Charles R(aymond) Larson Essay - Critical Essays

Larson, Charles R(aymond)


Charles R(aymond) Larson 1938–

American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor.

Larson is a foremost scholar of Third World and minority literature. In his first critical work, The Emergence of African Fiction (1972), Larson examined what he considered representative examples of the best African writing. The works of Chinua Achebe, Camara Laye, Wole Soyinka, and others are discussed in terms of plot and characterization, and then related to African literature as a whole. Larson's next critical work, The Novel in the Third World (1976), is a comparative study of novels from various Third World countries. As he did in The Emergence of African Fiction, Larson analyzes individual works and then attempts to define them in a larger context. He notes, in particular, the way in which African writers reflect their country's attempt to assert a national character in the face of Western cultural domination. American Indian Fiction (1978) has been called "the first critical and historical account of novels by American Indians." Much of this work focuses on the difficulty of determining authentic "Indianness." Despite objections concerning Larson's premises and conclusions in this work and in his commentaries on African literature, his scholarly efforts are important contributions to studies of world literature.

In addition to his critical studies, Larson has also written three novels: Academia Nuts (1977), a satire on university life; The Insect Colony (1978), which explores the confrontation between African and European cultures; and Arthur Dimmesdale (1982), a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter from the perspective of Arthur Dimmesdale.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[The] steady superiority of Professor Larson [in The Emergence of African Fiction] is a reflection of his real familiarity with both classical and contemporary fiction, and of his finer critical judgment. The former prevents him from applying some strict and inappropriate notion of the "proper" novel to the material before him, while the latter enables him to look carefully at what is actually present in the work under review. Thus he makes some really interesting observations on the relative "plotlessness" of the first part of Things Fall Apart, on Achebe's preference for exhibiting character in action rather than through description or extensive dialogue or monologue, and on his use of short conte-like sequences within his novel to create a density of background for the principal action.

Professor Larson is also at least adequate in his discussion of [Wole Soyinka's] The Interpreters, and correctly identifies it as belonging with the later work of Armah rather than with the more situational novels of the first generation of African writers. But he goes badly adrift in failing to recognize the intensely African nature of Soyinka's approach to tragic action and fulfilment. This probably results from his failure to look at Soyinka's work as a whole; for an intensive reading of his plays and poems is essential to a full understanding of what is hap-pening in The Interpreters and to a grasp of mythological structure in that novel. Likewise, Professor Larson fails to see that Armah's Fragments, while registering the distance that the contemporary Ghanian bourgeoisie has travelled from African tradition, is not seeking to bury that tradition with the dying Naana, but (like Soyinka) to provoke a search for new ways of articulating it in modern life.

Thus he devotes far too much space to an attempt to untangle what "happens" in each chapter of the novel, but totally ignores the importance of a number of crucial incidents within it….

The Emergence of African Fiction suggests that breadth of reading, open-mindedness and adequate critical skills will carry any author a long way, regardless of his ethnic origins; but there is no substitute for a bit of preliminary work on African oral tradition, mythology, religious ritual and symbolism if the critic is to avoid the danger of missing a number of important clues and connexions.

"Through the Drum," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3695, December 29, 1972, p. 1573.∗

Omolara Leslie

[With] some thought, the sources of irritation [in Charles Larson's book] become manifold. First, there is the title itself—The Emergence of African Fiction—which indicates a scope not attempted. African fiction is not merely African prose literature since World War II, because fictional arts existed in Africa since traditional times. Neither did African fiction in European languages emerge only after World War II; such fiction goes back to the 1880's in Portuguese Africa…. Mr. Larson's study is as generally weak on history as it is on non-Anglophone African fiction as a whole.

It appears that "emergence" is used, not in an etymological but in a figurative and personal sense of "emerging into the mainstream of Western tradition," the note on which the study's last chapter ends. (pp. 91-2)

[The] authorial personality in The Emergence of African Fiction obtrudes, moving further and further away, as the chapters progress, from careful consideration and scholarly statements to ex-cathedra dicta, exhibitionism, hearsay and personal prejudice….

African scholars such as Irele, Nwoga, Echeruo, Ogunba and Wali, among others, demonstrate more humility before their subject matter than Mr. Larson, who ascribes to himself the right to appoint deans of African letters, to challenge Amos Tutuola about his writing habits, to throw aside African culture as passing anthropology, to pretend to inside knowledge of Africa for having taught some time there, to claim knowledge of "the African reader," to intimate to this "African reader" what his aesthetic and literary preferences should be, and to speak for him regarding reasons for his likes and dislikes—which in summary are that the "average" African reader (who is never identified) cannot appreciate the lyrical, the subtle, the complex, or the cerebral….

In the opening chapter, "Critical Approaches to African Fiction," which is a fitting start to such a work and a potentially interesting study in itself, Mr. Larson does not accomplish the required scholarly task of collecting the major critical ideas or critical approaches regarding African fiction and discussing them in some depth. Rather, this first chapter skims the surface of critical thought and excludes the theoretical ideas of practising African critics. (p. 92)

Unfortunately, Mr. Larson is guilty of all the faults he self-righteously condemns. His main points are: 1. the reception of African literature by the West has, for the most part, been sympathetic (Who needs sympathy?); 2. anthropologists have been favorable to African literature because they have been interested in African cultures per se, and not literature itself; and 3. literary critics have been unsympathetic simply because they have attempted to force the African writer into a Western literary tradition to...

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Bud Foote

[On a reading of] Academia Nuts, I am forced to the critical conclusion that Charles R. Larson … has been drinking coffee laced with rum. He needs to be warned away from that stuff; it is dangerous….

