The forgotten growing pains of American fiction. Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
For all of the just wars that have been fought over the cultural canon, one genuine benefit of the (still somewhat undulating) critical consensus is that it’s a pretty genuine aid for determining what you really needn’t bother reading right away. Or, as a professor once said while wielding Samuel Richardson’s 1,534-page doorstop Clarissa, “I’ve read it. You don’t have to.” So it is with most longitudinal surveys of literature. Which isn’t to say that the original material isn’t worth hearing about: Clarissa would still appear late on my when-eventually-marooned reading list, but the Clarissa lecture was excellent.
Truth’s Ragged Edge offers exactly such a fascinating survey of the nascence of the American novel, in an account of a literary era that has been done a unique injustice by the traditional best-of approach. Most of the obscure works profiled (that I’ve read) surely aren’t worth your time, but there’s plenty of middle ground between prim epistolary novels and early American classics worth learning about and, in some cases, plunging into. Hawthorne and Melville didn’t simply germinate out of imported English soil; the American background out of which they sprang is a rich one.
Early American novels, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, were largely morality tales of individual virtue triumphant over, or quashed by, malicious circumstance—although peppered with distinctive American circumstances. Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), one of the earliest of American novels, offered a rote message against capitulation to feeling. Not long after, we dig into some more substantive American-ness. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1798) drew inspiration from the story of a prominent woman’s death shortly after a stillbirth: Accusations soon emerged that the father, her second cousin, was none other than Jonathan Edwards’s youngest son. Foster’s heroine, however, is independent-minded. She doesn’t wish to marry and is repeatedly duped by the men around her. Her misfortune is less a straightforward result of waywardness than of an unenviable shortage of opportunity. The heroine argues that her behavior is not “coquettish” and “deserves a softer appellation,” springing, as it has, from “an innocent heart.”
Charles Brockden Brown, who fashioned one of the first American literary careers, probably offered the first iteration of the American Gothic, in a surreal melding of emotive spirituality and hallucination-inspired murders, complete with a dose of ventriloquism. James Fenimore Cooper naturally crops up, and with good reason—although his moment in the sun may have peaked with his inclusion in D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature in 1923. More colorful contemporaries remain unknown: There’s John Neal, whose Logan: A Family History (1822) is in fact a family history about a white man wed to a Native-American woman and living with her tribe, thus addressing directly topics that Cooper only elided.
As Gura describes it:
For Neal, however, interracial relationships could be the very basis of a novel’s plot. After settlers kill his wife and family, Logan runs amok against whites. The handsome raven-haired Harold, who lives among the Native Americans and thinks he is one, is actually the sole surviving child of the Logan family massacre. In an act that borders on rape, Harold impregnates Elvira, the colonial governor’s wife, while she is half-asleep. The reader subsequently learns that she has long been infatuated with Logan [the father] and views the striking, dark Harold as a comely surrogate. Learning of this strange nighttime tryst, the governor banishes Harold to the wilderness, where he meets his father, Logan, and discovers his true heritage.
Neal’s other work remains reliably bizarre. In Errata; or, The Works of Will Adams (1823), the protagonist, facing the bared breast of a Quaker girl, kisses it, falls into a faint, and awakens “three months later in an insane asylum, in a room next to Caroline’s, his story told in the voice of Hammond the Dwarf.” Edgar Allan Poe noted of Neal, “I should be inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second among our men of indisputable genius.”
William Gillmore Simms of Charleston journeyed in a similar vein with his Martin Faber: A Story of a Criminal (1833), a first-person narrative of perverse impulse as the title character murders the woman he has seduced and impregnated, and awaits his eventual journey to the gallows.
Hawthorne as chronicler of the American unconscious.Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICAH MATTIX
Nathaniel Hawthorne is an enigma.
On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
My quest for Symons—A. J. A. Symons, that is—began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D. H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:
Germany’s Nobel Prize winner defends Iran.8:05 AM, Apr 5, 2012 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL
One of Germany’s most famous novelists penned a pro-Iranian regime and anti-Israel poem Wednesday in German and Italian daily newspapers, declaring the Jewish state the greatest threat to global security and denying the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
5:31 PM, Oct 4, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Ladbrokes of London, the famous British bookmaker, lists the Syrian-born poet Adonis as a 4 to 1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize, due to be announced in the next few days. According to one Ladbrokes official, “I really think this is poetry’s year, and without a doubt, the politically correct choice would be Adonis.”
An intriguing, if unmentioned, biographical detail.2:53 PM, Nov 23, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times obituary this past week for Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, failed to mention the occasion that first brought their love affair to public attention. If the institutional memory of the Times has failed in this instance—which I doubt, since the obit is full of charming anecdotes about Ms. Church Mailer—it is worth resurrecting the story.
4:00 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
A few months ago the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid essay by Allen Barra that could only be described as therapeutic. Entitled “What ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Isn’t,” it was a calm, clear-headed, even humorous, evisceration of a novel that seems to be universally admired, required reading in every classroom--and a sickening repository of every enlightened cliché about American life, with particular emphasis on the segregated South.
5:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
An announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature is almost necessarily accompanied by columns listing those distinguished writers who were passed over, as well as more than a few clunkers who were not.
1:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
This morning the Swedish academy awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” With benefactors like the ones who authored this overwrought passage, who needs critics?
Forecasting the Prize is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.2:55 PM, Oct 6, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.
On whether "The Hours" succeeds or fails in its ambition to profundity.11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
AS THE ONLY PERSON in North America with anything bad to say about "The Hours," I feel a certain obligation to speak up. Stylish and watchable, perhaps, graced even with some nice performances in the minor roles and some touching moments, "The Hours" tackles a challenging theme--mental disturbance and its toll on the sufferers and their loved ones--but makes of it essentially a heap of pretentious claptrap.
Promising profundity, the movie delivers scrupulously p.c. confusion.
Our holiday gift to you: We offer our choices for books to enjoy over the holidays or to consider as last-minute gift ideas.11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By
Editor's Note: We'll be on hiatus for the holidays, so next week, we'll be posting some of our favorite recent pieces from both The Weekly Standard and The Daily Standard--some holiday-related, some not. Enjoy, and have a terrific and safe holiday season!
William Kristol, editor
READ ANYTHING by the greatest living American comic writer (besides Andy Ferguson), Donald E. Westlake.
Crime fiction for Christmas.Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By JON L. BREEN
A Crossworder's Holiday
by Nero Blanc
Prime Crime, 224 pp., $22.95
A Puzzle in a Pear Tree
by Parnell Hall
Bantam, 308 pp., $23.95
The Christmas Garden Affair
by Ann Ripley
Kensington, 293 pp., $22
THE TRADITION of telling ghost stories at Christmas has a venerable lineage, reaching back well into the Middle Ages. Christmas detective stories have a shorter history.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
THE CLOSE OF 2002 brings with it the close of the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But you would hardly have known it from America's premier journals and magazines, which showed little interest in giving "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its due in the course of the year. No other book before or since has had so dramatic an effect on American consciousness--or American history--as Harriet Beecher Stowe's epoch-making novel.