Saturday, October 03, 2015

`Sweet Are the Uses of Gentility'

Twenty-six issues of the paperback magazine New American Review, edited by the late Ted Solotaroff, appeared between 1967 and 1977. I caught up with it at Issue #10, published in August 1970, one month before I started my freshman year in college. The big attraction in that issue was Philip Roth’s story “On the Air,” which shared pages with “You,” a translation of a poem by Borges. This was heady stuff for a book-drunk seventeen-year-old. My tastes were still indiscriminate, and I consumed a lot of ephemerally fashionable stuff (Barthelme, Gass, Barth) among the magazine’s nuggets. One such can be found in the previous issue, #9 (April 1970), in which the editors launch a symposium portentously titled “The Writer’s Situation.” It sounds like an invitation to narcissism, and most of it is, especially considering four of the contributors – Hayden Carruth, Russell Banks, Frank Kermode and Robert Lowell – blowhards all. One contributor is a surprise, considering the company he is keeping and his reputation for tersely phrased contempt – J.V. Cunningham, one of the premier American poets of the last century.

The six questions posed to the participants, each trailing a litter of undergrown follow-up questions, are predictably pretentious: “Do you feel yourself part of a rear-guard action in the service of a declining tradition?” To that one Cunningham replies: “Rear-guard and advance are, like their analogues in politics, the terms of a past situation. The alignments of the present are so far undefined.” I suspect that went over a lot of heads. In 1970, Cunningham’s quip articulated a total banishment of the Zeitgeist, which could be distilled to a single word: politics. The late David Myers, a one-time student of Cunningham’s, quoted one of my cracks with embarrassing frequency: “Politics has destroyed more writers than vodka.” The destruction was well underway forty-five years ago. Asked about politics, Cunningham replies:

“You can write on politics or not. I do not. But is politics meant here? Or is it, rather, ideology? The latter is religious, not political, though religion has awesome political consequences. Politics is negotiation, accommodation, controlled power. It is achieving consensus without agreement, defeating a zoning change, voting for Harry Truman. It is being chairman. It is irrigation and not a flood. It is effective and corrupt in a settled society, the Old Adam. It gets another generation through to the grave with tolerable illusions and half-beliefs. I have finally written on politics.”

That envoi, a nose-thumbing Q.E.D., is a hoot, and almost redeems the rest of the symposium. Cunningham endorses common sense in a year of self-serving madness. When asked, “What are the main creative opportunities and problems that attract and beset you in your work?” he replies: “Forms. An interest in a form is an invitation to realize it.”

Asked, “Has there been a general collapse of literary standards in recent years?” he answers: “Well, we have gone from gentility to impudence, and in an age of impudence sweet are the uses of gentility.” Those familiar with Cunningham’s poems and essays will be amused.

[Go here to read the class notes kept by D.G. Myers when he was enrolled in a seminar on the history of literary criticism taught by Cunningham at Washington University in 1976.]    

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