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Career Criticism

ISSUE:  Winter 1981
Prodigal Sons: A Study in Authorship and Authority. By David Wyatt. Johns Hopkins. $12.95.

“We have temporarily exhausted the criticism of works and structures,” David Wyatt asserts in Prodigal Sons: A Study in Authorship and Authority, “it is time to turn to careers.” (p. 150) As a relatively fresh object of study, the career of a writer is not to be confused with biography. Perhaps autobiography is a more appropriate (though still metaphoric) handle by which to grasp the lifelong process of self-analysis which a mature writer’s oeuvre represents. Abstracted from specific detail and quotidian variety, a literary career may be critically examined, Wyatt believes, as itself a narrative, drama, or parable, with its own beginning, middle, turning point, and end, as well as distinctive pattern and presiding myth. The interest and meanings of a career derive less from traumatic events as “cause” or works of autonomous art as “achievement” than from the evolving tensions and resolutions between an author and his works. From this perspective, conflicts between desire and fact, between external circumstance and inner drive, provide at once impetus for a career, imaginative power in its works, identity for the author, and pleasurable profit to readers who perceive the artist as thereby a full partner in the human enterprise. Personal experience and artistic creativity are intimately linked in the successful mastery of universal psychic tensions. Courage is translated into style as the writer subjects past events to imaginative reordering and redefinition toward an anticipated future. The critic’s job is to isolate that governing pattern informing and uniting an epigenetic and artistic development which makes it possible for a writer (in this case the Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies) to account, with characteristic simplicity, for the appeal of his finest fiction. “Why did people like it? I think it is because I have discovered, over the course of the years, what I am.”

The paradigm Wyatt sees exemplifying “what I am” for a number of 20th-century writers is found in Luke’s account of the Prodigal Son. Rebellion against the father, wandering and falling, coming to one’s self, return and eventual reconciliation with the source of being and authority—this is the psychic and spiritual trajectory of all human growth and hence the model of all literary careers. Novels are not written by Elder Sons who, because they remain at home, never truly wrestle with “what I am.” Wyatt explores the variously conflicted careers of these sons and literary fathers: Henry James, Yeats and Synge, Hemingway, Faulkner, James Agee, Robert Penn Warren, and Davies. All this in 160 densely-packed pages. In each case, the career unfolds as a struggle to come to terms with one’s place in time and family; “each author gathers an initial prodigality into an inclusive paternity and so acquires the authority against which the act of writing was originally conceived as a defense.” (p. xix) However, assuming adult status through authorship is as much feared fate as desired goal, for if the act of writing signifies willingness to take on the creator’s role and thus to separate from the ancestors, this decision, like all generational conflict, occasions anxiety and guilt. Accepting Oedipal dynamics as literary fact, Wyatt searches for the to-him inevitable moment of accommodation which concludes sonship and constitutes “the eventuation of authorship.” (p. xv) Even perpetual adolescents like Agee and Hemingway finally forgive themselves their location in time and, in A Death in the Family and For Whom the Bell Tolls at least, become temporarily reconciled to the fathers who have introduced them to death.

This is psychological though not psychoanalytic criticism, manifestly Freudian but also Jungian, as the penultimate chapter on Davies makes clear. Like Norman Holland, Wyatt tries—usually successfully, I think—to account for the contradictions, repetitions, and obsessive themes and imagery which arrest and puzzle readers and point to deep ambivalences in protagonist and author. However, Wyatt is less interested than Holland to distinguish literary creature from creator. The psyche that matters is always the writer’s, the moment that matters is when the son symbolically kneels penitently before the father and rises, forgiven, freed to assume his own mature paternity. This occurs in James’s career when he revises The American, the most waywardly “unconscious” of his literary offspring, for the New York Edition. For Yeats, a measure of maturity is attained by championing on the Abbey Theatre stage Synge’s shockingly comic Oedipal drama, The Playboy of the Western World, an act countering his own serious involvement with fathers and sons through the Cuchulain myth. In Hemingway, death is the sole acceptable ending for a novel, not the birth of a son. Nevertheless, in For Whom The Bell Tolls Robert and Maria achieve their own forgiveness, and Jordan refuses either to follow his father in suicide or to continue to blame him. Faulkner’s career, especially during the remarkable decade 1929—1938, exhibits a compulsiveness and preoccupation with repetition and revenge, themes his own family history enforces upon his plots. But in “An Odor of Verbena” Faulkner at last identifies his hero with the nonrevenging ancestor—J.W.T. Falkner in life, old Bayard in art—thereby participating still in the past but changing its pattern. Generational conflict assumes a different shape for Agee, whose hope of reconciliation with his father lies in moments of silent communion or song, not in Faulkner’s endless story-telling. Yet, paradoxically, the very decision to break silence and write proves an antidote to anxiety. More poignantly than any of the other moderns Wyatt discusses, Agee articulates a vision of the family as a song of generations in which “each of us is but a refrain sounded again through our children.” (p. 111) Sonship is a far easier relationship to recreate for Robert Penn Warren, whose filiopietistic fiction returns inevitably to the home place. But if reconciliation and parental authority are purchased too cheaply to satisfy Wyatt, Warren’s later career as poet reveals a more convincing reunion of life and art. Another late-blooming career is Robertson Davies’, for which the central critical question is to account for the masterful Deptford Trilogy in light of the earlier, more superficial fiction. If Wyatt fails to explore this fully, it is because he is anxious to raise other issues about an afternoon career and its motions toward an ending. In Davies’ later novels, Jung, the rebel son, and Freud, the myth-maker of and for fathers, join forces to liberate author, character, and reader. “Davies’ genius is to deny the claims of neither half of life in his effort to liberate the middle.” (p. 149)

The Canadian provides Wyatt an appropriate concluding case of an exemplary modern career. With his mysterious double consciousness and deceptively rich range of allusions, Davies is as easy to underestimate as he is to misread—particularly for Americans fresh from Faulkner and Yeats. But career criticism seems eager to engage the overlooked talent, the fallow years, the minor work. In Wyatt’s case this is no fault; some of the freshest insights and most suggestive generalizations arise in discussions of currently unfashionable books like For Whom The Bell Tolls or A Place To Come To. The more serious flaw for me is the brevity of Prodigal Sons. Even though its claims are modestly advanced and eloquently stated, they are deployed across so broad a swath of modern literature and through so many careers, major and minor, that the necessary and overlapping claims of biography, traditional literary criticism, psychology, and cultural history are too often merely acknowledged. Wyatt courageously accepts responsibility for raising more issues than he is prepared to deal with in this little book, and he does so with style and moral passion. Though some biographers, critics, and psychoanalysts of literature will find grounds to refuse his paradigm of the Prodigal Son the power as “sufficient fiction” he pleads for, I have found his essay a challenging introduction to a promising field of culture studies. I can’t help wondering, though, how Wyatt’s plot would incorporate a career like Edith Wharton’s or Hilda Doolittle’s.


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