Literary Obituary: Gabriel García Márquez

The death of Gabriel García Márquez yesterday at the age of 87 closes an era of literary history. There’s a fair chance that when somebody looks at your dates, a few centuries from now, they’ll place you as living in the age of García Márquez.

I resisted reading García Márquez for a long time, till I was about 30, even though he was a dominant figure of my lit-major undergraduate years. Though I had never read his books, he held a prominent place in my imaginary library as a mannered writer of florid, stylized tales of machismo, full of women as saints or whores, and despite his well-known leftwing politics, not much interested in using literature to advance progressive causes. As it happens, there’s considerable truth in those prejudices.

Two chance events got me to read García Márquez. I spent a few weeks in Maracaibo and traveled on the Guajira Peninsula in western Venezuela – not exactly the author’s famous Macondo, not even in Colombia for that matter, but close enough ecologically and culturally that I could picture his settings – and meet people who insisted I read his work. And then, in Texas, an old Bookstop on South Cooper offered a complete set of García Márquez’s books in a uniform edition published by Mondadori. I have given away thousands of books in the last 20 years, but not them.

Everyone reads Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and it is indeed the most distinctive and influential of García Márquez’s books. In Cien años, García Márquez set the parameters for what a great 20th-century novel should look like: a generational saga; an enchanted setting; bold, overdrawn, overreaching characters; a headlong, unrestrained narrative line. García Márquez didn’t invent this kind of novel – in fact, one of the great things about Cien años is that it adapts a whole genre of fiction to its own needs, transforming it via the sheer strength of its storytelling in ways that would make Harold Bloom faint.

García Márquez drew obviously from William Faulkner (Macondo and Yoknapatawpha are two of the most completely invented places anywhere in literature). But the big florid saga was around long before Faulkner: it goes back to John Galsworthy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni. And any writer in Spanish must grapple with Don Quijote. García Márquez did so by doubling the great achievement of Cervantes back on itself. Macondo, unlike La Mancha, really is enchanted, though its characters sometimes wish they could wake up home in bed with the giants turned back into mere windmills. And unlike Don Quixote, who has to travel around in picaresque fashion seeking adventures, in Macondo you just have to survive, and all the adventures of the world will come to you.

At the same time, it seems odd to compare García Márquez to Trollope or Hugo, rattlingly workmanlike writers of yarns. If he got his narrative energy from such writers, he got his style from Faulkner – but also from Marcel Proust, who couldn’t be less like him in terms of themes and story arcs. Or James Joyce – one might think of García Márquez as adapting the endless sentences of the great modernists in a strongly narrative direction, less stream of consciousness than order of the universe. There’s the single eight-page sentence of “El último viaje del buque fantasma,” for instance, or the famously interminable sentences and paragraphs of El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), his most experimental (and frankly least approachable) novel.

It’s fair to say that few world writers in the past 40 years have embarked on a long novel without modeling their work on García Márquez, or alternatively finding some way to resist and repel his influence. One finds extremely close imitations in the fiction of Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich – though both of them, while telling stories in the pure García Márquez manner, populate those stories with defiant women and feminist themes very unlike those of the master. Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Spain (La sombra del viento/The Shadow of the Wind), Edward P. Jones in the U.S. (The Known World), Carsten Jensen in Denmark (Vi, de druknede/We, the Drowned) created some of the more impressive avatars of Macondo. And in terms of style, the majestic endless sentences of Portugal’s José Saramago and Germany’s W.G. Sebald clearly owe a great deal to García Márquez.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing to critique in García Márquez’s work. In fact, as the examples of Allende and Erdrich show, one is continually tempted to rewrite the often monumentally heedless sexism that pervades his writing. In his depiction of idealized or degraded women and the testosterone-poisoned men who desire them, García Márquez perhaps most resembles Federico Fellini among his contemporaries – but without Fellini’s rueful sense of humor, and without a Giulietta Masina. Cien años de soledad manages to avoid the worst of these excesses, which are perhaps best (or worst) seen in “El avión de la bella durmiente,” a short story that consists entirely of a man gazing at a beautiful woman for the duration of a transatlantic flight. That’s a late story, and one senses that García Márquez got more immature about such themes as he grew older; his last novel was 2004’s Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), which pursues the dirty-old-man theme with great senescent energy.

These are minor works, but more troubling is the truly great novel El amor en los tiempos del colera (Love in the Time of Cholera), a fabulous love story with an emotional register located halfway between The Age of Innocence and Lolita. To be fair, the novel features García Márquez’s strongest heroine, the indomitable Fermina Daza. But she is courted throughout, and eventually won for all eternity, by the fairly loathsome Florentino Ariza, sex addict and near-pedophile. It’s a relentless exploration of desire, but it may turn you off desire once and for all.

But all that said, what should you read by García Márquez – or perhaps, what should you read next after the obligatory pilgrimage through Cien años de soledad? García Márquez had serious creds as a journalist, and I’d strongly recommend two of his nonfiction books: the early Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), one of the great survival tales, and the late Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping), written in his early 70s to prove that he still had the reporting skills that had made him a professional writer. He still had them.

Of his shorter fiction, I love García Márquez’s El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), a story of the obstinacies of age. (Every time I walk into the office mailroom and see my inevitably empty mailbox, I mutter “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.”) Among García Márquez’s melancholy whores, the most amazing is the heroine of “La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada,” an utterly maddening and excessively perfect novella. One of my favorites among the short stories is “Un día después del sábado,” an atmospheric tale about a place where it’s just too hot to think.

And first and last, there’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). I’ve written elsewhere about this pendant novella to the Macondo cycle, so I’ll direct readers there and just say briefly here that it’s the essence of García Márquez, for better and for worse: a story of inexpugnable love, horrific violence, and transparent secrets that will not resolve themselves. As I say behind that link, it contains one of the greatest paragraphs in Western fiction. Ángela Vicario, the rejected bride of Bayardo San Román, has written her nominal husband a letter a week “durante media vida,” for half a lifetime (94). He’s never answered; he’s never come to see her. One day, Bayardo shows up on her doorstep.

Llevaba la maleta de la ropa para quedarse, y otra maleta igual con casi dos mil cartas que ella le había escrito. Estaban ordenadas por sus fechas, en paquetes con cintas de colores, y todas sin abrir. (96)

[He was carrying a suitcase with his clothes, and another suitcase, the same size, with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date, in packets tied with colored ribbon, and none of them had been opened.]

Writing does not get any better.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 18th, 2014 |1 Comment »

UTA English Obituary: Emory Estes

When I moved into the Chair’s office in the far corner of 203 Carlisle Hall, in 2002, the first person to visit me in my new digs was Emory Estes. I was barricaded behind the Chair’s desk, staring blankly at the blank wall in front of me. “TIM!” said Emory. “I was sitting in that VERY spot when I had my HEART attack!” Thanks, Emory, I thought. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Many of my conversations with Emory in those years revolved around death, always his own. “I am about to depart,” Emory would tell me. “Soon I will be part of the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower. The noble and virtuous cancer has made an end of me.” (Everything with Emory was “noble and virtuous.”) This was back around the turn of the century, understand. Emory so routinely announced he was dying that I was, naturally, dead certain that he would outlive me. When I saw his death notice in the Star-Telegram, I was sure it was hyperbole.

Emory Estes taught at UTA for fifty years or so – or would have, if it had been called UTA when he got here. It was a two-year school then, one of the jewels of the state junior-college system, and Emory was a young MA with an irrepressible presence and an absolute, lifelong love of teaching. His first office was shared with seven other junior faculty (well, so he said; allowing for Emory, let’s make that two or three). It was most notable for having been repurposed later on into a second-floor women’s restroom in Ransom Hall.

I would be insincere if I extolled Emory as a distinguished “researcher.” He published little in his field of training (19th-century American Literature). He was always going to write the big book about Robert Burns, and we always knew he never would. But you know what? Times change, and we change in them. Emory went back to school, while teaching full-time here, to earn his PhD at TCU. In those days, earning a PhD in itself demonstrated that you had serious scholarly credentials. As it should! Nowadays, junior faculty come aboard with a PhD, six articles, a dissertation under consideration at a university press, and a “second book project” confidently announced. These young teachers aren’t any smarter or more learned than Emory Estes; they’re just living in a different century.

When I became Graduate Advisor in the late 90s, I was struck by how many prospective grad students had become inspired to earn their MAs or PhDs by being students of Emory Estes. And during those years, many, many recommendation letters for successful graduate students came from Emory. I learned to trust his judgment – admittedly based more on his reading of a student’s character and dedication than their adherence to the most recent theoretical shibboleths – as one of the best indicators of prospective academic success.

During my brief term as department Chair, Emory said to me: “Tim, you have to understand about being Chair: you CAN’T have any FRIENDS any more! You have to make decisions about these people’s careers. They can’t like you. You can’t like THEM!” It was good advice about supervisory management, but it was oddly ironic. Emory Estes always had myriad friends. Everybody continued to respect and like him, despite his peccadillos, despite the fact that he’d made tenure-or-nay decisions about so many of us.

Emory had a sharply-defined sense of himself and his perquisites, but he was an extraordinarily generous senior colleague. One of my favorite stories about him can perhaps be left to its teller, but it concerns a research area that one of our faculty subsequently developed into a world-renowned speciality. One day, Emory (the story goes) said to one of our colleagues, “YOU can teach a course on {thus-and-so}, can’t you?” Matter of fact, Emory had the strongest of personal claims on the same course material. But he cheerfully, in fact insistently, consigned it to his junior colleage – and the rest is history.

Emory persists for me in a haze of his inimitable cologne and his proclivity to clutch his male colleagues on the shoulderblades – and to hug and kiss his female ones. Those of us young enough to be his son have long since been trained out of such predilections. But he never meant the slightest harm by it. He was one of those tactile fellow-workers of whom, as the wife of one of my mentors once told me, and I know Dorothy Estes would concur: “I never worried. He never strayed, not in more than half a century.” Physical contact is good for us mammals. I sometimes wish that I could now be half as uninhibited as Emory.

Emory was chair of the English Department at UTA for 12 years, longer than any of us except for the mythical Duncan Robinson. After his heart attack in the line of duty, Emory’s admin not-so-subtly switched out the departmental coffeemaker from caffeinated to non-. Everyone complied meekly, though the quality of our 8am lectures may have suffered for a while. For many years, Emory’s admin just as unsubtly shielded him from irritating decisions. When a faculty member (in those days of paper) submitted a suggestion that his admin didn’t want him to hear about, the admin would impale it on “The Spike,” one of those dangerous office items more typically reserved for obsolete restaurant checks. Emory didn’t know the half of what went on – except of course, he always knew more than one-and-a-half of what was brewing, and acquiesced in his own protection.

Emory retired – well, at least announced his retirement – about ten years ago; he went on to teach on “phased” retirement for several more years, and when at last fully retired, he was literally the “dean” of the UTA faculty, the professor who’d been here before anybody else was.

I never talked with Emory about spirituality; I don’t to this day know what his religion was, if he had any. I do know that for fifty years, he began every class with “Good Morning, Scholars!” and called every test he gave an “Opportunity.” 1960s liberal eyewash, I hear you cry, and perhaps you’re right. But what a wonderful way to accentuate the positive about academic evaluation. So I think of Emory’s death as he taught students to think about difficult passages in their intellectual careers. Wherever you are now, Emory, I am sure you are making the most of this Opportunity.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 17th, 2013 |4 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Goncharov

Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born on 18 June 1812 (adjusting for the vagaries of the Russian calendar). Today is his 200th birthday.

Goncharov wrote Oblomov, and Oblomov made Goncharov’s reputation forever. Very few writers in world literature have been so identified with a single iconic character. In fact, very few literary characters have become so iconic. Not being Russian, I can’t begin to understand the depths to which Oblomov (and his life-philosophy, Oblomovshchina or “Oblomovism”) have become entwined with Russian culture. But as a vicarious fan of Oblomov in translation, I have some sense of a few things that Oblomov means.

Oblomov is a deeply inertial character. It takes him several chapters of his own novel to get out of bed, and once out, he is always in danger of slipping back in. One can interpret his inability to rouse himself from a number of perspectives. To read him through our own century, he’s simply depressed. Indeed, Oblomov is a wonderful character study in depression, in the way your mind works when you hesitate to take out the trash because there will just be more trash tomorrow, when there’s no point even in microwaving some miserable leftover or punctuating your sentences and you watch one reality show after another because the remote is too far from your couch. The psychological realism of Oblomov is sometimes so fresh and so contemporary that it seems to belie social constructionism. Despite our immense distance from Oblomov in socio-economic circumstances, culture, and language, we can read him as directly as if he were sprawled on the sofa next to us. And why not? His creator was born only 200 years ago – two long human lifetimes. Being depressed can’t be all that different now than it was two lifetimes ago.

But of course, the intervening history of Russia is about nothing if it’s not about social constructionism. The Soviets believed that people took the forms that economic relations dictated to them. They read Oblomov as an indictment of an aristocracy made soft by its dependence on serfs. For that reason, Oblomov was one of the Russian classics that did best under the Soviet regime. In such a reading, Oblomov is not just somebody whose brain chemistry has let him down. He becomes allegorical for an ancien regime, brutal and lazy, that is heading for a fall.

And there are other ways of reading Oblomov that are less partisan, if just as political. One can see him as emblematic of a deep, corrupt indolence in the Russian national spirit. He can also possibly stand for positive values of tradition and community. He’s not infinitely malleable, though. He cannot stand for energy, progress, Westernization, or anything-ization, really. He has no project and no aspirations. He does have a tender side, though, and readers instinctively like him (though Goncharov may not have intended them to). He is diffident, and so ends up losing the woman he loves, Olga Sergeyevna. As heartless as his indolent defection may seem, one gets a sense that he really does leave her because she won’t be happy with him. Olga wants to change Oblomov, to get him moving. Instead, he stays right where he is, and eventually marries his distinctly declassé landlady, Agafia Matveyevna. Much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Oblomov realizes that what matters is not how much he loves, but how much he is loved by others. Agafia loves him just the way he is.

That Oblomov is harder to allegorize, and a richer character than the one of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) criticism. Perhaps in spite of himself, Goncharov created a character that we can’t help but enjoy and identify with, despite his fecklessness. Indeed, he’s the ancestor of a line of feckless literary heroes, as various as Nabokov’s Pnin and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.

Oblomov is by many orders of magnitude Goncharov’s most famous work. I tried to read his first novel The Same Old Story in the UTA Library’s copy recently, only to be told that the grim little Soviet volume did not circulate. But I was able to read his third, The Precipice, which deserves a wider audience – if only for its fallen women who emerge from the novel unaffected by arsenic or passing trains, determined to keep living their lives despite a fate, in the 19th-century novel, that is conventionally worse than death.

I know little of Goncharov’s life. He was from the upper classes, though not a nobleman, and he became a bureaucrat (in the Tsarist literary/cultural establishment, at times in his life serving as a literary censor). He knew the world populated by many a character who would appear in his own novels, or those of Tolstoy and Turgenev. He seems always to have wanted to do something else, though, no matter what he was doing. He was no Oblomov, though he may have felt like one. He seems to have been more like the protagonist of The Precipice, Boris Raisky, who wanders from one profession and artistic calling to another. Like Oblomov, Boris doesn’t get the woman of his dreams. But worse, he doesn’t get any woman at all: he wanders off into perpetual dilettantism. Oblomov, with his widowed landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, may have chosen the better part.

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 18th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning

Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday.

Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

That’s Robert Browning in seven lines: indirection, allusiveness, verbal economy, dizzying facility with English rhyme and meter. That may be the first time anyone has ever associated “verbal economy” with Robert Browning, but I mean it in the sense that he typically packed an impressive range of meanings and ideas into few words. At the same time, he wrote countless words, so that his poems include vast stretches of hard going. Of his early long poem Sordello, he famously said late in life: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.”

With his usual perverseness, Ezra Pound claimed that Sordello was a masterpiece. Most readers prefer Browning’s dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In these expansive, intricate poems, characters review their lives, offering realizations, rationalizations, obfuscations, and rueful observations – behaving, that is, much like real human beings, if real human beings could speak effortless blank verse. Effortlessness is the famous theme of “Andrea del Sarto”:

I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less.

Verse came so easily to Robert Browning that he may have feared the fate of Andrea del Sarto. But his achievements were massive and important. They culminated in The Ring and the Book, one of the great Victorian novels, almost unread today. It’s complicated, it has an obscure historical setting, its effects are operatic and grand, and it’s in verse: you can see why people read Dickens instead. But The Ring and the Book is a milestone of incipient postmodernism. Several observer-participants tell the story of a murder. They have different interests at stake, different memories, and different styles: where does the truth reside? Almost a century later, Rashomon would become shorthand for fictions dependent on the perspective of multiple observers – but Browning had figured out how to do the Rashomon thing on a grander scale, and long before.

Even while he was making a considerable living as a professional poet, and drawing critical acclaim, Robert Browning saw his literary reputation overtaken by his celebrity. When he and Elizabeth Barrett married in 1846, they became the Brangelina of the Victorian literary world. Barrett was the better-known poet then, would write at least one poem far more famous than any of her husband’s, and would, like him, write a great verse novel that nobody reads – or at least, nobody read Aurora Leigh for a long time, till feminist critics captivated by its themes and its sheer readability vaulted it past The Ring and the Book in reputation and canonicity. For much of the 20th century, though, the Brownings were known mainly from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and from mandatory memorization of “My Last Duchess” or “How do I love thee?

And from Max Beerbohm’s devastating cartoon of the long-widowed Robert “taking tea with the Browning Society.” The poet survived his wife by many years, writing the whole time, enjoying salon superstardom, but becoming less and less relevant to late-Victorian art and intellectual life. Robert struck his acquaintances as shallow and not all that smart – the contrast he posed to his extremely sharp poetry puzzled observers and led them to discount his intelligence. Henry James even wrote a story, “The Private Life,” about the discrepancy between Browning the person and Browning the poet. It’s not that either Browning ever quite became a joke, but that both, and their relationship, were sentimentalized out of significance. They were the kind of writers that, if you had unlimited money, you might build an incongruous shrine to in the middle of Texas. To love the Brownings, by the 1960s, was a sure sign of middlebrow aesthetic inertia.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame now largely redeemed in the case of Elizabeth, who now figures as a major poet and major voice for feminist and progressive causes; but even that recuperation seems to cast a bit of shadow on her husband, whom we suspect was probably doing something to enmesh her in patriarchy. There’s little evidence for that – she wrote Aurora Leigh during their marriage – but there’s little evidence that Robert was as progressive as Elizabeth. He was no Thoreau; he wasn’t even George Eliot, for that matter. He was a writer with an incredible verbal gift, who had the even rarer gift of recognizing a “poetic moment” and conveying it with deft obliqueness. “Memorabilia” is perhaps the best example of this gift: a poem so slight that it can pass unnoticed, and once noticed, it seems to be unable to pay attention to what it’s about. But that’s only until you see that being unable to pay attention is the nature, and the minor-key tragedy, of an ephemeral existence. That minor tragedy has never been better evoked.

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2012 |1 Comment »

Literary Obituary: Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

It’s an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege —

but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered

that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them

[Sources (1983)]

No short passage could sum up the vast and various intellectual work of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich, but that short piece from a long poem speaks to two important things about her. She was undeniably privileged, a child of east-coast Establishment ease and Radcliffe education, a Harvard faculty wife by her early 20s, author of tasteful poems that W.H. Auden praised in a pat-on-the-head way for “not telling fibs.” Nobody would have blamed her for hosting Cambridge cocktail parties for the rest of her long life.

Yet the choices she made, in the process of remaking herself personally and professionally again and again, did make her “despised and endangered,” and in no figurative sense. She left the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters behind, taking a teaching job in the radical open-access SEEK program of the City University of New York. She came out as a lesbian. She devoted almost a half-century to speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. In the process, she forged a kind of free-verse, long-sentence, highly rhetorical poetry that has been hugely influential on American verse. Her poems read like essays and her essays read like poems. All are topical and engagée; she called one of her volumes Leaflets because she saw no essential difference between poems and calls to action.

And, unashamedly, Adrienne Rich believed she had a “destiny”:

When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

["A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," 1971]

Somebody – it’s usually supposed to be Winston Churchill – once said that if you aren’t liberal when young you have no heart; if you aren’t conservative when older, you have no brain. Adrienne Rich, possessed of both, lived that trajectory in reverse. It’s not that her first few volumes of poems are especially reactionary, but they are decorous. Women’s half-lived lives feature in her books from the 1950s. One can imagine a poet retreating into half-silence after writing them, or flowering into madness (like Rich’s contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Rich instead did “very common” practical things, addressing what needed addressing with directness and sanity.

And as Rich aged, she just got more progressive. All her obituaries cite her 1997 refusal of a National Medal of Arts, when she wrote President Clinton that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” That’s the Clinton administration, mind you, the one so many progressives now look back on with nostalgia – the administration that Maya Angelou, no closet conservative, had memorably ushered in. But in Rich’s eyes, Clinton failed to pass a healthcare bill, dismantled welfare programs, capitulated on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” waged drone wars against ill-specified enemies, and made a mess of the Kyoto environmental accords. In fact, one could argue that one of the Clinton Administration’s most progressive positions was its determination to honor Adrienne Rich. She wouldn’t help them out.

Many of Rich’s poems read like essays, I’ve said, and her essays are probably the most vital part of her literary legacy. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she argued that

“Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups . . . The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades “nonpolitical” poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction. As women, we have our work cut out for us.

Forty years ago, poetry was seen by academic critics almost entirely in aestheticist terms. If it is now seen almost entirely in rhetorical and political terms, we owe that more to Adrienne Rich than to any other single critic.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 29th, 2012 |4 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Charles Dickens

English Matters began with a 300th-birthday tribute to Samuel Johnson in 2009, and makes its belated-phoenix reappearance today to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Tuesday 7 February.

Like Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens is a huge figure in English studies, so large and various that it’s practically impossible to sum him up. You know an author is great when other great writers spend so much time dissing him. “Dickens knows Man but not men,” complained Henry James, a subtle distinction: basically, Dickens didn’t get out enough in the social circles that James yearned to dine in. Oscar Wilde snarked at The Old Curiosity Shop: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And what was Virginia Woolf implying when she said that George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people?”

Among great English novelists, George Orwell most admired Dickens, but with qualifications: “Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters.” Orwell specifies lots of minor matters. However, he goes on to say that “the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” Orwell was therefore fascinated and appalled by the images of (literal) class warfare in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who hated injustices perpetrated by the rich and powerful, hated the savagery of the great revolution against the rich and powerful. Of course, one imagines that the leftist-crusading author of Animal Farm would be especially drawn to such a contradiction. But it points to an odd dynamic about Dickens: that his best-known novel is in some ways his least typical, and gives an impression of him as a kind of reactionary.

Is A Tale of Two Cities “written for grown-up people?” I read it in the 8th grade; it followed Silas Marner (7th grade) as the total of my middle-school exposure to Literature. I loved it; it’s all plot, and it offers gorgeous opportunities to read its final sentences in the voice of Ronald Colman. But as Jeff Daniels says in The Squid and the Whale, it’s “minor Dickens.” The major novels are the ones where he refracted the boundless pain and titanic energy of his own personality through a limitless set of characters. “After Shakespeare, God has created most,” said Alexandre Dumas père, but he was too busy creating a lot himself to keep up with the even greater creations of Dickens.

I read David Copperfield on my own even before the 8th grade, struggling through a world so unfamiliar to me as a child of 1960s America that I envisioned almost everything about it wrong, picturing Great Yarmouth as something like the Jersey Shore. (I even thought the Peggottys were black, which actually says a lot about parallels between race in America and class in Britain.) David Copperfield, like the earlier Oliver Twist, is a book about gentility in eclipse. David’s birthright has been lost in the shuffle, and he descends into an urban working class below which there is no obvious safety net. Orwell thought Dickens bourgeois, which he certainly was; Orwell remarks on how “it is questionable whether he really regards [the working class] as equals.”

Yet all of Dickens’s class squeamishnesses have to be seen as relative. In Anna Karenina, written well after Dickens’s death, Vronsky goes to the opera and muses

God knows who they were; the same dirty crowd in the gallery; and in all this crowd, in the boxes and front rows, there were about forty real men and women.

Perhaps Tolstoy is satirizing Vronsky’s own prejudices, but I doubt it. For Tolstoy, the middle class is barely human; society consists of a few aristocratic families and some rustic, idealized muzhiks. For Dickens, despite all the sentimentality, despite Tattycoram and Little Nell and Tiny Tim, every range of the middle class exists, and those trying to hang on and make a living against the odds exist most of all. The poor exist, and the homeless, and the mentally handicapped, and the impossibly pretentious, and the bullies, and the victims, and the ciphers. Everyone, in short, that you never hear about if you’d rather be reading Jane Austen :)

Great Expectations crystallizes the anxieties of class better than any other Dickens novel. If David is degraded by his time in the bottle warehouse, Pip is degraded by his own desire to leave the working class behind. Blacksmith Joe Gargery may be a caricature of the kind of “men” that Dickens really didn’t know any better than he knew Henry James’s minor nobility. But he’s a damn sight better person than Pip, and Pip knows it, and Pip can’t help despising Joe anyway, despite and because of Joe’s essential decency.

If English novelists have tended to look at Dickens with various attitudes fashioned from envy – disdain, embarrassment, indignation, condescension – writers in other countries have just wallowed in his influence. Mark Twain when young seems to have had a mancrush on Dickens, and it would be evident from his writing if he hadn’t admitted as much. Herman Melville shared Dickens’s histrionics, his panoply of characters, his tendency to lapse into blank verse. And many a European writer looked to Dickens, as earlier generations had looked to Walter Scott, as the pattern of what one could do in fiction. This includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter’s range of social reference resembling Dickens’s as much as Tolstoy’s differed), Hugo and Zola, and perhaps most of all Proust. It may seem preposterous to connect Proust to Dickens, but in characterization and satire, Proust was a positive disciple. The “petit noyau” of the Verdurins, in Proust, is an homage to the Veneerings’ circle in Our Mutual Friend, and Proust’s habit of reducing minor characters to verbal or physical tics (think of the narrator’s aunts who talk to M. Swann only in recondite allusions) is a perfection of Dickens’s method.

When I was young, the distinguished Welsh actor Emlyn Williams came to New Jersey and gave a reading, in full dress and character as Charles Dickens, from Dickens’s works – much as the novelist used to do on continual speaking tours himself. Williams was by all accounts a frosty, inaccessible man; Dickens could strike people that way too. They were both larger than life, surrounded by myths and pretenses, anxieties and baggage. Without dropping a smidgen of character or a syllable of prose, Williams read his way through his pieces, leaving an effect of great technical mastery and considerable personal mystery. Dickens was apparently also like that. As a middle-aged celebrity of great wealth and unmatched fame, he would sometimes walk from his estate in Kent all the way to central London and wander the haunts of his childhood by dark, then walk back to Rochester by dawn. It’s impossible to know what drove him to create so much, and hard to empathize with him as a person. That’s OK: all you really have to do is read him with appropriate abandon.

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 5th, 2012 |3 Comments »

Literary Centenary: Margaret Wise Brown


Margaret Wise Brown, one of the most distinguished American writers for very young children, was born on 23 May 1910, making this month her centenary. (She died in 1952.)

I was cruising past the impulse-buy section at a chain-bookstore checkout the other day, and I saw a display full of wallet-sized board-book editions of Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny. These two books in particular seem so archetypal in our culture that one cannot imagine American childhood without them. Yet their ubiquity may be a recent phenomenon. I don’t remember Brown’s books from my childhood at all, though I remember them vividly from my son’s childhood. I sense that Brown’s restrained, low-key, asymmetrical work didn’t fit the frenetic 1960s and 70s, when highbrow early-reader poetry was strongly associated with the anarchism of Dr Seuss, the histrionics of Shel Silverstein, and the rampant nightmares of Maurice Sendak.

In such company, Brown came to seem staid, perhaps somewhat preppie. In Sendak’s Pierre (1962), a distraught family, trying to recover their possibly-eaten son, begin to hit a lion with a folding chair. Such things don’t happen in Margaret Wise Brown’s world. Her animals don’t get into a wild rumpus, or depose turtles sitting on top of them. In fact, the most famous of them is dead before the children in the story find it.


That was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time — cold dead and stone still with no heart beating. . . . But they were glad they had found it, because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died. (The Dead Bird, 1938)

In Dr Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1957), the story comes to a climax on Christmas morning with singing in the streets of Who-Ville. By contrast, Brown’s On Christmas Eve (1938) ends with singing too, but it’s a disembodied, impersonal caroling that children overhear from a distance.


They went up the stairs almost running, only as quietly still as they could. And they jumped into bed with their clothes on. Their hearts were pounding.

And a page later, the story ends. Not only are Brown’s works devoid of manic energy, but they avoid a big crashing final chord as scrupulously as possible.

Yet her work is hardly without its energies. The implacable mother of The Runaway Bunny (1942) is based on a suitor in a Provençal love ballad, who figures himself as a hunter in pursuit of his beloved prey. And the great beauty of Goodnight Moon (1947) comes from its insistent, nearly obsessive use of the list. Seth Lerer asks, “what is Goodnight Moon but a catalogue of things: a list of properties both real and fanciful that mark the progress of the evening and the passageway to sleep?” (Children’s Literature, Chicago 2008, p. 5) “It is as though the very act of naming . . . belongings has the power to drive out loneliness and fear,” notes Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown, Boston 1992, p. 188).


And somewhere along the line, during the Reagan years perhaps, when I wasn’t paying attention, those lonelinesses and fears overwhelmed enough American lives to make Brown a classic again, even to elide the years that her work spent overshadowed by a more energetic generation of writers for the very young.

Brown was decidedly patrician in her tastes and the circles she moved in. She dated Rockefellers and royalty, if Wikipedia can be believed. Yet she never married, and her only long-term relationship was with John Barrymore’s ex-wife Michael Strange. “She was reputed to have had a long term affair with a prominent New York attorney and with Michael Strang [sic],” says Brown’s official website, and if by “reputed” they mean “confirmed in her well-documented standard biography by Leonard Marcus,” that’s accurate – though Brown’s relationship with Strange was less an “affair” than what used to be called a “Boston marriage.” Imagine teaching Brown’s work in a Gay & Lesbian Literature course! Yet such is the opening of the American closet in the past half-century that one is hardly surprised to find Brown’s partnership with Strange matter-of-factly described on a website for the parents and teachers of young children.

Unsurprisingly, Brown idolized Gertrude Stein, who was a kind of mentor to her. And when one thinks of the loving repetition in Stein’s works, at once so stylized and so attuned to the spoken rhythms of American speech, one can see why. In Brown’s language, the simplest things take on the incantatory magic that Stein infused into her highbrow poetry for adults.

Goodnight comb
And goodnight brush

Goodnight nobody
Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars
Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

On that note, I must take my leave of English Matters. It’s been a wonderful year. I am not being dismissed for snark, or retiring, or lighting out for the Territory. But in the words of our blogmeister, Professor Stodnick, doing a biweekly column here is “kicking my butt.” I will remain a faithful reader and Facebook linker of English Matters, and I look forward to posting many a fractious comment :)

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2010 |4 Comments »

Tier One Comes to UTA

I got a phone call this morning from my friend Chaim Knott, Executive Associate Vice Provost for K-20 Initiatives here at UTA.

“Hey Tim,” said Chaim. “I really can’t talk right now.”

“You called me, Chaim. What’s up?” I said.

“Can I tell you something in confidence?” asked Chaim.

“Of course not,” I said. “I’m a blogger. Anything you tell me will be lunchtime reading across the globe later today.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to trust you,” said Chaim. “UTA is on the brink of a major new Tier One thrust. But the name is too simple, so I wanted to get some verbiage from you. We’re calling it Improving Education.”

“Way too simple,” I said. “Try Value-Added Intrapersonal Enhancement.”

“Man, you the wordsmith,” said Chaim. “That’s why I call you.”

“But what’s it all about, Chaim?” I asked.

“Well, keep this under your hat,” said Chaim. “But here’s the deal. First, we’re going to require a foreign language for every bachelor’s degree. Not just because of the global economy, but because being multilingual makes you a better world citizen and a more truly cultured human being. We have to pay more than lip service to the liberal arts if we want to be Tier One.”

“L’esprit est prompt, mais la chair est faible, Chaim.”

“Huh? No comprendo, dude-o. Anyway, next, we’re going to make class sizes a lot smaller.”

“What’s up with that, Chaim? Everyone from my Dean to the Chronicle of Higher Education tells me that bigger classes actually improve learning.”

“Uh-huh. Which is why they try to recruit kids to Dartmouth and Reed College and Bryn Mawr by advertising gigantic freshman sections? Listen, Tim. We’re going to cap basic literature, math, government, and history classes at 20 students, so the professor knows every student’s name and can give extra help on everything.”

“Sounds good. But that’s for F2F classes, right? You’ll still offer unlimited on-line sections.”

“No, we’re eliminating distance ed.”

“Eliminating it? But Chaim, distance ed is the vibrant new delivery system for the 21st century. It’s the way Generation Z has learned how to learn.”

“You believe that banana oil, Tim? Distance ed is about cutting costs, not about better instruction. I saw an on-line chemistry course the other day that was made up of Facebook Quizzes. You really think kids learn anything from “What Kind of Hydrocarbon Chain Are You?”

“You’re going to need a lot of new faculty to teach those sections, Chaim.”

“And we’ve got to pay them accordingly. What does UTA pay full-time Lecturers in English right now, Tim?”

“$22,500 a year. But Senior Lecturers with a Ph.D. plus ten years’ experience can make up to $38,000.”

“Let’s see, let’s see . . . Fort Worth ISD pays entry-level kindergarten teachers $46,570. I figure we should top that by 10%. How does $51,227 sound?”

“Sounds like what I was making when I got promoted to Full Professor.”


“But how are you going to fund this, Chaim?”

“I thought you’d ask that. Number one, we’re going to cancel the annual redesign of the UTA logo. That’ll pick up $83K a year.”

“But there are so many ways to write the letter A that you haven’t tried out yet!”

“Funny. Next, we’re going to realize huge savings from sustainability initiatives.”

“But Chaim, UTA already has a sustainability program. We even have a sustainability blog.”

“Tim, blogs are for whiny, powerless losers. We’re talking actually doing something here. First, we’re going to xeriscape the campus, so we stop pumping water out of 10,000 sprinkler heads when the Shorthorn headline is TOO RAINY TO PLAY OOZEBALL. Then, we’re going to rip up the heat-trapping new blacktop in Lot 49 and replace it with a green-roofed parking garage. And we’re going to plaster the top of the new basketball stadium with solar panels so it can go off the grid.”

“You mean the new Events Center.”

“Events Shmevents. That place is for March Madness, baby. And since Texas Hall won’t be needed for hoops anymore, we’re going to turn it into an art-house movie theater, so you won’t need to drive to Dallas to watch something better than Paul Blart 2. And we are also going to follow up 40 years of empty talk by revitalizing downtown Arlington, maybe even attract a Seven-Eleven.”

“That’s going to need even more cash, Chaim.”

“We’ve got it covered. Jerry Jones is donating a drop of sweat shed by Roger Staubach in Super Bowl VI. Vials of that stuff have been going for seven figures on eBay. Hey, my Droid is freeping at me, sweetheart. TTYL.”

You read it here first.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 1st, 2010 |2 Comments »

Literary Sesquicentenary: Anton Chekhov


Today is the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and fiction writer who died in 1904 of the tuberculosis that afflicted him for much of his adult life. Chekhov followed his own illness with some interest, because his day job was physician. Just as in the case of the attorney Wallace Stevens, a professional training and career didn’t prevent Chekhov from becoming a great literary artist. In fact, in contrast to Stevens, for whom a thrilling career as an insurance lawyer was probably at best a neutral way of paying the bills while he wrote, Chekhov’s medical practice was a positive source of inspiration, giving him a window on psychology, sexuality, illness, and aging. Memo to our new College of Nursing: don’t give up on those literature electives! :)

Chekhov is known for four major plays (Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Sea Gull, and The Three Sisters), a handful of lesser and shorter plays, and innumerable stories. His fictions range from a page or two to almost 200 pages, from flash fiction to novella. He wrote two novels, which are fairly obscure, but his longer stories are longer than some writers’ novels.

As a result it’s hard to pigeonhole any of Chekhov’s stories. He wasn’t interested in the deft turning of a plot back on itself in a few pages (the method of Maupassant, O. Henry, Thomas Hardy, Kate Chopin). Nor was he floridly rhetorical, like H.G. Wells; his stories don’t illustrate big ideas. (Tolstoy accused Chekhov’s famous story “The Darling” of being a failed feminist argument that ended up proving the existence of the eternal feminine, but that critique tells us more about Tolstoy than about Chekhov; Chekhov always seemed interested in individuals, not categories of people.)

In Chekhov stories, things happen, lives are changed, but nothing fits standard narrative formulas – hence their extreme, ad hoc range of size and manner. In this Chekhov resembles Henry James, his somewhat older contemporary, who preferred the expansive concept of the “tale.” Yet even with James one perceives the aesthetic ideal that a story must illustrate a unified effect.

With Chekhov, instead, we get the impression that a prospect opens briefly on a life or few, and then closes behind them – much, perhaps, as a patients’ lives, their very bodies, become excruciatingly open to their physician for a few days or weeks, and then are lost in the welter of humanity again. Take, for instance, his 1898 story called “A Doctor’s Visit.” When a senior physician gets a call for help regarding a factory-owner’s daughter, he sends his assistant Korolyov instead. Korolyov is young, and ignorant of most things non-medical:

He was born and had grown up in Moscow; he did not know the country, and he had never taken any interest in factories, or been inside one.

But Korolyov knows people, and the causes of their pain. He quickly discovers that the heiress Liza suffers not from heart disease but from depression: a depression that he traces to the system of capitalism itself. Exemplifying, perhaps, the old principle that experts on a place are people who have been there either twenty years or twenty minutes, he analyzes the whole scheme of production, and explains the roots of her depression to his patient. He promises that life will be better in 50 years, even if he and Liza don’t live to see it. She cheers up, a little.

And the encounter is over. Set aside for a moment that 1898 + 50 would put Liza and Korolyov in the postwar Stalinist Soviet Union. Chekhov can’t have known that; what’s more important is that Chekhov realizes that Korolyov can’t know anything. The young doctor’s idealism and optimism are directed out into the fog of the larger social world. What we know of other people is largely conjecture. The young imagine they, and the world, will grow wise. Chekhov observes them imagining, and then turns his attention away.

In a sense, Chekhov wrote “novelistic” short stories, but it’s crucial that he stopped short of fleshing them into novels. Virginia Woolf, who greatly admired Chekhov, would call one of her exercises in vignette “An Unwritten Novel,” and that art form – subtle, oblique, and full of “negative capability” – is Chekhov’s great legacy. He didn’t learn how to write his unwritten novels in medical school, but one should acknowledge that he didn’t learn how in creative-writing classes, either. He used his medical training to live life, and he used that life to make his fleeting impressions of life live on in art.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on January 29th, 2010 |1 Comment »

UTA English Obituary: Simone Turbeville

Simone Turbeville, who died on 27 December 2009, was a long-time Associate Professor in the English Department at UTA – though it’s a measure both of the ephemerality of life and the huge turnover here in the past decade that few reading this obituary will remember her. It’s important to mark such passings – maybe more important to mark them than those of academics who get awards or professorships or buildings named after them.

Simone Turbeville taught at UTA for over 40 years. It doesn’t violate the principle of nil nisi bonum to say that Simone was a difficult colleague. In fact, if I were to write that her tenure here was one of sweetness and light, she would read that, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and say “Hmnph!” or words to that effect. No, Simone was a difficult colleague. She feuded endlessly with everybody over the most minor issues, leading one of our colleagues to muse that academic disputes are so very bitter because there is so very little at stake. Simone complained incessantly about her working conditions (something I of course would never do). She was easily and monumentally offended, and her character note was how little the world appreciated her. When she won the Gertrude Golladay Award for teaching in 1999, she remarked, “Too little, too late.”

Still, though she spent about ten of our 13 years as colleagues not speaking to me for one reason or another, it was impossible to stay mad at Simone forever. You always had the sense that if she took everything too bitterly, she chose the right things to be bitter about. Simone had a formidable education. She earned a PhD from Bocconi University in her native Milan in 1951 (a date that doesn’t square with her being born in the 1930s, as her obituary claims; much about her will remain mysterious). Upon arriving in the United States, she was told by somebody that a “foreign” doctorate wouldn’t cut it in America. So she set about earning a second doctorate, from Indiana University. Simone was thus one of the few people I’ve ever met to have two earned PhDs – real PhDs from major research universities, not a European summer school where you direct your own dissertation, or the On-Line University of Nowhere, or something like that.

Simone’s field was comparative literature of the Renaissance. She helped edit the journal Allegorica for much of its existence. She taught the high canon from Dante to Thomas Mann. She was fanatically opposed to literary theory of any description. (It was one of Simone’s students who, upon starting one of my theory courses, announced to the class “I don’t want theory. I just want facts.”) If you picture her as a bristling reactionary, you are of course half right. But Simone could surprise you. Her courses in literature and opera were in an interdisciplinary mode that became fashionable again just at the end of her career. She read feverishly, always adding contemporary authors to her syllabuses: when I met her in the late 1980s, she was into Umberto Eco, and made his work the centerpiece of her regular 20th-century comparative literature courses. When I started reading the Sicilian novelist Lara Cardella, who was half my age and a third of Simone’s, Simone sent agents into the bookstores of Europe to bring back the newest Cardella for us both to read. And almost as much as Puccini, she loved Robocop.

While she was intermittently talking to me, Simone always added energy to my day. When I arrived at UTA in 1988, I was given an office across from Simone on the 6th floor of Carlisle Hall. I would be minding my own business when Simone would strut in in a cloud of cigarette smoke and proclaim: “They have just determined the language family that Etruscan belongs to! Do you know what it is?” Beats me, Simone. “FINNO-UGARIC!” And she would pivot on one heel and depart as smokily as she’d arrived.

Simone loved animals, despite her legendary allergies: birds of all kinds, and Scottie dogs, in particular. She was a magnificent Italian cook. She loved students, especially those who loved her, and was savagely devoted to her favorites – and I do not say that as a bad thing; she loved people who loved the art, music, and books that she loved, and at heart there’s nothing wrong with that.

Simone witnessed a swath of Italian history. Her father was persecuted by Mussolini, and Simone would later see Il Duce hanging dead in a Milan plaza. On a lighter note, she once saw the Nobel Literature prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo in his underwear. The story goes that the great man had become enamored of one of Simone’s schoolfriends. Upon bustling into her friend’s flat one afternoon, she encountered Quasimodo in his BVDs. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us and unclad Nobel Laureates.

Simone, you were often impossible to get along with, but as I said when you retired in 2001, “ti vogliamo bene” – and now, “ti avremmo voluto bene.” Rest well.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 31st, 2009 |12 Comments »