Contents of Chapter|
Mann, Hesse, and Goethe
Other Russian Writers
Other English Writers
Robert Louis Stevenson
E. M. Forster
D. H. Lawrence
Shaw and Wells
Chesterton and Belloc
Evelyn Waugh and
Wodehouse and Christie
Other French Writers
Three Spanish Writers
James Fenimore Cooper
Lovecraft & Co.
Dunsany, Tolkien, etc.
Clarke and Heinlein
Arthur Machen and
J. D. Salinger and
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Kafka’s works certainly rank among the classics of modern fiction, yet one can’t call them “classics” without qualification. Most of Kafka’s novels are unfinished, perhaps because Kafka could find no way out of a hopeless dead-end, perhaps because Kafka thought they were unworthy of being finished. “My scribbling,” Kafka told an acquaintance, “[is] only my personal specter of horror... It is without meaning.”1 In his will, Kafka left instructions that most of his works be destroyed.
Kafka was born into Prague’s Jewish community. Prague was then inhabited by Czechs, Germans, and Jews. In his famous “Letter to His Father,” Kafka said, “You were capable... of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews... and finally nobody was left except yourself.” Kafka could sense that there was intense hostility toward the Jewish community: “Anti-semitism [will] seize hold of the masses.”2 Kafka died before Hitler came to power, but his prophecies came true; his three sisters died in the Holocaust.
While Kafka’s historical circumstances influenced his work, his temperament probably influenced his work more. Kafka was afraid of life, and had a deep sense of guilt. Kafka’s father was a big, boisterous businessman who didn’t appreciate the delicate, conscientious intellectual who was his son. Kafka could never please his father, or be like his father, and he became filled with guilt:
Kafka had several affairs with women, and was even engaged to be married, but his diffidence, and his dedication to literature, prevented him from “taking the plunge.” He had trouble making a decision, and if he finally made one, he soon had doubts and second thoughts. “When it comes to indecision,” Kafka wrote, “now there is something I know all about; in fact, I know nothing else.”3 Kafka’s fear of life, his inability to let himself go, made it difficult for him to sleep, and he suffered from severe insomnia. He died of tuberculosis at age 41.
For Kafka, as for other writers, the literary world was more real than the “real world,” and he never felt at home in the “real world.” He told his mother, “Certainly, you are all strangers to me.”4 Kafka’s passion for literature drew all his energy and talent away from the “real world”, and enabled him to create works that combine wild fantasy with vivid realism, works that have a beautiful simplicity of style, and an unsurpassed sense of humor. Kafka didn’t try to create memorable characters, or set forth philosophical arguments; he isn’t part of the classical tradition of Balzac and Tolstoy. He’s part of the anti-hero tradition, the tradition of humor and the surreal, the tradition of Gogol’s “Overcoat” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crocodile”.
Kafka loathed the decadent and the nihilistic, and liked literature that was positive and affirming. Among Kafka’s favorite writers were Strindberg and Chekhov; “Chekhov I love very much,” he once wrote, “sometimes quite madly.”5 Kafka’s favorite books were biographies and autobiographies; he was especially fond of Ben Franklin’s autobiography.6
Kafka earned a law degree, and found a job in a government insurance company, part of the huge Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. Once a year, he wrote a long report for his boss. He treated this report as a literary work, and gave copies of it to his friends. Once, when his boss was addressing Kafka and a colleague, Kafka suddenly saw the literary potential of this scene, and started laughing.
Kafka had several friends in the Prague literary world, and he was able to publish some early stories. The first story that he was really proud of was “The Judgment”, which he wrote in one night, one sleepless night. Kafka wasn’t a craftsman who planned his writing in advance, and polished it afterwards; he wrote in moments of inspiration, he wrote automatically. He spoke of, “the time of inspiration, which I dread rather than long for.”7 On January 20, 1915, Kafka made the following entry in his diary: “The end of writing. When will it take me up again?”8
After completing “The Judgment,” Kafka attempted to write a novel. “Kafka is in ecstasy,” reported his friend Max Brod, “writes whole nights through. A novel set in America.”9 Of Kafka’s three novels, Amerika is the most realistic, the most like other novels, the least “Kafka-esque.” Amerika was influenced by David Copperfield; Amerika was Kafka’s attempt to refine and modernize David Copperfield.
Kafka’s second novel, The Trial, is the most finished, and the most popular, of his novels. It was written when Kafka was struggling to marry, and leave his parents’ house — a struggle he ultimately lost. Who can forget the famous Cathedral scene?
Kafka’s last and longest novel, The Castle, was written in the shadow of death, and its snow-covered landscape contains no hint of green. Kafka didn’t finish this novel, and he didn’t want it to be published. Why did he write it? One suspects that he wrote it out of sheer love of literature, and out of a need to release what was on his mind. Although The Castle isn’t a cheerful work, the reader will enjoy Kafka’s prose, and he’ll be amused by Kafka’s wild fantasies.
Kafka’s best short stories are as good as his novels, but his short stories aren’t consistently high in quality, and therefore should be read selectively. I recommend “The Metamorphosis,” “Josephine the Singer,” “The Hunger Artist,” “A Report To An Academy,” and “The Burrow.” Like his stories, Kafka’s Eight Octavo Notebooks need to be edited; if edited, these notebooks could be an excellent book. Some of Kafka’s letters are also interesting; I recommend his letters to Felice and also a collection of his personal writings called “I Am A Memory Come Alive.” Those who want to read a psychological study of Kafka’s writings have numerous works to choose from.10 Finally, I recommend Brod’s biography of Kafka, Janouch’s Conversations With Kafka, and a little cartoon-book called Introducing Kafka.
Unlike Kafka, Proust was born into a family that respected literature. When Proust was still a boy, his mother and grandmother introduced him to French literature, and soon he realized that literature was his calling. But his literary ability developed slowly; he worried that he didn’t have enough imagination to write a novel. He regarded himself as, “a man born sensitive to impressions but without imagination.”11 Finally he decided that he wouldn’t try to write a work based on imagination, but rather a work based on his own experiences: his loves, his sorrows, his friendships, his social life, etc.
Proust doesn’t write about exotic experiences, but rather universal experiences. For example, he writes about the death of an acquaintance:
Proust makes universal experiences seem fresh, interesting and exotic, because he himself lived through those experiences fully and consciously.
One could summarize Proust’s life thus: he was introduced to literature at an early age, and soon became preoccupied with literature. Later he became preoccupied with life itself, and despaired of becoming a novelist. Then he retreated from life, devoted himself entirely to writing, and transmuted his experiences into art. Finally, he said to his maid, Celeste, “Last night I wrote ‘The End.’ Now I can die.”13
Like Kafka, Proust was a very unusual person, and he presents a new and different view of the world. But since Kafka presents his view of the world in a manner much like other novelists, he doesn’t demand as much from the reader as Proust, who presents his view of the world in a manner that is both unusual and challenging. Proust’s prose is ornate, his sentences long, his paragraphs long, his chapters long, and his book long. Furthermore, his work contains little action, little plot. Those who commit themselves to studying Proust will find these difficulties gradually melt away, and will realize that Proust is clear, though long-winded.
Some readers, unwilling to read all seven of the novels that comprise Remembrance of Things Past, choose to read only the first and last of the seven. Such readers may benefit from a book that summarizes the other five novels, such as Miller’s book (Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust) or Maurois’ superb biography of Proust. Maurois’ biography is half as long, and twice as good, as most modern biographies. George Painter’s two-volume biography of Proust is well-regarded, but the more recent biography by Jean-Yves Tadié seems to have become the standard biography of Proust.
I recommend Monsieur Proust: A Memoir, by Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret. This memoir is an intimate and fascinating look at Proust. Proust told Celeste that if she ever recorded her memories of him, the book would sell like hot rolls in the morning, and indeed her memoir did become a bestseller in France. I recommend A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust (a useful summary-and-analysis of Proust’s work), The Cambridge Companion to Proust (a collection of essays), and a Proust essay in the Scribner Writers Series (an excellent introduction to Proust’s life and work, written by F. Hemmings).
Like Kafka, Proust was deeply committed to literature. But Proust wasn’t bookish or pedantic. Like Kafka, Proust was more fascinated by life itself than by literature. Kafka and Proust viewed life from a literary standpoint, and found life to be the most profound and the most humorous of authors. Proust would have agreed with Kafka’s remark: “From life one can extract comparatively so many books, but from books so little, so very little, life.”14 The greatness of Kafka and Proust lies less in their learning than in their living. Proust learned a great deal from life, and his work is based on his own experience.
Proust’s work is full of profound thoughts. He notes, for example, that people often overlook the ability of those who are close to them: “We can never believe in the genius of a person with whom we went to the Opera last night.”15 Proust’s work is also full of humorous remarks; he says, for example, that
No imaginative writer is more profound, or more humorous, than Proust.
James Joyce was born in Ireland in 1882, eleven years after Proust was born. During his early years, Joyce went in and out of Catholic schools, while his father went in and out of jobs. As a teenager, Joyce went through moral cycles: sin, followed by repentance and asceticism, eventually giving way to renewed sin. Joyce later described these cycles in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Some may regard these cycles as typical of a Catholic adolescence, but I regard them as typical of adolescence in general.
While still a teenager, Joyce felt that he was called to a literary life. Like other adolescents, the young Joyce had moments of inspiration in which his calling, his destiny, appeared to him like a vision or dream; as Joyce described it in A Portrait,
Though Joyce was influenced by the Irish writer Yeats, his ambitions transcended his native land; he was international. He admired Ibsen, and even learned Norwegian in order to read Ibsen in the original, and write Ibsen a letter. At 22, Joyce eloped with Nora Barnacle, left Ireland, and began a life of voluntary exile; as he later wrote (in the peculiar and playful style of Finnegans Wake), “He even ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea.”19 Joyce lived most of his adult life in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. A student of foreign languages, Joyce earned some money as a teacher at a Berlitz language school. Later, he received assistance from wealthy patrons, and earned money from royalties.
While still in Ireland, Joyce had begun writing short stories for George Russell’s magazine. Eventually, he had enough stories for a book, which he called Dubliners. For years, he tried unsuccessfully to publish Dubliners; “publishers and printers alike,” he wrote, “seemed to agree among themselves, no matter how divergent their points of view were in other matters, not to publish anything of mine as I wrote it.” Joyce’s career took a turn for the better when Ezra Pound and Yeats began to admire his work, and help him find publishers and patrons. By the time Joyce reached 40, he was internationally famous; the controversy surrounding Ulysses (it was initially banned as indecent) only enhanced Joyce’s fame.
In addition to being controversial, Ulysses was also experimental; Joyce tried to capture the miscellaneous thoughts that flit through one’s head, using a technique called stream-of-consciousness. In the following passage, Leopold Bloom is attending a funeral; after Bloom “moved behind the portly kindly caretaker,” Joyce tries to follow Bloom’s thoughts:
Joyce’s early works — Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist — are extremely popular, while his later works — Ulysses and Finnegans Wake — are enjoyed by few readers. His play, Exiles, is largely forgotten. Dubliners is one of those rare books that one wishes were longer. Like Chekhov’s stories, Joyce’s stories contain little action — just enough to hold the reader’s attention. But while Chekhov often wrote hastily — to meet a deadline or to generate some cash — Joyce wrote carefully and seriously. Joyce’s stories may not be better than Chekhov’s best stories, but they’re more polished and more consistent than Chekhov’s stories.
A Portrait of the Artist is neither as readable as Dubliners nor as obscure as Ulysses. Many readers of Joyce regard A Portrait as one of their favorite books. Those who dedicate themselves to reading Ulysses will enjoy parts of it as much as A Portrait, if not more so. Few, however, will enjoy every chapter of Ulysses, and many won’t want to make the commitment that reading Ulysses requires. Ulysses can’t be read without help from an editor or commentator. Until Ulysses is published with notes on every page, as Shakespeare’s works are, readers will have to turn to commentators like Tindall, Burgess and Thornton.22
Finnegans Wake also requires commentary. Perhaps the best-known commentary on Finnegans Wake is A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, by Joseph Campbell (the mythology expert) and Henry Robinson. Campbell views Finnegans Wake as a mythological work, a work that deals with the circle of life — birth, death, rebirth. Indeed, the title of Finnegans Wake alludes to the circle of life: Finnegan alludes to the end of life (fin = end), followed by going around again (egan = again), and likewise Wake alludes to death (wake = funeral), and also to arising (wake = awake). Campbell insists that Finnegans Wake is a masterpiece, an immortal work.
Like many modern biographies, Ellman’s biography of Joyce is overly detailed. It’s sometimes interesting, however, and it helps one to understand Joyce’s work. Conversations With Joyce, by Arthur Power, is an excellent book, a book that fans of Joyce will thoroughly enjoy.
André Gide was born in 1869, two years before Proust. Like Proust, Gide was born into a wealthy family, never had to earn money, and devoted himself to literature. Many geniuses mature slowly, and seem to remain stuck in childhood, instead of rapidly becoming an adult. Such was the case with Gide, who later wrote of, “the thick darkness that still wrapped my tardy childhood.”23 Like Jung, Gide had a childhood neurosis that kept him out of school for long periods.
Gide was born into a strict Protestant family. Like Joyce, he went through phases of piety and asceticism, and he also went through phases of hedonism; he made life experiments, moral experiments, philosophical experiments. He later wrote, “I do not think there is any single way of envisaging the question of religion or morals that at some moment of my life has not been mine.”24 (Tolstoy also tried different philosophies; Tolstoy experimented with Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, etc.) When Gide was 24, he visited North Africa, a visit that confirmed his choice of a bisexual lifestyle, and his rejection of Protestant asceticism and Victorian convention. The next year, he returned to North Africa, and became friends with Oscar Wilde, who encouraged Gide’s hedonistic tendencies; “it is a duty to make oneself happy,” Gide declared.25
Gide felt that destiny had marked him for literary greatness, and that whatever problems he encountered, whatever mistakes he made, would add to his life experience, and enrich his writings. “The kind of faith I had in my predestination as a poet,” Gide wrote, “made me welcome whatever happened to me.”26 (Joyce had the same attitude, the same confidence in his destiny: “A man of genius makes no mistakes,” wrote Joyce; “his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”27)
Though Gide abandoned the Protestant faith of his ancestors, he always retained a vague piety. He said, “I am an unbeliever. I shall never be an ungodly man.”28 He had a vague love of Christianity, but rejected established Christianity; “Catholicism is inadmissible,” he said, “Protestantism is intolerable; and I feel profoundly Christian.”29 One might say that Gide was casting about for new approaches to religion; doubtless he would have embraced Zen, if he had been introduced to it.
Like Joyce, Gide wrote short works early in his career, works that are at least as good, if not better, than his later, larger, more ambitious works. Gide’s best short works are based on his own experience, and combine sincerity with elegance. An example is Strait Is The Gate, which deals with Gide’s platonic love for his cousin, whom he later married; Joyce called it, “a little masterpiece.... as fine as a spire on Notre Dame.”30 The Immoralist, another of Gide’s short works, is based on Gide’s experience in North Africa; The Immoralist is the story of a melancholy intellectual who learns to find joy in life. Gide wrote two autobiographical works, If It Die and So Be It. If It Die covers the early part of his life, and is one of his best books, better than So Be It, which covers the latter part of his life. Gide’s journals contain many fine passages, but require drastic abridgment.
Gide was a prolific writer. In addition to writing fiction and autobiography, he wrote dramas, and he translated Shakespeare and Blake. He also translated Whitman, whose homoerotic poetry must have struck a responsive chord in Gide.
If one compares Gide with Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, one finds that Gide had the same serious commitment to literature as they did. One also finds that Gide was more widely read, more learned, than they were; Gide knew several foreign languages. Gide’s commitment to reading reminds one not of an imaginative writer, but of a philosopher like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. And indeed, much of what Gide wrote wasn’t imaginative literature; Gide was a prominent critic and essayist, and he kept a journal throughout his life. Gide wasn’t a pure artist, and he wasn’t as creative as Kafka, Proust, and Joyce. Gide didn’t create a distinctive type of literature, and he didn’t have a distinctive worldview; one can speak of a “Kafka-esque” world, or a “Proust-ian” world, but not of a “Gide-ian” world. Instead of expressing his own worldview, Gide sometimes imitated Dostoyevsky, whom he greatly admired; Gide’s chief novels — The Counterfeiters and Lafcadio’s Adventures — have the atmosphere and characters of a Dostoyevsky novel.
When World War II broke out, it seemed that Western civilization, which had been dealt a heavy blow by World War I, was disintegrating completely. This disintegration was especially conspicuous to someone like Gide, who reached maturity before World War I. Gide spoke of, “the atrocities of war... that vast upsetting of all the values that constituted our reasons for living.”31 Western civilization was in retreat, it doubted itself, it lost touch with the past. The modern world was an inhospitable environment for culture; “we are headed faster and faster,” Gide said, “into a world in which [culture] will be denied, neglected and made fun of.”32
Gide became a champion of civilization, of tradition, of humanistic values. One might compare Gide with Bernard Berenson, who was also a humanist, who also came to maturity before World War I, who also lived through both World Wars. Gide’s bookish journals are similar to Berenson’s journals. Gide and Berenson both aspired to self-culture, self-development, Bildung. Gide said that self-culture means exposing yourself to new things, stretching your boundaries: “real culture begins at the point where we approach what we don’t already like.”33
Like Goethe, the chief representative of Bildung, Gide was involved with political affairs. At 27, he became a mayor (the youngest mayor in France). Later he visited French colonies in Africa, and wrote about conditions there. For a time, he was attracted to Communism, and he visited the Soviet Union, but he returned disillusioned (he contributed to a famous anti-Communist book, The God That Failed). Gide was also actively involved in the French literary world; he helped to found La Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), one of the chief literary periodicals of its time.
Though Gide’s works aren’t as popular today as the works of Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, they’ll be read for many years to come; they combine elegance of style with depth of learning, and they represent a sincere attempt to answer ethical and aesthetic questions.
Like Gide, Thomas Mann seemed to write with his mind rather than his soul. Like Gide, Mann wrote essays as well as imaginative works. Mann was a deep thinker, and his stories and novels contain many profound ideas. In The Magic Mountain, for example, Mann notes that work is of paramount importance in modern life, work has become “the most estimable attribute of life... the Absolute of the time... its own justification.”34 One of Mann’s major works, Doktor Faustus, has parallels in Nietzsche’s life; another of Mann’s novels, Lotte in Weimar, is based on Goethe’s life. Mann has neither the humor of Kafka nor the pathos of Proust nor the intensity of Tolstoy. Nonetheless, he was one of the outstanding novelists and thinkers of his time, and his work won’t soon be forgotten.
Hesse lacks the profundity of Mann, and also lacks the imaginative power of Kafka. Hesse’s novels depict states of being, approaches to life, the evolution of personality. When Hesse was young, one of his chief spiritual guides was Nietzsche, but during his later years, Hesse turned away from Nietzsche, turned toward Eastern philosophy, and decided that Nietzsche’s approach to life was too dry and intellectual. Hesse’s last major work, The Glass Bead Game (also called Magister Ludi) criticizes Nietzsche (without mentioning him by name). Hesse’s best and most popular work is Siddhartha, a short novel set in India in the time of Buddha. Siddhartha is a delightful blend of fiction and philosophy, East and West, Buddhist ideas and Western preoccupation-with-self. I also recommend Steppenwolf; like Gide’s Immoralist, Hesse’s Steppenwolf is about a melancholy intellectual who learns to find joy in life.
Perhaps the best way to approach Goethe is through his Conversations With Eckermann and his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth). His novels are somewhat dated for a modern reader, and his poetry loses something in translation.
One of the leading Goethe scholars of our time is Cambridge professor Nicholas Boyle, who has completed two volumes of a Goethe biography, and is working on a third; Boyle’s biography may be too detailed for the non-specialist. Rüdiger Safranski, whom I mentioned earlier in connection with Schopenhauer, has written biographies of Goethe and Schiller, as well as a book about their friendship, but none of these books has yet been translated into English. George Lewes wrote a well-known biography of Goethe shortly after Goethe’s death, while T. J. Reed published a biography of Goethe in 1984.
Like Kafka and Proust, Tolstoy was more fascinated by life itself than by literature. For Tolstoy, literature wasn’t a game, hobby or craft, literature was a quest for the meaning of life, a quest for something to live by. For Tolstoy, this quest began during adolescence, when he experimented with various philosophies — Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, etc. After writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and becoming an internationally famous author, Tolstoy felt that he still hadn’t found the meaning of life. He had a religious conversion, turned his back on the work that had made him famous, and devoted himself to carrying out his religious ideals.
Tolstoy’s literary work is a reflection of his personality, and is characterized by the same spiritual hunger, the same intensity, that one finds in Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy’s biography sounds much like one of his novels. Tolstoy had exceptional vitality, a feeling of oneness with the universe; when he was nine, Tolstoy was so fascinated by the night sky that he jumped from a third floor window in an attempt to fly. One finds the same ecstatic feeling of oneness with the universe in Tolstoy’s fictional creations; in War and Peace, for example, Tolstoy writes, “Pierre glanced at the sky, at the far-away, twinkling stars. ‘And all that is mine, and all that is in me, and all that is I!’”35
Just as Tolstoy was more interested in life than in literature, so too he was more interested in people than in books. Gorky said that Tolstoy “was not very fond of talking about literature, but he was vitally interested in the personality of an author.” In this respect, Tolstoy resembled Kafka, whose favorite books were biographies and autobiographies.36 Some literary critics say that the personality of an author is irrelevant, and that literature should be objective and impersonal. Critics separate literature from life because they aren’t fascinated by life, as great writers are, and they don’t experience life as intensely as great writers do. This is why critics are critics, and not great writers.
Tolstoy’s best work deals with the subject that interested him most, namely, life itself. While Kafka and Proust viewed life from one perspective, from an eccentric perspective, Tolstoy views life as a whole. In this respect, Tolstoy reminds one of ancient writers like Homer, rather than modern writers. Tolstoy is clear and readable, and he’s popular both with the general public and with discriminating readers. Everyone likes Tolstoy. Joyce called Tolstoy, “a magnificent writer.... Head and shoulders over the others.”37
Though Tolstoy’s best works are War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he also wrote some excellent short works, such as “Master and Man,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” During his long life, Tolstoy also wrote a good deal of non-fiction, such as A Confession, What is Art? and My Religion. Tolstoy’s literary criticism was collected in a book called Tolstoy on Art, which Wilson Knight describes as “a massive collection of some of the most masculine, incisive, and important criticism that exists.”38 Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy is interesting, though too long; as with many biographies, the second half is less interesting than the first. Gorky’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy is first-rate.
Dostoyevsky resembled Tolstoy in many ways: both were passionate about religion, both were capable of keen psychological insights, insights that anticipated Freud’s theories, both made full use of plot and action in their writing, both filled their works with religious, philosophical and psychological ideas. But while Tolstoy’s religiosity gave him a certain disdain for literature, Dostoyevsky’s attachment to literature never flagged. In fact, Dostoyevsky’s creative powers increased as he grew older; most readers consider Dostoyevsky’s last work, The Brothers Karamazov, to be his best work.
Dostoyevsky criticized the view that man is rational, and argued that man is complex and irrational. Many admire Dostoyevsky’s emphasis on the irrational, and believe that he anticipated modern psychology. Others, however, say that Dostoyevsky exaggerated the irrational side of human nature, that he was obsessed with the irrational and the morbid. Tolstoy, for example, said that Dostoyevsky’s characters “are not real. It is all much simpler, more understandable”; Tolstoy said that Dostoyevsky’s works were “painful and useless.” Joyce’s view of Dostoyevsky was similar to Tolstoy’s.39
Dostoyevsky loved paradox. For example, he wasn’t content to say (as Freud later said) that homosexual impulses exist in all men; he insisted on going further, and saying that these impulses were actually stronger, in most men, than heterosexual impulses: “Can there be beauty in Sodom? Yes and, believe me, it is precisely there that beauty lies for most men.”40 Dostoyevsky annoys readers by his penchant for paradox and his exaggeration of the irrational side of human nature.
Dostoyevsky himself wasn’t far from mad. In fact, speaking of a two-year period in his twenties, Dostoyevsky said, “there was even a time when I lost my reason.” He wrote a story called “The Double,” about a young man with a split personality, and described it as “a confession.” Dostoyevsky was an epileptic; according to Freud, “it is highly probable that this so-called epilepsy was only a symptom of his neurosis.”41 Dostoyevsky was also a compulsive gambler, and lost all he had in German casinos. Dostoyevsky utilized his epilepsy, his gambling and many other experiences for literary purposes. Dostoyevsky’s novels often echo his biography, and many of his fictional characters represent facets of his own personality.
Dostoyevsky said that he had been tormented all his life by the question of whether God exists. Some of his characters are tormented by the same question. Dostoyevsky discusses the connection between atheism and socialism, and the connection between atheism and the collapse of traditional morality. Only Nietzsche had as deep an understanding of atheism as Dostoyevsky had. But while Nietzsche embraced atheism, Dostoyevsky rejected it, and sided with God, with Christianity, and with traditional morality. Dostoyevsky opposed those who wanted to Westernize Russia; his political views were conservative and nationalistic.
Several of Dostoyevsky’s novels — The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov — are generally considered to be among the best novels ever written. Dostoyevsky also wrote some excellent short works, such as “Notes From Underground,” “White Nights” and “A Gentle Creature.” One of Dostoyevsky’s best books is The House of the Dead, in which he describes his imprisonment in Siberia. Though it would be a mistake to overlook Dostoyevsky’s weaknesses, it would be a greater mistake to overlook his strengths; few writers in the history of literature have possessed the combination of pathos and profundity, imagination and humor, that Dostoyevsky possessed.
Chekhov aims to depict life, to depict the experience of living. He isn’t as ambitious as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; he doesn’t aim to change the world or to create a new religion. While Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were masters of the long novel, Chekhov was a master of the short story. Chekhov describes routine, everyday matters; his work isn’t as rich in plot and action as the work of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Chekhov came from a poor family; his father was a former serf. When Chekhov was a child, his father told him not to run around lest he wear out his shoes. While still young, Chekhov helped support his family by writing humorous sketches for newspapers. After attending medical school, Chekhov divided his time between practicing medicine and writing stories. As his literary reputation grew and his talent matured, he began writing longer, more serious stories. During his last years, he gave up medicine and story-writing, and wrote plays. He died of consumption at age forty-four.
Though Russia hasn’t produced any major philosophers, Russian writers have a strong interest in philosophy. (As Chekhov said, “While there is no philosophy in Russia, everyone philosophizes, even the little nobodies.”42) Chekhov’s work contains many philosophical ideas. In “The Bet,” for example, one of Chekhov’s characters argues that since the sun will eventually burn out, and mankind will perish, all human activity is futile: “Your posterity, your history, your deathless geniuses — all will freeze or burn along with the terrestrial globe.”
Like Dostoyevsky, Chekhov often depicts characters who express atheistic, anti-Christian, Nietzschean ideas. In “The Duel,” for example, Chekhov depicts a character, Von Koren, who argues that the weak should perish for the sake of the species; Von Koren “works... not out of love for his neighbor, but for the sake of such abstractions as humanity, future generations, an ideal race of men.” Like Dostoyevsky, Chekhov doesn’t side with Von Koren and Nietzsche, he opposes them. While Dostoyevsky embraced a Christian worldview, Chekhov doesn’t embrace any religion or philosophy; Chekhov always remains an artist. The prevalence of Nietzschean ideas in the work of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and other writers indicates that these ideas aren’t rare, and aren’t found only in isolated thinkers; as Gorky said, Nietzschean ideas “are more persistent and more widespread than they are commonly thought to be.”43
Though one finds ideas in Chekhov’s work, Chekhov’s specialty isn’t ideas but rather daily life, the details of life, the details that often upset man’s grand ambitions. Many of Chekhov’s characters have ambitions and dreams that are never fulfilled; they never manage to bring daily life into harmony with their aspirations. They struggle with life, and life wins. In his memoirs of his trip to Siberia, Chekhov wrote:
A peasant moving to Siberia: “it can’t be worse.”
All of Chekhov’s plays are first rate, but the quality of his short stories varies considerably. Some of my favorite Chekhov stories are “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” “The Darling,” “Three Years,” “A Dull Story” and “The Kiss.”
Pushkin is revered in Russia, but less popular outside Russia, perhaps because much of his work is poetry, which doesn’t translate well. Among his major works is a play, Boris Gudonov, and a verse novel, Eugene Onegin. (Nabokov made a multi-volume translation-with-commentary of Eugene Onegin.) If you want to read Pushkin’s short stories, I suggest a volume called The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories.
While Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were part of the realistic tradition, Pushkin was part of the Romantic tradition. One of his inspirations was the English Romantic, Byron, who wrote fiction in verse. Some of Pushkin’s works, like “The Queen of Spades,” have an occult atmosphere, and remind one of Poe and other writers from the Romantic period. On the other hand, Pushkin’s short novel, “The Captain’s Daughter,” can be compared to the historical fiction of Walter Scott, which was popular during the Romantic period. I found “The Captain’s Daughter” rather dull, but I was entranced by “The Queen of Spades.”
Gogol was born in 1809, about ten years after Pushkin, about ten years before Dostoyevsky, about twenty years before Tolstoy, about fifty years before Chekhov, and about sixty years before Gorky. Some of Gogol’s short stories — such as “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” — are still popular today. In these stories, Gogol depicts an anti-hero, a social outcast; Gogol influenced Dostoyevsky, who depicted anti-heroes in such stories as “Notes From Underground” and “The Double.” I don’t recommend Dead Souls, Gogol’s only full-length novel. As for Gorky, the only one of his works that I recommend is My Universities, an autobiographical work.
Ibsen was highly influential during his lifetime, and he has remained popular ever since. Like Joyce, Ibsen lived most of his life in voluntary exile, critical of his homeland (Norway). Besides Ibsen and Joyce, many other intellectuals have been critical of their homelands; Nietzsche, for example, was critical of Germany. A true intellectual stands above nationality.
Like Nietzsche, Ibsen opposed the democratic trend of his time. In a letter, Ibsen spoke of his “contempt for political freedom.... The liberals are the worst enemies of Freedom. Spiritual and intellectual freedom flourish best under absolutism.”44 Ibsen expressed the same views in his play, An Enemy of the People. In that play, Ibsen argues that political power should be in the hands of the gifted few, not the mediocre many. Dr. Stockmann, the character who expresses these views, comes into conflict with his community; Stockmann is declared “an enemy of the people,” and his house is stoned.
While An Enemy of the People deals with politics, Brand deals with religion. Brand isn’t as dramatic and exciting as An Enemy of the People, but the theme of the two plays is similar: the conflict between society and a courageous, strong-willed, idealistic individual. Ibsen doesn’t advocate a particular religious creed. Ibsen was neither as religious as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, nor as irreligious as Nietzsche. His attitude toward religion was similar to Chekhov’s: detached and neutral.
Like many other imaginative writers, Ibsen was fascinated by parapsychology — by hunches, intuitions and communication via the unconscious. One of his characters says, “she believed I had said to her what I had only wished and willed — silently — inwardly — to myself.”45
Ibsen has broad appeal: he appeals to those who enjoy an elaborate, exciting plot, to those who enjoy psychological analysis, and to those who enjoy philosophical ideas. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition of Wild Duck, which contains many superb essays.
Few writers, if any, have ever dominated a nation’s literature as Shakespeare dominates English literature. Vergil doesn’t dominate Roman literature, nor Dante Italian literature, nor Goethe German literature, nor Tolstoy Russian literature, to the same degree that Shakespeare dominates English literature. Homer is the only writer who has ever played such a dominant role in a nation’s literature as Shakespeare plays in English literature. Just as it would have been difficult for an ancient Greek to imagine another writer equaling the achievement of Homer, so too it’s difficult for us to imagine another writer equaling the achievement of Shakespeare. What would Greek civilization be without Homer? What would English civilization be without Shakespeare? Writers like Homer and Shakespeare are nation-builders; they give nations a sense of identity — in fact, one might say that they give entire civilizations a sense of identity.
Shakespeare should be read intensively, not extensively; one shouldn’t try to read all of Shakespeare’s works. While Homer’s works are consistent in quality, Shakespeare’s works vary widely in quality. In choosing which of Shakespeare’s works to read, let reputation be your guide.
As for biographies of Shakespeare, I recommend J. Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified. Around 1905, Looney discovered that “William Shakespeare” was the pen name of the Earl of Oxford. Looney’s book contains not only a revolutionary theory but also good prose and a deep understanding of Shakespeare. Since the publication of Looney’s book in 1920, many Oxfordian biographies have been published, such as Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name and Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? Charlton Ogburn wrote a big book about the Oxford Theory called The Mysterious William Shakespeare. Ogburn also wrote an excellent 90-page summary of the case for Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare.
Around 1930, Looney’s followers discovered the Prince Tudor Theory, an outgrowth of the Oxford Theory. Like the Oxford Theory, the Prince Tudor Theory is most interesting, most exciting, and draws you into both Shakespeare’s works and Elizabethan history. Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose, by Elisabeth Sears, is a good introduction to the Prince Tudor Theory. Hank Whittemore carried the Prince Tudor Theory further; I strongly recommend the 75-page introduction to Whittemore’s massive Monument. You’ll enjoy Shakespeare’s Sonnets much more after reading Whittemore.
As for critical studies of Shakespeare, I recommend the works of G. Wilson Knight, such as The Wheel of Fire, which deals with the tragedies, and The Crown of Life, which deals with the last plays. If you want to try a short Knight essay, read “Myth and Miracle”, which is the first essay in The Crown of Life (Knight’s brother, W. F. Jackson Knight, was also an eminent critic, specializing in Roman literature). Another Shakespeare critic who has much to offer is A. C. Bradley. Bradley is better-known than Knight; Bradley was long considered the dean of Shakespeare critics.
Shakespeare is easier to read in translation than in the original. Translations can be revised as a language evolves, but Shakespeare’s original language can’t be revised; it would be considered blasphemy to revise Shakespeare’s language. Hence those who read Shakespeare in the original have to struggle with archaic language. Shakespeare makes little effort to be clear; A. C. Bradley said that Shakespeare’s language was often “obscure, inflated, tasteless, or ‘pestered with metaphors.’”46
Milton’s language is more modern, more readable than Shakespeare’s, and it has the beauty and richness of Shakespeare’s language. Like Shakespeare, Milton was well-educated and widely read. But while Shakespeare’s work is full of action, life and reality, Milton’s work is somewhat dull, dry and bookish. Like a preacher, Milton often tries to convey religious and moral lessons to his audience. Milton is best known as the author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem, but his shorter works — Comus, Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained, etc. — are as enjoyable to read as Paradise Lost, if not more so.
Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, is an enjoyable book to read. I recommend the Seamus Heaney translation, which is in the series called Norton Critical Editions. There’s energy in every line, the story is entertaining, and it has the atmosphere of an authentic ancient work. Beowulf is a warrior from one of the Norse societies of what is now Denmark. When the Norse people came to England in the Early Middle Ages, they brought the Beowulf legend with them; doubtless it was recited before many audiences, and it was finally written down in Old English. The king is often referred to as the “ring-giver”, the lord of the rings; Beowulf inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an Old English scholar, and one of the commentaries in the Norton Critical Edition of Beowulf is by Tolkien.
Among early English novels, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy stand out above the rest. Though Fielding and Sterne wrote in the mid-1700’s, their work is still fresh and lively. Fielding’s work has a mellow humor that reminds one of Cervantes. Sterne’s work has an eccentric wit that reminds one of no other writer; Goethe called Sterne the freest spirit of the eighteenth century, while Nietzsche called him the freest spirit of all time.47
Swift, who wrote in the early 1700’s, is known for his bitter satire, which dealt with politics, religion and mankind in general. Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s most famous work. A Tale of a Tub, which satirizes established Christianity, is an extremely witty work.
Like Swift, Byron is both a deep thinker and a superb stylist. Byron was more irreligious than Swift; while Swift poked fun at churches for distorting the original meaning of Christianity, Byron challenged the fundamental tenets of Christianity. In Cain, Byron argued that the existence of evil indicates that God is either not omnipotent or not benevolent. Like many of Byron’s works, Cain is a drama that is designed to be read rather than acted. Byron’s strongly-marked individuality makes him a modern figure, a nineteenth-century figure. This individuality is evident in Byron’s drama, Manfred; Manfred says, “From my youth / My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men.... The lion is alone, and so am I.”48
As for the Romantic Poets in general, there are useful Norton Critical Editions on each of the “Big Six”: Keats, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth. Northrop Frye wrote a classic study of Blake called Fearful Symmetry. Walter Jackson Bate wrote a well-regarded biography of Keats. André Maurois, whose biography of Proust I praised earlier, wrote biographies of Byron and Shelley. John Livingston Lowes explored the Hermetic sources of Coleridge’s poetry in a book called Road to Xanadu. My favorite critic, G. Wilson Knight, discussed the Romantics in several different books.
I recommend Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley) and Dracula (by Bram Stoker). Though they aren’t my favorite novels, they’re rich in imagination and symbol, and they call forth all the powers of the critic. Some of the critical essays written about them are so good that it would be worth reading the novels in order to appreciate the essays.49
Mary Shelley’s father was the philosopher William Godwin, and her novel Frankenstein contains several philosophical ideas, as well as discussions of the classics. The main theme of Frankenstein is that those who follow a solitary path in the hope of reaching a lofty goal will come to grief; Frankenstein contrasts the happiness of family life and friendship with the misery of solitude. Frankenstein also touches on alchemical and Rosicrucian ideas; Victor Frankenstein seeks the elixir of life that alchemists had long sought, and he finally manages to manufacture a monster.
Dracula is more enjoyable to read than Frankenstein. If Dracula is occasionally tedious, it isn’t because it’s filled with bloody violence; rather, it’s because it’s filled with sugary sentimentality. Dracula has some memorable scenes, and some interesting remarks on occult matters. I recommend Mark Hennelly’s essay “Dracula: The Gnostic Quest and Victorian Wasteland.”50 This essay throws a flood of light on Dracula, and raises one’s opinion of the novel.
According to Hennelly, Dracula depicts both Victorian England and Transylvania as wastelands. Both areas need the other in order to be rejuvenated. Victorian England needs the passion, energy, and spontaneity of Transylvania, and Dracula needs the “man-brain”, the self-consciousness, of England. On the surface, Dracula is a quest to kill a vampire, but under the surface, according to Hennelly, it’s a quest for spiritual growth, for knowledge, for “gnosis.” Dracula advocates open-mindedness: “The action of the novel,” Hennelly writes, “dramatizes the Gnostic value of this ‘open mind.’” We must keep an open mind toward the strange, the inexplicable, the occult.
Jane Austen depicts everyday life, not the strange or the monstrous. Her work is respected by critics, and enjoyed by the general public. Unlike most writers, she seems to become more popular with the passage of time.
Austen’s most popular novel is Pride and Prejudice. The style is clear, the plot easy to follow; it’s never dull, and not very long. It’s easy to see why it’s popular. Austen focuses on people — their feelings, conversations, actions — and spends little time on descriptions of furniture, curtains, flowers, etc. Perhaps we can explain her popularity by saying “people are interested in people.” Austen seems to enjoy writing, and this adds to our enjoyment of her works.
Her language is clear but not colloquial; one might describe it as literary language, formal and stilted by today’s standards. For example, here’s how Mr. Collins speaks to Mrs. Bennet when he wants to marry Mrs. Bennet’s daughter: “May I hope, madam, for your interest with your fair daughter Elizabeth, when I solicit for the honor of a private audience with her in the course of this morning?”
The first novel Austen published was Sense and Sensibility, which she published at her own expense in 1811. She published three more novels before she died in 1817, at the age of 41. After her death, one of her brothers published her last two novels. She was quite a popular novelist in her day; one of her fans was Walter Scott. Her name wasn’t known, though, since she published anonymously. It seems that the first novel she started was Pride and Prejudice, which was initially called First Impressions. A writer’s first book is often their best, the clearest expression of their deepest feelings.
Austen depicts upper-middle-class English society. She takes no daring flights of imagination, creates no dream worlds; she stays close to everyday life. As Walter Scott said, writers like Austen are “copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.” Perhaps Austen would be surprised if she knew that she’s far more popular today than Scott, whose novels were set in past ages. One might say that Austen is the opposite of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because they try to transcend everyday life through mystic ecstasy or sudden enlightenment. Austen is like a basketball player who makes no spectacular shots, but has good “shot selection,” never forces a shot, never tries to do more than he’s capable of.
She has no truck with the dark passions of the Romantic school. She has more in common with pre-Romantic writers like the rational moralist Samuel Johnson (she was a fan of Johnson). She often uses the word “rational” as a positive term; for example, when Mr. Bennett is annoyed with Kitty, he says, “you are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner.”
Austen’s philosophical remarks are often impressive. As A. C. Bradley wrote, “Like Johnson, [Austen is] a moralist. Her morality [is] not merely embodied in her plots, it is often openly expressed.... Her explicit statements and comments are often well worth pondering.”
Austen reminds me of Freud insofar as she believes that the feeling of guilt plays a key role in human nature, and human suffering. Austen speaks of, “the keenest of all anguish, self-reproach.” Surely this is one of Austen’s best aphorisms. When Mr. Bennett blames himself for letting Lydia go to Brighton, Elizabeth tries to raise his spirits: “You must not be too severe upon yourself,” Elizabeth says. Mr. Bennett responds, “You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it!” One wonders where Austen acquired her understanding of guilt. Did this understanding come from her own experience, or from a philosophical writer like Johnson, or both?
After Austen’s death, her brother wrote a short memoir of her. He says, “She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse.” When she was growing up, literature was part of her life, and a primary means of entertainment. She began writing at a young age. She and her family also enjoyed drama, and staged their own plays.
Dickens is a giant in English literature, and some of his works have attained mythic status. Characters like Scrooge are embedded in our culture, and are known even to people who haven’t read Dickens. But Dickens’ star seems to have dimmed somewhat in recent years, and his critical reputation has never been as high as that of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, etc. He has almost as many detractors as admirers.
Dickens enjoyed wide popularity because his work is bursting with vitality and humor, and his plots are elaborate and exciting. His work also has a theme or idea: he’s a champion of feeling over reason, fairy-tales over economics. He argues that life is desiccated by reason, calculation, and economics, and saved by feeling, fairy-tale, and play. He opposes the attempt to arrange society and educate children in a rational-scientific way. He opposes Malthus and other economists, who try to regulate society by statistics, who overlook feelings and imagination.
Early in Christmas Carol, two men ask Scrooge to donate to a fund to help the poor. When Scrooge says the poor can go to prisons and work-houses, one of the men says, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” To which Scrooge responds, “If they would rather die... they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” This is the approach of Malthus, Nietzsche, and others.
Later in the story, the ghost throws this comment back at Scrooge, and Scrooge is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The ghost asks Scrooge, “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?” This is the tremendous question that hangs over the philosophy of the 19th century, and the politics of the 20th century. This question is only asked when people try to arrange society according to rational principles. It was first asked by the French revolutionaries, who enthroned the Goddess of Reason. It is this Goddess that Dickens tries to dethrone.
Dickens lived at a time when the middle class was expanding, and becoming more important in English society. Dickens was a product of the middle class, he wrote for the middle class, and he often wrote about the middle class. While Scott had written about the old aristocracy, Dickens wrote about contemporary society. One might say that Dickens modernized Scott, as Kafka later modernized Dickens.
Dickens is amusing and interesting, but he falls short of the sublime. He’s a master of bathos, but falls short of pathos. He depicts many characters that you can ridicule or despise, some that you can pity, but few that you can admire. His characters are caricatures — exaggerated rather than life-like. His characters are too black-and-white, too one-dimensional, to be realistic; they aren’t a mix of light and shadow, they’re either all light or all shadow. Dickens covers romantic relationships with a thick layer of sugary, teary-eyed sentimentality.
Dickens’ best short work is Christmas Carol, which is still enjoyable today. As for his best long work, everyone seems to have a different opinion. His later works (beginning with Bleak House) have a more elaborate plot than his early works, and are more strident in their criticism of contemporary society. Perhaps his most strident criticism of contemporary society is Hard Times, the shortest of his novels. I recommend reading Dickens in an annotated edition, such as the Norton Critical Edition. If you want to read Dickens criticism, I recommend Dickens: The Novelist, by F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis. As for Dickens biographies, I recommend Christopher Hibbert’s The Making of Charles Dickens (sometimes called Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant).
Dickens is a great affirmer of life, a great glorifier of existence. Isn’t this the ultimate achievement for any artist?
While Dickens often wrote of urban life, Thomas Hardy wrote of rural life. Hardy wrote a series of novels about Wessex, an area in the southwest of England. Like Dickens, Hardy weaves an exciting plot.
Hardy was born in 1840, about 30 years after Dickens. In the 1890s, Hardy’s novels began to arouse criticism for violating the Victorian moral code. After Jude the Obscure was castigated as Jude the Obscene, Hardy quit writing fiction. Hardy lived until 1928, and during his latter years, he concentrated on writing poetry; he’s regarded as one of the leading poets of his day. Hardy regarded himself primarily as a poet; he said that he wrote fiction merely to make money. Among Hardy’s chief works are Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy was married twice. He gradually became estranged from his first wife, but when she died in 1912, he was deeply affected, and his feelings overflowed in poetry. His second wife was his secretary, a woman much younger than he was. After Hardy died, his second wife published a two-volume biography of him; much of this biography was apparently written by Hardy himself, so perhaps it should be called an autobiography.
Hardy was not from the upper class (his father was a mason and builder), and his sympathies seem to lie with his working-class characters, rather than with his aristocratic characters. The hero of Far from the Madding Crowd is the shepherd Gabriel Oak, and the villain is the high-born soldier, Frank Troy. According to Wikipedia, “Hardy never felt at home in London. He was acutely conscious of class divisions and his social inferiority.” George Meredith advised Hardy not to publish his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, because it was “too bitter a satire on the rich.”51
Hardy is known for taking a rather dark, tragic view of the human condition; many of the characters in Madding Crowd meet misfortune. Hardy once said that we should take “a full look at the Worst.” But his worldview is only dark if he’s compared to other Victorian writers; if he’s compared to modern writers, one is struck by his hopefulness, his lack of the morbid and cynical.
Hardy describes Gabriel Oak as “generous and true,”52 and he describes one of his female characters (Fanny Robin) as a “gentle creature.”53 Can you imagine a more modern writer, like Forster or Lawrence, using such phrases? One might say that Hardy is the last of the morally simple writers, the last of the “generous and true” writers.
Hardy’s morality is traditional, Western morality. Hardy praises Gabriel for his unselfishness: “Among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes.”54 Hardy blames Bathsheba for following her feelings: “Her culpability lay in her making no attempt to control feeling by subtle and careful inquiry into consequences.”55 Hardy’s morality has more in common with the morality of Socrates and Jesus than with the morality of Forster and Lawrence. Hardy has none of the admiration for Eastern mysticism that we find in Forster; Hardy doesn’t discuss spiritual growth, as Forster does, and he doesn’t urge us to follow the wisdom of the body, as Lawrence does.
I recommend Far from the Madding Crowd: the plot is enjoyable, there are beautiful scenes of rural life, and the ideas are interesting.
Stevenson is remembered chiefly for the children’s classic, Treasure Island. Though the popularity of Treasure Island is fading, Stevenson’s reputation may rise as the mystical element, the Zen element, in his work is better appreciated. One of the chief writers on Zen, R. H. Blyth, never tires of quoting Stevenson’s Fables. Stevenson’s high spirits and playful attitude should not cause us to take him lightly — rather, they should make us respect him all the more.
One of the themes of Stevenson’s work is moral ambiguity, “the co-presence of good and evil qualities in the same person.”56 Long John Silver, for example, one of the main characters in Treasure Island, is initially good, then evil, then good again. But the most famous example of moral ambiguity in Stevenson’s work is the protagonist of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Stevenson is classified as a neo-Romantic. He doesn’t focus on the nitty-gritty of modern life (as Émile Zola did), but instead writes about earlier times (as Walter Scott did). Perhaps his best works are The Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston (though Weir is unfinished). In addition to writing fiction, Stevenson wrote travel narratives and essays about literature.
Stevenson died at 44, and was buried in the Samoan Islands. He wrote his own epitaph — a poem with an affirmative, Zennish tone, a poem that affirms both life and death:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Has a writer ever achieved more with such simple language?
Joseph Conrad was born into the Polish aristocracy, but lived most of his life in England, and wrote in English. Conrad spent his early adulthood as a sailor, rising to the rank of captain, and many of his novels are sea stories. Just as Proust wrote about the dying world of the French aristocracy, so Conrad wrote about the dying world of the sailing ship. While Proust’s works appeal to literary people, Conrad’s works have broad appeal; Conrad is a favorite among un-literary people. Though his prose is sometimes flowery, it’s always clear.
One of Conrad’s best-known works is the novella Heart of Darkness. There are some excellent critical studies of Heart of Darkness, such as an essay that compares it to Joseph Campbell’s theory of the mythical hero.57 Conrad the Novelist, by Albert Guerard, contains valuable essays not only on Heart of Darkness, but on all of Conrad’s works.
Another popular Conrad novella is The Secret Sharer. Among his novels, Nostromo and Lord Jim are especially well-regarded, while The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are praised for their depiction of Russian psychology, and for their depiction of anarchist/terrorist psychology.
Rudyard Kipling was born in India in 1905, and spent his early years there. His father was an artist, an art teacher, and a museum curator who illustrated several of Kipling’s books. His mother’s maiden name was MacDonald (the family was Scottish); one of her sisters married the painter Edward Burne-Jones, another sister was the mother of Stanley Baldwin, a British prime minister.
When Kipling was five, his parents sent him and his sister to board with strangers in England, while they remained in India. Gone were the obedient servants who had surrounded him in India, gone the loving parents. Kipling later dubbed his domicile The House of Desolation. He spent seven unhappy years there, then spent four happier years at an English boarding school; his school years were the basis of a book called Stalky & Co.
When he was 16, Kipling moved back to India, where his father had found him a job on a newspaper. He published a volume of poems when he was 20, and a volume of stories when he was 22. The volume of stories was called Plain Tales From the Hills, and was soon followed by more story-collections (Kipling was always a prolific writer). His reputation in India was growing, and he was even becoming known in England.
After seven years in India, Kipling decided to pursue a literary career in England. He travelled from India to England via Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S.; he later described his travels in From Sea to Sea. In 1889, at the age of 23, he arrived in London, where he was hailed as the new genius. At 24, he was churning out stories and poems at a rapid rate, prompting Robert Louis Stevenson to say, “At this rate his works will soon fill the habitable globe.... Kipling is by far the most promising young man to appear since — ahem — I appeared.”
Kipling decided to try his hand at novel-writing, and wrote four novels in the next twelve years, while continuing to write stories and poems. His first novel was The Light That Failed, about a successful painter who becomes gradually blind. His second was The Naulahka, which he co-wrote with an American publisher, Wolcott Balestier (he became close friends with Balestier, and when Balestier died suddenly in 1891, Kipling married Balestier’s sister, Carrie). The third was Captains Courageous, about cod fishing in New England (“It seems very odd to me,” Oscar Wilde said, “that a man should write a whole novel about cod-fishing — but then I suppose that is because I do not like cod”). His fourth novel was Kim (1901), often called his best novel; Kim is about a boy travelling through India who becomes involved with English espionage and Tibetan Buddhism. Kipling’s novels didn’t arouse as much public enthusiasm as his poems and stories, and he finally decided that the novel wasn’t for him.
As Andrew Lang said, few writers have succeeded in both the short story and the novel; Maupassant succeeded in the short story, but his novels are mediocre. Poe succeeded in the short story, but didn’t attempt a novel. Hawthorne is one of the few who succeeded in both. Perhaps we should compare Kipling to Maupassant: both were masters of the short story, less successful with the novel.
When Kipling was 41, he received the Nobel Prize; he was the first English-language writer to receive it, and to this day, he’s the youngest person ever to receive it. Henry James said, “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known.” Kipling’s poems and stories were so widely read that many of their phrases passed into everyday speech (such as “white man’s burden” and “somewhere east of Suez”), or became book titles (such as The God That Failed and A Savage War of Peace). His children’s books — such as Just So Stories and The Jungle Book — were especially popular. When he was in France during World War I, a French soldier who was under fire asked him to explain how the idea for the Jungle Book came to him. In 1899, when he was seriously ill, the world waited for news, and even the Kaiser sent him a telegram.
Journalists were constantly trying to interview him, so he learned to maintain a stony silence. When he was living in Vermont, and saw journalists approaching, he hid in a neighbor’s barn. “Why don’t you tell them to go to hell?” his neighbor asked. “Can’t do that, they would write it all up in their papers.” He disliked biographers even more than journalists, and called biography “higher cannibalism.” He wrote,
Seek not to question other than
He had a substantial income, and built himself a large house in Dummerston, Vermont (near Brattleboro), which he called Naulahka; he lived in Vermont for four years. Later he bought an old English mansion, Bateman’s, where he spent the last thirty years of his life. At Bateman’s, he had his own brook, which he used to generate his own electricity. He received farming advice from Rider Haggard, an agriculture expert and the author of King Solomon’s Mines, She, and other novels. Kipling and his family enjoyed Haggard’s stories about his years in Africa. Like Kipling, Haggard had experienced the death of a child, and never fully recovered. Haggard said that he and Kipling were “in supreme sympathy.... A long talk with Kipling is now one of the greatest pleasures I have left in life.”
Kipling was interested in practical matters, and began driving a car in 1897, when cars only had 6 horsepower, and travelled 15 miles per hour. He often interrogated tradesmen and engineers, then put his knowledge to use in his stories. His curiosity was described as “insatiable,” and his memory as “prodigious.” Like his contemporary H. G. Wells, Kipling wrote stories about future technologies: in 1903, he wrote “Wireless,” about using radio to communicate with a past century; in 1904, he wrote “With the Night Mail,” about flying across the Atlantic in a plane that almost flew itself; and in 1907, he wrote “As Easy as A.B.C.” in which a broadcasting company governs the world. Kipling was as interested in the past as the future, and wrote two books that put English history into fictional form: Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Rewards and Fairies.
In his later years, Kipling’s popularity declined. He seemed out of touch with modern taste. He was a staunch defender of the British Empire, and believed that the British could govern India better than the Indians themselves. He also opposed Home Rule for Ireland. Kipling was scornful of democracy, and thought the strong man should rule alone. He complained that the British wasted their time with soccer and cricket; he thought they should train for war instead, by fighting mock battles, etc. His days were darkened by the deaths of his son and daughter, by his unhappy marriage, and by illness.
In a 1942 essay, Orwell called Kipling a “jingo imperialist,” and said that “during five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him.” In a period that was preoccupied with darkness and evil, Kipling’s “bouncing vulgar vitality” was unfashionable. Kipling was a champion of empire at a time when empire was viewed with disfavor. While most intellectuals were starting to question Western civilization, Kipling thought that Western societies had an obligation to rule, educate, and civilize non-Western societies:
Take up the White Man’s burden —
Kipling lamented democratic trends in countries like Japan and India, and defended non-democratic countries like Russia.
In defense of Kipling, however, it should be noted that he always opposed Marxism and Nazism. And he had a knack for anticipating future developments; for example, he anticipated the world wars.
Around 1930, Kipling “spoke always about the coming war, the advent of which he clearly predicted.”
There’s an excellent biography of Kipling by Lord Birkenhead; the longer biography by Charles Carrington also deserves mention. Kipling wrote an autobiography, Something of Myself. The Kipling Society’s website is an excellent resource.
Along with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster is one of the key figures in early-twentieth-century English fiction. Born in 1879, Forster began writing novels at an early age, and also stopped writing novels at an early age. By the time he was 31, he had published four novels: Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With A View, and Howards End. During the remainder of his long life, he wrote only two novels: A Passage to India, one of his most highly-regarded works, and Maurice, which dealt with homosexual themes, and wasn’t published until after Forster’s death.
Perhaps Forster stopped writing fiction because, being homosexual, he couldn’t empathize with heterosexual characters, and he couldn’t express his homosexual feelings publicly. Perhaps he stopped writing fiction because astute critics, like Virginia Woolf, argued that his fiction was a failure — though it had lively scenes and deep thoughts, it didn’t form an artistic whole. Forster is a fine essayist and critic, and wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel. Was he too great a thinker to be a great artist? Did he understand the machinery of fiction too well to believe in fiction?
Forster was one of the first English writers to appreciate D. H. Lawrence’s genius, and sing his praises, at a time when Lawrence was controversial. Like Lawrence, Forster wrote several travel books, drawing on his experiences in India and Alexandria.
As Forster appreciated Lawrence, so Forster himself was appreciated and praised by the great American critic, Lionel Trilling. When Forster met Trilling in the U.S., Forster said, “So this is the man who made me famous.”57B
Forster admired Jane Austen for her lively humor, and Walt Whitman for his profound mysticism. Forster’s fans (of whom I’m one) believe that his fiction is a marvelous combination of humor and profundity. Forster did what every great intellectual must do: he respected culture, he made culture enjoyable, and he pursued spiritual growth.
David Herbert Lawrence was born in 1885, and died in 1930. He’s one of the brightest stars in modern literature, but doesn’t enjoy the reputation he deserves. Compared to the fiction of Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, the fiction of Lawrence is more traditional and readable, less quirky and eccentric.
If ever there were a prolific writer, it was Lawrence: he wrote short stories, novels, poetry, plays, translations, travel books, literary criticism, philosophical works, and countless letters. One of his best novels is an early work, Sons and Lovers, which describes his coming-of-age as a miner’s son. Critics who look askance at autobiographical fiction say that Lawrence’s best novels are The Rainbow and Women in Love.
When Lawrence was 27, he met Frieda Weekley, a professor’s wife. Frieda was then 33, and had three young children. She came from an aristocratic German family; her maiden name was Frieda von Richthofen (she was related to the famous ace Baron von Richthofen, “The Red Baron”). Frieda abandoned her children, and eloped with Lawrence to Germany. They stayed together until Lawrence’s death about twenty years later. One of Lawrence’s best-known novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is about an affair between an upper-class woman and a working-class man.
In England, Lawrence’s fiction was lambasted and suppressed as pornographic. He and Frieda spent most of their time abroad; Lawrence spoke of his ‘savage pilgrimage.’ Lawrence and Frieda honeymooned in southern Germany, and then walked over the Alps to Italy; this trip was the basis for Lawrence’s first travel book, Twilight in Italy. Later they lived in and around Sicily, where Lawrence wrote a travel book called Sea and Sardinia. Then they left Europe, stopping in Sri Lanka and Australia before settling in Taos, New Mexico. (Their sojourn in Australia provided Lawrence with material for his novel Kangaroo.) After some visits to Mexico, Lawrence wrote Mornings in Mexico. Health problems prompted Lawrence to return to Italy, where he wrote his last travel book, Sketches of Etruscan Places.
The main theme of his work is that we should listen to our body:
Lawrence understood the occult as well as any writer, as is evident from his novella, The Fox. A good way to approach Lawrence is by reading The Fox, in combination with a book edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence. The English critic F. R. Leavis wrote a book called D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, which is one of the best studies of Lawrence’s work.
I strongly recommend D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record, a moving and readable memoir by Jessie Chambers Wood, a close friend of Lawrence in his early years. A friend from his later years, Catherine Carswell, wrote Savage Pilgrimage: A Narrative of D. H. Lawrence; Leavis called Carswell’s biography, “admirable and indispensable.”59 If you want a more modern biography, consider D. H. Lawrence: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers. (Meyers also wrote biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Conrad, etc.)
Harold Bloom said that, among 20th-century English poets, Lawrence is second only to Hardy.60 Lawrence’s travel writings have been ranked among the best in the English language. Edmund Wilson said that Lawrence’s study of American literature is “one of the few first-rate books that have ever been written on the subject.” E. M. Forster called Lawrence, “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.” Lawrence is a remarkable blend of wide learning and bold originality, deep thinking and exuberant creativity.
George Bernard Shaw was raised in a musical household in Dublin. After moving to London, he became a music critic, and was caught up in the Wagner craze that swept Europe in the 1880’s. Shaw then turned from music criticism to drama criticism, and became an enthusiastic admirer of Ibsen. In his forties, Shaw emerged as a dramatist and political activist. Shaw believed that playwrights should follow Ibsen’s example, and use drama as an instrument for social reform. Shaw expressed his ideas in plays, and also in essays and prefaces to his plays. Shaw was the antithesis of a pure artist; he used art as a vehicle for philosophy and politics.
Shaw believed that political problems couldn’t be solved by the reform of institutions, but only by the evolution of man; “our only hope,” he wrote, “is in evolution. We must replace the Man by the Superman.” Shaw believed in eugenics, in trying to improve mankind by selective breeding; he dreamed of a society of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell, a France in which every man is a Napoleon, a Rome in which every man is a Caesar.”
Shaw believed that democracy was a failure, just as monarchy had been a failure. Democracy is only popular, Shaw argued, among people who haven’t experienced it, that is, among people who live in despotisms and oligarchies; once democracy is actually tried, people lose faith in it. Shaw believed that criminals shouldn’t be imprisoned, since their nature led them to criminal behavior, and their nature can’t be changed. He believed that criminals should be executed, and he called execution “quite reasonable and very necessary.” He believed that people should have to earn the right to live in a civilized community; “the right to live is abused,” he said, “whenever it is not constantly challenged.”61 Being an atheist, Shaw rejected the idea that human life is sacred; he viewed man from the standpoint of biology, not religion.
Next to Shakespeare, Shaw is the most popular English-language playwright. His plays are witty and light-hearted, lacking in passion and lacking in deep emotions. Shaw was more at home with comedy than tragedy. Shaw’s style is as light and flippant as his content. Shaw tried to create lively, popular dramas that would express serious ideas.
H. G. Wells, a contemporary of Shaw’s, was a popular and prolific writer; Wells wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Wells was a pioneer in the field of science fiction. Like Shaw, Wells rejected Christianity and embraced a religion based on social progress. Like Shaw, Wells believed that progress was impossible without government control of reproduction:
While Shaw and Wells represent the secular school, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc represent the Catholic perspective. While Shaw and Wells tried to make man new and better, Chesterton and Belloc thought we should take man as he is, a flawed sinner. Chesterton and Belloc often engaged in public debates with Shaw and Wells (Wells complained that “debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm”). Shaw referred to the duo as “Chesterbelloc.” Chesterton and Belloc advocated an economic theory called distributism, that is, broad-based ownership, in opposition to capitalism (ownership by a few) and socialism (ownership by the state). Chesterton and Belloc were busy journalists as well as prolific authors.
Chesterton wrote defenses of Christianity (such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) that were intended for a broad audience. He was admired by C. S. Lewis, a later defender of Christianity. Chesterton wrote short stories featuring a detective, Father Brown, who understands that evil is universal, and tries to put himself in the shoes of the criminal. Chesterton’s study of Dickens helped spark a Dickens revival.
Belloc was born in France to a French father and an English mother; his father died when he was 2, and he grew up in England. Belloc wrote numerous biographies (Richelieu, Cromwell, Napoleon, etc.) in which he champions the Catholic faith; he also wrote several books about military history. A tireless walker, Belloc described his walk from central France to Rome in a book called The Path to Rome; he also wrote other travel books, such as The Cruise of the Nona (about sailing around England) and The Pyrenees.
In the next generation, other Catholic writers rose to prominence, including Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Waugh’s early novels were humorous and satirical. In 1930, Waugh converted to Catholicism, and his religious beliefs are evident in his novel Brideshead Revisited, and in his trilogy Sword of Honour, which draws on Waugh’s experiences as a soldier in World War II. Waugh wrote a biography of the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion, and a biography of Ronald Knox (like Waugh, Knox converted to Catholicism; Knox was the author of religious works and crime novels). Waugh also wrote a historical novel about the Empress Helena, a Catholic saint and the mother of Constantine. Waugh was a favorite of the American conservative William F. Buckley, himself a Catholic. The critic Edmund Wilson called Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.”63 Waugh’s travel books are highly-regarded; several of his travel books (and two of his novels) deal with Africa. Among Waugh’s relatives were many writers: his father (Arthur), his brother (Alec), his son (Auberon), and his grandson (Alexander).
Graham Greene’s long life spans most of the 20th century: he lived from 1904 to 1991. Greene converted to Catholicism early (age 22), and drifted away from Catholicism in his later years. In the 1950s, he stopped attending Mass. Political themes became important in his fiction; he was critical of American foreign policy, and sympathetic toward Castro’s Communism. Greene travelled widely, and was employed by the British secret service; many of his novels are set in foreign countries. For example, The Heart of the Matter is set in Sierra Leone, and deals with espionage as well as religious themes. If you want to learn more about Greene (and Waugh and Chesterton and Belloc), consider Ian Ker’s book, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961.
Another prominent English writer, older than Greene, is W. Somerset Maugham, best known for his novel Of Human Bondage. Early in his career, Maugham achieved success both as a novelist and as a playwright. In 1908, “he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.” But despite his popularity, Maugham was never regarded by critics as one of the great writers of his time; Maugham himself said he was “in the very first row of the second-raters.” Like Greene, Maugham served in the British secret service, and drew on his experiences in his writings; Maugham’s novel Ashenden influenced later spy novels, such as the James Bond series (as Poe’s detective stories influenced later detective fiction). Maugham’s commercial success enabled him to travel widely — visiting outposts of the British Empire, listening to stories, gathering material; it is said that he left behind a string of angry hosts, who didn’t like the way he portrayed them. Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel about Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence.
Perhaps the most popular British writers of the 20th century were P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Both were born in the late 1800’s, and both continued producing bestsellers until the late 1900’s. Both wrote to entertain the reader, not to change him or enlighten him.
Wodehouse wrote in a comic vein. His father was a judge in Hong Kong, and during his early years, Wodehouse rarely saw his parents. He reminds one of a child who has been left alone, and has no goal except to have fun. Wodehouse has enormous literary talent, and considerable culture. As a stylist, he has few equals. His writing is so light-hearted that one of his critics called him “the performing flea” of English letters. His style seems to poke fun at style, his culture seems to poke fun at culture. He’s best known for a series of stories and novels about a valet named Jeeves and his boss, Bertie Wooster; among the titles in this series are The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), and Carry On, Jeeves (1925).
Agatha Christie achieved enormous popularity with her mysteries. Christie began her career with The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Her early work was influenced by the Sherlock Holmes stories, as those stories were influenced by Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Among her best-known works are Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Curtain (1975), in which her detective, Hercule Poirot, leaves the stage.
Christie grabs your attention on the first page, and holds your attention to the last page; you want to learn the solution to the puzzle, you want to know who did it. There are no wasted words, no flowery language, no digressions; as they say in politics, Christie “stays on message.” Every page is a pleasure, an effortless pleasure. The author uses an astonishing amount of cleverness, reasoning; one might compare the author to a chess player. Christie gives us very little Christie, she reveals very little about herself; her writing is objective, not subjective.
Since Christie’s work is so concise, it’s suitable for reading aloud, and since it’s so clear, it’s suitable for young readers, and for foreigners who are trying to learn English. It could persuade youngsters that reading is pleasurable.
Christie’s writing has dignity, courtesy, taste. She doesn’t use the vulgar device, popular in Hollywood, of ridiculing the nobility.
The weaknesses of Christie’s fiction are obvious: the characters aren’t three-dimensional and life-like, the story is utterly unrealistic. There are no deep feelings or thoughts; the reader is neither moved nor enlightened, merely entertained. The author doesn’t create a world; she merely creates a puzzle.
Many other mystery writers became popular, including the English writer Dorothy Sayers, and the American writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Among the more contemporary writers in this genre are the Americans John D. MacDonald and Donald Westlake; in these writers, one often finds a comic strain that reminds one of Wodehouse. Instead of trying to arouse the reader’s curiosity, as Christie did, these writers try to make the reader laugh.
And then there are writers of thrillers who try to create suspense. The Scottish writer John Buchan is known for novels like The Thirty-Nine Steps; Buchan also wrote an acclaimed biography of the Scottish hero Montrose, and an autobiography called Memory Hold-the-Door (also known as Pilgrim’s Way). Ian Fleming wrote popular spy novels featuring James Bond; Fleming himself was an intelligence officer in World War II. Alistair MacLean wrote popular action novels, such as Ice Station Zebra; some of MacLean’s works draw on his experiences in the British Navy.
Anatole France was preoccupied with romantic affairs rather than with utopian plans or religious beliefs. France had numerous mistresses. In France’s opinion, love made life rich and exciting; amending Descartes’s formula, France said, “I love, therefore I am.” But France’s amorous adventures didn’t bring him happiness. In his old age, France complained that he had never been happy for a single day, for a single hour. He was always discontent, always striving for something beyond his grasp.64
Unlike Shaw and Wells, France respected style, and polished his sentences carefully. He revised his work over and over. “I insist on as many as eight proofs,” he said; “my most valuable working tools are the pastepot and the scissors.” Unlike Proust, France wrote short sentences and short books; France’s work is easy to read, and enjoyed wide popularity between 1890 and 1930.
France believed that the best French stylists were Montaigne, Rabelais, Racine, and other older writers. Compared to these older writers, nineteenth-century French writers, like Chateaubriand and Flaubert, were, in France’s opinion, artificial and affected. France thought that the best stylists were the writers who didn’t try to be great stylists, the writers who wrote freely and naturally. France thought that nineteenth-century writers “have ‘effort’ written all over them.... They strain after effect... they aim at being stylists.”65
In addition to short stories and novels, France wrote numerous critical essays and a biography of Joan of Arc. France believed that neither literature nor literary criticism should aspire to be objective and impersonal. All artistic works, in France’s view, reflect the soul of their creator. “What do we admire in the Divine Comedy,” France asked, “unless it be the great soul of Dante?” In his critical essays, France set forth his own feelings and opinions, with no attempt at objectivity. “The good critic,” France wrote, “is he who relates the adventures of his own soul among masterpieces. Objective criticism has no more existence than has objective art.”66
France’s imaginative works are generally light-hearted and ironic. Many are set in distant times and places, and rest on a foundation of historical knowledge. For example, his novel The Gods Are Athirst is based on his long study of the French Revolution. France believed that literature should idealize life, and avoid the ugly; he pointed out that Greek art idealized life. France hated the grim realism of Zola, and wrote, “I will not, certainly, deny [Zola’s] detestable fame. No one before him had raised so lofty a pile of ordure.”67
France’s imaginative work is large in quantity, uneven in quality. An excellent book could be made from France’s best short stories, but some of his short stories are second rate. Some of his novels are also second rate — for example, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard and Penguin Island. I recommend Brousson’s Anatole France Himself, a witty and enjoyable book containing France’s remarks on various subjects. Tylden-Wright’s biography, Anatole France, is concise and interesting.
Like Anatole France, Maupassant was a story-teller whose works are light-hearted in tone, and whose style is simple and direct. France loved Maupassant’s stories, and said that Maupassant “possesses the three great qualities of the French writer, first, clearness, then again, clearness, and lastly, clearness.”68 Maupassant’s stories have less scholarship, and more life, than France’s stories. While France’s stories are often set in distant times and places, Maupassant’s stories are set in his own time, and his own country.
Maupassant’s mother was a close friend of Flaubert; in fact, Maupassant may have been the natural son of Flaubert. When Maupassant was in his twenties, Flaubert spent several years teaching him the art of fiction; rarely has one writer had such a direct influence on another. Flaubert taught Maupassant to be a careful observer, to find the distinctive features in whatever he saw, to find what other people had overlooked. Finally, in 1880, when Maupassant was thirty, he published “Boule de Suif,” which showed that he had indeed learned the art of fiction. Flaubert said, “‘Boule de Suif,’ the story by my disciple [is] a masterpiece of writing, comedy and observation.” After the success of “Boule de Suif,” Maupassant quit his civil service job, devoted himself to writing, and produced about three hundred short stories, before falling victim to syphilis and dying at forty-two.
Maupassant’s stories aren’t as consistent in quality as Joyce’s stories. While Joyce aspired to rival the greatest names in literature, Maupassant had more modest ambitions. Maupassant wrote too hastily, he didn’t have enough respect for literature. His popularity, and his reliance on writing for income, prompted him to write too much. His stories are skillful rather than profound, entertaining rather than philosophical. He didn’t explore the outer limits of human nature. Maupassant’s weaknesses are especially evident in his novels — for example, in Pierre and Jean and Bel-Ami. As Joyce said, “I could not call [Bel-Ami] a great work. Like everything Maupassant wrote it is in miniature.”69 Maupassant’s best short stories, however, are as good as any short stories ever written, and ensure that his popularity will last for a long time to come. I recommend “Boule de Suif,” “Mouche,” and “Madame Tellier’s Establishment.”
Because Maupassant is so popular, many have tried to profit by translating his works; there’s no standard English translation of his works. The titles of his short stories, like the titles of Chekhov’s short stories, are translated in various ways. To avoid confusion, translators should indicate the original, French title of each story. Readers should beware of translations that don’t give the translator’s name.
Flaubert is more respected by critics than Maupassant, but less popular with readers. Flaubert is deeper than Maupassant, but less lively, less charming. Maupassant enjoyed life, Flaubert hated it; “I have no greater comfort,” Flaubert wrote, “than the hope of leaving this world soon and not proceeding to another, which might well be worse.” Flaubert endowed his most famous character, Madame Bovary, with his own distaste for everyday reality; he once said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”70
Flaubert’s sour, masochistic spirit led him to take extreme pains with his writing. If Maupassant wrote too hastily, Flaubert wrote too slowly. Flaubert would polish a single sentence for several days; “from the day that style was first invented,” he said, “I think that no one has ever taken more pains than I.”71 Flaubert was scrupulous about content as well as style; for example, he spent years studying ancient Carthage in order to write Salammbo, and he spent years doing research for Bouvard and Pecuchet. Now, however, both Salammbo and Bouvard and Pecuchet are forgotten.
Flaubert’s entire life was dedicated to literature. Flaubert was at home in the world of books, a stranger in the world of practical affairs; “there is such a chasm now between me and the rest of the world,” he wrote, “that I am sometimes astonished to hear the simplest and most natural remarks.”72
Flaubert’s novels, with the exception of Madame Bovary, have little interest for modern readers. His best works are his short story, “A Simple Heart,” his Dictionary of Platitudes, and his letters (edited by Rumbold). Flaubert and Madame Bovary, by Steegmuller, is an excellent biography. Intimate Remembrances, by Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Commanville, is an excellent biographical sketch, a work that shows how good a short biography can be.73
Stendhal’s novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, once enjoyed a high reputation. Like other early novelists, however, Stendhal is gradually sinking into oblivion. Even in the nineteenth century, some readers — such as Flaubert — doubted the quality of Stendhal’s works. But despite his shortcomings, Stendhal is far more profound and interesting than other early novelists, such as Scott and Hugo; Nietzsche admired Stendhal, but took a dim view of Hugo. Of greater interest than Stendhal’s novels are his treatise, On Love, and his autobiographical works.74
Balzac’s reputation, which was never as high as Stendhal’s, has fallen lower than Stendhal’s. Balzac depicted certain types of people: the farmer, the doctor, the aristocrat, etc. Balzac didn’t depict the universal features of human nature, as the best writers do. As Gide said, “It is good to read Balzac before the age of twenty-five; afterward it becomes too difficult. How much hodge-podge one has to go through in order to find nourishment.”75 Some of Balzac’s short works, such as Droll Stories, are still enjoyable to read.
Balzac had a deep interest in the occult, Swedenborg, mesmerism, phrenology, etc., and he discusses these subjects in his novels Louis Lambert, The Magic Skin, and Seraphita. Balzac discusses mesmerism and the power of will in a wonderful short story, “A Passion in the Desert”; this story may be the best introduction to Balzac. If you want to read a short study of Balzac, I suggest the Balzac chapter of Stefan Zweig’s Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky.75B
Before the novel became an important genre, France produced several first-rate dramatists. Corneille and Racine wrote stately and dignified dramas that appealed to an aristocratic audience; they specialized in tragedy. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine have little appeal to modern readers who read them in translation. On the other hand, the comedies of Molière are still fresh and alive. One of Molière’s comedies, The Misanthrope, is more successful than any other literary work at depicting an ideal man. Like many of Molière’s comedies, The Misanthrope has an underlying seriousness. “Molière is so great,” said Goethe, “that one is astonished anew every time one reads him. He is a man by himself — his pieces border on tragedy.”76
Three writers from Spain’s Golden Age deserve special mention: Cervantes, Calderon, and Gracian. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is one of the most popular and respected works in Western literature. Though its fame has dimmed somewhat in recent times, Don Quixote is still enjoyable to read. In addition to Don Quixote, Cervantes wrote plays and stories; his story “The Colloquy of the Dogs” has been called a harbinger of psychoanalysis. Calderon, though not as well known as Cervantes, is always mentioned when people speak of outstanding dramatists; Calderon’s masterpiece, Life Is A Dream, is still an impressive work today. Gracian wrote an allegorical novel, El Criticon, but his most popular work is a collection of 300 aphorisms; in English, this collection is usually called The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Gracian’s pessimistic view of human affairs struck a chord with Schopenhauer, who translated him into German.
Washington Irving was one of the first American writers to acquire an international reputation. He was born and raised in New York City, and when he was 26, he published a satirical History of New York. He popularized terms like “Gotham” (a nickname for New York City) and “Knickerbocker” (a nickname for New Yorkers).
His best-known work is The Sketch Book, published in 1820, which included the short stories “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Several pieces in The Sketch Book deal with Christmas traditions, and Irving shaped how Americans celebrate Christmas. While many of the pieces in The Sketch Book are charming, some are sugary; Irving’s writing is graceful and elegant, but lacks intellectual or emotional depth.
Irving wrote historical works, including biographies of George Washington and Columbus, and travel books, including a book about the Alhambra. Irving held several diplomatic posts; in the 1840s, he served as U.S. minister to Spain. He travelled throughout Europe, and was acquainted with Walter Scott, Dickens, Poe, and other writers. Irving was known for his conversational skill, and was “one of the world’s most in-demand guests.”
When he finally returned to the U.S. in 1832, Irving wrote three books on the American West, including A Tour on the Prairies. He bought a house on the Hudson River, Sunnyside, where he lived for many years; it’s now a museum.
Like Irving, Cooper had an international reputation in the early 1800s. Cooper is often described as a Romantic novelist, the American Scott. His father was a Congressman and the founder of Cooperstown, New York, where James grew up. Though we associate him with Indian fights, he was also a pioneer of the sea novel (Robert Louis Stevenson referred to him as “Cooper of the wood and wave”). Like Melville, Cooper went to sea while still a teenager, serving on both a merchant ship and a naval ship.
Cooper’s most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, was published in 1826, when Cooper was 37; it was part of a series called the Leatherstocking novels, which feature the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and his Indian friend, Chingachgook. Cooper often wrote about political topics; he became embroiled in quarrels, and sued several critics for libel. He lived in Europe for several years, and wrote three novels about Europe, including The Bravo, which was based in Venice, and took a dim view of Venice’s aristocratic government.
Cooper’s works were admired by Hugo, Balzac, Conrad, and many others. When the composer Schubert was on his death-bed, his chief wish was to read more Cooper novels. Like Scott, Cooper has few readers today, and fewer fans.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was from a prominent New England family; one of his ancestors had been a judge at the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne published two volumes of short stories: Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. He also wrote two books that re-told Greek myths: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales. His most popular work was The Scarlet Letter, which he followed with three other novels, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun. All four of his novels are set in Massachusetts, except for The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy.
Hawthorne called these four books “romances” rather than “novels” because they don’t aim at verisimilitude; his work is sometimes classified as “dark romanticism.” Melville said that Hawthorne’s stories were “shrouded in blackness, ten times black.” Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin and guilt put him at odds with the sunny Transcendentalists; Emerson said, “his writing is not good for anything.”
Hawthorne’s prose is elegant and graceful; as Poe put it, Hawthorne’s style is “purity itself.”
Though he was on friendly terms with Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and others, Hawthorne wasn’t gregarious; according to Wikipedia, “Hawthorne was almost pathologically shy and stayed silent when at gatherings.” When Hawthorne died in 1864, at the age of 59, Emerson spoke of, “the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” Hawthorne was happily married, and had three children, but his wife said, “he hates to be touched more than anyone I ever knew.”
Hawthorne worked as a customs official — first in Boston, later in Salem, and finally in Liverpool, England. The Liverpool post was especially well-paid, and enabled Hawthorne and his wife to travel in Italy (these travels inspired The Marble Faun). He obtained the Liverpool post through President Franklin Pierce, whom he had known at Bowdoin College, and for whom he wrote a campaign biography.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807. His maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, had been a general in the Revolutionary War, and his father was a trustee of Bowdoin College. Longfellow himself attended Bowdoin, where he met Hawthorne. When he was a college senior, he wrote his father thus:
After graduating from Bowdoin, Longfellow spent three years in Europe, studying modern languages. In Madrid, he met Washington Irving. When he returned to the U.S., he became a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, but the work didn’t satisfy his lofty ambitions.
He made another trip to Europe, where he studied Scandinavian languages, and then became a professor at Harvard. “As a professor, Longfellow was well-liked, though he disliked being ‘constantly a playmate for boys’ rather than ‘stretching out and grappling with men’s minds.’”
Like Irving, Longfellow often wrote in a sweet, sentimental vein. Longfellow was considered one of the “Fireside Poets,” along with William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Longfellow’s works were extremely popular in his time; many Americans knew his poems by heart (such as “Paul Revere’s Ride”). He was popular in Europe, too; “It was reported that 10,000 copies of The Courtship of Miles Standish sold in London in a single day.” One of his most popular works is The Song of Hiawatha, a narrative poem based on Indian legends. Jung discussed the psychological significance of Hiawatha in his Symbols of Transformation. Longfellow spent many years on a translation of Dante, and he also translated Michelangelo’s poetry. He was married twice, and both his wives died prematurely; he suffered from recurrent depression.
Longfellow’s poetry was so popular that his 70th birthday, in 1877, was celebrated as a kind of national holiday. “In 1879, a female admirer traveled to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge and, unaware to whom she was speaking, asked Longfellow: ‘Is this the house where Longfellow was born?’ Longfellow told her it was not. The visitor then asked if he had died here. ‘Not yet,’ he replied.” Longfellow died in 1882.
Edgar Allan Poe is a great writer because he writes from his heart, from his experience; he’s true to himself. His writing has energy, vivacity, originality. He doesn’t imitate, he is imitated. He inspired the detective fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, and he inspired science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In his day, Poe was a well-known critic, one of the first critics to recognize Hawthorne’s talent. James Russell Lowell called Poe “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.”77 Poe’s poems, such as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” have won more popular favor than critical favor (Emerson called Poe “the jingle man,” and Harold Bloom spoke of Poe’s “dreadful poems”78).
Poe is remembered today more for his short stories than for his criticism or his poetry. Poe’s stories can be divided into “tales of terror” and “tales of ratiocination.” D. H. Lawrence (whom Harold Bloom called “Poe’s best critic”79) preferred the tales of terror to the tales of ratiocination. Among the tales of terror, Lawrence was particularly interested in “The Fall of The House of Usher” (often called Poe’s best story) and “Ligeia.” Lawrence dismissed the tales of ratiocination (such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Gold-Bug”) as “mechanical.”
Poe had a gift for ratiocination, for puzzle-solving. When the first installments of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge appeared in the U.S., Poe quickly identified the murderer, prompting Dickens to exclaim “That man must be the devil!”80 Poe prided himself on being able to unravel any system of coded writing; he challenged “the universe” to send a code to his magazine that he couldn’t break. “The Gold-Bug” deals with codes, and it inspired William Friedman, who helped to break the Japanese code in World War II.
Poe wasn’t content with small puzzles, he tried to solve the biggest puzzle of all: the universe itself. Even as a youngster, he had observed the stars from his porch through a telescope, and as he grew older, he kept up with developments in astronomy. He also studied the philosophical writings of Coleridge and others. In his last years, he wrote Eureka, which mixes philosophy and cosmology. Poe chose the title Eureka because he thought he had solved the puzzle of the universe: “What I have propounded,” he wrote, “will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly — but I say it.”81 Poe was indeed capable of deep philosophical insights, and some of his astronomical theories were ahead of their time (for example, he anticipated the Big Bang theory).
D. H. Lawrence devotes a chapter to Poe in his Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence argues that Poe depicts the collapse of personality, the loss of self, that results from excessive love or excessive hate. Poe’s characters lose themselves in passion, they don’t find themselves, they don’t find their center. Poe fails to achieve the detachment that comes with maturity, he fails to offer a vision of spiritual growth. In his poem “Annabel Lee,” Poe describes a love that is excessive, immature, and unrealistic:
It was many and many a year ago,
I was a child and she was a child,
Poe depicts a love that is immoderate and unhealthy, a love that ends in early death. Poe’s characters “kill the thing they love.”
Proust depicts excessive attachment, love carried to the point of obsession, but unlike Poe, Proust also points the way to wisdom, maturity, detachment. Proust depicts spiritual growth, Poe doesn’t. Proust suffers and overcomes suffering, Poe just suffers.
Poe could depict terror because he experienced it, and he could depict mental instability because he experienced it. He dreaded being alone, especially at night, and if he was writing at night, his aunt would sit up with him to keep him company.82 In his last years, lucid periods alternated with spells of madness. The traumas that Poe experienced in early childhood — his father left the family when Poe was two, and his mother died when he was three — left a lasting mark on him.
Marie Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte and a disciple of Freud, wrote a lengthy study of Poe’s life and work. Her book can serve as an introduction to Freud’s ideas. I suggest that one start by reading Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and then read Bonaparte’s analysis of that story. Another way to approach Poe is by reading “The Black Cat,” then reading James Gargano’s essay, “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered.”82B
Perhaps Poe’s most famous student was Baudelaire, who translated Poe into French, and helped make Poe popular in Europe. Poe’s morbid streak struck a responsive chord in Baudelaire; Baudelaire said that he was fond of Poe “because he resembled me.”83 Readers are often fond of writers to whom they feel akin.
Poe’s mental instability and alcoholism brought him to an early grave; he died in 1849, at the age of 40. Shortly before his death, he spent an afternoon with friends in Richmond. A meteor passed over his head, prompting a joke about omens; after he died, his friends felt that the meteor had indeed been an omen.84 Perhaps the meteor was an example of a linkage between the human world and the inanimate world, the sort of linkage that Poe had depicted in works like “The Fall of The House of Usher.”
Walt Whitman is one of the most gifted American writers, with a unique, original style and a profound, mystical worldview. His magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, began as a short work, and gradually grew into a long work. I recommend the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, edited by Malcolm Cowley and published by Penguin Classics. But even this short book is often obscure and somewhat difficult to read. At his best, Whitman is superb, but his ecstatic moments don’t add up to a coherent philosophy, and his flights of genius don’t add up to an artistic whole.
Whitman is considered the quintessential American writer, the writer in whom American literature first found its own voice. But like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and others, Whitman wasn’t appreciated as much in his native land as he was abroad. Many of Whitman’s prominent 19th-century fans were English — Rossetti, Swinburne, etc. Perhaps the distinctively American character of Whitman’s work made it more appealing, more fresh, more different in England than in America. But there were a few of Whitman’s American contemporaries who appreciated his work, including Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson was the first to recognize Whitman’s genius, calling Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed....[I] have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”
Whitman didn’t attend any college. At age 10, Whitman became a printer’s apprentice, and at 12, he began working in printing shops. Whitman’s parents were neither educated nor wealthy. In short, Whitman was what some people think (wrongly, in my view) that Shakespeare was: a great writer with little formal education, a great writer nourished by his own genius and by his experience of the world, a great writer whose creativity was enhanced by his lack of formal education.
Perhaps it’s this lack of education that gives Whitman his naive tone. His relationship with the reader is like that of no other writer. In his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman addresses readers in future generations as if author and reader were in the same room:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Whitman is the poet of New York City, as Melville is the poet of the open sea, and Twain is the poet of the half-civilized frontier, and the Mississippi River.
Herman Melville came from an old, established family. His maternal grandfather was one of the heroes of the Battle of Saratoga, while his paternal grandfather was involved in the Boston Tea Party. When Melville was a boy, his family’s fortunes declined, prompting Melville to go to sea. After a stint in the merchant marine, and a stint as a teacher, Melville joined a whaling voyage in 1841, when he was 21. When the ship docked at an island in the Pacific, Melville deserted, and lived briefly among the natives. Eventually he returned to the U.S. on a warship.
Living with the natives provided him with material for his first book, Typee, which was popular, and made Melville a well-known writer. His second book, Omoo, continued the story of his Pacific adventures, but wasn’t as popular as Typee (both books were classed as novels, but drew heavily on Melville’s own experiences).
Melville had acquired a reputation as “the man who had lived among cannibals,” but he wasn’t satisfied, he wanted to be regarded as a serious writer, he had literary ambitions. In his third book, Mardi, the characters go to sea, and then begin to philosophize. Critics grumbled, Melville’s popularity waned.
In his next two books, Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville put his lofty ambitions on hold, and tried to revive his popularity. He referred to these books as “two jobs which I have done for money — being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood.” Redburn drew on his experiences in the merchant marine (Melville said that it was “trash,” and that he “wrote it to buy some tobacco with”). White-Jacket drew on his experiences on a warship.
His sixth book, Moby-Dick, written when Melville was 31, drew on his experiences on a whale ship. With Moby-Dick, Melville ignored contemporary taste, and staked his claim to immortality. Moby-Dick is Melville’s masterpiece — a blend of character, drama, symbolism, and philosophy. Perhaps he was inspired by his friendship with Hawthorne, perhaps by his close reading of Shakespeare. The influence of Shakespeare is evident in Melville’s preoccupation with evil, fate, and prophecy.
Even in Moby-Dick, though, Melville’s philosophizing is somewhat heavy-handed, and his prose is somewhat wordy and obscure. Leonard Woolf said that Melville wrote “the most execrable English” and Bernard DeVoto said, “Though Melville could write great prose, his book frequently escapes into a passionately swooning rhetoric.”84B
The public responded coolly to Moby-Dick, as it had to Mardi. Melville’s next novel, Pierre, had an even chillier reception, and at the age of 32, Melville’s literary career was on the rocks. Though he wrote two more novels (Israel Potter and The Confidence Man), most of his later work is poetry and short stories.
Perhaps his best-known story is “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Melville was hurt by criticism of his writings, and in “Bartleby,” he described a clerk who refuses to write.
When Melville died at 72, he left a manuscript in his desk — the novella Billy Budd, one of his most highly-regarded works. At the time of his death, he was forgotten in the U.S., but he had some admirers in England. Melville’s reputation in the U.S. grew in the 1920s, when the U.S. was becoming aware of itself as a distinct civilization, American literature was beginning to be taught at American colleges, and scholars began looking for writers who represented American civilization.
I strongly recommend Edward Edinger’s Jungian study of Moby Dick; it’s a great literary analysis and also a great introduction to psychology. If you want to read a biography of Melville, consider Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco.
In his last years, Melville kept a Schiller quotation on his desk: “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.” The young Melville had dreamed of literary immortality, and had striven to achieve it, and now he has the immortality that he strove for. Many readers today enjoy Melville’s wit, wisdom, and vitality.
Mark Twain is the most popular of American writers; everyone enjoys novels like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson. In addition to writing novels, Twain wrote many delightful short stories, and many travel books. Twain appeals to adults who want to re-capture the spirit of boyhood, and he appeals to civilized readers who want to re-capture the spirit of an uncivilized world. Twain is so light-hearted and humorous that we’re apt to take him lightly. Twain had vast ambitions and vast talents.
Twain was born in 1835, and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River (Hannibal was the setting for Twain’s best-known works, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn). His father was a small-town lawyer and judge. His older brother published a newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, and Twain began writing for this newspaper at the age of 12. Like Whitman, Twain learned the craft of typesetting and printing. From age 18 to 22, Twain worked as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.
When he returned to Missouri, he met a steamboat pilot, and decided to become a pilot himself. “Twain studied 2,000 miles of the Mississippi for more than two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859.” His river experiences were the basis for his book Life on the Mississippi.
Twain persuaded his younger brother to learn piloting, too. His brother was killed in a steamboat explosion. A month before his death, Twain had a prophetic dream. He developed a strong interest in the occult, was inclined to believe in life-after-death, and was an early member of the Society for Psychical Research (among the members of this society were William James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Yeats, and Jung).
When the Civil War broke out, river traffic declined, and so did the demand for pilots. So at age 26, Twain headed west with his older brother. He tried his hand as a miner, and wrote stories and travel pieces for various newspapers. His Western adventures inspired the book Roughing It. His first big success was the short story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865).
In 1866, a California newspaper sent him to Hawaii. Soon he began lecturing about his travels. In 1867, a newspaper funded a trip to Europe and the Middle East, a trip that was the basis for Innocents Abroad (a second trip to Europe was the basis for A Tramp Abroad). In 1870, he married, and spent two years working on a newspaper in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Hartford; he and his family lived in Hartford for 17 years (his Hartford house is now a museum).
Twain was more than a humorist. He was interested in history, read Carlyle’s French Revolution countless times, and wrote a serious book about Joan of Arc, which he regarded as his best book (it’s called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc). He had a keen interest in the Shakespeare controversy, and like Whitman, he was convinced that the man from Stratford wasn’t the real author. He was interested in science, and often visited the lab of Nikola Tesla. In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he depicts a time-traveler introducing modern science to a medieval society. He patented several inventions; “most commercially successful was a self-pasting scrapbook; a dried adhesive on the pages only needed to be moistened before use.”
Twain’s attempt to market an automatic typesetter was an abysmal failure, and left him deeply indebted. He also lost money in a publishing venture (as did Walter Scott). To pay his debts, he gave lectures around the world (Freud heard him speak in Vienna). This lecture tour was the basis for another travel book, Following the Equator.
His political views became more radical as he grew older. He was critical of missionaries and imperialists, and defended the rights of indigenous peoples. He criticized American policy in the Philippines, and supported violent revolution in Russia. He also supported women’s rights, and labor unions.
In 1909, Twain said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” He died in 1910, one day after the comet passed. Two of his novels (The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson) deal with the “mystic connection” between people born on the same day. A volume of autobiography was published in 2010, 100 years after Twain’s death (as he had stipulated), and became a bestseller.
His real name was Samuel Clemens; the pen name “Mark Twain” was a common riverboat expression, meaning that the water was a safe depth — at the second mark on the sounding line (the second mark was two fathoms, or 12 feet). Twain’s grave in Elmira, New York has a 12-foot monument.
Henry Adams was born into an illustrious family of Presidents and ambassadors, and became one of the foremost men-of-letters that America has produced. He moved in political circles, intellectual circles, social circles; he was familiar with the levers of power, had much experience as a journalist, and was widely traveled. He achieved distinction in several different literary genres. His history of the U.S. in the early 1800s is highly regarded, he wrote two novels (Democracy and Esther), and he wrote a study of medieval culture called Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. But the work for which he’s chiefly remembered is his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. The great sorrow of his life was the suicide of his wife, Clover, at age 42 (she had become depressed after her father’s death). Clover charmed many people. In a letter to Adams, John Hay described her as,
Like Henry Adams, Henry James was born into a prominent, wealthy, American family. As Adams’ brother, Brooks, was a distinguished intellectual, so James’ brother, William, was a famous philosopher/psychologist. Henry James is more popular with critics than with readers. Critics praise three novels from his later years: The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove. Readers, on the other hand, are more fond of early works like Washington Square and Daisy Miller. The style of these early works is more clear and readable than the style of his late works. Perhaps James’ best novel is a product of his middle years, Portrait of a Lady, which is a favorite of both critics and readers. James spent most of his adult life in England, and a recurrent theme of his fiction is Americans encountering Europe.
During James’ lifetime, his works had a mixed reception. In 1890, his novel The Tragic Muse fell flat. He vowed to quit writing novels, and he began writing plays. But in 1895, when his play Guy Domville fell flat, he returned to novel-writing. James was also a prolific non-fiction writer, trying his hand at autobiography (he wrote three volumes of autobiography), travel narrative (his Italian Hours is still popular), and literary criticism (his Art of Fiction is frequently quoted, and he wrote a book-length study of Hawthorne).
Jack London was an American adventurer who was born in California in 1876. He spent much of his life on the fringe of civilization, and many of his books deal with Alaska and Hawaii. He concentrates on the contest between man and animal, between man and the elements — the struggle for survival. His fast-moving, hard-charging fiction struck a chord with contemporary readers, and he became rich by writing for magazines. As he grew older, he began to write for money, he stole material from other writers, and the quality of his work declined. He died at age 40. London’s critics insist that his fiction is just a series of episodes, not an organic whole. Among his best-known works are The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, and the autobiographical Martin Eden. He was interested in the occult, and his novel Star Rover (sometimes called The Jacket) deals with reincarnation and out-of-body experiences.
Perhaps the last great generation of American writers was the generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Wolfe (some people add to this trio the names of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos). Hemingway was a celebrity while still in his 20s. His spare style appealed to his contemporaries, and his adventurous life captured the imagination of the public. But the novelty of his style wore off, the despairing tone of his work left some readers cold, and some of his later works, like Across the River and Into the Trees, were panned by the critics. It became fashionable to say “I don’t like Hemingway.”
But Hemingway’s reputation will doubtless make a comeback, when people focus on his best works rather than his worst, on his strengths rather than his weaknesses. He was a great literary artist, a great reporter of places, experiences, feelings. T. S. Eliot said he had “considerable respect” for Hemingway’s work because “he seems to me to tell the truth about his own feelings at the moment when they exist.”85 And Joyce had high praise for Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” calling it one of the best short stories ever written.
Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a great novella, perhaps better than Moby Dick. Hemingway’s prose is simpler, more sublime than Melville’s, and his story is more touching than Melville’s. Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, loves and respects the giant fish. Thus, Old Man is the opposite of Moby Dick, in which Ahab is consumed with hatred for the white whale. Santiago has a humble love for the sea creatures that he calls his “brothers,” while Ahab pits his titanic hatred against the universe. Hemingway’s novella is a perfect blend of the realistic and the mythic. Melville, however, may be a more profound writer — better at psychological subtlety, better at the occult dimension. Hemingway’s hero is a hero for our time: he doesn’t have high birth or great natural gifts; he’s an average man, a working man, who achieves greatness through persistence, through his indomitable spirit, through his acceptance of suffering. Both Hemingway and Melville built their story from an actual event, both stretched the facts to the breaking point, but both created stories that “ring true.” Hemingway admired Conrad, and his Old Man and the Sea may have been inspired by Conrad’s story, “Youth”.
As a stylist, Hemingway aims at simplicity and truth. His style is typical of modern style insofar as it lacks structure, grammatical structure, grammatical clarity. As long as his words are clear and truthful, he doesn’t care how he throws them in, or how they function grammatically. One might trace this to the decline of Latin study, or to the influence of journalism (Hemingway himself was a journalist). As an example, let’s look at Hemingway’s description of Mr. and Mrs. Macomber riding with their guide, Wilson: “She was sitting far back in the seat and Macomber was sitting forward talking to Wilson who turned sideways talking over the back of the front seat.” Notice how the words are jumbled up without regard to grammatical structure, yet the overall effect is clear and vivid. It would be difficult to diagram that sentence, and say what grammatical function each word plays, but it’s not a difficult sentence to read. Hemingway was so fond of simplicity that he criticized Melville and Thoreau for being literary.
Hemingway didn’t write from his imagination, as Kafka did. He wrote about his experiences; he wrote about the summers he spent in Michigan as a boy, about his experiences on the Italian front in World War I, about his years in Paris (where he knew Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and other writers), about Spain and the Spanish Civil War, about safaris in Africa, about the Florida Keys and Cuba. Hemingway was preoccupied with death and violence, and often wrote about war, bullfighting, and hunting. In 1961, at the age of 62, when his body was injured and his memory declining, Hemingway shot himself.
If you want to read about Hemingway, consider the works of Princeton professor Carlos Baker, who wrote a biography of Hemingway, critical studies, and Selected Letters. The most detailed Hemingway biography is the five-volume work by Michael Reynolds. The leading American critics all wrote about Hemingway; for example, Alfred Kazin wrote about Hemingway in On Native Grounds, Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow, and Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel.
If you want a quick introduction to Hemingway, read his short story “The Killers” and the critical essay on “The Killers” by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Both the story and the critical essay can be found in Understanding Fiction, an excellent anthology of stories and critical essays put together by Warren and Brooks. Understanding Poetry is another noteworthy anthology by Warren and Brooks. Warren was a fine poet and novelist in his own right, best known for his novel All the King’s Men, which deals with the Louisiana politician, Huey Long. Brooks was a prominent critic, who wrote several well-regarded studies of poetry.
Wolfe’s early death seemed to hang over his life like a dark fate, and he lived with a wild urgency; he died in 1938, at age 37. While Hemingway’s style is spare, prosaic, Wolfe’s is romantic, poetic. While Hemingway aims to tell the truth, Wolfe has a penchant for exaggeration. The city that Wolfe wrote about most was a city that Hemingway disliked: New York. Despite his untimely death, Wolfe’s work has a more affirmative tone than that of Hemingway or Faulkner. Hemingway sometimes despaired, but Wolfe didn’t have time for despair; Wolfe loved the world like one who has to leave it soon. He even loved death, as mystics sometimes do. Wolfe said Yes to the whole world.
What strikes one about Wolfe is his subjectivity, his preoccupation with the motions of his own soul. But he also has a sure sense of the external world, and created many memorable characters and scenes. Faulkner called Wolfe the best American novelist of his time. Nobody surpasses Wolfe at depicting the wonder of being alive. Critics, however, are often cool toward Wolfe, perhaps because his work has more passion than structure.
If you want to try Wolfe, I recommend his first and most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel, which deals with his early years in Asheville, North Carolina, and his college years at the University of North Carolina. Wolfe also wrote some excellent short works, such as “The Lost Boy” and “The Web of Earth.” If you want to read a biography of Wolfe, consider Look Homeward, by the famous Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald. If you want to read a good critical essay about Wolfe, I suggest “Thomas Wolfe and Death.”86
Wolfe anticipated his early death: “Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I must die.... A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
Faulkner is more obscure, more difficult to read, than Hemingway or Wolfe. He didn’t become popular as quickly as Hemingway and Wolfe did, but his style appeals to modern taste, and his reputation is at least as high today as that of Hemingway or Wolfe. Faulkner’s reputation extended to Europe; among his fans was Sartre, the French philosopher. Sartre said that the dominant note of Faulkner’s work was hopelessness — a preoccupation with the past, an inability to look to the future. Sartre described Faulkner as “a lost man,” just as Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that his was “a lost generation.”
While Wolfe focused on his own soul, Faulkner turned to the outside world, and tried to depict the people he knew in his native Mississippi. His early works and late works aren’t highly-regarded. His best works are those written during his middle period, such as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
Faulkner was in ecstasy while writing The Sound and the Fury, and the reader can get much pleasure from it, too, if he can overcome the initial hurdles. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, and also Volpe’s book, A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. With the help of books like these, the difficulties of The Sound and the Fury will melt away. Faulkner describes everyday life so vividly that his characters are more real than real people.
Like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor was from the South, and wrote about the South. O’Connor was an Irish Catholic with deep religious convictions. But she has a lively sense of humor, and a readable style; she’s both a genuine artist and a sincere believer. O’Connor uses violence and imminent death to rouse her characters — and perhaps her readers, too — from their spiritual slumbers. O’Connor herself lived with the threat of death: she suffered from lupus, and died at 39.
Though she wrote two novels, O’Connor is best known for her short stories, and her Complete Stories won a National Book Award in 1972. Her best-known story is “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” But perhaps the best way to approach O’Connor is to read “The Artificial Nigger,” then the fine critical essay on it by Joyce Carol Oates.
H. P. Lovecraft was an only child, and a sickly child; his mother often kept him home, and he rarely went to school. He never finished high school, and had no career besides story-writing. “The adult Lovecraft was gaunt with dark eyes set in a very pale face (he rarely went abroad before nightfall).”1 He read widely; one of his favorites was Poe, and he also read Nietzsche. He spent most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island. His life was largely solitary, but he had a network of correspondents, many of whom were fellow writers of horror and fantasy. It is said that he wrote more letters than anyone in history, with the exception of Voltaire.
A Lovecraft scholar named S. T. Joshi created a book from Lovecraft’s letters, Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Joshi also edited a book called Caverns Measureless to Man: 18 Memoirs of Lovecraft. And Joshi wrote a two-volume Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (originally published in one volume under the title H. P. Lovecraft: A Life; also published in abridged form as A Dreamer & A Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time).
Older writers like Cervantes, Fielding, and Dickens wrote for a general audience, but modern fiction has become split between high-brow and low-brow. High-brow writers like Proust and Joyce make many demands on the reader, while low-brow writers like Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard can be enjoyed even by youngsters. Lovecraft never wrote a full-length novel; he wrote stories and novellas for pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories.
Lovecraft’s stories were inspired by earlier horror writers, such as Poe, and also by his own inner demons. He was
Lovecraft had a deep connection to Providence, a strong sense of place, history, and architecture, he writes superb prose, and his stories hold your attention. Like Ruskin, Lovecraft had a fondness for the old and an aversion for the new. Sometimes he called himself an “antiquarian.” He published 13 issues of his own magazine, which he called The Conservative. Lovecraft agreed with Spengler that the modern West was decadent; Wikipedia speaks of his “anti-modern worldview.”
Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937 at the age of 46. “In accordance with his lifelong scientific curiosity, he kept a diary of his illness until close to the moment of his death.” His scientific bent is apparent in his stories, which often scoff at “popular superstition,” and try to provide a material explanation for ghosts and other occult phenomena.
Lovecraft corresponded with two prominent horror/fantasy writers, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. They never met, perhaps because Lovecraft lived in Providence, Howard in Texas, and Smith in California. Howard is best known for stories about Conan the Barbarian.
L. Sprague de Camp wrote biographies of Lovecraft and Howard, and he continued Howard’s work in books like Conan the Adventurer. De Camp wrote several historical novels, such as The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate. Many of his books were written in collaboration with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp.
Lovecraft wrote an essay called “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which surveyed the development of the genre. Edmund Wilson said that Lovecraft’s essay was “a really able piece of work... He had read comprehensively in this field — he was strong on the Gothic novelists — and writes about it with much intelligence.” Lovecraft begins his essay thus:
Lovecraft discusses four “modern masters” of the ghost story: Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood.
Dunsany was perhaps the only writer who influenced Lovecraft as much as Poe did. Lovecraft wrote modestly, “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany’ pieces — but alas — where are my Lovecraft pieces?” Dunsany was born into the Irish aristocracy, and spent much of his life at Ireland’s oldest castle, Dunsany Castle, which dates back to 1080. He was part of the Irish Literary Revival, he donated to the Abbey Theater, and he was friends with Yeats, Lady Gregory, Padraic Colum, George William Russell (“A.E.”), Oliver St. John Gogarty (“Buck Mulligan”), etc. His youth was divided between England and Ireland; some of his relatives were English. In his later years, Dunsany spent most of his time in England, where he was friends with Kipling. Dunsany was an avid hunter and athlete, and he fought in both the Boer War and World War I.
One of Dunsany’s novels is called The King of Elfland’s Daughter; according to Wikipedia, it’s “considered by many to be Dunsany’s finest novel and a classic in the realm of fantasy writing.” Jorge Luis Borges, who’s sometimes classed as a fantasy writer, compared Dunsany to Kafka. Lovecraft heard Dunsany lecture, and was much impressed. Robert E. Howard was also a Dunsany fan. Dunsany developed the “club tale” — tall tales told at a gentleman’s club, collected in The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens and other volumes. The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote Dunsany-inspired “club tales,” which were collected in Tales from the White Hart. L. Sprague de Camp collaborated with Fletcher Pratt on a book of club tales called Tales from Gavagan’s Bar.
Perhaps the most popular of all fantasy writers is J. R. R. Tolkien, best known for his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon literature; his students said that hearing him recite Beowulf was an “unforgettable experience.” He was a close friend of C. S. Lewis, who was also an Oxford professor and fantasy writer. Both Tolkien and Lewis were devout Christians; Tolkien was Catholic, Lewis Anglican. Much of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was written during World War II; Tolkien said it was “quickened to full life by war,” and he called his book “a history of the Great War of the Ring.” In Tolkien’s trilogy, The Shire battles Mordor, as England battled Nazi Germany.
An older fantasy writer, who influenced both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, is George MacDonald. MacDonald was friends with Mark Twain, John Ruskin, Walt Whitman, and other eminent writers; he was also a mentor to Lewis Carroll. MacDonald was well-known in his day for fantasies and fairy tales that have spiritual import. For a time, MacDonald worked as a minister, and some of his books deal with Christian themes. MacDonald said, “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” Two of his best-known stories are “The Golden Key” and “The Wise Woman”; two of his best-known novels are Lilith and The Princess and the Goblin.
Lewis Carroll’s work is popular with both children and adults. Carroll’s famous stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, combine wild fantasy with clever wit. I recommend The Annotated Alice, with notes by Martin Gardner, or the Norton Critical Edition of Alice.
Arthur C. Clarke was influenced by Dunsany’s fantasy fiction and by H. G. Wells’ science fiction. Clarke was born and raised in England, but spent much of his adult life in Sri Lanka, to which his love of scuba diving drew him. Among Clarke’s most admired novels are Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama. In his fiction, Clarke speculates about the evolution of a higher race, as a result of contact with an advanced, alien civilization. Clarke also wrote some non-fiction books, such as The Promise of Space. Clarke was interested in Buddhism, and in the paranormal.
Another well-known writer of science fiction is Robert Heinlein. Heinlein grew up in Missouri, and spent most of his adult life in California. Among his best-known works are Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough For Love. Heinlein was a nudist and an advocate of free love; his work was popular with the hippies of the 1960s. He was a pioneer of “social science fiction,” which mixed social theories with hard science. Like Clarke, Heinlein had a knack for anticipating the impact of technology on society; he “foresaw Interstate Highways (The Roads Must Roll), concern over nuclear power generation (Blowups Happen), international nuclear stalemate (Solution Unsatisfactory — i.e., the Cold War) as well as numerous other lesser examples.” Heinlein wrote many books for young readers. Some American astronauts read Heinlein as youngsters, and quoted him when they were on the moon.
One of Lovecraft’s favorite writers was Arthur Machen; Lovecraft called Machen, “master of an exquisitely lyrical and expressive prose style.” Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror” was influenced by Machen’s novella The Great God Pan. Stephen King called Machen’s novella “Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language.” Among Machen’s other admirers were Wilde, Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, and Borges. Through Borges, Machen influenced Magical Realism.
Machen’s autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams is often called his masterpiece. In this novel, a young dreamer imagines Wales in Roman times; later he goes to London to seek his fortune as a writer. Machen was from Wales (Monmouthshire), had a deep connection to the area, and often set his fiction there.
Machen was receptive to the occult, and contemptuous of rationalism and materialism. He was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which grew out of the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Other members of this Order included Yeats, Bram Stoker, and Algernon Blackwood.
Lovecraft was a fan of Blackwood’s fiction, and spoke of, “Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.” Blackwood was an avid outdoorsman, fond of skiing, mountain-climbing, etc. One of his most famous stories, “The Willows,” is about a canoe trip on the Danube. He was especially fond of the Swiss Alps, and after his death, his ashes were scattered there.
Like Poe and Schopenhauer, Blackwood believed that the occult revealed a new aspect of reality, leading to a new worldview and a revolution in human culture. Blackwood wrote,
According to Wikipedia, Blackwood’s novels Julius LeVallon and The Bright Messenger “deal with reincarnation and the possibility of a new, mystical evolution in human consciousness.” Henry Miller said that The Bright Messenger is “the most extraordinary novel on psychoanalysis, one that dwarfs the subject.” Blackwood is a deep thinker who can throw light on human nature and on the occult.
An imaginative writer who lives in the reader’s own time and place has a charm that writers from a different time and place, however great they may be, can’t have. A writer who lives in the reader’s own time and place can relate to the reader’s own experience, can depict a world that is familiar to the reader, and can speak the reader’s own language. One of the best imaginative writers in the modern U.S. is J. D. Salinger. Salinger’s early work (Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye) is consistently high in quality, but his later work (such as Hapworth 16, 1924) is disappointing.
Some of Salinger’s early work was written while he was a soldier in World War II. The same is true of Salinger’s contemporary, John Williams, author of the acclaimed novel Stoner. While Salinger used colloquial language, Williams used simple, straightforward language. While Salinger was a product of Eastern cities and Eastern prep schools, Williams grew up in Texas, and Stoner has the air of The Plains. While Salinger was a recluse, Williams was an English professor at the University of Denver, and the protagonist of Stoner is an academic. While Salinger’s work is rich in humor, Williams’ work lacks humor, and has little action. Nonetheless, Williams’ work is entertaining, readable, and moving. While reading Stoner, one forgets that it’s a novel; it seems more true than real life, one connects with his characters as if they were real people. One critic, Morris Dickstein, said that Stoner was “Something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.” In addition to Stoner, Williams wrote an historical novel, Augustus, which was the co-winner of the National Book Award in 1973, and Butcher’s Crossing, which is set in Kansas in frontier times.
Norman Podhoretz is an American critic and essayist. Podhoretz wrote a book called Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet, which contains some fine essays on contemporary writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Kundera and Kissinger. Podhoretz is one of the few American writers who can be called “a man of letters”; he writes for the general reader, not the scholar, and he’s conscious of style — both as a writer and as a reader. He was one of the original neo-conservatives, and he sometimes lets his politics affect his literature; in his book on the Hebrew prophets, for example, he makes remarks on contemporary politics. In our time, culture is often politicized — by the Right as well as the Left. The politicization of intellectual life has been called “the treason of the intellectuals.”
Podhoretz borrowed the phrase “bloody crossroads” from Lionel Trilling, one of the leaders of the so-called New York Intellectuals. Trilling respects literary values as few American writers ever have, and he tries to point the way to a healthy literary culture. He wrote some fine essays, which were collected in books like The Liberal Imagination.
For many years, Trilling taught at Columbia, and one of his colleagues there was Jacques Barzun. Barzun was born into a cultured French family, then came to the U.S. and attended Columbia. Barzun’s specialty is cultural history; he’s at home with visual art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. He’s particularly interested in the French composer Berlioz, and the American philosopher William James. He often wrote about higher education, and he helped design Columbia’s curriculum, which was wide-ranging and classics-oriented — like Barzun himself. Barzun was often critical of modern culture. One of his most popular books is a tome called From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.
Simon Schama is an English-born Columbia professor. Though not as wide-ranging as Barzun, Schama writes both history and art history. He made a popular documentary called A History of Britain, and another documentary called Simon Schama’s Power of Art. He has written books about Rembrandt, the French Revolution, the Golden Age of Dutch culture, and other subjects.
Perhaps the most famous American literary critic of the 20th century was Edmund Wilson. Wilson was a layman’s critic, not a professor’s critic; he thought criticism should be literature, not science. He published critical essays in periodicals, later collecting them in books. One of his best-known essay-collections is Axel’s Castle, which discusses modern writers like Joyce and Proust. He also published a study of socialism called To the Finland Station, and numerous autobiographical volumes. Wilson’s private life was stormy, and he was married four times. It is said that when he quarreled with one of his wives, the critic Mary McCarthy, he would go to his study and lock the door, and she would stuff burning papers under the door.
When Isaiah Berlin met Wilson, he was surprised to find “a thick-set, red-faced, pot-bellied figure not unlike President Hoover.”87 When people meet great writers, they’re often surprised to find that they don’t look like great writers, they look like ordinary mortals. One who met Tolstoy, for example, expected to find an imposing prophet, and was surprised to find a stooped old man who supported himself with a cane. And when Proust met Anatole France, he was amazed to find an ordinary mortal with a goatee, and a nose that curled like a snail shell. The literary self and the everyday self aren’t the same; the literary self is six inches taller than the ordinary self. If we’re familiar with the literary self, the everyday self surprises us. Conversely, if we’re familiar with the everyday self, the literary self surprises us; as Proust put it, we can’t believe in the genius of a person with whom we went to the opera last night.
After the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson seemed to lose faith in American literature, in the potential of American literature. The great generation was fading away. The only American writer who interested Wilson was Salinger.
A contemporary of Wilson’s, F. R. Leavis, was perhaps the leading English critic of his generation. Leavis began his career with poetry-criticism (New Bearings in English Poetry), then turned to the English novel (The Great Tradition). Leavis approached English literature with a kind of religious seriousness; he had little use for playful, witty writers like Sterne. One of his favorite novelists was D. H. Lawrence; according to Podhoretz, Leavis’ writing about Lawrence “sounds more like prayer than criticism.”88 Leavis admired the American-turned-English writer T. S. Eliot, who taught Leavis to appreciate the Metaphysical Poets, and to castigate Romantic Poets like Shelley. Eliot’s critical essays are among the most respected in modern times. Following Eliot’s hints, Leavis tried to draw a map of English literature (as I’m attempting to draw a literary map). Leavis was studied closely by New York Intellectuals like Trilling, Podhoretz, and Philip Rahv.89
The Czech writer Milan Kundera is certainly one of the best writers that the 20th century has produced. Since moving to France in 1975, Kundera has written several works in French. He also has a firm grasp of English, and he polished the English translations of his own books. The son of a musician, Kundera has a deep knowledge of music, and often discusses music in his works. Kundera’s works often depict life in a Communist society, and often include explicit sexuality. Kundera is as profound as Solzhenitsyn, and more entertaining than Solzhenitsyn. Kundera’s work is often harsh and brutal, but his harshness isn’t carried to an extreme, as Solzhenitsyn’s is, and it doesn’t prevent him from being highly entertaining and highly readable. Kundera has taste. Kundera’s novels might be described as “thought novels” or “idea novels,” in the tradition of the Austrian novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch.
Musil is best-known for his huge, unfinished work, The Man Without Qualities. Though never popular in the English-speaking world, Musil is highly esteemed elsewhere. When Thomas Mann was asked “Who are the best writers of our time?” Mann named only Musil.
Broch is best known for his trilogy The Sleepwalkers and for his Death of Vergil. The Sleepwalkers deals with the loss of faith in modern Europe, and the rise of nihilism. The Death of Vergil deals with the last hours of the Roman poet — his concern that his poetry hasn’t been faithful to grim reality, etc. Broch himself seemed to question the value of literature in his final years, and he preferred to spend his time writing non-fiction, and helping Jewish refugees. Broch himself was Jewish, and barely escaped Nazi camps. Like Musil, Broch is little known in the English-speaking world, but regarded by many as one of the 20th century’s great novelists.
Stefan Zweig was born into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family, and grew up in Vienna. He had a cosmopolitan attitude, and was critical of Zionism, though friendly with Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. A champion of European culture in a broad sense, Zweig said that his biography of Erasmus was a concealed autobiography. When Hitler came to power, Zweig left Austria, eventually settling in Brazil. In 1942, depressed by Nazi conquests and the apparent collapse of European civilization, Zweig committed suicide with his wife. One might say that Broch turned against literature because it didn’t match reality, and Zweig turned against reality because it didn’t match literature. It’s difficult for the modern writer to affirm both reality and literature; Erich Heller said that Goethe was “the last great poet who lived and worked in a continual effort to save the life of poetry and the poetry of life.”
Though best known for his fiction, Zweig also wrote biographies of Magellan, Mary Queen of Scots, etc. (Earlier I mentioned Zweig’s Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky.) Just before his death, Zweig completed an autobiography, The World of Yesterday.
Kabir has been called the most quoted writer in India. A weaver by trade, Kabir lived in northern India in the 1400s. His poems have been translated into English by Tagore and (more recently) by the American poet Robert Bly. Kabir has a mystical outlook, shunning religious formalities, finding the true spirit of religion in the here and now:
O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Another poet with a mystical outlook is Rumi, who lived in the 1200s. Rumi is often described as a Sufi (Sufism is Islam’s brand of mysticism). Sufism sometimes spurned religious law, and clashed with orthodox Moslems. Like other brands of mysticism, Sufism says that God is within you, that God and the universe and you are one. Sufism believes that the essence of all religions is the same. Rumi reached out to Jews, Christians, etc., and people of all faiths came to his funeral.
Rumi spent most of his life in Konya, Turkey, and he wrote in Persian. One of the chief events of Rumi’s life was his close friendship with a mystic named Shams. The most well-known translator of Rumi into English is Coleman Barks. Rumi strikes a chord with modern readers; he has been called the most popular poet in the U.S.
Hafiz also wrote in Persian. Hafiz lived in Iran in the 1300s. His poetry has long been known in the West, and inspired Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan. The most popular Hafiz translator today is Daniel Ladinsky. Like Kabir and Rumi, Hafiz has a mystical outlook that unites disparate creeds.
Another popular poet from Iran is Omar Khayyam, who lived around 1075. An accomplished mathematician and astronomer, Omar is best known today for a poetic work called the Rubaiyat. The most famous translation of the Rubaiyat is Edward Fitzgerald’s (it was also translated by Richard Le Gallienne).
Rabindranath Tagore, who translated Kabir into English, won the Nobel Prize in 1913. Though Tagore wrote some fiction, he’s best known for his poetic works, such as Gitanjali. Gitanjali is somewhat obscure, but it contains passages of extraordinary beauty and depth; especially remarkable is the way it treats the subject of death:
Tagore was acclaimed by his contemporaries, including Yeats and Gide, and even today he’s extremely popular in India. Tagore was not only a poet, he was also a gifted musician and painter.
Like Tagore, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was a musician and artist as well as poet. As a young man, Lorca was best known for his musical talents, and as he grew older, his drawings were sometimes exhibited, but now his fame rests on his literary works, his poems and plays. Lorca is one of the major figures in 20th-century poetry, but his work isn’t well-known in the English-speaking world, perhaps because poetry is so difficult to translate.
Some languages — English, French, etc. — seem to be old and tired, producing little poetry, and less poetic drama. When one looks at Lorca’s work, one is struck by how much energy and vigor, how much music, is still in the Spanish language; Lorca wrote not only poetry, but also poetic drama. Tagore’s language (Bengali) also seems to have a musical energy that isn’t found in English, French, etc.; Tagore’s songs were sung by all classes of people.
Maybe it isn’t the language that becomes old and tired, maybe it’s the soul that becomes old and tired. The creative energy of the Spanish soul is evident not only in poetry (Lorca) but also in philosophy (Ortega) and visual art (Picasso). In the 20th century, when the heart of Europe seemed weak and weary, the periphery of Europe seemed to still possess creative energy: Spain’s contribution to modern culture is considerable, Ireland’s contribution to modern culture, especially literature, is also considerable, and the writers of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Kundera and Solzhenitsyn, seem to have a power not found in the old centers of European civilization.
In 1919, at the age of 21, Lorca entered the University of Madrid. Though he published almost nothing, he gained a wide reputation through his public readings. “Verse is made to be recited,” Lorca said; “in a book it is dead.” When he was 24, Lorca collaborated with the composer Manuel de Falla, writing Gypsy Ballads and other works.
At the age of 30, Lorca was internationally famous, but displeased with “the myth of my gypsy-hood.” Suffering from an emotional crisis, he sought relief in America and Cuba. The trip inspired a book of poems called Poet in New York, which expressed Lorca’s horror at modern, urban civilization. Like Goethe, Lorca had a passion for puppets since his childhood days, and when he was 33, Lorca wrote two puppet plays. But even these puppet plays were overcast with melancholy.
At 34, Lorca founded a drama troupe, and during the next three years, his troupe performed classical Spanish drama (Lope de Vega, Calderón, Cervantes, etc.) for all classes of the Spanish population. (When one hears about puppets, plays and poetry readings, one is struck anew at how different things were before the advent of TV, movies, etc.)
At 35, having learned from his stage experience, Lorca wrote a dramatic trilogy, which is perhaps his best-known work. When Lorca was 38, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Lorca was shot by the Nationalists, fulfilling the premonition of violent death that is found in his works.
Like Lorca, the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is a major 20th-century writer who’s little-known in the English-speaking world. The American poet Edwin Honig translated both Lorca and Pessoa into English. Another important author of Pessoa translations and Pessoa studies is Richard Zenith. One of Pessoa’s best-known works is The Book of Disquiet.
Pessoa spent part of his childhood in South Africa, where he learned English. Some of his literary works are in Portuguese, some in English. During his lifetime, Pessoa published in England as well as in Portugal. He spent his adult years in Lisbon, making a living by translating business letters between Portuguese and English.
Pessoa frequented the cafés and restaurants of Lisbon, jotting down poems and reflections on scraps of paper, or on menus. When he returned home, he stuffed these barely-legible scraps in a drawer. When he died in 1935, at the age of 47, Pessoa left behind about 25,000 literary scraps. Much of his work is fragmentary, incomplete. Pessoa was at home with both poetry and short prose reflections.
Pessoa admired Whitman, and Pessoa’s work contains mystical elements, Zennish elements, as Whitman’s does. In Pessoa’s work, however, one also finds dark streaks of pessimism that remind one more of Kafka than Whitman. One might say that Pessoa was better at writing Zen than at living it. In a chronology of Pessoa’s life, one finds entries such as “1933: experiences severe depression.” Pessoa’s life was loveless and lonely; he never married. He said that he belonged to a generation that had “lost all respect for the past and all belief or hope in the future.”90
Pessoa viewed literature not as an expression of life, but as a substitute for life, a release from life. Richard Zenith describes him as “relentlessly detached from physical life.”91 Pessoa had a rich imagination, and he created several imaginary characters or “heteronyms,” furnishing them not only with biographies but also with literary works. Much of Pessoa’s work is written under the name of one of his various heteronyms; in this respect, Pessoa reminds one of Kierkegaard, who also created imaginary writers.
Pessoa was interested in the occult, translated some works on occult matters into Portuguese, practiced astrology, and corresponded with Aleister Crowley, a prominent English occultist.
Pessoa’s prose works contain some impressive philosophical passages, such as this passage:
In one essay, Pessoa predicted Portugal would soon produce a great poet, a poet who would make an important contribution to European literature. Perhaps this feeling of a great destiny, great potential, inspired Pessoa to create great literature himself.
There are many striking passages in Pessoa’s works. Though you may not find the content of his work attractive, Pessoa grabs your attention with his style. You know you’re in the presence of a great literary talent. Like most great literary talents, Pessoa was completely immersed in literature. “My destiny,” he wrote to a secretary named Ophelia, “belongs to another law whose existence you do not even sense.”93
Singer was born and raised in Poland’s Jewish community. In 1935, when he was 33, Singer moved from Poland to the U.S. But even when he lived in the U.S., Singer continued to write in Yiddish. Many of his writings were first published in newspapers and magazines; later they were translated from Yiddish to English, and published in book form. Singer sometimes translated his own works into English.
Singer had a keen interest in Polish-Jewish history. His first novel, Satan in Goray, deals with a pogrom that took place in 1648, and one of his later novels, The Slave, also deals with this period.Though he wrote numerous novels, Singer’s fame rests chiefly on his short stories. He was a student of the short-story form, and read Maupassant, Chekhov, etc.
One of Singer’s best-known stories is “The Spinoza of Market Street.” It has everything one could wish for in a short story: a sense of history, depth of thought, lively characters, humorous touches. It can be found in a volume called The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer; Singer himself chose the stories for this volume.
Singer’s most famous story is “Gimpel the Fool,” which depicts a saintly character who is mistreated but loves the world anyway. Even when dealing with a serious theme, Singer is witty and gritty and lively. Gimpel is aware of death and prepared for death:
Singer’s father was a rabbi, and Singer was steeped in Judaism. In his early 20s, though, he broke with his father’s world, and “he stopped attending Jewish religious services of any kind, even on the High Holy Days.”94 He had some connections in the Polish-Jewish literary world — two of his older siblings were writers — and he acquired a literary reputation at an early age. In his later years, two of his works were made into movies: the novel Enemies, a Love Story, and the short story “Yentl.”
Singer was a passionate vegetarian. “In relation to [animals],” he wrote, “all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.... If there would come a voice from God saying, ‘I’m against vegetarianism!’ I would say, ‘Well, I am for it!’ This is how strongly I feel in this regard.”95
One can’t appreciate ancient poetry if one reads it in translation. In order to appreciate ancient poetry, one must read it in the original, and to do that requires that one spend years studying ancient languages. Before the twentieth century, Western education consisted largely of studying ancient languages. Those who knew Greek and Latin were educated; those who didn’t, weren’t educated. Now, however, only a few scholars know Greek and Latin. Ancient poetry is therefore gradually sinking into oblivion.
One of the few ancient poets who isn’t sinking into oblivion is Homer. Homer engages the reader’s attention in a way that other epic poets, such as Vergil and Milton, fail to do. Homer’s works are enjoyable to read in almost any translation. An Irish writer, Padraic Colum, has made an excellent abridgment of Homer; though the title of Colum’s work is The Children’s Homer, it will interest adults as well as children. If you want to read Homer in unabridged form, the Robert Fagles translation is highly regarded.
Poetry is derived from primitive religious rites, hence poetry emerges early in the history of literature; poetry precedes prose. As civilization matures, the best writers turn increasingly to prose. Prose fiction became popular during the latter days of ancient civilization. Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus, is a delightful love story in a pastoral setting; Goethe said, “one would do well to read [Daphnis and Chloe] every year... and to receive anew the impression of its great beauty.”96 The Satyricon of Petronius, one of Nietzsche’s favorite books, is a light-hearted, bawdy work. The Golden Ass of Apuleius, one of Flaubert’s favorite books, resembles the Satyricon in its loose form and earthy humor. Apuleius was receptive to Hermetic ideas; the Jungian writer Marie-Louise von Franz found much spiritual wisdom in The Golden Ass, and devoted an entire volume to it. While Longus wrote in Greek, Petronius and Apuleius wrote in Latin.