University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Reading

VOL. XXXIX • 1986
Reading
--JOSEPH H. SUMMERS
 
 

I wish to assure all of you that the notion for this extraordinary occasion comes from Rowland Collins and Russell Peck rather than from me. (And my chief regret at this moment is that Rowland cannot be with us this afternoon.) It was the custom in the English Department at Indiana University for retiring professors to give a lecture; both Collins and Peck thought it frequently provided a satisfactory occasion. Both also claimed to have liked a piece I wrote a few years ago about the writing and early reception of my book on George Herbert, and they suggested that I should institute the Indiana custom at Rochester and encouraged me to be as autobiographical as I pleased. After initial hesitancy, I began to find the prospect enticing - as I was meant to: a captive audience of friends and colleagues, most of them predisposed to try to like whatever I came up with; a chance to air my prejudices and cranky convictions with no immediate fears of interruptions or opposing arguments; an invitation to try to make sense of my academic career; an opportunity for a valediction to the institution and colleagues with whom I have been associated, usually rather happily, for sixteen years - it was irresistible - at least it was last fall, particularly when the memory was still fresh of the extraordinary session on Religion and Seventeenth-Century Literature at Le Moyne which Mary Maleski organized in my honor in the fall of 1983. At Le Moyne I had the pleasant but distinctly uneasy experience of hearing praise from many agreeable and charitable friends and scholars. I managed to achieve something like the experience of several fictional characters who wished to attend their own funerals in order to enjoy the eulogies - but I was also reminded of a joke my preacher father used to tell of a funeral in the Kentucky mountains at which, half way through the minister's extravagant eulogy, the bereaved widow whispered audibly, "Son, go up there and see whether that's your father in that casket."

The temptation to pontificate increases alarmingly as one approaches the age of retirement: one may even have a duty to share the shards of wisdom one has been so long in gathering. It is, however, a temptation to be resisted, for it almost inevitably involves falsifications, attempts at self-justification, and suggestions of patterning or purpose in actions and events which were probably largely accidental. For a very brief time (encouraged by Russell Peck), I actually considered trying to give here an account of the origins and receptions of my other books analagous to what I wrote on the Herbert book; but I quickly perceived it would have been far too long, and not possibly of as much interest to any audience as it might have been to me. Instead, I decided to focus on two topics, both suggested by incredulous or critical responses I have recently received from others. Bob Fallon, of La Salle University and more or less permanent treasurer of the Milton Society of America, bearded me at a Modern Language Association Meeting a few years ago to ask, with obvious incredulity, whether it was really true that I had refused to serve as a judge for the Society's annual awards for the best book and essay on Milton because I planned to spend my spare time before retirement reading "modern stuff" from Africa and other odd places. He seemed nonplussed when I assured him that it was indeed true, and he simply turned away. I felt almost as if I had offended him personally, and I still regret that I did not try to explain further - but it would have taken too long for a crowded MLA corridor. I should like to explore some of my reasons for that decision here. The other critical response I have in mind occurred more recently. Last fall, when Richard Kroll (who teaches at Princeton but is known locally as Vicky Silver's husband) remarked that he wished I would publish in literary theory, I exclaimed that I couldn't bear to try to read, much less to write, theoretical essays. I even quoted E O. Matthiessen's response to me back in 1941, when I told him that I had read with interest John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism (a work that seemed to bristle with difficulties then, but that I imagine must seem childishly simple today), and asked him what he thought of it. He simply said, "Oh, I love Ransom's poetry, but I don't read his criticism." When I pressed him for a reason, Matthiessen said, "Well, it seems to me that there are people interested in theory and people interested in literature, and I'm interested in literature." When I asked, fairly incredulously, "You mean it's like east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet?" he replied, "I'm not saying they can't meet; I'm just saying I've never seen them meet." I still think it's an amusing story, but under the circumstances it was hardly polite for me to tell it to Richard - particularly when Richard went on to remark flatteringly (but I fear inaccurately) that there weren't any Christian theorists, and that if people like me refused to get into theory, the Marxists would continue to provide the most viable alternative to the deconstructionists. (I hope I'm quoting him accurately, since I tend to get the categories confused; on a few occassions I have thought I knew what deconstructionism was, but later conversation or reading has always reassured me that I did not.) At any rate, I felt I owed Richard more of an explanation of my convictions and incapacities than I gave him. If I can talk about such things at all without getting in over my head, this seems a good opportunity to try to do so - particularly since I assume that I am "privileged" here to be unabashedly autobiographical.

In the first place, I am a reader. I never set out to be a scholar or a critic- or an English professor. From the time before I learned to read, when I remember memorizing Peter Rabbit and going around the house lugging some large book under my arm in the hope I could find some adult (parent, aunt, grandmother, whoever) willing to read it to me, I have loved to hear stories and rhymes and poems. When I was six and learned to read, I began to read almost everything I could find. My first acquaintance with Shakespeare occurred one afternoon when I had a terrible cold and sat in the kitchen, drinking innumerable cups of sassafras tea and reading the entire volume of Lamb's Tales that I had brought home from the library. As I grew older, the habit got worse rather than better. By the time I was in junior high school, my reading of The Bobbsey Twins, the so-called "Children's Classics," the various series of boys' books and Tarzan (after only four volumes) was past, but I was still reading Zane Grey and Gene Stratton Porter, and I had begun to read all the Book-of-the-Month-Club volumes that came into the house, mysteries, and, since at least two serialized novels were always running in the magazines we subscribed to (The Saturday Evening PostCollier'sThe American MagazineGood HousekeepingThe Delineator at one period and Cosmopolitan at another), I was always in the middle of at least ten novels. Most of it was junk, but I found it interesting junk - while I found boring most of the assigned reading in my English courses. Why anyone should become that hooked on reading must be somewhat mysterious, but in my case the facts that my eyes and physical coordination were relatively poor and my joints double undoubtedly had something to do with it - in addition to the fact that everyone else in the family read too. (One aunt whom we saw on visits could hardly get through the day without reading at least two novels, and she read as indiscriminatingly and as enthusiastically as I; the two might well be by Kathleen Norris and Willa Cather - or Ethel M. Dell and Faulkner.) But the chief thing that, to paraphrase Sidney, keeps children from play and old men from the chimney corner probably has to do not merely with an escape from a relatively uninteresting or unsatisfying present, but with the excitement involved in the extension of our imaginative experience. We seem imaginatively to discover others and ourselves almost simultaneously- or perhaps it is that we discover one by means of the other. If the literary work were not in some sense recognizable - at least related to what we have known or imagined-we probably could not read it at all. Yet with each imaginative acquaintance with other kinds of experiences, or ways of looking, or even emotions, we may come both to know more about ourselves and also to imagine the possibility that those selves can change.

Although I probably had no such notion when I was in school, I have come to think that any credible theory of the educative or moral usefulness of literature must derive from the imaginative perception of the relations between the self and the other, the familiar and the alien. Such a perception can become central to a notion of how we acquire truly useful knowledge. Ascham expressed it well enough, at a utilitarian psychological level, when he remarked, "There be that keep them out of fire, and yet was never burned" - or more generally, "Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty." There is a further and more important knowledge which I later glimpsed when I was working on my honors' essay on Louis MacNeice: I remember coming across a memorable sentence in one of his semi-autobiographical volumes (I believe it was I Crossed the Minch) concerning his failed first marriage: "Marriage at least made me conscious of the existence of other people in their own right and not merely as vicars of my godhead." At the time I thought that it might be less painful to acquire such a consciousness before marriage, and I wondered a bit that all of MacNeice's reading in the classics had not at least suggested it. The imaginative realization of the existence of another or others is surely a more profound knowledge than the merely prudential knowledge of how to avoid getting burned.

But I think it may be even more miraculous to apprehend imaginatively the existence of other times and places. Such an experience almost inevitably entails some recognition of the fluidity of our own sense of being within time and space - the inevitability of growth and decay and change (and perhaps evanescence and death); it also eventually suggests, I believe, both the recognition of large repetitive rhythms of lives and seasons and also the irreducible individuality of any one age or society or life or moment. In Musophilus: Containing a generall defense of learning, Samuel Daniel gave as moving a formulation as I know of the way that, through reading, the past may become present:

When as perhaps the words thou scornest now
   May live, the speaking picture of the mind, 
   The extract of the soul that laboured how
   To leave the image of her self behind
   Wherein posterity that love to know
   The just proportion of our spirits may find.

For these lines are the veins, the arteries,
   And undecaying life-strings of those hearts
   That still shall pant, and still shall exercise
   The motion spirit and nature both imparts,
   And shall, with those alive so sympathize
   As nourisht with their powers enjoy their parts.

Oh blessed letters that combine in one
   All ages past, and make one live with all,
   By you we do confer with who are gone,
   And the dead living unto councell call:
   By you th'unborn shall have communion
  Of what we feel, and what doth us befall.

Soul of the world, knowledge, without thee,
   What hath the earth that truly glorious is?
   Why should our pride make such a stir to be,
   To be forgot? What good is like to this,
   To do worthy the writing, and to write
   Worthy the reading, and the world's delight? (177-200)

Although when I was in high school I had no intimation of such lofty possibilities and I disliked most of the reading required in my English courses, I did read some things that made a difference. I'm sure that, in addition to the daily Bible readings, my early reading of All Quiet on the Western Front and Nehru's Autobiography had a good deal to do with my early pacifist convictions. But there were odd gaps, too. The fact that, after the nursery rhymes which I loved, I disliked most of the poetry I read, probably had something to do with the fact that my brother Hollis had begun trying to write poetry by the time I was six years old and that my mother wrote light verse for social occasions: I had firmly decided that that sort of thing was not for me. More serious, probably, was that being a preacher's son made me unusually suspicious of what I regarded as insincerity or cant. I suspected that in a good many of the poems read in class, the poet was spending most of his energy either in pepping himself up to proper emotional responses or in trying to impress his readers with how admirable his responses had really been. Shakespeare and Milton suffered along with everybody else. The only two volumes of poetry that I remember enjoying while I was in school were by Keats and Vachel Lindsay. It must have been all that young passion and marvelous sensuousness that attracted me to Keats; I can still remember my excitement with Lindsay's thumping rhythms, whether of the pseudo-Congo or the Salvation Army variety. I think both those poets had responded intensely to various things and each had managed to communicate his responses with slight concern for trying to appear noble or high-toned or even respectable.

I did, however, show some pedantic instincts awfully early. Somehow I got hold of some small pamphlets called something like "My Reading" (probably from the library where my mother was librarian), which provided a page for each book read, with blanks for author, title, date finished, grade, and a larger space for comments. At a period when I was reading seven to ten books a week, I filled them out religiously, and I believe Hollis still has one or two of them that make embarrassing but amusing reading. I was certainly overconfident in my judgments, but at least I recognized that different books were doing different things: one couldn't sensibly judge Rex Stout and P. G. Wodehouse, say, by the same standards; and if Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tristram was a relative failure in my eyes, it at least failed on different grounds from those on which Lloyd Lewis' Sherman: Fighting Prophet succeeded. I recognized that The Brothers Karamazov was somehow the most impressive volume of prose I had ever read; but I think I also recognized that I didn't fully understand it, and that I had not found it as purely enjoyable as some other volumes. I was, however, mercifully unconcerned with "literature"per se. I wanted to read - biographies, novels, memoirs, accounts of explorations, plays (I read nine by Noel Coward), even occasionally essays - anything concerning human actions, thoughts, or desires that I found I could read with interest and pleasure. I hated Henley's "Invictus" at first sight.

Harvard proved a shock in many ways, but it reinforced my notion that to study "English" meant to read almost anything of possible interest. I thought, naively, that if one were going to study a subject one should probably begin at the beginning, so the first period course I took had a deceptively low number: "English 10 - English Literature from the Beginning to 1500, exclusive of Chaucer" - two semesters. (I only discovered late in the first term that I was the only sophomore and one of the few undergraduates enrolled) . The first assignment was from Tacitus; the reading was in translation until Wycliffe and in the originals from Wycliffe on. It was all odd enough, but it made me realize that the so-called English language kept changing, that writers assumed and intended different things at different times, and that one could probably understand little about any text apart from its context. It was certainly difficult to imagine a universal reader who, simply by means of intelligence and sensibility alone, could make sense of those disparate texts from over a thousand years of European and English history.

The three people to whom I owe most of my undergraduate education at Harvard, however, were J. B. Rackliffe, Walter Houghton, and F. O. Matthiessen; they not only taught me about reading the literature of the past, but also introduced me to contemporary writing, art, and culture. Jack Rackliffe, as my honors tutor for three years, was the most important. When we met for the first time at the beginning of my sophomore year and he discovered that I was a Baptist preacher's son from Kentucky who had never read Pilgrim's Progress, he immediately made that the first assignment; for our second meeting I wrote an essay I called "Bunyan in the Twentieth Century," in which I attempted to imagine Bunyan's horror if he could have seen the world of 1938 and also took some pot shots at the shabby grounds on which complacent and confidently superior modern readers would probably reject or patronize Bunyan. Luckily, Jack liked it. Every two weeks for the next two years, I read a volume and wrote a paper which Jack would read aloud (dramatizing with his voice all the mistakes of diction, punctuation, sentence structure, and emphasis in a way that frequently made me squirm) and annotate briefly - in three languages - in the margins. Rackliffe took my education in hand: he introduced me to Harry Levin, told me I should study with Houghton and Matthiessen, took me to my first art exhibit (it was of watercolors by Charles Burchfield) and my first union meeting; when he discovered that I didn't knowDon Giovanni, he cancelled his appointments for the afternoon and we listened to the records; when I said I didn't care for Stravinsky, he had me listen carefully to some of the more easily accessible chamber works - the Duo Concertant and the Octet for Wind Instruments. I soon discovered that Jack had something of a reputation around the Square as a brawling drunk, but I never saw him when he had been drinking. Our only near crisis was when I was reading Andr√© Malraux with him (Rackliffe never allowed the English Department's Tutorial Bibliography to inhibit his teaching); he was surprised when I attacked Man's Fate for what I thought were nihilist and terrorist elements (later he discovered that some French Marxists had anticipated my response). But it was Man's Hope (L'Espoir) that caused me the most anguish: that novel struck me as one of the most compelling arguments I had ever found for participation in a "just war"; the only proper response - for me, at least - seemed either to try to join the struggle in Spain or to define more clearly - and absolutely - my position as a pacifist. I was obviously disturbed when I appeared for our tutorial session, and Jack read my quite long paper fairly rapidly and without comment. Then he simply said, "We'll talk about this later: Let's go get some coffee,"  and we headed for Elsie's diner - the place where he had once introduced me to Charles Olson. Later Rackliffe wrote me a wonderfully considerate letter, commenting on my paper and spelling out the differences between his Marxism and my Christianity. He assured me that he considered my position intellectually respectable ("so long as you realize that it entails the possibility of martyrdom") and that we would not argue further on these particular issues. He ended with a few sentences that I believe I remember accurately: "I think the things we agree on are more important than those on which we differ. We both care about justice for human beings, and we both have pretty much the same notion of what justice might be."

Walter Houghton's "Criticism of Poetry" course was the most valuable single course in literature that I ever took: it taught me how to read poetry in ways I had never known before. (Later, in another course, Houghton taught me to read seventeenth-century prose.) During my years at college, I had become increasingly interested in modern poetry, largely through the Morris Grey Poetry readings: Frost was obviously a spellbinder, but I was a bit suspicious of his performance; Pound and Delmore Schwartz left me perplexed; but Cummings (whom I had earlier dismissed as a charlatan largely on the basis of his typography) I found delightful, and W. C. Williams seemed fresh and exciting; Auden didn't read very well when I heard him, but I responded to his poem on the death of Yeats. I read Louis MacNeice in Houghton's course and discovered that he was the first contemporary poet (younger than Yeats) whom I felt I could read, with fair understanding and excitement, more or less on my own. I spent most of my senior year working with Rackliffe on my senior honors essay on MacNeice, "The Earth Compels," focused chiefly on the political, social and moral pressures evident in the poems and the yet undetermined question of whether MacNeice could continue to write after the coming of the war.

I never met E O. Matthiessen until the last term of my senior year, when I took his course in modern American poetry. The classes were tense and strange: Matthiessen spoke quite informally of how he felt at that moment about the texts at hand. I was startled and almost resentful that he kept formulating insights and judgments that I had thought I had worked out (or was in the process of working out) for myself. It had hardly occurred to me before that I would agree with nearly all of a professor's formulations, and I was not at all sure I liked the experience. The following summer when I read The American Renaissance, my admiration for Matthiessen increased enormously - along with my disturbing sense of familiarity. Later, when I came to know Matthiessen and work with him in graduate school, I learned of our differences as well as similarities in taste and judgment, but my admiration probably increased. I used to say that Matthiessen was the first person I ever met who convinced me that it was possible to be both a professor and a human being. It was an extreme statement suggesting a good deal of my discomfort with official Harvard, but it implied my conviction that Matthiessen had managed to remain alive to a wider range of human experience - aesthetic social, political, individual, religious - than any other successful (today that might be read tenured) full professor I had known, and that he would not let his professional duties and responsibilities interfere with his human ones: he had not left life for the library or the present for the past; and he had not taken refuge in an isolated family, a restricted class or caste, a glacial manner, or alcoholism. In the Harvard Album of 1943 in an essay entitled "Humanities in Wartime," Matthiessen made some characteristic formulations that were important for me. He simply assumed that one could not come to understand and respond adequately to past ages unless one had a sense of one's own:

The inexhaustible resources of the humanities extend to their student the whole range of the past. He must start with an awkward sense of his own age, or both present and past will seem remote. . . . The responsibility of the student of the humanities is to keep open our communication with the sources of vitality in every culture. For the humanities are the way of knowing how mankind has lived and is living, the farthest reaches of his imagination, his suffering and joy, his reverence before life, before the individual life and the common collective life.

Rackliffe, Houghton, and Matthiessen would have agreed, I believe, in considering belletristic a pejorative, since the term may imply an interest in style quite divorced from meaning and function and also an assumption that literature exists primarily for connoisseurs of the leisure class. But Matthiessen was even harder on scholars and critics who seemed more interested in their own careers than in elucidating the work or issue at hand. He had fearfully high standards: he thought one should not review a book without first reading the author's previous works as well as other recent work on his subject. If the phrase "making it" had been current in his lifetime, Matty would have been appalled that a writer with any pretentions to seriousness could use it without irony. He did not believe that useful scholarship or criticism was likely to result from anyone's "working up" a subject for the occasion; it probably came from writers who had lived with and even learned to love the works about which they wrote. Consistently, he was contemptuous of the pressure on young scholars to publish. After Harvard instituted its rigid up-or-out system of tenure, Matthiessen wrote a review in which he took pleasure in pointing out that, had the system been instituted earlier, Harvard would have fired Henry Adams, William James, and George Santayana between something like seven and fifteen years before their first significant publications. One of Matty's most chilling characteristic remarks about an essay or study was, "Oh, I don't think that piece was really necessary!" Except for Harry Levin, none of the students Matthiessen was close to published much before his death.

The point I wish to make here is that I never decided to be a seventeenth-century specialist any more than, except for my dissertation, I ever set out to write a book. (On second thought, I realize that last statement is untrue: I did plan at one point to try to write a book on Andrew Marvell; but I never managed to get fellowship support for it, and I ended up with only five, disparate essays.) As I've written elsewhere, I fell in love with The Temple at first reading, found it the finest volume of devotional verse I had ever read (my personal history made me particularly interested in the genre), and thought I understood some things about it that didn't seem obvious to other readers. I recognized immediately that it was the only work on which I could imagine wanting to do a dissertation - however unlikely it seemed at the time that I might get one done. It took me nine years to study Herbert more thoroughly and to write the dissertation, and another two years (one blessedly on leave from teaching) to turn it into a book. I had written drafts of two essays on Paradise Lost and had ideas for six others - all deriving from my seminar teaching - before I realized (in the middle of a conversation with a colleague at a cocktail party) that I seemed to be doing a book on that poem. When I was asked to lecture at Oxford in the late '60's, I tried to condense into six lectures (the Oxford standard once-a-week for six weeks) the most substantial points I usually took about 35 hours to try to make in my courses in seventeenth-century poetry in the U.S.: The Heirs of Donne and Jonson was the result. The essays in Dreams of Love and Powerbegan to come into focus after about twenty years of teaching introductory classes in Shakespeare, and it took another fifteen years - and two leaves on fellowships - to get them written. I have been very lucky at getting leaves and fellowships: I hardly see how any English teacher can write a book without one. When I have finally been able to get each book written, I have always assumed that it was probably my last one.

I usually find it boring to repeat myself - at least extensively in print - and I have constantly been reading things outside the English Renaissance and sometimes even breaking into the twentieth century in my teaching. So far those interests have resulted only in a few scattered publications, such as brief encyclopedia essays on Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop, whom I was lucky enough to have known as friends and whom I have been reading since their first volumes appeared. Alfred Kazin once told me that I should read Edwin Muir and Simone Weil because I would like them. He was right: before the Herbert book appeared I had read everything of Muir's I could find - the autobiography, criticism, and fiction as well as the poetry- and a great deal of Simone Weil. At one point I planned to try to write a substantial essay on Weil, but after I found that E. W. F. Tomlin had written an excellent brief monograph which anticipated my major points (one of them concerned the close parallel between Weil and Antigone; I've forgotten the other), I decided that I certainly didn't need to write on her, so I simply continued to read her with a good deal of fascination. (I did eventually publish a brief response to Michael Ferber's essay on her "Iliad. ") Although I saw a good deal of Edwin Muir between 1955 and 1958, I never properly "interviewed" him about his work: his kindness and vulnerability made me feel shy, so we talked of other things. But I did write one essay, "The Achievement of Edwin Muir," which he read in manuscript and corrected. I later had the lugubrious experience of having to change the verb tenses from present to past when it was published after his death. When U. T. and I visited the Orkneys many years later, our trip seemed a renewal of the process of learning about and from Edwin.

U. T. and I have been fortunate in that since the time when she worked as an editor at Houghton Muffin we have come to know some of the best American writers. But while knowing them has made me read them with increased pleasure, it has probably usually prevented me from trying to write about them. If I want to say something about one of James Merrill's or Mona Van Duyn's or Tony Hecht's poems, my first impulse is to writethem - not to write a piece about them for publication.

My present interest in the literature in English that has recently come out of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean began in 1972, when I was teaching two terms at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Molly Mahood, whom I had never met but whose writings on Renaissance poetry and Shakespeare I admired, invited me there, and I soon discovered that she was not only an extraordinary human being but also the teacher of "Commonwealth Literature," the single course that seemed to arouse intense interest and enthusiasm in nearly all the students at Kent. Molly had unusual qualifications for teaching such a course: she had been chairman for some years of the English faculty at Ibadan, Nigeria (where Chinua Achebe was one of her students), and she had taught at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and at Oxford (where V. S. Naipaul was one of her students), as well as examined in Malaysia and various other places. She was anything but evangelical in her private conversations about her interests, and I can hardly remember her talking about her experiences in Africa or her students except in response to specific questions. As much as I was impressed by Molly and her students at Kent, I didn't begin to read much "Commonwealth Literature" until after a small faculty dinner at Rutherford College, Kent, when Reg Foakes, then Chairman of the English Faculty, remarked to me, "You Americans claim to be interested in modern literature, but you don't even have available in paperback the books of the best novelist now writing in the English language." Embarrassingly enough, I had to ask him which novelist he meant, and his answer was V. S. Naipaul. That week I bought my first English Penguin volumes of Naipaul. I don't believe I agree with Foakes' extravagant judgment, but Naipaul is surely one of the most interesting novelists and journalists of recent years - and I am glad to report that almost all of his works are now also available in paperback in the United States.

Reading Naipaul was the beginning of my gradual awareness of the enormous body of recent literature in English written by writers from (and frequently in) Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. I have been trying to catch up ever since - and I will never make it: Heinemann alone has published over two-hundred-fifty titles in its African Writers Series, and smaller numbers in its Series of Caribbean Studies and Writing in Asia; and Longman, Allison & Busby, and, now increasingly, Penguin and Farrar, Straus & Giroux are publishing numerous volumes here and in England, and many smaller presses in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean are bringing out still other titles. Of course not all of them are good; but I have found a much higher proportion of these books really interesting than those on the ordinary publishers' lists from New York and London. Fewer of them, I believe, are simply pot-boilers; and for these writers a relatively boring solipsism seems hardly an option: they seem forced to become "engaged" to some degree with the life around them whether they wish to be or not. Their material is frequently not fully amenable to the usual conventions of English and American writing, and their very language is necessarily problematic. But as they transform and make their own the inherited language of their former colonial masters (a process frequently necessary if they are to speak to their own countrymen beyond their immediate villages, tribes, or linguistic groups), they also make available to us new and frequently humbling perspectives on what we have inherited and built, and what we are. In reading them we have the salutary opportunity to discover what it is like if we, rather than others, are perceived as alien. Through their various kinds of English, they make directly available to us, without dependence on outsiders or translators, more of the life of the world than I had thought possible.

Aside from the social, political and moral issues that these writers raise, the most important reason that I read them is because I find the best of them among the finest and most exciting contemporary writers. They interest me and move and delight me. In an evangelical spirit quite unlike Molly Mahood's, let me express here some extravagant judgments. I enjoy reading the novels of Chinua Achebe and R. K. Narayan more than those of any other living novelists I know. Achebe combines the gifts of a superb and imaginative anthropologist with an extraordinary ear, an absolute control of tone, and a deeply moving moral - even tragic-vision. He makes Conrad's vision of Africa seem relatively crude. Narayan's Malgudi is more fully imagined and more fascinating than Trollope's Barchester (it may be more nearly comparable to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha). He has been compared to Chekhov and Turgenev, and sometimes he reminds me a bit of E. M. Forster, but he is truly incomparable. He makes marvelous and unexpected uses of Indian mythology and legend, and he is very funny. He has not (and I think will not) received the Nobel Prize because his gentle irony threatens or even dissolves most of our western categories of importance.

Sticking with the novelists, I find Salman Rushdie's brilliant Midnight's Children probably the most impressive novel I have read since A Hundred Years of Solitude. It makes most other attempts at grandiose or epic fiction look relatively provincial. (It is also the only major work that I have discovered in this literature in which colonialism and its memories are not primary; in Rushdie's perspective, English colonialism was only the most recent of several foreign occupations, and is much less important than the multifarious Indian divisions of races, religions, languages, castes and classes, politics, and geographical districts.) His literary sources are almost as various as the India he describes: Sterne as well as Gabriel Marquez, Proust (in Rushdie, pickles and chutneys take the place of tea and madeleines as the preservers of the past), the languages of advertising, radio serials and commercials, the movies of Hollywood and Bombay, the paranoid American novel and the 1001 Nights, science fiction and Indian legend, and above all the history of India from the nineteenth century until Madame Gandhi's Emergency. (If the novel has a major weakness it may derive from the fact that that history, particularly from the moment of Indian independence, is so improbable.)

