Friday, August 27, 2010

There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. - not so sure about that, Bill

There is nothing for a man but genius or despair.  We cannot answer in the smart language, certainly it would be a bastardization of our own talents to waste time to learn the language they use.  I would rather sneak off and die like a sick dog then be a well known literary person in America – and no doubt I’ll do it in the end. (215)

Here we have well known literary person William Carlos Williams, or his narrator double, whining about the place of the poet in American life.  It’s from his prose poem In the American Grain (1925), a Modernist period piece that attempts to define the meaning of America through the writings of its Great Men.  Young America needs literature!  This particular passage, for example, is pulled from a four page essay about, of all people, Sam Houston, first President of the Republic of Texas.  Twenty years later, WCW narrowed his scope and spent a decade trying to define the meaning of Paterson, New Jersey, with more success.

Herman Melville was a genius; Herman Melville despaired.  Produce! Produce! exhorted dyed-through Calvinist Thomas Carlyle.  Calvinist Herman Melville produced, and did he ever.  Ten volumes (nine novels and a book of stories) in ten years, roughly, and he poured everything he had into them.  I read Moby-Dick (1851) and am amazed he ever needed to write anything else – what’s not in that book?  But Melville’s capacity exceeds mine.  Bartleby is not there, nor Billy Budd, nor had Melville yet been to the Holy Land.

Melville had finished his last novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), before he left for Europe and Palestine.  Did he know it was his last novel?  Regardless, it was going to be poetry from here on out, although it took Melville a little longer to master the form.  An early volume of poems could not find a publisher.  Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War appeared in 1866.  The massive Clarel was next, in 1876, its publication funded by Melville’s uncle, 350 copies or so, of which 220 were pulped.  Melville was at this point working as a customs inspector.  His retirement led to two more tiny books, chapbooks, really, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon, etc. (1891), both published by the author in editions of twenty-five (25!).  Melville’s death prevented similar private publication of a third book of poems and, probably, Billy Budd.

There is nothing for a man but genius or despair.  So Melville chose genius.  Perhaps the reader should despair, confronted with 220 copies of Clarel fed into the pulper, or with that tiny number, twenty-five.  But what was the correct number?  How many readers should Melville’s poetry have?  That Melville knew he had twenty-five real readers, and acted accordingly - what integrity.  How many readers should the massive, tangled Clarel have?

Levi Stahl worries that he should be one of those readers.  His skepticism is understandable.  I did not think Clarel really got moving until about 200 pages in, as Melville builds to the terrifying night by the Dead Sea, the book’s first great imagistic climax.  That’s a lot of pages, although I think it just means that I did not understand how to read the poem until then.  At the end of the next section, Melville pushes the characters into another heightened state, of a completely different character (it involves the contemplation of a palm tree, which sounds ridiculous, but is not), and then does it again at the stark end.  The end is amazing.  Like bibliographing nicole, given a long enough life, I’m reading Clarel again.  Levi – yes, you should be one of Clarel’s readers.

Almost every person who bothers to wander by Wuthering Expectations spends plenty of time with difficult books, and those who don’t are doing other difficult things.  What argument do I have for this difficult book over that other one?  None.  None at all.  I wish Herman Melville, and Thomas Carlyle, and William Carlos Williams, a few good readers.  I hope I’m one of them.

Speaking of good readers:  First, many thanks to bibliographing for doing the hard work on Clarel.  We’ll do more of these, I bet.  Second, Nonsuch Frances says the prose of In the American Grain is “dazzlingly gorgeous” and calls the book a “must-read,” a judgment that surely requires a lot of qualifiers.  I call it a must-read for people who are a) particularly interested in Modernist poets and their ideas about America and b) have a high tolerance for conventional ideas swathed in gauzy nonsense.  Please note the way Williams has to dodge Whitman and Hawthorne, and lament that Williams wrote the book just a little bit before the Great Melville Revival.

Next week: Books Many People Should Read.


  1. Melville is a great writer.

    However, I am have been trying to uderstand why LOA has not published the novels of Bernard Malamud, another great writer.

  2. You'd have to ask the Malamud estate about that. I'm sure LOA would be eager to publish him. Copyright and money, copyright and money.

  3. I'd bet the same. I like your Calvinist Melville as well. There's something to that. Thanks for being the first (haha) participant in the now-famous Unstructured Clarel Readalong!

  4. I can't speak for Melville, I've only read Billy Budd and Bartleby, but on the basis of Patterson alone I'd rank WCM as a genius. My partner and I read the whole thing aloud and never had a dull moment.

    I can't say we really understand it, but we loved it and will read it again one day.

  5. I got nothing bad to say about Paterson! That's a poem with Clarel-like ambitions. In the American Grain has dull moments. But so does Clarel.

    The next readalong will likely have many more participants. Maybe 50% more!

