Friday, January 28, 2011

Once a year, it seems

Once a year, it seems, a virus invades the family, knocking everyone out for a spell, one by one. This past week a particularly stubborn and enfeebling stomach virus attacked the kids and then the parents. At all events, I have been acting the nurse and then the patient rather than writing anything here for the past week. Just so you know.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Blurring the liberal arts

The guardians of the liberal arts, like Mary Crane, have made the same mistake as the Jewish socialists and Yiddishists who emigrated to this country in the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. In the epilogue to World of Our Fathers (1976), Irving Howe tried to explain their mistake, while also minimizing it:

Jews in America would remain Jews; their institutions would survive, flourish, and multiply; their religion would be kept alive by a phalanx of sentinels, and it could be chosen by anyone, [born] Jewish or not, who was drawn to its promise. But very little of what held the immigrant Jews together—the fabric of their ways, the bond of common tradition, the sharing of language—was able to survive much beyond a century.In fact, the Jewish institutions that survived were religious institutions with foundations sunk deeply into the Jewish religious tradition. The ventures established by Jewish secularists as the maskil alternative to religious institutions—the Yiddish newspapers and theaters, the workmen’s circles, the educational alliances—all disappeared with the secularists themselves. In a letter to the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, Howe was more candid. “We secularists lost the battle,” he said sadly—although he added: “through no fault of our own.”

Dawidowicz would have nothing of it. Jewish secularists, she told Howe, had no one but themselves to blame for Jewish secularism’s failure to survive. “The fault was that the secularists valued secularism and socialism over Jewishness and Jewish continuity,” she said. The Jewish content of what the securlarists “wanted to transmit—or were competent—to their children was too meager to be meaningful to sustain any Jewish identity, since it lacked the original grounding in Jewish traditional life that the first generation of Jewish secularists had had.”

The guardians of the liberal arts have made exactly the same mistake. They themselves are securely grounded in the tradition of the liberal arts—they know the languages and literatures so well they can dispense with them—but they have small interest and less intention of giving their students anything approaching the same grounding. Like the early Jewish secularists in this country, they cannot see that it is their very grounding in the tradition that enables them to “blur [its] boundaries.” Their revolt against the liberal arts belongs to the liberal arts.

But not their students’. Since they are strangers to it, the students can only revolt against their estrangement from the tradition. Who can marvel that, just as the children of Jewish secularists drifted away from Jewish life, students have drifted away from the liberal arts. For them, blurring the boundaries has meant they are unlikely to learn very much at all. Their teachers, the guardians of the liberal arts, valued something else, including their own self-image as enlightened revolutionaries, over the liberal arts and the continuity of liberal arts education.

Wilfrid Sheed, 1930–2011

Wilfrid Sheed died Wednesday of a bacterial infection in Great Barrington, Mass. He was eighty years old.

In a nearly fifty-year career, Sheed wrote eight novels, including Max Jamison (1970), the best thing ever written about a critic, and a political novel called People Will Always Be Kind (1973), which (as I observed earlier on this blog) is about a “golden-tongued young liberal senator runs for president, although he is not sure what he will really do if he gets elected—or, for that matter, what he really believes.” After Transatlantic Blues (1978), a novel about a cultural personality whose life is divided between England and the United States (much like the novelist himself), Sheed abandoned the novel for nearly a decade, and only wrote one more.

His later books were memoirs, a kind that was only beginning to come into fashion. His lavishly illustrated book on Clare Boothe Luce (1982) was described by his publisher as “part memoir, part biography.” “I’m not dead sure what it is,” he admitted. Much the same could be said of Frank and Maisie, his three-years-later book about his parents, the independent Anglo-Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. Still not sure what exactly he was writing, Sheed gave it the subtitle A Memoir with Parents.

My Life as a Fan (1993) tells a story that only Sheed could tell. Brought to America at the age of nine, he adjusted to his new country—he became an American—by following major league baseball. It a measure of the difference between the sports and countries that one cannot imagine a similar book being written about cricket in Great Britain. Sheed’s very best book may have been his final memoir. In Love with Daylight (1995) tells the story of someone who survived paralytic polio at the age of fourteen only to be stricken late in life with metastatic cancer of the tongue. As he wryly puts it, the only diseases that he ever contracted were incurable.

Sheed may never have been cured, but he was not defeated by his diseases (nor by addiction to prescription drugs). He cited two principles that kept him afloat. The first, discovered when he was battling polio as a teenager, was that “God, or the Great Whoever, has been so lavish in His gifts that you can lose some absolutely priceless ones, the equivalent of whole kingdoms, and still be indecently rich.” This wisdom, confirmed by suffering, was his inheritance from his parents’ Roman Catholicism. Although he never succeeded in surrendering himself to the Church in the way that his parents did—his ambivalence is on rich and rewarding display in his second novel, The Hack—Sheed remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. He was more than a cradle Catholic and less than a renegade.

The second principle came out of his literary commitments:

Writing survives everything, even the most paralyzing depression. Recently I came across something I had to write in this condition and found it surprisingly ingenious, like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. Technique can apparently cover for anything short of rigor mortis.Only a certain kind of writer understands this, a writer for whom a high personal criterion of style is non-negotiable. If you never permit your style to flag, if you never lower your standards for the parts of speech, you might even endure the worst of patches.

There in a single nugget-like idea is the reason that Wilfrid Sheed deserves to be remembered. He was a writer who never let down his style.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The burden of the liberal arts

The best way to improve the standing of the liberal arts is to stop defending them. Or so says the director of the newly created Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College. Losing students everywhere, threatened by the rise of for-profit colleges, in danger of being severely cut back even at research universities, the liberal arts don’t need explanation and defense. They need rethinking. “I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century,” Mary Crane argues. The possibility that the gran ripensamento of the last forty years might actually be behind the liberal arts’ decline never darkens her mind.

A Shakespeare scholar appointed to “foster[] innovative programs in the liberal arts” at the Jesuit school, Crane wants more and more of what students are already in flight from. After all, why should the humanities be central to a liberal arts education? “As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences,” she says, “the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.” Because, you know, the demand for cultural studies remains “innovative” after four decades.

On Crane’s own evidence—she quotes Louis Menand as saying so—the decline in liberal arts enrollments began in 1970. This was the same year that the term cultural studies was first introduced to the Modern Language Association. The critic Benjamin DeMott reported on a conference he had attended at Richard Hoggart’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Hoggart, of course, had coined the term six years earlier in founding the center. His was the best paper at the conference, DeMott said:

Professor Hoggart’s claim was that conventional English teachers’ attitudes about proper taste, good literature, high culture, the degraded life of the masses, etc., are, on the whole, disabling; they prevent teachers from using the full resources of mind and feeling in the labor of clarifying immediate experience. The way to know the truth of (for example) the consumer ethos, Hoggart proposed, is to move toward it, to invite classes into an encounter with the thing itself, and to press teacher and student alike to record and interpret the encounter with alertness to nuance, sensitive, imaginative consciousness.[1]The phrasing had not yet been reduced to formula, but the innovation is recognizable nevertheless in DeMott’s description. Students in cultural studies classes are “invited” to “move toward” the “immediate experience” of culture—not cultural artifacts, but the “thing itself.” DeMott’s example is particularly telling. Not human greatness nor even human depravity but the “consumer ethos” is what the student might “know the truth of.”

When Crane warns, then, that the humanities should not be treated as a synonym for the liberal arts—that they should not be “conflated with a Western intellectual tradition”—she is fostering innovation along deeply rutted paths. Since the early ’seventies, “we” have tried to save the liberal arts by abandoning them. Perhaps it is time to take a different path.

And perhaps the advice of someone else who taught in the Boston area some years ago might be more likely to reverse the decline, and even to attract students who are tired of calls to “rethink” their intellectual heritage. In 1907, after resigning his professorship at Harvard, William James returned to Cambridge to address alumnae of Radcliffe College. “Of what use is a college training?” he asked the women who had already gone through it. His answer was succinct. It should, he said, emphasizing every word, “help you to know a good man when you see him.”[2]

Not even someone of his distinction could get away with saying something like that today. But James, who introduced real innovations into American culture and did not merely talk about fostering them, felt no pressure to call into question the Western intellectual tradition in order to establish his fides as an academic reformer. The teacher of the liberal arts, he said, must give his students a “sense of human superiority.”

To accomplish this much, his curriculum “not only consists of masterpieces, but is largely about masterpieces.” Not just literary criticism’s famous “close reading” or the “close and small-scale cultural reading” that Hoggart urged as its replacement, the method of the liberal arts is what James called the “sifting of human creations”—that is, the study of “human efforts and conquests” as “so many quests of perfection on the part of men. . . .” James explained:You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar [its original meaning], art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.Instead of pushing the humanities to the margins, James suggested that even scientific and technical subjects might be recentered as humanities. By sifting human creations, by distinguishing greatness from celebrity, “we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time,” he said, and “we acquire standards of the excellent and durable.” A liberal arts education “ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks.”

Such an education might even prove useful in what Mary Crane calls “our era of globalization,” in which we still prefer a good plumber to a bungler and an honest president to a liar. She imagines a liberal arts education “freed from the burden of defense,” and released into dwindling significance. William James understood that the liberal arts might lead to a different sort of freedom—the freedom to accept the burden of human judgment.

[1] Benjamin DeMott, “Cultural Studies,” PMLA 85 (March 1970): 308.

[2] William James, “The Social Value of the College-Bred,” in Writings, 1902–1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1242–49. Originally published in McClure’s Magazine in February 1908.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fit and natural speech

In a comment to my post on dialogue in the novel, Fabio asks an excellent question: “What makes one character’s ‘voice’ fit, and the other’s fake?”

The word fit, of course, summons the literary principle of decorum. Once upon a time it was held that speech should be appropriate to the occasion or a person’s station (another obsolete concept). Neither writers nor critics believe in decorum any longer. The closest thing is the technical demand that a character exhibit consistency (or at least not be inconsistent). Classically, decorum was a moral concept, but then literature was considered the dramatic representation of virtues and vices. Perhaps the most authoritative source was Horace’s Ars Poetica:

Qui didicit, patriae quid debeat et quid amicis,
quo sit amore parens, quo frater amandus et hospes,
quod sit conscripti, quod iudicis officium, quae
partes in bellum missi ducis, ille profecto
reddere personae scit convenientia cuique.
Respicere exemplar vitae morumque iubebo
doctum imitatorem et vivas hinc ducere voces.
(ll. 312–18)
In Leon Golden’s 1995 translation:He who has learned what he owes to his country, what he owes to his friends, by what kind of love a parent, a brother, or a guest should be honored, what is the duty of a senator, what is the function of a judge, what is the role of a general sent into war—he, assuredly, knows how to represent what is appropriate for each character. I bid the artist, trained in representation, to reflect on exemplars of life and character and to bring us living voices from that source.By “living voices,” Horace seems to mean voices that are useful to the quandary of living but also voices that speak a language which is living, current, not obsolete. Contemporary writers would probably take such advice to heart while laughing off the suggestion that they owe anything at all to country, honor, or duty.

The uppermost principle in contemporary fiction is that speech must sound right. The quality of eavesdropping, in which the chitchat on the page sounds just like what might be overheard any day under natural conditions, is prized above everything else. But there are problems with such a conception of “dialogue” in fiction.

First of all, the most lifelike speech in American fiction is characteristically the least eloquent and meaningful. In some writers (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie), naturalness is equated with inarticulateness; in most others (whose dialogue rarely achieves any distinctiveness, precisely because it is the imitation of standard idiom), the men and women are most emphatic and intelligible about practical concerns, especially love and other kinds of friction between adults. Here is a pretty good example, taken almost at random, from a novelist whose dialogue typically rises above the norm. It is taken from Paul Auster’s Sunset Park:     I don’t mean to pry, [Bing] says, but I was wondering if you have any plans.
     Plans to do what? Miles asks.
     To see your parents, for one thing.
     Is that any of your business?
     Yes, unfortunately it is. I’ve been your source for a long time now, and I think I want to retire.
     You already have. The moment I stepped off the bus today, you were given your gold watch. For years of devoted service. You know how grateful I am to you, don’t you?
     I don’t want your gratitude, Miles. I just don’t want to see you fuck up your life anymore. It hasn’t been easy on them, you know.
     I know. Don’t think I don’t know.
     Well, are you going to see them or not?
     I want to, I’m hoping to . . .
The ellipses are in the original, where they belong. The only way to get out of such an interchange is to let it trail away. A passage like this, which gives the impression of being much longer than its one hundred and thirty five words, helps to explain Nabokov’s impatience with dialogue in fiction. Nabokov considered it the resort of lazy novelists. It is hard to tell, outside the lackluster witticism about the retirement watch and one more page to add to his growing total, what Auster gains from this back-and-forth.

The bigger problem is the set speech in which a character must finally say something definitive. In Being Polite to Hitler, Robb Forman Dew has a character explain why he becomes involved in the effort to pass the Ohio Civil Rights Bill in 1959, even when he knew that “the issue wasn’t going to enhance [his] authority” or brighten his political future in the state:     “There’s no better way for a person to become a racist than to grow up in the middle of a society that generally has no idea of the bigotry they all live with. Later on you can’t believe you were part of it. You perpetuated it. You finally just can’t believe the things you’ve absorbed growing up. Just imagine! In nineteen forty-four, I was in a B-seventeen flying over Czechoslovakia,“ Sam [Holloway] said. “The flak guns suddenly opened up, and we were hit . . . oh, at least eighty times. We made it home because those P-fifty-ones just showed up out of nowhere. They covered us like glue. It turned out they were the Red Tails. The Tuskegee Airmen. And I couldn’t get over it—I’ll never get over it, I guess. The base where we were stationed was segregated!
     “So there we were! In a godforsaken muddy swamp of a place and I looked around. Every one of us was sure that the next flight would be the one when we’d get blown to bits. But God forbid you eat in the same mess hall as any of those black pilots!”
Ignore the unlikelihood that, to the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress, the fighter planes seemed to “show[] up out of nowhere,” and that they “turned out” to be P-51 Mustangs from the 332nd Fighter Group, the famous Red-Tail Angels, when they were assigned to escort the bomber to its target all along. (Ignore too the ellipses, the American novelist’s acquiescence to the convention of inarticulateness.)

A declamation like Sam Holloway’s is the counterfeit of reflection. Its self-congratulatory quality, in which a man says both that racists are unaware of their society’s bigotry but also that he was uniquely aware, undermine what Dew is trying to do. She wants to arrange speech that is representative of a larger and more comprehensive point of view—the point of view belonging to her circle and class. The trouble, as I said before, is that the opposition to her point of view is without form and void.

Just imagine! There were men who defended the segregation of the U.S. Army during the Second World War. And their defense might even be worth listening to: they had reasons in addition to motives. But don’t ask Robb Forman Dew to imagine what their reasons could possibly be. She can’t imagine them, or she won’t. And if the segregation of the military is wholly indefensible then Sam Holloway’s dignity and courage in opposing it (at this late date) turn to ash. His speech has little purpose beyond establishing that, for Dew, there are simply two kinds of people. There are the self-aware, like Sam, and there are the racists, thickly unaware of their society’s bigotry. No dialogue between them is possible.

Small wonder most contemporary American novelists prefer the vacuousness of interpersonal twittle-twattle. Apparently that is the only point of view they trust themselves to know with any authenticity.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Five Books of New York

Edmund White brought down his decalogue of New York books in the Guardian yesterday. The list is particularly good, not merely because it was compiled by an excellent writer (who thereby sheds light on his own writing), but because it contains several books that I was unfamiliar with.

In White’s spirit, then, here is a Pentateuch of New York books I am hoping you don’t know yet. The problem, of course, is how to narrow the list. Many of the best novels about New York are about Jewish immigrants to the city (The Rise of David Levinsky, Bread Givers, Jews Without Money, Call It Sleep), but I have already recommended them elsewhere. Same with Chang-rae Lee’s terrific Native Speaker, which is not only one of the best immigrant novels ever written but probably the best about one of the “outer boroughs.”

What is wanted are definitive accounts of defining New York experiences. Such as:

(1.) W. D. Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). After the Civil War, the cultural center of the United States shifted from Boston to New York. Howells’s great novel not only chronicles the shift, but is also a major example of it. Basil March relocates to New York to start a magazine and meet social radicals. The novel is the New York intellectuals’ book of Genesis. Perry Miller’s Raven and the Whale covers the prehistory. Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed picks up the story half a century later, when the Jews barged onto the scene. Thomas Bender’s 1987 history of New York Intellect is an academic overview, reliable and free of jargon.

(2.) Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936). Powell told her diary that she had “the perfect New York story” for her first New York novel. (Her first six novels were largely set in her native Ohio.) The perfect story: adultery and reputation-burnishing in the literary world. It is as if Cakes and Ale were written over in the style of Evelyn Waugh, only more aphoristic and even more fast-paced. Powell is hard on publishers, critics, blurb-writers, agents, second-rank novelists, would-be novelists, washed-up novelists, and novelists’ wives, ex-wives, and mistresses. Anyone who dreams that if he can make it there he can make it anywhere should read Powell first.

(3.) Calder Willingham, Natural Child (1952). The most unusual (and perhaps most insightful) novel ever written about the Young Man from the Provinces who comes to New York to pursue artistic dreams. In this case, the young man is a young woman, and the province from which she hails is the South. The outsider’s perspective, and the ear for regional differences in speech and self-understanding, make Willingham’s book a rewarding read. To say nothing of the humor, which makes the book a breezy and enjoyable read to boot. William Styron tries to cover much of the same ground in Sophie’s Choice, but does so without humor and with much earnest pseudo-philosophizing. In a peculiar way, Ellison’s Invisible Man, published the same year as Willingham’s novel (and far better, of course), belongs to the same genre.

(4.) Louis Auchincloss, The Embezzler (1966). A precursor to Bernie Madoff, Guy Prime was a “symbol of well-born affluence, of the grandeur of old New York.” He traveled in the highest social circles of New York in the ’thirties. Then he betrayed his class by embezzling $350,000 from his country club. Life among New York’s filthy rich was the native ground of the late Louis Auchincloss, who died almost exactly one year ago. The Age of Innocence, which features an embezzler in a subordinate role, is the classic account of the class at its zenith. Steven Millhauser’s brilliant 1996 novel Martin Dressler, about a New York hotelier a century ago, may be the best novel ever written about American business.

(5.) Ruth R. Wisse, A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988). Covering fifty years of New York’s largely unknown literary history, the great critic’s best book tells the story of Di Yunge, the gifted young Yiddish poets who washed up on Manhattan’s shores in the early decades of the last century. Wisse focuses upon two of the group—Mani Leib and Moishe Leib Halpern. Suddenly the minor characters in Abraham Cahan’s and Anzia Yezierska’s novels spring to life, along with the coffeehouses where they argued and the newspapers that competed bitterly for the dwindling Yiddish readership in New York. Although narrower in scope—perhaps because it is narrower in scope—Wisse’s book is everything that Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers should have been.

I would have liked to end the list with Richard Price’s wonderfully sordid crime novel Lush Life (2008), set in a quarter of the city rarely visited by book readers, but I seem to have run out of space.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dialogue in the novel

It’s not the same as recorded speech. A better word for the back-and-forth between persons in most novels would be chitchat. The word dialogue entered the English language in the thirteenth century as a name for a specific type of writing in which the action or argument develops as an interchange between two or more points of view. This is, in fact, the earliest use of the word. Not until two centuries later did the technical term become a synonym for casual conversation.

The unattractive word dialogism, which has gained prestige through its association with the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, is now more likely to be substituted for the dramatic interplay of thought in the novel. Originally, though, the order was reversed.

In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), for example, Puttenham observes that the forms of poetry and the manner of its writing are as diverse as its subject matter. Some poets write of heroes, while others are “more delighted to write songs or ballads of pleasure.” Some are taken with “the perplexities of love,” while others write only for the stage. “There were yet others,” he continues, “who mounted nothing so high as any of them both, but in base and humble style by manner of Dialogue, uttered the private and familiar talk of the meanest sort of men. . . .” He names Theocritus and Vergil as practitioners of the kind, identifying the eclogue (or “shepherdly talk”) as a subgenre of the larger class.

The fiction of speech in another man’s mouth, however, is called something else entirely:

We are sometimes occasioned in our tale to report some speech from another man’s mouth, as what a king said to his privy counsel or subject, a captain to his soldier, a soldier to his captain, a man to a woman, and contrariwise: in which report we must always give to every person his fit and natural, and that which best becomes him. . . . So if by way of fiction we will seem to speak in another man’s person . . . [t]his manner of speech is by the figure Dialogismus, or the right reasoner.Most contemporary novelists are exercised only by dialogismus. That is, they trouble to make the speech that they assign to their characters sound “fit and natural,” a tribute to their own “ear” for ordinary utterance, but the words rarely if ever advance a distinct and distinguishable point of view.

Jonathan Franzen is perhaps the most glaring example in contemporary fiction. As if he were an entomologist collecting specimens, Franzen excels at characters who sound like someone at the next table in Starbuck’s, whose conversation you find yourself eavesdropping upon. In The Corrections, he noticed the way that some people end their sentences with a rising so, as if they were about to go on, although they don’t. In Freedom, he is deft with the word like. “We haven’t even started on jealousy yet,” Patty tells Richard. “This is, like, Minute One of jealousy.” Or later:I know who fucked it all up. I know it was me! But, Richard, you knew it was harder for me. You could have thrown me a lifeline! Like, possibly, for that one minute, not talked about poor Walter and his poor tender feelings, but about me instead.Patty is the most arresting and interesting character in the novel, because she is the one with the most sharply individualized speech. At the same time, she is also the character with the least developed point of view, the least reflective, the least likely to swerve into politics. In a book with ambitions to be the Great American Novel of Liberal (or, at least, Anti-Bush) Ideas, this is a deep flaw. Far worse, though, is what I called in my review Franzen’s lack of integrity: his refusal to create fit and natural speech for political viewpoints with which he disagrees. As a consequence, the only truly convincing character in the novel is the one who is furthest removed from its core of conviction.

What I am suggesting is that the two treatments of dialogue in the contemporary novel—the scrupulous mimicry of everyday speech and the studied exclusion of differing points of view—are connected at the level of basic assumptions about the nature of fiction in today’s literary culture. Reading Luke Ford’s interview with Robb Forman Dew, I was struck by the following exchange:Luke: “Do you have any friends who are conservative Republicans?”
Robb, quickly: “No. I don't think I could. Are you?”
Luke: “Yes.”
Robb: “You are? You really are? Oh no. You can’t be.”
In the interview, conducted four years ago, Dew supplies the premise to her brand new novel Being Polite to Hitler. When she was a child, she explains, two things broke her family apart—“religion and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Her uncle Brent, an “airplane navigator in the Pacific,” supported Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Japan. “My father thought there was no excuse for dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population,” she recollects. “That the government should’ve dropped it on an unpopulated island and said, ‘This is what will happen.’ ” Brent dismissed the idea as “romantic.”

In Being Polite to Hitler, the horror of the atomic bomb is the psychological landscape of the novel. The novel opens in October 1952, when “there was not a single community [in America],” according to Dew, “that didn’t harbor an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution for having perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any other country.” The dread worms its way into the lives of every character in the novel, spreading frustration and unease. No other response is possible, because the only admissible point of view is that “dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population” was an “act of aggression.”

Robb Forman Dew can no more imagine a different conception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than she can imagine having conservative Republican friends. And in this she deviates little from Jonathan Franzen, who is otherwise a much superior novelist. Their novels suffer as a consequence, however, because it is just impossible to enter into dialogue with what can neither be imagined nor believed. In Bakhtin’s terms, their novels are monologic, a long rehearsed speech by a single uninterrupted voice. Or, as I would prefer to call them, they are examples in American fiction of “begging the question,” which establish their premises by shutting out anything that might aggravate them.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Backlash against Gribbenizing

Since I first commented on it, Professor Alan Gribben’s edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been condemned from all sides. I have found not a single voice raised in its defense. If I did not believe that he deserved as much notoriety as Dr Thomas Bowdler—if I did not believe that the verb to Gribbenize was a deserving addition to the critical lexicon to characterize the editing of texts and speech for the sake of bringing them in line with political correctness—I would almost feel sorry for the man.

I do feel sorry for his critics, who cannot seem to understand why the Gribbenized Huck has them so worked up. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, columnist Tony Norman called it “linguistically and morally incoherent.” His standards are not literary, however. Stoutly maintaining that Huckleberry Finn “holds a mirror to our times just as it did Twain’s,” Norman says:

Removing “nigger” from the pages of one of our most prophetic and subversive novels creates a space for even more glibness and self-deception by preserving the conceit that we’re a society that doesn’t “see” color.The hip use of the popular critical term space suggests that Norman is hardly a stranger to the dictates of political correctness. He merely disagrees that Gribbenizing the novel will serve the larger purpose of finding fault with “our” American society.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani agrees that the Gribbenizing of the novel is similar to “the politically correct efforts in the ’80s to exile great authors like Conrad and Melville from the canon because their work does not feature enough women or projects colonialist attitudes.” But she goes farther, sounding as if Huckleberry Finn is holy writ:Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books—the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned.Unless this passage is intended as a swipe at her own editors, it is extraordinarily unreflexive. Anyone at all who writes for publication has his words “tampered with.” Kakutani would not defend a colleague at the Times who used the word nigger in his copy. Such a religious attitude toward literary texts on the part of those who are not religious in any conventional sense is a testament to the awful lack of transcendence in their lives. Twain’s text might be sacred if Twain himself surpassed the limits of human understanding. And I would bet my first edition of The American Claimant that Kakutani does not believe the Hebrew Bible is “sacrosanct”—at least not in the way that believers believe it. Namely: as a meaning for their lives.

That’s the thing. Both the Gribbenized edition of Huckleberry Finn and the self-righteous condemnation of it are founded on the same premise. Both are distempered by the exaggeration of isolated words, while ignoring the novel’s complex word-system of meaning. On one side, the word nigger (and to a lesser extent the word Injun) are unacceptable under any circumstances; on the other, the words are “sacrosanct” because they are Twain’s or because they are “subversive.”

Yet Twain’s meaning can prove elusive, especially for those who are concerned to make it seem less offensive than it is. Thus Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, rightly focuses on the novel’s meaning, but gets it upside down. The meaning he disseminates is earnest and poignant, but the meaning is not Twain’s:It is Jim, the character who is demeaned and hunted like an animal, who is most humane. While Huck’s father is an ignorant drunk who beats and robs him, Jim desperately misses his own family, and his conscience lashes him for having once hit his daughter unjustly.Getting Twain wrong in back-to-back sentences is a neat trick. Lowry has forgotten the passage in The Mysterious Stranger in which the narrator witnesses the torture of a heretic, and calls it a “brutal thing.” “No, it was a human thing,” Satan replies. “You should not insult the brutes by such a misuse of that word; they have not deserved it.” Jim has done nothing to deserve being called “humane” by Rich Lowry.

And as for conscience! Huck is alert to its message, because he knows that what he is doing in assisting a runaway slave is immoral. As they float down the river, searching for the lights of Cairo, Jim remarks that he is “all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom.” Huck comes to with a start:Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so—I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson [Jim’s owner] done to you that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you could treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done.”Lowry is right that Huck is “lashed” by conscience, but not as he thinks. In Twain, conscience is the handmaiden of slavery, as are Miss Watson’s “book” (i.e., the Bible) and “manners.”

To be fair to Lowry, even Francine Prose—of whom I am acknowledged to be the World’s Biggest Fan—falls into the same error. In a New York Times symposium on whether “word changes alter Huckleberry Finn,” she says that the novel “portray[s] the mind of a young person trying to develop a moral conscience.” No, it doesn’t. It portrays the hopeless quest to escape from conscience and the rest of sivilization’s trappings altogether. As a novelist herself, Prose is merely rewriting Twain’s novel in the language that she would have written it in. And though she describes the sin of Gribbenizing better than anyone I have read (“If language is a bridge connecting us to the mind of the writer and the historical moment he is describing, then to tinker with that language—for whatever well-intentioned reasons—undermines not only the design but the solidity of that bridge”), she misses something far more important than language and historical moment.

A great novel is a disturbing comprehensive vision of the human experience. It persuades you, for a while, to watch the human parade from a weirdly angled window—to consider human life under the aspect, not of eternity, but of an odd and assertive particularity. This is what it means for a novel to be truly great: it changes your life. But not in any trivial self-improvement fashion. For a long time thereafter—if not forever—it affects the tone of every human encounter, the symbolism of every human gesture, the legitimacy of every human feeling. Even if you reject the great novelist’s vision, you are unable to shake the influence that it has upon the way that you view human actions.

No one who reads Huckleberry Finn can ever again use words like “nigger,” “humane,” “moral,” or “conscience” in the same way. And in that sense, Alan Gribben and his critics belong to the same fraternity of the fundamentally unchanged.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Etiquette for critics

Happy families are all alike, but every generation is prudish in its own way. Since about the mid-’eighties—the term was first used in the New York Times in 1986, quoting a divinity student who used it as if it were readily familiar—my generation has been “politically correct,” which is our own way of being prudish. “Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners,” the philosopher Kenneth Minogue says in an interview, “offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave” (h/t: Maverick Philosopher).

I wonder, though, if the more exact word is not etiquette. By themselves forbidden words are not immoral, after all, since there is no meaning (hence no offense against morality) without context. When my four-year-old son starts talking loudly in public about his “weiner,” I tell him not to use that word. “I have a penis,” he shouts. “You can’t use that word either,” I say—“not in public.” “What is ‘public’?” he asks. And I realize, with a sinking feeling, that I must instruct him in social appropriateness, not words.

Etiquette is the formal code of socially acceptable behavior, including verbal behavior. In an introduction to the second edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922), Richard Duffy explains the word’s origin:

To the French we owe the word etiquette, and it is amusing to discover its origin in the commonplace familiar warning—“Keep off the grass.” It happened in the reign of Louis XIV, when the gardens of Versailles were being laid out, that the master gardener, an old Scotsman, was sorely tried because his newly seeded lawns were being continually trampled upon. To keep trespassers off, he put up warning signs or tickets—etiquettes—on which was indicated the path along which to pass. But the courtiers paid no attention to these directions and so the determined Scot complained to the King in such convincing manner that His Majesty issued an edict commanding everyone at Court to “keep within the etiquettes.” Gradually the term came to cover all the rules for correct demeanor and deportment in court circles. . . .It is equally amusing to think of etiquette as Scottish Presbyterianism laid down as law by the Sun King. In literary criticism, the equivalent term is decorum, but appropriateness in literature is a question of whether a text’s materials (genre, subject, style, characters) are coordinated and in agreement. It is, in short, an intrinsic question.

The older critic who is worried that a text is “really not acceptable” and sets out to Gribbenize it—or, for that matter, the younger critic who dismisses Shakespeare as a WASP, achieving the rare feat of combining historical ignorance with historical error—are doing something other than literary criticism. They are seeking entry into what Emily Post calls the Best Society, which is (in her words) an “association of gentlefolk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.”

I prefer the fellowship of less gentle folk, who are not particularly afraid of hurting others’ feelings if it means saying things exactly as they must be said.

More books to Gribbenize

Alan Gribben’s effort to make Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “acceptable” in the “new classroom” ought not to stop with Twain’s great novel. What about Moby-Dick? Wandering around New Bedford, Ishmael pushes into a building where he hears loud voices:

It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.This passage is only marginally more allowable than what Twain is up to in Huck. But it is also more challenging to Gribbenize. How about something like this?It seemed the great African American Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred eumelanin-pigmented faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, an Angel of Doom that did not reflect light in any part of the visible spectrum was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a people-of-color church; and the preacher’s text was about the dark color of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.In Chilly Scenes of Winter, Ann Beattie commits a double fault when she describes a character as a “fat oriental nurse.” This should be Gribbenized to read: “clinically overweight Asian American or Pacific Islander nurse.” And of course, when warning that Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises would become the next American classic to be Gribbenized, I completely forgot about Brett Ashley’s famous line: “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.” This must be changed. Brett must not be permitted to call herself a bitch. She must say something like this: “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a self-empowered woman whose sexual freedom challenges masculine privilege to define women’s sexuality as ‘chaste’ or ‘promiscuous’ for the political purpose of controlling it.” After all, that will expose Hemingway’s ideology, won’t it?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Hemingway is next

A new sanitized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be published in a $24.95 hardcover next month, and according to Publishers Weekly it “eliminates the ‘n’ word” (h/t: Abe Greenwald at Contentions).

Alan Gribben of Auburn University, editor of the squeamish new version, says that the word nigger, which appears over two hundred times in the novel, will be replaced by the word slave. I am trying to imagine the scene in which Huck, pretending to be his friend Tom, is greeted by Aunt Sally. She asks why he was delayed. Did the steamboat “get aground”? Huck explains:

     “It warn’t the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
     “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
     “No’m. Killed a slave.”
So much for Twain’s irony. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option,” Gribben says, “but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified.”

Not only textual purists. What is far more horrifying to contemplate is how anyone who studies the novel in “the new classroom,” where Gribben says the author’s intended version is “really not acceptable,” can possibly hope to understand Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s point in the novel is that human “sivilization” (including the institution of slavery) is little more than legalized violence. The only true freedom lies outside “sivilization” altogether, which is why, in the last sentences of the book, Huck decides to “light out for the [Indian] Territory ahead of the rest”—that is, decides to flee human contact altogether.

Man, as Twain wrote in an essay published posthumously in Letters from the Earth, is “the lowest animal.” But white men in the South considered black men to be subhuman. Just that is what the word nigger signifies. To Twain, such a slur is the highest conceivable praise. To be beneath humanity is to be an animal that, unlike man, does not go forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate its kind.

And which character in the novel does this describe? Which character risks capture and reenslavement to stand by his friend, who is wounded in the stylish and romantic pretense of “steal[ing] that nigger out of slavery”? Although Tom Sawyer holds the copyright on the word moral in the novel, the only character who exhibits the qualities that moralists contend they prize is Jim. For a misanthrope like Twain, Jim is admirable precisely because he is not a man but, um, er, a slave.[1] (If you can’t hear that the word nigger secures Twain’s anthropology, to a degree that “slave” fails to, then you probably should read the book in “the new classroom” under a teacher like Alan Gribben who prefers current moral fashions to the impervious and troublesome facts of literature from the past.)

Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises is surely next. Robert Cohn is described as acting “superior and Jewish.” The new edition will describe him, I guess, as superior and religious.

[1] To substitute the word slave is untrue to Twain’s entire way of thinking. “Man is the only slave,” Twain wrote around 1896. “And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another” (Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1963], p. 179). To call Jim a slave is to fail to distinguish him from the other men in the novel.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Withdrawing from literature

If it is not merely special pleading, the hermeneutics of suspicion—or what Marilynne Robinson more accurately calls the hermeneutics of condescension—can’t apply to just one party to a critical dispute. The suspicious are not more exempt than the suspects. If I must be wary of reading lists that fail to include a sufficient number of women (or blacks or gays or Hispanics or whatnot), then shouldn’t I be wary of lists that include more than enough? If the motives behind the one are impure then the motives behind the other would be no less so, especially since the principle that determines the lists (exclusion or inclusion on the basis of group membership) is ex hypothesi the same in each case.

In a clever comment to my last post, Mel U tries to imagine Dr Johnson’s compiling The Lives of the Poets according to the principle of representative inclusion. But he doesn’t have to imagine it. I was an eyewitness to a similar absurdity (and be sure to read the Amateur Reader’s postscript). Those who insist upon irrelevant standards do not merely humiliate themselves; they contribute to the breakdown of critical discussion, by destroying the good faith upon which it depends.

The whole bother over Dead White Guys’ ascendancy in the “canon” (as if there were any such thing) has been a waste of valuable time and critical resources, because there is more to literary reputation than is dreamed of in race, class, and gender. As J. V. Cunningham taught his classes in the history of criticism many years ago, “It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.” Claire Harman expands upon the point in Jane’s Fame, her new study of How Jane Austen Conquered the World. As Barton Swaim put it in his review of Harman’s book:

By the 1890s, editions of Jane Austen’s novels had become widely available. At the turn of the century, according to one anonymous reviewer, “every man of intellectual pretensions either likes to read her books or thinks it necessary to apologize if he does not”—a state of affairs that’s held true ever since. In 2010, it’s possible to think the Brontës preposterous and cloying, to think Thackeray cold and pretentious, and to dislike Dickens’s long-winded moralizing. It’s simply not possible for a literate person to think poorly of Jane Austen.In other words, perhaps the only English novelist above suspicion is a woman. How is that remotely possible, if the “canon” is an exclusive club of Dead White Guys?

The demand that writers should be read as representatives of “dominant” or “minority” viewpoints is not an exciting new youthful departure in literary criticism. It is a withdrawal from literary criticism. The time is long past to retire the fatuous and misleading categories of race, class, and gender.