Monday, September 24, 2007

In literary love

Below is the basic argument of Leslie Fiedler's essay War, Exile, and the Death of Honor from his book Wating For the End: A portrait of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Its Writers". I want his brain.

"It is tempting to think of the practice of our writers of the Twenties as representing a decisive disavowal of the temptations of avant-gardism, and, in a sense, this is true; but it is not true enough. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein may have become at last, symbolically as well as personally, enemies; yet the example of her war on syntax and coherence made him to the end a more insidious subverter of common speech than the readers of Life magazine could ever permit themselves to recognize even if they were capable of doing so. And however stubbornly Faulkner insisted on reinventing stream-of-consciousness in his own home-made terms, the experiments of Joyce surely inspired the effort. The ostensible rejection and the abiding nostalgia, the pride and shame of the generation of the Twenties in its encounter with Europe, is, in fact, the reaction of the tourist, the provincial tourist. It matters little whether the writers played abroad for a long time like Fitzgerald, or retreated immediately to their home towns like Faulkner, or kept seeking on foreign continents images of Montana and Upper Michigan like Hemingway--the writers who came of age in WWI remained what they were to begin with: country boys perpetually astonished at meeting the Big City and the Great World, provincials forever surprised to discover themselves in London or Paris or Antibes, and afterward dazzled to remember that they had ever been in such improbable places."

Fiedler than goes on to recount the long tradition of American writers abroad (From Franklin to Irving, Hawthorne and Melville to Baldwin and Burroughs) "It is, indeed, astonishing how many especially American fictions were conceived or actually executed abroad from Rip Van Winkle through the Leather Stocking Tales, the Marble Faun of Hawthorne, Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson to Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and The Sun Also Rises of Hemingway.

"Such novels of exile and return reflect the deepest truth, the mythical truth of the experience of Americans abroad, a truth of art which life does not always succeed in imitating, though it is one to which it aspires. TS Eliot may never go back to St. Louis to live out his declining years, while Pound, released from captivity in the States, seems set on dying in Rapallo. And if Rapallo looks, as Karl Shapiro has somewhere observed, just like Santa Barbara, California, that is just one of those irrelevant jokes which history plays on us all"

He goes on to flush out this theme of exile and return. "Even Eliot, Anglo-Catholic and Royalist, returns home in his imagination, making a pilgrimage in the Four Quartets not only to New England, but even, less forseeably, to Huck Finn's Mississippi, beside which he was born."

"In Paris, obviously different from the dream of Paris, the American discovers he can bear Kansas City, which he began knowing was different from all dreams of it; and this is worth his fare plus whatever heartache he pays as surtax."

"And though there is a sense in which the anti-war novel is merely a late sub-variety of the international theme (and another in which it is a sub-genre of the class-struggle book), we are compelled how to recognize it as the greatest and most characteristic literary invention of the Twenties."

"But pacifism, too, was a fiction of WWII, which saw thousands of young men, who earlier had risen in schools and colleges to swear that they would never bear arms, march off to battle--as often as not with copies of anti-warbooks in their packs. Those books were real enough, like the passion that prompted them, and the zeal with which they were read; only the promises were illusory."

"We inhabit for the first time a world in which men begin wars knowing that their avowed ends will not be accomplished, a world in which it is more and more difficult to believe that the conflicts we cannot avert are in any sense justified. And in such a world, the draft dodger, the malingerer, the goldbrick, the crap-out, all who make what Hemingway was the first to call 'a separate peace,' all who somehow survive the bombardment of shells and cant, become a new kind of anti-heroic hero. And it is precisely such sad sacks, such refugees from honor and glory, who returned to American to beget or become the generation of the Thirties."