Once upon a time, many long years ago, I was invited to take part in an American Studies graduate seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, on the topic of Values in American Civilization. Where, the question was raised at the opening session, would one go in order to discover what some of the values in American society were? Various possible sources of information were proposed, and finally one participant, a noted anthologist of American literature, went so far as to suggest that to find out what some of the values of Americans were, one might have a look at novels written by Americans. But that was going pretty far for this particular crowd, and he hastily qualified his remark by adding, “I mean the minor novelists, of course.”
What he was proposing was that lesser novelists, being deficient in imagination, could be counted upon to record life without undue distortion, whereas Melville, Hawthorne, Clemens, Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway, and the like were untrustworthy guides because they tended to transform the material they touched beyond easily verifiable recognition. The statement was astounding to me. The assumptions that lay behind it seemed an utter betrayal of what literary study, and even literature itself, were all about.
Over the years, however, I have come to see the other side of the question. For it has been possible for me to learn a few things about the relationship between literature and life, in particular the Southern variety of both, through continuing observation of the labors of at least one minor novelist, namely, myself. Moreover, as someone who has been principally a critic rather than a novelist but has devoted considerable time to both, I do have some ideas about the relationship of the one to the other.
For the record, let me say that I have been writing professionally for a bit longer than 50 years, during which time I have written or edited some 45 books. Of those, three have been novels, the most recent of which, The Heat of the Sun, was published in the autumn of 1995.
I think that writing fiction has been of use to me as a critic, though that is certainly not why I do it. As for the other way around, I doubt that I would be a better novelist if I hadn’t written so much criticism, if only because it’s my sense that the same impulses that have led me to write criticism are bound in with my needs and interests as a novelist. In other words, I have written the kind of fiction that I do for the same underlying impulsions that have been responsible for my having written my particular kind of criticism.
By no means do I hold with the notion that one must be a practitioner of an art in order to write knowledgeably about it; there are too many instances to the contrary. But it is true, I believe, that some experience in writing fiction can work to counteract any tendency toward an overly-rational, overly-abstract critical approach to the dynamics of fiction. I dare say that most of us have come across ingenious interpretations of literary works, particularly when issues of authorial intention are involved, that cannot be factually ruled out, yet that we know are just not so. We feel that however logical the reading may be, the critic advancing it simply doesn’t understand how the literary imagination works, and fails to perceive the difference between storytelling and expository prose. As Satchmo Armstrong once put it, “There’s some people that, if they don’t already know, it’s no use trying to tell them.”
One thing you do find out, when you write fiction, is that the characters that you create and the situations that you put them in tend to develop their own dynamics and their own momentum, and you have to adjust your plans accordingly. In my most recent novel, The Heat of the Sun, for example, I intended for two of my characters, a college professor and a librarian, to realize their need for each other and to get married at the end, and their doing so was to constitute an important part of the planned resolution of the story. But the trouble was that they went ahead and fell for each other about halfway through, and there was nothing I could do except let them get married, and resume the story from there.
Writing, in other words, is a way of thinking. We don’t write merely in order to communicate; we also do it in order to find out what we know. In writing fiction we attempt to create a simulacrum of life, and in order to do this we openly and by intent draw on our emotions as well as our ideas. We seek to show the feelings of our characters, who are shaped to simulate human beings, and our principal source of knowledge is our own emotions. The point, as I see it, is that those characters of mine turned out not to mean for me what I thought they did when I originally sketched out my plot, nor did their coming together in marriage constitute the resolution of the situation in which I had placed them. In developing them as fictional characters, telling their story, what I did was to discover—to a greater extent, in any event, than was true before I started out with the actual writing—what they really signified for me, and what was involved in the situation for me, emotionally as well as intellectually.
For even the wisest and most introspective of us, our knowledge and understanding of our own emotions is an imperfect affair. Our deepest longings and fears are frequently at variance with our conscious intentions, and when, as in writing fiction, we not only permit but positively insist upon our emotions becoming involved, we are quite likely to find out that our attitudes toward something or someone can differ markedly from what we had first supposed. This is what D.H.Lawrence meant when he cautioned us always to trust the tale, not the artist.
Involving as it does both emotional and intellectual dynamics, writing fiction is by no means a completely conscious, rational undertaking. It draws upon unconscious as well as conscious resources of thought and feeling, and this can result, among other things, in some very odd congruences. All of us know how in dreams one object—a person, a situation—will substitute itself for another, and thereby call our attention to emotional resemblances that we hadn’t previously perceived. Something like that is what can happen when we write fiction. Our imagination can work out relationships that our conscious thought may not perceive.
In dealing with authorial intention, as we must sometimes do, this is a very important thing to keep in mind. Literary scholars are familiar with the letter that Herman Melville wrote to Sophia Hawthorne, expressing his amazed delight at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical reading of Moby-Dick. “I had some vague idea while writing it,” he declared, “that the whole was susceptible of an allegorical construction, and also that the parts of it were—but the specialty of many of the particular subordinate allegories, were first revealed to me after reading Mr. Hawthorne’s letter. . . .” How could Melville possibly have meant what he was saying—that not only the “Spirit Spout” episode, which Mrs. Hawthorne cited to him, but the whiteness of the whale, the doubloon, the masthead, the quarterdeck, the fire-baptism, and all that host of symbol-laden passages with which Melville’s great novel is laced, right down to the floating coffin that saves Ishmael at the close, were placed there other than by conscious thematic purpose? More than one critical interpreter of Moby-Dick has found this difficult to credit.
Let me, however, descend several layers lower on the scale of literary excellence and cite something that happened to me. In my first novel, The Golden Weather (1961), set in Charleston, South Carolina, I had a character who was a local poetaster. I wanted him to have written a bad poem, which would be a typical local color contraption, the kind that used to be known as a “winged lyric,” rhymed, and made up of quaint images of some of the more obviously picturesque features of the Carolina Low Country around Charleston. So I set out to write such a bad poem for him.(To do so, incidentally, was not as simple as one might think. It is easy enough to write a mediocre poem, but not nearly so easy to write a genuinely bad poem.) Here is the poem I wrote:
It is a carpet, gay in green and gold, For clouds to sleep upon at high noonday, As if some Persian merchant-god unrolled A prayer rug there, then wandered far away.
Now herons weave the corners to the land, And river currents curl about its side, Till what was loomed and turned at Samarkand Is raveled by the turning of the tide.
Now, in coming up with those two immortal stanzas, to repeat, all that I was trying to do was to contrive a typically bad local color poem about Charleston, one that this particular kind of poetaster might well have written.
Who, however, is that “Persian merchant-god” who unrolls “a prayer rug” in the marsh around Charleston, and leaves it there, so that “what is loomed and turned at Samarkand” becomes “raveled by the turning of the tide”? It’s a prayer rug, brought there by a merchant god. Not only the Persians, but the Jews as well, were Semites, and came originally from the Middle East. The autobiographical protagonist of my novel is named Omar Kohn—Omar the Tent-Maker, but Kohn, a Jewish name. Typically the Jews who came from Europe to settle in the South were merchants, often peddlers.
The prayer rug that this merchant-peddler-god has deposited there is being woven into the marsh grass, made into a part of the Low Country. What originated in the Near East as a religious device is being raveled by the turning of the tide—which is to say, losing that older religious and racial identity. In short, it is not merely a local color poem about the salt marsh around Charleston; it is a poem about racial and cultural assimilation.
Yet not until several years after The Golden Weather had been published and I happened to reread what I had written, did I perceive that the little manufactured-for-the-occasion verse, ostensibly doing no more than using certain readily available local color images, encapsulated the major theme of the novel, which was one of the most deeply felt concerns of my life.
The point is this: if I had not written the poem myself, solely and entirely for the purpose of providing a local color poem composed by a character in my novel, it would be difficult for anyone ever to convince me that the imagery of the Persian merchant-god and the prayer rug being raveled by the turning of the Southeastern tide was not consciously intended there by the author in order to image the underlying concerns of the novel. How could it not have been, particularly when the protagonist of the novel is named Omar? Yet I give you my word, when I was writing the poem, and for long afterward, no such analogy, no such intended symbolism, ever once entered into my conscious thoughts.
Beyond doubt the thematic analogy is there, and not by chance, either. That is what the poem is about, and the novel as well. But it got into the poem because such creative imagination as even I possessed was unconsciously guiding the seemingly random choice of imagery. So I can credit Melville’s assertion about the allegory in Moby-Dick being other than consciously intended. To echo another remark by that novelist, “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterances are your linked analogies. . . .”
Now of course in one sense it doesn’t matter whether the intent in such things is conscious or unconscious. But what I wish to emphasize is that even in my own instance, as a trained literary critic accustomed to think in terms of themes and metaphors and the underlying linkages and relationships, when I write fiction my imagination tends to take over, and to imbue the tale with its own dynamics. And if this is true for me, then what must it be for other and better writers?
Suppose, however, the novelist has worked out a design for the story he wishes to tell, and is so set upon carrying out the design that he refuses to accommodate his plans to the promptings of his imagination? We might think that a literary critic who decides to write a novel, accustomed as he is to identifying and interpreting overall themes and patterns in other writers’ novels, might be especially vulnerable in this respect. A preconceived idea of what the story is to be about and how it is supposed to get where it is going might stifle the workings of the imagination, so that the novel will be forced to carry out a thematic objective at the expense of the story’s own inner logic.
Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, for example, despite being perhaps the best political novel ever written by an American author, suffers from certain flaws which seem ascribable mainly to Warren’s powerful conceptual powers, which are of exemplary use to him in his critical essays but are sometimes allowed to get in the way of his storytelling instincts. Is it likely that the character in the novel known as Anne Stanton, as developed throughout the unfolding of the story, would ever have been so attracted physically to the character known as Willie Stark, as likewise developed in the novel, as to become his mistress? From all that we have seen and been told about her up until that point, I doubt it. She takes up with The Boss because Jack Burden’s girlfriend is supposed to sleep with Willie, thereby causing Willie’s current mistress, Sadie Burke, to become so enraged that she tips off Tiny Duffy, who in turn notifies Anne’s brother Adam. Whereupon Adam Stanton concludes that the hospital he has been enabled to build has merely been a payoff for his sister’s sexual favors, and off he goes to the foyer of the capital, armed with a pistol, in search of Willie Stark.
What happened was that in this particular instance, the sweep and the intricacy of the author’s design, which Warren worked out in order to demonstrate his philosophical point about human complicity, overmastered his feeling for his character in this particular instance, with the result that Anne Stanton is forced to behave in a way that the fictional character that Warren’s imagination created would not plausibly have done.
In the magnificent range and vision of All the King’s Men, with its imposing cast of brilliantly-realized characters and its richly panoramic vision of a human community confronting social change, the flawed handling of Anne Stanton is no more than a minor irritant. In others of Warren’s novels, however, a divergence between thematic design and imaginative characterization does considerably more damage. Beginning with Warren’s first novel, Night Rider, and continuing at least through World Enough and Time and Band of Angels, with the single exception of All the King’s Men, the dramatic conflict between the characters in every instance tends to resolve itself emotionally many pages before the preconceived plot is worked out. In particular World Enough and Time goes on and on, far beyond the emotional resolution, because of the author’s insistence on carrying out his schematic design.
I don’t mean to imply, of course, that only novelists who are also card-carrying critics can be guilty of allowing intellectual and thematic considerations to tyrannize over the instinct for dramatic construction. No one ever accused William Faulkner of being importantly addicted to the practice of literary criticism, yet what can one say of Nancy Mannigoe’s murdering Gowan Stevens’s and Temple Drake’s infant child in Requiem for a Nun, other than that it is a dreadfully unconvincing way to restore a faltering marriage? Surely no small portion of A Fable is in print only because at that particular juncture in his career its author did not possess what T.S. Eliot said that Henry James did, namely, “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” (Which is not to say that Faulkner’s failures are not more interesting than most novelists’ successes.)
This brings us to the question of literary influence. To what extent will the impress of what previous authors have done inhibit the free workings of a writer’s imagination? We might expect that someone whose vocation depends upon a capacity for entering into the imaginative constructs of other writers would find it more than ordinarily difficult to identify and heed the promptings of his own imagination. Again, this potential peril is not restricted to fiction writers who are also critics. After all, novels are not written out of life, but out of books—other novels. The writer who first sets out to write a novel draws his notion of what a novel should be from the novels he has read up until that time. No two writers’ imaginations are ever exactly the same, so the beginning novelist seeks to adapt the novelistic form to his own storytelling requirements, to make it his own.
In most instances the received forms of prose fiction prove generally adequate for the young writer’s needs, and the struggle to discover one’s own appropriate voice is fought out in terms of language, attitude toward subject matter, what goes into a story and what does not, and what is made of it. Very occasionally, in order to tell what he knows the writer finds it necessary to reshape the accepted formal architecture of fiction itself, as James Joyce did. To develop his characters he needed not only to articulate their thoughts about what they were experiencing, but to get inside their mental processes and indicate the way in which they apprehended that experience. So in Ulysses he developed a technique for imitating the flow of consciousness itself.
This in turn was taken up by the young William Faulkner and adapted to his own purposes. If we compare the technique used for Flags in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury, both of which were published in the same year of 1929, we can see how by using the interior monologue to finesse the formal language barrier between his own sensibility and that of his characters, he was able to do away with the detritus of local color quaintness, folksy caricature, and, most important of all, linguistic condescension that until then had impeded his storytelling.
Be it noted, however, that whether a novelist does or doesn’t need to reshape the architectural conventions of fiction is no index to the merits of the work. Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian and his only peer among his contemporaries, Eudora Welty, has pretty much kept to the received forms; her artistry works its wonders through its breathtaking insight into the sensibilities of her characters rather than through innovative techniques for displaying those sensibilities.
In the same way, we need only compare Hawthorne’s artistry with that of Melville to understand why of two great storytellers, one was able to work within the received formal techniques while the other wasn’t. So there is nothing inherently derivative in making use of the received literary forms as developed by generations of writers over the centuries. Indeed, it is unavoidable. It is only when the form may be inhibiting the young writer from getting at his own experience, as in the earlier Faulkner novels, that there is trouble.
What happens, however, when a decidedly minor author, who both as a critic and a teacher has earned his living by trying to understand and explain how the fiction of other and better novelists works, sits down to try writing a novel of his own? Trained to think of storytelling in terms of the methods employed by other writers, how does such a writer ever get around to discovering his own way of doing things? Does he, indeed, ever get around to it?
The problem, in my instance at least, has not been what one might think it would be. It wasn’t that when I got ready to write fiction a host of possible ways to do it went spinning around in my mind, due to my familiarity with numerous fictional techniques, so that I found it difficult, or even impossible, to discover my own appropriate fictional voice from among so many plausible alternatives. The infirmity was more deep-seated than that. For if an aptitude for literary criticism can involve a sensitivity to the formal patterns of the novel, it may also entail a capacity for a strong personal response, emotional as well as intellectual, to particular works of the literary imagination, and that too can restrict the ability to find one’s own way to write fiction. In my instance it took the form of responding so thoroughly and totally to a single mode of storytelling that for years I was unable to break out of it, even though it became ever more inappropriate to my needs.
The first time I made a serious effort to write a novel I was in my early 20’s and still caught up in the discovery of Thomas Wolfe, and the hundred pages or so that I produced before I realized how bad they were were mainly imitative of some of the less endearing traits of Wolfe’s autobiographical protagonist Eugene Gant. It was Wolfe who opened up to me the literary experience that I most wanted to write about: that of growing up in a small Southern city. Along with this went the kindred theme of the quest for a literary vocation, which would consist of learning how to convert that growing-up experience into the form of fiction.
Meanwhile I had begun to immerse myself in the fiction of James Joyce, in particular A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.Thomas Wolfe had been out to show the unique development of an autobiographical protagonist’s sensibility, in order to justify his status as a writer. Earlier, James Joyce had somewhat the same intention, but with considerably more irony involved, and by the time he came to write Ulysses he had moved toward an emphasis upon his autobiographical protagonist’s need to learn to live in the everyday world instead of apart from it and thinking of himself as smugly superior to it. I don’t think Wolfe ever really reached that stage; perhaps he might have if he had lived longer, but as it is, the Wolfe novels as we have them largely retain that intense assumption of the autobiographical protagonist’s uniqueness.
Following my first abortive attempt to write a novel, more than a decade went by, during which I made several more false starts and also wrote and published essays and several books about Southern literature, before I began writing what would become a publishable novel of my own. Reading Marcel Proust’s great A la Recherche du Temps Perdu had something to do with it, although I think it was not the example of Proust as such, so much as that I was ready at last to receive the example, that accounted for the breakthrough. I had been introduced to Proust some years earlier, but had not then possessed the patience—more accurately, the maturity—to read him. He seemed too wordy, too precious, too intellectualized and slow-moving.
But that fall and winter of 1957—58 I read the Scott-Moncrieff translation straight through, from the opening sentence, “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” onward, more than a million words, and it was not long after that that I began writing my novel. When I did, I also opened with a boy lying in bed at night, hearing sounds in the darkness past the oak trees and out on the river and beyond: “I was never sure why I always listened for the launch,” it began.
Like Joyce and Wolfe, Proust was also engaged in chronicling the process of the autobiographical protagonist’s growing up and learning how to recreate his own experience into a work of literary art. Proust was especially concerned with portraying the effort, through the use of memory, to recapture and restore the past as a sustaining and confirming aspect of his identity. His first-person remembering narrator actively commented to the reader about his earlier experiences as he recounted them. The description of how such a search is conducted is no part of Joyce’s or Wolfe’s fiction.
What I began to understand was that, whatever might have once been true in my early 20’s when I had first set out to write fiction, in seeking to write a novel I was no longer trying to justify myself, or exhibit my unique sensibility, or display the agonies of a sensitive young artist in a plebeian world. Nor was I attempting to illustrate the stages of development of a literary vocation. Instead, in writing fiction I wanted to image the time and place of my childhood and youth, to help me to understand why their recollection exerted so powerful a hold over my adult way of looking at myself and the world. It was in order to fathom why it was that I perceived them in the way that I did that I wanted to recreate their impact upon myself as it had taken place.
Here I need to point out that my fictional imagination, to the extent that I might be said to possess one, is inextricably bound in with the memory of my own childhood and young manhood as they took place in Charleston, and can’t really be said to exist apart from that subject matter. It is not only that when I write about Charleston I know where everything is—or rather, was. More importantly, the places in and around the city about which I write are not merely backdrops for action, but palpable emotional entities, suffused in space and color and time. I have no doubt that I would be a better, and certainly a more successful writer of fiction, if my imagination were not thus anchored in place but instead was more impelled by the wish to tell stories as such. I can only comfort myself with the thought that at least one far better novelist than ever I might hope to be was similarly bounded imaginatively.
Central to what I wanted to do in writing fiction was to portray a specific city, Charleston, South Carolina, in something of the same way that James Joyce portrayed Dublin, Ireland. Unfortunately I was not quite up to doing with my native turf what Joyce managed with his. Much though it grieves me to say it. James Joyce was rather better at the job than Louis Rubin is. In any event, my first novel, The Golden Weather, came out in 1961, It was about the summer and fall in the life of a 12-year-old boy. It was autobiographical fiction, in the sense that the protagonist lived in the house that I had lived in, had parents and relatives roughly like my own, and was interested in the things that I had been interested in at his age. Yet—and in retrospect this of itself should have given me a significant clue about what I was after in fiction, as distinguished from what I thought I was after— very little that took place in the novel had ever happened to me, and this included not only most of the incidents but the central thrust of the story itself.
In the years that followed that novel’s publication, I tried several times to write another, without success. The problem was that essentially I kept trying to tell the same story over again, in however different guises. As a result I kept falling into the same old Kiinstlerroman mode of the earnest young would-be-artist, and labored to portray the development of the protagonist’s literary sensibilities as a way of exploring his relationship to the community. It was still Eugene Gant—even though I was by then thoroughly convinced of how limited was that kind of protagonist’s vision. In effect I was trying to create a Thomas Wolfe protagonist without the egocentricity and the romantic intensity, which was like trying to prepare she-crab soup without crabmeat.
At one juncture, in order to get out from under the autobiographical trap, I began a novel, set in Charleston, in which I deliberately made the protagonist an adult who was not a native of the city, and got him involved in an elaborate story that centered on rumrunning —this was in the Prohibition era—and politics. Before I got done it was about half-a-million words long. What was wrong—or part of what was wrong, for numerous things were—was that I was still trying to write about Charleston while using my own personality as a model for the protagonist’s, even while stripping that personality of almost all the associations and relationships that were involved in my own ties with the place. The result was flat characterization, a much overwrought story line, and a tedious tale that went on and on without ever accomplishing much more than working out the creaking machinery of the plot.
Eventually I gave up on that novel, and a few years later began one that eventually did get published. As usual it was set in Charleston, and there was the same autobiographical relationship as in my first novel. This time my protagonist was 15 years old—I gave him the same name as the protagonist in The Golden Weather—and what I focussed on was my relationship with my parents at that age, in particular my father’s illness. What I was trying to do was to bring to bear on my memories of that period of my life, which were rather confused and often very traumatic, the interpetative insights of an adult, as arrived at over the years. Again, no small portion of what took place was not drawn from memory, but totally invented for the occasion.
