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Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Don Dewey has published 25 books of fiction, non-fiction and drama, including Marcello Mastroianni: His Life and Art, James Stewart: a Biography and The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons.

Some writers are more stimulating as ideas than as workers at their craft. We can be reluctant to admit this because it opens us to charges that we don’t grasp their art sufficiently, that we have no literary sensibility, or that we have the intellectual patience of the Vandals. Radio talk show hosts aside, nobody likes to be accused of philistinism.

Two writers who come to mind instantly in this regard are Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger. I truly love the notion of a newspaperman forging his fiction while driving ambulances through the battlefields of World War I, ducking under Franco’s bombs in the Spanish Civil War, hunting lions and rhinos in Africa, getting into alcoholic boxing matches with old Brooklyn Dodgers, discovering religion in bullfighting, marrying god-knows-how-many-times, feuding with other famous people over the pettiest of ego matters, calling Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner confidantes, earning honors in Castro’s Cuba, and, finally, blowing his brains out rather than submit to some degenerative disease. There’s a magnificent novel in a picaresque, complex character like that; it goads my imagination, moves me beyond a few staid criteria even to contemplate it. But for my (lack of) taste, Hemingway himself didn’t write the novel; in fact, he didn’t write it about a dozen times. The idea of Hemingway was simply bigger, more expansive than his fiction.

For diametrically opposed reasons I feel the same way about Salinger. Unlike the sprawling canvas of the Hemingway idea, the Salinger idea is the tiniest of miniatures: guy writes short stories and novellas about the Central Park West crowd, then turns into a New England hermit. People think he’s faking it, but he isn’t. He stays walled up for decades with his family, only occasionally being spotted on a village street and immediately beating a retreat to his fortress, probably regretting that he once lowered his defenses for a groupie who later wrote a tell-all about I;t and definitely regretting that he lowered them for a daughter who wrote a tell-all-the-rest. The fanaticism of the Salinger idea has always seemed to me to complement the Hemingway allure perfectly: One figure forever on the prowl around the world for the god Experience, the other equally bent on showing that the world has no indispensable experience to offer. And who would know this better than Salinger, I think, since his writings have always impressed me as narratives from a dutiful voice on the supervisory side of the bars of a hospital bed: To be appreciated to the fullest, best be a patient.

Romance, of course, counts; counts a lot. Actually reading Jack Kerouac, for example, requires far too much grim effort compared to caressing the abstraction of him and those other mid-20th-century literary vagabonds wandering from one bottle of Gallo muscatel to another along the trail to Nirvana. About the only adjustment we’ve had to make over the years is to think of Kerouac and friends as the Beat Generation rather than as the beatniks who occupied the planet when the Soviet Union (which also occupied it at the time) was sending sputniks into space. As -niks, they were a circumnavigating, vaguely disruptive social phenomenon; as a generation, they have become a vaguely quaint legacy. The first property requirement of an idea is that its communicability be as harmless as possible.

A writer we have embraced as an idea even more than Kerouac and the Beats is Henry Miller. Not all of us have been tantalized by the prospect of going on the road to encounter dharma bums and desolation angels, but few of us have escaped the seduction of thinking of ourselves (however briefly) as sexual libertarians. And with Miller we not only hop from one accommodating bed to another, we are also able to portray it as the fulfillment of a natural destiny charted for us by Venus, Odin, Adam and Eve, the Colossus of Rhodes, the I Ching, Jacob Boehme, D.H. Lawrence, French bakers, randy beggars and Western Union messengers. But for all these mythical endorsements, the Miller idea has never exactly been free; on the contrary, it has been about as embarrassing as any we have subscribed to in the name of broadened imagination --- prompting us eventually to dismiss it in self-defense as juvenile, callous, misogynist, inhuman. There are some ideas that we grow beyond. We say.

This is not to suggest a writer’s biography is the only path to preferring him as an idea. If that were the case, I would have concentrated on the raucous lives of Baudelaire, Poe and Dostoyevski rather than savoured their writings, would have been satisfied with the encyclopedia entries for Hart Crane and Victor Serge rather than reread what had earned them their place in libraries. The superseding idea of a writer can also be squeezed out of specific political and social situations --- for instance, from a single work portrayed as a rallying cry of dissension against some suffocating obscurantism, abuse or tyranny. This doesn’t just mean the pamphlets of Thomas Paine or the Emancipation Proclamation, although these too would place high on the list of the never-actually-read. Chroniclers of the period, for instance, reported lively village square debates over Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but as much as that tidbit once informed my image of the intellectual priorities of Germans, I recall browsing through Immanuel Kant only once --- in search of the answer to some philosophy class assignment. Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair really demonstrated a novelist’s pen could be mightier than urban sledgehammers? Gratifying, and one of these days I’m going to have to read McTeague and The Jungle. And how courageous those samizdat people must have been to circulate their satires and tragedies (knowing state censors were more likely to read them than I was)!

Just as often, the writer-more-enduring-as-idea can be found between the lines of the writer’s own inspirations, making the prose surrounding it seem intrusive by comparison. In The Maurizius Case, to cite one example, the early 20th-century German novelist Jacob Wassermann didn’t have to wait for the Beer Hall Putsch to lay out the psychological and cultural ingredients that were necessary for the stew of Nazi Youth. Nor did he have to witness Hitler’s coming to power to create a protagonist whose temperamental furies and shrewd perfidies gave twisted new meaning to the aims of innocence and achievements of guilt. But to penetrate to the idea of Wassermann --- a brilliant but helplessly Cassandric artist of the Weimar Republic --- it is necessary to scorch the arid, pedantic verbiage on all sides of it. Context might be all, but writers like Wassermann seem dedicated to switching the position of the doughnut’s pastry and its hole.

And let’s not forget the industries that have grown up around the-writer-better-as-idea in the names of mass entertainment and scholarship. They have produced everything from iconic screen biographies of Emile Zola and T.S. Eliot to regular publishing updates on exactly how many drinks Scott had the afternoon he first noticed Zelda’s boa wasn’t the only thing askew about her. Scholarship has also been responsible for a subtle variation on the writer-as-idea; he shouldn’t even be an idea. This has been particularly marked in the volumes devoted to overthrowing Shakespeare as the author of all those tragedies and comedies that --- it should go without saying --- came from the quill of Christopher Marlowe or some other fatally shy scribe of the period. Will we ever know for sure? Think about it. Don’t read Hamlet or attend a performance of Othello, just think about who might or might not have written them.

Closer to home, and to the publishing industry’s amour-propre, is the idea of the writer as ultimately successful struggler (the unsuccessful ones we don’t have to hear about). One strives for years without publishing more than a couple of jokes for Readers Digest, then wins the National Book Award for an 89th completed novel. A second commits suicide, but a daughter finds a manuscript that is hailed as the ‘great American novel.’ A third writes a book to general indifference, disappears into the Sierra Madres for 40 years to relate to cougars, then reemerges with another manuscript that goes to the top of the best-seller list. Could any of these books possibly be more enthralling than the investment in human pain behind them? And who really wants to get any closer to that pain than the idea of it?

Make no mistake: Next to communicability, the major property of the idea-over-the-work for a writer is an intellectual laziness. Sometimes the laziness is the writer’s for failing to create an imaginative world that has to be taken whole or not at all, and yes, sometimes it is the reader’s for failing to be open to that world. Both failings encourage a kind of retrospective advertising (brand name familiarity, successful taste tests, commercial awards) where the product can never equal the buildup to it. Of course, it might also help if we got into the habit of reading books instead of writers. That’s what they have always wanted too, right?

Also by Donald Dewey:
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power


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