Thursday, January 08, 2009

A pithy passage from Poirier

Thomas Cole, Scene from "The Last of the Mohicans," Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund. 1827. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Click image to enlarge. Image found here.

From Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature, as he winds up some commentary on Cooper's Natty Bumppo (referred to by Poirier as Deerslayer) before making some more general remarks about American literature of the 19th century:

At his most impressive, Deerslayer is a character described rather than self-articulated, a man seen by the narrator "communing . . . without the aids or forms of language" rather than a conversationalist[. . . .]

Other writers, like Thoreau, Melville, Mark Twain, James, and Faulkner, acknowledge how difficult it is to give authority to ideas, specifically those of the "poet" as the hero of relinquishment and possession, which are otherwise defenseless against the claims of conventional reality. Of course, any such comparative claims are tentative; one kind of accomplishment in literature is not all accomplishments, and in this instance Emerson and Cooper probably could have done fewer of the things they do so superbly had they been more stylistically defensive. Nonetheless, these other writers show greater willingness to make the investment by which a protective environment can be created for some of the images and themes they share with Emerson. In the complications of their language and in their structural ingenuities, they force the reader actually to participate in "the struggle for verbal consciousness" that is to liberate us from customary suppositions about the meaning of words like "possession" or "nature," "the poet" or "reality." Their best performances are known for their intricacy, their opaqueness, even to the point where they are discussed not as books but as "problems for interpretation." (pp.76-77)
There is much to tease out of this passage. The one thing I'll point to here, as I've noted before regarding Poirier's book, is his identifying the ultimately irresolvable tension in our literature's greatest novels between, on the one hand, the desire--the need?--to create and articulate an American Myth and, on the other, what Philip Fisher would later call the hard facts of American history.

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