Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions

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William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?


Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.

I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.

From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”

The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.

When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.

The Winter’s Tale

Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.

For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.

I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.

Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.

Henry V

Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.

Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
 O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).

Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.

Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.

King Lear

Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.

King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.

King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.

How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.

What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.


Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.

Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.

Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.

Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.

Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Viral Video: The Most Famous 15-Year-Old Basketball Player in America

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I walked into the gymnasium at the Hammond School in Columbia, S.C., to watch a boys’ high school basketball game and, an hour before tipoff, the bleachers on both sides of the court were nearly full. By the baseline, standing-room-only space was already being staked out. It wasn’t a playoff game, Hammond’s not a big school, and it’s not the best team in the state. Instead, the crowd was there because of a YouTube video.

When that video was taken, two months earlier, Hammond was playing in a local tournament when the team’s point guard, Seventh Woods, received an outlet pass near midcourt. He turned and took three dribbles. A step past the foul line, he jumped, cocking the ball in his right arm — and sailing almost completely over an opponent who looked to be about six feet tall before hammering the ball through the rim. On YouTube the sound of the dunk is concussive, like a nail gun going off.


It was a preposterous athletic moment — the video was labeled “Dunk Of The Year,” and that might not be an exaggeration: It was ESPN’s #1 play of the day (ahead of a LeBron James evisceration of Ben McLemore) and it only added to Woods’s Internet fame. Earlier that year, had posted a mashup of Woods’s highlights to YouTube that was viewed 5 million times within eight days, and is now up to 10 million views. Meanwhile, Woods is still a high-school sophomore — just fifteen years old. When you see the mixtape, it’s obvious why people have been so compelled to watch it — and watch it again, and again. “I have been doing this forever,” says Nils Wagner, who produced it. “I’ve never seen a kid that young jump and explode like that.”

But Woods’s weight as prep basketball’s premier Internet phenomenon — and how dominant he looks in his highlights — might give a false impression of his chances at future success. He is #14 on the Rivals 150 list of prospects from the high school class of 2016. That’s very good, of course, but over the last decade high school prospects who held the same ranking ended up with very different basketball fates: Some, like Keith Brumbaugh (class of 2005), washed out quietly; others, like Robert Swift (class of 2004) washed out spectacularly. Some, like Tony Wroten (2011) and Archie Goodwin (2012), became average players in the NBA; only one, Chris Paul (2003), became a bona fide star. In other words, it’s entirely possible Woods is at the height of his fame right now. I went to the Hammond School to see what that kind of uniquely modern sports celebrity felt like in person.

Seventh Woods — whose name refers to the seventh day of creation — joined the Hammond Skyhawks in 2011 as an eighth grader. The year before that the Skyhawks had won only eight games, but by 2014 they were real contenders. The game I attended was Hammond’s last regular season contest of the year, against Cardinal Newman, a nearby Catholic high school that had ousted Hammond from the South Carolina Independent School Association playoffs the year before en route to a championship of its own. The two teams had played four days earlier on Cardinal Newman’s home court. Woods had scored 28 and Hammond had prevailed in overtime to run its record to 21-5.

I found Jeff Barnes, a boyish former University of South Carolina football player and now the school’s athletic director, leaning against the wall behind the baseline. We talked as the girls’ varsity game thundered up and down the floor beside us. Barnes said there’d been a march of recruiters through Hammond over the last two years. Steve Wojciechowski from Duke has been by, as have coaches from Wake Forest, Ohio State, Baylor, and Clemson. That night, there were rumors (never confirmed) that former University of South Carolina head coach Eddie Fogler was in the building. The heaviest pursuit, though, has come from the University of North Carolina — Roy Williams has taken in several games.

Woods’s arrival coincided with the attraction of other local basketball talent. One recent addition to the school’s team is Xavier McDaniel, Jr., a wiry junior whose father, known as X-Man, logged a solid NBA career in the 1980s and ’90s. (Woods and McDaniel had known each other for years, but Barnes told me that, while two other players on the Hammond team came to the school specifically because of Woods, there was no direct connection between Woods’s presence and McDaniel’s enrollment.) I found X-Man sitting in the first row of the bleachers with his long legs stretched out in front of him. He had the bulk of an athlete whose playing days were behind him, and wore jeans and an untucked maroon polo shirt.

I introduced myself, and mentioned that as a kid growing up in Maine, I’d been excited when he’d joined the Celtics at the end of his career. Somewhat out of nowhere, as though it were the kind of thing that was always in the back of his mind, McDaniel brought up Reggie Lewis, and how sad it had been when the Celtics star had dropped dead on a practice court in 1993.

McDaniel said his son and Woods had been playing together since they were “six or seven,” and as we were talking, Woods walked by dressed in gray warmups. McDaniel waved him over. “I was just saying you were 10 when you dunked for the first time” McDaniel said.

Woods smiled. “Eleven,” he said. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and I told Woods I was looking forward to seeing him play that night. Woods is known as a quiet teammate, a lead-by-example kind of player. If he said anything in reply, it was softly, then he walked off toward the locker room. He had the unmistakable gait of a superior athlete — the loose-limbed, languid coordination of something powerful before it’s been turned on.

I asked McDaniel if Mark McClam, the head coach, was around, and he pointed across the gym to a man with a neat coif of silver hair and a sharp tie. As I approached McClam, whose day job is selling medical devices, he was working hard on a piece of gum and chatting with two well-dressed older men. They shared a joke about how the concession stand that night was stocked with cold beer and single malt.

McClam and I talked about Woods. He said he thought Woods needed to improve the “cerebral” side of his game — things like managing the clock in tight games. We talked about where Woods might sign in two years and he said Woods and his family were keeping that close, but then let on that Duke and UNC were the frontrunners. Then, as the girls’ game entered the fourth quarter, it was time to go, and McLam tossed his gum into a trash can and ducked back into the locker room to get ready for the game.


Hammond does starting lineups like an NBA team, with pulsing music, the lights down, and an announcer who calls each player’s name like he’s introducing a gladiator. The whole thing can be hokey even in an NBA arena, let alone on a Tuesday night at a small South Carolina private school.

Woods was introduced last. He wore #23, and beneath his jersey he had on a Superman compression shirt — the product of a three-year sponsorship agreement Hammond had signed with Under Armour soon after the HoopMixTape went viral. On a stage behind the baseline, the Hammond student section, which featured one kid in a plaid bathrobe, another in a lime-green blazer, and a third wearing a football helmet, went crazy.

The game tipped off and Woods’s place in it became clear quickly. Hammond played zone and Woods hawked the perimeter passing lanes. His length and athleticism made it hard for the Cardinal Newman guards to swing the ball, and each time they tried, the crowd held its breath, anticipating a steal and a breakaway dunk. With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Woods delivered. He intercepted a pass by the far sideline, raced up the court, doubled-pumped with his right hand, and ripped the ball through the hoop as he flew by.

Despite that play, and another transition basket where Woods threw an alley-oop over his head to a streaking Xavier McDaniel Jr. for an easy layup, Cardinal Newman kept the game close. They got a few bruising baskets in the paint and several buckets from senior Charles Smith, who’d transferred to the school that fall, and had scored 32 points in Cardinal Newman’s previous loss to Hammond.

