Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Recently I chanced to read a favorable review of a history book in which the author describes frontier realities as "myth-making," and remarks that the standard "narrative" nowadays is that Indians were peace-loving folks persecuted by evil white settlers. This is only one small sample, of course, and I'm sure my readers know that denigration of the American past is conventional behavior among academics, not to speak of Hollywood and the media. These are the thoughts provoked by that notice.
Before I began this series I wrote a short essay, "The Culture of Conservatives," for the Review, criticizing the way conservative magazines focused exclusively on politics, arguing that what was needed was a deeper appreciation of culture -- the politics would follow. The obvious meaning is that, as the subsequent series tries to show, reading good literature deepens our consciousness by exposing us to other points of view. There is a broader meaning of culture which I want to invoke: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns and beliefs (that's why my essays have not been about contemporary writers; their culture is mean and negative). Writers do not announce their cultural attitudes; they are just there, largely unconscious, communicated by language, gestures, assumptions.
The cultural climate is far more important than we think, affecting all our thoughts and acts. The cultural elite has been contemptuous of America since the 1920s and in the last 40 years that attitude has spread to all levels of society, witness the book I noted at the beginning. We are living in a poisonous cultural atmosphere, and what is the answer of politics? The stupid extension of presidential campaigning has rendered politics even more incredibly shallow than usual. I would like to think that if we resolutely mocked and denounced every manifestation of anti-Americanism, we would soon improve our politics and politicians. Politics follows culture.
Reading the review of that contemptible history book made me remember a fine writer and patriot who wrote an excellent history of the frontier: Teddy Roosevelt. We do not think of him as a writer because his political career obscures everything else. He is one of our best prose stylists, second only to Thoreau, with a style that is muscular, sinewy, and direct. His sentences are always absolutely clear. He has none of Thoreau's sly humor or subtle grace, but you are never in any doubt about his meaning.
The Winning of the West (1889-96) was originally planned to cover not only the trans-Appalachian West (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the old Northwest) but the entire southwest up to 1850, a project curtailed by the pressures of his political life. What we have are two volumes beginning in the 1760s, extending to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. We have become so used to finely drawn, complex histories that we may lose sight of the basic outlines of the past. In fact, sophisticated moderns deny such outlines entirely, rejecting them as simpleminded. To maintain that pose, however, they have to ignore facts or explain them away. Roosevelt's history doesn't stint on detail, but his account of the conquering of the old West makes the basic outlines unmistakably clear.
Although there were many points of contention between Britain and the Colonies, the one thing that rendered conflict inevitable was the British intention to maintain the territory beyond the Alleghenies in a wild state where Indians could hunt and trap for the benefit of British traders and the Crown. The Proclamation Line of 1763 specifically barred settlement there -- but men like Daniel Boone were already exploring the Kentucky wilderness. The tide of settlement was inexorable. Roosevelt manages his narrative by treating specific areas (the French of the Ohio Valley, 1763-1775) or events (Lord Dunmore's War) in short chapters, painting a picture, stroke by stroke, detail by detail, of the vast wilderness gradually being transformed into a settled land by the efforts of hunters, explorers, surveyors, and frontier settlers, all of whom played their essential parts in the struggle before, during, and after the Revolution. He emphasizes two aspects (aside from their hardihood) of the frontiersmen: their rugged individualism and their instinct for coming together to form self-governing communities.
Roosevelt was a man of the 19th century. He owned a cattle ranch in the wild country of North Dakota and he knew, better than any of us can know, something of what frontier life could be like. He had no illusions about frontiersmen; he knew that they committed outrages against the Indians just as the Indians did against the whites, but:
Unless we are willing that the whole continent west of the Alleghenies should remain an unpeopled waste, a hunting-ground of savages, war was inevitable.
Only the frontiersmen were tough enough to do it, and in doing so, they laid the foundations of our national greatness. Let me quote some more from the book for the pleasure of my patriotic readers:
It has often been said that we owe all our success to our surroundings; that any race with our opportunities could have done as well. . . . Undoubtedly our opportunities have been great; undoubtedly we have often and lamentably failed in taking advantage of them. But what nation ever has done all that was possible with the chances offered it? . . . The truth is, that in starting a new nation in a new country, as we have done, while there are exceptional chances to be taken advantage of, there are also exceptional dangers and difficulties to be overcome. . . . Looked at absolutely, we must frankly acknowledge that we have fallen very far short indeed of the high ideal we should have reached. Looked at relatively, it must also be said that we have done better than any other nation or race working under our conditions.
No other conquering and colonizing nation has ever treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as the United States.
Americans need to keep in mind the fact that as a nation they have erred far more often in not being willing enough to fight than in being too willing. . . . The educated classes, in particular, need to be perpetually reminded that, although it is an evil thing to brave a conflict needlessly, or to bully and bluster, it is an even worse thing to flinch from a fight for which there is legitimate provocation, or to live in supine, slothful, unprepared ease, helpless to avenge an injury.
Roosevelt wrote four hunting books: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), The Wilderness Hunter (1895), and Hunting the Grizzly (1905). I like them all, but I think my favorite is Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail because it is a varied mixture of subjects. It was written as a series of articles, profusely illustrated by the great Western artist, Frederic Remington, for the Century magazine. The first chapters are about life on his ranch, which he relished. You can sense the attraction in this passage:
The whole existence is patriarchal in character: it is the life of men who live in the open, who tend their herds on horseback, who go armed and ready to guard their lives by their own prowess, whose wants are very simple, and who call no man master.
Note, however, that feeling does not cloud his judgment:
In its present form stock-raising on the plains is doomed, and can hardly outlast the century. The great free ranches, with their barbarous, picturesque, and curiously fascinating surroundings, mark a primitive stage of existence as surely as do the great tracts of primeval forests, and like the latter must pass away before the onward march of our people; and we who have felt the charm of the life, and have exulted in its abounding vigor and its bold, restless freedom, will not only regret its passing for our own sakes, but must also feel real sorrow that those who come after us are not to see, as we have seen, what is perhaps the pleasantest, healthiest, and most exciting phase of American existence.
There is a realism and a sensitivity about that paragraph that is characteristic. The first sentence is stark, flat, uncompromising, all that needs to be said from a factual point of view. The rest of the paragraph, the long second sentence with its accumulative force, makes us understand the intellectual and emotional significance of the first sentence, coloring the picture with richly evocative adjectives.
The hunting chapters (and the hunting books in general) are based on Roosevelt's experience, vividly described, but they also contain lively descriptions of flora and fauna; he was a many-sided man with an eye for beauty and much else besides:
Even in the waste places the cactuses are blooming; and one kind in particular, a dwarfish, globular plant, with its mass of splendid crimson flowers glows against the sides of the gray buttes like a splash of flame.
Reading him is like being in the company of a fascinating man of great character and intellect who speaks clearly and gracefully of his experiences. He wrote more than I have mentioned, but those are the titles I recommend. Try libraries and second hand stores, although occasionally a small press will do a reprint. My 1995 copy of Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail was done by Gramercy Books (a Random House imprint) and contains this note:
[This book] reflects the culture and attitudes of late 19th century America, which are not necessarily those of the publisher of this Gramercy edition.
Such are the lengths to which the craven will go to satisfy political correctness. *
"Vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing." --Bernard Baruch
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is one of those writers attractive to ideologues and eccentrics whose enthusiasms distort understanding of the writer, obscuring his real significance as a writer. He created the first authentically American style, that clear, uncluttered, supple prose that seems so straightforward and transparent but which is capable of the subtlest nuances, especially ironic humor. Before we get to that, however, the ground must be cleared.
Thoreau was the most faithful disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), an embodiment of the Master's Transcendentalist philosophy. Back in my salad days when I was a Professor teaching American literature, I took Transcendentalism seriously, boring my students with long lectures on its intricacies, but now wordy transports about Nature and the Over-Soul do not move me. It contains some useful ideas, but as a philosophy, as a theory of the universe and man's place in it, it's a bag of wind. What Emerson did was to take German Idealism, strained through the mind of Thomas Carlyle, add a dash of Oriental mysticism, and produce an optimistic rationale for individual and national self-fulfillment, combining enthusiasm, uplift, and cultural nationalism at an opportune time, just as the westward surge was gathering steam. The American fuel tank was filled with Transcendentalism until the end of the century.
Walden, or Life in the Woods, the book we shall consider in a moment, is built on three Transcendentalist tenets, the first being self-reliance, exemplified by Thoreau's life at Walden Pond. The whole book is testimony to it and needs no more elaboration. The second idea, announced in Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar," is the identity of the scholar with "Man Thinking," thus denying special status for the scholar (or intellectual) set apart from ordinary men. The farmer, the mechanic, the storekeeper are all potentially capable of filling the role, just as Thoreau did, as Walden abundantly shows. How far we have degenerated from that ideal, when we have a caste of academics calling themselves "public intellectuals"! Finally, Nature and man's relation to it, the "correspondence" between the two, was a major Transcendentalist theme that turns up on nearly every page of the book. This is a persistent theme in American thought, antedating Emerson, turning up again and again in our literature and elsewhere. "Getting right with Nature" is an American preoccupation from the Declaration of Independence to the maniacal Greens; we seem unable to accept Nature's implacable indifference.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847 in a cabin he built himself (on Emerson's land). He was not a hermit, nor was he playing at the Simple Life. He had visitors, and he often went to Concord (A friend from there tells me that many of the old families still have plates from which he ate his dinner). This is the reason he gave for his sojourn:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Like many an ancient philosopher, he believed that it was only by living simply, shedding all superfluities and encumbrances, that one can gain wisdom. And by living at the Pond he was in constant touch with the natural world, vital to him for personal as well as philosophical reasons. Wherever he happened to be, Thoreau was a close observer of Nature, and at the Pond he was in his element. There was also a mundane reason. He had lived with Emerson and his family and then, at the urging of the Master, had gone to New York City for a year to further his nascent writing career. But nothing had come of that so he returned to Concord to work in the family business, manufacturing pencils. The move to the Pond and its subsequent economy would enable him to live without a regular job (occasionally he undertook surveying commissions), would remove him from what he felt was an ignominious situation, and would give him time to write. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was composed there.
Walden, published in 1854, was written seven years after the event. His writing career had not advanced much in the interim: magazines like Atlantic Monthly printed some of his essays, but A Week, published at his expense, sold less than 300 copies and left him in debt. He lectured at the Concord Lyceum and farther afield, but he wasn't going to make a living at that either. He was back at the pencil factory. What may have weighed most heavily on his mind was his declining vigor; the TB that was to kill him may have begun then. The writing of the book, then, was a deliberate attempt to recapture the spirit of those two years when he was bursting with life and enthusiasm, when he felt he was master of his fate in the morning of the world, and the book's structure was carefully crafted to that end.
He composed his books and essays and lectures in the same way, by mining his daily journals. In the case of Walden, he reworked the lectures he had already given on the subject at the Lyceum, revising them in the light of his over-arching purpose. So he compressed the events of two years into one, linked events to the seasonal cycle, and emphasized the morning and springtime aspects of his life there. Compared to A Week, Walden is dynamic. The former reads like mystical meditations occasionally interrupted by material facts, but Walden moves right along, the meditations are more vigorous and usually grow directly out of material observations. To put it another way, Walden is the most synthesized of Thoreau's works (speaking of writings published during his lifetime; later essays were cobbled together from his journals by other hands). Nevertheless, it is not as synthesized as it should be, and the fault lies in his method. Generally, the daily entries in his journals are laconic: some natural observations and a few sentences embodying a thought. When he turned to the journals to compose a manuscript, he selected related thoughts, elaborated them, and then strung them together. Too often it is as if the sentences in a paragraph were separate pieces of shot collected in a bag to be fired off at the reader, Thoreau in his pulpit assailing the audience with sentence after sentence of condemnation. This can be tiresome.
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases, he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom, and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary, eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
It is an old story that moralists who tell us how to live often show an appalling ignorance of and lack of sympathy with their fellows, and Thoreau is no exception. He meets John Field, an Irish laborer, to whom he sings the praises of his simple life, contrasting it with the Field's hardworking one. Condescending, even snide, to the man and his wife, he thinks they cannot choose his way of life because they're Irish clods. It does not occur to his sophisticated mind that he was able to make that choice because he was, relative to the Fields, privileged. His father owned a good business, and Thoreau was highly educated. In order for a man to choose a materially spare life, he has to have the resources behind him which will allow him to make a choice; he has to be so free of want that he can contemplate surrendering some of his privileges with equanimity, and he has to be educated enough to appreciate the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity is always preceded by complexity. Thoreau comes off very badly here, but it is characteristic of the philosophy; most Transcendentalists were childishly egotistical, wrapped up in themselves and their theories.
Finally we come to Thoreau's great gift, his prose. Look at the first paragraph of Walden:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Read it aloud and note how the short phrases of the first sentence build energy for its emphatic release in the long last phrase, while the two following matter-of-fact sentences act as a denouement, a scaling-down of the tension built up and released in the first sentence. What this arrangement does is to endow the prosaic statement with power out of proportion to its factual content, thus making the facts significant in the reader's mind: this shall be no humdrum account. And note the immediacy of the prose; there is no veil of language between you and the writer. We feel his liveliness. Those three sentences announce an authoritative voice in American writing.
Here's a passage from the "Bean Field" chapter.
When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than l; or if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes.
What this does is to assert an organic continuity between Thoreau and the pond, among past, present, and future, and between man and Nature. The way it works is to stress the specificity of places and presence of time. In four simple sentences he moves from the past to the future through the medium of a very definite place seen through the eyes of a man in the present, looking backward and forward, but always in terms of the material facts of the scene. The repeated pronouns and adverbs heighten the reader's attention, just as the emphatic second sentence does, and the light touches of elegance, "waked the echoes," "another aspect for new infant eyes,"also italicize the scene. Once again we are reading what seems to be a casual statement, but by the end we have been caught up in the exultation.
Here's a beautiful example of his ability to move from a specific material observation outward, in this case to a discovery of the fabulous in the mundane, ice fishing in the Pond. The paragraph is anchored at beginning and end with material facts about fish, but it contains within it an assertion of transcendent beauty, which his cumulative prose makes you believe.
. . . They, [pickerel] of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here, -- that in this deep and capacious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish swims. I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.
Conservatives should read Walden, not for its ideas (the first chapter will suffice for that) but for its spirit. Here is a live man, and it is the matchless prose that gives him life. *
"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects." --Will Durant
The principal critical works of Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), the foremost American literary critic from the 1920s into the 1950s, have recently been published in the Library of America, which should call forth enthusiastic reviews, because he was quite popular, uniquely so for a critic, and 35 years after his death he is still highly regarded. Literary criticism, however, is a very perishable product, and while I think there are still a few of his books that can be read with pleasure, it would be pointless to resurrect him in these pages -- except that there is an unacknowledged reciprocity between Wilson and his audience that is grimly fascinating, a case study of the development within a class of elite intellectuals who reject their nation and embrace nihilism.
He made his name as the literary editor of the New Republic in the 1920s and 1930s, writing thoughtful reviews, eagerly heralding the advent of the new American writers (he was the first to notice Hemingway). His prose was clear and clean, a pleasure to read, and he looked at books much as any literate person would; they were not labyrinthine puzzles. Here is a work to be examined and understood and evaluated. He was not writing to curry favor or show off, he said what he thought, and his writing was lively and consistently interesting. He was a member of the new cultural elite forming after the war under the aegis of H. L. Mencken, who led the attack against the old guard, so his opinions meshed with those of the sophisticated, arty crowd of the time. Elite formation and consolidation is a lengthy process (it began in the 1890s), so the cognoscenti were not very numerous at first, but it expanded greatly after the war, so when Wilson came on the scene, his audience was growing. Soon it went beyond a metaphorical Greenwich Village to the generally enlightened, and by 1940 he was writing for the New Yorker. (By "enlightened" I merely mean those individuals who are regarded as leaders in thought, those who are closest to the reigning ideas and attitudes of the moment. It should be kept in mind throughout this essay that even when I speak of high culture, the intellectual level is not high.) His best book, I think, is The Shores of Light (1952), a collection of his New Republic pieces. A similar collection from the New Yorker Years, Classics and Commercials (1951), while less lively, is still very good. I should mention here The Shock of Recognition (1943), an anthology of pieces by writers, mostly Americans, on other American writers, with Wilson's introductions.
His three books of literary criticism, Axel's Castle (1931), The Triple Thinkers (1938), The Wound and the Bow (1941), long essays on individual writers, secured his reputation at the higher (or professorial) cultural levels, but the essays, with a few exceptions, are not nearly so interesting as his short reviews. In longer forms he tended to wander, so the writing lacked point and force, and also he had room to ride his hobby horses, which could be boring. There is another, more basic reason to be found in his function as a critic, a sort of "village explainer" who interprets the news from the big world for his less sophisticated fellows. So his first book, Axel's Castle, explains modernism in writers like Yeats and Joyce by an elaborate (but muddled) exposition of French symbolism in the 19th century. It seemed brilliant at the time, a clear articulation of the attitudes and half-formed ideas of the moment, but after the years dispelled the magical aura surrounding the modernists, the book seems pretentious and irrelevant. The critic's function is to interpret works of the moment in terms of the moment; as time passes the interpretations fade. That's why literary criticism is so perishable. Wilson was very sensitive to literary currents of the day, but for that very reason they are not very readable today. The Wound and the Bow, however, contains one of the best things he ever wrote, a long essay on Dickens. The pieces are based on psychological analysis, a very tricky method which only works with Dickens. It leads him badly astray with Kipling, and hasn't much to do with Edith Wharton (a very good essay) or Hemingway, at least as Wilson reads him -- but he's very good on Hemingway's early writings.
Wilson was smitten by Communism in the 1930s, traveled in the USSR in 1935, and wrote a naive and less than honest (he suppressed his misgivings) book about it, Travels in Two Democracies (1936). But he was soon disenchanted by the purge trials, although he thought them only the product of Stalin, and Lenin remained a hero to the end of his days. He always thought Communism was a good system, but the Russians were the wrong people to manage it. From his book on the history of revolutionary ideology, To the Finland Station (1940), it is clear that he understood neither Marxism nor Leninism.
His fellow traveling was not a response to the Depression. More than a decade before, just after the Armistice, as he tells us in A Prelude (1965), a sketchy account of his life from 12 to 23, he sent a manifesto to his friends in which "I indicted the institutions of the Western world and suggested a way out in the direction of socialism." Now why would a secure upper middle-class young man who'd spent the war far behind the lines as a hospital orderly write that?
A constant theme of Wilson's from first to last, is his detestation of business, of commercial life, and it takes particular historical form in his condemnation of the post Civil War era, the so-called Gilded Age, reputedly a vulgar display by social upstarts of the wealth generated by great commercial and industrial development, a desecration of the noble simplicity of the antebellum republic. This notion was (and is) not at all uncommon -- after all, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote a comic novel, The Gilded Age, about it -- but it is a caricature, it reveals an extremely shallow understanding of American history, and its bitter moralizing seems excessive -- until you realize that many of the people who believed it, like Wilson, thought of themselves as among the losers.
He belonged to a class of people who could trace their American lineage back to the 17th century, a line of ancestors who had been (or who were remembered as being) substantial farmers and preachers and lawyers, prominent members of provincial communities now pushed aside by vigorous newcomers in a growing, changing economy. And the family stock was running down. His father, attorney general of New Jersey during Woodrow Wilson's governorship, was a neurotic semi-recluse, and although some of his uncles were professional men, only one went into business and made money (leaving a trust fund which helped to support Wilson for the rest of his days). The point is that he had a grievance, picked up from his family, against business and the hustle of the commercial republic, and he absorbed the radicalism that was then current as an expression of that grievance.
Since his radicalism was never a positive value in itself but a function of his negative view of American history, so his Marxism in the 1930s only objectified, gave what looked like logical structure, to his prejudice. When Stalinism forced him to drop it, he retained the prejudice.
He went overseas at the end of the war as a correspondent for The New Yorker, and the book he made of it, Europe Without Baedeker (1946), is a nasty performance. At the time his anglophobia and leftist delusions (siding with the Greek Communists) were noticed, but so far as I know, no one remarked on the really chilling passages. Although he was cheered by Labor's victory in the 1945 elections, the vague socialist ideal he hoped would replace capitalism seemed less and less attainable, so he frankly gave up on humanity, as presently constituted, to advocate eugenics, remarking that it would be "foolish" to allow the Nazi experiments to deter us.
He followed that by a discussion of research into the capabilities of primates, stressing their close affinity with mankind, foreshadowing the reductionists of our own day as well as more degrading ideas of his own. I should note here, because it jibes so well with animal reductionism, that Wilson was not merely an atheist, but a real hater of Christianity, a coarse bigot always on the alert for Catholic conspiracies.
His magnum opus, Patriotic Gore (1962), a huge book about the literature of the Civil War era, is very uneven. The book suffers from a lack of editing, a recurring problem with his books because no one seemed to dare to edit his work. So there are interminable chapters of no interest to anyone on second rate novelists and poets of the period, and the book is blighted by his historical ignorance and prejudices: the Gilded Age bugaboo is ever present, he believes the Southern version of Reconstruction, and he is generally partial to the Southern point of view on the war. The chapters on the memoirs of Sherman and Grant, on Lincoln, and on Oliver Wendell Holmes are the best things in the book, but they fall short of the excellence their subjects require because he could never quite understand them (significantly, he hardly wrote a word about our greatest -- and most American -- writers: Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Frost). But the real meaning of the book, the reason for its final incoherence, is to be found in the extraordinary preface, in which he boldly states his stunningly silly view, prefigured in Europe Without Baedeker, that nations are organisms like sea slugs which eat everything in sight, constantly aggrandizing themselves, so the ideas we live by are really meaningless rationalizations, fig leaves to cover our appetites. The Civil War was not about slavery, or the preservation of the Union, or State's rights -- it was only a power grab. It is not always clear if he believes the leaders, like Lincoln, are hypocrites or self-deluded, but when he asserts that F.D.R. lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor so we could go to war and expand our empire, we can only shake our heads in disbelief. He makes an extended comparison between Lincoln and Bismarck and Lenin, all of it reminiscent of schoolboy cynicism. The rest of the preface is a raging diatribe against American history. The whole performance is embarrassing, but it explains the inadequacies of the text: men like Lincoln and Grant and Sherman believed, consciously or instinctively, that they were historical actors, that their words and actions were meaningful, and like most Northerners and Westerners in the l9th century, the Union was for them an almost mystic entity, the culmination of the promise of the Revolution, the embodiment of the American spirit stretching from coast to coast. Wilson cannot see that, so he cannot finally understand these men -- or history itself. In any case, under the sea slug regime there is no history.
