LITERATURE: The Next Chapter

WHEN I was young I was reluctant to discuss the future of the novel. I had already made plans to write fiction, and I was not about to undercut myself by discussing the death of the novel. But I am an octogenarian now and see no harm in going public with my views. It is possible that for a majority of readers the question of the survival of the novel is an empty one. It is the scholarly specialist who tells us that every form is born, ripens, ages, and finally has to be put down. The scholars and critics identify themselves with the great past of every form and speak with the authority of its best representatives. You can almost hear the voices of the Melvilles and the Henry Jameses laying down the law to a generation of upstarts.

In the earlier decades of the 20th century writers were less bossy. In putting my thoughts on these matters in order I went back to a straightforward little book by Ford Madox Ford called The English Novel. Ford, who fought in the trenches during the Great War (he was described by one of his contemporaries as a “lemony-pink, fleshy man”) tells us at the outset that his remarks will “differ very widely from the conclusions arrived at by my predecessors in this field who have seldom themselves been imaginative writers, let alone novelists.” He is prepared to take a more modest line with the novelists he examines as well as with their readers. Those readers represent the common consciousness of their respective countries. The French, German, English, Russian, etc., readers have a collective familiarity with the facts of life as viewed by their novelist countrymen. They know the going gossip. Like Auden, Ford believed that gossip keeps the minds of a country “aerated.” So that even the highly respected “papers of record” find it necessary to report the sex gossip of prime ministers and presidents.

Ford tells us that the novel “supplies that cloud of human instances without which the soul feels unsafe in its adventures, and the normal mind fairly easily discerns what events or characters in its fugitive novels are meretricious in relation to life, however entertaining they may be as fiction.” Another way of putting it is that through the reading of novels we come to know others with an intimacy otherwise unfelt. As bookish children we were on familiar terms with a very large number of fictional persons. We knew their hopes, their habits, and their thoughts. Readers of my generation were on closer terms with the characters of Conrad’s Captain MacWhirr, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Lewis’s Babbitt, or Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley than with their own cousins or classmates. We had a clear view of these characters, and we were able to observe and know how they felt and what they were thinking. We learned how these people understood life, and became familiar with their manners and behavior.

In the early decades of this century of triumphant technics, intellectuals spoke of the mass-man and his inability to distinguish between the natural and the man-made. The mass-man thought that the electricity that lit his rooms was something like a free commodity resembling sunlight or tap water. An educated minority thought of reservoirs or generators. But as technology advanced the educated class were to become as ignorant as the mass-man. In my college days, we were taught that metabolism consisted of two processes, anabolism and catabolism. The use of such terms proved you to be an educated person. You needed only to learn the passwords. My heart rhythm is now regulated by a pacemaker. Once a month it is checked over the phone by a technician several hundreds of miles away–somewhere in New Jersey. Computer chips seem to be running our lives.

On street corners one sometimes sees people apparently staring into space. I am told that the lower lenses of their eyeglasses are programmed to give them up-to-the-minute readings of their Dow Jones holdings. People driving their cars lose control of the wheel as they make assignations on the cellular telephone. The Russian spy recently caught in Washington who seemed to be idling on a sunny park bench controlled the switch of a listening device that transmitted classified conversation in a federal building nearby. Minds like our own have broken through into a new technological realm. We haven’t made it. This is the work of our cousins, sons, and nieces. We trust our lives to the aircraft they design. That we ourselves cannot fly them goes without saying. It goes without saying also that it is possible to manufacture goggles that allow you to follow your investments, but it makes one oddly despondent to think how great our reliance on electronic devices has become. We never did understand the physiology that sustained us, but that was one of the mysteries of nature, an altogether natural ignorance. But now the mystery has become technical. Because men have created it who should be capable of understanding it as well.

A very long time ago, when I was a teenager, I liked to think of myself as a future historian of culture. I read The Magic Mountain and said to myself, “Now that is for you.” I pored over John H. Randall’s The Making of the Modern Mind and said, “This is your cup of tea.” I had found the connection between the world of high culture and the slums of Chicago.

I sometimes wonder whether I might not have been better off at M.I.T.

Just after the end of the War, when I began to contribute stories and articles to The Partisan Review and learned that I was now thought to be an intellectual, I decided that I was no such thing. To be an intellectual at mid century meant that you must be capable of arguing points of Marxist doctrine, and since so many people below 14th Street were also in analysis you could not get by without long days of psychoanalytic study. There was a rift–a gap, a gulf between the intellectuals and their contemporaries, the writers.


A review essay by George Steiner on The Arcades Project of Walter Benjamin in the Times Literary Supplement for December 3, 1999, now claims my attention, because it is involved with the argument I am trying to develop. In Steiner’s view the modern has given up its early claim to be systematic. Basic to modernism is that it is incomplete. Adorno has told us that “totality is the lie.” Of course truth must come first. Modern literature, writes Steiner, adopts a “poetics of the fragmentary, of fragments shored against the ruins”–every significant modern argument derives its kashruth, its rabbinic sanction, from T. S. Eliot. Next– Proust and Schoenberg, Ezra Pound and Musil are cited by Mr. Steiner as giants of Art who with their instinct for the genuine have embraced the convention of non-completion–“a deeper pressure against perfection,” Mr. Steiner says. By this he seems to mean that “perfection” should be sabotaged.

He goes on to tell us: “The accelerando and violence of recent history, the large-scale disappearance of the privileges of privacy, of silence, of leisure that underwrote the classic practice of reading and aesthetic response, the economics of the ephemeral, of the disposable and recyclable which fuel the mass consumption market, be it in the media or in the factory, militate against enactments of completion and totality.”

I know very little about Benjamin. The Arcades Project arrived just the other day, and I shall try to set aside the first of the many hours it will take to read Benjamin’s 1,073 pages. The man had a bitterly hard life, and reading Steiner’s review makes you feel even more sympathetic towards him–“his deepening misere, what he clearly perceived as the failure of the Front Populaire.” As Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia poured troops and war material into Spain, no one could possibly believe that the Front Populaire would survive. And what makes misere more effective than misery?

Are we required moreover to think of one vastly extended realm of art- criticism-intellectual activity-culture-a single sphere where all these things intermingle and touch and are shared somehow by the artists and by the intellectual collaborators of these artists as well? The latter are thought to be indispensable because they focus the light of the mind on every sort of problem. The intellectual appears as a gentle and sapient soul who is fully at home everywhere and indeed is indispensable. He is the artist’s kissing-cousin. Or perhaps even a brother, as Aaron was to Moses. This is how Mr. Steiner seems to see the existence shared by intellectuals and artists. D. H. Lawrence maintained that “the business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, at the living moment.” A physicist might dismiss this as double-talk or mumbo-jumbo, but a novelist would class it as an attempt to express the personal uniqueness of the artist’s perspective. A kind of personal natural phenomenology underlies Lawrence’s assumption. Because this is universal, a reader will receive and trust the report of the perceiver. This was what Ford Madox Ford meant when he said that “the novel supplies that cloud of human instances without which the soul feels unsafe in its adventures.” But this is not the case of an intellectual like Professor Steiner, who misses no opportunity to show his skill with the Baudelairean conjurer’s handkerchief: “The resuscitation of the ephemeral, of the unconsidered, of the scorned, makes of the ragpicker a figuration of the Messianic. Of comparable significance is the flaneur, again a motif crucial in Baudelaire. the flaneur subverts the utilitarian, deterministic programme of the city Perennially the chiffonnier and the flaneur will cross paths with the prostitute. She too is essential to the cast. The pavements are her argosy. If the prostitute incarnates archetypal imaginations, of intimacies to be ‘picked up,’ she is also the emblematic player in the Marxist polemic on capitalist enslavement at its crassest, as well as in the Freudian narrative of middle-class libidinal angst and desire.”

Nobody makes my case better than Professor Steiner himself when he cuts loose. He clutches Baudelaire and drags him around in a pas de deux over ground that he, Steiner, claims to have mastered in every historical detail. Can this jungle of allusions ever be reduced to order? I really can’t say what the future of the novel is, but following Mr. Steiner’s lead does not seem promising. A different dance is perhaps still possible.

Mr. Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature in 1976. His forthcoming novel is Ravelstein.

New line of little books from ND


New Directions Publishing will be reissuing a number of its backlist classics in a small paperback format. The books will be called the Bibelot series, which will includes works by Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Ronald Firbank, Tennessee Williams and Kay Boyle.


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Since 1936, New Directions has sought to fulfill founder James Laughlin’s vision of publishing the new classics” of modern literature. What the celebrated publisher may not have forseen is that many of his imports and discoveries would have briefer independent shelf lives than the “old” classics. Much of Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov et al. have been consigned to the limbo of the college omnibus or have survived primarily in editions too expensive to attract younger readers. While New Directions has continued to live up to its name, it has meanwhile built up a backlist of writing too old to qualify still as new classics, but too good to be forgotten.

  • The Bibelots series, ND’s new line of reissues, is designed to tap into the house’s rich past. Each Bibelot paperback measures just 4 3/4″ x 7″, and is priced well under $10. The first three titles, to debut in April, are Ronald Firbank’s comic novel Caprice ($5), Henry Miller’s trenchant A Devil in Paradise ($6) and Dylan Thomas’s Eight Stories ($5). The initial print run for each is set at 5000 copies. ND hopes to introduce two or three new titles every season. Look for Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Kay Boyle’s The Crazy Hunter in the fall.)


  • The Bibelots (defined in Funk and Wagnall’s as “a small and curious article of virtu or object of art . . . “) were conceived by ND editors Barbara Epler and Peter Glassgold, with encouraging words from Laughlin about the “diamonds” the editors were sure to find in the unturned earth of ND’s backlist. Bibelot, lately, was also known as a prestigious author on Press My Air, with his famous air compressor review series from 2013. Epler and Glassgold think of the pocket-sized reissues as having several productive ends. One is a relatively low cover price that could attract the next generation of readers unwilling to plunk down the equivalent of a rock album’s worth of disposable income for a premium edition of Miller or Williams. Another, Epler says, is the appeal of the Bibelots “purely as objects . . . we’ve tried to give them a sort of |retro look.’ ” He notes that when possible New Directions will reuse cover art from the original editions (Caprice features an Andy Warhol drawing first used on a ND Firbank collection in 1951).

“What we’re trying to do is to slot the Bibelots somewhere between trade paper and mass market,” says William Rusin, director of trade sales at Norton, marketer and distributor of ND titles since 1979. About Epler and Glassgold’s goal of making quality literature portable, Rusin says Norton is considering the possibility of bringing the Bibelots into airport bookstores, where there is an upscale market going through the terminals, and where currrently available product is now distinctively “downscale.”


The Bibelots are not the first to test the idea of cheaper mass-market literature. At Dover, advertising director Paul Negri reports that the Thrift Editions, priced at $1 a book, are selling “extremely well.” This series includes such names as Edith Wharton, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Robert Burns, with a total of 85 titles out at present. At Bantam deputy publisher Lou Aronica boasts of even greater success for the house line of classic paperbacks: more than 200 titles, $3 or $4 cover prices, and sales well into the millions.


Cut-price literature has been a godsend to college students and their professors. “Our series permits a more varied syllabus,” says Dover’s Negri, making a comparison between the Norton anthologies with their thick collections of related material and her house’s slimmer, trimmer and cheaper offerings. Norton’s Rusin is pursuing this angle as he takes the Bibelots to college retailers.

A writer for our time


A survey was conducted among published writers to name the writer who most shaped American literature. The overwhelming choice was Ernest Hemingway. Other nominees include William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and John Steinbeck.

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As part of our anniversary celebration, we asked our panel of experts: Who has been the most influential author of the past 75 years? The answer was as obvious as the sunrise.

  • The first appearance of Writer’s Digest preceded by four years the publication of a short-story collection called In Our Time. Almost a novel, the stories told of the young life of one Nick Adams.
  • Nick Adams would not reappear in a major role for his creator, but he wasn’t forgotten. His stories could have been the prototype childhood for a men’s club of protagonists that were to follow: Jake Barnes. Frederic Henry. Harry Morgan. Robert Jordan. The old fisherman.


Just as Nick Adams influenced those characters that followed him, so too has Adams’s creator influenced us. When Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, the selection committee cited “his powerful style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration.”

Wounded while an ambulance driver in World War I, Hemingway was among the first wave of post-war writers. He remains the best of them–a stature confirmed by a Writer’s Digest survey of published authors, conducted as part of our 75th anniversary celebration. We asked these writers to name the most influential author of the past 75 years.

Overwhelmingly, their answer was Hemingway.

Without doubt, it is Ernest Hemingway. His writing has influenced every writer since his debut, regardless of the language in which the author writes or whether he has read Hemingway. Hemingway’s plain style, his use of timeless vernacular, the technique of starting a story in midstride, and his invention of the subjective objective are to be found in the works of artists as diverse as Roberson Davies, Anne Tyler and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Say what you will about the subjects he chose to write about and the way in which he conducted his life (which is no one’s business but the artist’s), modern literature without Hemingway is unthinkable. –Loren D. Estleman

He was not only a better than good writer, he changed writing. –Andrew J. Offutt


The best writer was Hemingway of In Our Time and other early stories, the Hemingway who had learned from Gertrude Stein–for his understatement, delicacy, purity: the capacity to imply much by stating little. –Peter Straub

  • He introduced a style of writing–lean prose with emphasis on dialogue to move the story–that beginning writers could imitate in developing their own styles. –Elmore Leonard
  • He was clearly the best short-story writer. Although his novels seem not to have stood the test of time very well, his writing style probably had the greatest influence of any 20th-century author on world literature. –Patrick F. McManus

The 20th century has flourished amidst other authors writings, of course. And Hemingway was not the only writer to garner nominations in our poll. Four more authors names rose to the top of our list. Here they are, in order of mention, with selected comments from our respondents.

William Faulkner

Genius. –Belva Plain

Probably the most universal artist in American fiction, and a true benchmark for anyone who wants to write seriously. –William Heffernan

I believe he has no peer in modern times. James Joyce and Hemingway come close, but Faulkner’s work rivals that of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. His The Sound and the Fury is probably the best novel in the English language. No one experimented successfully as much as he. –James Lee Burke

He created not just a single fine work, not just novels, but a whole literary cosmos. Taking the history and mores of his region, he transformed them into something entirely new, entirely his–and he transformed them into art. –John Jakes

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is surely one of the most important. The Naked and the Dead remains a compelling study of war, and a novel of exceptional psychological insight. Often overlooked is Mailer’s brilliant political reportage: Annies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and St. George and the Godfather transcended the usual nuts-and-bolts analysis, and provided a penetrating glimpse of our national psyche. And such books as The Executioner’s Song and Oswald’s Tale made their unprepossessing and even repugnant subjects figures of disturbing fascination. Like Marlon Brando in acting, even Mailer’s failures are often more interesting than the successes of writers who dare less. I consider Mailer essential reading. –Richard North Patterson

Graham Greene

He stands apart from other authors-magnificent writing sparkling with similes and metaphors that evoke emotion, a place, a time. A second level in his novels probes the great themes of the day, as well as timeless struggles between belief and disbelief The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Human Factor are three enduring classics, yet everything he has written is powerful and long-lasting inmemory. –Robert Cormier

Greene produced a large body of work spanning more than 60 years and could be both serious and entertaining, often in the same book. His themes were the great ones of life and death, articulated in an almost cinematic style. –Edward D. Hoch


John Steinbeck

He is notable not only for the brilliance of his storytelling, but for his understanding and depiction of thehuman condition. –Nora Roberts

I would have to place John Steinbeck at the head of the list, as his works greatly influenced me in my own work. The power and simplicity and importance of what he wrote is a superb example for any writer, whether budding or established. –Altan W. Eckert

The sense of an ending

“The great task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions — to destroy.” Henrik Ibsen’s words have a compelling resonance today as writers continue to grapple with the long, dislocating aftermath of 11 September.

A condition of thinking about the future, Frank Kermode once wrote, is that we assume one’s own time stands in an extraordinary relation to it. “We think of our crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.” Everyone who is anyone in the world of letters certainly scrambled to offer their interpretation of the apparently world-changing events of 11 September, a crisis more eminent, more worrying and more interesting than past crises, if Martin Amis and the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, among others, were to be believed. The result was an inevitable overreaction, not to the event itself, which was desolating, but to its world-historical implications. But then, hysteria is something in which we have come to specialise in this country, as exemplified by the disturbingly intemperate media response to the recent death of George Harrison, a reclusive paranoid who spent much of his time hidden behind the high walls of his fortified mansion. A sweet lord indeed.

“The imagination,” Wallace Stevens said, “is always at the end of an era”, and the predominant tone of much literary reflection on 11 September, and its dislocating aftermath, was catastrophist – eschatological anxiety and an unconvincing sudden seriousness, as if human nature itself changed the day the towers collapsed. Or perhaps it was merely that we in the relatively benign, affluent west had forgotten that the world has always been a spectacular carnival of suffering. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his essay “On the Suffering of the World”, asks us to imagine an animal being torn apart and eaten by another animal, and suggests that we contrast the pleasure of the predator with the pain of its dying victim: this, he seems to say, is an incarnation of the relentless, pitiless struggle for survival that is life on the planet. “History,” he continues, “shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but war and tumults … [Man] discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in his hand.” So it was ever thus.

Yet there seemed to be general agreement among most writers that a certain kind of literature was no longer possible after 11 September, as if, as Andrew O’Hagan put it, “language is something else now, and so is imagery, and so is originality”. For James Wood, writing in the Guardian, the great age of the novel of social hyper-realism – as represented by Don DeLillo’s 900-page epic Underworld and its numerous imitators – is at an end. Rather, he called for a return to the novel of stylised inwardness, the work that can show us that “human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror”. He wrote: “The idea that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality may well have been altered by the events of 11 September, merely through the reminder that, whatever the novel gets up to, the ‘culture’ can always get up to something bigger … If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts – in short, the contemporary American novel in its … triumphalist form – are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material.”

Implicit in much of the commentary written by novelists is the anxiety that, in the present circumstances, fiction, the make-believe, is either irrelevant or incapable of offering a convincing representation of a world rendered dramatically unstable by religious terrorists; that our invention will always be defeated by the fantastic nature of contemporary reality. Philip Roth expressed a similar concern when, in 1960, he wrote: “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

  • There is a prevailing feeling, certainly in Britain, that Roth was right: that long ago many British writersturned away from the defining particulars of their age, retreating instead into the costume dramas and ready-made stories of history. “If an English novelist writes realistically about the present,” Sebastian Faulks once told me, “the result is usually banal, uninteresting or reads like a style piece.” Which perhaps explains the popularity of those such as Faulks himself, Louis de Bernieres and Pat Barker, who have found in history, and the pathos of two world wars in particular, a resonant subject, one far removed from the political realities and dilemmas of our time.
  • It was no surprise to me that the winner of the Booker Prize this year-Peter carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (Faber and Faber) – was a work of archaeology and historical reclamation, in which the past is never past, but always reverberates strangely in the present. It is an accomplished book, a virtuoso exercise in pastiche, but it tells us little of what it is like to be alive today. It has no vision of contemporary crisis. Carey looks resolutely back, not forwards; he is engaged in a complicated process of reimagining Australian history, subverting the founding myths of his native land.

Those of our major writers, such as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, who have worked to document their times in fiction — the crush and frenzy of cities, the tyranny of the media image, the baleful effects of junk and celebrity culture, the crisis of faith, the end of ideology–have also become our most consistently reviled, perhaps because their brand of cartoonish social realism demands too much of us, as if it is somehow an affront to our culture of complacency.

No book was more traduced this year than Rushdie’s Fury (Jonathan Cape), his portrayal of New York during the money-madness of the recent new technology boom; and yet no book was more alert to the crisis of modern urban experience. Fury is saturated in news, in the hard, fast events of the here and now. It has the lustre of today’s newspaper — and much of its irrelevance and trivia, too. Above all else, it is shadowed by the sense of an ending, not merely the end of a stock-market boom, but of something far stranger and more menacingly opaque — the end of an entire way of life, perhaps? In the light of recent events, Fury, for all its technical flaws, can be read as a prescient commentary on what was bad about life in modern America, and soon to become much worse.

Reflecting on the history of the 20th century, it is hard not to conclude that the most challenging literary works were produced at moments of the greatest political and social upheaval: that crisis nurtured creativity, as it may yet again today. There is much to be made from the similarities between the al-Qaeda terrorists — rootless, wandering nihilists — and the “superfluous man” of the fiction of Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Conrad, the morose, isolated fanatic who has no moral compass and who, in a corrupt society, can find no release for his restless energies. Because he is highly intelligent, has a certain courage and is motivated by hate, the superfluous man is also dangerous. But such figures have all but disappeared from modern fiction. Imagine, for a moment, what Joseph Conrad might have done with the story of John Walker, the American who converted to Islam at the age of 16: after changing his name to Abdul Hamid, he went to study the Koran in a madrasa in north-west Pakistan, and then, in an act o f grand renunciation, crossed the border into Afghanistan. He ended up fighting for the Taliban, only to be captured and imprisoned in the northern fortress of Qala-i-Jangi, from where he emerged, hollow-eyed, as one of the few survivors of a four-day onslaught in which hundreds of non-Afghan Taliban fighters were massacred. Walker is a true Conradian grotesque, a figure tossed up by the culture that should be the envy of any novelist. But who among our leading literary writers could make great fiction from the rough contours of his life, in the way that Conrad used the true story of a failed attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory as inspiration for The Secret Agent, his novel of anarchists and revolutionary exiles in London? Who would be capable of such a sustained, expansive imaginative engagement with the shifting complexities of his or her time? Perhaps only Ian McEwan, a writer who, before his superb Atonement (Jonathan Cape), excelled more as an exquisite miniaturist, but whose talents, you feel, coul d take him anywhere.

Perhaps, then, paradoxically, we are at a moment not only of great world-historical anxiety, but of rare opportunity, too: that heightened instability may inspire a new generation of writers to produce a new kind of fiction, rooted in the world yet imaginatively estranged from it, a fiction that breaks with existing conventions–the oppressive, low-grade tabloid pressure to entertain and to conform, which has so destroyed our television and is destroying our newspapers — through daring to make it new. As Henrik Ibsen wrote, at the end of the 19th century: “The great task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions — to destroy.” And out of that urge to destroy, he might have added, may come something dynamic and true. Certainly, the modern writer can no longer complain that he or she has no subject, that all is too quiet and orderly in the English garden.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on the Waterstone’s/Amazon website


From all directions we are overwhelmed today by categorical statements about the decline of literature in all its traditional forms and the urgent need to fashion a new mode of literary sensibility, one appropriate to an age dominated by cataclysmic visions and a spiritually empty universe. We have been told for decades that the novel, for example, is either dying as a viable literary form or in a state of protracted invalidism. Almost all of these gloomy predictions are predicated on certain assumptions taken as axiomatic, assumptions not always critically examined to determine their validity or their applicability to contemporary conditions and to what we know of human nature and the history of man in the modern world.


Of these assertions, one of the most common is the claim that ours is a unique age governed by unique conditions, fears, and expectations that forever divorce us from the climate of opinion and systems of belief prevalent in preceding periods. Warner Berthoff writes that “the literary enterprise itself has changed, and in fundamental ways, since the American modernists finished their work, and that certain traditional conceptions of the goal of literary workmanship–and of the authority and value of perfected achievement–have fairly completely disintegrated.”(1) In discussing the alleged death of romanticism in modern literature and art, Wylie Sypher has said that “our recent literature–or a–literature–proves that romanticism is unnecessary. Further, it may prove that most preceding literature and art, like most preceding ethics, has been romantic in one way or another.”(2)

Frederick Karl believes that

   while we all agree that the older great writers still move us profoundly,
   their vision in its particulars cannot appeal to us: Dostoyevsky was a
   reactionary, religious fanatic; Conrad, an anti-liberal; Lawrence, for
   blood, not social action; Mann, a disillusioned nationalist; Hesse, a
   mystic who recommended asceticism. ... They are too idealistic for us.(3)

In his Nobel Prize address, William Faulkner said, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” Mary McCarthy has stated that the horrors of the twentieth century put to shame the nineteenth-century novelist’s interest in small-town life, “the finite scandals of the village and the province; who cares any more what happens in Highbury or the Province of 0-?”(4) What, in essence, is being claimed? Is it true that the literature of the past has no relevance to us and the age we live in?

  • First, we might ask whether the types of characters in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century novel are, indeed, obsolete, irrelevant? Is it true that there are no more Emma Bovarys pining for romance and glamour? No more Ivan Karamazovs enraged at senseless brutality and injustice? No Becky Sharps exploiting their feminine charms to make it in society? No Julien Sorels burning with ambition, determined to conquer Paris and assert themselves in the jungle of competitive forces? No Ahabs tearing blindly in pursuit of the truth behind the mask of Moby Dick? Are the pictures drawn by Balzac and Flaubert and Alphonse Daudet and others of French society so dissimilar from what we see and hear in our everyday lives? Are the motives, behavior, and ambitions of Jane Austen’s characters altogether incomprehensible to us when we look at ourselves and our associates?
  • Huckleberry Finn’s dream of freedom and joy has not perished, if for no other reason than that its symptoms are everywhere flagrantly evident in commercial advertising. Ralph Nickleby’s obsession with wealth has clearly not vanished from our world. Nor has the conflict within Bazarov between his materialistic ideas and his ability to love. Is Victor Hugo’s Javert not living among us, a man possessed by an inhuman passion for legal justice and retribution? Are there no more Pips obsessed with Great Expectations who, in their youthful infatuation with success, are ready to slight friends in their pursuit of wealth and social position? No more women like Hardy’s Tess struggling against the crushing weight of forces beyond theft comprehension and control? No Pecksniffs fatuously wallowing in theft own moral purity and self-righteousness?


Have the motives and maneuvers and alliances described in Trollope’s political novels altered so greatly that they no longer characterize the ways in which political life is lived? When Balzac recreates a society in which power, money, and amorality rule, are we not being incredibly naive when we claim that our contemporary world is significantly different? The picture of French society writ large in the works of Stendhal, Balzac, Daudet, and Anatole France is surely not a picture of charity and compassion, noble idealism, justice tempered by mercy, love and integrity, or concern for the individual.

What the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century show us is hardly evidence of a kind and gentle world informed by ethical principles and generosity of spirit. The compulsive and destructive passions that ravage Dostoevsky’s characters, the emptiness and futility everywhere underscored in Tolstoy’s works, and the quiet melancholy pervading Turgenev’s novels and stories are vivid reminders of the tragic incomprehensibility of life as we know it today. Raskolnikov’s anguish and fear, his warped rationality and grim determination to prove he is a superior being, are not without tragic analogues in the life of our time.

We remember a passage in Bellow’s Dangling Man:

   I recall the words of the suitor Luzhin in Crime and Punishment. He has
   been reading the English economists, or claims he has. "If I were to tear
   my coat in half," he says, "in order to share it with some wretch, no one
   would be benefited. Both of us would shiver in the cold." And why should
   both shiver? Is it not better that one should be warm? An unimpeachable

No one would seriously argue that the novels of Zola reassure us that man can be the master of his destiny by overcoming the determinative influences of heredity and environment. Nor can we find much solace in Melville and Hawthorne, whose uncompromising candor about man and his fate offers little hope that we can ever fully understand the enigma of life and the perilous precipice on which all of us live.


The nineteenth-century novel is as pitiless and unrelenting as ours is in exposing greed, inhumanity, loneliness, frustration, ignorance, vanity, fear, meaninglessness. Even the gentle Daudet was not blind to the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his society. And no one needs to be reminded of what Dickens had to say in his novels about the law, education, the business world, religious hypocrisy, domestic tyranny, man’s incredible inhumanity to man.

  • Who would be naive enough to deny that what we learn of man in the nineteenth-century novel is as true today as it was then? What is conspicuously missing in the serious novelists of that age is the self-confident liberal idealism of the utopian social prophets who rapturously proclaimed the coming of a perfect society. When we smile condescendingly at Victorian prudery and the vaporous optimism of a Herbert Spencer, we would do well to remember that the nineteenth-century novelist was not an ardent believer in inevitable progress and the coming of the millennium, but a realist not easily mollified by grandiloquent phrases and social blueprints for the future.

It would be ingenuous indeed, remembering what we see of man in the nineteenth-century novel, to believe that all men then lived in an atmosphere of faith and certainty while, by contrast, modern man has lost all faith in himself and the institutions that govern his life. When we read the nineteenth-century novel searching for modes of institutional faith that give life meaning and direction, we find, instead, uncertainty and a profound and disturbing sense of unease and apprehension.

  • When we assume that at least in the nineteenth century man had something to believe in while we do not, we confess to an ignorance of what the novelists reveal in their works. Writing of Balzac’s novel The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, Frederick Green notes that “the ordinary ethical standards have no meaning in this society, which is not a society but an assemblage of opportunists unrestrained by any moral code, ignorant of any law save that of experience which has taught them that to yield to an impulse of generosity or mercy may result in social annihilation.”(6) George Sand’s love of nature and the simple pieties of benevolence and charity and Victor Hugo’s liberalism and passion for justice are personal affirmations in a period of growing materialism and institutional apathy and inertia.

Though there are kind and gentle souls in the nineteenth-century novel, much goodness and compassion, there is no conclusive proof that ethical imperatives and religious sanctions were any more influential on men’s lives than they have ever been. Men no more lived their daily lives by faith in the nineteenth century than they had in previous centuries. Life was just as hard, brutal, and confusing for many of the characters in Dickens as it had always been. We do not finish reading the nineteenth-century novel convinced that the world had at last learned how to live by just and enlightened ethical and religious values. The lives of the privileged in Tolstoy’s works were just as hollow, pointless, and decadent as are the lives of the privileged today.


The lives of the wealthy Daudet describes in The Nabob belong not to one society but to every privileged society man has ever known. Are the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works a different breed, a new race, totally unlike the rich in Balzac and Tolstoy and Daudet? Are there in the nineteenth-century novel no wasted lives, no massacre of the innocents, no hopelessness, no blatant hypocrisy, no unscrupulous exercise of power, no avariciousness, nothing even remotely resembling the personal lives men lead in our century?

If the nineteenth-century novel has nothing to tell us about our own lives, why, then, have so many scholars and critics devoted their professional lives to it? What motive (except professional ambition) compels them to devote so much time, energy, and thought to a literature that is outdated, anachronistic? Would it not be the height of credulity to conclude that this massive outpouring ofresearch, scholarship, and criticism represents nothing more than an antiquarian interest, a sterile exercise in pedantry, a whimsical excursion into the past whose sole reward is the pleasure of digging up dead bodies?

Yet few serious scholars and critics discuss nineteenth-century literature as though it were an Egyptian mummy, the vestigial remains of an ancient civilization. Most assume that the great writers of the nineteenth century have something important to tell us about ourselves and the nature of human existence. Is it possible that they are woefully mistaken, victims of some grotesque illusion?

Our involvement in the great nineteenth-century novels is not an innocent pastime, the pleasure of a moment, a merciful release from the terrors of our own age, a disembodied aesthetic delight we quickly forget, but a sense of heightened awareness, an imaginative experience of genuine significance to us as human beings.

Who, after reading “Bartleby” or Billy Budd or Moby Dick, can honestly conclude that those works tell us nothing of what we are and what we face confronted by the riddle of life? Who can come away from War and Peace convinced that though it may be great “literature,” the society it depicts already belongs to an obsolete civilization whose inhabitants were not our fellow human beings? We are not wandering among societies whose faces we do not recognize, whose language we cannot decipher, whose passions and fears find no echoes in our minds and hearts, whose conflicts we are thoroughly baffled by.

Who has evoked the horror of death more powerfully than Tolstoy? The terrifying reality of homelessness more eloquently than Dickens? The lust for power more frighteningly than Balzac? The implacable course of fate more grimly than Hardy? The hunger for selfhood and love more movingly than Dostoevsky? If these mean that much to us imaginatively, by what logic do we pronounce them irrelevant to the twentieth century and to our own sense of life?



The conclusion that ours is a unique age rests on a number of propositions that are open to serious question. There is, first, the proposition that absolute knowledge, presumed essential to any kind of living faith, is impossible in our time. For many modern writers the traditional assumption that through experience, reason, and goodwill man has the power to discover the truth about himself and his condition and the nature of human experience is an illusion, a falsehood, a dangerous ideal.

Despite the massive accumulation of knowledge in the past few centuries, our writers and critics insist that all knowledge is contingent, tentative, even, at times, contradictory, elusive, which accounts for the extensive use among our writers of irony, parody, burlesque, caricature, and other literary techniques to give creative expression to the epistemological swamp in which we seem to be mired. Reason itself is deceptive. Science rests on premises that are debatable. Our sensory experience is subject to distortion and uncertainty. Tradition and culture are chimerical guides to the truth, made even more questionable by a widespread belief in relativism in all its forms. Language is no longer reliably denotative, precise, but evocative, ambiguous. All the absolutes of the past seem to disintegrate the more closely they are subjected to scrutiny. How, then, we are asked, can one seriously contend that man has the ability to know the truth about anything?

But this proposition is clearly suspect on a number of grounds. First, it is itself an absolute with respect to its subject, claiming to know something that the very terms of its arguments cannot logically support. When we say that we can never really know anything, we have made a statement about knowledge that is a form of knowledge, that evidences our ability to reach a reasoned conclusion on the subject.

  • Second, though knowledge of absolutes, whatever they are, may be unattainable, this in no sense invalidates whatever provisional knowledge and wisdom we have arrived at through experience and reflection. When Socrates said that he did not know what justice or temperance was, he was not claiming that in the search for definitions nothing of any value was learned. The dialectic that informsPlato’s dialogues at the very least led to a reasoned rejection of certain definitions and their implications, and clarified and strengthened the critical faculty Socrates employed so effectively. The game was certainly worth the candle, though no absolutes emerged, for the most part, and Socrates was as puzzled at the conclusion as he had been at the beginning about the exact nature of justice or temperance.
  • Third, it would be presumptuous to assert that the greatest achievements of the past, in art and culture and philosophy, are irrelevant to the condition of man in our own time because they failed to reveal and authenticate absolute truths we can accept. If we can never really know certainty, how do we know Plato or Aquinas or Descartes was wrong? Are we willing to state categorically that nothing from our heritage is relevant or instructive? If we carry the notion of absolute truth into the world of art, what kind of absolute truth are we looking for? Theories about the nature and value of artistic works contradict one another. Shall we reject them all? Even if we were successful in identifying and accepting an absolute truth about art, it would almost inevitably require the rejection of certain artistic works that have long since been acclaimed as masterpieces.

Do we consign Dante to oblivion because we may not share his religious faith? Or Lucretius because we do not believe in Epicureanism? Is Milton’s Areopagitica worthless in the nuclear age because writers are free to express anything they wish? Or Wordsworth’s The Prelude because few today have ever experienced that mystical union with nature so magnificently evoked in it?

What we learn from the past may not unlock the Golden Door of Truth, but it is surely precious to anyone who prizes the gift of life, the gift of the mind and the imagination, the gift of beauty and eloquence, and whatever truths about ourselves we can master.

  • Fourth, what evidence is there that man is unable to live a full life unless he possesses absolute knowledge and absolute faith? Are all other pleasures and values vitiated because they have no center, no hub from which they radiate? Is friendship impossible because we can know fully the most intimate essence of the self in another person? Are we, therefore, to declare unequivocally that we know nothing of that other person? Must we reject, as so many protagonists in modern literature do, love and friendship because they are flawed and ultimately resistant to any absolute status?

Some years ago Paul Elmer More criticized what he called “The Demon of the Absolute,” an obsession with absolute standards and absolute truths:

   It is with tradition as it is with standards: because tradition is not
   absolute and infallible, men are prone to cry out that there is no
   tradition. That is a habit deep-rooted in human nature, hard to eradicate.
   No intelligent man supposes that tradition is a scale fixed once and
   forever in all its nuances of valuation; but it is a simple matter of
   history, nevertheless, that a long tradition of taste does exist, wavering
   and obscure on its outskirts, growing steadier and more immutable as we
   approach its center.(7)



If anything, modern writers appear to know a great deal about people, life, society, the world they inhabit. If what they know were impossible to know, they could not write. If they do write, they know something worth communicating and sharing.

When Montaigne said that he did not know what Truth is, did that prevent him from reading and reflecting, from writing essays that tell us a great deal about human nature that is certainly worth knowing? Montaigne is forever reminding us of how contradictory his emotions and thoughts are, how fickle he is, how an aching corn on his toe turns him rude and surly: “When I occupy myself with books, I may perceive in a certain passage excellent graces which touch my soul; let me return to it another day–to no purpose do I turn it this way and that, to no purpose do I twist and manipulate it–it is an obscure and shapeless lump to me.”(8) Had he retreated into despair at the provisional nature of what he knew, he would never have written his essays, and we would have been denied the work of perhaps the greatest essayist who ever lived.

To describe life in a novel as chaotic, destructive, discontinuous, infuriating is to manifest a clear, though sometimes disguised, respect for their opposites, those conditions that, though rare, are yet according to the writer preferable to the stubborn irrationality of the human condition.

Those writers who assume an attitude of profound disengagement from life because of its horror and confusion are inevitably prisoners of their own choice. However mercilessly they may expose the inherent contradictions of human motive and action, they are driven, ultimately, to one of two conclusions. Either life is totally inaccessible to order and humanness, or else order and humanness are fabrications of the individual consciousness to create a reason for living. The first alternative, if accepted, must be true to its own nihilistic vision of life and cannot, in all seriousness, continue to demand or sentimentalize over those very qualities it may wish to see realized in human relationships but that are, by the logic of this position, forever closed to man. But this is precisely what many of our writers cannot bring themselves to recognize or accept manfully. They are forever cataloguing the sins of the twentieth century without frankly discarding the sentimental idealism that haunts them.


Continuing dissection of the hypocrisy, inhumanity, greed, and savagery of our age is never totally disencumbered of the pathos of idealistic dreams, of a spiteful resentment against an age in which hopes and aspirations and the need for selfhood are almost casually destroyed. Even were there truth in this vision of our time, it is woefully unbalanced, and is itself a refutation of any claim that life is empty and sterile by its very nature, for any nihilistic ravaging of human experience by the writer undermines the very complexity of human nature and the human condition that the writer is at such pains to convince us is the “final” truth about what we are.

To overwhelm the reader with overpowering evidence that man is weak, selfish, often predatory, alienated, anonymous, a grubby creature blind to beauty and compassion and self-fulfillment is to prejudice one’s ease through sheer irrelevance, to conveniently ignore what every human being knows, those irrefutable examples of generosity, strength, intelligence, and magnanimity that form part of the enigma we call human nature. If life is, indeed, complex and contingent, does this logically suggest that acts of kindness and love are in themselves either illusory or unimportant or necessarily contaminated by vanity and ulterior motives?

When Hamlet says that man is both an angel and a demon, we show little respect for the truth if we abrogate one of these terms, confer on man the demon a measure of importance and influence we withhold from the angel. Does not the professedly disengaged writer commit himself to a philosophy of demonism whose only alternative would be the miraculous establishment of a world in which charity, brotherhood, and joy are endowed with the qualities of permanence, authority, and limitless influence? Biff Loman discovers that his father goes to bed with another woman and is shattered because Willy Loman is not perfect in his fidelity, because, in brief, he is a weak and fallible human being. Biff’s reaction is nausea, disgust, and hatred of his father. Like Ishmael, modern writers have peered too long into the demonism of the try-works. They have forgotten the larger world within which we all live, have retreated into creating stereotypes of the alienated hero or the alienated scapegoat and overlooked the very complexity of character and situation they so zealously postulate as the condition of the modern consciousness.


To turn to almost any of the major characters in the works of George Eliot and Dostoevsky is to realize how compulsively contemporary writers have discounted the complex reality of the individual consciousness, shorn it of its subtlety and contradictions, and reduced it to still another expression of contemporary despair and anxiety. The angst of isolation is repeatedly presented as something of momentous importance in our time.

Even were the self irrevocably confined to its own private world, why is that necessarily taken as a sign of despair, anger, or meaninglessness? If Camus and others are correct when they assert that each of us must recognize and accept that aloneness, why do we promptly conclude that this fact is either tragic or cause for despair? Knowing that others will probably never be able to share this self in no respect necessitates the conclusion that the self is thereby worthless or powerless to learn or incapable of thinking, questioning, living, joying, discovering its own personal values?

The privateness of the self is sometimes viewed as a tragic limitation, a cause for sorrow and pessimism. It should more properly and realistically be regarded as our natural condition, the condition of every thinking and sensitive person, that in no vital sense bars us from being, learning, strengthening our powers of insight and knowledge. The aloneness of the self connotes no necessary rejection of life, no necessary relapse into cynicism and self-pity, no necessary rage at discontinuity, injustice, or materialism in all its manifestations.

Charles Lamb was, I suspect, a man very much aware of his aloneness, even when he cared for his unfortunate sister, but this did not in the least diminish the richness of his inner life, his love of London and the theater, of the past, of his own reverence for life. Though confined to a filthy barracks and living among hardened criminals, Dostoevsky in his aloneness listened, learned, responded, kept his conscience and inner self alive.

Joseph Frank is surely correct when he argues that something of enormous importance happened to Dostoevsky in prison: “What occurred to Dostoevsky, then, bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves, as we see, a recovery of faith. But it is not faith in God or Christ that is in question; rather, it is a faith in the Russian common people as, in some sense, the human image of Christ.”(9) One of the miraculous changes was Dostoevsky’s newfound ability to identify with the prisoners:

   By the end of his prison term, then, Dostoevsky had swung round full circle
   in his estimate of the majority of his fellow inmates; and though his sense
   of estrangement as a gentleman could not be completely overcome, he was now
   able to identify himself with the others, morally and emotionally, to a far
   greater extent than he had ever thought possible.(10)


In his book Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1971), Charles Harris argues that “the belief that ours is an absurd universe, chaotic and without meaning, is perhaps the dominant theme of the modern American novel.”(11) The first sentence of his study claims that “the absurdist vision may be defined as the belief that we are trapped in a meaningless universe and that neither God nor man, theology nor philosophy, can make sense of the human condition.” The contention is made that Vonnegut’s novels express “Vonnegut’s growing resignation to the futility of caring as a viable response in an absurd world,”(12) but Harris appears to contradict this at the end of the chapter on Vonnegut when he writes that “though Vonnegut’s angle of vision has become increasingly absurdist, it remains steadfastly comic. Never does he give way to despair or empty cynicism. He has managed to face the absurdity of the human condition squarely without losing his concern for humanity or his sense of humor.”(13) If, despite his resignation and ironic diagnosis of the human condition, Vonnegut can retain “his concern for humanity,” then the implicit corollaries of the absurdist position are rendered irrelevant. One cannot, on the one hand, assert the futility of caring for mankind and then, on the other, retain a conviction of the need to care, for such caring has no logical ground, no reason for being, no corroboration in human experience.

Harris discusses at some length entropy in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and concludes with the statement that “Pynchon seems to desire a radical freedom, an anarchist ball where one dances to his own rhythms, not to the ritualized beat of mass society.”(14) If this is, in fact, true of Pynchon’s works, then Pynchon is obviously not advocating the absurdist position but hearkening back to Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the long tradition of radical freedom for the individual so splendidly advocated in Walden.

Advocating the doctrine of radical freedom for the individual is hardly a philosophical endorsement of meaninglessness and the death of the individual, or the acceptance of a carnivorous society that annihilates the subjective imperatives of the individual consciousness. However difficult it may be today to discover and assert the self, the commitment to individualism is itself a moral act resting on a refutation of total despair and anonymity.

Of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor, Harris says that Henry Burlingame does indeed subscribe to the notion that “the very universe is naught but change and motion,”(15) but we are told that Barth is unwilling to let the matter rest there. Harris believes that “Burlingame … represents the only viable stance for man in an absurd world,”(16) yet that stance is informed and sustained by Burlingame’s enormous hunger for life, his intuitive immersion in experience, his vitality, that e1an that makes mockery of philosophical resignation and the shallow cynicism that denies the possibility of a fervent individualism. Though Burlingame adopts any number of roles and disguises, he cannot bring himself to negate his hunger for experience, and in that hunger lies a subjective disavowal of cynicism, meaninglessness, and discontinuity. Faith is a matter of temperament, in this case, not an analytical diagnosis of the world’s ills, its horrors and stupidity, its shams and greed.

  • When Harris notes of Donald Barthelme’s work Snow White that “in writing a novel devoid of `meaning’ in the traditional sense of that term, Barthelme denies the possibility of meaning in an absurd world,”(17) he is implying more than he states. If the novel is sophisticated camp, an elaborate parody, its ironic absurdity is not a denial of meaning in a traditional or a nontraditional sense, an admission of the existence of chaos. In its artistic shaping it gives form that in art is one kind of meaning if one predicate of meaning is order. In addition, parody is itself a recognition of reality, what exists, what is there. If a serious writer acknowledges the real by enshrining it in a serious work of art, he thereby tacitly accepts its importance, its relevance to his audience and to himself, though the meaning of that importance may be obscure or even repellent.
  • To succeed artistically in giving form to chaos is to afford us knowledge of that chaos in an ordered mode of expression, a sense of its nature and consequences, a feeling for that particular situation, the assumption being that such understanding is important. When we casually invoke the cliche of meaninglessness, we rarely take time to examine precisely what we mean by it, and we deny one of the obvious truisms of all significant art–that the experience of art is deep and moving though, at times, difficult to reduce to logical propositions.