Like Hammond, Cardinal Newman played zone in the halfcourt, and Woods couldn’t do much against it. He seemed reluctant to take a jump shot — a part of his game he’s said to be working on — and the Cardinal Newman zone collapsed on him as soon as he started to drive. At halftime Hammond was up seven.

While we waited for the second half to start, I talked with a local reporter who’d covered a lot of Hammond games that year. He said he thought Woods became too passive at times — that he’d assert himself with a play that no one else on the court could make, and then settle too easily back into just running the plays.

Hearing this, it struck me that Woods is in a tough position. His highlights suggest a fully developed player who’s arrived years ahead of his time. In reality, though, he’s an exceptionally athletic young teenager with a tremendous amount of basketball potential, a developing jumper, and a long way still to go. If he tries to dominate each game, he’ll be one of those me-first AAU kids who doesn’t realize that basketball is a team game. But, if he defers too much, critics will start questioning his heart. This is a dilemma that a lot of talented players face, of course — but very few of them have ever faced it at this young an age.

Nils Wagner, who runs, told me he hesitated before posting any Woods highlights online specifically because Woods was so young. “I don’t like usually messing with kids who are 14, 15,” he says.  “They’re not always ready for that type of attention and exposure, you have to wait. But [Woods] had a lot of talent.”

In late 2012, Wagner had first gotten wind of Woods when he heard rumors about a kid who’d dunked in a game when he was 11 years old. Woods was a freshman by the time the rumor got to Wagner, who searched online and found that there were only a handful of barely-viewed Woods highlights circulating.

“We had to keep Seventh a secret,” Wagner told me. “If anyone found out about him, everybody would have filmed him, and the mix wouldn’t have been that big.” So Wagner kept his mouth shut and dispatched his cousin, John Cookman, and a freelance videographer named Kyle Stanton to record every game of Woods’s 2012-2013 freshman season. From that footage they pulled fast-break dunks, weak-side blocks, acrobatic drives, and the occasional jump shot, stitched it all together to a hype soundtrack, and put it online. Within days the video had racked up those five million views; today it’s second most-viewed mix tape Wagner has ever made — just behind a short clip of Michael Jordan Jr., dunking, and three million ahead of a mashup of John Wall highlights recorded when Wall was in high school at Word of God Christian Academy.

Wagner talked with Woods and his parents before going ahead with the mixtape, and he says they were excited about the project.  Viral fame creates a lot of pressure and tremendous possibility for disappointment, but it also opens doors. “If I didn’t do that mix,” Wagner says, “[Hammond] wouldn’t have gotten that Under Armour sponsorship.  They also got a national schedule, national events that fly out the whole team.  The mix just gave them a lot more opportunities, put them on a national scale.”

With 6:22 left in the third quarter, to the great delight of the small Cardinal Newman cheering section, Woods shot an airball from near the three-point line. But then a few possessions later he made a perfectly controlled upfake on the perimeter and, in a blur that confirmed everything I’d heard about him, took one dribble and dunked with two hands.

In the fourth quarter the score got tight and for a few minutes, the audience was reminded that watching a competitive game is more exciting than waiting for a single player to dunk. Cardinal Newman coach David Ross made a few savvy offense-defense substitutions, a short sharpshooter hit an outside jumper off the bench, and we had a one-possession game. The people around me leaned forward in their bleacher seats.

Then the spell broke. Xavier McDaniel Jr. curled into a pass at the elbow and knocked down a jumper. Woods knifed into the lane and hit a floating six-footer, which came so easily it made you think he could have been doing it all game had he wanted to. With the game slipping away, a Cardinal Newman player got called for foul on Woods out on the perimeter. Ross, who’d been on the officials all game, threw up his hands in exasperation. “One player and every referee in the state is afraid of him,” he yelled. And that was it. With less than 20 seconds left, Cardinal Newman fell back, the intensity in the gym deflated and, once again, watching Seventh Woods — and examining his every action for what it might say about his future, whether as an NBA star or a coulda-been footnote — became the most interesting story on the court.

With five seconds left Woods received a pass at halfcourt. There were no defenders between him and the hoop, and rather than run out the clock, he yielded to the temptation of his ability. A wave of anticipation went through the crowd. Woods dribbled casually down the court, took off a few feet from the hoop, and began to bring the ball around like a haymaker. But then he missed and the crowd let out its breath in disappointment.

As the ball clanged off the back of the rim and bounced back down the court, my throat seized for a moment, perhaps in empathy for this teenager who I’d barely even met. Was the missed dunk an omen? Or did it mean nothing at all?

A Year in Reading: Kevin Hartnett

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For years I’ve heard my mother-in-law say that Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is the best book she’s ever read — and for years I’ve chosen to read other books.

But this summer, during a long layover in the house where I grew up, I spent the longest nights of the year deep in Stegner’s stirring descriptions of the American West. His feel for the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 19th century nearly prompted me to vacate the coast. The novel left me continually uneasy in my chair for other reasons, too. Stegner creates the tragedy of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage with real-to-life perfection. He slowly locks them into a landscape of silence and misunderstanding that’s as unconquerable as the arid territory they’re trying to settle. After I’d finished the book, a friend who’d read it decades ago, told me he still considers it the finest fictional depiction of marriage he’s ever read. I agree.

After Angle of Repose I read Gilead, which I thought was also superlative, but which didn’t hook me in the quite the barbed way I always hope for in a novel. I think I just had a hard time getting inside John Ames’s end-of-life equanimity. With Gilead finished, it was back to Stegner. I began reading Crossing to Safety with a copy checked out from a library near my old home Maine and finished it with a copy borrowed from a library near my new home in South Carolina.

Crossing to Safety, like Angle of Repose, is about marriage, and it reinforces Stegner’s interest in a particular kind of relationship: strong-willed, striving women and the ways they misunderstand their meek husbands. I’d like to know what in his own life put Stegner onto the topic. I also appreciated the opportunity Crossing to Safety provided to talk about the qualities that attract friends to each other, and to consider how being married bears on the way we choose to die.

More recently, I’ve read The Power and the Glory. The finished book, with its many exquisite scenes, is sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be sent back to the library. I’m happy to say that the smells of mule dung and whiskey are still thick in my blood, secret companions like a flask to this holiday season.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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Southern Myths and Yankee Murder in the Strangely Wonderful World of Pickett’s Charge


This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Charles McNair’s strange, frequently beautiful new novel Pickett’s Charge is about an old Confederate soldier who embarks on a journey from Alabama to Maine looking for vengeance. I received the book in the mail just as I was beginning a nearly opposite journey — though for work, not blood — and I picked it up hoping that the story would help me begin to understand a unique part of the country I’d soon be calling home.

The South, more than any other region of America, is forbidding to outsiders. I watched two kids from my high school class attempt college in the South before retreating back to Maine within a year, which left me thinking maybe it was never wise for New Englanders to stray into such unfamiliar territory. More generally, I grew up with what I take to be a somewhat common perspective, on the South as charming but inscrutable, languid but dangerous, a place where sinkholes — real and metaphorical — await anyone who doesn’t know exactly where to step.

