Thursday, January 19, 2023

T.S. Eliot and What The Thunder Said


What the Thunder Said: How The Waste Land Made Poetry Modern

Jed Rasula (University of Princeton Press: 2022)

This is not a formal review, just a response.

The center of the broad range of events and people in this book is 1922, the year of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, although it covers history from decades earlier and goes forward to decades later. I wanted to read it in 2022 although it came out late in the year. I succeeded, finishing on New Year’s Eve.

Anyone who wants to know how The Waste Land became such an essential poem in English (defining what Modernist poetry in that language was broadly considered to be) and beyond should certainly read What the Thunder Said. The book explains a lot about how and why the poem became what it became, and what and who it changed. The reaction it caused, the effect on critics and writers, the elements of media sensation of the time, those are all here. I appreciated the way the book brought the Modernist 20s alive again even after all that has been written about them.

Oddly maybe, one of the most interesting things to me was how often the book moved away from Eliot and The Waste Land, which taken together are not the subject of even half the book’s pages. That’s not the fault of Rasula as scholar (he is impressively informed) or an error; he wants to put the poem in a larger context to help readers understand why it felt so new at the time. He starts with Richard Wagner and and Nietzsche and reaches forward to 1971, the year that The Waste Land manuscripts were published.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the shortage of pages on Eliot and his poem results partly from the fact that there’s not as much to say about them as there was for many decades. Eliot and The Waste Land have received about all the coverage and literary analysis they need. Although recent revelations about Eliot’s long-running connection with Emily Hale (revelations that seem like they appeared after most of Rasula’s book was already written) are going to lead to some new criticism about Eliot’s motivations and sources, and (given our own time and place) probably some criticisms of his character, there’s really not much more to be said about the place of Eliot and his poem in English-language poetry.

Rasula mentions the issue briefly, but my sense is that the centrality of Eliot’s poem began being displaced even in his lifetime, at least and especially in the U.S. Eliot did not end up a hero for the Beats or for the New American poetry or for the counterculture that both helped usher in. By the 1960s Howl was rivaling and had maybe surpassed The Waste Land as the most famous 20th century American poem (and book of poetry), although Rasula calls Howl in “hindsight… clearly an idiomatic update on Eliot’s vision” and not the rebuke to Eliot that it was sometimes taken to be (Rasula 281).

Eliot’s story as poet and as a person with feelings, the crisis of soul that prompted the poem and resulted in Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, and his story as a dominant poet-critic for the next 40 years, is hardly a triumph of the radical new, however much the poem originally brought that with it. It’s not even especially inspiring or tragic; it feels kind of sodden and restrained, a bit of a tightly wrapped bring down, like Eliot himself could be. What the Thunder Said also tells the story of Eliot the poet as carefully crafted institution, guarded by institutional rules and regulations that he significantly controlled. As I can imagine Patrik Ourednik saying, “And that too was modern.” By late in his life, Eliot and his poem were already beginning to seem too wedded to the past, more a guarded monument and less a harbinger of the future. I guess that means that the height of The Waste Land's prominence was really about 40 years, although it obviously continues to hang on in university curricula that still have a place for Modernism or Modernist poetry.

For myself, I appreciated most the cultural and historical contextualizing of Rasula’s book. The thumbnail sketches of various writers and their publications that the book sometimes races through were more or less interesting to me depending on how often I had heard those writers’ stories before. But why, and how, and for whom the poem became so central made for me a fascinating historical study. It made me want to pick up and read Eliot’s work again. Almost.

Maybe though, like Rasula seems to be showing but not quite saying, The Waste Land just isn’t as interesting as it used to be, especially for those of us who have read it many times and moved on.

Rasula’s book helped fill in what I didn’t know about how The Waste Land became so crucial in 20th century English language writing, and even beyond English. But it didn’t (nor was it trying to) make a case that there’s any more to the poem than people already understand. Speaking for myself, What The Thunder Said left me feeling that I’m unlikely to return to Eliot as more than a writer of historical significance whose life and work now belong definitively to the past.

The Waste Land shocked and changed people in its own time. It’s great to know why, and knowing that knocked some of the dust off and brought the poem alive again for me for a moment. But its original magic feels now, at least to me, like it’s still floating back in the post-World War I waste land that, to its credit, and in some ways even against Eliot’s understood intentions, it pushed American and European culture to move beyond.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

October Hauntings: Ghost Tales in my Book Collection originally posted Oct 1-31 2022: The Fifth Group

The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.

The Fifth Group

E.F. Benson, The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson (1992)

E.F. Benson was a prolific and successful writer and not just of ghost stories. He is maybe most well known now for his series of Mapp and Lucia novels, a comedy of manners set in a seaside town and that has been made into two British TV series, but his ghost stories too continue to be widely known and read. He’s a key writer in bringing the British ghost story into the 20th century, with his haunted tales set in a variety of believable environments, country and town and city, and with a wide range of ordinary people among his cast of characters. His 1906 story “The Bus Conductor,” whose key elements were borrowed by the famous British multi-episode horror movie Dead of Night (1944), is just one example of the kinds of ordinary daily life contexts in his ghost stories.

Benson’s style is sort of a streamlined Victorian that, like his subject matter, also rides the line between the 19th and 20th centuries. And if neither his style or his stories have the incredible precision of M.R. James, Benson can still tell a ghost story with some nicely chilling twists. His stories also seem to me a key link between the classic British ghost tale and what became modern British horror fiction. I imagine, for instance, that what was once a new generation of British horror with a basis in realism, established by Ramsey Campbell’s The Face That Must Die (1979), might have been significantly influenced by these crisply told tales.

J.S. LeFanu, Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu (1964)

And now, my personal favorite. The ghost and related horror tales of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814-73) are historically just early enough that they neither conform to or create a standard for ghost fiction except to the extent that these highly original tales remain some of the highpoints of all supernatural literature. LeFanu is not as inventive as Poe, but his tales can be very psychologically acute and disturbing, and he can be quite effective in his characterizations (and of women as well as men).

Like some other collections in the Dover series of supernatural writing, the work in these two books is by no means all ghost stories. LeFanu covers a big range of supernatural concepts and unique perspectives like those in “Carmilla” and “Green Tea,” stories which are either too obvious to need mentioning or else you need to go out and read them right away if supernatural fiction appeals to you. A story like “The Haunted Baronet” contains complexities of psychology and symbol that make it a ghost tale like no other written before or since. It has no predecessors, and no imitators though it anticipates some elements of surrealism and of Robert Aickman’s even later concept of the “strange story.”

Le Fanu’s more conventionally ghost-oriented tales have a clear basis in the folk stories of the Irish. His work is filled with a powerful sense of time and location and how to distort it. In his stories, the past is dangerous, the present is just as bad, and people are complex and often unforgettably horrible. The woods and the fields hide stories that his characters realize too late that they never wanted to find out about. Along with mystery and the unexpected, there’s loss and tragedy of a vividness that the ghost stories of the British isles rarely otherwise reach.

“Schalken the Painter,” half ghost story and half something more terrifying, and among the greatest of the stories collected here, was years ago made into a British TV movie that’s well worth seeing. The movie’s sense of dread and precision of detail is heightened by the relatively minimal amount of dialogue.

Paul Gallico, Too Many Ghosts (1959)

Well, writing this series has been fun for me, and darkness on All Hallow’s Eve is nearly upon us. I thought I’d end this series for this haunted season with a ghost farce by Paul Gallico. You can call Too Many Ghosts a cozy horror comedy, with all the classic features of the British ghost story gathered together: a mansion that may or not may be haunted, a cast of characters with conflicting and conflicted goals, and all the moving furniture and turning doorknobs and seances and poltergeist experiences you could want. It’s like the ghost novel that Agatha Christie never wrote, although Gallico’s style takes a bit of getting used to it at first.

The novel is a mystery too. I’m not going to give anything away, but if you want a funhouse of light-hearted affects and plenty of chances to skewer the British aristocracy without really doing them any harm, plus, who knows, maybe even a love story, then this novel and all the many many ghosts in it is about as much silly fun as any ghost book I can think of.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

October Hauntings: Ghost Tales in my Book Collection originally posted Oct 1-31 2022: The Fourth Five

The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.

