Saturday, March 20, 2010

Young Men and Women from the Provinces

A funny and rather embarrassing story about me. At some point in my freshman or sophomore year of college, I created my online account for the New York Times. Wanting a properly "Young Man from the Provinces" name for my account name, I thought of Balzac, but I thought of the wrong Balzac character. I meant to use "Rastignac," but I named my account, mortifyingly, "vautrin7."

I hadn't read Père Goriot at the time, and unless that was the semester I read S/Z in a lit theory class, I don't think I had read any Balzac. Of course, now I know that my bumbling attempt to give myself the cachet of a book I hadn't read is a much better fulfillment of  Rastignac's character than getting it right would have been.

The figure of the Young Man from the Provinces has always interested me, I suppose mainly for autobiographical reasons—the self-romanticization of a bookish kid from Indiana. But the Provincial Young Man (or Woman) is also a fascinating figure in its own right, particularly when it's mirrored across the Atlantic. As I mentioned in a post from a few days ago about Sister Carrie, late in the events of the novel, Carrie reads Goriot, and is briefly but deeply moved:
In her comfortable chambers at the Waldorf, Carrie was reading at this time "Père Goriot," which Ames had recommended to her. It was so strong, and Ames's mere recommendation had so aroused her interest, that she caught nearly the full sympathetic significance of it. For the first time, it was being borne in upon her how silly and worthless had been her earlier reading, as a whole. Becoming wearied, however, she yawned and came to the window, looking out upon the old winding procession of carriages rolling up Fifth Avenue. (548)
 It is because of this reference that I wonder whether Dreiser had in mind the bold conclusion to Balzac's novel when he was writing the last few paragraphs of Carrie. It is a sharp, even cutting contrast:
He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:
"Henceforth there is war between us."
And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen. (Goriot 307-8)
Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she would be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world. (Carrie 557)
With the reappearance of Ames in this paragraph, I wonder if that "farther step" isn't a direct link back to the reading (and vision of life) that Carrie put aside listlessly to observe the traffic of Fifth Avenue. I can't help but feel that the "distant hilltops of the world" Dreiser invokes are in fact the hills of Rastignac's declaration of war. Dreiser is, I believe, indicating that the world of romance in which a Rastignac could think of shaking his fist at the city in such a way has closed. With Carrie, we do not have gloves thrown down, but a rocking chair.

Of course, Rastignac's situation at the end of the novel is highly equivocal (as is his ultimate fate); there is more than a slight edge of irony to the Napoleonic echo of his cavalier challenge. Although Rastignac eventually wins his war, there is little by the end of the novel to make us believe that he will. And while Carrie may be privately trapped, stunted, and alone by the end of her novel, her public life is an almost unalloyed public triumph. The difference between Rastignac and Carrie, then, is not between success and failure, but there is something about Carrie and her novel which suggests that the romance of social climbing has definitively disappeared. Success is nothing more than success; it is not solid enough to be validation, not potent enough to be revenge, not grand enough to be properly tragic.

What I wonder is, how has that romance fared since? How many young men and women from the provinces have taken (in literature) the farther step that Carrie was unable to take? Have there been any more declarations of war against the city or society like Rastignac's? Or, as is the case for Carrie, is that gesture now almost unimaginable, too self-consciously theatrical to be carried through?

Lionel Trilling wrote a 1948 introduction to Henry James's Princess Casamassima introducing and cursorily analyzing the term "young man from the provinces A very good article by A. K. Chanda, also appropriately titled "The Young Man from the Provinces," tries to pick up where Trilling left off:
Trilling's coinage, although seminal and not unknown to critics of the novel, has for thirty years escaped adequate definition and proper recognition. In the three pages he devotes to the topic Trilling invests his hero with a charismatic romantic halo. He writes resonantly of his aspiring nature, his rejection of his impoverished provincial origins, his fantasies about substitute patrician parents his magical rise to eminence in the metropolis, and his roots in folklore and in medieval romance. He sharpens his formulation by warning us not to confuse the story of the Young Man from the Provinces "with the cognate story of the Sensitive Young Man." But despite this invaluable discrimination Trilling's concept, while adequately serving his purpose of rescuing James's novel from obscurity, is far too vague to function as a viable definition of the type. His pointers need to be fleshed out, extended, modified, and corrected; indeed, many of them need to be transcended. Moreover, new traits need to be adduced to complete the profile.
Chanda deals with the following novels: Stendhal's Red and the Black, Balzac's Goriot and Lost Illusions, Dickens's Great Expectations, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Maupassant's Bel-Ami, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Trollope's Phineas Finn, Dreiser's Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky. As we can see, a few of these already occur after Sister Carrie, and so we have at least a partial answer: in Gatsby we certainly find a re-romanticization of the Young Man from the Provinces, and there is definitely a sense that the opulence and prodigality of his parties and his mansion is a form of a challenge or declaration of war. Yet the necessity of dissembling his true provincial origins (rather than, as Rastignac does, embellishing them, playing up his better relations more than he obscures his poor ones) seems to me to be another confirmation that the ostentatiousness and forthrightness of Ratignac's social climbing is now less interesting as a literary figure, or perhaps less believable. The romance of social climbing now comes less from achievement than from mystery; it's not the fact that Jimmy Gatz made a lot of money and attained a great status that is thrilling, but that he turned himself into Jay Gatsby and hid the Gatzes behind him.1

But what about more recent examples than that? It's important to keep in mind the differentiation Trilling made between the Young Man from the Provinces and the Sensitive Young Man—in other words, not every bildungsroman is an example. Chanda also adds that there must be a distinction made between the Provincial Young Man and the pícaro, who could even be said to be the countertype of the Provincial Young Man. (As Chanda says, "Unlike the pícaro, his hero encounters few adventures on the road. It is the hero's vertical rise on the social ladder that concerns the novelist, not his horizontal peregrinations.") Augie March, for example, is much more of a pícaro, even if he resembles the type in many other ways.

Chanda also makes the point (following Trilling's lead) that "the provinces" might also mean a poor section of the city (Trilling was obviously thinking of himself in making this intervention). "The justification for this category lies in the valid assumption that the urban lower classes have a great deal more in common with the provincial lower classes (energy, spontaneity, family unity) than they do with the aristocracy in the city." Because of this, I was thinking of Portnoy (and maybe some of Roth's other characters) as pertinent to this discussion, but this further category probably puts paid to that: "A further sign of distinction in the Young Man is his innate refinement, the charm and personal beauty which enable him to adapt himself to, and be adopted by, high society."

Other figures could be auditioned in similar ways (and I would very much welcome suggestions), but the possibility I want to close with is that of Don Draper.2 Draper is also compared frequently with Gatsby, and the similarity is (intentionally) strong, including the dissimulation of his origins, which Don takes to a further extent than Gatsby, even. Yet Don is also a more complete outsider to the world he inhabits than Gatsby is, and therefore a more traditionally romantic Young Man from the Provinces. Gatsby's previous connections with Daisy's wealthy family before he became Gatsby are not mirrored (at least as far as we know) in Don's youth: his social climbing was not inspired by the desire to pursue a Daisy-like woman. And the milieu into which Don climbs is more traditionally New York, older money, more institutionalized and embedded in the city's history than the crowds and mobs of Gatsby's parties. Even Daisy (and Tom and Nick and Jordan) are not true New Yorkers; as Nick famously says at the end of the novel, "I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life." Don is actually surrounded by people who never had to adapt to Eastern life—Pete and Roger and Betty grew up with it, in it.

I think that this breaking into an established society is a very important element in the Young Man from the Provinces story, and it is perhaps the one that we see being eroded in Sister Carrie. Carrie meets some wealthier New Yorkers, but they too are a little arriviste-y; there is no sense in the novel of an established aristocracy, and just barely (in Chicago, though, not New York) of a settled bourgeoisie (the Elks and the circles Hurstwood's children travel about in).3 Without this aristocratic (or haute-bourgeois) order, this ancien régime, to declare war upon, the romance and scandal of social climbing can only come from the mysteries of one's origins. Yet somehow Mad Men (and as I note below, Gossip Girl) has managed to revive the first form of romance, at least a little. Whether that presages a widening acknowledgment that the United States has created such an enormous gap between the very wealthy and everyone else that this older form of social climbing is now both feasible and admirable, thrilling and romantic in its own right, I guess we'll have to wait and see.

1 On the other hand, the figure of Gatsby brings to mind Chuck Ramkissoon of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, who was often described by critics as a Gatsby-like figure. Yet Chuck is very much an ostentatious and forthright social climber, and I wonder whether, as with so much in literature at the moment, his Third World-ness enables a sort of romanticization (through exoticization) of a type or trope which in the First World has already, in a sense, passed.

2Reading Chanda's article, I ran across this intriguing name: "And in England the most potent myths of success were the fifteenth-century legendary Dick Whittington, the impecunious farm lad who became Lord Mayor of London…" Dick Whittington… why does that name sound familiar? Maybe because it's very close to Dick Whitman, the real name of Don Draper, also an impecunious farm lad who makes it big in the metropolis. I don't know if there's an actual link here, but I wouldn't put it past Weiner and his writing staff.

3 For comparison's sake, one might bring into this discussion Dan and Jenny Humphrey of Gossip Girl. Although the whole social climbing angle is not always terribly well-handled (the financial differences between the Humphreys and the Basses/Waldorfs/Archibalds sometimes matter a lot, sometimes kind of disappear, just as the physical distance between Brooklyn and Uptown is sometimes played up and at other times is completely ignored), the show is very much about the thrill of breaking into an established aristocracy. And, of course, there is Whit Stillman's film Metropolitan, which is so much a story about a Young Man from the Provinces that it barely needs to be mentioned here.

No comments: