Tuesday, January 24, 2006

ITA gets a new contributor

In The Agora is a blog that I have followed since it started, mainly because I was reading Josh Claybourn before he abandoned his personal blog to join the group.
Well they have a newcomer, Michael Mattair, who has posted a great essay about Mark Twain inspired by a book review at Reasononline.

The question thus becomes, if Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as faulty and inconsistent (indeed, discontinuous) as I am arguing it is, what entitles it to the rank of America's greatest book? Certainly not any special elegance of its form. The idea that a novel should be some sort of unified, finely-crafted whole was in fact just being brought out as Twain was finishing his novel: Henry James printed his essay on "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, a year before Huck Finn was finally published. But James' pronouncements on novelistic craft belong to a later era and are suited for a different taste; Twain's writing should not be measured with them (Twain himself detested James). It would be like judging Homer's epics by the rules of the sonnet.

What Twain's novels are most praised for, and what most writing in the Jamesian tradition noticeably lacks, is a rendering of life in all its crude, incongruous substance, a faithfulness to the texture of life, without any concern to reshape it into elegant narrative. Twain, in writing a novel, did not seek to create a well-wrought urn; instead he wrote down the ideas as they presented themselves, frequently in dialect, and following with no preconceived plan the lightning strikes of his imagination as he went along. He was, as his friend and fellow novelist William Dean Howells described, the "divine amateur," a log cabin kid and newspaper humorist who at some point discovered a knack for writing about things in such a way as to make his readers' jaws drop open. His novels tend at times to soar, at other times to trudge; he was probably oblivious of when either was occurring. Hemingway took Twain's way of describing nature and developed a whole style out of it; his productions are thus even and flawlessly consistent, while Twain fluctuates wildly in and out of this voice. But when Twain unconsciously gets it right, he cannot be excelled, and his better novels thus stand at the summit of our literature.

Lots of good stuff here, including the last line which says "it is a riddle of art that this is how the greatest works must be, like open containers where what is suggested but lacking is always better than what they contain." I am reminded of something I read years ago about photography, that what is left out is as important to the photographic statement as what is included. I don't kknow who said it, but it doesn't really matter. The observation is bigger than the observer.

You guys over at ITA did good getting this one into the group!

No comments: