Wednesday, April 27, 2011

BRENDA WINEAPPLE--The Substance as well as the Style of Romantic Fiction.

Denis Donoghue accurately observed that “a lot” of Brenda Wineapple’s HAWTHORNE: A LIFE “is in the style of romantic fiction.” But romantic fiction is in the substance as well as the style of her book. After putting up my posts on the dismaying thicket of outright errors in her few pages on Hawthorne and Melville in 1850-1851, including the worst error ever made in a discussion of Melville, her failure to realize that he felt as spotless as the Lamb of God, not a Berkshire sheep, I want to make a point about how Wineapple envisions her scenes. In the previous blogs I have criticized her for not envisioning, for example, just what members of the Monument Mountain party Sophia Hawthorne saw on 5 August 1850 and for not envisioning Melville (in his voice as literary critic, before he decided to make the speaker of the MOSSES essay retroactively a Virginian vacationing in Vermont) as reclining inside the barn, not NEAR it. This is a failure to read documents skillfully, but it is also a failure to SEE the characters in action.

Intermixed with this lack of attention to documents is the wild imagination of a devotee of romantic fiction. Melville “is the daredevil who sprints from rock to jutting rock.” This is a movie version of Heathcliff? Melville strides “off the gangplank into a garret where he could dip his pen into the inkpot.” Did he, to start with, stride off a gangplank of lower himself on a rope ladder or go off the ship in another fashion? He certainly did not go into a dark garret. Here you have both the substance and the style of the most pathetic romantic fiction. In Wineapple you see the failure to employ a responsible , attentive imagination coupled with the reckless indulgence of an irresponsible imagination.

1 comment:

  1. As a preparatory exercise I tried to make myself envision where characters in a group had been, what they had been thinking about in the days or hours previous, what they had brought with them as they came together, what they did after they went away from the group. Often, of course, I did not know, but surprisingly often I could assemble enough information to let me see a little into what their perspective would have been on a day like the climb of Monument Mountain, to stick with that example. Melville had come to think of the book he was writing as a tragic drama, already, I suspect, and might have wanted Mathews around so they could talk together about the place of drama in American literature. You can be contemptuous of Mathews, but there is testimony that he could be a serious resource in conversation, if you got him off quietly. Now, Melville did not have any time alone with Mathews, but what happened that week was out of his control, a result of David Dudley Field’s encountering Mathews and Duyckinck on their way to Pittsfield.

    For what it was worth, and I thought it worth doing, I tried this envisioning, and there were times when it worked perfectly, up to a point. What did Herman Melville have with him on the way from Boston to New York in October 1844. Start with the letter he had received from his brother Allan. What was he thinking about? the news of the family in that letter, whatever other news of the family he had learned in Boston, all the contacts he had made in Boston, how he was going to surprise his mother, when he would meet the Orator of the Human Race, Gansevoort, what he would do with the next years of his life, how it felt to be on land much of the journey—all that and more, but all that certainly.