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Classics and Commercials

Because of sentimental confusions about this matter, much criticism, even while honoring the American writers of the last century, has nevertheless been unable adequately to define their daring and originality or their essential difficulty. One of the most ambitious attempts was F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance in 1941, a remarkably enduring celebration of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Whitman. However, the book prompted a reminder from Perry Miller, Matthiessen’s colleague at Harvard, that these writers were not, in their own time, encouraged to think of themselves as part of a triumphant American renaissance. Instead, according to Miller, they were “crushed before the juggernaut of the novel,” by which he meant the popular novel of sentiment and adventure.

Smith, by contrast, does not get excited either to panegyric or lamentation over the literary careers of the last century. Hawthorne and Melville were not, after all, competing for the same popular audience, one that bought the works of such luminaries as Caroline Lee Hentz, author of The Planter’s Northern Bride, or Augusta Jane Evans, author of Beulah.*

Smith explains the popularity of such writers as Hentz and Evans as a matter of social history:

During the thirty years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, the dominance of the older patrician culture was challenged and its masculine and aristocratic values were supplanted by the leveling influences exerted by rapid increases in population and wealth, by the spread of free public schools, by the evangelical movement, and especially by the cultural influence of women, who for the first time were gaining enough leisure to have time to read, and enough education to enjoy, and produce books.

In this spreading enthusiasm for genteel, sentimental, and uplifting fiction, Smith argues, Hawthorne and especially Melville were bound to have a hard time.

That indeed is how American classics may appear when viewed, as they are in this and in nearly all other studies of classic American fiction, almost exclusively within the narrow boundaries of American popular literature and social history. What Smith fails to do however is to place the great American novelists alongside the English writers of the last two centuries—who were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The sentimental and domestic novel of which Hawthorne complained—written by the “mob of scribbling women”—lagged by a half century in America behind its English Richardsonian counterpart, but in both countries the vogue for this sort of fiction was putting some serious novelists in the shadows. Already in the 1760s Smollett was lamenting that English fiction was “a branch of business…now engrossed by female authors who merely publish for the propagation of virtue.” So it was not only trends in American taste for fiction from which the classic American writers stood apart, and we can see how unique their achievement in fiction was when we recall that at exactly the time when popular novels in the United States were being written in emulation of lapsed styles in the mother country, Hawthorne and Melville were initiating many of the innovations later to be incorporated in the modernist movement of the next century.

Smith is a discerning critic, and his earlier book, Virgin Land, has earned him a distinguished place in American literary studies. Few can equal him today in the practice of judicious, historical criticism. But a historicism that works well enough with Beecher or Howells or even Mark Twain can also be a hindrance to an appreciation of Hawthorne, Melville, and James, writers whose own relation to the genius of others, however remote in time and place, seems more immediate and revealing and fresh than their relation to historical or social circumstances. For example, Smith’s report that there is in Hawthorne “a distinction between mere perception of an event or object and insight into the spiritual truth behind it” will correspond to what many will find in The Scarlet Letter or in reverberant short pieces like “The Wives of the Dead.” But such neat critical discriminations are not likely to account sufficiently for the complexities of Hawthorne or of classical American literature generally. The excitement of reading Hawthorne is less in discovering such distinctions than in seeing how the responsibility for them is almost imperceptibly shifted from the author or the reader and made instead to seem inescapably a part of the nature of language itself.

Hawthorne thus shows us, to use his eloquent phrase, “what prisoners we are” of all that we take to be most natural; he proceeds in a way that is at once so natural and so inconclusive that we are incapable of differentiating between inner and outer experience. It only coarsens what Hawthorne does to say that he “obliterates…ordinary assumptions about what is actual and what is imaginary,” since his own sinuous effort is to make us feel what it is like to be in the gap between these possibilities. His language hints at a transparency between alternate states, even while reminding us that it is an obstruction to it.

Smith is impatient with those who find in the American classics what Lawrence called, apropos his own writing, “the struggle for verbal consciousness.” “It should not be left out of art,” Lawrence says. “It is a very great part of life. It is not superimposition of theory. It is the passionate struggle into conscious being.” Smith chastises other critics who try, on rhetorical and philosophical grounds, to defend passages in Moby-Dick that strike him as “unclear or contradictory.” In a phrase that has unfortunate implications for his own conception of the workings of language he says they do not “discover a usable meaning in Melville’s tormented prose.”

Consistent with this is the assertion that Moby-Dick “cannot be transplanted to the twentieth century,” and neither can Hawthorne. Though Smith’s own freer critical instincts suggest possibilities to the contrary, he argues that Hawthorne “did not intend anything so extreme” as “a fictive world without God, that is to say without an intelligible order.”

