The magazine writers of New York City in the 1840s, the people Perry Miller chronicles in The Raven and the Whale, were obsessed with the supposed problem of American literature. Where were the great American writers - the American Milton, the American Shakespeare, the American Dickens? The American Walter Scott was James Fennimore Cooper, but that did not seem to help much.
One theme Miller traces is the obsession with this idea of the creation of a truly American literature, one that was simultaneously independent from European models, popular enough for writers to make a living, and as good as anyone else's literature. The way they went about creating this literature was to write editorials advocating it, describing it - Niagara Falls, for example, would be a good subject for an American poem* - and claiming that whatever books were around at the moment were definitely not it, not yet.
I found the whole exercise hilarious, and central to the failure of the New York writers to create any lasting work (the New England Dial writers seem to have been just as bad, and the main cause, don't get me wrong, was a lack of talent). It reminded me of a certain strain of litblog writing, mostly directed at criticism, endless worry about how criticism should be done. When I see these sorts of pieces, I always think, what a waste of time - just go ahead and do it yourself.
Manifesto writers rarely seem to recognize the thing they're looking for. To return to Duyckink and Mathews and the other New York members of "Young America" - Emerson and the other transcendentalists did not count, since they were basically German, and possibly all crazy; Longfellow was a fine poet but too European; Washington Irving even preferred to live in Europe. Hawthorne and Poe were also criticized as too "German" - here we see one of the causes of the low status of 19th century German literature in the English-speaking world, an example of the New Yorkers winning the battle while losing the war.
The 1850s saw the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and "Bartleby the Scrivener," Walden and Leaves of Grass. Whatever else these books may or may not be, they are unquestionably American. And only the Melville and Whitman books were even tangentially influenced by the manifesto writers. Melville, for example, knew all of the "Young America" writers, and read everything they wrote. When he finally produced Moby-Dick, almost no one understood it, and it was soon virtually forgotten. Worse, in a way, is the fact that Miller has no cause to mention Frederick Douglass and his Autobiography. It would have never have crossed these writers' minds that what they saw as an abolitionist tract was a genuine American masterpiece.
I know that my judgment is retrospective, and I'm ignoring a lot of complications (copyright, politics, the crushing popularity of Dickens), but Miller's account is enjoyably ridiculous. Let the artists do their work. Everything will work out somehow. There will always be good books to read. I look back at the 1840s and see Douglass and Emerson and the stories of Hawthorne and Poe, and think, hey, pretty good, but of course, my 1840s also include Gogol and Balzac, A Christmas Carol and Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair, and Heine and Stifter. In my reading, I'm not much of a patriot.
* E.g., "Roar, raging torrent! and thou, mighty river, \ Pour thy white foam on the valley below;" - "Niagara", Joseph Rodman Drake. I can't believe anyone wanted more of that.
Friday, February 27, 2009
The magazine writers of New York City in the 1840s, the people Perry Miller chronicles in The Raven and the Whale, were obsessed with the supposed problem of American literature. Where were the great American writers - the American Milton, the American Shakespeare, the American Dickens? The American Walter Scott was James Fennimore Cooper, but that did not seem to help much.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
I mentioned Perry Miller's 1956 The Raven and the Whale (1956) yesterday. It's a marvelous account of the literary luminaries of New York City in the 1830s and 1840s. You might guess from the title that Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville are central figures in the book, but that's actually a trick.
This is really the story of sad sack Evert Augustus Duyckink, and smug blowhard Lewis Gaylord Clark, and nationalist monomaniac Cornelius Mathews, and lovelorn hack William Alfred Jones, all New York editors and authors. In other words, literary history's losers. They were big shots at the time, more or less, but their work is dead now. Readers of The Raven and the Whale will not add many books to their reading lists. These writers crossed paths, briefly, with Poe and Melville, and did have a real effect on the writing of those two geniuses, and perhaps on an obscure young Brooklynite named Walter Whitman, so that's part of the interest of the book.
But most of the fun of Miller's book, which is witty and well written, is that it is almost like an existentialist novel. These hapless third-raters strive and fail and strive some more. They do the best they can. Is it their problem that we don't care? Melville and Poe did the same thing, but now we care a lot about them.
I'll direct the interested reader to Prof. Myer's actual review of the book - that's where I read about it. As good as the book is, it's of specialized interest, so I can't exactly recommend it to anyone who is not already curious about the literature of the period. I'll excerpt a good bit about Poe's, let's say, complicated reception in New York, and then mention one more thing tomorrow:
"About this time the Doctor was giving a dinner when the doorbell rang; his guests, assuming him summoned by a patient, went one eating and drinking. Soon the Doctor returned with 'a pale, thin, and most grave-looking man, whose dark dress and solemn air' brought the hilarity to an abrupt stop; leading the apparition to his wife, Francis waved his hand helplessly and said, 'Eliza, my dear - The Raven!'" (134)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Let's see, how else did Poe spend his time, besides writing his own poems and tomahawking those of others? Coming up with hoaxes, of course.
I suppose "The Ballon-Hoax" is his most famous. Poe moved to New York City in 1844, and in lieu of a calling card he published, in the New York Sun, an account of the first successful transatlantic crossing, from England to America, no less, in a balloon. It was fitted with a propellor, see. In the newspaper, the story was not titled "The Balloon-Hoax" - might have given the game away, I wouldn't doubt. Readers become hysterical; there's a run on the paper; unveiled, Poe becomes (more) famous.*
He spent the next couple of years spreading chaos throughout American literature. The strangest episode (I don't understand it well, at least) was the "Longfellow War," when Poe accused Henry Longfellow of plagiarism while reviewing one of his books, and then stretched the controversy out for a couple of months. One way he kept it going was to write indignant protests, under assumed names, against his own review, which Poe could then demolish over the course of many issues of his own magazine.
Maybe scholarship has advanced on this subject, and we know that the reply was genuine. But see Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale (1956), p. 130 - Prof. Miller agrees with me. Poe's action is pure controversialism. Longfellow was, or was becoming, the most famous poet in America, too inviting a target to resist, regardless of whether, in other reviews, Poe dealt with Longfellow quite judiciously.
