SOURCE: "Popular Fiction and Critical Values: The Novel as a Challenge to Literary History," in Reconstructing American Literary History, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 29-66.
[In the following essay, Dickstein examines attitudes toward the popular novel.]
The growth of academic criticism in the twentieth century has come partly at the expense of other kinds of writing about literature, including literary journalism, belles lettres, and literary history. Great changes have occurred, for example, in biographical writing. In the nineteenth century a grandiose "life and letters" was often entrusted as a pious duty to either a family member—Scott's son-in-law, Macaulay's nephew, Hawthorne's son—or trusted protégé like Forster or Froude. (Later Thomas Hardy would exploit this moribund tradition by writing his own biography under the name of his second wife.) The mockery and brevity of Lytton Strachey put an end to these family affairs; in the hands of a new breed of glib popular writers, biography became a branch of narrative history, as smooth and digestible as a novel—or as a novel used to be. But the coming of an Age of Criticism, along with the general decline of popular interest in writers' lives, made this kind of confection anomalous. Literary biography passed from the professional biographers, innocent of all critical insight, to the verbose academic scholars, innocent of the ability to shape dramatic scenes, select vivid details, and tell a gripping story. With some signifi-cant exceptions like Ellmann's Joyce, literary biographies became overlong critical studies bulked out with a mass of chronological information about writers' day-byday lives, or guided by some pet psychological theory about the writer's development. Criticism and psychoanalysis have given biographers new tools toward a deeper understanding of their subjects, but they have bloated the biographies themselves, which turn static or break down under the pressure of so much analytical argument and organized evidence.
The spirit of criticism has also altered the nature of literary history. As omnivorous antiquarian scholars like Saintsbury gave way to severely judgmental critics like Leavis, a hierarchical canon of great writers came to dominate the landscape of literary history, giving enormous priority to imaginative writing over discursive writing and leaving most writers as mere footnotes to a small band of acknowledged geniuses in each age. In C. H. Herford's once-standard handbook The Age of Wordsworth (first edition, 1897), the staggering range of writers who appear in less than 300 pages marks the book as a product of its time. Herford includes French and German Romantics, political philosophers like Godwin and Bentham, religious thinkers and historical writers, essayists, novelists, and dramatists, to say nothing of minor poets like Bowles, Crabbe, Hogg, and Landor, all in addition to the major writers. A typical work of our own period, Harold Bloom's The Visionary Company (1961), devotes more than 400 pages to poem-by-poem readings of the six major Romantic poets, followed by brief chapters on three minor poets. Informed by a revisionist view of the place of the Romantics in English literature, it treats literary history of the old kind as an irrelevance. It tells us that literary history inheres in the poems them-selves and in their imaginative dialogue with other great poems from the Renaissance to the modern period, not in the circumstances of their composition, or in biographical relationships, or political and intellectual "backgrounds." Though Bloom sets out to overturn nearly all the judgments of the New Critics, he implicitly ratifies their emphasis on close reading and canon-formation. Behind his approach, like theirs, is an almost religious affinity for great poetry as secular scripture, and a sense of minor poetry and discursive writing as spiritually deficient, faulty in their worldliness. For Herford literary history is a branch of history; for Bloom it is a branch of criticism, or of the spiritual history to which critical reading gives us access.
An even more drastic reshaping of literary history along critical lines has taken place within American literature. When I was in high school in the 1950s, the line of American poetry still enshrined in our textbooks ran from Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell in the nineteenth century to Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edna Millay. Of these figures not even Frost can be said to survive today: the Frost who now bestrides the canon like a latter-day Wordsworth is quite different from the harmless, avuncular gaffer we were forced to read. In those textbooks, Whitman and Dickinson were treated like quirky, eccentric individualists, outside the main line, like Hopkins in England. Eliot and Pound were a distant rumor, Stevens and Hart Crane not even a rumor. For new figures like Robert Lowell you had to read Partisan Review, no staple in my high school.
In prose the upheaval has probably been less great, except for the rediscovery of Melville in the 1920s, but Emerson and Thoreau were renovated almost as sweepingly as Robert Frost. As the influence of modernism spread with the critical techniques which it spawned, nearly every older writer's work took on a new coloring, and methods of interpretation were soon translated into canons of taste, judgment, and critical discrimination. Fresh from a study of T. S. Eliot, F. O. Matthiessen helped create the canon of the American Renaissance, and this was inevitably reflected in Spiller's Literary History of the United States, to which Matthiessen contributed. The first edition of this work came out in 1948, the same year as Leavis's rigorously selective study of the English novel, The Great Tradition. As a collective work of scholarship the Spiller volume was hardly a book in the same class as the Leavis, but in its own terms it was in every way a work more discriminating and less catholic than its predecessor, The Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-1921). The Cambridge volumes, relatively speaking, are precanonical, premodem history as C. H. Herford might have written it. The Cam-bridge scholars deal with every kind of writing from dis-cursive and religious tracts to imaginative writing, from dialect writers to newspaper and magazine writers to children's authors. The last chapters include studies of economists, scholars, patriotic songs and hymns, oral literature, popular bibles (like The Book of Mormon and Science and Health), book publishers, the English language itself, writings in German, French, and Yid-dish, as well as native American myths and folktales ("Aboriginal").
From a later point of view, no doubt, there was some-thing slightly monstrous—or at least deplorably miscellaneous—about the inclusion of all these matters in a literary history: a blinding nationalism and a default of critical judgment, if not some kind of obtuse ignorance about the very word "literature" enshrined in the title. Or so it must have seemed to the more advanced authors of the Literary History of the United States, who included some of these items, along with a good deal of political and intellectual history, as background or interchapters in a work that centers on major authors from Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin to Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Dreiser, and Eugene O'Neill. In the closing section of this work, "A World Literature," the cosmopolitan modernism of Eliot and his school gets its due; it jostles for primacy with the remnants of the left-wing literary culture of the 1930s. But although the contributors include leading leftist critics like Malcolm Cowley, Matthiessen, and Maxwell Geismar, the accounts of individual authors tend to float free of any cultural context. Thanks to the new spirit of criticism, literary history is reduced to a succession of the great and near-great. Background chapters which begin each section are frequently entrusted directly to historians like Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, as if to acknowledge that critics no longer feel equipped to write literary history.
In the second edition of 1953 this split is formally recognized, as the new preface indicates: "In the listing of chapters, the titles of those which were designed to supply information about the history of thought and the instruments of culture have now been distinguished from those which deal more directly with literature by being set in italics. The master plan of the work may thus be seen more clearly, it is hoped, as a literary history of the United States rather than as a history of American literature." But the goal of seeing literature in relation to culture is seriously undercut by such an arbitrary mechanical division.
Since the individual critics seem unable to develop an intrinsic cultural perspective, the enlightened sentences that follow seem like an attempt to disarm objections and compensate for felt deficiencies: "The view of literature as the aesthetic expression of the general culture of a people in a given time and place was, from the start, an axiom in the thinking of the editors and their associates. Rejecting the theory that history of any kind is merely a chronological record of objective facts, they adopted an organic view of literature as the record of human experience." Discarding the fact-bound positivism of the old history, the editors appeal implicitly to a new "organic" history that descends from Hegel and Coleridge to Croce and the New Criticism. Unfortunately, there is a deep contradiction between the historicism of Hegel and the ahistorical organicism of the New Critics. In Hegel, culture and history are part of the foreground, crystallized in the work itself; but to the New Critic the "well wrought urn" is a unique artifact, detached from history, the "foster child of silence and slow time," occupying its own imaginative space and pursuing its own formal and rhetorical strategies.
The conflict helps account for the slippery use of words like "literature" and "aesthetic expression" in this interesting preface. Is literature seen as "the aesthetic expression of the general culture" and a "record of human experience," or is it to be confined to the critic's choice of the best poems, plays, novels, and autobiographies, as in the actual body of this work? Interpretive insight and critical discrimination are things to be valued in any consideration of the arts, including literary history. Evaluation is as instinctive and inevitable as breathing. But the more vigorous the discrimination, the more limited the canon of accepted works is likely to be, and the more skewed the literary history may become. Critics in recent years have repeatedly drawn attention to exclusions based on ethnocentrism or on gender and class. "In the twenties," writes Paul Lauter, "processes were set in motion that virtually eliminated black, white female, and all working-class writers from the canon." Less attention has been paid to the exclusion of popular culture and of borderline works on the margin between high and popular art. By resolutely refusing to fit, these works bring into question the hierarchical basis of the canon itself. When scholars venture into film history, there is no question that whatever has been made is potentially part of the subject, not just the accepted masterpieces. There is no workable definition of "film" that ignores the mass of existing movies, as there are definitions of "literature"—and histories of literature—that exclude most of the novels, poems, and plays ever written.
A great many of them, of course, are of little interest to anyone. My concern here is not with what is ignored, rightly or wrongly, but with what is categorically excluded or devalued because of critical preconceptions. Here judgments of quality, themselves very variable, are never the sole determinant. Continuous innovation is a key feature of artistic activity since the middle of the eighteenth century. This is partly the result of the commodification process, the shift from a conservative patronage system to the needs of the marketplace, where artists are forced to differentiate their products from those of other artists, and even from the things they them-selves have already produced. But innovation can also arise from a rejection of the marketplace by a Wordsworth or Coleridge who is revolted by the popular taste and following his own star. In either case, the marketplace creates a demand for criticism that can mediate between the growing number of artists and the expanding middle-class audience, uncertain of its bearings in the brave new world of culture.
This system works better in theory than in practice. At times a whole new body of criticism may arise to serve and interpret a new movement in the arts, as it did during the modernist period. At other times the artists themselves will move to create the criticism they are not receiving from their contemporaries, as Wordsworth and Coleridge did, as Poe and James did after them, as Eliot and Pound did in the twentieth century. Art as we know it is inherently dynamic and unstable, while criticism seems intrinsically synthetic and retrospective. Like the French general staff, criticism is always fighting the previous battle, the last war; its standards are inevitably drawn from an earlier phase of creative activity, from which it codifies the rules that artists feel almost obliged to violate.
Sometimes this balance of innovation is reversed. For reasons that also relate to the marketplace, popular art is often more conservative than vanguard art, wary of drastic innovation, given to repeating formulas which have worked in the past. Faced by the crowd-pleasing formulas of mass culture, sometimes combined with advances in technology that seem to threaten the existing arts, the critic falls back on originality and high seriousness as the sine qua non of all genuine art. He relegates popular culture to the history of taste and turns it over willingly to the sociologist and the historian. A work like the Literary History of the United States resembles a topo-graphical map with all peaks and no valleys, not even the most lush and verdant ones. For example, nearly a quarter of all the new novels published in the 1930s were detective stories, rising from 12 in 1914 to 97 in 1925 to 217 by the last year of the thirties. Dashiell Hammett was certainly one of the best writers who worked in this form, and he was at the height of his fame by 1948, after a series of films and radio programs based on his characters; yet we search the Literary History of the United States in vain for any substantive discussion of what he wrote. Instead, in a chapter on fiction, we find a parenthetical reference to "the talented mystery writer Dashiell Hammett" (though the context actually refers to his politics), along with three more references in a concluding chapter on American books abroad, where Hammett's literary quality was better recognized than at home. Popular culture in general gets short shrift in Spiller's capacious volume, though it does include literary discussions of major writers like Cooper and Poe who happened at some point to be popular. (We never learn how they accomplished this paradoxical feat.)
Some of the serious gaps in the Literary History of the United States are filled when we turn to indispensable works like James D. Hart's The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (1950) and Russel Nye's The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (1970). Each contains materials that would never belong in any literary history. Hart includes both foreign books that were popular here and nonliterary works like Bruce Barton's biography of Jesus as an American-style huckster, The Man Nobody Knows, and Dale Carnegie's manual on How To Win Friends and Influence People. Nye aptly brings in everything from dime novels and popular music to film and television. Yet these books are also mirror images of academic literary histories. They offer essential missing links and highlight all that is shadowy or absent in the official literary canon. Just as Tom Stoppard cleverly looked at Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hart and Nye see Hawthorne and Melville from the tilted angle of the "mob of scribbling women" who—so they felt—stood between them and their rightful readership. [Hart, The Popular Book] No history of our literary culture is complete without some account of these writings.
Hart and Nye are not simply drawing attention to the popular or forgotten works. For them the whole social history of reading, writing, and publishing are an intrinsic part of any history of literature. Thus Nye writes about changes in the marketplace, the growth of the reading public, the vast increase in the number of newspapers and magazines in the early nineteenth century, and the "succession of technological innovations in the mechanics of printing" that enabled publishers to produce "the acres of print demanded by this huge audience." [Nye, The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America] For the Spiller group, however, such matters are peripheral at best. Literary history is a record of the imaginative heights scaled by talent and genius, with little regard for the conditions under which they worked, the cultural factors that helped determine how their work was conceived and received, and the different kinds of talent and intensity that could operate in the popular arts.
The artificial separation of the "literary" and the "popular," and the parallel split between the "critical" approach and the "cultural" one, is especially vexing when we are dealing with fiction. Most modern critical techniques were developed to deal with the more self-contained artifacts of lyric poetry. The novel, with its looser weave, was the child of the marketplace. It was born only after the old patronage system gave way before the spread of literacy and leisure within the new middle-class audience. No form better illustrates the time lag between creative practice and critical acceptance. As Leslie Fiedler has written,
From any traditional point of view, then, from the standpoint of those still pledged in the eighteenth century to writing epics in verse, the novel already seemed anti-literature, even post-literature .. . In the jargon of our own day, the novel represents the beginning of popular culture, of that machine-made, mass-produced, mass-distributed ersatz which, unlike either traditional high art or folk art, does not know its place; since, while pretending to meet the formal standards of literature, it is actually engaged in smuggling into the republic of letters extra-literary satisfactions. ["The End of the Novel" in Perspectives on Fiction, edited by James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver]
While Fiedler is certainly accurate about the resistance to the novel among the upholders of high culture in the eighteenth century, the way he poses the issue ratifies the presumed gap between the literary and the popular by defending popular culture against its detractors, then and now. In what sense was the novel "pretending to meet the formal standards of literature"? It invented new formal standards that were also literary, besides being instantly understood by nearly all readers. In what sense did the novel illicitly provide "extra-literary satisfactions"? That can only be so if we limit our definition of the literary as strictly as any elitist critic might wish. Fiedler's wild-man stance is his way of thumbing his nose at the critic he once was.
Even in the heyday of modernism, the novel never entirely lost its roots in popular storytelling. Publishers today may find it convenient to distinguish between popular and literary fiction, but this refers to the size of the audience, not to any absolute formal differences. Most fiction continues to occupy the large middle ground between self-conscious experimentation and the predictable formulas of the best-seller list. The formal qualities of the novel were established early on by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, who each felt in different ways that he was creating "a new species of writing," quite distinct from epic and romance. [Quoted by Lennard J. Davis, Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel.] The narrative devices they used were so quickly understood and accepted that they could be manipulated with impunity by Fielding, wildly parodied by Sterne, and turned into self-conscious play by Sterne's French follower, Diderot. Despite these formal elements, a grey area blurs the line between fiction and romance and between fiction and nonfiction. A good measure of looseness and ambiguity distinguishes all fiction from the beginnings of the eighteenth century to the present. As John J. Richetti writes of the forgotten books he surveys in Popular Fiction Before Richardson, "many narratives of the period, presented as fact and accepted as such by many, were sheer fabrications. Many 'novels' were only thinly disguised romans à clef, gross mixtures of slander and scandal. It is, in short, extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction in a great many of the prose narratives of the period that are customarily called fiction."
It would be wrong to attribute this ambiguity solely to the immaturity of pre-Richardsonian fiction. Even the major writers hid behind a screen of truthfulness, posing as the mere editors of their material. In other words, they used a blatantly fictive device to ward off charges of lying and creative invention. But even after this fiction was discarded, the course of the novel right up to the present has continued to rely on some confusion between art and life. In his notes for an autobiographical lecture, Lionel Trilling described the novel as "the genre which was traditionally the least devoted to the ideals of form and to the consciousness of formal consideration… of all genres the most indifferent to manifest shapeliness and decorum, and the most devoted to substance, which it presumes to say is actuality itself." The novel as a genre "presumes to say" this, Trilling hints, though we ourselves, with our heightened formal awareness, are confident that we know better. Trilling is as conscious as we are of the fictive character of all human constructions. Yet he continues to stand with the great apologists for the novel, D. H. Lawrence and Henry James, when he describes it as "the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and which best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction." [Trilling, "Art, Will, and Necessity" in The Last Decade]
In a famous passage in his essay "Why the Novel Matters," Lawrence had boasted that "being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog."
The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, and any other book-tremulation can do.
The novel is the book of life. In this sense, the Bible is a great confused novel.
From Aristotle to Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold, critics and poets had used this argument to defend poetry and to proclaim its universality against the more factual claims of history and science. Lawrence directs the same argument against poetry itself, in the name of a form whose dignity and truth were still in question as he was writing. "The crown of literature is poetry," wrote Matthew Arnold in 1887, after taking due note of the creative ferment in French, English, and Russian fiction. Here, at the end of his life, Arnold ruefully acknowledged mat fiction was "the form of imaginative literature which in our day is the most popular and the most possible," but this was further evidence to him that literature had fallen on hard times. Arnold's conservatism exemplifies the time lag between creative achievement and critical recognition. The popular character of fiction, for him, was an argument against it.
This was the very period when Flaubert and Henry James were bidding to elevate fiction from popular culture into art by holding it to an unheard-of standard of formal control. This can be observed in the exacting craftsman-ship of their novels and stories, but also in Flaubert's letters and James's reviews, essays, and prefaces—documents in their struggle to achieve a precision of language and a consistency of narrative viewpoint that were alien to the early novelists. Yet the novels of both men, like later "serious" fiction, include generous helpings of romance and melodrama, those indispensable staples of popular fiction. Henry James's legacy to later criticism and fiction was especially ambiguous. In the hands of Percy Lubbock and the academic critics who came after him, James's critical prefaces were turned into rules of craft that made "creative writing" less creative and more teachable, rules that the best novelists had usually felt free to ignore. Lawrence, one of the writers who broke those rules most flagrantly, wrote that "a character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing." James's general view of the novel is really not very different from Lawrence's.
The revival of Henry James in the 1940s and 1950s coincided with a certain academic deadness and tame respectability that invaded the novel. Yet the key terms in Henry James's essays on the novel, such as "The Art of Fiction," are not "form" or "point of view" but "experience" and "freedom." Like Lawrence he stresses "life" rather than "art," sincerity, vitality, accuracy, and variety rather than mere consistency of design. The novel, says James in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, has not only the power to deal with an immense range of individual experience, but also "positively to appear more true to its character in proportion as it strains, or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould."
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.
James feared the moral censorship of his age more than any deficiency of craft; he saw how preconceived ideas could blind a writer to the variety of life and to his own wealth of experience. In a letter to the students at the Deerfield summer school, he wrote:
There are no tendencies worth anything but to see the actual or the imaginative, which is just as visible, and to paint it. I have only two little words for the matter remotely approaching to rule or doctrine; one is life and the other freedom. Tell the ladies and gentlemen, the ingenious inquirers, to consider life directly and closely, and not to be put off with mean and puerile falsities, and to be conscientious about it. It is infinitely large, various, and comprehensive. Every sort of mind will find what it looks for in it, whereby the novel becomes truly multifarious and illustrative. That is what I mean by liberty; give it its head, and let it range. If it is in a bad way, and the English novel is, I think, nothing but absolute freedom can refresh it and restore its self-respect.
This is the real significance of point of view in James: not a limiting rule of craft, as it is applied mechanically in writing courses, but an individual aperture from the house of fiction onto the plenitude of life. There is almost a Paterian emphasis in James's insistence that "a novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression… The form, it seems to me, is to be appreciated after the fact." Later on in this essay, "The Art of Fiction," James tries to define the impressions and intuitions that constitute novelistic "experience":
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience . .. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience and experience only," I should feel that this was rather a tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
Far from laying down a set of rules for the novel, "The Art of Fiction" is directed against the mechanical prescriptions of another writer, Walter Besant, who, in a misguided way, was trying to have fiction recognized belatedly as one of the fine arts. When Besant advises the aspiring writer to carry a notebook and jot down what he observes, James comments that "his case would be easier, and the rule would be more exact, if Mr. Besant had been able to tell him what notes to take. But this, I fear, he can never learn in any manual; it is the business of his life." Henry James would dearly love to have the imaginative potential of the novel acknowledged and to have its cultural status secured. But he refuses to do so by codifying its techniques into a practical routine, which was just what some later critics would extract from his own novels and essays. The seemingly modest shift from James's art of fiction to Percy Lubbock's craft of fiction is really an ominous devolution toward an academic model.
Trilling once described this questionable process as a way of bolstering the superego of the novel. Lawrence and James see the dead hand of formal rigor as a contrivance of classifying critics and cultural watchdogs, not as a true understanding of what fiction is. "The only classification of the novel that I can understand," writes James,
is into that which has life and that which has it not. The novel and the romance, the novel of incident and that of character—these clumsy separations appear to me to have been made by critics and readers for their own convenience, and to help them out of their occasional queer predicaments, but to have little reality or interest for the producer, from whose point of view it is of course that we are attempting to consider the art of fiction.
I have gone into James's view in such detail because he is usually taken as the leading defender of the novel as an art form, and as the point of origin of the formal and academic study of fiction and its techniques. Yet James himself is eager to deter such pedantry, which has increased immeasurably since his time. But since reality itself is unstable, the language of fiction, so long as it was to remain responsive to the real world, could hardly remain unchanged. This was the wrinkle that complicated the realist program of later James and other modern writers. According to Frank Kermode, the split between advanced and traditional fiction became critical during the Edwardian period, with James, Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford leagued against Wells, Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett. "Much of the history of the novel in the present century," Kermode writes, "is dominated by the notion that technical changes of a radical kind are necessary to preserve a living relation between the book and the world." [Kermode, The Art of Telling] Kermode views the split entirely from the vantage point of the incipient modernism, yet he justifies technical innovation in terms of fidelity to life, as James does, not simply as experiments in language. From this point of view, Molly Bloom's stream-of-consciousness monologue in Ulysses is the last word in fictional realism, however much it may have widened the new chasm between vanguard fiction and the popular audience. This was a separation that James himself regretted and deplored, unlike the critics who followed his wake.
Even in its many experimental adventures and deformations, the novel remained the wild child of literature, the natural son that could never be fully legitimated. While making the case for realism, craftsmanship, and imagination in fiction, James confirms its essential character as an open and indeterminate form, oriented toward life rather than self-referential. "Many people speak of it as a factitious, artificial form, a product of ingenuity," James writes, only to insist that the contrary is true: "Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet."
This openness toward life is one of the key features of Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the novel, the only modern theory that does full justice to the novel as a mixed and indeterminate genre, an uncompleted genre constantly in process of formation. Bakhtin's view helps account for the fierce resistance to fiction by the upholders of culture, for he sees the novel not as a genre like epic and tragedy but as a parodic, destabilizing force which renovates older genres but also "infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness." [Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination] Even in ancient times, he argues, the spirit of the novel was one of contemporaneity, a spirit which undermined the classical vision of "a world projected into the past, on to the distanced plane of memory, but not into a real, relative past tied to the present by uninterrupted temporal transitions; it was projected rather into a valorized past of beginnings and peak times." In Bakhtin's theory, epic and tragedy are completed genres in which the "past is distanced, finished and closed like a circle." The novel, on the other hand, with its deflationary immediacy, its self-consciousness about genre, and its awe before the mystery of individual behavior, embodies the spirit of modernity that resists the closure of genre and recreates the open weave of life itself.
This carefully created illusion that fiction gives us life "without rearrangement," without artifice, is deeply in-grained in the early history of the novel. It helps explain why the novel was so long ignored or viewed with suspicion by critics and aestheticians. In its transparency and popularity it remained a challenge to literary history, and it violated classical decorum in both its style and subject. Arguing against those who hoped to see fiction elevated into art, purified of its gross realism (especially the French kind), James wrote that "art is essentially selection, but it is a selection whose main care is to be typical, to be inclusive." If Defoe was our first novelist, it was partly because he seemed so artless and unselective, so rooted in matter-of-fact. In Factual Fictions Lennard J. Davis has written a convincing study of the origins of fiction in the journalism of the eighteenth century. Davis's starting points are the many assertions of documentary veracity that distinguished early novelists from writers of romance, who trafficked in the marvelous, the exotic, and the improbable. Thus Lord Chesterfield described a romance as "twelve volumes, all filled with insipid love, nonsense, and the most incredible adventures." According to Dr. Johnson, "Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long, in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive." The novel, on the other hand, in the words of Clara Reeve, "gives us a familiar relation of such things, as pass everyday before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves and we are affected by the joys or distresses of the person in the story, as if they were our own." If the novelists of the period, says Davis, "refused to concede that they were writing fiction, perhaps it was because fiction was too limiting a concept for them; they were in their own sense of themselves still writing news—only, in this case, news stripped of its reference to immediate public events."
Daniel Defoe is the crucial case, the prototype of the journalist-turned-novelist whodid not even take up fiction until he was nearly sixty. In his own time he was known almost exclusively as a prolific journalist and political pamphleteer. "Defoe the great novelist is an invention of the nineteenth century," says Pat Rogers. "In his own day… he was thought of as a controversialist." [Rogers, Defoe: The Critical Heritage] After his death he was forgotten for decades. Yet Robinson Crusoe stood apart from his other work to become perhaps the most famous book of the eighteenth century, as widely read and frequently imitated on the continent as in England and America. Robinson Crusoe's position in the history of the novel is likely never to be fully pinned down, for some of the very qualities that make Defoe a novelist also separate him from most of his successors. The flatness of his prose is part of his remarkable realism of circumstantial detail, yet it carries over into a flatness of emotional tone that limits the subjective element so important to fictional realism. Though Defoe's novels are cast as autobiographical narratives, his protagonists are too engrossed in the struggle for existence to waste much time on feeling or sensibility. The psychological novel begins with Richardson rather than Defoe or Fielding.
Robinson Crusoe creates special difficulties for the historian of fiction. Though it is often described as the first English novel, its isolated setting and lonely hero belong more to the exotic realm of travel writing, adventure, and romance than to the social world of the novel. Davis is only the most recent of many critics who express uneasiness with the accepted place of Defoe's novel at the head of the fictional line: "Robinson Crusoe, in many ways, seems like the wrong locus—the exquisitely wrong place—to begin a consideration of the origins of the novel. Crusoe is such an atypical work, so devoid of society, of human interaction, so full of lists and micro-observations." [Davis, Factual Fictions]
He goes on to suggest that perhaps it is precisely their artlessness, their intermediate status between fact and fiction, that accounts for the paradoxical centrality of Defoe's novels within the fictional tradition. If it is true that his novels have "no dazzling plots, not much in the way of form—just a kind of dogged attention to the cumulative details, to getting the story down on record," then this is peculiarly consistent with James's remark that "the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of the novel—the merit on which all its other merits… helplessly and submissively depend" (p. 53). This is a good explanation of Defoe's importance, as well as his ambiguous status, but it doesn't account for the special fame of Robinson Crusoe, which was universally known and read long before Defoe's other novels began to be rediscovered. The oddity of Crusoe's position dissolves when we see it as a landmark in popular culture, not just as the first English novel.
Though fiction itself, as we have argued, is prototypical of the popular arts, there are fictional genres and individual novels that have achieved a special hold on the popular imagination. Often these works compensate for their literary deficiencies—clumsiness of plot, shallow characterization, merely workmanlike style—by their strength as parables or archetypes, their mythic force, or their psychological reverberations. Typically, the characters and their stories transcend the works themselves; they go into orbit as proverbial lore and get translated repeatedly into other media—into puppet shows, plays, comic books, and films, where they become known to many who have not read the originals, to many who can not even read. One of the marks of popular art, as Leslie Fiedler has argued, is that it depends so little on its original form, as if its author has accidentally tapped into a psyche much larger than his own, and made himself irrelevant in the process. The power of such works seems capable of surviving an infinite range of adaptation, simplification, even betrayal. Many critics and literary historians see these novels as merely crude and deficient, or worse still, pandering to mass taste, even when they themselves have helped create that taste. In the standard histories of literature these works are often peripheral or missing entirely, but when included they are consigned to a twilight zone, a no-man's land between art and the popular imagination. If they come from the pen of major authors—I'm thinking of Crusoe here, or Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Poe's detective and horror stories, and Hawthorne's and H. G. Wells's prototypes of science fiction—they slip in under the auteur theory, or as significant items for cultural history or the study of genres. Other enduring works like Bram Stoker's Dracula or Owen Wister's The Virginian are rarely admitted, despite their importance to the popular myths and genres that flow from them like irresistible undercurrents in literary history.
Though not strictly original themselves, these books initiate vigorous, almost unkillable popular traditions. The mutations of Gothic can be traced from Walpole's Castle of Otranto to the most recent horror films. Robinson Crusoe gave rise to hundreds of adventure novels, though Paul Zweig has argued that its hero, cautious, calculating, and methodical, is anything but an adventurer himself. Its influence is most obvious in boys' novels and children's literature, but it can be found more subtly in every variety of masculine action story, with its emphasis on plot, its paucity of inwardness and complex emotion, and its concentration on risk, physical action, individual fortitude, and survival. I have already mentioned other genres and their progenitors—Poe and the detective story, Cooper and the Western, Wells and science fiction. These are also works which engendered indestructible myths—Frankenstein, Dracula, Tarzan of the Apes. These and other novels could be discussed as anomalous popular fiction that tests the boundaries of the canon, confounds traditional criticism, and stymies literary history. For the remainder of this essay, however, I'll confine myself to the strand of action and adventure that descends from Crusoe and the strain of lurid sentiment and sensuality that is an important element of Gothic. As a prototype for Gothic I'll use not the frigid, cerebral Castle of Otranto but Matthew G. Lewis's genuinely terrifying and lubricious novel The Monk (1796), one of the wildest excesses of Gothic fiction—an immensely popular and scandalous work in its period. Between these two dialectical poles I hope to cover a broad spectrum of popular fiction: masculine and feminine, natural and supernatural, behavioral and psychological, asexual and hypersexual, action-oriented and feeling-bound.
In one sense these popular novels seem to violate the prescriptions of Lawrence and James: they are elaborately formal, highly patterned works. Lawrence writes that "in the novel, the characters can do nothing but live. If they keep on being good, according to pattern, or bad, according to pattern, or even volatile, according to pattern, they cease to live, and the novel falls dead." [Lawrence, "Why the Novel Matters"] But when Lawrence set out to confront the classics of American literature, he was quick to grasp the mythic and psychological patterns in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Though many of their books were far from popular when they first came out, the quasi-mythic patterns of American romance are closer to popular fiction than to the European novel of social realism. This didn't mean that the romance writer was free of the need to be concrete and credible, within the limits of his donnée or objective. "I can think of no obligation to which the 'romancer' would not be held equally with the novelist," wrote Henry James. "The standard of execution is equally high for each." In his famous comparison of Treasure Island—one of Robinson Crusoe's best-known descendants—with a novel by Edmond de Goncourt about "a little French girl," James wrote that "one of these productions strikes me as exactly as much of a novel as the other, and as having a 'story' quite as much. The moral consciousness of a child is as much a part of life as the islands of the Spanish Main." James here is insisting on the eventfulness of his own fiction of "moral consciousness" but his point is broader and cuts both ways.
Popular fiction generally combines a realism of detail with a premise that is mythical, exotic, or formulaic. As Robert Warshow says of popular film genres like the gangster film and the Western, "one goes to any individual example of the type with very definite expectations." In another essay he writes, "the proper function of realism in a Western movie can only be to deepen the lines of that pattern." [Warshow, The Immediate Experience] This may put too strict an emphasis on formula, not enough on the realism that makes the formula fresh and credible. The closer a piece of writing comes to the fantastic and the surreal, the more it depends on vivid details to make the fantasy believable. This was one of the lessons of Kafka's style that was lost on most of his imitators.
All fiction requires a degree of projection and identification on the reader's part, but popular works appeal more directly to the reader's (or viewer's) fantasy life and less to his sense of verisimilitude, his recognition of lived reality. Soap operas and pornographic works are extreme examples of stories that obey their own laws, with only occasional resemblances to the real world. They appeal to their audience's fantasy lives directly, within a self-enclosed setting. In a work like Robinson Crusoe, the enclosed setting is minutely realized, just as Kafka methodically constructs Gregor Samsa's life as an insect (in a story in which only the first sentence, the premise, stretches the laws of nature: everything else flows naturally from it). Thus Robinson Crusoe makes himself and his own life the object of almost scientific observation. This is Defoe's conception of the novelist's craft as well as Crusoe's character. After describing some of his own reactions to things, Crusoe writes: "Let the naturalists explain these things, and the reason and manner of them; all I can say to them is to describe the fact, which was even surprising to me when I found it."
Within the popular novel, as in the traditions of the American romance, the relationship to nature is often more important than social relationships. Robinson Crusoe is a prototypical story of isolated man and the quest for survival apart from the props of social life. Crusoe is presented at the outset as an unskilled man who must learn all the crafts and skills on which human survival was founded, from making clothes and hunting to boatbuilding, agriculture, and the raising of domestic animals. (John J. Richetti has written of "Crusoe's informal recapitulation of the history of civilization." [Richetti, Defoe's Narratives: Situations and Structures]) The book has been imitated in other stories about survival influenced by Freud's account of the conflict between biological man and social man, such as William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Bernard Malamud's recent Crusoe imitation, God's Grace. The latter work, like other recent social fables, portrays a postnuclear devastation in which the social structure has disappeared, leaving unaccommodated man to act out the logic of his own nature.
In the eighteenth century, this Freudian questioning of the imperatives of civilization—or of a particular social order—was a major theme of travel literature and its fictional imitations, such as Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Voltaire's Candide, and Diderot's Supplement to Bougainville's "Voyage". The descendants of these works in the nineteenth century were in the literature of adventure and the novel of imperalism, such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where a jungle of inner and outer horror takes the place of the seraglio of Montesquieu and the island paradise of Diderot. This is a kind of test-tube literature, a set of controlled experiments on human nature, and its findings have darkened with the passage of time. In the twentieth century this fundamental moral probing gives a serious dimension to popular culture; each genre in its own way tries to define the fringes and limits of civilization. Science fiction is one obvious example, but Westerns and hard-boiled detective novels also pursue this theme.
In the frontier setting of the Western, the rule of law and the norms of society have either been suspended or are scarcely in place. Like Crusoe on his island, the Western hero is an isolated man who imposes his own kind of order in a world of moral chaos and physical danger. But Crusoe is less a hero than a survivor, a cunning and resourceful man. He is like the ordinary Englishman raised to the highest power, nursing his fears, building barriers against the unknown, accumulating, defending, and domesticating everything around him. Yet for all his homely virtues, his wanderlust was his original sin; his hankering for adventure and fortune made it impossible for him to follow the tepid, prudent advice of his father. Quiet times are anathema to him and lead him into spectacular errors of judgment; only danger brings out his skill, fortitude, and practical sharpness.
The hero of the Western is a transitional figure for a transitional stage of culture. When he creates at least a minimum of order out of a situation of lawless violence he renders himself irrelevant. Once evil has been expelled, as at the end of High Noon, he can remove his badge and fade away into the peaceful sunset of love and marriage, or, like John Wayne at the end of Stagecoach, to a ranch in Mexico where he will be "saved from the blessings of civilization." But in the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, evil is not something that can simply be expelled by solving a crime or closing a case. The desert island and the wild frontier give way to the urban jungle whose mean streets reflect a corruption that seems implacable and ineradicable. Though these stories are set in populated towns and cities, the men charged with bringing order are as solitary as Crusoe and his man Friday, and as terse as the tight-lipped Man of the West.
Very few serious modern novels allow their characters to claim any real mastery over the world they live in, or even over their own inner lives. Only in popular culture do we find a remnant of the old heroes of epic, imperfect men who are now often implicated in the corruption of their environment. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid," wrote Raymond Chandler in his famous tribute to the hard-boiled detective created by Dashiell Hammett and the Black Mask writers of the 1920s. Yet in the same essay in which he romanticizes this hero, he praises Hammett and the genre he created for their realism, at least in comparison to the cerebral and abstract puzzle-mysteries that preceded them: "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes." [Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder]
Though Hammett's plots could be baroque and his style a little purple, in some ways he did to the murder mystery what Defoe had done to the literature of travel and ad-venture: he brought to it a new realism of detail and simplicity of style. At the same time he personalized it around the experiences of memorable and authentic characters. Perhaps under the influence of Hemingway as well as his own laconic personality, Hammett was a great believer in clean, simple, and direct writing. His biographer, Diane Johnson, has unearthed a miniature essay on style which he wrote for an advertising magazine in 1926. It attacks florid and gaudy writing not for being too literary but as "not sufficiently literary." The plain style, with the shortest sentences, he argues, is the hardest thing in the world for literature to achieve, and the last place we would find it is in a transcription of actual conversation:
There are writers who do try it, but they seldom see print. Even such a specialist in the vernacular as Ring Lardner gets his effect of naturalness by skillfully editing, distorting, simplifying, coloring the national tongue, and not by reporting it verbatim.
Simplicity and clarity are not to be got from the man in the street. They are the most elusive and difficult of literary accomplishments, and a high degree of skill is necessary to any writer who would win them.
But Hammett not only knew his craft—he described him-self in a letter, in a rare spasm of immodesty, as one of the few people interested in making "literature" of the detective story—he also knew his subject. How much Hammett had learned from observation, and from his experience as a Pinkerton agent, is clear enough from his fiction but also from another essay dug up by Johnson, this one on being a private detective, from the Saturday Review. With his usual brevity and understatement, Hammett itemizes twenty-four nuts-and-bolts details about weapons, wounds, corpses, fingerprints, and even criminal argot—all things that ignorant or indifferent detective-story writers usually get wrong. (These some-times remind me of Blake's "Proverbs of Hell.")
6. When you are knocked unconscious you do not feel the blow that does it.
Others emerge jokingly from the trained ear of a writer who listens:
18. "Youse" is the plural of "you."
Still others have the patient, pedantic simplicity of a manual:
19. A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles. He knows no harm is done if his subject sees him now and then.
21. Fingerprints are fragile affairs. Wrapping a pistol or other small object up in a handkerchief is much more likely to obliterate than to preserve any prints it may have.
Despite this emphasis on realistic detail, Hammett's wildly complicated plots are as far-fetched as his slangy dialogue is dated. Just as the brisk, busy action of Robinson Crusoe is framed by a religious allegory that resembles Pilgrim's Progress, the gang wars and innumerable murders in Red Harvest, Hammett's first novel, form a parable of corruption that touches even the detective himself. The Bunyanesque name of the town, Personville, has become "Poisonville"—toxic to all who pass through it, including the detective, who says: "I've arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I've ever got the fever. It's this damned burg. You can't go straight here." Later he adds: "Poisonville is right. It's poisoned me." At one point he suspects himself of having murdered the one person there who means anything to him—a woman who is also the all-purpose traitor in a town in which anyone will sell anything and betrayal is a way of life. The detective cleans up the town in an unorthodox way, by setting the rival gangs up against each other. But he's upset to find he's begun to enjoy it: "I've got hard skin all over what's left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of a murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day's work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It's what this place has done to me."
The tough skin of the hard-boiled hero is like the defensive shell Crusoe develops to survive on his desert island. He too rarely lets moral qualms stand in his way. There are few moments in the book when Crusoe's motivation doesn't seem entirely secular, expedient, and self-interested. This leaves room for many readers to ignore or doubt the importance of the religious framework of the novel. Martin Green does not even bother to argue that "the spiritual autobiography aspect of the book is unimportant," because "everything that is vivid and exciting in the book is independent of that framework." [Green, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire] The best evidence for Green's position is that very few readers even noticed this framework until scholars like G. A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter made an issue of it in the 1960s. Crusoe has neither the depth nor the vocation for a protagonist of spiritual autobiography. Yet this motif recurs frequently enough in the novel to dispel any hint of insincerity on Defoe's part. Still, Crusoe's recurring bouts of self-accusation have so little connection to his practical skills and worldly motives that they call to mind the rhetoric of sin, damnation, and redemption that sometimes frames works of pornography. There too we sometimes find puritanical authors deeply immersed in all they condemn; there too it can be said that "everything that is vivid and exciting is independent of that framework." There too, as in a great deal of popular culture, there may be unresolved conflicts of values rather than a deliberate cynicism. Or else a moral framework may be a defense mechanism against the kind of social censorship that is quick to condemn popular fantasies and to insist on strict poetic justice.
Crime and detective stories are among the last outposts of the kind of individualism that enters fiction with Robinson Crusoe: the belief in the power of the individual to solve problems, to correct wrongs, and to control his own destiny. The classic detectives like Dupin and Holmes express a nineteenth-century faith in the power of mind to create order out of a welter of mean motives and jealous passions. In the twentieth century this kind of mastery survives only in popular culture, as a fantasy which compensates for the widespread feeling that larger, more impersonal forces now dominate the destiny of individuals. Heroism becomes a beleaguered and questionable idea. The hard-boiled detective is very close to the moral chaos of his opponents, skirting the edge of the law in a world where law itself has been bought and corrupted. His individualism has been reduced from a belief in an ordered, rational society only temporarily out of balance to a mere personal code, a stubborn, irrational insistence on some kind of individual honor among grasping people in an insane and arbitrary world. "You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up," says Sam Spade to Brigid O'Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon, as he's about to send her up. "Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." But he also has other, less honorable motives. Though he loves the treacherous Brigid, again and again he says, "I'm not going to play the sap for you." Later he adds, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Even some of the killers in Hammett's world have the same stoical virtues. Of one of them at the end of Red Harvest we're told, "He meant to die as he had lived, inside the same tough shell." This was the way Hammett himself died, some thirty years later.
The moral chaos we find in hard-boiled fiction can also be found in the Gothic novel going back to the eighteenth century. If Robinson Crusoe comes at the beginning of a whole line of masculine adventure stories, full of laconic, purposeful, unemotional heroes, the Gothic novel sets in motion a feminine line of popular fiction—elusive, lubricious, impassioned, and centered around female vulner-ability rather than male mastery. This is the most Freudian of all literary modes, built on dreams, fears, and sexual fantasies to an amazing degree, and often hedged about by a teasing moralistic framework. These episodic works resemble modern serials and soap operas. J. M. S. Tompkins sums up the usual plot of an Ann Radcliffe romance in the following way:
They play, for the most part, in glamorous southern lands and belong to a past which, although it is sometimes dated, would not be recognized by an historian. In all of them a beautiful and solitary girl is persecuted in picturesque surroundings, and, after many fluctuations of fortune, during which she seems again and again on the point of reaching safety, only to be thrust back into the midst of perils, is restored to her friends and marries the man of her choice. [Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800]
In M. G. Lewis's The Monk there are no neat resolutions and happy endings. Instead of picturesque surroundings we find grim convents and monasteries which sit atop secret passages and charnel-like catacombs where women are sadistically tormented and sexually abused under the guise of religious severity. The lawless isolation of the Gothic convent or castle is like a nocturnal phantasmagoria of Crusoe's solitude on his desert island. Both are northern, Protestant visions, one of industry, sublimation, and salvation through good works, the other of Mediterranean Catholic decadence, self-indulgence, and immorality.
The violent settings of Gothic novels go back to the Spanish and Italian locale of Elizabethan revenge tragedies and gory Jacobean dramas of lust, incest, fratricide, and religious hypocrisy. To this the writers add touches of the Restoration rake, Clarissa Harlowe's interminable, operatic defense of her innocence, and the new taste for medieval ballads, supernatural tales, German romances, graveyard poetry, and sublunar Romantic melancholy. The claptrap of Gothic exists on two levels, a mumbo-jumbo of trite supersition and cumbersome machinery and a deeper psychological penetration of the kind we meet in Ambrosio, the diabolical, depraved monk of Lewis's scabrous novel. When we first meet Ambrosio he is like Shakespeare's Angelo in Measure for Measure, a man so repressed and severe that he "scarce confesses / That his blood flows." [From the epigraph to chapter 1 of Lewis, The Monk] We hear it said that "too great severity" may be his "only fault", making him as harsh on others as he is on himself. But these rigid spirits are the first to fall, especially in a world so repressed, yet so saturated with desire, that even a glimpse of skin can evoke murderous, all-consuming passions. The core of The Monk is the same sex and violence that have been the mainstays of popular culture ever since. The moral and religious framework is a mere container for garish fantasies of sin and violation, sex and damnation. We are meant to identify with both the seducer Ambrosio and the virgins he despoils; the book plays on our fantasies of both omnipotence and vulnerability, violence and violation.
Significantly, Ambrosio's own tutor in evil is an androgynous woman—really an agent of the devil—who has disguised herself as a boy to get close to him. In male action stories men flee from women, ignore them, or use and discard them. Robinson Crusoe does not even seem to be sublimating, as Gulliver does, for sex and women mean little or nothing to him. He lives in a daylight world of doing rather than feeling, surviving and accumulating rather than desiring. But the equally self-enclosed world of the Gothic novel belongs to the night-side of consciousness, full of irrational needs and sexual symptoms. Wom
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