The trouble was that no matter what I did or how I did it, it seemed to end up as the same old naively realistic Wolfean Kunstlerroman, the sensitive youth in a philistine world, a South Carolina version of the portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-neurotic, which wasn’t what I wanted. In an effort to undercut the authority of that approach I tried various strategies, and ended up interspersing among the various sections of the novel an ex cathedra commentary by a much older author, which I hoped would make the reader aware that the 15-year-old’s version of his experience was by no means to be taken at face value. No doubt it helped some, but I think the novel, which I entitled Surfaces of a Diamond, is the least satisfactory of my three published novels. For one thing, there is very little humor in it, when a great deal of what I thought and felt about the experience of growing up in Charleston involves comedy.
I knew very well that although the two published novels I had written thus far were supposedly based on my own experience, relatively little that took place in them had ever actually happened to me. The emotional situations, not the episodes and events, were what were faithful to my life as a child and youth. What I needed was to find a way that would allow me to retain an emotional involvement with the milieu, while working free of any direct dependence on my personal experience. I could not figure how to manage it. No matter what I tried, the protagonist soon became an autobiographical surrogate. The result was that for ten years I gave up trying to write novels.
Had I been a more imaginative reader of other and better authors’ fiction, a solution would have come to me sooner than it did, because the answer to the riddle lay right there in front of me, in one of my favorite novels, one that I had not only read again and again but as a teacher had even spent entire school terms reading and talking about it with graduate students. Yet it wasn’t until I had retired, first from teaching and then from running a publishing house, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, that the following idea occurred to me: why not try to use two protagonists, one of them middle-aged, the other young, and let them go through a period of time in Charleston, to see what might turn up? They would start out as strangers, and by the end of the novel would become important factors in each others’ lives.
What I did, in other words, was to use the structural form of James Joyce’s Ulysses, adapting it to my purposes. In writing Ulysses Joyce more or less split his own personality into an older and a younger man, with the corollary that the younger artist needed the everyday knowledge of the older practical-minded citizen to be able to grow into the mature novelist who would eventually write A Portrait and Ulysses.Both the middle-aged Leopold Bloom and the young Stephen Dedalus reside in Dublin but, for different reasons, are in important ways outsiders. They can thus view the life of that city with a relative clarity that someone who is totally immersed in the community pieties could not manage. At the same time, however, they are part of the community, again in different ways, so that their attitude toward it is by no means the cold detachment of the scientist.
Their personalities, moreover, complement each other’s; Bloom is versed in the ways of the world, while Stephen has the strength of commitment and the imaginative perceptions of the artist as a young man. At the same time, as Joyce has his character Lenehan inform us, “there’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.” Moreover, in the Catechism chapter in which these two Dubliners do come to share in a kind of communion, at one point their names are fancifully merged for us, “substituting Stephen for Bloom Stoom,” and “substituting Bloom for Stephen Blephen.”
I began writing a novel set in Charleston in 1940. There were two protagonists, a 41-year-old college professor and a 22-year-old newspaper reporter. Their stories were told in alternating chapters. The professor was Jewish and a native of Charleston. The reporter was a Roman Catholic from Virginia, and had come to Charleston following graduation from college, to work on the morning paper and to be with his fiancee.
Both my protagonists are writers, although of different kinds. The young journalist, coming from western Virginia, is able to observe and is often fascinated by aspects of life in Charleston that the native-born college professor takes for granted, while conversely the college professor can identify and understand the often-subtle workings of numerous community doings that the young newspaperman never notices. Moreover, I did make a point of noting that ultimately my middle-aged college professor and my young journalist would exchange professions. And toward the end I did deliberately merge the doings of my two protagonists so that both they and their viewpoints became part of a single chapter, while also drawing back from close observation into a more omniscient perspective, ending with a chapter resembling the Afterword of the old-fashioned three-volume Victorian novel.
So toward the end, I hope, there is some awareness on the reader’s part of the presence of an authorial storyteller manipulating all the characters and winding up his story, even if on nothing like the same level of virtuosity as with increasingly the more visible stylist of Ulysses.After all, a touring tent show can’t be expected to stay even with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey.
