American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by William Giraldi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though better known as the novelist who wrote the now-Netflixed Hold the Dark, William Giraldi has over the last decade been amassing a mighty corpus of literary criticism.
Two tendencies set Giraldi’s essays apart from those of his peers. First, he pays close attention to style, his own and others’, taking pains to point out the beauties and infelicities of the writers he reviews and to flaunt his own gift for alliteration, allusion, and irony. Second, Giraldi’s attitude toward literature could not be more unfashionable, since he insists on artistic quality, visionary capacity, and moral seriousness rather than obvious political relevance or pop pleasures.
He quotes the critical giants of yesteryear (Blackmur, Trilling, Tate, Hardwick) and values the canon for its strenuous example to the living writer. While he rejects any religious mission for the writer in an essay on “the problems of the Catholic novelist,” he does insist on the novel’s spiritual telos:
A novel should indeed be groping after some form of the metaphysical, a benediction to unseen powers, the upholding of the mysterium tremendum, those insistent inklings of the numinous.
A thick collection of Giraldi’s essays, then, is especially welcome this year, when it seems we will never be freed from the reduction of all literary and cultural commentary to “fascist, Nazi, Hannah Arendt, age of Trump” etc.: in short, all politics, all the time.
This compendious collection includes learned appreciations of canonical figures (Poe, Melville), reviews of or introductions to contemporary writers (Giraldi has a particular affinity for Southern authors: see his mammoth, novella-length profile of Allan Gurganus), tributes to precursor critics (Trilling, Bloom, Epstein, Ozick), and impassioned or tart comment on contemporary phenomena from the 2013 terror attack in Boston (Giraldi’s hometown) to the Fifty Shades of Grey craze.
It also contains what must be the most judicious assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird I’ve ever come across. Today, commentators treat this novel either with treacly piety or acid cynicism, but Giraldi persuasively argues for its fine, even superlative prose and its faults of ethical construction. It is an evocative reanimation of a Southern childhood told in the voice of a sharp, sardonic adult woman who remembers what it was like to be a girl (“Harper Lee has always deserved more applause for the smooth stride of her style”); but it is also fatally marred by its passive saint of a hero who delivers airy nostrums rather than possessing moral fiber:
He has all the right motions of the principled man but none of the fervor, the fed-up disgust required to assault the toxic tropisms of an entire segment of our society, those entrenched inequalities that cause the innocent to suffer.
As that final phrase indicates, we shouldn’t let Giraldi’s love of the canon or insistence on a literature irreducible to politics give us the wrong idea about his politics. That American Audacity‘s title echoes a famous Obama slogan is perhaps no accident: despite the occasional tilt in the direction of neoconservatism (as in an appreciation of Joseph Epstein, originally published in The New Criterion), Giraldi’s belief in the separation of transcendent art from quotidian ideology disguises no right-wing agenda. Rather, Giraldi seems to see himself as belonging to a broad liberal tradition encompassing such obviously non-conservative figures as Hazlitt, Whitman, Wilde, Baldwin.
In a great essay on the latter, Giraldi emphasizes Baldwin as a severe (Giraldian) reviewer who didn’t hesitate to damn all manner of left-wing or gay or black fiction as ill-written or propagandistic. Giraldi quotes a thesis you might not hear from Baldwin’s most ardent admirers today: “all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”
(Along these lines, the only two capital-P political statements I counted in these essays are impeccably left-of-center: one is a lament over the police killing of black citizens and the other a scorching call for gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre: “Your right to play with and profit from utensils of mass murder does not exceed our right to keep our kids alive.”)
Giraldi’s is a liberalism of the individual, backed by his belief that literature is the urgent expression not of an ideological cause or a group identity but a singular style of perceiving the world. He is not, for that reason, a pure aesthete, even though he maintains that “the right words matter.” “Right” here implies goodness as well as precision. In a judgment against Carl Van Vechten, the white impresario and bon vivant of the Harlem Renaissance, Giraldi writes:
Van Vechten’s true sin was not the crimes for which propriety would condemn him—from boozing to buggery, all that windy worship of Bacchus—but rather his blindness to the fact that beauty presupposes morality, that aestheticism is empty without ethics.
Hence the possible overkill in his denunciation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which he charges, along with other romance novels, of teaching “a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness.”
These views also inform his contempt not only for popular fiction but also for contemporary academe, which I found to be about a generation out of date. While he writes with well-researched fairness about Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish in these pages, he also blames the English department’s anti-aesthetic sensibilities (and he’s perhaps more right than wrong about that, at least as far as published research goes) on “Derrida’s and de Man’s cynical rhetoric against meaning.”
But even a decade ago when I started graduate school, Derrida and de Man were as superannuated as Lionel Trilling or Irving Howe, and the only people who still quoted them were the eccentric aesthetes. Deconstruction, that last stand of Romanticism, which found the sublime in the abyssal unmeaning of the text, has been supplanted in this century by variants on a technocratic historicism of which perhaps the alleged rapist Franco Moretti, with his polemics not against meaning but against reading itself, might be taken as the figurehead. In other words, I don’t disagree with Giraldi’s literary values, only his choice of targets: he is fighting the last war.
Somewhat apologetically, Giraldi defends the distinct Americanness of his attitude toward literature and life in this book’s introduction: “America began in audacity. We’re a nation of escapees toiling toward our own authenticity.” But those who have followed Giraldi’s career as essayist may feel that the collection’s Americentricism leads to the exclusion of weighty Euro-themed pieces (on Tolstoy, Freud, Brecht) in favor of slight reviews devoted to more minor U.S. figures.
Speaking of the latter, I don’t see why Giraldi’s 2012 New York Times review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction—the essay that made his name, and made it notorious in some quarters—should have been left out of these pages. (See my review of Hold the Dark for a defense of Giraldi’s critical severity in that infamous instance.) Did Giraldi or his editors omit Ohlin to avoid controversy? If so, such a decision can’t be called audacious.
Like all enthusiasts of the canon (and I know this because I am one), Giraldi sometimes has a tendency to make of the past’s great works a single-voiced chorus shaming the present, even though he shows in other places that he knows better (as when he mocks “false golden-age nostalgia”). Yet the Victorian sages and the Victorian aesthetes were at odds, the New York Intellectuals and the New Critics were not the same—even if they tended to write better prose than we do. Likewise, I started at this parenthetical proposal:
(While Baldwin doesn’t mention Wilde anywhere in his work, you wish that he had: it’s hard to find two cutting minds more kindred than theirs.)
Wilde and Baldwin would have found one another insufferable! It’s the stuff of odd-couple comedy: imagine Baldwin pronouncing Wilde a frivolous fop, and Wilde judging Baldwin a dull sermonizer—and neither of them would even be wrong, exactly, only right according to each of their particular sensibilities. It may be in the nature of “cutting minds” not to be “kindred,” which poses a problem for the proposed marriage of art and morals.
Nevertheless, I don’t fault Giraldi for such statements, even though I may disagree with them. They are the products of wide reading, fierce intellection, and contagious enthusiasm. It’s one of the virtues of argumentative essay collections that there should be something stimulating, even or especially stimuli to thoughtful quarrels, on every page. American Audacity is a worthy candidate for the tradition it courts: that of the great public critics in English, from Johnson and Hazlitt to Bloom and Ozick.
The only thing I had previously read of Giraldi’s was a New Republic piece attacking the easy target of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon where he said, “Tell me the books you read and I’ll tell you who you are; tell me you read no books and I’ll tell you there is no you.” That struck me as the kind of hyperbole only a cloistered snob could believe, so I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and promptly forgot about him. But I have to admit, you’ve made him sound pretty interesting. It helps that I’ve been trying to read more essayists lately, and I’m so tired of the political reductionism that forms our current climate of opinion.
Yes, such an assertion relies on a pretty particular definition of “you.” While he sometimes lets his rhetoric get away from, though, he’s very well-read, and in things not so much read anymore, so worth reading on those grounds. I think he’s the opposite of a snob, if that implies taken-for-granted inherited privileges; he wasn’t born into high culture but acquired it later, and is not letting it go. More like a militant.
[…] I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still […]
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