Even for natives, apparently, the South is perilous. When Pickett’s Charge opens, Threadgill Pickett is a magically spry 113-years-old and living in a nursing home in Mobile. Everywhere he goes he wears a gray cap with a faded yellowhammer feather, a holdover from his brief, terrible stint as a teenage soldier in the Rebel army. The hat covers horrific burns that melted Threadgill’s head down nearly to the gray matter, and it covers other wounds, too, like the memory of his twin brother, Ben, being executed by vicious Yankee soldiers. The scars on Threadgill’s head reflect the anger and shame scarred into his heart. One wonders whether McNair means for Threadgill to reflect the state of the South, too, a century after its final surrender.

Threadgill is idling in the nursing home when Ben drops like an apparition into his room with an important message. “Ain’t but one Yankee left now, Gill. Just one. He’s up in Bangor, Maine…You hearing me? Hear what I’m saying?” Ben says. Provoked, Threadgill sets off on an assassin’s quest to avenge his brother’s death, during which he has a bewilderingly imaginative range of Southern adventures — with a lesbian cab driver, a mad monkey smuggler named Larry LaRue, a midget passing a kidney stone, and an island populated only with goats.

Pickett’s Charge is filled with phantasms, but it’s rooted in Alabama soil. Charles McNair, 59, grew up in Alabama, and has written just one previous novel, Land O’Goshen, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. His virtues as a writer are plain. He’s inventive, original, and has a particular talent for finding language that is surprising without being showy. But his real skill is his deep familiarity with the South as a place, it’s creatures, customs, and yearnings.

For example, alone on that goat island, Threadgill puts his foot down on “something pulpy,” and instantly realizes what “[e]very boy raised in the South knows,” that he’s just stepped on a deadly cottonmouth. Elsewhere in the story, a tornado rips through a poultry farm, leaving behind tens of thousands of dead chickens, which sets the stage for a grand barbecue like a heavenly feast. It’s a fantastic setup, but McNair fills it with knowing details — “Men wore muleskinner gloves to drag the hot tin. Crews with pitchforks spread the chickens into cardboard boxes” — that conceal the edges of the myth.

From a national view, the South is still a place of myths and larger than life characters: Bible thumpers, Tea Partiers, Creationists, secessionists, vote suppressors. The biggest mythology of all, though, is about race and the idea that 150 years after what is generally referred to as the Civil War, the South remains insufficiently repentant about the place that slavery and racism occupy in its cultural heritage. You can’t spend five minutes in the South without beginning to look for evidence of the myth in practice, without seeing in every interaction between a black cashier and a white patron, a direct extension of that peculiar institution.

Pickett’s Charge is not about race, and Threadgill’s hatred for the North overwhelms any particular views he might have about people with darker skin than his. Nevertheless, his murderous quest is bound up with the South’s racial legacy. At one point he finds himself at night in a forest filled with wailing black men and women, whose backs are striped with scars. Later, he witnesses the last act of brutal murder, a black preacher’s body tossed into a river.

You keep waiting for all the violence and strangeness to knock Threadgill off his mission. In such a bizarre, capricious world, surely one man’s single-minded effort to kill the last remaining Yankee soldier must be folly. McNair is an expansively generous writer — attentive to his readers and kind to his characters — and he carefully avoids reducing Threadgill to an object of pity. But he does suggest that Threadgill’s deliberate course north is misguided, just as many attempts to find the edges of a myth are likely only to lead you deeper into the swamp.

The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions

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The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life.  We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.

So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.

We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below.  Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.

We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University

How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.

Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.

Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?

If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.

The Ambassadors

Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography

The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.

“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.

But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”

Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”

At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?


Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas

John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.

He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.

A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.

DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.

The Godfather

Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America

Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.

The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.

Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.

After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.

Invisible Man

Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry

It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.

The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.

“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”

And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.

Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.

Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?

The House of Mirth

Kirk Curnutt, Troy University

On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.

Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.

The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.

My only compensation?

I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market


Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum

Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.

But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.

In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.

Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.

Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.

Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.

The Making of Americans

Priscilla Wald, Duke University

When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.

Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”

The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.


Hester Blum, Penn State University

Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.

There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.

What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Judging Luhrmann’s Gatsby: Five English Scholars Weigh In

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Critics have been hard on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby since it opened last week. This latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous (and famously unfilmable) novel is pulling down a 55 on Metacritic and a 50 percent unfavorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern went so far as to call the film “dreadful” and said it “derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald.”

You might think, then, that the people who know Fitzgerald’s novel best would have the most disapproving view of the movie. To test that hypothesis, we asked five English professors who specialize in American literature to take in an early showing and share their thoughts. And to our surprise, they liked it. Of course, they had their problems with the movie, too, some of which are less minor than others. But they praised Carey Mulligan for turning in arguably the best version of Daisy Buchanan the silver screen has ever seen, and there was abundant acclaim for Leo as Jay. They also admired the way Luhrmann pulled material from Fitzgerald’s short stories and his first draft of Gatsby in order to create a screenplay that isn’t quite a facsimile (in a good way) of the finished novel.

And, as you can read below, they actually applauded Luhrmann for omitting the most famous line of the novel.

1. Kirk Curnutt, Troy University

What I most hoped Luhrmann would nail is Daisy’s depiction.

Because, honestly, Fitzgerald didn’t, and none of her previous cinematic incarnations did either.

Of course, we have no idea how Lois Wilson fared in the lost 1926 silent. The only thing the trailer reveals is that Georgia Hale as Myrtle Wilson could inflate her eyes as big as this lady. Betty Field in 1949 played Daisy like your best friend’s spunky little sister, while Mira Sorvino in 2000 had nice hair. As for Mia Farrow, I’ll only say that if I play her clips at home my Labrador runs in circles wondering who stole her squeak toy.

Carey Mulligan is as good as we can expect from a character that is even more of a cipher than Jay Gatsby. She conveys Daisy’s forced gaiety at the Buchanans’ estate and doesn’t sound screechy-silly delivering the “beautiful little fool” line. Mulligan’s melancholy in later scenes has a wan as opposed to hysterical quality that I found stirring. I love that Luhrmann lets Daisy attempt to telephone Gatsby at the moment Wilson arrives to take revenge.

It’s time we empathize rather than vilify the golden girl. One minute you’re a 22-year-old overgrown woman/child raised to sit on couches and yawn, married to a philandering slab of roast beef, miserable even if you’re described as not happy but not unhappy either, and next thing you know literary critics are calling you a “bitch goddess” for decades on end.

Maybe I missed it adjusting my 3D glasses, but I was glad Baz cut the “voice full of money” line. I’ve never understood whether coming from Gatsby it’s admiration or an insult. All I know is that I myself have long wanted to save Daisy — though I wouldn’t run out into the road to do it.

2. Michael DuBose, Penn State University

When someone assembles an edition using all the available variants of a text, we call that an “eclectic” volume. These are often put together to unify a book’s textual history. Baz Luhrmann does something similar with his Great Gatsby. Instead of slavishly adhering to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Luhrmann takes cues from an early version of the novel, some of the short stories, and Fitzgerald’s own life. The result is a movie slightly different from its source, but no less authentic.

This comes through most clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio seems to take his inspiration from Fitzgerald’s first draft of the novel, Trimalchio. In that text, Gatsby is edgier, more mysterious, and more neurotic. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is equal parts vulnerable and calculating. His character’s mannerisms are carefully crafted and rehearsed, but that poise belies an imposter complex that DiCaprio acts to perfection. The ubiquitous “Old Sport,” for example, totters between casual endearment and desperate refrain. It’s the lynchpin keeping Gatsby’s whole identity from unraveling. DiCaprio almost swears it out as an incantation against the façade crumbling.

There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” and “Absolution” along with Trimalchio, and even a nod to the “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys” line from the author’s youth. Most of it works, but sometimes the concept falls flat. (The “rich girls” line, specifically, is blurted without any context.) However, we know what we’re getting with Luhrmann; he’s going to execute the grand set pieces to perfection, but will stumble with the nuanced stuff. The director clearly shares Jordan Baker’s enthusiasm for large parties: whenever there are more than five people in a scene, the film sizzles. When there are fewer, it drags. Overall, Luhrmann has assembled an eclectic movie that may not be great, but is certainly Gatsby.

3. Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University

He did it innocently, but a student gave me a spoiler a few days before. I knew that the framing device would be Nick Carraway — in a sanitarium. Whether it was for physical or (more likely) mental health I wasn’t sure, but this colored my expectations.

I was cautiously optimistic. Gatsby is not easily adaptable, yet Luhrmann — like his style or not — is skilled and creative. We know we’re going to get edginess, hyperactive visuals and sounds, and the same “grand vision” that Nick ascribes to Gatsby’s entire persona.

The film is very impressive. I knew Luhrmann was drawing from the novel and draft, Trimalchio, such as during the second party. And the institutionalized Nick frame? It’s bold, but it smartly conveys his unreliability and shows him writing the story. Except for a few disappointing cuts — say, Gatsby’s father and the funeral — Luhrmann deftly merges his style with Fitzgerald’s, such as in the first Gatsby party or the alcohol-fueled tension at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment. Luhrmann excels in adding visual details in the spirit of the novel: the “JG” insignia adorning virtually everything in Gatsby’s home, or the “ad finis fidelis” (“faithful to the end”) on the property’s main gates that echoes Fitzgerald’s description of Gatz–Gatsby.

The strongest scene was the Gatsby–Daisy reunion. It was awkward, funny, garish — and spot on. DiCaprio and Mulligan captured the reunion’s tense yet tender nature, and Maguire just as nicely played the straight man in Gatsby’s engineered scene. Equally strong was Joel Edgerton as Tom, who embodied his smug, entitled, and controlling personality, particularly during the Plaza confrontation.

Separating the teacher-scholar in me — especially one who specializes in American literature and adaptation — from the reader–moviegoer is tricky. Yes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is dynamic, loud, different, and vibrant. It changes scenes and language, leaves out some, and adds others. It’s also brilliant.

4. Sara Kosiba, Troy University; Program Director of the 12th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference

Critics have said for years that The Great Gatsby is an un-filmable book, and I’ve largely been in agreement.  My love for Fitzgerald’s book stems from the poetry of language and the descriptions on the page. When word of Baz Luhrmann’s new film began to circulate and included the detail that it would be filmed in 3D, my fellow Fitzgerald aficionados and I began to joke of “Eckleburg eyes” leering out from the screen. I am pleased to say that my recent viewing of the film was not nearly the potential nightmare I envisioned.

Luhrmann’s film maintains a strong sense of the highs and lows in Fitzgerald’s original. Unlike the well known 1974 version starring Robert Redford (which I always found washed out and flat), this new incarnation of Gatsby captures the vibrancy and richness of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. The 3D technique adds to this richness by never seeming gimmicky or false.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan do an outstanding job of capturing the inner conflict within Gatsby and Daisy. One of my quibbles would be with Tobey Maguire’s Nick. I think it may be more the script than the acting on Maguire’s part, but one of the details I love in the novel is Nick’s unreliability as a narrator, something that does not come through as clearly in this version (although the sanitarium framing device works well, and the insider reference to celebrated editor Max Perkins in the title of it is a nice touch).

Despite seeing other pros (the costumes) and cons (some of the settings), I do find this the best film version of Gatsby to date. Luhrmann’s intentions are in line with the soul of the novel, although I hope that it will not become a modern replacement for the actual poetry of the original.

5. Doni M. Wilson, Houston Baptist University

Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby delivers in the categories that viewers might expect: the settings, the costumes, the slick and stylized look that accompanies all of Lurhmann’s visual pyrotechnics. All of the hype about the music faded away as the film progressed: it just seemed to underscore the excitement of the Jazz Age without being an anachronistic distraction. It wasn’t your parents’ Gatsby, but why should it have been?

Once I got through the shock of Nick Carraway writing his retrospective book from an institution, I was able to concentrate more on the entire reason I was excited about this film: Leonardo DiCaprio. Now let me say, no one can pull off a pink suit like Leo, and he looks the part, but I just did not understand the accent. What was the accent? Why did it change from scene to scene? Why did he have to say “Old Sport” like “Ol Spore,” dropping his ds and ts? Why why why? Other than that, he was perfect. I don’t think he should have screamed quite so loudly in the Plaza Hotel scene, because it made it seem like Daisy was rejecting him for anger management problems, but perhaps I quibble here.

Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Fay Buchanan was definitely a step up from Mia Farrow, but she didn’t seem to command the attention of the other actors, and it made me want to see more of Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson on the screen. Tobey Maguire as Nick was a pleasant surprise, and his understated portrayal made sense.

But the absolute, hands-down, best actor in this film is Joel Edgerton playing Tom Buchanan. His physical presence and spot-on delivery convinced me that he understood Fitzgerald’s vision the most acutely, and he should win an Oscar for this role.

Letters in the Wind: A Writer’s Evolution

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The first time I learned what it means to be really good at something was in high school, on a golf course, with my hands cracked raw in the cold. I was on the 17th hole at Cape Arundel, a short, tricky course on the coast of Maine where the Bushes played in the summer. But as I stood there contemplating my tee shot in a hard wind off the Atlantic, all the glorious rounds I’d played on long August days felt very far away; I was who-knows-how-many strokes over par, my swing disintegrating in the elements.

Not everyone’s game fell apart that day. When I finished my round I was surprised to learn that several of the state’s best players had managed to turn in good scores. The pudgy, towheaded Ben Daughan had been atop the leaderboard at junior golf events all summer and he was there again that day, just a few shots over par even in weather better suited to a snowball fight. Upon seeing his score, I remember thinking that real ability thrives regardless of conditions.

I had that same thought in mind when, four years ago, I decided to make a career as a writer. My first assignment was a book review for The New York Observer — Jon Meacham’s American Lion. I spent six anguished days working virtually nonstop to squeeze out barely 900 words. Most of that time I spent in a high pulse-rate pace around my apartment, waiting for conditions to clear just enough to let out a sentence. I realized that my writing at age 28 was a lot like my golf game as a teenager: a single gust of wind and it went to Hell.

Around that same time I met Seth Mnookin, then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with a best-selling book to his name. I emailed him, cold, looking for advice about starting a freelance career. He replied with a friendly admonition (Journalism is dying! Run away!) and a few weeks after we first talked, asked me if I wanted to help him write his next book, the contract for which had just been finalized with Simon & Schuster.

