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Monday, October 7, 2019

Howl: movie, poem and poet Allen Ginsberg


the material so described is dangerous to some unspecified, susceptible reader. It is interesting that the person applying such standards of censorship rarely feels as if their own physical or moral health is in jeopardy. The desire to censor is not limited, however, to crackpots and bigots. There is in most of us the desire to make the world conform to our own views. And it takes all of the force of our own reason as well as our legal institutions to defy so human an urge.... You will either add to liberal, educating thinking or by your decision you will add fuel to the fire of ignorance.

The above is a quote from the movie Howl, which claims that every word uttered in the movie was uttered by that person in real life, so presumably this monologue was uttered in the courtroom when the book was on trial for obscenity. (There are adult situations in the film and alternative lifestyles, so do with that what you will.)



Howl is a poem, is a movie, is a biography. It can be viewed as an explication of the poem itself. It gives readings of the poem, followed by interviews and scenes acted out as described to add historical and biographic context to the work. It also has animations of the surreal imagery described in the poem. In the trial, critics critique and explicate the work with varying degrees of success.

The poem marks a turning point in Allen Ginsberg's life and his art--a time where he clicked from confusion about himself and uncertainty about his art into clarity.

The trial went in Ginsberg's favor (and 90% of the movie does, too), but it's interesting that sometimes the film backs up the opposition’s point of view by having Ginsberg say that sometimes he doesn't know what he meant, as well as having Ginsberg's [recreated] audience revel more in the obscenities. Now one might say they were reveling in the rebelling against the moral authority that calls it obscenity, but even here Ginsberg said he just wanted to write a poem his father wouldn't approve of, with no hope of getting it published.

The movie has fantastic cuts, forcing viewers to pause and think about what’s been said, giving weight to certain lines.

What the film did not address are the main strengths of the poem, which is the bold voice and strong sound (they are working mostly from quotations in that time period—which limits what they can do):
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

First, we have the bold opening salvo, which seems both a proclamation of grandeur (not unlike Whitman's claims) and a political call to action--that this generation is going through something unique in its time although if the movie is to be believed, he’s referring to his friends like the one mentioned in the dedication, who hadn’t had much cultural relevance up to the writing of the poem. But still it’s told with such authority that we buy into its claims.

Rhythm and sound play a major part in the poem’s memorability: all the “n” and “m” consonance and alliterations. The lineation of the poem follows, as the movie pointed out, Walt Whitman, who (as the movie did not point out) was following the Biblical rhythms one might find in the King James Bible.

Also, a big component of the poem’s resonance is the culturally transgressive nature of this outlier generation, which probably rang an even stronger bell with the 60s generation that followed his Beats. The drugs seem a quest for transcendence—religious and otherwise, aids to plumb jazz and their world. It is curious that in 1955-6, there were still [asterisked] words that the poet felt should not be printed.

A closing quote (the opening and closing quotes have past, present and future relevance):
Life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same and conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike.... An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.




Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ending in Misery: Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop: book and movie


 This was up for the Booker Prize.

Obviously, spoilers will be involved.

This a good book—a short one—although I’m not sure I’d read it again. It was recently made into a movie as well with interesting variations that may or may not be considered significant.

Summary

Basically, Florence, a woman has always dreamed of opening a bookshop and has done so in a small seaside town, around the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s famed and controversial Lolita since that figures in, somewhat. She goes through legal expense to rehabilitate a house that had been abandoned for over five years.

After months, she’s finally able to open the shop and invited to attend a party of the local important person. She thinks it is to celebrate the opening of her bookshop. Instead, she is told that the house, though long abandoned, had been intended to be used as a local arts center that might also present lectures. In the movie, Florence gives the offer to reroute her dreams no quarter. In the book, though, Florence entertains the idea until she realizes that she is not intended as the arts center’s leader but Milo North. More on this later.

She befriends Mr. Brundish, the town’s recluse, who has had rumors spread about his divorce although the truth is less romantic. He's is a shut-in and does not leave his house.  In the book, he is highly respected for some unnamed reason (perhaps for his age and living so long in the village). The town’s respect for the recluse, therefore, impresses the town that he corresponds with the bookshop owner. It is made clear that the recluse has difficulty moving—which makes his sudden demise less surprising. Florence asks him for advice on whether she should sell Lolita in town, and he says yes, because it’s a good book—the controversy is irrelevant to whether it should be sold.

