To Kill a Mockingbird is a timeless book, but until now it’s only been in the dated medium of print. However, Harper Lee announced that she is allowing her novel to become an ebook and digital audiobook. “I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”
In a Simpsons episode from the late nineties, Lisa Simpson, concerned that her mental skills may be deteriorating, manages to finagle her way onto a local TV news broadcast, where she urges the residents of Springfield to read two books: To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet the Spy. At first glance, the two novels might not seem to have that much in common, but as Anna Holmes argues in a blog post for The New Yorker, the books share “ideas about the complexity, sophistication, and occasional wickedness of young girls’ imaginations.” (You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Malcolm Gladwell and To Kill a Mockingbird.)
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.
I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”
But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.
In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.
Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.
If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.
I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.
But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.
Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.
So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.
And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.
Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.
In his most recent article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that “one way to make sense” of To Kill a Mockingbird “is to start with Big Jim Folsom.” It’s a thesis that rings all the Gladwell bells. There’s the near-nonsequiter. There’s the insistence that to understand something you thought you already understood, you have to know about something Gladwell knows about (in this case James “Big Jim” Folsom, an Alabama governor of the 1950s). And there’s the hedge, the stab at plausible deniability: well, this is only one way to do it. But on the evidence of Gladwell’s obtuse reading, starting with Big Jim Folsom is precisely not a way to make sense of Harper Lee’s novel. Rather, it is a way to make a hash of it.The flaws in Gladwell’s scorched-earth positivism, in both its rococo and its populist moods, have been so amply documented – and not only in the Letters page of The New Yorker – that it may be time for a counter-backlash. The high dudgeon with which The New Republic took Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, to task seemed to me to miss some of the charms that have landed it on the bestseller list. Disregard the sociological claptrap, and it’s clear that Gladwell is not a scientist, but an entertainer. The pleasure we take in his arguments – in which Laban Movement Analysis becomes the key to dog training, and football to teaching, and Lawrence of Arabia to Rick Pitino, or vice versa – is the pleasure of the high wire act, or, more aptly, that of the magic show. If things go well, the audience gets a little fizz of insight. If the trick goes wrong, nobody gets hurt, because, after all, there never really was a rabbit in that hat.There is something unheimlich, however, about watching Gladwell bring his rhetorical illusionism to bear on the already illusory realm of literature. In his glib reduction of Harper Lee’s most enduring fictional creation to a “Jim Crow liberal,” he misses the forest for the trees.The raison d’être for Gladwell’s debut as a literary critic, we are told, is that “a controversy… is swirling around the book on its fiftieth anniversary.” Well, now it is. This controversy apparently has something to do with “Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” and to resolve it, Gladwell decides to re-open the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson, which is the novel’s climax. Some historical evidence is dragged in, but we will pass over in silence Gladwell’s conflation of “cases of black-on-white rape” with “allegations of black-on-white rape.” The point is to re-examine Robinson’s defense attorney, Atticus Finch.According to Gladwell, Finch has perpetrated a kind of ideological malpractice. To wit:Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But… he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.More galling, to Gladwell, than this refusal to bait his jury is the turn-the-other-cheek ethic underlying it. Finch tells his daughter that it is not O.K. for her to hate anyone, even Hitler. “Really? Not even Hitler?” Gladwell asks. The question would be a gratuitous flourish, except that it discloses Gladwell’s supra-rational frustration with Finch’s “hearts and minds” approach to the world’s ills. You see, this approach “is about accommodation, not reform.”If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law.Well, obviously. Otherwise Harper Lee would have named him Thurgood Marshall, or Shmurgood Shmarshall, and would have made him a heroic civil-rights reformer. But in addition to not being Thurgood Marshall, Atticus Finch is also a fictional character. This is not a trivial observation. Contradictions, blemishes, and blind spots are to be cherished in characters (and, some would say, in real people). Indeed, one way of reading the end of the novel is not that Atticus Finch has hypocritically “decided to obstruct justice” with his crony the sheriff, as Gladwell would have it, but that he has come to see the shortcomings in the inflexible moral code for which Gladwell has earlier chided him. He has discovered that all men are not the same, that the criminal Bob Ewell (incest, assault) and the innocent Boo Radley (reclusiveness, pallor) must be held to different standards.Certainly, Finch’s notions about racial equality do not match the liberal nostrums of our day. It would be weird if they did. Moreover, they may (or may not) be Lee’s notions. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly contains more than its fare share of racial stereotypes, which, like its accommodationist view of race, are worth discussing (as are the elements of Oliver Twist that today make us cringe). A more nuanced article might have made the argument that To Kill a Mockingbird has a didactic streak, and that it puts Atticus Finch forward as an allegorical figure of enlightenment. Or that readers of the book have mistakenly read him allegorically, rather than as a human being with human limitations. Or that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a very good book, and is racist to boot. Indeed, the latter may have been Gladwell’s reaction on taking up the book again in 2009.But he hasn’t chosen to make any of those arguments. And so his triumphant conclusion – “A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism” – rankles. No, we want to say, it tells Malcolm Gladwell about Jim Crow liberalism. Slighting the novel’s achievement on account of its anachronisms is like dismissing Huckleberry Finn because of the ways Twain caricatures Jim. There are good reasons why these books are on the most-banned list; that they record liberal blind-spots is not among them.Moreover, Gladwell’s thinly veiled hostility toward To Kill a Mockingbird betrays a fundamental misapprehension about the novel, as distinct from the satire or the polemic. Following George Orwell, he seems to want novels to provoke “a change of structure” rather than “a change in spirit.” That is, he wants them not to be novels.No one is going to canonize Harper Lee as the high priestess of negative capability (just as no one would nominate Orwell for high priest.) But the durability of To Kill a Mockingbird would seem to vindicate her method. Despite the “limitations” of Atticus’ worldview, the narrative that encompasses it has – no less than the righteous rage of reformers – paved the way for an epochal, and as yet incomplete, revolution in the way Americans think about race. And unlike a legal verdict, no one can overturn it. Not even the Roberts court. Not even Malcolm Gladwell.
In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James CarrollAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourtAn American Childhood by Annie DillardThe Color of Water by James McBrideGrowing Up by Russell BakerI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouWhen it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.About mothers, sons and daughters:A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail GodwinThe Joy Luck Club by Amy TanPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothThe Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAbout fathers, daughters and sons:A Death in the Family by James AgeeDombey and Son by Charles DickensFathers and Sons by Ivan TurgenevGilead by Marilynne RobinsonIndependence Day by Richard FordTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)King Lear by ShakespeareThe Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas HardyThe Risk Pool by Richard RussoWashington Square by Henry JamesI’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!