(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)
A week or so ago, Amateur Reader ventured the bold opinion that Robert Louis Stevenson was "the best writer of familiar essays in English since Lamb and Hazlitt." Having sampled some of Stevenson's essays via Lopate's collection, and based on admittedly small samples of all three writers, I think that I personally like him substantially better than Hazlitt, and as well as Lamb.
I can see more of a connection between Lamb and Stevenson than mere quality, actually: both men seem particularly to shine when they are showcasing their tender, nostalgic sides; both are excellent story-tellers; and both write a prose that is deliciously rich and textured, almost chewy in the mouth when read aloud:
There are mingled some dismal memories with so many that were joyous. Of the fisher-wife, for instance, who had cut her throat at Canty Bay; and of how I ran with the other children to the top of the Quadrant, and beheld a posse of silent people escorting a cart, and on the cart, bound in a chair, her throat bandaged, and the bandage all bloody—horror!—the fisher-wife herself, who continued henceforth to hag-ride my thoughts, and even today (as I recall the scene) darkens daylight. She was lodged in the little old jail in the chief street; but whether or no she died there, with a wise terror of the worst, I never inquired. She had been tippling; it was but a dingy tragedy; and it seems strange and hard that, after all these years, the poor crazy sinner should be still pilloried on her cart in the scrap-book of my memory.
Stevenson makes such infectious use of rhythm and alliteration ("henceforth to hag-ride my thoughts"; "cut her throat at Canty Bay"; with a wise terror of the worst") that at times his prose seems song-like—particularly apropos given the content of this scene, which strikes me as ripe for adaptation into a popular ballad.
The passage above is from "The Lantern-Bearers," to which I'm indebted for more than an enjoyable reminiscence of tragedies witnessed in childhood. Stevenson opens by conjuring an extended account of boyhood summers spent in a village by the sea, including certain childish rituals steeped, at the time, in romance and illicit excitement, however silly and pedestrian they may have seemed from an adult perspective. He then goes on to use this anecdote as a metaphor for truth in storytelling, arguing that so-called realist literature gets things wrong when it tries to portray "regular people" as devoid of any poetry or joie de vivre. We cannot tell from external appearances, he argues, what store of inner passion and joy a person holds at their heart; and yet, this hidden, invisible store of "personal poetry" is often the most crucial core of their psychology. He argues that to portray as utterly commonplace the most mundane-seeming person, even in the name of "realism," is actually to descend into the deepest UNreality, since it is to miss that spark of poetry that characterizes human existence.
Whitman knew very well, and showed very nobly, that the average man was full of joys and full of poetry of his own. And this harping on life's dulness and man's meanness is a loud profession of incompetence; it is one of two things: the cry of the blind eye, I cannot see, or the complaint of the dumb tongue, I cannot utter. To draw a life without delights is to prove I have not realised it. To picture a man without some sort of poetry—well, it goes near to prove my case, for it shows an author may have little enough.
For, to repeat, the ground of a man's joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern, it may reside, like Dancer's, in the mysterious inwards of psychology. It may consist with perpetual failure, and find exercise in the continued chase. It has so little bond with externals (such as the observer scribbles in his note-book) that it may even touch them not; and the man's true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy.
"THANK you, Mr. Stevenson!" I was thinking, as I read these passages. For "The Lantern-Bearers" gets at something I've been trying to articulate over the course of the past year, in particular about Sister Carrie and The Good Earth, but which Stevenson realizes much more elegantly. I agree with him: it is condescending and yes, even anti-realistic, for an author to portray a human who seems to have no imagination or remarkable inner life at all, and claim that this character is painted in this way because they are an "average person." The author, presumably, has both imagination and individual psychology, but argues that this is because she is of the "artistic temperament," and either more intelligent or otherwise different than the "average" person, who exists on a purely materialist plain. Stevenson, along with many of my favorite writers, argues that this is nonsense: that everyone has an inner life, everyone bathes some aspect of their existence in poetry, and we certainly should not dismiss that reality just because we can't tell by looking at a given person what their passion might be. Not only that, but a truly realistic portrayal of a human will shed light on her "personal poetry," along with the external realities of her existence.
This is why, I think, despite the very materially "realist" tendencies of Buck and Dreiser, I found all the characters in The Good Earth and Sister Carrie unconvincing: they are there to demonstrate facets of their environment, ways of life, external comings and goings. They are there to react to external stimuli. But, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there there - the characters' inner lives, if portrayed at all, are completely predictable, materialistic, and devoid of any idiosyncrasy. I have never known a human being like this except in novels of a specific kind, and would therefore contest the idea that they are "average" in any reasonable sense of the word. I don't know that I go quite so far as Stevenson: I don't think the inner spark must necessarily be one of delight, and I certainly wouldn't accuse all realist novels of falling prey to this problem of characterization. I would tend to agree, however, that attempting to access a character's personal source of poetry, however skewed or sick that source might be, is key in achieving "realism" in their development.
Up next week: We arrive at the fin de siècle and early twentieth century, with Max Beerbohm and G.K. Chesterton.
Badge photo courtesy of Liz West: