Primo: Elements of Style, E.B. White: “Vigorous prose is concise.”
Secundo: “No one can write like Tolstoy.” —Vladimir Nabokov
Tertio: “Nothing, even Homer, is as old as Gilgamesh.
Quarto: Henry James: read “The Grasping Imagination”, Peter Buitenhuis
Quinto: I out-grew this discourse in graduate school!
As an American at Oxford—an institution of 1,000 year duration—I was struck by an immanent awareness which placed me not among hallowed pavements and structures but beside the spirit of the place. Similarly, I have to accept the HoLy Roman Empire with a leap of faith as a mythic collaboration of primitive Europeans much as I view Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey as a foundation of Western literature. But it seems that The Empire’s lack of cohesive purpose instead of passive stewardship led inevitably to the predations of Napoleon and the Prussians to the fragmented lunacy of World War One to the doorsteps of Hitler and Mussolini. In our brief Empire—now, since 1609 Jamestown, roughly the same as the Roman Empire—we have felt safely insulated from History. It’s telling the Gibbon’s title, “Decline and Fall…” has begun to creep into today’s ironic political lexicon as the leading presidential candidate rants: “Make America Great Again” and we howl approval.
The greatest woman novelist in English literature—pay attention halfwits, you’ll get an “aha” even your beloved “awesome”—George Eliot wrote “Daniel Deronda” five years after “Middlemarch” whose Dorothea is the greatest heroine in English. Read her prologue paragraph to “Deronda’s” Book One, Chapter One, if you dare test your literacy!
One of my favorite novelists for over 25 years, Louise Erdrich, in an odyssey of fifteen novels has offered not purely a fine landscape of her Ojibwe Native American half-ancestry but a view of human passion and elasticity moving beyond the bounds of mere experience—of loss and recovery of spirit—which serves to unite fiction’s cure for alienation: unity of author, reader and character. Begin with “The Beet Queen” and move through “Plague of Doves” & “The Round House” to reach her latest book, “LaRose.” I attach a photo of us at a signing at Keplers Books, Menlo Park, California, this week.
Let’s face it: everyone is born a poet. Parents and school rob children of poetry. Vividly, our greatest poets of the 20th & 19th centuries—Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman—were “men who suffered and minds who created” (from T.S. Eliot). In school we all read Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” but did we find for ourselves the capacity of fiction to relieve alienation through the alliance of author, reader and character?
A successful lawyer and insurance executive, Stevens drifted into drunken holidays in Key West, where he fell into the crypto-fascist camaraderie of Ernest Hemingway. Yet he salubriously produced “The Order at Key West” which, to entice you further, blogster, begins “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.”
Embrace our laureates of American poetry summa-cum-poetica, the bridge to Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams—even Sylvia Plath!