Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos

In this post, I'd just like to introduce some of the key elements of the first volume and of the work as a whole. Shortly, I hope to have at least one more analytical post written, but for now, just a stocktaking—what's in this novel?

Both description and analysis of the U.S.A. trilogy generally begin with a catalogue of the books' four modes:
1) the interlocking narrative sections, each headed by and following a single protagonist as he or she makes his way across the nation and a few parts of the wider world (in this novel, France, Canada, and Mexico);

2) the famous Camera Eye sections, which are written in a high modernist style and which seem to be a sort of impressionistic memoir. They read to me kind of like a Joycean version of the prose section in Robert Lowell's Life Studies1;

3) the Newsreel, which comprises various headlines or half-headlines and snatches of news reports and contemporary popular songs. Many of them read like they've been spliced or mangled in some fashion, like RSS feeds mating and churning out gnomics: "DIAZ TRAINS HEAVY GUNS ON BUSINESS SECTION… ASK METHODISM TO OUST TRINITY…"

4) and finally, what seems to be everyone's favorite, a series of free-verse "biographies" of famous or influential figures of the period—in this first volume, Eugene Debs, Luther Burbank, Big Bill Haywood, William Jennings Bryan, Minor C. Keith, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, and Robert LaFollette, who had some awesome hair.

Continuing with a basic inventory of the novel, in the narrative sections of The 42nd Parallel, we meet five different protagonists. Because this is sort of supposed to be a group read (that is, if anyone is reading along with me), there will be spoilers.

Mac, a Wobbly and a printer, whose problems with women and travels about the country and into Mexico resemble, quite pleasantly, a Woody Guthrie or a Billy Bragg song; he starts off the novel when his family moves into Chicago from Middletown, CT. Mac learns the printing trade from his radical uncle, who eventually loses his shop partly because of his politics and partly because of his drinking. Mac takes off from Chicago in the shady employ of a confidence man/door-to-door bookseller, a great character straight out of Huck Finn. Eventually, this grifter is caught and Mac bums around a bit. Somehow he catches the wrong train and ends up in Winnipeg; eventually he makes his way through Vancouver on down the West Coast to (eventually) San Francisco. He meets a girl but nearly loses her (and does lose his eyebrows) in the Earthquake of 1906. Married life doesn't take and he runs away to Mexico for the Revolution. After a period in Ciudad Juárez, he makes his way to México City, where he gets a job first as a printer and then, through some favors pulled by other U.S. expatriates, as a bookstore owner. When Villa and Zapata threaten to overrun México City, Mac sells out and flees to Veracruz. he thinks about returning to the U.S., but decides to stay in Veracruz. Mac is the protagonist of eight sections, but most of them are all at the beginning; while they set the tone for this volume, one almost loses sight of him in the latter half.

Janey Williams is a young Washingtonian girl who might well be described by Henry Adams's (patronizing) view of the type: "the Washington girl, who was neither rich nor well-dressed nor well-educated nor clever, had singular charm, and used it." She does indeed have some charm, but is also fairly rigid politically—she abruptly quits a stenography job because she thinks her boss is pro-German, and later she shows other flashes of a starchy patriotism. Her brother Joe is a sailor; I think he'll play a larger role in the latter two volumes of the trilogy. She's unemployed for a good bit of her sections after she quits her pro-German employer, but eventually she lucks into being personal assistant for the next protagonist, J. Ward Moorehouse, who takes her to México (where they bump briefly into Mac) and then back to his office in New York. In New York, she stays with the Compton family; the son, Ben Compton, will also feature in the later volumes. Janey deeply admires Moorehouse, but her attraction to him is mostly deferential. Janey has four sections.

J. Ward Moorehouse, a Delawarean on the make, a fortune hunter and public relations man. He marries twice, both times to heiresses, although the first heiress fails him both financially and maritally—well, actually the failure's on both sides, and Moorehouse knows it. He falls into an even better marriage, however, and uses his new wife's money to set him up in a cutting-edge PR firm with a specialty in bridging the information gap between capital in labor—which evidently in practice means  finding corruptible labor representatives and corrupting them further. Dos Passos is, however, surprisingly warm to Moorehouse; there is far more sympathy or even almost respect in his depiction than one might expect. Dos Passos shows him as a genuinely capable, unexpectedly thoughtful, and legitimately classy sort of guy. Dos Passos somehow gives him a certain gravity despite his scheming. And his descriptions of the businessman's life are, like Lewis's in Babbitt, much softer than they're remembered as being, and occasionally even gentle or lyrical. Here's a good example. Once Moorehouse is introduced, he is in nearly every subsequent section of this volume, although he is the protagonist proper of just three.

