It may be true, after all, that history—the history of literary attitudes, anyway—does repeat itself as farce, if only in the form of that perennial farce called literary politics.
More than fifty years ago, in an essay called “Attitudes Toward Henry James,” the late Philip Rahv paused in the midst of the James revival then in progress to assess some of the more benighted critical opinion that continued to haunt the reputation of this great writer. “The strategy is simple,” Rahv wrote: “James was nothing but a self-deluded expatriate snob, a concocter of elegant if intricate trifles, a fugitive from ‘reality,’ etc., etc.” One of the writers cited by Rahv was the still influential V. L. Parrington, who, in the final volume of his Main Currents in American Thought, had dismissed James as “a lifelong pilgrim to other shrines than those of his native land, who dedicated his gifts to ends that his fellow Americans were indifferent to.” Rahv correctly characterized this attitude as deriving from what he called “the Populist spirit of the [American] West and its open-air poetics.” Absurd as Parrington’s dismissal sounds to us today, it was once the accepted attitude toward James’s achievement in the world of mainstream literary and academic opinion.
We have been reminded of this all but forgotten episode in the history of literary attitudes by two recent developments. One is the publication of a new collection of essays by Pico Iyer called Tropical Classical (Knopf); the other, the recent announcement in The New York Times Magazine by James Atlas, the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, that he had given up reading Henry James and other classics of fiction for less taxing intellectual endeavors. We do not mean to equate these two events. Mr. Iyer’s book has much to recommend it, and in the essay from which it draws its title—“Welcome to the Age of Tropical Classical”—it addresses a literary phenomenon of some importance. Mr. Atlas’s farewell to serious literature was more in the nature of a yuppie-generation career move, as it was accompanied by an announcement that Mr. Atlas himself would henceforth be mainly occupied with the editing and marketing of a new line of short biographies devoted to subjects suitable for movie and television treatment.
Yet, different as these developments may have been in their implications for the future of literature, it was interesting to see the extent to which Henry James—and the literary tradition he is taken to represent—was invoked by both of these writers as a butt in the pursuit of their respective professional agendas.
It is the view of Mr. Iyer, a British-born Indian writer who now lives in California and Japan, that a new literary voice is, as he writes, “beginning to remake the contours of the global village.” It is this voice he calls “Tropical Classical.” Its three living masters are “Derek Walcott, in poetry, Michael Ondaatje, in fiction, and Richard Rodriguez, in the essay form.” What distinguishes these writers, in his view, is their “ability to season high classical forms with a lyrical beauty drawn from the streets and beaches of their homes.” It is this ability that is said to enable these writers to “put sparkling new wine into cobwebbed old bottles, and shake the whole thing up to make it fizz.”
It is this ability that is said to enable these writers to “put sparkling new wine into cobwebbed old bottles, and shake the whole thing up to make it fizz.”
Despite the infelicity of the metaphor, Mr. Iyer has clearly taken hold of an important subject. It is his political treatment of it, however, that suggests that we may now be entering upon a new era of literary demagoguery, replete with an updated version of “open-air poetics,” akin to that of the Parrington period. For first on Mr. Iyer’s list of writers to be downgraded in the interests of the Tropical Classical initiative is Henry James. “Imagine Henry James on the back streets of Tijuana,” he writes, as if nothing more need be said on the subject.
In “Welcome to the Age of Tropical Classical,” this passing swipe at James quickly proves to be merely a foil for a far graver indictment of V. S. Naipaul. It isn’t enough for Mr. Iyer to extol the literary virtues of Derek Walcott. In the interest of advancing the Tropical Classical cause, Mr. Naipaul—described as Mr. Walcott’s “fellow writer of the Caribbean, the dean of the old post-imperial debate”—must be maligned:
Begin with surfaces: Naipaul, stiffly immured inside his Wiltshire cottage, while Walcott shuttles back and forth between the islands and Massachusetts. Naipaul slamming the door on Trinidad, and keeping it locked up inside some dusty corner of himself, like the first Mrs. Rochester; while Walcott throws open the windows to West Indian light and lets it fall upon the pages of his Homer. Naipaul schooling himself in the way of his teachers, so that his prose is as chaste and formal—as rigorously English—as that of any Englishman; refining the West Indies (and the East) out of himself to write sentences that sound as if they have never seen tropical birds or island skies or hurricanes. A prose of discipline and clarity and order that always keeps its back straight and its shirt buttoned to the top; a prose that takes donnish pains not to dance.
While acknowledging that “to be sure, some of our current liberation is largely the result of what the likes of Naipaul have achieved, now that students can devour copies of Guerrillas in Twentieth-Century English Literature classes,” Mr. Iyer nonetheless condemns V. S. Naipaul for what is said to be his tendency “to affiliate himself with the most traditional, conservative aspects of the Old World order.”
Pico Iyer is a better prose writer than V. L. Parrington ever was, but the gravamen of his charge against V. S. Naipaul is very much akin to Parrington’s attack on Henry James. It is politics masquerading as literary aesthetics—the kind of politics that, as many people in the international literary world have long been aware, have already cost Mr. Naipaul the Nobel Prize he should have been awarded years ago.
Compared to such frontline skirmishes on the international literary scene, James Atlas’s farewell to serious literature is little more than a comic footnote to the cultural life of his yuppie generation—a generation that, to judge by Mr. Atlas’s own recent accounts in The New Yorker, seems to be settling into the cheerless complacency of a philistinism to rival any we’ve seen in the past. With his dismissal of the great modern writers—not only Henry James but Faulkner as well—as “cult classics” and “the property of an elite,” Mr. Atlas reminds us of no one as much as the late Van Wyck Brooks. This truly is literary history repeating itself as farce.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 10, on page 1
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