Now, two examples of criticism that blend life and literature, that as Arnold says successfully “create a current of true and fresh ideas” by violating “disinterestedness.” The authors get in the way of the reader first, then get out of the way.
They’re both essays that I had filed away as exceptions to my skepticism. I might grumble about excessive memoirism in criticism, but then think “Yeah, but what about…”
Rohan Maitzen’s 2010 essay on racism in Gone with the Wind begins with a 740 word account of her history with the novel over a long period. It was a favorite book; she had read the book many times; her life had moved along. Then what looks like a nostalgic description of her thirty year-old paperback takes a surprising turn:
This is the kind of metadata an e-book can never accumulate—but then, an e-book would also not leave me with quite the dilemma I now face, whether to keep the book on my shelf or to hide it away, to own or disown it.
My reading of Gone with the Wind this summer, my thirty-second, was my first really honest one, the first one during which I unequivocally named what I had always seen.
The remaining 4,800 words develop a careful argument about the ethical and aesthetic content of the novel based on the usual range of critical tools: close reading, historical context, comparisons with other novels, some theoretical help from Wayne Booth. The argument is specific yet easily detachable from this particular book in the sense that it provides a useful way of thinking about any ethically problematic text.
Thus the value of the memoir. Maitzen models not just how to interpret the book but how to live with it. Interestingly, the memoir also becomes a source of authority, a declaration of credentials, necessary for such a controversial argument. Certain lines of attack are closed down, others left defiantly open, almost as traps (“You’re not from the South”). What looks like a biographical preface becomes a support structure for the argument.
Another favorite of mine is Judith Pascoe’s “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” from The Hudson Review, Summer 2003, 239-53. The article used to be online in a PDF, but it is now hidden in JSTOR, sorry. Clarissa was one of the smash hits of the 18th century, and also possibly the longest novel in English. The book is a bizarre mix of tedium and tension, moral uplift and depravity, pure stasis and bursts of excitement, or horror, or sorrow. It is a sad, sad book.
Pascoe loves the novel, has read and taught it frequently (at the University of Iowa), which is madness, and wants the well-read Hudson Review readers to set aside a couple dozen other, easier, faster, lighter books for this “book with the size and heft of a two-pound sack of flour” (239).
Some of the personal history passages (like Pascoe’s “escape” from high school science teaching) do not do much. There is some creative non-fiction filler. “It is January in the Middle West an people are sliding across the iced campus walkways, their faces freezing into death grimaces whenever a stiff wind gusts off the river” (247), although “death grimaces” is funny. Jokes soften me up for anything. But Clarissa is such an unusual book. Pascoe is not just delivering a blast of enthusiasm but also showing, through her own story and that of her students, how a problematic book like this can lead to such enthusiasm, how this unlovable book can be loved, and how you, too can “be initiated into the exclusive coterie of people who have read Clarissa in its entirety” (247).
In moments of honest personal inventory, I realize that I may never distinguish myself among readers of Clarissa, but, still, here we all are: Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry James, Virginia Woolf – along with Dan from Council Bluffs, Jessica from Cedar Rapids, and me. (253)
Back in 2003, this kind of personal advocacy was not so common. I remember discussing this article with Rohan Maitzen at some point. She wondered just how many articles like this a person could write. It is a good question. It is not just ordinary reading that make Clarissa or Gone with the Wind so important. Maitzen has , in fact, written a couple more pieces along these lines, like this one about Josephine Tey, but this well can’t be too deep. My deeply felt essay about the 14th most important book in my life will likely lack oomph.
To be honest, I doubt I could write even one of these. But essays like Maitzen’s and Pascoe’s give me an idea about how to use the personal writing to guide me into the book.
Tomorrow: can this work at book-length?
Title from Pascoe, p. 240.