Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Neglected Books

Most books, of course, deserve to be neglected. Good books are rare. But consider that Moby-Dick was largely neglected for 70 years, and the same was true of Faulkner, until Malcolm Cowley helped conjure his return. Today, academics swarm over Melville and Faulkner, like Lilliputians over Gulliver, though from the perspective of the common reader, who reads out of love, this too might constitute neglect. Edward Dahlberg, himself neglected almost to oblivion, wrote in his essay “Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream” (collected in Alms for Oblivion):

“Herman Melville, who died in 1891, has been interred by the currish literati…Canting, stuffed praise of deceased writers is starved malice; whenever a critic tells such falsehoods about our past he shows his hunger and envy, and instead of providing us with a more opulent Parnassus, he parches the American Elysium.”

Any good book without readers is neglected – “interred,” as Dahlberg says -- though neglect has many causes. Sometimes, readers and critics are unprepared. Consider The Recognitions, William Gaddis’ novel from 1955. It was published to widespread bafflement and scorn, though a few discerning readers understood the magnitude of Gaddis’ accomplishment, claimed the book as their own, and set up an informal Gaddis cult. Robert Coover once told me that two books had steeled his youthful resolve to write fiction – The Adventures of Augie March and The Recognitions. Only in the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of Pynchon, Gass, Barth and Coover, could readers begin to recognize, understand and honor The Recognitions.

The Neglected Books Page, run by Brad Bigelow, is one of my favorite web sites. I go there and get lost for hours. That’s how I discovered David Hume, by J.Y.T. Greig and Action, by James Guetti, and Clem Anderson, by R.V. Cassill. Only the Hume biography is a great book, but all are well-written, diverting and worthy of salvage. Bigelow links to more than 50 years of sources, including Rediscoveries, a volume edited by David Madden in 1971, which I trolled through shortly after it was published and which includes such formerly neglected books as The Recognitions, Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Sparrows, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, and Daniel Fuchs’ Homage to Blenholt.

Elsewhere on the site you’ll find mention of a sentimental favorite, The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith, which I discovered in 1975 and have read several times. You’ll also discover well-known neglected writers, a happy oxymoron: Malcolm Lowry, Flann O’Brien, Christina Stead and the collected works of the late Danilo Kis.

Thanks to Bigelow, you can no longer complain about having nothing to read. He also accepts e-mail suggestions for neglected books. Perhaps I missed them on his site, but let me nominate The Pleasure of Ruins, by Rose Macaulay; Normandy Revisited, by A.J. Liebling; and The Old Forest, by Peter Taylor.

1 comment:

elberry said...

Link to Neglected Books is wrong, should be: