pseudopodium
. . . Biographers

. . .

Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.

Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.

Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.

I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.

. . .

As long as I'm reacting to recent Simcoe items, here are a few anti-biography rants (one, two, three), with, I'm sure, more to come.

. . .

Modernist Class

I remember reading to him a German translation from a speech by Radek in which the Russian attacked Ulysses at the Congress of Kharkov as being the work of a bourgeois writer who lacked social consciousness. "They may say what they want," said Joyce, "but the fact is that all the characters in my books belong to the lower middle classes, and even the working class; and they are all quite poor." I know he was a convinced antifascist.
-- Eugene Jolas
Underbred.... the book of a self taught working man....
-- Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
It's sleight of hand, a kind of shell game. A few flourishes of the shells labeled "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" keep us from noticing the writers who have not been shoved into them and from noticing the essential differences between the writers who have.

Class, for example.

Yeats's, Pound's, and Eliot's works were in defense of a dreamlike aristocratic status; they loathed the city, or, more specifically, the city's middle class and the city's poor.

Pound and Eliot first became interested in Joyce as a semi-articulate witness to those urban horrors, a sort of Dublin Dreiser. And they lost interest in him as the serialized episodes of Ulysses left realism behind: he was no longer a witness but a class-climbing eccentric who somehow assumed that the world owed him a living. (Biographers still seem to have trouble with that notion, but one should bear in mind that the world of the time seemed perfectly content to supply Yeats, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and so on with livings.)

By the time we get to Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker (if we ever do; they're still not part of standard academic curricula), those beastly New York Jews and bestial Midwestern immigrants who so offended Henry James are actually writing, without apology, as if they could possibly fit into some respectable (and quite imaginary, thank the lord!) society....

. . .

Why do biographers have such a hard time reconciling the limitations they find in their subjects' lives with the importance of their subjects' works? After all, biographers are nothing but prying voyeuristic parasites who incessantly second-guess people smarter and more talented than themselves, yet their work can still be useful.

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

It's odd to think of Beatrix Potter in the Blitz.

It also seems odd that 1940s-top-guy Raymond Chandler was only a couple years younger than James Joyce, whose career ended in 1939.

Well, Chandler didn't start writing until he was 45. And since he didn't live in Europe during WWII, he lasted longer....

Maybe it's just WWII that seems odd.

"John Taylorís compliments and thinks he might pass for a dormouse."

. . .

I forget how I found the Art Fein site, but anyone this mean to Ann Powers is OK by me! Fein is kind of like a rockabilly version of Paul Williams: short on analysis but high on life and America and, of course, their offspring, Elvis.

Which puts me in mind of that old Elvisphage, Lester Bangs, who just got a new biography aimed at him. Since Bangs's own writing already covered everything of any possible interest that ever happened to him (plus a whole lot more), publishing a second collection seems like a better idea than having some other guy come in and paraphrase, but I guess that's not the way publishers think. Definitely the way that publishers do think is to have a Trouser Press editor write about Bangs's life, which is like Abe Rosenthal writing about I. F. Stone, or -- I was gonna say a zoo keeper writing about the monkeys, but sometimes those zoo keepers are pretty insightful.

. . .

"The more likely truth is that, by the time he was halfway through Ulysses, Joyce's mind was too far gone to be anywhere near capable of moral judgement - or, indeed, much else." -- Conrad Jameson
You poor poet, you!
Wow, that takes me back... the last time anyone came up with the "James Joyce was just psychotic" theory was probably William Empson fifty years ago....

Nostalgia isn't all that attracts me to this buffoonery. There's my ongoing holy war against journalism (that is, slanderous lies) and biography (that is, self-righteous gossip) to consider: The only way to pull such a delusion over one's readers' eyes is through deliberate obfuscation and deliberate plays on presumed ignorance.

For instance by claiming that a conspiracy of "the so-called New Critics" was responsible for inflating Crazy Jamie's reputation when in fact Empson was entirely typical of the New Critics in his dislike for Joyce. It wasn't academics and critics and journalists but writers and artists and amateurs who stoked the pre-1970 Joyce industrial forges.

".... he emerges as a man of great causes, an anti-colonialist, a pacifist and a feminist who, in Bloom, heralds the new womanly man. As it turned out, none of the things that either set of critics had said about Joyce was true...."
"As it turns out," it's demonstratedly true that Joyce was, albeit passively, a pacifist (and a socialist as well, though the New Statesman seems leery of that awful label) and an anti-colonialist and an anti-anti-Semite (not to be confused with a non-anti-Semite; that category didn't exist at the time): he said so quite openly, and others said it, whether insultingly or approvingly, about him. The "feminist" label I'll grant would be a stretch, but in typical journalistic "I don't need a man, I've got straw, thank you" fashion, Conrad Jameson ignores the hostile reception that Joyce has therefore received from many feminists. (I should know; I've argued with 'em.) What he was not was a propagandist, which is what's driven many a propagandistic writer to fury.

Anyway, the writer's job is precisely to seem better and wiser and wittier than the writer is. When the writer doesn't succeed -- when the writer is, say, Oliver St. John Gogarty -- the writer will be remembered as a character rather than a writer. (And despite Jameson's calumny, characters are the ones who're sustained through imitation and emulation rather than the comparatively depressing and colorless writers: emulating the writers would be too much work for the payback.) If Joyce's writing can convince anyone that he was a feminist, it's as much to his writing's credit as it is to Shakespeare's when readers convince themselves that Shakespeare must've been a lawyer or a doctor or a Duke of Earl. "Mme. Bovary, c'est moi" is a boast, not a confession.

Jameson's least mendacious attack on Joyce is purely personal and based on a very slim selection from Joyce's private letters and biography. There's no point in taking a defensive stand on that slim selection: a careful pinching out of details from anyone's private life (much less a writer's, since anyone who decides to write instead of taking a sensible job has got to be more than half crazy to begin with) would make them sound committable. (Yes, even George Bernard Shaw. Even, I suppose, the swollen parasite at hand.)

But, except in the most blatant miscarriages of justice, commitment papers aren't signed based on selected details but on how one's life is viewed in the context of one's place and time. In Joyce's place and time he might not have been called cuddly but neither was he ever called psychotic. As Virginia Woolf proved, there are more direct routes to self-destruction than neglecting one's health; as T. S. Eliot proved, there are worse attitudes toward one's spouse than brusqueness; as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound proved, doubts about the later Joyce are not necessarily proof of good politics and coherent writing. And (to veer back to slander and lies for a moment), Pound, Eliot, and Woolf didn't take issues with Joyce's "insanity" so much as with his lack of class.

. . .

Everyday tragedies

From the Bruno's Weekly contributors' notes of April 22, 1916, editor Guido Bruno:

Djuna Barnes, who designed the front cover this week, retired to a sedate and quite private life. After a rather exciting career of a few years of newspaper work (drawing and writing) she decided to do some real work unhampered by editorial influences. A series of war pictures and among these her uncanny gripping "The Bullet," are not only the work of a promising artist, but one of one who started really to fulfill promises.

As well as in drawing and painting she has a style of her own in her literary adventures. Her poems and her short stories cannot possibly be called otherwise but adventures. She feels the rhythm of her inspiration and she struggles along as good as she can to make us feel it too. Her inspiration is flirting constantly with her creative desires. But Djuna Barnes is a bad match-maker. The little things in life make for tragedies. Spelling, punctuation, syntax, lack of concentration, are such little things. They are everyday tragedies in Djuna's life.

. . .

Since the biggest problem with biographies are the biographers, why not just get rid of 'em?

In an email message a while ago, Jessie Ferguson fantasized one approach to erasure: "I still want to write a biography that passes no judgments at all and raises no questions it isn't equipped to answer." And I imagine something like the "Chronology" in a Collected Works, except busting out all over with source documents like a microwaved popcorn bag....

That sounds nice.

An easier approach, which could be said to be even more honest, being even less interpretive, is just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together, like in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, 500 pages of Gerald Early's selections from memoirs, interviews, and journalism.

Which is nice.

Having an actual example brings on a couple of new thoughts, though, which just goes to show that examples are worthwhile:

  1. If you don't rush into things, secondary sources eventually turn into primary sources. Back in the 1950s, the astonishingly nasty Confidential pieces were just destructive gossip; now they're essential to understanding what the heck was going on.

  2. There's an awful lot of repetition. With variation. Me, I enjoy tracing slight changes from one retelling of an anecdote to another as it rots into accepted history, but I don't know how many others share that rarefied pleasure.

  3. To quote Jessie Ferguson again, "you can't apply the work-as-mirror-of-life analysis to someone whose life is lost to history, that being the negative lesson to take from the case of Emily Bronte."

    You need a fairly wide variety of voices and publication genres for a biographical compilation to work; else all you've got is a reprint of someone else's book (not that there's anything wrong with reprinting someone else's book). For some biographical subjects, you might be able to get sufficient variety out of letters and diaries. Outside such knitting-brow circles, the approach will skew you towards the kind of people who get talked about in memoirs, interviews, and journalism: that is, to show-biz celebrities. And performers just don't tend to be very interesting. Their work can be interesting, but as people, with few exceptions, they fall within a pretty narrow range of affection-craving self-dramatizing technique-obsessed personalities.

    Sure, there are noticeable differences between performers. Those more-or-less unique aspects are what passes for interest in memoirs, interviews, and journalism, and what incited Early's hard work on Sammy Davis, Jr. But there are even more similarities between performers, and the constant background noise of those shared aspects starts (to me, anyway) to get numbing after a while.

  4. All theoretical speculation aside and against, a highlight of the book is Early's still-young-enough-to-be-a-secondary-source introductory essay:

. . .

Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method

"As a corollary, then, historical inference can only take us back to the furthest-past extension of the principles that now govern the world. A time when 'everything was different' is in principle not reconstructable, i.e. not available to history."
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass
"That's not where I want to be."
- The Ramones
"If it's not all about me, she might have said, why does everyone watch everything I do? Lucky she didn't. Who would complain of this to Mrs. Pleasant, about whom the whispers never hushed?"
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
"On the one hand, in effect, one must want the greatest good for the friend -- hence once wants him to become a god. But one cannot want that, one cannot want what would then be wanted, for at least three reasons...."
Politics of Friendship - Jacques Derrida
"Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us.... It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death."
- Friendship, Maurice Blanchot

Most good fiction set in the past achieves its brief rapprochement between history and story by avoiding any names that might rouse mutual interest. But let an old beau be brought up and the holiday is ruined: "Well, if you'd only listened to Aaron Burr —" "Aaron Burr! Aaron Burr! Always she throws Aaron Burr in my face!"

Name-dropping historical fiction, whether researched-sincere or postmodern-bratty, may sell well, but it withers quickly. Even Flaubert couldn't lift John the Baptist to the same level as Frédéric Moreau, and a Michener or Vidal, or worse yet a James Tully or Sarah Booth Conroy, seems irredeemably presumptious. History originally comes from story the rushed and slanted newspaper report, the misremembered self-serving memoir and if I'm going to give up the illusion of certainty, I might as well just return to those primary sources. Their half-truths will most likely provide more surprises than a contemporary fiction writer's could.

You could easily argue with that opinion. Me, I just hold it. And it was with no small confusion that, in the dazzle of my first reading of Sister Noon, I looked down and found it still there in my unattended hands, a commute-worn hat from which a table-filling bouquet had been produced with a show of perfect ease.

Well, one of the critic's tasks is to figure out how the trick's done. It doesn't begin to make the magic easy, but it's what we do. And after a few years of slow-mo-ing through Fowler's performance, I think I might've done it.

Rather than confusing gossip and slander with knowledge, Sister Noon eyes that confusion's source and the hunger that feeds it. Its hero isn't the ascertained celebrity, but the half-reluctant, half-fascinated hanger-on. Its plot isn't a schematic rise to power and fall into disgrace, but a journey into the sucking bog of schemas and back out again.

With "poor, fanciful, inconsequential little Lizzie," we learn how one's unattended, unkempt life becomes stuctured into narrative by a brush with celebrity, or a dream of celebrity, or a memory of celebrity. Suddenly that's what people know about you, that's what people think about you, that's what they want to hear, that's what you want to tell them. You find yourself with a story, even if it's a pale distorted reflection of someone else's story, even if that story itself distorts the celebrity's own unattended, unkempt life.

As docudrama's smugness resembles the lower forms of biographer or journalist, Fowler's fond respect resembles The Quest for Corvo. What's offensive about those other ginks is their wilfull, even spiteful, ignorance. The finer stuff of Fowler and Symons gracefully incorporates its own limitations. Symons begins his biography not with an unpromising birth but with the author's curiosity, and ends it not with an overdue death but with the author's satisfaction. In Sister Noon's first chapter, the protagonist is brought into the circle of the most infamous name of her time and place; in its last, they definitively separate, and, satisfyingly, that's the only thing made definitive.

Fowler's choice of protagonist neatly solves another generic problem as well, that being how to convey the alienness of another time or culture with the techniques of realistic fiction. If reader identification takes for granted a shared notion of what's natural, how can what's "natural" become an issue? Of course, this is also a foundational problem for science fiction, and in both genres a frequent solution is to make the novel's protagonist a first-time visitor to the novel's setting. Fowler instead leverages the insight that alienation from one's mundane surroundings is a familiar shared experience (albeit not one that's necessarily taken for granted). Lizzie Hayes exhibits the same dully baffled irritability towards spiritualism, white slavery, and the Doom Sealers that I feel towards Burning Man, multi-player shooters, or the Great Anthrax Scare. We all occasionally find ourselves stranded on Mars or in a suburb of Carthage.

The ambiguous and disputatious sources of history aren't different in kind from those of the present. To resolve them is to falsify not just "what really happened" but also "what really happens."

And we readers, gossipers, hanger-ons make up part of "what really happens," unattended though we might be even by ourselves. A close look at an entrepreneurial multi-millionaire may confirm our unconfessed contentment in the tweedy middle class. Long-standing acquaintance with a successful author may reduce the shame-facedness with which we prefer self-publishing. On the sinister hand, our growing identification with a target of scandal may weaken our own restraints: having seen the worst, the fears that hemmed us in seem tawdry things, low-grade cotton rotted and easily torn.

There's a reason the fiction was put into this historical fiction. Lizzie Hayes isn't merely a passive conductor, capacitor, or resistor of the social current. When she has reached this realization or rather more actively has realized it, in the most humane and engaged way imaginable the tension between perfectly known fiction and permanently unknowable history is released, and the characters are set spinning out of the name star's orbit, from the documented fantastic to the unlimited mundane, cycling around once, four years later, to be glimpsed in the novel's first paragraph, and then (re-)lost to view.

Not that Lizzie Hayes would genuinely vanish, much as she might like to. Duties, if not heavens, forbid. She and her new-found (or rather more actively new-founded) family drive away, quite as material as they ever were, into what would appear to be a most distinctive narrative of their own.

But that's another story.

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.

Responses

Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

  • I at first avoided reading Wullschlager's book because the reviews and auxiliary journalism led me to think it committed the contemptible and common sin of contempt for its subject. Instead I found an intelligent and scrupulous biography which incorporated the best Andersen criticism I've seen.
  • Pretty much any characterization I've applied to Andersen might also apply to myself, aside from the ones relating to courage and genius.

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

Flaming while Rome fiddles

The hardest and most important lesson I learned early in online life was to walk away from a fight after I'd had my say. It's the interpersonal equivalent of "Just pay the five dollars, George."

Or maybe of "I been thrown outa sweller joints than this." No need to scrawl toilet stalls with the Troll of Sorrow so long as Mr. Waggish or Dr. Lukin remain willing to call me on BS. To use the elegant formula which first crystallized at age nineteen, "Why am I standing here arguing with this shmuck about Dhalgren when I could be back at college getting laid?"

Oh, I remain thin-skinned, quick-tempered, and gullible, and so I can still forget that lesson when anxious and exhausted, just like I might forget to use a knife and fork when I'm very hungry, except scarfing hurts less in the aftermath; yes, even if a cayenned finger wanders to my eye it pains me less. There's less collateral damage, for one thing.

As for needing to set the record straight, the record's advice is unambiguous: Forget it. If history teaches us anything, it's that historians will treat us like dirt. A subject who attempts to stage-manage his reputation is handled with special contempt by biographers. (Who then mail scathing corrections to the biography's bad reviews.) Stopping first is not an admission of defeat: it's an admission of maturity.

Responses

I for one was arguing with schmucks about Delany when you were in short pants. And your spelling of "collateral" is as loose as your logic.

... or my short pants, for that matter. Anyhow, thanks for the spellcheck!

If you're trying to get the last word, you're too busy to get the last laugh.
It
Oh

. . .

More gossip about strangers

Increasingly I wonder if we wouldn't do better without biography. Of course we want to know other people's stories and to roll around in distant tragedy, but the pairing of talent and life too often suffers from banal, received assumptions based on ghastly popular psychology.... Perhaps it should be left to fiction to worry about why and how, because fiction has the possibility and the freedom to be original in a way that dogged biography doesn't.
- Jenny Diski, review of Nina Simone: The Biography

Good luck with that. So far in 2009, the London Review of Books has published more than forty reviews (summaries, retellings) of biographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters; this issue alone considers three biographies and a memoir. Even when the reviewer's not handed a biography, one may be given to us.

I read these pieces, of course; how else would I have encountered Diski's lament? (For that matter I just finished reading an 1100-page scrapbook of literary gossip very thinly disguised as a scholarly book about the birth of literary gossip.) Is it to my credit that I don't read the books themselves? Certainly it's to LRB's credit that its retellings tend to provide such a refreshing crunch and such easily compostable cores. "Nothing too taxing, but interesting enough to last to the end of the pint before someone starts the next story."

And if we can't avoid swallowing a bit of the delusion that we've learned something and a bit of the poisoned pseudo-intimacy of celebrity, if the tales aren't as blood-clearingly wholesome as those of Kharms or Kafka, if they don't completely escape the received assumptions and ghastly popular psychology that monopolize contemporary short stories and novels, still from these snatched anecdotes and curt demurrals we absorb at least a trace of the irreducible arbitrary. Enough to scrape by. As Silenus advised Plutarch, "Best to have no biographies at all, but second best keep them short."

Responses

and I can't for the life of me fathom autobiography

Josh Lukin writes:

Delmore Schwartz, whose great strength as an essayist was metacriticism, enabled me to appreciate Bunny Wilson by pointing out that Wilson never writes about the literariness of literature or the politicality of politics but is in essence a yente journalist, writing gossipy profiles of interesting authors. With the armor of this perspective riveted firmly on (sorry—too much Wodehouse), I was quite moved by a couple of the better profiles in The Triple Thinkers: pace the many good bits in Unacknowledged Legislation, Wilson rather outdoes his present-day admirers in the yente journalism genre.

I like Jenny Diski's work, so I'm pleased to report that Terry Eagleton's LRB review of a biography of Teddy Adorno easily managed less self-awareness and more obnoxiousness:

The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas.... If they aren't able to extricate the man or woman 'behind' the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as 'human interest', goes hand in hand with their philistinism. It is not surprising that Adorno himself detested the genre. It is too often a middle-class alternative to material history, one in which that supreme creation known as the individual may hold untrammelled sway. Discussing the prosody of Don Juan is all very well, but how on earth did Byron get to Sintra on a club foot? As far as such literary prurience goes, Claussen remains high-mindedly Teutonic. Beyond a discreet allusion to the fact that female students found him attractive, a fact the photographs of him provided in this volume do nothing to confirm, there is not a word about Adorno's notorious philandering....

. . .

Why do you make me hit you?

But if Pat's affinity for Jewish dentists was yet another example of the subversive Miss Highsmith turning an ordinary exchange upside down i.e., the "German-identified" Pat being "gassed" by "Jewish dentists" (an idea so offensive that it might actually have appealed to Pat) she never said so.
- Joan Schenkar,
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.
- Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Against my better judgment, I read Schenkar's long dreadful book for the same reason I read Juliet Barker's similarly vindictive The Brontës: its compilation of primary sources. But Barker is a more controlled writer (or maybe benefited from a harder-working editor), and her intolerance closely resembles that of her chosen villain, lending the affair a certain meta-piquancy.

Schenkar, on the other hand, only resembles her own telling. She calls Highsmith's prose awkward and flat-footed, and she ladles out an Irish stew of purple clunkers. She snickers at Highsmith's pretensions, and she routinely overreaches:

By 1977, when Edith's Diary was published, rye had not been produced in the United States for at least twenty years.

She descries Highsmith's compulsive disruptions, and she's so full of redundant snark that she can't wait till a quote is finished before telling us what to think:

But she was "quite unable to do any creative work, though in my house there is always quite enough else to do. The mental fear needs a thousand words to describe. [But Pat did not provide them. [And neither does Joan.]] It as though death is right there suddenly and yet one feels no pain, one is talking in a calm voice to friends & doctors."

Schenkar's starting position may not be far from uncannily unmoved and unmoving witnesses like Found in the Street's Natalia or Inez from Those Who Walk Away. Here, though, their silent treatment bursts into a grossly extended middle-school poison-pen letter: "We just thought you should know: we don't like you." The best I can say is it gives Highsmith's paranoia, misogyny, and resentment a more flattering context than I could've conjured on my own.

Responses

Highsmith scholar Josh Lukin:

"When Pat Highsmith gave life to Ripley, she was exposing the black backside of her country's Zeitgeist" is more than a purple clunker: it's Tom Friedman on weed.

And Josh follows up:

But you know what'd be helpful in maintaining your youthful figure? Her recenter reminiscences of Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson, complete with critical comments by their kids in the comments dept.

A relatively restrained and respectful performance. Wall Street Journal's blog must have an editor.

. . .

How Musil Can Change Your Life!

Mixed feelings are more productive in fiction than in conversation. Even writers with definite or self-definitive prejudices will induce muddle in pursuit of a story. (And then, reversing the process, their biographers become disillusioned by the bigoted troll.) Those whose second thoughts resecond, rethird, refourth and so on to Reichian volume and density may be lured into the hunt merely by the blessed prospect of something captured.

You'd better bag the game, though. Otherwise all you've achieved is another unsatisfying conversation.

. . .

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. : Most Annoying Adams Ever?

(Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Charles Francis Adams by his son Charles Francis Adams, published in 1900 as part of the American Statesmen series.)

The story is not lacking in interest; but it has already in main been told both by Henry Wilson, himself an actor in it, and by Edward L. Pierce, not only an actor in it, but subsequently an untiring investigator of it. Upon it Mr. Adams’s contemporaneous record throws much additional light. The period was, too, not only important, but, as revealed in his papers, extremely interesting. It has its distinctly humorous, as well as tragic, side. [...] It is absorbing, as well as impressive; but the narrative attains almost the dimensions of a history, and will not be compressed into a sketch. Its salient features only can here be referred to.
The as yet unwritten history of this gathering can here be no more than alluded to, though it still has an interest, and, at the moment, was of great historical significance.
The manner in which the wily and really good-natured Prime Minister, acting after his wont in such cases through the skillful cooperation of Lady Palmerston, subsequently, when he thought desirable so to do, renewed social relations, was interesting and eminently characteristic; but to recount it is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
The episode of the Howell-Zerman letter now occurred. Altogether a very entertaining and characteristic incident, the letter referred to caused at the moment great commotion, and for a brief space threatened gravely to compromise Mr. Adams; but the affair soon passed over, leaving no trace behind. Reference only can be made to it here.
Meanwhile a new contingency arose, and, to his own great surprise, Mr. Adams suddenly found himself a prominent candidate for a presidential nomination. The history of the movement which culminated in the Cincinnati convention of May, 1872, and the nomination of Horace Greeley as the opposing candidate to President Grant in the canvass of that year, is curious, and not without its humorous as well as interesting features. It can, however, here only be alluded to.

I'm glad the author was at least willing to share the curious and eminently characteristic reaction, not without continuing interest, of the London Times to the Emancipation Proclamation:

If the blacks are to obtain the freedom he promises them, it must be by their own hands. They must rise upon a more numerous, more intelligent, better-armed, and braver community of whites, and exterminate them, their wives and children, by fire and sword. The President of the United States may summon them to this act, but he is powerless to assist them in its execution. Nay, this is the very reason why they are summoned.... Mr. Lincoln bases his act on military necessity, and invokes the considerate judgment of mankind and the judgment of Almighty God. He has characterized his own act; mankind will be slow to believe that an act avowedly the result of military considerations has been dictated by a sincere desire for the benefit of those who, under the semblance of emancipation, are thus marked out for destruction, and He who made man in His own image can scarcely, we may presume to think, look with approbation on a measure which, under the pretense of emancipation, intends to reduce the South to the frightful condition of St. Domingo.... In the midst of violent party divisions, in ostentatious contempt of the Constitution, with the most signal ill success in war, he is persisting in the attempt to conquer a nation, to escape whose victorious arms is the only triumph which his generals seem capable of gaining. Every consideration of patriotism and policy calls upon him to put an end to the hopeless contest, but he considers the ruin is not deep enough, and so he calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed; but his heart is hardened, and he will not let the people go.
* * *

To be fair, Charles's fashionably obese prose was never built to carry conflicting emotions. He was bound to wheeze under the load.

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., had four sons, but the eldest, John, wrote nothing ever (and seems to have been by far the happiest):

As I look back upon the Uncles, I see them as always writing Uncle Charles in a nice square house just below his own on President's Hill, which he had bought to provide space for his books and to insure him peace from the distractions of a growing family, and which he called the "Annex." Uncle Henry when he was in Quincy commanded undisputed possession of the Stone Library, while Uncle Brooks reigned in John Adams's study on the second floor of the Old House. It used to puzzle me what they all found to write about, for my father never seemed to write at all but when I asked him about it, he said "I suppose it amuses them!"

[...] Uncle Brooks often told me how jealous he had always been of my father for possessing those social qualities of charm and conviviality which he himself so painfully lacked, adding in the same breath that John was far too lazy ever to make effective use of them.

- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

The three writing brothers described their relative charmlessness as something passed through the Y chromosome, an unamiable rectitude which both determined and curtailed the social utility and historic importance of each generation's males. Charles Junior, in particular, associated this cursed inheritance with the familial habit of diary-keeping, a compulsion friendlier to future historians than to siblings and children. Here, for example, he writes about Charles Senior's earliest discernible achievement, publishing a life-and-letters of his grandmother Abigail:

Deeply gratified as he was at the success of this his first literary venture, Mr. Adams would have been more gratified yet could he have read his father's contemporaneous diary record; for J. Q. Adams was not a demonstrative man, and rarely, except when communing with himself, gave expression to his inmost feelings. So now, on Sunday, September 27, 1840, he wrote that, attending, as was his wont, divine service in the afternoon, whereat a certain Mr. Motte preached upon the evidences of Christianity from the text, John xx. 31, “my attention and thoughts were too much absorbed by the volume of my Mother's Letters which my son has published, and of which he sent me this morning a copy. An admirable Memoir of her life written by him is prefixed to the Letters, and the reading of it affected me till the tears streamed down my face.”

And Charles Junior, in particular, associated it with their father:

The sympathies of the aristocracy were distinctly on the side of the slaveocracy of the South, as against the democracy of the North; and this the American minister had been caused to feel with a distinctness almost peculiar to London, where the shades and phases of social coldness and incivility have long since been perfected into a science. Fortunately, Mr. Adams, by nature and bearing, was in this respect exactly the man the occasion called for. When the Englishman was cold and reserved, Mr. Adams was a little colder and a little more reserved than the Englishman. He thus played well the game to which he found himself called, for the very good reason that the game was natural to him.

Charles Junior only wrote the biography because John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, asked him to, and because like the rest of the family he thought his father's Civil War diplomacy, which against very long odds stopped England from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, had been unjustly forgotten by the ingrate Union. In his writing, however, this shared resentment had to contend with his own Adams-ish righteousness and with his more peculiarly Charles-ish resentments, both displayed in the letter he wrote to his brother Henry in the project's early stages:

I may respect the young man, as a young man; but I neither admire nor like him. The first thing I notice is the absence of anything large, human or sympathetic.... He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad; and the disease grew in him as he grew older. It was just the thing he ought not to have done. Naturally reserved and self-centred, his nature required when young,— that is for its full development,— active contact with the world and social life; but at 22 he became a married hermit with a diary for his confidant and familiar friend. He wanted no other. Actually, he never was educated. This might not have been so bad, had there been the elements of warmth, humor, imagination in his intellectual make-up,— the geniality and friendliness among persons or the sympathy with nature,— which insensibly make what some persons write worth writing for themselves or worth reading to others. In his diaries there is nothing of the sort,— not a touch of humor, no power of description, no eye to the dramatic, no love of gossip, no touches of sympathy or fun....
- Charles to Henry, 15 April 1895

On paper, it would have made more sense for Morse to ask Henry, who held the unique advantage of having been present on their father's English mission, while Charles Junior had stayed home and joined the Union Army.

Off paper, Morse had rejected Henry's submission of an Aaron Burr biography fourteen years earlier, and would not have expected forgiveness or forgetfulness. And on Henry's side, after Clover Hooper Adams's suicide and the cheerless delivery of his contractual obligations, he considered himself done with American history and, so far as possible, with any public life whatsoever. When Charles asked him to serve as backup biographer, his answer was clear:

If you fail to carry out your plan for our father’s biography, do you think much loss will result? I do not know; but if you depend upon me to redeem your failure, I fear that you will make about as bad a miscalculation as you ever set to the score of the uncalculable. I should never touch it. Sad as this collapse may be, I am by no means sure that our honored parent might not be a greater figure for the shadows that would be left about his name.
- Henry to Charles, 26 April 1895

But Henry otherwise approved of the commission, and tried to talk Charles into a more lenient mood:

In the remote atmosphere which surrounds me, this debased and degraded race seems to care about us or our friends as little as they do for a Periplaneta Orientalis; and, to judge from the supreme indifference of this generation, that insignificant coleopter will be far more important than we, to the generations which may follow the present. Nevertheless I suppose we are bound to behave as though the universe were really made to glorify our works, so I heartily approve your proceedings. Pray make any use of me that you like, just as though I were real.

As for the governor, the world has little use for him, now that he is dead, and not much more, while he lived. Judging from the intolerable dulness ofthe various Lives already published: Seward, Chase, Sumner, Motley, Longfellow, &c—in fact, of all, except Lincoln and the Generals—I should say that the less we insisted on exhibiting our papa, the better. He stands on the merits of his course and speech in one session of Congress, and his diplomatic papers and conduct. For those two results, his character, mind and training were admirably fitted. His defects and limitations were as important, and as valuable, to him, as his qualities, within the range of those fields. Had there been a little more, or a little less of him, he would have been less perfect. As he stands, he stands alone. No other public man of his time begins to compare with him, within the range of his action. He is almost like a classical gem. From the moment he appeared anywhere—at Washington, London, Geneva—his place was never questioned, much less disputed. Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Bright, Cobden, Gladstone, Seward, and all the Americans, were bunglers in work compared with him, as his state-papers show. [...]

Of course you cannot expressly say all this, but this is really all that the public wants to know, and your business is to make them feel it. Sons are not the proper persons to do such work, but I know of no one better suited, so we may as well try.

- Henry to Charles, 16 April 1895

While the older brother worked at his old-school history, Henry became increasingly engaged by younger brother Brooks's more novel attempt to scientize history on a firm intellectual foundation of economics and antisemitism. His later replies to Charles were terse.

Still, Charles must have been eager to hear his opinion of the finished book. Henry certainly had one, and expressed it in a couple of diary-like letters:

Charles’ Life of his father, in the statesman series, is out, and I am making myself a martyr trying to read it. Thank my miserable cowardice that I did not write it! [...] At any rate, I have, at awful cost, learned to hold my tongue, except in letters, and am getting nervous even about them. No man that ever lived can talk or write incessantly without wearying or annoying his hearers if they have to take it in a lump. Thanks entirely to our family habit of writing, we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities.
- Henry to Brooks, 4 March 1900
I’ve been trying to read my brother Charles’s Life of our father, and it makes me sick. Now I understand why I refused so obstinately to do it myself. These biographies are murder, and in this case, to me, would be both patricide and suicide. They belittle the victim and the assassin equally. They are like bad photographs and distorted perspectives. Luckily no one knows the difference, and the modern public is as dead to the feeling of historical atmosphere as it is to the color of the Chartres windows. I have sinned myself, and deeply, and am no more worthy to be called anything, but, thank my diseased and dyspeptic nervous wreck, I did not assassinate my father. I have also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters with much the same effect on my mind. Cabot Lodge thinks them the best letters ever written. To me they rouse again the mystery of the hippopotamus and the dinner; they never leave enough for us. They exaggerate all one’s bigness, brutality and coarseness; they perpetuate all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessnesses. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error. They are like a portrait by Sargent; they betray one’s besetting vices in youth, and one’s worst selfishness in middle-life, and one’s senility in Joe Choate.
- Henry to Elizabeth Cameron, 5 March 1900

(Despite his gift for irony, his frequent claims to mad senile laughter, and his generally successful attempts to circumnavigate despair in front of the children, Henry Adams never seems to have felt the power of deflationary comedy, or to have realized that something more than disillusionment might result when the virtue ethics of traditional history confront mere shared humanity.)

He wasn't so forthcoming with Charles himself. The excellent editors of Henry Adams's letters briskly summarize:

CFA2 and his family had been staying in Washington for the winter. On Feb. 28, after dining with HA, he noted in his diary that “not by word, look or line has he recognized the existence of my ‘Life.’” On March 25, after again dining with HA, he recorded the evening as “pretty dull and very restrained,—not a reference even to the ‘Life.’” On April 8 he recorded his “farewell call on Henry,—to the last dumb as an oyster on the ‘Life’” (CFA2 Diary, MHi).

Charles, Jr., never expressed pleasure in the labor of this biography, and no one was clamoring for more. And so, with true Adams doggedness, he immediately, and for most of the rest of his life, began working on a massive expansion which would, as a matter of course for a completely objective historian like himself, sadly necessitate many more acknowledgments of his father's inadequacies.

The youngest Adams sibling, sister Mary, saw some of the work in progress, asked him to reconsider, and called on Brooks and Henry for backup. Both demurred, claiming (reasonably enough) that interference would only make Charles more determined. But it's likely that Henry also preferred to maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo. So far as I can gather from published records, the only opinion he ever offered his brother was the extremely indirect one of The Education of Henry Adams in 1907:

Please bear in mind that I don’t mean any harm. The motive of the first part is to acquit my conscience about my father. That of the second part is to acquit my conscience about Hay.
- Henry to Mary Cadwalader Jones, 11 April 1907,
sent with a copy of the book

Nine years later, Charles had the last (indirect) word with his posthumously published Autobiography, a long purge of regrets ("Few things do I envy the possession of in others more than the faculty of remembering faces or placing names") and recriminations: He wasn't given a bicycle. Harvard hadn't offered a course in chess. A hastily assembled mix of slaves and freemen given a few weeks of ten-foot-pole's-length cavalry training had failed to establish him as a brilliant military leader. And, most startling, and possibly unique in the annals of filial resentment, a complaint that his parents did not ship him away to a bullycratic boarding school: "I would so much have enjoyed it.... It might have made me 'a good fellow.'"

He gives his father credit for one good decision, though:

The common schools my father did not care to send his children to; and I have always been glad of it. I don’t associate with the laborers on my place, nor would the association be agreeable to either of us. Their customs, language, habits and conventionalities differ from mine; as do those of their children. I believe in school life; and I believe in the equality of men before the law; but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing. My father, at least, didn’t force that on us.

Detached from the manner of its telling, as Charles himself admits at the end, it would seem like a reasonably pleasant and successful life. Accompanied and sometimes overwhelmed by its drone of frets, chafes, and carps, it's a reasonably recognizable one. A dull book; a human document.

Oh, and to answer my initial question:

On paper, when writing about himself or his father or the pristine white manliness of Robert E. Lee, Charles Junior is hard to beat. But off paper everyone agrees that Brooks Adams was the most annoying by far even Brooks:

He used to say, plaintively, "As soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear," which was all only too true.
- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

Responses

"Curious" is the word. Shades of Ogdred Weary.

. . .

Plunger

For the drain doth not drain every day Shakespeare
The grate is strait; I shall not be there. Swinburne

Descended from the plaguey polis, we see stretched before us an expanse of flyblown Hot Takes baked and blanched by the sun, while patchy ungroomed Long Tails twitch and glimmer beneath the rainless orange horizon like a great lake of fuzzy caterpillars. By the barren banks of Babylon, let us sit down.

In this round of Pin the Longer Tail on the Caterpillar, I shall weep of Algernon Charles Swinburne, carrier of the Swinburne verse which infected a broad swathe of English speakers during the late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth, herd resistance was achieved, and recent studies confirm that a fresh outbreak is unlikely.1

1. What's the deal with Swinburne?

Fifty-five years ago, my eye first passed over Swinburne's peculiar name atop "The Garden of Proserpine," the penultimate of the Little Leather Library's Fifty Best Poems of England (followed by that ne plus ultra in ultra-moderne verse, Francis Thompson's "Arab Love Song": "And thou what needest with thy tribe's black tents / Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?"). It should've made a fine introduction: characteristic in mood and music yet uncharacteristically easy to parse. But until puberty I had no notion of oral pleasure, and I feared sleep (and immersion in cold water, and cats, and children, and beatings pretty much all the Swinburnean goods really), and I preferred the cod-Ecclesiastes of Olive Schreiner's Dreams.

In maturity, however, I was impressed by Henry Adams's introduction to the not-yet-famous poet, at a small dinner hosted by Monckton Milnes:

The fourth was a boy, or had the look of one, though in fact a year older than Adams himself. He resembled in action [...] a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving, with rapid utterance and screams of humor, quite unlike any English lark or nightingale. [...]

That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediæval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo. They knew not what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads "Faustine"; the "Four Boards of the Coffin Lid"; the "Ballad of Burdens" which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad. [...]

The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.

Then came the sad reaction, not from Swinburne whose genius never was in doubt, but from the Boston mind which, in its uttermost flights, was never moyenâgeux. One felt the horror of Longfellow and Emerson, the doubts of Lowell and the humor of Holmes, at the wild Walpurgis-night of Swinburne's talk. What could a shy young private secretary do about it? Perhaps, in his good nature, Milnes thought that Swinburne might find a friend in Stirling or Oliphant, but he could hardly have fancied Henry Adams rousing in him even an interest. Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke's comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give nothing even to offer.

(Fifty-four years later into his own life, Adams still mumbled Swinburne's tenacious word-tunes:

Today, the death of Harry James makes me feel the need of a let-up;2 I must speak to some one.... Not only was he a friend of mine for more than forty years, but he also belonged to the circle of my wife's set long before I knew him or her, and you know how I have clung to all that belonged to my wife. I have been living all day in the seventies. Swallow, sister! sweet sister swallow! indeed and indeed, we really were happy then.
- Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
1 March 1916)

Then, in late middle age, I was moved by Jerome McGann's career-long efforts from 1972's Experiment in Criticism through 2004's massive (and discriminatorily priced) selected works to rehabilitate Swinburne's reputation. I encountered his parodies, which displayed self-awareness and made a pleasing noise, and was encouraged.

And so, upon senescence and retirement, I resolved to figure out what was up with Algernon Charles Swinburne anyway huh?

2. What's the deal with Swinburne?

I started as usual: top of the body of the text, subvocalizing down the lines, letting them dictate the pace. It quickly became manifest that Swinburne, like the Stooges, wanted to be played loud, and so I and my new playmate moved outside, where occasional bursts of muttering or worse would cause less disruption.

Pace presented a stickier problem. Each afternoon I'd set out well, with a measure of swing, and then, within a page or two, go off track. As one who seeks the spiritual renewal of a scenic walk, and ventures into a monotonous landscape in which every second step skids against ice or flat-foots into a sinkhole of slush, and who pauses again and increasingly again to reconfirm the obstinate distance yet to travel before one's targeted landmark, and who finally gives way and retreats, unrefreshed and a bit demoralized, so was I before Major Poems and Selected Prose.

This went on for weeks before I found the problem.

Swinburne's poetic themes are few. Swinburne's poetic vocabulary is slightly archaic, mostly monosyllabic, and very limited. (All soft things are snow-soft; snow has no attributes other than softness.) Swinburne's verbal music rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, elaborate set patterns, the whole shebang and shboom is in your face and all over the place; more insistent than Yeats, than Spenser, than Edgar Allen Poe or Vachel Lindsay for chrissakes. And Swinburne plays that music long; once he got started, the guy would not stop; he just keeps blowing, good stanza, vapid stanza, pivot-on-an-ambiguous-pronoun stanza, doesn't matter so long as they're coming.

All of which encourages the clueless reader to accelerate. And that's how the clueless reader stumbles, because Swinburne allowed himself one complexity amidst all this simplicity: sentence structure. While the syntax stayed transparent, I'd drift into the warm fuzz of noise, start to nod off, then be jolted awake and realize I'd completely lost my way.

Other Swinburne readers have struggled in similar fashion, and some would have warned me, given half a chance. I'll cite Morse Peckham's 1970 account at length since it's otherwise inaccessible:

Swinburne is at once an extraordinarily seductive poet and an extraordinarily difficult one. Because of this his charm has been dismissed over and over again, an untold number of times, as simply a matter of “word-music”: in Swinburne, it is alleged, there is nothing but a leaping rhythm that hurls you along and a completely irresponsible use of the various devices of euphony (or more precisely, phonic over-determination), particularly alliteration. He is recognized to be the greatest virtuoso of sound in English poetry, but that prodigious technique, it is asserted, is entirely without foundation or justification, for Swinburne says nothing.

It is not always recognized that the major Victorian poets are in fact difficult poets. To be sure, everyone knows that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work is difficult; so difficult that many think of him still as a “modern poet,” though what of his technique he did not learn from Browning he learned from Swinburne. Arnold is admittedly quite transparent; Tennyson seems to be transparent to the point of simple-mindedness, but in fact is an exceedingly subtle, devious, and baffling writer. It is obvious that much of Browning is very difficult indeed, but the most difficult works of Browning are, for the most part, unread even by Victorian specialists, and are generally, though quite unjustifiably, dismissed. But the advantage of Browning over Tennyson is that he looks difficult, and over Swinburne that it is obvious that he is saying something. Swinburne, by contrast, seems to be almost contentless. Yet he is not. Quite the contrary . The difficulty of Browning, like the difficulty of Hopkins, is a difficulty of syntactic compression and distortion. Swinburne also offers a syntactic difficulty, but one of quite a different order. The effect of monotony comes not primarily from the unflagging splendor of the rhythm or the obviously beautiful sound, but rather from the fact that Swinburne constructs his sentences by building them up of long syntactic sub-units; the first sentence of Atalanta, for example, is sixteen lines long. What he exploits are the possibilities of parallel syntactic structure. The effect is that the unpracticed reader loses control over the syntax. In Hopkins and Browning the extreme use of elision and syntactic distortion confuses the reader. There is not, so to speak, enough syntactic redundance to keep the reader oriented. But in Swinburne there is too much syntactic redundance. In this he resembles to a certain extent Milton; but the difficulty of reading Milton comes from trying to follow a syntactic style of dependent syntactic units, while Swinburne exploits the possibilities of disorienting the reader by presenting him with parallel structures so far apart that it is difficult to remember and grasp their syntactical relationship. The consequence with all four of these poets is that the reader untrained in their syntactic styles loses semantic control. Yet he knows, at least, that Hopkins, Browning, and Milton are saying something; but Swinburne further confuses him by offering a continuum of beautiful sound which seems to have no relationship to anything at all. The result is that for the first three, the unpracticed reader, though baffled, is at least aware that he is not understanding what is before him, but with Swinburne he rapidly comes to the conclusion that there is nothing to understand.

To learn to read Swinburne it is necessary, therefore, to resist with all one’s power both the seductiveness of the rhythm and the seductiveness of the phonic character. One must read him slowly, very slowly. The mind must always remain focused intensively on the task of comprehending the syntax, of grasping how the parallel syntactic sub-units fit into the larger sentence construction; and it must do this as they come along, in the order in which the poem offers them. It may be said that there is at every cultural level an upward limit to both the complexity and the length of the syntactic structure that may be comprehended. Obviously, the higher the cultural level, the greater the complexity and the length of the syntactical structure that can be grasped. But the fact is that today the general simplification and deterioration of the cultural milieu have meant that most people are not exposed even in prose to much opportunity for extending the range of their syntactic grasp. The power to extemporize extremely long and complex syntactic structures with an extensive use of parallelisms is rapidly disappearing, and has been for some time; and at the higher cultural levels the sentence fragment, which presents precisely the opposite difficulty from Swinburne’s, has long been a standard device in both verse and prose. The first task, then, of the reader of Swinburne is to train himself by extending very far indeed the upward limit of his range of syntactic comprehension. The problem is analogous to that presented by Bruckner’s symphonies, which seem too long for people who have trained themselves on shorter symphonies, but are not a moment too long for those who have developed their capacity to maintain their attention span during a symphonic movement that lasts half an hour.

But when the reader who wishes to come to terms with Swinburne has conquered this difficulty—and it takes both time and a great deal of rereading to do so—he is faced with still further problems.

- Morse Peckham, "Introduction" to
Poems and Ballads / Atalanta in Calydon

Although Peckham describes the issue well, I can't recommend his proposed remedy. For myself, so long as I stubbornly maintained my straight stride down the path of the pages with no retracing of steps, reading "very slowly" proved ineffective: I became just as lost but even more exasperated.

Instead, at the start of each new syntactic unit, I began glancing ahead, silently, at its end, to get some notion of the terrain before blundering into it.

Success!

Reward?

