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Unflowered Aloes
Why literary success is a product of chance, not destiny.

Tom Bissell

DESTINY--the quaint notion that things happen as a matter of necessity--no longer retains much intellectual currency. But a curious vestige endures in many otherwise skeptical intellectuals, and nothing reveals this faith more than how they view literature. For them, destiny as it applies to life may be all but extinguished, but destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned. Call it literary destiny: the faith that great literature will survive and achieve recognition commensurate to its value. We read of Kafka’s deathbed plea to his friend and literary executor Max Brod to consign his fiction to the hearth, and grin with the relief that Kafka’s survival was ordained. (Never mind the fact that Kafka’s girlfriend, Doris Dymant, loved him enough to take his identical plea to her seriously, and put to the torch a large portion of material.) In a similar vein, we read the contemporaneous reviews that pilloried Melville ("trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature") and Whitman ("his failure to understand the business of a poet is clearly astounding") as dusty scuttlebutt. Yes, we console ourselves, great work may be greeted with scorn and may even disappear altogether for some stretch of time, but the slow process of literary recognition assures that the sweetest cream eventually rises to the top.

The simple problem is that this happy story is, in art as in life, not true. What determines a work’s longevity is in many cases an accumulation of unliterary accidents in the lives of individuals years and sometimes even decades after the writer has gone unto the white creator. "The race is not to the swift," Ecclesiastes tell us, "nor the battle to the strong ... but time and chance happen to them all." Nowhere is this truer than literary survival. Some work, through no fault of its own, has simply not made it. If Max Brod had been as obedient as Doris Dymant, the twentieth century would have lost its most emblematic writer. In the face of this disarmingly plausible contingency, Kafka’s indisputable greatness is a pale factor indeed.

W. W. Norton & Company stands among the last of the independent American publishing houses, and I came to work there more or less by accident. After a Peace Corps hitch and a magazine internship, I was hired by Norton as an editorial assistant, one of modern civilization’s least remunerative, most thankless, yet intensely interesting jobs. With my new worm’s-eye view of the publishing process, I became aware of the many invisible determinants in a book’s journey to hardback. Editorial meetings, for instance. Where I work, editors and salespeople gather every week to determine which books they will buy. A week or two before the meeting, an editor circulates a manuscript or proposal he or she is interested in; at the meeting, the editor makes a case for the book, and discussion ensues. At this point the vagaries of taste and personality cast an inordinately long shadow. (Most editors can tell chilling stories of a cutting, off-the-cuff comment from a colleague that irretrievably turns an entire room against the project at hand.) Immense too is the influence wielded by a house’s sales director, who is forced to make immediate, hard-hearted judgments on what books will sell and how much. Indeed, I suspect that many writers would hang themselves in despair if handed the transcript of an editorial meeting commenced within even a literary house.

It still never occurred to me to question the mechanisms of literary survival. Certainly I believed, then as now, that the publishing industry as a whole does literature few favors. ("Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man," Emily Dickinson wrote, and I doubt there is an editor alive who would disagree, or an agent who would want to.) But I had faith in the books themselves. Every great work, I felt sure, eventually rises above base commerce and sheer indifference. How can one embark upon any serious study of literature without believing this? Accident may misrule the corridors of history and science, but the course of literature is charted by more attentive forces. (Even if, as the generalissimos of political correctness insist, these forces are racist and sexist.)

I had spent five months at Norton when I was invited to join its paperback committee. The ominous addendum was that I have "ideas." As it happened, I did have an idea. When I first arrived in New York, I wandered the aisles of The Strand, the famous clearing house for used books, hunting for Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. I’d first gotten wind of the book in Jonathan Franzen’s Harper’s essay "Perchance to Dream," which I’d read and admired as an undergraduate. At the time, Franzen’s reference to Fox’s "classic short novel" struck me with no small mote of alarm. Could there be a classic of which I’d never even heard? I lit out to buy a copy, but found it out of print. Two years after reading Franzen’s essay, not even The Strand could help. Now, with the opportunity afforded by Norton, I wrote Franzen for Paula Fox’s address, and she, in turn, sent me a copy of Desperate Characters. I read of Otto and Sophie Bentwood, fortysomething Brooklynites whose lives of quiet, bitter unrest erupt over a long weekend after Sophie is bitten by a stray cat. From such quotidian material, Fox wrests a dread-soaked exploration of American life unmatched by any modern novel save for Joyce Carol Oates’s them. A week later, I sat at a large polished wooden table and sheepishly explained to my colleagues why I thought restoring to print a thirty-year-old novel about a cat bite was a good idea. To my surprise, my colleagues agreed.