There is no Molly Bloom in The Heat of the Sun. That would have been carrying the use of a model too far. I wasn’t attempting to construct a replica of Ulysses, but to adapt the novel’s structural principle to my own purposes. Moreover, my own experience with females of the species has been considerably different from Joyce’s. I have found them to be considerably more complicated, and more interesting, than the yea-saying semi-literate earth goddess junior grade who waits for her man at Ithaca.
So what the example of Ulysses enabled me to do, when I finally awoke to its possibilities, was in effect to use what I had seen of the world to tell a story in which I could distribute aspects of my own experience among two (or more) characters. I mean by this something more than the truism that a novelist is all his people: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” The point is that my two protagonists could live and work in a milieu that I knew reasonably well enough to be able to give them authenticity. After all, not only had I been a youth in Charleston in the year my story took place, but I also had been a college professor, and before that had worked on newspapers. Like my professor I had been both a member of a community and yet an outsider; like my journalist I had been young and in love, indeed had once even had an engagement to be married broken, albeit under very different circumstances.
Yet they were not autobiographical characters; which is to say, neither in their personalities nor their roles in the story being told were they restricted to their relevance, whether directly or by imaginative extension, to my own life. I was no longer locked in to the Künstlerroman form, with its earnest young would-be artist. Nor, as in the instance of many works that are autobiographical, is the reader made to sense that the story is being narrated through the perspective of recall.
When The Heat of the Sun was published and there were reviews, what I found reassuring was that apparently none of the reviewers spotted the Joycean parallels. Nor, so far as I know, were any of the numerous other echoes, borrowings, sometimes incorporations of entire sentences from other works noticed. This latter is part of the fun of writing fiction, for me at least. I enjoy sprinkling the story with all kinds of literary allusions, direct quotations, paraphrases, and so on, but hiding them so thoroughly in the story itself that they can’t be readily identified. To compound the matter even further, in The Heat of the Sun I have a student poet who produces parodies of Shakespeare, Milton, Andrew Marvell, etc. These are by intention obvious; the more important literary echoes were meant not to be so readily noticed, nor have they been, and I like to think this is because they were made sufficiently a part of my own imagination that they did not stand apart from the structure and texture of the story I was telling.
My son Robert, who is an experienced editor of fiction, read part of an early draft, and reminded me that I was writing an historical novel. And that, I realized as I thought about it, was quite true, for I was dealing with people and events set a half-century ago— approximately as far back in time as the historical events that William Gilmore Simms was chronicling when he wrote The Partisan or John Pendleton Kennedy in Horse Shoe Robinson, and farther back in time than the Civil War had been for Ellen Glasgow when she wrote The Battle Ground.
My choice of the year when the novel is set was by no means happenstance. It takes place in 1940—1941.There is a considerable sense of the imminence of the Second World War. Much of the political activity taking place in the novel centers on the burgeoning military and defense industry, which is bringing new people into the city, disrupting customary social patterns, creating sizeable surburbs, and otherwise threatening to change what had for generations been a largely self-contained little city, set in its ways, into a sprawling urban complex that would in many respects be very different from what it was, and directly involved in the world beyond its corporate limits to a far greater extent than before. When the war is over, the city will never return to its earlier identity, as neither will the South.
Massive change, therefore, is not only waiting to take place but, indeed, is already under way. The community Lares and Penates are under attack. Very early on there is an episode in which a building constructor is engaged in cutting a road through some Civil War fortifications. It will not be long after the events of the novel end that both my protagonists will be leaving for good. The war will have dislodged them, sent them out into the world—just as it did for myself and my immediate family and for no small number of the friends with whom I grew up in Charleston.
Yet it is also revealed in the Afterword that one of the college professor’s colleagues, a native of New York and seemingly the most iconoclastic, least acclimated of the major characters, will not only stay on after the war, but will even take up what is by all odds the community’s most characteristic outdoor recreational activity, sailing! It is also revealed that the widow of the wealthy, crude, socialclimbing building contractor will one day marry the most ancestorconscious, socially-exclusive of all the city’s males, and they will make their residence on an antebellum plantation near town. So if the community changes, its forms nonetheless go on, renewing themselves even while adjusting to change, as in the fiction of Marcel Proust.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote me that the reason why my first novel didn’t sell better was that the characters were too normal and lifelike. There was and is all too much to what she said. It remains true that what I try to do in fiction is to make what happens seem absolutely realistic, true to everyday life. Even though few of the more important episodes in any of my three novels ever happened, but are invented out of the whole cloth, I try to steep the made-up events so thoroughly in real-life texture that geographically and historically they appear to be “real.” (I say this with the full knowledge that such terminology is supposedly outdated.) In a minor way it’s something like what Henry James said about the balloon of experience being tied to the earth, with the art of the romancer being that of cutting the cord so deftly that nobody detects it. Or perhaps a reversal of Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry is appropriate to my own aims: real gardens with imaginary toads in them.
