His life and hard times

A few weeks ago I treated myself to James Thurber’s 1933 My Life and Hard Times, a fictionalized memoir of his early years in Columbus, Ohio. Thurber was the last in a line of American writers, starting with Mark Twain and moving through Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley, who defined American humor as a funny but melancholy body of work, characterized by the use of the American vernacular and the mining of a personal past for comic effect. By 1961, when Thurber died, comic essays like those found in The New Yorker turned more outward to a surrealistic parody of high and popular culture in the tradition of S.J. Perelman, Veronica Geng, and Woody Allen, instead of inward towards the self. My Life and Hard Times exemplifies the earlier trend, and it’s still rewarding, even 90 years later. In his preface to the book, Thurber discusses the character of such humorists:

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. … This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbors, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

There may be an echo of late T.S. Eliot of the Four Quartets period here; and indeed, in 1951 Eliot called Thurber his “favourite humorist” in Time magazine (Thurber, says his biographer Burton Bernstein, “felt that this was the best estimate of his work ever”):

[Thurber’s] form of humor … is also a way of saying something serious. There is criticism of life at the bottom of it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much of humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners — that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment — but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.

Why Thurber’s style of humor and that of his predecessors fell out of favor at some point is hard to say. Sometime around 1960, perhaps, this country finally descended from neuroticism into some form of psychosis. I don’t know why that is, but I get the feeling that it’s somehow our fault.

For whose who feel an affinity with these writers, they are also documents of those who read them. Anyway, My Life and Hard Times and the rest of Thurber’s work are ripe for reconsideration; after all, upon the publication of the book, Ernest Hemingway said that Thurber’s “was the best writing coming out of America.” A good enough recommendation for me.

In the early 1980s, actor William Windom travelled the United States performing Thurber, a one-man show featuring Thurber’s writing; I saw him when he played the Rutgers campus in Camden, New Jersey. Windom had played a Thurber-like writer a decade before in My World and Welcome to It, a low-key television comedy produced by Danny Arnold, who would go on to create the classic Barney Miller a few years later; rarely are an actor and a writer so wonderfully and appropriately paired. There’s very little video available of this show, but below you’ll find a small bit of it. Windom performs “Memorial,” which can be found in the 1955 collection Thurber’s Dogs. This one’s for the dog-lovers out there. You know who you are.

Huck Finn and Hamlet

Originally published here in April 2016, and by far the most popular post I’ve ever written, with over 1,500 hits upon its first appearance. Go figure.

If, as Ron Powers suggests in his exemplary biography of the writer, Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare (and this coming Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his Hamlet. Comparisons are odious, of course, but that never stopped people like myself from stinking the place up a little.

At first glance, there couldn’t be two works of literature more different in genre, style, and voice. Hamlet is tragedy, Huck Finn comedy; Hamlet is set in 14th or 15th century Denmark, Huck Finn in the 19th century American South; Hamlet’s a play confined to the locality of Elsinore, Huck Finn a picaresque novel. And I could go on. But to lay out only their differences is to obscure the continuing appeal of both works to a 21st century international readership. The similarities are more telling.

For a comic novel, Huck Finn has a large body count, nearly as large as Hamlet’s. Indeed, violent death weaves through the novel like a black thread. Before one reaches page 150, Pap Finn, three men on the Walter Scott, and Buck Grangerford (as well as others of the Grangerford clan) have already met violent ends, via a knife in the back, drowning, and shooting; that’s more than three deaths against the two deaths of Ophelia (drowning) and Polonius (stabbing). And there’s more to come, not least a gunshot that leaves Tom Sawyer near death.

There’s more to come in Hamlet, too, which leads to another interesting similarity, and that’s the controversial and, to some, unsatisfying conclusions of both Huck Finn and Hamlet. There are two schools of thought in Twain scholarship about the last fifth of the novel. The first believes that it represents a falling off of Twain’s talent and the book’s appeal, a cowardly repudiation of what had gone before; the second argues that the book is far more subtly crafted and deliberately structured than that, and the conclusion confirms all the satire that has gone before. I am of the latter opinion myself, but even so, Hamlet’s conclusion also suggests that Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and resorted to the Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End school of narrative closure that Michael O’Donoghue identified many years ago.

Both Shakespeare and Twain were working in a period of great linguistic transformations. Elizabethan English was in considerable flux in 1600, and the plays written and performed from Marlowe to Ford demonstrate the white-hot development of both written and spoken English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similarly, written and spoken American English, both vernacular and literary, were just beginning to mature in the 19th century. Twain’s appropriation of Southwestern American dialects as he defined them in the author’s note that precedes the book revolutionized American literature (although, it must be said, many Southwestern literary journalists, including Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby as well as Twain himself, had already started integrating this vernacular into stories written for newspapers and magazines).

Finally there is the question of theme, and Hamlet and Huck Finn share one particular thematic concern, that of guilt and conscience. The title characters of both experience confusion, doubt, and moral quandaries as they make their way through the stories that bear their names. Hamlet is tragic in that his search leads to a death-wish; Huck Finn is comic in that his leads to a desire for freedom. But in both works, individual morality in conflict with cultural morality is a central, if not the central, theme.

I picked up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reprieve from the dour imaginings of Shakespearean tragedy, but it was less a reprieve than I thought. Huck’s story is just as complex as Hamlet’s, and like Hamlet you can’t get a firm grasp of Huck Finn on a single reading. Perhaps it is this that has led to its remarkable endurance, and not only in America. Like Hamlet, Huck Finn has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies around the world, and its popularity does not appear to be waning. (Except, that is, in the United States, where there’s far more Shakespeare than Twain sitting on the shelves of serious readers and critics, in the columns of literary and cultural journals, and in my Twitter and Facebook feeds though Huck Finn like Hamlet has generated entire shelves of critical response.)

Perhaps in part this is because, despite the book’s setting in the American South, there are children, temptation, corruption, violence, rivers, the wonders of friendship, and nostalgic longings for a seemingly more innocent past in every country (not to mention guilt and conscience). It may also be because it’s so funny, and remains so. If we’re going to be honest about it, there are more real laughs in Huckleberry Finn than in any three or four Shakespearean comedies combined. There are also a few in Twain’s own parody of the Hamlet soliloquy embedded in Huck Finn, and for a few laughs here, it’s posted below:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care.
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

A Yuletide Modernist

Enthusiasts of the poet and critic T.S. Eliot will find their Christmas stockings over-stuffed this year. Recently both Lyndall Gordon and Robert Crawford have added a few volumes to the biography shelf, and just days before Christmas W.W. Norton will issue another biography of sorts — of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” by Matthew Hollis. In part, this is no doubt to leap upon the very recent release of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend and, in many ways, poetic muse.

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe has already had at Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl, in a fair-enough review. Fair enough, I suppose, in that she doesn’t outright call Eliot an unrepentant misogynist; Gordon’s biography focuses on Eliot’s relationships with the women in his life, including Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan, and Hale, and it’s been no secret that Eliot’s attitude towards women was highly-fraught at best. “It’s hard, at times, not to be repelled by the poet,” Roiphe muses, and she also gets a dig in at Eliot’s antisemitic leanings (common-enough knowledge by now not to generate headlines like the publication of letters to a lover might).

I’m of two minds about The Hyacinth Girl myself, because, having been indocrinated into the New Criticism during my college years, my initial response is to steer away from relying too heavily on biography as an approach to art. (In the early 1980s, undergraduate literature study was still grounded in New Critical principles; graduate literature study was an entirely different story, which I found to my chagrin and, ultimately, amusement.) Besides which, I still think reading somebody else’s mail, even that of the long dead, is unforgivably rude.

I say this as somebody who admires Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Never has a book been so aptly subtitled — so aptly, I suspect, that any biography could bear it. It’s especially apt in that Eliot, flying high for nearly half a century as perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent Modernist poet and critic, has had his wings severely clipped since the 1970s, both for his obscurity and for those imperfections (not particularly obscure) that became public knowledge in the years after his death. For a while, Pound’s reputation overshadowed Eliot’s until the fascist label rendered Pound persona non grata in the seminar room too; Joyce quickly became TL;DR as our attention spans shortened through the 1980s and cable television and the internet began their dominance over every hour of our days and nights. Nowadays, so far as I can tell, readers who like their Modernism neat tend to take up Virginia Woolf, safely a woman, safely proto-feminist, safely rather dull.

Whether or not these new books spark a resurgence of interest in Eliot’s work is of course an open question. Hope springs eternal, but for me so does skepticism. I myself revisited Eliot’s poetry a few years ago not because of a biography but because of William Gaddis, whose five novels taken together constitute a kind of encyclopaedic post-war “Waste Land” of their own. Gaddis was so indebted to Eliot that he “at one point in the composition [of The Recognitions] intended to weave each line of Four Quartets into the text of his novel, such was his affiliation with Eliot’s vision and ethos,” Gaddis’s biographer Joseph Tabbi writes. This sent me right on to the Four Quartets and to “The Waste Land” again — both of which affected me more profoundly in my fifties than they did in my twenties.

That is a theme for another post. In the meantime, I also looked back to Eliot criticism, finding the best of it still in his earlier explicators, especially F.O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner. Unlike Gordon and Crawford, Matthiessen and Gardner knew Eliot personally, so had access to the man before he was planted in the ground, sprouting biographies. Nonetheless, they shunned the approach. While Matthiessen was speaking of critics and not biographers, I think he hit on something in the preface to his 1935 study of Eliot’s poetry:

The most widespread error in contemporary criticism is to neglect form and to concern itself entirely with content. The romantic critic is generally not interested in the poet’s work, but in finding the man behind it. The humanistic critic and the sociological critic have in common that both tend to ignore the evaluation of specific poems in their preoccupation with the ideological background from which the poets spring. All these concerns can have value in expert hands, but only if it is realized that they are not criticism of poetry. … The most fatal approach to a poem is to focus merely on what it seems to state, to try to isolate its ideas from their context in order to approve or disapprove of them before having really grasped their implications in the poem itself.

F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 1958 edition, Oxford University Press, vii.

It may or may not be pertinent to note here that Matthiessen was himself a socialist, even by some lights a political radical, in contrast to Eliot’s monarchistic, conservative Anglo-Catholicism; he was also homosexual and Episcopalian. He committed suicide in 1950, leaving behind a note that read in part, “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective.”

Matthiessen’s concern was with the relationship of form and content, but I think there’s something here about the contemporary trend to read poems, to listen to music, to look at art not only according to its ideological background but from a specific ideological perspective as well. So long as this continues, Eliot will remain a bird with clipped wings, I’m afraid, no matter how many biographies are published about him. And God help the rest of us too.