Florence also befriends a young girl, Christine, who works for Florence at the shop. Christine plays a larger role in the movie than the book—not just that she’s young and working, and just because she’s working in the same shop as the book Lolita is sold in. Mrs. Gamart appears to have, we readers suppose, brought in an investigation whether the girl should be employed at the bookshop.

Mr. Brundish knows what Mrs. Gamart is up to and leaves his house to tell her to stop, but he dies on the walk back home. In the movie he tells Florence what he plans to do. In the book he does not. This is critical in that in the book, the owner accepts the Colonel’s lie (his? or his wife’s?) that Mr. Brundish supported the local arts center over the bookshop, which wouldn’t make sense if she thought about it since the guy’s a shut-in. In the movie, she knows and doesn’t confront the Colonel about the lie but does yell at him to get out.

Meanwhile, the bookshop has to close since Mrs. Gamart has a nephew in parliament who creates a law about historical buildings being taken from owners for historical importance. The house is old but, as the recluse pointed out, has no historical relevance, but it’s still taken from the owner. Worse, she has to give the house away since the house uninhabitable (even though she lives in it) because the basement has water in it. In the movie, the owner had hoped to start a bookshop in a different town with her inventory, but the inability to sell her home and shop leaves her destitute. Her book inventory has to be sold off.

Quote
 "You're working too hard, Florence," Milo said....
"Surely you have to succeed, if you give everything you have." 
"I don't see why. Everyone has to give everything they have eventually. They have to die. Dying can't be called a success."

Analysis

What’s interesting is the ending—the utter desolation we feel for the woman. In the movie, there’s the consolation prize—if it can be called that—of the young girl setting the house on fire and being influenced to read herself and to start a bookshop of her own. Not so in the book. She believes the important person that even her one ally in town disapproves of her bookshop.

This is where the quote comes in. What does it mean to work hard and yet not succeed? We have this expectation that all things work out for good if we only work hard, but what if it doesn’t? This is the potent and poignant point of the work.

I asked others what they thought of such an ending: Would it disappoint them? One offered that that’s life, another that her working hard to achieve her goal alone should be the consolation prize. Trying is the thing. Yet I don’t think we’re meant to feel that since we are made to feel each successive blow for our protagonist’s complete dismantling.

Another possibility is that maybe the bookshop owner’s problem was her unwillingness to work within the current power structure. But that’s hard to swallow since the power structure here is corrupt—willing to lie and connive to get what they want (for free). Moreover, in in the book the owner does consider making the shop into an arts center for a brief while until she learns she’s to be excluded. Perhaps she could have pursued this angle a little harder than she does, but her complete demise—the financial tragedy of her life’s dream—seems to be the thing we are to mourn.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Mislaid Poets: Edith Sitwell


Portrait of Sitwell by Roger Fry, 1915

Names sound old when they don't get reused in later generations, which may artificially date their poetry as well. Sitwell is a curious figure, though. Her parents, baronettes, didn't care for her looks and ungainly height, so they verbally abused her. When she took to headdresses and accoutrements that fit her features, she became sought after for portrait paintings (see 1915 Roger Fry painting).

Unlike her parent, she and her brothers bonded and weathered later withering criticism from critics who lambasted her book Facades (using its title against itself), which she had performed on stage with music. The brothers and Edith sassed the critics back. Perhaps the dislike of her parents (yet with the backing of her brothers) gave her the backbone she needed to survive her later critics. And she went on to other books.

One can see something to the complaints:

When
Sir
Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
Where Proserpine first fell.... 
Nobody comes to give him his rum but the
Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum
--From "Sir Beelzebub"

There are other sillinesses here. When you wield a really bad pun like "syllabub," you can look at it two ways--a lack of seriousness that deserves dismissal (the perspective of a serious reader who looks down on humor in poetry), or as a thumbed nose at those who look down on humor in poetry.

Also the breaks are jagged and seemingly randomly assigned. It's off-putting but it feels as intentional as perhaps the humor.

But clearly, Sitwell is committed not just to rhymes but assonance, repeating long sounds,  especially--in ways that almost make the poems feel more like musical compositions.

Not just sound is repeated but phrases like "Still falls the rain" which repeats like a bass drum. She also plays with surreal synasthesia like "to the still thirsting heart / that holds the fires" or from "Aubade":

Each dull blunt wooden stalactite
Of rain creaks, hardened by light, 
Sounding like an overtone

 It's hard to say if she is more interested in the literary mode or the effect, but they become distinguishing features of her work.

Finally the rhyme (both end and internal) makes her verse feel formal, but the variable feet and meter erode that. Also sometimes the rhymes might look like they rhyme, but are slant (from "Country Dance"):

So I went
And leant
Where none but the doltish coltish wind
Nuzzled my hand for what it could find
As it neighed,
I said

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Who Is John W. Campbell?

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has been renamed The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

The Campbell Conference was renamed (they are discussing names for the Campbell Memorial award).

John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction
Here's a DVD [reviewed here] that discusses much of what people have complained about. I was typically cautious in my approach. I may or may not read more of his essays to find out what he may or may not think.

Despite the title, I won't judge whether Campbell deserves the labels he's been given but will offer a framework within which he should be judged. I'm not old enough to have gotten to know him well enough to pass judgement, neither have I read many of his essays, but here is a novel perspective gleaned from those who did know him well.

None of us believe we should be defined by those who hate us—or, rather, if they count, it’s a datum added after constructing the figure of those who knew and understood us.

In an introduction to Campbell’s SF, Lester Del Rey wrote [unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from The Best of John W. Campbell], “Stuart, as Campbell later put it, was an annoying kind of writer. He refused to take the standard axioms for granted. When everyone knew that something was so, Stuart began questioning it.”

There’s more in there than it first appears. First, Stuart is John W. Campbell’s own pseudonym, Don A. Stuart, so Campbell is able to stand outside himself and judge himself; therefore, he retains some measure of objectivity about his person. Second, he considers himself “annoying” in the same sense that people found Socrates annoying: questioning standard axioms.

Del Rey validates this perspective later on:

His editorials in the magazine were always a source of controversy, as he meant them to be. He was using the editorial page to stir up thinking, to say, “Yes, but how do you know your obvious truth is so darned obvious? Now let’s try a different assumption.” He refused to accept any set idea of what might be good or bad.

Del Rey goes on to express astonishment that people found Campbell difficult to get: 

To my surprise, many of the writers and fans seemed to consider Campbell a hard man to know well.... Campbell was somewhat shy, particularly about personal feeling; and he hated to make conversation.... He had no fund of small talk. He was a man passionately in love with ideas, who wanted to chase such ideas back to their beginnings and forward to the furthest possible extension. To him, that meant an all-out, no-holds-barred argument.
His mind was like a rapier, darting out instantly to find any unprotected spot in an opponent’s thinking. He was a quick master of the fundamentals of any area of knowledge.... [T]o those who would return his passionate love of argument as mental exercise, he was a wonderful human being. And his delight was as great in losing an argument as in winning.”

In other words, Campbell was built from the atoms of his subject: speculative fiction. If you couldn’t engage with ideas passionately and oppose (or have opposed) conventional wisdom, he probably wasn’t much interested in you (or your work).

If that doesn’t mark Campbell’s figure for you, let’s consult his wife:
See the source image 
For the next twenty years... my son’s and daughter’s college friends... would come in without a “Hello” but with a well-thought-out refutation of some point of an argument begun during a previous holiday months before. They brought new people with them each time, to refuel the discussions and arguments that would last for days....
Many’s the time I had to interrupt one of those marathon debates [with his daughters’ beaux] to suggest that the girls might like to go out on their dates, rather than fidgeting, all dressed up. 
[H]is own children... would cease asking for help on science fair projects [etc.].... What with all the fascinating ramifications, byways and side issues John could think of, it took him at least twice as long to convey the information. He also was unnerving about the textbooks and the accepted authorities.

She goes on to describe their debates about the Linen Closet Arguments (they named their debates), which lasted ten years. They recorded their debates and listened to them and were unaware of and disappointed by how they sounded, so they altered how they debated (but it doesn’t sound like the quantity abated).

For a time she worried about the epithets he received over his “crackpot” ideas but she concluded, “He never carried a grudge or acted vindictively—he was not smug, but had some tough quality of mind that viewed ideas as fascinating... no matter where they led.”

At one point in her essay, Campbell’s wife said that she told her husband that he should be a teacher. He said he was... to a hundred thousand readers of his magazine.

Since his whole adult life had been devoted to science fiction—as an author and editor, an editor who took an active role in the speculation appearing in his magazine—it shouldn’t surprise us that he was science fiction embodied.

This, then, gets complicated when one reads his introduction to his retrospective anthology Analog 6 (written in September 1967), where he states and implies that while he knows what SF is (what he is?), he cannot readily nail it down although he does a fair job of describing the process of what methodical speculation does.

If you still question the validity of John W. Campbell being SF itself, read this passage: 

“Science fiction tries to take the skeleton of scientific facts and build around it a body of a living future. Sometimes we go pretty wildly wrong—as wrong as scientists have gone in their speculations.”

Note the “we.” Who is we? Not scientific facts as he differentiates “we” from scientists. Clearly, the “we” must be “Science fiction.” Campbell sees himself--perhaps unconsciously since he isn't trying define himself but the genre--and others have described him as the genre itself. He does seem to have consumed, processed and internalized so much of the field that he is a part of it.

As for crackpot ideas, he points out their utility: “For nearly three centuries now, Science has been stubbornly maintaining that there was no value whatever in astrological ideas.” And then he describes, through methodical speculation how astrology (through science) does impact real life. I’ll let you look up his logic and see whether or not you agree or disagree. But that isn’t my point. The point is that the utility of the crackpot ideas in SF is that it forces us to think in new directions, instead of being caught in scientific paradigms only. Scientists who read SF will admit to something similar. It’s not just crackpot ideas, but rigorous crackpot ideas that break open the mind to possibilities. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand SF, and you cannot understand Campbell because Campbell is SF. All criticism of John W. Campbell most flow out of this starting point. Anything else is simplistic and misleading.

Algis Budrys in his introduction to the story “Twilight” wrote that Campbell’s Stuart’s oeuvre, “do not in fact express any consistent view of the world; they express only a consistent rational mood,” [The Mirror of Infinity] which Budrys differentiated from Campbell’s editorials. I contend that “Twilight” at least is very consistent with Campbell’s view of the human race: that if we do not continue to think and challenge our thoughts, if we allow machines or others to do all our thinking, we will fade from the pinnacle of our former glory.

If one does not express critiques—serious flaws—through this filter as related by those who were close to him, near the time of his passing, a filter expressed both in his essays and most critically famed work, if one does not label him in light of this primary tenant of life—that he was all process, thinking about how we think and how humanity may be changed by it—one does not describe Campbell but aspects of one’s self. He was trying to save the world from the fate imagined in “Twilight”—the heat-death of intellectual curiosity—by means of science fiction.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye


 See the source image
This novel was up for a Hugo. (According to Mike Resnick, if Galouye had voted for himself at the awards, he would have tied for a win.)


While there may be a few things I disagree with Richard Dawkins about, I do agree on the worth Galouye’s novel—not because I agree with the politics but with the quality of the speculation. However, we do disagree on ultimate destination, some significant science errors (interpretations?) that make it fun to discuss.

The novel is fascinating dissection of human society that (perhaps due to accident has fractured society by how it observes the world and, due to that, how they interpret the world. One group uses their ears to “see” while others use their eyes to pick up infrared while there’s a mysterious third group of “monsters,” little understood—those taken by them never return—not to mention assorted creatures of the cave system like the soubat.

I must admit to being put off by the novel, initially, because of the writing (obnoxious dialogue tags like “he determined”) and coyly hiding itself at first behind pronouns without antecedents. I was going to give up on it when I flipped to the end and read the ending and started over, which enhanced my enjoyment. If you struggle with it, try that.

Spoilers with Analysis:

Everybody’s living in caves (great literalization of Plato’s Cave metaphor). I’m not sure how large a population could actually be supported by a cave—probably not all of these levels with all of these people who have presumably adapted new genetic traits to survive in these habitats.

Dawkins loved this book because, essentially, a kind of atheistic science prevails; however, much as this was intended, a few problems remain. First, the "monsters" are destroying habitats of different cultures in the name of spreading its “superior” culture—another Manifest Destiny, which is no longer in favor. Or is it? Sometimes people today try to force their morality on others and punish them with loss of jobs. Should this be or not? In the novel it is definitely coerced although it’s ultimately presented as a good thing.

What if some of these people could not survive outside their habitat? In fact, if they evolved to live in a cave, they may have lost the ability to survive in other habitats.

Still, I loved the different descriptions of how various groups navigated the caves in different situations. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (book)




  • Modern Library Top 100
  • Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels


Warning: Don’t read this essay on Dreiser’s novel unless you’ve read it or are braced for spoilers.

For a discussion of the movie adaptations, go here. I do discuss them a little more below.

Summary + Discussion / Analysis

File:An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser dust jacket.jpegThe novel is rather expository and breaks other "laws" of the modern novel, yet still tells a good story, which makes one wonder how many literary laws are necessary. For example, it's told in an omniscient view, where occasionally the narrator tells us how we should feel although, usually, it remains in the head of one character for each section. Clyde is the most common head we're in, though.
It opens with a critique of Clyde's family poverty in the mission and never brought up in the ways of the world, so they'd know how to fend for themselves. Although it shows the family meaning well, the narrator clearly finds mission work foolish and naive.

Clyde and his older sister see it that way, too. The sister escapes first although, later, we find out that she doesn't end up married as she'd planned--just pregnant. This has some interesting parallels: presumably this girlfriend he himself will think about murdering, and a story he heard at the hotel where he works as a bellhop about a man who takes a bride to the hotel with all their things, enjoys the luxurious life at the hotel for a few days, and takes off with his poor bride-to-be stuck with the bill, unable to pay. He thought that story was funny until it happened to his sister.

But before he knows of his sister's fate, he starts to climb out of the family by getting a job at a soda fountain and later gets a job as a bellhop at a fancy hotel where he gets huge tips, more money than he'd ever expected. He falls for a girl, Hortense, who doesn't love him but the money he's willing to spend on her and eggs him on only to get him to buy her stuff. She keeps escalating the scale of the gifts until she spies a fancy coat she wants, worth the average schmoe's two months of salary.

Meanwhile, Clyde's mother realizes Clyde's nice clothes means he has access to money, so she approaches him similar amounts of money. She's very secretive and finally he learns (by tailing her) that the money is for his single sister who is in the family way. So Clyde put in a vice between his mother's (and sister's) demand for money and Hortense's. Does he give for love (a hopeless cause, we readers know from the beginning)? Hortense shows just enough interest to get Clyde's hopes up so he'll invest in her.

Only when the coat is nearly paid for, does he figure out that she would never love him. She dances with a new guy, Spenser, showing him more adoration than she'd ever shown Clyde although she pretends he's imagining it.

The group head home a little late and egg Spenser to hurry faster in the car, so they can make it to work on time (except Clyde? though he clearly wants to make it to work on time), but he gets in an accident that kills a child and everyone flees the cops.

Clyde leaves town and migrates to different cities, different jobs until he meets and old comrade who gets him another bellhop job where he meets his uncle Griffith who offers Clyde a job at the factory. Mr. Griffith's son is jealous and bitter about Clyde's trying to ride on their coat-tails. However, Mr. Griffith feels responsible since his father left Clyde's father out of the will and wants to help.

In this new town, as a Griffith, Clyde realizes both the son's animosity yet the different treatment that others afford him as if he were royalty, and he's unsure who should consort with, who to shun. Others are trying to ride his coattails, thinking he will soon rise up through the ranks.

Clyde starts off in the shrinking room (ha, ha) of the collar factory. Soon enough, though, it irritates Mr. Griffith, Sr., that someone who looks like his son and who shares his last name is working at the bottom of the factory. So he forces his son to promote him. The son is irked, hoping to keep Clyde forever in that position and is forced to find the only position of authority Clyde is able to take is with a bunch of women whom he is not supposed to grow attached to any. He vows to maintain a Christian attitude and manages to put forward an aloof attitude but finds himself attracted to three of the women. When Roberta is hired, all of the women are jealous because they can tell he prefers her.

Roberta knows, too, and sees this stratified class system, where those in authority are not to fraternize with the employees, as a way to keep people in their class.

Clyde, meanwhile, is trapped. He cannot socialize with people below the Griffith family, but no one in the Griffith family's class will socialize with him and the matron of the family makes it clear he is from the lower class, which shoos the fleeting interest some of the high society women had.

About the one-third mark, I lose my sympathy for Clyde (except now and then when the rich look down on him as suitable material for social purposes). Even though he knows he has in no interest in marrying her if he can marry someone richer, he pressures her into intimacy, which she regrets as soon as Clyde finds a rich woman who's interested (interested at first only because she sees it as a way to irritate Clyde's cousin and because at first she thinks Clyde has money since he represents his father as running a hotel in Denver).

When Roberta learns she's pregnant, the novel presents a search for abortion--interestingly without mentioning "abortion." The movies don't discuss this at all. Since Clyde has been forced to associate with no one, he has no one to ask about abortions, so he goes around to various pharmacies asking coyly for a worker at work who's gotten himself in trouble (since he looks like his cousin, he doesn't want to create a scandal -- for himself or the Griffiths). When he succeeds in procuring a medicine, it doesn't work, so he goes to the pharmacist who is scandalized at the mention of abortion. He will have nothing to do with it though he mentions a doctor he's heard who has done such in the past. Clyde forces Roberta to go by herself to see about the abortion, and the doctor is scandalized.

Roberta tries to get Clyde to marry her quietly since she’s tried everything, saying he can divorce her later, but secretly hopes he will fall in love with her and stay married. But Clyde fears that would end his relationship and his position in high society.

About the half-way point, I was tired of Clyde and his voice telling him what to do wrong (is that his justification or the narrator’s—suggesting insanity?). He’s more guilty in the novel than in either movie (I preferred the level of guilt in A Place in the Sun). At the end of Book 2, I was considering quitting because it just sounded like a long trail and trial of misery, but I’m glad I stuck it out.

Up until the three-quarters mark, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was the American tragedy here. And then boom it hit me like an avalanche: 
  1. Roberta cannot rise up and be respectable in society unless she marries Clyde, who doesn’t want to marry her. 
  2. Clyde cannot rise up and be respectable in society if he marries Roberta. He is willing to help financially but not marry since he loves someone else (who loves him). 
  3. Clyde’s downfall proves that the poor shouldn’t try to rise above their station. 
  4. The District Attorney is willing to falsify evidence (the hairs), distort truth (eyewitness) in order (in part) to get win the case and get reelected—not to mention his certainty (feigned?) of what happened. The District Attorney, while lying in order to kill Clyde, tongue-lashes Clyde for his lying and killing Roberta. Like Clyde, he probably feels his lies justified. 
  5. The defense attorney is willing to falsify evidence and testimony in order to get at the truth. 
  6. Both attorneys package emotional content that Clyde must agree to in order to answer the question. 
  7. Clyde does not always say what would best convince the jury of his innocence because he knows that his true love will be reading the press of his trial. 
  8. We disapprove of Clyde, yet he is not actually guilty of murder (manslaughter? conspiracy? probably), but society--represented by the man in audience who stands up to shout that Clyde should be killed and be done with it--so disapproves of Clyde’s behavior that they want him killed, even though he didn’t actually do it. 
  9. Clyde’s friends’ lax morals are possibly to blame in part for their influence. 
  10. According to the author (well, the unnamed narrator), the poor pious are also guilty of not properly educating kids in the ways of the world although I’m not sure the argument is fully developed. I wonder if he wrote the tirade as a reminder to fill this in, later (although it does show minor hypocrisy in hiding Estella, which seems deceptive in the name of keeping the scandal quiet). 
  11. If Clyde weren’t born into poverty, he might have lived if he’d had an appeal. 
  12. When Clyde needs money to appeal, the side of the family with money abandon him to protect their name. 
  13. When Clyde’s mother asks to speak to churches to get money to appeal, Christians do not come to the aid of their sister in the faith. They refuse to listen to what she has to say. They make judgments without evidence. 
  14. Clyde’s mother won’t go to Catholics to ask for money (although they are not of the faith). 
  15. She does appeal to some Jews who allow the use of their theater for Mrs. Griffith to ask for money. But those who do come to hear are only interested for the notoriety, not in helping as was shown by their rapidly evaporating interest.  
  16. The pastor, Rev. MacMillan, to whom Clyde confesses everything, does not believe in capital punishment and is confused by the story—whether Clyde is guilty—but due to Clyde’s guilt in the faith, decides Clyde is guilty, so he says nothing when the governor asks if the reverend knows anything that might keep Clyde from the electric chair.
  17. We, dear readers, even today, even with complete knowledge, are a part of the tragedy, despite knowing Clyde is technically not guilty of the crime: Some will still wish Clyde dead (some Conservatives, some Liberals—for different reasons). Some will see him part of the privileged Patriarchy while others will see him preying on the innocent weaker sex.
  18.  + 19 + 20?) Some might want to add that illegal abortion and a lack female independence are also tragedies. Maybe the latter although it isn’t well “documented,” but maybe a second reading would prove me wrong. I do think the former is so evasive and portrayed so negatively that I don’t think it intends for readers to see that as one of the tragedies, but maybe from our society’s perspective in part, it is. On the other hand, maybe the whole search for abortion represents the lack of a viable societal solution, indicating that that too is part of the American tragedy. It may depend on the reader’s perspective. The third possible tragedy that is wholly dependent on one’s perspective is capital punishment.


Is that the complete list of American tragedies? Probably not, but it’s a start. If you are convinced of Clyde’s guilt and death, then there is no tragedy and the book title is woefully hyperbolic, leaving the book pointless waste. People die in books all the time. There’s no need to call this a tragedy or even a particularly American one.

Reverend MacMillan, I suspect, is a stand-in for the author—a way to hash out discrepancies and uncertainties—yet remains in uncertainty even while he condemns the man. Theodore Dreiser is thorough in his treatment. He even gives Clyde’s mother a chance to redeem herself by being a little more liberal with her grandchild.

After reading, I was pondering—much as I loved the structure and tortured drama and thematic genius, which makes glad I read it—how little do I want to reread the book. I cared for the first third and then I realized belatedly that I came to care for Clyde again after he’s sentenced to death. Part of the reason is his fear of death and his having to hear his future death as his inmates die, one by one. A larger part is his moral struggle of whether he truly is guilty, and his eventual confession to the Reverend about what actually happened, and his conversion yet painful doubt up to the end: Is his faith good enough to let him into heaven? (I don’t know if that would resonate as strongly with non-Christians, but maybe they can guess.) But perhaps the lion share of my empathy comes from his mother who, penniless, does all that she can to save her son and it’s not enough. Oh, I love that lady. My heart breaks for her. She is jealous, too, of how her son confesses to the reverend but not to her. Reading it at the time, I thought, put her mind at ease and tell her. But maybe it would have merely haunted her as it had him—one of the few decisions Clyde makes that I agreed with.

The novel merits reading--rather delicious ironies and difficult situations. I'm not sure about the movies. They seem to miss the gist. They could have hit the tragedies harder (maybe they did, and I need to re-watch them).

Yes, the novel has more time to expand than the movies, but we get to empathize with Clyde, we get to watch as he tries to make something out of himself despite the initial poverty, how people become snobbish as soon as they think they are something, stingy if they think one cause is better than another. Clearly, Clyde is chasing the American dream and headed for a tragedy.

