Wednesday, August 19, 2015

`Suspended in the Wintry Silence'

With raw curiosity and a nice piece of detective work, my friend Melissa Kean has transformed a former chemical engineering undergraduate into a military hero and a scholar of Anthony Powell and his twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time sequence. See her post on Neil F. Brennan, a one-time Rice University undergraduate who perhaps contemplated, late in the Great Depression, a career in the oil industry but went away to war, served as a captain in a tank battalion, earned a Silver Star, followed by a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois, and wrote one of the first monographs on Powell. Brennan died in 2006 at age eighty-two. Even this superficial summary raises questions: Why did he so radically change majors? Did the war have anything to do with his decision? Why Powell? Naturally, we’ll never know the answers, which is often the case with important things.    

I found a little more information online. Brennan was born into a military family in Savannah, Ga. As a tank commander he fought with the 735th Tank Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, and, along with the Silver Star, received the Distinguished Service Cross and five Battle Stars (Europe). While working on his master’s degree at the University of Chicago, he was awarded the Anne Watkins Fiction Fellowship in 1948. I find no further mention of Brennan writing fiction. He taught for twenty-seven years at Villanova and co-authored a Graham Greene bibliography that remains unpublished.  In 1974, Brennan published Anthony Powell in the ubiquitous Twayne Authors Series, followed by a revised edition in 1995. Brennan’s approach to literature is suggested by this passage from his preface to the first edition:

“This study of Anthony Powell grows out of a ten-year love affair. One of the impulses of love is to share the joy: `Read Powell’s Afternoon Men! It’s minor but it’s splendid!’ When the friend a few weeks later admits only to having `liked’ the novel, or complains that `not much happens’ in it, one truth has to be faced: Anthony Powell is not an easy novelist for Americans to adopt. The apathy cannot be dismissed as a regional eccentricity, either, for readers as solidly American as Peter de Vries hail Powell as great, and English critics as bright as John Wain dismiss The Music of Time as a bore.”

One can’t imagine a single thought expressed in that passage being uttered by an American academic today, from the talk of love to the reference to Peter de Vries. Brennan continues: “The first basis of literary understanding is sympathy. Powell represents a cool, esthetic, and aristocratic culture often misrepresented in this century of the common man. For one thing, it takes for granted a love of beauty.” Here is the final paragraph of the revised edition, in which Brennan addresses the collections of essays and reviews Powell published in the final decade of his life (he died in 2000, age ninety-four):

“The picture of a venerable author in his eighties collecting and arranging the more perishable of his writings recalls a bit the image of a grandparent sorting stray photographs for a last album, with fond and worried thoughts of a grandchild who may someday be mature enough to want to leaf through the dust: This is the way life was, my dear, grotesque and beautiful.”

A life of teaching, writing and scholarship is an unlikely path to fame and fortune. I’m reminded of that passage in the prologue to John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965) describing the life and death of the title character, a professor of English at a provincial university. All that will be remembered of him, the narrator says, is a medieval manuscript donated to the library in his name by his fellow instructors. The prologue concludes:

“An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Brennan published the first edition of his Powell monograph shortly before publication of Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), the final novel in the Dance sequence, which concludes with Nicholas Jenkins contemplating that “even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.”

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