3. What was Swinburne's deal?

My life has been eventless and monotonous; like other boys of my class, I was five years at school at Eton, four years at college at Oxford; I never cared for any pursuit, sport, or study, as a youngster, except poetry, riding and swimming; and though as a boy my verses were bad enough, I believe I may say I was far from bad at the two latter. Also being bred by the sea I was a good cragsman,3 and am vain to this day of having scaled a well-known cliff on the South coast, ever before and ever since reputed to be inaccessible. Perhaps I may be forgiven for referring to such puerilities, having read (in cuttings from more than one American journal) bitterly contemptuous remarks on my physical debility and puny proportions.
- Swinburne to E. C. Stedman, February 20, 1875

Swinburne understated the case. He didn't just swim: he swam outrageously, fearlessly, alarmingly into the coldest, deepest, most treacherous waters he could find. He didn't just ride: he galloped like a Dionysian centaur and had the broken bones to prove it.

And, because he was writing to an unknown American instead of an old crony, he also undercounted: he was notoriously just as "far from bad" at being whipped and getting drunk.

As Swinburne himself suggests, these high-risk behaviors are all ways by which a small tremulous slightly-built countertenor might assert his masculinity. But more to the point, I think, they're also all recognizable ways to (in present-day jargon) self-medicate a painfully manic case of ADHD by forcing focus upon the here and now.

As I expressed it at thirty years old, I really did want to get away from fiction and into something real. I'd spent ten years writing fantasy and I wanted to be in some kind of situation whereby if you made a mistake, what would happen to you would be real. That was the way I expressed it to myself: that if you fall off a rock climb above a certain height, something very real will happen to you. [...] The greatest thing about rock climbing is that if you suffer anxiety it gives you a reason. You know, your day really fires up when you're eighty feet above the ground and things are going wrong and you suddenly think, Wow, I've got a reason to be worried for today. It's a fantastic relief to have a reason to feel anxiety.
- M. John Harrison in conversation with Mariana Enriquez

The applicable jargon of Swinburne's own time comes to us through an at-fourth-hand diagnosis of his uncontrollable twitching, trembling, and jerking:

It made me unhappy to see what trouble he had in managing his knife and fork. Watts-Dunton told me on another occasion that this infirmity of the hands had been lifelong had begun before Eton days. The Swinburne family had been alarmed by it and had consulted a specialist, who said that it resulted from ‘an excess of electric vitality,’ and that any attempt to stop it would be harmful. So they had let it be.
- And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

While essential tremor is no longer explained by "electric vitality," it remains untreatable, and marks the spazz as a social oddity from childhood on. Any initial awkwardness would have been intensified by Swinburne's other difficult-to-diagnose ailment, early-onset deafness. And that eventually overwhelming self-consciousness seems to have been what triggered Swinburne's near-suicidal binges (as well as his marathon monologues): when cozily secured with intimates or left to his own devices, Swinburne stayed sober; moved into urban sociality, he quickly got blotto.

No matter how we choose to clump these personal traits, their aggregate is familiar enough. Born into similar privilege a hundred years later, Swinburne would've raced cars or tested planes or OD'd. He needed to drown the unspeakable noise in his head, needed to drown the unparsable noise from outside it, even at the risk of drowning himself. What distinguishes Swinburne from fellow jitterbugs, and from the canonical poets who scorned him in the twentieth century, was his reliance on incarnate versifying whether recited or improvised as the most sustainable of his high-risk behaviors.

Outside the Modernist canon, I find some context even for that. Masters of freestyle will emit occasional sonorous ambiguities or nonsense; maximalists of flow never know when to take the horn out of their mouth. As Swinburne swam beyond his depth, climbed above his height, drank himself past consciousness, and was flogged within a quarter-inch of his life, so he needed to write too much if he was to write at all.

4. What wasn't?

Outside books I've hardly heard anything about Swinburne, and when I did it was dubious.

Anyone expecting a hero of gay pride will be disappointed, or awfully selective in their reading. Swinburne's only definitely established sexuality consisted of masochism, and although as a practical matter it didn't matter much who swished the birch, a preference for male beauty doesn't seem to have been one of the marks left by Eton: his published fantasies put women in charge, his privately expressed polite demurrals and homophobic slurs sound genuine enough, and his "actual admiration of Lesbianism" is hardly counterevidence. Poetically he positioned himself with Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo, and the Rossettis rather than Symons, Whitman, Pater, or Wilde.

Nor, so far as accessible evidence takes me, did Swinburne quite follow the reactionary path laid down by Southey and Wordsworth. It's true that his first-written (but second-published) book caused a scandal and his third called for bloody revolutions, whereas later collections were far more soothing to his family and the rest of the British establishment. But his anti-colonialism had never extended to British colonies; he always idealized English military action, particularly at its most disastrous; he was always drawn to babies and children; he always idolized Shakespeare. The shift in his publications didn't reflect changes in his beliefs or preferred themes so much as which of those themes found expression at any one time.

Even those switches of filter or booster weren't the result of independent evolution. Despite his vehemence and bellicosity, Swinburne was eminently pliable.4 You could pick him up, plop him down in a different direction or location, and he'd accept it as readily as a good zombie or a good dog. When he was so drunk as to risk arrest, a cab would deposit him at Ford Madox Brown's, the servants would toss him into a bathtub and then into bed, and he'd receive all as his due. When Theodore Watts-Dunton transplanted him to the Pines for the rest of his life, he took the change for granted. Oh, we're sharing a house now? It's very nice here. Water, not whisky? Lovely. You won't mind if I scrape some toast in for flavor?

Thus, during the period in which Baudelaire and the Pre-Raphaelites were his peers, Swinburne scandalized; when Swinburne met Giuseppe Mazzini, he revolutionized; and at the Pines Watts-Dunton encouraged sedate respectability.

Watts-Dunton only stifled so much, though. Swinburne's sex-positive Tristram of Lyonesse may have represented a more fundamental assault on Victorian mores than any vampiric femme fatale, and, around the time his name was proposed for a post-Tennyson laureateship, he publicly called for the assassination of the Queen's cousin:

God or man, be swift; hope sickens with delay:
Smite, and send him howling down his father's way!
Fall, O fire of heaven, and smite as fire from hell
Halls wherein men's torturers, crowned and cowering, dwell!
- "Russia: An Ode"

And from first volume to last, Swinburne attacked the church any church.

He fell into facile writing, and he accepted a facile compromise for life; but no facile solution for his universe. His unbelief did not desert him; no, not even in Putney.
- "Swinburne versus his Biographers" by Ezra Pound

5. What's the big deal?

In 1918 Pound very judiciously wrote that "No one else has made such music in English, I mean has made his kind of music [...] At any rate we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era, in a time swarming with Longfellows, Mabies, Gosses, Harrisons." However, many things can be unique without seeming worth the cost of extraction, and we're no longer threatened by Longfellow and Gosse, much less by whoever "Mabie" and that not-M.-John "Harrison" were.

Peckham promises we can learn "why for sixty years or so people of intelligence, learning, and exquisite taste thought Swinburne a great poet, and why a few people think so today," and is likely to meet similar objections.

Mark Scroggins proposes "the intensity with which Swinburne evokes erotic desire and the conjunction of pleasure and pain," and his poetry's "lush, hypnotic music, its ever-shifting deployment of a fairly restricted vocabulary, leading us through a series of emotional states, laying out in shimmering overlays a series of symbols that can induce in us a new relationship to the 'real' world of objects." (Or, as Yeats wrote and McGann later quoted, "hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.")

I have no inclination to argue with any of that, but neither do I feel the same responses. I stubbornly remain as untransfigured by his symbols as by Blake's or Yeats's, and although young Swinburne's scandalous ditties are catchy and funny, their wicked ladies and sweet sweet dead-leper lovin' strike me as received fantasies; I'm not even sure he'd fully grasped the mechanics of the thing. (Do humans really need their lips bitten through to reach orgasm? Isn't that otters or something?) He'd worked the details out by Tristram, but it's harder to quote Tristram.

