the book called The Marriage Plot that Mitchell Grammaticus’s alter ego ends up writing two-and-a-half decades later, but also his message that marriage may remain the fulfillment of moral experience, just as in Austen, but that for an age in which voices must be loud and turbulent to be heard at all, marriage may be the lesser problem.

Read Less

Edith Pearlman’s Pins and Buckles and Clips

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

Read Less

In Honor of Steinbeck’s Birthday

In honor of John Steinbeck’s 110th birthday — it is also Peter De Vries’s 102nd, Lawrence Durrell’s 100th, N. Scott Momaday’s 78th, and my 60th — the used-book site AbeBooks has compiled a list of the bestsellers from the Great Depression. There you can enjoy the original jackets of such novels as Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Dark Hester, Gladys Hasty Carroll’s As the World Turns, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New. The whole list is a welcome reminder that not even ripe avocados are more perishable than literary fame.

A definitive list of Depression Era literature would have to include Steinbeck, although at this distance in time it is clearer than ever that he was really a master of midcult. The Grapes of Wrath is a potboiler of overwrought lyricism. A more representative novel of the era is In Dubious Battle (1936), his radical strike novel.

The decade 1929–1939 was the heyday of proletarian literature, the great bulk of it unreadable now. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, both published in 1930, are exceptions. The Studs Lonigan trilogy of James T. Farrell (also born on February 27, coincidentally enough) has not stood up, but Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) was the first novel of a writer who does not merit his current neglect.

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) has been wrongly described as a proletarian novel. It is, instead, a deeply Jewish novel — and only one of several that belong to the decade, creating an American Jewish literature before the boom of the Fifties and Sixties.

The others include Myron Brinig’s Singermann (1929), the first American novel about a Jewish department-store family, Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water (1932), the first novel about American Sephardim, Nathanel West’s pitiless Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), an unsentimental tour of immigrant Brooklyn, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), about over-energetic New York Jewish intellectuals who start a magazine, Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1937), which follows a legion of Chicago adolescents from the Twenties to the World’s Fair and beyond, and Milton Steinberg’s historical novel about the Talmudic Era, As a Driven Leaf (1939).

The decade started with A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway’s novel looks back on the First World War. It was also the decade of Faulkner’s greatest productivity: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s Thirties are not Steinbeck’s. Nor Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s nor Gladys Hasty Carroll’s either, for that matter. And yet they may be the second third best decade in American literary history.*
____________________

* After the 1850s and 1920s.

In honor of John Steinbeck’s 110th birthday — it is also Peter De Vries’s 102nd, Lawrence Durrell’s 100th, N. Scott Momaday’s 78th, and my 60th — the used-book site AbeBooks has compiled a list of the bestsellers from the Great Depression. There you can enjoy the original jackets of such novels as Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Dark Hester, Gladys Hasty Carroll’s As the World Turns, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New. The whole list is a welcome reminder that not even ripe avocados are more perishable than literary fame.

A definitive list of Depression Era literature would have to include Steinbeck, although at this distance in time it is clearer than ever that he was really a master of midcult. The Grapes of Wrath is a potboiler of overwrought lyricism. A more representative novel of the era is In Dubious Battle (1936), his radical strike novel.

The decade 1929–1939 was the heyday of proletarian literature, the great bulk of it unreadable now. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, both published in 1930, are exceptions. The Studs Lonigan trilogy of James T. Farrell (also born on February 27, coincidentally enough) has not stood up, but Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) was the first novel of a writer who does not merit his current neglect.

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) has been wrongly described as a proletarian novel. It is, instead, a deeply Jewish novel — and only one of several that belong to the decade, creating an American Jewish literature before the boom of the Fifties and Sixties.

The others include Myron Brinig’s Singermann (1929), the first American novel about a Jewish department-store family, Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water (1932), the first novel about American Sephardim, Nathanel West’s pitiless Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), an unsentimental tour of immigrant Brooklyn, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), about over-energetic New York Jewish intellectuals who start a magazine, Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1937), which follows a legion of Chicago adolescents from the Twenties to the World’s Fair and beyond, and Milton Steinberg’s historical novel about the Talmudic Era, As a Driven Leaf (1939).

The decade started with A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway’s novel looks back on the First World War. It was also the decade of Faulkner’s greatest productivity: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s Thirties are not Steinbeck’s. Nor Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s nor Gladys Hasty Carroll’s either, for that matter. And yet they may be the second third best decade in American literary history.*
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* After the 1850s and 1920s.

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Good Books, Good Films

The Oscars will be awarded tonight. And Martin Levin of the Globe and Mail has got into the act with a list of eleven-plus “great books” that were adapted into “fat turkeys” (h/t: Ted Gioia).

The problem with Levin’s list is not the films, which admittedly suck. The problem is the books. Nearly half of them (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, H. G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) may be described in many ways, but “great” is not among them.

It is a commonplace, first uttered by Leslie Fielder, I believe, that mediocre books make the best films (Fiedler’s example was The African Queen, but The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs and Forrest Gump will also do).

Far more interesting are those novels that have been totally eclipsed by the films adapted from them, although the novels can still be read with profit and delight:

• Geoffrey Homes, Build My Gallows High (1946). Written under a pseudonym by Daniel Mainwaring (who went on to write the screenplay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers among other films), the novel, couched in tough-guy prose, was the source for Jacques Tournier’s brilliant 1947 film noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

• Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (1947). The source of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 thriller starring Humphrey Bogart is about a serial killer rather than a domestic abuser. Chilling.

• Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950). Nothing at all like Hitchcock’s film by the same title, Highsmith’s novel takes the reader deep into the twisted eerie psychology of Charles Anthony Bruno, the killer played by Robert Walker (and renamed Bruno Antony) in the film. Unfortunately, the title is out of print. Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), with a title character more blood-curdlingly amoral than anything Matt Damon could ever impersonate, also belongs on this list.

• John Fante, Full of Life (1952). A largely unknown novel that was the source of the wonderful Judy Holliday’s least-known film (directed in 1956 by Richard Quine), it is delightful, though very different, in both versions. Both deserve to be far better known.

• Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke (1965). Pearce’s novel has much the same theme as Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest — the freedom-loving refusal to buckle to arbitrary authority — but it doesn’t strain after effect, and as a result it is more successful, more persuasive. Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film (the sweatiest movie of all time) is better than Milos Forman’s eight-years-later film too (and Paul Newman is a better apostle of freedom than Jack Nicholson).

• Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1969). This may be one of those rare occasions when a film, though great, is more widely neglected than the novel, though minor. Gardner was that saddest of creatures, a one-book novelist, but is admired by his younger peers. His study of club boxers in a depressed northern California town was perfectly captured by John Huston’s 1972 movie starring Stacy Keach.

There are more, but these are enough from me. I hope that COMMENTARY readers can suggest other good books that were turned into good films.

Update: Mark Athitakis writes: “The only one I can think to add is David Goodis’ noir Down There, which became Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The film version is very different from the book, but both are excellent in their own way.”

Update, II: How could I forget Leaving Las Vegas? As good as the film is (it won Mike Figgis an Academy Award for best director), John O’Brien’s despairing 1990 novel is even better. O’Brien committed suicide four years afterwards, leaving only his novel to explain why.

Update, III: Andrew Fox writes: “Let me add another to your interesting list of good books which were turned into good films. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was adapted into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (which, oddly enough, utilized the title of an unconnected William Nourse novel). The book and novel differ in significant ways, but each has earned the right to be called a classic of its genre. In particular, Blade Runner has been an enormous influence (at least visually and design-wise) on the science fiction films which have followed.”

The Oscars will be awarded tonight. And Martin Levin of the Globe and Mail has got into the act with a list of eleven-plus “great books” that were adapted into “fat turkeys” (h/t: Ted Gioia).

The problem with Levin’s list is not the films, which admittedly suck. The problem is the books. Nearly half of them (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, H. G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) may be described in many ways, but “great” is not among them.

It is a commonplace, first uttered by Leslie Fielder, I believe, that mediocre books make the best films (Fiedler’s example was The African Queen, but The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs and Forrest Gump will also do).

Far more interesting are those novels that have been totally eclipsed by the films adapted from them, although the novels can still be read with profit and delight:

• Geoffrey Homes, Build My Gallows High (1946). Written under a pseudonym by Daniel Mainwaring (who went on to write the screenplay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers among other films), the novel, couched in tough-guy prose, was the source for Jacques Tournier’s brilliant 1947 film noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

• Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (1947). The source of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 thriller starring Humphrey Bogart is about a serial killer rather than a domestic abuser. Chilling.

• Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950). Nothing at all like Hitchcock’s film by the same title, Highsmith’s novel takes the reader deep into the twisted eerie psychology of Charles Anthony Bruno, the killer played by Robert Walker (and renamed Bruno Antony) in the film. Unfortunately, the title is out of print. Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), with a title character more blood-curdlingly amoral than anything Matt Damon could ever impersonate, also belongs on this list.

• John Fante, Full of Life (1952). A largely unknown novel that was the source of the wonderful Judy Holliday’s least-known film (directed in 1956 by Richard Quine), it is delightful, though very different, in both versions. Both deserve to be far better known.

• Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke (1965). Pearce’s novel has much the same theme as Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest — the freedom-loving refusal to buckle to arbitrary authority — but it doesn’t strain after effect, and as a result it is more successful, more persuasive. Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film (the sweatiest movie of all time) is better than Milos Forman’s eight-years-later film too (and Paul Newman is a better apostle of freedom than Jack Nicholson).

• Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1969). This may be one of those rare occasions when a film, though great, is more widely neglected than the novel, though minor. Gardner was that saddest of creatures, a one-book novelist, but is admired by his younger peers. His study of club boxers in a depressed northern California town was perfectly captured by John Huston’s 1972 movie starring Stacy Keach.

There are more, but these are enough from me. I hope that COMMENTARY readers can suggest other good books that were turned into good films.

Update: Mark Athitakis writes: “The only one I can think to add is David Goodis’ noir Down There, which became Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The film version is very different from the book, but both are excellent in their own way.”

Update, II: How could I forget Leaving Las Vegas? As good as the film is (it won Mike Figgis an Academy Award for best director), John O’Brien’s despairing 1990 novel is even better. O’Brien committed suicide four years afterwards, leaving only his novel to explain why.

Update, III: Andrew Fox writes: “Let me add another to your interesting list of good books which were turned into good films. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was adapted into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (which, oddly enough, utilized the title of an unconnected William Nourse novel). The book and novel differ in significant ways, but each has earned the right to be called a classic of its genre. In particular, Blade Runner has been an enormous influence (at least visually and design-wise) on the science fiction films which have followed.”

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William Gay, 1943–2012

The Southern novelist William Gay, who began late and finished strong, died at home on Thursday night, apparently from a heart attack.

The author of four novels and a collection of stories, Gay did not publish his first until he was 56. A sharecropper’s son, he was born in Hohenwald, Tennessee — a small town in the state’s Highland Rim — and became the first member of his family to finish high school. An alert teacher, noticing that he was reading Zane Grey outside of class, gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Gay was hooked on fiction. He started writing his own stories, but a poor boy of the rural South did not set out to become a self-supporting writer in the early Sixties — not at least if his parents had anything to say about it. Gay joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the Vietnam War. Coming back to the states after a four-year stint, he lived in New York and Chicago before returning to Hohenwald at the age of 35. He worked in home construction during the day and settled in to become a fiction writer at night.

The Long Home, his first novel, was published in 1999. A revenge tragedy set in 1940s Tennessee, the book takes its title from Ecclesiastes (12.5). Compared by disoriented critics to fiction by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, it was one of a kind: a novel that came out of nowhere, by a middle-aged working-class writer without connections or pretense. It was not, however, a beginner’s book. It was aged and sharpened by hard-edged experience. In a Southern Review essay on his career, William Giraldi praises it winningly:

In Gay’s able hands the archetypal characters of The Long Home spring to life as if for the first time: the young man on a quest; the gray sage who guides him; the comic sidekick who aids him; the gorgeous damsel who inspires him; and the villain who tries to thwart him. Their language is so authentic it seems not written at all: you listen to their dialogue as they sit in the same room with you. It’s speech that smells: the Coca-Cola and cool beer belches, the early morning conversations held through the aroma of black coffee drunk from jars.

Gay’s second novel, Provinces of Night, followed the next year, and his collected stories two years after that. Twilight, perhaps his best novel, was published in 2006. Lost Country was completed two years ago, but has yet to be released. Gay withheld the manuscript from the publisher when his advance went unpaid. “It will probably come out from somebody else,” he said later, but so far it hasn’t. At the time of his death he was working on a fifth novel.

The deepest influence on his writing was Faulkner. “He took ordinary people and gave them mythic dimensions,” Gay told Giraldi in an interview. “Wolfe’s people are loftier, more aware of themselves. But Faulkner’s people are in the middle of it all, buffeted and battered by life.” Gay was buffeted and battered too, but managed to salvage three (or four or, if we are lucky, five) remarkable novels from a life that ended too soon.

Update: William Giradi has written to me about Gay’s death: “I was punched with the news. Awful. And he never finished the novel he’d been sitting on for years. That’s the worse part of it. We won’t have another book. He is dead.”

The Southern novelist William Gay, who began late and finished strong, died at home on Thursday night, apparently from a heart attack.

The author of four novels and a collection of stories, Gay did not publish his first until he was 56. A sharecropper’s son, he was born in Hohenwald, Tennessee — a small town in the state’s Highland Rim — and became the first member of his family to finish high school. An alert teacher, noticing that he was reading Zane Grey outside of class, gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Gay was hooked on fiction. He started writing his own stories, but a poor boy of the rural South did not set out to become a self-supporting writer in the early Sixties — not at least if his parents had anything to say about it. Gay joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the Vietnam War. Coming back to the states after a four-year stint, he lived in New York and Chicago before returning to Hohenwald at the age of 35. He worked in home construction during the day and settled in to become a fiction writer at night.

The Long Home, his first novel, was published in 1999. A revenge tragedy set in 1940s Tennessee, the book takes its title from Ecclesiastes (12.5). Compared by disoriented critics to fiction by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, it was one of a kind: a novel that came out of nowhere, by a middle-aged working-class writer without connections or pretense. It was not, however, a beginner’s book. It was aged and sharpened by hard-edged experience. In a Southern Review essay on his career, William Giraldi praises it winningly:

In Gay’s able hands the archetypal characters of The Long Home spring to life as if for the first time: the young man on a quest; the gray sage who guides him; the comic sidekick who aids him; the gorgeous damsel who inspires him; and the villain who tries to thwart him. Their language is so authentic it seems not written at all: you listen to their dialogue as they sit in the same room with you. It’s speech that smells: the Coca-Cola and cool beer belches, the early morning conversations held through the aroma of black coffee drunk from jars.

Gay’s second novel, Provinces of Night, followed the next year, and his collected stories two years after that. Twilight, perhaps his best novel, was published in 2006. Lost Country was completed two years ago, but has yet to be released. Gay withheld the manuscript from the publisher when his advance went unpaid. “It will probably come out from somebody else,” he said later, but so far it hasn’t. At the time of his death he was working on a fifth novel.

The deepest influence on his writing was Faulkner. “He took ordinary people and gave them mythic dimensions,” Gay told Giraldi in an interview. “Wolfe’s people are loftier, more aware of themselves. But Faulkner’s people are in the middle of it all, buffeted and battered by life.” Gay was buffeted and battered too, but managed to salvage three (or four or, if we are lucky, five) remarkable novels from a life that ended too soon.

Update: William Giradi has written to me about Gay’s death: “I was punched with the news. Awful. And he never finished the novel he’d been sitting on for years. That’s the worse part of it. We won’t have another book. He is dead.”

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Votaries of the Snake

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

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Why No One Reads Contemporary Fiction

Roger Kimball is the latest to admit he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction and to speculate why. Short version: there’s no common culture. Or in a few more sentences:

We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process — love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown — it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.

I complained about something similar just the other day. What E. D. Hirsch Jr. called “cultural literacy” may no longer be possible, not only because the works of the past are no longer considered indispensable to becoming human, but also because no one could possibly agree what the indispensable works are, even if anyone still believed as a general rule that some are.

But this isn’t the whole story. Even if Kimball does not, some people read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know: I’m one. And though I am as eager as the next pundit to bemoan the loss of a common culture, I know that even now there are novels being written that are worth reading. It is true that the publication of a major new novel is no longer a public event, but this truth is entirely beside the question. The question is not whether a new novel passes what my friend Joseph Bottum, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the “cocktail-party test.” The question is whether a new novel is worth reading.

To answer this question, though, you must read contemporary fiction. If you are troubled by the loss of a common culture, and especially by the novel’s loss of rank within the culture, then you need to start doing the work of restoration. And, sadly, this means that you must sort through a great many lousy novels to find a few good ones — although in this respect the present is no different from any other age in literary history. You must, in short, be prepared to do the work of a critic. The only reason no one reads contemporary fiction is that no one wants to do the work.

Roger Kimball is the latest to admit he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction and to speculate why. Short version: there’s no common culture. Or in a few more sentences:

We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process — love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown — it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.

I complained about something similar just the other day. What E. D. Hirsch Jr. called “cultural literacy” may no longer be possible, not only because the works of the past are no longer considered indispensable to becoming human, but also because no one could possibly agree what the indispensable works are, even if anyone still believed as a general rule that some are.

But this isn’t the whole story. Even if Kimball does not, some people read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know: I’m one. And though I am as eager as the next pundit to bemoan the loss of a common culture, I know that even now there are novels being written that are worth reading. It is true that the publication of a major new novel is no longer a public event, but this truth is entirely beside the question. The question is not whether a new novel passes what my friend Joseph Bottum, also writing in the Weekly Standard, called the “cocktail-party test.” The question is whether a new novel is worth reading.

To answer this question, though, you must read contemporary fiction. If you are troubled by the loss of a common culture, and especially by the novel’s loss of rank within the culture, then you need to start doing the work of restoration. And, sadly, this means that you must sort through a great many lousy novels to find a few good ones — although in this respect the present is no different from any other age in literary history. You must, in short, be prepared to do the work of a critic. The only reason no one reads contemporary fiction is that no one wants to do the work.

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Review: The Last and Final Way of Loving

Peter Cameron, Coral Glynn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). 210 pp. $24.00.

Peter Cameron’s sixth novel is strangely irrelevant and completely unnecessary. It meets no demand, fills no need, gratifies no craving, strokes no ideology. Coral Glynn is very little more than a wonderful delicious treat for readers who feasted on the novels of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor years ago and despaired of ever finding anything like them again.

Cameron is remarkably open about the influence of these “British women writers,” as he describes them on his website. But it’s one thing to be influenced by them and another thing entirely to attempt (and to pull off) what he has done here. It’s as if a living composer were to write a new symphony in the style of Haydn. In his latest novel, Cameron faithfully revives a fictional mode that disappeared at least three decades ago without ever finding a warm reception on these shores.

Coral Glynn is his loving homage to this mode of English fiction, an adventurous striking out into a real world created wholly by books and not by personal experience. A New Jersey boy (except for two years with his parents in London), Cameron sets the novel in an English country house located in a Midlands provincial town. Although he is known as a gay writer (and though one character in the novel is a gay man), he is interested in homosexuality here only in as far as it is perhaps the clearest example of love that leads to cruelty and makes cowards of lovers.

His title character is a 20- or 21-year-old nurse who arrives at Hart House in the spring of 1950 to care for the mistress, who is dying of cancer. Standing a few miles outside of Harrington, a fictional village that Cameron locates in Leicestershire, Hart House is undistinguished, containing “nothing of anybody’s; it was that kind of house: the people who lived in it made no real impression upon it.” Except for a housekeeper, the only other person living there is Major Hart — his Christian name is Clement — the sole surviving son, who was wounded in the war under mysterious circumstances (or at least he doesn’t want to talk about them).

Within a few days of her arrival, Major Hart conceives the “idea” of marrying Coral. “She is a lovely girl,” he tells his friend Robin, with whom he seems to have had a brief affair several years before. “I rather like her.” And besides, he is convinced that she is his “last chance.” After his mother’s death, deeply ashamed of the wound that has left him with a burned and useless leg, he expects to become a hermit. “I will never meet another girl again,” he remarks, “if I become a hermit.”

Old Mrs Hart dies while Coral is on her day off. The housekeeper blames her (“If you’d’ve been here you could have done something”), but Coral comforts Clement while he sobs in grief. And the next day he asks if she would like to stay on at Hart House. “As my wife,” he quickly adds. She is naturally surprised. She hadn’t even realized that he had feelings for her. “Very warm and tender feelings,” he assures her. “Of course, you deserve more than that,” he goes on. She deserves love. “And you!” Coral interrupts. Clement disagrees:

No, I don’t. And I’m not asking for love, or even wanting it. I just want not to go all bitter and dead inside like my mother. And living here, alone, I know that I would. I can feel it already, something inside me, someone inside me, moving from room to room, shutting all the doors, shuttering the windows.

Coral is alone in the world too, an only child whose mother and father are both dead. And so she marries Clement.

The sequel is perhaps the briefest marriage — if not the oddest — in fiction. Before her wedding day is over, Coral falls under suspicion for murder and flees to London. She finds work at a Catholic hospital and rooms in the house of a Polish woman who had once been a classical pianist. She writes three letters to Clement in care of his friend Robin, but he never answers. And so she settles into a life that, upon reflection, is not really a bad life:

This is more happiness than I deserve, even if it is not exactly happiness. But it was a sort of freedom: there had been so many problems — it had all been problems, everything had been a problem for such a long time — and to be released from that perpetually increasing darkness was a kind of joy.

Not quite a year later Robin’s wife discovers the letters hidden in a chest. Robin defends himself by saying that he has saved Clement from a “hell” of loneliness and misery that Coral would have increased “a ten — a thousand — fold.” He accuses Clement of “cowardice and cruelty” in not returning Robin’s love. He hid the letters from Clement, and then he burned them, out of love: “It is my last and final way of loving you,” he swears.

Clement is a coward, but not because he is afraid to live openly as a “pouf,” as he degradingly calls Robin later on. He is a coward because he bows his head to a self-imposed sentence without even questioning it, let alone raging against it. A hermit’s life, loneliness and misery, love and tenderness — they are all one to Clement, because they are equally to be suffered. What he wanted was to separate himself from the world, and thus to surrender any claim (and duck any responsibility) over what occurs within it. When he finally bestirs himself to seek out Coral in London, it comes as little surprise that she has embraced Clement’s vision of life: “Well, whatever happened, I think we both saw right to give it up,” she tells him. “Everything has happened as it ought.”

Or has it? Cameron has one more surprise in store for his lucky readers — a coda, many years later, in which Coral and Clement, divorced in 1954 “on the basis of three years’ desertion,” find love at last. And from unexpected quarters. Both find someone who catches them fast to the world and its unpredictable life, “for what is love,” Cameron wonders, “if not wanting someone alive?” That — not a homosexuality that dares to speak its name, nor marriage that is a lasting substitute for a hermit’s life — that is the last and final way of loving. And as Coral Glynn masterfully shows, it never happens as it ought.

Peter Cameron, Coral Glynn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). 210 pp. $24.00.

Peter Cameron’s sixth novel is strangely irrelevant and completely unnecessary. It meets no demand, fills no need, gratifies no craving, strokes no ideology. Coral Glynn is very little more than a wonderful delicious treat for readers who feasted on the novels of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor years ago and despaired of ever finding anything like them again.

Cameron is remarkably open about the influence of these “British women writers,” as he describes them on his website. But it’s one thing to be influenced by them and another thing entirely to attempt (and to pull off) what he has done here. It’s as if a living composer were to write a new symphony in the style of Haydn. In his latest novel, Cameron faithfully revives a fictional mode that disappeared at least three decades ago without ever finding a warm reception on these shores.

Coral Glynn is his loving homage to this mode of English fiction, an adventurous striking out into a real world created wholly by books and not by personal experience. A New Jersey boy (except for two years with his parents in London), Cameron sets the novel in an English country house located in a Midlands provincial town. Although he is known as a gay writer (and though one character in the novel is a gay man), he is interested in homosexuality here only in as far as it is perhaps the clearest example of love that leads to cruelty and makes cowards of lovers.

