The Life Below the Ground

This literary quest to make sense of Western civilization’s fear of and attachment to what is below, to what is able to give sanctuary while also housing those who are repugnant to those who exist above, has been ably taken on by Wendy Lesser, editor of THE THREEPENNY REVIEW. She states in her introduction that this journey is not meant to be comprehensive; the emphasis is on works written between 1789 and 1958. This does not mean that works from earlier and later periods of literature are not included; and, in some cases, they are discussed in some detail. No study on this topic could avoid such works as Dante’s INFERNO, Fyodor Dostoevski’s NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, Jules Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures. These works have meant many things to many readers and have given Western civilization images of what there is that both beckons and repulses people when the idea or the place known as “underground” is mentioned.

Lesser has divided her study into chapters that take up different aspects of literary presentation of the underground: thriller novels that depict an underworld corrupt in its connotations; novels that describe advancing scientific discoveries or create literary myths out of similar advancements. The author makes the point that there are strong connections between how archaeology unearths new information about former civilizations and how writers expose the unseen, the incomprehensible, in order to enlighten the reader.

Another area of concern to Lesser is how the underground is presented in children’s literature. In these stories, a clear pattern of growth of the individual child is set forth: Whereas adult literature does not always come to terms with an individual’s peril in the underground, in children’s stories the resolution is made clear. The author has given literary criticism new, eye-opening glimpses into the various constructs of the underground. Lesser’s study is rich in observation and solid in purpose, opening fruitful avenues of research for other critics. The book is illuminating and never tiresome.