Friday, November 19, 2004

Love and Death in the American Novel, the end!
I’m still talking today about Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. We’re at the end now, though, (mercifully), and Fiedler is just finishing up his discussion of Mark Twain and Pudd’nhead Wilson. How did I ever finish school without reading this book? Fiedler points about Twain’s books in general, “only children are permitted to reject society and success; adults grow up into compromise and adjustment” (472). Fiedler goes on to state that “Wilson is, like is author, a man unsure of just when he is kidding himself, when the public; and his assumption of the role of humorist protects him against the day when he will be ready to change overnight from clownish Faust to eccentric detective” (473). Fiedler makes an even more overt comparison between Wilson and Twain, arguing that author and character “want to have it both ways at once: to insult the society” they live in “in the guise of tossing off ‘playful trifles,’ and to be hailed as a hero for discovering what no one really wants to know!” (473).

But Fiedler thinks that Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last Faustian character for quite some time in American literature, at least until Faulkner’s time. At least, he says, “on the middlebrow level, that mythic figure is officially excluded by an orthodoxy of cheerfulness and acceptance” (473). But “on the highbrow level” the Faustian character didn’t exist because “he is confused with the closely related archetype of the poete maudit” the likes of which might appear in Poe’s work. In this kind of character we might see “the Faustian potential, but most often their tragic possibilities are dissipated in posturing and self-pity” (474). The characters Fiedler is talking about take “their secret motto […] from Emerson—not ‘to be great is to be damned,’ but ‘to be great is to be misunderstood’” (472).

Now, of course, statements like this are the very ideas that caused a revolution in thinking about American studies. The new-fangled types, you see, want us to know Fiedler hasn’t any real right to pass judgment on certain books as either “middlebrow” or “highbrow,” and while I see the reasoning behind this new view, I also see the value of Fiedler’s point.

Fiedler says that books after World War I were, “morally incoherent, sentimental works,” like those by Sherwood Anderson. And after World War II, “the novelists, who succeeded in finding no new forms, revived once more the prototypes of twenty years before” (474) but they didn’t invent anything new; rather, they just continued many years of self-pity (475).

It took Faulkner to bring back the idea of the Faustian character. Fiedler calls Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! gothic novels (476). Fiedler thinks that even The Hamlet is a comic gothic novel and that Flem Snopes is a comic Faustian character. He says “When Flem Snopes makes his appearance […], he is wearing a celluloid collar and a patent-leather bow tie, carrying a straw satchel; he is, in short, a comic character. It is as if Faulkner had in mind Marx’s maxim about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as comedy” (479). That’s an interesting idea.

However we classify Faulkner’s novels, he certainly is responsible for a tremendous sense of place in his novels. Fiedler talks about the way Faulkner created a sense of Mississippi for the world as “the symbolic values attributed in the early years of the gothic to Italy. Against a background of miasmic swamps and sweating black skins, the Faulknerian syndrome of disease, death, defeat, mutilation, idiocy, and lust, continues to evoke in the stories of these writers a shudder once compelled only by the supernatural (481).

Faulkner’s sense of the grotesque is carried on in Katherine Anne Porter’s work as well as in that of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullters, and even Truman Capote (482). Fiedler remarks on a unique point of Faulkner’s style referring to it as a sensibility that is “quite frankly homosexual” and saying that “it appears to certain wealthy American women with cultural aspirations” (482). Fiedler claims, in fact that the writers who are most popular are those who come from the South—so much so that some non-Southerners pretend to be (482).

Another interesting contemporary issue that Fiedler notes is that some of our great writers (like Truman) have turned to journalism rather than literature. He mourns the loss, clearly. However, Fiedler does view the novels of Nathaneal West in a positive light. I did not know that West was S.J. Perelman’s brother-in-law, and I guess I’ll try not to think of nepotism. Fiedler brings all these ideas together because Perelman edited a magazine, Contact, where he experimented with surrealist humor—which started to be known as “black humor” (496). It turned into all kinds of “stereotypes from the lips of hip twelve-year-olds. ‘Hate cards’ and ashtrays adorned with ‘Nebbishes’ the surreal, Jewish sad sack of West reduced to the level of kitsch) spread now the self-contempt, the anti bourgeois virulence, the contempt for home, mother, birthdays, and Christmas, once the exclusive stock-in-trade of bohemians; and the ‘sick’ joke popularizes the nauseated giggle before violence which not so long ago belonged only to books like Miss Lonelyhearts. ‘Can Johnny come out to play, Mrs. Jones?’ ‘You know Johnny has no arms and legs!’ ‘We don’t want players. We need bases’” (497). So this evolution of Black Humor I know about, certainly in terms of its relationship to Perelman and to Lenny Bruce, who Fiedler mentions as well, along with Saul Bellow. The interesting connection for me is the tracing back to Nathaneal West, who I never read and didn’t know to be a kitsch humorist.

From here Fiedler goes on to catalogue several more American stories and novels that employ the gothic mode, mentioning, for example Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and calling it “a standard middlebrow anthology piece […] because it lacks […] intelligence and wit” (499). I think those are some harsh words about a much celebrated story. I’m not a huge fan of Jackson’s story, frankly, but I like it a helluva lot better than much of Hawthorne. So it’s easy to see how someone might get the impression that Fiedler has a bias toward white men from New England.

Also in terms of the gothic, Fiedler takes up some African American novels. He claims that “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man seems, as a novel written by a Negro [sic] about the Negro’s plight, superior to any of the passionate, incoherent books of Richard Wright […] because Ellison has bypassed all formulas of protest and self-pity and castoff the restrictions of mere realism” (500). In other words, I guess, an African American novel can never stoop to pity, or else it’s worthless. Fiedler thinks “James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain has a comparable freshness and directness, but it lacks finally the madness which gives to Invisible Man a special kind conviction” (500).
So Fiedler ends by reconnecting his ideas about the gothic in literature to Edgar Allan Poe. He talks about the idea of monsters in fiction, which are classified as “fantasy, which tends to blur into science fiction” (504). But science fiction is not quite the right term for a “ghost story,” because it “denies […] in its basic assumptions the belief upon which the ghost story properly depends: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth’” (504). So the detective novel—Poe’s invention—became “an extension of the gothic device” (504). Poe’s technique was to set the story “in a frame […] in which a narrator, more confused and terrified than the reader, watches the performance of a detective” (504). And ultimately—much like Twain—“Poe’s fictions represent a complex adjustment between his desire to mock his audience and to be accepted by it” (505).

So in the end, I take it, we are left with the kind of novel that is far from love and much closer to death than anything the Europeans wrote. And that's the end of Love & Death!

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