How amusing to read, soon before Poe's death in 1849:
"We need reform at this point of our Literary Morality: - very sorely, too, at another - the system of anonymous reviewing. Not one respectable word can be said in defence of this most unfair - this most despicable and cowardly practice." (LOA, 1448)
I wish the Library of America Essays and Reviews specified whether or not each article was anonymous. More than once, Poe's name suddenly appears within the piece, as when he reviewed his own stories ("he has perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim," etc). Poe would have been a master of the internet - the fake websites, the sock puppets, the faux hit-generating controversies. I can't say that I admire this side of Poe, exactly, but he certainly keeps my attention. And in fairness, Poe was also a debunker - see his 1836 article "Maelzel's Chess-Player," in which he reasons out the functioning of a supposed chess-playing robot. This was how Poe's imagination worked - always building and dismantling tricky machinery.
* An earlier hoax is "The Unparalled Adventure of One Hans Pfall" (1835), about a balloon trip to the moon(!). Unfortunately, Poe abandoned it without finishing it, because he was beaten to the punch by another author's moon hoax, involving man-bats seen through a telescope. See the "Richard Adams Locke" entry in "The Literati of New York City" (LOA, 1214-22) for the ridiculous details.
Update: See here for PoeCalendar Rob's illuminating summary of the Longfellow War.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Mr. Poe, sharpen that tomahawk. It's time for a round of Poe's Greatest Hatchet Hits.
From a review of The Coming of the Mammoth - The Funeral of Time, and Other Poems, by Henry B. Hirst:
"We are not extravagant in saying (are we?) that the 'Coming of the Mammoth' which might as well have been called the 'Coming and the Going of the Mammoth' is the most preposterous of all the preposterous poems ever deliberately printed by a gentleman arrived at the years of discretion. Nor has it one individual point of redeeming merit. Had Mr. Hirst written only this we should have thrown his book to the pigs without comment." (596)
This is a good place to start, because there is little doubt that Poe is entirely correct. In this poem, at some distant time in the past, a herd of killer mammoths appears: "We saw them hunt the buffalo, \ And crush them with their tusks of steel." The Native Americans who survive the initial mammoth attack invoke their storm god, who kills the mammoths with lightning, all but one, who is driven across the Missisippi, then up a Rocky Mountain peak, then, with a leap, into the Pacific Ocean. This is what Poe is up against.
All right, more chopping. A whack at the Brook Farm Utopians:
"'The Harbinger - Edited by the Brook-Farm Phalanx' - is, beyond doubt, the most reputable organ of the Crazyites. We sincerely respect it - odd as this assertion may appear. It is conducted by an assemblage of well-read persons who mean no harm - and who, perhaps, can do less." (1100)
Mr. Hudson, deliverer of a "Lecture on Lear", has "an elocution that would disgrace a pig, and an odd species of gesticulation of which a baboon would have excellent reason to be ashamed." There's another pig. This isn't even funny, is it? Just an insult.
This joke, at the expense of William Ellery Channing, may be worse than not funny. This is Edgar Poe, math geek:
"To speak algebraically: - Mr. M. is execrable, but Mr. C. is x plus 1-ecrable." (818)
Poe's always merciless about prosody, but he usually does not say the poet can't count:
"In a word, judging by his rhythm, we might suppose that the poet could neither, see, hear, nor make use of his fingers. We do not know, in America, a versifier so utterly wretched and contemptible." (807)
That's from a review of the Poems of William W. Lord.
On American historian George Jones:
"His qualifications are too well known to need comment. He has a pretty wife, a capital head of hair, and fine teeth." (642)
That's actually the nicest thing Poe says in that review, but the meaner stuff is harder to excerpt. Most of the review is about the illustrations on the title page. "The title-pages are to be cut out, we hope, and deposited in the British Museum." (644)
I'm enjoying myself, but I'm not sure I'm being fair to Poe, so how about a serious piece of criticism, from the "Literati of New York" entry on N. P. Willis:
"The Scriptural pieces are quite 'correct,' as the French have it, and are much admired by a certain set of readers, who judge of a poem, not by its effects on themselves, but by the effect which they imagine it might have upon themselves were they not unhappily soulless, and by the effect which they take it for granted it does have upon others." (1128)
This one hits me a bit, I'll admit. Pretty sharp.
More tomahawk chopping here, here, and here. Where else? A favorite.
Page references to Essays and Reviews, Library of America. A most enjoyable book, in its own scattershot way.
Monday, February 23, 2009
I have been organzing Poe's works by genre, I now see. My default is chronology, but that doesn't work for Poe. He's always doing more than one thing.
For example, Penguin Classics publishes a volume entitled The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, which overlaps his entire career. This book contains, I think, very little of Poe's best writing,* but Poe really was a pioneer in the genre, so I understand the book's use. And it includes the baffling Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), so it's valuable for that alone.
Eureka is a hundred page essay or pamphlet or meditation about science. Gravitation, electricity, the diffusion of light, astronomy, the distribution of galaxies, the formation of the solar system. Some of it is jokey, especially the first twenty pages or so, with the philosophers Aries Tottle and Hog (Francis Bacon). Some of it is highly technical and, to me, dull; the sections on gravitation and light, in particular, completely lost me. But most of it is readable, more or less, and, conceptually, at least, quite interesting.
Poe uses Eureka to make sense of all the shocking scientific discoveries of his day, particularly in astronomy and physics. Neptune had only been discovered in 1846, for example, and at the time of Eureka's publication, the tenth asteroid had just been discovered. Eureka is an imaginative engagement with these ideas and novelties, a "mental gyration on the heel" (1262). I suspect Poe thought he was also making actual scientific contributions, but the Prose Poem subtitle gave him an escape route. Actual scientists also create and work within imaginative conceptions of their ideas, but that's as close as Poe gets to actual science.
The most accessible section, for me, was Poe's attempt to understand the changes in the scale of the universe, in it's size and age and parameters. Poe imagines, for example, an angel in the path of Jupiter:
“Not unfrequently we task our imagination in picturing the capacities of an angel. Let us fancy such a being at a distance of some hundred miles from Jupiter – a close eye-witness of this planet as it speeds on its annual revolution. Now can we, I demand, fashion for ourselves any conception so distinct of this ideal being’s spiritual exaltation, as that involved in the supposition that, even by this immeasurable mass of matter, whirled immediately before his eyes, with a velocity so unutterable, he – an angel – angelic though he be – is not at once struck into nothingness and overwhelmed?” (p. 1335)
In other words, splat. NASA informs me that the mean orbital veolcity of Jupiter is 13 km/second, which one must admit is pretty fast. An irony of this jab at medieval scholasticists is that Poe's own exercise here is not so different from theirs.
Eureka is one of many contemporary examples of literary writers attempting to comprehend science. Tennyson's In Memoriam was being written around the same time, and a number of passages in Emerson's journal show his interest in actual scientific discoveries. And this is before Darwin unleashes the deluge ten years later.
I don't think Poe's concerns are particularly religious, which does set him apart a bit from Tennyson or Arthur Hugh Clough** or the like. Poe's religious beliefs, whatever they are, do not seem to be threatened. God is simply a writer, a superior version of Edgar Allan Poe:
"The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God." (1342)
Eureka is Poe's solution to God's tricky plot.
Page references to the Library of America Poetry and Tales. The Edgar Allan Poe society puts Eureka here. And please see Poe Calendar Rob for a clearer idea of what Poe was up to.
* But don't miss "The Descent into the Maelström," which has some of Poe's best descriptive writing, or "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," in which a dead man is kept alive through hypnotism, with horrible and bizarre results.
** Clough is more worried by historicist Biblical scholarship, but the idea is the same: "Matthew and Mark and Luke and holy John \ Evanished all and gone!", from "Epi-strauss-ism."
Friday, February 20, 2009
Poe, in his reviews of poets' books, always included an enormous quantity of the verse he was reviewing. A ten page review might contain four full pages of poems. I don't know of anyone who reviews poetry like this today, and for all I know it would violate copyright. Then again, how many books of poems get ten page reviews now?
Poe would print an entire poem, or a selection of stanzas, and italicize the best parts. "Best" = most beautiful, and most original. For example:
By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,-
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,-
By the mountains - near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,-
By the grey woods,- by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp,-
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,-
That's from Poe's "Dream-Land," magnificent and ludicrous. The italics identify my notion of which bits are best. Yesterday, I emphasized Poe's concern for effect, but he was equally interested in originality, to an excessive degree, as we shall see next week when I brush against Poe's habit of flinging charges of plagiarism at other poets. As a result, Poe's verse is, in fact, highly original, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility. In his best poems, though - "The City in the Sea," "Dream-Land," "Annabel Lee," "The Raven" - he created something that was truly new. Sometimes, as with "The Bells," one fervently hopes that the poem is and remains one of a kind ("Of the bells, bells, bells!-/ Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells-" and so on).
Poe never went so far as to pull out his favorite lines from other poems without the surrounding stanza. I don't know why not:
from The City in the Sea
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
from The Conqueror Worm
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight,
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Out - out are the lights - out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm
more from Dream-Land
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE - out of TIME.
There the traveler meets, aghast,
Sheeted Memories of the Past -
from The Raven
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by Horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Ah, I could include almost every line. No quibbles here with the fame of "The Raven." Would you believe that Poe first thought of the word "Nevermore," and then decided it should be repeated again and again. Who would be likely to obsessively repeat a single word. Logically, obviously, a parrot. This poem was almost "The Parrot." Or so says Poe. I can never quite tell when he is putting me on.
Since I have nowhere else to do it, I will use this space to recommend the excellent four part essay on Algernon Swinburne, one of Poe's poetic descendants, hosted by A Journey Round My Skull. It's long, but the various portraits of Swinburne are worth a click or four all by themselves.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells - "The Cask of Amontillado", Poe's finest story
"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
Poe, in most of his fiction, in most of his poems, was concerned primarily with effect. Every element of the story was supposed to build to a single emotional state or image, like the collapse of the house of Usher, or the appearance of the Red Death. I suspect this is why Poe was not so interested in writing novels. Even in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, it's the individual episodes that stand out - the horrible death ship, for example. Rather than build continously, the novel surges and recedes.
"The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand."
As a result, individual sentences, even entire passages, can be sacrificed to the final effect. They can be clumsy, or involute, or simply bizarre, but they're not necessarily meant to be considered on their own. The effect erases everything that came before.
"Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.
'Drink,' I said, presenting him the wine.
He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled."
This striving for effect is not my ideal of the art of the short story. I prefer a succession of small touches and ironic details that, considered as a whole, amount to something more significant than their parts. I want the steps leading up to the coup de theatre to be good, too. Edgar Allan Poe did not care about what I want.
"It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavored to pry into the depth of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see."
Still, he did just what I wanted, once, at least, in "The Cask of Amontillado." How long had it been since I had last read this story? Decades, I think, and the effect was as I had remembered. But the artistry, that was an enjoyable surprise. It is not typical Poe. Look at the quotations I have included. The sentences are shorter than usual; even the words are shorter. Much of the dialogue is in fragments, just a phrase or an exclamation. The whole story is less than seven pages, one of Poe's shortest.
"No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells."
For what it's worth, I pick "The Cask of Amontillado" as Poe's best story.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I had known for a long time that Poe had written three stories starring C. Auguste Dupin. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogët" (1842-3), and "The Purloined Letter" (1843): the first three detective stories in literary history, not counting a wide range of arguable predecessors.
Two of these stories are among Poe's most famous, and will be found in any Poe collection, as well as any number of short story and mystery anthologies. Not "Marie Rogët," though. Why not?
One reason is that it's a little long, fifty pages in the Library of America, compared to thirty-five pages of "Rue Morgue" and nineteen pages of "The Purloined Letter." Another is that it's boring, among the most boring things Poe ever wrote. It's a boring murder mystery!
Poe, smarter than everyone else, about everything (which more often than not was true), decided he was going to solve an actual unsolved murder, the death of Mary Rogers in New York City. "Marie Rogët" presents his solution to the actual crime, with everything transposed to Paris, allowing his newly minted Detective Dupin to take over. How does this work?:
"Three days elapsed, and nothing was heard of her. On the fourth the corpse was found floating in the Seine,* near the shore which is the opposite the Quartier of the Rue Saint Andreé, and at a point not very far distant from the secluded neighborhood of the Barrière du Roule.†
* The Hudson.
† Weehawken." (p. 509, LOA)
The footnotes were added after initial publication, in something called Snowden's Ladies' Companion, a true crime magazine, I guess. Maybe I should have filed this under the comedies. Weehawken! Dupin solves the case by reading all available newspaper articles and reconciling the discrepancies. That's why the story is dull - much of it is nothing but actual excerpts from actual newspapers.
The other Dupin stories are by no means my favorites, since Poe indulges their narrator in some of his most lugubrious prose. But they are genuinely important stories, cultural touchstones; everyone should know who the Rue Morgue murderer was, and where the purloined letter was hidden. And all three stories develop an idea that I think was original, that the detective can restore order through pure cognitive ability, some perfect mix of intuition, logic, and psychology. "Ratiocination," Poe called it. "Marie Rogët," the mystery solved by reading newspaper articles, is conceptually pure, maybe a little too pure.
Poe wrote one other detective story that is much less famous, rarely reprinted, and at least as good as the others - better than "Marie Rogët," certainly. It's called - note the irritating extra quotation marks - "'Thou Art the Man'" (1844), and is not a Dupin story. In a relatively efficient fifteen pages, we get a brief setup, a murder, clues and more clues, a revelation and confession, and an explanation. Almost classic, except that the revelation scene is completely insane, and Poe does have to resort to one cheap trick to make it work. "'Thou Art the Man'" strikes me as at least as effective a detective story as the Dupin tales, told in a more straightforward style.
We call "The Murder in the Rue Morgue" the first detective story retrospectively. A series of other detective stories followed, not right away, but eventually, that were clearly influenced by Poe, and clearly not influenced so much by some other candidates, so Poe stands at the beginning of the genre. I'd like to say something, though, for E. T. A. Hoffmann's Mademoiselle de Scudery (1819), a story that Poe certainly knew, which perhaps looks more like a detective story to us than it did even to Poe.
The "detective", the title character, is a writer of the 17th century, no longer read much but still well-known in Hoffmann's time. The villain is a serial killer. Mlle de Scudery does not catch the killer, but proves the innocence of the prime suspect. This story is the ancestor of the current boomlet of novels featuring Detective Jane Austen and Inspector Oscar Wilde and Special Agent Walt Whitman and so on, all of which are, I assume, hackwork. Not Hoffmann, though, and not Mademoiselle de Scudery.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Edgar Allan Poe's annual short story productivity - many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
I'd had no idea, before plowing through the Library of America Poetry and Tales, how many comic stories Poe wrote. Of 68 tales and sketches, I identify 25, more than a third, as comic. "Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling." "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences."
What? I didn't say they were funny. They're supposed to be funny. Tastes may differ - and did they ever. How can I communicate how important these histoires were as une pièce of Poe's oeuvre? First, I should stop randomly using French in a Poe-like manner. Second, I should create a graph (click to enlarge):
The time runs from Poe's first five published stories in 1832 to his last six in 1849. Poems, essays, reviews, and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837-8) are omitted. "Supposed to be funny" versus "not supposed to be funny" is my judgment. Please refer to Poetry and Tales, Library of America, pp. 1375-8, to check my data.
I put some signposts on the graph to help see what Poe was doing. There's "The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1839, which I would call Poe's first great story. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is from 1841. That's "The Gold-Bug" in 1843. There in 1845 - but not included in the totals - is "The Raven."
Like Hawthorne, Poe's fiction productivity was hugely uneven. But he was always writing, almost. In 1836, for example, he wrote eighty book reviews for the Southern Literary Messenger - this was the beginning of Poe the Hatchet Man. Then came Poe's one novel in early 1838. Poe was seriously ill in 1847, and hardly wrote anything. 1848 saw the publication of the bizarre Eureka: A Prose Poem, which I will write about later, if I can think of anything to say about it.
Back to my original point. Poe's most famous stories are almost all from the period 1839-46. Most great writers needed some time to find their own voice. Once they find it, they cultivate it, or test it out, or become formulaic. Poe found his voice, or what we think of as the Poe voice, with the writing of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1837; the first classic Poe short story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," came two years later. After that, he wrote one or two classics a year. But he also continued to write all sorts of other things, including comic tales, the green bars in the graph, and magazines continued to publish them. He never specialized.
Poe could be very funny - his reviews prove that. And there are funny moments in these stories. But his comic tales seem to me to be too much of his time. The references are obscure, or the satire has gone flat, or the sorts of jokes people like have changed. I don't know. But where his weird tales retain their creepy effect, in the face of thousands of imitators, the comic tales are genuine period pieces, instructive about their time, but without much to say to ours.
I will say, though, that at least two of the "funny" ones end with beheadings. Comic Poe is still Poe.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Just recently, I polished off both Library of America volumes of Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales, and Essays and Reviews, about 2,800 pages of Poe. Took me two years. Good Lord, I'd never added up the pages - what was I thinking? I'm going to spend the next two weeks on Poe, to do my part to make sure that no one makes the same mistake.
If I'm kidding, it's only to a degree. I remember reading, somewhere, Harold Bloom calling Poe the "worst major writer in the canon," meaning that even in some of his best stories, there are lines that make a sensitive reader like me wince, and there are a pile of stories that are best reserved for specialists, although not for insomniacs - even boring Poe may cause nightmares.
While reading the short fiction of Poe's exact contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, I discovered again and again that the most famous stories were not necessarily the ones I though best. There were a lot of surprises. This was much less true with Poe, barely true at all. My favorites are the same as everyone else's:
"The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "A Descent into the Maelström," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Gold-Bug," "The Black Cat," "The Purloined Letter," "The Cask of Amontillado," "Hop-Frog."
Same with the poems: "The Raven," "Dream-Land," "The City in the Sea," "Annabel Lee." No surprises here. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe contains all of these and more, and looks like a great one-volume choice for non-neurotics.
Even the best stories are packed with exasperations like this, from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue":
"The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis."
This sentence should be taken with a sense of humor, and is directly connected to the themes of the story, so it's not an excrescence. But thank goodness it's imbedded in a story with a decent plot, a murder mystery. Too much writing in this vein drains one's spirits.
One can guess, just from this sentence, why Poe really does read better in French. The fussiness of the Latinate vocabulary simply disappears, or becomes normal. Poe's actual French phrases, one of his most irritating tics, become subsumed - no italics necessary.
But I'm stuck with Poe in English. Let's see what I can do with him.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Help the jackass of your neighbor and your jackass of a neighbor too - Sholem Aleichem's masterpiece "Hodl"
Tevye's oldest daughter, in "Today's Children," turned down a proposal by a rich man to marry a poor tailor. The next daughter, Hodl, does something even worse: she falls for a university student. She "reads and write both Yiddish and Russian and swallows books like hot cakes." That'll lead to trouble.
Here Tevye first meets the student, Peppercorn:
"Just then I looked ahead and saw a young man trudging along by the side of the path, a bundle under one arm, all sweaty and falling off his feet. 'Hurry up or you'll be late for the wedding!'* I called out to him. 'Come to think of it, hop aboard; I'm going your way and my wagon is empty. You know what the Bible says: help the jackass of your neighbor if you pass him on the road, and your jackass of a neighbor too.'**
He laughed and jumped into the wagon without having to be asked twice." (p. 55)
Tevye likes the student and invites him home. Soon Peppercorn is tutoring Tevye's daughters, and is practically one of the family. Just one problem:
"But I will say this for Peppercorn: when he opened his mouth, it erupted like a volcano. You wouldn't have believed the things that came out of it then, such wild, crazy ideas, everything backwards and upside down with tis feet sticking up in the air. A rich Jew, for instance - that's how warped his mind was - wasn't worth a row of beans to him, but a beggar was a big deal, and a workingman - why, a workingman was king, he was God's gift to the world - the reason being, I gathered, that he worked.
'Still,' I would say, 'when it comes to livelihoods, you can't compare work to making money." (p. 57)
The student is a radical, a revolutionary, in Russia in 1904. He marries Hodl - I'm skipping a funny scene where they announce their engagement to Tevye - but then disappears, into a prison, it turns out. The story only has five pages left. Hodl tells her father that she will join her husband in Siberia; Tevye argues with her is his usual indirect way; they sit on the porch all night and talk; Tevye takes her to the train station.
Those last few pages are funny, sad, warm, psychologically insightful. What more do I want? "Hodl" is one of the best short stories I have ever come across. I had not been expecting that.
I have been enjoying the Hillel Halkin translation, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, but am delighted to see that Penguin Classics, just a couple of weeks ago, published a new version by Aliza Shevrin, an expert translator of Sholem Aleichem. This one is called Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son. The latter contains the monologues of a nine-year-old who migrates to America. The Railroad Stories or Motl the Cantor's Son, which should you choose? I haven't read either, but will, soon, God willing. Politely request that your library own both.
* Just to be clear, the "wedding" is merely Tevye's joke, although a joke that backfires.
** Exodus 23:5 "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden... thou shalt surely help him." Close enough for Tevye.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Tevye the Dairyman actually is a book of short stories that functions as a novel. A timetable of original publication dates will clear things up:
1894 "Tevye Strikes It Rich"
1899 "Tevye Blows a Small Fortune"
1899 "Today's Children"
1909 "Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel"
1911 Tevye the Dairyman is published as a book
I'm ignoring some revisions. The first two stories are just what their titles say; the rest are about Tevye and his daughters. One can see that it took Sholem Aleichem a few years to attach the "marry off his daughters" story to Tevye. Also, that Sholem Aleichem was not quite happy with the way he ended the story in 1909, so he gave Tevye one more story. Sholem Aleichem was right, the 1914 ending is better.
The stories take place in real time. Tevye mentions actual events - pogroms, plagues, emigration - and he ages, which reinforces the theme of the breakdown of the old order. But Tevye is always funny, and even cheerful. Tragicomic, I guess that's the word. Here's how "Hodl" ends:
"You know what, Pan Sholem Aleichem? Let's talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?"
"Hodl" is absolutely amazing, one of the best short stories I have ever read. More on that tomorrow. I've come across readers, good readers, who complain about short stories, for reasons which mostly perplex me. One of the oddest complaints is that they want to spend more time with the characters, to get to know them better. I think there's a basic misunderstanding of the form here that could be cleared up with a little effort, but in any case, Tevye the Dairyman doesn't have that issue. You want more Tevye, you got it, at least until you get to the end, when, come to think if it, I still wanted more.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
You can't stop loving your children just because they're nothing but trouble - the great Tevye the Dairyman
I want to write about - no, advocate - Tevye the Dairyman (1910, sort of). It's so good I won't be able to do it justice. It's the best Yiddish book I've read as part of my project, and the best I expect to read. At his best, Sholem Aleichem is as good as Isaac Bashevis Singer at his best, and Singer is as good as anyone. So.
Tevye the Dairyman is an enormously likeable book, mostly because Tevye the dairyman is such a likeable character. The book's eight stories are all monologues, just Tevye talking to Sholem Aleichem, catching him up on the latest news. The news mostly involves Tevye's daughters.
Let's have some Tevye, the beginning of the story of daughter #3, "Chava", p. 69:
"Hoydu lashem ki toyv - whatever God does is for the best. That is, it had better be, because try changing it if you don't like it! I was once like that myself; I stuck my nose into this, into that, until I realized I was wasting my time, threw up my hands, and said, Tevye, what a big fool you a re! You're not going to remake the world... The good lord gave us tsa'ar gidul bonim, which means in plain language that you can't stop loving your children just because they're nothing but trouble. If my daughter Tsaytl, for example, went and fell for a tailor named Motl Komzoyl, was that any reason to be upset?... Ask her about it and she'll tell you that life couldn't be better. In fact, there's only one problem, which is that her children are starving."
There's a lot here that's typical. Tevye is always in fine spirits, joking around, even when recounting his sorrows, some of which are actually pretty sad. And he argues with God, as in the very beginning of the passage. Subtly, quietly, maybe. Comically, sure. Much of the heft of the book lies in Tevye's - what would you call it - his skepticism and doubt, the skepticism of a believer.
He also uses Hebrew quotations, incessantly - tsa'ar gidul bonim, for example, means "the sorrows of child raising." Sometimes the quotations are accurate, and other times they're mangled in various meaningful ways. The reader will have to decide how often to check the translations in the endnotes. Occasionally, I recommend. If you become irritated with them, you'll fit right in with the other characters, who are constantly telling him to cut it out.
Here's Tevye with his daughter Chava, who has gotten to know a Russian fellow a little too well:
"'Since when are you and he on such talking terms?' I ask.
'Oh,' she says, 'we've known each other for a while.'
'Congratulations!' I say. 'You've found yourself a fine friend.'
'Do you know him, then?' she says. 'Do you know who he is?'
'Not exactly,' I says, 'because I haven't read up on his family tree yet, but that doesn't keep me from seeing what a blue blood he is. In fact, if his father isn't a drunk, he may even be a swineherd or a handyman.'