In 2004 Jerome McGann found a way to reformulate some of Swinburne's self-evident flaws as virtues:

a type of phenomenal awareness that is perhaps unique in English literature [...] a drama of poetic subjectivity diffusing into the language as such [...] as in life, its meanings spread and mutate and transform under our own pursuit. To read him is to be reminded that a full awareness of even the simplest human experience is unachievable. [...] The dissolution is scarcely to be observed, however, lest one imagine that it could be understood by being seen. It is understood, rather, by being undergone. To read these poems is necessarily to be swept away by tactile and auditional immediacies

Back in 1972, dropping into his own voice for the epilogue to his academic drama, McGann sounded less detached:

Swinburne has not merely given his thought and attention to all disastrous things, he has given them his heart. His world, moving though its ruinations, is a disaster redeemed only, but always, by an equally disastrous love. For Swinburne, the fidelity of such a love is witnessed most eloquently in art, where the presence of beauty is man’s best witness of the deep care in which he holds everything that is lost to him and to all men. [...] Such passages haunt one not merely for their exquisite beauty, but for the fact that they are about being haunted. At the center of both is a heart which forgets nothing, no matter how swiftly things pass or how long they are gone; and which forgets nothing not because he cannot but because he would not.

Share his sentiment or not, that added risk, the risk of sounding heartfelt, seems key. No one who thinks poetry should be written like Strunk-and-Whited-out prose, without repetition or ambiguity or grammatical irregularities no one like Ford Madox Ford, who straightforwardly confessed to disliking all English verse written before Pound and Eliot will ever feel, or have, a need to wrest pleasure out of this stuff, and "bully for them."

More generally he'll never be for the cool, laid back, or dignified. I heard a good writer call him a "clown car." That's fair. Swinburne was a weirdo, and although his poems stopped being scandals they're still embarrassments. After everything changed in 1910, he would never be taken up communally, was always only going to be an eccentric taste. If I (not "we") want to describe the attraction, I have to get personal.

Writing/speaking as a particularity, then, I've come to appreciate the corporeal experience of the reading itself, and two of Swinburne's most persistent and distinctive themes: his championship of mere mortality, and his passion for the sea. As John D. Rosenberg says, those two themes meld. Swinburne's love for the sea was carnal, spiritual, all-consuming; his devotion demanded full-body contact. Other poets pay tribute from shore or shipboard; none writes so approvingly of ocean-eroded cemeteries.

Although I won't follow Swinburne into literal deep waters, I can enter (not necessarily comfortably) his resentment of theistic abstraction, his inability to represent material particulars, and his reliance on the materiality of voice to gesture at their ecstatic (or agonizing, or embarrassing, or irritatingly repetitious) effects. Writing/speaking from a myopic body which meets the world nose first and mouth open, I warmly and wetly second Rosenberg's introductory remarks:

Swinburne is a poet not of natural objects but of natural energies of winds and surging waters. His scale is macrocosmic, his focus [...] less upon things seen than forces felt. At times he is nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch.

What else seems germane? I don't play video games, and if I did, they'd incapacitate me quicker than rock climbing. I'm retired and can spare the time. I'm oral/aural and can feel the noize. I'm a socially awkward humanist and head-in-the-clouds materialist who can use a hymnal. As I pace within our vermin-blasted garden, mouthing off the verses, their current pulls me offshore; the weave of breath and stroke begins to snarl and splash; the rhythm gallops apace and faster, a bit too fast; I jerk at the reins; I even break a mild sweat. For a second or so I inhabit Swinburne's experience of verse, an immersive adventure sport in words.

Or maybe it's the plague; I haven't been tested in a while.

Next: J. Gordon Faylor!

1.   Davis, "Scanners vs. Swinburne", Bellona Times Science Supplement, 13 October 2020. Subjects were selected based on self-attested tolerance for poetry. A concentrated dose of Swinburne was filtered of generically aversive content (paeans to infants and British imperialism; doggerel about flogging; particularly redundant stretches) and distributed. Only two subjects expressed willingness to consume the sample. Both reported initial mild discomfort followed by swift and complete elimination.

2.   I pray that Henry James's spirit had attained sufficient detachment to enjoy Adams's tribute:

Mr. James when he had occasion to mention Mr. Swinburne would do so with positive sparks of indignation welling from his dark and luminous eyes, his face rigid with indignation.... I do not know what the poet of the Pines can have done to him; Mr. James would be almost speechless with indignation. I never heard him otherwise be immoderate. And with real fury he would imitate Swinburne’s jerky movements, jumping up and down on his chair, his hands extended downwards at his sides, like a soldier at attention, hitching himself sideways and back again on the chair seat and squeaking incomprehensibly in an injurious falsetto....

No! I never knew what so excited the Old Man, though I have often reflected on the subject. [...] I cannot imagine that Mr. James ever cherished a secret passion for Adah Menken!

I have come to the conclusion that it was the natural antipathy that the indoor man of tea-parties must feel for the outrageous athlete, clean-boned, for ever on the seashore or longing to be there. Mr. James indeed exploded with an almost apoplectic fury when I once raised my voice and said that Mr. Swinburne was one of the strongest the most amazingly strong swimmers of his day. I remember recounting, to rub it in, my anxiety on the shores of the Isle of Wight when Mr. Swinburne had disappeared in the horizon on a rough day, amongst the destroyers and battleships and liners and tramps... disappeared and then reappeared hours after, walking with his light, swinging step over the sand dunes a mile behind my back.... Yes, he could swim... and be made a wonder of....

- Portraits from Life by Ford Madox Ford

3.   "Cragsman" is clearly the proper word and should have become standard English usage, even if it's a bit too spot-on for M. John Harrison's magnificently abraded Climbers.

4   Swinburne's many tributes to prepubescents suggest a sense of fellowship with their own lability, their look of being perpetually overwhelmed, and perhaps their inability to maintain a civilized conversation.

Responses

FWIW, I wouldn't have self-reported my clinical outcome as "complete elimination"; Algy and I disagree on a lot, but anyone who defies the odds like that writing Greek tragedy in English can come to my party if he wants to. Thanks for giving me the chance to temper my earlier assessment of "another goddamn Pre-Raphaelite." -pk

Way to bum my low, dude. But I'm glad you got something out of it. After all, a lot of eminences found Keats embarrassing, too. Maybe Swinburne, even, since he mostly wrote about Blake and Shelley. An apparent (from this angle) oddity that I didn't look into much was Swinburne's championship of Walter Savage Landor, Matthew "NO SHAKESPEARE! NO KEATS!" Arnold, and young Thomas Hardy, none of whom seem (from this angle) like natural pairings.

If I live long enough (a modifier which might call for Blakean amendment) I do intend to launch a similar assault on Christina Rossetti. Everyone who can stand to read her (including Swinburne) claims her music is lovely.

Write a line? Ritalin!

A lady came in for some stimulant.
    I asked her what kind she'd adore.
"Adderall, please," so I added 'er all.
    Now I don't count there anymore.

Heh, actually I love Christina Rossetti! It's just the dudes (esp. painter dudes) in that circle. I mean, singsong.html#ifam -pk/metameat

As I suspected, Christina Rossetti does a better job with children, just as Kipling's a better jingoist and Shelley and Bryon better revolutionaries. On English nineteenth-century secular masochism, though, Swinburne's hard to beat.

Ford was crazy about Christina Rossetti, even if he disliked all other English verse from before his time. (But where did he say that?)

He labors to give that impression in the Swinburne chapter of Portraits from Life, which splits between youthful reminiscences of the man and bluff dismissals of the poetry, but I gather that Ford's discursive prose like Swinburne's, and Pound's and Eliot's, and, hmm, an awful lot of writers' could cheerfully exaggerate for effect. Earlier in the volume, he proposes a list of Desert Island Books in which Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson are the only poets.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.