Tuesday, December 10, 2019

'Pot-Boiling Shodiness'

Admittedly, iconoclasm, depending on the icon, can be irresistible. Every adolescent knows the exhilaration of butchering a sacred cow, especially within the hearing of one’s parents. But because one man’s trash is another’s icon, and because many icons are worthy of veneration, I prefer my iconoclasts to also be iconodules – icon keepers if not exactly worshippers.

Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without (Stein and Day, 1967) is designed to spark argument and outrage among readers. I dare you to look at the table of contents and not start mentally checking off the titles that deserve to be pounded into powder and those being treated unfairly. The book’s editors – Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne – embody the Sixties spirit of selective irreverence. They begin their introductory “Address to the Reader” with a reasonable question:

“Before you let fly with a scream at our iconoclasm, pause and play fair: do you really like, admire and (most important criterion of all) enjoy the works in question, or do you merely think you ought to?”

Especially when we’re young and view ourselves as rigorously freethinking and independent in our tastes, we don’t want to be thought of as philistines, and make every effort to appear sophisticated or at least not entirely illiterate. Anyone who has spent time in a university English department know its atmosphere most resembles a fashion show – an especially vicious fashion show. All of us have pretended to savor works we secretly detested. Here’s Brophy & Co. on a novel sanctified in the subsequent half-century, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

“No, no, is one’s reaction to the title. And, indeed, to the whole book. All that quivering, shivering, semi-luminous fabric which is not life but serves to drape in artistic fold over life. Virginia Woolf’s work is like some beautifully painted, delicately tinted old parchment which has been made into a lampshade after a labour of several years.”

Then comes the first line from the novel to be quoted: “‘There it was before her – life. Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.’ This is not parody. It might come from any of the novels (probably does) but may be read in To the Lighthouse which is usually considered one of Virginia Woolf’s finest achievements.”

The editors eviscerate other overrated works – Rupert Brookes’ 14 Sonnets (“frankly awful”), Jane Eyre (“like gobbling a jar-full of schoolgirl stickjaw”), Leaves of Grass (“garrulous old bore”), A Farewell to Arms (“a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein”), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“a nice, wholesome, dull book”), Wuthering Heights (“a psychological-historical curio [,] high old rumbustious nonsense”) and The Sound and the Fury (“pot-boiling shoddiness,” “the pretentious tarting-up of the simple into the significant”).

They do get things wrong. On The Essays of Elia: “The essay form is one of the weakliest plant’s in literature’s garden.” On A.E. Housman: “This meagre-talented poet of adolescence, thread-bare of style, cliché-ridden in content, and as rhythmically monotonous as Brahms or Dixieland jazz, is seen at his worst in A Shropshire Lad which is simply one huge pathetic fallacy.” Sometimes when the editors are wrong they are at least amusing. Of Moby Dick: “He’s a mere inflated pretend-whale, inflated by the sheer wish that American literature should run to profundity.”                                                                                                        
The point of Fifty Works is not the wholesale destruction of literature. Rather, it encourages readers to question their complacent assumptions. If you last read Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a sophomore in high school, and found it a wretched bore (or a spicy read), what is the value of that judgment forty or fifty years later? Might you have matured a touch? Are you better equipped to handle Hardy today? Describing a hypothetical young reader who finds parts of the canon “blatant tripe or unreadable,” and who is in danger of coming to the same conclusion about all of English (and American) literature, the editors write:

“[I]f he finds [Thomas] Gray insipid, he is the more likely to take fire from Donne, Crashaw, Marvell and Pope; if he’s irked by the emotional and imaginative feebleness of Ivanhoe or The Vicar of Wakefield, he is probably – but without knowing it – crying out for the adult, imaginative vision of Henry James, Shaw [!], Jane Austen, the Thackeray of Vanity Fair, Gibbon and George Eliot.”

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