Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stories of the Fantastic by Important American Authors: Hawthorne, Melville, & James

You and I, dear reader, may recognize that Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Thomas Disch are important American writers, but I fear many ordinary people have never heard of them, while many "educated" people would dismiss them as mere genre writers who wrote for money and perhaps had suspect politics.  But this weekend I read short stories that qualify as what we now call "speculative fiction" by writers nobody would deny recognition as major figures in the American literary canon: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James.

I found these stories in a public library copy of the first volume of The Library of America's 2009 anthology American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.  I'm not crazy about the jacket of the book; the photos seem too contemporary for the contents (stories from before 1940), and their colors are irritatingly garish.  I have no opinion of Straub, whose fiction I've never read, but his intro to the volume has interesting things to say about the use of allegory in speculative fiction (he argues that "to respond to the particulars of the fantastic as if they were metaphorical or allegorical is to drain them of vitality") and American attitudes toward independence ("For Americans of all decades, it seems, the loss of agency and selfhood, effected by whatever means, arouses a particularly resonant horror") and Nature ("the belief that the natural world itself deludes, tempts, misleads, wishes to devour careless human beings, takes a commanding role here [in several of the stories in the volume.]"

"Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

I was the worst kind of student in grammar school and high school, totally lazy and disconnected, absorbed in my own thoughts and hobbies, but just clever enough and obedient enough to get passing grades while doing almost no studying.  I would learn things long enough to pass the test, and then absolutely forget them.  As a result, I gained very little knowledge in school, and very little experience of, or respect for, hard work.  Like a lot of the books we were assigned, I passed tests on The Scarlet Letter, but today I know almost nothing about it.

I'm not sure whether "Young Goodman Brown" is about the ubiquity of human evil and hypocrisy, or the way unfounded suspicions can sabotage your happiness, or both.  Brown leaves his wife Faith to walk in the woods in the evening--he has an appointment with the Devil!  The Devil reveals that everybody in the town is a worshipper of his, even those who are the most outwardly pious, like the town's religious leaders and the woman who taught Brown his catechism.  A sort of black mass is taking place, and even Faith appears, to be baptised with blood along with her husband.

It seems that, to at least some extent, this is merely a dream from which Bown awakes before the baptism of evil is accomplished.  But is it a dream that reflects the reality that the human race is fallen, and people are all hypocritical sinners, or one that simply reflects Brown's own irrational anxieties?  Whatever the case, we are told that after this event Brown becomes "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man," unable to enjoy a happy relationship with his wife and neighbors.  Is it his accurate knowledge of human evil that cripples his emotional life, or vain scruples and unfounded suspicions?

Of the three stories I read in Volume I of American Fantastic Tales, this is the least remarkable, the one that feels most conventional in style and content.  It's not bad,  but it's no big deal, either.  

"The Tartarus of Maids" by Herman Melville (1855)

I'm a big fan of Moby Dick, which I have read multiple times as an adult.  So I had high hopes for this story, hopes which were realized.  "The Tartarus of Maids" is a great little story, full of terrific sentences, images, metaphors, and ideas.  I can highly recommend this one, especially to people interested in industrialism and women's issues.

A businessman who purchases vast quantities of paper for his firm's operations visits a paper manufacturer in a remote region of New England to make a deal and to tour the factory.  Melville's descriptions of the pale white women who work there, the blank white paper that is produced, and the  complicated black machines and intricate processes involved in paper production are very evocative.  The journey of raw pulp through a machine that turns it into usable paper seems to be a metaphor for our journey from conception to birth, and perhaps to the course of our lives in a deterministic universe.  The narrator inquires why female factory workers are always called "girls," no matter their age.  The names of all the people and places in the story seem to have been carefully selected to give clues as to what Melville is thinking. There's a lot of thought-provoking stuff going on in this little story!

Very good.  "The Tartarus of Maids" is a companion piece to another story, "The Paradise of Bachelors," and apparently they are usually printed together as a single story in two parts.  For whatever reason, this volume only includes "The Tartarus of Maids;" I should track down the other component of the pair ASAP.

"The Jolly Corner" by Henry James (1908)

Henry James is one of those writers, like Jane Austen, whose work I am familiar with only through TV adaptations.  (Specifically, a 1972 six-hour BBC presentation of The Golden Bowl which I bought for my wife, then my girlfriend, back in the VHS era.) So this will be my first taste of what Henry James is really all about.

Oy, these are some long convoluted sentences!  I'm having flashbacks to my first reading of Swann's Way!  This is no light reading--it seems that you really have to focus when reading Henry James!

Spencer Brydon grew up in a mansion on a corner in Manhattan.  As an adult he went to Europe to experience culture, and after three decades there has returned to New York, in his fifties, to look over his properties.  Supervising the construction of a massive apartment building on one of his lots, he realizes he has a talent for managing such business, and suspects that, if he had stayed in America instead of gallivanting across Europe ("leading...a selfish frivolous scandalous life"), he might have become a real estate billionaire, a sort of Victorian Donald Trump!

Brydon tells a woman he is courting, Alice Staverton, that he senses within himself an "alter ego" which, under different circumstances, might have blossomed into a man of power.  He wonders if Staverton might prefer a super rich industrious Brydon to the current art lover Brydon, who is merely rich.  Can he start a new career, still become that man of greatness?

Our hero takes to haunting his childhood house late at night, during what the woman who comes over to the mansion everyday to sweep calls "the evil hours"--she is afraid to go there at night, sensing some kind of weird presence!  Brydon's family is extinct, and the house is almost entirely empty of furniture, and he stalks the physically barren but emotionally resonant rooms for hours, sure that the ghost of who he might have been lurks somewhere among one of the shadows of one of the mansion's four vacant floors.  Brydon compares hunting for this ghost to hunting a dangerous tiger or bear: "...he found himself holding his breath and living in the joy of the instant, the supreme suspense created by big game alone."  Is he hunting the ghost, or is the ghost hunting him?

They say sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you, and when Brydon finally confronts the ghost he loses his nerve and retreats, and then collapses in a swoon.  He is awakened by the tender touch of Miss Staverton.  She also saw real-estate-magnate-Brydon, the Brydon who might have been, in a dream, and took it as a signal to come looking for real-life artsy-fartsy Brydon.  "...I knew it for a sign. He had come to you."

Brydon's lady friend kisses him and assures him she loves him regardless of whether he is a powerful mover and shaker in New York business circles or just a rich slacker who loafs at art museums and nice restaurants all day.  The reader presumes these two aesthetes live happily ever after, and that the point of the story is that if you were born on third base, it makes no sense to work hard to get to home plate, if you will permit me to repurpose one of those cliches lefties love.

This plot of "The Jolly Corner" is fine, and I support any story that tells me I should avoid real work and devote my life to experiencing culture, but it feels long and difficult.  James's style is quite challenging.  I'll make sure to eat my Wheaties before tackling another of his works.


The Melville is the standout, but all three of these stories are worth reading.  And even if I think the jacket is bad, I like Straub's introduction, and the way the book itself has been produced, the fonts, and the paper, and binding and all that.  American Fantastic Tales is a good piece of work, and I will certainly read more stories from Volume I and get my hands on Volume II when I have the chance. 

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