Tuesday, July 22, 2008

American peculiar, "peculiary American"

Meriwether Lewis' journal entry for Feb. 24, 1806. The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish. There are other pages like this, depicting various plants and animals, in the Journals, too. Note how the drawing and text compete--politely, yes, but they still compete--for space on the page. Image found here.

I read Frank Kermode's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works in the upcoming print edition of The New Republic for two chief reasons. The first was a sense of happy wonder upon realizing that Kermode is still alive (he was born in 1919); the second is that, if you want someone's assessment of a book describing the machinery of narrative, I'd think you'd want Kermode's before anyone else's. His chief area of scholarly interest has been the Elizabethan-era writers, but his best-known book is probably The Sense of an Ending, still a standard work of narrative theory. Moreover, he's been around the 20th century's many theoretical blocks--he has the sort of long view of the history of criticism that I much appreciate.

He likes Wood's book. A lot: "There have been many books in recent years on the making of fiction, but I know of none (except perhaps [Roland Barthes'] S/Z, its admired anti-realist opponent) that can offer as much serious instruction as this masterly essay." But what I'm interested in talking about a little bit is something Kermode quotes Wood as saying about American literature:

There is a problem that he regards as peculiarly American: the conflict between the desire of writers to use all their linguistic resources and their need to represent in a plausible way the language and perceptions to be expected of characters less amply endowed. Wood here judges Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo to fall short. Even the admired Saul Bellow is gently reproved for letting Tommy Wilhelm, in Seize the Day, perceive the beauty of the ash on old Mr. Rappaport's cigar, though Wood himself perceives it and is indeed so fond of it that later in the book he pays it a return visit.
Wood is right that this quality is indeed a feature of American novels--in particular, of many of the novels we tend to regard as central to the canon. Mark Twain called out Cooper on a version of this quality (among many other things) in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses": "7. They [the "rules governing literary art in [the] domain of romantic fiction"] require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale." By the way: if you like Twain but haven't read this piece of inspired silliness that nevertheless serves as a pretty good manifesto on realism in fiction, do yourselves a favor and read it. Early reviews of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying also were at pains to point out how some of his characters could barely speak intelligible English yet, in their thinking, could use words like "ammoniac" and "stertorous." And so on and so on. I'd even suggest that the page from Lewis' journal above is another example of the kind of thing that Wood attributes to American literature: text itself not sufficing, Lewis turns to the visual language of illustration to give another, further voice to what the expedition is seeing as it makes its way along the Missouri. But as to why this is a quality peculiar to American literature--that's the interesting question.

Well, to me it is, at any rate. Which is why the rest of this post is below the fold.

Kermode doesn't say whether Wood offers a "why" regarding this peculiarly American feature of our literature; given the nature of Wood's book, it's appropriate if/that he doesn't. But there are plenty of books and articles out there that get at this matter in different ways. The one I was most reminded of as I read that passage, though, was Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. Here is Poirier's thesis:
That writing exists not to be clarified but as a kind of drama of the search for clarity, that symbols, myths, and summaries are themselves only stabs in the dark, are among the presuppositions of this book. The great works of American literature are alive with the effort to stabilize certain feelings and attitudes that have, as it were, no place at all except where a writer's style can give them one. And the attempt to do so occurs, especially in works of the last century, within the context of inhospitable styles and structures. Language is never "free"; its forms are never "new," and it is slightly unfaithful to those who proclaim the possibilities of "freedom" or "newness."

American literature is a struggle with already-existing literary, social, and historical organizations for power over environment and over language itself[.](xxi)
(Aside: I would just add that this formulation is at the core of the literatures of all the Americas, not just that of the United States.)

For me, the tension Poirier describes here is embodied in that very familiar term "New World." That tension never gets resolved; hence, as Poirier notes, the writer's attempts to explain, to account for, to make sense of, without never quite getting there. That tension is at the essence of the greatest novels of this side of the globe. It makes for messy novels, to be sure--this is why Wood mentions it--but there's no way around it. This is the hand we've been dealt.

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