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The Artist and His Audience

What does Melville’s career tell us of the creative imagination but that it lies at the mercy of earthly circumstances? Melville wrote, in his dozen productive years, with extraordinary intensity, spending such long hours at his writing table that his health and sanity were feared for and his eyes became, in his words, “tender as young sparrows.” Yet his youth held few hints of precocity or of literary concern; in 1850 he told Hawthorne, “Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then & now, that I have not unfolded within myself.” The pre-Typee silence of this, in his father’s words, “amiable and docile” youth—compare Poe and Hawthorne and Bryant, all scribbling and published by their very early twenties—foreshadows the eventual return to silence when, at thirty-eight, after the publication of The Confidence-Man, Melville again succumbed to fatalism and intellectual passivity.

At the age of twenty-five, however, he found himself brimming with the exotic material of his recent adventures in the South Seas, and sensed a public eager for the kind of adventure tale that he could provide. “The book is certainly calculated for popular reading, or for none at all,” he wrote the publisher of Typee. The English edition coming first, he permitted the American text to be bowdlerized of “all passages … which offer violence to the feelings of any large class of readers.” These included not only “indelicate” sexual passages quite appropriate to the Polynesian setting, but unflattering accounts of the South Seas missionaries: “I have rejected every thing, in revising the book, which refers to the missionaries,” Melville assured his publisher. “So far as the wide & permanent popularity of the book is concerned, their exclusion will certainly be beneficial.”

A certain Walter Whitman, reviewing the book in the Brooklyn Eagle, praised it as summer reading: “A strange, graceful, most readable book this …. As a book to hold in one’s hand and pore dreamily over of a summer day, it is unsurpassed.” Its successor, Omoo, was even more consciously shaped to avoid offending the prejudices of a large audience, and to at least one reader, the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seemed “very inferior to Typee, being written not so much for its own sake as to make another book apparently.” In writing Mardi, Melville himself began to chafe against the requirements of making yet another book. Writing his English publisher, John Murray, he confessed, “Proceeding in my narrative of facts I began to feel an incurable distaste for the same; & a longing to plume my pinions for a flight, & felt irked, cramped & fettered by plodding along with dull common places.”

Chastened by the self-indulgent book’s failure, he returned to facts and commonplaces in Redburn and White-Jacket, but with a good deal of resentment and bitterness and self-scorn. He wrote his father-in-law that the books were “two jobs, which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” To Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Two Years Before the Mast was a classic of the genre in which Melville first composed, he claimed to have turned out these books “almost entirely for lucre” and in his journal marveled that a favorable reviewer of Redburn should “waste so many pages upon a thing, which I, the author, know to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with.” And he wrote Evert Duyckinck that he hoped never to write another book like it, though it “puts money into an empty purse.” When an author, he goes on, “attempts anything higher—God help him & save him! for it is not with a hollow purse as with a hollow balloon—for a hollow purse makes the poet sink—witness ‘Mardi.’ ”

Yet his spirits and energy remained high, and in the middle of writing the next sea adventure, Moby-Dick, he met Hawthorne, whose example and presence, for the year that they lived as neighbors in the Berkshires, emboldened Melville to plume his pinions for another flight, and to rewrite his text into a complicated, exuberant, exhaustive, and wholly original masterpiece. However, as with Mardi, the reviews were sour and the receipts meager, and he settled again to court a popular audience. To his publisher he promised, “My new book [is] very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine—being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new & elevated aspect of American life.” Alas, Pierre, weirdly fetching up all his domestic devils and the resentments he had endured in the households of his mother and his wife, disastrously miscarried, as did The Confidence-Man, its attempt to convey riverboat atmosphere and frontier humor all but smothered under a misanthropy that verges on pathology. Rage had overtaken the sunny-humored natural stylist of Typee and Omoo, and he ceased to court an audience that had ceased to respond.

The spectacle of an artist at war with an audience’s expectations was, by Melville’s time, still uncommon. His contemporary Dickens appeared to enjoy the give-and-take with readers that periodical serialization had opened up, and with no strain upon his artistic conscience sometimes trimmed his plot in response to letters he received. This same Dickens undertook extensive tours of dramatic readings from his own work, weeping with his audience over the death of Little Nell and indeed putting so much of himself into these performances that he shortened his life—a crowd pleaser, as well as a genius, to the end. Pleasing the audience, for writers as well as for other sorts of Victorian musical entertainers, was the art,and, though Stendhal claimed to be writing for an audience of the future, not until Flaubert was the notion formulated of a novelist art that existed in independence of and even in defiance of the bourgeois public.

The idea of an artist arose, we may surmise, in tribal environments where the distinction between art’s producers and its consumers was shadowy at best. All tribal members collaborated in the dance, in the enactments of ritual, and the tale teller and mask maker were exemplary performers within a generally created rite. The social function of art could scarcely be an issue when all function was social, when personal gratification was inconceivable apart from the aggregate health and spiritual soundness. The oldest surviving art objects are votive and totemic; sculptural and graphic representation began in service to religion, and an awesome submissiveness underlies the serene monotony of Egyptian and Chinese representational conventions. It should be noted, though, that even in immensely static Egypt, when a revolutionary Pharaoh, Akhenaten, proclaimed a new theology—a kind of anticlerical sun worship—the artists of his time responded with a new, slightly more supple and naturalistic style. Furthermore, in the tombs of the lesser nobles, Egyptian mural art becomes less Pharaonic, more playful and attentive to the tender details of life, to the birds and reeds, in the Nile valley. Artistic creativity, that is, tends to frolic in the margins of its hieratic assignments, and a perennial skirmishing exists between received conventions and unstructured impressions.

At the dawn of Western literature, with Homer, the Old Testament writers, and the bards and balladeers whose oral compositions have descended from the smoky throne rooms of northern Europe, it is difficult to discern any chink between the assignment and the execution, between the assumptions of the performer and those of the audience. A seamless intention seems bound up in these old master-works. As in today’s symbiosis between the yelling, youthful rock star and his screaming adolescent fans, the artist enunciates the inner impulses of all, and his poetry has little more personal taint than that of the jokes and riddles which mysteriously arise and circulate among schoolchildren even today. The bard proclaims the tribal record; he speaks, or so we imagine at this great distance, for all.

So, too, the great playwrights of ancient Greece descend to us as synonymous with their culture, their popularity certified by the very survival of their texts and by their many first prizes at the Dionysia, the spring festival at Athens—thirteen first prizes for Aeschylus, about twenty for Sophocles (who never placed less than second in these competitions), and only four for Euripides. With Euripides, the youngest of the three, we have hints of author–audience tension in the modern style: the relative paucity of his prizes, his irreverent and even hostile treatment of the gods and their myths, his cursory handling of the conventional deus ex machina ending, as if the playwright is impatiently bowing to convention, and the something morbid and quarrelsome in the psychology of his characters all suggest an artist more intent upon saying what interests him than saying what people ought to hear. The inconvenience of realism, which is to close English theaters under the Puritans and to scandalize readers of Flaubert and Zola,Dreiser and Joyce, first arises with Euripides, who is said to have been tried for impiety and to have gone to live in the court of the king of Macedonia because of his unpopularity in Athens.

The Middle Ages enlisted artists, usually anonymously, in the praise and service of God; we do not hesitate to credit the inner life of the age, rather than the genius of the individual stone carver, with the sublime sculptures at Chartres and Rheims. Dante is the first writer in a thousand years to whom we easily ascribe a personality, a personal history unmistakably reflected in his work. Shakespeare is our classic folk artist, who disdained no extremity of farce or fustian to keep the groundlings at the Globe entertained. He cobbled up coarse old plots, turning their absurdities into profundities and their carpentry into poetry; he concocted roles for whatever actor needed one, such as the company clowns William Kempe and Robert Armin; he casually collaborated with infinitely lesser talents and merged the proverbial wisdom of the time with his own prodigious originality. To think of Shakespeare as so immensely obliging and yet the glory of our language flatters us, of course, and suggests that being a great writer isn’t something to get all fussy and truculent about. Since he left so little biographical trace that men still write serious books maintaining he was somebody else, we have only the work as the record of the man. Those who believe that this record reveals nothing should read the late Frank O’Connor’s Shakespeare’s Progress; O’Connor, with many a bold reading and pugnacious opinion, sketches a turbulent, conflicted, and resentful life behind the oeuvre. He quotes the quatrain from Sonnet 111—

O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds—

and adds this comment: “All the tragedy of the fastidious man who has to make his living in the theater is in that last unforgettable line.” He might have gone on to quote the three lines that follow, and that sum up the artist’s falsification by his art:

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand;
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

Perhaps it needed the rise of a bourgeois audience to create a fully conscious conflict between the artist’s needs and his public’s. While we are aware that the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and, to a lesser extent, that of Michelangelo were led into many aborted and ephemeral projects by their aristocratic and papal patrons, it is not until Rembrandt that an artist pursues and improves his art at the distinct price of leaving his patronage behind. As Rembrandt’s painting became broader, rougher, more daring, and more deeply humane, his commissions from the solid Dutch burghers dried up. What did they want with these light-encrusted portraits of wrinkled Amsterdam Jews, these biblical scenes featuring big-bellied, unmistakably middle-aged women? They wanted, very sensibly, idealized portraits of themselves, with no more psychological depth than was needed to make the likeness vivid. According to Richard Sennett,

In the nineteenth century, problems in communication arose because of the moral expectations the bourgeoisie had of art. Art, it was held, could refine taste, could remove one from the sordid world of small-mindedness and material striving. The Romantic musicians struggled constantly against these restraints of “good taste.”*

For the hard-working bourgeoisie, art became a relief from life rather than, as in less specialized times, an explanation and intensification of it. To an extent, it is still true that the arts survive as an instrument and emblem of social improvement: one goes to the museum, and concerts, and reads books, because other nice people do. One attends college partly to get the knack of the arts, so one will move at ease among other people who have learned the same knack. Art functions as grease in the social wheels. Banks and corporations are now among the chief purchasers of contemporary paintings, which hang in their offices not only as a possibly sound investment for themselves but as a kind of soothing visual Muzak to lull the nervousness of their customers, to create an atmosphere of play and alleviate the terrible seriousness with which we tend to take money. The theatrical arts serve now as they have done for centuries as backdrop to courtships and seductions on the private as well as the business level. Art is associated with refinement, and refinement with wealth, and wealth with power.

People once read Fanny Burney and Thackeray to learn about manners and decorum in the social class a notch or two above their own; one of the charms, certainly, of going to the movies in the Thirties and Forties was seeing how the rich lived, in their penthouses, with their tuxedos and butlers and silver cigarette cases. The recent success of television’s Dynasty again illustrates how the rich, who always look well in their clothes and always find parking places in front of hotels, remain fascinating—supermen and wonder women of the consumer society. But people who read novels now do so, I suspect, more to learn how other people act in bed than at the table; our fantasies run less toward palaces and penthouses than toward the violence and paranoia of the international thriller.

People look to the arts, in any case, to supplement their lives, and when a genre ceases to provide supplements self-evidently desirable, then uneasy philanthropic and legislative effort to encourage the art, to foster its perpetuation and ensure its survival, enter in. Why does one never hear of government funding for the preservation and encouragement of comic strips, girlie magazines, and TV soap operas? Because these genres still hold the audience they were created to amuse and instruct; they exist in our culture unaccredited, unrespectable, and unsponsored, except by popular demand, like the novel in the nineteenth century, like the drama in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. An art form does not determine itself from abstract or intrinsic causes; it is shaped by the technology and appetite of the time. Very quickly, a dust of nostalgia and scholarship can deceptively accumulate upon a form, so that it seems to have been always dusty. Already, learned societies devote themselves to the early history of the comic strip, and the Hollywood movies of the studio era, turned out as giant artifacts by so-called film factories, can now be seen to have artistic qualities and, more surprisingly, an artistic integrity lacking in the more artistically self-conscious movies of today.

There comes a moment in the evolution of art when a certain thing cannot anymore be done; Busby Berkeley musicals and Walt Disney full-length animations could not be produced at contemporary wage rates, and we cannot now, except with a great effort of mimicry, produce images with the texture of those Victorian block prints that, until the invention of photogravure, were turned out by the tens of thousands. In the collages of Max Ernst and the illustrated stories of Donald Barthelme, these prints become art; “camp,” in fact, is a kind of recycling of art—qualities that once seemed neutral and inevitable are the second time around revealed as full of the passion of the time, declared in a style that in retrospect brims with strangeness.

Now, where does this rather fatalistic and determinist overview of art leave the individual creative imagination? The creative imagination, I would say, functions with a certain indispensable innocence within its implacable context. Ever renewed as each generation emerges from childhood, it wants to please. It wants to please more or less as it has been pleased, by the art that touched it in its formative years. Already, a generation of novelists flourishes, Stephen King foremost, that has been deeply penetrated by the vocabulary of television; I cannot feel more than mildly alarmed, since my own generation was enslaved to the movies. The creative imagination wants to please its audience, and it does so by sharing what is most precious to it. A small child’s first instinct vis-à-vis possessions is to hug what it has tight to itself; its socialization and its creativity begin when it pushes a lima bean or a slobbered toy truck toward a sibling or playmate. Perhaps we can take this development a step further back: Freud somewhere claims that a child’s first gift, presented to its parents, are its feces, whose presentation (in the appropriate receptacle) is roundly praised. And, as in this primal benefaction, the writer extrudes his daily product while sitting down, on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain. The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts, wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life, his life as he savors it, in the memories and fantasies most precious, however obscurely, to him. Let me illustrate all this with a brief example from my own humble creativity.

In 1958 I was a young man of twentysix who had recently presumed to set himself up in a small New England town as a free-lance writer. My obligations to my career and my family, as I conceived them, were to sell six short stories a year to The New Yorker magazine. I had already written and sold a number based upon my Pennsylvania boyhood and my young married life in New York City; one winter day I happened to remember, with a sudden simultaneous sense of loss and recapture, the New Year’s Eve parties my old high school crowd used to have at a certain home, and how even after most of us had gone off to college, we for several years continued the custom, which now served as a kind of reunion. The hero of my story is a college sophomore, already committed to a college girlfriend and to aspirations that will take him forever away from his home town. He tells us of a moment in this hectic gathering of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds:

The party was the party I had been going to all my life, beginning with Ann Mahlon’s first Hallowe’en party, that I attended as a hot, lumbering, breathless, and blind Donald Duck. My mother had made the costume, and the eyes kept slipping, and were further apart than my eyes, so that even when the clouds of gauze parted, it was to reveal the frustrating depthless world seen with one eye. Ann, who because her mother loved her so much as a child had remained somewhat childish, and I and another boy and girl who were not involved in any romantic crisis went down into Schuman’s basement to play circular ping-pong. Armed with paddles, we stood each at a side of the table and when the ball was stroked ran around it counter-clockwise, slapping the ball and screaming. To run better the girls took off their heels and ruined their stockings on the cement floor. Their faces and arms and shoulder sections became flushed, and when a girl lunged forward toward the net the stiff neckline of her semi-formal dress dropped away and the white arcs of her brassiere could be glimpsed cupping fat, and when she reached high her shaved armpit gleamed like a bit of chicken skin. An earring of Ann’s flew off and the two connected rhinestones skidded to lie near the wall, among the Schumans’ power mower and the badminton poles and empty bronze motor-oil cans twice punctured by triangles. All these images were immediately lost in the whirl of our running; we were dizzy before we stopped. Ann leaned on me getting back into her shoes.

The story is called “The Happiest I’ve Been.” It was accepted, paid for, and has been reprinted in a few anthologies. As I wrote it, I had a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up. I was excited, and when my wife of those years read the first draft, she said, “This is exciting.” Now, what was exciting? There is no great violence or external adventure in the story, no extraordinary characters. The concreteness, the actuality, I suggest, is exciting. In 1958 I was at just the right distance from the night in Shillington, Pennsylvania, when 1952 became 1953; I still remembered and cared, yet was enough distant to get a handle on the memories, to manipulate them into fiction.

That is part one of creativity; me, my self-expression. Creativity, as I construe it, is a tripartite phenomenon: there is the artist, keen to express himself and to make an impression. But there also has to be a genre, a preexistent form or type of object to which the prospective artist’s first relation was that of consumer, the pleasure of his consumption extending itself into the ambition to be a producer. And attached to that genre and inextricable from its growth is the audience that finds in the contents of this form some cause for consolation, amusement, or enlightenment.

For part two, the genre, there was the American short story, the New Yorker short story indeed, of which many had been written in the decade preceding 1958, but none, my happy delusion was, quite in this way about quite this sort of material. Non-southern small towns and teen-agers were both, my impression was, customarily treated with condescension, or satirically, in the fiction of the 1950s; the indictments of provincial life by Sinclair Lewis and Ring Lardner were still in the air. My self-appointed mission was to stand up and cry, “No, this is life, to be taken as seriously as any other kind.” By this prophetic light tiny details, like the shaved armpit gleaming like a bit of chicken skin or the two triangular punctures in an empty oil can, acquire the intensity of symbolism. The blurred sexuality of this playful moment is ominous, for it is carrying the participants away from their childhoods, into the dizzying mystery of time.

As to the third part of the creative process, the audience beyond the genre, there was the New Yorker reader as I imagined him, needing a wholesome middle-American change from his then customary diet of Westchester adultery stories and reminiscences of luxurious Indian or Polish childhoods. I believed, that is, that there was a body of my fellow Americans to whom these modest doings in Pennsylvania would be news.

Such was the state of my imagination as I wrote this story; actually, many stories not unlike it appear in the magazine now, and perhaps always have: but in my possibly deluded sense of things the material was fresh, fresh to me and fresh to the world, and authentic. By authentic I mean actual and concrete. For the creative imagination, in my sense of it, is wholly parasitic upon the real world, what used to be called Creation. Creative excitement, and a sense of useful work, have invariably and only come to me when I felt I was transferring, with a lively accuracy, some piece of experienced reality to the printed page. Those two triangular holes, that bit of chicken skin are worth more than any amount of so-called style or form. The will toward concreteness, the fervor to do justice to the real, compels style and form into being. No style or form exists in the abstract; whatever may be true in painting or music, there is no such thing as abstract writing. Words even when shattered into nonsense struggle to communicate meanings to us; and behind the most extreme modernist experiments with the language of fiction—Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; the late writing of Gertrude Stein; the automatic writing of Dada—some perception about the nature of reality seeks embodiment.

The creative imagination, then, has a double “interface”: on the “output” side, with some kind of responsive audience, and on the “input” side, with reality itself. If either connection breaks down, the electricity ceases to flow. Both sides of the creative event demand trust: on the output side, we must hope that some sort of audience is there, or will be there. On the input, we must sit down in the expectation that the material will speak through us, that certain unforseeable happinesses of pattern and realization will emerge out of blankness as we write.

We began with Melville. His audience, in that England-oriented, semi-literate America of 140 years ago, was wandering away, but something was frazzling as well in his relation with his raw material. Melville was interested—turned on, we might say—by the sea, and by male interchange, and toward the end of his longsilent life wrote in his obscurity one more masterpiece, Billy Budd, in line with these concerns. The vast land of America and the complexities of family life depressed rather than fired his imagination. So, his attempts to abandon his oceanic material rebuked, he abdicated the professional writer’s struggle and has probably made a stronger impression on posterity for it. He seems, at this distance, unencumbered by facile prolixity or mere professionalism; in his professional defeat his imagination remained his own.

In this present age of excessive information and of cheerful inaccuracy, where six shrewd or at least intimidatingly verbal critics exist for every creative spirit, the writer has no clearer moral duty than to keep his imagination his own. In doing so, he risks becoming offensive. Listen, if you will, to the tone of this contemporary review of Moby-Dick:

Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagances, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull …. The truth is, Mr. Melville has survived his reputation. If he had been contented with writing one or two books, he might have been famous, but his vanity has destroyed all his chances of immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation.

O generation of vipers,” runs through the mind. All generations, each in its time, are viperish, and how the artist survives and makes his way in his own lifetime is fundamentally a personal problem, with many solutions, none of them ideal. But this much seems certain: what we end by treasuring in the creative imagination is the freedom it manages to keep, regardless of contemporary response. Or, rather, the degree to which it, imagining an ideal audience, succeeds in pitching its efforts toward our own deepest response.

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    Harper’s, December 1984.

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