In any event, for myself at least, when I write fiction it’s all done with mirrors, with the intent at least of practicing the kind of art that conceals artistry. Unfortunately for my bank account, alas, that particular mode of the art of fiction isn’t fashionable any more. Sometimes I’m afraid I succeed all too well in making invented fiction seem like “real life”; the summer after The Golden Weathercame out in 1961 it was recommended for summer reading by the New York Times Book Review as a non-fiction memoir. Well, I can’t help it; that’s how my imagination works.
In going on like this as such length, my hope, or, more plausibly perhaps, my excuse, is that the lucubrations (a word which, by the way, my dictionary defines as “that which is produced by study in retirement”) of one who is known principally as a writer of criticism about Southern literature concerning his attempts to create fiction might possibly offer a little insight into what the creative process involves. Or perhaps it works the other way around, for I perceive that in attempting to explain what my own novels have been about, I have pretty much enunciated the central theme of much of my critical writing about Southern literature: flux and continuity in time and place, the effort to image the nature of the human condition in (to quote myself) “a community and society very much in transition and confronted with forces of change and permanence.”
Did the critical assumptions shape the concerns of the novels, or the other way around? Or was it that the circumstances of the author’s life shaped both? I have long since been forced to acknowledge the existence of a not inconsiderable relationship between what I find important in literary works, especially by Southern authors, and the tensions and imperatives of my own life. Whether as critics or as novelists, we write about what we care about.
Yet by no means do I believe that at most a sophisticated subjectivity is all that is possible either to critic or novelist. For just as the best literary criticism comes when the passionate involvement of the critic as reader is disciplined by his analytical rigor, so the novelist’s emotional participation in the material of his fiction is subject both to the vigorous requirements of fictional plausibility and the sovereign dynamics of the storytelling itself. And as we have seen, once set into motion the characters and the plot develop their own momentum, and the ultimate success of the novelist will depend in large part upon the willingness to recognize and to make the most of what his imagination, as distinguished from his conscious thought, turns up.
In my efforts to help explain what I was after when writing fiction, it will be noted that I keep dragging in various Southerners, Irishmen, and Frenchmen, all of them much more accomplished writers than myself. It reminds me of the land of critic who strives to elevate the importance of a lesser writer by citing similarities of theme with the work of major writers. I recall a dedicated Ellen Glasgow admirer once writing something to this effect: like Aeschylus she views her protagonists as subject to the remorseless demands of fate; like Shakespeare she mingles the comic with the tragic; like Rabelais and Sterne her laughter at the foibles of humankind is unquenchable; and so on. Ellen Glasgow may indeed have done those things, but I fear that she didn’t exactly do them like Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Rabelais and Sterne. I hope I have not been guilty of the same tactics; and surely it is obvious that however much I may as a novelist have drawn on their example, James Joyce & Co.are in no danger from me.
Finally, it might be asked that, since it is as a literary critic that I have experienced such success as has come to me, which hasn’t been a great deal, why do I persist in trying to write novels? In the first place I enjoy doing it. More than that, the storytelling form offers an imaginative freedom that is largely denied to the critic. As a novelist there are things that I can do that I can’t do as a critic; I am not restricted to the terms of someone else’s imagination, no matter how superior the quality of that imagination might be. Besides, it’s a free country, isn’t it?
So much, then for what one minor critic and jackleg Southern novelist gets from the sometime practice of the art of fiction. I think it makes me a better critic. I know that it helps me to understand my own experience better. And I hope that, for those persons, fit though few, who have read the fiction I write, it can offer, however confined the aperture and limited the view, one more window onto our common experience. If like my two previous novels my latest doesn’t do that very successfully or very efficiently, and a publisher’s announcement soon designates it as O.P.—out of print—then I can only reply what Thomas Sutpen did when the night riders threatened him with war if he refused to join them: “I am used to it.”