Do you know what my Chava says to me? 'I have no idea who his father is. I'm only interested in individuals.'" ("Chava", p. 71)
This is the secret of Tevye's appeal, actually, and part of his tragedy. His daughter is just repeating her father's own beliefs. Tevye is also interested in individuals. The stories of the other daughters also parallel Tevye's own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes this works out well, sometimes not so much.
What a rich character, and all in eight stories, 130 pages. But that's a strength of a good monologue: every joke, every metaphor, every inadvertent revelation tells us something. the time we spend with the character is intensified.
Maybe I should mention that Tevye the Dairyman is the source for Fiddler on the Roof, which uses four of the eight stories. Maybe I should also say that there is no fiddler in the book. That image comes from Marc Chagall's paintings, which certainly fit with Sholem Aleichem's world, so no harm done.
All references to Hillel Halkin's translation, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, which has, on the cover, a picture of a fiddler, on a roof.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Don Quixote is a satire on romances. Don Quixote has his brain addled by tales of knights and heroes, but discovers that the world has changed, or was never really like that in the first place. Common sense reigns, so don't tilt at windmills.
Actually, I have never read that book. In the Don Quixote I read, Quixote may be crazy, but much of the rest of the world is completely insane. Quixote, to his benefit, travels the country, makes a new friend, and genuinely lives in the world he has imagined. I am exaggerating certain aspects of the novel to make this point, but before dismissing Our Lord Don Quixote, I ask two questions: have you read Part II, and do you want to side with the priest and the barber as they throw books out the window?
I mention this because Mendele Mocher Sforim's Yiddish Quixote has the same mixed purpose. It's a satire on the sterile ignorance that results from the religious education of his fellow Jews. But it also in some ways celebrates the foolish Benjamin and his sidekick Senderel. They're incurable ignoramuses, but they also do something original and perhaps even noble.*
In other words, Benjamin may be wrong to blindly believe the stories he absorbs, and is mistreated in various ways while he wanders from town to town. But he's happy in the innocent world he has created, and anyway, life in the real world, in Jewish Russia, is not so hot:
"The town's newly appointed Chief of Police ruled it with an iron hand: he had snatched the skullcaps off several Jews, cut an earlock from another, locked up several townsmen overnight for not having their passports with them; while from still another he had confiscated a goat merely because the animal had eaten all the straw from a neighbor's newly thatched roof." (Ch. 1, p. 19)
I mentioned yesterday that Benjamin III is unfinished. Soon after it was published in 1878, Abramovitsh / Mendele Mocher Sforim stopped writing for eight years, partly for personal and financial reasons, and partly because of worsening conditions in the Jewish Pale. After the 1881 assassination of the reformist Czar Alexander II, under whom Abramovitsh had begun his career as a writer, things grew even worse - pogroms and harsher restrictions on Jewish life. The great Jewish emigration began, mostly to America and Palestine. Abramovitsh himself eventually ended up in Switzerland.
When he returned to writing, he was no longer interested in satirizing or improving the character of his own people. They had enough problems. So he never returned to Benjamin, which is too bad.
* The wives in the story may have a different view of this. There's a separate stratum of the story, suggesting that although the men may be able to wander about with their heads in the clouds, if the women did the same, everyone would starve.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Several books without which, like a craftsman without his tools, he would have been helpless - The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III
My "Currently Reading" pile has spun out of control. It's all the fault of my Yiddish literature project. There are so many good books; they are not novels, mostly, which encourages me to dip into book after book. A Peretz fable here, a Sholem Aleichem monolgoue there, a few shtetl postcards from Yiddishland. So I end up with bookmarks in six or seven books, with a dozen more piled here and there. It's all been enjoyable.
Even the Yiddish novels are short, at least at the time I'm studying. Big bricks, like Chaim Grade's The Yeshiva (1967-68), seem to be a 20th century phenomenon. I've seen this pattern before, where new literatures from low-literacy populations results in short books. Big books come later.
S. Y. Abramovitsh's / Mendele Mocher Sforim's The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III (1878), for example, fills 116 pages.* It's a little marvel, the best thing I've read by him so far. Benjamin is a shtetl Jew who decides to explore the world, like Alexander the Great, and like two previous (actual) Jewish explorers named Benjamin. He is an educated man, but only in Jewish religious texts, with no knowledge of geography beyond his own town. He's not alone:
"Once, by pure chance, someone brought a date into Tuneyadevka. How the townfolk flocked to gape at it! On opening the Pentateuch someone discovered that dates were referred to in the Holy Writ! Think of it! Dates grew in the Land of Israel, actually!" (Ch. 1, p. 19)
Benjamin reads about the Ten Lost Tribes and the legendary Lost Jews and the Great Viper, and sets off to find them (to avoid the last one, actually). On his first trip he makes it less than two miles from home before he gets lost in the woods. For the next attempt, he recruits a companion, Senderel the Housewife, the lowest of the low, as you can tell from his nickname. They sneak off from their wives:
"Next morning, long before the cowherds had driven their cattle to pasture, our Benjamin, hugging a bundle, was standing impatiently near the windwill. That bundle contained all the items he deemed essential for such a journey, to wit: prayer shawl and phylacteries, the prayer book Path of Life, the book A Statute for Israel, the Psalms and several books without which, like a craftsman deprived of his tools, he would have been helpless." (Ch. 4, p. 46)
Any reader packing books for his vacation will sympathize, or perhaps wince. Even Don Quixote did not take a pile of books with him on his travels. Yes, this is Don Quixote - the man addled by books, the abortive first expedition, the recruitment of Sancho Panza. Some of the later adventures parallel Cervantes closely, while others are original. Most are pretty funny, but the jokes are more at the expense of Benjamin's, and others', ignorance than his delusions. Abramovitsh's satirical purpose is quite different than Cervantes'. Maybe I'll postpone that for tomorrow.
The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III has one serious defect that some readers may see as a fatal flaw. It is unfinished; it merely stops. Presumably more adventures were in the offing, but Abramovitsh never wrote them. I have a guess as to why - that's for tomorrow, too.
* I read the 1949 translation by Moshe Spiegel. There's a more recent version in a volume titled Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler, which also includes Fishke the Lame.
Friday, February 6, 2009
Another reason I don’t just read Important Classics is that so many not-so-important books are so good. Everyone knows this already, I know.
Case in point, the novellas of Theodor Storm. I just finished Paul the Puppeteer and Other Short Fiction, another of Denis Jackson’s lovingly translated and annotated little Storm books. Three stories here: The Village on the Moor (1872), Paul the Puppeteer (1874), and Renate (1878). They’re all set in or near Storm’s home of Husum, and two are even in the same tiny town of Schwabstedt, out on the moors. One can visit Schwabstedt and see the ruined bishopric and the big farmhouse next to it, just like in the stories.
The three stories are of a piece. All three are about thwarted love affairs, each with a quite different ending. All three are told through some sort of filter – in The Village on the Moor, for example, is basically a mystery, with a judge piecing together the story, while Renate is told through the discovery of an early 18th-century memoir. All three, inevitably, include uncanny elements – a sort of werewolf in the first story (a girl with "sharp, white teeth"), a witch in the last, and marionettes, of course, in Paul the Puppeteer.* Marionettes are inherently weird:
“As the wind blew against the house and the small draughty windows, the silent company on the wire behind me began to clatter with their wooden arms and legs. I instinctively turned round and saw their heads waggling and their stiff arms and legs swaying about in all directions in the strong draught. When the injured Kasperl suddenly tossed his head back and stared at me with his white eyes, I thought it better to move a little to one side." p. 96
There are some echoes of the marvelous puppet theater at the beginning of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. If there is any relation to Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater", essay, I don't see it, but I do not understand that piece well.
Because some of the themes and techniques of these novellen are so similar, the art of Storm's writing is highlighted. He returns to an idea because he's exploring it, not because it's a shtick. Storm wrote so many stories that their must be some poorer ones, but the consistency of those that have been translated is amazing. Lovely books. A shame they're not better known.
* To be clear: there's not actually a witch - the story is about superstition - or a werewolf. The marionettes, though, are a bit spooky.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
José de Alencar short novel-like book Iracema (1865), is an early classic of Brazilian literature, or so I am told. Few readers will see it as much more than a curiosity, I suspect. That works out well for me, though, because I’m a curious fellow.
Iracema is the story of a beautiful Indian maiden who falls in love with a Portuguese soldier. When they first meet, she shoots him with an arrow, but as soon as he’s wounded, she’s smitten. She loves him more than he loves her, which leads to all sorts of trouble. They have a son, who represents the Brazilian mix of native and conqueror, but as we see in the first chapter, when we meet the soldier, the boy, and their dog, but no lovely Indian maiden, the new world has no room for poor Iracema.
“Represents”? Yes, the novel is an allegory about Brazil. Neither I nor you nor pretty much anyone has much interest in Romantic allegories about noble Indians and Brazilian identity. And there’s nothing too special about the story itself, which is quite simple, and borrows a bit from Cooper’s novels and a lot from Chateaubriand’s bizarre, lovely forest fantasy Atala (1801). But there’s something more interesting going on. Alencar builds the allegory right into the language.
“Neither smiles nor color had the Indian maiden; neither buds nor roses has the acacia that the sun has singed; neither blue nor stars has the night saddened by the winds.
The pajé’s daughter shuddered. It is thus that the green palm shudders when its fragile trunk is shaken; the spar is bedewed with the tears of the rain, and the flycatchers rustle softly.
The juriti, when the tree dies, flees the nest where it was born. Never again will happiness return to Iracema’s breast…
The honey of Iracema’s lips is like the honeycomb that the bees make in the andiroba trunk: there is poison in its sweetness.
They walked side by side, like two young deer who at sunset cross the capoeira, the second-growth land, withdrawing into the retreat from which the breeze brings a suspect scent.”
These are all from Chapter VIII, which I picked randomly. The chapter is less than three pages, and I omitted a number of other possibilities. The book is filled with sentences like this.
All of the figurative language in the novel uses the natural world, real plants, real animals. The metaphorical language is continual – there’s a comparison every four or five lines. Most of it uses local flora and fauna, and Indian names, although some European critters slip in here and there. A little nightmare for the translator; great job, considering.
Iracema is a conceptual novel, self-consciously experimental. Alencar is trying to rework the Portuguese language, to make it Brazilian. The poetic metaphorical language drawn from nature is the tool he uses to do it.
I would guess that most people reading these samples will not find them to their tastes; nor do I. But I thought the figurative language had a cumulative power over the course of the book, more like a poem than a novel (and fortunately the book has only 113 pages). As an experiment, it may be a failure and a dead-end – possibly this is what is typically meant when calling a novel “experimental” – but I was glad to see how it worked. It fails in an interesting way.
Iracema is part of the Oxford University Press Library of Latin America series. Unlike the Machado de Assis novel, a real masterpiece, that I read last year, Iracema was copy-edited.
Here’s one reason I don’t just read my Humiliation list. Active curiosity; what’s this, what’s that. I found Iracema while poking around at the library, for example. One never knows.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Since I have been commending myself for my exemplary humility, I will take the opportunity to explain the internet icon I have been using for a while. This fellow:
That's a self-portrait of William Thackeray, which can be found at the end of Chapter IX of Vanity Fair. I don't look much like Thackeray - only the grinning mask, pointy-toed slippers, and over-sized head are accurate. But the lil' fella seems to capture a good part of the spirit of Wuthering Expectations. Whenever I see him, I remind myself not to take this business so seriously.
Why is he there? Thackeray has just introduced Miss Crawley, the well-to-do maiden aunt, and described how her relatives love her, "for she had a balance at her banker's which would have made her beloved anywhere". Then he switches, for the last paragraph, to the first person plural:
"What a dignity it gives an old lady, that balance at the banker's! How tenderly we look at her faults if she is a relative (and may every reader have a score of such), what a kind good-natured old creature we find her!... How, when she comes to pay us a visit, we generally find an opportunity to let our friends know her station in the world! We say (and with perfect truth) I wish I had Miss MacWhirter's signature to a cheque for five thousand pounds. She wouldn't miss it, says your wife. She is my aunt, say you, in an easy careless way, when your friend asks if Miss MacWhirter is any relative."
Now that's a dirty trick. What happened to "we"? Now it's "you". It's almost as if Thackeray is trying to implicate me, the reader, in this low behavior. Me! "[A]nd with perfect truth"! Now the aunt (not the aunt in the story, but Thackeray's aunt, or possibly my aunt) comes to visit:
"What a good fire there is in her room when she comes to pay you a visit, although your wife laces her stays without one! The house during her stay assumes a festive, neat, warm, jovial, snug appearance not visible at other seasons. You yourself, dear sir, forget to go to sleep after dinner, and find yourself all of a sudden (though you invariably lose) very fond of a rubber. What good dinners you have--game every day, Malmsey-Madeira, and no end of fish from London."
There's that "you" again - "You yourself", even. The end of the chapter:
"Ah, gracious powers! I wish you would send me an old aunt--a maiden aunt--an aunt with a lozenge on her carriage, and a front of light coffee-coloured hair--how my children should work workbags for her, and my Julia and I would make her comfortable! Sweet--sweet vision! Foolish--foolish dream!"
And then we have stony-faced little Thackeray, mask in hand. Why, it seems that the jokey tone was just a mask. He was serious after all. Unless the drawing is also a joke (which it is). The Thackeray portrait, like the name of the blog in a way, helps me tamp down the vanity a bit.
For whatever reason, I never wrote about this book, an outrageous masterpiece about which I had been misled in various ways. I will recommend Mr. Virus's posts at Blogging the Canon on this book, fine reading all, my favorite being the inspirational hands-on research into the exact composition of rack punch.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
So yesterday I made a list of the most famous 19th century books that I have not read. I did not list any Asian books, because to my knowledge the 19th was not such a hot century for Asian literature. I mean that relatively - but I have a pretty good idea that my Asian Humiliations reside elsewhere:
Japanese: Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Chinese: Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone
Sanskrit: Kalidasa, The Messenger of Sakantala
Persian: Attar, The Conference of the Birds
And much, much else. I'm still learning the lay of the land here. For example, to leap across the centuries, I came across this upcoming seminar / adult ed class at the Newberry Library in Chicago (scroll down a bit at the link, past the Musil and Proust):
"Chingiz Aitmatov: Lion of Central Asia
In June 2008 Kyrgyzstan lost arguably its greatest writer. We will discuss the novel of Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, considering both its literary merit and its cultural context. The Kyrgyz epic, Manas, will also be sampled as part of the ancient background of modern Kyrgyz literature. We will discuss themes from the novel and the epic, fragments from Aitmatov's other works, as well as current Kyrgyz culture.
D. Stanley Moore, a former teacher at Rich Township High School and Prairie State College, has taught in Russia, China, the Czech Republic, and as a Fulbright scholar in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan."
Six classes, $155. This has to be money well-spent - I predict an extremely high return on investment. Chingiz Aitmatov? The Kyrgyz epic? I poked around a bit and found this extremely useful piece, with sample translations, by a University of Washington Ph.D. student. Manas, we are told, dates from no-one-knows-when, and in its longest version extends to half a million lines, making it two and a half times longer than the Mahabharata, which, you may remember, is being published in a thirty-plus volume edition by the Clay Sanskrit Library. It's also twenty times longer than Homer's two books combined. I don't understand how this is even physically possible.
I've outgrown, I hope, the completeness neurosis, the idea that once I've read a certain list of books, I'm done. There is no completeness, there is no list. It's all wonderfully endless. Or sufficiently endless. There is a "done", I'm afraid. "Done" is a whole 'nother thing.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Prof. Novel Reading has been playing the Humiliation game, in which she confesses to the most glaring omissions in her lifetime reading. For Rohan, this game has some meaning. As a specialist in the Victorian novel, she admits that there is some professional sense in which she should have read Martin Chuzzlewit and Pendennis and any of 29 unread Trollope novels. To the Amateur Reader, none of those are famous enough to count as Humiliations (although Martin Chuzzlewit is pretty great).
Rohan humbly omits two things. First, that as part of her training, she has a pretty good idea of what's in those books, and if she doesn't she knows where to find out. For some scholarly purposes, a book that's been read is not much more valuable than one that hasn't been. Shockingly anti-literary of me, but there are interesting things in the world besides the purely literary, and some of those things are usefully studied by literature professors.
Second, as with all well-trained literature PhDs, there was a concentrated period of intense reading, broad and deep, covering the entire history of whichever literature they've picked. This is aside from the later specialization, the dissertation and whatnot. Those first couple of years of graduate school provide a base for the entire career. This is one reason (of many) that there is minimal prof-bashing at Wuthering Expectations. Lit profs know their business.
I've done a lot of the reading that the lit profs have done, but on a surface level. Few secondary sources, for example, and then mostly literary history that helps me see the field. No theory; no linguistics. Everything non-English in translation, of course. My breadth ain't bad; my depth could use some work.
Since I've set up shop as a bit of an amateur specialist, though, my position is a little bit closer to the profs, except that where they argue from authority, I argue from enthusiam. My rhetorical trick here, as in many aspects of life, is to write with confidence, whether or not I know what I'm talking about.
To help undercut any pretence to authority, here's my 19th century Humiliation list, the most famous books of the period that I have not read, by language or field:
English: Eliot, Middlemarch; Dickens, David Copperfield, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities; Hardy: Tess of the D'Urbervilles and many more; Stoker, Dracula; Stevenson, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Almost no Christina Rossetti.
American: Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; Crane, The Red Badge of Courage; James, I'll let The Portrait of a Lady stand in for a larger Henry James problem; Thoreau, Walden. Almost no Emily Dickinson.
French: Hugo, Les Miserables; Zola, Germinal and others; Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil; Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé.
Russian: Dostoevsky, The Devils, The Idiot; Goncharov: Oblomov; Herzen: From the Far Shore. I know, these won't win the Humiliation game. I guess I've read the conventional Russian Top 10.
Norwegian and Swedish: Ibsen and Strindberg
German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Yiddish: Ha ha ha, these don't count, not their 19th century literatures. Not in the United States at least. None of these literatures have the prestige necessary to count as Humiliations. This is where the game breaks down. Goethe's Faust, Fontane's Effi Briest, Verga's Little Novels of Sicily, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman - they ought to be on everyone's "someday" list. But they're not. Still, for my own sake:
German: Keller, Green Henry.
Italian: Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree.
Spanish: Perez Galdos, Fortunata y Jacinta.
Portuguese: Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro.
Yiddish: This one will be checked off the list pretty soon, actually. Keep reading, steer clear of too much junk, and any fool can beat this game.