Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
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The narrative begins in August 1916 as Bourne, the protagonist, is being withdrawn, with his decimated company, from trenches on the Somme to be sent to the rear for rest and recuperation.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
To be well-read was once an enviable achievement, something to be admired, a sign that one was cultured. I don't think the concept exists anymore; I know the condition doesn't. Not only are the local yuppies utterly ignorant of prominent literary figures, they are unashamedly bored by the subject. I say to a 55-year-old feather merchant of the yuppie persuasion, trying to keep the shocked wonder out of my voice, "You've never heard of Rudyard Kipling?" "Nope," he replies, trying a quick perfunctory smirk as he turns with not entirely phony interest to my wife: He does not think she will bore him by raving about long-dead authors he's never heard of.
Writing literary essays was a class act in my youth; when I mention what I'm doing nowadays I get an uncomprehending stare. What is "literary"? What is "essay"? Yuppies do not need to read when they can watch dramatizations on TV or listen to tapes in the car. This turning away from literature is one of the effects of the collapse of the left-liberal worldview, as is the barrenness of contemporary writing. One system of thought is dying, another has been born but is still mute so far as imaginative writing goes. Since conservative editors are not about to give new fiction an airing, the best we can do is study the works of writers from the past to reveal their unique qualities and to show how their artistry works, in the process making us (and I include myself) more sensitive to good writing and more interested in it. Then we shall no longer accept the debased products of the time. That an intelligent person should read the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review is a sign of the cultural confusion of our days; that conservative publications should praise squalid contemporary writing signals cultural deprivation.
Rudyard Kipling (1806-1936) began as a reporter on a paper in India when he was 18, and soon was writing short stories for the paper. It was clear right away that his was a strong, new voice, racy and unabashed, startlingly unlike the pompous, stuffy stories of the period. He was decidedly modern. An early story, "Lispeth" shows this in its tale of a Christianized hill woman, famously a beauty, who falls in love with an Englishman who, on the advice of the Chaplain's wife (who wants to pacify Lispeth) promises the girl he'll come back to marry her. After several trying months, the Chaplain's wife finally tells her the truth.
"How can what he and you said be untrue?" asked Lispeth.
"We said it as an excuse to keep you quiet, child," said the Chaplain's wife.
"Then you have lied to me," said Lispeth, "you and he?"
Lispeth goes back to her own people, renouncing Christianity. This is the concluding paragraph.
Lispeth was a very old woman when she died. She had always a perfect command of English, and when she was sufficiently drunk, could sometimes be induced to tell the story of her first love-affair.
It was hard then to realize that the bleared, wrinkled creature, exactly like a wisp of charred rag, could ever have been "Lispeth of the Kotgarh Mission."
Modernity is apparent in its economy as it moves from point to point of the simple plot without a single extraneous word, without the longwinded "word painting" common in the stories of the time, and it shows also in the author's impiety toward the gods of conventional thinking, i.e., the presumed superiority of the English, the hypocrisy of the chaplain's wife. Finally it shows in the finely balanced irony of the penultimate paragraph, both masked and heightened by the speaker's matter-of-fact tone. The last paragraph (especially "like a wisp of charred rag") dissolves all the pettiness of the plot in the unfathomable pathos of mortality.
From 1888 to 1891 Kipling published eight volumes of stories based on his Indian experience, stories of extraordinary range including Anglo-Indian life, soldiers, all kinds of Indians, spies, the Great Game of Anglo-Russian rivalry on the frontier, social comedies, love stories, farces, tragedies, etc., a remarkable virtuoso performance. There are very few failures among nearly 100 stories, and all may be read over and over again (as I have done) for their characters, situations, and artistry.
A word about how to read, and not to read, Kipling. His reputation was severely damaged among the cultural elite by the perception that he was an imperialist and generally opposed to what were regarded (and are still regarded) as the progressive movements of the time. This was certainly true, and later I shall discuss the issue, but now I'm concerned with a subtler problem. A large portion of his output was about India and Anglo-Indian life, and it was on that basis that his sudden reputation was made, so that although his later work was about other subjects and places, he will always be regarded in the light of his early reputation as the chronicler of India under the Raj. His work is too often judged as a reflection of that life. Some say the portrait is accurate, others say it's false, and then those who disapprove of colonialism disapprove of Kipling simply because that was his subject. In other words, his subject has distorted our appreciation of his work because we have forgotten that every artists's subject is an imaginative creation.
Now let's look at one of his explicitly political stories, "The Little Foxes" (1909), a comic exposure of the sentimentalities of progressivism. It tells of the unplanned but ingenious establishment of a system of governance (chiefly concerned with land titles and crops) intertwined with customs and experiences of foxhunting, set up by the English govenror, in an Ethiopian colony. All is well until the "New Era" arrives in the form of a member of Parliament bent on investigating the horrors of colonial rule. The story works by carefully building up the details of the development of the hunt and its involvement with the problems of governance, making it seem plausible and sensible, which means that Kipling has to create a believable cast of English officials, their servants, and village natives, plus the MP, Mr. Groombride. As Arnold Bennett once said, characters are indispensable to the novel, and it is just as true of Kipling's stories, which, more than anything else, are creations of characters. As the story mounts to its hilarious climax, the reader should see that the working out of the idea--anti-progressivism--is secondary to the imaginative creation itself. Ideas in Kipling's work are made the natural outgrowth of the story; they never overcome the story. No one of any sense reads a great fiction writer for his ideas.
Kipling's early stories are remarkably finished, and there are subtleties in them, but as a whole they are highly colored and sharply drawn. Nothing wrong in that, but the writer must cast a finer net if he would catch more of life in his work, and in his later stories Kipling creates works of art that are masterpieces of subtlety. One of his finest stories, and certainly the most artistically complex, "Mrs. Bathurst" (1904), achieves its effect and meaning by deliberate indirection, by painting a picture with fine small strokes, touches here and there against a seemingly bland background, here a railway siding near the naval base outside Cape Town, South Africa.
Moulded dunes, whiter than any snow, rolled far inland up a brown and purple valley of splintered rocks and dry scrub. A crowd of Malays hauled at a net beside two blue and green boats on the beach; a picnic party danced and shouted barefoot where a tiny river trickled across the flat, and a circle of dry hills, whose feet were set in sands of silver, locked us in against a seven-colored sea.
The speaker, Kipling as unobtrusive observer, is sitting in a caboose, eating sandwiches and drinking beer with Hooper, a railwayman. The tone of the scene and the relationship is utterly casual. Hooper, feeling in his vest pocket, remarks that he found a "curiosity" up the line beyond Bulawayo, but at that point he's interrupted by the appearance of Pyecroft, a sailor known to the speaker, and Pritchard, a Marine sergeant, who join them, bringing some beer. The story of how they came by the beer leads to reminiscences on the seamen's part, aided by occasional remarks by the speaker, in which the recent desertion of Warrant Officer Vickery is mentioned. He was sent up country to retrieve some Naval ammunition, and after shipping it, he disappeared. Hooper picks up his ears when he learns that Vickery had four false teeth in his lower jaw, and again feels in his vest pocket as he asks what tattoos he had. A contretemps diverts that line of inquiry, and Pyecroft goes on with the story.
"Why did Vickery run?" I began, but Pyecroft's smile made me turn my question to "Who was she?"
She was Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who kept a small hotel and bar for Naval noncoms near Auckland, New Zealand. Pritchard is incredulous, refusing to believe she would be involved in an intrigue (Vickery is married). Pyocroft agrees that it "wasn't her fault." The speaker says,
Such faith in a Sergeant of Marines interested me greatly. "Never mind about that," I cried. "Tell me what she was like."
Both men vehemently testify to her kindness and sweet nature, but Hooper says "I can't see her yet somehow," so Pyecroft asks Pritchard how many women he's been intimate with, and answers the question himself by saying hundreds and then asking how many are remembered? Although Pritchard saw her only thrice in ten years, and Pyecroft only twice, they recall everything about her.
. . . how she stood an' what she was sayin' an' what she looked like. That's the secret. 'tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It . . ."
Then Hooper begins to see: "That's more the idea. I've known just two women of that nature."
"An' it was no fault o' theirs?" asked Pritchard.
"None whatever. I know that!"
"An if a man gets struck with that kind o' woman, Mr. Hooper?" Pritchard went on.
"He goes crazy--or just saves himself," was the slow answer.
What struck me (and Kipling's discernment seems almost miraculous) was Pritchard's remark, repeated twice by Pyecroft, "she looked at me under her eyebrows in that blindish way she had o' looking," because I've known the look and felt its power.
I have dealt at such length with the description of Mrs. Bathurst because, although the story seems to be about Vickery and his fate, she and her enigmatic attraction-"It"--is the real subject, and she is made as much a living character in the story as the others, each of whom speaks in his own voice and acts characteristically. Pyecroft, something of a cynical rogue, freely uses naval terms and misues foreign phrases: "If the fat marine now occupying the foc'-she will kindly bring 'is status quo to an anchor yet once more," and Hooper less obviously speaks as a railwayman: "You did quite right to look out for your own end o' the line," while Pritchard is warmly boyish (he blushes when Pyecroft asks him about his intimacies). This scrupulous character-drawing is not done just for its own sake; the final effect of the story--how Vickery's fate strikes each character--is its meaning, as we shall see.
The rest is soon told. A circus came to Cape Town and among its attractions was one of those early films:
London Bridge with the omnibuses--a troopship goin' to the war--marines on parade at Portsmouth, the Plymouth Express arrivin' at Paddin'ton.
When Pyecroft went, Vickery, who saw the film the night before, caught him at the door and insisted they sit together, saying, "If you see anything that strikes you, drop me a hint." Finally, in the scene at Paddington station, Mrs. Bathurst appears:
There was no mistakin' the walk in a hundred thousand. She came forward--right forward--she looked out straight at us with that blindish look . . .
Vickery was sure, but he wanted Pyecroft to double his assurance. Immediately, Vickery drags Pyecroft out and takes him on a rapid bar hop, obviously in a state:
He didn't look at what he drunk--he didn't look at the change. He walked an' he drank an' he perspired rivers.
This goes on for five nights, until the circus leaves. Vickery's state is something of a grim puzzle, but Pyecroft's colorful account of being dragged from bar to bar, is comic. At one point, when Pyecroft observes that she seems to be looking for someone, Vickery replies, "She's lookin' for me," but he'll say no more. Then Vickery, after a mysterious interview with the captain, is sent up the line to retrieve the ammunition, and as he's leaving he tells Pyecroft he's not a murderer because his wife died six weeks after he sailed.
"Then what have you done that signifies?" I said. "What's the rest of it?"
"The rest," 'e says, "is silence . . ."
Everyone is mystified, although they're sure Mrs. Bathurst is blameless. Then Hooper, touching his pocket again, tells the story that's been at the back of his mind from the beginning, and of course by now we know what's in his pocket. He was told to look out for a couple of tramps waiting at the siding waiting to go north:
I saw them miles ahead along the straight, waiting in the teak. One of 'em was standin' up by the dad-end of the siding an' the other was squattin' down lookin' up at 'im, you see,
"What did you do for 'em?" said Pritchard.
"There wasn't much I could do, except bury 'em. There'd been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and as black as charcoal. That's what they really were, you see--charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift 'em. The man who was standin' up had the false teeth. I saw 'em shining against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down an' watchin' him, both of 'em all wet in the rain. Both burned to charcoal, you see. And--that's what made me ask about marks just now--the false-toother was tattooed on the arms and chest--a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above."
"I've seen that," said Pyecroft quickly. "It was so."
"But if he was all charcoal-like?" said Pritchard, shuddering.
"You know how writing shows up white on a burned letter? Well, it was like that, you see. We buried 'em in the teak and I kept. . . . But he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see."
Mr. Hooper brought his hand away from his waistcoat-pocket-empty.
Pritchard covered his face with his hands for a moment, like a child shutting out an ugliness.
"And to think of her at Hauraki!" he murmured-"with 'er 'air-ribbon on my beer." "Ada," she said to her niece . . . Oh, my Gawd!" . . .
"On a summer afternoon, when the honeysuckle blooms,/And all Nature seems at rest,/Underneath the bower,/ 'mid the perfume of the flower,/Sat a maiden with the one she loves the best . . ." sang the picnic-party waiting for their train at Glengariff.
"Well, I don't know how you feel about it," said Pyecroft, "But 'avin' seen 'is face for five consecutive nights on end, I'm inclined to finish what's left of the beer an' thank Gawd he's dead!"
The serene, untroubled background which so colored the "preface" of the story before Pyecroft and Pritchard appeared is reasserted by the innocent song of the picnickers, and it is against that background that the shadowy drama of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst has been enacted, so the song at this point makes the drama stand out sharply, darkly colored. Hooper's account, especially the bit about writing showing up "white on a burned letter," puts an end to the earlier comedy, and the tragedy is heightened by contrast with the song. What we are left with is a mystery of love, and the fact that each character takes it differently but characteristically--Hooper with solemn sensitivity, leaving the teeth in his pocket; Pritchard, ever loyal to Mrs. Bathurst, with real feeling; Pyecroft sardonically--shows us also the mystery of our lives: Pulled by the same tides, rocked by the same waves, we sail alone.
Readers used to conventional fiction sometimes have difficulty understanding a story like this because they expect it to make a clearly discernible point, a Big Thought which can be extracted from the story. "Mrs. Bathurst" doesn't work that way. Its closest analogy would he a Chekhov play like The Cherry Orchard: its meaning, its point, is the story itself. When we finish reading it, what we think about are these things, probably in this order: the power of love (Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst), its multifariousness (Pyecroft, Pritchard, and the picnickers), the differing responses which show our uniqueness and loneliness, the tenuous but real bond between the living (the men in the railway carriage). The story, then, is a meditation on life, and while Kipling the artist certainly made it, all traces of contrivance are cunningly concealed. It is a masterpiece because it seems perfectly natural, just a story told on a railway siding. But we know it is more than that because it is infused with feeling, and we sense the tragedy of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst even as we see the comic and melodramatic aspects-like life itself. The artistry of this story must be one of the greatest in English. *
Stories: Plain Tales From the Hills, Soldiers Three, In Black & White, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw & Other Tales, Mine Own People, Traffics & Discoveries, Actions & Reactions, Diversity of Creatures, Land & Sea Tales, "They" & Brushwood Boy, Debits & Credits, Limits & Renewals.
The Jungle Book, Second Jungle Book. Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.
Stalky & Co. Prep school stories.
Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards & Fairies are historical tales for children.
Just So Stories for very young children.
Almost all Kipling's best later stories are collected in two Penguin volumes: I: A Sahib's War & Other Stories, II: Friendly Brook & Other Stories, selected by Andrew Rutherford.
The Art of Rudyard Kipling (1959) by J. M. S. Tompins is first rate.
Kipling: The Glass, The Shadow, & the Fire (1975) by Phillip Mason is the best single book on Kipling's art.