Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen

Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter JacobsenA Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen by Morten Høi Jensen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to pick up this appealing brief recent biography of Jacobsen after reading the 19th-century Danish author’s masterpiece, Niels Lyhne (1880). While Jacobsen is not well-known today—I came to him through Nella Larsen, though I must have been overlooking references to him in Joyce, Rilke, and Lukács for years—Jensen demonstrates his extensive influence, particularly on German-language literature, around the turn of the century. Jacobsen was lauded by figures as diverse as Rilke, Kafka, Freud, Mann, Joyce, Adorno, and Zora Neale Hurston. Stefan Zweig called Niels Lyhne “the Werther of our generation,” with its timely depiction of a young man’s life lived without the comfort or promise of the divine.

But with superb critical acuity, Morten Høi Jensen shows that the story of Jacobsen’s intellectual context and posthumous reception is more complex than his simply giving voice to atheism in the decades after Darwin. This biography is as much about the short-lived Jacobsen’s milieu in a modernizing Scandinavia as it is about the sadly circumscribed and uneventful life of the tubercular author.

Jensen takes us to a Copenhagen roiled in the 1860s and ’70s by an insurgent freethinking and liberal mentality. The trained botanist Jacobsen participated in this cultural transformation with his translations of Darwin, but Jensen also emphasizes the influence of other figures, most notably the commanding Georg Brandes, an atheist, liberal, and feminist who would become probably the most important European literary critic of his time.

While I came away from Jensen’s book wanting to read Brandes, Jacobsen also benefits from the contrast with such a persona. Surrounded by agitators like Brandes, Jacobsen comes in Jensen’s telling to seem an appealingly thoughtful, quiet figure, tough-minded but kind, long-suffering but non-complaining, lonely but generous, a man who demurred, and not only due to illness, from confrontation and conflict, from polemics and culture wars.

Jacobsen’s troubled diffidence, his accurate understanding that atheism raises problems rather than solving them, allowed his writing to be ahead of its time. The perceptiveness granted the writer by a retreat from social controversy is an urgently needed lesson in our time, when every poet and novelist is expected to indulge in phony and predictable political grandstanding every day on Twitter.

Nothing could have been further from [Jacobsen’s] nature than to mount the barricades on behalf of an abstract political cause—or any other cause, for that matter. Years later he would write to Edvard Brandes: “I am too aesthetic in a good and bad sense to be able to join in such direct procurator-speech-types of works, in which problems are supposedly debated but are actually just postulated as solved”—an almost direct rejoinder to Georg Brandes’s exhortation that contemporary literature ought to take social and political problems up for debate.

In Niels Lynhe, atheism’s demotion of the human being from the center of creation clearly entails the end of utopian humanism, which the melioristic liberals and leftists of Jacobsen’s time did not understand; they failed to grasp that ideals like egalitarianism and progress silently presume monotheism’s assurance of human exceptionalism and equality before God. Brandes, who started out translating Mill and ended up translating Nietzsche, exemplifies the growing awareness of what godlessness may cost, but the price of living without God is embodied narratively, rather than via abstract argument, in Jacobsen’s proto-modernist prose, with its sometimes baffling commitment to the sensations and perceptions of the chaotic inner life. Such a recognition of the inner life and the subjection of every individual to death, however, may provide a surer basis for a humane society than fantasies of a world transformed by an activist mankind that has stepped into the now-vacant place of God.

Aside from these big ideas, Jensen is also good on more local and more literary matters. His portrait of Jacobsen’s small hometown, Thisted, and the confined life the author was forced to live there with kindly parents who did not quite comprehend him, is beautifully novelistic in its own right. And Jensen also demonstrates an impressive command, more than matching that of the book’s introducer, James Wood, of the main currents and movements of 19th-century European literature. Some of the literary paradoxes raised by Jacobsen’s posthumous canonization, for instance, are explained well: how is it that a Danish author mainly influenced by French and English literature came to have such an impact in Germany? Jensen explains it lucidly, placing Jacobsen expertly among his peers: Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola, Rilke, Mann, Joyce.

I recommend A Difficult Death, then, both as a perceptive, well-researched, and clearly-written introduction to a time and place in European literature that has fallen out of familiarity in the Anglophone world and as an exemplary life for our time, a time when we could use more Jacobsens and fewer Brandeses.


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Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville

Herman MelvilleHerman Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review with, or in, digressions:

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a decade ago at 91, is having a literary revival. Her collected essays are due later this year; articles abound, and will abound. Sentences are offered for our delectation. Sarah Nicole Prickett gives us this observation of Bloomsbury: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” Having written a dissertation chapter on Virginia Woolf while persisting in total indifference even to Leonard and Vanessa, to say nothing of Lytton and Duncan and Dora and Thoby and Ottoline and Roger and Julian and all the rest, I know exactly what Hardwick means. Yet I find the phrase empty, adding a mere simulacrum of the sensuous—the mind, in distinction to the brain, lacks any skin to scratch—to the venerable abstract cliché (“vex the spirits”) it so theatrically revises. Brian Dillon gives us this, on Billie Holiday:

In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.

Perhaps one “of” too many, but I see how the sentence drifts off into polysyllabic abstractions as the singer dispels them with her disbelief, on waves of sound amid clouds of smoke. A stylist, no doubt. Dillon attempts a general characterization:

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor.

The lyric as a mode is the expression of sensibility and self, so a lyric style must be a personal one, hence the cultivation of any style at all (plenty of authors, insensible to lyric, do not cultivate style as such). But the essayist on literary and political matters wants to express more than just her self. Literary and political argument cannot be private: they aim at suasion, imagine interlocutors. This is why sentences, no matter how original or arresting, are not enough: why, as Aristotle said, the poet is a maker of plots before a maker of verses.

Prickett contrasts Hardwick on just these grounds to Kate Zambreno, who champions subjectivism and gender exclusivity (I confess I somewhat contemptuously ceased to read Zambreno’s Heroines somewhere around the place where she pronounced that Woolf and Stein, because they succeeded in their literary aims, were “men”):

Zambreno’s revisionism is separatist, making claims to equality specious. She believes that to take “the self out of our essays is a form of repression,” but I have to confess that while Chris Kraus’s epistolary I Love Dick matters hugely in a Moby-Dick world, I no longer care who loves dick. I care that Hardwick spent her life loving Melville and made her study of him, published in 2000, her excellent last work, careful by then to find the feminine in her hero as a better way of saying that there can be heroines—if we are given the time and the space, but also the covert, exacting generosity of higher standards.

Which brings me around to Hardwick’s little Melville study, an entry in the short-lived turn-of-the-millennium Penguin Lives series and yet not quite a biography. I read it for two reasons: because I’m both reading and teaching a great deal of Melville lately, and because I want to see the Hardwick revival for myself, whether as spirit-moved congregant or skeptical reporter.

I like the old Penguin Lives books. They are the right size for literary biography, in my view. I avoid door-stopper biographies of novelists and poets. Once I have been apprised of the basic Freudian and Marxian data about who any given writer slept with and how, and the way he or she made money and how much, the rest is intellectual history. Writers’ lives are in their reading and writing; what lives on writers’ bookshelves is more important for their work than what happens in bedroom and bank account. Hardwick knows this. Of Melville and the frustrations of biography, she writes:

And then, it is unsettling to have Ishamel in Pittsfield coming down to dinner at night when the talk will be of money. More dislocating to find him retiring to the bedchamber to produce, after Malcolm and Stanwix, his daughters, Elizabeth and Frances. The assembled family cannot have had any idea of this reluctant head of the household. Nor can the graduate students with their theses, the annotators, the eyes searching passages marked in his books, the critics, the biographers in long, long efforts and short ones. It must be said about Melville that he earned the mystery of hi inner life.

But let us give the Kate Zambrenos of the world their due. Identity—or in the slightly more useful academo-pomo formulation, “subject position”—matters, at least until you insist that it does not. Censuring ressentiment and separatism in others, I feel it in myself, like Dostoevsky dismissing the writing of Tolstoy and Turgenev as “landlord literature” or even Junot Díaz, in the now-obligatory racialist idiom, declaiming that “that shit was too white.”

All of the above to say that I approach Hardwick, at this stage of my reading life, with a bit, just a hint really, the proverbial soupçon, whatever that means, of suspicion— with apprehensions of fatigue. These days, for me, somehow, the New York Intellectuals, The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, have lost their luster. If I don’t care about Bloomsbury, why should I care about this even less generally relevant coterie? Their organs have been disintermediated, their politics obsolesced, in the thresher of the twenty-first century. The problem with ressentiment and separatism, though, is that you miss too much of relevance to yourself, because you have artificially constricted your own soul too far in advance of experience. Lady Ottoline Morrell, Barbara Epstein—sure, if you’re not in the club, who cares? But you would not want to miss a Virginia Woolf, not even in the twenty-first century: so to Hardwick’s Melville I go.

Anyway, Hardwick was no more indigenous to that world than I am, and (I do not say “so,” my overture to the identitarians two paragraphs above notwithstanding) she is good on the Marx and the Freud of Melville. Melville’s family was the American equivalent of decaying aristocracy: they had the names (both Melville and Gansevoort, burnished at the Revolution), but periodically found themselves without the money: “In life it is common,” notes Hardwick with irresistibly worldly mordancy, “to find persons in truth absolutely broke, and yet there they are the next day buying the newspapers; and so it went with the Melvilles and their hanging on, bleeding.”

On the Freud of it all, she admits her interest in and focus on “gay Melville” in her afterword:

I admit I have found it of interest and have marked the notes in the various places they are heard. What it means we cannot know. The fair young men have their dreamlike quality that fades at the break of day. And there we leave them.

The academics scorn the belletrists because of this “cannot know.” I have my academic side. Hardwick, whose bibliography is midcentury-focused and ends with James Wood, can perhaps be excused from the labor (she was then in her ninth decade) of parsing the prose of the late Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, but all the same, I am broadly persuaded that Sedgwick is right when (if I understand her rightly) she assigns to Melville, as to Wilde, the historical task of re-orienting sentimentality for the later nineteenth century around the figure of the beautiful boy rather than the sweet girl—from Little Eva to Billy Budd.

Hardwick is better on Melville’s marriage. Her descriptions of Lizzie Shaw, braiding severity and sympathy, are superb:

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy would write of marriage as “two convicts serving a life sentence of hard labor welded to the same chain,” which led the Countess to threaten to jump into the pond. As Elizabeth Shaw labored on a weary evening to bring the skewered, cramped handwriting to legibility, she could read of “the disenchanting glasses of matrimonial days and nights.” Well, pass on in the manner of a court stenographer clicking away about heads severed with a hatchet.

Eventually—at a mention of Robert Gould Shaw (as perhaps related to Mrs. Melville) that concludes a chapter—I recalled that Hardwick was married, largely unhappily (if I am not mistaken), to the author of “For the Union Dead,” (not to speak of “‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage'”) a tormented genius not entirely unlike Melville, and that Hardwick, like Mrs. Melville, went by “Lizzie.” (Making a trio with Lowell and Melville, I am also married to a Lizzy—note the y—but will try not to dwell on the implications.) With Sarah Nicole Prickett above, I admire the feminism that sees the heroine in Melville rather than the feminism that would, to no great purpose at this late date, censure him.

This book is less a biography, Hardwick admits, than a “reading of the work,” and the reading is impressionistic and appreciative rather than interpretative. This makes for some spells of summary or redescription that seem dithery and perfunctory. Yet those sentences stand out. A useful generalization—

Throughout Melville’s writing there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion.

—or this more specific rendering of Billy Budd, just for example—

Garden of Eden before the Fall, sunlit, happy-go-lucky, blissful ignorance; there lies the brute human temptation to bewilder confidence, to test, like Claggart, the defensive powers of the beguiling, androgynous athlete.

She is beautifully withering on Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, even though I think I love it, while she seems not even to like it:

The windswept Wuthering Heights had been published in 1847, five years previous to Pierre, and it could be wished, if Melville were drawn to exorcising demons, that he had read Emily Brontë; he had not.

And Hardwick renders the greatest service a critic can render: adding a book to one’s reading list. I probably never would have even gotten around to the autobiographical Redburn, but she makes it sound irresistible, essential.

What did I ever want from New York intellectuals before ressentiment overtook me? What do I want now that I know the literati is not necessarily any more reliable than they were when they, alongside dollars, damned Melville—damned him for a lunatic or a heretic? John Leonard, reviewing his New York Review of Books colleague in where else but The New York Review of Books, praised her thusly, while she lived, almost two decades before she got her posthumous revival:

So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture—the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking by pomo aliens—so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. […] She sends up kites; she catches lightning.

When I was a teenager, I would set an alarm on Sunday mornings so I could wake up to watch Leonard deliver his own enthusiastic sentences, all incantatory litanies of incongruities, on some network show, reviewing books, reviewing TV (before the golden age!). It was also before the ubiquity of the Internet; such things as learned men and women on TV were needed; he sent me to Rushdie, to Morrison, to DeLillo. What was it I wanted? Not so much the lightning, not from the urbane belletrists. For the lightning, you need the isolatos, the crazies, the Melvilles, the ones who will not be in the club.

After his few years at sea in his twenties, Melville lived among decent, well-bred men and women, all the while knowing much of life they could not have known.

And what, we men of resentment, is so great about not being in the club as such? Whence this desire to kill all normies, to take it upon ourselves to judge the landlords’ literature (as if Tolstoy were not a genius) and pronounce that shit too white (as if the sentence would not read just the same if one substituted “Jewish” for “white”)? The worldly-wise, even the worldly-wife, knows that once or twice one must blame the self-anointed victim:

His intelligence and remarkable talent for self-education would have opened any door for him if he had wanted doors to open, as perhaps he did not.

I did not just want “oratorical insertions of enlightened opinion” from the New Yorkers either—though Leonard was a past master at that—but something, as well, a bit more jaded, rumpled, a sign, in a word, of experience. No, to the New Yorkers one goes for higher gossip, gossip in the best sense, Jamesian or Proustian or Saint-Simonian (whoever Saint-Simon was; I scarcely know), the efflorescence of the inner life as it bends toward the light of the outer without any Melvillean need for transcendence or ultimacy. The very rhythm in the cultivated sentences of secularity itself:

Critics, noting the lonely study of the philosophical questions of the mid-nineteenth century, are too quick to rob [Melville] of a melancholy atheism, the moral intransigence of one acquainted with those damned by life.

Whatever form literary culture will take after the disintegration of the culture the NYRB addressed or thought it did, this “moral intransigence” praised by and found in Hardwick is well worth reviving, however one judges this sentence or that.


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John Marsh, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from ItselfIn Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself by John Marsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Walt We Trust is blessedly less reductive than its overeager title and subtitle make it sound. John Marsh is a professor at Penn State specializing in American poetry and the literature and theory of labor and working-class movements; his view of Whitman, therefore, focuses on the poet’s politics, with a particular emphasis on how his work can be construed as a critical response to capitalist culture. Whitman was the first canonical American poet to be born to the working class, Marsh emphasizes. His politics were progressive for their time—he belonged to the anti-slavery left wing of the Democratic Party—and his poetry, in its aspiration toward universal sympathy, more radical than that. To explore Whitman’s views and their contemporary relevance, Marsh divides his book into four main chapters. In each, he visits a location that is either directly related to Whitman’s life or that reflects on the poet’s themes, and each treats a central ill in American culture that Whitman’s poetry might cure: death, debt, sex, and political polarization.

The first chapter concerns Whitman’s spiritual or ontological optimism—his belief that, because all things are made of the same circulating atoms, there can be no death but only constant renewal. As an explication of Whitman’s philosophy and its grounding in nineteenth-century science, the chapter is useful, but Marsh’s postmodern discomfort with spirituality of any kind makes it an odd opener. The much stronger second chapter explicates Whitman’s nuanced and sensible, though still sadly uncommon, economic views, which can be summed up as follows: money was made to serve humanity; humanity was not made to serve money. Whitman allows the need in a decent society for enough wealth to free citizens from economic anxiety so they can pursue higher goals, even as he insists that to seek wealth and prosperity as such is to mistake a means (money) for an end (a good life, however defined). The third chapter is likewise compelling; framed with rueful comedy by Marsh’s uncomfortable visit to a central PA strip club, it argues persuasively that Whitman’s celebratory and bodily poetics chart a middle path between the nineteenth century’s debilitating sexual shame and the twenty-first century’s enervating sexual shamelessness. Finally, the fourth chapter movingly narrates Whitman’s service as wound-dresser during the Civil War and explains the potential for Whitmanian comradely love and solidarity to reunify our atomized and polarized society.*

Still, Marsh is perhaps a better scholarly than popular writer, despite his memoir-structure’s appeal to Whitmanian personal poetics: for me, the standout parts of this book were its two interludes, which, sans memoir or polemic, address the biographical questions of whether Whitman was a socialist and whether he was a gay man. Marsh’s command of social and intellectual history allows him to answer both questions very subtly. He concludes that Whitman was a socialist in values but not in systematic political theory, and that, while neither his behavior nor his writings depart very far from conventional Victorian sexual ideology, his sometimes seemingly overmastering love of men bespeaks, if not “homosexuality” (i.e., an identity), then “queerness” (i.e., a variability of desire and identity). On the last point, Marsh even somewhat boldly argues that Whitman’s call for “adhesiveness” or “manly love” among citizens is more radical the less sexual it is, because it allows us to imagine an affective union with our fellow citizens that might incite more care and inspire more equality than any external state-socialist measures could. That Whitman could write of such love without hostility or suspicion—Marsh points out that the main aspect of his work thought obscene by his contemporaries were those portraying sex between men and women—makes me wonder if the nineteenth century did not have its own version of queerness, enabled paradoxically by its suppression of genital sexuality as a topic for public discourse: with intercourse off the table, you could speak or write much more freely of every other form of love and desire.

In Walt We Trust is published by a Marxist press and Marsh writes overtly as a leftist, but he seems to hope to arrive at a non-doctrinaire affective politics, bypassing argument through poetry’s power to inspire and envision a better life. Quoting Tony Judt, Christopher Lasch, Chris Hedges, and Andrea Dworkin, Marsh appears to be a kind of left-conservative, suspicious of liberal individualism in any form, whether economic (as favored by the right) or cultural and sexual (as favored by the left); a belief that we need to channel our energies into community over individuality and to focus on needs over desires animates his often chastened prose. No exuberant Transcendentalist attempt to unite these polarities seems possible in the present, at least not when starting from such a left politics. What would Whitman think of that? Not being the Whitman scholar that Marsh is, I am not entirely sure; but the gentle sadness of the Civil War poems, their abandonment of exhortation, their eloquent witness, hints at the proper task of poetry in a time of crisis. From “The Wound Dresser”:

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

Marsh’s attention to that final question—along with his judicious scholarship—makes In Walt We Trust worth reading.


* Speaking of Whitman’s selfless ministrations to the war-wounded: I spend a fair amount of time in these reviews defending authors who depart, in the life or the work, from conventional or even unconventional morality, but I share Marsh’s relief in contemplating Whitman—a great writer who was also, by all accounts, a good person. There is no need for these to go together, and I even think some personal or political immorality can be, like it or not, a passport to otherwise inaccessible literary territory; but it is heartening to know that you can write your country’s greatest poetry even as you behave with exemplary kindness and decency.


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Henry James, Hawthorne

HawthorneHawthorne by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short 1879 book is Henry James’s critical biography of the man who would at the time have been considered his most distinguished precursor in American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. James was early in his career and was moreover writing Hawthorne as the only entry on an American to appear in a series published in Britain on “English Men of Letters”; he is consequently forced to fight on two fronts throughout his text. On the one hand, he struggles to clear a space for himself in American letters by defining himself against his precursor as a member of a more complex, ironic, cosmopolitan, and realistic generation of writers; on the other hand, he must defend the honor of American literature, even of America itself, against the condescension of the erstwhile mother country.

In the first task of guarding against literary subsumption by Hawthorne, James acquits himself with grace and aplomb. It is an exceptionally dignified performance, considering what it might have been—compare, for instance, the sometimes ludicrous vitriol of the later modernists against their own precursors (e.g., Ezra Pound: “From an examination of Walt made twelve years ago the present writer carried away the impression that there are thirty well-written pages of Whitman; he is now unable to find them”). James even manages to recast Hawthorne’s faults as virtues. Understanding that Hawthorne will be judged by English or European readers as unsophisticated by the standards of “that quality of realism which is now so much in fashion,” that the thinness and simplicity of his fiction’s social settings will be found wanting in comparison to Balzac or Flaubert, James nevertheless emphasizes that Hawthorne’s very narrowness and intensity of focus make his work all the more valuable as a testimony to its time and place:

His very simplicity has been in his favour; it has helped him to appear complete and homogeneous. To talk of his being national would be to force the note and make a mistake of proportion; but he is, in spite of the absence of the realistic quality, intensely and vividly local.

James implies that a Balzac would have struggled to produce novels like Lost Illusions if he had had to take New England small-town life as his subject matter, with its lack either of Europe’s medieval survivals (church, aristocracy) or of its ultramodern developments (industrialization and urbanization). In Hawthorne‘s most famous passage, James gives us a seriocomic list of everything the early nineteenth-century American writer did not have to write about:

No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!

Precisely these absences were considered by eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers to be advantages: Franklin, Crèvecœur, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were certainly grateful to live in a country unencumbered by ruined abbeys or aristocratic racecourses. But they were not novelists, and the novel was invented—according to the strictures of high realism to which the young James adhered—to anatomize a complex society and to analyze the human being as social animal. Without a complex society to portray, spending most of his life in small towns and villages, Hawthorne had recourse to symbolism and psychology. And while James cannot stop himself from judging that Hawthorne, even in his masterpiece (The Scarlet Letter), exhibits “a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element,” he also concedes that it could hardly have been otherwise.

While we might see James as influenced by contemporaneous naturalist ideas in judging Hawthorne so completely a product of his environment, we could also consider this book an ahead-of-its-time exercise in postcolonial criticism—an examination of the difficulties and opportunities for the writer in a newly-born country still culturally dominated by the empire and lacking in the full development of its own political and social powers. James’s tone wavers between the admiring and the patronizing when he writes of Hawthorne as “the last of the old-fashioned Americans,” above all in “in the vagueness of his sense of social distinctions and his readiness to forget them if a moral or intellectual sensation were to be gained by it” (in one passage, James apologizes to the sensitive English reader because in one of his stories Hawthorne refers to a tavern-keeper as a “gentlewoman”!). James seems overall, though, to mourn the passing of a generation so ingenuously and innocently democratic as that of Hawthorne, the Transcendentalists, and, indeed, James’s own parents.

The postcolonial critic, however, usually gets around to censuring the national bourgeoisie for its complacency, and James is no different—nor, surprisingly, is his verdict on Hawthorne’s Jacksonian America really so different from our own. James predictably but very gingerly upbraids Hawthorne for his politics—he was a lifelong Democrat, making him, by the time of the Civil War, a northern moderate opposed to abolitionism and eventually opposed to the war itself—but the judgment extends to the entirety of antebellum white America (or New England, anyway—America seems largely to mean New England for the purposes of this book) as James notes when he argues for the Civil War as a decisive break in the national character:

[The good American] has eaten of the tree of knowledge. He will not, I think, be a sceptic, and still less, of course, a cynic; but he will be, without discredit to his well-known capacity for action, an observer. He will remember that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable, and that this is a world in which everything happens; and eventualities, as the late Emperor of the French used to say, will not find him intellectually unprepared. The good American of which Hawthorne was so admirable a specimen was not critical, and it was perhaps for this reason that Franklin Pierce seemed to him a very proper President.

James seems to have taken his tree-of-knowledge metaphor literally: he expelled himself—forever, in the end—from the New World’s garden, becoming a good American by becoming no American at all.

To return from politics to literature: there is obviously much of Hawthorne in James’s fiction, despite the later author’s choice of European cosmopolitanism over American provincialism and of realism over romance. Isabel Archer is the daughter of Hester Prynne (almost literally, considering the fate of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter) while The Bostonians comes straight out of The Blithedale Romance. James’s description of Hilda from The Marble Faun could caption his own whole procession of besmirched Protestant madonnas from Daisy to Milly:

This pure and somewhat rigid New England girl, following the vocation of a copyist of pictures in Rome, unacquainted with evil and untouched by impurity, has been accidentally the witness, unknown and unsuspected, of the dark deed by which her friends, Miriam and Donatello, are knit together. This is her revelation of evil, her loss of perfect innocence. She has done no wrong, and yet wrongdoing has become a part of her experience, and she carries the weight of her detested knowledge upon her heart. She carries it a long time, saddened and oppressed by it, till at last she can bear it no longer.

James even unwittingly (and amusingly) foretells his own destiny in writing of Hawthorne’s stylistic development:

[The Scarlet Letter] is admirably written. Hawthorne afterwards polished his style to a still higher degree, but in his later productions—it is almost always the case in a writer’s later productions—there is a touch of mannerism.[1]

Finally, James’s balanced assessment of Hawthorne’s temperament—”The play of [his] intellect was light and capricious, but the man himself was firm and rational”—is a welcome contrast not only to the French critic James is explicitly arguing against, who saw Hawthorne as a kind of Poe-like nihilist, but also to Melville’s projection of Hawthorne as an author who said “NO! in thunder,” a strange thing to claim about a writer whose central symbol is ambivalence embroidered. If you miss Hawthorne’s rationality, you miss the irony that preserves his fantasy from decaying into mere sensationalism—you miss the novelistic temper behind the romancer. This was not lost—little was—on James.

My own contribution to the theory of literary influence is less psychedelic than Eliot’s (“the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past”), Borges’s (“every writer creates his own precursors”), or Bloom’s (“influence is influenza—an astral disease”), even though they well illuminate those moments in which Hawthorne sounds like James. But perhaps my homely contribution will be more practically persuasive: I think strong writers overcome the anxiety of influence by adopting modes that startlingly combine those of the most disparate of their major precursors.[2]

In the best work of James’s middle years, for example, he seems to have proceeded as if he were Jane Austen writing The Scarlet Letter or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing Pride and Prejudice. Bereft of a broad social canvas and moreover tormented by extreme Puritan inwardness, the early American writer dug deeply rather than venturing widely. This seems to have been James’s hint to tunnel a deep burrow into the English or European social novel and excavate the psyche’s symbols. James turns the socially realist novel inside out, lining drawing-room walls and urban streets with his character’s inner lives. In his excellent Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra argues that James’s Portrait of a Lady is the hinge text that swings modern fiction from Middlemarch to Mrs. Dalloway. James could never have accomplished this without the example of Hawthorne, whose fiction—however local, however provincial—became world literature in the hands of his successor.

[1] James’s own sometimes scarcely readable late style, though, is more a pummeling than a touch of mannerism.

[2] The harder it is to imagine making the combination work, the greater the literary rewards will be. Feel free to take this as a writing prompt, by the way. What if Edith Wharton wrote Paradise Lost? What if J. G. Ballard wrote Daniel Deronda? What if Zora Neale Hurston wrote Blood Meridian?


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David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with TimeJ. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time by David Attwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Attwell’s book is billed as a “literary biography,” presumably so as not to scare off the common reader, for whom it seems to be intended. But it is more like a critical study of Coetzee’s writing, organized more thematically than chronologically, and informed by Coetzee’s archival materials at the University of Texas at Austin. If Attwell has a thesis, it is twofold: 1. that Coetzee, based on his voluminous drafts and notebooks, is committed to the process of finding a form for his fiction that not only refuses conventional realism but also allows his own sensibility and experience to speak; 2. relatedly, that Coetzee, even in his earlier allegorical and historical fictions, is a far more autobiographical writer than readers have yet understood.

Attwell’s longest and strongest sections on Coetzee’s life are fascinating: his account of Coetzee’s troubled love for the landscape of the Karoo, a landscape his ambiguous class position as a poor Afrikaner and his racial status as a settler colonist and his European cultural attachments never really allowed him to imaginatively “possess” with any security; his summary of Coetzee’s extremely complex involvement, at times amounting to collaboration, with the apartheid-era censorship regime; and his examination of the genesis of Coetzee’s great Dostoevsky novel, The Master of Petersburg, in his son’s death at age 22. Other sections—on Coetzee’s relationship with his parents, for instance, or his life (during graduate school in the 1960s) in the U.S.—are sketchier, perhaps reflecting a paucity of archival evidence.

Attwell depicts Coetzee in the midst of massive struggles with his fictional and autobiographical materials. This is refreshing, because in narrating the writer’s intellectual difficulties, Attwell shows up as terminally shallow the “craft” discourse the dominates so much discussion of imaginative writing today. Finding a form for a novel or memoir is not a problem of craft—as building a sturdy table would be—because literary aesthetics is bound to ethics and metaphysics, and form communicates worldview. Of course, by the end of this book, I was slightly weary of Coetzee’s cliched notebook complaints about realism, which he seems to have a rather one-dimensional view of for an admirer of Tolstoy; but no serious writer can fail to be inspired by his agon as he tries to compose works that at once address or imitate the social world, critically comment on their own procedures, and express the author’s own passion, as Attwell observes:

The last sentence of this [notebook] entry—‘Finally, perhaps, evidence of me’—is especially revealing, confirming that for Coetzee metafiction has an autobiographical implication in so far as it is about the book’s being written. The stakes for this mode of self-conscious narration are much higher than postmodern game-playing and they certainly don’t involve self-masking—on the contrary, self-consciousness in the narration marks the place where the need to define oneself is most acute.

The notebook is illuminating here because it shows that Coetzee is frequently anxious about ‘attaining consciousness’. […] ‘Attaining consciousness’ means two things: showing that one properly understands one’s materials; and bearing witness to one’s existence in the act of writing.

(As an aside, it is also inspiring how many bad ideas Coetzee eventually, even doggedly, turned into superb novels: Life & Times of Michael K started as a Kleist-inspired tale of a white South African crime victim who goes on a spree of vengeance in a black township; worse than the reverse of Doctorow’s Ragtime, it anticipates—not in a good way!—Joel Schumacher’s angry-white-man film, Falling Down.)

Are the archives, as Attwell transmits their contents, especially revealing? I would say yes—but the archival “scoop” is understandably not one that either Attwell or his publishers would want to trumpet: it appears that Coetzee has long been more conservative than his academic reputation would suggest, and even the postmodern gestures of his middle-period fiction were motivated as much by a reactionary distaste for the affective style of progressivism as by a desire not to commit the “epistemic violence” of “speaking for the Other.” Why, for example, did Coetzee not allow Friday a voice in Foe (his postcolonial recasting of Robinson Crusoe)? He writes during its composition:

By robbing him of his tongue (and hinting that it is Cruso, not I, who cut it out) I deny him a chance to speak for himself: because I cannot imagine how anything that Friday might say would have a place in my text. Defoe’s text is full of Friday’s Yes; now it is impossible to fantasize that Yes; all the ways in which Friday can say No seem not only stereotyped (i.e. rehearsed over and over again in the texts of our times) but so destructive (murder, rape, bloodthirsty tyranny). What is lacking to me is what is lacking to Africa since the death of Negritude: a vision of a future for Africa that is not a debased version of life in the West.

Attwell comments rather blandly on this (“it is [Coetzee’s] judgment about the failure of post-colonial nationalism”), but its sweeping dismissal of postcolonial writing perhaps requires more commentary; what begins as an ethical refusal of “cultural appropriation” ends in a perhaps over-hasty identification with Africa and rejection of all extant forms of black protest!

On the other hand, Coetzee’s stern admissions of his own intractable position, his confessions about what he cannot know or imagine, has much to recommend it. As the young Barack Obama wrote about T. S. Eliot, “there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism”—and Coetzee, a lover of Eliot, falls under this heading. There is no divesting oneself of one’s historical situation, not really, and Coetzee allows, in the following journal entry that may serve as the epigraph to all his works, that he will remain the “man of liberal conscience” (a phrase that recurs throughout this book) till the end of his days, even if they have to take him out and shoot him:

I am outraged by tyranny, but only because I am identified with the tyrants, not because I love (or ‘am with’) their victims. I am incorrigibly an elitist (if not worse); and in the present conflict the material interests of the intellectual elite and the oppressors are the same. There is a fundamental flaw in all my novels: I am unable to move from the side of the oppressors to the side of the oppressed.

Coetzee has chosen to devote his life’s work to worrying at this Gordian knot. It can be sliced, however, by dispensing with the Manichean terms (oppressor and oppressed) and abandoning the arrogant writerly mission—which goes back only two centuries anyway—to save the world. Perhaps it is enough only to observe it and to recreate it in language (the conclusion of Diary of a Bad Year suggests as much). It may be distasteful to discover in Attwell’s report that Coetzee was reading ruefully about Mao’s Cultural Revolution during South Africa’s transition to democracy; but the implied assessment of the writer’s necessary distance from popular judgment may well be a wise one. Attwell’s intelligent portrayal of this most intelligent of writers leaves readers much to think about—much of it disturbing.

(If you liked this review, you may want to see some of my other writings on Coetzee.)

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Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong: A Penguin LifeMao Zedong: A Penguin Life by Jonathan D. Spence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the old Penguin Lives series of brief biographies; they were published between 1999 and 2002 and then abruptly discontinued. I used to read or peruse them back then—I remember reading the one on Woolf in full and maybe Austen too, as well as looking through the Joyce and Melville. So I decided to revisit the series with this volume on Chairman Mao by the distinguished historian Jonathan Spence. It has convinced me that the brief biography format works better for writers than for politicians, since the lives of the latter are so crowded with incident and action and personality.

Moreover, this book is rather oddly structured, leaving for its last third the narrative of Mao’s actual rule over China and providing less detail about that period than about Mao’s earlier life. This creates a certain “balance,” but it neglects the obvious fact that readers, especially those coming to Mao for the first time, will probably be most interested in his leadership. Spence, who rarely editorializes, seems to need this narrative structure to make his argument, though: he casts Mao’s life as a tragedy in which the thoughtful, humane, gifted, idealistic young man from the rural provinces rises to world prominence and is then undone by his own hubris. People who know more than I do about modern China will have to decide if this is plausible.

Spence also emphasizes Mao’s intellectual ambitions and inadequacies, a motif that climaxes in the Cultural Revolution. In this ghastly episode (though one that will no doubt find more and more defenders today), Mao revenged himself on party leaders for the failures of his own highly ideological plans to modernize China in the Great Leap Forward. Calling on the populace—especially the young—to revolt against their teachers, parents, and other authorities, to “attack the headquarters,” in Mao’s words, he consolidated his own authority since his ideology was the guide to the revolution. Spence attributes to Mao a resentment for intellectuals with roots in his rural background and in his own failure to become a genuine scholar or thinker himself:

Mao had also grown more hostile to intellectuals as the years went by—perhaps because he knew he would never really be one, not even at the level of his own secretaries, whom he would commission to go to the libraries to track down classical sources for him and help with historical references. Mao knew, too, that scholars of the old school like Deng Tuo, the man he had summarily ousted from the People’s Daily, had their own erudite circles of friends with whom the [sic] pursued leisurely hours of classical connoisseurship, which was scarcely different from the lives they might have enjoyed under the old society. They wrote elegant and amusing essays, which were printed in various literary newspapers, that used allegory and analogy to tease the kind of “commandism” that had been so present in the Great Leap, and indeed in the Communist leadership as a whole. It was surely of such men that Mao was thinking when he wrote: “All wisdom comes from the masses. I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in all the world, then I’m at least number two.'”

Here Spence’s insistence on going into detail about Mao’s early studies, his attraction to the classics, his love of poetry, pays off. One is even tempted, if one has known a lot of literary intellectuals, to laugh ruefully along with Mao’s insult. (And I am even tempted to suggest an analogy along these lines between Mao and Nixon, both of whom built policy around their and their constituencies’ resentments, justified and unjustified, against academic and cultural elites.) The Mao who made the Cultural Revolution, though, was living in comfort and luxury beyond even most scholars, traveling around the country in his specially outfitted train and dallying with his mistresses.

And Spence’s clear, factual, and even decorous prose can have a quality of euphemism about what actually went on in the Cultural Revolution, leading readers to believe that it might be an example of some regrettable but necessary excess in the birth of a modern nation rather than a top-down pogrom against civilization itself by a despot preaching self-criticism even as he was immured in the appurtenances of authority. Spence does mention torture as the Revolution’s method, and he holds up some Red Guard rhetoric for implied mockery, but the New York Times review of the biography, written by a penitent journalist taken in at the time by Maoist propaganda, gives a more vivid sense of the actual atrocities involved than the biography itself does:

For a year or more, I wrote uncritically, even enthusiastically, about dreadful things — nuclear scientists shoveling out pigpens who insisted they had been ignorant until ”educated” by the peasants; classical musicians with fingers smashed by the Red Guards who described their past work as ”poisonous weeds”; acupuncture as the sole ”anesthetic” for deep-brain surgery in operations that, as we learned years later, few patients survived. Only when the rationalizations became too great to bear did I revert to my instincts.

To understand is not to excuse. One can see, reading this book, how a man of Mao’s intelligence and sensibility could nevertheless proceed by degrees into tyranny by the extremity of the circumstances in which he had to maneuver: decades of war and deprivation. And it is useless, also obnoxious, to airily insist on liberalism as bromide and panacea to historical actors born far away and long ago. I don’t fault Spence for avoiding such rhetoric in 1999, when it was so fashionable. All the same, the lessons for us in Mao’s life, especially its final third, should not be avoided: theory must subject itself to observable reality; what looks like popular activity is often manipulated by elites; populist rhetoric is usually promoted by elites themselves for their own purposes; the arts and sciences may be open to all in terms of opportunity, but considered in themselves they are inegalitarian insofar as not everyone is talented enough—perhaps only a few are—to attain great achievements within them. Spence makes the pattern of Mao’s policies clear: he destroyed wealth, whether economic or cultural, in the guise of distributing it equally.

Of course, it is more difficult to evaluate Mao than, say, Hitler: many of his goals seem laudable—the elimination of poverty, the reform of unjust hierarchies, the resistance to imperialism. All the more reason, then, to be clear about the lies and cruelty and stupidity into which such goals may be corrupted.

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