Derek Walcott, from St. Lucia and, more recently, Trinidad and Boston, is among the dozen living poets whom I most enjoy reading. He is also an extraordinary playwright, in both verse and prose. I am eagerly awaiting the publication, announced for this spring, of a volume containing three new plays - any one of which may provide the sort of pleasure which I and other Rochesterians received from GeVa's production of Pantomime a few years ago.

Dia Lawrence once told me that Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena was the only play she had ever seen which it seemed not absurd to compare in some ways with King Lear. When I read it, I understood. Although all of Fugard's plays stem from his South Africa of apartheid and anguish, he is by no means merely a political or propagandistic dramatist. His Notebooks: 1960-l977make clear how deeply he is indebted to his reading of other twentieth-century poets and dramatists as well as how firmly his plays are rooted in his own personal experience. There is a moving entry from October, 1961 which suggests the origins of Master Harold and the Boys over twenty years later:

Dad's crutches. Dad's story- the man who ended up feeling unimportant.

People must be loved. That is the really crucifying experience in the short time we have as human beings - that intimacy which breaks through our defensive isolation and shows the capacity - if need be no more than that - just an awareness of the potential - of someone else's suffering.

(New York, 1984, pp. 40-41)

I keep on discovering new books and new writers. Wole Soyinka is one of the best known and one of the most talented of the Nigerian writers, but I have a good many reservations about most of his poems, his fiction, and some of the plays. But I have no reservations at all about his recent volume Ake: The Days of Childhood, the most delightful memoir I have ever read. So far I have read only two novels by Earl Lovelace of Trinidad, but I am looking forward to the others. His Wine of Astonishment has recently been published here. It poignantly portrays the pressures of colonialism and neo-colonialism on an entire people, but it also suggests, partly through its lyrical prose, a possible release from them. (Characteristically, I only discovered that Lovelace had a recent teaching appointment at Johns Hopkins, after it ended.)

I look forward to spending a good deal more of my newly free time reading these and other writers from the new literatures in English rather than much scholarship on Shakespeare or "metaphysical poetry" or Milton - or much critical theory. I plan to do so for precisely the same reasons that I originally spent so many years reading the earlier English writers: I enjoy reading them, I am astonished by how good their writing seems, and I want to learn more about it and them. If eventually I come to some understanding of them that I think might help others to read them, I might even write about them. But, unlike the reading, the writing is relatively unimportant.

I should like to go back and let Samuel Daniel have the last word here. Prophecy is an unreliable and dangerous literary form at best, but in Musophilus sober Daniel, the one Ben Jonson said "was a good honest man, had no children, but no poet," showed not only an extraordinary realization of how literature can be read and valued over time, but also an even more surprising sense that the English language and literature might very well prove to be the most enduring treasure of a burgeoning empire whose ultimate extent he could hardly anticipate. In the 1980's his prophetic vision seems more astonishingly accurate than it could have seemed in 1599. Daniel knew what his countrymen had created, and he believed their creation would enrich distant nations yet unborn. I like to think that he also anticipated that the riches of his contemporaries' English might also be metamorphosed into other treasures, newer literatures created by other peoples and nations:

And who in time knows whither we may vent
   The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores
   This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
   T'inrich unknowing nations with our stores?
   What worlds in th'yet unformed occident
   May come refined with th'accents that are ours?
Or who can tell for what great work in hand
   The greatness of our style is now ordained?
   What powers it shall bring in, what spirits command,
   What thoughts let out, what humors keep restrained,
   What mischief it may powerfully withstand,
   And what fair ends may thereby be attained? (957-968)

 

Arrow  Return to Top