Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Writers Past

A few decades ago, I was convinced being a writer was largely a matter of appearance and attitude. Tweed jackets, briar pipes, alcohol--a lot of alcohol and occasionally some other drugs--a vaguely supercilious manner that barely dissimulated my great pain and anguish. I worked on an aged Royal manual typewriter bought at a pawnshop, was convinced of my genius and talent, and, best of all, owned a complete set of Harvard Classics. Back then (I've since sold them) the books, trimmed with gold leaf and bound in leather, were my proudest possessions.
The Harvard Classics, 51 volumes in all, were known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf. Eliot was the President of Harvard University when the collection was first published in 1909, and he believed a well-bred gentleman could achieve a respectable education by reading this compendium of every major literary figure, philosophy, religion, folklore, and historical subject through the twentieth century. A few years later, Eliot created a separate 20-volume selection entitled the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. I owned that as well.
What's interesting about Eliot's 51-volumes of disparate selections is that many of them, exactly a century later, have sunken into whatever Stygian obscurity ill-fated writing goes to when it dies. Who nowadays has read Volume 18, Modern English Drama, featuring Sheridan's School for Scandal, and All For Love by Dryden? Personally, I never got through Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Skeptics and Atheists by George Berkeley. Nor did I read the second volume of Elizabethan Drama, which includes The Shoemaker's Holiday (Thomas Dekker), Philaster (Beaumont and Fletcher), The Alchemist (Ben Jonson), or A New Way to Pay Old Debts (Philip Massinger).

In all fairness, there were truly important works in both collections, books every one should read, or at least skim--Aristotle to Dickens, Maupassant to Herodotus. Thousands of non-Harvard students read the Classics in their entirety and were the better for it. In time, Eliot's idea spawned other collections. After the Classics came Great Books of the Western World in 1952, and since then a host of other tomes have promised instant erudition for the common man.

I remember trying my luck with the 20 volumes of fiction, where I found--among other works--such deathless titles as Pepita Jimenez by Juan Valera, A Happy Boy by Bjornstjerne Bjornson and Skipper Worse by Alexander Kielland.
I mention all this because it's my belief that the majority of writing, like any other endeavor, is merely the product of its time. Some may survive, most does not.
Not that long ago a young man by the name of David Foster Wallace committed suicide at his home in California. Wallace, 46 at the time of his death, was the Great White Hope of modern American Lit. His work found its way into the New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic and a host of other publications. Reporting on his death, the New York Times said, "the world of contemporary American fiction [has] lost its most intellectually ambitious writer."
When it first came out in 1996, I remember picking up what would become his best known work, Infinite Jest, with both hands--literally. It is a very heavy volume, 1,079 pages, footnote-filled, complex and, to me, eminently unreadable. Proust by way of Joyce with here and there some Kerouac and ee cummings; a touch of Howl and a whiff of Hunter Thompson.
Following Wallace's death, The New Yorker published a ludicrously over-long article on his career, followed by one of his short stories, Wiggle Room. The piece opens with a 400-line-long paragraph. For the second time, I gave up trying to read Wallace's prose.
So I wondered, who decided this guy was great? I canvassed my friends. Some had heard of Wallace, most had not. One had gotten to page 27 of Infinite Jest and dropped the book back into the library bin. Not one person I spoke with had actually read the work in its entirety.
So it stands to reason that one of two things is true, and both possibilities are frightening: the New York publishing world is putting one over on us. Either that, or all my friends are dolts.

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