Over the next 20 months, I spent more time talking with Seth than I did with my wife. His book was about the spurious but dogged idea that vaccines cause autism. He lived in New York, I lived in Philadelphia, and during our first year together I transcribed interviews, summarized journal articles, and tracked down contact information while he flew around the country to autism conferences, tried to wrangle a conversation with actress-turned-anti-vaccine-crusader Jenny McCarthy, and put together a rough outline for the book.

I kept waiting for the day when Seth would start to actually write the book. It came, finally, in October, five months before the manuscript was due. I’d always imagined writing a book as a meditation, but what followed was more of an ecstatic experience.

Seth kept long hours at his rented desk in a freelancers’ office in Manhattan. Often he’d send me a rough draft of a chapter in the early evening and tell me he was going out for air and some Chinese food. I’d work on the trouble spots he’d called to my attention — usually transition sentences, or synonyms for words like “increasingly” that we’d already used a dozen times, or working on the order of a few knotty paragraphs. I’d send the text back to him before I went to bed and wince at the thought of the long night that awaited him. But when I woke up the next morning and checked on the chapter, I’d always find that Seth had managed to knock things straight. He did this day after day, for months on end, with deadlines close, his professional reputation on the line, his first child born in the middle of it all.

And from watching this I learned that a real writer shouldn’t need a cup of tea at his side or a cabin with a view of the ocean or things just so in his own mind in order to get his work done.

My work with Seth on The Panic Virus, as it came to be called, ended in the middle of 2010 and I went on trying to make it as a writer. Most of my assignments were short pieces for college alumni magazines or book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.  Over time I found that my palms weren’t sweating as much when I sat down at my computer, and that I’d learned to do just enough of the writing process automatically to give me room to think as I wrote.

Around that same time I remember watching tennis’s U.S. Open. It was a windy day in Flushing and all the players were complaining about how it had been impossible to serve given the conditions. Then Roger Federer entered Arthur Ashe Stadium and aced out his opponent. Afterwards he was asked how he’d been able to serve so well in such bad weather. I remember Federer looking amused, like the question made no sense. “I’ve practiced my serve a whole lot my whole career,” he replied. “If I can’t serve in the wind I’ve got a problem. You can wake me up at two or four in the morning I can still hit serves.”

I’ve tried writing in the middle of the night and the results usually aren’t good. But four years in as a writer, I’m less sensitive to my surroundings than I used to be. Just before Christmas, I was hired by The Boston Globe to write the paper’s “Brainiac” ideas blog. I’m writing 10 pieces a week, often about unfamiliar topics; four years ago I would have had a heart attack contemplating this kind of job, but now I feel practiced enough to do it well. I still can’t write like Seth, or like Federer can serve, or that kid Ben could golf, but I find that at least I can apply consistently the talent I have.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions

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What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.

Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.

Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.

1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College

“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.

The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.

Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.

Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.

2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature

Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.

But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.

Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”

Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.

The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.

3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College

“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.

To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.

Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”

Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.

4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University

“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”

David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)

That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?

On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'”  David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.

5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross

There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.

I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage

Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.

At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.

6. Our Mutual Friend
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Assistant Professor of English, Linfield College

Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.

It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.

Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.

And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.

This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Night at The Moth: The Worst Thing that Ever Happened to Me

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Hope springs at the start of a story. That was the feeling on a recent Thursday night at the grand Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor as 1,000 flushed spectators sat fanning themselves with their programs, waiting for a live performance of The Moth, the popular first-person storytelling series out of New York City. The show was part of the annual Ann Arbor Summer Festival, which on previous days had featured performances by Esperanza Spalding, Ira Glass, and Rufus Wainwright — each a more certain pleasure than the lineup of amateur raconteurs we’d come to see that night. But if one sensibility united everyone in the crowd it was this: We’d all come to take a chance.

The first performer was a young woman named Erin who looked girlish in blue jeans and tennis sneakers. Erin’s story was about how when she was 12, her mom got pregnant with a third child. Erin described happily sharing the news with all her friends, even as she hinted that, unknown to her, this was not a pregnancy to be celebrated.

One day Erin’s dad takes her out for ice cream and makes the situation plain: Her mom has been cheating; the baby isn’t her father’s; divorce is coming. Erin realizes that by trumpeting the news of a new sibling, she’s really been broadcasting her father’s shame. Erin told the audience how she vowed out of allegiance to her dad to hate this new baby and to hate her mom, but about how it turns out that that kind of hate is nearly impossible to sustain regardless of how badly one’s mom has behaved.

I’ve been to a number of open-mic storytelling nights at bars up and down the East Coast. Erin’s story was funny, nicely tuned, and better delivered than most. But in other ways it was in keeping with the type of tales that seem to predominate at storytelling events — stories that fall under the general category of “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and come wrapped at the end with an uplifting insight or hard-won truth.

After Erin finished I started to think about why it is that people gravitate to the most tragic or dramatic moments of their lives when given a chance to tell a story. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that the storyteller feels an obligation to give his audience something novel — a story we’ve never heard before — which leads him to alight on the most singular experiences in his life. The second is that the worst moments in our lives are precisely the ones we want to be able to capture in a narrative, to master through the process of sharing them with other people.

The second storyteller was a large man named Peter. He wore jeans and a beige suit jacket over an untucked button-down shirt and he had a beard and shoulder length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Peter began his story in media res, as many Moth storytellers do, describing himself riding up an escalator in Penn Station, 34th Street, to meet his mom.

Peter’s explained that they were meeting to take a trip to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where Peter’s wife, who has epilepsy, has been admitted in the hope that her doctors might be able to observe her having a grand mal seizure and from those observations gain some insight into how to treat her. Peter and his mom arrive just as his wife’s parents are departing. Peter walks his father-in-law to the elevator and confides in him that he’s feeling overwhelmed by the situation and needs some help. His father-in-law replies, “She’s your wife,” and the audience gasped. The evening had its first villain.

During this visit, Peter’s wife seizes, just as they’d been hoping she would. Peter watches her spasm in the hospital bed and feels simultaneously compelled to help her and relieved that they’ve finally managed to get a seizure “on tape,” as it were. Peter’s description of his bifurcated feelings in that moment was one of the most moving parts of any of the stories told on stage that night.

His wife receives an IV dose of Ativan. After she’s restored, Peter and his mom leave the hospital to go home. They wait on the subway platform and his mom can tell he’s still shaken by the experience. She says to him, “I know what you’re going through” (in reference to the fact that Peter’s younger sister had seizures as a child).

This is exactly what Peter does not want to hear. He screams at his mom, tells her that she “doesn’t fucking know” what he is going through, because it is just him, all by himself, with no one else to help him. The outburst is so loud and extreme that Peter judged it necessary to conclude his bio in that night’s program with the line, “He loves his mom.” And indeed, such reassurance was necessary. When Peter finally finished reenacting his outburst, no one in the audience breathed.

Peter took the audience’s breath away, but not in a good way, and his story demonstrated why it can be hard to pull off the-worst-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me kinds of stories.

The first pitfall of these kinds of stories is this: The more sensational the content of the story, the less attention, I’ve noticed, storytellers pay to the actual craft of storytelling. If you’re telling a story about walking your dog it’s plainly obvious that you’re going to need to spin it well in order to keep anyone’s interest. But when the content of your story is on its face interesting, it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is “lay it out there” and people will be gripped, which isn’t true at all.

There were several fine moments in Peter’s story, but overall the content ran roughshod over the form. The last minute of Peter’s story was a muddle, alternately despairing (“I’m alone”) and enlightened (“I’m not alone, because I’ll always have my wife”) which suggested to me that he had not gotten his hands around exactly what it is that makes his relationship with his wife interesting as a story to share with other people, rather than just as a profound fact of his own life.

The second pitfall is even more damning: Intensely personal stories have a tendency to crowd out the audience. I said that at the end of Peter’s eruption no one in the crowd breathed. That wasn’t because he’d taken our breaths away with the artistry of his performance; it was because he’d sucked up all the oxygen in the room. The best storytellers meet their audiences halfway, engaging them, pushing them, and calibrating their emotions while also leaving room for listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences into the act of listening.

But I guarantee you that no one in the audience was thinking about his own marriage when Peter finished his story. He’d monopolized the emotional energy in the room, which made it hard to think about anything but him.

(I’d add that the emotional imbalance between Peter and the audience was also evident in what he screamed at his mom: “You have no idea what I’m going through” is probably the single worst premise, from an operational point of view, that a story can have.)

After Peter there were three more stories, including one that also fell into the WTTEHTM category (about how, while volunteering at a suicide hotline, the storyteller listened over the phone as a girl killed herself). The best was by Eli, a woman in her early 30s who told the story of her three-year project to animate a documentary about how domestic violence affects homeless women. Her delivery was plain and natural and contrasted with the performances of the other four storytellers that night, all of whom presented more like actors, which is a fine thing if you are indeed acting but which confuses the listening experience when the whole premise of the evening is that you’re there to hear real people telling real stories.

As my friend and I walked out of the theater into the late-evening swelter, it wouldn’t be fair to say that I was disappointed by the night’s returns. After all, I’ve encountered enough stories in my life to know how rare a great one is.

Still, I was unsettled. I thought about Peter’s performance and I realized that a failed story gets under my skin because it reminds me of our more endemic human weaknesses: Our failures to understand ourselves, to inhabit other people’s perspectives, to make sense of the worst things that happen to us in life. In this sense, first-person stories are usually illuminating even if often they’re not well-told.

Image Credit: Flickr/JacobEnos

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater

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This past winter I wrote a pair of essays about The Brothers Karamazov that included the admission that I preferred “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.”  That line elicited more of a reaction from readers than anything else I wrote, which prompted me to dive deeper into the question: Just which of these two titans of Russian literature is considered the greater novelist?

As it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I found online so I decided to get a second opinion — or rather, eight more opinions. I reached out to the foremost scholars of Russian literature as well as avid lay readers I know and asked if they’d be willing to contribute 500 words weighing the respective merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Almost everyone said yes, though a few echoed the sentiments of a distinguished emeritus professor who replied to me from a beach in Mexico, writing, “There really is no competition on Parnassus. From my point of view at least, they are both great writers and now live in a realm beyond competition.” And of course that’s true — just as it’s true that it is fun (and often illuminating) to debate Williams vs. DiMaggio and Bird vs. Magic even though at the end of the day we acknowledge that they’re all irreducibly great.

So with that, enjoy eight very knowledgeable, passionate takes on two of the great storytellers of all time. And when you’re done reading, please go ahead and share your own views in the comments section.

Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University

The question shot straight into my brain and disabled the parietal cortex. There was a sizzle and a puff of smoke, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. I groped in the dark for a 50-kopeck piece and tossed it upwards. It clinked hollowly on the linoleum.  The flickering light of the candle from above illuminated the tiny but unmistakable image of the double-headed eagle. Heads up: Dostoevsky, then.

His protagonist is the head: bait for smart people. The intellect sends forth an unending flow of words. YES! You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket? Read on! They give us the bread that we ourselves have made, and we accept it back from them in exchange for our freedom: cheap sorcery in place of miracle. I love mankind, but how can you expect me to love the stinking, jabbering drunk across the table, the loser who sold his own daughter into prostitution so he could sit here and drink? Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe!

His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood, a turning pale, a fainting dead away, an issuing forth of the spirit of decay, a slamming of your own finger in the door, the plaintive sounds of a pipe-organ on the street, ragged orphans begging, the dying gasps of the overworked, bludgeoned horse, the barely detectable breathing of the doomed old woman on the other side of the closed door — you, YOU are the murderer — the clink of coins in the cup, the dizzying whirl of the roulette wheel, brain fever, a silhouette in the doorway, the noble young lady bowing down to the earth before you, YOU, you lustful worm! Shrieks, a rope, a gun, a slap on the cheek, and suddenly…

Suddenly an image appears in the darkness: a thin, timid girl in a green shawl, her face pale and drawn from illness. She smiles joyfully and stretches out her hand to me. I must go, for if I do not, I will keep on talking and will never stop….

Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University

The question, in my mind, is meaningless. One of the worrisome tendencies of contemporary society is its impulse to rank. Who is better? Who is Number One? The question should not be, “Who is the greater novelist?,” but rather, “What do I learn from reading the books of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of anyone else?

Why does everything have to be a race? Why does everything have to be competitive? This implies that there is a winner and a loser. Why does the reading of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or of anyone else have to be part of a “success” or “failure” story? Framing the question, “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: Who’s the better novelist?,” in this way does a disservice, it seems to me, to the act of contemplating the meaning of these writers’ books.

Asking the question is equivalent to asking, “Which is the greater food, milk or orange juice? Which is the greater food, blueberries or strawberries? Which is better, the sky or the grass, night or day?”

To me, both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are equally great writers. Each focused on some of the important “big questions” of life. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, asked how a just God could have created a world that includes the suffering of innocent children. Tolstoy, through his character, Levin, in Anna Karenina, asked what the meaning of life is. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy asserted that the essence of life cannot be found by relying on the intellect alone. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy understood that being true to the authentic rhythms of life means respecting the non-linear nature of life.

Each of the two offers profound insights about psychology. Tolstoy emphasizes the ways in which people relate to one another in a societal context. Dostoevsky digs deeply into the individual human psyche. Tolstoy paints a world in which extreme things happen to ordinary people. Dostoevsky shows us the extremes of which people are capable. Each of the two writers describes crises in faith. Each describes the journey to a life of spiritual values.

Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy write in a way that conveys the energy of life. That energy comes about, in Dostoevsky, through the clash of ideas, through the tension he creates through suspense and the use of words like “suddenly.” Ivan Karamazov says that he loves life more than the meaning of life. Tolstoy shows a love of life of this world – the smell of the earth, the beauty of a flower. He speaks about living a life of authenticity.

Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy make me think about what is important in life. Both urge the reader to appreciate those things that money or competition cannot bestow – love, and life itself…

…So who is the greater writer, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great…And then there is Chekhov, and Pushkin, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Bitov… And that’s just the Russians…

Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

It is likely that these words express more about me than about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have long ago given up on the idea of objective appraisal of literature: reading is a much more mediated process than we would like to admit. All sorts of ghosts crawl into the pages, a prehistory of tastes and experiences and prejudices and fears. So if I say Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Tolstoy, I only mean he has been greater to me.

My first encounter with Russian literature was as random as can be expected for a twelve-year-old girl growing up in suburban Costa Rica. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky emerged like potatoes out of a giant plastic bag containing several books of ranging worth. I was lucky enough to be, at the time, very young, very curious and seriously uninformed. Unlike most people, I read War and Peace without having the faintest idea of the book’s reputation. Crime and Punishment followed shortly after, with the same scandalous lack of veneration. I loved them both: Tolstoy, for the story he told, and Dostoevsky, for the thoughts he provoked.

Many years and many books later, the two authors continue to inhabit different places in my mind and in my memory. Tolstoy conjures up images of endless steppes and elegant Petersburg homes, where great and complex characters go about the business of living. His books are showcases of literary craftsmanship, epic tales told with impeccable skill. Dostoevsky’s work is less precise, more ambiguous. I experience his books as a ceaseless battle of demons that never rest — not even as you turn the page, as you end a chapter, as you finish the novel and read it again. A Dostoevsky novel sitting on a shelf is a bowl of anxiety and confusion, a bundle of frustrations marked by a desperate need for redemption. His protagonists are shown in extreme situations, where not only their personality but their very nature is put to the test.

What I find mesmerizing in Dostoevsky is not just the details of the story, the particular twists and turns of the lives of Rodion Raskolnikov or Dmitri Karamazov; it is the mere possibility of their existence. It is, in the end, the mind-bending notion that we could be just like them — that any of us, any ordinary, simple human being, carries around the highest plane and the lowest point of moral capabilities. Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.

Chris Huntington, author of the novel Mike Tyson Slept Here

Reading Tolstoy transports me to another world; reading Dostoevsky makes me feel alive in this one. As I’m reading Tolstoy, I’m drawn into a dream of serfs and country estates, endless royal titles and army ranks. So many beautiful horses! A loyal dog! Women like Kitty and Anna Karenina! But then I put the book down and I find myself using a coat hanger to get the hair out of the shower drain, and it doesn’t feel like the Battle of Austerlitz. It feels like my life again.

On the other hand, many times someone will frustrate me at work, and I hear these words from The Brothers Karamazov thundering in my head:
‘Why is such a man alive!’ Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. ‘No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?’
I say this kind of shit to myself all the time. It’s part of the fun of being alive.

As I lead my every day life (so unlike ice-skating in Moscow or cutting grain on my estates), just imagining that I resemble beautiful Levin is to invite self-ridicule. I like him more than he would like me. I’m not nearly as nice, nor as sincere. I find that I can openly admire Prince Myshkin, however, because in The Brothers Karamazov, I’m right there doing it. I’m Dmitri or Ivan, holding Alyosha’s hand. The message of the brothers is that we are all each other; we share each other’s passions. We suffer identically. We demonstrate things differently. I can be innocent and guilty both.

That, to me, is life.

Borges, I believe, said there was something adolescent about a love of Dostoevsky – that maturity demanded other writers. All I know is, when I first read Crime and Punishment, that book represented a lot of work for me. I didn’t get it! What did I have to feel so guilty about, at eighteen? I hadn’t DONE anything. I was frantic with potential energy. I would have been better off with War and Peace – because I had the temperament of Prince Andrei, ready to go to war. I was angry with myself and frustrated, but I had no major regrets. I certainly could never have understood Ivan Fyodorovich’s madness. I had just spent a summer drifting with a beautiful 17 year-old girl on Harrison Lake; if you’d asked me why Prince Myshkin pursued the troubled Nastassya or allowed the beautiful Aglaya to get away, I would have had no idea.

In adolescence, I was loyal with my friends, but also so fiercely uncompromising that I would never have endured a friend like Myshkin’s Rogozhin. That kind of bond would only come later for me, when I understood what it was like to tie myself to someone for life- when I understood what mutual forgiveness was.  When I was in my early twenties, one of my friends drunkenly stabbed another. It wasn’t serious. One of my best friends asked me not to see a girl he’d broken up with. Instead, I married her. Later on, I lost her. I chased her in the snow, like Dmitri. I understand Dostoevsky now. What adolescent understands these things?

In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.

-Leo Tolstoy in a letter to Strakhov, September 26, 1880
Andrew Kaufman, author of Understanding Tolstoy and Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Virginia

All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader. My own sympathies are with Tolstoy, and even my criteria for judging a work of fiction, I admit, are relentlessly Tolstoyan.

“The goal of the artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” By this standard Tolstoy’s novels succeed where Dostoevsky’s fall short.

True, Dostoevsky saw and felt modern experience in all of its isolating, tragic depth. He showed the obsessive power of ideas and the psychological crises, cracks, and explosions of the soul that have become familiar in our modern world. What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations. In fact, when he tries to do so, he reveals his deficiencies.

At the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov flings himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia where he is serving his sentence for double homicide. Sonya jumps up, looks at him and trembles. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” If this smacks of modern soap opera or those maudlin French novels Dostoevsky was raised on, that’s because it is melodrama. Sonya’s “infinite love” is an ideal, “the moment” that has supposedly come, an abstraction.

What modern readers need, Tolstoy believed, is not more lurching after “infinite happiness” or “the Great Idea,” as Stepan Trofimovich, near the end of The Demons, claims to have discovered, but the ability to embrace an imperfect reality. The author of Anna Karenina teaches us how to seek meaning not through grandiose romantic strivings, like Anna and Vronsky, but within the limits of imperfect social and family structures, like Kitty and Levin.

Tolstoy’s novels depict the norms and continuities of human behavior by means of grand narratives that expand slowly over time and against the backdrop of vast natural tableaus. “As is usually the case” and “such as often occurs” are phrases you encounter frequently in Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s world, by contrast, is one in which you can come home one evening and “suddenly” find an axe buried in your skull. Life is always on the verge of imploding on itself. Tragedy is just around the corner, or in your living room.

Tolstoy’s living room is a place where people, well, live. It’s where dark-eyed, voluble twelve-year old Natasha Rostova comes running with doll in hand, or where, a decade later, she enjoys with Pierre one of those endearingly mundane conversations between wife and husband about nothing and everything.

“I am a realist in a higher sense,” Dostoevsky rightfully claimed. But Tolstoy was a realist in the total sense. “The hero of my tale… is Truth,” he wrote. And that truth is one every generation recognizes as its own, not just those in a state of social crisis or existential despair. If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.

Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University

A Soviet anecdote has it that Stalin once asked the Central Committee: which deviation is worse, the right or the left? Some fearfully ventured “the left,” others hesitantly offered, “the right.” The Great Helmsman then gave the right answer: “Both are worse.” I answer the question, “Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”: Both are better.

Dostoevsky spoke to the twentieth century. He was unique in foreseeing that it would not be an era of sweetness and light, but the bloodiest on record. With uncanny accuracy, The Demons predicted, in detail, what totalitarianism would be.

Bakhtin understood the core principle of Dostoevsky’s ethics: a person is never just the product of external forces. Neither heredity nor environment, singly or together, fully accounts for a human being. Each person retains a “surplus,” which constitutes the self’s essential element. True, some people, and all social sciences aspiring to resemble physics, deny the surplus. But they apply their theories only to others. No matter what he professes, nobody experiences himself as a mere play of external forces. Everyone feels regret or guilt, and there is no escaping the agony of choice. We behave as if we believed that each moment allows for more than one possible outcome and that our freedom that makes us in principle unpredictable. Without that unpredictability we would lack humanness. We would be zombies, and no one has ethical responsibility to zombies. Hence ethics demands: always treat another person as capable of surprise, as someone who cannot be explained entirely at second hand.

Dostoevsky despised both capitalism and socialism because each treats people as the mere product of economic (or other) laws. If socialism is worse, it is because it also presumes that experts know how to organize life for the best and socialism not only denies but actively removes choice for a supposedly higher good. At best, this view leads to the Grand Inquisitor, at worst to the nightmarish plans of Pyotr Stepanovich.

Tolstoy speaks more to the 21st century. His novels’ key concept was contingency. At every moment, however small and ordinary, something happens that cannot entirely be accounted for by previous moments. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy also denied the possibility of a social science, which must always wind up resembling the “science of warfare” preached by the generals in War and Peace. Like macroeconomists today, these “scientists” are immune to counter-evidence. To use Tolstoy’s word, social science is mere “superstition.”

If social scientists understood people as well as Tolstoy, they would have been able to depict a human being as believable as Tolstoy’s characters, but of course none has come close.

If we once acknowledge that we will never have a social science, then we will, like General Kutuzov, learn to make decisions differently. We intellectuals would be more cautious, more modest, and ready to correct our errors by constant tinkering.

If we have left the age of ideologies behind, we may need Dostoevsky’s warnings less than Tolstoy’s wisdom.

Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy

I inclined first to Tolstoy. His combination of moral sensibility and love of life appealed to me, and I didn’t like Dostoevsky’s over-the-top world of the self in crisis. The two authors have much in common, and yet diverge in ways that make comparison irresistible.

Both associate the self with moral agency; for both therefore, the individual is the ultimate source of good and evil. For both, goodness, which consists in overcoming selfishness, is natural but weak. For both feelings trump reason in the soul, though Tolstoy is closer to the Greeks and the Enlightenment in his association of virtue with reason. For Dostoevsky, reason is always tainted by egotism, and therefore he relies on love to spur moral impulses. Dostoevsky concentrates more on evil; for this reason his writings anticipate the horrors of the twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries. Tolstoy depicts crimes, such as the lynching of Vereshchagin (War and Peace) or uxoricide in Kreutzer Sonata, but not the pure malice embodied in such Dostoevskian characters as Stavrogin (Demons) or Smerdyakov (Brothers Karamazov). Tolstoy’s most evil characters, like Dolokhov in War and Peace, seem to invade his texts from another (Dostoevskian?) world. Dostoevsky also portrays pure goodness. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin (The Idiot), even though he is named after Tolstoy, is more virtuous than any Tolstoyan character could be, and so is Alyosha Karamazov. Both authors are wicked satirists. Tolstoy’s rationalizing solutions to social ills can seem naive, while Dostoevsky’s high-minded ones seem sentimental.

Tolstoy’s fiction encompasses a broader range of experience than Dostoevsky’s. No one has described childhood, family life, farming, hunting, and war any better. This reflects his affinity for the physical and the body. Not coincidentally, Tolstoy is also celebrated for his portraits of nature and animals. Dostoevsky usually associates the physical with the base. (Compare fleshy old Fyodor Karamazov with his ethereal son Alyosha.) In his writings illness often brings insight, while Tolstoy mostly (though not always) prefers healthy states to unhealthy ones.

Dostoevsky’s fiction aims at the revelation of character to the fullest extent possible. He believes that each individual is unique, however, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to others. His protagonists vacillate between good and evil; this makes the future of any one of them, even the most virtuous, unpredictable. Tolstoy’s characters are complex but not unique. The variety among them (greater than in Dostoevsky) is a result of a practically but not theoretically infinite number of combinations among all the possibilities inherent in human nature, and the interaction of these with the outside world. Tolstoy depicts the intersection of chance, historical forces, and character. In his view, the more disengaged we are from outside circumstances, the freer we are. Tolstoy gravitated in old age toward Christian anarchy, while Dostoevsky in his last novel (Brothers Karamazov) seems to advocate for a Christian theocracy headed by someone like Zosima.

I still prefer Tolstoy’s earthiness and expansiveness to Dostoevsky’s brilliant, edgy anatomy of the psyche, but I can’t imagine life without them both.

Joshua Rothman, graduate student in English at Harvard University, and author of the column, Brainiac, which appears every Sunday in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section

I have the usual reasons for thinking of Tolstoy as the “better” — really, as the best — novelist. There’s the incredible variety of scenes and subjects he explores; there’s his precise, uncluttered style; there’s his epic tone, with its special combination of detachment and humanity. And I’m always overpowered by the way his novels describe everyone from the inside, even the dogs and horses. I have the same reaction to Tolstoy’s writing as his sister-in-law, Tanya Bers, who was the model for Natasha in War and Peace: “I can see how you are able to describe landowners, fathers, generals, soldiers,” she told him, “but how can you insinuate yourself into the heart of a girl in love, how can you describe the sensation of a mother — for the life of me I cannot understand.” I think Tolstoy is better at “insinuating himself” than any other novelist.

It’s Tolstoy’s scenes, though, which impress me most. Tolstoy, I’m convinced, is the single greatest writer of scenes in literature. Dostoevsky is often given credit for being more “dramatic” (George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, calls Dostoevsky “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare”). But Tolstoy’s novels are unique in the way they’re constructed entirely out of short, perfect, easy-to-read scenes, and in the way those scenes build on one another until they address the most complex issues in a nonchalant, natural way.

Take the run of scenes around Kitty and Vronsky’s ball in Anna Karenina. In the first scene, Kitty and Anna are sitting on a sofa. Kitty invites Anna to the ball, and suggests that she wear a lilac-colored dress. Then a gaggle of children run to Anna, Anna takes them in her arms, and the scene ends. Reading the scene, we understand that that’s how Kitty sees Anna: as a mysterious, beautiful, poetic young mother. Then, two scenes later, Kitty arrives at the ball, wearing a peach-colored dress, and sees Anna — in black velvet. That’s the scene when Anna steals Vronsky from Kitty. Right there, in the juxtaposition of those two scenes, which are only two or three pages apart, you have the difference between childhood and adulthood, and between sexual innocence and experience. No other novelist can show you so much, so quickly.

It’s not just that his short scenes move quickly, though; it’s that they let Tolstoy focus on very ordinary things, like the color of a dress. One of the best scenes at the end of Anna Karenina is organized around a thunderstorm; in War and Peace, he does two scenes around an oak tree, bare and then in bloom. In each scene, the details feel unremarkable — but, over many scenes, they assemble themselves into a structure that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tolstoy called that structure a “network.” Dostoevsky built up networks, too, of course, and in some ways they’re more powerful. But I prefer Tolstoy’s ordinary materials to Dostoevsky’s extraordinary ones, because they can teach you to uncover the “scenes” and “networks” in your own life.

Images of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky via Wikimedia Commons