Godfather of American Modernism

April 30 is the birth date of John Crowe Ransom (1888), who had as much to do with the look of modern American writing as anyone could. He started out at Vanderbilt where he taught poets Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate (and not at Kenyon, as The Writer’s Almanac has it) along with critic Cleanth Brooks, poet Donald Davidson, and poet Randall Jarrell, who also had Brooks and Tate as instructors. He also founded The Fugitive, a short-lived but highly influential literary magazine that featured the talent that grouped around him. He later went to Kenyon, where he taught poets Robert Lowell and James Wright, short story master Peter Taylor, novelist E. L. Doctorow, and influential editor Robie Macauley, among others. He also started The Kenyon Review, one of the great literary journals ever, which gave space to just about everyone important: Warren, Tate, Taylor, Ford Madox Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Boris Pasternak, Bertolt Brecht, Doris Lessing, and Delmore Schwartz, among many others. He was also a renowned poet himself although his output is very small (160 or so poems); he simply stopped writing poems when he felt he’d said all he had to say.

On top of that, he named a critical movement with his book The New Criticism (1941). Main figures in that movement, which focused on close reading and textual analysis, were, unsurprisingly, Brooks, Tate, and Warren, along with Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and W. K. Wimsatt, and EVERYONE of my generation was trained in New Criticism to some degree or other. There may be more someone could do to shape a literary era, but I’m not sure what it could be.

Dining Room Publishers

One hundred years ago this week, on April 24, 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf took the first step to becoming publishers when a hand press they ordered was delivered to Hogarth House in London. The step was a faltering one: there was a broken part that needed replacing. When fixed, they set the thing up on the dining room table and went to work. Eventually they taught themselves how to print with the press and how to make books, so that they became publishers of themselves and their friends. Their first book as Hogarth Press was a pamphlet, Two Stories, with one by each of them. The next year they published Katherine Mansfield’s story, “Prelude.” In 1924 they produced the first British edition of T. S. Eliot’s Th220px-ToTheLighthousee Waste Land. Books often featured covers by Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, or by other artists attached to the Bloomsbury Group like Dora Carrington. The first edition of Virginia’s To the Lighthouse contained four woodcut illustrations by Vanessa. And their catalog is a Who’s-Who of their modernist moment, with works by E. M. Forster, Virginia’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, Henry Green, and numerous others. They even published The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. A good many books in the modernist period were published privately by the artists or by small presses, because materials and equipment for publishing became financially within reach for the first time. But few operations had the cultural reach of Hogarth Press.

Easter Rising

Today, April 24, is the anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. A terrible idea, the keystone of which was the conspirators barricading themselves in the General Post Office, which rendered them a stationary target with no means of escape. This is why you don’t want literary figures leading military adventures. It was saved from being a complete debacle by the British having the far worse idea of executing the ringleaders and thereby creating sixteen martyrs for the cause of Irish liberty. You can see a version of the end of the Rising at the beginning of Michael Collins, a film worth seeing on other grounds as well.

Two good things came out of the mess. Yeats wrote “Easter 1916,” for me the greatest political poem in the language. And events were set in motion that led to the Irish Free State and, eventually, the Republic of Ireland.

But what about endings?

I received an interesting question from a reader lately: it’s all well and good to discuss the first pages of novels in How to Read Novels Like a Professor, but what about last pages? Don’t they also have something to tell us? Indeed they do. I skipped them because the book is mainly a guide to reading, and by the time an ending comes along, most of the reading has been achieved. First pages, on the other hand, provide a host of clues as to how to read the upcoming narrative from style and tone to point-of-view and, sometimes, setting. Plus, truth be told, first pages tell me something very important at the bookstore: whether I want to read the second page. A last one can’t do that.

So what can it do? The last page of a novel has one overriding task: to get us out of this mess as effectively and elegantly as can be managed. Really, that’s all that remains. Those characters who were to die are dead, those who were to marry are hitched, and those to be left in limbo are dutifully twisting in the wind. Now, the narrative says, get us out of here.

Think of the endings that really work. Think of Gatsby‘s green light and “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Think of Pip’s final line in Great Expectations, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” Or Jake Barnes’s terse rejoinder to Lady Brett’s claim that they could have had so much damn fun together, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or the final line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” Each of them draws matters to a swift close, finds a pithy summation, and leaves readers with a sense that this moment is the last one available to this novel, that it is time to move out of this story. We may think that Pip merely exhibits a lack of vision or that Jake is trapped in his own ironic spiral, but there is no doubt that we are done. Garcia Marquez does them one better, having destroyed the entire clan and the town where they have lived and any prospects for further iterations of the family drama. Even a book as radically original as Joyce’s Ulysses must bring matters to an end that is emotionally or intellectually or artistically satisfying, “and his heart going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” The preceding seven hundred pages are famously difficult, but we can all understand what Molly Bloom is saying here.

