December 29, 2012
At the beginning of last trimester, I decided to teach a class centered around Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. My motives were, above all, selfish. I had read the novel once before and found it so impressive that I had barely put it down before it began gnawing away at my thoughts and demanding closer inspection. First published in 1940, The Ox-Bow Incident arrived on the heels of the early successes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and it is very much a novel of the pedigree represented by their work. Its prose is plain and laconic. Its characters are sharply defined. Their interactions lead them to articulate and debate the moral dilemmas that would otherwise amount only to subtext, and the dramas that develop between them are staged so precisely, yet with aspirations to realism so insistent, that the absence of ragged edges underscores the artificiality of the whole. When appreciated as a novel of this sort, The Ox-Bow Incident must be hailed as one of the very best. As much as its artifices may constrain it, its characters and their dramas remain electrifying from the first page to the last. But its sophisticated approach to the demands and limits of its genre was not what appealed to me when I first read it. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that appealed, but I could sense that it was something else, some textual undercurrent, some motivational force that propelled the whole thing along. When I decided to teach it in class, then, I set aside several weeks in which to read it closer, page by page, to find out what that something was.
Bridger’s Wells, Nevada. 1885. A classic Western scenario. Two young cowboys ride into town. Their names are Art Croft and Gil Carter. Having just finished the springtime roundup of the cattle that roam free in the winter, their first destination is the local saloon. The bartender, Canby, greets them as an old acquaintance and delivers the unhappy news that, while Art and Gil were away, Gil’s old flame, Rose Mapen, left town, or was driven out. Canby also informs them that the local ranchers experienced some trouble with cattle rustlers, and those troubles are made plain when a man named Moore enters the saloon and approaches the bar. As the foreman of a ranch belonging to the town’s most influential landowner, Harley Drew, Moore reveals that every rancher in Bridger’s Wells lost cattle during the spring and that the combined losses totalled more than six hundred animals. As Art and Gil continue drinking and talking with Canby and Moore, the saloon fills up with an assortment of other townsfolk. Among them are two of the ranchers, the tempestuous Jeff Farnley and his embittered friend, Bartlett, who lost one hundred head of stock, as well as the town drunkard, Monty Smith, and the local preacher known only as Osgood. Suddenly, though, a young man named Greene rushes into town with urgent news from Drew’s ranch. Greene is another of Drew’s employees and he announces that one of his fellow ranchhands has just been shot dead by a gang of four riders.
The dead man’s name is Larry Kinkaid. Farnley, a friend of Kinkaid, leads the charge to form a lynch mob in order to exact revenge upon the riders. Bartlett, as a victim of rustling, offers backup. Osgood, as a man of the cloth, feels a moral obligation to halt this spirit of vigilantism before it spreads to the other townsfolk, and it is with his protestations that the novel begins to soar. Osgood entreats Farnley and Bartlett not to turn to vigilantism as an expedient solution to a reported crime whose details remain unclear. “[I]f such an awful thing has actually occurred,” he says, “it is the more reason that we should retain our self-possession. In such a position… we are likely to lose our reason and our sense of justice. … [L]et us not act hastily; let us not do that which we will regret. We must act, certainly, but we must act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not as a lawless mob. It is not mere blood that we want. … We desire justice, and justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”
For Osgood, a “reasoned and legitimate” response to the crime involves sending for Risley and Tyler, respectively the sheriff and the judge with jurisdiction over Bridger’s Wells, so that the mob can be transformed into a legally constituted posse under official leadership. But Farnley and Bartlett sneer at Osgood. ”We know what Tyler is,” Bartlett growls. “If we wait for Tyler… there won’t be one head of anybody’s cattle left in the meadows by the time we get justice. … Is it justice that we sweat ourselves sick and old every damned day in the year to make a handful of honest dollars, and then lose it all in one night to some miserable greaser because Judge Tyler… says we have to fold our hands and wait for his eternal justice? Waiting for Tyler’s kind of justice, we’d all be beggars in a year. … What led rustlers into this valley in the first place? … I’ll tell you what did it. Judge Tyler’s kind of justice, that’s what did it. They don’t wait for that kind of justice in Texas any more, do they? … They go and get the man, and they string him up. … Maybe if we do one job with our own hands, the law will get a move on.”
When Osgood fails to respond to Bartlett’s outrage with enough passion to inspire others to hear his case, Arthur Davies, the town storekeeper, steps in and pleads for restraint. ”If we go out and hang two or three men,” he says, “without doing what the law says, forming a posse and bringing the men in for trial, then by the same law, we’re not officers of justice, but due to be hanged ourselves. … [O]ur crime’s worse than a murderer’s. His act puts him outside the law, but keeps the law intact. Ours would weaken the law.” By and large, however, Davies’ arguments fall on deaf ears and, soon enough, Farnley and Bartlett are joined by Bill Winder, the stagecoach driver whose route extends from Bridger’s Wells to Reno, and Gabe Hart, Winder’s right-hand-man. When Gil Carter is also drawn into the emerging mob, Davies sends a clerk to Judge Tyler’s residence and asks Art Croft to go along as well. Davies’ intention is to execute Osgood’s proposal, to seek Tyler’s intervention so that the mob cannot act until Sheriff Risley arrives. The townsfolk are waiting for a leader, Art understands, and Davies wants Risley to step in before someone entirely unsuitable volunteers. At first, things go according to plan. When Art arrives at Tyler’s residence with Davies’ clerk in tow, Tyler is suitably angered and agrees to intervene. But then, when Art and Davies’ clerk return to town with Tyler, Tyler’s intervention is derailed by a mob that has grown in their absence.
Although Bartlett is nowhere to be found, having ridden out to recruit his two sons, the mob is momentarily galvanised by the arrival of a grotesque old woman, Jenny Grier, who rides in and takes Tyler to task in full view of the townsfolk: when Tyler threatens to charge one of the men with “impeding the course of justice,” Grier tells him that “you can’t impede what don’t move anyway.” Then the mob is galvanised for good when the townsfolk make way for Willard Tetley, a one-time Confederate cavalry officer who inspires fear and thus obedience in all the other townsfolk. Riding in alongside his timid son, Gerald, Tetley is exactly the sort of leader whose arrival worried Davies. In response, Davies makes one last attempt at persuading the townsfolk not to take justice into their own hands. Seizing on the fresh revelation that Greene, the young man who brought news of Kinkaid’s death, did not actually witness the murder, he pleads for the townsfolk to entertain reasonable doubt about the validity of Greene’s report. But his entreaties are powerless to diminish the sway of the testimony of Tetley’s Mexican ranchhand, Amigo, who reports having seen several men on horseback fleeing the valley alongside forty head of cattle. With Risley still stationed on Drew’s ranch, far outside the town, his deputy, Butch Mapes, agrees to deputise the members of the mob and so to give their actions legal sanction. Tyler insists that Mapes is acting illegally, since a sheriff’s deputy lacks legal authority to deputise others, but his objections are disregarded by Mapes and by those who agree to swear Mapes an oath of loyalty. Setting their sights on revenge for the death of Kinkaid and the theft of six hundred cattle, twenty-seven men and one woman set out to hunt down the suspected murderers who have fled into the nighttime wilderness surrounding Bridger’s Wells.
The mob has not been riding very long before Art Croft, abreast with Gerald Tetley, finds himself and taken as an audience for the young man’s explication of the novel’s overriding theme. Gerald despises his aggressive, domineering father and quietly opposes the actions of the lynch mob. “You can’t go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it,” he warns Art. “Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal. … At least coyotes don’t make excuses. We think we can see something better, but we go on doing the same things, hunt in packs like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits. … [We're hunting] our own kind. A wolf wouldn’t do that; not a mangy coyote. That’s the hunting we like now, our own kind. … We have all the pack instincts, all right…”
Human beings are pack animals, according to Gerald Tetley, and countless episodes in the novel dramatise this theme. Before the novel begins, Rose Mapen is driven out of town by rumours that she is a whore, rumours spread by a pack of women who are jealous of her attractiveness to their husbands. As the lynch mob begins to form, Art realises that its formation is inevitable from the point at which it attracts a crowd of onlookers, “an audience that ha[s] to be played up to.” And, when Art scans the faces of the men in the mob, he admits that it would be unlikely, “man for man,” for any of the men to be talked into doing anything rash, but that they can no longer think straight because they are too “stirred up or feeling they ought to be.” In other words, opposition to the formation of the lynch mob was always bound to be a lost cause. The very formation of the mob put the townsfolk in a position from which they had no other choice but to sign up or lose face, and, as they were struck by a sense of terror at the prospect of losing face, they felt themselves impelled to join the human pack.
In a sense, then, the member of the mob who is most terrified of losing face is also the one who most terrifies the others — the alpha dog, Willard Tetley — and so, as the hunt proceeds, the elder Tetley takes pains to show no weaknesses and to distract his subordinates from noticing his terror. The mob captures three men in a valley known as the Ox-Bow. Tetley demands that the captives confess to killing Kinkaid and stealing the cattle. But when Gil senses that Tetley is unsure of the guilt of these men and demands that Tetley discuss his doubts with Judge Tyler, Tetley suggests in front of the mob that Gil’s own “stomach for justice is cooling.” And when Davies insists that Tetley read a letter written by one of the captives because it proves their innocence, Tetley responds with an ironclad refusal to entertain the doubts it would raise: “[I]f it’s an honest letter it’s none of my business to read it,” he says, “and if it isn’t I don’t want to.”
The end result is a tragedy made all the more disturbing because foreshadowed with such clarity that it appears almost foreordained. Despite insisting on their innocence, the three captured riders are hung in a grotesque spectacle. In an effort to coerce his son into overcoming his timidity, Willard Tetley forces Gerald to kill the leader of the riders, a young man named Donald Martin. Because Gerald can’t overcome his timidity after all, the hanging goes awry. Martin’s neck doesn’t snap. The noose starts to strangle him so that he must be shot to death while he hangs. And shortly thereafter, just as the mob sets out on the return journey to Bridger’s Wells, Sheriff Risley shows up in the company of Harley Drew and none other than Larry Kinkaid, alive and well. When a gun went off at Drew’s ranch earlier that day, Kinkaid was struck by a bullet but was only left unconscious. The entire lynching was conducted so hastily that the mob overlooked the possibility that there weren’t actually any killers to be brought to justice, and so, to the horror of those who took part in the lynching, a terrible experience of injustice confers validity on the arguments of Osgood and Davies.
There is unmistakable artistry to the precision with which moral and political positions are staked out, to the cogency with which a theme is articulated, and to the clarity with which the dramatisation of that theme underscores the strengths and weaknesses of those positions. From beginning to end, the unfolding of events is so crisp and clean and so orderly as to make overt the exercise of authorial control. But why? After reading The Ox-Bow Incident for the first time, I knew on some level that these elements of the novel were what I most admired about it. When I returned to it last term, I kept those elements in view. Why this precision, this cogency, this clarity? Why the overt exercise of control? Why this insistence on orderliness? Why the authorial determination, the sheer resolve, to exercise a degree of control sufficient to ensure such precision, cogency, and clarity in the telling of the tale?
The Ox-Bow Incident is narrated by Art Croft, one of the two cowboys who rides into Bridger’s Wells in the novel’s opening pages, although, unlike his partner Gil, Art is less a participant in the narrative action than a cipher for its notation. He embarks on the journey to Judge Tyler’s house at the behest of Davies, he reluctantly accompanies the lynch mob into the wilderness, and at one point he is accidentally shot and incapacitated, but otherwise nothing much happens to him beyond his spectatorship of events that are driven by others. At first, then, it is easy to see Art as similarly passive in his role as narrator. Since his simplistic retelling of events appears as unassuming as his presence at the scene of the crime and as unadorned as his contributions to the lynching, the novel seems to take the form of Art’s first-person monologue offering nothing more than a straightforward record of who did what to whom and why. But I think it would be a mistake to accept the novel’s apparent simplicity without taking a closer look at it, particularly since two quiet remarks, made in the first fifty pages, imply that the form of the novel is something more than a monologue and much less straightforward than it seems.
The first remark appears early on, just after Art and Gil take their seats in Canby’s saloon and Gil tells Canby about how the winter he has just spent with Art. Because they were on duty while the cattle roamed free, Gil and Art had to sleep together in a tiny shack in the depths of the snow-covered mountains. Gil, a born conversationalist, was irritated by Art’s introspection and quietude and, more importantly, by his preference to sit by himself and write rather than shooting the breeze with his partner. “[H]e wouldn’t talk,” Gil complains, “and somebody had to. He’d sit there reading his old books like he had a lesson to learn, or writing all the time, scratch, scratch, scratch. It got on my nerves.” The second remark appears when Art sets off to visit Judge Tyler as the lynch mob forms in town and a thunderstorm gathers in the distance. “The sky was really changing now, fast,” Art says. “[T]he wind was down to earth and continual, flapping the men’s garments and blowing our the horses’ tails like plumes. … It was a heavy wind with a damp, chill feel to it, like comes before snow, and strong enough so it wuthered under the arcade and sometimes whistled, the kind of wind that even now makes me think of Nevada quicker than anything else I know.”
Those two short words, “even now,” are loaded with significance, as is the subsequent detour into the present tense. Here but nowhere else in the novel, Art suggests that the events he recounts are not at all recent, are perhaps years in the past, and this suggestion obtains further significance in light of Gil’s complaints about Art. The narrator of this novel is a writer — an obsessive writer, according to Gil, struck by an irrepressible need to write — who acknowledges himself as such when he includes Gil’s complaints in his narrative, and who thereafter situates himself at a temporal distance from the events he narrates. In combination, then, these two remarks raise the possibility that The Ox-Bow Incident is not some abstract monologue spoken or thought by its narrator but may in fact be an accumulation of words set on paper in a written document which the narrator construes, fleetingly but quite explicitly, as a retrospective detailing of exactly what happened in Bridger’s Wells and what happened later in the Ox-Bow. This possibility becomes a likelihood, I think, given the extraordinarily careful attention that Art, as a man besotted with words, pays to the words of the men who argue about the virtues and vices of forming the lynch mob. If the precision, cogency, and clarity of The Ox-Bow Incident are at issue alongside its orderliness and overt authorial control, then these aspects of the novel beg an interrogation of Art Croft and his condition after the lynching. Something about what happens in the novel, which has already happened to Art before the novel begins, compels him to recount what has happened with all the precision, cogency, and clarity that calls attention to the control he exercises over his act of recounting. For Art, then, the act of recounting must also implicitly constitute an attempt to answer or ameliorate the compulsion to recount, a compulsion that must have arisen from the events he recounts and that entails the style in which he recounts them.
What is the source of that compulsion? My sense is that it is the disconnect between Art’s values and priorities as a writer and his behaviour as a member of the lynch mob. This disconnect slowly grows wider throughout the novel until it reaches its full extent when Risley, Drew, and Kinkaid appear in the aftermath of the lynching. The formation of the lynch mob begins in the face of Osgood and Davies’ careful, eloquent arguments against it. Many other men do not heed these arguments, but Art gives them some credence. ”I thought at about it,” he says of Davies’ argument that the proper, procedural judgement of a crime requires careful deliberation and thus requires enough time for hot tempers to cool down. “I can see how the time would count,” he admits, and later, when Davies asks him to approach Judge Tyler so that deliberation can be set in motion, he admits that “Davies is right.” Later still, when the lynch mob strengthens in anticipation of Willard Tetley’s arrival, Art even hopes that Davies might ultimately convince the townsfolk to abandon the mob: “I thought it would be a good time for Davies to tackle them again,” he says, silently urging Davies to return to rhetorical persuasion and so to pre-empt Tetley’s seizure of power. These remarks suggest that Art, a writer inwardly immersed in words, at first respects the words of others who similarly respect words and is given to follow the course of action that those words open up.
Unfortunately, though, Art’s respect doesn’t endure. He too succumbs to the will and whims of the human pack. ”Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else,” he admits as he begins to side with the lynch mob, “and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. There are a lot of loud arguments to cover moral cowardice, but even an animal will know if you’re scared. … Davies was resisting something that had immediacy and a strong animal grip, with something remote and mistrusted. He’d have to make his argument look common sense and hardy, or else humorous, and I wasn’t sure he could do either. If he couldn’t he was going to find that it was the [influence of the] small but present ‘we,’ not the big, [societal] ‘we,’ that shaped men’s deeds, no matter what shaped their explanations.” Finally, then, although Art respects words in themselves and largely respects Davies’ use of them, he also senses that certain circumstances render them weightless, even futile. He is, in his own way, true to his name: the abstract, aesthetic connotations of “Art” are counterbalanced by the earthbound palpability of “Croft,” the name given to a small patch of self-sustaining farmland fenced off from the wider world. At last, beyond only sensing the futility of words in the face of the lynch mob, Art submits to that futility and sets off with the others gathered under Tetley’s leadership.
Art is too self-effacing, either not sufficiently self-aware or self-centred, to confess to what I think motivates his words: a deep sense of regret for his actions as a moral and political agent, which could only have followed from the suppression of his writer’s instinct to heed the words of Osgood and Davies. He experiences some difficulty in breaking away from Osgood and Davies not without some difficulty — “Every minute it was getting harder for Davies to crack [the other townsfolk],” he says. “It just seemed funny now to think I’d been listening to an argument about what the soul of the law was. Right here and now was all that was going to count” — but break away he does, and this misguided breaking away, viewed from a position of retrospective regret, justifies and perhaps even demands the precision, cogency, and clarity with which he determines to recount it. Why else so overtly control the narrative if not to give due credit to those whose arguments were finally proven valid and to criticise those who brazenly denigrated them? Why else would Art make himself barely more than an exacting stenographer of other men’s words if not to retrospectively give those words the respect they did not receive in the heat of the moment? This regret, feeding a desire to make amends in print for dismissing potent words in life, is the textual undercurrent of The Ox-Bow Incident that I hoped to find when I re-read the novel; this is the motivational force that propels the whole thing along. The novel’s overriding theme, then, is not something that emerges from the writing so much as the writing itself emerges from the theme. The novel can only begin when the writer inside Art Croft reasserts its authority over the wretched moral and political agent that led him to participate in the lynching — when the human being inside the narrator overpowers the animal whose instincts led him to join the pack — and the precision, cogency, and clarity with which moral and political positions are so carefully staked out, and the control with which the resultant dramas are staged and orchestrated, are as much the stylistic flairs of an extended narrative as they are each one tiny step on this writer’s textual journey towards apology and feeble restitution.
November 21, 2012
The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that
nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.
The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others.
Elsewhere, the knower furthers its self-aggrandisement when it makes certain disclosures for the purpose of amending the inferior knowledge of others. Sometimes, for instance, the knower rectifies knowledge preserved for posterity but wrongly recorded. After noting that “[t]he census of 1860 said there were 2,670 slaves in Manchester County,” it reveals that “the census taker, a U.S. marshal who feared God, had argued with his wife the day he sent his report to Washington, D.C., and all his arithmetic was wrong because he had failed to carry a one.” At other times, the knower not only rectifies knowledge that has been wrongly recorded but also restores the knowledge lost when records are destroyed. After detailing the arrest of a man named Jean Broussard, a thief who attempted to sell another man’s slave in 1855, the knower notes that the records of the Broussard trial “were destroyed in a 1912 fire [which] killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses.” Despite their destruction, however, knowledge of the trial survives through the knower: after noting that the trial lasted less than one full day — “the trial itself [ran through the] morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon” — the knower goes on to tell the story of one of the men who took part in the deliberations. Unsatisfied with simply disclosing its knowledge of its world, the knower gravitates towards lapses and losses of knowledge which require amendment and clarification. With this gravitation, the knower construes its own knowledge as comparatively precise and therefore superior in ways that call attention to its presence and its capabilities.
More than that, the knower also shows an attraction towards attempts at recording knowledge which omit crucial details insofar as they are made by those who lack the omniscience of the knower itself. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller sketched out a great map, entitled ‘The Known World,’ which was the first of its kind to feature the word ‘America.’ Finding a copy of the map adorning a wall in the office of John Skiffington, Sheriff of Manchester County, the knower notes that “[t]he land of North America… was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing.” Calvin Newman, the brother of Henry Townsend’s widow, is similarly drawn towards a world whose totality will forever elude him. Harbouring a secret and forbidden love for Louis Robbins, the adult son of Henry Townsend’s former master, Calvin plans to start anew in the north after having long been captivated by “one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City,” a photograph of “a white family sitting all along their porch… [with] a dog looking off to the right.” The dog is what most captivates him because, a moment before the shutter snapped, the dog appears to have been “transfixed” by “a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured.” Yet instead of allowing that world to remain as unknowable to readers as it must be to Calvin, the knower goes on to reveal the backgrounds of those people and the name of the dog beside them. Time and again the knower follows characters who fumble through their world as if through shadowed corridors, but then it forces them to recede from view as it illuminates the world so that what escapes them does not escape readers as well. While the omniscience of the knower might otherwise allow for a clear observation of the lives of these characters, that omniscience insinuates itself, like a pane of clouded glass, into the space between them and those who read about them.
Repeatedly, of course, the knower turns its omniscience to more traditional purposes by laying bare the innermost torments of characters involved in some dilemma or disaster. Calvin’s urge to outrun his love for Louis is only one among many. Oden Peoples, one of Sheriff Skiffington’s nightwatchmen, privately worries that his Cherokee blood leads his colleagues to look down on him. William Robbins, Louis’ father, works hard to maintain the secrecy of his longstanding love for his slave Philomena, but he loves her so deeply that the secrecy of the relationship produces in him a sense of shame which he feels he must also keep secret. As the knower uses its omniscience to disclose the details of these characters’ lives, it engenders sympathy for them and thereby serves the humanist ideal. Often, however, it has hardly begun to engender sympathy for them before it veers away from them to treat their fates as playthings and as excuses for further displaying the extent of its omniscience. Moses, the deputy overseer of the Townsend plantation, is subjected to an especially heartless disregard. Having spent a lifetime hoping to someday rise to the station of master, Townsend’s death impels him to comfort his old master’s widow, Caldonia, by telling her stories about her husband’s youth and about how, years ago, Townsend and Moses worked together to build the plantation from nothing. Moving back and forth in time to find Moses at various moments in his life, the knower details a personal history of disturbing contradictions and complexities. It poisons Moses with a devastating concoction of unassailable loyalty to Townsend, burgeoning love for Caldonia, aspirations of advancement and grandeur entirely unfit for a slave, and nostalgia for the youthful vigour that slavery has stolen from him. But then, after drifting away from Moses’ conversations with Caldonia to sound the depths of his memory, the knower uses an image of the young slave to leap ahead to the end of his life and close down his entire story with a single sentence — quiet, simple, direct, and blunt — which casts a chill over the heartbreaking passages preceding it. When the young Moses pauses in his efforts to help create the Townsend plantation, taking a moment to gather his thoughts and perhaps to recover his breath, we are told that “[h]e was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.”
Although the knower knows the details of its world in all their abundance, it cannot resist the discussion of details whose disclosure is not required by the causal connections between events that advance the narratives of The Known World. The result of this lack of resistance is the disclosure of details with an implied sense of urgency that is not equal to the momentum of the narratives they interrupt and with an attitude that implicitly reduces the importance of those narratives to mere occasions for the very disclosures that interrupt them. By virtue of its own omniscience, then, the knower is crippled with a sort of indifference. It cannot sustain a focus on the details that are most integral to engendering sympathy for the characters it follows, and so it cannot give itself over to them in a way that honours the essential demand of humanism. It discloses a great deal about all of them but appears to care nothing for any of them. Rather than simply the humanism of the myriad narratives it contains, what makes The Known World remarkable is the tension it strikes between that humanism and the inhuman deism of its knower. When the knower’s calm, disconsolate disclosures give the novel a form that countervails the humanist substance of its narratives, the prose that must be flayed in order to reach those narratives emerges as a quality of greater substance.
The novel knows all this about itself, as is made evident in its final pages when Calvin arrives in Washington, D.C., and by chance encounters Alice Night, one of the slaves on the Townsend plantation who has long since run away. Alice is “a woman people said had lost her mind” after “[a] mule kicked her in the head and sent all common sense flying out of her,” and she was known for her habit of leaving the plantation after sunset to wander aimlessly through the surrounding forests, “mapp[ing] her way again and again through the night.” Now Calvin beholds the outcome of Alice’s endless “mapp[ing]” of Manchester County. In a Washington saloon, he beholds two walls on which are hung two enormous, three-dimensional, bricolage maps that serve as implicit correctives to the incomplete cartography of Martin Waldseemüller. The first is a map of Manchester County rendered in awesome detail, “a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure,” which marks “all the [county's] houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells.” “It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester,” Calvin says, although he notes that “[t]here are no people on this ‘map’.” On another wall nearby is a map of the Townsend plantation that appears similar to the county map but shows one important difference. “There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a bar, not a chicken, not a horse, [and n]ot a single person is missing. … [E]very single person is there, standing and waiting as if for a painter and his easel to come along and capture them in the glory of the day. Each person’s face… is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God.” So, for all the breadth and accuracy of her vision, Alice is crippled in a way that echoes the crippling of the knower and, as such, the knower is drawn to disclose the details of her visions. Panoramic perception diminishes human scale. The broader one’s view of a world and the more expansive one’s knowledge of it, the less distinct are the individuals who experience it and the less important their experiences appear to external observers. As goes the madwoman, then, so goes the knower, so freely drifting through its world that it vacates the world and rises above it, distances itself from those who live in it, and then details their lives with an aloofness that stands at odds with the warmth its omniscience might otherwise afford them.
October 26, 2012
Who knows the world of The Known World? Who else could ever be able to know it? With every disclosure made of the world, the world itself slips out of sight. While the knower unleashes a torrent of words with which to cast fresh light on the world, those very words only smother the world like tireless motes descending upon a steady accretion of dust.
From the deathbed of Henry Townsend, a slaveowner in antebellum Virginia, the breadth of the world extends by degrees to encompass a territory of spectacular scale. As the tensions of both the enslaved and their masters pulse through the Townsend estate, the novel pursues the roots of those tensions to places far from where they arise. The daily dramas of plantation life are driven by the envies, outrages, heartaches, and fears stirred up in Townsend’s men and women by those whose dwell beyond their view. They worry over reports of life on plantations in distant parts. They feel the force of faraway powers doomed to collapse into war with each other. They meditate on the deeds of their ancestors, the tribesmen and the wretched peasants compelled to cross the Atlantic and to settle on foreign shores, and the memories of those ancestors speak to the more recent displacements of others who never set foot on Townsend’s soil but somehow touch the lives of the people who surround him. Populating its pages with countless characters ensnared in a complex web of connections, The Known World traverses the threads of the web to observe those connections in intricate detail. When the turmoils of one man convulse the threads that bind him to another, the next man’s responses ripple the threads that reach out to others at several removes. In calm, melodic, and generous prose, the novel drifts from thread to thread with all the grace of the omniscient consciousness that weaves a path through the world to watch the convulsions flare up and fade.
Flay the prose on the surface to expose the narrative substance and what emerges seems catered to satisfy a particularly humanist hunger. The humanist ideal is the sympathy for strangers that emerges from the diminishing of otherness. The humanist assumption is that otherness is best diminished by the careful and diligent detailing of a stranger’s life. The humanist contention is that literary fiction is uniquely able to diminish otherness because it boasts a capacity for the omniscient observation of the life to be detailed. With the human experience of slavery positioned as narrative premise, The Known World invokes a prima facie affront to the humanist ideal and then intensifies its appeal to humanism by exposing the private torments of those who yearn for a better life than the one that slavery forces them to live. Townsend’s mentor, the slaveowner William Robbins, is desperately in love with his slave Philomena but cannot admit it to a world whose prejudices he works to reinforce. Townsend’s deputy overseer, Moses, will never escape from slavery and yet aspires to become a slaveowner himself. Townsend’s father, Augustus, has undertaken extra work to purchase his own freedom and the freedom of his family, but a white policeman destroys his free papers in order to deliberately return him to bondage. And, as Augustus’ story suggests, Henry Townsend is himself as black as the men and women he owns, a black man freed from slavery and now the master of those who were once his equals. Everyone here is confined to his or her own little hell. When each one of those little hells is carefully and diligently detailed, the detailing diminishes the otherness of the suffering strangers confined to them.
But the greater substance of the novel is the very prose that must be flayed to reach the narratives with the humanist hearts. The prose of The Known World upsets the complacency with which literary fiction typically uses its capacity for omniscience to serve the humanist ideal. The consciousness of the novel, the knower of The Known World, possesses a type of omniscience that serves less to diminish otherness than to underscore and extend it and to forestall any diminishing. This omniscience warps and distorts the knower’s sense of the value of knowledge itself. As it moves through the world unhindered, drawing close to the action and then retreating and rushing back and forth in time, its endless disclosures are dazzling to those of us who know nothing of the world beyond that which passes before our own eyes. When the knower shifts its focus to this man or that woman or the child over there, it knows, at a glance, every last one of their past, present, and future interactions with every other person in their world. When this otherwise chaotic world is filtered through the knower’s eyes, meaningful connections are forged between events that appear unrelated and narrative shape is given to lives whose day-to-day tedium would seem to discourage any cause for narration.
The result, for readers, is not merely a growing knowledge of a world of overwhelming complexity, but a knowledge that grows under the guidance of a knower for whom the complexity of the world is unproblematic and the ability to transcend it is utterly unremarkable. Unguessable revelations about the lives of certain characters are put down in print with the same sense of calm as descriptions of the weather on a placid summer’s day, and the emphasis that the knower places on its awesome ability to make those revelations is no greater than the emphasis placed on everyone else’s drawing of breath. Even while its omniscience allows it to detail various lives and so to diminish the otherness of the strangers who live them, the knower of The Known World shows so little sympathy for those strangers that its every disclosure pushes them and their world further out of view, attracts attention to the knower itself, and finally presents readers with an obstacle to the humanist ideal in the form of a consciousness that becomes increasingly inhuman with each and every word.
September 7, 2012
In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon.
That letter to Ursula and scores of others to friends and family have now been collected in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. The first in a projected sixteen-volume collection of Hemingway’s complete correspondence, Letters covers the years from July 1907 to December 1922. This period takes the young writer from his eighth birthday through to age twenty-three and the piecemeal publication of the work that would reappear in his first collection of fiction and poetry. Although replete with critical notes aimed squarely at Hemingway scholars, the scholarly apparatus is unobtrusive and the volume as a whole seems targeted at non-academic readers. Letters requires only broad familiarity with and affection for Ernest Hemingway, not a detailed knowledge of his life and labour.
But what exactly is the value of reading Hemingway’s letters at all? If his major literary achievements took the form of short stories and novels, what can a reader possibly gain from browsing his private outpourings? Three possible gains come to mind: the biographical, the stylistic, and the aesthetic. Perhaps the letters reveal the sources of Hemingway’s later literature, the real events that flowed out from the life he lived into the fiction that made him famous. Or perhaps the letters mark the stages in his stylistic development, the discovery and refinement of the rhetorical manipulations which would eventually allow him to produce his more celebrated work. Or perhaps the letters offer their own sort of stimulation, an exploitation of the letter as a literary form whose artistic rewards rival the rewards of alternative forms.
The bad news is that readers who turn to Hemingway’s letters for either the first or the last reason are bound for disappointment. With the exception of the wartime injury that worked its way into A Farewell to Arms, none of the life events covered in the letters were a major influence on the Hemingway oeuvre and, as for the artistry of the letters, the author himself acknowledged their simplicity and occasional banality. “I am sorry to write such dull letters,” he confessed to his mother, Grace, in February 1922, “[but] I get such full expression in my articles and the other work I am doing that I am quite pumped out and exhausted from a writing stand point and so my letters are very common-place. If I wrote nothing but letters all of [my passion for other literary forms] would go into them.” The good news, however, is that readers who turn to the letters with an eye towards Hemingway’s stylistic development are in for a treat — and particularly since the letters display varieties of stylistic experimentation which do not at all resemble the minimalism that made Hemingway famous.
Although the letters are presented chronologically without categorization, they fall into three phases which only faintly overlap. The first phase takes Hemingway from his childhood in Michigan to his early manhood on the Italian front. The second phase takes him from his wartime injury to the courtship of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The third phase takes him from his marriage to Hadley to the brink of literary success following their emigration to Paris.
Hemingway’s childhood in rural Michigan seems to have consisted of a series of boys’ own adventures in the spirit of his Nick Adams stories, as the idyllic outdoors perfectly suited the young author’s rugged, rambunctious, and occasionally violent temperament. Here, for instance, is a letter he wrote to his father on July 23, 1909, two days after his tenth birthday:
today Mama and the rest of us took a walk.
We walked to the school house.
Marcelline ran on ahead.
Wile we stopt at Clouse’s.
In a little wile she came back.
She said that in the Wood Shed of the Scool house there was a porcupine.
So we went up there and looked in the door, the porcupine was asleep.
I went in and gave I[t] a wack with the axx.
Then I cave I[t] anthor and another.
Then I crald in the wood.
Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.
Hear some of the quills.
He learned to suppress his violent streak over the following years, but otherwise he rarely hesitated to unleash his inner provocateur. In September 1910, he wrote a letter to his sister, Marcelline, in which he recalled accompanying his mother to a women’s suffrage meeting “thru which I slept soundly.” In May 1913, he was forced to write a “Confessional Letter” to his father, Clarence, in penance for some unspecified misbehaviour: “My conduct at the Coloseum yesterday was bad and my conduct this morning in church was bad my conduct tomorrow will be good.” In July 1915, he wrote a letter to an acquaintance, ‘Carissimus,’ in which he admitted to reading through some letters that Marcelline had received from her friends. He was “trying to find out what the dames think of me,” he said, when he came across a note from a mutual friend who had confessed to Marcelline her attraction to ‘Carissimus.’ “Gosh but [that letter] is mushy,” Hemingway went on. “I tell you guy beware! All females are alike.”
Hemingway’s attraction to literature first became evident between 1914 and 1916, at around the time he wrote that last letter, just as he entered adolescence. It seems to have manifested first as a tendency to conceive of his own life in literary terms, likening his unruly behaviour to that of a young boy who lived only on the page. On September 8, 1914, he wrote to his mother, Grace, about his adventures at school that day. A delayed train left him two hours late for his classes, he said, so that he arrived to find himself in a scenario straight out of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “There was a report circulated around that I was drowned and some of my pals thot I was a ghost.” On July 13, 1916, he again alluded to Huckleberry Finn when he complained to a friend about his family’s views of his distaste for schoolwork. “Just think how pleased My family would be,” he said, “if they would civilize me and inculcate a taste for Math and a distaste for Fishing.”
Since the older Hemingway would someday hail Huckleberry Finn as one of the greatest works of American literature, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that his younger self should have been so in thrall to Twain’s most memorable characters. What is surprising, however, is that Twain appears to have been the exception to the rule of what the young Hemingway chose to read, the sole American writer in a reading list dominated by classicists and contemporary British authors and headed by Rudyard Kipling. And, at the same time that Twain exerted an influence on how the young Hemingway saw his own life, it was the stylistic stiff-upper-lip of Kipling that emerged as the clearest influence on the young author’s early literary output. “Well old soak,” he wrote to Marcelline in June 1916, “I suppose you have had quite the ‘Je su pas’ time as it were. While commencement was going on Lew and I were fishing all night on a pool of the Rapid River 50 miles from no-where. Murmuring pines and hemlocks — black still pool — roar of rapids around bend of river — devilish solemn still — deuced poetic.”
Insofar as echoes of the ‘black still pool’ and ‘roar of rapids’ appear in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ and in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway clearly never lost his adolescent attraction to a particular sort of natural imagery, but those masterpieces are conspicuously lacking in phrases like ‘devilish solemn’ and ‘deuced poetic.’ Fancying himself a literary legend in the making, the young Hemingway seems to have turned to Kipling, one of the literary legends of the time, and set about aping his style. True to his temperament, Hemingway also sought to bolster his own legendary status by playfully but provocatively diminishing the literary skills of writers clearly more accomplished than himself. When he was living away from home and received word that Marcelline had been accepted as a member of a local writing group, his letter of congratulations included more barbed comments than evident good will: “You poor bonus caput how in the name of all things just and unjust did you get in the story club,” he wrote. “If I couldn’t write a better story than you I’d consign myself to purgatory. Congratulations.” More audaciously, he used a letter to his parents to reveal a jaundiced view of no less a writer than Cicero. “Cicero is a pipe,” he declared. “I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me.”
Until 1917, Hemingway rarely wrote letters in which his emerging literary sensibilities cast an overt stylistic veneer over his retellings of his adventures. On the one hand, he expressed admiration for certain literary heroes and confessed to holding literary aspirations. On the other hand, he simply went about living his life and wrote plainly about the life he lived. Only once in Letters does an incident from his life receive overt stylisation: the hyperstylisation of exaggeration and grotesquerie. “Another item of information,” he wrote to his friend Emily Goetzmann in March 1916, “is that my beautiful Graeco Roman Etruscan Irish nose, or to use the Language of the Vulgar my pulchritudinous proboscis has wandered over on one side of my face as a result of a little boxing bout. However it has about got back to normal and people can now pass me on the street without emmitting loud coarse guffaws of touching mirth.”