[This] is a very funny book that will get handed around every English department in the country with chortles and snickers and the occasional howl of glee. What I hope is that its public is not that limited, that everyone who has ever had to write An Interpretation of a Literary Work, or everyone who has ever shaken his head, bemused, at the number of academically certified readings that can be hauled out of a book by Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, and Structuralists will find joy in watching Professor Larson avenge them.

Bud Foote, "The Sole in Oedipean Tragedy: Laughing Through English Lit," in The National Observer, June 6, 1977, p. 19.

Peter S. Prescott

["The Insect Colony"] is about useless Americans scratching at each other in West Africa…. [The] characters are afflicted by irresponsibility and a sense of alienation;… illicit sex is the spring that propels the narrative….

[Larson] conveys the illegitimacy of his characters' presence in a landscape that has no need of them, that they cannot even profitably exploit. It occurs to Hunter Schuld, toward the end of his sojourn in a remote village of Cameroon, that he and generations of white interlopers had been blind to the reality of Africa; callous and inefficient predators, they gave nothing in return. Poor Hunter: a lonely entomologist who might have been content had he been left to study his African spiders, he awoke to only half the truth, the other half being that he is himself a victim, caught in a web set for him by a devouring woman. Hunter is vulnerable because he is innocent. He stands 4 feet 7 inches tall and has never been to bed with a white woman. Myrna Jeffers changes that: the wife of a defeated USIS official and a pathological liar, she seduces Hunter handily. Too late, Hunter tries an act of atonement but he fails, and that failure, it is hinted, precipitates his own abrupt demise.

This is a remorseless story strongly told. The sex fairly steams and the symbols are painted with the kind of bold brush that eases the lives of freshman English instructors. I particularly like the use to which Larson has put that most troublesome of structural devices, the split narration. Myrna tells much of the story; her husband, some; the wretched Hunter, being so early dead, must rely on the author to carry his part of the tale. There is a point to this diversity: because of his need for Myrna, Hunter must accept the fantasy she offers. The reader will not know for a long time that it is a fantasy, and Hunter never finds out. At the book's end, Myrna is still spinning her self-deception, confirming with every strand what her former lover feared was true about the white man in the black man's continent.

Peter S. Prescott, "Hot Tickets," in Newsweek, Vol. 92, No. 14, October 2, 1978, p. 94.∗

Peter Nazareth

Surprisingly—because we tend to dismiss critics turned novelist—The Insect Colony is a fine novel. Larson has a novelist's sensibility. He uses various novelistic techniques such as split narration, varying levels of perception, movement through time zones and the ending of every chapter with a startling revelation or question. Hunter Schuld, an entomologist, has returned to West Africa to study spiders. Metaphorically, everybody gets caught in a web of connections—an image Larson may have picked up from West African writers like Wole Soyinka, but one which works both because of the details of web construction and because we are made to see connections between people, sensibilities and histories.


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Jack L. Davis

The title of [Charles Larson's] pioneering study [American Indian Fiction] is somewhat misleading, for Larson intends a discussion of novels only, not shorter fiction as well. One suspects this restriction owes to the author's self-admittedly brief acquaintance with imaginative literature written by Native Americans. Unfortunately, the limitation leads the author into generalizations based upon but 16 works, from Simon Pokagon's Queen of the Woods (1899) to Leslie Silko's Ceremony (1977). If Larson had consulted, for example, Kenneth Rosen's collection of contemporary Indian stories, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, he would have found a dozen and half examples of how many gifted young...

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Larry Evers

[American Indian Fiction] is the first book-length study of fiction written by American Indians. Larson treats novels by twelve authors: Simon Pokagon, John M. Okison, John J. Mathews, D'Arcy McNickle, N. Scott Momaday, Dallas Chief Eagle, Hyemeyohsts Storm, Denton Bedford, George Pierre, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Nasnaga. Though the book is titled American Indian Fiction, Larson discusses only novels, ignoring the fine short fiction of Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko, and others for plodding discussions of the third-rate novels of Nasnaga, Pierre, Bedford, and Eagle. Larson gives some interesting readings of individual novels, but the study is marred by a curious and often imprecise conceptual...

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Richard Bjornson

[In The Novel in the Third World, a] collection of essays on ten representative novels from Africa, India, the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea, and the Black and Native American communities in the United States, Larson proposes an evolutionary schema according to which third-world fiction can be defined in terms of its common characteristics, and not in terms of its relationship to Western literary models. Based primarily on narrative content, this schema distinguishes various stages in a process which has presumably repeated itself each time an European-American culture has sought to dominate non-Western peoples whose value systems are rooted in communal consciousness, a holistic view of history as cyclical...

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Kirkus Reviews

[Arthur Dimmesdale is] Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter revisited—to no apparent purpose. Dimmesdale, you'll remember, is the Puritan minister tortured by his association with the sin for which Hester Prynne wears the scarlet letter "A" on her breast. Larson's Dimmesdale, however, is an explicit adulterer who gets Hester with child and damns both; his suffering afterwards is mental (a Puritan conscience and hell-fire fear inflamed beyond balm) and physical (stigmata—an "A", naturally—that appears on the skin of his chest). Indeed, Dimmesdale appears about to be consumed alive with guilt when Roger Chillingworth intervenes, offering Indian shaman cures and hypnosis. And the ordeal ends only when Hester,...

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Publishers Weekly

["Arthur Dimmesdale," a] recasting of Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," from the viewpoint of the pusillanimous young minister, gets high marks for vision. However, so overwhelming is the convoluted psychic landscape of Minister Dimmesdale that the reader wilts under his vacillations and can only marvel that Hester aroused passion in such a one. Larson's version of the sin that Puritan Boston deemed a crime is forthright, differing from the studied ambiguity of the original…. [Larson] gives some unique Gothic touches to a classic.

A review of "Arthur Dimmesdale," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 222, No. 6, August 6, 1982, p. 58.

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