Prodigal Sons by Alexander Bloom

Prodigal Sons
Alexander Bloom,
Oxford 1986

 

I’ve been reading about the prehistory of the Cold War university world I entered  in 1964 as a college freshman, and it has been utterly depressing. The message I get is that  international politics and war trump domestic politics, and above all that they trump attempts at radical change or even reform. Great-power slush funds overwhelm everything else.

This book tells the story of the trajectory of the New York Intellectuals (Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, Public Interest) from their beginnings as very poor working-class radical  Jews with literary interests through Stalinism and anti-Stalinist radicalism to anti-Communist liberalism and  influential positions in American culture and the American university.

Citing Diana Trilling and Leslie Fiedler, Bloom notes that some of the intensity of the New York Intellectuals’ post-WWII anti-Communism may have been a result of the simple fear (or even guilt) felt by people who had dirty hands themselves — with the Rosenbergs serving as an expiatory burnt offering. The ferocious anti-Communist Sidney Hook had been a ferocious Communist during the Thirties, for example, and most of the New York Intellectuals had been isolationists right up until Pearl Harbor.

 

At times liberal anti-Communism just looks like a factional vendetta, where the prosecutions of the pro-Soviet Communists work as revenge for the Smith Act prosecutions of the anti-war Trotskyists. (Bloom doesn’t underline the fact, but many of the anti-Stalinist radicals redefined themselves as anti-Communist liberals without any previous history of liberalism, and the first thing they did was to attack existing civil-libertarian and anti-anti-Communist liberals of long standing).

In part because American foreign policy temporarily needed non-reactionary American anti-Communists to front for their European operations (The Politics of Apolitical Culture, Giles Scott-Smith) , and in part because the U.S. was moving in an authoritarian direction domestically, anti-Communist quasi-liberalism proved to be the road to success, though often enough  it was merely a half-way house to full-blown Strauss-Schmitt-Hayek anti-liberalism.

As I said above, war and foreign policy trump everything else.  Little as I admire the New York Intellectuals’ 1950s position, I am not sure that there was a better one available to be taken. If they had acted in a way more to my liking, I suspect that they would have retuirned to obscurity while someone else was found to get the job done. The post-WWII Eurasia / Eastasia switch, rather like an earthquake, destroyed all earlier political positions and severely limited post-earthquake possibilities. At least members of the losing faction weren’t subject to the death of a thousand cuts, as they might have been in the Chinese or the Byzantine empire.

All of the New York Intellectuals were very, very serious — Elliot Cohen, the first editor of Commentary, called them humorless. More evidence for my conviction that ambitious players without a capacity for fundamental unseriousness run the risk of becoming apparatchiks.

P.S. Yes, this is a worst-case reading. Caveat emptor and YMMV. This has been a sore point for me for years.

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 9:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Major Themes and Key Words in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”.

(The below is a supplement to my longer article
but for someone familiar with the book
I think it can stand on its own).

Some aspects of This Side of Paradise can best be shown simply by tracking certain themes or even just certain key words or groups of key words through the text: impiety, staginess, “imagination”, “people”, “success”, “mirror”, “generation”,  “bourgeois”, “philistine”, “Pharisee”, “odor” “stink”, “scent”, alien” and  “immigrant”.

1.
Impiety, the devil, sex,  marriage, and evil

Amory’s fear of the dark and of ghosts, his vision of the real presence of the devil, and his final belief that beautiful women are evil do not fit with his image as a rebellious young Jazz Age libertine, though do they fit in perfectly with Catholic decadence. What was new about Fitzgerald was not advocacy, but merely a frank description of the scandalous ways of his generation — a naturalist writing about the conceited and spoiled rich rather than about slum dwellers.  His archaic superstitions and moral doubts did not hurt him with his youthful  audience, probably because many of them had the same doubts as he did.

For Amory, sex is identified with the devil and with the impiety of putting the beloved in the place of God. Sex and marriage also trap a  man in life and turn him into an object — a “people”. His mentor Darcy is grooming him to become a priest, and that may be what he mother also wants. But in the end he has lost his faith, and after implausibly considering a life as a socialist or a progressive reformer, he finds his new calling: Writing, which was always already there. And writing requires him to submit himself to the terrors of sex, love, and marriage even though being a writer unfits him for love.

One of the most clearly stated messages of This Side of Paradise is straight from Savonarola: women, beauty, and sex are evil. Oddly, the Jazz Age did not pick up on this message. Did the readers of This Side of Paradise simply ignore this message,  or were they, too, like Fitzgerald and Amory, severely conflicted and only one doubtful step removed from Puritanism or Catholic sex guilt?

 Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

 Fitzgerald, February 26, 1919. (more…)

Published in: on December 26, 2016 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  

A New Reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”

John Emerson

This highly original reading of Fitzgerald’s book is in my opinion valid and important. (Readers should understand that most of the idiosyncratic and irregular aspects of  my presentation are deliberate).

Comments welcome below or at emerson j at g mail dot com

Word version of this article

Major Themes and Key Words: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”:
Additional evidence for my argument


I.

Preface

You don’t know about me unless you just read a book by the name of  This Side of Paradise that I wrote. There is things that I stretched, but  I told the truth, mainly.  People badmouth my book some, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would have covered up, so you get that.

I’m a naturalist  like Dreiser and all those guys. I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem precious and fake that’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives, pretense, even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right there in the middle of his half-baked novel.

Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to say all those things, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel that people will  still be reading a century from now, and he didn’t.

Also, my book is a morality play, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and two succubi (Axia and Elaine), and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin.  “I know myself, but that is all”. Ha.

II.

Introduction

Amory Blaine is F. Scott Fitzgerald, more or less. Blaine tells us various things he has noticed about the Midwest, Princeton University, the WWI generation, women, etc., and some of these things are very interesting, but the book is mostly about him.  He learns a lot about himself from the women he tries to love,  and these women also tell him what it’s like to be at the receiving end of fetishism.

A stranger in the world, Amory must manipulate and dominate his way through life, but doing so makes real human contact almost impossible. His aristocratic egotism, analytic reflex,  misogyny,  asceticism / Puritanism,  and decadent disdain for the world of his time separate him from the rest of humankind, making a life dedicated to the Church seem tempting. But the vocation he ends up choosing is writing, not the priesthood.

As a writer he needs experience, and for a committed  romantic like Amory (despite his Puritanism),  experience means love. But even love does not save him, and at the end of his book he is in utter confusion, overcome by cynicism, misogyny,  resentment, and a vaguely progressive nihilism, with has no other choice than to become a writer, which is what he had always wanted to do.

(more…)

Published in: on December 21, 2016 at 9:05 pm  Comments (3)  

New Directions and Ezra Pound

Greg Barnhisel
James Laughlin, New Directions Press, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound,
University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Barnhisel’s book is an interesting history of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing house, and by extension a history of American literary publishing since 1920 or so, but the main thing I’ve taken away from it is the conviction that Ezra Pound was the most obnoxious American author of all time.

You have to start with Pound’s cutesy, ranting, incredibly annoying epistolary style, which is the written equivalent of jabbing you in the ribs and tugging at your shirt: “There is no mony fer me in having sheets embedded. I mean whazzer USE in Nude Erections importing what won’t keep papa? … I shd/ think Nude Erek/ cd. do something more active than merely Sheeting the Polecats.” Except from a damaged friend or relative for whom I felt responsibility, I would be disinclined to continue a correspondence that went like that.

     Then, there is his continual stream of insults accusing more or less everyone else in the world, including the person he was writing to, of stupidity and worse. Pound was tremendously proud of his own ideas, which were shabby and worthless — Social Credit, developed by a saner crank, was the good part.

And then the Fascist-Nazi thing, which went deep. When he noticed Jews in his audience he made a point of reading his most anti-Semitic Cantos. His puzzlement and indignation at the poor reception of his Nazi beliefs in the US makes you think that his insanity plea, which I used to think was just a polite fiction for saving his neck, may have been entirely valid.

Laughlin marketed Pound to the civilized world with a combination of an insanity plea and “art for art’s sake”. To Pound his political writings were the most important of all, but to his handlers and supporters these had nothing to do his poetry. You sort of have to wonder about Laughlin.

The strange and savage American Fifties, back when I was a boy. The past is a different country, they say, not to be judged by the standards of today.

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

“This Side of Paradise”

 

My last word on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. I am 70 years old and Fitzgerald was a little younger than my grandfather. He should be read as an author from the distant past even though his hipster-fratboy-dudebro aesthetic seems contemporary. And if you find his characters unpleasant, well, by and large they didn’t like themselves, and Fitzgerald really didn’t either. Read it as gritty realism about precious, spoiled people.

***

It purports to be the picaresque ramble of one Stephen Palms….

Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up, p. 252 — from a 1918 letter to John Peale Bishop describing The Romantic Egoist (the early version of This Side of Paradise).

 It is a well-considered, finished whole this time.

 Fitzgerald,  August 16, 1919 letter to Maxwell  Perkins, in Hook, p. 24.

 [Amory Blaine was] a wavering quality in a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of TSOP is that it is not really about anything; its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture — a gesture of indefinite revolt….

 Edmund Wilson, 1924, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.

 A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.

 Fitzgerald, 1936, in  Prigozy,  p. 336.

 I think it is now one of the funniest books since “Dorian Gray” in its utter spuriousness….

 Fitzgerald, 1938, in Prigozy, p. 337.

       Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is the story of the early life of the author-to-be Amory Blaine, and in it we can watch Fitzgerald himself becoming an author. Fitzgerald called the book “a romance and a reading list”, and in it we we are given a very detailed picture of Amory’s literary development (which was much like Fitzgerald’s). Glenway Wescott wondered whether Fitzgerald was not “the worst educated man in the world”, but the truth is that his education was specialized toward the writing of novels the way Sherlock Holmes’s education was specialized toward the detection of crime. Fitzgerald’s reading (like Amory’s) was almost all literature, almost all of it written after 1800, and enough of it was popular literature of not quite the highest grade for him to easily find an audience.

While  Fitzgerald expressed confidence about his book, he  had no confidence that others would understand what he had done. As he often did, he abased himself before their criticisms, and I am convinced that his self-effacing meekness in the face of his friends’ incomprehension was one of the reasons why his book is still   merely regarded as merely a prelude to Fitzgerald’s other, better books.

This Side of Paradise is certainly not “a well-made novel”, and it is above all not a novel of purpose bringing the reader to a satisfying conclusion. It has aspects of a boys’ book, a campus novel, a romance, a bildungsroman, a “quest novel”, a novel of  ideas, a naturalist novel, a Catholic novel built around the medieval vices of Pride and Lust,  and an autobiographical novel. However, in most of these cases it can be seen as a takeoff or parody of these familiar genres: a boys’ book full preteen kissing games and a decadent mother, a campus novel about a feckless dropout, a romance about people incapable of love, a bildungsoman / quest novel ending in confusion and defeat, a fallen-Catholic book, a novel of not-very-good ideas, and the objective naturalistic description of spoiled, artificial people rather than slum dwellers.

When young Fitzgerald put together his first novel he seemed like a novice author faking his way to a book, but when the dust had settled he could be seen to have been inventing his own genre, as modernist authors often do. As a novel of youth rebellion and failure, or as the self-referential story of a narcissist , always watching himself (and watching other narcissists watch themselves) written by an author who is also always watching himself, This Side of Paradise certainly has many descendants (whether recognized or not). This book’s pastiche of poetry, drama and fiction is also sometimes seen today, but even now few authors insert into their fiction page-long  passages written by personal friends who are the real-life models for their characters.

Rather than a defective apprentice work, This Side of Paradise  should be regarded as a pioneering neo-decadent, self-referential, picaresque, autobiographical pastiche novel set in the familiar worlds of Midwestern boys’ books, American campus novels, early Twentieth Century progressive fiction, and post-WWI disillusion. At its core are reflections on the self: the narcissistic self  vs. love, and the true self vs. public roles. The incomprehension of the conventional readers of the time, together with their envy at Fitzgerald’s fame and financial success, have led to its being underrated to this day, even by those who still admire Fitzgerald’s other work.