Those are the words of an aspiring writer just discovering the versatility of his craft — the elasticity of rhetoric — and flying high on the bravado of the discovery but apparently uncertain about how to take it more seriously after this point. A few pages later, when he discovers that the process of revision can refine the prose on the page and sharpen the imagery and invest the whole with new vitality, it’s hard to fight off a tingle down the spine. In his classic interview with the Paris Review, the fifty-nine-year-old Hemingway admitted to being an extremely disciplined rewriter: “I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped,” he said. “When it is all finished, naturally you go over it [again]. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. … I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Included in Letters is a brief, wistful note that Hemingway wrote to his parents from rural Michigan on September 14, 1917, in which appears his first recorded attempt to affectively enhance a piece of prose by subjecting it to revision:
Probably I will be home in time for the Worlds Series in the middle of Oct. All the trees are turning red up here now. All the birds are putting on their beautiful autumn foliage and the trees are gathering in twittering flocks ready for their flight to the glorious south land.
Within weeks of writing that letter, Hemingway raced head-first towards a radical stylistic variation and a more disciplined writing practice. On scarcely a moment’s notice he left Michigan for Kansas City, Missouri, where he landed a job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star. According to the legend which he himself later bolstered, it was the house guide at the Star that formed the basis of his mature prose style. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he famously declared in A Moveable Feast, revealing the advice he gave himself when he made his first conscious efforts to write and fiction. “Write the truest sentence you know. … [C]ut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” — and, as he told the Paris Review, “[o]n the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence.”
But Hemingway’s workload at the Star seemed to continuously replenish itself, and, not long after he took up his position, all those countless declarative sentences drove his more personal writing in an entirely different, opaque, and fragmented stylistic direction. “All cops live me like a brotherhood,” he wrote to Marcelline in October 1917:
I am Editor of Public Mind like Vox of the Pop. but am now promoted and edit mind with less frequency. This is copy paper. On it is written with a typewriter solely. Poor hand-writing has not handicapped me yet. At St. Josephine I was and have chance to work on St. Josephine Gazette. But the Salary! Merci! It is nought. A mere pittance! Here I receive 60 of them per month. A princely stipend. and why is it I hear from you not? Loneliness consumes me theoretically; practically I am all business and have no time but at the office there is a frequency of the Tempus.
As his workload increased towards the end of the year, the Star came to affect his literary style not only by demanding that his professional writing meet rigorously declarative standards but also by leaving him with almost no time in which to write anything but reportage. “I am sorry that I didnt get a letter off oftener last week,” he wrote to his parents in December, “but I aws right up to my neck in work and havn’t had a single minute¾.” The following month he sent a letter to another sister, Madelaine, in which his style suffered a devolution into borderline nonsense — “Was the old brute glad to hear ffn you.? Hw was that. He was that. He surely was that. … Some Damsel. Show this to jigggs will you.&%$#”_(&)” — and the devolution continued throughout the following months. “I’ve just time to scribble a little to you,” he wrote to his parents in March 1918. “We are awfully busy.”
On April 16, the workload finally took its toll on the young Hemingway, not yet nineteen years old, and drove him to the point of absolute exhaustion. He snapped, suffering a minor breakdown, and saw only two options before him: “a vacation or bust.” In a long and unusually intimate letter to his father, Hemingway gave voice to his demons:
This is the way things are lined up at present. I have been down here about seven months, granted. Until lately I have neen making not enough to live on. See High Cost of Living figures. I am only a kid of nearly 19 granted, and have been hitting the pace pretty blame hard. Working in competetion with men with threee to ten years more experience than I have. I have had to work like sin and have concentrated about three years work into one. … And now Pop I am bushed! So bushed that I cant sleep nights, that my eyes get woozy, and that I am loosing weight and am tired all the time. I’m mentally and physically all in, Pop, and there isn’t any body Knows it better than myself. Look at it this way. It is as though I had gone to college and been under the strain of cramming for an examination for seven months straight. For that is the way it is. Responsibility, absolute accuracy, thousands of dollars hinge on your statements, absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit. And allways working under a strain.
This is what makes you mentally fagged. Having to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, an get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in fifteen minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press. To take a story over the phone and get everything exact see it all in your minds eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while ten other typewriters are going and the boss is hollering at some one and a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.
Having resolved to quit his job at the Star, Hemingway decided to head north to Canada in order to do what he truly wanted to do and volunteer for military service in Europe. When the Red Cross sought a new intake of medical officers in June 1918, Hemingway took the chance to sign up. He travelled to Europe and spent some time seeing the sights — on June 3, in remarks that would become atypical of him, he wrote home with the verdict that “Paris is a great city but not as quaint and interesting as Bordeaux” — and then, stationed in Italy on June 9, he dashed off a note to a friend at the Star just after he had been briefed on his duties. “I go to the front tomorrow,” he wrote. “Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.” But his service as an ambulance officer lasted barely a month, ending with an explosion that gave him both a lifelong injury and the basis for the novel that is perhaps his very best.
On July 14, 1918, Theodore Brumback, an old friend of Hemingway, contacted Hemingway’s parents with a summary of their son’s accident and news of his present condition. Brumback’s note is the only document in Hemingway’s Letters that does not belong to Hemingway himself. “I have just come from seeing Ernest at the American Red Cross hospital,” he wrote. “He is fast on the road to recovery and will be out a whole man once again, so the doctor says, in a couple of weeks. Although some two hundred pieces of shell were lodged in him none of them are above the hip joint. Only a few of these pieces was large enough to cut deep; the most serious of these being two in the knee and two in the right foot.” In the week before the incident, Hemingway had acquired a bicycle and had been cycling out to the frontline to deliver chocolate to the Italian soldiers. “[A]bout midnight on the seventh day,” wrote Brumback, “an enormous trench mortar hit within a few feet of Ernest. … The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth. There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him all about it and that it had been voted upon to give him a valor medal for the act.”
On July 21, his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway wrote to his father, a doctor, with an account of his condition that amounts to one of his most tender letters. When writing to his mother about a week later, he offered a self-deprecating but frank assessment of his recovery prospects. “[F]rom present indications I will never look well in kilts as the old limbs present a somewhat cut up appearance,” he joked. “They look a bit disgruntled. For a time Maw I resembled a walking blacksmith shop.” When he wrote to his father, however, he began by sugarcoating the severity of his injuries — “Everything is fine and I’m very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds” — and then he cast his recovery prospects in terms that deftly walk the line between the physician’s professional desensitisation to injury and the young masculinist’s determination not to let his injuries make him flinch. Taking a no-nonsense view of the physical damage that left him incapacitated for weeks, the young writer attempts to meet his father in exclusively rhetorical terms: to represent his injuries with a stylistic austerity that strikes a balance between his own fascination with masculine stoicism and his father’s presumed interest in the bodily particulars of his wounds:
There are a couple of pieces still [stuck] in [my legs]. One bullet in my knee that the X Ray showed. The surgeon… is going to wait for the wound in my right knee to become healed cleanly before operating. The bullet with then be rather encysted and he will make a clean cut and go in under the side of the knee cap. By allowing it to be completly healed first he thus avoids any danger of infection and stiff knee. That is wise dont you think Dad? He will also remove a bullet from my right foot at the same time. … All the other bullets and pieces of shell have been removed and all the wounds on my left leg are healing finely. … There will be no permanent effects from any of the wounds as there are no bones shattered. Even in my knees. In both the left and right the bullets did not fracture the patella. One piece of shell about the size of a Timken roller bearing was in my left knee but it has been removed and the knee now moves perfectly and the wound is nearly healed. In the right knee the bullet went under the knee cap from the left side and didnt smash it a bit.
During his recovery period, of course, Hemingway met Agnes von Kurowsky, the young Red Cross nurse who later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Although their relationship is known to have been a passionate one, very little of the passion appears to have made its way onto the page as Kurowsky is mentioned in only two letters. “In regard to the question you asked I will reply,” Hemingway wrote to Marcelline: “Yes. She is a Cross Red Nurse. Further more I cannot state I am of a dumbness.” But the dumbness had worn off by the time he described Kurowsky to his lifelong friend Bill, with whom he tended to be less guarded. “Bill this is some girl and I thank God I got crucked so I met her,” he wrote. “Damn it I really honestly can’t see what the devil she can see in the brutal [Hemingway] but by some very lucky astigmatism she loves me Bill. … Why man I’ve only got about 50 more years to live and I don’t want to waste any of them and every minute that I’m away from that Kid is wasted.” An aura of tragedy settles over those words for readers who know that the young man who wrote them could not have foreseen that his romance was doomed or that Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s eventual fictional stand-in, would love Catherine Barkley much more than Hemingway himself ever appeared to love Agnes von Kurowsky.
The letters that follow the dissolution of Hemingway’s relationship with Kurowsky are littered with oblique references to other people whose names would eventually trickle down into Hemingway’s fiction — Neroni, Krebs, Wemedge, and others — until he suffered a renewed cri de coeur at the beginning of 1919. The end of the war left him uncertain of his direction in life and his attempts at becoming a writer were marked by a distinct lack of progress. Although he had not yet spent any time as an American expatriate in Spain, he felt himself burdened by much the same sense of ennui and listlessness as that which colours The Sun Also Rises and he yearned for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of some sort of greatness. His hopeful, enthusiastic, and hubristic remarks to his sister Ursula — “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day” — were written at the tail end of this period.
“I’ve written some darn good things Jim,” he declared in a spirited letter to Jim Gamble, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, in March 1919. “That is good for me. And am starting a campaign against [the Post]. I sent them the first story Monday last. … Tomorrow another one starts toward them. I’m going to send ‘em so many and such good ones, no I havn’t really got the big head, that they’re going to have to buy them in self defence.” A footnote spells out the young writer’s disappointing fate: “The stories EH mentions submitting remain unidentified: nothing he wrote would ever appear in the Saturday Evening Post.”
“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall,” he confessed to Gamble about a month later. “Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to do to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. … It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.” It was at this time that Hemingway experienced the crystallisation of the worldview and the attendant moral dilemma that would together preoccupy his imagination for decades yet to come. “Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim,” he told Gamble. “But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with and that they can retreat into and protect the ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.” What is an idealist then to do? A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and others all offer varying responses to that one unanswerable question.
Surprisingly, though, Hemingway’s own response during the onset of this listlessness was not so far removed from the response of Jack Kerouac, Hemingway’s successor as the spokesman of a generation but very much his opposite in terms of literary style. In August 1919, with the autumn fast approaching, Hemingway wrote to his friend Bill with a proposed plan of action. That plan now reads like a missing fragment of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, written almost thirty years before Kerouac and Neal Cassady ever hit the road:
Bill if you want to keep the old ideals straight and cut loose from the damned dirty money grubbing for a year I’m your man. There is so much of this world we haven’t seen and it is just a little while that we’re here anyway.
We are Simpatico Bill and we could go anywhere and have a good time. If you want to go out to Hawaii and the South Seas meet me in Chicago this fall. We’ll bum — it may take us quite a while to get there. But you know we’ll have a good time together. The more money we had to start with the better. But it isn’t a necessity. We’ll go through the South West to the coast and you can get to Hawaii for 45 dollars from the coast. And we’ll discover every place we go. And we’ll have thousands of adventures. And we’ll work when we have to and we’ll loaf. And we’ll live Bill! We’ll live!
Hemingway certainly lived, but he didn’t live as he dreamed of living when he sat down to write to Bill. Between that one letter and the end of Letters there is scarcely any correspondence in which Hemingway elucidates the circumstances he fell into, but the suddenness with which he fell into them is implicit in the scarcity of such elucidation. In December 1920, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson through mutual acquaintances: Richardson’s roommate, who would eventually marry John Dos Passos, had a brother who shared a house with Hemingway in St. Louis. Hemingway and Richardson were married less than a year after meeting, and, in December 1921, Hemingway landed the job at the Toronto Star that enabled the two of them to move to Paris. The last pages of Letters reveal Hemingway’s Parisian attempts to establish himself as a writer of fiction and poetry by impressing writers already established and carefully cultivating his ties to them. Fresh off the success of Winesburg, Ohio, it was Sherwood Anderson who had originally suggested that Hemingway would benefit from a relocation to Paris, and so it was Anderson who received one of the earliest letters in which Hemingway described his impressions of the city. The floweriness of its language contrasts with the more utilitarian rhetoric of concurrent letters and suggests that Hemingway wanted as much to maintain contact with Anderson as to appeal to his literary sensibilities:
Well here we are. And we sit outside the Dome Café, oposite the Rotunde that’s being redecorated, warmed up against one of those charcoal brazziers and it’s so damned cold outside and the brazier makes it so warm and we drink rum punch, hot, and the rhum enters into us like the Holy Spirit.
And when it’s a cold night in the streets of Paris and we’re walking home down the Rue Bonaparte we think of the way the wolves used to slink into the city and Francois Villon and the gallows at Montfaucon. What a town.
The poetic imagery of the second paragraph is a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Lodging for the Night,’ but beyond that point all the poetry belongs to Hemingway himself:
In a couple of days we’ll be settled and then I’ll send out the letters of introduction like launching a flock of ships. … There’s a deathly, tired silence you can’t get anywhere else except a railway compartment at the end of a long ride. … We came via Spain and missed all but a day of the big storm. You ought to see the spanish coast. Big brown mountains looking like tired dinosaurs slumped down into the sea, gulls following from behind the ship holding against the air so steadily they look like property birds raised and lowered by wires. Light house looking like a little candle stuck up on the dinosaurs shoulder.
Other mainstays of Hemingway’s years in Paris make their debut appearances towards the end of Letters. The volume includes a striking photograph of the young author standing amid stacks of books inside Shakespeare & Company, supposedly in the spot where he first met Ezra Pound, while the photographer’s byline credits Sylvia Beach herself as the woman behind the camera. “Gertrude Stein who wrote Three Lives and a number of other good things was here to dinner last night and stayed till mid-night,” Hemingway writes in one of these Parisian letters. “She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice. She is very keen about my poetry. … [And on] Friday we are going to tea at Ezra Pounds. He has asked me to do an article on the present literary state of America for the Little Review.”
That was in February 1922. The following months appear to have given Hemingway little opportunity for further stylistic experimentation, at least in his letters, but they certainly afforded him the material for his early short stories as his duties for the Toronto Star took him to other European destinations, to Constantinople, and to war-ravaged Smyrna. Before the year was out, he lost almost his entire body of work when Hadley misplaced a suitcase full of his manuscripts — an incident that will open the next volume of letters, since Hemingway did not write about it until he described it to Ezra Pound in January 1923 — after which six more years in Paris and a lifetime of literary greatness awaited the unsuspecting aspiring author.
Within the next twelve months, Hemingway would become both a father and a published writer of fiction and poetry. He would also visit Pamplona, Spain, and witness the first of the many bullfights that gave him literary inspiration. In the two years after that, he would edit the transatlantic review with Ford Madox Ford, twice return to Pamplona, publish the legendary In Our Time, dedicate a solid eight weeks to producing a draft of The Sun Also Rises, and begin a long affair with the woman who would become his second wife. These experiences will no doubt shape Letters: Volume 2, as will perhaps Hadley’s discovery of her husband’s affair, the slow death of their marriage and their divorce, Hemingway’s brief but traumatic battle against anthrax, the publication of Men Without Women, his new marriage, and his decision to leave Paris in pursuit of the sun and the sea in Key West, Florida.
It remains to be seen how those experiences might have shaped Hemingway’s style and driven him decisively in the direction of minimalism, particularly as he engaged in further stylistic experimentation and developed greater awareness of the affective properties of various styles. For now, though, it is enough to be able to watch him coming into an awareness of style as a repository of affective power and of endless potential for manipulability. If Letters offered little more than a catalogue of autobiographical details, a rote record of Hemingway’s experiences and the people he encountered, it would be effectively interchangeable with a more straightforward biographical study — and, to the extent that readers approach the volume as a de factoautobiography, it is bound to be disappointing because so interchangeable. What makes it valuable is its status as a record of Hemingway’s initially tentative but increasingly confident modulation of rhetoric in service of a variety of private disclosures and for an extraordinary range of readers. What emerges from letter to letter is a gradual but steady accretion of literary ability via experimentation, a sketch, in words, of a writer enmeshed in becoming a writer. Letters is as much the opening chapter in the story of Hemingway himself as it is the opening chapter in the story of the Hemingway style, and to watch that style slowly resolve itself on the page is a privilege available nowhere else but here.
August 21, 2012
Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.
“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,
you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.
One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3′ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading.
Glancing at the archives of this blog over the last few months, and looking through the computer documents and notebooks in which I also write, I see that I have brought nothing to completion: no new posts, reviews, or articles. There are two reasons for this recent silence, each of which, in its own way, dovetails with Silverman’s criticisms and proposed solution.
The first reason is that I have spent three months struggling with enormous practical impediments to writing. On August 1, I took up a new teaching position in Switzerland. I began preparing for the overseas move in May and tying up loose ends in Australia in June, and I finished all that and moved here towards the end of July. Co-ordinating the overseas move was a drawn-out, demanding process that left me with almost no time to sit down, uninterrupted, long enough to find words to set on a page and twist them into intelligible form.
How does the move to Switzerland dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it entails a retreat from the literary culture of Melbourne. “To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial,” Silverman writes of his opposition to the culture of enthusiasm, “or [it might seem] like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable.” What’s true of New York is probably true of any city with a thriving literary culture, Melbourne included. With few exceptions, Melbourne’s literary culture — on which the city prides itself, and which can seem so vibrant from afar — strikes me as insular, shallow, and self-congratulatory, the physical manifestation of the literary Twitterverse. It functions more on the logic of a professional support network for writers than on the logic of an impassioned engagement in literary evaluation. One book launch after another is attended by the same aspiring authors, each of whom proceeds to wax enthusiastic about the book in question before soliciting enthusiasm for his or her own book when the time comes for it to be launched. Week after week, month after month, enthusiasm coalesces around one mediocre title after another before it dissipates and moves on to the next title in the line of succession. Perhaps this is inevitable in any literary culture where, in terms of labour hours, the process of becoming a writer demands less time spent putting words on a page and more time spent marketing and publicising whatever you can manage to actually write in your spare hours, and networking to ensure that other writers will contribute to your later marketing and publicity efforts.
Whatever the cause of it, I realised not long after moving to Melbourne that this sort of culture wasn’t for me. That was at the beginning of 2009. By the end of 2011, I saw that any pursuit of literary professionalisation in Melbourne would require participation in this culture. Knowing then that I couldn’t bring myself to participate, I began looking outside Melbourne for ways to professionalise my love of literature while at the same time preserving it. What drew me to Switzerland is another story. What matters here is that my departure from Melbourne — one source of my recent silence — was partly a reaction to a literary culture whose atmosphere matches that of the online culture that drew a reaction from Silverman.
The second reason for my recent silence is that I have in some sense been driven to it by a renewed appreciation for literature. Part of this renewed appreciation arises from the collapse of the demand to approach literature through an exclusively academic lens, a demand I no longer face in my new position in Switzerland. Part of it, too, arises from having spent the first half of this year reading a number of works of literature which made such forceful impressions on me that my words no longer seem adequate to the task of conveying those impressions. None of these works are obscure — all of them have been written about in several major publications both online and in print — but my final reaction to each of them was inertia, an inertia based on an inescapable sense that to attempt to dilute their effects on me into some synoptic and analytic form would be to risk diminishing those very effects.
How does this appreciative silence dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it casts me into a grey area in Silverman’s proposed remedy for the cloying enthusiasm of online literary criticism. In attempting to countervail that enthusiasm, Silverman contends that a better culture of criticism “would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. [Its participants] wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.” What Silverman wants to see, then, is greater openness to frank evaluations of mediocre literature. Frank disapproval is one way of responding to mediocrity, of course, but my preferred response is dismissive silence — the very sort of silence that Silverman rejects. “[S]ome publications don’t publish negative reviews,” he complains,
[because they treat] even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time‘s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time, NPR.org’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged…
Silence is obviously a problem for Time and NPR. As venues with a defining interest in current affairs, their literary coverage is necessarily chained to the current publishing market and is thus rendered inadequate by a failure or even a calculated refusal to issue a verdict on works that achieve transitory cultural prominence solely by way of marketing processes. For literary blogs, however, the absence of a necessary interest in current affairs means that silence is an affordable response to underwhelming books and, for me, a silent response is one that holds an increasing appeal. If a venue for literary criticism is unconstrained by fealty to the vicissitudes of the market, then it suffers no need to warn readers away from a particular title. If literary criticism does not suffer that need, then those who write it are therefore free to assume that the only titles worth writing about are those that are first worth reading, and those who read it are induced to assume that any title worth reading about is by definition worth reading in full.
Rather than following Silverman’s cues and engaging in the wholesale demolition of books that leave me unsatisfied, I want to disengage from a literary culture utterly beholden to marketing and instead work in a form of literary criticism that operates on the assumptions above. Silverman wants a literary culture in which “we all think more and enthuse less,” as if thoughtful and enthusiastic responses to literature were somehow mutually exclusive. I’d prefer a response in which the articulation of thought is predicated on the experience of enthusiasm, a response in which enthusiasm for a book does not need to be expressed in words because its mode of expression is the very act of using words to articulate one’s thoughts of a book.
Where I find myself now is a position in which, professionally, I can concentrate my critical efforts exclusively on this blog even though, personally, I am not sure that my efforts would do justice to the very works of literature to which I most want to devote them. I’m able now to spend much more time on these pages than I have done over the last year or so, but what will appear on them is likely to be less occasional and less responsive to discourses of the moment than what has appeared here so far. My hope is that, far from advancing a situation in which enthusiasm for literature is cloying and shallow, the medium of the blog can allow for a mode of literary criticism that emerges from enthusiasm, that treats close attention to textual details as a symptom of literary appreciation rather than a path towards it, and that thereby positions the intellectualism of critical analysis as the appreciative extension of the sensuality of reading.