Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Richard Maxwell, scholar and gentleman

Richard Maxwell, who preceded me as editor of POWYS NOTES, died on July 20, after a nine-month battle with cancer. Richard taught at Valparaiso University for many years and for most of the past decade had held a position at Yale. Like all truly dedicated reader of John Cowper Powys, Richard was not just a narrow cultist but also someone for whom Powys was one of myriad arteries through language, history, and imagination. Richard was a truly wide and comprehensive reader, for whom no byway was too obscure. When I learned of Richard's death I was reading a provocative review-article by Frank M.Turner in the Victorians Institute Journal, lamenting that we had gone away from Matthew Arnold's small circle of privileged texts and loosened the gate sot admit, in canonical terms, all and sundry. No reader was a better reflection of the benefits of the broadening of the canon, though, than Richard; he delighted in Naomi Mitchison and Harrison Ainsworth, Anthony Powell and Mervyn Peake, the most obscure of Sir Walter Scott's novels, the rediscovered critical writings of Clara Reeve. His vision of literary study included old books and new theories, the subversive and the antiquarian. Richard combined this of course with a thorough appreciation of the Big Names; Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hugo. As this list shows, Richard was multilingual both literally and figuratively, and was one of the few people I have known truly worthy to teach in a Department of Comparative Literature.
     Richard was a man incredibly genial, gracious man. He was erudite but not pedantic or pretentious, and had gentleness and a compassion that made him approachable whereas otherwise his sheer intellect might have made him intimidating. He was tremendously encouraging to me, and delivered even criticism in an affirmative, caring way; he was in academia to help people and to share knowledge, and he made those traits abundantly clear. He seemed to have friends everywhere, among academics and creative writers, literary types and common readers.
Richards great summa on the historical novel came out last year, his co-edited Companion to the Romantic-period novel in 2008, and I really saw these years as Richard’s coming into his own; still in the prime of his career, he seemed likely to have many more books in him. As abundant as his production has been, his early death robs us of so much more. But his sly humor and his ferocious energy as a reader of literature remain as inspirations.
Now that Richard is gone, both the blurbers for Understanding Anthony Powell are dead. This was probably not a surprise in the case of Congressman John S. Monagan, who was over 90 when he blurbed the book, though John also seemed to have enough energy and intelligence to last forever. However, it is truly a shock that Richard is gone so soon. His blurb, incidentally, was both generous and tactful, and it is a rare bird that can show both traits. In any event, I was lucky to have two such distinguished and virtuous people endorse my book.

Gustafson on Fet, 45 years later

In doing final, reconfirmatory research on my Tolstoy paper for October I have become intrigued by the figure of Afanasy Fet, the poet and friend of Tolstoy’s whose jovial pessimism' (Medzhibovskaya's phrase) made him a congenial and understanding friend to Tolstoy despite many manifest political and philosophical differences. I saw that one of the few books on Fet in English (I am getting slowly better with this Russian thing but still very much forced to rely largely on my own language here) was by Richard Gustafson, later to become renowned as a leading scholar of Tolstoy and the Russian religious/mystical tradition. In reading Gustafson’s 1966 book The Imagination of Spring: The Poetry of Afanasy Fet, I became intrigued by how different it was from (or, as the Australians would say. "different... to") a comparable book in English studies in the same era. Gustafson’s book is a work of interpretation; in other words, it is not comparable to the merely taxonomic single-author works of the era covering noncanonical authors, such as the Twayne series. It is actual literary criticism, which 95% of the Twaynes did not remotely achieve. Yet when compared to similar books of equivalent intellectual ambition and critical accomplishment in English studies, Gustafson’s book is far more multiple in its competencies. There is no separation of form and history language and milieu; no Wimsattian fallacies, no trace of what, in Theory After Theory, I term 'the resolved symbolic'. This, though is easily attributable to differences in national tradition (and Russian Formalism being, despite the weary, recuperative attempts to yoke them as cognate, very different form the new Criticism), and Slavicist criticism, since the time of Belinsky et al, being more open to social influence, many times, of course, restrictively so. The most notable difference between Gustafson’s treatment of Fet and equivalent treatments, of the same period, of Anglophone poets is that Gustafson is not partisan; he is not out to advocate Fet at the expense of others, to denigrate Fet to the benefit of others, or to give a rereading of Fet that would redefine him towards or away from romanticism, conservatives, classicism, Christianity etc. Indeed, Gustafson is less partisan than Fet himself; he does not simply ventriloquize or update the poet’s aestheticism, but regards it in the light of an overall appreciation of Fet's artistic vision; the ideology refers to the poet, nor vice versa. There is none of this here; it is simply full, responsive, telescopic overview of a poet's career, done with flair and nuance, yes, it is obviously a first book, lacking the characteristic religious and mystical emphasis of Gustafson’s signature later work. But one could say that the lack of partisanship, the deft, economical organization of material, and the avoidance of formula in the Fet book foreshadowed Gustafson’s later agility, his capacity to take positions and manifest emphases without these making him narrow or polemical as a critic. It is thus a book that can still be useful now—even after several further studies on Fet have appeared—and not just a museum-piece in the archive of lapsed ideologies, as would be true of so many books on Keats or Donne or Hopkins,

Fet is an intriguing, idiosyncratic figure, for one thing exemplifying the nineteenth-century Russian taking the Muses far more seriously than any poet of his century.  Fet's muse has real power, can, as Gustafson says, give the poet "the power to speak: in a way more imperative than ceremonial. 

I just realized "Afanasy" has to be the Russian version of "Athanasius". Intriguing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Loose Baggy Monster and the Great White Whale

I am usually much more of a connoisseur of the obscure than this--I recall a former colleague of mine some fifteen years ago riding me for not writing about 'major figures'--but I have been reading Tolstoy and Melville a lot recently, both in relation to fall activities at the New School--Melville for an 8 AM (!) single-book class on Moby-Dick I am teaching, Tolstoy because I am speaking at the international Tolstoy conference and celebration being organized, in a truly herculean effort, by my treasured colleague Inessa Medzhibovskaya. Aside from writing books of great size--indeed, if Henry James thought Tolstoy an author of loose, baggy monsters, it is interesting what he would have said of Moby-Dick--whose revival did not occur until after the Master had gone off to the great drawing-room in the sky--Tolstoy and Melville have little in common. Indeed, the gravamen of my paper is that Tolstoy is de-romanticizing or even 'novelizing' the novel, whereas Melville  deliberately incorporates huge masses of seventeenth-century prose and allusions in his work, as if to deliberately keep alive a link to an earlier time in which writing was more curiously wrought. (Russia of course had no equivalent of the 'Metaphysical' period in its literature, which was, as I will argue, one of the cards Tolstoy held in his hand). Although both men lived complicated lives, had vexed relationships with their national identities, came from families of repute in their respective lands, their courses on this planet were quite different, Tolstoy being one of the most famous and admired men in the world, whose very death was an event, Melville dying in obscurity.

Yet I kept on having two feelings about them. One is, that as an American I knew what Melville was 'driving at' much more, but felt a far greater affinity to Tolstoy in terms of what was important to me. (I am not presuming to at all compare myself fin stature with either, believe me). But the second is that, as simple as this might sound, there was actually something in common in them--a quest for social justice. I mean this both manifestly, in that Tolstoy, after 1880, obviously put his moral and ethical work above his literary, and even Melville, in Billy Budd--one of the books included in my university’s Core course and always pleasure to teach--made a final plea for humanity and equity, aboard ship and, implicitly, on land as well. But there is also a call for social justice in their celebration of the unusual, their nonconformity, their spurning of conventional social expectations. Melville hailed Hawthorne for saying "NO--in thunder"; Tolstoy thundered in a different, more hopeful  key, and thundered not at world-affirmation but at those greedy for power and control. but I think his motivation for thundering was fundamentally the same.