Hopefully, I haven’t been too cursory and made it seem like Clyde's the same as in the movies. He truly means well and tries to do the right things (well, for the first third of the novel or so)—the best he knows how. Even, fleeing the accident, which he regrets, he doesn't see how he could have done it differently since it may have gotten him trouble for things he didn't do.

The novel could maybe work as a period-piece miniseries. I don’t see how it could be modernized. It is also wonderful to understand what people at that time saw as their drive to accomplish, to wear, to be, to do. It captures—as far as I can tell—the spirit of its time.

This is the best book I’ve read in a while, so let's leave it in the canon.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (movie adaptations)



 Film Poster for An American Tragedy.jpg
I recently caught the movies An American Tragedy (1931) and A Place in the Sun (1952). The first apparently made a modest critical and financial impact, the second won a number of nominations and awards, including the top 100 for the American Film Institute. Both are based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which I suspected I'd die before I ever got around to it, but these two movies stirred my curiosity. (Apparently, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, of Battleship Potemkin fame, made fourteen reels of an adaptation, but it was thought his interpretation was too deterministic, which would be a problem in comparison to the novel although I'm not sure a Marxist interpretation would fully capture the novel either.) 

Spoilers galore:

Both movies present a young man [Clyde in the novel, which I will use here after to maintain consistency—A Place in the Sun renames him] headed to work at the factory of his uncle [Griffith in the novel]. The first movie has an incredibly dull opening although a few actresses present convincing performances. Presumably the first film is supposed to be closer to the novel although I suspected both were quite outside the ballpark.

In the first, Clyde is a bellhop and finds himself charming rich women unwittingly. He and some friends drink, get in an accident that kills a child, so he tells his mother he is leaving to escape the police. Frankly, all the guys looked the same to me, so I couldn't tell who was driving, so I don't know if Clyde were the driver or not, but clearly he's played with the wrong crowd and is now on the lam from the law. A rather grim and unsympathetic start.

A Place in the Sun movie poster.jpgBoth movies show Clyde starting out in the factory, but that's where the second (with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor) starts. So the second is a more sympathetic view. We see Clyde shyly trying to fit in, and starting low on the totem pole at the factory.

Clyde falls for a factory gal though he's not supposed to consort with them (it's just a factory rule in the movies). As Clyde moves up in the factory, he also falls for a high-society gal. As soon as he's sure of her mutual love, he learns that the factory gal is in the family way. He hears of a man who got away with murdering his lover in the lake, so he thinks he'll try it since she can't swim. But as he backs out, she falls in and drowns, and he flees. They eventually catch him, put him on trial, and convict him. His lawyers believed him and think they can get him off, but they do a rather botched job of it.
In the first, the mother blames herself for having Clyde consort with low-lifes at the mission, her life's work, but Clyde blames himself realizing only in jail that he could have saved her and chose not to. It's a little worse in the first since Clyde swims toward her and turns away.

Still, I'd think today that would be considered manslaughter, and capital punishment is rather rare, so we wouldn't have that feeling of the end of Clyde's life rearing up.

Today, as well, we have abortion and divorce and more female independence, so those are probably all reasons why the movie hasn't been remade.

The theme in both seems to reinforce the idea of the folly of trying to elevate the poor man from his station. I couldn't figure out what made them "An American Tragedy," though—why tragedy? why American? The second movie perhaps realized the title was too lofty for what it aimed at and chose A Place in the Sun, which seems to hint also at the folly of poor men trying to be rich.

That's what led me to the 1925 book, which made it on the top 100 Modern Library and top 100 Time Magazine novels, so I thought I'd give it a spin to see how differently it did things—and to see how it meant to use its title.

Communist countries loved adapting this book although I’m not sure it’s necessarily anti-capitalism although it is a collar factory, which was a clear demonstration of class—but communism has its own version of class. Yet Dreiser was enthusiastic about Eisenstein’s adaptation although that may have been more for his quality of work than his politics—nothing is more disappointing to see than an artist who places politics above his art. I’d still be interested to Eisenstein’s version.

Here's a link to the novel discussion which will follow in a few days (and a little more talk of adaptations). And yes, it deserves to be read. It's left a burning hot coal in my chest. Put it on your to-be-read list (or bump it up).