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ezra Pound Weirdness

MORE EZRA POUND WEIRDNESS
CANTICO DEL SOLE
(From Instigations, reprinted in Personae; written between 1917 and 1920).
The thought of what America would be like
If the classics had wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the classics had wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had wide circulation …
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

After WWII when cheap paperback editions of classic literature started to become available (first at Penguin), many intellectuals (including left intellectuals) were profoundly uneasy at the idea of sharing their treasure with the unqualified masses. T.S. Eliot refused to allow his poems to be republished in anthologies sold below a certain price. The apotheosis of this point of view is Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”; he clearly believes that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” and that it the masses to should be allowed to continue to wallow in ignorance.

Early Penguin and New Directions books were deliberately drab, to distinguish them from gaudy cheap paperbacks, though at some point Penguin switched and overdid it, putting a nude woman on the cover of “Beyond Good and Evil”. Once in a bookstore around 1960 I remember thinking something like “I WANT TO READ ALL THOSE BOOKS! — but couldn’t those guys lighten up just a little?”.

     Per this poem, despite his decadent elitism, at least early in his career Pound really had hoped for the wider circulation of high culture. During the 30s he also made a considerable effort to sell his Social Credit to such American politicians as Sens. William Borah and Bronson Cutting, along with the demagogue Father Coughlin.
     Around 1910 Chicago was a world center of English-language poetry, thehe place where aesthetes like Yeats and Pound rubbed shoulders with populists like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. Only Pound tried to combine elite decadence with populism, however — probably more evidence that he was really insane.
Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Two Jewels of American Literature.

1.

Per Theodora Bosanquet (1918, The Little Review) Henry James’s ultimate feeling about Daisy Miller  “came to be like that of some grande dame possessing a jewel-case richly stocked with glowing rubies and flashing diamonds, but condemned by her admirers always to appear in the single string of moonstones worn at her first dance”.

(Cited by William T. Stafford in his “Introduction” to James’s Daisy Miller, Scribner, 1963, p. 3).

2.

“It has been by a celebrated person [Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilson’s lover at that time] that to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond; she is extremely proud of the diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by, and everyone is surprised that such an ignorant old woman should possess so valuable a jewel; for in nothing does she appear so stupid as in the remarks she makes about the diamond”.

 

Edmund Wilson, “Fitzgerald Before The Great Gatsby“, in F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Alfred Kazin,  World Publishing Co., 1951, p. 77 (also in The Shores of Light, 1952).

Published in: on October 18, 2016 at 7:42 pm  Comments (1)  

Tom Sawyer was a rentier, but Huckleberry refused that

Tom Sawyer was a rentier (see below), and he required applicants to his robber gang prove their respectability. Everything he was involved in was just a frat boy prank. Huck played Tom’s game for awhile, and could have been a rentier too if he’d wanted to, but at the end of the book (after 100 pages of Tom’s clownish romanticism) is making plans to run away from all that.

Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece — all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round — more than a body could tell what to do with.

The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

…..

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Published in: on October 6, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

My Contribution to the upcoming “This Side of Paradise” Centenary.

Chapter II: 6
ENVOI

My name is Amory Blaine. You don’t know about me unless you just read a book by the name of This Side of Paradise that I just wrote. There is things that I stretched, but I told the truth, mainly. People say things against the book, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would cover up, so you get that.

I, Amory Blaine, am a naturalist like Dreiser and all those guys, and and I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem silly and artificial and fake it’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives, even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right in the middle of his half-baked novel. (“I know myself, but that is all”. :-)).

Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to badmouth my book, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if even that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel people will be reading a century from now and he didn’t.

Also, it’s a naturalistic novel, but its a morality play too, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and a (succubus) Elaine and a several Eves, and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin.

Published in: on October 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

This Side of Paradise

 

[More to follow]

Published in: on August 14, 2016 at 3:46 am  Comments (1)