Friday, November 25, 2011

V. L. Parrington, Dreiser & James

I find it difficult to read a collection of essays straight through, at least the two collections I’m working on at the present time, namely Hitchens’ Arguably and Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. Picking up Hitchens after a few days I noticed that I look forward to whatever he is going to discuss because he is such an entertaining writer. Trilling on the other hand requires more work and he is very likely going to challenge some inadequate notion I’ve left unexamined.

Hitchens mentioned Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran “in which young female students meet in secret with Xeroxed copies of Nabokov’s masterpiece on their chaste and chadored laps,” and of how “it is at first a surprise to discover how unscandalized the women are.” Hitchens moves on from that provocative comment to other reactions to Nabokov’s novel; which didn’t interest me quite as much. One suspects that keeping women’s minds in the thirteenth century in an age when copying machines, computers and iPods proliferate will be an difficulty Fundamentalist Muslims aren’t going to be able to overcome.

I was more interested in Trilling’s essay “Reality in America, 1940-46.” He begins with a lengthy discussion of V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought. I either read this book as a requirement of a class or read it on my own, but in either case I wasn’t as perceptive as Trilling has been – or if I was it was with a very low level of concern. I can’t recall being positively impressed with the book but have the impression that some professor had implied that we all ought to be; so rather than assuming Trilling’s critical stance I felt a bit guilty for not measuring up to someone else’s idea of excellence.

Parrington had the Liberal view that literature should be “realistic,” thus he doesn’t rate Hawthorne very highly. “Hawthorne’s insufficiency as a writer,” Parrington tells us “comes from his failure to get around and meet people. Hawthorne could not, he tells us, establish contact with the ‘Yankee reality,’ and was scarcely aware of the ‘substantial world of Puritan reality that Samuel Sewall knew. . . We learn, too, that his romance of ethics is not admirable because it requires the hard, fine pressing of ideas, and we are told that ‘a romantic uninterested in adventure and afraid of sex is likely to become somewhat graveled for matter.’ In short, Hawthorne’s mind was a thin one, and Parrington puts in evidence his use of allegory and symbol and the very severity and precision of his art to prove that he suffered from a sadly limited intellect, for so much fancy and so much art could scarcely be needed unless the writer were trying to exploit to the utmost the few poor ideas that he had.”

Parrington’s ideas about realism are still widely held, but those who hold them are a bit more cautious, I suspect, about denigrating Hawthorne and some of the others Parrington finds wanting: “To throw out Poe because he cannot be conveniently fitted into a theory of American culture, to speak of him as a biological sport and as a mind apart from the main current, to find his gloom to be merely personal and eccentric, ‘only the attribilious wretchedness of a dipsomaniac,’ as Hawthorne’s was ‘no more than the skeptical questioning of life by a nature that knew no fierce storms,’ to judge Melville’s response to American life to be less noble than that of Bryant or of Greeley, to speak of Henry James as an escapist, as an artist similar to Whistler, a man characteristically afraid of stress – this is not merely to be mistaken in aesthetic judgment; rather it is to examine without attention and from the point of view of a limited and essentially arrogant conception of reality the documents which are in some respects the most suggestive testimony to what America was and is, and of course to get no answer from them.

“Parrington lies twenty years behind us, and in the intervening time there has developed a body of opinion which is aware of his inadequacies and of the inadequacies of his coadjutors and disciples, who make up what might be called the literary academicism of liberalism. Yet Parrington still stands at the century of American thought about American culture because, as I say, he expresses the chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between reality and mind and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality.

“This belief in the incompatibility of mind and reality is exemplified by the doctrinaire indulgence which liberal intellectuals have always displayed toward Theodore Dreiser, an indulgence which becomes the worthier of remark when it is contrasted with the liberal severity toward Henry James. Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

I considered myself a Liberal during the time I read Parrington, but I was probably not a consistent one because I loved Henry James and didn’t at all appreciate Theodore Dreiser. I recall classes in which Dreiser was presented as worthy of appreciation but I couldn’t manage it. I got hung up on what Parrington would have urged me to overlook: “It was Parrington who established the formula for the liberal criticism of Dreiser calling him a ‘peasant’: when Dreiser thinks stupidly, it is because he has the slow stubbornness of a peasant; when he writes badly, it is because he is impatient of the sterile literary gentility of the bourgeoisie. It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy . . .”

I was raised in the “reality” Parrington lauds. I knew only manual labor growing. I worked on trucks delivering watermelons. I stoked boilers in the dry-kiln of a lumber yard. I delivered heavy equipment and drove lumber carriers and fork-lifts. I worked salvaging pot metal and clockworks from a burnt-down warehouse. And while going to college I worked part time as a “swamper,” loading and unloading trucks at the docks. But this background didn’t incline me to overlook Dreiser’s inadequacies or to denigrate James’ virtues. But “To James no quarter is given by American criticism in its political and liberal aspect.”

“In The Rise of American Civilisation, Professor Beard uses a significant phrase when, in the course of an ironic account of James’s career, he implies that we have a clue to the irrelevance of that career when we know that James was ‘a whole generation removed from the odours of the shop.’ Of a piece with this, and in itself even more significant, is the comment which Granville Hicks makes in The Great Tradition when he deals with James’s stories about artists and remarks that such artists as James portrays, so concerned for their art and their integrity in art, do not really exist: ‘After all, who has ever known such artists? Where are the Hugh Verekers, the Mark Ambients, the Neil Paradays, the Overts, Limberts, Dencombes, Delavoys?’ This question, as Mr. Hicks admits, had occurred to James himself, but what answer had James given to it? ‘If the life about us for the last thirty years refused warrant for these examples . . . then so much the worse for that life. . . . There are decencies that in the name of the general self-respect we must take for granted, there’s a rudimentary intellectual honour to which we must, in the interest of civilization, at least pretend.’

“And to this, Mr. Hicks, shocked beyond argument, makes this reply, which would be astonishing had we not heard it before: ‘But this is the purest romanticism, this writing about what ought to be rather than what is!’ . . .”

Comment: I read most of James’ novels and a substantial number of his short stories but it wouldn’t have occurred to me suggest that James was writing about “what ought to be.” After reading what James actually wrote I can understand his self-assessment, especially if he compared himself to naturalists like Zola. No one can avoid the “naturalism” of life, but not everyone wants to read about it as well. I recall once visiting an aunt during her lunch period at a Potato chip factory. In the old days before my uncle died she had leisure to read whatever she liked, but after he died she had to go to work and wasn’t interested in reading anything of a “naturalistic” nature. She lived it, she told me. Why would she want to read about it?

There is a Biblical principle that might be brought to bear here: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” [Phil. 4:8] It seems safe to say that those who do the opposite of what Paul is here recommending would lead more pessimistic and depressed lives. Those who can manage to live more as Paul recommends could be expected to be more optimistic and cheerful. Someone might counter with the old Philosophy 1A question, is it better to be a happy fool than an unhappy Socrates? But Paul doesn’t neglect “things” that “are true.” We might guess however that his definition of whatsoever is true would be different from Parrington’s definition of whatsoever is “realistic.” Virgins were being sacrificed at pagan temples in Paul’s day. Those sacrifices were “real” and a Theodore Dreiser of Paul’s day could have written about them and been called by V. L. Parrington “realistic,” but they wouldn’t have met Paul’s criteria of what we ought to think about.

Naturalism isn’t dead. The teachings of Parrington, Beard and Hicks are still being followed. One can still buy recent copies of Dreiser’s works on – and his major works rate higher than the major works of Henry James. The “moral obligation to be intelligent” has never been entertained as a burning need by a majority of those in America – or a majority of those buying books from it would seem.

No comments: