Jack London or Henry James?

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

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AN ARGUMENT FOR VIGOROUS LITERATURE

Populism or elitism? This was the choice American literature faced at the beginning of the 20th century.  Whether to remain on a path of robust fiction and poetry, immersed in the land and nature as embodied in the person and work of Jack London– OR switch paths toward the inward-dwelling, Eurocentric, strictly domesticated digressions of Henry James, for whom the natural world was a frightening and deadly place, full of ghosts (“Turn of the Screw”) and disease (“Daisy Miller”).

The lives of the two authors could not have been more different.

JACK LONDON never met his supposed father. He went to work at age thirteen, educated himself at libraries, studied in saloons, spent time in a penitentiary for vagrancy, hired on as a sailor, and joined the Klondike gold rush in 1897. He didn’t find much gold there but instead, many terrific stories, including his most famous, “The Call of the Wild” about a dog named Buck. To this day probably the best animal story ever written.

HENRY JAMES was the son of an independently wealthy philosopher and the grandson  of a banker. He traveled as much as Jack London did– but to Europe, and on a more comfortable scale. He attended Harvard, became friends with famous authors and future Supreme Court Justices, and in time, himself became a famous writer.

DESPITE the international popularity of populist novelist London, and the success of others of his kind like Rex Beach and Frank Norris, it was an unequal contest, as the critical establishment was based in New York City then, as now, their gaze toward the east, toward England and Europe, seeking approval there and not in the American people themselves.

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Clear-minded-and-active prose of the kind Jack London wrote was devalued– in part because of its universality, its popularity with every kind of reader. Teddy Roosevelt-inspired editors like Owen Wister, advocates of the physically-strenuous life, were few and vanishing. What became valued instead was literary difficulty. Convoluted sentences reflecting solipsistic obsession with febrile thoughts inside a character’s or narrator’s head.

Pushbacks against this by Hemingway, Kerouac, and others– by authors who deliberately pushed themselves into the actual world– have been rearguard actions.

A POSSIBLE CAUSE

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In his groundbreaking 1977 book about electronic media, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander discussed the sensory deprivation of civilization and the modern world, arguing that mankind’s retreat from nature was pushing individuals further into the recesses of their own minds.

When we reduce an aspect of environment from varied and multidimensional to fixed, we also change the human being who lives within it. . . . Researchers have found that when sensory stimuli are suppressed this way, the subject first lives a mental life because mental images are the only stimulation.

In his book, Mander talks about a person’s aura. What techno-nerd writers– those who spend the bulk of their time interacting with electronic media instead of the actual world (via TV, video games, smartphones)– don’t get is the analysis of individuals and the world which takes place when you’re tuned in to the small cues and signals the human animal gives, necessary for assessing and understanding that person, which you’ll never receive off an electronic screen. On the street you quickly learn to size people up in an instant– their eyes revealing aggression or fear, duplicity or defeat, strength or weakness. But you read as well the overall vibe– the “aura”– of a person.
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Henry James was the first solipsistic writer (at least since the ancient Gnostics)– pre-TV, obviously– removing himself from the stimuli of the reality of nature to that of the drawing room; of polite society– and into an obsessive focus on his own thoughts.

I should add that ART is about sensory experience. As writers we need to plunge the reader into that world of sensation. Doing so can only increase literature’s connection to the mass of people, and strengthen its cultural relevance.
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Today, as for the past fifty or sixty years, writing programs as well as literary editors and critics value most refinement, of sensibility and prose.

It’s time to change this.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

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Are Comic Books Propaganda?

COMICSGATE EXAMINED

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HOW FAR should one take politics in art?

The question arises with the ongoing “comicsgate” controversy which has split the comic book publishing world. (Background on the issue is available here  and here. Debate has raged across the internet, especially on twitter, for weeks.

A point made by those on the social justice side of the issue is that superhero comics have always been political. Nazis in particular have been socked by superheroes for decades.

They’re right. Superhero comics have been political almost from the start. The kicker is they’ve been more than political. From World War II through the Cold War they were outright propaganda. Cheerleaders for American empire.

WORLD WAR II

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The Second World War was a battle for civilization– a no-holds-barred fight to the death, during which all rules of civilized behavior were broken, by all sides. This was reflected in the propaganda.

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Comic books were a big part of this– including “Superman,” fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.

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STAN LEE AND JACK KIRBY

The two great creators of Marvel characters and storylines during its formative years were both New York City natives who fought in World War II. Both firmly bought into Franklin Roosevelt’s ethos of America saving the world. Given the nightmarish regimes on the other side of the oceans, this was an understandable, even necessary viewpoint.

Kirby and Lee retained this ethos after the war. (Evidence suggests that Stan Lee retains it now.) In the 1960’s they launched “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos,” refighting the same battles.

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NOT that this was unusual– Germans continued as cartoonish villains across the culture, from movies to television shows to professional wrestling, which featured arrogant Nazi bad guys such as the nasty “Baron Von Raschke.”

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ALL’S FAIR in love and war, as they say, even when the war’s long over. Or even when it’s a Cold War. So, while Sylvester Stallone fought cartoonish Russian movie monsters like Ivan Drago–

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— Marvel’s Captain America battled his Soviet nemesis, Red Guardian.

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The question can legitimately be asked: When were superhero comic books not outright propaganda for Pax Americana– usually of the most jingoistic variety?

MANY of Marvel’s recent superhero movies– the “Captain America” and “Iron Man” series come quickly to mind– have continued this mindset. Always with a global, America-running-the-world mindset. One “Iron Man” flick had the character outdoing drone missiles in blowing up bad guys in Afghanistan. (See this Noah Berlatsky review of it.)

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THE SURPRISE is that today’s social justice warriors in the comic book realm, ostensibly on the left, use these precedents as justification for their political aesthetic now.

(It could just be that “left” and “right” are obsolete concepts for truly understanding today’s world.)

CONTRADICTIONS

When dealing with issues like fascism and anti-fascism, one will always run into a host of contradictions. A good example is recently deceased award-winning novelist Philip Roth. Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, depicts a world in which Charles Lindbergh has become U.S. President and imposed a fascist-like regime, with Franklin D. Roosevelt offstage as ostensible good guy. Kind of a misguided slant on history, in that Lindbergh was politically inept and non-interventionist. The contradiction is that FDR himself came closer to being a dictator than any President before or since. Elected for four terms; hyper-devious and charismatic; a popular demagogue; knew how to use media, particularly radio; built America’s military-industrial complex and empowered giant corporations in order to do so; put an unpopular ethnic group into concentration camps; tried many maneuvers to get around the U.S. Constitution; etc. etc.

THIS was the offstage ideologue and ideology which comics creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby explicitly followed– a worldwide American interventionist viewpoint.

TODAY

The big comic book companies today have a different agenda– or are pandering to a different agenda. As before, the goal is some level of social engineering– real life masters of the universe deciding from above what the brave new world should look like. Art usually gets lost in the process, and always has.

ART AND PROPAGANDA

CAN art be polemical and at the same time, important art?

THAT Frank Norris’s populist novel The Octopus, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead— the first from the left, the other from the right– are both polemical, yet two of the best American novels ever written, says the answer to the question is “Yes.” But there are lines to be crossed. (Rand crossed them herself in her next major work.)

In this critic’s opinion, two major comic book superhero series have crossed into the realm of important, even mythic, art: “Batman” and “Spiderman.” Most of the rest have either been harmless entertainment or indoctrination pamphlets.

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-Karl Wenclas

 

 

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.