Englishman has hard eyes. He is great by the back of his head.
O. Shenandoah, O, Niagara! In a text that bristles like the quills on a pestered porcupine, Peter Conrad, a young English critic of music and literature, fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, has written a book called Imagining America. It is easy to read, and yet a torture to unravel. This is not due to the absence of footnotes, bibliography, or to the very reduced index—that is the least of it. The most of it is a great fluency of style, a military confidence, an extraordinary range of intimidation that sweeps over the country, America, and a good many English writers, the two in collision being the subject of the book.
Imagining America follows a number of English persons on their journey here: Mrs. Trollope, Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, Kipling, H. G. Wells, Stevenson, Lawrence. In the latter part of the book, Conrad “examines” in the surgical sense the deformities of three gifted English authors who chose to remain: Auden, Huxley, and Isherwood.
Unusual conjectures, connections that move from text to interpretation with the speed and force of a bullet in transit, dazzle and brilliance that often exceed the fluency of the authors themselves: these uncommon gifts in alliance with a nervy vehemence of tone make Imagining America a daunting addition to “Anglo-American Studies.” We, it appears, have much to answer for, and they, especially the later writers in exile, have a great deal more.
The putative thesis of the book is not striking and, since the book itself is very striking, the thesis is only in part a suitable frame. The brief statement of intention at the beginning and end is rather like a bit of brown-paper wrapping that disguises the volatile materials within.
Before America could be discovered, it had to be imagined…. Geographically, America was imagined in advance of its discovery as an arboreal paradise, Europe’s dream of verdurous luxury. After that discovery, the political founders were its inventors.
The passage of time from the Victorians to the present does not find the country, America, in a condition more gratifying to the senses and the spirit; instead, the visitors themselves “re-imagine” our obscure or glaring deficiencies into amusements, curiosities, or personal escapes. “Americans tolerate and even abet this contradictory European fantasizing about them. Loyal to the ideal pretensions of their society, they’re as much prisoners of their millennial self-image as they are of the prejudicial images Europeans continue to inflict upon them.” Thus, the scene opens.
The ending, after the clash of text, person, and Conrad’s rhetoric, is a forgiving downfall.
America is ample and generous enough to tolerate all these impositions on it, and various enough to adapt to all these transformations of it. The moral of this book, like that of America, lies not in its unity but in its diversity.
This benign accommodation, so general in its application to history, would scarcely be worth the ticket. The book, freely speculative, does not have a moral, but is nevertheless rich in statements with a moralizing tone. It is not easy to separate tone and statement, paraphrase and text, opinion and illustration.
“At home [England] you are assigned a surrounding world by the circumstances of your birth; you don’t invent a reality for yourself but inherit one, and exist in a society which prides itself on having restricted the range of imaginative choices. A civilized society, according to Matthew Arnold, is one in which the center prevails, in which metropolitan standards constrain the regions, and artists club together in a clique at that center.” As for America, it is “centerless, not a claustrophobic, centripetal society…but a chaos of disparate realities.” The English writers, grinding their heels in the dust of Vermont, New York, New Mexico, California, and so on, are not experiencing a place fixed by history and tradition. They are caught instead in a sort of whirl and flow, which they identify and use as they will. “Lawrence’s New Mexico is not the same as Huxley’s, nor is Huxley’s California the same as Isherwood’s.”
Conrad’s America, as he extracts it from his literary texts, is hospitable to interpretation, exploitation, and finally to therapeutic manipulation, but its spacious indefiniteness is not hospitable to literature, and not to the novel in particular. The problem of the novel appears in the early pages that announce Peter Conrad’s themes and the direction of his thoughts. The refractory landscape and the people dwelling in it are not agreeable matter for the English novelists in their transformation of experience and idea concerning America—perhaps, perhaps, that is what Conrad meant? In any case:
The Victorians assume America to be slovenly and backward, unworthy of the novel’s social graces and subtleties of observation. Later writers admit the novel’s irrelevance to America, but they suggest alternatives. In Kipling’s case, the alternative is epic, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s it’s chivalric romance…. In Wells’s case as in Huxley’s the alternative is science fiction….
“England prides itself on having restricted the range of imaginative choices”1—many impediments to agreement here, intensified by the accent of the self-evident. “Victorians assume America to be unworthy of the novel’s social graces and subtleties of observation….” Mrs. Trollope and Dickens did not find in the America of the 1830s and 1840s a commendable accumulation of graces and subtleties, but there is no evidence that they considered the creation of Victorian novels, on the English model, a task for the Republic or that they were vexed by the country’s unsuitability for fiction.
Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners may be said to have squeezed the American lemon very profitably. Her book is a masterpiece of novelistic scenes, dialogues, and dramatic conflict between herself and her subject. She is the only writer in Imagining America to have discovered herself here. Mrs. Trollope, with her intrepid talents, her great ambition and need, transformed her chagrin and her frazzled nerves into a classic. She, more than any other of the travelers in Conrad’s book, confronted America in a gambler-emigrant frame of mind—that is, in a confused mood of hope and panic. Her failed Emporium in Cincinnati shows that for all her “refined taste,” she understood schlock and kitsch and was drawn in her commercial dream toward the outsized. (A premonition of the World’s Largest Drugstore in LA Aldous Huxley is later scolded for tolerating?) The front of the Emporium, facing Third Street, was “taken in part from the Mosque of St. Athanase, in Egypt,” and the front facing south was an Egyptian colonnade formed with columns modeled after those “in the temple of Apollinopolis at Etfou, as exhibited in Denon’s Egypt.” The large rotunda was to be topped by a huge Turkish crescent.2
It is true that Dickens’s caricature of America in Martin Chuzzlewit testifies to the author’s loathing of the country, but it does not testify to Conrad’s idea of the Victorian novel’s “social graces.” Instead the intrusion of the American theme indicates Dickens’s anarchic, daring, inventive practice of the possibilities of Victorian fiction.
Anthony Trollope’s North America, more studious and less journalistic than the other two Victorian accounts, is annoyed by much, but he does not seem as a traveler to be in pursuit of an extension of his novelistic world. He had a tangled view of literature in America and knew something, if not much, about it. Both of the Trollopes were political conservatives. “I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions,” Mrs. Trollope writes about Americans at the end. She lays these vivacious negatives at the door of Equality.
“Later writers admit the novel’s irrelevance to America….” Here the given example is Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which doesn’t admit anything since it is not a document by a literary critic but is instead a “worked up” creative act, which grew out of Kipling’s cold, litigious years in New England. Conrad’s verbs are an elastic—they stretch in order to confine.
Niagara Falls, a phenomenon, is for Conrad an interesting measure of temperament, English, and tourist obligation, American. His chapter on the great resistant cataract is thoroughly original and diverting, but also, as it swims along, accusing, not to the waters, but to some of those who made the trip and, worse, to those who did not.
Dickens rendered Niagara in strenuous prose: “What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears….” Oscar Wilde, observing the honeymooning couples, said: “The sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the first if not the keenest disappointments of American married life.” H. G. Wells was more interested in the dynamos of the power company than in the Cave of the Winds. Rupert Brooke wearied of the comparative statistics that established the supremacy of the Falls and wrote that the real interest was not to be found there but in “the feeling of colossal power and of unintelligible disaster caused by the plunge of the vast body of water.” But this acceptable sentiment, written in 1913, two years before Brooke died in the war, becomes the occasion for Conrad’s own leaping: “The eager self-sacrifice of the waters anticipates the reaction of Brooke and his generation to the war, which excited them not because they wanted to defend a cause but because it promised them heroic self-extinction.” Anticipates, excited, promised—not only the rushed young man sending back his dispatches, but his entire generation.
Still at Niagara: “Objects in America aren’t determined by history or enmeshed by association like those of Europe.” For the Victorians Niagara was a “prodigy of nature,” but for later writers “imagining the object comes to mean canceling it out.” On it goes:
This is why the neglect of Niagara by the later writers in this book [Auden, Isherwood, and Huxley] is itself significant, because it is a consequence of the imagination’s meditative withdrawal from observation. The later subjects of this book don’t even bother to practice imaginative distortion of America’s physical reality, for they are simply incurious about it.
No matter that Niagara has suffered a drastic falling of its “ratings” and that the incuriosity of sophisticated travelers and American writers is too widespread for “significant” rebuke. In 1914, Bertrand Russell said, “Niagara gave me no emotion”—said “with priggish philosophical rectitude” in Conrad’s disposition of the remark.
In the ordering of the chapter there seems to be some sympathy for the sublimity of the accident of nature which America shares with Canada. Conrad seems to prod the visitors to take leave of themselves and offer an appropriate version or vision. Few are sufficient to it: Sarah Bernhardt wants to harness the Falls to her “capricious egotism.” No similar unspoiled challenge occurs again, for any of the writers. A “nightmarish” America, of “nonchalant vacancy” and “savagery” and “moral amateurism” lies ahead.
Extraction of Conrad’s thought is outstandingly difficult. Nearly every sentence is a thorn of perplexity. First, there is his saturation in the texts, an absorbing so thorough that the texts have little life outside his own mind; they are expropriated. Assertions, declarations, an unbalancing use of the present tense: “America…promises death and a rending but salutary resurrection.” “Huxley lives in hell…” and the “awfulness of America is….” It is often Conrad’s practice to meet a phrase—his quotations are for the most part brief—and to pass swiftly to revisions, rephrasings, bewildering gifts to the originals of his own intensifications. Dickens, arriving in 1842 in Washington, “the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” observed the unnaturalness of the city, its formality, its insufficiency as a living town, the ornamental thoroughfares and buildings without people to walk on them or to inhabit them. He thought few would wish to live there, who were not obliged to do so. This scene becomes in Conrad’s revision, “These vacant, haunted places, from which people have fled in fear and loathing….”
Conrad on Anthony Trollope:
Trollope’s longing for a smallness of scale which guards privacy explains his furious resentment of a remark made in Dubuque, alleging that England has no vegetables. The aspersion infuriates Trollope, and he is prompted to a eulogy of his own abundant kitchen garden. He is enraged because the domesticity of England, for him its dearest quality, has been impugned.
Furious, infuriates, enraged have taken wing from Trollope’s exclamation mark. “No vegetables in England! I could not restrain myself altogether, and replied by a confession ‘that we “raised” no squash.’…No vegetables in England!”
On behalf of the Victorian writers Conrad asserts that they found America to be “the vast death-chamber of English individuality,” that the country was indifferent to the civilized separation of public and private life and unable to “validate individual existences.” During the thirty years that span the visits of Mrs. Trollope, Dickens, and the second visit of Anthony Trollope, roughly 1830-1860, Walden, Moby-Dick, and Leaves of Grass had been published. Lincoln was alive and Poe had lived and died.
The “aesthetes,” Oscar Wilde and Rupert Brooke, endure in Imagining America the bashing and battering endured by the country itself in the writing of the earlier visitors. Brooke’s felicitousness and Wilde’s epigrammatic genius are cut down by the power-saw of Conrad’s moral disapprobation. The curious and singular slide into the defective. Even with Mrs. Trollope and Dickens, little note is taken of the comic expressiveness, the texture of comic aggression, that give light to their dark detestation and make their records alive today.
Wilde’s genius, it appears, is a “pederastic precocity” he shares with his kind. No quarter is given to his lasting turns of phrase on America, such as, “The Atlantic is disappointing, the prairie is blotting paper, the Mormon Tabernacle is a soup kettle, and the vastness of America has a fatal influence on adjectives.” Conrad finds that Wilde’s “wit not only subverts morality, but subjugates America by diminishing it.” When Wilde holds forth on American marriage—“the men marry early, the women marry often”—he is “disestablishing marriage.” Why should Wilde on his vaudeville tour be guarding American morality and marriage? And what turn of mind insists that we disallow Wilde’s “act”? When he arrives, flamboyantly dressed for his part as a vivid and original self-promoter, he is wearing “a bottle green overcoat of otter fur, with a seal skin cap.” For this and other requests for his dress-props, he is denounced because the fur coat “symbolizes nature sacrificed to art: seals and otters have been flayed merely to adorn his precious body.” The truculent language, the supererogatory precious, exceed the provocation of Wilde’s fur coat.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, Wilde observed souvenir hunters buying up Jesse James’s dust-bin, foot-scraper and door-knocker, “the reserve price being about the income of an English Bishop.” He ends the paragraph in the letter: “The Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” Conrad interprets this as “by implication” an alignment of Wilde himself with the hero as criminal. The innocent observation in the letter becomes “a self-fulfilling prophecy, for his [Wilde’s] subsequent career confirmed his heroism by making him officially a member of the criminal classes.” The punitive linking of “homosexual misconduct” and murder is one of many gratuitous asides in this work of literary and social criticism, a work of remarkable self-sufficiency, it might be added, since not a single line of other critics is drawn upon or mentioned and the reader, stopped by the many road blocks of language and thought, is required to search himself for primary and secondary sources if he should wish to make a few before-and-after comparisons.
Rupert Brooke’s mild Letters from America, written about his journey in 1913, is thrashed by a belligerent exegesis. Certain “pop” aspects of the American scene strike Brooke as suitable moments for a journalistic expenditure of adjective and metaphor. Automobiles, huge neon signs blinking in the sky, baseball and cheerleaders, the old grads lined up for a Harvard commencement. (“I wonder if English nerves could stand it. It seems to bring the passage of time so very presently and vividly to mind.”) On a summer day. Brooke sees a young man driving through the streets in a handsome, expensive motor car and it seems to him that the car is richer than the young man, an observation still of visual and social interest here today, if not to be so tomorrow.
Brooke imagines he might be a young mechanic, taking the car for repair—a decision somewhat “foreign” we might say, knowing the murky economics in America of automobile and income. The young driver has “an almost Swinburnian mane of red hair, blowing back in the wind, catching the lights of day.” In the summer heat, he is wearing only a suit of yellow overalls, “so that his arms and shoulders and neck were bare.” He is “rather insolently conscious of power,” and if perhaps ordinary in real life, behind the wheel he “seemed like a Greek god, in a fantastically modern, yet not unworthy way emblemed and incarnate, or like the spirit of Henley’s ‘Song of Speed.’ ”
Conrad decides from this and other passages that Brooke wanted to “undress America.” He thinks the description of the young man in the car “conveys the concentration of excitement: Brooke has to notice separately each uncovered area. A divinity of physical delight….” Delight, excitement seem to put Brooke on the street, to say nothing of back at the hotel composing, always in a state of incessant homoerotic dreaming. Even an “unexcited” passage on American faces: “Handsome people of both sexes are very common; beautiful, and pretty, ones very rare….” To the dots which end the paragraph Conrad gives the name “yearning dots.”
Brooke’s cheerleader “addresses the multitude through a megaphone with a ‘One! Two! Three!’ hurls it aside and, with a wild flinging and swinging of his body and arms, conducts ten thousand voices in the Harvard yell. That over, the game proceeds, and the cheer-leader sits quietly waiting for the next moment of peril or triumph.”
“Hedonistic abandon”—a phrase Conrad uses about Brooke—applies to his own “pale fire” speculation about the cheerleader, up yelling one minute, mutely down the next: “Brooke considers this contradiction to be ‘wonderfully American’ because Americans are both agitated and idle, and switch from one state to the other automatically, dispensing with intermediaries, rejoicing equally in the body’s dynamism and its inertia, its paroxysms and (as if post-coitally) its repose.”
Kipling and the “epical America.” It would seem foolhardy to try to outpace Kipling in spiteful utterance about America and yet “atavistic rabble” and “savagery” give the clue to success. “Epical” in this chapter appears to mean a warring struggle for survival against “punitive nature,” and “the minimal human character” determined by weather and the search for a survival technology. What it may indicate about literature is extremely shadowy, since the word “epic” is not meant to jar the brain with The Odyssey or Paradise Lost but rather to send it back to preliterate dialect and the specialized language of fishermen and woodsmen.
Robert Louis Stevenson also weaves in and out of Kipling’s anti-novelistic America, but he is woefully weak in the chest, soul-sick in the pursuit of his married lady, and suffering from the refinement of his prose style. This “chivalric quester” posing in the derelict Silverado mine is just that, a poseur, but then, “so is America, since it is a vacuity onto which each emigrant projects his own fantasy.”
Ideas, many in a state of alarming freshness. As you go through Conrad’s densely written pages, it is a little like wandering about an arboretum with plaques giving the name and the place of origin of the trees and shrubs. Brought here from China, brought here from India. The English writers have all been elsewhere and have many things, other than America, to think about. Most of them were productive without intermission. In Imagining America, it is not precisely the authors, and certainly not the complexity of their oeuvre, not even America that are being labeled—no, not exactly. But still they are transplants, for a long or a short time, and onto the tree that is themselves there is a showy grafting of the branches of Conrad’s ideas, an ingenious hybridization.
The obsessive, incomparable reflections of D. H. Lawrence on America seem with their jerky, private originality to be beyond paraphrase, all gleaming intuition. Yet when Lawrence uses capital letters in Studies in America (THOU SHALT NOT) Conrad is alerted to the grating meeting of mind and country. So, “In corrupting his own language Lawrence was supplying America with a style appropriate to its overbearing crassness.”
When we come at last to Huxley, Isherwood, and Auden, the English writers who remained in America, Conrad’s language rises with a deplorable heat. The scorching is painful indeed and the critic, like an immigration officer catching aliens whose visas have expired, becomes, in Auden’s phrase, “a summary tribunal which in perpetual session sits.”
It is as if these extraordinary talents had arrived empty of learning, experience, temperament and were blank pages waiting to be scrawled upon by New York tenements, the sun, American boys, drugs, drive-ins, “hymns and movies and Irving Berlin.” Huxley and Isherwood landed as unthinking guided missiles, driven by an awful, deserved destiny, in California. (Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here.) These three Englishmen are not only to be grounded in America, but each is to be defined by the particularity of New York or California. Places have almost a genetic fatality. They guide the helpless writer as if he and the city were identical twins, separated at birth, but doomed to be hit at last with twin cancers and uniformly faltering heart beats. For Auden, the “numbered grids” of New York’s streets “encouraged his punctilious ritualism,” his attraction to regular meter and a liking for crossword puzzles.
Perhaps no country can deserve the grace that fell upon California with Huxley, Isherwood, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Thomas Mann; of the beneficence to the East Coast of Auden, Hannah Arendt, Nabokov, and I. A. Richards. The subject matter, the landscape, the magical rendering of American follies and symbolic meanings do not make Nabokov’s American novels “American.” The strength, the majesty of the creation of self, style, idiosyncrasy—the very claim of art and their individual practice of it the exiles brought with them to America. They are not, like the prairies, blotting paper to soak up the inchoate ink stains of Los Angeles and New York.
Aldous Huxley appears from his letters, his books, his exhausting curiosity, his roots in his family, his large and unexpected learning to be a genuine and valuable person of great innocence and gullibility. Above all, he strikes one as incorruptible. Part of the incorruptibility lies in his removal from class snobbery, and in the austerity of his personal life and habit. Asceticism in him unites with a peculiar experimentalism that had in it an eager supply of hopefulness; the hopefulness of the Bates Method as a way of alleviating his tragic near-blindness, or the hope of a relief from “intolerable self-hood” by way of mescaline.
The mechanistic direction of Huxley’s urge to transcendence is characteristic. He seems to have been overwhelmed by the mystery of brain, body, and temperament and inevitably saw in Sheldon’s classification of body types a clue to the individual struggling with his obdurate self under the doom of height and distribution of weight.
When he first sits down to take mescaline, in the company of his English friend, Dr. Humphrey Osmond, he has a tape recorder beside him, to see what it does. His early (1954) and dismaying eulogy of mind-altering drugs, The Doors of Perception, is a sad book, telling of happy, rather orderly visions. It is completely out of touch with drug culture and the uses to which his friendly Mind at Large might be put. For himself, in the course of ten years, his “sessions” are estimated to be about a dozen. In the last three years of his life he went through, without complaint, a medically sensible struggle with cancer.
Huxley is one of the oddest figures in English literature: brilliant, credulous, something of a wizard. He is not Californian. Both of his wives were European and his true friends were Englishmen like Dr. Osmond and—how to name his opaque qualities?—Gerald Heard. Huxley’s world is the library, that first of all, and a sort of libertarian hope for the laboratory. Huxley’s curiosity was general rather than intimate and as a wanderer he was tolerant of the vulgar and outrageous, of the drugstore, the drive-in marriage bureau, the most hideous cemetery, and always, it appears, abstracted, not measuring his worth or even his convenience.
Conrad is rancorous on Huxley, clobbering him for abiding some time in a rented house with naked-lady lamps and a full-size Fay Wray in the paws of King Kong, berating him for stoicism when a fire burned down another house containing his library and files, degrading his concern for overpopulation, treating him as a fool, the object of a ludicrous condescension.
“Drugged” appears as a Conrad adjective again and again. “Huxley prefers his chemical heaven to the drab world.” The last line in the chapter on this unusual man is: “At last, without noticing it, Huxley became a drugged subject of his brave new world.”
Christopher Isherwood is “blithely self-indulgent and self-forgetful, and therefore suits hedonistic California, which licenses Isherwood’s peculiar manner of self-deprecating narcissism.” That these qualities, even if they were an accurate description, would need a state, a climate to license them simply cannot be thought about with any reasonableness. Isherwood is said to have only one subject, himself, and then is told that “he doesn’t know himself.” This arises as a way of discrediting Isherwood’s artistic good fortune in discovering the rightness for him of first-person narration, the rightness of Good-bye to Berlin, Mr. Norris, and Prater Violet, works of art able to stand with the best of the last forty years. It appears that Isherwood may write novels but he is not a novelist because his own “nonentity obliges him to write novels about a character who is not a character.” Many curious prunings of the tree of art are suggested by Conrad, and Huxley, in a California slump, is rebuked for admiration of Joyce and Lawrence, Boulez and Pollock. Isherwood, in his narrations, has “cancelled himself out” by “treating himself as discourteously and dismissively as if he were someone else.”
In A Single Man, the central character dies at the end, a very common plot device that has more convenience in fiction than in life. The “blacking out” of George is extraordinarily well done, although there is some worry about point of view in a death that is not seen from the bedside but from the dying heart and fading brain itself. To Conrad this fictional death draws its meaning from geography not from nature. It signifies that “the choice of America is not the choice of life, but the choice of self-extinction.”
Sometimes in this critical work, the intimacy of rejection is so warm that we feel that author must have had private viewings of the persons. Isherwood, present tense, sometimes “looks tired, lined, and shriveled, like an ancient monk, but when he laughs he regains the face of an adolescent, with a shy smile and sparkling eyes.” The agreeable concession of smile and eyes is not, however, entirely a compliment since Isherwood is thought to be impossibly working against time and trapped in the belief that “youthful form is recoverable.”
No scruple deters Peter Conrad in the swift execution of W. H. Auden. He slices on, in his practiced, glinting way, gathering authority where he finds it, in yesterday’s garbage pail, in policeman-like sifting of texts, in the scene of the crime, New York City, in bad associates, cash in the drawers. Poems are evidence and he investigates them in the sense that a handwriting expert investigates a ransom note. The question throughout Imagining America is nearly always the question of evidence, the challenging circumstantial kind, inessential, but rich with adversary hintings. The book is about writers but no sentiment clings to the fact of accomplishment. Irascibility, Conrad’s, lies on the pages like some hidden code, impossible to decipher. How far will he go? Ah, don’t ask, as we say.
Thus: “The United States offers a sleek affluent new life: Auden and Isherwood in 1938 were ravished by the luxury of New York, dizzied by their own celebrity, teased by the availability of athletic sexual partners, and sustained in a state of euphoria by daily doses of Benzedrine and Seconal; no wonder they hastened back in 1939 for more of the same.” Auden, on the one hand, is a “shrewd businessman” out for “top fees,” and, on the other, a miserable, rootless derelict. The drastic inflation of the riches to be gained from writing poetry, reviews, from giving readings and lectures was shared perhaps by Auden himself and is a testament to the outstanding modesty of his commercial ambitions.
One of the American texts by Auden, examined by Conrad in a sweeping interpretation suggested perhaps by the theme, is Paul Bunyan. This is an unimportant, throw-away libretto for music by Benjamin Britten, written in 1940, soon after Auden’s arrival in America. The text was never reprinted by Auden and exists now in a 1975 publication by Faber, offered when the work had its second performance in England that year. This jazzy working of a folk legend is propitious for Conrad because Paul Bunyan cuts down trees, clears the forests of the West to make way for towns and settlements. Moral judgments of the most extreme kind can fall on Auden who is, as if in some kind of retribution, flattened under the murdered trees.
Let the architect with his sober plan
Build a residence for the average man;
And garden birds bat not an eye
When locomotives whistle by….
Conrad: “Milton’s justification of the fall is a metaphysical leap of faith…. Auden’s justification is more complacently economic. The fall is fortunate not because it immortalizes the soul but because it enriches the body.”
When Auden says, in his celebrated phrase, that poetry makes nothing happen, we are advised to see this as an admission that “poetry is artificial, formulaic, inconsequential.” In New Year Letter the circumstantial evidence of the setting is impugning. The poet is on Long Island, at the house of a friend who is in exile from Poland; they are listening to Buxtehude. Conrad’s interpretation would have it that Auden and his friends are no longer citizens. “Having ceased to be subjects of political authority, they now constitute a voluntary group convened in and by art.” But in what way are they not subject to authority, if only the authority of the Long Island police force?
“Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm,” a beautiful poem in the classical English lyric mode, is intolerably chastised in a governessy aside of great foolishness. Conrad writes, “…personal ties in America remain breezily casual, never becoming familial as they do in England, where everyone seems to be related if not by birth then by the homogenizing institutions of school, college, club, or adultery.” Or adultery, a happy afterthought for sequestered England, represented in Conrad’s comparative clauses as a smug little group of atoms, homogenized and pasteurized like milk in a bottle.
Auden’s house in Kirchstetten, Austria (“Thanksgiving for a Habitat”), by dividing up its space for work, guests, cooking, etc., becomes far from home but another New York, “not a public place but a catacomb of separate privacies…an arbitrary selection from a global crowd of displaced persons.” This “compartmentalization of his territory,” Conrad imagines to derive from the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, who had “decamped [sic] from Germany during Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.” In The Human Condition and in the chapter there on public and private space, Hannah Arendt is somehow put into connection with Auden’s New York and its “grid” and his house in Austria with its allocation of space for various uses.
This is a travesty of Hannah Arendt’s thought. If there is any value in her analysis of alienation, it is the value of an analysis of modern life and modern man, and would be as true of Conrad himself in England as of Auden in New York and Austria.
About the person, Auden, Conrad sinks into a galling hysteria, abusive and in repetition somehow savoring of his own adjectival inventiveness. Auden’s New York apartment was “a cave of defilement.” This rootless, friendless caricature delighted in “domestic ordure” and “the squalor of the nursery.” He is “pickled and prematurely aged” and “looked forward to senility and did his best to advance it, behaving like an ungovernable, finicky baby, organizing his regime around regular mealtimes and early nights….”
Auden’s eccentricities were harmless and had the good fortune to be predictable, sparing his conduct thereby from rushes of paranoia, violence, and pettiness. If he knocked off at nine, his example was not of sufficient tyranny to drag anyone else along with him. His mind, his loneliness, his ability to love, his uncompetitive sweetness of character survived his ragged bedroom slippers and egg-spotted tie. And his genius, the high seriousness of his life, survived his death. He died of a sudden heart attack in a hotel in Vienna, dispatched in Conrad’s requiem ending of his chapter “with callous, merciful American efficiency.” Why callous, why merciful, why American?
In a memorial volume,3 one of the finest in this not always profitable lapidary form, there are many personal anecdotes used by Conrad, with of course what is called “a different emphasis.” He does not call upon any of the excellent appreciations of Auden’s poetry and feels no inclination to paraphrase the beautiful estimate by Geoffrey Grigson:
If we follow him [Auden] round, as he celebrates, investigates, discards, adds, re-attempts, we find in him, I declare, explicit recipes for being human. And implicit ones, in poems, stanzas, lines, again and again, which give us in sonority and movement the additional bonus of what their language cannot say—the bonus of great poetry.
April 3, 1980