Irving Stone Essay - Critical Essays

Stone, Irving

Stone, Irving 1903–

Stone is an American author of "bio-histories"—popular novels which recreate history through the lives of an era's prominent figures. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A writer is peculiarly fortunate when he discovers, reasonably early, both a principle and a pattern to which he may hew. Irving Stone made that happy discovery before he was thirty, which, as such things go, is early enough. Still better, by the time he found out in what direction his writing talents were best fulfilled he had developed two habits of mind that were to have the greatest bearing upon his success. He had become accustomed to the practice of a relentless, unflagging industry. And it was automatic with him never to be wholly satisfied with what he had done. Both attitudes persist in him to this day.

The book that gave direction to his career was his Lust For Life, an intimate and sympathetic study of the painter Vincent Van Gogh which celebrates its 20th anniversary this September in still another new edition. This was by no means his first published work; Stone was in one sense a professional writer when it appeared. But in that book he accomplished his first long reach toward the form he was to make uniquely his own in his time—that of the biographical novel. Both pattern and principle were explored in Lust For Life, though Stone has perfected the former and expanded the latter, as readers of his newest—and solidly his best—novel in that mold, his new Love Is Eternal will discover for themselves. It is probably unnecessary to add that he is still not wholly satisfied, though he did take profound satisfaction in writing about Mary Todd Lincoln; his pleasure shows through this novel more clearly than in any other book he has written. (p. 3)

Working on detective stories he had learned a good deal—the necessity for careful plotting, the trick of keeping a narrative on the move, the techniques of construction. He had tried the "creative novel"—the term is his own—and learned that for several reasons it was not for him. But his attempts in the field had taught him something. Any fiction of quality depends largely upon people, upon character seen in the round and presented in the process of growth and development and change under stress. He knew this now, not as a textbook abstraction but from hard experience, and he also knew how to manage situations that illuminate character.

Lust For Life showed him one thing more—the kind of spark that would fire his imagination. That spark was character-ready-made, the story of someone who had lived, whose acts could be found in the record and whose motives might be traced by patient, careful, sympathetic investigation, with due balance and interpretation to follow. And, with Stone, what fanned this spark into flame was any suspicion that such a character had been misunderstood, perhaps even misrepresented through historical accident or through an early biographer's prejudice. (pp. 4-5)

Joseph Henry Jackson, "Irving Stone and the Biographical Novel" (1954), from the introduction to The Irving Stone Reader, by Irving Stone (copyright © 1963 by Irving Stone; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1963, pp. 1-7.

Having delighted thousands of general readers and cinemagoers, and irritated dozens of art historians, with his dramatic portrayal of Van Gogh, [with "The Agony and the Ecstasy"] Irving Stone presses closer to the title narrowly held by André Maurois, heavyweight champion of the biographie romancée. The reactions of his two categories of readers will be predictably the same to this, Stone's best book yet….

Stone's narrative method, however, is a puzzling one. As a novelist, he puts into practice Joshua Reynolds's precept: "Learn anatomy and then forget it." He researches the facts of his subject, only to add, change, and reject at will. Quotations from Michelangelo's letters reappear as conversation; remarks by one contemporary are placed in the mouth of another; regrets written to Luigi del Riccio are instead spoken to Daniele da Volterra. The wording of such actual records as Michelangelo's letters and poems is altered. And so on. Michelangelo is even made to listen (disinterestedly!) to a speech on Italian art centers that he himself made. Art historians who object to this technique will be called carping critics, but does PMr. Stone feel that the verifiable biographical and romantic elements here are inadequate in themselves for a "biographical romance"?…

Stone's Michelangelo is … an idealized version, purged not only of ambisexuality, but of egotism, fault-finding, harsh irony, and ill temper that we know were characteristic of Michelangelo (Stone's hero never deserved to have his nose smashed by Torrigiano). He is possessed moreover of a patient, resigned, and forgiving nature, almost Christ-like. Stone has made of his model an idealized typos, falling into precisely the one mode of portraiture that the Platonist Michelangelo approved.

Robert J. Clements, "The Artist as Hero," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1961 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 18, 1961, p. 18.

At first sight, Irving Stone's "Those Who Love" appears to belong to the legion of bad historical novels. It struck me at the beginning as laboriously undistinguished, a tedious assembly of sheer information. I found myself bothered by small queries (did men speak of "concepts" in the 18th century?); by the copious use of local color ("Abigail wore her new velvet cloak and hat, long white gloves and goloshoes over her calimancos with their thin paper soles. John, who had shaved from a pewter bowl in the kitchen, proudly donned his shantung wedding vest"). I had the queer sense of reading a ghost novel—the doings of a famous family "told to" the author—or maybe a better comparison would be with an old painting, well-meaningly but excessively "restored."

Gradually these impressions yielded to a qualified admiration. It became clear that Mr. Stone has done his homework. His narrative is on the whole reliable and competent. His set-piece accounts of the fighting at Lexington and Concord, and at Breed's Hill, are extremely vivid. He has been able to put to good use the abundant and fascinating material in the Adams family papers and the many comments of their contemporaries. He has picked a prodigious subject in the simultaneous though not always harmonious rise of the Massachusetts lawyer and of the American nation….

"Those Who Love" still seems to me something less than a masterpiece. Perhaps, paradoxically, Mr. Stone has been hampered by the very completeness of the historical record. He has stuck almost too close to verifiable fact, as if intimidated by the vitality and fullness of the Adamses' own words. Though he is fairly candid in indicating John Adams's deficiencies, he does not explore them with any great insight. Thus the jealousy aroused in Adams by the enormous fame of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington is never fully brought out. Nor, on the other hand, is Adams's intellectual merit displayed to best advantage. We could usefully be told more, for instance, of his remarkable services in preparing the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. It would be valuable too to be given a fuller idea of why some of his writings met with so much criticism.

In balance Mr. Stone's novel stands as a solid effort. It should please those members of the public who like to have their history—in the phrase of John Adams which the author employs as an epigraph, possibly with unconscious ambiguity—"a little embellished with fiction."

Marcus Cunliffe, "John and Abigail's Road to the White House," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1965, p. 56.

[Those Who Love] is twice too long, informing us, for example, how to make soap of grease, wood ash, and lye; or how many logs Abigail put on what fire on a given day in 1761. The conversation is often epistolary, betraying Stone's too close reliance on documents in preparing the novel. The literary style is intermittently baroque: "Time assumed the architectonic form of an onrushing symphony…." And love between the Adamses bears, ever, the eiderdown warmth of the rural snuggle-bunny. If John is too prophetic, too right, "Nabby" Adams is too nice, too fragile, too understanding. And if she knows, at a family feast, how to "lift her elbow high" in enriching the punch, she emerges for all the world as the child of Clarissa.

Wilson Sullivan, "Politics and Plum Pudding," in Saturday Review (copyright 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 20, 1965, p. 48.

[Many] years and many "biographical novels"—as he calls them—[after Lust for Life], Stone … brought forth a mastodon volume, The Passions of the Mind, in which he has apparently undertaken to do for Freud and psychoanalysis what he did for Van Gogh and modern art…. [The] result is more or less an unmitigated disaster, both as a novel and, what is more important, as a popularized portrait or biography of Freud, designed to be read by vast numbers of people who would otherwise know little or nothing about this central modern figure. In point of fact, however, the two failures are integrally connected, the hopeless inadequacies of the work as a novel being of a piece with its incapacities in representing that which was singular and distinctive about Freud.

The Passions of the Mind is a kind of colossal research paper, with several differences. Two of these are that the footnotes are left out and that the central character is called Sigmund rather than Freud. Apart from this the novel constitutes itself by an incessant, indiscriminate, and incontinent regurgitation of secondhand information. As a result, it is less a novel and less a biography than it is a kind of monstrous semiliterate Baedeker, a guidebook without plan or structure for those who want to feel they have arrived without ever having had to travel, a cut-rate tour through Freud and environs. (p. 91)

Stone's incapacities as a novelist are inseparable from his ineptitudes as a biographer, even a popular one; actually, he is not even a biographer but a simple chronicler. Things, circumstances, events, persons are there, as it were, gratuitously, simply by virtue of the fact that they happened. An event or person is not included because he forms a necessary part of a structured whole—either an imaginative recreation of a life, or a conception of the articulation of a career or of an intellectual system. Indeed, Stone tells us that had it not been for the editorial exertions of his wife, the book would have been twice as long as it now is. In other words, no conscious principle of selection—that is to say, of choice and therefore of judgment and discrimination—appears to be at work when Stone sits down to write; at least none is in evidence in The Passions of the Mind. None of the material Stone reproduces is ever really transmuted; nothing imaginative or speculative is added or done to what we already know. As a consequence, what Stone achieves is a continual reduction in interest, complexity, and meaning. With all the dramatic and narrative resources of the novel at his disposal, he nonetheless succeeds in making Freud's case histories drastically less vivid and exciting than the original written reports. And when he does choose to fictionalize about some moment or incident in Freud's life, the outcome is invariably meaningless, and what is more to the point, invariably trivializing.

None of the foregoing formal deficiencies would be of much interest or account were their effect on the personification of Freud that emerges from these pages not so ruinous. For what Stone does is to turn Freud into a kind of respectable dope, an intellectual dummy, whose chief distinction of mind appears to have been the ease with which it, and its productions, can be domesticated and vulgarized. Stone demonstrates no sense of Freud's intelligence: out of the millions of words in Freud's writings, letters, and the reports recorded of his conversation, Stone unerringly seizes on that which is dullest, least problematical, most simple in a simpleminded way. He communicates no sense of Freud's wide reading or considerable learning: the Oedipus complex is first introduced by having the Freuds and Breuers go to a performance of Sophocles "in the old Hofburgtheater in the Michaelerplatz" ("'Oh, Sig, could we go?' Martha pleaded"). When they are seated, Stone proceeds to furnish a summary of the plot of the play that goes on for several pages; at this juncture it isn't altogether clear whether Freud or Stone's audience is the immediate object of unconscious condescension and/or insult. At no point will the unassisted reader suddenly realize that Freud was a genius, that he had a mind which was, above all else, bold and daring—and sometimes foolhardy—in the conclusions it was willing to arrive at. At no point will that reader learn anything about the complexity of Freud's temperament and intellect, or of the system or systems of thought contained in his writings. And as a corollary to such absences, we get nothing of that which was unpredictable, mysterious, and problematical in Freud's own person, nothing about the character of his own neurosis, nothing about his extraordinary lapses of judgment, nothing about the equivocal character of his relations with a number of his followers and disciples. In other words, there is suggested none of the pathological involvement without which a genius of Freud's magnitude is almost unthinkable. It is Freud without the warts, not so extreme a distortion to be sure as Marx without the carbuncles, but a Freud who is at all points an infinitely lesser man than the Freud of his writings, of Ernest Jones's biography, or of the biographical accounts of others, including those most hostile to him.

Such abject failings are to a considerable measure a consequence of Stone's radical inability to grasp or understand Freud's inner or mental existence. For that is, of course, the scene upon which the essential drama of his life was enacted. (pp. 94-5)

Despite the title of this novel, Stone's notion of drama is that it happens externally and visibly, a decidedly awkward and unsound conception to apply to a man whose life was largely devoted to language in one form or another, and whose radical therapeutic method involved nothing more active than talking in a prone position, nothing more dramatic than the production of words in the midst of long silences. Stone is resolutely oblivious to such—for him—damaging circumstances….

Stone abases distinction in his very effort to honor it. Even his praiseworthy intention to bring great genius before large numbers of readers comes to seem suspect in the light of the corrupt and corrupting means he employs in censoring, simplifying, and saccharinizing it. And yet one must still reckon with the amiable democratic impulse to make someone like Freud and what he represents accessible and available to everyone, or almost everyone. (p. 95)

Steven Marcus, "Freud without Warts—Or Anything Else," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1971, pp. 91-2, 94-5.

Stone is the taxidermist of biography. He peels the surface off his famous subjects (Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Mary Todd Lincoln) and stuffs them with gobs of unsorted data, pulpy dialogue and icky emotionalism. Not all fact yet hardly worth calling fiction, Stone's books have the intellectual value of slightly organized debris, but they sell. Lust for Life (1934) moved some 2 million copies in cloth and paperback. Approaching 3 million, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) is still going strong. The Passions of the Mind, released early to most booksellers, had sold 125,000 before its official publication date….

Stone's main mistake [in The Passions of the Mind] is nonselectivity. He spent five years in research, and seems more interested in the facts than he is in Freud. Even menus are printed in full, and at one point the story stands still while the author describes 37 of Freud's colleagues. Anal is the Freudian word for this sort of heap making, but Stone is unembarrassed and apparently unaware that the details have effaced the drama of Freud's life.

Brad Darrach, "The Great Destroyer," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 5, 1971, p. 91.

It is a bit late to complain about Irving Stone, who provides novelized biographies for readers who want Vincent Van Gogh and Michelangelo to wear boxer shorts and talk like members of the local school board. Perhaps that is why Stone, in [The Greek Treasure], persistently calls the historical Heinrich Schliemann "Henry."

Schliemann was the self-taught amateur archaeologist who a century ago used clues in The Iliad to discover and excavate Priam's Troy….

Stone picks up Schliemann's story … when, at 47, he married his second wife, a 17-year-old Greek girl named Sophia. Her strength was a good match for Henry's. At the Hissarlik digs, she supervised excavation crews, classified artifacts and helped her husband smuggle out of Turkey a huge and elaborately worked store of gold objects—presumed by the exultant Schliemann to be the fabled treasure of Priam….

This is exciting stuff, but Stone fleshes it out with far too much flabby imagining about the Schliemanns' domestic tensions. Will Sophia produce a son for Henry? Will she endure his abundant eccentricities? Will she put up with the vast marble mansion he builds for himself in Athens?

Stone's archaeology and history are accurate. He also had access to the Schliemann archives at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He was even able to see most of the unpublished correspondence between Schliemann and Sophia. But the book's main flaw is that it observes Schliemann solely through the eyes of a wife who never saw him until he was middle-aged. Novelizing thus gets in the way of biography; the reader is on hand for the exciting excavation scenes, but not for the development of a mind as rich and extraordinary as Troy itself. (p. 90)

John Skow, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 15, 1975.

Irving Stone is far and away the most magisterial of all the popular novelists working today. Most authors aiming for the best seller lists try to make it easy for the reader. Harold Robbins unrolls such a good, yeasty story that even when you are faced with a 500-page-plus novel you know his characters will be doing enough vile things to each other along the way to make the trip interesting. Herman Wouk will set up an expansive narrative, but he always remembers to keep a good plot turning. Even at his most epicminded, James Michener writes so clearly and lucidly that the reader never has to strain. Irving Stone, however, will have none of this pantywaisted coddling of the readers. His books come hurtling down on his audience like the tablets from Mount Sinai, only heavier….

The secret of the popularity of Irving Stone's novels may very well lie in their unreadability. Many readers suffer a certain sense of guilt when they spend a swift hour darting through a Travis McGee mystery. But getting through an Irving Stone biopic gives one a sense of accomplishment, the lame way an undergraduate feels when he finally totters through Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War: he's done his work and he's earned his drink. All of the vaunted Irving Stone research is clearly evident. He can tell you what kind of flowers were on the bridal table, but the story lies dead on every page. The narrative, which adheres as closely to established fact as a historical novel has to, is weighed down with slathers of ponderous dialogue. In Irving Stone novels, characters can even murmur under their breaths in full paragraph lengths….

Heinrich Schliemann was one of those marvelously quixotic characters like Lawrence of Arabia and "Chinese" Gordon who could fire an entire generation with their adventures. I don't know of anyone who read an account of Schliemann's accomplishments for the first time, usually in "Gods, Graves and Scholars," who did not wish he could have been there with him. "The Greek Treasure" serves as a sure-fire remedy to any such romanticizing. (p. 48)

Peter Andrews, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1975.