". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, December 23, 2013

McCrumb's Top 100 Novels Written In English - No. 14, Vanity Fair

William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (serialized in Punch, 1847 -1848), takes its title from the first work McCrum discusses in his Observer series, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  This delighted me, from the moment I learned of this novel's existence; the delight consisting in my knowledge that I knew this -- having already learned about The Pilgrim's Progress from both Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and history of literature sections in the volumes of The Book of Knowledge, part of a whole bookcase of series that included an encyclopedia, one on science and another on the geography and cultures of the world.

Just when I learned there was a novel titled Vanity Fair, or learned of William Thackeray for that matter, these things I cannot recall, as it was too long ago and too far away. I came of reading age in era and a place where the classic masterpieces of English and American literature, and especially the novels, were part of the educational air we breathed.  That is, they were part of that air if one were a bookish, imaginative child; for other sorts, awareness of book titles and authors was surely as negligible an interest as in any other time and other place.

Beyond The Book of Knowledge volumes, another principle reason for this childhood familiarity of authors and titles was that by this time of the post-modern and the American century, our English language masterpieces, had been relegated to publishers' Classics imprints, as the money now was in Saul Bellow & Co. Classics were classified as juvenile literature,* i.e. books that all children should know by the time they graduated from high school, so the books were on our school libraries' shelves -- particularly in the place I grew up, as we were so removed from the mainstream of contemporary, suburban American culture.  Even the game Authors, marketed to children, reflected that. So this is likely where I first learned of Thackeray and Vanity Fair; there was suite for Thackeray in our Authors game.

Novels had only (relatively) recently joined academic curricula in England and the U.S. as a fit subject of scholarly study;  And American fiction had been added even later than that.

When I got to high school age, my education in the classics and now in the moderns proceeded apace. I was so fortunate in having as my high school teacher a young fellow (though he looked old to me then) who was pursuing lit studies in grad school while teaching us.  He shared everything he studied with me, and loaned me so many books.  Among them, I'll never forget, was Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim.  The first time I read it, the reading was mostly conducted sprawled upon the couch of one of my grandmothers.  I kept roaring with laughter.  My grandmother would ask me, reasonably enough, to share with her what was so funny.  I'd read out the passage and she, reasonably enough considering the circumstances, couldn't understand what it was about, much less why it was funny. This, of course, I am now ashamed to acknowledge, made me feel smug and smart. I was so stupid in those days. * *

In conclusion, do read the comments to this entry; they are for the most part an actual discussion not snark snerk sneer smirk by people who don't have anything informed or even quirky to add.  It's particularly so in the discussion of Austen's Emma (1815), which McCrumb puts into his No. 7 slot of best 100 novels in English.  This commentator's remark are particularly useful, as we all continue to grapple with how does Emma remain in our affections when she's such a bitch and snob?
  • The lead up to the Cole's dinner party is one of my favorite passages in fiction; a fabulous and funny study in self-deception.
    However it is also important because it shows clearly what a lot of people do not like to accept (perhaps influenced by the "Paltrowisation" of Emma), what a little bitch she is.
    The Coles are coming up in the world but their origins are in trade:

    The regular and best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite-- neither Donwell, nor Hartfield, nor Randalls. Nothing should tempt her to go, if they did; and she regretted that her father's known habits would be giving her refusal less meaning than she could wish. The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them.
    This last bit is important. Emma doesn't just not want to go to the party, she wants her refusal of a hypothetical invitation (which in the first part of that passage she has decided is too presumptuous to occur) to be understood to be a slap that puts them in their place. It is truly horrible behaviour.
    It is also intellectually dishonest. Emma claims that she thinks that they will hardly presume to invite the best families. But she doesn't really think this because she knows fine well that there is only one person silly and snobbish enough to refuse in Highbury. Because in the next line:
    This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself; she had little hope of Mr. Knightley, none of Mr. Weston.
    So she is perfectly well aware that the other most "respectable" people, including the major landowner Mr Knightley, are not going to help her slap the Cole's down.
    Time passes and her invitation doesn't arrive. According to the forgoing she ought to be pleased by this. The Cole's have not presumed to invite the superior Miss Woodhouse. But of course she is not. She is a bit put out, in fact.
    Donwell and Randalls had received their invitation, and none had come for her father and herself; and Mrs. Weston's accounting for it with "I suppose they will not take the liberty with you; they know you do not dine out," was not quite sufficient. She felt that she should like to have had the power of refusal;
    Not so much now as to slap the Coles down but because:
    the idea of the party to be assembled there, consisting precisely of those whose society was dearest to her, occurred again and again, she did not know that she might not have been tempted to accept.
    The bare possibility of it acted as a farther irritation on her spirits; and her being left in solitary grandeur, even supposing the omission to be intended as a compliment, was but poor comfort
    So now she is starting to be put out about not getting the invitation that she was put up about the idea of having originally.
    Finally the invitation arrives.

    It was the arrival of this very invitation while the Westons were at Hartfield, which made their presence so acceptable; for though her first remark, on reading it, was that "of course it must be declined," she so very soon proceeded to ask them what they advised her to do, that their advice for her going was most prompt and successful.
    So she goes, and she has a good time. But the evolution of her ideas about this are a truly brilliant evocation about the way we delude ourselves, and also shows us why Austen thought she is " a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
    For much of the novel, she is not just a snob but a rather nasty snob capable of looking forward to publicly snubbing people who have done absolutely nothing to her. Without Austen's mastery of free indirect narration it is hard to imagine that anyone would like her. But that mastery is such that the real unpleasantness of Emma's snobbery is largely masked.


As this process was completed,  Leslie Fielder noticed.  He provided an excellent discussion of the why of turning our great books into children's literature in his then ground-breaking work,  Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). This work of Fielder's remains an excellent starting place for education into the American novel. Though Fiedler's work fell out of favor in the last decades of the 20th century, there appears to be come-back, judging by citations and indices in studies of American social, media and literary history. This fall in Fielder's status coincided with academia's devaluing the hmanities generally and the rise in identity studies.  Among Fiedler's other interests, still de-classé in his time in academic circles, were Science Fiction,  film and television, particularly the western --

Richard Slotkin's trilogy defining the mythology of the Old West, particularly in the movies, refers frequently to Fielder.

* *  For that matter, as I potter along, I look back at even the most recent phrases of my life and am astounded at how stupid I was.  Alas, it seems this pilgrim's progress is doomed to stasis.

No comments: