Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Loose Ends

Anybody want to defend Nathaniel Hawthorne to me? I've always hated him (and I've read his three major novels--The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance).

When I described my loathing to Dr. Boudreau, the graduate coordinator of UGA's English department, she asked if I'd read The Scarlet Letter since high school. I sheepishly admitted that I had not. "Give it another try," she said. "You need to read that book when you're old enough to imagine your life falling apart."

And so here I am, plowing through the book again. I do like it more than I liked it eight years ago--but I still don't connect with it the way I connect with Hawthorne's contemporary Herman Melville, who is frustrating in a totally different way. Melville's problem, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that he's a mess; his books never seemed planned at all, but instead they're Darwinist approaches to literature. He tosses everything in by chance and the cream of each reader's crop rises to the surface.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, seems to have planned every comma of The Scarlett Letter. It's masterfully controlled, but it seems to me as though that control has suffocated the book. I'm so aware of Hawthorne's intentions and his artistry that the characters can't breathe, and he won't allow me to really feel anything for them. Do any of you have a similar experience? Meredith, aren't you a Hawthorne fan?

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Meanwhile, the latest trend seems to be to question John Steinbeck's place in the literary canon. In an interesting and personal piece for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley wrestles with the ghost of old Tom Joad, finally coming down on neither side of the love-him-or-hate-him fence. A few thoughts on that article:

- Yardley notes that the Nobel Prize committee privileges "political orthodoxy" over "literary distinction." No kidding. Take a look at this list of Nobel Prize winners for literature; you've never heard of most of them. Look at the reasons the committees give for their choices; they will not out-and-out state that "we like this person's opinions rather than their art," but that's the subtext behind phrases like "lofty idealism" and "spiritual perception." The Prize was originally meant to go to "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency," and if the World Wars killed that notion, the committee still loves "correct" opinions.

- He also says that his love for Steinbeck abated at about the same time his love for Faulkner grew. I've always been told that's a natural progression--Steinbeck and Faulkner are never in vogue at the same time, taking as they did completely opposite (political vs. impressionistic) attitudes toward what was essentially the same mileau: poor people in the 1920s and '30s. I wonder if we'll see a rash of Faulkner-bashing ten years from now when Steinbeck re-enters the Academy.

12 comments:

distractedblues said...

RE: the Nobels in Lit.
I definitely agree with you about the political leanings of the committee, but it's worth pointing out that perhaps a greater part of the issue lies in the fact that most of us haven't heard of most of those writers because most of "us" primarily read books by English-as-first-language authors, and the "international" authors we do read, we read because they're relatively popular in English-speaking circles (see: Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz). No doubt some of those authors have a strong academic following amongst those who primarily read in the languages those authors write in. Having talked to a few Arabic-speaking people I know, there's a large literary canon for books published primarily in Arabic that few U.S. academics have heard of.

By the way, I have heard of 2 out of the last 3. I've not read anything by Doris Lessing, but I've read a bit by Harold Pinter. He's a playwright, though, so that makes him a bit more obscure, most likely.

Merci said...

Even if we haven't heard of these Nobel Prize winners in literature, they are definitely worth investigating. The website nobelprize.org has some interesting interviews and portraits of the writers. I just saw an interesting portrait of Doris Lessing where she describes her public and private self as a writer.

hillary said...

It's not as though Yardley provides any evidence other than Steinbeck winning the prize to back up his point. I'm not saying it's completely invalid, but you can't just throw something like that out with no support. Most of those who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature can write like gangbusters.

Michial said...

Wow--that sure pushed some buttons.

Joel, you're probably right about my eurocentrism, although don't you think you've at least HEARD of the major world authors?

Merci, I didn't mean to suggest that they're not worth reading--just that there's a big political component to the committee's choices.

Hillary, I gave the proof--the stipulations for giving out the prize involve "idealism."

distractedblues said...

"don't you at least think you've heard of the major world authors"?

Truth is, I admittedly know very little about current major Asian, African, Arabic-speaking, Israeli, Russian, or Easter-European authors. Even in countries that would probably be covered under "euro-centrism," the number of major authors with no real mainstream academic American following would probably astound us. The book reviews section of Believer (among others) does a good job of introducing some of them, but I don't necessarily retain that information.

Keep in mind, though, that literature is not really my primary or even secondary field at this point.

hillary said...

What do you mean by "correct" opinions? Or "idealism," for that matter? I simply wouldn't say that the Laureates are so easily summarized. Remember Naipaul won it too, and he's not exactly Mr. I Heart Humanity.

Michial said...

They may not be easily summarized, but it's clear from the description of the prize that from the very beginning, the award was about message as much as talent.

hillary said...

Right, but just because you say it's about something doesn't mean that's been borne out in practice.

Michial said...

But it should make it noncontroversial when someone says that they make their decisions on a political or ideological basis.

hillary said...

Yeah, but Naipaul.

Meredith said...

I am a Hawthorne fan. Mostly because of Ms. Thomas though.

There's no accounting for taste, so I can't really explain anything...

Michial said...

Sure you can. What do you like about Hawthorne? What should I look for when I'm reading him?