  6. Paterson is a favorite of mine and finer than In the American Grain, but I still found WCW's prose outing lovely. Find a section you find at least somewhat appealing and read it out loud. The "gauzy" obfuscations (I suggest rather than "nonsense") suggest the obvious offered on one level (contained in common criticism of historical writing) that partially hides more nuanced hints of American identity. Gender identity, the motivations of organized faith, a violence that dulls reason in parts.

    And as a response or alternative (still pondering which) to expatriate modernist poetry/prose, it stood alone in its time. If it had been popular enough, WCW was prepared to write a second volume in like vein. I think that all of WCW's work invites an assessment of conventionality on one level with his embrace of the simple turn of phrase, but here the ideas, the figures offered turn his trick from simple language to simple focus. But still with hidden treasures.

  7. All right - a good reader for WCW! I'll ask anyone curious to examine the quotes Frances has selected, read them aloud, if useful, and report back. My standards for literary beauty are perhaps too elevated.

    I should clear up my own obfuscation - I did not say that WCW's writing was entirely conventional gauzy nonsense. Just that the reader had better be tolerant, 'cause there's plenty.

    Violence that dulls reason, for example, or the hypocrisies of the Puritans - these aren't commonplace ideas? They're certainly not nuanced hints - Williams bangs on them pretty hard. It's one of many places where he risks setting his straw man historians on fire from the sparks.

    I thought there were a lot of insights in the Poe chapter, and the Cortez section was excellent, if not "superior... to nearly any other prose of our time" as Yvor Winters hilariously claims (Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Wodehouse). Although, if I include all of the bestsellers and industrial memos and newspapers and so on, I guess he's right statistically.

    Does the prose stand alone? I thought lots of people were writing like this. Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos are two who are still read. The more out-there Woolf. Certain modes of Joyce. All sorts of Surrealists and Futurists and Etc-ists. Obscurity was one of the areas the Modernists were exploring. Maybe you mean something else.

  8. I find a call to difficult books after one or two lesser books. There is so much dross being published these days (but no doubt it has always been thus). I have 700 pages of Balzac to tackle next

  9. Two easier: One harder, that sounds like a smart ratio. Probably pretty close to what I do. A steady diet of Carlyle + Melville + avant garde Modernists, like I wrote about this week would be too much, too much, too much.

    700 pages - that sounds like Lost Illusions, maybe. I enjoyed your Père Goriot writeup. Lost Illusions is an ideal followup.

  10. Well, yes, Melville is a great writer, but is he a good writer?
    I think he was a bad novelist and a bad poet, but his greatness consisted in the fact that he was trying to do things in and with novels and poems that it's impossible to do in novels and poems, at least as Melville accepted and used them.

  11. is he a good writer?

    Yes! If we're doing more than voting, you'll have to define some terms.

    You think "The Maldive Shark" is a bad poem, and Moby-Dick a bad novel? Or bad but great or something?

  12. Yes, I think that "bad but great" is a good summary of my opinion of Moby Dick. Perhaps one of Melville's problems was that he had genius and despair and the two were inextricable.
    I think Melville's early novels are attempts to adapt a form he found to ends it could not serve. He could not find a way of writing that fitted what he wanted to say, or he could not define what he wanted to say well enough to create a form for it. Looked at as a novel, Moby Dick just isn't very good- no development of character or narration, the characters and themes stand in fixed opposition to one another- a series of tableaux and digressions. Yet any individual section is fascinating and wonderful. His other early novels have even more enormous faults:
    Pierre and The Confidence Man are monstrous catastrophes, deliberate and wilful failures, even. /benito Cereno, Bartleby and Billy Budd, where Melville limited his aims- perhaps even defined his aims in a way he hadn't before, are conventionally "better" but much less Melvillean and much less interesting.
    I don't know the poems as well as I know the novels, and your reading of Clarel did not persuade me to join in your admiration for it. "The Maldive Shark", again, has language inadequate to the subject, I think, and is clumsily put together, both conventional and unconventional in the wrong ways- an interesting poem, not a great one.
    I don't know whether I'm like Melville's early readers and don't read him in the right way, or whether the faults are in Melville himself. If the faults are his, it is surely a sign of greatness- not necessarily literary- that he is still one of the nineteenth century writers one engages with without making allowances for the time he wrote in and the time that has passed since then. Ifthe faults are mine, well,I've tried to look at Melville differently and failed to find many of the virtues others find in him,much as I would like to.

  13. I suspect we think about authors (not necessarily Melville!) similarly, but with different vocabularies. I can precisely define how I use "good" and "great":

    Good = Worth Reading
    Great = Worth Re-reading

    So all Great books are by definiton Good.

    But I certainly break individual aspects of a book down like you do. Structure, prose, characterization, etc.

    One big difference, though - I treat the novel as a big thing. Moby-Dick is a great novel, and so is Gravity's Rainbow and Malone Dies and Tristram Shandy. No development of character - what do I care? That's bad for some kinds of novels, but not all novels. Novels do many things.

