John Pistelli

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Brigid Brophy et al., Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do WithoutFifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brigid Brophy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this 1967 book after reading about it on Anthony’s blog, and now, after having it shipped from the obscure storage facility where it resides to my main library, I have. The authors—English writer Brigid Brophy; her husband, the art historian Michael Levey; and the little-known John Osborne (“Assistant Literature Director of the Arts Council in England,” says the jacket copy)—set out undo the “injustice done alike to great authors and to the public” when inferior work is passed off as great for no other reason than custom to the unsuspecting pupil. They allow “that about taste there is no absolute arbitrating,” but their 50 entries offer reasoned arguments and imply standards immanent to what they regard as the best of the tradition. Furthermore, they pronounce their efforts harmless since they do not “exercise the tyrannical power of the magistrate” who orders obscene materials destroyed. Their avowed iconoclasm is of a purely metaphorical variety. So, confining themselves to the English language—hence they include American but not translated literature (“That is why the Bible is not listed”)—and to 50 works, they set out to fulfill Eliot’s mandate for criticism (which they do not cite): “the correction of taste.”

What do Brophy et al. have against these 50 works? Moreover, can we discern any patterns in their judgments?

The strongest comprehensive argument the authors make in this various book is against revering the old merely because it is old. At the beginning of their entry on the York Mystery Plays (I have never had the pleasure myself, but I think I got the gist from Grant Morrison’s neglected graphic novel):

Yet too frequently we value the older above the newer for no better apparent reason than that it has lasted longer. This is a peculiar characteristic of the English temperament. How reverently we gaze at any Gothic cathedral: how perplexed and untempted we are by the glitter of Baroque. How stirred by Gregorian chant: how unmoved by the more sophisticated art of Handel. Yet, in the centuries between Gregorian chant and Handel, between Gothic and baroque [sic], the arts of music and architecture made tremendous leaps forward in technique and complexity. It can only be this absurd nostalgia for the remote past, this mindless yearning towards primitivism, towards the time when art was so simple it was not art, which is responsible for the modern interest in and production of the various cycles of mystery plays which flourished in medieval England.

And some of their best polemics are against writers who may possess a certain historical importance, because they were the first to invent a genre or a style, but who are nevertheless by our standards lethally dull (hence their argument that Beowulf is “a fine example of primitive non-art” canonized only to provide “some respectable pseudo-Homeric epic from which to make Northern literature evolve”).

I nodded in agreement with their mockery of the pioneering but plodding fiction of Defoe, Fielding, and Scott, fiction so verbosely narrated, so lacking in vivid imagery and drama, that it really is a godawful chore to read. (Really, couldn’t we do without the eighteenth-century novel almost in toto, with the possible exceptions of Swift and Sterne [who ought, as Joyce once noted, to have exchanged names]?)

They also assail books that are over-praised but far from their writers’ best works, such as Hamlet and The Pickwick Papers. Of the former, they intriguingly note that “the play is the prototype of western literature’s most deplorable and most formless form, autobiographical fiction,” and call for more study and performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra in lieu of the more famous tragedy (I myself might vote for Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, but I take the point).

Not only does Brophy—a secularist, humanist, and feminist—argue against the dictation of taste by custom, but she and her collaborators also despise anything that smacks of primitivism or antiquarianism. This is the basis on which they skewer authors as diverse as Spenser, Twain, and Lawrence. This book’s artistic touchstones, against which other authors are judged and found wanting, are Donne and Pope in poetry and Austen, Eliot, and James in fiction. (Readers familiar with the history of literary criticism might think they spy the shade of Dr. Leavis hovering between the lines.) In short, they favor the urbane literature of civilization as against the arts of the volk or, even worse, the arts of urbane and civilized writers who don weeds and rags to pretend to be of the volk.

(Politically, this attitude is a double-edge sword: if you apply it to your own tradition, you seem impeccably progressive, but if you apply it to someone else’s—especially a tradition that has been oppressed in some way by the West—then you appear to be a condescending imperialist. This apparent contradiction allows us to forget that the primitivist denunciation of European civilization and the white male in the name of primal values was codified in literature and philosophy by European white males.)

Brophy et al.’s anti-primitivism campaign triumphs in this book’s single best essay, a funny but judicious demolition of Wordsworth’s meretricious doggerel about the daffodils, a poem I have myself always loathed. They use “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” as a case study of Wordsworth’s work as a whole, where phony and ill-written anti-intellectual pastoralism alternates with sublime, Latinate, Miltonic rhetoric; this latter strain they view as in line with Wordsworth’s actual gift, whereas his Marie-Antoinette-playing-peasant routine they see as both risible and pernicious:

And indeed it in this poem that Wordsworth explicitly enunciates his gospel of philistinism, the great anti-thought trademark he set on English life forever after. He damns ‘intellect’ as ‘meddling,’ dismisses the leaves of books as ‘barren’….exclaims (could a town councillor voting against a grant for the symphony orchestra have done better?) ‘Enough of Science and of Art’….The tragedy of all this is that it’s untrue not only to human nature, but to Wordsworth’s poetic nature…For the talent Wordsworth mortified and martyred to a doctrinaire simplicity is that of one of English literature’s supreme rhetoricians. The reason Wordsworth writes of daffodils and clouds as though he had never really set eyes on either of them is that he is an essentially baroque artist, to whom flowers are invisible unless transmuted into precious metal and to whom clouds are merely what sweep apparitions down on the astounded beholder.

As implied by this critique, in which Wordsworth is praised or damned based on any given poem’s distance or proximity to an ideology the authors dislike, a faith that aesthetic and moral judgments can be made in tandem animates this whole book:

For, morality being a mere branch of aesthetics, no book that is morally so warped [as The Pilgrim’s Progress] can in any real sense be aesthetically satisfying.

This is a view that has more in common with Wordsworth’s dancing heart than with Donne’s brain-twisting paradoxes. That art and morals could align so neatly is the perennial dream of Platonists, priests, and politburos, but history gives no evidence in its favor. The moral premises the Homeric epics were based on are long dead, but it seems as if a new translation of the Iliad comes out every year. Someone finds it aesthetically satisfying, since, aside from historical and archaeological interest, there is really no other reason to read it.

The authors’ moral judgments lead them astray more than once, as when they derogate Wuthering Heights as “both the first and the meatiest morsel in the long, broad tradition of melodramatic daydreams concocted often by, and always to satisfy the appetites of, women wailing for their demon lovers.” While I certainly have no time for that consumerist school of feminism that celebrates whatever bilge teenage girls happen to like just because teenage girls like it, any half-sentient critic should be able to tell the difference between trashy romances and Wuthering Heights, perhaps the most perfectly constructed novel in the language and a brilliant metafictional commentary on the fate of fictional prose narrative itself as it moves from Gothic romance to social realism. Anyway, the authors must have missed the part where Heathcliff cruelly mocks Arabella for mistaking Wuthering Heights for the kind of novel Brophy et al. think it is:

‘She abandoned [her home and family] under a delusion,’ he answered; ‘picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished.’

Jane Eyre is a safer target, of course; whatever the merits of its symbolism and style, it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the authors are very funny about the derivative nature of the Gothic elements, showing (but only after quoting a critic on the novel’s originality) that Brontë has borrowed a supernatural set-piece whole cloth from Moll Flanders. Yet the authors might have had the decency to mention that Brontë followed Jane Eyre with Villette, a masterful psychological study that is a major advance on the earlier novel—and which absolutely bears comparison with the best of Dickens and Eliot.

The inclusion of American literature was probably a mistake, as these partisans of Henry James (whom I love, by the way) have a tin ear for the main national tradition, as described by Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature:

The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day.

These modern Europeans think extremity a kind of sham, and so they go on funking our great writers. A not totally implausible feminist critique of The Scarlet Letter goes off the rails when, after misjudging the narrator’s wry tone, they bizarrely pronounce Hawthorne’s historical romance “without irony”—irony might as well have been Hawthorne’s middle name! Their assault on Moby-Dick is philistinism itself:

Many novelists have tried to anticipate the critic’s task by writing both narrative and a commentary alongside it pointing out the deeper beauties, profundities, and significances of the narrative. Melville alone has supplied the commentary without supplying the narrative.

This reminds me of those one-star Amazon reviews they’re always compiling at Biblioklept: “Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.”

With Whitman, the limits of their standard midcentury Freudian moralism come to the fore, as they pathologize his poetry as merely an effusion from the closet, while they are scandalized at Faulkner’s cynicism and pompositiy (about the latter, they have a point; about the former, they sound merely pious). Their argument against Huckleberry Finn, a flawed novel by any standard, is more compelling (“It is a vision which can be achieved only by that ruthless dishonesty which is the birthright of every sentimentalist”) and they score a few good points on Hemingway, mentioning both his debts to Stein and his ingratitude for them, but if Hemingway was overvalued in the midcentury, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that these days it might be worthwhile to recover his virtues. (And why did they excuse Poe from their animadversions—Poe, of whom Harold Bloom commented that he was beloved in France because he benefitted from translation and would further benefit from being translated into English?)

Their distaste for religious art of all sorts is sometimes bracing—they are very funny on Bunyan—but their peremptory dispatch of Hopkins is merely insensitive (in the aesthetic, not the political, sense); read the man’s poems aloud and you won’t care what he believed. Their pronouncement against Rupert Brooke’s patriotic verse is homophobic by contemporary standards—”The moral is plain: Don’t go in for flag-waving if you’re limp-wristed”—but a serious warning against overcompensating for one’s own internalized social shame lurks under the ugly formulation (which reminded me, by the way, of Gore Vidal’s quip about George W. Bush: “Give a sissy a gun and he’ll kill everything in sight”).

We are already doing without many of the book’s targets—The Essays of Elia, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Lorna Doone, Esther Waters, South Wind, and more. At least one of the now-rarities they scorn perhaps deserves to be revived: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh, now read only by feminist Victorianists. The Victorianisms Brophy et al. mock in it are no less glaring than are their own now obvious twentieth-century biases, and its defense of the modern epic as realist novel is seemingly in line with their own values.

Their dismissal of To the Lighthouse sums up most of this book’s themes: they judge Woolf imprecisely poetic when she should be vividly narrative, a primitivist of the commonplace mind rather than an original thinker, and a university-ready digest of better and tougher writing:

To compare the results with James or Proust would only occur to the Eng. Lit. mind, always timid before the vigour of real art and always happiest with genteel diluted versions of it. Virginia Woolf’s is a supreme example of the non-art that is at the same time inevitably (for the art v. life dichotomy is a false one) devoid of vitality.

Even those of us who believe in the possibility, however remote, of authoritative aesthetic judgment as opposed to today’s soppy populist relativism (which only lines the pockets of the money-men) will have to allow that there are more things in literature than are dreamt of in Brophy and her collaborators’ philosophy.

All in all, this book is a fascinating and entertaining curio, as much the limited product of its time it accuses some of its targets of being, but fun and briskly written. It is a minor entry in the tradition of viciously witty and plain-spoken British criticism that runs from from Hazlitt to Wilde and on through such twentieth- and twenty-first century figures as George Orwell, Rebecca West, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis.

Finally, for the curious, here is a photo of the entire table of contents:

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3 comments on “Brigid Brophy et al., Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without

  1. jacobus_paine
    25 May 2016

    As a general non-contrarian when it comes to the world of literature, I would expectedly disagree with much of the observations of the authors.

    This being so, I’d like to make a couple of observations:

    (1) the literary argument against John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser is an argument against allegory, which, contrary to assumptions, is a legitimate form of storytelling. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were influenced strongly and positively by the influences of Spenser and Bunyan. The Pilgrim’s Progress is certainly a strongly didactic and Puritan work, but its simple yet powerful style, which rivals Hemingway’s bereft prose, coincides fantastically with the almost dreamlike surreality of the vision. C. S. Lewis wrote a good essay called “The Vision of John Bunyan” to show how a sense of darkness pervades and empowers Bunyan’s story, much like the darkness empowered Hawthorne’s tales. Also, Spenser’s poetry, particularly The Faerie Queene, is a worthy romantic epic ranking with Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante, Tasso, and Milton. I’ve read some parts of it, and though I have yet to read it in full, it’s quite beautifully written and expansive in some of the best sense. C. S. Lewis is a good writer on Spenser, and Virginia Woolf was positive about it.

    (2) i agree about your observations on these authors’ bromides against American literature. Hawthorne and Melville are serious geniuses. The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick, and Leaves of Grass, are towering works of the human spirit. Without these works we wouldn’t have the vitality we have today.

    (3) I’d say regarding authors such as Scott, Defoe, and the eighteenth-century writers, that they survived not just for innovations and important additions and contributions to the genre, but because I’m sure their stories still endure among their strongest admirers, and have been influential in greater stories. Same could be said for works like The Pickwick Papers, Little Women, Beowulf, the novels of Dumas and Balzac, etc.

    (4) I’d say Hamlet is not a minor work at all. Count me as one who prefers King Lear and Macbeth, but Hamlet clearly is Shakespeare’s masterpiece, alongside King Lear.

  2. jacobus_paine
    25 May 2016

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/05/an_allegory_is_not_the_same_as_a_metaphor_in_praise_of_the_medieval_literary.html

    Apart from the negative strikes at Bunyan, I thought this article was a valuable defense of an unjustly underrated genre called allegory.

  3. johnpistelli
    26 May 2016

    Thanks! I agree with most of your remarks, and you are correct about the eighteenth/early-nineteenth-century novelists being important for their influence–almost all the major later nineteenth-century novelists were greatly inspired by Scott; Defoe was important to modernism (Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Coetzee all praise him extravagantly), etc.

    Spenser…I did read excerpts of The Faerie Queene (most of Book I) way back in a college Renaissance lit. course, but I must admit my memories of it are dim. I will try to make time to revisit sometime soon.

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