The Book of Samuel

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The essays in The Book of Samuel, most of which have appeared elsewhere previously, put forth a thought-provoking and sometimes maddening mélange of reflections on a variety of writers. The book is replete with insights into these writers’ works, intermingled with autobiographical vignettes that do not always obviously connect to the subjects ostensibly under consideration. Mark Rudman serves as a chatty and knowledgeable tour guide through the works he investigates, but his free-form presentation will frustrate those seeking a thesis or a cohesive argument. Readers seeking to revisit Rudman’s reflections will also be frustrated by the absence of an index.

The opening chapter, “On the Road, Touch and Go, with D. H. Lawrence” responds to a letter from Gary Adelman of the University of Illinois asking Rudman’s opinion of Lawrenace, the author of Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The Cambridge scholar F. R. Leavis regarded Lawrence as the most important early twentieth century novelist, but Lawrence’s reputation has declined over the decades with the rise of feminist and postcolonial criticism. Rudman nonetheless champions Lawrance’s work in all genres: short stories, novels, poems, letters, and nonfiction. According to Rudman, Lawrence rebelled against the modernist concern with form. Rudman maintains that Lawrence’s poetry is imperfect but not flawed. All Lawrence’s writing seeks immediacy, movement rather than fixity. According to Rudman, Lawrence, who wrote Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), took Walt Whitman as his model. Much of this chapter deals with Rudman’s retracing Lawrence’s footsteps through Italy as set out in Sketches of Etruscan Places (1923). Lawrence admired the vitality of the Etruscans, which he contrasted with Roman commercialism. Rudman finds the book still a useful guide, as well as a beautifully written text.

Rudman argues that William Carlos Williams is the American poet closest in spirit to Lawrence, as well as the most original U.S. poet. Like Lawrence, Williams was not a slave to form. Instead, he allowed form to evolve from content. Williams was influenced by Lawrence’s Classics in American Literature, and Lawrence favorably reviewed Williams’s In the American Grain (1925) in an essay that appeared in The Nation. There, Lawrence praised Williams’s concentration on Americans’ energy, a quality that Lawrence admired in the Etruscans.

In a typically thought-provoking insight, Rudman claims that Williams focused on the sounds of words in the same way that nineteenth century realists emphasized personal appearance and furnishings. Rudman shows that Williams was aware of the slipperiness of language. The title of “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital,” published in Spring and All (1923), suggests that the hospital not only is for those with contagious diseases but also is itself contagious. Rudman also shows through example how shifting the emphasis from one word to another in Williams’s poems can alter their meaning. Though Williams’s language is simple, it expresses complex truths, whether about mourners at a funeral or about spectators at a baseball game. Like Lawrence, Williams is, according to Rudman, undervalued. Harvard poetry professor Helen Vendler ignored Williams in her anthology of American verse.

Rudman finds a strong strain in Williams reminiscent of William Shakespeare, particularly when his poems express skepticism similar to that expressed by Shakespeare’s character Hamlet. Walt Whitman provides another influence on Williams. Rudman reflects that some of Whitman’s best poems derived from his experience nursing soldiers during the Civil War. Williams, a physician, tended the sick every day. Such work, Rudman reflects, forces a writer outside the self. It may also have contributed to Williams’s focus on the physical, such as the thighs of a policeman’s wife (“The Cold Night,” 1921) or the gravel in a park (Paterson,...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)