My readers will already have seen what is obvious: that the opinions of the enlightened corresponded, with some time lag, with Wilson's, from the mild radicalism of the 1920s, the Communism of the 30s, the disillusionment and disaffection of the 40s and 50s, to the poisonous nihilism of the 60s, flourishing now as never before. His intellectual trajectory was ever more radical, ever more stupid. Perhaps because its overt expressions are largely confined to his prefaces, his radicalism is almost never mentioned; he is praised for his independence, his intelligence, his curiosity, and his staying power, but the fact that he pointed the way down the Gaderene slope for a whole class of supposedly enlightened Americans is ignored. I do not mean that he actually led them -- he picked up and articulated the intellectual trends of the moment, defined the inchoate thoughts of others, planted the signposts for others to discover, thinking they had posted them themselves. That's the function of a cultural elite, to say what others are only beginning to feel. Edmund Wilson was the perfect paradigm.
There is a final question which has bothered me since I began rereading Wilson's work for this essay: how could such a sophisticated, well-read man be so stupid and ignorant about history as well as contemporary events, and how could such a curious person learn so little about people? The answer, I think, is to be found in the account of his family and early life as he renders it in A Prelude. Although it contains notes and interpolations from the 1960s, most of it comes from his notebooks of the time, from his adolescence into his young manhood, a period when we would expect some expressions of feeling -- But that is just what we don't get. The overwhelming, and depressing impression is of a desiccated life, a family without feeling, and as we read on about his school and college life, we see that he has been formed by that emotional blight. That's why he's so stupid about history, the reason he knows so little about people: he is unsympathetic, he lacks the capacity to understand another's point of view. We can never see exactly as others do, but without some fellow-feeling, some recognition of commonality, we are locked within our own world. He was famous for his curiosity, but I think it really was a poor substitute for sympathy, and was confused with it: he could not understand people instinctively (as we all do all the time) so he had to probe and pry. His final paradigmatic meaning is that he points the way to a cultural elite who have lost all their fellow-feeling. *
"In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other." --Voltaire, Dictionnaire, Philosophique, Money.
The Middle Parts of Fortune, a novel about World War I by Frederick Manning (1887-1935), was published in an edition of 520 copies in 1929; an expurgated version, Her Privates We, followed the next year, but it was not until that version was reprinted in 1943 that the author's name was revealed. The original uncut text was published under his first name in 1972. Discerning critics like Arnold Bennett and E. M. Forster recognized its quality, but when Manning died he was known, if at all, as a second-rate writer of poetry and occasional light prose. Extremely modest and aloof, he is an example of self-effacement that may be unique in the world of letters, at least in modern times.
The literature (fiction and poetry) of World War I is much more distinguished than that inspired by World War II: the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Enormous Room are only the most prominent works, those that immediately spring to mind, but I think Manning's novel surpasses them all, and in such a way as to cast these more famous works in an odd light, as we shall see.
The narrative begins in August 1916 as Bourne, the protagonist, is being withdrawn, with his decimated company, from trenches on the Somme to be sent to the rear for rest and recuperation. The rest of the book follows Bourne and A Company as they march from one bivouac to another, detailing the incidents and complications of army life. Finally they are sent back to the trenches for another offensive, in which one of Bourne's comrades is wounded, the other is killed before Bourne's eyes, and at the end Bourne himself is killed on a night raid into the German trenches. Mirroring the facts of Manning's service, who served in the ranks in the Somme and Picardy campaigns, Bourne is a gentlemen (in the old British class sense) serving in the ranks of a battalion recruited from the countryside and mining villages. There is a literary reason for this: as an educated, self-conscious man, he can articulate thoughts that the men may gropingly harbor but cannot express. He is a spokesman for them and also for himself, a role he could not play as an officer. His anomalous situation is recognized by all. He is friendly with everyone, he never pretends to any swank, but he exerts a slight, intangible authority over the men, even the NCOs. The best way to put it is that he has a certain force of character. This is important not only in the novel but outside it, because the reader must like and trust him as the men do.
From the beginning, there is pressure on Bourne to become an officer, but he would rather stay in the ranks.
When one was in the ranks, one lived in a world of men, full of flexible movement and human interest: when one became an officer, one became part of an inflexible and inhuman machine.
He justifies his refusal to the chaplain, trying to explain comradeship.
At one moment a particular man may be nothing at all to you, and next minute you will go though hell for him. No, it is not friendship. The man doesn't matter so much, it's a kind of impersonal emotion, a kind of enthusiasm . . . we help each other. . . . . We are all in it up to the neck together, and we know it.
Later, after a night march, when he tries to get some sleep with his two chums, he wonders about it himself.
They lay themselves down, as they were to get a few hours' sleep; and Bourne, dropping off between the two of them, wondered what was the spiritual thing in them which lived and seemed even to grow stronger, in the midst of beastliness.
Manning had a fine instinct for pacing, telling the story in such a way that interest never flags. Our attention is drawn from Bourne to some NCOs, to officers, to the men, and so on; he never dwells too long on one character or one action. We see this also in the way he uses the men. Aside from Shem and Martlow, Bourne's chums, and a couple of NCOs, we do not get extended portraits of the men. We see them in a mass, marching or camping, we see them in quick snapshots, as when Pritchard tells of his comrade's death.
". . . both 'is legs 'ad bin blown off, pore bugger, an' 'e were dyin' so quick you could see it. But 'e tried to stand up on 'is feet. "elp me up," 'e sez, "elp me up." -- "You lie still, chum," I sez to 'im, "and you'll be all right presently." An' 'e jes gives me one look, like 'e were puzzled, an' 'e died." . . . Tears were running down Pritchard's inflexible face, like rain-drops down a window-pane; but there was not a quaver in his voice, only that high unnatural note which a boy's has when it is breaking . . .
We also see a portion of the company discussing the war, when the author faithfully records the various opinions, which helps to give a strong feeling of realism to the novel. Bourne ends that discussion with a defense of staff officers.
. . . but after all, what is a brass-hat's job? He's not thinking of you or of me or of any individual man, or of any particular battalion or division. Men, to him, are only part of the material he has got to work with; and if he felt as you or I feel, he couldn't carry on with his job. It's not fair to think he's inhuman.
I have spoken of the realism of this scene, referring to its surface verisimilitude, but that speech of Bourne's is realistic in a larger sense, realism as a point of view, as an outlook on the war and how it is conducted. He is critical of tactical errors, as when men are gathered in exposed groups in an area under shellfire; it is said that "he felt that as a mechanical operation it left a great deal to be desired." Nevertheless, he accepts the war stoically because he does not see it as a monstrous event outside of normal life as most writers did:
. . . war was only the ultimate problem of all human life stated barely, and pressing for an immediate solution.
The problem which confronted them all equally . . . did not concern death so much as the affirmation of their own will in the face of death; and they realized that its solution was continuous and could never be final.
. . . when the searching flames took hold of their very flesh, the test was whether or not they should flinch, under them . . . they had to retrieve their own failures, to subdue their own doubts, to master their own pitiful human weaknesses . . .
Manning's style is not dramatic or arresting, but the accumulated effects of his plain narration are two: it emphasizes the realism of the story. This is fact, the words say in their simple iteration of daily activities, but like the reality they describe -- the company moving inexorably toward the trenches and another offensive -- they gradually accumulate tension, with its heightened consciousness, reflected in those last quotations. That's the other effect of Manning's plain style, the heightening by contrast of eloquence. Without ever raising his voice, the author commands our attention and makes us take him seriously.
This is a novel that embodies a way of looking at WWI that is strikingly different from the conventional view as recounted in the literature I mentioned earlier, which gave expression to a point of view held by other artists who had been in the war, by contemporaries in the cultural elite, and by others in their class: A point of view that was bitterly anti-war, cynical about conventions and authorities of any sort, nihilistic. Articulating what others felt but could not express, once crystalized in words it took on a life of its own, affecting generations unborn at the time, imbuing readers, even today, with the same point of view. This was not a spontaneous common insight; it was the point of view of the artistic avant garde even before the war (see the Dada exhibit currently at the Museum of Modern Art). It was the only line to take if one were to be regarded as modern. It was the birth, in literature, of the left-liberal point of view. These works facilitated Hitler's success in the '30s by fostering pacifism, distrust of the military and authority, and generalized contempt for middle class society, all of which paralyzed action until 1939. So today, left-liberalism continues to make things easier for our enemies.
I cannot recommend The Middle Parts of Fortune highly enough, especially to conservatives. It is the only novel of that war to see beyond the immediate to enduring reality, as those three quotations above show. And let us carry in our hearts these final words:
They turned from the wreckage and misery of life to an empty heaven, and from an empty heaven to the silence of their own hearts. They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each other's shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other. *
"I am the first acknowledged comedian to receive a vote for the Presidency -- not the first comedian, mind you, but the first acknowledged one." --Will Rogers
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), an English writer prominent in the teens and twenties of the last century, was primarily known as a novelist of the Five Towns, the great pottery manufacturing center in Staffordshire where he was born, and most of his best novels are rooted there. His career was curious: his good novels are interspersed with piffling pot boilers that hardly seem written by the same hand, so there seems to be no progression, no logic. One never knew what he would do next.
After ten years of trifling novels, Bennett published The Old Wives Tale in 1908, his masterpiece and perhaps the greatest novel in the language. It is the story of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, from their late teens until their deaths fifty years later. In a few pages, Bennett creates the surrounding background of the county, the pottery district, St. Luke's Square in Bursley, and the Baineses' drapery shop, with a few touches that give us the character of John Baines, the bedridden father. Such an opening may seem like atmospheric padding, but long before we reach the end of the book we know how much all these things are factors in the life of the girls. Their individuality is soon apparent: Constance is sweet, dutiful, sensible; Sophia is willful, proud, unreasoning, and as the book progresses and events test their characters, we see how their individualities are refined and modified, just as we also see how they have been shaped by their parents and where they were raised. It is fascinating to watch them develop and to see how they master, each in her own way, the vicissitudes of life. No other novel in English that I know of gives us such a sense of character and its development.
We are made aware from the beginning that even the simplest choices involve complexities of character, and Bennett uses these situations to reveal character. Early on, for instance, a struggle develops between Mrs. Baines and Sophia over the latter's desire to become a teacher, a bitter struggle which Sophia wins. Here is the author's account of the mother's feelings.
There is no need to insist on the tragic grandeur of Mrs. Baines's renunciation -- a renunciation which implied her acceptance of a change in the balance of power in her realm. Part of its tragedy was that none, not even Constance, could divine the intensity of Mrs. Baines's suffering. She had no confidante; she was incapable of showing a wound. . . . she felt all the bitterness of age against youth -- youth egotistic, harsh, cruel, uncompromising youth that is so crude, so ignorant of life, so slow to understand! She had Constance. Yes, but it would be twenty years before Constance could appreciate the sacrifice of Judgment and of pride which her mother had made. . . . Probably Constance thought that she had yielded to Sophia's passionate temper! Impossible to explain to Constance that she had yielded to nothing but a perception of Sophia's complete inability to hear reason and wisdom. Ah! Sometimes as she lay in the dark, she would, in fancy, snatch her heart from her bosom and fling it down before Sophia, bleeding, and cry: "See what I carry about with me, on your account!" Then she would take it back and hide it again, and sweeten her bitterness with wise admonitions to herself.
All this because Sophia, aware that if she stayed in the house she would be compelled to help in the shop, chose an honorable activity which freed her from the danger. Heart, how absurd of you to bleed!
The last line is a rational judgment from outside the lives of the characters, and Bennett says it in order to emphasize how wide of the truth of life such a judgment is -- because we do not live life from the outside, objectively, but from the inside with all our tangles of feeling and thought.
One of the finest aspects of Bennett's view of life is that none of the characters are petty. Of the death of Samuel Povey, Constance's husband, he says (my emphasis):
Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.
This is woven into the texture of the book's theme: the inexorable passage of time, which yet "cannot diminish the meaning and importance of every human life" (Dudley Barker). We are shown this in Sophia's thoughts when she regards the corpse of Gerald Scales. He has turned up, penniless on the point of death, at the shop of one of his relatives, who wires Sophia. When she arrives, he is dead.
Sophia then experienced a pure and primitive emotion, uncolored by any moral or religious quality. She was not sorry that Gerald had wasted his life, nor that he was a shame to his years and to her. The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that. He had ill-treated her; he had abandoned her, he had been a devious rascal; but how trivial were such accusations against him! The whole of her huge and bitter grievance against him fell to pieces and crumbled. She saw him young, and proud, and strong, as for instance when he had kissed her lying on the bed in that London hotel -- she forgot the name -- in 1866; and now he was old, and worn, and horrible, and dead. It was the riddle of life that was puzzling and killing her. By the corner of her eye, reflected in the mirror of a wardrobe near the bed, she glimpsed a tall, forlorn woman, who had once been young and now was old; who had once exulted in abundant strength, and trodden proudly on the neck of circumstance, and now was old. He and she had once loved and burned and quarreled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. "Yet a little while," she thought, "and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?" The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.
But after these ruminations, when the relative knocks at the door, (my emphasis).
"Come in," she said, in a calm, resigned, cheerful voice. The sound had recalled her with the swiftness of a miracle to the unconquerable dignity of human pride.
I know of no other novel that gives the readers such a comprehension of, and feeling for, its characters. By touching these ordinary lives with universal significance, Bennett has dignified all our lives.
In 1924, Virginia Woolf gave a talk which was later published as "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in which she claimed that a cultural shift had occurred at about the time of King Edward's death in 1910, and she called older writers, like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy Edwardians and the younger writers Georgians after the new king. She names D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, and she also has herself in mind. The main burden of her charge against the Edwardians (she is particularly contemptuous of Bennett) is that they:
. . . laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there . . . if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.
Her own practice in her novels was to avoid "things" as much as possible, concentrating instead on the inner thoughts, feelings, and moods of her characters, especially as they are expressed in concentrated moments (see the discussion of Mimesis in the sixth essay in this series). To the Lighthouse (1927), generally regarded as her most characteristic novel, uses this method, and I have to say that I know as little of Mrs. Ramsey, the central character, at the end of the book as at the beginning, and what is much worse, I have no feeling for her whatsoever. But of course, she was quite wrong about "things." As The Old Wives Tale amply demonstrates, things do help to define us. What Sophia thinks of the prostitute's furniture she buys and how she uses it in her improvised boarding house during the siege of Paris is very revealing, just as Constance's reference to flowers on the mantelpiece as her "garden" is. Give me Arnold Bennett anytime; at least he enhanced our sense of human dignity -- and we know what modern writers think of that. Perhaps Max Beerbohm said it best, as reported in David Cecil's Max: A Biography.
Henry James told him he did not think much of it; "What's it about?" he asked, and repeated testily, "What is it about?" "Why," said Max, relating the incident in later years, with reminiscent indignation, "Why, I told him, it's about the passing of time, about the stealthy merging of youth into age, the invisibility of the traps in our own characters into which we walk unwary, unknowing.". . . There is nothing stylish about The Old Wives Tale, nor is it in the obvious sense "beautiful." Its strength lies in its vision, at once penetrating and heartfelt, of the basic human situation as it presents itself to the average human being.
Additional Reading: Clayhanger, 1910; Hilda Lessways, 1911; These Twain, 1916, A trilogy; The Card, 1911, A comic novel; Riceyman Steps, 1923, Absorbing novel about a miser.
Woolf, Virginia, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" in The Hogarth Essays, 1928. *
"Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." --Francis Bacon
Have you ever met anyone who claimed a book had changed his life? Aside from intense college girls who'd read The Fountainhead, I mean. I've heard of instances, but never actually met anyone--except myself. Thinking it over, I realize that such a change cannot be an unheralded stroke, a sudden and complete redirection; there must be a predisposition, an obscure undercurrent. In my case, there was a desire to be off by myself in the wilds. At the age of seven I built my first hut under a tall old apple tree on a lot where a house had once stood, and sat in its low doorway watching snow fall with great satisfaction. I was an outdoor boy; on Saturdays when my friends went to the movies, I went "exploring" in the overgrown lots in my neighborhood, climbing trees, catching grasshoppers and toads, digging worms for fishing in the park pond. So it cannot have been chance alone when, at the age of ten, I took Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849) down from the shelf: the cover, a painting of an Indian encampment, beckoned. Since a healthy outdoor boy's daylight hours cannot be taken up with books, most of it I read by flashlight under the covers at night. It took me a long time, the better part of a year, although I was a very good reader, because I was fascinated by the crowding details of Parkman's driving, circumstantial narrative of his progress along the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1896 to his meeting with the Oglalla Sioux in the Black Hills. Here's the first page:
Last spring, 1846, was a busy season in the city of St. Louis. Not only were emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fe. Many of the emigrants, especially of those bound for California, were persons of wealth and standing. The hotels were crowded, and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work in providing arms and equipments for the different parties of travelers. Almost every day steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri, crowded with passengers on their way to the frontier.
In one of these, the Radnor, since snagged and lost, my friend and relative, Quincy A. Shaw, and myself, left St. Louis on the twenty-eighth of April, on a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains. The boat was loaded until the water broke alternately over her guards. Her upper-deck was covered with large wagons of a peculiar form, for the Santa Fe trade, and her hold was crammed with goods for the same destination. There were also the equipments, and provisions of a party of Oregon emigrants, a band of mules and horses, piles of saddles and harness, and a multitude of nondescript articles, indispensable on the prairies. Almost hidden in this medley one might have seen a small French cart, of the sort very appropriately called a "mule-killer," beyond the frontiers, and not far distant a tent, together, with a miscellaneous assortment of boxes and barrels. The whole equipage was far from prepossessing in its appearance; yet, such as it was, it was destined to a long and arduous journey, on which the persevering reader will accompany it.
All those strange people and things--gunsmiths, wagons, boxes and barrels, emigrants--how I pored over each one, imagining its appearance, passing it before me in my mind's eye, savoring everything. What a book for an outdoor boy! It gave me a dream. As soon as I was grownup, I would go to the Black Hills, build a cabin, and be a prospector. I got some pamphlets on placer mining from the Government Printing Office and now, instead of aimless doodling in my school books when I was bored, I drew up cabin plans. My future was set.
Then in the spring of 1947, when I was thirteen, we moved from the city to a farmhouse in the countryside, and there I read the second transforming book, which refocused the change wrought by Parkman. Waiting my turn in the barbershop in the small country town, I was leafing through Fur, Fish, and Game when I saw an ad for "Deep-river Jim's Wilderness Trail Book," and that night I sent my fifty cents to the Boston address--consciously and deliberately. The book was published in the '30s (I have the 1945 reprint) by the Open Road Pioneers' Club, itself founded in 1927 by The Open Road for Boys magazine (of which I had never heard and know nothing to this day), and it was a loose organization, to put it mildly. There were neither rules nor dues, you could form a chapter or just be a Lone Pioneer, and the requirements were unexceptionable.
The chief requirements of membership are that the boys and the men who join must have an interest in outdoor life, a desire to develop their ability to use and enjoy the land and water trails, and an eagerness to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers who, in blazing the way and in founding our country, lived on intimate terms with nature.
The Club is patriotic, non-political, non-sectarian open to all boys and men of good character. Its object is to make better, healthier, happier citizens by providing a program of activities that will give each member an understanding of nature and a lasting love for outdoor life.
This is the Code: "to meet each obstacle physical, mental, or moral--face to face and overcome it," and this the Motto: "Be sure you're right--then go ahead." It seemed sensible when I was thirteen. Today I smile at its naive audacity--but it still seems sensible. I sent in thirty cents to get the membership certificate and "gold and blue felt sweater emblem" (the profile of a hunter in buckskins and coonskin cap). To gain Pioneer honors, for instance, to become a Trailsman, the first step up, I need pass only ten tests selected from twenty-six. Here are some:
Go on four overnight hikes. Take proper care of yourself and your equipment.
Build a campfire, using only one match and no paper.
Keep it going for one hour, then put it out. On every attempt to pass this test fresh materials must be used.
Name and describe, giving habits, five varieties or species of wild animals you have personally observed in their wild state, making a record when and where seen.
Describe five varieties of fish you have personally observed. Of these five, catch, clean and cook (do it all yourself) not less than two varieties.
Build a lean-to and sleep out in it at least one night.
Cook four of the following dishes outdoors: hunter's stew, vegetable soup (made from raw vegetables), omelet, flapjacks, hash, steaks, fried fish.
Write a paper of not less than 300 words giving a short history of the United States flag; its origin; the significance of its stars and stripes; and the proper forms of respect due it.
Demonstrate the proper use of an axe in felling timber.
I could have become a Trailsman right away, but I was not interested in the club; I was a loner, and it was the book I cared about.
Fifty-eight years after I bought it, I turn it now in my hands, its paper covers taped and re-taped, its pages worn and stained, and I am amazed at the useful information packed into its 300 pages. I used it last week to identify tracks in the snow behind the barn. What's even more amazing is that the book is consistently interesting; the information is conveyed painlessly by a simple, direct, intimate style, as if the writer were talking to the reader, a deliberate and effective strategy. The editor who passed as Deep-river Jim was folksy, but not obnoxiously corny.
Well, there's no sense in pushing on any further; we wouldn't be able to reach camp tonight, anyhow. I wouldn't say that spending a night under the winter stars without blankets is something we'd do from choice, but I reckon we can make ourselves and the dog comfortable enough so's we can get a few hours' sleep anyway. Trouble was, I didn't figure that bobcat would give us such a long chase. But seeing as you got a right prime hide out of it and I got the fun of watching old Ginger work--as pretty job of trailing by a hound as I ever saw--well, I'm, not grumbling about a night in the open. We have our belt axes, dry matches and some left-over grub, so we ought to make out pretty fair.
The book is organized by months, and each chapter of twenty pages or so, nicely illustrated with small drawings, treats several subjects in turn, as in January: A Winter's Night in the Woods, Black Bear, Ice Fishing, Smelt, Porcupines, Winter Rabbiting, Caught in the Mountains, How to Build a Small Fire, A Camp Lantern, Recipes of the Month (one of my favorite sections): A Trapper's Cold Weather Dish, Griddle Cakes, Onion Chowder, Woodsman's Coffee, Hashed Brown Potatoes, Fried Rabbit.
What the book did was to bring the Parkman dream down to my level and place and time. Deep-river Jim's world was not a hundred years in the past, nor far off in the Black Hills, and I could be part of it just by going out in the fields and woods around the farmhouse (locate the North star; name and describe ten wild birds you have observed; collect, identify, and mount fifteen varieties of insects). There was nothing distant about Deep-river Jim, far from it, and in my eyes there was nothing fantastic about what went on in his world; the dream became real. Soon I became a hunter, and in time I would live in the woods and at last build log cabins (I'm just finishing my fourth).
There was another dimension to the books which affected me: they made me feel part of a long line of men, a succession of pioneers, frontiersmen, of men whose qualities added up to what I thought of as an American. It was a limited view, of course, but I'm very glad I started on such a firm, if narrow, ground. No matter what foolishness I would involve myself in, I never lost that grainy sense of my American self.
For conservatives, it's all too easy to contrast the ethos of the Open Road Pioneers' Club with what goes on today: the Boy Scouts are sued because they won't admit homosexuals; between joggers and hikers and Greens the great outdoors is a preserve for yuppie narcissists; the flag is burned; a boys club today would be forced to admit girls; any kid who followed the book's directions for Woodsman's Coffee and burned his tongue would sue Deep-river Jim for everything but his suspender buttons, and so on. The world of childhood, we are told, is now no more than a "demographic" for cunning marketers. This is nothing new; it has all been noted, again and again, in recent years. In fact, that may be part of our problem, that we take pleasure in hearing about the latest outrages; we enjoy our indignation, our assertion of righteousness, and isn't that true sometimes of conservative publications, stuck in a negative rut, as if griping to each other would get us anywhere?
We should be thinking positively, as the code says--meet each obstacle face to face and overcome it. Thinking of the present instance, it is nonsense to think all children have been corrupted; there are plenty of kids who have dreams as unfashionable as mine was, and it should be our privilege to help them by creating a decent culture to replace the failed, crumbling liberal culture. We all have a stake in this, and we can all play a part, if only by demanding of our leaders and communicators and editors, et al., positive visions of which we can be proud. Remember the Motto: Be sure you're right--then go ahead!
Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac are in one volume of the Library of America. His great, seven-volume opus, France and England in North America is available in two volumes. Narrative history at its best. For an account of significant Western events in 1846, with sidelights on Parkman and his adventures, see the excellent The Year of Decision: 1846 by Bernard De Voto.
If readers know anything about the Open Road for Boys magazine, please write to me. *
"The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are." --C. S. Lewis
The rationale of these literary essays, appearing in the Review for more than a year now, was explained in "Culture of Conservatives" in the Dec. 2005 issue, and I have alluded to it in some of the essays, but I think there's more to be said on the subject. I wrote that reading literature, good imaginative fiction, "gives us views of the world through others' eyes, widening our horizons, broadening our sympathies," and that it precedes politics, that our opinions are "surface manifestations of a world of thought and feeling" developed by "education, meaning everything we experience," including our reading. The books we read contribute to our culture, which in turn largely determines our politics. As I have said more than once, it is not the ideas in fiction that are so influential, but the writer's vision of the world. It is obvious, for instance, that Evelyn Waugh must have taken great pleasure observing people because it shows up in his characters; we feel his zest for life in his books; it is one of the chief pleasures of reading them. It would be absurd to try to list the "lessons" we learn from reading Waugh, but surely whatever it is, the knowledge gained is funny, not sour, and our outlook has been widened, not narrowed.
Readers will have noticed that the politics of the authors I've written about were various. Waugh was reactionary, Powers liberal, Swift an 18th century Tory, Hemingway radical. Their politics have little to do with their work and nothing to do with their artistry. Some express or imply ideas--Waugh, civilization's decay, Hemingway, stoic nihilism--but they are not nearly so important as the sensory reality of their stories or their general tone. The darkest writer of the group is Hemingway, but he never wrote anything that could be classed with the squalid fiction of today. Artistry has been a major theme in this series, analyzing the art of each writer, showing how it's done, because that's the finest thing we can get from our reading, recognition and understanding of the beauty of a work of art, which is, or should be, an essential part of the conservative outlook: the beauty of artistic form testifies to the greatness of man's spirit.
People have always based their affiliations on their cultural predispositions, just as they have felt that their political allegiances tell important things about them; but there is a difference today: Liberals are far more fiercely committed to the Democratic party and their identity is much more closely bound up with it, hence the term "identity politics." Why is this so? Although modern liberalism (the leftist type, distinct from 19th century liberalism) began as a cultural phenomenon--the literature of the time--in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and got a boost in the 1920s and '30s, it really spread to the political realm in the mid '60s. It is hard to believe today, but I remember the early '60s, when elite colleges were staffed by apoliticals, conservatives (not very many), and liberals of the Adlai Stevenson variety. Passions were cool, belligerence non-existent. Once radicalism moved beyond its subculture, working to take over the Democratic party between 1968 and '72, the temperature of political passions shot up and we were swamped by a culture of alienation and rebellion, sour, nasty, negative. Naturally this bred a strong identity politics, to the extent that where I live yuppies (teenagers in the '60s) shun known Bush voters and are fearful of Christians! This trend was exacerbated by the advent of Reagan and the rise of conservatism: Now liberals, feeling besieged as the cultural control they've exerted for so long is weakening, cling more desperately than ever to their politics. With most aspects of culture behind them for so long, liberals were supremely confident until recently.
The liberal literary culture of the last 100 years is characterized by a dark, negative tone. As one observer notes:
There is in all these works a certain atmosphere of universal doom . . . an impression of hopelessness . . . something confusing, something hazy . . . something hostile to the reality which they represent . . . a turning away from the practical will to live or delight in portraying it under its most brutal forms. There is a hatred of culture and civilization . . . and often a radical and fanatical urge to destroy.
Sometimes the themes are negative, often they are simply incidental, a matter of course: against authority, business, the military, religion, the wealthy--all are portrayed as enemies of compassionate individuals. Understand that this says nothing about the quality of the writing. Dubliners, for instance, a book of stories by James Joyce, is beautifully done, but its point, the reason it was written, is to show nearly every character as contemptible. It's a very hard book to like; it's a typical product of modern literary culture. Remember: It isn't the ideas that influence readers, it's the way the world is seen and portrayed, in this case with contempt. There are contemporary novels that have been praised by conservatives for their ideas, but since their vision of the world is as squalid as any other typical contemporary novel, their ideas mean nothing.
If liberal literary culture is dying, what shall take its place? To try to answer that, I shall turn to Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a very highly regarded book written by Erich Auerbach over 60 years ago, erudite, fascinating, beautifully written and argued, but dense, often prolix, and linguistically demanding (to fully appreciate his analysis of all the texts requires knowledge of Latin, Italian, French, and German). Not a page-turner for the casual reader. Nevertheless, I think we can winkle from it some ideas useful for our discussion. The basic argument is that Western literature from its beginning in antiquity (he opens with Homer's Odyssey) and onward over the centuries, has grappled with the challenge of representing reality in many different ways, culminating in modern realism, represented first by Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and thereafter by many others, from whom he chooses Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) as the exemplar. Well aware of the negative aspects of modern realism--he's the "observer" I quoted above--he was more impressed by "something new and elemental . . . nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice." It would take too long to explain here, but if the reader is familiar with the stories of Katherine Mansfield or the genteel writers of The New Yorker school (prior to the mid-'60s), he will be acquainted with the method of concentrating on feelings and perceptions in random revelatory moments.
Whether we agree with Auerbach's characterization of modern realism or not, the thing to see is that he thinks it has solved the problem of representing reality. This is it, the end of the line, the culmination of nearly 3000 years of literary history. I don't think one has to be a conservative to be skeptical of progressive, quasi-teleolgical views of history, even literary history. Realism, in this realm anyway, is a method like any other (expressionism, surrealism, objectivism, etc., etc.); just as there have been others in the past so there will be more in the future. What Auerbach seems to have done here is to conflate the method, realism, with what it's trying to portray, reality. His error may be due to the fact that many modern realists (Woolf and Joyce being prominent examples) try to mimic reality by uttering incoherent thoughts of their characters--stream of consciousness is one form of this--so if the mime succeeds, and he thinks it does, then the method merges with the thing itself. But this is nonsense, if for no other reason than the fact that reality can only be fully and truly known to the mind of God; as individuals we all see it a little differently. For another reason, it is clear now that in the years since Mimesis was written, the method seems to have played itself out.
So we come back to the question of what shall replace liberal literary culture. We may hope for a conservative renaissance, though we cannot know what form it will take (except that it will not be modern realism), but its development will be long delayed unless conservative editors begin to publish fiction. It will be very difficult at first. No one seems to care much about literature anymore, and taste has been debased. But a beginning must be made. Only then, when conservatives feel the weight of their culture behind them, will they have the confidence and spirit to restore America to itself. I hope this series of essays has started readers thinking about these matters, and I also hope I have interested them in some fine writers. There are more to come: Francis Parkman, Arnold Bennett, Thoreau, Henry James, Conrad and more. *
"The first virtue of all really great men is that they are sincere. They eradicate hypocrisy from their hearts." --Anatole France
We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions in support of this journal (from 1/8/2007 to 3/9/2007): William D. Andrews, Charles A. Bacon, John M. Baker, Reid S. Barker, John G. Barrett, Harry S. Barrows, Gordon D. Batcheller, Arnold Beichman, Bud & Carol Belz, Charles Benscheidt, Ronald Benson, Aleatha W. Berry, Veronica A. Binzley, James B. Black, Erminio Bonacci, C.W. Borklund, I. C. Brent, Priscilla L. Buckley, William G. Buckner, David G. Budinger, D. J. Cahill, George E. Cahill, William C. Campion, Mark T. Cenac, W. Edward Chynoweth, William D. Collingwood, Garry W. Croudis, Nancy W. Davis, Dianne C. DeBoest, Robert W. Demers, Francis. P. Destefano, Linda Driedger, Neil Eckles, Carl W. Edquist, Irene M. Elkins, Nicholas Falco, Nansie Lou Follen, Reubin M. Freitas, Jerome C. Fritz, James R. Gaines, Jane F. Gelderman, Gary D. Gillespie, Lee E. Goewey, Hollis J. Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Daniel J. Haley, Robert C. Hall, Violet H. Hall, Ted L. Harkins, Thomas E. Heately, Bernhard Heersink, Thomas E. Humphreys, Joseph M. Irvin, Burleigh Jacobs, Robert R. Johnson, Steven D. Johnson, Mary A. Kelley, Robert E. Kelly, Walter J. Kenworthy, Robert E. Kersey, Robert M. Kubow, Harvey & Mary Larsen, Robert Leaf, James A. Lee, Herbert London, Ronald B. Maddox, Scott Martin, Verlie Mae Matson, W. K. McLain, David P. & Barbara R. Mitchel, Michael E. Moore, King Odell, Larry A. Olsen, Harold Olson, Frederick D. Pfau, Donald J. Povejsil, Garland L. & Betty Pugh, Jane B. Ramsland, Richard O. Ranheim, Jeanne I. Reisler, Shirley W. Roe, Robert E. Rolwing, Morris R. Scholz, Mr. & Mrs. Richard P. Schonland, Irene L. Schultz, Harry Richard Schumache, Richard L. Sega, William A. Shipley, Joseph M. Simonet, Ben T. Slade, Thomas E. Snee, Carl G. Stevenson, Charles B. Stevenson, Mary H. Sundberg, Elizabeth E. Torrance, Jacke E. Turner, James J. Whelan, Max L. Williamson, Charles W. Wilson, Eric B. Wilson, Robert W. Wilson.
If, as I hope to show in a later essay in this series, Henry Thoreau (1817-62) is the father of American expository prose, Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the father of most modern American fiction. His work represents a break with the genteel tradition, introducing a democratic style, a democratic cast of characters, and a democratic way of looking at American society. He took the crude dialect humor of journalists like Petroleum Nasby and Artemus Ward, mixed it with the rough frontier humor he had known during his apprentice days in the West, consumed the dross in the crucible of his imagination, and produced in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876), a moving story of astonishing depth and clarity. Hitherto, characters like Huck and Jim, not to speak of the King and the Duke, were regarded as too low for serious fiction. Henry James, just beginning his career in the 1870s, felt that he had to go to Europe to find the background for his stories of the complications of American innocence--his native land was too barren of the subtle usages of traditional civilization--but Twain, on the barest of stages and out of the commonest clay and in the simplest of tongues wrote a novel about innocence that became a world classic.
What is astonishing is that he knew so little about what he was doing. He abandoned the manuscript for six years and almost destroyed it, and he thought The Prince and the Pauper (second-rate trash) a far better novel. I cannot think of a major American writer less conscious of what he was doing. And yet when his instincts were working just right, he could perform wonders. As an example let me cite what most critics regard as a major flaw in the book: the sections at the beginning and end of the book dominated by Tom Sawyer. Since Tom is a very superficial character--the conventional mischief-maker is always forgiven his essentially harmless pranks--these chapters distract us from the moving depths of the chapters in the middle devoted to Huck and Jim on the raft. What the critics don't see is that the reader needs that distraction; without it he cannot gauge the profundity of the central chapters. Those are insulated, protected by the Sawyer chapters, and their specialness is thus preserved. And we can only appreciate the quality of Huck's clear-eyed realism when we compare it with Tom's superficiality and sentimentality. Without the Sawyer chapters the power of the core of the book would be much diminished. I'm certain Twain did not consciously know this, and I doubt if he would have understood it if it were explained, but a writer's deep instincts guided him aright.
By democratic style I mean Twain's use of the vernacular, and his prefatory note about the different dialects shows how painstaking he was in this regard. The device of Huck as narrator may be called false naivet. Huck is naive but his creator is not. Naive doesn't seem quite the right word for Huck; he's no fool, he's not taken in by frauds, he can make up elaborate alibis in a moment, he's sharply observant, as when he notes with devastating realism the squalid riverside towns with their shiftless inhabitants.
There couldn't anything wake them up all over and make them happy all olike a dog-fight--unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.
But we think of him as naive, especially compared to the relatively worldly sophisticated Tom Sawyer, in that there's a simplicity, directness, and freshness about his character, an openness to experience, that's constantly reflected in the way he speaks. Naturally he does not use literary language or anything aiming for elegance. Look at this passage describing the coming of dawn on the river:
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line--that was the woods on t'other side--you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see the little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away--trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks--rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds came so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in the swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up . . .
He moves progressively from one sensory impression to another as the light increases; we see the river awakening as Huck does, and we sense what lies just beneath the words: his wonder. Do not think that Twain has merely copied vernacular speech; he has used its words and its rhythms, carefully arranged, to create literary pictures that would be beyond the capacity of a real Huck Finn. His genius has created the style, put the words in the boy's mouth that make us see the sunrise as he does and that strikes the chords of sympathy between character and reader. Thus does great writing transcend its time. Huck's style frees him to a great degree of the constraints of time and place.
One of the persistent themes in the book is Huck's distrust of society, any society, whether of the sordid towns or the widow Douglas; it's "civilization" and he wants no part of it. In this connection, note that Tom Sawyer's antics, which make him a major bore in the book, are dictated by "books" as he says; he's relatively sophisticated but that's no virtue in Huck's eyes. This strain of anti-gentility, anti-authority would be another aspect of the Huckleberry Finn legacy.
Ernest Hemingway once said that "All modern fiction comes from Huck Finn," a remark so general that it can mean much or little, depending on how we wish to read it, but surely the most obvious point is the one I made in the beginning: that Huckleberry Finn represents a break with the genteel tradition, democratizing the novel. We can test the truth of Hemingway's remark by looking at other American writers. Critics in the 1920s often linked Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) to Hemingway, but the resemblance between their writing is superficial and coincidental; they both drew from the same source, Mark Twain. Here's the opening of the first story in the Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the book that made Anderson's name:
Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that has been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon, and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun.
Nothing in the book rises far above this level of awkward simplicity. Listen to this passage near the end describing a visit to the grandstand the night after the county fair:
The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and country around. Farmers with their wives and children, and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
These passages are not merely simple, they are inarticulate, and for good reason, as we shall see. George Willard, the eighteen-year-old protagonist who works on the local paper and who leaves for Chicago at the end to become a writer, is more sophisticated but less mature than Huck Finn, just as Anderson was certainly not in the same league with Mark Twain. In the twenty-three short chapters of Winesburg, Anderson tells stories about the townspeople, usually one to a chapter, but the stories are not very circumstantial because the author focuses always on some peculiarity that seems to him the essence of character. In most cases they live lonely, strangely inverted lives, and the artlessness of the prose gives the impression, not that Anderson created them but that he discovered them. That is no mean feat.
When one thinks about the book, the George Willard theme fades away; it is the grotesque, usually secret lives of the characters that are remembered because the reader knows this truth: that all of us are lonely and none of us are strangers to hidden fixations and half understood compulsions. It is their inability to communicate, to make themselves known, that is most striking, most poignant, and psychologically so true. The style is vague and weak compared to Huckleberry Finn; he didn't have Twain's power, but he didn't want it, wouldn't have known what to do with it, not just because he was naive and childish (he was), but because what he was describing--the solitariness of every human being and the hidden ways people use to try to break out of it--is necessarily nebulous, a matter of moods and shifting feelings. Twain's book was like a key that opened a door to a new place where writers were free to slough off their literary garments. Anderson wrote simply about humble country people's frustrations; without the example of Huckleberry Finn it is impossible to say what he would have done.
Ring Lardner (1885-1933) was a sportswriter in Chicago who began writing humorous stories about baseball players just before the First World War, gradually expanding his cast of characters until he attracted attention and critical acclaim in the 1920s. His stories are slight; except for a few ("The Golden Honeymoon," "Haircut," "Champion") they hardly have any thematic interest. Most of them, and his epistolary novel You Know Me Al, are told in the fist person in the form of letters or dairies or monologues, and that's Lardner's strength because he had perfect pitch when it came to recording speech, especially of the lower middle class. This is the first entry in the diary of an eighteen-year-old girl:
I am staying here at the Inn for two weeks with my Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and I think I will keep a kind of diary while I am here to help pass the time and so I can have a record of things that happen though goodness knows there isn't lightly to anything happen, that is anything exciting with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule making the plans as they are both at least thirty-five years old and maybe older.
Here's a ballplayer:
O'course Art knowed the boy was with the Jackson club as soon as they was interduced, "cause Art's uncle says something" about the both o' them bein' ball players, and so on.
The narrator of "The Golden Honeymoon":
"Well Mother," I say, "when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain't heard me say before? But it may be new to others as they ain't nobody else lived with me as long as you have."
So she says: "You can bet they ain't, as they couldn't nobody else stand you that long."
You can't get ahead of Mother.
A fight promoter:
If you ever been to St. Joe, you know the Chicago society gals that attends them dances. If you want to see one of them in the middle of the week, go up to the Draperies and ask for Min.
He speaks of common things in the common tongue. I enjoy Lardner because his voices remind me of ones I heard when I was growing up in a New Jersey industrial city in the 1930s and '40s, but of course such specificity means early obsolescence; most of his topical references would have to be footnoted today, and the patterns of speech must seem antique to anyone under fifty. Lardner's characters are beautifully defined by their style, but they are also imprisoned by it, doomed to an early death. To understand why this is so and why, as I pointed out when I quoted the sunrise passage from Huckleberry Finn, as Huck's style frees him from the constraints of time and place, we have to recognize that Twain created the style, he simulated the speech--he did not copy it as Lardner did. But I would not run down Lardner; there are subtleties in his stories and his characters that are easily overlooked. What his work shows us is that writing about people in their own style can have immediate impact but a short life.
Ernest Hemingway's (1896-1961) work is most obviously influenced by Huckleberry Finn. He wrote novels, but he will be remembered for his stories, written in a direct, seemingly simple style closely reporting the sensory data of the scene. Probably no modern writer has described the material world so clearly. The characters he writes about are boxers, bullfighters, mobsters, soldiers, waiters, gamblers, et al., definitely not types from the genteel tradition. Reading his stories as a teenager, I was bowled over by their tremendous power, realizing only many years later that this was an ambiguous gift. Hemingway was driven by compulsions quite at odds with the charismatic charm he used to dominate those around him, and the effort to maintain the integrity of a coherent, functioning personality created great tension which determined, to a considerable degree, the way he wrote. Someone once said that reading a Hemingway story is like being a passenger in a truck loaded with dynamite being driven over a shaky bridge. Of course he often wrote about tense, testing situations, but there seldom is any relaxation in his stories. We come to feel that, no matter the ostensible subject, the story is really about the tension that broods over it. And since the style determines the characters (in Lardner it's vice versa), there tends to be a sameness about them. In what I think is his finest story, "The Big Two-Hearted River," the tension is managed very adroitly. Nick, the only character, is trying to put the immediate past (the war) behind him by recovering his past before the war, and the story is about the form of the attempt-making camp, going fishing. The tension is implicit in the descriptions of his acts, their intensity and the way they are ritualistically elaborated. It's clear that he's trying very hard, and he has his fingers crossed.
This is the opening:
The train went up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
It is nowhere stated in the story, but I think it fair to say that the fire (which occurred in 1916) is analogous to Hemingway's experience of the war. But the river is still there:
It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. . . . Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
He starts out into the country:
Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. . . . Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.
Note this description:
Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes. He crawled inside the mosquito bar with various things from the pack to put at the head of the bed under the slant of the canvas. Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been all this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
Besides the obvious satisfaction here, we feel the underlying tension: the creation of "his home" is defensive-"nothing could touch him"--and we feel it in the repetitions. He makes us feel Nick's pleasure in his acts, his satisfaction, and we are drawn into that feeling; there can be no higher praise for a piece of writing.
To go back to the subject of style, look again at the quotations above. It looks so simple, and evidently a lot of writers thought it was, as one can see from the magazines of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, filled with their futile imitations. It is not enough to write simple declarative sentences, leaving out the adjectives; a writer has to have the artistic genius to choose the words and sentences and to order them. It is possible to analyze the structure of a paragraph to see why Hemingway made the choices he did, but it's something else to do it yourself. To write simply is not simple at all.
Hemingway's stories are the artistic culmination of the line from Huckleberry Finn, but his achievement is not the equal of Twain's because he lacked his breadth of character and depth of heart. The line continued but its products became less and less artistic. Think of John Steinbeck, or Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, or that caricature of Huck, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Today we recognize it by its lowlife characters, its coarseness, squalor, and profanity.
Hemingway's statement also has a negative implication: the end of the genteel tradition--but he was mistaken. That tradition did not die with Henry James but continued in the work of Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Including the last-named may seem surprising since there are obvious traces of Huckleberry Finn in his books, notably in his mixed cast of characters, and to some extent, in his style (As I Lay Dying, The Hamlet). That leads us to a fresh revelation, what we might call the democratic tradition in American letters. Cooper belonged to the genteel tradition--but think of Leatherstocking. So did Melville, our greatest, most eloquent novelist--but think of Ishmael, Queequeg, and the crew of the Pequod. Wharton wrote Ethan Frome and Summer. And Gatsby had a humble, shady past. We cannot escape our native ground. The best American fiction will nearly always include characters without pedigrees, and since Twain they will speak in their own voices.
The other lesson of this essay is that what really matters in art is not the writer's ideas or tradition but his genius and that's a variable quality. Twain wrote many books, but only two are first rate--Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi--because they are about the great river that was the central experience and totem of his life. *
"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." --John F. Kennedy
[Editor's note: the last article by Mr. Gardner was incorrectly titled as the 4th in his series-it was the 5th.]
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is our subject this time, specifically Gulliver's Travels, his masterpiece. Probably most of my readers, if they know the book at all, have read only the abridged and bowdlerized version of the voyage to Lilliput, intended for children. There are, however, four voyages, and we are going to look closely at three.
