Thursday, February 11, 2021

Regarding "Classics" as "novels that matter"

 Without an elaboration I have yet to imagine, I can’t make that definition work, or, can’t make that elaboration work without having such novels preach; which would seem to disqualify a novel from being “great.”  Years ago in my left-wing days I read a lot of Communist-oriented novels.  Jack London wrote some – terrible stuff in my opinion, as were all the others.  I recall reading one by Clara Weatherwax called Marching, Marching.  In a 1936 review, Joseph Vanzier, aka John G. Wright, a Trotskyite, concluded “As for the novel itself, it is a travesty on literature and a libel against the working class. Its style is the dregs of the Joyce tradition, drained off through the worst of Wolfe and Faulkner, combined with school-essay “straightforward” writing. Its characters are wooden monstrosities, conceived with a kind of horrible masochistic delight in repulsive details and an infantile pleasure in trivial nobilities. The book is liberally interlarded with long speeches on war, strikes, trade unions, Fascism, apparently lifted from back copies of the Daily Worker.

“What is tragic is to realize that even in a book so bad as this there are materials, lost in the morass, for genuine and even great literature. Not the least in the charges of the indictment against Stalinism must be the stultification of intelligence and sensibility to which it condemns its adherents.” 
I’d be interested in learning what Vanzier thought “genuine and even great literature” would be.  Would giving it a Trotskyist emphasis satisfy him? 

Moving into the present I can imagine Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter mattering to those who disapprove of discrimination against women in the same way that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles mattered to those who disapproved of the sexual mores of Victorian England, and before Tess was the Scarlet Letter which exemplified Hawthorne’s disapproval of the mores of early Massachusetts.  

As to whether The General’s Daughter might one day be included in someone’s list of Classics (It is only in Franklin’s collection of “Signed First Editions”), The Scarlet Letter is included in the Franklin Library’s 100 greatest books of all time, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is not. 
Franklin also published the 50 volume Oxford Library of the World’s Greatest Books.  Both The Scarlet Letter and Tess of the D’Ubervilles are included in the 50.  I read them years apart, but my recollection is that Hardy is more heavy handed than Hawthorne.  Tess murders her seducer and is to be hanged.  Hester Prynne is merely shunned for refusing to name her seducer.

Put in more personal terms I continue to like The Scarlet Letter whereas while I admit that I was powerfully affected by Tess of the D’Urberilles I no longer like it; however, perhaps in this ongoing search Italo Calvino is useful: “In the 1980s, Italo Calvino said in his essay "Why Read the Classics?" that "a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say" and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says: "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him." Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says "There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”   

Alas, even if I agree with Calvino, I won’t be inventing such a library.  I’ve read most of the novels on these various lists over a long period of time, and I am not willing to go back and reread novels I no longer like in order to reevaluate my feelings.       

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