The Art of Literary Study

I’m often pleased to see ALSCW members’ poetry, fiction, and criticism featured and reviewed when I open the New York Review of Books¸ the London Review of Books, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, or other publications. In the June 22nd issue of the NYRB, for instance, there are poems by Rosanna Warren and Jane Hirschfield. Books by Edward Hirsch and Marjorie Perloff are reviewed. I’m equally pleased to learn of the steady stream of awards our members receive. Ernest Hilbert was the winner of the 2017 Poets’ Prize; Jean Valentine won the 2017 Bolligen Prize; Ryan Wilson took the Donald Justice Prize; Al Basile, Luther Dickinson, and Mike Mattison received nominations in multiple categories for the Blues Music Awards. Kelly Cherry was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from her alma mater, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. And there’s the steady stream of books, articles, major lectures, teaching awards, and other contributions to literature and the arts that come to my attention.

Bringing together people who create literature with those who study it is an ALSCW hallmark. The synergy helps maintain a sense of literature as an art form, but one that, like all art forms, benefits from scrutiny and a sense of historical perspective. Pictured below is William Demastes with the subject of his latest book, the playwright John Guare.1 Demastes—who has written or edited over thirty books on drama—has spent much of his career seeking out artists whose work he explores and assesses. A character based on him even appears in one of Tom Stoppard’s plays.

Demastes and Guare

Many scholars don’t enjoy the advantages—or deal with the pitfalls—of working on living writers. (James Dickey once phoned me in the middle of the night, irate that I’d called one of his poems “opaque and obtuse.”) Yet they still maintain a sense that literature cannot be abstracted from the human contexts that surrounded its creation. I believe this type of scholarship is characteristic of our members’ work—and I believe it’s why their work draws attention beyond the academy. If literature and literary history aren’t about what it means to be human, then what’s their purpose?

Two recent books, Robert S. Levine’s The Lives of Fredrick Douglass and Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (2017), strike me as studies that embody the ALSCW’s values.2 Both books offer trenchant narratives that combine provocative close readings with biography and cultural history. Both authors’ prose is lucid and graceful, qualities that reflect mastery over their materials; it’s nearly impossible to write so well and so compellingly without great expertise and the confidence that ensues.

Levine has been a major scholar of nineteenth century American literature and African American literature for over thirty years. He’s published widely on Hawthorne, Melville, Cooper, and many others, and is the General Editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Lives of Fredrick Douglass benefits from his wide ranging knowledge of American literature and history. He focuses on Douglass’s three autobiographies—Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and The Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881)—and various editions of those works. He also draws on Douglass’s lectures, letters, essays, and other writings. While Levine details differences in the scope and purpose of each autobiography, his decision to consider them in aggregate, as “part of a larger autobiographical project that encompasses a wide range of Douglass’s writings,” is what makes the book stand out. He strives to examine the autobiographies “as Douglass regarded them”: that is, “as finished products that he hoped to sell in large quantities, but ultimately as unfinished lives that from the moment they were completed were subject to revision” (4).

(Robert Levine and his son, summer 2017)

Levine balances his analysis of Douglass as a skilled practitioner of the art of autobiography with analysis of Douglass as a canny social reformer who sought to advance causes and his own career. He is aware that Douglass and his work have been appropriated for different purposes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—he is, in fact, currently writing a book on that topic—but first things first: he stresses “understanding Douglass as an autobiographer in the nineteenth century . . . recovering Douglass as best we can in his own time helps us construct a more vital Douglass for our own—a figure, in other words, that is more than simply a figment of our collective cultural imaginations” (29). He observes that though Narrative of the Life remains the most widely read of Douglass’s autobiographies, Douglass lived for another fifty years after that slim volume’s publication. In fact, Douglass himself called it a “pamphlet” and regarded it as a minor work.

Levine’s stress on locating Douglass’s writings within their historical moment prompts him to consider the first edition of Narrative of the Life “by exploring the productive role of Garrison and his antislavery society” in the work’s creation and distribution. He notes that today most critics either read the book as if Garrison and his Massachusetts Antislavery Society “didn’t exist,” or regard Garrison and the Society as engaging in a “condescending and ultimately unsuccessful effort” to control Douglass. Levine’s premise is that, although Douglass separated himself from Garrison soon after the book’s publication, “evidence suggests that in the spring and summer of 1845 Douglass gloried in the achievement of the Narrative, which he regarded as the fruitful culmination of the collaborative work he had been doing with Garrison’s antislavery society since 1841” (32, 33). He argues that “had Douglass left Garrison and the Massachusetts Antislavery Society before 1845, we probably would not have the Narrative . . . and maybe not even Bondage and Freedom, which reworks and extends the Narrative” (38). Douglass later insisted that Garrison wanted to restrict his efforts to analyze, and not just confirm, cruelties associated with slavery, but there is “not a surviving lecture in which Douglass speaks only as a surviving slave who is authenticating the horrors of slavery” (40).

Levine suggests that from 1841 until the book’s publication in 1845, Garrison and the Society furnished a kind of “writing workshop” for Douglass, providing him with feedback, an audience, and helping him hone his story “from a series of storytelling possibilities” (41). His close reading of Douglass’s appendix to the Narrative, which denounces Christian institutions for abetting and not denouncing slavery, emphasizes Garrison’s willingness not to interfere when Douglass assumed an analytic voice. At the same time, Levine makes clear that after the book’s publication Garrison and his society took control over the ways in which the book was marketed and sold. Garrison helped turn Douglass into a celebrity, but it’s evident he felt that the Narrative belonged to his Massachusetts Antislavery Society, only to be surprised when Douglass traveled to Europe and attempted to wrest control back from him.

Soon after Douglass arrived in the British Isles in 1845, he began to “oversee the publication of two Dublin editions (1845, 1846)” of the Narrative, and “reworked the prefatory materials and appendix . . . Douglass conceived of his autobiography as a work in progress in need of regular updating and rearticulation” (76-77). During his trip overseas, Douglass gave an antislavery speech that sparked an aggressive and contentious argument among the ship’s passengers. The event was heavily publicized in English newspapers, a circumstance which assured his celebrity upon arrival in Liverpool and endowed him with an audience that extended beyond Garrison and his followers (though he continued to publish letters in Garrison’s Liberator). In his preface to the new editions, Douglass “assiduously emphasizes that it is he, not Garrison, who is the editor of the volume” (90). Copyright laws—or the lack thereof—allowed Douglass to keep the profits, which subsidized his travels and bolstered his independence. Douglass soon found “his greatest sense of community”—Levine calls him an “Anglophile at heart”—with “antislavery elites” (94).

Douglass asserted even greater control over the second Dublin edition, reworking the preface and the appendix, and “presenting himself as a transatlantic antislavery leader” (98). The revised appendix includes letters Douglass exchanged with A.C.C. Thompson, a farmer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who “claimed that Douglass had misrepresented” the region’s slaveholders and who insisted that Douglass “could not have possibly written the Narrative because he was an illiterate slave” (99). Levine provides a rich and detailed analysis of their correspondence and its historical contexts, and paints a portrait of the “new Douglass” who emerged abroad. In an extraordinary letter to Thompson, Douglass asserts that he is a “new man,” and that if they met amid the free hills of Old Scotland, where the ancient ‘Black Douglass’ once met his foes,” it “might lead” him “to deeds which would render our meeting not the most agreeable,” particularly “if you should attempt to enslave me” (quoted on p. 106). With the backing of British supporters, Douglass began his own newspaper, the North Star, soon after his return to the United States in 1847, and, in addition to agitating against slavery, he took up the cause of women’s liberation. In 1851 he broke his ties with Garrison, and in 1853 he published his only work of fiction, the novella The Heroic Slave.

In a remarkable chapter—“Heroic Slaves: Madison Washington and My Bondage and My Freedom”—Levine details how Douglass’s reimagined the rebellion Washington led aboard the slave ship the Creole in 1841. Levine asserts that in the novella “Douglass depicts key moments in the life of a heroic slave through a complex mélange of biography, autobiography, and fiction” (124). Levine is careful not to push the autobiographical similarities between Douglass and his fictional protagonist too hard, but he feels that the fictional and historical Madison “served as a focal point for Douglass’s thinking about race, nation, interracial friendship, and black revolution” for “about twenty years” (126). Levine reconstructs Douglass’s engagement with sources and potential sources for his novella, and sees those materials as a catalyst for Douglass’s embrace of a larger range of actions, including violence, in combating slavery. His close reading of The Heroic Slave spans fourteen pages, does not exaggerate the book’s artistic merits, and serves as the bedrock for his analysis of My Bondage and My Freedom, a work which William Andrews and other scholars of African American literature view as Douglass’s seminal written achievement. “Having reconceived of himself as a black revolutionary leader in the first part of Bondage and Freedom, he now turns in the second (and concluding) part to another large theme that he had addressed in The Heroic Slave: interracial friendship” (168).

Interracial friendship also plays a significant role in Douglass’s the Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass, Written by Himself, a work that, when compared to the “first two autobiographies . . . has generally been regarded as something of an embarrassment, a self-indulgent work of over 600 pages that need be read by only Douglass specialists” (186). But Levine points out that it is “the only autobiography in which Douglass discusses John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, Reconstruction, his return to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, his second marriage (which was with a white woman), and his vexed role as a U.S. minister and consul to Haiti, to name just some of the highlights of the volume” (186). It “remained the only Douglass autobiography that was widely available in the twentieth century until the Narrative was republished in 1960” (186-187).

Levine calls the Life and Times an “underrated classic” that “for the most part tells a compelling story about his unfolding life history over the large canvas of the nineteenth century, and he does so in ways that are highly rhetorical, performative, and not completely to be trusted.” His scrupulous reevaluation of the work and its biographical and historical contexts show how the book is “both a revelatory resource for Douglass studies and a great read in the art of obfuscation” (187). His analysis of Douglass’s depictions of his relationships to Brown, Lincoln, Thomas Auld, Douglass’s wives, associates, and others are revelatory, bold, and illuminating. (I’m an Americanist by trade and learned a good deal about Douglass, literary history, and American history.)

Marjorie Perloff

Like Levine, Perloff has been a leading scholar for decades. Her studies of modernist and contemporary poetry largely have shaped our understanding of writers’ worlds and creative practices. Edge of Irony#—her seventeenth monograph—is a “book about Austro-Modernism” that’s “aimed primarily at a non-Germanic audience” (xiii). Her premise is that, although Austrians like Freud and certain painters and composers of classical music are known to Anglophone audiences, major Austro-Modernist literary figures, with the exception of Franz Kafka, remain relatively unknown. She devotes chapters to Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Paul Celan, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (I had no familiarity with Kraus and Canetti, and little with the others except Celan and Wittgenstein), and observes that “Austro-Modernism is largely an Austro-Jewish phenomenon” that developed during “one of the most anti-Semitic periods in modern European history” (xiii).

Like Levine, Perloff creates a compelling narrative by framing close readings within biographical and historical contexts. Her introductory chapter is part cartography, utilizing maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before and after its dissolution; part social and political history, detailing the events and personages that led up to the Empire’s splintering; part biography, establishing the general contours of each writer’s life; and part aesthetic analysis, exploring the ontological changes that led artists to create a modernism distinct from that which flourished in Western Europe and in the United States.

Five of the six writers on which Perloff focuses came from the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but all were drawn to Vienna and had to negotiate their ties to Judaism. The exception, Ludwig Wittgenstein, came from a Viennese family of Jews who had converted to Protestantism and Catholicism. Wittgenstein was baptized Catholic, but he and his family’s “true religion” became “culture” (154). He volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, returned to Vienna after the War, but after 1929 spent most of his life studying and teaching at Cambridge University. Musil, the only writer not of Jewish ancestry, married a Jew, which necessitated that the couple to flee from Vienna to Switzerland in 1938 (the Nazis had already banned his books). In post-World War II Vienna, Celan, “a dark and handsome Jewish Holocaust survivor from Czernowitz,” “meets and falls in love with” a “beautiful blonde Austrian Catholic” poetess, who is the daughter of an SS officer, an occurrence Perloff likens to a Hollywood movie. “Both poets, in their youth, regard Vienna as the City of their Dreams, their magical goal,” but are deeply disappointed there . . . Vienna holds too many memories of its recent Nazi past” (125-126).

The paradox underpinning the irony that characterizes these writers’ work is that Jewish intellectuals, artists, and businessmen flourished and embraced the German language and Vienna (at age eighty-two Freud had to be taken away against wishes), a city that was a locus of anti-Semitic ferment. The first volume of Canetti’s autobiography, The Tongue Set Free, is a case in point. The title refers to a childhood trauma—Canetti’s fourteen-year-old nanny threatened to cut out his tongue—that takes on symbolic resonance: “As a child in the Danube port city of Rustchuck on the Bulgarian-Romanian border, Canetti spoke the language of his Sephardic-Jewish community, the Spanish dialect called Ladino. With servants, peasants, and towns people he spoke Bulgarian.” But his parents were “educated in Vienna and devotees of Austrian high culture” who “spoke German to one another” (100-101). This “multilingualism complicates—and often undermines—identity” (101). Perloff shows how linguistic tensions are reflected in Canetti’s own writing and themes, and make him a “supreme ironist, plotting out, bit by bit, a world in which the ardent humanism its chronicler professes—his passion for art, the intellectual life, the Great Men—no longer makes sense” (123).

