Sunday, November 3, 2013

Raising Back Once-Famous Ghosts

Enduring mystery:  the vagaries of taste, the creation of the canon, who's in and who's out in the great salon. Why does one generation hoist up an author, or entire genres, artistic forms, styles, only to have following generations neglect and forget the same?  Race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion all play roles, now well documented by scholars, a thousand thousand cases and analyses of bias explicit and prejudice unacknowledged. (Many were not and still are not invited into the salon in the first place, have been ignored or excluded rather than forgotten). Crucial work, with much more still to be done there; here I refer to the more humdrum, less sinister process by which-- even controlling for parameters such as race, class and gender--many authors dwindle into muted phantoms where once they were sinewed, full-throated voices in our minds.  Dead letters, gone out of print, the purgatory of half-remembered prowess.

Thinking about that as I read V.S. Pritchett's wide-ranging, clever literary criticism.  Well, start with Pritchett himself...who reads Pritchett these days?  Not many, judging from the fact that I bought his complete collected essays (1991, from Random House), 1,319 pages, weighing probably 2 or 3 pounds, for about 5 dollars on Amazon...

For sure, most of his essays deal with writers seemingly (for now, at least) immune to the winds of neglect, but many names are already hard to recall, their work on a side-shunting:  Arthur Morrison, J. Meade Falkner, Arthur Hugh Clough, Ronald Firbank, W.W. Jacobs ("wait, wait, that rings a bell...oh right, "The Monkey's Paw"...had no idea he wrote much of anything else").  More alarming is the realization that even grand lions--Anatole France for instance ("on the right side of the Dreyfus Affair, with Zola," you think, a bit sheepishly, "oh and yes, he was awarded the Nobel")--can sit increasingly alone at the party, at best recognized but now rarely approached, let alone engaged with.

Thankfully we have specialized publishers who act as the solicitous host, bringing us to the faded personage otherwise alone in the corner by the aspidistra:  Capuchin Classics, NYRB Classics,  Persephone Books, Chicago Review Press "Rediscovered Classics," to name a few.  (Not to overlook in the spec fic field the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, given annually since 2001).  And now a new actor enters the scene: the Internet.  As Clive Thompson reminds us, the Internet nurtures ideas (good, bad, indifferent-- the propagation and testing is the point) ...and will help us reclaim lost glories, rekindle old loves, (re)discover voices once heard or who should have been heard when first they issued. The salon just got infinitely larger, the lights turned up, the host and hostess multiplies into endless squadrons...and now the library too has shed its walls and doors.

Perhaps as a result we will see a revival in the fortunes of James Branch Cabell, William Hope Hodgson (surely someone should make a movie of The Night Land?), Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore,  Manley Wade Hopkins,  Frank Belknap Long.   Two in particular intrigue me, as I believe they are over-due for rediscovery:  A.E. Coppard, and Walter de la Mare.

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