vendredi 9 décembre 2011

David S. Reynolds, BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE, New York, Knopf, 1988, 625 pages

But in fact Thoreau was closer to the popular mentality in more subtle and significant ways than these. Ordinarily Thoreau is distinguished from his contemporaries because of his harsh social criticism and his quirky paradoxical style, which is often seen as contrasting to a tepid popular style. F. O. Matthiessen typically called him a "violent" imagist who tried to "startle his contemporaries out of their complacent dreaminess." Thoreau's imagistic violence and stabbing irony, however, are precisely what bind him most tightly to his contemporaries, who were hardly complacent dreamers. Walden and the John Brown speech were Thoreau's most performances because of, not in spite of, their acidic attacks on conventions. By the early 1850s American readers were almost masochistically attracted to reform-minded writers of all varieties who used every weapon of invective and exaggeration to lay bare social corruption and propose ready-made solutions. Thoreau's contribution was to tighten the irony, sharpen the paradox, exaggerate the criticism, and, especially, broaden the proposed solution.

p. 99.

David S. Reynolds, BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE, New York, Knopf, 1988, 625 pages

It is perhaps understandable that the subtitle of Melville's next novel was The Ambiguities. Melville's private comments on Pierre; or, The Ambiguities suggest that he believed the novel was broadly representative of American popular culture. Melville wrote his publisher, Richard Bentley, that the novel "was very much more claculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine." At about the same time, his friend Sarah Morewood commented: "I think [Melville] cares very little as to what others may think of him or his books so long as they sell well." It may seem odd that a novel designed for popularity wouls fail abysmally. Pierre had poor sales and received generally harsh reviews, including one charge that Melville had gone insane. How do we explain the negative reception given to a novel evidently written for the masses? The truth is that Pierre was too broadly representative of antebellum popular culture - with all its crippling moral paradoxes - to have wide appeal. In this paradigmatic novel are embodied the profound dualisms of American popular culture. The first half of the novel portrays the Conventional world of pastoralism, domesticity, the angelic exemplar, hopeful religion, military heroism, and innocence. The second half of the novel plunges us into the Surversive world of dark city mysteries, shattered homes, illicit love, social and philosophical radicalism, and bloody crime. Since both sections of the novel feature themes and characters that had proved extremely popular with American readers, we understand why Melville expected good sales. Perhaps he wanted tout attract both those who loved Conventional novels like The Wide, Wide World (to Sophia Hawthorne he promised Pierre would be "a rural bowl of milk") and those who consumed Subversive exposés like The Quaker City (to Bentley he called the book "a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions at work"). Whatever his motivations, the fact is that by fusing the two realms he produced a highly explosive mixture that gave little pleasure to either class of readers.

p. 159.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

The bargain being struck here is that women may write as much as they please providing they define themselves as women writing when they do so, whether by tricks of style - diffuseness, gracefulness, delicacy; by choices of subject matter - the domestic, the social, the private; or by tone - pure, lofty, moral, didactic. Where the novel, generally speaking, was defined as a field for the expression of the individual author, possibly rising to genius, it was defined in the cas of the woman author as a field for the expression of the sex, in which case genius in the large sense is out of the question, since the most she can do is lose herself in gender and hence sacrifice the individuality that is the foundation of genius.

p. 257.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

The problems of the concept of genius, as we well know, have to do with evaluating a given rule-breaking work: because genius breaks normal rules and operates according to its own, an unruly work may be either an instance of genius or a case of ineptness or presumption. In their own times, Hawthorne was perceived as a real genius and Melville only as aspiring.

p. 253.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

[Women author's] private lives were sctrutinized to see whether they lived womanly lives; the category of genius was denied to them because, writing as women rather than as individuals, they could not attain something that was in its essence the highest expression of individuality.

p. 249.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

The main general discussions of the term romance in this era developed idiosyncratic definitions with no necessary application to the actual practice of fiction writers of the time; the idea of American romance that now controls so much American literary history is equally idiosyncratic and "theoretical." Discussions of the term as though it were historically given, or as though its examples are fixed and known, quickly become argumetns for granting romance status to one or another work. These arguments would be beside the point were it not now generally agreed that the most important works of American fiction are romances. This is a position that would have made no sense in 1850.

p. 235. 

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

In this context, [William Gilmore] Simm's distinction in the preface to a revised version of The Yemassee in 1853 and Hawthorne's in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables in 1851 should probably be seen as two more attempts (and perhaps less disinterested ones than those appearing in the journals) ti fix terms in flux at the time. That Hawthorne pretended to be using a distinction known to all his readers [...] has permitted later students to believe - as Hawthorne no dougt intended - that a fixed definition was in use at the time, and that people knew that some novels were romances and some were novels and also knew which were which. If, indeed, the romance was thought to be more popular, we have an explanation for his strategy, as well as for Simm's attempt to renew his reputation by affixing the term to an early book.
To complicate matters still further, the literary discourse on romance and novels, though at one extreme characterized by total interchangeability of the terms and at the other by total definitional anarchy, also contains two "mainstream" definitions. That is, in a preponderance of essays and reviews where one can see an operative distinction, one or the other of these usages obtains. One of these definitions incorporates a history of fiction (is diachronic) while the other schematizes existing fiction (is synchronic). In the diachronic mode of writing, the novel is seen as a modern form of romance, which is the overform, the generic name for narrative fiction over time. In the synchronic mode, the generic name for narrative fiction is the novel, and the romance is one type of the genre. If we put these two modes together we come up with a discourse where romance is a type of novel, which is in turn a modern type of romance. No doubt a great deal of confusion can be attributed to this merging of two different approaches to fiction.

p. 231.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

Melville's late works were particularly subject to negative stylistic assessment on there grounds, and in my view it was much more likely his style than his subject or morality that hurt him with the public in the instances of both Mardi and Pierre.

p. 132. 

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

The small number of American fiction writers who are now called major did, evidently, have trouble supporting themselves as novelists. But the explanation for this difficulty cannot be hostility in the public at large to fiction in general. There was a problem with copyright that has not been adequately appreciated in a literary historical mode that deals only with the context of ideas; with no international copyright law, American publishers found it more profitable to reprint European books than to encourage native authors.

p. 23.

Nina Baym, NOVELS, READERS, AND REVIEWERS, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984, 287 pages

Because they were so often staff people, the reviewers are most usefully thought of as members of the group that Frank Luther Mott has called "magazinists," that is, people who were professionally engaged in producing magazines. As such they were literary people of a certain sort, different from those who hoped to support themselves by occasional or even regular contributions to magazines, and again from those who aspired to great works of literary art. There was overlap among these three categories to be sure: Ann Stephens and Caroline Kirkland, for example, were prolific contributors to many journals as well as editors; Poe divided his energies between criticism and creation; T. S. Arthur thought of his journal as promoting his didactic reputation. In the main, however, magazinists were people who wrote for the moment, did not write fiction and poetry, and did not expect their work to endure. Nor were they, in the main - though clergymen and professors put out journals - the best-educated, most cultivated, or most leisured members of American society. (Neither, for that matter, were the group of writers now thought of as "major.")

p. 20-21