Failure and The American Writer: A Literary History by Gavin Jones

Failure and The American WriterI was so deeply engrossed in this book that I read it in an evening and then dreamt of living in the woods with Henry David Thoreau and Edith Wharton. Gavin Jones, Stanford professor and expert on American literature, explores the theme of failure in nineteenth century writing. In opposition to the ‘American Dream’ narrative, failure as a theme has compelling realism, and great potential for social critique, the author argues.

He explores the theme of failure in the works, for example, the decline of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But beyond plot, he considers narrative and stylistic failure, botched manuscripts and critical flops. Henry James: marvellous author, terrible playwright. Edgar Allan Poe: wrote bad poetry as purposeful subversion.

What I particularly enjoyed, as an editor, was reading about how novels were reworked, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson started out as a novel about conjoined twins. Late on in the drafting, he decided they should be separate twins, though didn’t tidy the manuscript very thoroughly: some scenes make far more sense in the former scenario. His drastic change of plot also meant that he had characters who no longer seemed directly relevant. He toyed with the idea of drowning one in a well to remove the plotting problem she posed.

This book raises fascinating questions about whether authors should write simply for popular success or to challenge readers, risking commercial failure. Melville, for example, wrote two books, ‘for money – being forced to do it as other men are to sawing wood…my only desire for ‘success’ (as it is called) springs from my pocket and not from my heart…independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’.’

The best lesson for writers to be found in this book comes from Herman Melville: ‘It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation…Failure is the true test of greatness.’

This exceptional work on failure is a success.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.

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