It may be remembered that in the first essay about Evelyn Waugh I discussed the innocence of Paul Pennyfeather, the hero of Decline and Fall, as a typical device of satire; it is his naivete that brings out and highlights the knavery and folly around him, and that serves, finally, as the norm, the moral center. Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator and protagonist of his Travels, is a similar figure, but Swift manipulates him in ways that become more and more complex as the book proceeds, implicating the reader in a web of understanding and misunderstanding that profoundly changes our initial view of the book--and Gulliver--as well as our perceptions as we read it. When one considers that Gulliver is the sole narrator of a book that can run, in a modern edition, to 225 pages, it is amazing that Swift created a character who is consistent throughout, who is the constant sport (and sometimes perpetrator) of irony, and who never puts a foot out of place. He is one of the great creations in English literature.
Listen to the first two sentences of the voyage to Lilliput:
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies: but the charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty allowance) being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years; and my father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be some time or other my fortune to do.
We learn several material things about Gulliver, but in the course of their accumulation--and this is quite deliberate--we are given a distinct impression of him: an ordinary, middling sort of fellow, earnest and studious, thoroughly prosaic, with a good but not exalted opinion of himself. Swift has created a believable character, and what's more important, one whom we will believe.
There is some topical satire, notably in Chapter Three, caricaturing, via descriptions of Lilliputian customs, the scramble for royal and political favor at home, but Swift soon drops that, and it needn't concern us. What comes across most powerfully is the fascination we feel observing the actions of little people, especially as we identify with Gulliver, which induces a feeling of superiority. So we are amused by his appetite:
There were shoulders, legs and loins shaped like those of mutton, and very well dressed, but smaller than the wings of a lark. I eat them by two or three at a mouthful, and took three loaves at a time, about the bigness of musket bullets. They supplied me as fast as they could, showing a thousand marks of wonder and astonishment at my bulk and appetite.
And also we are amused, and complicit in his condescension to his hosts, by his urination and defecation. At a couple of points we note that the Lilliput experience has gone to Gulliver's head:
. . . I had the honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the world knows he is only a Clumglum, a title inferior by one degree, as that of a marquis is to a duke in England . . .
If we think about it, Gulliver is being vain and gullible, but there are only three small instances and we are on his side, so we smile and pass on. The first voyage seems quite simple, but when we get to Brobdignag on the second voyage, the location of the moral center will shift, and we will, looking back, notice things about Lilliput we did not see at the time.
In Lilliput Gulliver (and the reader) was twelve times the size of the natives; in Brobdignag the difference is reversed and Gulliver (and the reader) is twelve times smaller than the natives. Swift designedly introduces this condition to Gulliver in a way calculated to emphasize its frightening aspects, forcing us to recognize its full ramifications. So when Gulliver is abandoned on the strange shore by his shipmates, because a "monster" is trying to overtake the boat, and when he explores inland, the size of everything--trees, grass, crops-seems menacing. He spies a farmer and his laborers ("seven monsters") carrying reaping-hooks each "about the largeness of six scythes," from whom he hides, dolefully lamenting his situation, comparing it to his glory days in Lilliput, "whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest prodigy that ever appeared in the world," recognizing the strength of the contrast: ". . . what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us."
He is taken up by the farmer who soon sees Gulliver's commercial potential and takes him around the country, exhibiting him for money throughout his stay in Brobdignag, Gulliver is forced by his situation to behave like a little pet, a manikin, and he is further humiliated by frightening encounters with rats, flies, wasps, a dog, and a monkey. Eventually, the Queen buys Gulliver from the farmer, and he and his protector, Glumdalclitch, the farmer's daughter, are installed in the palace. Compare his description of the queen eating with the earlier quotation about eating in Lilliput. The shoe is on the other foot, and when our point of view shifts, things are not so amusing:
She would craunch the wing of a lark, bones and all, between her teeth, although it were nine times as large as that of a full-grown turkey; and put a bit of bread in her mouth, as big as two twelve-penny loaves. She drank out of a golden cup, above a hogshead at a draught.
Now the norm shifts to the king when he quizzes Gulliver about the laws and customs of Great Britain. Gulliver gives a ludicrously rosy account, funny in itself, but the King asks pointed questions that implicitly vitiate Gulliver's panegyric. Swift's great skill as a satirist is beautifully displayed in these colloquies, as this five part sequence shows. First Gulliver, to ingratiate himself with the King, tells him about gunpowder and its horrific effects ("divide hundreds of bodies in the middle," "dashing out the brains of all who came near") in warfare, and offers him the formula. The King is appalled ("how so impotent and groveling an insect . . . could entertain such inhuman ideas") which sinks him in Gulliver's estimation ("A strange effect of narrow principles and short views!" ". . . a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception") and leads him to the set-up ("I take this defect . . . to have arisen from their ignorance, by not having . . . reduced politics into a science, as the more acute wits of Europe have done") for the king's triumphant conclusion:
He confined the knowledge of governing within very narrow bounds; to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy determination of civil and criminal causes; with some other obvious topics which are not worth considering. And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
However brilliantly done, this is the standard stuff of satire. When we look at the voyage as a whole, what is really brilliant is the way Swift has used the size reversal to break down the smug complacency of Book 1 and to show the instability of Gulliver's point of view, which turns out to be dependent on circumstances. His gullibility is more apparent in Book 2 as he plays the part of a manikin, trying to fool the king with his absurd account. Now we know that Gulliver's world is more complex than we imagined, and the whole question of moral judgment is far weightier than we thought when we, along with Gulliver, were so sure of ourselves in Lilliput.
Since Book 3 is a grab-bag of visits to several fabulous places to score satiric points at various targets and is of slight interest, we shall skip it.
Book 4, the voyage to the Houyhnhnms (pronounced "whi-nim," to imitate a horse's neigh) the summit of Swift's achievement, has been badly misunderstood since the rise of Romanticism, with its sentimental strain. Then the genial but clear-eyed realism of the 18th century was disapproved, and by mid-century, when Thackeray wrote a famous diatribe against Book 4, the only satire permitted by the Victorians was vitiated by sentimentality. But with our knowledge of Gulliver, gained over the first two Books, we should be able to find our way.
Hitherto, Gulliver has always landed among recognizably human beings, whatever their size, but now he must find his bearings in a land ruled by horses with savage quasi-humans as their beasts of burden. No wonder, considering his gullibility, that he goes astray almost at once as he falls under the spell of the Houyhnhnms and adopts their view of the Yahoos. The theory advanced by Gulliver's "master" is that the Yahoos are descendants of people shipwrecked there who degenerated over time in a state of nature, a plausible notion in the context of the voyage. But they are not human beings as the horses and Gulliver mean, they are not commensurate with Englishmen in 1727. So far as we can tell, they are more savage than any "savages." Both the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are imaginary constructs, more fabulous than Lilliputians or Brobdignagians. So Gulliver, seeing the horses as superior beings, identifies with them and tries to imitate them. It is not surprising, then, that when he is called upon to give an account of affairs back home, he tells his "master" an exaggeratedly negative story, reversing his behavior with the King of Brobdignag because, he says, seeing the Houyhnhnms' virtues, the faults of mankind seem worse, and in any case he has decided not to return home, ". . . but to pass the rest of my life among the admirable Houyhnhnms in the contemplation and practice of every virtue." Consequently, he makes much of his simple way of life, eating oatcakes and sleeping on straw in a wattle and daub hut, listening avidly ("a humble auditor") to the improving conversation of the horses--in short, being thoroughly, obnoxiously smug.
The Houyhnhnms seem special, of course, because they are reasoning animals, and Swift carries that thought further to make them apostles of the life of reason. He was satirizing a contemporary school of thought, neo-Stoic and Deistic, whose faith in reason was virtually utopian. Gulliver is completely taken in. When he translates Houyhnhnms as "perfection of Nature" (overlooking pride); when he notes their dismissal of the idea that he sailed there (overlooking blind prejudice); when he says they revere nature (overlooking what it presumably did to the Yahoos); when he quotes their condemnation of the clothing of our private parts (overlooking the Eden story and its implications); when he shows how unemotional, how loveless they are as "purely" rational creatures (calling his own grief at the prospect of leaving them "imbecilities of nature") he means us to be favorably impressed.
Ordered to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver builds a boat covered with the "skins of Yahoos," its sail made of "skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick"; then he caulks it with "Yahoo's tallow." Blinded by the supposedly sinless Houyhnhnms in their rational utopia, Gulliver blithely, casually mentions details of his inhumanity. He displays his worst behavior when he reencounters his fellows, first in the person of a Portuguese ship captain who treats Gulliver with extraordinary kindness, generosity, and patience, to whom Gulliver is barely civil, stupidly equating the man with Yahoos. When he meets his family, "the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt," fainting when his wife ("odious animal") kisses him. At the time of writing, after five years at home, he allows his wife to sit down at dinner with him "at the farthest end of a long table." He continues:
Yet the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves.
All this is bad enough, but the supreme moment of Gulliver's blindness comes just after that when, beginning with one of Swift's wonderful, funny catalogs, he chastises pride:
My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whoremonger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like; this is all according to the due course of things; but when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.
Then he goes on to praise the Houyhnhnms for their humility, when they and he are positively stuffed with pride, its obvious sign the self-satisfaction that makes them (and Gulliver) so obnoxious. That anyone (including the current Oxford Companion to English Literature) could imagine that Gulliver was Swift's mouthpiece here is a staggering thought. But the Houyhnhnms--antireligious, submoral, believing in nature--could become fashionable nowadays. I recall a woman, besotted with Greenism, declaring vehemently, "Nature is never wrong!"
I have stressed the instability of our image of Gulliver from voyage to voyage, as circumstances push him this way and that, but of course Swift controls the action, and he does this to shake us up, to teach us the great lesson about shifting points of view: humility--as well as about pride, Gulliver's besetting sin, and its disguises. And yet, despite Gulliver's changes, he remains Lemuel Gulliver in our eyes: the misanthrope with tobacco stuffed in his nostrils is the same man who regarded his penis as a fire hose in Lilliput. Think of it: We have been through an amazing fictional experience because although we know very well that none of the voyages took place, that there is no Lilliput, no Brobdignag, no Houyhnhnmland, we believe in Gulliver. *
"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intelligence." --Dr. Samuel Johnson
Every work of fiction must meet the test of credibility: while we are reading, we must believe. Coleridge called it "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." That does not mean that fiction must be written in the realistic mode; any mode will do so long as the writer is able to make us believe. The work must have inner credibility. We know that all fiction is made up; we ask only that the writer manage his task so the evidence of contrivance is not obvious. In the last issue of the Review I called a story of Kipling's one of the finest in the language because of its seeming naturalness, for the skill with which he concealed his artistry. There are plenty of very fine works that do not come up to that standard, and our literature would be impoverished without them. For example, some of Hemingway's early stories (I'm thinking of "The Killers") seem perfectly natural, but "In Another Country," fine as it is, seems contrived. There are degrees of artistry and we may, according to our taste, enjoy even poorly contrived fictions. Putting taste aside, let us strive for intellectual clarity here and say that the best writers are those who create the most believable fiction.
Crime fiction is perhaps the most obviously contrived genre, with its stereotyped plots, situations, and characters, but we can be charmed again and again by the absurdities of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret or countless other amateur and professional sleuths because the better writers create a world, an atmosphere that seems real because it is internally consistent, i.e., no matter how immoral some of the characters may be, they all inhabit the same behavioral and moral universe. To put it another way, we do not expect characters in an Agatha Christie story to behave as the characters in a Simenon novel--their worlds are quite different. There are not many of these better writers, and there never were. Crime fiction is a vast field full of lousy writers, but it has produced two masters, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I think Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) will one day be ranked right behind them because he created a solid, believable world in his fiction, one that does not seem at all contrived.
Here's a quotation from the introduction to one of his recent books:
It is the fashion nowadays for the author to penetrate deeply into the characters and feelings of his policemen; their family quarrels and upsets, their psychological backgrounds, their secret ambitions and phobias, all are laid bare for us. The great American writer Professor Jacques Barzun objected strongly to the practice. "Am I a couch?" he demanded. I side with Barzun. Let your policeman get on with his job. --The Man Who Hated Banks
My sentiments exactly, and not just because I want the "policeman to get on with his job"; with all the couch work the characters are less and less believable as it becomes obvious that the extraneous goings-on are deliberate distractions from what's supposed to be the main story line; we see the characters as bogus devices used to fill an essentially empty construction, as ploys to brand name a product (the cat-loving cop, the alcoholic cop, etc), as displays of pretension revealing a writer both incapable of writing a simple detective story and simultaneously a jerk who thinks he's too good for that. Such books dominate the field nowadays and amazingly, their writers think that by such devices they achieve realism and evade contrivance!
What crime fiction did Michael Gilbert write? From 1947 when his first novel, Close Quarters, was published, until 50 years later, he published some 30 novels and story collections, ranging "from Scotland Yard police procedurals to classic country-house mysteries, action-packed thrillers, and tales of the seamy side of London life." [Blurb from back cover of The Man Who Hated Banks] All of it is characterized by naturalness, warmth, economy, pertinence, and for lack of a better word, ordinariness. This is from Young Petrella:
"It's a Ponting job," said Superintendent Palance. "It's got their registered trade mark all over it. Get after them quick. They're probably hiding up."
But the Pontings were not hiding. They were at home, and in bed. They raised no objection to a search of their premises.
"It's irregular," said Sidney. "But what have we got to hide?"
"You boys have got your job to do," said Jack. "Get it finished, and we can get on with our breakfast."
Palance came up to see Haxtell. "They certainly did it. They most certainly did it. Equally certainly they've dumped the diamonds. And none of them has reached a receiver yet, I'm sure of that. And the Pontings use Mrs. Coulman."
"Yes," said Haxtell. "Well, we must hope to do better this time."
"Are you set on trying it on your own?" Palance was senior to Haxtell. And he was longer in service, and older in experience. Haxtell thought of these things, and paused. He was well aware of the responsibility he was shouldering, and which he could so easily evade. Then he said, "I really think the only way is to try it ourselves, quietly."
"All right," said Palance. He didn't add, "And on your own head be it." He was never a man to waste words.
Note the economy of writing and the despatch with which the narrative is pursued. There isn't a wasted word, but Gilbert is careful not to drain the Ponting's crime and its consequences of color and interest by reducing everything to a bare recital. Palance's eagerness and earnestness are there in his short sentences and repetitions, which makes Haxtell's decision more impressive, and helps to characterize him, too. The remarks of the Pontings seem unnecessary to the story, but they show by their coolness their confidence in the redoubtable fence, Mrs. Coulman, whose elusiveness is the story's subject. In half a page we've covered several days of action, seen the anxiety of the police and the cockiness of the crooks, and begun to have a feeling for the characters.
From another story in the same volume:
"Don't forget the most important item," said Barstow. "The limp."
Petrella said, "It did occur to me to wonder, sir, whether we ought to place much reliance on the limp."
He received a glare which would have daunted a less self-confident man. "He would have to have somewhere to hide that big screwdriver. It was almost two foot long. The natural place would be a pocket inside his trouser leg. That might account for the appearance of a stiff leg."
Haxtell avoided Barstow's eye. "It's an idea," he said. "Now just get along and start checking on this list of Miss Martin's known relations."
"There was one other thing-"
"Do you know," observed Superintendent Barstow unkindly, why God gave young policemen two feet but only one head?"
Petrella accepted the hint and departed. Nevertheless the idea persisted; and later that day, when he was alone with Haxtell, he voiced it to him.
Here we glimpse Barstow's irascible authority, Petrella's ingenuousness and intelligence, and Haxtell's sympathetic backing of his subordinate, achieved again with a few strokes.
This is from Roller-Coaster, the last novel featuring Patrick Petrella:
Groener said, "This morning Sergeant Belling--one of my most experienced men--was taking a look at the East Stepney Dock. It's a small dock--it hasn't been used for many years--near the out-flow of the Limehouse Cut. He'd taken his launch into the entrance channel. There's no gate at the river end and it's blocked at the far end by a movable grating. There's a narrow beach of shingle and mud on each side of the channel, just above tide level, and it was on the downstream beach, a few yards in from the river, that he spotted the body. And the real puzzle was how the hell it got there."
"Might it have been dropped from the dock?" said Gwilliam.
"Quite impossible. There was no sign of anyone having broken into the dock, which was strongly barred. And if they had got in, to put the body where it was found, would have meant hoisting it over a ten-foot railing of pointed steel spikes."
"And why should anyone have bothered?" said Petrella.
"If they wanted to get rid of the body, they'd have weighted it and dropped it into the river, not left it where it was bound to be spotted sooner or later."
"Might it have been brought in from the river?" said Summerson.
"The same objection," said Petrella. "Why do it?"
Having allowed the amateurs to talk nonsense, Groener was now prepared to pronounce a professional judgment. He said, "I don't think anyone brought that body in. Let me explain. On this stretch of the river boats observe a sort of rule of the road. When the tide's ebbing, and they're coming up against it, they're allowed to hug the banks, where there's some slack water. Boats going down use the tidal flow and keep to mid-stream. So what I'm reasonably sure must have happened is that the body was floating down close to the bank and still high in the water."
"Explain that last bit," said Petrella, who was listening intently.
"A body that goes in fully clothed doesn't sink straight away. Which is how quite a few attempted suicides have been saved. Their rescuers have been able to grab them before their clothes get sodden and pull them right down. Now if a barge came past, near the bank and against the stream, its bow wave would be quite strong enough to lift a body that was only just submerged clean out of the water and deposit it on the beach just inside the entrance."
"Which fits in," said Petrella, "with its being found on the down-stream beach. How long would a body float high?"
The passage conveys facts (which will be very important later) in a way that seems wholly natural. It seems simple, but if you've ever read any crime fiction, you'll know that while this is one of the principal tasks in the genre, the bedrock on which everything rests, its management is not easy. Here we get the facts spontaneously, as it were, and we also get an impression of Groener as a man of solid authority, and one of Petrella as intelligent and thoughtful.
Note the naturalness, the ordinariness of these excerpts--and yet, the economy of the writing and the unwavering focus on the subject gives them a tautness, a heightened quality which makes them hold our interest. This is an impression of ordinariness created artistically. Gilbert is never sensational; he gets and holds our attention by the quality of his writing. I happen to have chosen excerpts from two of the three books about Petrella, but his books about counter-espionage, about the adventures of a semi-retired lawyer, about spy rings, about the career of a ruthless entrepreneur, and so on, exhibit these qualities, too. The characters are never fanciful or absurd, and except for the worst villains, they are sympathetic figures, fellow human beings. That is a very rare accomplishment in crime fiction.
One of the chief pleasures of crime fiction has always been the satisfaction of our moral sense, the triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, but that's another failing of contemporary writing: too many writers think it's sophisticated to make their detectives wallow in moral ambiguity, to blur the distinction between good and evil, even to deny it altogether (as in Le Carre's cold war spy novels). Of course there are degrees of moral certainty, in life as in art, and we all have varying expectations and predilections in this regard. I like old-fashioned Westerns, for instance, stories featuring a much-maligned but innocent cowboy who arrives on the scene to find an honest old rancher and his beautiful, spunky daughter being swindled by sinister villains (their locus the back room of a saloon) in league with corrupt local powers. The cowboy comes to the aid of the rancher, and after much fisticuffs and gunplay, he defeats the villains, marries the girl, and gets the ranch. Put another way, I'm not looking for verisimilitude when I read a Western; I'm trying to recapture the feelings I had when I went through a pulp magazine phase at the age of ten.
Expecting good to triumph in crime fiction, we know it can never be as true to life as great imaginative literature: Ishmael is saved but the innocent crew of the Pequod goes down with Captain Ahab; Lord Jim finally acts up to his self-conception but must die in the act. Melville and Conrad, like Gilbert, are writing about a moral universe; the difference is that theirs is more profound, more complex. There may be defeats and ambiguities, but ultimately good is not confused with evil.
That is a contemporary phenomenon. To shed further light on it, let me digress for a moment. After the 2004 election, National Public Radio began broadcasting a program, "Focus on Faith," meant to show that Democrats were religious, too, but naturally the lefty conception of religion was bound to be peculiar. In fact, the program, featuring old lefties and spokesmen for bizarre forms of "spirituality," is resolutely anti-religious. Recently, a "moderate" Republican senator was interviewed so he could denounce legislators who claim their votes are directed by God. The charge is absurd, but I'm sure the senator believes it, because any moral argument immediately rouses the lefty fear of God and religion. One can say that they use the dreaded word "God" to discredit morality. They are desperate to think themselves free of all that. That's why abortion is their most cherished cause--what could show the futility, the irrelevance of morality better than the legal sanction of the slaughter of the innocents?
Which is where morally ambiguous fiction comes in. Literature, like other cultural influences, precedes ideas; it creates habits of mind and heart that build up visions of life, visions that guide and sustain us. The visions inculcated by modern writing have helped to create the amorality of our time. Unfortunately, too many conservatives seem to think politics is the answer,that culture is a sideshow--how wrong they are!
To return to Michael Gilbert. His work is not simplistic (in the sense of my favorite Westerns) nor is it as morally complex as great art. At the end of Waugh's Scoop, William Boot is home at his beloved Boot Magna, writing his countryside column, but we know that the forces represented by the Daily Beast are just over the horizon, and owls are hunting by moonlight. When Father Urban is transformed at the end of Powers' novel, do we have second thoughts? Are we entirely convinced that his worldly wisdom was all false and that his withdrawal is wholly good? Gilbert does not moralize; he creates what seems like a commonplace world (but how interesting it is!) in which characters struggle to right wrongs, to defeat (temporarily at least) evil, and he knows that the ultimate stakes are far larger than any individual crime:
A retired Admiral is musing on the future of two children he has met:
It was going to be a perilously difficult world as, one after another, the old bastions went down: religion, family life, the rule of law. Stormy seas which were going to need to clear to chart the course, and strong hands on the tiller.
The story moves on, and nothing is made of the Admiral's thought, but it is a bit of chilling realism for the reader, a reminder of the fragility of civilization and the moral order. In that one touch, Gilbert shows the depth of seriousness that lies behind his wonderful creations. That's why the world in his books seems so real, so believable.
These are Michael Gilbert's books in order of publication. All are highly recommended except the first one and the last three.
They Never Looked Inside
The Doors Open
Death Has Deep Roots
Death In Captivity
Fear To Tread
Be Shot For Sixpence
Blood And Judgment
After The Fine Weather
The Crack In The Teacup
The Dust And Heat
Game Without Rules
The Etruscan Net
Stay Of Execution
The Body Of A Girl
The Ninety-Second Tiger
The Night Of The Twelfth
Petrella At Q
The Empty House
Death Of A Favourite Girl
Mr. Calder And Mr. Behrens
The Final Throw
The Black Seraphim
The Long Journey Home
Paint, Gold, Blood
Anything For A Quiet Life
The Man Who Hated Banks
The Queen Against Karl Mullen
Ring of Terror
Into Battle *
"The world is a dangerous place to live--not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." --Albert Einstein