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New Light on Some Literary Lives

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

James Joyce. By Herbert Gorman. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $3.50. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. By Carl J. Weber. New York: Columbia University Press. $3.00. Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Edited by Ridgely Torrence, Hermann Hagedorn, Lewis M. Isaacs, and Louis V. Ledoux. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

The most timely of these three books is Herbert Gorman’s “James Joyce,” since not even a European war has made people altogether forget the excitement stirred up by the publication of “Finnegans Wake.” It is an admirable book, however, for more reasons than its timeliness. It not only gives us new material on Joyce: it presents him for the first time as a human being. It is good to learn that the creator of the Bloom family has a quite normal family of his own, and is now a grandfather. It is equally good to read of his amusing himself by sending limericks to his friends, even as you and I. We even see him suffering from such undignified accidents as an attack of nightmare and a tear in the seat of his trousers. All of this gives us a man much more credible in his genius as well as in his mistakes than the excessively respectful pictures that Budgen and Gilbert have already furnished us.

Mr. Gorman’s book was written with the cooperation of the subject; that is to say, under the conditions which produce the “official” biography. Yet it manages to avoid the weaknesses of that rather lamentable biographic type. Much of the credit for avoiding the official tone must go to Mr. Gorman’s tact in avoiding criticism of Joyce’s work. He is thus not drawn into the position of the Exagminers who so hysterically announce that “Finnegan” has revolutionized art and language, and he also avoids having to face a decision on Joyce’s unfortunate venture into the drama. But more of the credit should go to Joyce and his family, since much of the material here published must either have been furnished by them, or have passed under their eyes. It is fortunate for the world that there was no watchful mater familias Grun-diensis to suppress such choice items as the naming of Joyce’s volume of poems and his father’s exclamation at the dedication of Joyce’s early play. The advantages of Mr. Gorman’s semi-official position are of course manifold, and he has done as well with collecting life-giving trivia as Fanny Burney did with the great Doctor. Further, he tells, for the first time fully, a number of stories of events which have been in various ways deeply influential on Joyce’s life and art. We have a full history of Joyce’s quarrel with the British Consulate at Zurich during the World War, and an equally full account of the qualms of publishers over the immoral tone of his work. It is ironical that they were nearly as excited over the phrase “she shifted the position of her legs” in “Dubliners” as they later were over the whole of “Ulysses.” More influential than either of these quarrels is Joyce’s tragic and heroic struggle for sight, here completely documented.

Though Gorman avoids formal criticism, as I have said, he manages to embed a wealth of comment on “Ulysses” in the telling of Joyce’s life. Identifications of characters and places abound,’ so that it is likely that future students of the novel will scribble its margins with annotations from Gorman. Access to Joyce’s manuscript notebooks casts a great deal of light on the Aristotelian-Thomist sources of Joyce’s aesthetic theory, and so elucidates many passages in the “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” There is some commentary on “Finnegans Wake,” but this is less valuable. The source of the title in an old song, and the alleged importance of the influence of the Italian philosopher-historian Vico have been familiar since the days when the work was appearing in the sacred pages of transition. One wonders why none of the commentators, Mr. Gorman included, have pointed out the obvious influence of Spenser on the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of “Finnegan.” To me the marriage of Molanna and Funcheon in “The Faerie Queene” seems a more organic influence than ideas of the cyclical nature of history, which, after all, other men than Vico have expounded.

The slight attention given to “Finnegan” is apparently a part of the author’s deliberate plan, and probably a wise one, since “Finnegan” has alienated many readers, some of whom may be regained by the engaging Joyce whom Gorman presents. A minor query may, however, occur to readers. Why does Gogarty-Mulligan occupy so slight a place in the book?

In Carl J. Weber’s “Hardy of Wessex,” we have a book no less important than Mr. Gorman’s, though less timely, since Hardy now appears on required reading lists for freshmen along with such subversive books as “Henry Esmond” and “Quentin Durward.” Professor Weber comes to the writing of his book from a long apprenticeship in the pages of academic journals, where for more than a decade he has been exposing small pieces of the ample knowledge that appears in the finished composition. There is much new material, but it is the sort of material gathered by patient search through documents, not the word-of-mouth material from personal contact that characterizes Mr. Gorman’s work. “Hardy of Wessex” is fundamentally a piece of academic research, and as such, liable to slow strangulation by footnotes. But Professor Weber tucks his documentary material into a series of meaty appendices, which will be invaluable for the scholar who has need of them, but will not interfere with the pleasure of the common reader. Further, Professor Weber can, when he needs, make an academic diversion like source-hunting as good as a chapter from a detective story. Witness his account of how there happened to be a suspicious parallel between a Wessex novel and such an unlikely book as Longstreet’s “Georgia Scenes.”

Both Joyce and Hardy were the subjects of particularly vicious attacks from defenders of morals, though the battle over Joyce seems nearer and more exciting to those of us old enough to remember the days of bootlegged copies of “Ulysses” and the ease with which one could acquire a reputation for wickedness and culture at the same time by a reference to “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” It is hard to realize now that the storm over “Tess” and “Jude” was no less violent, and that “President of the Immortals” were once fighting words. The two novelists offer contrast, however, in their methods of dealing with the modesties of editors. Joyce carried on spirited rearguard actions at each questionable phrase, to retreat at last into the fortress of artistic dignity. Hardy changed whatever was required, with sardonic complacency, only to slip the objectionable matter in again in a later edition. It is with mingled horror and amusement that we read of the children of Jude and Sue referred to as “adopted orphans” in the serialized version of “Jude the Obscure.”

Professor Weber avoids controversial criticism, though perhaps not quite so successfully as Mr. Gorman. His final position on the relative merits of the better known Wessex novels is perhaps a little too all-embracing. One is “the most perfect work of art,” another the “most warmly sympathetic,” and so on. This is criticism which avoids the issues. It has always seemed to me that to Hardy’s own “President of the Immortals” there would be little to choose among the three great ones, the “Native,” “Tess,” and “Jude.” In the meantime, merely human readers will probably always fight over which is greatest, each with his own candidate, which he defends for artistic reasons but chooses for temperamental ones. On the poetry, Professor Weber is both more forthright and more fortunate. He points to the unquestioned poetic qualities of poems like “The Darkling Thrush” or the later acts of “The Dynasts,” but does not gloss over the self-taught Browningese of such lines as “thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting.”

Readers unused to the special virtue of the good academician—his unwillingness to say more than he can prove to be true—may blame Professor Weber for the reserve with which he handles the vexed story of Hardy’s first marriage. To me, however, unless the biographer is to wander into the realms of Maurois and pure fiction, it seems that Professor Weber has chosen the only honorable course. He presents the evidence of unhappiness, tells us how far we can go in assuming that Hardy was unhappy, and then presents the evidence for reconciliation. Was Hardy a stoic long-sufferer? Or was the marriage perhaps as happy as many others? Professor Weber does not know, and he is to be praised for saying so.

The friends of Edwin Arlington Robinson have presented a different and much slighter book than these two formal biographies, but one of quiet and mildly acid charm. It is a judicious selection of the poet’s letters, written with no thought of publication, but revealing the man perhaps better than any outside biographer ever can. The book is intended as a supplement to the biography of Hermann Hage-dorn, and so avoids any extended account of the events or situations out of which the letters grew. But almost from the first letter the personality of Robinson begins to emerge, sometimes as much in his reticences as in his revelations. When the young man in his twenties remarks that “Business men are necessities I suppose, and all I ask of them is to keep themselves . . . out of my way,” we are prepared for a slightly supercilious Childe Rolande who will spend his life in quest of an Ivory Tower. Such a remark is in keeping with the later one that “Captain Craig” “will not be tolerated by . . . the better class of those who say he don’t.” In a different way it is in keeping with Robinson’s violent dislike of Meredith—he calls him a “verbal snob,” among other things. It has always been one of Meredith’s virtues that he can make the shoe pinch for those who ought to wear it.

Rut this touch of patronage for the vulgar world constitutes one of the charms of the book. The quiet man who talked so little is the more human for it, and we can appreciate the more his kindnesses when they come, as they did to two probably bewildered young women who wrote theses on his work, or as they did to impoverished writers in his prosperous years. There is a pleasant wit about the letters, too, that flashes now and then, as when he says “Have just read Wuthering Heights . . . and feel as if I had digested a thunderstorm,” or “a picture of Bishop * * * looks as if he had been brought up by the devil.”

But best of all is the slow, half-hinted story of the unassuming courage with which Robinson pursued his one aim through years of poverty and dependence, to come at last to a recognition for which he had not compromised.


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