Thursday, May 26, 2022

'Rivalry, Vanity, and Drink'

The proprietor of Anecdotal Evidence won’t remind readers that he enjoys a good anecdote. One needn’t fall for the biographical fallacy to savor a superior story. A revealing anecdote about a novelist has more in common with an O. Henry tale than with a critical article in a learned journal, and it’s usually more fun to read. As Dr. Johnson tells us in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775): 

“I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.”


Those words helped germinate this blog, as did “Anecdote and Storyteller,” an essay by Irving Howe posthumously collected in A Critic’s Notebook (1994). Howe defines an anecdote as a “brief, unelaborated, often humorous account of a single incident, taken to be piquant in its own right.” By that standard, one of my favorite literary anecdotes is the chance meeting of Keats and Coleridge. Howe adds: “One of its attractions is that in times of dislocation, the anecdote holds out the possibility that human beings may still connect, perhaps only briefly, through memory and story.”


One of our finest poets, X.J. Kennedy, now ninety-two years old, reviewed The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1981), edited by Donald Hall. Like me, Kennedy enjoys a good anecdote and revels in the piquant, to use Howe’s word, as in this sample: “Mark Twain, who, when his infant nephew gives him a sweet and sloppy kiss, determines to ‘put up a monument to Herod.’” Kennedy speaks of anecdotes about American writers:


“These anecdotes illustrate, moreover, three of the book’s central themes -- themes that flow through our literary life as strongly and deliberately as the Mississippi -- rivalry, vanity, and drink.”


Then Kennedy sums up his pleasure in literary anecdotes and in Hall’s selection:


“Merely browse in Hall’s rich book, picking out the little hilarities, and you may wonder how such a nitwitted nationful of vain, jealous, posturing rummies possibly could have written American Literature. Read it through slowly, however, and you become convinced that our national classics are the work of human beings at least sporadically clever, decent, and wise. Playing chess with the Duchess of Bourbon, Benjamin Franklin captured her king. ‘Ah,’ said the French noblewoman, ‘we do not take kings so.’ ‘We do in America,’ Franklin replied.”

1 comment:

IronMike said...

You are a wealth of book suggestions, so I (and my bank account) hate you. /snort/

Now I'm looking for that Howe book...