Eleanor Stoddard is a quasi-Bohemian interior designer from Chicago, now living in New York and also in an ambiguous relationship with Moorehouse. She started out working in a lace shop (shades of Lily Bart in the millinery) and moved a half-step up to work as a Marshall Fields shopgirl, a job which horrified her. She struck up an acquaintance with a miserly spinster also living in her cheap boardinghouse, and believed for a time that her friendship would earn her the spinster's millions. She received a cheap piece of jewelry upon the woman's death. There is a lovely scene in one of her sections where she takes a day off from her job to read Romola and then go to the Art Institute, where she runs into a better-dressed young woman who asks her, while looking at some of Whistler's paintings, "I like unconventionality, don't you?" Eventually, these two women form a partnership for interior decorating and after some mixed successes, jump abruptly to New York to design the stage dressing for a play, which flops more or less. In New York at last, she manages to make something of a name for herself as a designer, and she and Moorehouse begin a relationship which may be sexual but most likely (it seems to me) isn't. Nevertheless, Moorehouse's wife becomes jealous and confronts him. Eleanor insists on seeing her and when she does, some understanding is reached. Moorehouse informs both women that he has offered his services to the nation and will be in Washington for the duration of the war, and Eleanor chimes in that she is volunteering as a nurse, which is unexpected, to say the least. Eleanor has four sections.

Charley Anderson is the last character introduced and has just one section, a longer one that closes the novel. He is an occasional mechanic and a bum, originally from North Dakota, last seen looking across the ocean toward a volunteer post as an ambulance driver in the First World War. He is the least fortunate of any of the characters, and also probably the least able to make his luck (although I think that will not last). He gets across a lot of the country (most significantly, St. Paul and New Orleans) before he ends up in New York, where he joins the ambulance drivers' initiative just as war is being declared. He also carries the red card of the IWW, but he is less involved in it than Mac.

In the next post, I want to discuss in greater detail how the four modes of the novel work together, but for now I think it's appropriate to say that I think to some extent their cumulative effect comes off a little strangely because there is not much in literature to which one might compare them collectively. This diversity of modes suggests a pastiche or bricolage, but this is not right; they don't seem directly to be imitating, borrowing from, or subverting any specific literary precursor or any particular form of speech or writing. Even the Newsreel seems less like a direct transcript or a cut-and-paste job than a careful composition. And, though I said the Camera Eye sections remind me of Joyce, they don't seem like attempts at writing like Joyce. And the multiplicity of experiments is quite different from simply having multiple forms of narration, or multiple narrators of differing linguistic capacities. Unfortunately, outside of pastiche or hybridity or Faulknerian multiple narrators, there are few ways that come to mind of really thinking about formal experimentation like this on multiple registers. This makes it difficult to figure out how to read these four modes—either individually or collectively.

1 In fact, I don't know if it's been argued before, but Life Studies may have a more general debt to U.S.A.; it also comprises four parts, one of which is also a sequence of biographical poems about real people. The other two parts match up less well, perhaps, to Dos Passos's Newsreel and narrative sections. It's a thought, anyway.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Country and the City, by Raymond Williams

It is both a shame and also perfectly understandable that Raymond Williams's The Country and the City is one of those title-line citation books: those monographs which are obligatorily footnoted whenever certain keywords turn up—in this case, the combination or interaction of "city and country." But that citation is usually no more than a quod vide, a sort of ritual genuflection or ass-covering acknowledgment ("yes, reader, I know the locus classicus too").

This desultory reference is a shame because the book does repay more in-depth discussion or elaboration and because, at least in my experience, few historians and fewer literature scholars engage with this dynamic very deeply with or without Williams's guidance.

Yet it is also, as I say, perfectly understandable because a very great proportion of The Country and the City lends itself only very weakly to adaptation or appropriation; only the final few chapters really seem meant to inspire further work or to indicate the possibility of connection to other questions, projects, or histories. The rather foxy title belies the monograph's more hedgehoggy content. Williams's study of English literature depicting the English countryside (and, rather cursorily, the English city, meaning almost exclusively London) is resolutely single-minded; after a bit of throat-clearing about classical pastoral traditions, I count only 14 references to non-Anglo-Irish writers in the remainder of the book.1 Over about 290 pages (excluding the chapter on classical pastorals), that's around one every 21 pages. That is certainly not very expansive or wide-ranging; there is little else besides the very particular literary history of this particular set of tropes in English literature. To do more than name-check Williams's book in any context other than the one he actually wrote about would essentially require taking the book's argumentative skeleton and graft on everything else—muscles, tendons, skin and blood. It would take a complete re-writing. It is not, in other words, a Foucault-type genealogy or archaeology of knowledge.

Which begs the question whether there have been comparable studies of the tropes of "country-and-city" in, say, the U.S. or in Canada, in India or France, Russia or Mexico, Nigeria or Brasil. I may simply have missed these wonderful books, but I think the answer is actually 'no'—at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does. Now, that might simply amount to asking for a Marxist study of American literature with a particular attention to images and symbols of geography, but is that really so much to ask?

In a subsequent post, I'd like to outline what Williams actually does in his own study and what the tropes which he identifies are, and then I'd like to discuss how they may be adapted or supplemented to fit the U.S. case a little better, but for now I'd like merely to pose the question of why it seems to be difficult to think of the literary history of the countryside and the literary history of the city as existing together. In part, Williams's book is an analysis of the ideologies which keep those literary histories apart, why it is even popular to see the country and the city as cleanly and self-evidently separate in history and more especially in literature. One particular reason which he gives between the lines, as it were, is most interesting to me: when Williams speaks of his own life's journey, as he does very movingly, or of the three figures whom one benighted British Council critic called "our three great autodidacts"—George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence—or even with Hardy's character Jude, Williams notes the personal impact of the basic life pattern of moving from the countryside to a city or an intellectual metropole of sorts (i.e., Oxford or Cambridge). It is difficult not to take the basic autobiographical bifurcation of country and city as existing in different parts or moments of one's life and turn it into a more general historical or sociological paradigm.

1Actually, I also did not count references from a chapter near the end which specifically treats contemporary Third-World literature and British imperialism. This is the chapter I meant as inspiring further work.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.

(picture via)
U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world's greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
Infinite Summer has made reading long books during the summer incredibly popular, so over the next (less than) three months, I'll be working my way through John Dos Passos's [insert modifier indicating scale, impressiveness] U.S.A. trilogy, and I invite you to read along. Or, if you've read it before, to comment along.

The set-up will be very simple: one book, each month (June, July, August). I'm not going to blog my progress while in the middle of a volume, so there won't be any weekly schedule or page pacing, just a post or two near the end of each month to walk through the volume and add some commentary. This leaves June a little foreshortened, but I'm finding that the first volume, The 42nd Parallel, really flies by.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

From On Native Grounds, by Alfred Kazin

I'm reading Alfred Kazin's study of American literature of the period 1890-1940 right now, and once I finish I will likely have some things to say about it, but for now, I just want to flag this perplexing passage:
The clue to Jack London's work is certainly to be found in his own turbulent life, and not in his Socialism. He was a Socialist by instinct, but he was also a Nietzschean and a follower of Herbert Spencer by instinct. All his life he grasped whatever straw of salvation lay nearest at hand, and if he joined Karl Marx to the Superman with a boyish glee that has shocked American Marxists ever since, it is interesting to remember that he joined Herbert Spencer to Shelley, and astrology to philosophy, with as carefree a will. The greatest story he ever wrote was the story he lived: the story of the illegitimate son of a Western adventurer and itinerant astrologer, who grew up in Oakland, was an oyster pirate at fifteen, a sailor at seventeen, a tramp and a 'work-beast,' a trudger after Coxey's Army, a prospector in Alaska, and who quickly became rich by his stories, made and spent several fortunes, and by the circle of his own confused ambitions came round to the final despair in which he took his life… (111)
I find the idea that anyone attaches themselves to any ideology "by instinct" a profound and absurdly un-self-reflective misunderstanding of how anyone comes to think the things they do, but my confusion is not over Kazin's journalistic superficiality. Rather,

what the hell is an "oyster pirate?"

Friday, June 11, 2010

From The Gatekeeper, by Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton's memoir reads throughout as a little tossed-off, occasionally a bit repetitive both in diction (see below) and in anecdote, and generally less-focused and unpolished than his essays—it reads almost as an extemporaneous lecture. But I think even Eagleton's detractors would find it frequently pleasant, and there is a kind of effectiveness to almost informal political talk like the following:
Radical politics may not be a thankless affair, but it is an exceedingly modest proposal. Bertolt Brecht once remarked that it was capitalism, not communism, which was radical, and his colleague Walter Benjamin added wisely that revolution was not a runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. It is capitalism which is out of control, and socialism which seeks to restrain it. It is capitalism, as Marx recognized, which is revolutionary to its roots, one extravagant thrust of Faustian desire, and socialism which recalls us to our humble roots as labouring, socializing, materially limited creatures…

It is a sign of just how bad things are that even the modest proposal that everyone on the planet gets fresh water and enough to eat is fighting talk. One can imagine launching revolutions in the name of some exorbitant utopian ideal, but to disrupt people's lives in such a spectacular way simply so that everyone may be guaranteed a supply of fresh vegetables seems oddly bathetic. Only extremists could argue against it, just as only extremists could endorse a global capitalist system which in 1992 is said to have paid Michael Jordan more for advertising Nike shoes than it paid to the entire south-east Asian industry which produced them. Revolutionaries are those realist, moderate types who recognize that to put such things to rights would require a thoroughgoing transformation. Anyone who imagines otherwise is an idle utopianist, though they are more commonly known as liberals and pragmatists…

