Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
The rationale of these literary essays, appearing in the Review for more than a year now, was explained in "Culture of Conservatives" in the Dec. 2005 issue, and I have alluded to it in some of the essays, but I think there's more to be said on the subject. I wrote that reading literature, good imaginative fiction, "gives us views of the world through others' eyes, widening our horizons, broadening our sympathies," and that it precedes politics, that our opinions are "surface manifestations of a world of thought and feeling" developed by "education, meaning everything we experience," including our reading. The books we read contribute to our culture, which in turn largely determines our politics. As I have said more than once, it is not the ideas in fiction that are so influential, but the writer's vision of the world. It is obvious, for instance, that Evelyn Waugh must have taken great pleasure observing people because it shows up in his characters; we feel his zest for life in his books; it is one of the chief pleasures of reading them. It would be absurd to try to list the "lessons" we learn from reading Waugh, but surely whatever it is, the knowledge gained is funny, not sour, and our outlook has been widened, not narrowed.
Readers will have noticed that the politics of the authors I've written about were various. Waugh was reactionary, Powers liberal, Swift an 18th century Tory, Hemingway radical. Their politics have little to do with their work and nothing to do with their artistry. Some express or imply ideas--Waugh, civilization's decay, Hemingway, stoic nihilism--but they are not nearly so important as the sensory reality of their stories or their general tone. The darkest writer of the group is Hemingway, but he never wrote anything that could be classed with the squalid fiction of today. Artistry has been a major theme in this series, analyzing the art of each writer, showing how it's done, because that's the finest thing we can get from our reading, recognition and understanding of the beauty of a work of art, which is, or should be, an essential part of the conservative outlook: the beauty of artistic form testifies to the greatness of man's spirit.
People have always based their affiliations on their cultural predispositions, just as they have felt that their political allegiances tell important things about them; but there is a difference today: Liberals are far more fiercely committed to the Democratic party and their identity is much more closely bound up with it, hence the term "identity politics." Why is this so? Although modern liberalism (the leftist type, distinct from 19th century liberalism) began as a cultural phenomenon--the literature of the time--in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and got a boost in the 1920s and '30s, it really spread to the political realm in the mid '60s. It is hard to believe today, but I remember the early '60s, when elite colleges were staffed by apoliticals, conservatives (not very many), and liberals of the Adlai Stevenson variety. Passions were cool, belligerence non-existent. Once radicalism moved beyond its subculture, working to take over the Democratic party between 1968 and '72, the temperature of political passions shot up and we were swamped by a culture of alienation and rebellion, sour, nasty, negative. Naturally this bred a strong identity politics, to the extent that where I live yuppies (teenagers in the '60s) shun known Bush voters and are fearful of Christians! This trend was exacerbated by the advent of Reagan and the rise of conservatism: Now liberals, feeling besieged as the cultural control they've exerted for so long is weakening, cling more desperately than ever to their politics. With most aspects of culture behind them for so long, liberals were supremely confident until recently.
The liberal literary culture of the last 100 years is characterized by a dark, negative tone. As one observer notes:
There is in all these works a certain atmosphere of universal doom . . . an impression of hopelessness . . . something confusing, something hazy . . . something hostile to the reality which they represent . . . a turning away from the practical will to live or delight in portraying it under its most brutal forms. There is a hatred of culture and civilization . . . and often a radical and fanatical urge to destroy.
Sometimes the themes are negative, often they are simply incidental, a matter of course: against authority, business, the military, religion, the wealthy--all are portrayed as enemies of compassionate individuals. Understand that this says nothing about the quality of the writing. Dubliners, for instance, a book of stories by James Joyce, is beautifully done, but its point, the reason it was written, is to show nearly every character as contemptible. It's a very hard book to like; it's a typical product of modern literary culture. Remember: It isn't the ideas that influence readers, it's the way the world is seen and portrayed, in this case with contempt. There are contemporary novels that have been praised by conservatives for their ideas, but since their vision of the world is as squalid as any other typical contemporary novel, their ideas mean nothing.
If liberal literary culture is dying, what shall take its place? To try to answer that, I shall turn to Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a very highly regarded book written by Erich Auerbach over 60 years ago, erudite, fascinating, beautifully written and argued, but dense, often prolix, and linguistically demanding (to fully appreciate his analysis of all the texts requires knowledge of Latin, Italian, French, and German). Not a page-turner for the casual reader. Nevertheless, I think we can winkle from it some ideas useful for our discussion. The basic argument is that Western literature from its beginning in antiquity (he opens with Homer's Odyssey) and onward over the centuries, has grappled with the challenge of representing reality in many different ways, culminating in modern realism, represented first by Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and thereafter by many others, from whom he chooses Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) as the exemplar. Well aware of the negative aspects of modern realism--he's the "observer" I quoted above--he was more impressed by "something new and elemental . . . nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice." It would take too long to explain here, but if the reader is familiar with the stories of Katherine Mansfield or the genteel writers of The New Yorker school (prior to the mid-'60s), he will be acquainted with the method of concentrating on feelings and perceptions in random revelatory moments.
Whether we agree with Auerbach's characterization of modern realism or not, the thing to see is that he thinks it has solved the problem of representing reality. This is it, the end of the line, the culmination of nearly 3000 years of literary history. I don't think one has to be a conservative to be skeptical of progressive, quasi-teleolgical views of history, even literary history. Realism, in this realm anyway, is a method like any other (expressionism, surrealism, objectivism, etc., etc.); just as there have been others in the past so there will be more in the future. What Auerbach seems to have done here is to conflate the method, realism, with what it's trying to portray, reality. His error may be due to the fact that many modern realists (Woolf and Joyce being prominent examples) try to mimic reality by uttering incoherent thoughts of their characters--stream of consciousness is one form of this--so if the mime succeeds, and he thinks it does, then the method merges with the thing itself. But this is nonsense, if for no other reason than the fact that reality can only be fully and truly known to the mind of God; as individuals we all see it a little differently. For another reason, it is clear now that in the years since Mimesis was written, the method seems to have played itself out.
So we come back to the question of what shall replace liberal literary culture. We may hope for a conservative renaissance, though we cannot know what form it will take (except that it will not be modern realism), but its development will be long delayed unless conservative editors begin to publish fiction. It will be very difficult at first. No one seems to care much about literature anymore, and taste has been debased. But a beginning must be made. Only then, when conservatives feel the weight of their culture behind them, will they have the confidence and spirit to restore America to itself. I hope this series of essays has started readers thinking about these matters, and I also hope I have interested them in some fine writers. There are more to come: Francis Parkman, Arnold Bennett, Thoreau, Henry James, Conrad and more. *
"The first virtue of all really great men is that they are sincere. They eradicate hypocrisy from their hearts." --Anatole France
We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions in support of this journal (from 1/8/2007 to 3/9/2007): William D. Andrews, Charles A. Bacon, John M. Baker, Reid S. Barker, John G. Barrett, Harry S. Barrows, Gordon D. Batcheller, Arnold Beichman, Bud & Carol Belz, Charles Benscheidt, Ronald Benson, Aleatha W. Berry, Veronica A. Binzley, James B. Black, Erminio Bonacci, C.W. Borklund, I. C. Brent, Priscilla L. Buckley, William G. Buckner, David G. Budinger, D. J. Cahill, George E. Cahill, William C. Campion, Mark T. Cenac, W. Edward Chynoweth, William D. Collingwood, Garry W. Croudis, Nancy W. Davis, Dianne C. DeBoest, Robert W. Demers, Francis. P. Destefano, Linda Driedger, Neil Eckles, Carl W. Edquist, Irene M. Elkins, Nicholas Falco, Nansie Lou Follen, Reubin M. Freitas, Jerome C. Fritz, James R. Gaines, Jane F. Gelderman, Gary D. Gillespie, Lee E. Goewey, Hollis J. Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Daniel J. Haley, Robert C. Hall, Violet H. Hall, Ted L. Harkins, Thomas E. Heately, Bernhard Heersink, Thomas E. Humphreys, Joseph M. Irvin, Burleigh Jacobs, Robert R. Johnson, Steven D. Johnson, Mary A. Kelley, Robert E. Kelly, Walter J. Kenworthy, Robert E. Kersey, Robert M. Kubow, Harvey & Mary Larsen, Robert Leaf, James A. Lee, Herbert London, Ronald B. Maddox, Scott Martin, Verlie Mae Matson, W. K. McLain, David P. & Barbara R. Mitchel, Michael E. Moore, King Odell, Larry A. Olsen, Harold Olson, Frederick D. Pfau, Donald J. Povejsil, Garland L. & Betty Pugh, Jane B. Ramsland, Richard O. Ranheim, Jeanne I. Reisler, Shirley W. Roe, Robert E. Rolwing, Morris R. Scholz, Mr. & Mrs. Richard P. Schonland, Irene L. Schultz, Harry Richard Schumache, Richard L. Sega, William A. Shipley, Joseph M. Simonet, Ben T. Slade, Thomas E. Snee, Carl G. Stevenson, Charles B. Stevenson, Mary H. Sundberg, Elizabeth E. Torrance, Jacke E. Turner, James J. Whelan, Max L. Williamson, Charles W. Wilson, Eric B. Wilson, Robert W. Wilson.
If, as I hope to show in a later essay in this series, Henry Thoreau (1817-62) is the father of American expository prose, Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the father of most modern American fiction. His work represents a break with the genteel tradition, introducing a democratic style, a democratic cast of characters, and a democratic way of looking at American society. He took the crude dialect humor of journalists like Petroleum Nasby and Artemus Ward, mixed it with the rough frontier humor he had known during his apprentice days in the West, consumed the dross in the crucible of his imagination, and produced in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876), a moving story of astonishing depth and clarity. Hitherto, characters like Huck and Jim, not to speak of the King and the Duke, were regarded as too low for serious fiction. Henry James, just beginning his career in the 1870s, felt that he had to go to Europe to find the background for his stories of the complications of American innocence--his native land was too barren of the subtle usages of traditional civilization--but Twain, on the barest of stages and out of the commonest clay and in the simplest of tongues wrote a novel about innocence that became a world classic.
What is astonishing is that he knew so little about what he was doing. He abandoned the manuscript for six years and almost destroyed it, and he thought The Prince and the Pauper (second-rate trash) a far better novel. I cannot think of a major American writer less conscious of what he was doing. And yet when his instincts were working just right, he could perform wonders. As an example let me cite what most critics regard as a major flaw in the book: the sections at the beginning and end of the book dominated by Tom Sawyer. Since Tom is a very superficial character--the conventional mischief-maker is always forgiven his essentially harmless pranks--these chapters distract us from the moving depths of the chapters in the middle devoted to Huck and Jim on the raft. What the critics don't see is that the reader needs that distraction; without it he cannot gauge the profundity of the central chapters. Those are insulated, protected by the Sawyer chapters, and their specialness is thus preserved. And we can only appreciate the quality of Huck's clear-eyed realism when we compare it with Tom's superficiality and sentimentality. Without the Sawyer chapters the power of the core of the book would be much diminished. I'm certain Twain did not consciously know this, and I doubt if he would have understood it if it were explained, but a writer's deep instincts guided him aright.
By democratic style I mean Twain's use of the vernacular, and his prefatory note about the different dialects shows how painstaking he was in this regard. The device of Huck as narrator may be called false naivet. Huck is naive but his creator is not. Naive doesn't seem quite the right word for Huck; he's no fool, he's not taken in by frauds, he can make up elaborate alibis in a moment, he's sharply observant, as when he notes with devastating realism the squalid riverside towns with their shiftless inhabitants.
There couldn't anything wake them up all over and make them happy all olike a dog-fight--unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.
But we think of him as naive, especially compared to the relatively worldly sophisticated Tom Sawyer, in that there's a simplicity, directness, and freshness about his character, an openness to experience, that's constantly reflected in the way he speaks. Naturally he does not use literary language or anything aiming for elegance. Look at this passage describing the coming of dawn on the river:
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line--that was the woods on t'other side--you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see the little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away--trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks--rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds came so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in the swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up . . .
He moves progressively from one sensory impression to another as the light increases; we see the river awakening as Huck does, and we sense what lies just beneath the words: his wonder. Do not think that Twain has merely copied vernacular speech; he has used its words and its rhythms, carefully arranged, to create literary pictures that would be beyond the capacity of a real Huck Finn. His genius has created the style, put the words in the boy's mouth that make us see the sunrise as he does and that strikes the chords of sympathy between character and reader. Thus does great writing transcend its time. Huck's style frees him to a great degree of the constraints of time and place.
One of the persistent themes in the book is Huck's distrust of society, any society, whether of the sordid towns or the widow Douglas; it's "civilization" and he wants no part of it. In this connection, note that Tom Sawyer's antics, which make him a major bore in the book, are dictated by "books" as he says; he's relatively sophisticated but that's no virtue in Huck's eyes. This strain of anti-gentility, anti-authority would be another aspect of the Huckleberry Finn legacy.
Ernest Hemingway once said that "All modern fiction comes from Huck Finn," a remark so general that it can mean much or little, depending on how we wish to read it, but surely the most obvious point is the one I made in the beginning: that Huckleberry Finn represents a break with the genteel tradition, democratizing the novel. We can test the truth of Hemingway's remark by looking at other American writers. Critics in the 1920s often linked Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) to Hemingway, but the resemblance between their writing is superficial and coincidental; they both drew from the same source, Mark Twain. Here's the opening of the first story in the Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the book that made Anderson's name:
Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that has been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon, and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun.
Nothing in the book rises far above this level of awkward simplicity. Listen to this passage near the end describing a visit to the grandstand the night after the county fair:
The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and country around. Farmers with their wives and children, and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
These passages are not merely simple, they are inarticulate, and for good reason, as we shall see. George Willard, the eighteen-year-old protagonist who works on the local paper and who leaves for Chicago at the end to become a writer, is more sophisticated but less mature than Huck Finn, just as Anderson was certainly not in the same league with Mark Twain. In the twenty-three short chapters of Winesburg, Anderson tells stories about the townspeople, usually one to a chapter, but the stories are not very circumstantial because the author focuses always on some peculiarity that seems to him the essence of character. In most cases they live lonely, strangely inverted lives, and the artlessness of the prose gives the impression, not that Anderson created them but that he discovered them. That is no mean feat.
When one thinks about the book, the George Willard theme fades away; it is the grotesque, usually secret lives of the characters that are remembered because the reader knows this truth: that all of us are lonely and none of us are strangers to hidden fixations and half understood compulsions. It is their inability to communicate, to make themselves known, that is most striking, most poignant, and psychologically so true. The style is vague and weak compared to Huckleberry Finn; he didn't have Twain's power, but he didn't want it, wouldn't have known what to do with it, not just because he was naive and childish (he was), but because what he was describing--the solitariness of every human being and the hidden ways people use to try to break out of it--is necessarily nebulous, a matter of moods and shifting feelings. Twain's book was like a key that opened a door to a new place where writers were free to slough off their literary garments. Anderson wrote simply about humble country people's frustrations; without the example of Huckleberry Finn it is impossible to say what he would have done.
Ring Lardner (1885-1933) was a sportswriter in Chicago who began writing humorous stories about baseball players just before the First World War, gradually expanding his cast of characters until he attracted attention and critical acclaim in the 1920s. His stories are slight; except for a few ("The Golden Honeymoon," "Haircut," "Champion") they hardly have any thematic interest. Most of them, and his epistolary novel You Know Me Al, are told in the fist person in the form of letters or dairies or monologues, and that's Lardner's strength because he had perfect pitch when it came to recording speech, especially of the lower middle class. This is the first entry in the diary of an eighteen-year-old girl:
I am staying here at the Inn for two weeks with my Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule and I think I will keep a kind of diary while I am here to help pass the time and so I can have a record of things that happen though goodness knows there isn't lightly to anything happen, that is anything exciting with Uncle Nat and Aunt Jule making the plans as they are both at least thirty-five years old and maybe older.
Here's a ballplayer:
O'course Art knowed the boy was with the Jackson club as soon as they was interduced, "cause Art's uncle says something" about the both o' them bein' ball players, and so on.
The narrator of "The Golden Honeymoon":
"Well Mother," I say, "when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain't heard me say before? But it may be new to others as they ain't nobody else lived with me as long as you have."
So she says: "You can bet they ain't, as they couldn't nobody else stand you that long."
You can't get ahead of Mother.
A fight promoter:
If you ever been to St. Joe, you know the Chicago society gals that attends them dances. If you want to see one of them in the middle of the week, go up to the Draperies and ask for Min.
He speaks of common things in the common tongue. I enjoy Lardner because his voices remind me of ones I heard when I was growing up in a New Jersey industrial city in the 1930s and '40s, but of course such specificity means early obsolescence; most of his topical references would have to be footnoted today, and the patterns of speech must seem antique to anyone under fifty. Lardner's characters are beautifully defined by their style, but they are also imprisoned by it, doomed to an early death. To understand why this is so and why, as I pointed out when I quoted the sunrise passage from Huckleberry Finn, as Huck's style frees him from the constraints of time and place, we have to recognize that Twain created the style, he simulated the speech--he did not copy it as Lardner did. But I would not run down Lardner; there are subtleties in his stories and his characters that are easily overlooked. What his work shows us is that writing about people in their own style can have immediate impact but a short life.
Ernest Hemingway's (1896-1961) work is most obviously influenced by Huckleberry Finn. He wrote novels, but he will be remembered for his stories, written in a direct, seemingly simple style closely reporting the sensory data of the scene. Probably no modern writer has described the material world so clearly. The characters he writes about are boxers, bullfighters, mobsters, soldiers, waiters, gamblers, et al., definitely not types from the genteel tradition. Reading his stories as a teenager, I was bowled over by their tremendous power, realizing only many years later that this was an ambiguous gift. Hemingway was driven by compulsions quite at odds with the charismatic charm he used to dominate those around him, and the effort to maintain the integrity of a coherent, functioning personality created great tension which determined, to a considerable degree, the way he wrote. Someone once said that reading a Hemingway story is like being a passenger in a truck loaded with dynamite being driven over a shaky bridge. Of course he often wrote about tense, testing situations, but there seldom is any relaxation in his stories. We come to feel that, no matter the ostensible subject, the story is really about the tension that broods over it. And since the style determines the characters (in Lardner it's vice versa), there tends to be a sameness about them. In what I think is his finest story, "The Big Two-Hearted River," the tension is managed very adroitly. Nick, the only character, is trying to put the immediate past (the war) behind him by recovering his past before the war, and the story is about the form of the attempt-making camp, going fishing. The tension is implicit in the descriptions of his acts, their intensity and the way they are ritualistically elaborated. It's clear that he's trying very hard, and he has his fingers crossed.
This is the opening:
The train went up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
It is nowhere stated in the story, but I think it fair to say that the fire (which occurred in 1916) is analogous to Hemingway's experience of the war. But the river is still there:
It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. . . . Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
He starts out into the country:
Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. . . . Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.
Note this description:
Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out mosquitoes. He crawled inside the mosquito bar with various things from the pack to put at the head of the bed under the slant of the canvas. Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been all this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
Besides the obvious satisfaction here, we feel the underlying tension: the creation of "his home" is defensive-"nothing could touch him"--and we feel it in the repetitions. He makes us feel Nick's pleasure in his acts, his satisfaction, and we are drawn into that feeling; there can be no higher praise for a piece of writing.
To go back to the subject of style, look again at the quotations above. It looks so simple, and evidently a lot of writers thought it was, as one can see from the magazines of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, filled with their futile imitations. It is not enough to write simple declarative sentences, leaving out the adjectives; a writer has to have the artistic genius to choose the words and sentences and to order them. It is possible to analyze the structure of a paragraph to see why Hemingway made the choices he did, but it's something else to do it yourself. To write simply is not simple at all.
Hemingway's stories are the artistic culmination of the line from Huckleberry Finn, but his achievement is not the equal of Twain's because he lacked his breadth of character and depth of heart. The line continued but its products became less and less artistic. Think of John Steinbeck, or Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, or that caricature of Huck, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Today we recognize it by its lowlife characters, its coarseness, squalor, and profanity.
Hemingway's statement also has a negative implication: the end of the genteel tradition--but he was mistaken. That tradition did not die with Henry James but continued in the work of Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Including the last-named may seem surprising since there are obvious traces of Huckleberry Finn in his books, notably in his mixed cast of characters, and to some extent, in his style (As I Lay Dying, The Hamlet). That leads us to a fresh revelation, what we might call the democratic tradition in American letters. Cooper belonged to the genteel tradition--but think of Leatherstocking. So did Melville, our greatest, most eloquent novelist--but think of Ishmael, Queequeg, and the crew of the Pequod. Wharton wrote Ethan Frome and Summer. And Gatsby had a humble, shady past. We cannot escape our native ground. The best American fiction will nearly always include characters without pedigrees, and since Twain they will speak in their own voices.
The other lesson of this essay is that what really matters in art is not the writer's ideas or tradition but his genius and that's a variable quality. Twain wrote many books, but only two are first rate--Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi--because they are about the great river that was the central experience and totem of his life. *
"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." --John F. Kennedy
[Editor's note: the last article by Mr. Gardner was incorrectly titled as the 4th in his series-it was the 5th.]
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is our subject this time, specifically Gulliver's Travels, his masterpiece. Probably most of my readers, if they know the book at all, have read only the abridged and bowdlerized version of the voyage to Lilliput, intended for children. There are, however, four voyages, and we are going to look closely at three.
It may be remembered that in the first essay about Evelyn Waugh I discussed the innocence of Paul Pennyfeather, the hero of Decline and Fall, as a typical device of satire; it is his naivete that brings out and highlights the knavery and folly around him, and that serves, finally, as the norm, the moral center. Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator and protagonist of his Travels, is a similar figure, but Swift manipulates him in ways that become more and more complex as the book proceeds, implicating the reader in a web of understanding and misunderstanding that profoundly changes our initial view of the book--and Gulliver--as well as our perceptions as we read it. When one considers that Gulliver is the sole narrator of a book that can run, in a modern edition, to 225 pages, it is amazing that Swift created a character who is consistent throughout, who is the constant sport (and sometimes perpetrator) of irony, and who never puts a foot out of place. He is one of the great creations in English literature.
Listen to the first two sentences of the voyage to Lilliput:
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies: but the charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty allowance) being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years; and my father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be some time or other my fortune to do.
We learn several material things about Gulliver, but in the course of their accumulation--and this is quite deliberate--we are given a distinct impression of him: an ordinary, middling sort of fellow, earnest and studious, thoroughly prosaic, with a good but not exalted opinion of himself. Swift has created a believable character, and what's more important, one whom we will believe.
There is some topical satire, notably in Chapter Three, caricaturing, via descriptions of Lilliputian customs, the scramble for royal and political favor at home, but Swift soon drops that, and it needn't concern us. What comes across most powerfully is the fascination we feel observing the actions of little people, especially as we identify with Gulliver, which induces a feeling of superiority. So we are amused by his appetite:
There were shoulders, legs and loins shaped like those of mutton, and very well dressed, but smaller than the wings of a lark. I eat them by two or three at a mouthful, and took three loaves at a time, about the bigness of musket bullets. They supplied me as fast as they could, showing a thousand marks of wonder and astonishment at my bulk and appetite.
And also we are amused, and complicit in his condescension to his hosts, by his urination and defecation. At a couple of points we note that the Lilliput experience has gone to Gulliver's head:
. . . I had the honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the world knows he is only a Clumglum, a title inferior by one degree, as that of a marquis is to a duke in England . . .
If we think about it, Gulliver is being vain and gullible, but there are only three small instances and we are on his side, so we smile and pass on. The first voyage seems quite simple, but when we get to Brobdignag on the second voyage, the location of the moral center will shift, and we will, looking back, notice things about Lilliput we did not see at the time.
In Lilliput Gulliver (and the reader) was twelve times the size of the natives; in Brobdignag the difference is reversed and Gulliver (and the reader) is twelve times smaller than the natives. Swift designedly introduces this condition to Gulliver in a way calculated to emphasize its frightening aspects, forcing us to recognize its full ramifications. So when Gulliver is abandoned on the strange shore by his shipmates, because a "monster" is trying to overtake the boat, and when he explores inland, the size of everything--trees, grass, crops-seems menacing. He spies a farmer and his laborers ("seven monsters") carrying reaping-hooks each "about the largeness of six scythes," from whom he hides, dolefully lamenting his situation, comparing it to his glory days in Lilliput, "whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest prodigy that ever appeared in the world," recognizing the strength of the contrast: ". . . what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us."
He is taken up by the farmer who soon sees Gulliver's commercial potential and takes him around the country, exhibiting him for money throughout his stay in Brobdignag, Gulliver is forced by his situation to behave like a little pet, a manikin, and he is further humiliated by frightening encounters with rats, flies, wasps, a dog, and a monkey. Eventually, the Queen buys Gulliver from the farmer, and he and his protector, Glumdalclitch, the farmer's daughter, are installed in the palace. Compare his description of the queen eating with the earlier quotation about eating in Lilliput. The shoe is on the other foot, and when our point of view shifts, things are not so amusing:
She would craunch the wing of a lark, bones and all, between her teeth, although it were nine times as large as that of a full-grown turkey; and put a bit of bread in her mouth, as big as two twelve-penny loaves. She drank out of a golden cup, above a hogshead at a draught.
Now the norm shifts to the king when he quizzes Gulliver about the laws and customs of Great Britain. Gulliver gives a ludicrously rosy account, funny in itself, but the King asks pointed questions that implicitly vitiate Gulliver's panegyric. Swift's great skill as a satirist is beautifully displayed in these colloquies, as this five part sequence shows. First Gulliver, to ingratiate himself with the King, tells him about gunpowder and its horrific effects ("divide hundreds of bodies in the middle," "dashing out the brains of all who came near") in warfare, and offers him the formula. The King is appalled ("how so impotent and groveling an insect . . . could entertain such inhuman ideas") which sinks him in Gulliver's estimation ("A strange effect of narrow principles and short views!" ". . . a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception") and leads him to the set-up ("I take this defect . . . to have arisen from their ignorance, by not having . . . reduced politics into a science, as the more acute wits of Europe have done") for the king's triumphant conclusion:
He confined the knowledge of governing within very narrow bounds; to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy determination of civil and criminal causes; with some other obvious topics which are not worth considering. And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
However brilliantly done, this is the standard stuff of satire. When we look at the voyage as a whole, what is really brilliant is the way Swift has used the size reversal to break down the smug complacency of Book 1 and to show the instability of Gulliver's point of view, which turns out to be dependent on circumstances. His gullibility is more apparent in Book 2 as he plays the part of a manikin, trying to fool the king with his absurd account. Now we know that Gulliver's world is more complex than we imagined, and the whole question of moral judgment is far weightier than we thought when we, along with Gulliver, were so sure of ourselves in Lilliput.
Since Book 3 is a grab-bag of visits to several fabulous places to score satiric points at various targets and is of slight interest, we shall skip it.
Book 4, the voyage to the Houyhnhnms (pronounced "whi-nim," to imitate a horse's neigh) the summit of Swift's achievement, has been badly misunderstood since the rise of Romanticism, with its sentimental strain. Then the genial but clear-eyed realism of the 18th century was disapproved, and by mid-century, when Thackeray wrote a famous diatribe against Book 4, the only satire permitted by the Victorians was vitiated by sentimentality. But with our knowledge of Gulliver, gained over the first two Books, we should be able to find our way.
Hitherto, Gulliver has always landed among recognizably human beings, whatever their size, but now he must find his bearings in a land ruled by horses with savage quasi-humans as their beasts of burden. No wonder, considering his gullibility, that he goes astray almost at once as he falls under the spell of the Houyhnhnms and adopts their view of the Yahoos. The theory advanced by Gulliver's "master" is that the Yahoos are descendants of people shipwrecked there who degenerated over time in a state of nature, a plausible notion in the context of the voyage. But they are not human beings as the horses and Gulliver mean, they are not commensurate with Englishmen in 1727. So far as we can tell, they are more savage than any "savages." Both the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are imaginary constructs, more fabulous than Lilliputians or Brobdignagians. So Gulliver, seeing the horses as superior beings, identifies with them and tries to imitate them. It is not surprising, then, that when he is called upon to give an account of affairs back home, he tells his "master" an exaggeratedly negative story, reversing his behavior with the King of Brobdignag because, he says, seeing the Houyhnhnms' virtues, the faults of mankind seem worse, and in any case he has decided not to return home, ". . . but to pass the rest of my life among the admirable Houyhnhnms in the contemplation and practice of every virtue." Consequently, he makes much of his simple way of life, eating oatcakes and sleeping on straw in a wattle and daub hut, listening avidly ("a humble auditor") to the improving conversation of the horses--in short, being thoroughly, obnoxiously smug.
The Houyhnhnms seem special, of course, because they are reasoning animals, and Swift carries that thought further to make them apostles of the life of reason. He was satirizing a contemporary school of thought, neo-Stoic and Deistic, whose faith in reason was virtually utopian. Gulliver is completely taken in. When he translates Houyhnhnms as "perfection of Nature" (overlooking pride); when he notes their dismissal of the idea that he sailed there (overlooking blind prejudice); when he says they revere nature (overlooking what it presumably did to the Yahoos); when he quotes their condemnation of the clothing of our private parts (overlooking the Eden story and its implications); when he shows how unemotional, how loveless they are as "purely" rational creatures (calling his own grief at the prospect of leaving them "imbecilities of nature") he means us to be favorably impressed.
Ordered to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver builds a boat covered with the "skins of Yahoos," its sail made of "skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick"; then he caulks it with "Yahoo's tallow." Blinded by the supposedly sinless Houyhnhnms in their rational utopia, Gulliver blithely, casually mentions details of his inhumanity. He displays his worst behavior when he reencounters his fellows, first in the person of a Portuguese ship captain who treats Gulliver with extraordinary kindness, generosity, and patience, to whom Gulliver is barely civil, stupidly equating the man with Yahoos. When he meets his family, "the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt," fainting when his wife ("odious animal") kisses him. At the time of writing, after five years at home, he allows his wife to sit down at dinner with him "at the farthest end of a long table." He continues:
Yet the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves.
All this is bad enough, but the supreme moment of Gulliver's blindness comes just after that when, beginning with one of Swift's wonderful, funny catalogs, he chastises pride:
My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whoremonger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like; this is all according to the due course of things; but when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.
Then he goes on to praise the Houyhnhnms for their humility, when they and he are positively stuffed with pride, its obvious sign the self-satisfaction that makes them (and Gulliver) so obnoxious. That anyone (including the current Oxford Companion to English Literature) could imagine that Gulliver was Swift's mouthpiece here is a staggering thought. But the Houyhnhnms--antireligious, submoral, believing in nature--could become fashionable nowadays. I recall a woman, besotted with Greenism, declaring vehemently, "Nature is never wrong!"
I have stressed the instability of our image of Gulliver from voyage to voyage, as circumstances push him this way and that, but of course Swift controls the action, and he does this to shake us up, to teach us the great lesson about shifting points of view: humility--as well as about pride, Gulliver's besetting sin, and its disguises. And yet, despite Gulliver's changes, he remains Lemuel Gulliver in our eyes: the misanthrope with tobacco stuffed in his nostrils is the same man who regarded his penis as a fire hose in Lilliput. Think of it: We have been through an amazing fictional experience because although we know very well that none of the voyages took place, that there is no Lilliput, no Brobdignag, no Houyhnhnmland, we believe in Gulliver. *
"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intelligence." --Dr. Samuel Johnson
Every work of fiction must meet the test of credibility: while we are reading, we must believe. Coleridge called it "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." That does not mean that fiction must be written in the realistic mode; any mode will do so long as the writer is able to make us believe. The work must have inner credibility. We know that all fiction is made up; we ask only that the writer manage his task so the evidence of contrivance is not obvious. In the last issue of the Review I called a story of Kipling's one of the finest in the language because of its seeming naturalness, for the skill with which he concealed his artistry. There are plenty of very fine works that do not come up to that standard, and our literature would be impoverished without them. For example, some of Hemingway's early stories (I'm thinking of "The Killers") seem perfectly natural, but "In Another Country," fine as it is, seems contrived. There are degrees of artistry and we may, according to our taste, enjoy even poorly contrived fictions. Putting taste aside, let us strive for intellectual clarity here and say that the best writers are those who create the most believable fiction.
Crime fiction is perhaps the most obviously contrived genre, with its stereotyped plots, situations, and characters, but we can be charmed again and again by the absurdities of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret or countless other amateur and professional sleuths because the better writers create a world, an atmosphere that seems real because it is internally consistent, i.e., no matter how immoral some of the characters may be, they all inhabit the same behavioral and moral universe. To put it another way, we do not expect characters in an Agatha Christie story to behave as the characters in a Simenon novel--their worlds are quite different. There are not many of these better writers, and there never were. Crime fiction is a vast field full of lousy writers, but it has produced two masters, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I think Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) will one day be ranked right behind them because he created a solid, believable world in his fiction, one that does not seem at all contrived.
Here's a quotation from the introduction to one of his recent books:
It is the fashion nowadays for the author to penetrate deeply into the characters and feelings of his policemen; their family quarrels and upsets, their psychological backgrounds, their secret ambitions and phobias, all are laid bare for us. The great American writer Professor Jacques Barzun objected strongly to the practice. "Am I a couch?" he demanded. I side with Barzun. Let your policeman get on with his job. --The Man Who Hated Banks
My sentiments exactly, and not just because I want the "policeman to get on with his job"; with all the couch work the characters are less and less believable as it becomes obvious that the extraneous goings-on are deliberate distractions from what's supposed to be the main story line; we see the characters as bogus devices used to fill an essentially empty construction, as ploys to brand name a product (the cat-loving cop, the alcoholic cop, etc), as displays of pretension revealing a writer both incapable of writing a simple detective story and simultaneously a jerk who thinks he's too good for that. Such books dominate the field nowadays and amazingly, their writers think that by such devices they achieve realism and evade contrivance!
What crime fiction did Michael Gilbert write? From 1947 when his first novel, Close Quarters, was published, until 50 years later, he published some 30 novels and story collections, ranging "from Scotland Yard police procedurals to classic country-house mysteries, action-packed thrillers, and tales of the seamy side of London life." [Blurb from back cover of The Man Who Hated Banks] All of it is characterized by naturalness, warmth, economy, pertinence, and for lack of a better word, ordinariness. This is from Young Petrella:
"It's a Ponting job," said Superintendent Palance. "It's got their registered trade mark all over it. Get after them quick. They're probably hiding up."
But the Pontings were not hiding. They were at home, and in bed. They raised no objection to a search of their premises.
"It's irregular," said Sidney. "But what have we got to hide?"
"You boys have got your job to do," said Jack. "Get it finished, and we can get on with our breakfast."
Palance came up to see Haxtell. "They certainly did it. They most certainly did it. Equally certainly they've dumped the diamonds. And none of them has reached a receiver yet, I'm sure of that. And the Pontings use Mrs. Coulman."
"Yes," said Haxtell. "Well, we must hope to do better this time."
"Are you set on trying it on your own?" Palance was senior to Haxtell. And he was longer in service, and older in experience. Haxtell thought of these things, and paused. He was well aware of the responsibility he was shouldering, and which he could so easily evade. Then he said, "I really think the only way is to try it ourselves, quietly."
"All right," said Palance. He didn't add, "And on your own head be it." He was never a man to waste words.
Note the economy of writing and the despatch with which the narrative is pursued. There isn't a wasted word, but Gilbert is careful not to drain the Ponting's crime and its consequences of color and interest by reducing everything to a bare recital. Palance's eagerness and earnestness are there in his short sentences and repetitions, which makes Haxtell's decision more impressive, and helps to characterize him, too. The remarks of the Pontings seem unnecessary to the story, but they show by their coolness their confidence in the redoubtable fence, Mrs. Coulman, whose elusiveness is the story's subject. In half a page we've covered several days of action, seen the anxiety of the police and the cockiness of the crooks, and begun to have a feeling for the characters.
From another story in the same volume:
"Don't forget the most important item," said Barstow. "The limp."
Petrella said, "It did occur to me to wonder, sir, whether we ought to place much reliance on the limp."
He received a glare which would have daunted a less self-confident man. "He would have to have somewhere to hide that big screwdriver. It was almost two foot long. The natural place would be a pocket inside his trouser leg. That might account for the appearance of a stiff leg."
Haxtell avoided Barstow's eye. "It's an idea," he said. "Now just get along and start checking on this list of Miss Martin's known relations."
"There was one other thing-"
"Do you know," observed Superintendent Barstow unkindly, why God gave young policemen two feet but only one head?"
Petrella accepted the hint and departed. Nevertheless the idea persisted; and later that day, when he was alone with Haxtell, he voiced it to him.
Here we glimpse Barstow's irascible authority, Petrella's ingenuousness and intelligence, and Haxtell's sympathetic backing of his subordinate, achieved again with a few strokes.
This is from Roller-Coaster, the last novel featuring Patrick Petrella:
Groener said, "This morning Sergeant Belling--one of my most experienced men--was taking a look at the East Stepney Dock. It's a small dock--it hasn't been used for many years--near the out-flow of the Limehouse Cut. He'd taken his launch into the entrance channel. There's no gate at the river end and it's blocked at the far end by a movable grating. There's a narrow beach of shingle and mud on each side of the channel, just above tide level, and it was on the downstream beach, a few yards in from the river, that he spotted the body. And the real puzzle was how the hell it got there."
"Might it have been dropped from the dock?" said Gwilliam.
"Quite impossible. There was no sign of anyone having broken into the dock, which was strongly barred. And if they had got in, to put the body where it was found, would have meant hoisting it over a ten-foot railing of pointed steel spikes."
"And why should anyone have bothered?" said Petrella.
"If they wanted to get rid of the body, they'd have weighted it and dropped it into the river, not left it where it was bound to be spotted sooner or later."
"Might it have been brought in from the river?" said Summerson.
"The same objection," said Petrella. "Why do it?"
Having allowed the amateurs to talk nonsense, Groener was now prepared to pronounce a professional judgment. He said, "I don't think anyone brought that body in. Let me explain. On this stretch of the river boats observe a sort of rule of the road. When the tide's ebbing, and they're coming up against it, they're allowed to hug the banks, where there's some slack water. Boats going down use the tidal flow and keep to mid-stream. So what I'm reasonably sure must have happened is that the body was floating down close to the bank and still high in the water."
"Explain that last bit," said Petrella, who was listening intently.
"A body that goes in fully clothed doesn't sink straight away. Which is how quite a few attempted suicides have been saved. Their rescuers have been able to grab them before their clothes get sodden and pull them right down. Now if a barge came past, near the bank and against the stream, its bow wave would be quite strong enough to lift a body that was only just submerged clean out of the water and deposit it on the beach just inside the entrance."
"Which fits in," said Petrella, "with its being found on the down-stream beach. How long would a body float high?"
The passage conveys facts (which will be very important later) in a way that seems wholly natural. It seems simple, but if you've ever read any crime fiction, you'll know that while this is one of the principal tasks in the genre, the bedrock on which everything rests, its management is not easy. Here we get the facts spontaneously, as it were, and we also get an impression of Groener as a man of solid authority, and one of Petrella as intelligent and thoughtful.
Note the naturalness, the ordinariness of these excerpts--and yet, the economy of the writing and the unwavering focus on the subject gives them a tautness, a heightened quality which makes them hold our interest. This is an impression of ordinariness created artistically. Gilbert is never sensational; he gets and holds our attention by the quality of his writing. I happen to have chosen excerpts from two of the three books about Petrella, but his books about counter-espionage, about the adventures of a semi-retired lawyer, about spy rings, about the career of a ruthless entrepreneur, and so on, exhibit these qualities, too. The characters are never fanciful or absurd, and except for the worst villains, they are sympathetic figures, fellow human beings. That is a very rare accomplishment in crime fiction.
One of the chief pleasures of crime fiction has always been the satisfaction of our moral sense, the triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, but that's another failing of contemporary writing: too many writers think it's sophisticated to make their detectives wallow in moral ambiguity, to blur the distinction between good and evil, even to deny it altogether (as in Le Carre's cold war spy novels). Of course there are degrees of moral certainty, in life as in art, and we all have varying expectations and predilections in this regard. I like old-fashioned Westerns, for instance, stories featuring a much-maligned but innocent cowboy who arrives on the scene to find an honest old rancher and his beautiful, spunky daughter being swindled by sinister villains (their locus the back room of a saloon) in league with corrupt local powers. The cowboy comes to the aid of the rancher, and after much fisticuffs and gunplay, he defeats the villains, marries the girl, and gets the ranch. Put another way, I'm not looking for verisimilitude when I read a Western; I'm trying to recapture the feelings I had when I went through a pulp magazine phase at the age of ten.
Expecting good to triumph in crime fiction, we know it can never be as true to life as great imaginative literature: Ishmael is saved but the innocent crew of the Pequod goes down with Captain Ahab; Lord Jim finally acts up to his self-conception but must die in the act. Melville and Conrad, like Gilbert, are writing about a moral universe; the difference is that theirs is more profound, more complex. There may be defeats and ambiguities, but ultimately good is not confused with evil.
That is a contemporary phenomenon. To shed further light on it, let me digress for a moment. After the 2004 election, National Public Radio began broadcasting a program, "Focus on Faith," meant to show that Democrats were religious, too, but naturally the lefty conception of religion was bound to be peculiar. In fact, the program, featuring old lefties and spokesmen for bizarre forms of "spirituality," is resolutely anti-religious. Recently, a "moderate" Republican senator was interviewed so he could denounce legislators who claim their votes are directed by God. The charge is absurd, but I'm sure the senator believes it, because any moral argument immediately rouses the lefty fear of God and religion. One can say that they use the dreaded word "God" to discredit morality. They are desperate to think themselves free of all that. That's why abortion is their most cherished cause--what could show the futility, the irrelevance of morality better than the legal sanction of the slaughter of the innocents?
Which is where morally ambiguous fiction comes in. Literature, like other cultural influences, precedes ideas; it creates habits of mind and heart that build up visions of life, visions that guide and sustain us. The visions inculcated by modern writing have helped to create the amorality of our time. Unfortunately, too many conservatives seem to think politics is the answer,that culture is a sideshow--how wrong they are!
To return to Michael Gilbert. His work is not simplistic (in the sense of my favorite Westerns) nor is it as morally complex as great art. At the end of Waugh's Scoop, William Boot is home at his beloved Boot Magna, writing his countryside column, but we know that the forces represented by the Daily Beast are just over the horizon, and owls are hunting by moonlight. When Father Urban is transformed at the end of Powers' novel, do we have second thoughts? Are we entirely convinced that his worldly wisdom was all false and that his withdrawal is wholly good? Gilbert does not moralize; he creates what seems like a commonplace world (but how interesting it is!) in which characters struggle to right wrongs, to defeat (temporarily at least) evil, and he knows that the ultimate stakes are far larger than any individual crime:
A retired Admiral is musing on the future of two children he has met:
It was going to be a perilously difficult world as, one after another, the old bastions went down: religion, family life, the rule of law. Stormy seas which were going to need to clear to chart the course, and strong hands on the tiller.
The story moves on, and nothing is made of the Admiral's thought, but it is a bit of chilling realism for the reader, a reminder of the fragility of civilization and the moral order. In that one touch, Gilbert shows the depth of seriousness that lies behind his wonderful creations. That's why the world in his books seems so real, so believable.
These are Michael Gilbert's books in order of publication. All are highly recommended except the first one and the last three.
They Never Looked Inside
The Doors Open
Death Has Deep Roots
Death In Captivity
Fear To Tread
Be Shot For Sixpence
Blood And Judgment
After The Fine Weather
The Crack In The Teacup
The Dust And Heat
Game Without Rules
The Etruscan Net
Stay Of Execution
The Body Of A Girl
The Ninety-Second Tiger
The Night Of The Twelfth
Petrella At Q
The Empty House
Death Of A Favourite Girl
Mr. Calder And Mr. Behrens
The Final Throw
The Black Seraphim
The Long Journey Home
Paint, Gold, Blood
Anything For A Quiet Life
The Man Who Hated Banks
The Queen Against Karl Mullen
Ring of Terror
Into Battle *
"The world is a dangerous place to live--not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." --Albert Einstein
To be well-read was once an enviable achievement, something to be admired, a sign that one was cultured. I don't think the concept exists anymore; I know the condition doesn't. Not only are the local yuppies utterly ignorant of prominent literary figures, they are unashamedly bored by the subject. I say to a 55-year-old feather merchant of the yuppie persuasion, trying to keep the shocked wonder out of my voice, "You've never heard of Rudyard Kipling?" "Nope," he replies, trying a quick perfunctory smirk as he turns with not entirely phony interest to my wife: He does not think she will bore him by raving about long-dead authors he's never heard of.
Writing literary essays was a class act in my youth; when I mention what I'm doing nowadays I get an uncomprehending stare. What is "literary"? What is "essay"? Yuppies do not need to read when they can watch dramatizations on TV or listen to tapes in the car. This turning away from literature is one of the effects of the collapse of the left-liberal worldview, as is the barrenness of contemporary writing. One system of thought is dying, another has been born but is still mute so far as imaginative writing goes. Since conservative editors are not about to give new fiction an airing, the best we can do is study the works of writers from the past to reveal their unique qualities and to show how their artistry works, in the process making us (and I include myself) more sensitive to good writing and more interested in it. Then we shall no longer accept the debased products of the time. That an intelligent person should read the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review is a sign of the cultural confusion of our days; that conservative publications should praise squalid contemporary writing signals cultural deprivation.
Rudyard Kipling (1806-1936) began as a reporter on a paper in India when he was 18, and soon was writing short stories for the paper. It was clear right away that his was a strong, new voice, racy and unabashed, startlingly unlike the pompous, stuffy stories of the period. He was decidedly modern. An early story, "Lispeth" shows this in its tale of a Christianized hill woman, famously a beauty, who falls in love with an Englishman who, on the advice of the Chaplain's wife (who wants to pacify Lispeth) promises the girl he'll come back to marry her. After several trying months, the Chaplain's wife finally tells her the truth.
"How can what he and you said be untrue?" asked Lispeth.
"We said it as an excuse to keep you quiet, child," said the Chaplain's wife.
"Then you have lied to me," said Lispeth, "you and he?"
Lispeth goes back to her own people, renouncing Christianity. This is the concluding paragraph.
Lispeth was a very old woman when she died. She had always a perfect command of English, and when she was sufficiently drunk, could sometimes be induced to tell the story of her first love-affair.
It was hard then to realize that the bleared, wrinkled creature, exactly like a wisp of charred rag, could ever have been "Lispeth of the Kotgarh Mission."
Modernity is apparent in its economy as it moves from point to point of the simple plot without a single extraneous word, without the longwinded "word painting" common in the stories of the time, and it shows also in the author's impiety toward the gods of conventional thinking, i.e., the presumed superiority of the English, the hypocrisy of the chaplain's wife. Finally it shows in the finely balanced irony of the penultimate paragraph, both masked and heightened by the speaker's matter-of-fact tone. The last paragraph (especially "like a wisp of charred rag") dissolves all the pettiness of the plot in the unfathomable pathos of mortality.
From 1888 to 1891 Kipling published eight volumes of stories based on his Indian experience, stories of extraordinary range including Anglo-Indian life, soldiers, all kinds of Indians, spies, the Great Game of Anglo-Russian rivalry on the frontier, social comedies, love stories, farces, tragedies, etc., a remarkable virtuoso performance. There are very few failures among nearly 100 stories, and all may be read over and over again (as I have done) for their characters, situations, and artistry.
A word about how to read, and not to read, Kipling. His reputation was severely damaged among the cultural elite by the perception that he was an imperialist and generally opposed to what were regarded (and are still regarded) as the progressive movements of the time. This was certainly true, and later I shall discuss the issue, but now I'm concerned with a subtler problem. A large portion of his output was about India and Anglo-Indian life, and it was on that basis that his sudden reputation was made, so that although his later work was about other subjects and places, he will always be regarded in the light of his early reputation as the chronicler of India under the Raj. His work is too often judged as a reflection of that life. Some say the portrait is accurate, others say it's false, and then those who disapprove of colonialism disapprove of Kipling simply because that was his subject. In other words, his subject has distorted our appreciation of his work because we have forgotten that every artists's subject is an imaginative creation.
Now let's look at one of his explicitly political stories, "The Little Foxes" (1909), a comic exposure of the sentimentalities of progressivism. It tells of the unplanned but ingenious establishment of a system of governance (chiefly concerned with land titles and crops) intertwined with customs and experiences of foxhunting, set up by the English govenror, in an Ethiopian colony. All is well until the "New Era" arrives in the form of a member of Parliament bent on investigating the horrors of colonial rule. The story works by carefully building up the details of the development of the hunt and its involvement with the problems of governance, making it seem plausible and sensible, which means that Kipling has to create a believable cast of English officials, their servants, and village natives, plus the MP, Mr. Groombride. As Arnold Bennett once said, characters are indispensable to the novel, and it is just as true of Kipling's stories, which, more than anything else, are creations of characters. As the story mounts to its hilarious climax, the reader should see that the working out of the idea--anti-progressivism--is secondary to the imaginative creation itself. Ideas in Kipling's work are made the natural outgrowth of the story; they never overcome the story. No one of any sense reads a great fiction writer for his ideas.
Kipling's early stories are remarkably finished, and there are subtleties in them, but as a whole they are highly colored and sharply drawn. Nothing wrong in that, but the writer must cast a finer net if he would catch more of life in his work, and in his later stories Kipling creates works of art that are masterpieces of subtlety. One of his finest stories, and certainly the most artistically complex, "Mrs. Bathurst" (1904), achieves its effect and meaning by deliberate indirection, by painting a picture with fine small strokes, touches here and there against a seemingly bland background, here a railway siding near the naval base outside Cape Town, South Africa.
Moulded dunes, whiter than any snow, rolled far inland up a brown and purple valley of splintered rocks and dry scrub. A crowd of Malays hauled at a net beside two blue and green boats on the beach; a picnic party danced and shouted barefoot where a tiny river trickled across the flat, and a circle of dry hills, whose feet were set in sands of silver, locked us in against a seven-colored sea.
The speaker, Kipling as unobtrusive observer, is sitting in a caboose, eating sandwiches and drinking beer with Hooper, a railwayman. The tone of the scene and the relationship is utterly casual. Hooper, feeling in his vest pocket, remarks that he found a "curiosity" up the line beyond Bulawayo, but at that point he's interrupted by the appearance of Pyecroft, a sailor known to the speaker, and Pritchard, a Marine sergeant, who join them, bringing some beer. The story of how they came by the beer leads to reminiscences on the seamen's part, aided by occasional remarks by the speaker, in which the recent desertion of Warrant Officer Vickery is mentioned. He was sent up country to retrieve some Naval ammunition, and after shipping it, he disappeared. Hooper picks up his ears when he learns that Vickery had four false teeth in his lower jaw, and again feels in his vest pocket as he asks what tattoos he had. A contretemps diverts that line of inquiry, and Pyecroft goes on with the story.
"Why did Vickery run?" I began, but Pyecroft's smile made me turn my question to "Who was she?"
She was Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who kept a small hotel and bar for Naval noncoms near Auckland, New Zealand. Pritchard is incredulous, refusing to believe she would be involved in an intrigue (Vickery is married). Pyocroft agrees that it "wasn't her fault." The speaker says,
Such faith in a Sergeant of Marines interested me greatly. "Never mind about that," I cried. "Tell me what she was like."
Both men vehemently testify to her kindness and sweet nature, but Hooper says "I can't see her yet somehow," so Pyecroft asks Pritchard how many women he's been intimate with, and answers the question himself by saying hundreds and then asking how many are remembered? Although Pritchard saw her only thrice in ten years, and Pyecroft only twice, they recall everything about her.
. . . how she stood an' what she was sayin' an' what she looked like. That's the secret. 'tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It . . ."
Then Hooper begins to see: "That's more the idea. I've known just two women of that nature."
"An' it was no fault o' theirs?" asked Pritchard.
"None whatever. I know that!"
"An if a man gets struck with that kind o' woman, Mr. Hooper?" Pritchard went on.
"He goes crazy--or just saves himself," was the slow answer.
What struck me (and Kipling's discernment seems almost miraculous) was Pritchard's remark, repeated twice by Pyecroft, "she looked at me under her eyebrows in that blindish way she had o' looking," because I've known the look and felt its power.
I have dealt at such length with the description of Mrs. Bathurst because, although the story seems to be about Vickery and his fate, she and her enigmatic attraction-"It"--is the real subject, and she is made as much a living character in the story as the others, each of whom speaks in his own voice and acts characteristically. Pyecroft, something of a cynical rogue, freely uses naval terms and misues foreign phrases: "If the fat marine now occupying the foc'-she will kindly bring 'is status quo to an anchor yet once more," and Hooper less obviously speaks as a railwayman: "You did quite right to look out for your own end o' the line," while Pritchard is warmly boyish (he blushes when Pyecroft asks him about his intimacies). This scrupulous character-drawing is not done just for its own sake; the final effect of the story--how Vickery's fate strikes each character--is its meaning, as we shall see.
The rest is soon told. A circus came to Cape Town and among its attractions was one of those early films:
London Bridge with the omnibuses--a troopship goin' to the war--marines on parade at Portsmouth, the Plymouth Express arrivin' at Paddin'ton.
When Pyecroft went, Vickery, who saw the film the night before, caught him at the door and insisted they sit together, saying, "If you see anything that strikes you, drop me a hint." Finally, in the scene at Paddington station, Mrs. Bathurst appears:
There was no mistakin' the walk in a hundred thousand. She came forward--right forward--she looked out straight at us with that blindish look . . .
Vickery was sure, but he wanted Pyecroft to double his assurance. Immediately, Vickery drags Pyecroft out and takes him on a rapid bar hop, obviously in a state:
He didn't look at what he drunk--he didn't look at the change. He walked an' he drank an' he perspired rivers.
This goes on for five nights, until the circus leaves. Vickery's state is something of a grim puzzle, but Pyecroft's colorful account of being dragged from bar to bar, is comic. At one point, when Pyecroft observes that she seems to be looking for someone, Vickery replies, "She's lookin' for me," but he'll say no more. Then Vickery, after a mysterious interview with the captain, is sent up the line to retrieve the ammunition, and as he's leaving he tells Pyecroft he's not a murderer because his wife died six weeks after he sailed.
"Then what have you done that signifies?" I said. "What's the rest of it?"
"The rest," 'e says, "is silence . . ."
Everyone is mystified, although they're sure Mrs. Bathurst is blameless. Then Hooper, touching his pocket again, tells the story that's been at the back of his mind from the beginning, and of course by now we know what's in his pocket. He was told to look out for a couple of tramps waiting at the siding waiting to go north:
I saw them miles ahead along the straight, waiting in the teak. One of 'em was standin' up by the dad-end of the siding an' the other was squattin' down lookin' up at 'im, you see,
"What did you do for 'em?" said Pritchard.
"There wasn't much I could do, except bury 'em. There'd been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and as black as charcoal. That's what they really were, you see--charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift 'em. The man who was standin' up had the false teeth. I saw 'em shining against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down an' watchin' him, both of 'em all wet in the rain. Both burned to charcoal, you see. And--that's what made me ask about marks just now--the false-toother was tattooed on the arms and chest--a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above."
"I've seen that," said Pyecroft quickly. "It was so."
"But if he was all charcoal-like?" said Pritchard, shuddering.
"You know how writing shows up white on a burned letter? Well, it was like that, you see. We buried 'em in the teak and I kept. . . . But he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see."
Mr. Hooper brought his hand away from his waistcoat-pocket-empty.
Pritchard covered his face with his hands for a moment, like a child shutting out an ugliness.
"And to think of her at Hauraki!" he murmured-"with 'er 'air-ribbon on my beer." "Ada," she said to her niece . . . Oh, my Gawd!" . . .
"On a summer afternoon, when the honeysuckle blooms,/And all Nature seems at rest,/Underneath the bower,/ 'mid the perfume of the flower,/Sat a maiden with the one she loves the best . . ." sang the picnic-party waiting for their train at Glengariff.
"Well, I don't know how you feel about it," said Pyecroft, "But 'avin' seen 'is face for five consecutive nights on end, I'm inclined to finish what's left of the beer an' thank Gawd he's dead!"
The serene, untroubled background which so colored the "preface" of the story before Pyecroft and Pritchard appeared is reasserted by the innocent song of the picnickers, and it is against that background that the shadowy drama of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst has been enacted, so the song at this point makes the drama stand out sharply, darkly colored. Hooper's account, especially the bit about writing showing up "white on a burned letter," puts an end to the earlier comedy, and the tragedy is heightened by contrast with the song. What we are left with is a mystery of love, and the fact that each character takes it differently but characteristically--Hooper with solemn sensitivity, leaving the teeth in his pocket; Pritchard, ever loyal to Mrs. Bathurst, with real feeling; Pyecroft sardonically--shows us also the mystery of our lives: Pulled by the same tides, rocked by the same waves, we sail alone.
Readers used to conventional fiction sometimes have difficulty understanding a story like this because they expect it to make a clearly discernible point, a Big Thought which can be extracted from the story. "Mrs. Bathurst" doesn't work that way. Its closest analogy would he a Chekhov play like The Cherry Orchard: its meaning, its point, is the story itself. When we finish reading it, what we think about are these things, probably in this order: the power of love (Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst), its multifariousness (Pyecroft, Pritchard, and the picnickers), the differing responses which show our uniqueness and loneliness, the tenuous but real bond between the living (the men in the railway carriage). The story, then, is a meditation on life, and while Kipling the artist certainly made it, all traces of contrivance are cunningly concealed. It is a masterpiece because it seems perfectly natural, just a story told on a railway siding. But we know it is more than that because it is infused with feeling, and we sense the tragedy of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst even as we see the comic and melodramatic aspects-like life itself. The artistry of this story must be one of the greatest in English. *
Stories: Plain Tales From the Hills, Soldiers Three, In Black & White, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw & Other Tales, Mine Own People, Traffics & Discoveries, Actions & Reactions, Diversity of Creatures, Land & Sea Tales, "They" & Brushwood Boy, Debits & Credits, Limits & Renewals.
The Jungle Book, Second Jungle Book. Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.
Stalky & Co. Prep school stories.
Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards & Fairies are historical tales for children.
Just So Stories for very young children.
Almost all Kipling's best later stories are collected in two Penguin volumes: I: A Sahib's War & Other Stories, II: Friendly Brook & Other Stories, selected by Andrew Rutherford.
The Art of Rudyard Kipling (1959) by J. M. S. Tompins is first rate.
Kipling: The Glass, The Shadow, & the Fire (1975) by Phillip Mason is the best single book on Kipling's art.