Do all endings satisfy like that? Of course not. Most books never achieve the standing of the great ones, however much they try. But most do try. They do aspire to be, if not great, at least good. And they all struggle with getting themselves started and then, some hundreds of pages later, getting themselves finished. How they achieve either of those is what I think about. I think about beginnings and endings when I read novels..

Most of all, because he says most of all, I think of Jack Kerouac, who leads us out of On the Road not with action or speech but with memory and reflection, “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” After a book full of frenetic to-ing and fro-ing, Sal Paradise, the narrator, finds a still point of the turning world, bringing us gently to rest. Really, what more can we hope for?

Heaney’s Bog Man

In honor of the late Seamus Heaney’s birthday this week (April 13), a reading of one of his most famous poems, “The Tollund Man.” Two thousand-year-old bog person, contemporary Northern Irish Troubles, a history of violence, and wonderful attention to language. Great stuff.

Hail, Caesar!

At the beginning of the new American Experience first episode on World War I, Oliver Platt’s narration informs us that at the war’s outset Germany was ruled by a Kaiser, Russia by a Czar. Why is this of interest, when neither country has such a post any longer? Because etymologically speaking, kaiser and czar are both variants of that better known word for ruler, caesar. Those old Romans defined a lot of things for the rest of us, none more so than power.

Gatsby at 92

Monday was the anniversary of the 1925 appearance of The Great Gatsby. Now known as one of the essential American novels, it was not successful in its day. By the time Gatsby 1st editionFitzgerald died in 1940, it was out of print and most of the second printing was still in Scribner’s warehouse. Then things started to change. By 1960, around fifty thousand copies a year were being sold. Eight years later, my classmates and I were part of the saturation bombing of Gatsby. It had clawed its way into the secondary classroom and had no plans to leave. Now the number is somewhere between 300,000 and half a million. If only Fitzgerald could see his failure! Come to think of it, maybe that first edition cover had something to do with the anemic sales.


Lyrical Ballads

Today is the birthday of William Wordsworth (1770), who with Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a slim volume with a modest title, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798, when he was 28 and Coleridge two years younger. Its effect was anything but modest; it is probably the single most important volume in the history of English poetry.

William Wordsworth The Preface to Lyrical Ballads

The goal of the collection was to drive a stake through the heart of eighteenth-century poetry, and for that alone we should be grateful. As Wordsworth stated in the preface, which is nearly as valued as the poems themselves, they wished to move the language of poetry away from the academic and cerebral toward something ordinary people could understand and appreciate. It gave rise not only to the Romantic movement but to a sense of the modern, which would no longer be beholden to convention and antiquity. The first poem was Coleridge’s most famous, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and the last was Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” If it had only contained those two, its appearance would still have had seismic effects. I have always been more partial to Coleridge’s strangeness than Wordsworth’s worship of the rustic, but the latter is probably the more influential. Lots of poets learned to write like Wordsworth; almost no one could write like Coleridge except Coleridge.

The Unknown Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born on this date, April 3, 1783, during the week when New Yorkers learned that the British had finally ceased fighting. His first name was an overt act of hero worship on the part of his family. He would eventually write a multi–volume biography of that other Washington late in his life.

Most Americans know him as the author of two stories, one about a headless horseman and the other about a guy who falls asleep, but he was so much more than that. He edited a satiric magazine, Salmagundi, that made fun of the elite of NYC. He wrote histories, biographies, examinations of Islam, and many more comic stories besides the two you may have read. He was John Tyler’s Minister to Spain for four years, recommended for the post by Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Prior to that he had traveled to Spain in the 1820s, and during that trip he went to Granada and saw the magnificent Alhambra Palace, built by the Moors. From his fascination with that, he wrote a mix of stories, history, and myth called Tales of the Alhambra. He wrote works on British playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith and the Prophet Muhammad in back-to-back years. In other words, he was interested in almost everything he encountered. His work was popular in America and Europe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes said that his home, Sunnyside, was second only to Mt. Vernon as the “most cherished dwelling in our land.” Among his other accomplishments, he popularized the term “Gotham” for NYC and coined the phrase “the almighty dollar.” We ignore him at our peril.

By the way, that other story, the one about falling asleep? Far from being a cute children’s story, it is a sly commentary on the way things changed–and sometimes didn’t–during Rip Van Winkle’s long sleep, which corresponded with the American Revolution. Rip has escaped his own personal tyrant, Dame Van Winkle, so that’s good. The portrait of George III on a sign early in the story is replaced after the big sleep with one of George Washington–with the face left in place. Only the headgear and clothing have changed. Go figure.