    Hard to cover all this in comments, since it's so hard to expand on specific words. An example: the language of "The Maldive Shark" is "inadequate" to describe a shark's mouth and a swarm of pilot fish? Or is it adequate for that, but inadequate for some other thing that I didn't see? Similarly, I don't see clumsy - rough, yes. Chaotic, even. But doesn't that fit the subject? The poem would be better if it were - what's the opposite of clumsy? - deft, or smooth?

    I also strongly disagree that Billy Budd and Bartleby are less Melvillean, but maybe that's an argument to save. Nicole is covering Billy Budd this week. I'm moving on to an altogether tamer writer.

    One last one: Melville's faults are evidence of his non-literary greatness? I have no idea what that means.

  14. Yeah, I too would have to disagree with the "good but not great" assessment. I think I understand the argument, but I think it is based on a narrower conception of the novel than I operate under. Melville's novels are unconventional—he does "attempt to adapt a form," but I think his attempts are, if not always completely successful, at least positive and interesting.

    Like Amateur Reader, I don't think all novels need to have some level of character development, or whatever the case may be; the novel contains multitudes, and Melville stretches the form. For sure, he stretches it beyond what a lot of readers want.

    Also, I would argue that while Melville's writing is in some ways undisciplined, his novels do have a narrative force and effectively engage and keep tension, especially through his characteristic use of very short chapters.

  15. The writers that really challenge me are the Great Writers of Bad Prose. I feel there should be no such thing, but then I read the right work of Poe or Dreiser or Dostoevsky and have to admit that here it is, right in front of me. Maybe this is a narrower version of Roger's idea.

    And in fairness, all three of these writers are often very good. The streetcar strike in Sister Carrie is well written, "A Cask of Amontillado" is well written. A Great Book by no means has to be a Perfect Book.

  16. "Good = Worth Reading
    Great = Worth Re-reading"

    How do you know if a book is worth reading unril you have read it?
    How do you know if a book is worth re-reading until you have re-read it?
    While some great books may be by definition good, there are other great books where the book's greatness is a different kind of quality to goodness- you cite Poe later and he is comparable to Melville in the amount of genuinely bad writing in them, which doesn't stop them being great. The bible may be a Good Book, but it isn't a good book, even if it is a great book. In fact, two of the novels you cite- Gravity's Rainbow and Tristram Shandy- may be great books, but they aren't good books, I think.
    My own description of one kind of great book- like Moby Dick and the ones above- inspired by trying to verbally define a visceral definition- would be a book that would be technically improved by being shortened, but where there is no part that the reader would want to lose. A book may be baggy, but when it is so full of confused contents that the bag's form cannot be seen, then that is a fault, I think. The Anatomy of Melancholy is another example of that kind, a kind of book where the greatness and the imperfection are inextricably mixed. Another of the ways in which Melville is great in a nonliterary way- what he is trying to convey is so interesting that whether he does so well- literarily speaking- is irrelevant. Even his bad books are interesting. In fact, his early books- Typee and Omoo- are better books technically than Pierre or The Confidence Man, but they are less interesting because they are less Melvillean.

  17. How do I know? I read the books, I rely on authority, I take a guess. How do you do it? How does anyone do it? Maybe I'm missing the joke.

    We're at another impasse with "technical". And "baggy" - a reminder to myself: someday, try to figure out what on earth James meant by "baggy". The form of Moby-Dick seems quite clear to me. What about it is "baggy"? What are these mysterious "technical improvements"? Are we back to knocking the book against some idea of the conventional novel? Why should I care about the conventional novel?

    I'm not going to use a defintion of "good" which excludes Tristram Shandy and Ecclesiastes. Again - what are these "technical improvements"? Why would I want TS to be more like Evelina?

    The Burton example suggests the limits of this sort of argument. Parts of the book are great, granted ("Democritus, Jr to His Readers"). Parts are not, granted. And therefore the book is bad! Bad but great. Does this sort of language work - I mean, does it help define what Burton is doing? Does it attract good readers? I narrow-mindedly hear "bad" and think "not worth reading". Burton is good!

    I agree that Melville's bad books are interesting. I've written about them, plenty. I don't agree with, or don't understand, the "non-literary" point - an example would be helpful - but perhaps this is a difference in aesthetic ideology. Still, "irrelevant" is a pretty strong word.

    You should have a blog, Roger!

  18. As I see it, the difference between Pierre or Confidence Man and, say, Ulysses or Lolita is that when Melville's mysterious masterpieces came out there was not a generation of professional readers and professors ready to explain those books' tricks and traps for the general unwary reader.

    It's taken well over a century for us to begin to grasp Melville's genius. So, it's not surprising when the kinds of readers who need rules and guidelines to appreciate proper or 'good' books find Melville's intensely original and complex works faulty and full of confused content.