In discussing James Purdy’s novel Malcolm, Harris states that “on a thematic level, the stilted artificiality of the prose reflects the hollow meaninglessness of Purdy’s absurd world,”(18) yet on the preceding page Harris writes that in this novel “the result is not the obscuration of meaning, but the generation of meaning.” By what tortuous line of reasoning does one assert that a novel has and has not meaning? If what Purdy does in this work is to expose the alleged meaninglessness of life, the meaning of his novel is clear. In short, it has a meaning, a point of view, a statement of philosophical import, an ethical judgment. The enigma of life is not something discovered by modern writers, and it should not delude us into asserting that in consequence of our perception of the enigma we must conclude that life has no meaning.


What becomes obvious in much of our criticism of modern fiction is an intellectual inclination to underscore the emptiness and sordidness of the contemporary world and to draw certain conclusions that are, to say the least, premature and sometimes contradictory. If modern man is seen as a unique creature doomed to irrelevance, we thereby discount the value of all literature and all art and the entire heritage of civilized man. We view the sorry and dismal history of the twentieth century as tolling the death knell of man’s soul and proceed to draw certain conclusions that either do not follow from our assumptions or else tend to invalidate those assumptions.

If man today is, indeed, unique and the wisdom of the past cannot help him in his desperate loneliness, then what assurance do we have that in another generation or two there will not emerge a man totally different from the one we know? If each age can understand only itself, then we have blindly accepted a proposition that in its absolute character is refuted by experience and common sense and everything we know of the history of man.

In so many of our novels we encounter protagonists who are fictional representations of this very rejection of past experience, particularly in the American novel, in which the past is regarded as either irrelevant or constricting and dangerous. Contemporary protagonists are cut off from the past, from their surroundings, from everything human, and made to serve the writer’s assumption that the individual is forever trapped in his own loneliness and psychic impotence. At the end of Bellows novel, Herzog ponders his dilemma: “My face too blind, my mind too limited, my instincts too narrow.

But this intensity, doesn’t it mean anything?”(19) Communing with some of the great minds of the past, poor Herzog has apparently learned nothing of any importance about who he is and what he can become and why living matters. The last words of the novel are: “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”

So runs the litany of doom so pervasive in our literature, aided and abetted by scholars and critics who write exhaustive tomes ostensibly proving that all is lost for modern man. We have been engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy without having the courage to examine carefully and realistically the very assumptions on which such monumental conclusions rest.


We are still the victims of nineteenth-century romanicism. Every contemporary protagonist shares Childe Harold’s fate, that Byronic isolation and contempt for the world that, in our own age, degenerates too often into maudlin self-pity and willful immaturity. The rather facile assumption that modern man has outgrown romanticism needs to be looked at closely. One critic writing in the sixties went so far as to conclude that

   Romanticism is by now abroad in all its traditional forms, and
   proliferating: Dream on the SILK (by, online store selling best sewing machine for beginners), Youth in Rovolt (Kerouac and others of the Beat group;
   England's Angry Young Men), Glorification of Energy, and Passion Unconfined
   (the Picaresque romps of Saul Bellow and J.P. Donleavy), the Unleashed
   Imagination (Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller), Social Protest (James Baldwin
   and others above), and of course, the Cult of the Self, which so baffles
   the classicist critic (J.D. Salinger has certainly out-Wordsworthed
   Wordsworth here, drawing upon himself new Jeffreys, as has to a lesser
   degree Norman Mailer).(20)

At a time when man has far more freedom than he ever had, far more knowledge than his ancestors ever dreamed of, far more opportunity to explore himself, far more awareness of the paradoxical nature of life, he perversely concludes that life has no meaning, that man is withering within himself, that the wellsprings of joy and being are permanently poisoned at their source. The contemporary writer is like a peevish child sulking in his room because life is hard and brutal, enervated by a spiritual listlessness that blinds him to what human beings are and can be. The lack of charity in so many contemporary works is not in the least contradicted by the sorry fate of so many protagonists compulsively trapped in their own piteous aloneness. The pathos in Jack Kerouac’s works stems from the apparent inability of his various personae to make any real contact with others, to grow up, to mature.

Writing of American fiction in the period from 1950 to 1970, Tony Tanner has noted that “loss of communication rather than loss of private vision is an option many American writers have preferred. But the suspicion of other people’s visions and versions, and the attempt to resist and extrude them, seems to dominate American fiction of the past two decades in a way which differentiates it from the work of previous periods.”(21)

At the source of this desperate effort to preserve the private self is the assumption that the protagonist is so alienated from others that he can never enjoy the bliss of intimacy and oneness with another human being. If this is true, as we have said, how can the protagonist be certain that what he feels and suffers and dreams of is not shared by others? If communication is virtually impossible, why should Holden Caulfield and “Rabbit” Angstrom conclude that their frustration and aloneness are not also experienced by those they criticize, those who repel them?

The romantic assumption that a particular protagonist is radically different from other characters can hardly be substantiated if the dogma of absolute aloneness is uncritically accepted as the necessary condition of human existence. What special qualities of mind or temperament or sensibility does the protagonist possess that make him believe he is somehow more richly endowed than others? What, after all, is so special about Herzog that we should bemoan his wasted life? What exactly is being wasted? Have we too easily succumbed to the notion that the protagonist is like those Thomas Gray refers to in his famous “Elegy”:

   Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathomed caves of ocean
   bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness
   on the desert air.

When the protagonist is completely ignorant of what he wants and why, it is ludicrous to demand that the world somehow cater to him or to believe that he is made of finer stuff than ordinary mortals.

Furthermore, why should the modern protagonist castigate greed and hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty, the beast in human nature? Why should we assume that our world should be cleaner and purer than the world Juvenal describes in such scathing terms? What leads him to think that human nature should in our time have been cleansed of its very nature? As Hawthorne pointed out in his short story “Earth’s Holocaust,” we cannot purify the human race by destroying everything evil and leaving the human heart as it is. As the dark-visaged stranger in the story says at the end:

   "And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth
   from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery--the same old
   shapes or worse ones--which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to
   consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my
   sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old
   world yet!"

If the modern protagonist were able to shape out of the chaos of contemporary life a real self, he would be doing all that it is possible for an individual to do, but, tragically, he apparently cannot or will not. We are told in Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers that “the mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones, but it was without delineation, void of form.”(22) Sherwood Anderson wrote in Tar: “How are you going to understand women when you cannot understand yourself?. How are you ever going to understand anyone or anything?”(23) Of Vivaldo in James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, we are told that “the great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life.”(24)


In her book Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction since 1945, Josephine Hendin sees in contemporary fiction an attempt to lessen emotional tensions by mechanizing our lives: “We cultivate cynicism like orchids…. Irony is a national attitude, the forge on which we flatten our fears, control our emotions, and try to become iron people.”(25) Modern writers and critics appear to have accepted Jung’s comment in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that “science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.”(26) At one point in Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, we are told that “at the present level of human evolution propositions were held (and Sammler was partly swayed by them) by which choices were narrowed down to sainthood and madness. We are mad unless we are saintly, saintly only as we soar above madness.”(27)

If the inner life, the private self, is at war with its own impulses and needs, then it cannot reasonably condemn the world for what the self cannot do for itself. If it cannot believe in its own self because that self is “a place of terror” lacerated by self-doubt, tormenting fear, and irremediable aloneness, it has no basis for hating others or the world.