The author of “The Maypole of Merrymount” would have some trouble accommodating himself to this formulation. It is obvious there and elsewhere in Hawthorne that his idea of “intelligible order” had to do not with God but with human conceptions of Him and with embodiments of these in the artifices not only of theology but of literary forms, like allegory and pastoral. Part of the grandeur and pathos of Hawthorne is that he did not ask anybody’s God to disappear so that he might more freely invent fictions. Instead, he wrote in such a way as to make us know what it is we cannot know, and that includes both God and the order of things. Reading his stories we find intelligible order is always being deferred, we are always expecting that more than one kind of order will emerge.

In his insistence on “usable meanings” Smith adopts T.S. Eliot’s unfortunate but still revered idea of an “objective correlative”—Eliot’s argument that emotions in literature, such as Hamlet’s, are illegitimate when they are “in excess of the facts as they appear.” But this standard offers too comfortable a haven for any critic seeking to understand Melville or Hawthorne, much less Shakespeare. The idea of “objective correlative” encourages a fussy discomfort with the creative possibilities of writing and a search for “facts” to explain why a given style is as it is. If “the facts as they appear,” whatever that might mean, do not seem to account for the rhetorical excursions of Hamlet or Ahab, then the critic must search for “facts” that do not appear. Above all, rhetoric must be rooted in “facts” or in “history.” Much of the time, notably in the essays on Melville, Hawthorne, and James, Smith proceeds in obedience to Eliot’s theory. Thus, after some interesting discussions of nineteenth-century notions of monomania, he writes that

over a period of time Ahab made the White Whale the focus of exasperations that had accumulated in him as a widely if not universally shared human experience. In this interpretation (which I think Melville clearly intended) the insanity consists in a cognitive change that focuses hostility and resentment previously directed against life and the universe in general, on the single tangible and accessible adversary.

Whether Melville “intended” this reading, along with many others, needn’t be a matter of speculation since he directly proposes it in a magnificent passage in which Ishmael says that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Of course what strikes us here isn’t a clarification of motive but the violence of hyperbole in which the explanation is couched. Sentences of this kind induce wonder and excitement to a point transcending rational meanings. This could be an instance in which, according to Smith’s general complaint, Melville is “making an excessive demand on the reader,” for the reason that “we are not given enough fictional substance concerning Ahab’s prior experience to account for his state of mind when he meets the White Whale.”

The mistake here is to assume that “fictional substance” consists of data and facts that can justify a style. What is wrong with the assumption is that the most obvious and powerful “fictional substance,” the substance that can be said to hit you in the face, are the sounds that come off the page, and it can and has been demonstrated that the language in Shakespeare or Melville, in Hawthorne or James, nearly always creates its own justifications for being as it is and not otherwise.

Necessarily, Melville, as Smith disarmingly puts it, is “of two minds” about Ahab’s madness, just as Shakespeare cannot be supposed wholly the partisan of a vain old man in his eighties who in the first scene asks a stupid question of his daughters and then wanders around in a storm telling the wind what to do. But can we not be sure in most such instances that decisions about personal conduct or even about degrees of sanity are perhaps secondary in the author’s mind to certain other considerations that he wants us to care about? The very nature of the heroic demand on life is that it gets excessive; it can often appear to be crazy because there are no objects equivalent to its demands, whether it be a whale, a girl, or a child’s sled.

The best analyses in Smith’s book occur in discussions of writers, like Howells and Beecher, who were concerned to deal with the social realities that engaged the reading public and whose language and imagination were hobbled in the attempt to do so. Much of the time Smith asks language to yield confirmations of what can already be known to a social historian. He proceeds as if at some point in a work the words are supposed to refer us to a final authority for whatever excesses they have been guilty of at some other point. Only rarely is it conceded that language, as we learn from reading “The Turn of the Screw” or The Golden Bowl, can create realities that are the more forceful for being transitory and elusive of verification. When Melville asks at one point in Moby-Dick “if such a furious trope may stand” he is being tactical.

A similar strategy is at work almost everywhere in Hawthorne, and finds its fullest development in Henry James. By virtue of it, the question of the power of language itself is brought to its very surface and made part of a shared experience of writer and reader. It is the glory of our classic writers that they were the first to show the modern world why great literature was to become rewardingly difficult, a part of what might properly be called the resistance in modern art to popularity.

  1. *

    It is sometimes dangerous to be casually amused by such names and titles or by the popularity they enjoyed even at the supposed expense of our great novelists. For example, although only sixty copies of Moby-Dick were saved from the fire in 1853 at Harper’s Ferry, the novel was not reissued until ten years later, and yet in the year of the fire Fanny Fern, the pseudonym for Sara Payson Willis, sold 70,000 copies of Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. It turns out, however, that Fanny Fern earned, in addition to a lot of money, the admiration even of Melville’s friend Hawthorne. Once he actually read her, he wrote to George Ticknor that “I wish you would let her know how much I admire her.” This is a kind of object lesson in the perils of assuming that popular works are by nature only for so-called “lowbrow” or “middlebrow” readers.

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