Revolutionaries, then, are neither optimists nor pessimists, but realists. Indeed, one reason why they are so thin on the ground is because realism is so extraordinarily difficult a creed to practise. It is exactly this that the street-wise pragmatists fail to appreciate. To see the situation as it really is is the basis of all effective moral or political action, but nothing could be more elusive or exacting. Since the truth, politically speaking, is usually thoroughly unpleasant, being a realist means living a vigilant, cold-eyed, soberly disenchanted sort of existence, perpetually on the qui vive for the mildest flicker of fantasy or sentimentalism. Since this is both the only way to live and no way to live at all, radical politics is bound to be a contradictory affair. Its more successful practitioners are likely to be the last people to embody the values of the society they are fighting for—one which would make ample room for fantasy and sentiment—just as nobody would join a club which was tasteless and desperate enough to recruit people like themselves. As a Brecht poem comments: 'Oh we who tried to prepare the ground for friendship Could not ourselves be friendly.' 
The counter-intuitiveness of this passage (or at least the first paragraph) is rich, and it is most effective perhaps as a replacement for the kind of preaching-to-the-choir fist-pumping that Eagleton spends a good portion of the book baiting. The romanticism of revolution (as opposed to the realism of it), it turns out, just breeds people like the following:
Those who speak regularly at [leftist] conventions know just how unfathomable is the human capacity for misinterpretation. If your title is 'Why We Must Smash Fascism', and your speech one luridly impassioned invective against it, there will always be somebody in the audience who will want to know why you are so soft on fascism. The person who came in half an hour late will imperiously demand to know why you failed to make a point which you made in your second sentence, while someone else will wonder aloud why, if you're so anti-bourgeois, you wear a suit and spectacles rather than dressing in cowhide and peering at the world through home-made lenses cut from discarded Guinness bottles on an antique lathe.
Eagleton, obviously, can get a bit carried away, and, rather like a pint of Guinness, there is a large amount of foamy self-congratulation that one must somehow maneuver around to get at the real stuff, but his point seems to me not too far off. At least (and perhaps this is more a way of damning myself than praising him) I have thought similar things to myself quite often.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Search for Order, 1877-1920, by Robert H. Wiebe

There is an interesting and I think rather consequential disjunction between the style of Wiebe's classic synthesis of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era and its content: in few words, Wiebe brought an 18th-century sentence to a 19th-century fight. Wiebe's equipoise and preference for the apothegm, resembling above all a long cascade of heroic couplets, repeatedly turn his arguments about the character of these times against themselves: balancing where they should be evoking turbulence, harmonizing where they mean to demonstrate dissonance, affording closure where they intend to describe a new sense of endless process. It's like putting a gyroscope on a dirt bike.

Of course, the prose is also so, so pleasurable to read. "Too many ambitious men pictured themselves as tomorrow's kings to proscribe royalty." "Essential services became the playthings of private profit, and a busy people paid the price of danger, dirt, and disease." "Too isolated for leadership before 1917, Roosevelt and his comrades were too overwhelmed by agreement after that." Of William Jennings Bryan, "His public life was devoted to translating a complicated world of affairs he barely comprehended back into those values he never questioned." Few poets could pull off without a smirk such alliteration as that of the second sentence, and I'm tempted every once in awhile to scan these sentences for the meter; some have to be very near iambic pentameter.

Occasionally, this bent toward beauty becomes obtuse: of the 1877 railroad strikes, "Called America's first national strike, it was actually the first national holiday of the slums. The rioters, rather than self-conscious wage earners, were simply the inhabitants of center city who had taken advantage of a singular opportunity to come out and roam." That terminal intransitive verb is a gorgeous way to conclude, a perfect alighting point for the thought being expressed, but one does wonder about its content; how much of the disorder of the time is interred by the metaphor's grace?

Style also plays a role in some of the book's argumentative flaws. There is an outright indifference to geography ("The titans of Wall Street would have made the same decisions if they had operated from Denver; the same spate of holding companies would have appeared if Oregon instead of New Jersey had passed a lax incorporation law" (32)) which is enabled or encouraged by Wiebe's Olympian (or perhaps Parnassian) summations; there is little need for geographic specificity when the events are being narrated from 30,000 feet above the fray. There is almost an inadvertent joke between the work's title and its contents: if the era was a casting about for organization, Wiebe somehow finds order at the end of every (sentence's) period.

But the largest complaint I have is with what Wiebe's style does to his basic argument for what was transformed or precipitated in this period and what this transformation or precipitate came from. This argument is articulated by various means throughout the book, but mostly to the same theme, and I'll just pick two passages to exemplify it. From page 40 and 43, the background to or first stage of this transformation:
More generally, Americans emphasized the obvious. What they saw about them were more tracks and more factories and more people, bigger farms and bigger corporations and bigger buildings; and in a time of confusion they responded with a quantitative ethic that became the hallmark of their crisis in values. It seemed that the age could only be comprehended in bulk. Men defined issues by how much, how many, how far… For lack of anything that made better sense of their world, people everywhere weighed, counted, and measured it.
And on pages 147 and 154, a description of what came out of this quantitative ethic:
The meaning of data had fundamentally changed. Earlier theorists had examined society assuming an infinite number of one-to-one relationships; a cause produced an effect, a law covered an action, a reform led to a result. Now society was 'a vast tissue of reciprocal activity… all interwoven to such a degree that you see different systems according to the point of view you take… It was not that the exponents of bureaucratic thought sacrificed ends to means but that they merged what customarily had been regarded as ends and means into a single, continuous stream, then failed to provide a clear rationale for the amalgam. Endless talk of order and efficiency, endless analogies between society and well-oiled machinery, never in themselves supplied an answer. Instead of careful definitions, they offered only tendencies.
For Wiebe, these last are fairly knotted sentences, but it nevertheless approaches something like a performative (or perhaps a mimetic) contradiction; they are far more like a careful definition and an answer than like a tendency or a tissue. And Wiebe's heroic couplets fight rather than evoke this sense of continuity; so firmly stamped and discrete is the meaning of every thought, that the book seems entirely written in topic sentences—extremely well-written ones, but each one could begin a new and separate paragraph, or even a whole essay. They are far more like the "one-to-one relationships" which were supplanted by the new mentality, although Wiebe is very, very far from anything like a "quantitative ethic" (I can recall almost no instances of statistics in the book, certainly no tables). So far from the sense of what is actually being described, this again seems like a sort of mimetic contradiction.

It is, of course, not presumed that historiography must be stylistically mimetic of its subject, and if it were, it would no doubt end in disaster. (That's what we have novels for, anyway.) Yet there is something missing in Wiebe because of this disjuncture between style and content that undercuts, for me, his analysis of the era, as if the mimetic gap between what he depicts and how he depicts it actually distorts our ability to perceive it, even as he says straightforwardly what it is we are looking at: disorder, struggle, and confusion, emergence, improvisation, and an ad hoc transformation.

So when Wiebe argues that 
If those who thought of the new industrial giants as diabolically perfect organisms could have peeked inside, they would have found jerry-built organization, ad hoc assumptions of responsibility, obsolete office techniques, and above all an astonishing lack of communication among its parts… Presiding over ramshackle concerns, the officers could only command and hope.
we get a barely clearer vision of what this ramshackleness really looked or felt like than the contemporary critics who didn't see it at all or ignored it. Wiebe compares at one point the new mentality of reform to "the fluidity of calculus, not the order and balance of plane geometry" (146). There is much more of the latter than the former; at its most elaborate, The Search for Order is extremely elegant trigonometry.

Much earlier in the book, Wiebe describes the basic dynamic of change and progress that he found repeated throughout the period: "Once again, a narrow attempt to impose order tended to increase the disorder around it." It is this dynamic which seems to be entirely suspended for the duration of the book, a sort of unnatural imposition of order everywhere without any increase of disorder anywhere within it. No sentence really seems to feel the pressure of obscurity, and the balance of one sentence sends no succeeding sentence off-kilter; everything is calibrated, nothing is confused.

Again, this is not to say that Wiebe's writing isn't absolutely lovely to read; it is so far from cloying even in its unruffled smoothness that I very well understand why it continues to be assigned even as its synthesis has been scavenged and challenged almost piece-by-piece ever since it was published in 1967. Jackson Lears's new synthesis of the period, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, has been, as is readily visible from the titular span of dates, called by Richard White a "doppelgänger" of Wiebe's book.

White goes on to say of Search for Order, and I find this very interesting:
Wiebe portrayed the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period of centralization, professionalization and nationalization. Americans found themselves adrift as an older world of autonomous, local "island" communities disintegrated; they responded by undertaking a "search for order" to organize, discipline and tame a society that was diverse, industrial, urban and increasingly corporate. Newer scholarship has undermined many of Wiebe's conclusions, such as the existence of island communities in the wake of the Civil War and the rationality of the new corporate order. Yet his book stands--a weathered but imposing monument reinforced by the powerful metaphor of its title. Metaphors matter; they can corral all kinds of restless and fractious people and events, and Wiebe settled on a good one.
It is strange to me that White (and the others to whom he alludes) takes the "rationality of the new corporate order" as one of the primary conclusions of Wiebe's study; perhaps it is merely because I am reading it after the revisionists have re-framed the period that I see instead of an emphasis on "order" an emphasis on the "search" for it, but I have to disagree with White that this achieved (as opposed to nominal or aspirational) rationality is in fact how Wiebe characterizes the new corporate order (as evidenced by the "jerry-built" quote above). There is a constant reminder of the romantic overhang (or hangover) shadowing the period, and if the trend was toward "science" and "rational management," Wiebe nevertheless gives frequent acknowledgment of the inertial forces inside that trend.

It is, instead, probably the prose which has influenced later scholars to play up the "order" part of the book rather than the "search." If White and others remember the book as a monument to a society in the process of ordering itself—instead of, as Wiebe really argues, producing more disorder by "narrow" attempts to impose order—it is almost certainly because the evenness of the book's arguments feels so little connected to the turbulent process of imposing order upon its materials that this smooth and successful stylistic calibration comes to replace in our minds the uneven and "ramshackle" process that it in fact depicts.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Edith Wharton and Gossip Girl

I don't intend to apologize for liking the television show Gossip Girl,* but I also hope the following does not read like an attempt to elevate it by identifying its debts to Edith Wharton; that would be like trading on the name of one's rich but distant relatives, a move which hasn't happened yet in Gossip Girl, though it would be suited to its universe.

Naming Wharton as one of Gossip Girl's influences is not particularly original of me; in Season Two, the boys' and girls' private schools of St. Jude and Constance combine to stage a production of The Age of Innocence, and the writers of the show have fun placing their characters in roles from Wharton's novel, ultimately suggesting that these high schoolers actually do live in a Wharton plot, and not just a Whartonian milieu of old money. Minor details also connect the show to House of Mirth: Lily Bass is quite obviously a descendant (by name) of Lily Bart, and the show opens quite cleverly with the very same set-up as the novel: a beautiful young woman walks unexpectedly through Grand Central Station. More minor still (and more tendentious, I allow), is the Rose/Rosedale correspondence (Cyrus Rose, Simon Rosedale) for the only Jewish characters in either work. I believe I noticed more parallels as I was reading House of Mirth, but I can't recall them now.

But more significantly, the principal theme of the show and of the two major Wharton novels (House of Mirth and Age of Innocence) is basically the same: Wharton and the creators of Gossip Girl are fascinated by what keeps people who do, might, or could love each other apart. Gossip Girl is virtually algorithmic in its exploration of this problem: take nine major characters, mix and match. Find each combination's weak point, and relentlessly drive that pair toward it.

Wharton is of course more graceful, but not exactly more subtle; Selden and Lily, Newland and Ellen (and, come to think of it, Ethan Frome and Mattie), are similarly the objects of a ruthless authorial experiment in how two people can find something, anything to keep them apart. It is rather the opposite of the romance plot: instead of overcoming the various obstacles (personality and class or wealth are probably the main ones) which separate the hero and heroine, Wharton and Gossip Girl make the characters' affinities which naturally link the characters into the obstacles which must be surmounted to resolve the plot's tension. It's a rather striking structure, even in series.

* I know nothing about the novels; much of what I say here about the connections between Wharton and the GG show could in fact be a product of the written source material. If anyone is familiar with the novels, I'd be very interested to hear to what extent they reference—explicitly or in code—Wharton. The New Yorker reviewed them, but that's all I have to go on.

Edit 11/20/2010: The new season also has its Wharton reference: the second time we see Juliet, she is reading House of Mirth, and Juliet, like Lily, finds innovative ways of hiding her penury from her rivals. She hasn't started making hats in a millinery yet, though.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The House of Mirth and The Rise of Silas Lapham

"There is a point where taste has to begin" - Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

I like this quote in part because, even in the larger context (which you can get by clicking on the link), the expression "has to" straddles very elegantly the hortatory and the necessary: it is both an inevitable feature of taste that it does begin somewhere, at some specific point, and also that it should begin somewhere, that one who has taste must recognize a lowest rung on the social ladder below which lies nothing worth recognizing—not even money.

It would be tedious to say that "the point where taste has to begin" is a major concern of both Wharton's and Howells's novels, but it is, nevertheless, the tedious point at which I wish to begin discussing these works. For one glaring but still quite enlivening motif of both novels is the emphasis they place on the spatial nature of taste, or better said, the spatial preconditions of taste. For in both novels, it is presumed that taste ultimately eludes or transcends mere space—it is necessarily, in its highest forms, not only ineffable but also impossible to ground or physically delimit; the social ladder wisps away at its highest point into the empyrean—but this ultimately transcendental aspect of taste does not mean that there is not a moment at which it is most definitely spatial, and thus material.

One might think of it as the moment of primitive accumulation, and it is no accident that it is when the protagonists of both novels venture past this stage of capitalism and try their hands at actual financial speculation—the very ineffable realms of non-spatialized capital—that they meet their downfalls.* One barely needs to translate "taste" into the Bourdieusian term "social capital"—the exchange rate in both Wharton and Howells is so direct and the roles of social and financial capital so genuinely homologous that very little mediation is required to tell the stories of Lily Bart and Silas Lapham in social or in financial terms; one can continuously switch idioms with little meaning lost.

There are some ambiguities, of course. At times marriage is treated as a form of speculation—often, Lily's behavior toward her suitors resembles that of a very undisciplined investor, jumping off before either profit or loss can be realized, though doing so is a definitive form of loss. At others, marriage is treated more like a form of primitive accumulation or at the most a form of investment in capital goods—a marriage with the Coreys in Rise of Silas Lapham isn't considered a speculative venture (the Corey's position in society is not likely to appreciate or depreciate considerably) but would function more as a simple acquisition of social capital, with no idea of any surplus value accruing from it. Lily views a marriage to Selden as (merely)  primitive accumulation—she would have more money than she now has, but with no hope of acquiring more: Selden is not an asset likely to appreciate or to generate a surplus value. (It barely needs to be said that seeing him as such is what leads her to reject him; she craves some speculative aspect to a marriage, a desire which leads her ultimately to consider Rosedale as a potential husband. He is the only character in the novel who might actually appreciate in value.)

But these are rather dull considerations; what excites me about the quote with which I started is that by spatializing taste at the moment of primitive accumulation, it fuses together a large number of different ideas or forms of taste, allowing taste to be expressed in multiple (but always spatial) modes. "Social climbing" is made less figurative. (This process of specialization differs, I think, from what Bourdieu does, because it concerns less the processes of signaling distinction or of reproducing it than of figuring out how to position oneself (literally) to begin acquiring it: where does that moment of primitive accumulation, that "point where taste has to begin," exist?)

Geography is one mode that I am always interested in, and immediately it touches off a spark in my head that we can think of the kind of geographic displacement which Lapham and his wife undertake from rural Vermont to cosmopolitan Boston as precisely this strategy, written on the face of the map. Moving from a hinterland to the metropolis is a form of primitive accumulation of social capital. In Lapham, this tactic of self-displacement is doubled, in fact (though it is, I acknowledge, absent in House of Mirth), with the proposed move from the Lapham's first house to their new home on the higher-status Back Bay.

The way that taste is spatialized in homes is of particular importance to Wharton: architecture was an abiding interest for her, and it plays a crucial role in The House of Mirth as a way of judging the nouveaux riches in New York and assimilating them into the hierarchy already in place. Location is part of it as well, but the structure of houses and their capacities for entertaining properly is critical in the accumulation of social capital and its proper investment. Howells has this too—the Lapham's drawing room is so unsuitable for entertaining that it nearly turns off the Coreys—but at a lower pitch.

Travel is a third spatialization of social capital; it again plays a larger role in Wharton, but it is certainly not absent from Howells. Going to the right places on holiday means running into the right people, which in turn means being invited by them to dinner, which means meeting other "right" people, as well as being able to reciprocate and invite any or all of these "right" people to one's own place. Of course, this social tactic is also highly convenient to the novelist who is always seeking to find ways of throwing her characters together without bending the laws of plausibility, but that takes little away from the interest of the social tactic.

Referring to these spatializations of social capital as "primitive accumulation" suggests a bit more than just that they precede more speculative modes of social capital accumulation, and that they differ from those modes. It also suggests—at least to anyone familiar with Marx—that there is a form of violence inherent in these tactics. There doesn't appear to be, however, anything like that attached to the tactics I have outlined—leaving the hinterland for the metropolis, building a home**, or traveling to a fashionable resort seem very little like enslavement or murderous dispossession. (Although in Lapham's case a fairly classic dispossession is in fact lurking in the background of the novel as the source of Lapham's wealth.)

Yet I think it is possible to consider deracination as the violence necessary for the tactic of self-displacement from the hinterland to the metropolis—although it is obviously a very different, more metaphorical kind of violence. Still, it is not wrong to define it as a kind of violence worked upon the self; it is a self-enclosure, and in a novel like Sister Carrie, the brutality of casting oneself into a situation where one has no choice but to become a social climber is quite overt. (It is there in Père Goriot as well, though more romanticized—still, Rastignac expropriates his family's money ruthlessly to fuel his social ascent, and though he is ruthless, it weighs on him.) Even in a novel like Winesburg, Ohio, there is a certain grim coldness to the departure of George Willard; it does, after all, require the death of his mother.

Locating the violence in travel is a little more difficult on the individual level, although as numerous scholars have been pointing out for awhile now, questions of international travel, even in this period, are "imbricated" (which seems to be the word always used) in the general structural relations of imperialism. I find this particular line rather limited at least in the context of these two novels. Although Corey plans on traveling to South America to sell Lapham's paint, that's not the kind of travel I mean here, and all the other instances of travel are domestic—to Dubuque, to a Long Island resort, to Bar Harbour, to Texas. Business in the novel is transnational (and particularly transatlantic), but the social-capital status game isn't, really (though that wasn't really true of Boston at the time—compare Henry Adams's Education).

House of Mirth is quite a bit more transatlantic in terms of its circuits of social capital. On the other hand, it shows an American aristocracy rather wowed by older British and Continental wealth and status; if we're looking to imperialism as the site of violence in this social tactic, then it seems like we'll have to make some adjustments. I honestly haven't thought this through as much as I have the bit about deracination, but it seems to me that whatever violence exists within the tactic of travel is more mediated and less direct than the violence of deracination.

*Well, it's a bit more complicated in Lily's case because her money is never actually used for speculation, but it is the encounter with and desire for speculative schemes which ruins her, as it ultimately ruins Lapham. In both cases, of course, the desire to speculate isn't primary or instinctive, but the result of previous misfortunes, and further misfortunes beyond those connected directly to speculation also befall Lily and Lapham, but the disaster of speculation is the crux or tipping point for both.

**Actually, there might be a fairly easy case to make for the "violence" (broadly construed) of this form of primitive accumulation: building a big house is certainly a type of enclosure and such an undertaking likely is bound to be exploitative of other people's labor. There's the old Brecht quote, "What is the crime of robbing a bank compared to founding one?" Well, I suppose the same goes here.

Also: Read this article from n+1 about serialization in fiction and television: it's fantastic, and also, a little tangentially, about social climbing—in this case, of a genre or form, the serial television drama. At any rate, it pulls a great quote from Balzac which is relevant to the above: "the number of relationships increases the chances of success in every sphere." That is precisely this logic of primitive accumulation I'm pointing to here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gilding the Lily

"Nanny, the younger [Corey sister], had read a great many novels with a keen sense of their inaccuracy as representations of life, and had seen a great deal of life with a sad regret for its difference from fiction."
-from The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells

So, six months into 2010, the goals I had at the beginning of this year have pretty much fallen through. Not surprising, exactly, as deviation from one's resolutions is as much a part of making them as is thinking you're going to keep them. Yet I've had some genuine reasons for failing to read as much Latin American and world literature as I had hoped: the spring semester of courses entailed a lot more reading than the fall, for whatever reason, and I had projected my leisure-reading time according to what I was able to get done in the fall. This is in large part why there have been few posts, particularly over the last 3 months, though not really feeling like blogging also has something to do with it.

There are more important reasons than just lack of time, however; like all grad students, I've been undergoing a sort of persistent personal crisis of how much I have yet to read in my area to feel moderately well-informed about what it is I say I'm studying. It hasn't helped that mid-way through the spring semester, I realized that I felt much more at home and was much, much more interested in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era than in contemporary fiction or culture; not previously having had much sustained interest in the literature of the period, I have some serious gaps.

Rectifying that is the project for the summer and, obviously, the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future as well. I no longer feel as compelled as I once did to blog about all or at least most of the things I read, but when I do blog, it will likely have some application to this period of literature and history. I hope that won't be boring to any of you who have hung on while I've let this blog languish. It is, at least as far as my experience goes, not a terribly familiar period, and many fewer books from it continue to be read than in the periods preceding it (the American Renaissance) and following it (Lost Generation/Harlem Renaissance/modernism). Dreiser and Wharton are still commonly read, I suppose, and obviously Twain, James, and Crane, but there's not quite the same cachet for the Gilded Age/Progressive Era as for those more illustrious eras on either side. I don't kid myself that I'll be correcting that distribution, but I do hope to share some of the more enjoyable and intriguing aspects of the period's literature, and some of the better criticism written about it.

I intend to interpret the starting points and ending points of the period as broadly as possible, even if that means making virtual nonsense of the terms "Gilded Age" and "Progressive Era" as they have been commonly interpreted. There simply isn't a term that is as inclusive as I wish to be, unfortunately. 1865 is as early as I can reasonably go, but there are numerous writers in the 1920s I want to pull in, and I may even venture a little bit into the 1930s at times.

This period won't be my exclusive focus on this blog, but it is something I'm very excited about, and I hope you'll find it worthwhile. Watch for a post on The House of Mirth and The Rise of Silas Lapham coming soon.