Sunday, August 25, 2019

July: Edith and Ernest

Once a month I go to a book club on weird literature and art. In July (on July 25 to be precise, while I was working on my own story), we looked at the works of Edith Wharton (1862-1937), specifically her short stories "Afterward" (1910), "The Eyes" (1910), and "Pomegranate Seed" (1931). These are good and well-written stories, though I found "The Eyes" to have a lot of ugliness in it. My favorite among them is "Afterward." One line alone, actually a fragment of a line, is worth the price of admission for this story: "but he wasn't dead enough . . . ."

I read "Afterward" in my copy of Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser and published in 1944 by Random House as part of its Modern Library. One of the things that I noticed in reading this story is how drastically American prose styles changed in just a very short period, from prewar to postwar. Written by a woman born in the Victorian era and published in 1910, "Afterward" is to my mind dense and weighty. It's not a story that moves. In reading it, I thought, "Thank God Ernest Hemingway came along and knocked the stuffing out of Victorian prose." It's not that Edith Wharton was a bad writer, because she wasn't--not at all. But my tastes are more to lean, muscular, quintessentially American prose. If your story can be adapted to a movie starring Steve McQueen, I'm there, but if it takes someone like Hugh Grant to bring it to life, I might pass. Or, as I said in the July meeting of our book club, if I read even one more story in which even one more character drinks even one more cup of tea, I might scream.

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Here is the New York Times on Ernest Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, from 1926: "It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame." (1) That's what I'm talking about, and I'm not the only one to recognize it and prefer it. Hemingway's writing may have been a kind of death knell for all of those old-fashioned authors--old-fashioned in their prose, their concerns, or both. They were from another time and their time had passed. Few today even read what they wrote. I'm thinking here of writers like Booth Tarkington (a Fortean and fellow Hoosier by the way) and Robert W. Chambers, the so-called "Boudoir Balzac" who also happened to be a teller of weird tales. Hemingway's early work still lives, though, as do stories such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, originally published in 1925 but still astonishingly contemporary and as near-to-perfect as any novel by an American author. Older by a generation, Edith Wharton may have seen the writing on the wall: her story "Pomegranate Seed," from 1931, is a far cry from her stories of just twenty years before. There are even automobiles in it.

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Ernest Hemingway is also in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural with his story "The Killers," originally published in 1927. I get a sense that the editors were stretching the bounds of their title in order to get him (William Faulkner, too) into their book. I suppose the idea was to lend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural an added kind of weight and importance by including works by two men who were very soon to win Nobel prizes in literature. In fact, most of this volume is filled with works by authors held in some kind of esteem by the literary establishment. Nonetheless, H.P. Lovecraft is in its pages, the only author there to have been more closely associated with the pulps than with slick magazines or more literary hardbound fiction.

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I'll have more to say about Ernest Hemingway in the next part of this series, but before that, I would like to point out that Necronomicon Providence, the International Festival of Weird Fiction, Art, and Academia, is taking place in Providence, Rhode Island, this weekend and that the leader of our book club, Nathaniel R. Wallace, is presenting his paper "A Sequence of Paintings so Horrid: 'Pickman’s Model' Visual Adaptations" there. Good luck, success, and safe travels to Nate this weekend.

Note
(1) From "Marital Tragedy," dated October 31, 1926, and accessible here.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention, Terence! My presentation went very well and I look forward to telling you all about some of the fascinating panels I had the good fortune to attend at the convention.

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