Tag Archives: Edith Wharton

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Reviews

Snow in Literature

I’m with Shelley: ‘I love, snow and all the forms of the radiant frost.’ It is a wonderful symbolic tool in literature. Snow transforms a familiar landscape; it can become a magical wonderland or a bleak and forbidding country. It can cause the world to slow and a certain muffled silence to fall. I’ve collated some of my favourite uses of snow in literature.

Often snow is used to symbolise cleansing. It is a blanket that obscures all, which can either be a new, clean beginning, orSnow Country a blanket obscuring a truth. Throughout Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, snow is used as a metaphor for the purity the protagonist seeks: ‘The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.’ Its use is often similar to the colour white, which is often used to denote purity, light and innocence. See Shakespeare’s use in Cymbeline, for instance, ‘I thought her as chaste as unsunned snow.’ Unsurprisingly, snow is also a theme in The Winter’s Tale, ‘as white as driven snow’.

Ethan FromeSnow and winter are often used to represent sadness, bleakness or death. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the characters are having a rather sad time of it; the weather is used to represent and reinforce this. The character, Zeena, sits out in the cold: ‘the pale light reflected from the banks of snow,’ which makes ‘her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless.’ The lexical field of wintry weather is used figuratively throughout to maintain this sense of bare desolation. This is a description of the kitchen: ‘the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night.’

Consider the use of snow in James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their latter end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Critics have claimed variously that the use of snow here represents death and desolation and the opportunity for renewal and another chance. For me, it symbolises a sort of togetherness and universalism; the snow falls equally on all.

Our association of snow and Christmas is widely thought to be the fault of Charles Dickens. He employs it in simile here to express just how cold-hearted Scrooge is in A Christmas Carol.

The-Muppet-Christmas-Carol

‘No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely and Scrooge never did.’ The associations of a white Christmas have become idealised from a Dickensian model.

A Child's Christmas in WalesA Child’s Christmas in Wales is another example of snow used to evoke nostalgia about festive seasons past. Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea…It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.’

Snow is also used excellently in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials where armoured polar bears rule Svalbard. In C. golden-compass-bearS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, it is always winter and never Christmas. The melting of snow shows that a brighter future is near. Also, I must mention Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman
which says a great deal about friendship, joy and the transience of life.

I hope you’re all staying warm and safe. If you can think of any other snowy examples, I would love to hear them!

1 Comment

Filed under books, Writing