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.

Monday, March 15, 2010

New York Novels and Chicago Novels

Chicago and New York are to U.S. fiction what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are to the Russians.

Sorry, Boston. Sorry, L.A. Sorry, D.C. Sorry, San Fran. Sorry, the South. You have your claims, no doubt, but they are as the claims of Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, or Gogol. To be sure, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky do not account for the entirety of Russian literature, certainly do not exhaust all options, but they are irreplaceable, irreducible forces upon the landscape of the national literature, and so it is with New York and Chicago, Chicago and New York.

(I say this under the influence of Sister Carrie, which is known as a Chicago novel, but is actually both a Chicago novel and a New York novel, divided almost perfectly down the center—Carrie and Hurstwood leave Chicago about 53% of the way through. That's not quite unique, but it is unusual, almost as unlikely as a Russian novel that combines Tolstoyan sweep and Dostoevskian polyphony.)

The reason for this Chicago-New York division of U.S. literature (and not a more logical coastal binary) can be seen from the simple fact that for Dreiser's novel, the Midwest is west enough. No thought is ever given by any character to moving west (Carrie considers going back to her home in Wisconsin, but Columbia City is really just a transposition of Dreiser's Indiana hometown, so the geography still works in a non-trivial way). Of course, this is an accurate representation of the geographical imagination of most Americans at the time,1 and to some extent is still the mindset of many Midwesterners today.

For instance, although Jonathan Franzen's Midwest is centered on St. Louis and not Chicago, it can certainly be said of The Corrections that "the Midwest is west enough." As I've noted before, the geography of that novel is very peculiar given the claims it makes for comprehensiveness: it's so much a novel about the American family, about American society, about late capitalism, the turn of the century, etc., that what is left out in its cartography is almost shocking:
The way Franzen constructs his novel on a geographic plane is interesting: there is Lithuania, which exists as a sort of netherworld, and then there are three zones of declining cultural intensity or "hipness" or what have you: New York, Philadelphia, and the Midwest. Philadelphia is an intermediate zone—clearly more desirable for the Lambert children than their home in St. Jude (St. Louis?), but nevertheless ritually excused for a certain lack of... you know, New York-ness. Franzen depicts the Midwest sympathetically, but he never tries to redeem it culturally, allowing all the insults his characters fling against it to stand unaddressed and certainly unredressed. Franzen, I would say, does not mind being slightly ashamed of his own Midwestern origins (not that I blame him). But what is fascinating in this schematic geography is how much it excludes—California and the West for one, not to mention the South (including Florida), or the erstwhile Third World. California's exclusion is fascinating given its prominence in so many critiques of late capitalism; its celebrated ethos seems so antithetical to the personal ethic of Alfred Lambert that one might think Franzen had made a mistake in sending Alfred's children East—if Franzen intends to set up an antithetical binary, it should be the younger generation's California vs. the elders' Midwest. And yet the Midwest never has seemed to be in any ideological relation whatsoever to California; can you think of any novel or even film that plays the two off one another?
That's a question I still haven't answered, although I know Frank Norris's unfinished Epic of Wheat trilogy does have one novel set and titled as "A California Story" and the other set and titled as "A Chicago Story." (The Octopus and The Pit, respectively.) (And I don't consider Oklahoma the Midwest, so don't try The Grapes of Wrath.) I'd be interested if anyone else has some ideas or examples, but I'm pretty confident that this absence of Midwest-West opposition (or even juxtaposition) characterizes U.S. lit pretty consistently. New York and Chicago it is.

1Cf. William Cronon on "the Great West" in Nature's Metropolis (xviii):
By "the Great West," I mean a region that no longer exists on the mental maps of most Americans. According to nineteenth-century usage, it was the vast interior region of the nation that was neither the North (the region north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Appalachians or the Great Lakes) nor the South (the region defined most simply as the losing side of the Civil War). The Great West began either at the Ohio River or at Lake Michigan, and extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean… I am quite confident that for much of the nineteenth century the West began in Chicago, not in Denver or San Francisco. To try to redefine the West to fit our modern vocabulary is to do violence to the way Americans in the past understood that term…"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sister Carrie and Television

A long line of novels stretching at least as far back as Mansfield Park uses a theatrical performance (typically of amateurs) as the hinge of the plot. The moment of performance, of taking on another identity, allows the characters a burst of self-understanding or permits them to see another character—usually someone with whom they are intimate—anew. In Revolutionary Road, this moment occurs at the very beginning of the novel, when Frank Wheeler sees his wife April give a stultifyingly bad performance in a local production of The Petrified Forest.1 In Sister Carrie, it is also an amateur performance—of a light melodrama, Under the Gaslight—that catalyzes Hurstwood's desire for Carrie and creates within Carrie the woman who will ultimately conquer the New York stage.

As I was reading this section of Sister Carrie, I began to think how absolutely unlikely such a device would be in a book published and set within the last half-century or so; Revolutionary Road must be, I think, the terminus ad quem of the stage-play-as-epiphany trope. I suppose one could still get away with it in historical fiction set before 1960 or so, but I really can't recall many examples published recently that have tried. (Suggestions?) Even in Mad Men, which is so very much about the revelation of the self through performance and is also set precisely at this time, one cannot really imagine the writers putting Don or Betsy Draper on the stage to cause an epiphany.2 Something, it seems, emerged around this time that made this device less plausible, that sapped the power of stage performance as a metaphor for the revelation/realization of the self to the extent that this trope has become unusable, obsolete.

Surely, though, one would think that this obsolescence might have come earlier than 1955 (when Revolutionary Road is set). While amateur theater continues to persist, it struck me as odd that the dividing line would fall so late in the 20th century, so long after the movies and the cinema had achieved cultural dominance. Yet then I began to think how beautifully compatible the stage and screen were during this time in a way that has largely, I think, been lost. It is not just that so many more films (especially musicals) were about the stage, or that there was a more well-trod corridor of success from Broadway to Hollywood (in terms of both personnel and product), but that Broadway and Hollywood often seemed to work together upon popular culture, an effect exemplified by Revolutionary Road's performance of The Petrified Forest, which was on stage in 1935 and on screen the next year.

Yet a 1935/36 production is obviously acting at quite a distance for a 1955 amateur performance. Why did Yates choose The Petrified Forest for poor April Wheeler to fail in? While there was a definite intertextual thematic strategy to Yates's choice, the more immediate reason was probably that a television production of the play was aired on television in 1955, a production which, however, still deeply depended upon both stage and screen: it was broadcast live and returned Bogart to the part he played in the film and stage versions (despite being 20 years older). This televisual adaptation, however, gives us (as you probably expected from the title of this post) the answer to the question of why the dividing line falls around the end of the 1950s. Hollywood and the cinema simply don't seem to have alienated anyone from experiencing theater as a language of the self or a medium of its expression, but we can now see that television is the great wedge between the stage and screen and the interposing, alienating force between the self and performance and between performance and the type of epiphany the characters of Sister Carrie experience in the theater.

Of course, the incompatibility of the novel and television has been noted frequently, even incessantly—if you haven't read David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram," [pdf] that pretty much is the high point of the discussion, and I certainly can't say anything more intelligent on the topic than that. But to return to Sister Carrie (since I've gone rather astray), we can already see the reasons why television is so problematic for the novel and the space where it is most commonly incorporated. Here are the closing lines of Sister Carrie:
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.

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o'er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.
Were Dreiser born about 60 years later, I have no doubt that Carrie's rocking chair would have been replaced by a cheap television, the intervening force between Carrie and that "farther step" which she will never truly take. Like the rocking chair, television produces dreams that can be gestured toward but not really incorporated in the novel. They are too banal, and they are ephemeral in a more monotonous, uninflected manner. Unlike theater or film or even reading,3 which are also ephemeral, even the most melodramatic television programs seem incapable of producing a convincing epiphanic moment of self-realization or revelation, a flourish which could take hold of the viewer and shake them to the core.4

That rocking chair, then, is the only place for television in the novel: a source of static, banal, monotonous, inactionable dreams, a force which cannot transform the self but in fact holds it in anesthetic suspension, perhaps even depletes or corrodes it. Counterposed against the transformational, epiphanic possibilities of the stage, television/the rocking chair is the very antithesis of the novel, the point of complete incompatibility, not just for the stage and the screen, but also for the novelistic self, the self's possibilities created through prose fiction.

Appropriately, I guess, Sister Carrie, while it was made into a 1952 film, has never been adapted for television.

1 There is a neat bit of potential intertextuality here: what is the pseudonymous surname that Hurstwood and Carrie take while living in New York? Wheeler. I have never heard of anyone arguing for a heavy Dreiserian influence on Richard Yates, but I'm tempted strongly to believe that it is there.

2 Although, come to think of it, in season 3, Roger's disgusting blackface turn at his wedding is kind of a catalyzing moment for his falling out with Don. But this is also very much a generational issue, and Roger's being older is perhaps what permits him to be placed on the stage in this manner.

3 This is a subject for an upcoming post, but Dreiser gives Carrie Pére Goriot to read rather late in the book. It is probably the last moment when a further transformation, or even the possibility of real happiness, is available to Carrie.

4 I know, I know, "but The Wire!" But no one's written a novel that has a character watching The Wire yet.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Going Everywhere, Spring Break edition

Sorry I've been a bit remiss in doing anything on this blog for more than a week now, but spring break has intervened a bit, and honestly I've taken the break to re-consider what I mean this blog to do. I'll spare you (most of) the navel-gazing, but the main point is that I'm going to experiment with a few formal and substantive changes to the blog to make it less lit-bloggy. This is certainly not to say that I've soured on lit-blogs, but merely that there are literally dozens of interesting and worthwhile examples of the form and a good handful of truly excellent ones (see the blogroll at the left), and I feel that I would much rather read those than write my own.

What I do want this blog to be is a research tool. Hopefully this will not turn out to be as dry as it sounds, but I am feeling less compelled to write topical posts like this about the burning issue of the moment or even an innocently irrelevant post like this on novels or volumes of verse that have little bearing on anything but turn out to be nice diversions. In short, I'm afraid Blographia Literaria has become somewhat of a hobby for me, a way of logging my recreational reading, and I'd like to put it to work.* My main research interests will hopefully be of broad enough compass that they will allow me to continue to post material interesting to you (and I think they should be), as most things I put up here will hopefully make their way to touching upon these topics: Midwestern literature and regionalism, popular or genre fiction, marxism, and war and violence in literature. (Whoops—forgot film!) I'm hoping you'll stick around to see what turns out.

Alright, for one last hurrah of the lit-bloggy Blographia Literaria 1.0, here are some links to enjoy:
*That's certainly not to say that lit-blogging isn't "work," especially as assiduous folks like Scott Esposito or Mark Athitakis practice it. The way I've been doing it, it may have been "work," but not exactly steady or productive work.

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010

    The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

    It's been awhile since I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so I may be remembering it incorrectly, but it seems that this book, the novel Spark wrote after Brodie, duplicates the basic structure: a death provides the impetus for fairly half-hearted reconnecting and more full-hearted reminiscing (at least on the part of one girl who is rather singled out by her intelligence) among a group of women now dispersed but who shared an intense and formative experience when they were girls together.

    This is not a cavil against this novel; it works quite as well as it did in Brodie, and this one's far funnier (or maybe it's just that I'm older). At any rate, I really enjoyed this novel.

    Of course, there is a sense that the replication of the plot tilts its basic structure toward the allegorical, a tendency given almost full play in this novel, which begins, charmingly, "Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions." (Spark is among the best at writing glib statements that are neither superficial nor tart.) And there is a breezy nostalgia to the whole thing, rather like the film Hope and Glory, by John Boorman, though with more sophisticated politics and more sex.

    The inclusion of many lines of classic poems (deftly inserted by the device of having one of the girls practicing and instructing others in elocution) furthers this bucolic re-imagining of a time of acute rationing and war-exhaustion; the pull of lines like

    I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
    The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;

    recall the reader to a much earlier England in historical terms, and to a much younger England in terms of character and energy. There is an intentional innocence, and a foolhardy romanticization of mild penury: "He observed that at no point did poverty arrest the vitality of its members but rather nourished it. Poverty differs vastly from want, he thought." Grad students everywhere undoubtedly also know the difference. (Although, like most grad students, the genteel poverty of these young girls differs vastly from all other types of poverty, and Spark is a little too blithe here, I think.)