Sunday, January 12, 2014

More on Culture

Russell Letson put a comment on my middle class culture post, in which he says he loses interest in canonical lit after 1800. I like the 19th century, what I've read of it.

Austen, Dickens, Twain. The only work by Melville I've read is Moby-Dick, and I liked it a lot. Austen does write about family relations. There are many, many poor marriages and dysfunctional families in her novels. But her great subject, it seems to me, is money and the struggle of people in the lower gentry, women especially, to gain (through marriage) incomes that are large enough so they can be comfortable and remain in the gentry. Here is W. H. Auden's famous stanza on Austen in his "Letter to Lord Byron:"
You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Dickens novels are mostly about people scrambling up into the comfortable middle class. And he writes about poverty. The society he portrays is more dynamic than the one Austen portrays and more scary, because we see the poor. We know where his heroes and heroines will end up, if they're not lucky. The worst fate in Austen is that of Miss Bates, who lives on a reduced income and relies on help from her neighbors. In Dickens we see the horrifying slums of London.

Huckleberry Finn is about the morality of slavery. Moby-Dick is about whaling and life on a whaler. Because whales had to be processed as soon as they were killed, the ships were sea-going factories. You can see the novel as the story of taking a job in a factory and finding out that the boss is seriously crazy, and you can't quit and walk out the factory gate.

At the same time that these canonical novels were being written, we have the development of genre fiction, which comes (I think) out of the gothic romance. The Frankenstein monster and the plucky young women exploring castles full of dark secrets can be reasonably seen as leading to SF and detective stories. By the end of century, with H.G.Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, we have recognizable science fiction and detective fiction, which is still read and enjoyed today.

Maybe the turning point is Henry James. I like his early work, but find his late work too difficult to read. Too much style and not enough life, as H.G. Wells said. Here is the famous Wells quote about James' fiction:
It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg−shell, and a bit of string.
This is unfair to James. You can see why the friendship between Wells and James ended.

Or maybe the turning point comes after the Second World War, at least in the US. I have read some Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I don't mind them. Patrick likes Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. The focus on middle class angst comes a bit later.

My own theory is that the post-war McCarthy era made writers reluctant to write about social issues. They retreated into psychology and the family, and they have never returned to look at the rest of the world.

I am told that some 60s writers -- Pynchon especially -- wrote about the larger world. Here again we see my limitations as a critic. Starting as a kid in the 1950s, the new fiction I read was mostly science fiction and murder mysteries. I haven't kept up on literary fiction. I did read Catch 22 (which came out in 1961) and liked it a lot. It is not about middle class angst.

I think Russell is right. Many of the topics of contemporary fiction can be made more interesting by adding a murder. Then the family's dysfunction and lies can be explored by a police inspector. The murder ups the ante and gives the reader a reason to care.

As for science fiction, it can explore the broad social problems that 19th century writers used to explore, and because it is not limited to the present and to realism, it can explore the problems in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Maybe we can see realistic fiction, the bourgeois novel of manners and psychology, as having run its course and been reduced to sterile repetition.

The gothic tradition continues in science fiction, fantasy and murder mysteries -- and has possibly triumphed.

4 Comments:

Blogger John Till said...

"If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them."
-McKenzie Wark "The Beach Beneath the Streets"

8:52 PM  
Blogger Laura Morrigan said...

I love your description of Moby Dick! Hilarious! I hope I never have a boss like that!

I love Gothic novels and more classic Gothic settings, especially those with the supernatural, but I am not particularly fond of murder mysteries or crime fiction. I suppose when Gothic broke off into the American Gothic crime novel with Psycho is where my interests stayed with the more classic kind. I am definitely not fond of the gory kind, either, I like them elegant and subtle, perhaps that is also my liking of older culture speaking.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

Do note the qualifications with which I hedged my take on post-1800 canonical lit, particularly the part about what from the (pre-Theory-dominated) received tradition I could now teach with a straight face.

In fact, I found Austen, Dickens, and Twain to be among the saving graces of the novel of the Great Tradition (as we were taught to think of it), but Hardy and James were hard (and often incomplete) slogs for me, and I even ran out of gas with George Eliot. (Middlemarch: the 19th century in real time.) The poetry is less spotty, especially once we fight clear of the Romantics and O! the thorns of life and such. (I'm much more comfortable with Oy! than with O!: "Oy! Thorns, yet. Next time I send tulips. And somebody fix that rug--a person could trip and fall.")

9:48 PM  
Blogger Eleanor said...

John -- The quote is wonderful.

9:59 AM  

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