Friday, April 19, 2019

A note on Jean Toomer's Cane and a correction of a big error

Oh no, look at this error I made about how much F. Scott Fitzgerald earned from his short stories.  I wrote that he was making $3,000 per story from the Saturday Evening Post, when the correct figure – early in his career is $900.  This is Fitzgerald’s own record of earnings from 1920, which I fund in Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-Six Stories, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, University of South Carolina Press, 2001, p. xxi:

I had just looked at – but was not at the moment looking at – this page when I wrote that bit, so I had moved some numbers around.  The $3,000 is attached to “Option on my output” from Hollywood.  The idea I was trying to get at was that This Side of Paradise moved Fitzgerald almost instantly from a minimal income to a big pile of money, $18,850, or almost $250,000 in today’s money.

Not that everything he wrote sold, or that everything he wrote was good, but in the 1920s, good American writers – prestige writers – could get rich in a way that was not available before.  That Hollywood cash was part of the story, but this was also the beginning of the great Middlebrowing of the American reading public, a subject I want to return to next week.

There was also avant-garde literature and unpaid literature – the American poetry of the time had plenty of both.  I read one work of fiction in this recent batch that was genuinely far out, commercially hopeless for a number of reasons but pushing hard on what American fiction could do.  That was Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923).

The first third of Cane is a mix of poems and stories set in a small Georgia town in the sugar-growing region, thus the cane of the title.  It makes for a strange landscape.  The stories are all named after women except for the last, “Blood-Burning Moon,” which ends with a lynching, described with as much brutality as the times would allow.  Possibly a bit more – Toomer may have expanded what was allowed.

In the second third there are more poems and stories featuring people from Georgia have moved to the city, to Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which they find alienating.  In the final third, which is a single story written like a play, educated black men return to Georgia, to teach or reform, and find a different sort of alienation.  This is another of the many, many books inspired in some way by Winesburg, Ohio.  Sherwood Anderson was even a kind of mentor.  I had no idea there were so many.

Nothing I thought about quoting is quite working for me.  The prose moves around too much.  How about a poem, the one just before the story with the lynching.

Portrait in Georgia
Hair – braided chestnut,
            coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
           of black flesh after flame.

This was something new.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Cather enacts the Eleusinian Mysteries, maybe

I waved, yesterday, at Willa Cather’s use of classical literature, of Ovid and Virgil, but she has another way of using mythology in her fiction, building major episodes of My Ántonia on the anthropological approach to myth.  Not the intellectual literary Greek mythology of Ovid, but the real thing, Greek religion, to the extent that scholars understood it.  William Faulkner, when he decided to write a thriller, structured it around The Golden Bough, but Cather had a more serious intellectual interest in the subject, unless she also just read The Golden Bough.  I doubt that is what I am saying.

Regardless, My Ántonia has quite a lot of this sort of thing.  It has a scene involving a human sacrifice to the corn god, for example.  That’s in II.vi, where a tramp falls or throws himself into a thresher.  The last twenty pages or so of the novel contain a reunion between the narrator and Ántonia, who is married with twelve children, as literal an earth-mother figure as Cather can make her.  The long, complex scene appears to be packed with references to – no, appears to be re-enacting – the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The bit where Jim descends into a cave, and is shown its mysterious treasures by the priestesses – I mean, c’mon.  The treasures in this case are things like spiced plum preserves.

Maybe not.  But it’s right there in front of my eyes.  I don’t see the like in The Professor’s House, and A Lost Lady only gave me frustrating hints of something else going on behind the scenes.  My Ántonia at least has more clues.  Because the form is nominally a memoir, told at some distance in time, the “plot” is episodic  and even random.  Here are the odd things that happened in my town while I was growing up, the (rare) murders and (somewhat less rare) suicides and the time the dying Russian told that crazy story about throwing a bride to the wolves and the time the blind pianist came to town.  There is some ordinary life, too, but plenty of extraordinary events.  The extraordinary events are often bizarre or grotesque, and they often have associations with more archetypal mythical stories.

The “Negro pianist,” Blind d’Arnault, “looked like some glistening African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood” (II.vii).  Dionysus is Asian, right, but d’Arnault is a Dionysian figure, a strange magical musician.  Or maybe he is Orpheus.  He gets the girls, Ántonia and her friends, dancing.  If they are Bacchantes, at least they do not tear anyone to pieces.  His music apparently also summons a group of Italian dancing masters, who set up their tent in the next chapter, where girls in white dresses dance to the harp and flute, overseen by an Italian woman in lavender who “wore her hair on the top of her head, built up in a black tower, with red coral combs.”

Again, what do I know, but that is a lot of Mediterranean detail for the Nebraska prairie.  So I have suspicions.

The pianist is likely a composite of a number of touring blind African-American pianists of the 19th century, but for some reason that I do not understand Cather and her narrator interrupt the scene with a long description of his childhood and how an enslaved boy became a piano prodigy.  The biography is specifically that of Blind Tom Wiggins, the subject of a superb recent novel, Song of the Shank (2014), by Jeffery Renard Allen.  I suppose Allen is interweaving Cather into whatever he is doing with the story.

To what degree – whether – any of this is part of the meaning of My Ántonia, whatever that might be, and to what degree it is a separate layer, content to be invisible to most readers, is a puzzle.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Willa Cather brings the Muse to her country - her use of Classical myth

Several years ago I wrote something about Willa Cather’s use of mythology, about how incidents in her novel made specific but subtle references to classical stories.  What is going on in those comments?  Cather loved Classical literature and mythology and somehow figured out how to mix it into the regional fiction that she was at first reluctant to write.  She discovered she could Write What She Knew in more than one way, and include the things she knew and loved (Ovid, Virgil) and the things about which she was more ambivalent (Nebraska).

It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those [the Danish and Bohemian servants] and the poetry of Virgil.  If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry.  I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious.  I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish.  (My Ántonia, III.ii)

Jim Burden is now a college student at the University of Nebraska, escaping Red Cloud – sorry, Black Hawk – for good.  Like the actual Willa Cather, he has become a diligent student of Greek and Latin literature.  As Cather does with his fiction, I suspect he packs his fiction with references to myths.

In I.vii., young Jim, in the presence of the admiring Ántonia, slays a dragon, or Nebraska’s equivalent, a huge rattlesnake.  Is this a generic dragon-slaying adventure, mythical enough, or something more specific?  Apollo slaying Python?  And if so, which version?  Or is this one of the snakes in Virgil’s Georgics, his long poem about farming.  Where Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a guiding poem of O Pioneers!, the Georgics may (or may not) diffuse through My Ántonia:

…[Virgil’s] mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.” (III.ii)

That could be Cather’s own manifesto.  At some point I had the suspicion, or fear, that Cather was working her way through Georgics, episode by episode, but now I don’t think that is true.  But I do not know Georgics that well.

A Lost Lady is governed by Ovid rather than Virgil.  “He read the Heroides over and over, and felt that they were the most glowing love stories ever told” (I.vii).  Cather specifically tells me what I ought to be reading!  I am pretty sure that I need the Phaedra letter (the young man is Hippolytus, the lost lady Phaedra, the retired railroad man Theseus), but I will bet that there is even more to it.

This, gesturing vaguely, is there, but how much and exactly where, good question.  Most readers, I think, do not care at all.  I think they are – I am – missing something.  Maybe someday I will do the requisite work.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Willa Cather write what she knows - you don’t see them quite enough from the outside

Willa Cather had published a book of stories, The Troll Garden (1905), a major theme of which is the hostility of her native Midwest to artists.  She was having trouble moving forward as a writer.  My understanding is that her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett helped her change.  “I want you to be surer of your backgrounds,” Jewett wrote in a 1908letter, meaning her Nebraska childhood, and for that matter her life in New York writing for a magazine.  Jewett is giving the “write what you know” advice, but with more depth.  “These are uncommon equipment, but you don’t see them quite enough from the outside…”

Cather found a couple of ways to embrace her subject yet be outside of her material.  In a 1921 interview feature, Cather says: “[Jewett] said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn't tell about it truthfully in the form I most admired, I'd have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.”

That last phrase is interesting.  What did she lose, I wonder?  “A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is his own from that which he admires.”  She gives up what she admires to find what is her own.

So, two ways to keep her distance.  One is to use frames heavily, a story-within-a-story structure like in The Professor’s House or distancing narrators as in A Lost Lady and My Ántonia.  Both are novels about idealized women, the wealthy wife of a retired railroad magnate in the former and a group of immigrant servants in the latter, but with the stories witnessed or told by the young men who have idealized them.  Lots of ways for the character not to be Cather, when he shares her memories. 

The “Introduction” to My Ántonia is an almost comical denial that the book is written by Cather. No, this is by her friend Jim Burden, who started out writing a few memories of one particular “Bohemian girl” and somehow wrote an entire memoir.  “My own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.”  Cather never writes anything except the Introduction, yet it is her name on the cover!  These writers, what thieves.

Of course we all know that the existence of the frame changes the “aboutness” of the story, too, that it is also “about” the narrator or observer, maybe even largely about the narrator.

We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it.  It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.  (Introduction)

There is that new form, that new kind of writing, I guess, one that can do two things at once, or three, or more.

I’ll try one more of those things tomorrow, although or because I do not understand it well.  Let’s look at classical Cather.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Professor's House, Willa Cather's exploration adventure novel

I’m going to do this backwards, writing about The Professor’s House (1925), which is not a prairie novel, first and then go back to A Lost Lady and so on.

Do you remember the fun we all had, way back in 2012, with the MLA International Bibliography and its possible uses as a way to measure the academic reputation of books and authors?  If I put in “American Literature” right now, I see that Willa Cather ranks #17 with 2,384 papers, books, etcs. tagged with her name since the beginning of the database in 1946.  Faulkner, James and Melville blow everyone else away, but #17 is high.  There is also a list of the top individual works – I can only see the top 50 – and two of them are Cather’s, My Ántonia, obviously, and The Professor’s House.  Were you expecting The Professor’s House to be the second-most studied work of Cather’s?  I was not.

The novel is short, 170 pages in the Library of America volume, and is even shorter than it looks.  The first hundred pages are about Professor St. Peter and his family.  They live in a city that may have a shadowy coexistence with Milwaukee.  The professor has just completed a life’s work, a multi-volume history of the Spanish in the American Southwest, something along the lines of Francis Parkman’s seven volume France and England in North America (1865-92).  He is casting about for a purpose.  One task is to edit a journal left to him by his best student, Tom Outland, who was killed in the war and also by chance made the professor’s family enormously rich with a patent for a mysterious gas.  There is some soap opera stuff there that I did not enjoy much.

That’s right, Tom Outland.  His journal is about that time he discovered the Anasazi ruins now known as Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, one of America’s great treasures.  What, lots of important explorers have names like Tom Outland.

I thought the journal was terrific.  It was a completely convincing piece of writing of its type, worthy of company with Hiram Bingham’s Inca Land (1922), about Bingham’s accidental discovery of Machu Picchu, or say John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).  Of course this text is a fiction, a few actual events mixed with invention.  It is an alternate-world discovery of an alternate-world ruin.

I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow.  Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep.  It was as still as sculpture – and something like that.  It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of one another, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.  (II.iii)

That tower is the iconic symbol of Mesa Verde.  The glimpse of it through the snow by a cattleman looking for strays, Cather borrowed that from the true story.  But even here she aestheticizes the incident in her own way.

Just for the subject matter, the inset novella is intensely interesting.  Then, for seventeen pages, it is back to Professor St. Peter – these symbolic names! – and his problems.  Then The Professor’s House is over.  One major critical issue with the novel is how or frankly whether the pieces mesh in any but the crudest way.  But the novella, the discovery, that was thrilling.  And not in any way about the Great Plains.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

it was still, all day long, Nebraska - Willa Cather is too close to home

For a long time I had a regional aversion to reading Willa Cather, and now that I have read five of her books I am not sure that I have shed it.  Does anybody else suffer from this malady?  As a readerly youth, I wanted to read about There, any There, not Here, and Red Cloud, Nebraska, was very much Here.

The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.  (My Ántonia, I.i)

The narrator is seeing Nebraska from the train.  Accurately said, narrator of My Ántonia.

I grew up about an hour and a half from Red Cloud, the setting, as fictional settings go, of O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), although I did not visit it until a couple of years ago.  Besides Cather’s childhood home, the sights in Red Cloud are pretty much all centered on My Ántonia, which partly takes place in town, while O Pioneers! is entirely out in the countryside, and sod houses do not survive too long.

Red Cloud is easily worth visiting if you happen to be in the area, which you will not be, because there is nothing in the area.  It is not “in the area” of anything.  Except where I grew up.

Our guide, who was great, told me that Cather scholars have their convention in Red Cloud every other year, and all I could think was “Oh no.  Do not become a Cather scholar.  Your conference is Here.”  I mean, where do they eat?  In Lincoln, Nebraska, which has a big state university and a state capitol, there is a wine bar which is below an Indian restaurant, so you can have wine with a platter of Indian snacks, just as an example.  I have done this my own self.  Lincoln is part of what I call civilization.  Red Cloud is a couple of hours from civilization.  Farther, when Cather lived there.

Cather’s first book, The Troll Garden, is a collection of short stories largely on this exact theme.  The title character of “The Sculptor’s Funeral” only returns to his little town in Kansas when he dies.  No one there has any idea what to do with him.  The category of “artist” does not exist.  To be an artist, you go away, to There.  “A Wagner Matinee” is even more pathetic, or cruel.  An aunt visits Boston, from Nebraska, and goes to a concert.  The story ends, almost:

I spoke to my aunt.  She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!”

The last paragraph describes where she has to go – Nebraska.

“Paul’s Case” is set in Pittsburgh and is on the same theme, a reminder that the city itself is no kind of guarantee.  For a long time, “Paul’s Case” was the only Cather I had read, but it was some Cather, and therefore I had read Cather.

But now, My Ántonia and A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925), so I will write a note or two on those.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Edith Wharton's semiotics - they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…  (Ch. 6)

This line is not from an essay on semiotics, but from The Age of Innocence (1920), so in a sense, yes, from an essay on semiotics, but ahead of its time is what I am saying.

Newland Archer is the smartest and most sophisticated member of the tiny social elite of New York circa 187-, but that does not stop him from getting into a little bit of trouble with an interesting and exotic woman.  It almost stops him, and the behind-the-scenes scheming of that society, his family and fiancée and a number of others, including the interesting woman, does stop him.

This is a classic 20th century story, used in many novels.  The smart guy is not as smart as he thinks he is, and the dumb people around him are not as dumb as he thinks they are.  The point of view stays very close to Newland, allowing me to share and enjoy his surprise and defeats.

This is all a representation of Wharton’s world, but she would have been in her teens at the time.

Newland’s sophistication is shown, again and again, by his interest in poetry.  There is quite a lot of signification of taste in The Age of Innocence.  Just a few lines after the “hieroglyphic” quotation, Wharton shows us Newland training his fiancée in the proper understanding of Tennyson:

(She was advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)

This is how Wharton undermines sympathy in Newland, with whom I, the reader, am stuck.  His taste is perfect, correct, but geez.  “His boyhood had been saturated with Ruskin, and he had read all the latest books” (Ch. 9).  Or how about this, an unboxing video, without the video: “That evening he unpacked his books from London,” finding Herbert Spencer, Alphonse Daudet, “and a novel called ‘Middlemarch,’ as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews” (Ch. 15).

One of the novellas, thankfully only one (“False Dawn”), in Old New York (1924) is entirely about the arbitrary signifiers of taste.  A young American does his Grand Tour with a big budget for paintings, but he has the misfortune of encountering, in Switzerland, the young John Ruskin, who corrupts his tastes and leads him to blow his money on obscure antique painters like Giotto and Fra Angelico rather than Guido Reni and Salvator Rosa, which poisons his relationship with his father – poisons his father – “it was the affair of the pictures that head killed him” (Ch. 7) – and eventually his life.

The giant, crashing irony is that although it would not be so bad to own (and sell) a Rosa, Ruskin and his pre-Raphaelite pals had led the young sap to the “right” paintings, worth a fortune in 1924 (and still today).  This irony is rubbed in on the last page, but you, educated and sophisticated in art history, will have gotten it long before that.

I do not know if “False Dawn” Is good, exactly, but it was fascinating to see Wharton deal with Ruskin and the arbitrary signifiers so directly.  It was clearly on her mind for some reason.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Age of Innocence and so on - the French war hero has her jokes

I have been reading quite a lot of Edith Wharton lately, but I took the wrong notes, so what can I say?  Let’s see.

Wharton was in France when the war started in 1914.  Let’s look in the Library of America Chronology to see what she did: “establishes and directs American Hostels for Refugees,” “organizes Children of Flanders Rescue Committee,” “helps establish treatment program for tubercular French soldiers,” etc.  “Made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor” – Edith Wharton, who was 52 when the war began, was a genuine French war hero.  A wealthy woman, she spent quite a lot of her own money on her humanitarian efforts, aside from foregoing income she could have earned writing fiction.  If anyone deserved a best-seller, it was Wharton.  The Age of Innocence (1920) made her a million bucks, in today’s money, over the next few years.

Plus, it’s her best book, which does not hurt.  Best as, you know, literary art.  Best I’ve read of The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), and almost but not quite all of her short fiction and novellas published through Old New York (1924).  I do not know why I became so invested in Wharton’s short stories, except that I was out of the country, the collections are in the public domain and available on the internet, and she is consistently good.  Probably a book like Anita Brookner’s Collected Stories of Edith Wharton makes more sense than reading everything.  Everything, almost, has not been bad, though.

For a long time, decades, the only Wharton I had read was the schoolboy punishment Ethan Frome (1911) which has turned out to be, whatever its frigid virtues, deeply unrepresentative of Wharton.  I should have read one of the famous novels as well.  All three are pretty great.

Because of the war, or her age, or who knows what, in the 1920s Wharton went back in time, with Age of Innocence beginning in the 1870s, I think, and the Old New York stories in the 1840s.  This leads to my one complaint about Age.  She cannot resist prophetic jokes.  Our hero and heroine are having an illicit rendezvous.  They choose a new institution, because no one goes there:

Avoiding the popular “Wolfe collection,” whose anecdotic canvases filled one of the main galleries of the queer wilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tiles known as the Metropolitan Museum, they had wandered down a passage to the room where the “Cesnola antiquities” mouldered in uninvited loneliness…

“It’s odd,” Madame Olenska said, “I never came here before.”

“Ah, well–.  Some day, I suppose, it will be a great Museum.”

“Yes,” she assented absently.  (Ch. 31)

Or from a bit earlier:

... he remembered that there were people who thought there would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson through which the trains of the Pennsylvania railway would run straight into New York. They were of the brotherhood of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity, telephonic communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels.” (Ch. 29)

Maybe I am wrong and this is not a lapse of taste and Wharton should have piled on more of these jokes.  Those are marvels.  It is a great museum.  Have your fun.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Interesting Dreiser - its ouphe and barghest cry - the weirdness of it

Two pro-Dreiser notes.

First: roughly the first third of An American Tragedy is our hero Clyde as a rootless teen from an odd background, rooting around. In the second third, he becomes more settled, meets a nice girl, and begins to think hard about how to murder her.  The last third is briefly a detective novel, then a courtroom novel, then a prison novel – Death Row.  Dreiser, in a surprising bow to good taste, does not show us Clyde in the electric chair, but he gets as close as he dares.

Dreiser is working through a complex performance of novelistic sympathy, a fundamental task of the novel as a form.  Can I sympathize with Clyde’s various early troubles – presumably not with the idea of murder – and also with at least certain aspects of his time in prison?  Do I forget his victim?  Can I sympathize with this but not with that?  What if, more strongly, I spent the first part of the novel identifying with Clyde, whatever that means?  How shocked am I when his sociopathy emerges?  I hope I am shocked.

That first third has, by my standard, the most bad sentences per page, and is in some sense mostly background, and I wish Dreiser had cut a lot of it.  The last third, the trial and prison and so on, are presented in a strong plain style but are extremely detailed.  The entire prosecution is presented, for example.  A faithful film adaptation just of Clyde’s trial would take many hours.  A friendly commenter yesterday wanted much of this stuff to be cut – “he could not stop belaboring the point.”

But we are both wrong in that Dreiser can’t start with the crime if he wants to work on the possibility of sympathy.  I have to live with Clyde for a while to even to lose sympathy.  And then I have to grind through the tedium of his encounter with the courts and prison to build it back.  It is the difference between watching a two-hour film of the story, in one sitting, or a 22-episode season of television spread over nine months.

On the other hand, we are both right.  If we can’t stand the prose or the tedium, we are not reading with the intensity of the reader who is really gripped by poor dumb Clyde.

Here’s where I started reading with more intensity – I’m moving to my second point.  Look at this beauty (Clyde is in the woods in upstate New York, with murder on his mind):

And at one point it was that a weir weir, one of the solitary water-birds of this region, uttered its ouphe and barghest cry, flying from somewhere near into some darker recess within the woods.  (II.44)

Every word in that sentence is a legitimate English word, but this time the weird ones are not fussy Latinates but good Germanic antiques, known mostly to readers who owned the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II (1983).  Now we’re right in the murder chapter:

[The lake] was black or dark like tar, and sentineled to the east and north by tall, dark pines – the serried spears of armed and watchful giants, as they now seemed to him – ogres almost – so gloomy, suspicious and fantastically erratic was his own mood in regard to all this.  But still there were too many people – as many as ten on the lake.

The weirdness of it.

The difficulty.  (II.47)

It’s those little floating sentences that I find especially weird.

Dreiser, looking for an expert on criminal psychology, has turned to Edgar Allan Poe and his Imp of the Perverse, which Dreiser turns into the clumsier “Efrit of his own darker self.”  I was tipped off by the word “tarn” for lake, since the most famous tarn in American literature is the one the House of Usher falls into.  It’s not just Poe’s psychology, but Poe’s language that is borrowed, as if the one is tangled in the other.

These elements –  the weir-weir bird and the Efrit and dark tarns and trees like spears – recur often and add some strange colors to the novel that are at least interesting if not good.  Maybe good is overrated.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dreiser is a bad writer - or maybe he is good - those odd and mentally disturbed or distrait souls who are to be found in every place

I have a question.  When does bad writing become merely odd and then maybe interesting and perhaps even good?  Let’s stop at interesting.  Theodore Dreiser is a good test.  The Library of America edition of An American Tragedy (1925) is 930 pages of prose that is never good as such, and is often quite bad.  But those categories in between, how much of it lands there?

Dreiser may be, among great novelists, the worst prose writer.  I was surprised to see how little he had changed in the twenty-five years since Sister Carrie (1900).  Decades later, he is the same giant klutzo.  His virtues are the same, too.  As bad as he can be, in key scenes, the ones on which the novel succeeds or fails, his prose kind of snaps into place, turning into an intense, focused plain style.  The streetcar strike, or Hurstwood staring at the safe, are good examples from Sister Carrie.  An American Tragedy is, or turns into, a crime novel, so just about anything relating to the murder, the detective investigation, the trial, or prison qualifies.  That’s about half of the novel – the 900-page novel.  Which leaves a lot of pages.

If it possible to be a bad writer but a great novelist, Dreiser is that thing.  Even I can see that.

Critics have traditionally amused themselves by collecting the worst examples of Dreiser’s sentences.  I swore I would not do that, and I did not, but I will borrow one from Francis Ludlow's 1946 article “The Plodding Crusader” (The English Journal, Oct. 1946, pp. 419-25):

And yet hang it all, most of them did not live at home as he did, or if they did like Ratterer, they had parents who didn’t mind what they did.  (I.8)

What an ear for prose, and this is a line without any misshapen Latinisms, words like “tergiversation” or “staccatically” or Dreiser’s great favorite “distrait” – he often describes women as “distrait” – that are real English words, available for novelists to use, I guess, but sparingly, please.  “She grew tense and staccato” (II.38).  It is not as if I do not get what Dreiser means.  Bad, odd, interesting?

Here we see Jonathan Yardley, in 2003 in The Washington Post, argue, upon the publication of the Library of America edition of An American Tragedy, that the novel is so bad that it casts doubt on the value of the Library of America project!  “[A]ll this suggests that editorial judgment and discrimination no longer matter at the Library of America” – for publishing what I think of as a pretty solidly canonical novel.

I’ll do another day on this monster, arguing with myself about whether the first 300 pages or so should have been cut, and looking at some sentences that maybe move from “interesting” to “good.”  I had not known that Dreiser owed such a debt to Poe.

That title "distrait" is from Book 3, Chapter 2.  I said it is Dreiser's women who are "distrait," but Clyde becomes "distrait and gloomy" in prison.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

He shaved a swath down the calf of one plump leg - Sinclair Lewis produces

Sinclair Lewis has his first big hit with Main Street (1920) when he’s thirty-five years-old and his second with Babbitt (1922).  I’m poking around in his Library of America Chronology.  “November [1922], screen and dramatic rights to Babbitt sold to Warners for $50,000,” (p. 859), which, as always turning to the BLS inflation calculator, is a whopping $752,309.52 in today’s money, quite a pile.

Meanwhile, George Babbitt, who runs his father-in-law’s real estate office and is a big deal in Zenith City, don’t doubt that, is arguing with his daughter who is thinking of maybe going to work for a charity of all things:

“The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ‘em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce – produce – produce!” (II.ii)

The “flipflop and doodads” bit, authentic frontier gibberish, is a good example of why the novel is such fun and was so popular, Lewis having figured out how to turn H. L. Mencken’s caustic Smart Set mockery of the American bourgeois into a real novel.  But it is those last words – if you for some reason descend to the very bottom of Wuthering Expectations, you will find the “inspirational” quotation from Sartor Resartus that George is parroting.  Well, it has inspired me.

Babbitt is a midlife crisis novel.  George has everything figured out, everything is going his way, except for the passage of time, and he has a crisis of meaning that allows Lewis to work him over pretty thoroughly.  I figured the novel would fizzle, but no, it has a real ending.

The book is structured much like the prestige series television of our time.  The first quarter is a “day in the life” of George Babbitt, which would fill the two-hour pilot.  Subsequent chapters are episodic – the Babbitts have a dinner party, George goes to a real estate convention – but little bits of plot accumulate until the story of George’s crisis emerges moving us to the season or perhaps series finale.

My favorite bit of George’s ordinary day.  He is enjoying his bath.  Really enjoying it:

The light fell on the inner surface of the tub in a pattern of delicate wrinkled lines which slipped with a green sparkle over the curving porcelain as the clear water trembled…  He patted the water, and the reflected light capsized and leaped and volleyed.  He shaved a swath down the calf of one plump leg.  (VII.iii)

George has an aesthetic sense, which is why he is worth putting in a novel, why he is worth saving, in whatever sense he is saved.  I am not sure why Lewis, on the next page, lectures George for liking “standard advertised wares” and so on.  Sometimes Lewis seems to lack confidence in his readers.

After his bath, George goes to bed and dreams of the fairy child – that aesthetic sense again – “beyond perilous moors the brave sea glittered” (VII.vi) – not what I was expecting in Babbitt, nor was I expecting what comes immediately before George’s dream.  He is asleep, and Lewis wanders through the city in a series of fragments, visiting a late-night meeting of union officials, hopping to a factory producing tractors “for the Polish army,” and then to Mike Monday, “the distinguished evangelist” who “had once been a prize-fighter.”  For about five pages, Babbitt turns into a John Dos Passos novel, just in this one place.  I don’t think this is what caught the attention of Warner Brothers, but it is pretty interesting.

Monday, April 1, 2019

reading some famous U.S. novels of the 1920s - in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man

Not writing is a lot easier than writing, but I have some things I at least imagine I want to write, so I guess I will see if I remember how to write.  American books, Mimesis, British books, French books.  I am tired of being ignorant in private, so I will return, for a while, to being ignorant in public.

I feel that I do not know American literature especially well, but of course I know it better than any other; the feeling of not knowing it is an illusion caused by being surrounded by the stuff my whole life.  I also feel that I have recently immersed myself in American literature of, mostly, the first half of the 1920s, although when I add it up it is not really that many books.  Another illusion, caused by reading not just a pile of novels but also Langston Hughes’s great memoir of the ‘20s, The Big Sea (1940) and Edmund Wilson’s The Shores of Light (1952), like I am really digging in.

But many of the books – well, the fiction, not the poetry, whole ‘nother world there – are famous ones, sizable Humiliations that I have avoided for decades, so famous that they seemed all too familiar even if I did not really know exactly what was in them.  The Age of Innocence (1920), An American Tragedy (1925), Babbitt (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, some Willa Cather novels – they seemed maybe a little dull.  They're not really so dull.

I am not used to reading such popular books.  They were big best-sellers, top 10 of the year, or close.  Cather was not in that game, although she sold pretty well, and Dreiser’s novel does not make the Top 10, but it made him instantly wealthy, allowing him to spend the rest of his life trying to write a “book of philosophy entitled The Formula Called Man” (Library of America timeline, 1935) and advocating for Stalinism.  Terrific.

Learning about Fitzgerald’s finances explained half of his life to me.  In 1919, he is almost unpublished; in 1920 he is selling stories, several of them, to the Saturday Evening Post for $3,000 a pop*. How much would that be today?  $39,291.61 – holy cow!  Plus he is getting movie money, options and so on, although at this point Fitzgerald and Dreiser and Wharton make as much money from selling books, not the rights to books.

Lewis was a hack writer who with Main Street (1920), which I have not read, hit on a perfect satirical comic formula, perfect for his audience but more importantly perfect for his talent.  Every couple of years he could write one on a new topic: business, religion, science, politics.  Let me fill out the magnificent quotation from Babbitt I put in the title:

“In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man; and I, for one, am only too glad that the man who has the rare skill to season his message with interesting reading matter and who shows both purpose and pep in handling his literary wares has a chance to drag down his fifty thousand bucks a year, to mingle with the biggest executives on terms of perfect equality, and to show as big a house and as swell a car as any Captain of Industry!” (Ch. XIV.iii)

The irony goes a couple of different directions there, doesn't it?  Another irony is that this, or something like it, wins Lewis a Nobel Prize.  Dreiser was a real possibility for a Nobel, too, for that big clunker of all things.  Plenty of prizes, plenty of prestige, are attached to these books, along with the cash.

I’ll wander through American literature for a few days and see what I remember.  Then it will be back to the booze and spaghetti.

* I made a grotesque error of memory here, which I corrected in a later post. Fitzgerald quickly hopped to $900 per story, and pretty soon "Benjamin Button" earned $1,000 - but not $3,000. Still, the basic point, about the huge amount of money suddenly dropped on Fitzgerald, is intact. Just not so much per story