Months later, armed with a new introduction from Franzen and fresh encomia from David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Rosellen Brown, Shirley Hazzard, and Andrea Barrett, Desperate Characters was republished. It received a harvest of publicity virtually unheard of for a paperback reprint. Upon the strength of this showing, Norton signed up another of Fox’s out-of-print novels, The Widow’s Children, which appeared in October of last year. Best of all, I am happy to report that Fox’s extraordinary first novel, Poor George, written in 1967, will appear in paperback for the first time ever in the winter of 2001.

One might assume all this would make a young editor very happy. The longer I thought about it, however, the more troubled I became. I could not stop reflecting upon how arbitrary--how unliterary--the whole business was. Desperate Characters’s republication, despite the book’s greatness, seemed merely the yield of an inert aggregate of chance. I felt something akin to what I imagine haunts the recipient of a Hail Mary touchdown pass. Not only was the ball not meant for him, it was not meant for anyone. The joy of victory is cut with a terrifying void. Outcome is particulate; modulating the tiniest variable can spell ruin. In football, we accept this. But for writers, editors, and readers who view literature itself with quasi-religious reverence, this is intolerable.

Of course, that any good book sees publication is a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes. New books are, by their nature, subject to the cruelest happenstance. A novelist can be hit by a bus, manuscript under arm, on her way to the mailbox. But rediscovering a work creates an altogether different quandary. Smuggling forgotten titles back into print is more difficult than ever. When such an opportunity presents itself, the majordomos of modern publishing will reliably issue a stark mandate on one of several themes: It is money poorly spent. It is effort wrongly exerted. It is throwing away a spot on the list better reserved for short story collections detailing the adventures of young women and their diaphragms.

Publishing is a business with little consolation but the books themselves. Republishing Desperate Characters made me wonder if this was a fleeting solace. Is greatness, in the end, no purer guarantee for survival than awfulness is for swift dispatch?


ART, WALLACE STEVENS WROTE, "lives uncertainly and not for long." Nothing illustrates how uncertainly better than what remains of ancient literature. The first performance of Aristophanes’s The Clouds was held at a festival in 423 BCE. Judged today by many critics to be Aristophanes’s greatest satire--it is almost certainly his funniest--it disappointed its author’s hopes by placing third in the festival’s competition. It was defeated by Kratinos’s The Wineflask and Ameipsias’s Konnos. It must have particularly galled Aristophanes to place second to Ameipsias. Among other things, The Clouds attacks the sophistic movement then sweeping Greece, satirizing its leader, Socrates, with such glee that Plato believed it helped create the atmosphere that led to Socrates’s death. "Konnos" was the name of Socrates’s music teacher, and thus it is likely that Ameipsias’s play mounted a similar assault. We must rely on such phrases as "most likely" because Ameipsias’s play, like a number of Aristophanes’s, no longer survives. Whether these works were abandoned by copyists, incinerated in a doomed library, or carried off by plundering Ostrogoths, we can never know. All we can know is that individual excellence is a virtually useless consideration when pondering their disappearance.

For obvious reasons, religious literature has been better safeguarded against the obliterating levers of time. But one event in particular demonstrates the precarious stewardship to which all ancient literature is subject. In 1945 an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali al-Samman discovered in caves near the town of Nag Hammadi one of the most significant caches of religious manuscripts in history. They would come to be known as the Gnostic Gospels. Contrary to the workings of popular imagination, the Gnostics were heterodox groups of Christians of highly varying beliefs. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s discovery, all scholars had to piece together Gnosticism was the denunciation of church fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian and the odd recovered fragment from works like the Gospel of Thomas. Texts in hand, and completely ignorant of what they contained, Muhammad Ali took them home and dumped them in a pile near the oven. Over the next few days, his mother burned an unknown number of manuscripts for the noble cause of preparing dinner for her family.

As Nazism demonstrates, censorship and genocide are part of the same continuum of eradication. As monstrous as intentional book-burning is, something more troubling flickers along the margins of the Muhammad Ali episode. For work that has survived nearly two thousand years to find itself sacrificed to the domestic pyre clearly reveals that literature is less vulnerable to concentrated efforts to destroy it than blind, innocent accident.

Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson form American literature’s most influential troika. Their appearances are unprecedented; their innovations immeasurable. Mark Twain, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, great nineteenth-century writers of equal if less profound influence, would have left unfazed one early judge of American literature. In 1840, Alexander de Tocqueville could write, to general agreement, that "Americans have not yet, properly speaking, got any literature." By that, he meant no American writer had yet kicked over the traces of European influence. James and Hawthorne never really would. As for Twain, Tocqueville’s comment, "Only the journalists strike me as truly American," seems instantly, if unhappily, applicable.

Melville and Whitman share both a birth year (1819) and a death year (1891). Dickinson, a decade younger than either, died in 1886. But for post-mortem developments that had, at best, oblique connections to their work, it is possible that Melville would be familiar only to a small group of antebellum scholars, Whitman remembered only as the author of the Lincoln eulogy "Oh Captain! My Captain!" and Emily Dickinson enduring only in the whispers of Dickinson descendants as the unmarried shut-in who wrote abstruse verse.

Of the three, Whitman’s survival is least perilous. Before embarking on his career as a poet, Whitman failed at everything he attempted. He was a newspaper editor (publicly fired, on one occasion, for laziness), a hack journalist, and the author of a forgettable temperance novel. He became a poet, at least initially, to amuse himself. Trained as a printer, he set Leaves of Grass’s first edition on his own. (The printer’s term for experimental writing then was "grass," a larky job to be done during downtime.) In Whitman’s day, poets were freighted with tripartite names like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Whitman was America’s first literary bohemian, and for that crime endured many stripes by its reigning establishment gentlemen--all but Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom Whitman sent a first edition of Leaves of Grass. Emerson’s 1855 response is probably the most celebrated blurb in literary history. One of its less famous sections reads: "I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits." Whitman, to Emerson’s undying annoyance, promptly printed Emerson’s words in gold print on the cover of the second edition, which still sold no better than the first.

But he soldiered on, writing new poems and endlessly tinkering with Leaves of Grass. Little by little, thanks to relentless self-promotion and a somewhat shameless exploitation of his Civil War experiences, he became the Maya Angelou of his day, filling commissions for commemorative poems and sought after by magazine editors for his views. He often concluded his packed lectures with a reading of the hoary chestnut "Oh Captain! My Captain!," now regarded by Whitman scholars as his silliest. Although it was the favorite of the poet’s unliterary brother George, Whitman himself once complained, "I’m almost sorry I ever wrote it." It would be this slight Civil War curio, in the uncertain years following Whitman’s death, that kept him fixed in prominent anthologies of post-war American literature.

Whitman was subject to nearly universal critical condemnation during his lifetime, his poems regarded as egomaniacal and obscene. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the premier tastemaker of his time and by all counts a dashing, valiant man who led one of the first black regiments into battle during the Civil War, attacked Whitman repeatedly. He claimed that Leaves of Grass made him "seasick," and several scathing pieces in prominent magazines assured that Whitman would never be highly regarded in East Coast publishing cozies. Of his foes, Whitman once said they "wanted for nothing better or more than simply, without remorse, to crush me, to brush me, without compunction or mercy, out of sight."

One of the only critical boosts Whitman received in his lifetime came from abroad. When the esteemed English critic William Michael Rossetti received, as a gift, a remaindered copy of Leaves of Grass, bought from a London book-peddler in 1856, he wrote Whitman a letter of praise. When the 1867 edition appeared, Rossetti wrote publicly that Leaves was "the largest poetic work of our period." This chance accolade ensured that, for many years, Whitman’s reputation in Europe would be much higher than in the States. It would allow Ezra Pound, in 1909, the paternalistic complaint that American criticism had not yet come to appreciate Whitman’s artistry.

Whitman’s first American champion was William O’Connor, who became a devoted disciple after Whitman was fired by the Department of Interior for being a "dirty poet." (O’Connor would later ascend to the bone-headed constellation of literary conspiracy theorists by trying to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.) In the aftermath of Whitman’s sacking, O’Connor churned out, with Whitman’s help, The Good Gray Poet in 1866--a pure chunk of hagiography. The book did much to enlarge Whitman’s fame (if not reputation; it was largely savaged), leading the good gray poet himself to reflect, "I wonder what Leaves of Grass would have been if I ... had never met William O’Connor?"


BUT WHITMAN’S TRUE CHAMPION, the man without whom one can say there might be no Walt Whitman, was the bisexual socialist Horace Traubel. When the two met after a Philadelphia lecture in 1886, Whitman had probably never been more famous. Four years earlier, the most recent edition of Leaves of Grass had been banned in Boston, and though its first two printings sold out instantly, support from fringe elements like The New England Free Love League did little to change Whitman’s critical reputation. Before long, Traubel would be serving as Whitman’s amanuensis. Traubel’s greatest accomplishment was Walt Whitman in Camden, a day-to-day compendium of his thirty-minute conversations with the aging poet. His other contribution to Whitman’s survival was his founding, in 1890, of The Conservator, which served as the Pravda of Whitman worship until Traubel’s death in 1919. Rebuking anyone who dared impugn Whitman’s name, it attempted single-handedly to beat back the onslaught from the literary establishment’s broadswords.

But even all this was not enough. One of Whitman’s last poems, "To the Sun-Set Breeze," was rejected by Harper’s, and appeared in a less prestigious magazine in 1890. The New York Times said in its final review of Leaves of Grass that Whitman could not be called "a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art." The same day, the paper printed his obituary. A decade after his death, Walt Whitman’s works were out of print, his reputation buffed down to the basest metal, his worst poem the one trace he left. Only Traubel’s agitation, and a few scolding voices from abroad, gradually forced American criticism to look again at Whitman. If Traubel’s great faith had faltered, Longfellow (or Holmes, or any number of others) might today be regarded as the preeminent American poet of his time.

No writer’s critical woes are more famous than Herman Melville’s. "Melville took an awful licking," Charles Olson wrote. "He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. It happens that way to the dreaming man it takes to discover America." Any novelist smarting from a vicious review is inevitably reminded of the disdain to which Moby-Dick first appeared. The story is used to illustrate the Potemkin village in which criticism is permanently decamped. Full knowledge of the story reveals just the opposite. The critics succeeded beyond their pettiest dreams of killing Moby-Dick.

Melville seems to have anticipated the troubles he would face. When he finished writing Moby-Dick, he wrote to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb," suggesting he was aware of the inherently conservative notions of novelistic form his book then defied. "When big hearts strike together," he went on to Hawthorne, "the concussion is a little stunning."

He had some reason to feel buoyant. His first books, Typee and Omoo, were critical and popular successes. Typee, in particular, thanks to its frank descriptions of native sexual practices, made Melville, for a time, a most unlikely literary heartthrob. His early success was harpooned by the failure of Mardi in 1849. When he offered Mardi to a friend, he wrote in an accompanying letter: "[It] may possibly--by some miracle, that is--flower like aloe, a hundred years hence--or not flower at all, which is more likely by far, for some aloes never flower." In dire need of money, Melville cranked out the novels Redburn, about his cabin-boy experiences, and White-Jacket, a reformist fiction concerning, of all things, naval flogging. His reputation as a reliable sea-story spinner restored, he turned his freed-up intellect toward writing Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick is the first true American novel, an affront to every retiring habit of mind that prevailed in the nineteenth century. As Melville’s first biographer, Lewis Mumford, noted: "[Moby-Dick] is not Victorian; it is not Elizabethan; it is, rather, prophetic of another quality of life." Despite the unwieldiness of the novel (it first appeared in three volumes), Melville’s publisher was hopeful about the book’s success. Moby-Dick had appeared a few months earlier in England, and Melville and his publisher waited with glistening expectation for the one review that truly mattered, that of the London Athenaeum, a journal read avidly in Boston and New York publishing cliques. It is either immensely heartening or unbearably distressing to know that publishers in Melville’s day were also helpless before the judgment of a single, inexplicably important critical organ. Today, of course, that monolithic power belongs to the New York Times Book Review. When Athenaeum’s review appeared, it proved fatal to Moby-Dick’s success. "Our author," it read, "must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who ... summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessness, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise." Blood was in the surf, and American critics fell over one another to carve off a piece of Moby-Dick’s beached carcass. While very few of the reviews were as scathing as Athenaeum’s, some even grudgingly acknowledging Melville’s odd brilliance, the book was a disaster. It went out of print, 36 years later, with a total of 3,180 copies sold.

Melville’s critical standing was not helped by the publication of Pierre the following year. The reviews it received were so damning Melville gave into a depression from which he never fully recovered. When he died of heartbreak in 1891, the ever-obliging New York Times got his name wrong in its obituary, though Melville’s death did stir a brief flurry of reappraisals that kept Moby-Dick barely afloat in the American literary underground.

As with Whitman, Melville was more prized as an artist in England, thanks largely to the efforts of Henry S. Salt, virtually the only person to write critically about Melville between 1890 and World War I. Salt was a member of a luminous British literary circle that included George Bernard Shaw and J. M. Barrie, and apparently his passion for Melville infected them. Shaw’s letters from the period mention Moby-Dick in furtive tones normally reserved for samizdat, and Barrie modeled Peter Pan’s Captain Hook on Melville’s Ahab. In 1907, Oxford University Press issued an edition of Moby-Dick in its "World Classics" line. The press’s editors had invited Joseph Conrad to write an introduction, but he was not convinced of the book’s (then) status as a minor classic. "A rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject," Conrad said, "and not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it." The edition did not sell well, and soon went out of print.

It is commonly thought that the centenary of Melville’s birth in 1919 laid the red carpet for Moby-Dick’s new American appreciation. While this is partly true, that rug would have remained obdurately furled without one breathtakingly random incident. The influential critic Carl Van Doren happened upon an ancient copy of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore sometime in 1916. He subsequently wrote an essay on Moby-Dick that deemed it "one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world." The essay caught the eye of D. H. Lawrence, then in the midst of writing Studies in Classic American Literature, his still-seminal attempt to rip away American literature from the smothering velcro of European critical prejudice. He too included an essay on Melville’s masterpiece in his overview, and it remains one of the most entertaining pieces of criticism ever produced: "Nobody can be more clownish, clumsy, and senticiously in bad taste than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby-Dick.... So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humor. So hopelessly au grand serieux, you feel like saying: Good God, what does it matter? If life is a tragedy, or a farce, or a disaster, or anything else, what do I care? Let life be what it likes. Give me a drink." Lawrence’s essay was the first indication that, much like the doubloon Ahab nails to the Pequod’s mast, Moby-Dick is prismatically appropriated by each generation of readers. When first published it was viewed as an insane grab-bag of religious allegory. In Lawrence’s time, it was the first novel to show Europe where the hands stood on the clock. Later it would be a source text for the New Critics, then the litter box for post-colonial theorists. In 1927, Moby-Dick’s status all but assured, E. M. Forster devoted to it a long, cautious appraisal in Aspects of the Novel, and Melville’s greatest work, as we today know it, was born 76 years after its initial publication.


EMILY DICKINSON achieved critical and popular acclaim much earlier than Whitman or Melville, though final validation did not occur until well into the twentieth century. "Just how good is she?" one critic demanded, with growing frustration, long after the appearance of the groundbreaking 1955 edition of Dickinson’s poems. Despite the relatively sudden acceptance of her work after her death, Dickinson’s survival is the least likely of all, subject to family quarrels and fortuitous breaks.

Dickinson’s life is the stuff of biographers’ night terrors: so many relationships, and so much shadowy speculation concerning them. Dickinson’s brilliant letters, less than a tenth of which survive, are often as nebulous as scripture. Dickinson’s brother Austin is probably the most significant figure in her Amherst home life. Most similar of all the Dickinsons to Emily in temperament (though least similar in taste and intellect), Austin’s adulterous personal life would form the unlikely impetus that gradually forced Dickinson’s poems into public prominence.

Dickinson’s invincibly sedentary love of home is, from our modern standpoint, rather pathetic. Her letters from Mount Holyoke (which she left after three terms) ache with sonorous longing for Amherst. When she arrived back home, she wrote: "Never did Amherst look more lovely to me & gratitude rose in my heart to God, for granting me such a safe return." (Mount Holyoke is ten miles from Amherst.) Within a few years of Dickinson’s homecoming, Austin would begin a relationship with Susan Gilbert, whom he would eventually marry. Recently, scholarly eyebrows have raised at Susan and Emily’s relationship. Susan exchanged with Dickinson many letters, some of which are strikingly erotic. But like much of Dickinson’s life, these are speculative matters. For the next several decades, Dickinson did little but write letters and poems, very occasionally traveling, with her younger sister, Lavinia, to Washington and Philadelphia, among other far-flung locales. Vinnie, as Lavinia was known, was utterly unlike her sister. Dickinson called Vinnie her "Soldier & Angel," and Vinnie responded with a devotion that would not abate in the coming unpleasantness.

In 1881, a brilliant young woman named Mabel Todd moved to Amherst with her professor husband. Austin and Susan immediately welcomed the Todds into their Amherst salon, and an open-secret affair between Austin and Todd began. Despite her great intellectual gifts, Todd came to Amherst very much untouched clay. Her literary aspirations to become a novelist made her uniquely susceptible to the legends already shrouding Austin’s increasingly sequestered sister. Two months after arriving in Amherst, she wrote: "I must tell you about the character of Amherst ... a lady whom the people call the Myth." Within a year, Todd and Dickinson would be exchanging lengthy missives, flowers, and gifts. Sometimes Todd would sing in the Dickinson house for Emily, who listened upstairs, composing poems on the spot. Thus Dickinson and the woman who eventually edited the first volume of her work never met face-to-face. An odder relationship in the history of American letters would be hard to fathom.

After Dickinson died in 1886, Vinnie pressured anyone possessing an ounce of literary acumen to do something about her sister’s orphaned poems. Susan initially agreed to edit them, then backed out, claiming the poems would never sell. Vinnie turned, among others, to the same Thomas Wentworth Higginson who had assailed Walt Whitman. As Vinnie was aware, her sister’s correspondence with Higginson began in 1862, after the appearance of a Higginson essay in The Atlantic called "Letter to a Young Contributor," which assured that editors are "always hungering and thirsting after novelties." Dickinson was 31 when she sent along a short letter and four poems, asking Higginson, famously, if her "Verse is alive." Although he offered Dickinson some guarded praise, Higginson said to The Atlantic’s editor, "I foresee that ‘Young Contributors’ [sic] will send me worse things than ever now." In the following epistolary exchanges, a strange friendship formed. In time, Higginson came to see Dickinson as a remarkable, if not publishable, talent, and despite occasional reluctance served her as a valuable friend. Although he spoke at Dickinson’s funeral, Higginson declined Vinnie’s plea to edit her poetry.

In desperation, Vinnie approached Mabel Todd. Todd had many reasons for turning Vinnie down, her own literary ambitions among them. But she was deeply depressed with Amherst and her battles with Susan. Dickinson’s troubled, eerie poems seemed, as she later wrote, "to open the door into a wider universe than the little sphere surrounding me." Actually faced with transcribing the poems--sheer illegibility and Dickinson’s grammatical peculiarities making it immensely difficult--soon convinced her she could not manage the job alone. She contacted Higginson herself, who told Todd that, while he admired Dickinson’s verse, he deplored its undisciplined form. Only after listening to Todd read some poems aloud did Higginson, at long last, assent to involvement. The growing toxicity between Austin, Susan, Vinnie, and Todd complicated the editing process, as did Higginson’s stuffy insistence on titling Dickinson’s poems. "Because I could not stop for Death" appeared in 1890’s Poems under the Higginsonian title of "The Chariot."

Their task completed, Higginson sent the poems to Houghton Mifflin, where they were quickly rejected as "queer." Humiliated, Higginson more or less bowed out from the publishing process, and after months of failure and negotiation, the firm Roberts and Brothers agreed to publish Dickinson’s poems, requiring that Vinnie pay for the printer’s plates. After an ordeal whose vicissitudes could have derailed the project any number of times, the poems were published in 1890. Public reception was immediate. Poems would go through eleven printings within the next two years.

What, then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature’s three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.

The comfort we take in these writers’ survival is undercut by some quietly nagging questions: How many novels did Carl Van Doren’s hand pass over to find Moby-Dick? How many poets’ work sits moldering in New England attic trunks, no one having lobbied on its behalf? What of a novel like Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, a beautifully searing reproach to federal treatment of Native Americans, which stirred such indignation it led to the passing of the Dawes Act? Ramona actively changed American history, something neither Melville, Whitman, nor Dickinson’s work can claim. Ramona was praised when it first appeared, not the least by Jackson’s friend Emily Dickinson, who wrote, "Pity me, I have finished Ramona." Ramona lives on, of course, much in the way of Moby-Dick before 1917--a minor classic attended by the tepid enthusiasm of a few. We may laugh at Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s antique taste today, but that taste once belonged to everyone. Is it impossible to imagine what unpredictable events might allow us a shocked recognition of that taste again?