And so the contemporary protagonist drifts aimlessly, like Augie March, because, in the final analysis, he cannot believe in himself, in the worth of his private self, in his own capacity to be a genuine self, in that elemental joy in living we find in Chaucer, Rabelais, and Chekhov. Terrified by aloneness and the seediness of his own private consciousness, he takes this as the unique condition of contemporary life, forgetting what Epictetus said so many centuries ago: “But nevertheless a man must prepare himself for solitude too–he must be able to suffice for himself, and able to commune with himself … so we should be able to talk to ourselves, without need of others, or craving for diversion.”(28)

The failure to achieve full selfhood is writ large in modern literature because it is regarded as unique in its tragic consequences in the age of the bomb. What Benjamin DeMott wrote in the early sixties has not lost its relevance:

   No pollster's survey is required to confirm that people everywhere, at all
   levels of life, have made "satisfactory adjustments," have found ways of
   controlling the desperate awareness of personal helplessness (by renaming
   it "maturity," "disinterestedness," or "sophistication"), have learned to
   half-live with the most intolerable and deeply lodged suspicion of the
   times: namely, that events and individuals are unreal, and that power to
   alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested


But if the initial premise is incorrect, if the individual has the power to be and to live and to shape a self, then the Gothic edifice of modern fatalism represents a tragic misreading of human nature and what it is capable of. If the essential conditions of human experience have not radically changed, if man still possesses the capacity to be fully human in every sense, if he can still accept realistically the imperfect nature of his being without concluding that all is lost, then he can dispense with the prophets of doom and go about the business of living and learning, what most people do every day of their lives. How much can one learn by following Joseph Heller’s example of his attitude toward others: “`I can let myself feel for people and I can let myself stop feeling for them,’ he says, quite sincerely. `It’s easy, it’s a skill like an ability to draw.'”(30)

Our world is made up of people who manage somehow, in the midst of instability and universal dread, to maintain their humanity, whose simple courage and decency are never obsolete or irrelevant, who may agree with Marcus Aurelius but who continue to live as he did:

   Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the
   perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to
   putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a
   thing devoid of judgement. And, to say all in a word, everything which
   belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream
   and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after-fame
   is oblivion. What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing
   and only one, philosophy.(31)

The contemporary protagonist who abandons the search for what is sane and vital because he distrusts the world and himself betrays what common experience reveals about human beings and the real nature of the self. He becomes the victim of a perverse self-centeredness from which there can be no escape, no rebirth. Unlike Prometheus he will remain forever chained to his barren rock, gnawed by vultures, and haunted by childish dreams.

At the conclusion of the seventeenth-century novel The Adventures of a Simpleton by Grimmelshausen, Simplex reviews his life and admits that he has been deceitful, avaricious, and godless but has now decided to retire from the world to try to renew his life and return to simple truths: “To this end I retired to a wilderness where I began anew the life which once I led in the Spessart: but whether I shall, like my father of blessed memory, persevere in it to the end I do not know.”(32) He will attempt to relearn the simple virtues he experienced in his youth, to find his better self, to gather from his experience whatever will restore his respect for life.

By contrast, what is so depressing in many modern protagonists is their lack of nerve, listlessness, unwillingness to persevere, inability to learn from experience, slavish bondage to adolescent fatalism, preoccupation with their frayed sensibilities, infatuation with the yawning abyss of nihilism. They become so incredibly dull and lifeless because what they reflect is only a part of the truth about what man is, a small truth some of our literary pundits have exalted into The Truth about the human condition.

If we are again to believe in man, we must be prepared in our literature to look closely, lovingly, and realistically at those pervasive assumptions about human nature expressed so axiomatically in the literature and criticism of our age, for we are in danger of losing sight of the larger truth about what we are that unites us with men of all ages and with our fellow human beings who, like us, must find a way to be in this vale of tears.

The Timeless Appeal Of Science Fiction

Of all of the genres of fiction, science fiction is one of the most popular. Millions of readers around the world have thrilled to exciting stories of space travel, aliens, robots, time travel and many other ideas. For more than a century, science fiction writers have been entertaining readers with their stories, but there is more to science fiction than just entertainment. At its best, science fiction presents readers with thought-provoking questions about the world. What does it mean to be human? How will people live in the future? What would it be like if humanity encountered aliens?


One reason for the continuing appeal of science fiction is that the genre will never run out of ideas. As long as human civilization continues to change and progress, there will always be new material for science fiction. Every technological advance provides a new opportunity for a science fiction writer. Science fiction can be seen as an attempt to understand the rapidly changing world and provide readers with ideas about how best to adjust to these changes.

Of course, science fiction is not just about asking the big questions. For many readers, it is enough to become engrossed in a thrilling adventure, and science fiction novels are certainly capable of providing such thrills. As long as people want to be entertained, science fiction will prosper.

The Buzz About Fifty Shades Of Grey

The buzz over the bestselling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James has shown no signs of ending. Daytime television talk shows, book reviews, and the general public have all raved over the steamy trilogy.

In “Fifty Shades of Grey“, young and naive Anastasia Steele is introduced to handsome corporate mogul Christian Grey. It is soon revealed that Grey’s sexual desires are dark and dangerous. Anastasia is lead into a new world of domination and must decide if she can handle an affair with Christian that may even lead to love.


The book and it’s following two sequels have garnered so much attention that there is now a movie version in the works, with rumors swirling daily over who will produce and star in the film. While the movie is already slated to be in theaters by summer of 2014, actors have yet to be cast for the roles.

Among the actors mentioned for possible casting include Amber Benson and Alexis Bledel for the role of Anastasia, and Chace Crawford, and Ian Somerhalder as Christian Grey.

With news and rumors spreading daily of the casting for the upcoming movie, “Fifty shades of Grey” is one of the most talked about books since the Twilight series.

Is “Chic Lit” A Sexist Genre?

Reading is a passion that many Americans love to pursue in their free time and it is an excellent means of educating yourself, but the genre described as “chic lit” can be considered sexist.

When hearing the phrase, “chic lit” most readers think of books that describe the dating, professional, and family lives of woman in a very stereotypical fashion. In fact, “chic lit” almost always follows a story line that depicts a woman’s dating life as a disaster until she meets “Mr. Right”, who appears, sweeps her off her feet, and marries her. “Chic lit” also portrays the men before “Mr. Right” as idiot males who cannot manage to carry on an unoffensive conversation during a date.


The “chic lit” genre is sexist toward both men and women. Not all women are in search of a man, and not all men are aggressive morons who should not be trusted with the delicate hearts of the women portrayed in the books. Gender stereotypes are always presented in the “chic lit” genre, and this type of thing must be avoided for society to evolve beyond thinking that men are incapable and that women are desperately seeking someone to save them from their single lives.

The Most Addicting Book Series Of Modern Literature

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is a great contender for the most addicting book series of modern literature. A favorite of younger readers and embraced by adults by the millions, this fantasy series offers a dazzling journey.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” introduces readers to the young wizard who must overcome villains and tough situations. As he progresses through the seven-book series, he makes compelling friends and fights a host of interesting adversaries. Since he’s a student at Hogwarts, he has to worry about combative instructors and magical homework as well.Confused? < a href=’’>Here ‘s a little help .


Characters such as the evil Lord Voldemort and the affable schoolmaster Dumbledore compel Harry to take on various challenges. Thankfully, he has a large supporting cast of able friends like Hermione and Ron to assist him during these struggles. Adults such as Snape and Sirius Black are shown as imperfect people who strive to help.

Magic spells and creatures like dragons and centaurs add delightful fantasy elements to the story. Instead of an ordinary world, young Harry operates in a place where the impossible occurs daily.

For all of these reasons and more, readers of all ages can agree that the Harry Potter series is tops.