His title character is a 20- or 21-year-old nurse who arrives at Hart House in the spring of 1950 to care for the mistress, who is dying of cancer. Standing a few miles outside of Harrington, a fictional village that Cameron locates in Leicestershire, Hart House is undistinguished, containing “nothing of anybody’s; it was that kind of house: the people who lived in it made no real impression upon it.” Except for a housekeeper, the only other person living there is Major Hart — his Christian name is Clement — the sole surviving son, who was wounded in the war under mysterious circumstances (or at least he doesn’t want to talk about them).

Within a few days of her arrival, Major Hart conceives the “idea” of marrying Coral. “She is a lovely girl,” he tells his friend Robin, with whom he seems to have had a brief affair several years before. “I rather like her.” And besides, he is convinced that she is his “last chance.” After his mother’s death, deeply ashamed of the wound that has left him with a burned and useless leg, he expects to become a hermit. “I will never meet another girl again,” he remarks, “if I become a hermit.”

Old Mrs Hart dies while Coral is on her day off. The housekeeper blames her (“If you’d’ve been here you could have done something”), but Coral comforts Clement while he sobs in grief. And the next day he asks if she would like to stay on at Hart House. “As my wife,” he quickly adds. She is naturally surprised. She hadn’t even realized that he had feelings for her. “Very warm and tender feelings,” he assures her. “Of course, you deserve more than that,” he goes on. She deserves love. “And you!” Coral interrupts. Clement disagrees:

No, I don’t. And I’m not asking for love, or even wanting it. I just want not to go all bitter and dead inside like my mother. And living here, alone, I know that I would. I can feel it already, something inside me, someone inside me, moving from room to room, shutting all the doors, shuttering the windows.

Coral is alone in the world too, an only child whose mother and father are both dead. And so she marries Clement.

The sequel is perhaps the briefest marriage — if not the oddest — in fiction. Before her wedding day is over, Coral falls under suspicion for murder and flees to London. She finds work at a Catholic hospital and rooms in the house of a Polish woman who had once been a classical pianist. She writes three letters to Clement in care of his friend Robin, but he never answers. And so she settles into a life that, upon reflection, is not really a bad life:

This is more happiness than I deserve, even if it is not exactly happiness. But it was a sort of freedom: there had been so many problems — it had all been problems, everything had been a problem for such a long time — and to be released from that perpetually increasing darkness was a kind of joy.

Not quite a year later Robin’s wife discovers the letters hidden in a chest. Robin defends himself by saying that he has saved Clement from a “hell” of loneliness and misery that Coral would have increased “a ten — a thousand — fold.” He accuses Clement of “cowardice and cruelty” in not returning Robin’s love. He hid the letters from Clement, and then he burned them, out of love: “It is my last and final way of loving you,” he swears.

Clement is a coward, but not because he is afraid to live openly as a “pouf,” as he degradingly calls Robin later on. He is a coward because he bows his head to a self-imposed sentence without even questioning it, let alone raging against it. A hermit’s life, loneliness and misery, love and tenderness — they are all one to Clement, because they are equally to be suffered. What he wanted was to separate himself from the world, and thus to surrender any claim (and duck any responsibility) over what occurs within it. When he finally bestirs himself to seek out Coral in London, it comes as little surprise that she has embraced Clement’s vision of life: “Well, whatever happened, I think we both saw right to give it up,” she tells him. “Everything has happened as it ought.”

Or has it? Cameron has one more surprise in store for his lucky readers — a coda, many years later, in which Coral and Clement, divorced in 1954 “on the basis of three years’ desertion,” find love at last. And from unexpected quarters. Both find someone who catches them fast to the world and its unpredictable life, “for what is love,” Cameron wonders, “if not wanting someone alive?” That — not a homosexuality that dares to speak its name, nor marriage that is a lasting substitute for a hermit’s life — that is the last and final way of loving. And as Coral Glynn masterfully shows, it never happens as it ought.

Read Less

Lincoln in Fiction

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

Read Less

All “Best” Lists Are Now “Personal Inventories”

Yesterday Terry Teachout conducted a “purely personal inventory” of the ten American novels he “most wished” he had written, and this morning Patrick Kurp countered with his own list of ten. If you removed the alien and seditious titles from my own three-year-old list of the fifty best English-language novels published since the Victorians — a list originally compiled for students who kept pestering me for recommended readings — you’d be left with this roster of ten:

( 1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
( 2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
( 3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
( 4) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
( 5) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
( 6) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
( 7) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
( 8) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
( 9) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(10) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

As one of Kurp’s commentators said, this is a “nifty parlor game.” But it also, I think, points to something serious.

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with,” Hugh Kenner wrote years ago. But no one believes that any more. It’s telling, don’t you think, that Teachout, Kurp, and I agree on just one writer — Cather — without even agreeing on which of her novels ought to be first read. I have tried to update Kenner’s apothegm (“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although no one will ever agree on what they are”), but even this innocuous paradox is enough, in today’s English departments, to get me housed with the reactionaries, the racists, or worse.

All that’s left are parlor games, offered (as Teachout says he offered his) “apropos of absolutely nothing.” If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it.

Yesterday Terry Teachout conducted a “purely personal inventory” of the ten American novels he “most wished” he had written, and this morning Patrick Kurp countered with his own list of ten. If you removed the alien and seditious titles from my own three-year-old list of the fifty best English-language novels published since the Victorians — a list originally compiled for students who kept pestering me for recommended readings — you’d be left with this roster of ten:

( 1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
( 2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
( 3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
( 4) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
( 5) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
( 6) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
( 7) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
( 8) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
( 9) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(10) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

As one of Kurp’s commentators said, this is a “nifty parlor game.” But it also, I think, points to something serious.

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with,” Hugh Kenner wrote years ago. But no one believes that any more. It’s telling, don’t you think, that Teachout, Kurp, and I agree on just one writer — Cather — without even agreeing on which of her novels ought to be first read. I have tried to update Kenner’s apothegm (“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although no one will ever agree on what they are”), but even this innocuous paradox is enough, in today’s English departments, to get me housed with the reactionaries, the racists, or worse.

All that’s left are parlor games, offered (as Teachout says he offered his) “apropos of absolutely nothing.” If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it.

Read Less

About the Manliest Sport

Last night’s Super Bowl, in which the the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots by 21 to 17, was one of the most exciting of the XLVI games so far. From the improbable first score — a two-point safety ruled against the Patriots’ Tom Brady on a technical violation — to Ahmad Bradshaw’s turn-around-and-sit-down touchdown with 57 seconds remaining, the Giants’ four-point win was almost enough to blot out the image of 53-year-old Madonna strutting and fretting upon a stage that looked as if it had been left over from an Obama rally.

Three years ago, after the heart-pounding finish to an earlier Super Bowl, I wondered why there are not more American football novels. Not much is new or changed since then. Eli Manning, last night’s winning quarterback, collaborated with his brother Peyton Manning and their father Archie Manning — all three of them signal callers in the NFL — to produce a children’s book called Family Huddle (“Archie was in the front yard in New Orleans, playing with his three sons, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli. It was Peyton’s turn at their favorite game: Amazing catches.”) Ex-players like Tiki and Ronde Barber and Jason Elam also turned out disposable popular titles.

But novels that take the American game seriously are few and far between. Joiner (1971) is the most promising, and not because James Whitehead played football at Vanderbilt before an injury reduced him to literature. Eugene (Sonny) Joiner, narrator and protagonist, is an offensive lineman rather than a glamor player; he squints up at the game from an unusual position. Ultimately, though, the novel falls victim to post-1968 nonsense. Styling himself a “radical historian,” Joiner teaches calculus and spelling to underprivileged children at a progressive school after he quits pro football, and becomes the disciple of a fifteenth-century Hussite.

The late Peter Gent ran routes and caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the sixties, then wrote North Dallas Forty (1973), a novel that was more distinguished for its rage at the professional sport than for its scenes of action on the field. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough (1972) displayed a raw satiric talent, but was nearly as angry in tone as Gent’s novel, filled with gall. His 1984 novel Life Its Ownself, with the twin linebackers Orangejello and Limejello, is a great favorite of COMMENTARY editor John Podhoretz, who describes it as a work of comic genius. (I think it’s funnier if you don’t already know that Mark Lemongello was a righthanded pitcher for the Houston Astros in the late Seventies.) Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1972) has great fun with the language of the game (“Monsoon sweep, string-in-left, ready right, cradle out, drill-9 shiver, ends chuff”), but it is not about football as the game was played last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, but a wild, wacky football that is more metaphor than reality.

Much the same is true of Howard Nemerov’s far less ambitious novel The Homecoming Game (1957), which does not even try to describe what occurs on the field. Here a professor’s F, leaving the star ineligible for the big game, serves merely as a pretext for an exploration of moral ambiguity. Ivan Doig’s The Eleventh Man (2008), which follows the members of a state championship team after they enlist for the Second World War, is more attentive to life after football. John R. Tunis, perhaps the greatest sports novelist of all time, wrote only one book about football. All-American (1942) is the best of a bad harvest — understanding that it is a boys’ book and that, like all of Tunis’s books, it has more to do with a boy’s fumbling for values than handling a ball. No one is better at describing the action on the field, but many readers will find Tunis dated, and his moral concerns inartistic and unliterary. So too for the other boys’ novelist who wrote about football: the former basketball coach Clair Bee, whose series of “Chip Hilton” books were my passionate favorites as a kid.

Perhaps the problem is that football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports, where ignorant coaching systems clash by night; or perhaps the problem is that The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan cast the mold for football players in American literature, condemning them for all time to being represented as careless brutes. The truth is that it is the most masculine of sports, more so even than boxing, not merely because it requires manliness, which Harvey Mansfield defines as confidence in a situation of risk (boxing takes that too), but because it demands the masculine virtues— patience, patrimony, moral courage, physical strength, loyalty to friends, submission to legitimate authority, service to others.

Especially with the hyperventilating anxiety about concussions in football, the game is rich in moral complexity. You’d think it would attract America’s best literary talents. Not so, apparently. James Wright’s little poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” may be the best thing ever written about football. The best book-length stuff is history and reportage: John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Slide, Lars Anderson’s Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, David Fleming’s Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship. The definitive American football novel is yet to be written.

Last night’s Super Bowl, in which the the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots by 21 to 17, was one of the most exciting of the XLVI games so far. From the improbable first score — a two-point safety ruled against the Patriots’ Tom Brady on a technical violation — to Ahmad Bradshaw’s turn-around-and-sit-down touchdown with 57 seconds remaining, the Giants’ four-point win was almost enough to blot out the image of 53-year-old Madonna strutting and fretting upon a stage that looked as if it had been left over from an Obama rally.

Three years ago, after the heart-pounding finish to an earlier Super Bowl, I wondered why there are not more American football novels. Not much is new or changed since then. Eli Manning, last night’s winning quarterback, collaborated with his brother Peyton Manning and their father Archie Manning — all three of them signal callers in the NFL — to produce a children’s book called Family Huddle (“Archie was in the front yard in New Orleans, playing with his three sons, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli. It was Peyton’s turn at their favorite game: Amazing catches.”) Ex-players like Tiki and Ronde Barber and Jason Elam also turned out disposable popular titles.

But novels that take the American game seriously are few and far between. Joiner (1971) is the most promising, and not because James Whitehead played football at Vanderbilt before an injury reduced him to literature. Eugene (Sonny) Joiner, narrator and protagonist, is an offensive lineman rather than a glamor player; he squints up at the game from an unusual position. Ultimately, though, the novel falls victim to post-1968 nonsense. Styling himself a “radical historian,” Joiner teaches calculus and spelling to underprivileged children at a progressive school after he quits pro football, and becomes the disciple of a fifteenth-century Hussite.

The late Peter Gent ran routes and caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the sixties, then wrote North Dallas Forty (1973), a novel that was more distinguished for its rage at the professional sport than for its scenes of action on the field. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough (1972) displayed a raw satiric talent, but was nearly as angry in tone as Gent’s novel, filled with gall. His 1984 novel Life Its Ownself, with the twin linebackers Orangejello and Limejello, is a great favorite of COMMENTARY editor John Podhoretz, who describes it as a work of comic genius. (I think it’s funnier if you don’t already know that Mark Lemongello was a righthanded pitcher for the Houston Astros in the late Seventies.) Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1972) has great fun with the language of the game (“Monsoon sweep, string-in-left, ready right, cradle out, drill-9 shiver, ends chuff”), but it is not about football as the game was played last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, but a wild, wacky football that is more metaphor than reality.

Much the same is true of Howard Nemerov’s far less ambitious novel The Homecoming Game (1957), which does not even try to describe what occurs on the field. Here a professor’s F, leaving the star ineligible for the big game, serves merely as a pretext for an exploration of moral ambiguity. Ivan Doig’s The Eleventh Man (2008), which follows the members of a state championship team after they enlist for the Second World War, is more attentive to life after football. John R. Tunis, perhaps the greatest sports novelist of all time, wrote only one book about football. All-American (1942) is the best of a bad harvest — understanding that it is a boys’ book and that, like all of Tunis’s books, it has more to do with a boy’s fumbling for values than handling a ball. No one is better at describing the action on the field, but many readers will find Tunis dated, and his moral concerns inartistic and unliterary. So too for the other boys’ novelist who wrote about football: the former basketball coach Clair Bee, whose series of “Chip Hilton” books were my passionate favorites as a kid.

Perhaps the problem is that football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports, where ignorant coaching systems clash by night; or perhaps the problem is that The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan cast the mold for football players in American literature, condemning them for all time to being represented as careless brutes. The truth is that it is the most masculine of sports, more so even than boxing, not merely because it requires manliness, which Harvey Mansfield defines as confidence in a situation of risk (boxing takes that too), but because it demands the masculine virtues— patience, patrimony, moral courage, physical strength, loyalty to friends, submission to legitimate authority, service to others.

Especially with the hyperventilating anxiety about concussions in football, the game is rich in moral complexity. You’d think it would attract America’s best literary talents. Not so, apparently. James Wright’s little poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” may be the best thing ever written about football. The best book-length stuff is history and reportage: John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Slide, Lars Anderson’s Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, David Fleming’s Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship. The definitive American football novel is yet to be written.

Read Less

Review: Fiction, Fiction, Burning Bright

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.

According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?

That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:

From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.

Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.

The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.

In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:

If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.

And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.

The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”

There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”

The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?

Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:

The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.

But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.

His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:

The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.

These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.

But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.

According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?

That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:

From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.

Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.

The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.

In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:

If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.

And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.

The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”

There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”

The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?

Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:

The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.

But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.

His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:

The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.

These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.

But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.

Read Less

Téa Obreht’s Anti-War Message

Just wrapped up a discussion of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in my course on contemporary literature. In my remarks, I made no secret of my unease with the novel’s ideological message. After the bombing raids start in an unnamed city in an unnamed Balkan country at some unspecified time in the last 12 years, her grandfather makes clear to the narrator Natalia his view of war:

When your fight has purpose — to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of the innocent — it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling — when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event — there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

A little later in the novel, the grandfather explains that he has no side in the war. “I am all sides,” he says. The novelist too, by all appearances. Obreht’s method is to strip history from The Tiger’s Wife. Even when Germans “arrive” in grandfather’s village and “finally the train” begins to run through town, “the rattle and cough of the tracks” awakening the villagers at night, the Germans are not identified as Nazis and the train is not identified as going to Auschwitz (and the Jews are erased altogether). The “endless war” could be any war in which any innocents are killed in any way.

And my students were quick to notice as much. One pointed out how neatly the grandfather’s passage fits the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another student observed that this is just his generation’s basic view of war. (Obreht, who is 26, is only slightly older than the students in my class.) “We are ambivalent about it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict],” he said. “For us, neither side is clearly in the right.”

A clear majority of my students disliked The Tiger’s Wife, although their reasons were aesthetic rather than ideological. (Loose ends were not tied up, they complained. “I will not explain what happened between the tiger and his wife,” Natalia announces three pages from the end. “I had to read a whole novel to find out you were not even going to tell me what happened?” a student cried in outrage.) But my own dislike of the novel was almost entirely ideological. Its generalized dissatisfaction with the wanton destruction of endless (and featureless) war removed the story from the Balkans and set it in a No Place, where magical stories provide a magical refuge from history. Except for scattered references to rajika and gossip about the origins of its celebrated young author, there would be no way of knowing that The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about the Balkans and no reason to care.

Just wrapped up a discussion of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in my course on contemporary literature. In my remarks, I made no secret of my unease with the novel’s ideological message. After the bombing raids start in an unnamed city in an unnamed Balkan country at some unspecified time in the last 12 years, her grandfather makes clear to the narrator Natalia his view of war:

When your fight has purpose — to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of the innocent — it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling — when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event — there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

A little later in the novel, the grandfather explains that he has no side in the war. “I am all sides,” he says. The novelist too, by all appearances. Obreht’s method is to strip history from The Tiger’s Wife. Even when Germans “arrive” in grandfather’s village and “finally the train” begins to run through town, “the rattle and cough of the tracks” awakening the villagers at night, the Germans are not identified as Nazis and the train is not identified as going to Auschwitz (and the Jews are erased altogether). The “endless war” could be any war in which any innocents are killed in any way.

And my students were quick to notice as much. One pointed out how neatly the grandfather’s passage fits the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another student observed that this is just his generation’s basic view of war. (Obreht, who is 26, is only slightly older than the students in my class.) “We are ambivalent about it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict],” he said. “For us, neither side is clearly in the right.”

A clear majority of my students disliked The Tiger’s Wife, although their reasons were aesthetic rather than ideological. (Loose ends were not tied up, they complained. “I will not explain what happened between the tiger and his wife,” Natalia announces three pages from the end. “I had to read a whole novel to find out you were not even going to tell me what happened?” a student cried in outrage.) But my own dislike of the novel was almost entirely ideological. Its generalized dissatisfaction with the wanton destruction of endless (and featureless) war removed the story from the Balkans and set it in a No Place, where magical stories provide a magical refuge from history. Except for scattered references to rajika and gossip about the origins of its celebrated young author, there would be no way of knowing that The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about the Balkans and no reason to care.

Read Less

So Why Read (Fiction) Anymore?

Yesterday, in his blog Works and Days at PJ Media, the classical historian Victor Davis Hanson asked why anyone should read anymore. He rehearsed several good reasons (reading is mental exercise, it renews the language that social media zaps into an “instant bland hot cereal,” it reverses the intellectual regress that seems to accompany technological progress) before arriving at what strikes me as the soundest reason of all. “[S]peaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization,” Hanson concluded, “but also the keys to self-mastery. . . .” He hurried on to talk about upholding the standards of culture, saying no more about self-mastery. In passing, though, Hanson put his finger on the reason for what Ben Jonson, four centuries ago, called a “mul­ti­plicity of read­ing.” It “maketh a full man,” Jonson said.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that reading leads not to self-mastery, but to self-affirmation. Some such view stands behind the nonprofit labors of Reading Is Fundamental, the children’s literacy organization:

Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

What follows from this view is that “nonwhite readers” need to “find their mirrors.” They cannot hope to glimpse themselves and their circumstances in “white” books. Thus the call for “diversity” in literature — different groups require different “mirrors” for self-affirmation.

But what if this is exactly backwards? Hanson thinks so: “In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia,” he observes, “Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond.” Cicero is unlikely, however, to convince those who believe that young readers will only feel “part of the larger human experience” if their own smaller experience is affirmed first.

What if both arguments are wrong? What if both the reader hoping for a common bond and the reader in search of self-affirmation are making the same mistake? The mistake, as the poet and literary scholar J. V. Cunningham said caustically, is for a reader to think that he “can appropriate [a book] as his own.” Cunningham’s ambition as a poet was to disappoint the reader in this expectation:

He wanted him to know that this was his poem, not yours; these were his circumstances, not yours; and these were the structures of thought by which he had penetrated them.

Every written text belongs to its author, not to you. This proposition, I realize, is sadly anachronistic. It sounds like an admonition to thrift and chastity. It paddles against the current of the times. Michel Foucault has taught us, after all, that the author is an impediment to freedom — that he is not really a person at all (who is owed respect), but merely a “certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. . . .” Remove the author, Roland Barthes urges, and you remove all limitations upon the text.

The truth is otherwise. Remove the author and all you do is to remove every restraint upon Narcissistic Reading Disorder. To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? Hanson gives a marvelous account of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer we both admired despite his various contradictions and occasional cruelties: “[H]e achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore,” Hanson says. But surely Hitchens’s appeal is more immediate than that. With Hitchens, the challenge is constant. He never lets you get away with a lazy reflection, because he never let himself get away with a lazy reflection. He demands that you think about things his way, and if you find that unpleasant — well, what do you think?

Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist thinker and novelist, explains in an interview:

The ethical has to do with human behavior; it’s not necessarily related to good and evil. When I read Madame Bovary I ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? Would I trust Leon, who tells me that he loves me? . . . If I were Ringo in Stagecoach, would I have escaped with Dallas upon reaching the city, or would I have set out to take revenge on my enemies? This is what ethics is about. . . . Every work of fiction is a story of human conduct, and the reader would have to be a monster in order not to see the deeds which the work presents as possible acts of his own.

If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.

Yesterday, in his blog Works and Days at PJ Media, the classical historian Victor Davis Hanson asked why anyone should read anymore. He rehearsed several good reasons (reading is mental exercise, it renews the language that social media zaps into an “instant bland hot cereal,” it reverses the intellectual regress that seems to accompany technological progress) before arriving at what strikes me as the soundest reason of all. “[S]peaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization,” Hanson concluded, “but also the keys to self-mastery. . . .” He hurried on to talk about upholding the standards of culture, saying no more about self-mastery. In passing, though, Hanson put his finger on the reason for what Ben Jonson, four centuries ago, called a “mul­ti­plicity of read­ing.” It “maketh a full man,” Jonson said.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that reading leads not to self-mastery, but to self-affirmation. Some such view stands behind the nonprofit labors of Reading Is Fundamental, the children’s literacy organization:

Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

What follows from this view is that “nonwhite readers” need to “find their mirrors.” They cannot hope to glimpse themselves and their circumstances in “white” books. Thus the call for “diversity” in literature — different groups require different “mirrors” for self-affirmation.

But what if this is exactly backwards? Hanson thinks so: “In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia,” he observes, “Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond.” Cicero is unlikely, however, to convince those who believe that young readers will only feel “part of the larger human experience” if their own smaller experience is affirmed first.

What if both arguments are wrong? What if both the reader hoping for a common bond and the reader in search of self-affirmation are making the same mistake? The mistake, as the poet and literary scholar J. V. Cunningham said caustically, is for a reader to think that he “can appropriate [a book] as his own.” Cunningham’s ambition as a poet was to disappoint the reader in this expectation:

He wanted him to know that this was his poem, not yours; these were his circumstances, not yours; and these were the structures of thought by which he had penetrated them.

Every written text belongs to its author, not to you. This proposition, I realize, is sadly anachronistic. It sounds like an admonition to thrift and chastity. It paddles against the current of the times. Michel Foucault has taught us, after all, that the author is an impediment to freedom — that he is not really a person at all (who is owed respect), but merely a “certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. . . .” Remove the author, Roland Barthes urges, and you remove all limitations upon the text.

The truth is otherwise. Remove the author and all you do is to remove every restraint upon Narcissistic Reading Disorder. To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? Hanson gives a marvelous account of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer we both admired despite his various contradictions and occasional cruelties: “[H]e achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore,” Hanson says. But surely Hitchens’s appeal is more immediate than that. With Hitchens, the challenge is constant. He never lets you get away with a lazy reflection, because he never let himself get away with a lazy reflection. He demands that you think about things his way, and if you find that unpleasant — well, what do you think?

Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist thinker and novelist, explains in an interview:

The ethical has to do with human behavior; it’s not necessarily related to good and evil. When I read Madame Bovary I ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? Would I trust Leon, who tells me that he loves me? . . . If I were Ringo in Stagecoach, would I have escaped with Dallas upon reaching the city, or would I have set out to take revenge on my enemies? This is what ethics is about. . . . Every work of fiction is a story of human conduct, and the reader would have to be a monster in order not to see the deeds which the work presents as possible acts of his own.

If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.

Read Less




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