Perloff’s premise is that “Austro-Modernist literature is not ‘avant-garde’ in the usual sense: it is not, for example, characterized by collage and fragmentation, by international genre crossing or the use of mixed media” (6). Instead, it is characterized by

absorption of other language registers into the authors’ native German, its troubling anti-Semitism, its conviction, most memorably expressed by Wiggenstein, that argumentation called not for linear discourse but a series of aphorisms, its transvaluation of normative values, its fondness for paradox and contradiction as modes of understanding, and especially the hard edge of its savage and grotesquely comic irony. (7)

She speculates that these qualities “may well be more lasting legacies of Modernism than the use of collage, the time shift, or the stream of consciousness,” and astutely ties Austro-Modernism’s aesthetics to the cultural milieu, as well as to the artists’ personal circumstances (7). The “anti-Semitism that had been latent in Catholic Austria flared” with World War I and with the influx of Jewish immigrants into Vienna and rural areas. This situation caused twists and turns that upended people’s lives and defy conventional thinking. For instance, “Kraus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism (1899) who later renounced the church for its complicity in the war, is known for his troubling, arguably anti-Semitic comments, but in the case of Benedikt, Kraus’s charges of corruption and mendacity proved to be correct” (9).3 Perloff shows that, when confronted with the “twin evils Fascism and Communism” and with the “corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn,” writers came to believe that fundamental change could only occur on a personal level, and developed forms of irony tinged with the absurd: “Diagnosis thus replaces the application of a particular set of ideas . . . the aim is to present, to show How It Is” (13).

Subsequent chapters are devoted to specific writers. Chapters are peppered with illustrations—from newspaper headlines and cartoons to photographs of architecture and paintings—which Perloff uses to establish sources and avenues for interpretation. Her overarching emphasis is on telling stories, on the individual and the panoramic level, which lend weight to her readings. Roth, who was born in the Galician “frontier town,” Brody—it’s now part of Ukraine—never saw his biological father and was raised by his mother, whom he described as a “Jewess of strong earthy, Slavic constitution” (48). Yet Roth, who lived in Paris from 1925 until his death in 1939, described himself as a “Roman and a Catholic, a humanist and a renaissance man” (48). His generational novel The Radetzky March (1932) tells the tale of the rise and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the lives of a Slavic family. At times, Perloff ventures to relate the past to our present. For instance, Kraus’s “analysis of the role the media play in disseminating the case for war” is not only anchored in particulars surrounding his docudrama The Last Days of Mankind, which was written from 1915 to 1922, but is also compared to the spin that characterized Anderson Cooper’s reporting on the Arab Spring on CNN. Perloff feels that “what makes the playwright and the play so modern—if not postmodern—is his understanding . . . of the role that found text could play in the new world of media” (40). She asserts that “a century later,” the play’s “time has surely come” (40).

The power of The Lives of Fredrick Douglass and Edge of Irony resides in Levine and Perloff’s respective abilities to showcase how human dramas and writerly talent help shape potent literature. They tell stories of individuals who endured extreme racial and ethnic antagonism yet forged literary works of enduring significance. There is no more of a formula for writing literary criticism than there is for writing a poem, novel, or song, though there are, of course, particular types of criticism, just as there are discrete forms of literature. The Lives of Fredrick Douglass and Edge of Irony are works that emphasize literary history and aesthetics—the art of autobiography, poetry, drama, fiction, the essay, and translation. Both books are text-centered but use biography and history to provide a greater sense of the tensions embedded in the creation of literature. It’s an approach which so many of our members embrace, and one that suggests why our troubled nation and the academy are in need of what the humanities—and literature in particular—offers.

1 W.W. Demastes, Understanding John Guare, University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

2 Robert S. Levine, The Lives of Fredrick Douglass, Harvard UP, 2016. Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, Chicago UP, 2017.

3 Moritz Benedikt was the editor of the leading newspaper in Vienna.

Ernest Suarez

Ernest Suarez

Ernest Suarez is the President of the ALSCW and David M. O'Connell Professor of English at the Catholic University of America.He has published widely on American poetry, southern literature, and music.
Ernest Suarez

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Author: Ernest Suarez

Ernest Suarez is the President of the ALSCW and David M. O'Connell Professor of English at the Catholic University of America. He has published widely on American poetry, southern literature, and music.