FOR MANY MONTHS after Desperate Characters reappeared, writer friends, agents, and strangers sent to me numerous works of fiction and poetry they maintained never met with proper acclaim. The books came in, one after another, accompanied by nth-generation xeroxes of effulgent reviews from Publishers Weekly and stamped with enthusiastic blurbs from James Baldwin, Stanley Elkin, and Rita Mae Brown. Brokenhearted postscripts revealed the miserable delicacy of our literary machinery: "Although it sold well, the publisher let it go out of print…." "The Times review came out eleven months after its publication…." "There was no paperback sale…." I soon felt as though I were deep in the peaty bowels of some awful literary purgatory, where hundreds of books are lashed with their own obscurity, many no worse than those considered--in an irritating oxymoron--"contemporary classics." I floated one or two of these projects before Norton’s board, but failed to convince anyone of the fiduciary soundness of further revivals. It did not auger well that Graywolf Press’s ambitious Rediscovery series, which republished, among other books, Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall, one of the greatest American novels I have ever read, had been recently discontinued.

With all this in mind, I don’t know if I could have read a less comforting book than Joseph Blotner’s landmark biography Faulkner. Even Faulkner was forced to sneak past checkpoints into demilitarized literary immortality. Here again, in this century, were all the hard-luck accouterments of ill-starred nineteenth-century scriveners. With every book but Sanctuary out of print, Faulkner was living in Hollywood, drinking too much, reduced to reworking screenplays for films like The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. (Of course, he also scripted To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.) While many writers and critics revered him, Faulkner’s popular status was so obscure that Faulkner was asked by the actor Clark Gable who Faulkner felt were the best living writers. Faulkner replied, "Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself." A surprised Gable asked Faulkner if he wrote fiction. "Yes, Mr. Gable," Faulkner replied. "What do you do?"

In 1944, a despondent Faulkner came across a letter that had lain unopened in his desk for months. Faulkner opened his mail only when he recognized the return address, or to scavenge any return postage stamps. The three-month-old letter, torn open on a whim, was from the young critic Malcolm Cowley, who wanted to write an essay on Faulkner that would "redress the balance" between his worth and reputation. Faulkner gave Cowley his delighted blessing, but the essay was rejected several times by editors who maintained that Faulkner was an unsalable commodity. It finally appeared in the New York Times Book Review, which for once found itself on the right side of history. Soon after that, Viking Press contracted Cowley to edit a collection of Faulkner’s work for the Viking Portable Library, a book that remains in print to this day. Thanks to Cowley’s essay and the windfall of reappraisals that followed, Faulkner no longer had to "eke out a hack’s motion picture wages" to support his financially hopeless fiction. Five years later, he would win the Nobel Prize.

I don’t doubt that many writers eventually receive their due returns, but the fact remains that many is not all. For those of us who love literature, only the all- encompassing justifies complacency. Our situation today is not altogether grim. In recent years, several writers have been revived thanks mainly to the efforts of individuals, my Norton colleague Robert Weil’s heroic republication of Henry Roth and Tim Page’s equally heroic salvage of Dawn Powell among them. Occasionally, I pull from my shelf my favorite contemporary novels--Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace, Philip Caputo’s Horn of Africa, Mark Jacobs’s Stone Cowboy, and Gayl Jones’s The Healing, to name a vastly underappreciated few--and wonder what will become of them. These questions were much less troubling when I was merely a reader who believed that the captains of the industry that now employs me were, at heart, attentive and just. Critics deserve their portion of blame--too many incapable of all but obvious commonplaces. Those few critics of higher caliber are often given to asking, "Will we be reading this fifty years from now?" The implication of this last-resort rhetoric is clear: I am a noncombatant observer upon literature’s battlefield. The implication is also false. Whatever a book’s merits, it can do little to fulfill such prophecy by itself.

What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work’s survival? Is literary destiny simply another god that failed? Although I know what I now believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.

Tom Bissell is an editor at W. W. Norton. Click to buy Paula Fox's Desperate Characters.

Originally published in the April/May 2000 issue of Boston Review



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