Thursday, December 15, 2005

Read Farther

Very often when you admire a well-known, recognized literary classic (say, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath), it pays to dig a little deeper into the author’s catalog to see what other lesser known gems can be uncovered and enjoyed. I have found this to be the case with many of my favorite writers who have written highly respected and popular classics – when I’ve searched out some of their other works, I have been richly rewarded through the experience of reading them as well. Sometimes it pays to “read farther.”

I’m thinking about this, I suppose, because I am in the midst of a little run in which I am purposely going back and reading some of the lesser-known works of writers who became famous on the strength of one, or perhaps two, notable books. For example, take Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson: two highly-respected, canonized American writers whose most famous works are staples in our country’s high school English courses – The Red Badge of Courage and Winesburg, Ohio respectively. Both of these are undeniably great books, and well deserve their designation as “classics” – but I for one think it’s a shame that such great writers and thinkers, such noble searchers after truth and the soul of America, should only be known for these singular efforts. Especially when both of them contributed other fascinating works to our collective body of literature that seem to be rarely read, or worse, altogether ignored in our day. In my experience, this is usually the case with writers who are known for one great work – there are almost always other works in their oeuvre that are well worth attending to, but that tend to get overshadowed by the great success of the more recognizable one. William Golding gave us Lord of the Flies, for example, but he also gave us the powerful moral fable The Spire. Daniel Defoe is famous for, of course, Robinson Crusoe, but his A Journal of the Plague Year makes for fascinating reading as well. Sinclair Lewis, America's first Nobel laureate, is lauded for Main Street and Babbitt, but many contend that his most ambitious and important novel is his satire on race in America, Kingsblood Royal. [There are exceptions to this, of course: Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man, for example, is the only major work of fiction he produced, and Wilfred Owen was killed in action in World War I, leaving us with only the one astonishing collection of poems (of which ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is by far the most famous).]

Another thing: I have noticed that the most creative, successful writers are usually those that are willing to stretch themselves and try out different genres, styles, and formats through which they can express themselves and refine their art. Scan through the list of Nobel laureates in the last 100 years and you’ll notice that most of these writers didn’t just focus on one genre or style, but were constantly trying new things, branching out, extending themselves in new directions. Look at Steinbeck: most people know him for the aforementioned Grapes or Of Mice and Men, but few realize that he also wrote plays, several books of non-fiction, journalism, travelogues and several different varieties of experimental or satirical fiction. And many of these lesser known Steinbeck works are tremendously interesting and wonderful in their own right. It’s fascinating to me that the famous chronicler of the working-class American families and laborers during the Great Depression years would also write a satirical novella about a Norwegian village that resists Nazi occupation during World War II, or a re-telling of the King Arthur/Knights of the Round Table myth set in southern California.

Two shining examples of this kind of literary daring and versatility are a pair of the greatest writers America has yet to produce, Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Both are obviously well known for very famous works of fiction – Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Melville for Moby Dick and ‘Billy Budd, Sailor.’ But a look deeper into the work of both men reveals an astonishing buffet of riches, there for the tasting for anyone who bothers to come to the table! Twain has given us two books detailing his travels across Europe, an incredible variety of moral fables and short fiction, a serious study of Joan of Arc, rich non-fiction portraits of life on and along ‘The Big Muddy’ (the Mississippi River), and an amazingly wise and poignant meditation on our human condition in his one-of-a-kind Diaries of Adam and Eve. Melville, on the other hand, has blessed us with ground-breaking experimental short fiction (‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ ‘Benito Cereno,’ ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’), epic poetry, novels satirizing American culture (The Confidence Man), adventures yarns on the high seas, and a wide variety of other novels and stories.

But back to Crane and Anderson for a minute. Chances are the majority of us were essentially forced to read either Winesburg, Ohio or The Red Badge of Courage in a high school English course (or, in my case, both). I, because I only blossomed into a fully flowering book nerd after college, went back as an adult and read them both again, getting a great deal out of each the second time around. Winesburg in particular really knocked me out – reading it as an adult, I realized how ahead of its time it really was (it’s amazing to think it was first published back in 1919), and how obvious an influence it was on so many major writers that came after Anderson, most famously Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. The latter in particular: you can really see, when you read Anderson (assuming some familiarity with Faulkner, which is all I have, some), how some of the interior monologues and inner ruminations of Faulkner’s characters would never have been written without Anderson’s pioneering work in trying to get at the emotional core of Midwestern common folk trapped in small towns, desperate for a richer experience of life than their environment could offer.

But there’s more of this “pioneering work” in Anderson’s largely forgotten follow-up to Winesburg, a story collection called The Triumph of the Egg. Although he deals with similar themes, these stories at times push the boundaries even further, experimenting with different forms and lengths and points of view. They range from a brief, enigmatic 2-pager exploring, of all things, the mysteries of bearing children (‘Motherhood’), to a dark, novella-length tale of a small-town girl returning to her hometown (after moving to the big city of Chicago) for a weekend and reflecting upon her stifling life and experience there (‘Out of Nowhere into Nothing’). Given Anderson’s obvious gift and preference to write about his characters’ inner lives and deepest yearnings (mostly left unfulfilled), it is surprising and quite impressive to me how well he is able to take on the voice of young female characters, which is something he does often in this collection. In many ways this collection seems the next step taken from where Winesburg left off, creatively speaking… and yet, if we get off the train in Winesburg, we miss these other fascinating little whistle-stops out there dotting the Great Plains of the American Midwest… as well as an intriguing window into Anderson’s development as a writer.

And when you think of The Red Badge… Crane wrote this searing novel of the Civil War when he was only 21 years old! Anyone who had read it will agree that that in itself is an astonishing achievement. But what did he go on to write after that? Where did his travels in the world, and on the page, take him? He didn’t get all that far, seeing as he died before he reached the age of thirty… however, he DID manage to create many other memorable works of short fiction, as well as some well-regarded poetry. I recently read some of that short fiction in a small collection called The Open Boat and Other Stories, and some of the work was really profound and interesting. The title story in particular, 'The Open Boat,' surprised me by revealing itself (at least in my reading of it) as a clear precursor to the existential fiction of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But this was in the late 19th century, several decades before either of these writers came on the scene! Crane vividly describes the experience of being tossed about on a wild sea in an open life boat (something that actually happened to him, which obviously adds to the impact and accuracy of his account), and with healthy doses of philosophical musings mixed into the narrative and a handful of diverse characters, it’s easy to read the story as an allegory for man’s existence in a cold, unfeeling universe of Chance. I’m not sure if that was exactly Crane’s intention, but to me there’s a straight line from this story to stuff like The Stranger and No Exit.

This is not even to mention the next book on my list, Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, which is described on a prominent web site dedicated to Hugo’s life and work this way:

Dedicated to the island where he spent 15 years of exile, Toilers of the Sea was an addition to Hugo's great illustration of Man's Destiny. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had depicted Religion, Les Miserables Society - Toilers of the Sea was intended to illustrate Nature. The stage for Mans battle with the elements was the sea, and one of its most horrible creatures lurking in its depths. Hugo's original title for the novel had been The Abyss, which perhaps would have been more appropriate.

Besides being a drama about the ocean surrounding it, Toilers of the Sea was also a display of Hugo's intimate knowledge of life on the Channel Island of Guernsey. The life of the natives, local folklore, the Island people's mixture of English and French and the magnificent scenery gave the novel peculiar and fresh qualities.

Now I don’t know about you, but that to me sounds like a fascinating novel indeed… yet who has ever heard of it, or heard it discussed? Or had it assigned to them in a course? And the corollary question to that, in my mind at least, is, Why haven’t we? But the answer to that question notwithstanding, my point is that it’s in print, you can still find it out there… and that is usually true of many lesser known works by talented and thoughtful writers. It is well worth the time to get out there and pan for these obscure works, because very often there are golden nuggets of wisdom still buried and waiting to be discovered (by the intrepid reader who’s willing to take risks), underneath the silt and sediment of all the cultural run-off that has accumulated since their authors first brought them into being.


Mutt Ploughman said...

A couple of outstanding posts by Duke, between the latest Poem of the Week (a really interesting one, 'December') and this intriguing and forceful case for digging past the standard stuff on your bookshelf of famous the case of the poem, there were a couple of enigmatic lines to me in there, like the 'laboratory's hard stone' and the reference to a 'third homeland'. But I like the quality this poem has of mystery, for you could take this one in different directions, as Duke pointed out. As far as his post on reading unusual or obscure works by famous writers, this is great insight from a guy who probably digs further into the works of writers he admirers, as this post makes clear, than just about anyone. As readers can see, Duke leaves no stone unturned, and as a result he finds the hidden treasures that one misses if they stick to a writer's 'greatest hits', if you will. Clearly reading the lesser known works from great writers helps you to get a broader understanding of their development, what they were trying to achieve in the entire arc of their career, and the progress or arc of their philosophy/beliefs over time. I agree with Duke that these lesser known reads are still canonical with the great writers, and worth finding the time to fit them in. I have read no where near the amount of 'obscure' books like the ones Duke mentions than he has, but in the case of some writers I deeply admire, such as Steinbeck, I have read many of their atypical works and have benefitted immensely from it. What Duke's post makes the most obvious is the practically infinite extent of the rewards of reading literature. Literature is almost an unfathomable pool of wisdom, information, and pure intellectual stimulus. Duke's post makes one appreciate this all the more. Who dares wins! Take on the unknown stuff!!!

I Am Not What I Am said...

I agree with your comments on 'reading farther'. Sometimes its necessary to read farther into a writer's work to see where the 'classic' ends up on the linear spectrum of the person's work. Take for example, Salinger 'Catcher In the Rye'. 'Catcher' was his first novel, written in 1951, prior to that many of his writings were published short stories in magazines. Many of them dealt with issues/topics later expanded on in 'Catcher', inlcuding the development of a main character who later turned out to be Holden Caufield. Having read all of Salinger's work, the literary tragedy steams from the fact that his post - 'Catcher' work is just as brilliant, specifically 'Nine Stories' and the split-novel, 'Franny and Zooey'. These explore topics that were relevant to people in their early 20's in the 1950's, and should have been rightly hailed as classics. However, they were obscured by 'Catcher'. Keeping this mind, its easy to see why Salinger became the isolationist he was and is today.

Duke Altum said...

Hey 'I Am Not," (I was going to shorten your screen name to 'I Am' but then I realized that the name has been used once already, sort of famously too...) thanks not only for contributing to the conversation, but also for the excellent example of Salinger's work... perfect, that is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. We can miss a lot when we just do a "greatest hits" type of reading of the classics... and what makes a "classic" anyway? Popularity? I would argue, and clearly you agree, that what really matters is timelessness, the ability to speak to and provide insight about our human condition, regardless of the period in which we happen to be alive...

Let me point out also that your post proves why it's so important not just to read books, but to talk about them, to recommend them to others... I of coruse have read 'Catcher' but have not read 'Franny' or the stories. You remind me that I need to get back to Salinger and explore some of his other, obviously worthwhile work. Some writers have the blessing/curse of creating not just memorable characters, but cultural icons, that later on seem to play Prometheus and loom larger than their creator... Gatsby also comes to mind along with Mr. Caufield. Anyway, thanks a lot for commenting... and I wonder, which of the Salinger works is actually your favorite? Do you prefer 'Franny and Zooey' to 'Catcher'? If so, why?