Thursday, June 04, 2009

First person in America

Writing of Martin Amis in the Guardian’s book blog, John Sutherland asks, “What are the greatest ‘I’ works in our literature? My list would include: Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Midnight’s Children, Remains of the Day and [Amis’s] Money.”

By “our literature,” I assume that the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London means British literature. Otherwise it is difficult to know why he would quote the first sentence of The Rachel Papers, Amis’s first novel (“My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me”), without also quoting the first sentence upon which it depends (“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent”).

Wouldn’t it be true to suggest that American novelists have relied upon the first person, and have produced more and greater “I” works, than the British? Sutherland had merely to raise the question of “the greatest ‘I’ works” to cause the titles to start tumbling off the shelves. I confine myself to two: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. With the exception perhaps of Tristram Shandy, does any British novel make the same use, to the same depth of meaning and structural integrity, as Twain’s and Nabokov’s? The moral dilemma at the heart of Huck Finn is possible if and only if an illiterate teenaged Southerner is grappling with it. The limitation of the viewpoint is necessary for the “immorality” of assisting a runaway slave to seem anywhere near as bad as turning him in.

Similarly, Nabokov replies upon the limitations of Humbert Humbert’s moral consciousness to defer—to string out to novel’s length, if you will—the process of Humbert’s atonement. It is the moral drama of that atonement, which must be experienced from within, in the first person, that elevates Lolita to unapproachable greatness.

James “distrusted these fictional ego displays,” Sutherland observes. (James’s own phrase is better: first-person narration encourages a “terrible fluidity of self-revelation.”) Sutherland quotes The Ambassadors without further elaboration; his attention is on Martin Amis, after all. But James’s case against the first person is worth considering.

In a 1902 essay on him, Flaubert is faulted for choosing “limited reflectors and registers”—the very sorts of limited viewpoints that I have just finished praising—because they suggest that the novelist’s “purpose itself” is limited and inferior. Would we really wish to communicate with someone like Huck or Humbert? “A hundred times no,” James replies, “and if [the novelist] himself can communicate with the people shown us as surrounding him this only proves him of their kind.” The first person is a “romantic privilege,” James said in the 1909 Preface to The Ambassadors. The first person is, indeed, “the darkest abyss of romance,” because it is a “form foredoomed to looseness.”

Perhaps the frank elitism of James’s commentary accounts for the American novelist’s democratic liking of the first person. Class distinctions are far less important to Americans than regional distinctions. (Cf. the reaction to Sarah Palin in some quarters.) American men in particular enjoy finding common ground with the workers who come to repair their pipes or trap the opossum in their attic. They do not feel as if they have lowered themselves to experience the moral drama from the viewpoint of someone who belongs to a “lower class.” That is why the best first-person fiction involves just such an invitation to abandon one’s pretensions of superiority.

Mark Harris’s superb baseball novel, The Southpaw, for instance, is written from the viewpoint of a poorly educated athlete whose moral qualities do not inhere in his bad grammar. Binx Bolling, Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, to take an example from the other end of the educational spectrum, is appealing because his “inferiority” is a self-imposed philosophical despair from which the reader is blessedly liberated as long as he remains in Bolling’s company.

And the looseness of the form also appeals to Americans’ preference for informality. The first-person novel is perhaps the most native of American fictional forms. Too many of our best novels have been “I” works to count. We Americans like these novels, not because we identify with our “inferiors,” but because we do not conceive them as such. We do not pretend to live in a classless society—we really do. And our literature has helped to create it and to keep it alive.


litlove said...

I'm no fan of Sutherland, but I would hope his 'our' might mean the Western world. Still, I don't know that and it is mere speculation. But if he quotes James then he must be broadening his sphere a little.

D. G. Myers said...

I was giving Sutherland the benefit of doubt. Otherwise his failure to rank Huckleberry Finn and Lolita among the “greatest ‘I’ works” (to say nothing of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Invisible Man, and a hundred others) is inexplicable.