Literature and Life (Howells)
I have a fondness for essays, the wandering of familiar pieces and the rhetoric of formal ones. I know, as Montaigne did, that every essay, whatever the topic, must express the consciousness of the author. Burton, Bacon, and Browne; Cowley, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt and the endearing Lamb, Pater, Pound, Woolf, Orwell, each has its charm. I had never before encountered, however, the essays of arch-Realist William Dean Howells.
His travel writing resembles that of his friend Mark Twain, in its arch wit. Visiting Bermuda, he notes that the presence of those of African descent “burden” the whites with a “conundrum” and proceeds to exemplify this principle with an anecdote of three tourist ladies tormenting a gardener with their curious attentions. There is an essay on a dime museum and the show performed inside which is a marvel of weirdness in which a short drama involving dance is succeeded by a blackface performer who “went from one wild gayety to another,” followed by contortionists. We learn of this exhibition at second-hand – the author himself was too genteel to venture into such a place -- but his informant declares “Aren’t the arts one? How can you say that any art is higher than the others?” His essay on Spanish prisoners of war is a strong bit of anti-imperialist journalism. There is good criticism and a great deal of information about American taste and publishing by one of its most influential figures.
My own copy of the book, one discarded from a university library, is a first edition including photographic and watercolor illustrations. One can see perhaps why it was culled – the pages were uncut until my reading. The writing is far fresher than the Victorian lettering on the cover.
The Fifth Queen (Ford)
For most readers, Ford is known for his influence in Modernism through The English Review and as the author of the Parade’s End tetralogy. The Fifth Queen was followed by two sequels, Privy Seal and The Fifth Queen Crowned, portraying an almost suffocating atmosphere in the court of Henry VIII through the career of Katharine Howard. The intrigue rising from both personal and party maneuvering is constant and grave in its effects. Two parties struggle for influence – an old order aligned with Catholicism and the traditional learning the heroine has mastered opposed to a new and uncertain Renaissance alternative.
Ford, who took style seriously indeed, chose to use a curious diction sprinkled with archaisms. Perhaps I have a high tolerance for affectation, but the language enhanced the novel for me. Though the work was called by Ford’s friend Conrad, “the swan song of historical romance,” its experimentalism may be suggested by the fact that William Gass is one of its fans.
Man of Straw (Der Untertan) Heinrich Mann
It is difficult to avoid reading this book as prescient. Written in 1914, its hero is a perfect pre-Nazi Nazi. Seeking to submerge his wretched character in a great man, Diederich adores the Kaiser fully as much as the next generation was to idolize der Führer. The loutish young manufacturer is nasty in his anti-Semitism, if not yet violent and he tells his wife to follow the Kaiser’s formula and to restrict herself to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.” His cowardice, selfishness, and hypocrisy are so consistent that the story makes salutary propaganda but thin fiction.
Even the appreciative reader will understand why this commendable anti-fascist lives under the shadow of his brother’s reputation. Apart from this book, his novel Professor Unrat is the basis for von Sternberg’s great film The Blue Angel.