Thursday, October 23, 2014

`The Village Scrivener, a Clerk'

Some people fancy themselves drill sergeants of culture. Unsolicited, a reader orders me to read a writer. Obedience, he promises, will “straighten [me] out quick.” Curious, I give some of the titles he prescribes a forensic skim: rubbish, of course, fashionable whining and woolgathering by an “activist.” Unreadable. Dr. Johnson offers consolation: “Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page.” 

A writer I do read to the last page is Fred Chappell, the North Carolina poet and novelist whose most recent book, Familiars: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), has just arrived. Chappell, at age seventy-eight, is one of our best poets. His Midquest (1981) is a rare successful long poem, endlessly readable, free of pretentiousness, filled with good stories and as funny as Swift. In “Welcome to High Culture” (Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry, 1993), an essay about Reynolds Price, his friend from their undergraduate days together at Duke, Chappell writes: 

“Writing is such an inescapable part of literate culture, such an ordinary part of communal aspiration, that a writer should not much pride himself on his precious volumes. Even if he is the most radical of thinkers, someone who desires to tear his culture down and build it again from the bottom up, society—American society, anyhow—can turn to him and say, ‘Yes, but the reason you were educated was to enable you to think precisely these thoughts.’ The radical writer in America is stuck with this anomaly, that his only audience is the literate Establishment, who are by and large a broadminded and tolerant bunch.  This fact makes him fight the band that heeds him.” 

As Charles Lamb says of the pun: “It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Writers, especially the “progressive” sub-species, have always been lemmings heeding the collectivist instinct over the edge of the cliff. Alone, they’re afraid. In the herd is comfort. In his introduction to Enemy Salvoes: Selected Literary Criticism (1975) by Wyndham Lewis, C.H. Sisson, a writer as honest and temperamentally difficult as Swift, writes: “A chronic independence of mind is unpardonable in any age; in our own it has certainly been safer to praise independence than to exemplify it.” But let’s give Chappell the last word: 

“…no matter how many Miltons, Chekhovs, and Prousts have appeared or shall appear, the writer in the end remains what he was in the year 6000 B.C.—the village scrivener, a clerk.”

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