Friday, March 01, 2024

'Pick Up a Machete and Start Exploring'

A splendid day for American literature: born on March 1 are Ralph Ellison (1914), Howard Nemerov (1920) and Richard Wilbur (1921). I’m reminded of how important contemporary American writers were to me when I was young, in the 60s and 70s. Everything was new and promising, and I felt privileged to share a few years with some of them – Nabokov! Malamud! Cheever! -- while simultaneously discovering Dante and Conrad. It was all one enormous literary stew. I still think of the best books, regardless of language, age or national origin, as one grand feast with the Americans contributing their distinctive spice. I was a slow learner and it took a long time for me to develop sufficient critical acuity to jettison such former big shots as Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and Joseph Heller. 

Such a literary flourishing is unlikely to occur again in my lifetime, and I worry that even writers as good as Ellison, Nemerov and Wilbur could be forgotten or intentionally erased for all the obvious reasons endemic to our age. Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page on Thursday wrote about the fate of lost books:


“[R]eading forgotten books, and even writing and talking about them, does almost nothing to get anyone else to read them. Just look at this site. Of the hundreds of books I’ve featured here, most are still out of print and forgotten. Once in a while someone reads a piece here that inspires them to go out and find a used copy and read it, and sometimes they even contact me to let me know. . . . [I]t’s not enough to read forgotten geniuses. They truly do have to be rescued. And that is the role of the publisher.”


Of course, Brad cites Moby-Dick, and mentions Henry Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep as a good book largely dead on arrival but resuscitated almost three decades later. I remember first reading the Avon paperback with the rounded corners in 1970 and loving the greenhorn mingling of Yiddish and English. Daniel Fuchs was rediscovered around that time and his three novels from the 1930s were returned to print. I’ve since read his Brooklyn books three or four times. Another writer from the same period revived was Edward Dahlberg. It took a coworker in a restaurant to tell me about him. Brad continues:


“If people today are going to read a book that lies in the dark, overgrown thickets on either side of the path of the canon, someone has to pick up a machete and start exploring. That exploration is not guaranteed to be fruitful. Just like scientific experimentation, reading a long out of print book, even one that got rave reviews when it came out, isn’t necessarily going to result in another ‘unjustly neglected’ masterpiece worthy of being read today. But without the search, nothing that isn’t already familiar will ever be found.”


Thomas Parker said...

I am convinced that one day people will sit in the ruins (literal or metaphorical) and unanimously declare that the internet was a catastrophe, but it does have its upside - through it, you can find just about any book you want. Bad for the reader's wallet but great for the reader.

Faze said...

Of the ten or so books I've read as a result of seeing them on the Neglected Books Page, two were real stinkers, one struck me as a true, unknown masterpiece, and the rest were worth reading, even though it was apparent why they have been neglected.

I admire Brad Bigelow;s noble effort to revive Dorothy Richardson's "Pilgrimage" series, and I hope he succeeds in finding her audience.