The Killer Inside the American Novelist

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

This provocative quote appeared in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). The author may surprise you: not Jim Thompson, but D.H. Lawrence. What may surprise you more is that D.H. defined ‘American classic’ as works from a very specific line of authors, starting from Benjamin Franklin and ending with Walt Whitman. This particular quote alludes to Natty Bumppo, Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, in the Leatherstocking Novels. A lot can be said about ‘Hawkeye’ and his feelings of alienation (he felt out of place with white settlers and preferred the company of Native Americans), his violent nature (he lived by the snipers’ motto of “one shot, one kill,”) and that he is probably the first cowboy in American literature, although his ‘Wild West’ was limited to Lake Champlain. Robert Warshow and others would interpret Natty as the ancestor of both the virtuous gunfighter and the tragic gangster. Lawrence’s Studies begins with another provocative statement: “We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books.” Lawrence was not being British, elitist, or dismissive when he wrote “We”; and in fact, “killer” seems to be a compliment from him. Lawrence’s own works illustrate violent struggles, mostly individual in Nature, often sexual, and definitely social and political against Britian’s structured class society.

Lawrence was not playing the role of provocateur. When he wrote Studies he was performing a dissection of the Novel. E.M. Forester would do the same four years later with his Aspects of the Novel (1927). The British novel was DOA, or in serious need of CPR. I would place the time of death of the British novel around 1870, the year Charles Dickens died.

The British Novel up to Dickens was popular entertainment for the masses, and often concluded with either with a comedic ending or a moral lesson, or with a combination of the two. The works of Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and Dickens illustrate this trend of comedic and moral resolutions. The cause of death for the pre-1870 Novel can be explained by several historical developments: the rise of scientific thought; industrialization and urbanization; the increasing divide between rich and poor; Ireland’s quest for independence and women’s suffrage. I think the strongest culprit is that British novelists of the day found themselves wanting and very insecure. The British Empire would experience a challenge to its power with the rise of both Germany, unified in 1871, and the United States, about to start its Gilded Age. It is no small irony that an American author in England would ultimately establish the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”: the novel as Art as opposed to ‘entertainment.’

The English Novel and its writers would find inspiration abroad. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James – all cosmopolitan in spirit — would change the British Novel along with Constance Garnett. Eliot read French — she met George Lewes in London’s only French-literature bookshop — and German, conversed with Goethe, and introduced British intellectuals to German philosophers. Conrad, a Pole born in Russia, knew French as a second language and its literature before he learned English. Both Hardy and James pointed to the French novel tradition that they knew well, particularly the writings of Flaubert and Zola. Henry James, the seasoned traveler and wealthy American abroad, became acquainted with writers in Flaubert’s circle. He also talked shop with Turgenev. Constance Garnett translated Russian authors.

I include Constance Garnett because translation, though not considered original literature, remains essential, if not critical, to how readers learn about other cultures and literature. Garnett’s translations changed the direction of the British Novel. She introduced readers to Russian culture and literature. She is as important as Scott Moncrieff who had translated Proust. Before she retired in 1934 due to failing eyesight, she would also translate Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Herzen, Ostrovsky and Tolstoy. She produced 71 volumes of Russian literature. Between Zola’s realism, Flaubert’s free indirect discourse, and exotic Russian sensibility, British authors explored taboo subjects, such as adultery (Madame Bovary) and prostitution (Nana), in addition to imperialism (Heart of Darkness). Sexual matters, including homosexuality, would remain risqué topics in British literature until the 1960 publication of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

All the writers I have mentioned, including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, would experiment with narrative strategies, plot, and endings. And then there is this matter of D.H. Lawrence looking to America instead of continental Europe. Henry James was the author who made the distinction between high and low culture. Where Lawrence saw raw power and energy, the killer within the American soul, James saw limitations. He focused his sights on Nathaniel Hawthorne. In an essay on Hawthorne, James makes clear what America lacks:

 …art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion.

Today’s readers perceive The Master as a moral writer, yet James attacked the British tradition of providing moral lessons. In response to Walter Besant praising British writers who wrote with a “conscious moral purpose,” James said that the novelist wrote for himself and explored subjects important to him. James proposed that the novel is an individual work, a snapshot of psychological reality, a work of Art. Henry James’s brother William James was an early pioneer of psychology and religious studies. For James, the act of writing was one of self-discovery and an opportunity to perfect the craft of writing. The reader is incidental — a witness and not a collaborator. In other words, fiction that entertains is lowbrow and literature with the capital L educates and enlightens the reader, although they have to think, be active, about the information they are told. In my experience, James is little read in schools or universities because he writes challenging prose. We are Hemingway’s children, even though Hemingway’s reputation and stature have declined. James is considered elitist, a snob, and a poor storyteller to some readers, but a meticulous craftsman of language to others. The common complaint that I have heard from readers is that nothing moves in his writing except the teacup, and the reader hopes that there is arsenic in it.

Craft mattered to Henry James, as did perception and sensitivity. James saw the novelist above the common man, as a creator not of entertainment, but conduit of culture and refinement. The “international theme” in his novels, like The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), and Daisy Miller (1879), explores whether Americans are naive and Europeans are cynical. In Portrait of a Lady (1881), his American heroine, Isabel Archer, declines English suitors, to accept the proposal from the scoundrel, Gilbert Osmond, who hates her, and who happens to be American. If James provides a moral conclusion in Portrait, Isabel understands both herself and Gilbert, without any recourse for happiness. That is a very different outcome from any Jane Austen novel. Archer is trapped as a result of her own devices, yet James does not present her story as a cautionary tale. He simply presents it. James’s idea of the novel is that it is a work of Art; the novelist is its Artist. His advice to writers betrays his belief that the novelist is an elite: “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!” To his credit, James, for his time, created an array of independent and spirited women.

The end result of his thoughts on the novel is his “late style,” which is a very curious thing. It has been observed that two things happen to writers as they mature: either they become increasingly minimalistic, examples being Beckett and Hemingway are examples, or they became more baroque and complex, as like James Joyce and Henry James had. The prose in later James novels is increasingly static, larded with digressions and qualifications, syntactic complexity; it reads like a private conversation with the reader held hostage. Edith Wharton found it excessive. H.G. Wells ridiculed it, portraying James as a hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea in a corner of its cage. In James’s defense, I think his “late style” was a psychological reaction, a defense mechanism, to his humiliating failure as a playwright (which I find ironic since he was writing “entertainment” and it flopped. Horribly).

The matter of complexity in James Joyce’s style was a con. For all the blather about “modernism,” Joyce was the ultimate egoist. The quote people point to as evidence of his ego is: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works,” but the quote I had in mind speaks to Joyce’s fear of being forgotten (he struggled for years in dire obscurity before Ezra Pound “discovered” him in 1916): “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” He was alluding to Ulysses (1922). Nine decades later – he might be right. Joyce kept himself in business. D.H. Lawrence and James would suffer a different fate: readers either love or hate them. Henry James would achieve a wider audience through film adaptations because the camera as narrative device can relay his prose, whereas Jane Austen translates faster to film because of her dialog and plots.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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