Fourth Five

Mary Butts, From Altar to Chimney Piece: Selected Stories of Mary Butts (1992)

Maybe these aren’t exactly ghost stories in a conventional sense, but the hovering, not always graspable presence of the supernatural definitely has enough consistently ghostly qualities for me to think it belongs in this category. These are subtle, elliptical Modernist stories written between 1923 and Butts’ death in 1937. This collection, and a more recent edition of her complete stories, both feature introductions by John Ashbery, which makes sense because many of Butts’ stories have an oblique, suggestive, and disconcerting feeling that have more than a few similarities to Ashbery poems. From Altar to Chimney Piece is literature exploring the supernatural that you can read without feeling like you’ve sullied yourself with genre trash, if feeling sullied by genre trash is something you happen to worry about.

R.B. Russell, Ghosts (2021)

Anybody who thinks that the classic British ghost story is played out or is now just a nostalgia trip has not read R.B. Russell. These stories have some of the expected shape of ghost tales (and not all of them are about ghosts), but their turns are subtle, psychologically fascinating, and surprising. You might think you know what’s happening, but you don’t, and the ideas here about perception, memory, and longing are very contemporary in their perspectives while retaining a certain classic haunted story feel. Ghosts is a compilation of Russell’s first two short books, both published in 2009, the story collection Putting the Pieces in Place and his fabulously titled novella Bloody Baudelaire. One thing I especially love about these stories is that I don’t stop thinking about them after I’m done reading them. They continue to be disturbing and disorienting when I think back on what they are. And sometimes when one pops back into my head unexpectedly, I shudder.

Henry James, Stories of the Supernatural (Hardback 1970, Paperback 1980)

The material collected in this 750+ volume contains the most psychologically complex ghost literature I’ve read. James doesn’t confine himself to the realm of ghosts, of course, so there’s a range of supernatural subject matter, but all of it’s brilliant, and all of it is connected to people and their problems. The Turn of the Screw deserves all its praise as one of the best stories about a haunting ever written. And the thing is, as that short novel and some of the other stories in this collection show, the refinement and subtlety of James doesn’t mean that he holds back on the vicious. In his stories, it’s not just the supernatural that attacks people; it’s James understanding of what’s wrong with those people and exactly what it is that’s going to crumple them.

M.R James, Collected Ghost Stories (2011)

M.R. James is more or less the gold standard of the classic British ghost story. Compact tales, gentle by modern standards, but rich in history and moments of chilling surprise. If you want a precise 30-40 minutes by-the-fire-on-a-rainy-night ghost story, you can’t do better than these.

By ideology, James was the opposite of a materialist. He was a deeply closeted gay man (saying this so directly is still considered rude by some James fans) whose taste in literature and politics was very much traditionalist conservative, although he was often as closeted in his political positions as he was in his sexual orientation (he was provost for many years at King’s College, Cambridge, and later at Eton College). He believed that his important writing was his medieval scholarship and wrote ghost stories to entertain his colleagues, and it’s his knowledge and interest in history that makes his tales models of materialist precision about detail and location.

His stories are set in a precise real world against which their supernatural mysteries stand out. His horrors are often revealed only partly or indirectly. He’s not great with characterization; his bachelor scholar main characters aren’t particularly distinct from each other, with many of them being given to a scholarly curiosity that sometimes passes into dangerous obsession.

My Oxford Collected Ghost Stories hardback has great annotations and an essay by James on the ghost story, but I first read a lot of his stories in the two little Dover books which feature his first and second collections, the most essential of his four collections, although the later ones also have some great stories. The Dover books were given to me one Christmas by my father; I had read a few James stories in anthologies before and it was great to read his fiction more thoroughly.

By now I’ve read all these stories more than once, and I read them again from time to time, and I’ve watched them in various televised versions, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever be tired of them. Their suggestiveness about the strange things that lie just outside the narrow minds of human beings are for me among the most fully pleasurable of literary experiences.

Susan Hill, The Small Hand and Dolly (2012)

I own more than one book by many of the authors I have posted about this month, but Susan Hill is the only author I’m going to feature more than once. That’s because these two novellas are so different than her famous novel The Woman In Black. Written in the 1980s, The Woman In Black was a conscious attempt to write in the 20th century a 19th century ghost story that would outdo the originals, an attempt that pretty much succeeded.

The Small Hand, and Dolly, two novellas published together in 2012, are contemporary in setting, though they still have the classic feel of British countryside horror. They’re also sleek, precise, chilling, and relentless. They’re still part of the history of the understated ghost story as opposed to effects-heavy horror gore, but ultimately they’re also much more vicious than you might expect. Dolly might make you want to rush right back to the overexcited silliness of Chucky in order to feel less disturbed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

October Hauntings: Ghost Tales in my Book Collection originally posted Oct 1-31 2022: the Third Five

The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.

Third Five

Edith Wharton, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (1973)

Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” is rightly among the most highly regarded of English-language ghost stories, with a title that’s perfect for the story in several ways. The rest of the stories in this collection are quite effective too. “The Lady Maid’s Bell,” “The Eyes,” “The Triumph of Night, and “The Pomegranate Seeds” are among my favorites. Wharton (1862-1937) has style, restraint and much more political consciousness than many Americans, writers or otherwise, of her era and elite background. A very enjoyable read!

Oliver Onions, Widdershins (first published 1911; Dover Books edition 1978)

One thing that distinguishes the ghost stories of Oliver Onions (1873-1961) from others in the classic British ghost story is their air of urban bohemian decadence in a tradition that has often been placed in the rural and the remote. Onions shares with writers like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen an interest in the mystical, the magical, and the pagan, but unlike them he creates a kind of stylish urban decay, exploring the world of strange artists and those who have fallen or are falling outside the conventional British social order. There’s more than a hint of Huysmans, if you know the work of that famous French decadent.

Today, Widdershins is Onions most well-known book, and it starts with one of the most rightly famous stories in the British ghost story tradition, “The Beckoning Fair One,” a slow burn of dark and dangerous enchantment set in a growing urban wasteland. The mood it creates makes it one of the best ghost stories ever. His later collections are worth reading too. He also wrote novels and stories without ghosts dealing with problems of magic, psychology, and even using detective elements, which were equally well known as his ghost stories in the decades of his greatest fame but which are never mentioned by anyone any more, at least not that I know of.

Richard Matheson, A Stir of Echoes (1958)

Not his best novel (that’s I Am Legend, followed closely by The Incredible Shrinking Man) but A Stir of Echoes is still quite an enjoyable ghost novel, not the least of whose horrors is the claustrophobic life of 1950s Southern California suburbanites. The novel was also made into a 1999 movie starring Kevin Bacon that’s well worth watching although it moves the setting of the story to urban Chicago. Matheson (1926-2013) is the source of many great movie scripts (both as a fiction writer and screenwriter), some of which are among the best movies of their kind.

F. Marion Crawford, ghost stories (many different editions; mine is called For The Blood Is The Life)

For nearly 20 years, from the late 1880s until the early 1900s, F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909) might well have been the best-selling of all American fiction writers. No kidding. It’s a pretty long run. He wrote historical novels of many kinds, most notably on the subject of Italian crime families and stories set in what Americans often then called “Arabia.” These books have been out of print for many decades, although the digital environment has recently brought them back, though I can’t say I’ve done much more than glance at them. Their emphasis on non-English-language criminal societies likely suggests something about their cultural perspective. They were combinations of romance action adventure and relatively flimsy realism and were often willing to incorporate magic and fantasy. Crawford also wrote plays, some of which became movies late in his life and after his death. I often use Crawford as an example in my classes of the strange fate of many writers immensely popular in their times, but who within not that many decades become almost completely unknown. Of course, none of my students have ever heard of him.

Crawford could tell a high energy story and was quite an entertaining writer. His eight ghost stories are the work of his most read today and are very much worth reading, probably because they’re so enjoyable and don’t focus on dated portrayals of supposedly exotic environments. “The Open Berth” is probably his most famous story, and it sure is good, and the others are similarly fun and sometimes genuinely haunting. The same eight stories published in the collection I have from the 1990s have been republished in numerous editions. If Crawford is remembered today mostly because of these eight stories, that’s not the worst fate a writer might meet.

César Aria, Ghosts (2009)

This book by Argentinian writer César Aira gets lumped in often with South American magical realism, and I suppose it meets at least the technical definition. To me though it seems more like straight realism, although a bit dreamlike, that also happens to have ghosts in a major role. The narrative is about the relationship between infrastructure (buildings under construction) and people and reads at times nearly like an allegory in service of political critique, except that it’s more subtle than such a description would suggest. It’s not a horror novel really, although there are quite a few odd and chilling moments that make it a good read both for more adventurous genre fans and for those who don’t reject serious fiction just because it has ghosts in it. I think it’s fair to call Ghosts a successful example of slipstream work.