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1Je dois à une vieille amitié, et à la courtoisie des responsables de Transatlantica que je tiens à remercier ici, de pouvoir publier aujourd’hui ce dossier, dont il m’a semblé qu’il entrait assez bien en résonance avec le thème du Congrès 2007 de l’A.F.E.A., « La France en Amérique ».
2Quelques mots sur les circonstances qui donnèrent naissance à ce texte. En 1985, j’avais été invité, sur proposition du regretté professeur Joël Porte, alors chef du Département d’Etudes Anglaises et Américaines, à passer les mois d’automne à Harvard University. Nous étions l’un et l’autre spécialistes d’Emerson, et il avait été convenu que nous conduirions de concert pendant quelques semaines un cours pour étudiants avancés. Il se trouve qu’une fois sur place un de ses collègues, le professeur Sacvan Bercovitch, qui avait la charge de concevoir et d’organiser des séminaires dans le cadre d’un « Centre d’Etudes Littéraires » rattaché de façon assez lâche à l’Université elle-même, me demanda de participer à un cycle de conférences qui devaient être confiées exclusivement à des visiteurs étrangers, et qui auraient pour élément commun d’évoquer l’accueil réservé à la littérature américaine dans leur pays d’origine. Je fus prié de préparer trois interventions assez brèves, quoique précisément documentées et attentives aux sinuosités d’une critique plus riche que je ne l’avais imaginé, afin de réserver du temps à la fin de chacune pour un échange avec l’auditoire. Je me souviens que j’avais été programmé à la suite du professeur Agostino Lombardo, dont les exposés m’avaient révélé combien l’Italie et la France, toutes sœurs de culture qu’elles étaient, avaient réagi de façon différente aux textes venus d’Outre-Atlantique. Il y aurait là pour un comparatiste européen, me semble-t-il, une voie intéressante à explorer.
3Le titre global auquel je m’étais arrêté, « Democratic Aesthetics », aurait pu être complété utilement par un sous-titre du genre « American Literature as a Challenge to France’s Aristocratic Tradition ». Il s’agissait pour moi de marquer clairement au départ une opposition frontale, et de suggérer ensuite le long glissement par lequel un rejet pur et simple allait se nuancer et se mettre lui-même en question. Au fur et à mesure que le dix-neuvième siècle s’avançait, et que se succédaient les décennies souvent accompagnées de changements politiques majeurs, les critiques français laissaient percer leur perplexité, avouaient même à mots couverts la fascination qu’ils éprouvaient pour cette rudesse sans complexes, pour cet incongru qu’ils voyaient débouler dans le domaine littéraire. Il leur était de plus en plus difficile de nier l’existence d’une autre culture, d’une culture de plein droit encore que profondément hétérodoxe et bizarrement subversive : Melville, Whitman, Twain, en attendant Henry Miller et William Burroughs. Les perspectives depuis la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale ont été modifiées de fond en comble, et il faut un réel effort d’imagination pour concevoir à quel point l’identité culturelle d’un pays desservi par son hétérogénéité sociale et par l’immensité de sa géographie peina à s’imposer.
4Sans tourner tout à fait le dos à la chronologie, la dernière partie de ce dossier salue l’avènement de part et d’autre de l’Atlantique d’un dialogue enfin dénué de condescendance, d’un dialogue entre pairs où le beau rôle n’échoit pas forcément à un Européen. Ce sont Baudelaire, Mallarmé et Valéry reconnaissant en Poe, ce frère égaré dans les déserts du Nouveau Monde, leur maître à chacun ; c’est Gide séduit par Walden et, plus improbablement, par Dashiell Hammett ; c’est Proust empruntant aux Essais d’Emerson plusieurs épigraphes pour son livre Les Plaisirs et les Jours ; c’est Malraux « inventant » Faulkner, comme on s’est plu à le dire ; c’est Camus lisant et relisant Melville, et nourrissant ses méditations de l’opacité de Billy Budd. J’avais souhaité conclure sur un dialogue imaginaire entre Melville et Hawthorne extrait du petit livre de Jean Giono, Pour Saluer Melville, qu’il avait composé dans le sillage de sa traduction de Moby Dick. Il ne m’a pas échappé que mes propres efforts de traducteur sentent l’huile, même si j’espère ne pas être tombé dans les travers malicieux de Twain traduisant Twain via l’interprétation hasardeuse de Thérèse Bentzon. Poussé par l’insatisfaction, peut-être mon lecteur français aura-t-il envie de se reporter à l’original ? Ce qui serait moins un échec à mes yeux que le signe que j’aurais réussi par mes maladresses mêmes à stimuler son attente.
5To talk about the reception of a foreign literature in one’s own country is inevitably to engage in a precarious enterprise, and to deal with a complicated series of expectations, transpositions and misapprehensions. It was, I believe, a singularly perceptive instinct which made Thérèse Bentzon, the French critic who introduced Henry James to the readers of the Revue des Deux Mondes in the 1880’s, focus her presentation of the novelist on one of his most delightfully abrasive stories, “The Point of View”, in which James exposed with his usual witty blandness the mistaken conceptions of his characters—most of them American, but a few French or English—about each other’s country.1 Nor has the appropriateness of a satirical mood in a comparative approach to cultures lost any of its relevance today. Any one claiming to pass judgment on the distinguishing traits of another country does so out of such an intricate web of predeterminations—some of them environmental, others historical, others still linguistic or broadly structural—that even his most guarded pronouncements are likely to appear odd, funny, or at the very least lopsided to a reasonably level-headed native. But a reasonably level-headed native, though he may justifiably indulge in the feeling that his is a sounder judgment, will not want to miss a chance of reexamining on that occasion some of his own assumptions. Quite frequently, the foreign observer’s mistakes are less the product of individual foolishness than the effect of an interesting prismatic displacement, induced by factors which can be objectified up to a point.
6As far as my own country, France, is concerned, it seems to me that there is an unusually large dose of ideology in the misunderstandings or in the various forms of myopia to which any honest record of the reception of American literature must bear witness. Ideologies are by definition self-confident and self-assertive; not infrequently, they retain their forcefulness even when submitted, as happened in France in the nineteenth century, to major adjustments in the wake of dramatic political changes. But the United States are hardly less an ideological country, dominated as they still are by an almost religious reverence for their founding myths. They encourage the same bold identification between principle and experience, because both nations like to think of themselves as entrusted with a universal mission. This is barely conducive to tolerance, and accounts, I believe, for the fact that, culturally as well as politically, France and the United States have often reacted to each other with almost spastic intensity, oscillating from extremes of admiration to extremes of contempt, and drawing on an inexhaustible fund of self-righteousness for a justification of their most excessive appreciations.
7After this preamble, I would like to take my start from two of these violently opposed pronouncements by noted French observers of American letters. The first one is by Chateaubriand, and dates back to 1841, when the author, engaged then in the process of revising the manuscript of Les Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, found himself stirred to commenting on American literature by the recent publication of Eugene Vail’s De la Littérature et des Hommes de Lettres des Etats-Unis d’Amérique. “No classical, or romantic, or Indian literature exists in the new continent,” Chateaubriand adjudged, “for the classical, the Americans have no models; for the romantic, no middle-ages; for the Indian, the Americans despise the savages and loathe the sight of the woods as of a prison to which they were once condemned.” Under such adverse circumstances, language itself has degenerated, as Chateaubriand further remarked with perceptible disgust, “The language of the great English writers has been ‘creolized,’ ‘provincialized,’ ‘barbarized’ without any increase of energy in the midst of a virgin nature; it has become necessary to draw up catalogues of American expressions.”2 A century later, with Claude-Edmonde Magny and her influential L’Age du Roman Américain, the needle has jumped quite spectacularly to the opposite side of the dial. Gathering the threads of her argument in a concluding chapter which has the ring of a manifesto, Magny bravely psychologized on the plight of the American novelist, and advanced claims for the more recent fiction which in effect catapulted it to the status of classical excellence:
It would seem that to be a writer in the United States, she wrote, necessarily means to be unhappy, perhaps even desperate, as if American intellectuals formed a caste doomed to be sacrificed, as if it was their destiny to be afflicted with a despondent sort of lucidity, in compensation for, or perhaps in expiation of, a refusal of the rest of the nation to acknowledge the reality of evil... It is probably this stance more than anything else which gives an exemplary quality to the American novel, and authorizes us to define the present period as being truly the age of the American novel. The interest we find in it lies not so much in what we learn through it about technique or thematic concerns as in an ability to throw light on broader forms of experience, which at this juncture characterize literature itself.3
8Nor was this superlative appreciation felt, when it was expressed, to be the somewhat irresponsible vagary of a critic carried away by her own idiosyncratic enthusiasms. Magny was only amplifying and formalizing the judgments passed by Sartre and Malraux about Faulkner and Dos Passos, and responding on the high-brow mode to the fascination experienced in those years by Europe for a culture which also comprised jazz music, chewing gum and coca-cola.
9However, the thrust of my efforts in this series of talks will not be aimed at an examination of the reception of American twentieth-century literature in France, and of the breath-taking growth of its prestige both with connoisseurs and with a less sophisticated public. For one thing, I do not feel that I have the right critical equipment to deal with a rather formidable array of cultural data, ranging all the way from the economics of book-selling to prevailing philosophical systems. Then, to the extent that, as Magny suggested, American literature today addresses itself to a mode of existence and to a form of civilization which largely exceed the boundaries of the United States, French views are entitled to claim no special originality. In some way, the very size of the cultural phenomenon has made national differences of evaluation fade into relative insignificance. By contrast with this recent period, I believe that France, throughout most of the nineteenth-century and up to at least World War I, presented the rather unique image of an old continental nation with a strong, self-assured cultural tradition, responding now awkwardly, now perceptively, but always with startling eagerness, to the promises and challenges of a literature harking from the New World.
10Chateaubriand’s damning judgment, expressed in 1841, raises a ticklish problem of chronology: how could a responsible observer of the American scene, voicing his opinion at the beginning of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, brush away with so final a gesture the very notion of the existence of an American literature? Even if one is willing to dismiss the case of Benjamin Franklin as being too much of a jack-of-all-trades to qualify in Chateaubriand’s eyes as an important writer, no such overlapping of the political, the scientific and the literary can be invoked to justify his neglect of Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper. These two authors broke into the French literary landscape at exactly the same period (both Irving’s Sketchbook and Cooper’s The Spy were translated into French in 1822), and they remained for twenty years familiar names for the French public, on a par for celebrity with those of the greatest European novelists. Shortly after the publication of their books in New York or London, French translations would be put on the market and reviewed in such respectable periodicals as Le Globe and La Revue des Deux Mondes. Before long, however, Cooper’s reputation pulls vigorously ahead of that of Irving, reaching out to a public which virtually encompassed all classes in the French society.4 By 1830, Cooper’s name was ubiquitous: as soon as a new book of his came out in England or in the United States, a translation was rushed into print; an edition of his complete works was in progress in Paris, and two dramatizations of The Spy were staged in the same year at the Thêatre Français and at the Odéon.5
11Some of the reasons for this astounding success were suggested by Balzac in a brilliant and movingly self-effacing review of The Pathfinder (in French Le Lac Ontario). Balzac shared his admiration between the character of Leatherstocking, described as “a statue, a magnificent moral hermaphrodite, born half-way between the savage and the civilized states of man,” and destined for this very reason to “live as long as literature endures,” and an environment which stirred Cooper to a superb demonstration of his pictorial genius:
The early part of the work embraces a description of the Oswego, one of the tributary rivers of Lake Ontario, along the shores of which lurk the Iroquois, for the purpose of making the party captive. Here Cooper is himself again. His description of the forest, the running stream, with its rapids and waterfalls, the artifices of the savages who endeavor to outwit the Great Serpent, Jasper and the Pathfinder, furnishes a succession of admirable pictures which, in this work as well as its antecedents, is inimitable. Here is what is sufficient to dishearten all the romancers who have the ambition to follow in the footsteps of the American author. Never did the printer’s types encroach more visibly upon the art of painting. This is the school where all literary landscape painters must study; all the secrets of art are there. That magical prose not only shows to the mind the river and its shores, the forests and their trees; it does so by encompassing both the minutest details and the grandest outline.
12Balzac climaxed his homage by a celebration of Cooper’s outstanding ability to fuse setting, incidents, characters and ultimately the reader himself: “You become one with the country, it flows into you or you flow into it; no one can tell how this metamorphosis of genius is accomplished.”6 Had Chateaubriand run into this inspired bit of criticism, one likes to think that he would have reconsidered his summary dismissal of American literature.
13However, an ambiguity hovered right from the start over the nature of Cooper’s appeal to a wide French public. For that first generation of European admirers, Cooper was “the American Walter Scott,” and the tag, for all its intended praise, carried suspicious overtones. Perhaps unconsciously, most French readers had come to like in Cooper a writer who, so to speak, met them more than half-way: he fed their romantic longings, gratified their craving for exoticism with minimal adjustment on their part; he spoke to them of thrillingly foreign and primitive landscapes in a language which was itself reassuringly familiar.7 That in fact Cooper was expected to conform to a set of unwritten rules became clear when, in the 1830’s, he began to turn to mediaeval Europe for fresh material for his fiction. Almost overnight, his reputation underwent a sharp decline, prompting several reviewers to announce his literary demise. French readers simply refused to accept the proposition that an American novelist might want to transfer his plots across the Atlantic and emulate native writers on their own premises.8 To all intents and purposes, Cooper was caught in a double bind. Europeans disapproved of him when he made Europe the subject and the locale of his fiction, but the highest praise they could bestow on him was inspired by an assumed resemblance with Old World virtues. He was invited to show himself boldly original, but Europe insisted on defining the nature and limits of this originality. A great deal of time was to go by before French critics could bring themselves, in dealing with American books, to wish for an unchartered, unplanned brand of novelty, and respond to its upsetting charm.
14By a curious twist of history, the decline of Cooper’s reputation in France coincided with a surge of theoretical interest in the civilization of the United States. This may very well have been an aftermath of the two minor revolutions which affected the United States and France almost simultaneously—the United States through the election of Jackson to the presidency and the emergence of an unprecedented concern for the common man’s role in public affairs, France with the end of the Restoration period and the advent of a regime, the July monarchy, substituting bourgeois pragmatism for the elegance of an old, largely ineffectual aristocracy. In both countries, there was a deep, if confused, sense of impending change, and the very uncertainty of the future, its vague promises and looming threats, fostered a normative form of criticism, more interested in general views than in the appreciation of individual works. The disadvantage of this approach, more or less endemic in France, is that it forces the critic’s perceptions into abstract categories, thereby blunting their edge and encouraging dangerously reductive interpretations. Its value on the other hand lies in the representative quality with which it credits literature and artistic forms in general: individual authors become the exponents of deep sea-changes, which they contribute in turn to articulate. Where literary creations of the first magnitude are wanting, a discussion of the causes responsible for the situation falls legitimately within the province of literary criticism. The diagnosis may then develop into a prospective reflection, combining social observations with a degree of philosophizing in an effort to work out a new aesthestics for those vistas stretching dimly ahead into the future.
15This brief summary may seem to have been designed specifically as an introduction to Tocqueville, whose remaks about literature in Democracy in America obviously fit into the critical category defined above. It is not of course my intention to deny or even question the central relevance of Tocqueville’s judgments framed in the second, more theoretical volume published in 1840, but it would be a mistake to view him as an isolato, separated from his compatriots by the range of his speculative views or his power of insight. Others beside him in France recognized at the time the significance of the American scene, and endeavored to probe the meaning of its distressingly few cultural manifestations. Prominent among those pioneers was Philarète Chasles, an engaging, brilliant, if occasionally erratic personality, who won the respect of Lamartine,9 but remained largely ignored by literary history. During the Restoration, he was imprisoned in the Conciergerie in spite of his very young age under a charge of conspiracy. After his release, obtained through the good offices of Chateaubriand, he went abroad, lived in England and in the north of the country for five years, met some of the most illustrious writers of the period, notably Lamb, Scott and Coleridge, and returned to France a staunch and life-long friend of the Anglo-Saxons. In his many contributions to the Revue des Deux Mondes, then in his lectures delivered at the Collège de France (a chair of Germanic Languages and Literatures was established for him in 1841), he skilfully laced his presentations of individual authors with broader considerations derived from a belief in a providential march of civilization, which would proceed not only westward, as Bishop Berkeley would have it, but northward as well, at least over a period extending from the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century. Set in that perspective, the United States were viewed quite logically as occupying a crucial position. As Chasles put it in a book published late in life which summarized his philosophy:
In its growth, that new nation has remained true to its seeds. It was created for freedom, through freedom and with freedom. What it essentially means is a radical break with Europe, a rebellion against the past, disdain, negation... It is protestant, critical, puritan, bourgeois, industrial and industrious, born of hard work, owing everything to it and expecting everything from it. It has inherited the stubborn old sap of teutonism, its energy and will, its activity and ruthless anger. Such is its true constitution.10
16However, Chasles’s fiery faith in the destiny of the United States as a social entity—a faith reminiscent in many ways of that expressed by Emerson in his late writings—does not apply to their literature, whose desolate prospects it enhances by contrast. Chasles shares the conservative and elitist views of Tocqueville and of a large number of eminent French writers of the period (even those, like Lamartine and Mérimée, whom we normally associate with liberalism) about the conditions which have to be met before a valid, self-respecting literature can rise into being. To begin with, it depends upon the availability of an adequate medium, which means a language patiently honed through time, so that it can discipline one’s perceptions into formally recognizable units of sense while continuing to resonate with the treasured experience of former generations. Next, and most importantly, it predicates the existence of a leisurely, tradition-conscious class, for which the pursuits of the mind take precedence over materialistic concerns and define a hierarchy of values incompatible with the levelling instinct of democracy. The notion of order is inherent in such a conception, and subsumes the various criteria in terms of which literature must be assessed.
17Confronted with the spectacle of a nation which had from the start taken its language from another people, and was dedicating itself with frenzy to the pursuit of mercantilistic interests in wilful ignorance of all individual distinctions based on culture or intellect, Chasles could not but return a negative verdict as to the chances of an original literature ever arising from so unfriendly a soil. In an article published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1835, he calmly condemned the new nation to permanent literary sterility: “Colonies which have borrowed their dialect from a mother country enjoying a high degree of civilization have never been able to develop their own literature. Whether in a state of servitude, revolt or emancipation, they are for ever shackled to the former metropolis.” And he rounded off his estimate with a scarifying picture of contemporary society in the United States: “... the lack of harmony between the various European settlements, the many oppositions or conflicts in matters of faith, customs or language weaken the social links in this loose aggregate of people, previously deprived of an important unifying element by the gradual extinction of the native race.”11
18In fact, Chasles’s haughty contempt for a culture accumulating at its birth all the marks of infamy remained representative of not a small portion of French criticism up to the beginning of the twentieth century. As late as 1919, Georges Batault, commenting in Le Mercure de France on two recent articles about American literature published in the same journal, expressed the opinion that by and large Tocqueville’s reservations and strictures had lost none of their relevance: literature in the United States continued to play a very minor role in the life of the nation; it lacked seriousness and catered to a need for entertainment which encouraged escapism; it was massively controlled by economic factors, and tended to make quality subservient to quantity.12 However, there may have been submerged motivations to this determined onslaught. By pointing to the hopeless mediocrity of American literature, and inferring from this the decidedly inferior standards of American civilization, those among the French who felt embarrassed and threatened at the stupendous growth of the United States could somehow retrieve their self-esteem: even when confronted with their own weakness and compelled to recognize the fascination exercised by the United States on a growing number of their own compatriots, they could retreat to the inner sanctuary of culture, and survey from this vantage point the sorry state of the world in a bittersweet mood. It is possible that the great success of Sinclair Lewis’s fiction in France in the 1920’s was due partly to the functioning of some such defence mechanism: according but scant attention to the self-conscious quality of Lewis’s satire, French readers interpreted his pictures of narrow-mindedness, conformism and vulgarity as an unmediated description of American society. Amusingly enough, almost unbounded respect went to the American author who encouraged the most supercilious instincts in his foreign public.
19Fortunately, the best observers of the American scene never allowed their individual reactions to merge entirely with the responses dictated by prevailing fashions, or even by the ideology to which they otherwise paid sincere allegiance. Almost against their will, they steered a difficult course between the comforts of orthodoxy and the protests of their own better judgment. A realization of the genuineness of American literature came to them slowly, even reluctantly at times, but to the extent that it was hard won, it pointed, I believe, to some of its more important virtues.
20One might perhaps identify two phases in this process. Though they often overlap, I will assume for the sake of convenience that they admit of being isolated, and that each of them focuses on a specific issue. To begin with, there was the perception of a voice distinct—Chasles’s statement to the contrary notwithstanding—from that of England. Then, in the wake of this perception and looming ever larger in the critic’s mind, there was the uneasy recognition that this new voice, with its reverberations, cadences and overtones, was speaking to Europe of a different cultural experience.
21I remarked further up on Chasles’s prolonged immersion in the culture of England before he came to be interested in American literature. This was by no means an exceptional itinerary among the small phalanx of French critics who alerted themselves to the literary productions reaching them from across the Atlantic Ocean. Subjugated by the natural authority of the leading British critics, they patterned their tastes on the diffuse sense of propriety which guided their judgments, and accepted their urbane sense of values more or less as a matter of course. By and large, they did little more than reaffirm, with an added touch of timidity, the principles which had been active in promoting Irving and Cooper to the forefront of literature. Chasles spoke glowingly of Longfellow’s talent to suggest the novelty of the American scene without ever offending or brutalizing the romantic sensibilities of his European readers: “He is characterized by a distinctive flavor; as you read him, you fancy in your mind the perennial sorrow of the large sounds and vague shadows which roam over those unbounded plains and those forests untenanted by man.”13 In 1860, another able French critic, Eugene Forgues, paid an emphatic homage to the wit and measure of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose elegance he simply could not reconcile with the roughness of a young nation.14 More significantly still, Thérèse Bentzon, who was the most important French critic of American literature in the post-Civil War period, celebrated the merits of Bret Harte for reasons which are at the opposite pole from those which might be advanced today in support of the literary quality of Western humor: “For moderation,” she noted, “for the rare talent to condense into a small number of pages a lively interest in the action and a profound analysis of the characters, Bret Harte comes closer to another exquisite model, Mérimée.”15 Small wonder, then, if French publishing houses, which had kept Washington Irving’s books on their lists throughout the century, added titles by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bret Harte in the 1880’s.16
22Even when, as occasionally happened, French critics were willing to admit that some American writers could not be reduced to the status of imitators, they were apt to mix in their appraisals aesthetic and political criteria, the latter distorting or partly concealing the first. Baudelaire’s exaltation of Poe’s aristocratic qualities, his admiration for and sympathy with that Byronesque figure mercilessly exiled on the shores of the New World, is the standard illustration of this conflation of values. It is less well known, I believe, that Emerson’s early reputation in France rested on a similar ambiguity. While there is evidence that the vigor of his intellect, his imaginative boldness and his delicate talent as a poet were fully recognized in the 1840’s,17 it was not long before attention was paid to the less literary aspects of his writings. In what remains today one of the best all-round evaluations of Emerson in French, the Comtesse d’Agoult singled out for praise his steadfast adherence to values untainted by the mob. “Emerson,” she wrote, “… belongs to that aristocratic family of intellectuals, whose exquisite and noble instincts make them sensitive to the discord in human affairs, and who refuse to accept the deviations from primitive law, the astounding contradictions between eternal truth and social ethics, which make up popular opinion.”18 Four years later, Emile Montégut, another able critic writing for the Revue des Deux Mondes, made his review of Representative Men an occasion for extolling Emerson’s aristocratic ideal and building him into a model for whoever was prepared to enlist in a fight against demagoguery.19 Europe’s absorptive faculties and self-confident values did not seem to give the young nation much of a chance.
23Yet, signs do exist here and there in those early critical essays that what lay at the center of the American psyche, and broke only into infrequent expression at the time, did not go completely unnoticed in France. In 1852 Eugène Forgues Sr. (if I may be permitted this American classification) devoted a long article to Hawthorne’s fiction, in which he voiced his admiration for the daring treatment of The Scarlet Letter: compared to it, he remarked, George Sand’s Lelia, which had once prompted British reviewers to a shocked denunciation of its immorality, appeared almost tame. But it was The House of the Seven Gables which elicited the highest praise from Forgues; only the imagination of a superlative writer (“l’écrivain d’élite”, as he put it in true European language) could have molded such exquisite a plot, and invented such profoundly local figures as Hepzibah Pyncheon and her brother. Hawthorne’s work, he concluded, affords a remarkably successful example of the efforts displayed by recent American literature to get rid of the stifling influence of industrialization.20
24Just as Forgues generously responded to the vitality and subversiveness hiding under the glazed surface of Hawthorne’s language, Philarète Chasles, in an engagingly candid essay published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1849, described the puzzlement tinged with fascination which he had experienced while reading Melville’s Typee and Omoo:
The freshness and the depth of the impressions registered in these books were astonishing to me; they seemed to come from a writer less expert at entertaining us with a dream, or at playing with a cloud, than obsessed and almost plagued by overwhelming memories. A perfect type of the Anglo-Saxon character, living through and for the act of feeling, curious like a child, brazen like a savage, throwing himself headlong into incredible undertakings and carrying them out with relentless heroism, I thought Mr. Herman Melville had depicted himself very well, very faithfully there.21
25Even if Chasles had to admit that he was unsuccessful in his attempts to come to terms with Mardi—“I did not understand the book after reading it once; I understood it even less after reading it a second time”22—, he was not blind to Melville’s uncanny gift of life-giving: “It is through this magical gift,” he commented, “unmistakably present in such irregular authors as Montaigne, or even in incomplete, bizarre writers like Webster, Marlowe and other playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, that the freshness and force of their works are perpetuated.”23
26With all their shortcomings and rash assumptions, I find those early French critics fairly characteristic of an overall attitude towards American literature, which will not really disappear, in spite of a few illustrious examples, until World War II. Under their principled scorn for a culture which had been branded, right from the beginning, as derivative and vulgar, they harbor a curiosity for its expressions which can exceed a mere willingness to be entertained. While they endlessly recite the reasons for which the notion of a first-rate American literature must be dismissed, this rejection is balanced, and at times almost cancelled, by a surrender of the critic’s self to qualities which he had simply not anticipated.
27The nearest approximation to a rationale for the disturbing quality of American literature, which caused even well-informed critics to be torn between their expectations and their reading experience, is best articulated, I will suggest, in Tocqueville’s second volume of Democracy in America, more particularly in a cluster of chapters (Book I, chapters XIII through XIX) addressing the issue of literature and democracy. As a confirmed traditionalist, believing in the paramount importance of order and inherited values for the training of a writer, Tocqueville saw room only for journalists in the United States of the 1830’s: “These are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen and make themselves heard by them. Others I view as strangers; they are to the Americans what the imitators of the Greeks and Romans were to us at the revival of learning,—an object of curiosity, not of general sympathy. They amuse the mind, but they do not act upon the manners of the people.”24 However, Tocqueville is willing to concede that in time democracies will develop literatures of their own. With his usual knack for associating prophecy with the solidity of particulars he even describes the new canon, or absence thereof, which they will enact:
Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science and art; its form will on the contrary be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened and loose,—almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought,—frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.25
28Tocqueville obviously bemoans the passing of the virtues which had shaped his own mind, but the polite superciliousness which infuses his estimate does not quite suppress a thrill of excitement at the prospect of a literature which will burst all barriers, topple down distinctions between genres and invade fresh territories.
29Much the same ambiguity controls, I think, the pages in which Tocqueville, moving on to what is for him the climactic literary form, discusses the changed circumstances surrounding the production of poetry. By taking away from the poet’s sources of inspiration not only the past and its usable fund of legends, but an awareness of the structural differences which have molded human societies and diversified their cultures, democracy will deprive him of almost everything, but it will compensate for the largeness of the loss by directing his attention on what Wallace Stevens was to call a hundred years later “central man.” “Man remains,” Tocqueville wrote as if in anticipated echo to Stevens’s phrase, “and the poet needs no more. The destinies of mankind—man himself, taken aloof from his age and his country, and standing in the presence of Nature and of God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness—will become the chief, if not the sole theme of poetry among those nations.”26 I am not trying to demonstrate that Tocqueville’s analysis provided French criticism with a blueprint which it then set out to illustrate in more concrete terms. I simply believe that his discussion of the characteristics to be expected from a democratic literature sharpens our perception of the debate which went on in France for many decades about both the feasibility and the worth of a native American literature.
30Going back to that repository of significant appraisals, La Revue des Deux Mondes, one observes that even the earliest critics, those with the most impeccable British taste, allowed themselves to be swayed by, and to relish, forms of expression which smacked of the idiosyncratic and the unruly. When Antoine Fontaney, a young poet and essayist who contributed to the journal in the early 1830’s, reviewed Washington Irving’s The Alhambra, he unambiguously expressed his preference for those of Irving’s books which treated American subjects and conveyed something of the tang of American experience. “Never has Washington Irving,” he wrote, “made a better use of his talent and skill than in his American sketches. Unquestionably, his satirical history of New York remains the wittiest and the most piquant of his writings. Bracebridge Hall, with its forced, exaggerated pictures of humorists and hoary English habits, does not reach up to the quality of the sketches or to the quaint vigor of the attacks in Salmagundi.”27
31Fontaney’s insight finds itself amplified in a later article by Chasles, in which the critic, very much after the manner of Tocqueville, extrapolates from social observation to a characterization of literary production:
… It is mostly through excessive caricatures that the citizens of the United States show their special talent. I am willing to believe that their first man of genius will be a great satirist. Those nations, young and old at the same time, inheritors of a great civilization but seeing before them an unknown world of industry and politics to conquer and organize, find themselves surrounded by such ridiculous contrasts that they are naturally inclined towards irony.28
32Interestingly and somewhat surprisingly, Chasles supports his thesis with specific references to books of popular fiction, notably Cornelius Mathews’s The Career of Puffer Hopkins, whose position at the head of a long lineage of confidence-men he correctly perceives in spite of his repulsion for the vulgarity of its general tone: “There was a commendable idea behind Puffer Hopkins, the man of puff, sailing across democracy in full rigging on the vessel of quackery and fraud; but the book is turned into something hideous by the coarseness of the scenes.”29 In his book American Humor in France, James C. Austin has reminded us of the unexpected and enduring success in France of the Novascotian crackerbox humorist Thomas Chandler Haliburton. Only a year or two after their original publication in London, the first and the second series of The Clockmaker, or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick were available on the French market. Most of Haliburton’s later books also came out in French editions, though it would seem that none of his works was ever translated into French, except for a few excerpts incorporated into review articles by Chasles and Montégut.
33In the review of The Clockmaker which he contributed to the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1841 under the title “Scenes of Private Life in North America”, Chasles contrasted the vitality of the United States with “the pale and twisted civilization of Canada”, and went on to praise the robust freshness of Sam Slick, that early and more amiable impersonation of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee:
This clock salesman of Connecticut is an excellent and spirited creation, not with esprit in our manner—that wit already old, a hundred times told, a little rancid, a little shabby, faded by its transmigrations, having passed through the schools, through Greece, through Rome, through Egypt and through some thirty centuries of descendants—but a good naive and native wit, which springs from experience as a spark from flint: lively, brief, penetrating, not fastidious about words, something like Sancho Panza turned politician, Sancho a republican. Here is the sole sensible observer of American manners.30
34One would surmise that Chasles had not forgotten his early brush with American humor when, a few years later, in the review of Mardi to which I referred earlier on, he started his discussion of the book with a presentation of the hair-raising blend of erudition, wit, philosophizing and sheer extravagance with which Melville confronted his reader. Chasles’s commentary rambles so happily, and at the same time moves along with such briskness and dash, that it seems to have been infected by Melville’s playful superabundant energy:
Here is a curious novelty, Chasles announced, an American Rabelais. Imagine what the prodigious Pantagruel would be like, if our vicar of Meudon had thrown on his canvas, against the ground tone of his vigorous irony, some transparent pearly elegiac tints, and had enhanced the wit of his arabesques with a pantheistic metaphysics. Imagine Daphnis and Chloe, or Paul and Virginie, dancing I know not what fantastic gavotte in the bosom of the clouds, with Aristotle and Spinoza escorted by Gargantua and Garganelle. A stupendous book, worthy of a Rabelais without gaiety, of a Cervantes without grace, or of a Voltaire without taste. Mardi or the Voyage Thither [Mardi ou le Voyage Là-Bas] is nevertheless one of the most singular books to have appeared in a long time on the face of the globe. It would justify all the epithets of which Madame de Sévigné was so fond: a book extraordinary and vulgar, original and incoherent, sensible and senseless, badly written but containing dazzling pages, stuffed with interesting facts and drivel, with profound instruction and mediocre epigrams. You could call it the dream of a ship’s boy who has not really digested what he has been taught, who has got drunk on haschich, and whom the wind sways back and forth on the top of a mast during a warm night in the tropics.31
35Unfortunately, it will be a long time before a French reviewer manages to capture again with just that quality of empathy the mood and thrust of American writing at the moment when it swerves from established models and begins to sail, so to speak, under its own steam. The review of Moby Dick which Eugène Forgues Sr. published in 1853 in the Revue des Deux Mondes is exceedingly disappointing, as it completely missed the compulsive nature of Melville’s art, and rebuked him for slighting the rules of common sense and taste. Had the author been willing, or able, to curb his indulgence in gratuitous eccentricities, Forgues hinted, his performance would have been incomparably superior.32 It is just possible that the political atmosphere of the period—the early years of the Second Empire were notoriously illiberal—contributed to distort or thwart the response of French criticism to the expansiveness of Melville’s genius. Compared to the surge of interest in American literature and culture which characterized the period of the July monarchy, the 1850’s and 1860’s were barren decades, except of course for Baudelaire’s lionization of Poe. A further illustration of this withdrawal from large issues and re-focussing on conventional standards would be supplied by Emile Montégut’s review of The Blithedale Romance in 1852. Disturbed by the “unhealthy” atmosphere of the novel, Montégut blamed Hawthorne for insidiously blurring moral distinctions and treating political issues with both faulty logic and irresponsible levity.33 Literary orthodoxy was only an ingredient, though not the least invidious, of the so-called moral order which engulfed France until 1870 and the downfall of Napoleon the Third.
36It so happened that the founding of the Third Republic very nearly coincided with the emergence on the French literary scene of another able critic, Thérèse Bentzon (her maiden name was Marie-Thérèse de Solins, and her married name Madame Blanc), whose role in the last three decades of the nineteenth century matches that of Philarète Chasles earlier on. In fact, Thérèse Bentzon cut a more professional figure than Chasles, both because she was an author of fiction in her own right—a recent article by a French scholar, Jean Perrot, explores the possibility that James’s The American was inspired by one of her novels, Une Vie Manquée34—and because she moved in sophisticated literary circles, which made it possible for her to advance beyond the engaging, but somewhat crude, sprightliness of Chasles.
37In two interconnected articles which were published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in the summer of 1872, Thérèse Bentzon undertook to familiarize its readers with American humorists, and to examine, as she put it, “the transformations which that literary form underwent as a consequence of mental habits created in its practitioners by their implantation and acclimatization in the wild New World.”35 Genuine openness of mind and lingering prejudices—further accentuated in French by the use of a quaint word, “ensauvagé”—jostle each other in her presentation and suggest the precariousness of her control over the material. However, if one bears in mind that at the time The Celebrated Jumping Frog, The Innocents Abroad, A Burlesque Autobiography and Roughing it were the only books that Twain had produced, Bentzon must be credited with a good deal of insight for devoting the whole of her first article to Twain (in the following one, she discussed Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, and a third humorist largely forgotten today, Charles Leland, who under the pseudonym of Hans Breitmann satirized the uncouth manners and heavy language of the newly-arrived German immigrants). Not only does Bentzon praise Twain’s generous imagination and eccentric robustness, but she surprises us by responding sympathetically to the riotous fertility of his language:
What is untranslatable in Twain, she remarked, is precisely that which makes all those loudly juxtaposed elements deserving of attention,—the original caustic style, the idiomatic turn, the bizarre and often picturesque mixture of neologisms, patois and slang. Though the English language continues to serve as the basic mother tongue, it is now an aging wet nurse, whose breasts often go dry; quite frequently, it is found to be inadequate in the face of that extraordinary abundance of ideas, inventions and discoveries, on which the young nation prides itself.
38Far from showing alarm at the composite nature of the American society, Bentzon welcomes its diversity as a positive cultural factor: “Out of that welter of languages there have sprung like so many vigorous shoots phrases and idioms that are fresh, vital, ingenious and bold.”36
39Nevertheless, and in spite of her keen sensitivity to these early signs of a new culture, Bentzon could not bring herself to accord Twain the respect which is due to legitimate members of the tribe. There is more than a touch of the supercilious in the petulance with which she blames him for failing to get at the core of old Europe. “When visiting Notre-Dame de Paris,” she commented disdainfully, “he paid attention only to the relics, which he thought were ridiculous; and he talks about the cathedral rather less substantially than he does about the morgue.” Italy and Greece were utterly beyond him, and served only to reveal his fundamental inability to respond to beauty. “What he needs,” Bentzon disgustedly concluded, “is the noise and bustle of industrial and animal life in those streets cluttered up with long processions of quartz loads and heavy carts.”37 With the hindsight of more than half-a-century of serious, and at times brilliant, Twain criticism, it is difficult not to charge Bentzon with uncommon obtuseness: how could she possibly miss Twain’s intention of sounding oafish and absurd to his readers? How could she take his uncouthness at its face value, when he was so obviously engaged in a strategic operation against Europe’s immodest claims to absolute and uncritical cultural leadership?
40Yet, unpleasant as this may be for France’s ego, one has to admit that Bentzon’s strictures, or more exactly the aristocratic bent of her strictures, was not seriously revised until World War II and the growth of American Studies departments in French universities. Mark Twain’s reputation remained for decades at an extremely low ebb,—a situation which was incidentally confirmed by the author’s own daughter, when she remarked in a book of reminiscences published in 1931 that “with the exception of France, he [her father] was equally famous in all countries.”38 By and large the French answered Twain’s rowdy humor with the protest of their shocked delicacy; like Queen Victoria, they could have said: “We are not amused”, but they were subtle enough to work out a rationale for their own imperviousness to fun. Indeed, the most severe estimates of Twain’s performance came from critics who viewed him not only as an exponent of American democracy at its worst, with a distressing partiality for shady characters and downright rogues, but also, and somewhat inconsistently as a childish person, revelling in prankish tricks, and enjoying more than anybody else the puns and jokes of his own unformed mind. Perhaps Twain suffered, at the hands of his French readers, the same kind of patronising, unimaginative mistreatment which blocked for decades the response of the American establishment to the richness of black culture. The primitive social environment and, by traditional standards, undeveloped, uncultured human beings which made up Mark Twain’s literary stock-in-trade, were equated with mental simplicity, raw perceptions and shallow art; the complexities inherent in humor, with its dizzying shifts of point of view and the breaking-down of the authorial voice into a variety of narrators hiding behind, or into, each other, went totally unperceived. To all intents and purposes, Mark Twain’s tales were Far Western versions of slapstick comedy, to which the same lowly criteria legitimately applied.
41To this misapprehension of a broadly cultural nature there must of course be added the difficult and more technical problems connected with the translation of humor into another language. The well-known episode of Twain putting back into English—a very different sort of English—Thérèse Bentzon’s rendering into French of his own “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is only an extreme, amusing and slightly cruel illustration of the built-in impossibilities faced by any translator. To the extent that strokes of humor depend on and exploit a wide range of very special, very singular sociolinguistic attitudes, they cannot but resist incorporation into other languages. But the French again have a way of compounding the difficulty which is all their own: beyond linguistic problems in general, there is their famous touchiness about what ever might suggest an inherent limitation or inadequacy of the French language. As Eugene Forgues Jr., one of the very few nineteenth century French critics capable of appreciating Twain’s literary importance, put it wittily: “In France it is commonly believed that the French language is universal; that everything can be translated into French; and that it must be the fault of the original if the translation is boring.”39 Noting that in every Frenchman there lurks a member of the Academy [“un académicien qui sommeille”], Forgues conceded that Twain will always baffle translators, because no stretch of the French language can accommodate his provokingly unclassical, ungrammatical English. He, for one, as he modestly explained, had to confine his ambition to mitigating the disfavor under which Twain labored in France.
42In fact, with a country like France severely isolated by the authority of its own culture, no writer more than Twain was in need of a good literary middleman willing to act as his enlightened agent. Régis Michaud, a Frenchman who taught for a long time in the United States, was that self-appointed middleman. Straddling effortlessly the two cultures which had become, so to speak, his natural atmosphere, he set out in a book published in 1926, Panorama de la Littérature Américaine Contemporaine, to rectify and enrich his countrymen’s image of American literature. One of the most rewarding chapters deals with what he calls the discovery of the Far West, and offers a discussion, focussing on Twain, of American humor, which derives much of its wit and force from the anti-puritan spirit of Mencken and Parrington.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Michaud wrote, humor is nature getting its revenge on grace. In a country in which moral constraint and psychological suppression are ever present, it is a tool for emancipation, the safety-valve of self-control... Each individual gives vent to his feelings without ostentation, abstains from complaining loudly, indulges in no violent outbursts. Under a variety of guises, whether as moral rebellion keeping itself in check, or intimidated lyricism, or verbal acrobatics, humor is an egalitarian form of free examination. To this you must add an American passion for intense reactions, excitement, jokes, fun and eccentricity in general. Per se, humor is what might be called a catastrophic form of art, a deliberate quest for imbalance.40
43In his effort to get at the essence of humor, that volatile production of the mind, Michaud brilliantly succeeds in suggesting the precarious balance between extravagance and self-discipline, subversiveness and innocent mirth, art and the parody of art, that it must somehow achieve. Furthermore, this linking of American humor with democracy reads like a description a contrario of English humor, and prepares the stage for the judgment on which the discussion closes: “Humor is America’s creation par excellence and, it would seem, the most original and virile form of literature in the United States.”41 Yet, even this impassioned plea, whose pertinence makes Michaud into an unacknowledged forerunner of Constance Rourke, failed to alter the situation significantly. To this day, Mark Twain has not been granted admission to the French pantheon of international classics.
44The literary fortune of Walt Whitman in France got off to an even less propitious start than that of Mark Twain. In fact, his name was for a number of years associated as a sort of absolute negative model with a cleansing operation which the proliferation of depraved literary theories made mandatory. Thérèse Bentzon again was first in the field, and introduced Whitman to the readers of the Revue des Deux Mondes in an article published in 1872. Though she toned down her attacks when she came to comment on “Drum Taps,” and indeed had to confess her admiration for the sudden elevation of mood in certain poems, in the first part of the article she scarified Whitman with such disgusted frenzy that her denunciation can be described as the first climactic scene in a curious drama of love/hate relationship, which involved throughout equally passionate actors.
True, she wrote, no European writer has wallowed in those extreme forms of energetic bad taste, which Whitman and his devotees are eager to spread over the ruins of the ideal; but we have unfortunately observed in this country, over the last few years, a marked partiality for a variety of realism which is at the opposite pole from the natural and the true, a proneness to confuse muscles with genius... There may be a point in introducing Whitman to these irresponsible eccentric explorers and rummagers. Some of them will doubtless recoil in dismay when confronted with the monstrosities to which their own principles, carried to their uttermost limits by a consummate master, must necessarily lead; those who are past redress will experience at least a sense of discouragement born of acknowledged inferiority; they will despair of ever commanding that intensity of animal life and that poignancy, to use a favorite word of Whitman’s Yankee admirers; they will never display those iconoclastic furies in response to the merely conventional, or that mightiness of truly titanic temper, which even Mr. Victor Hugo in his most shocking audacities and Mr. Baudelaire in his most poisonous compositions but feebly emulated.42
45It is clear that Bentzon dismisses Twain and Whitman as major artists for similar reasons, which involve their environment and tend to place the blame on a lack of regulating traditions. However, there is in her indictment of Whitman an animus far exceeding what one might expect in an expression of theoretical disagreement. While her reservations about Twain sounded somewhat patronizing, as though she were enacting a public role and performing a task silently entrusted to her by a self-defined community of fastidious readers, the almost frantic urgency of her attack on Whitman exposes her personal sense of outrage. The first American poet to have claimed democracy as his exclusive theme had ended offering the most repugnant and revolting image of man! When Bentzon further noted in a later article that Whitman, in his strivings after formal originality, had broken the old molds out of spite, because he did not know how to use them creatively,43 it became evident that moral degradation and aesthetic anarchy were conjoined for her, and forced on unbiassed observers of the American scene a realization of the magnitude of the challenge flung at the Old World.
46By the end of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville’s famous pronouncement about what literature in a democratic country would be like appeared on balance less irrelevant or mistaken than incomplete. The loose exuberance and inventiveness predicted by Tocqueville had come to life when Melville and Twain had burst upon the literary scene, eliciting from a handful of French critics a recognition of these, to them, troubling virtues. Likewise, the focussing of Whitman’s poetry on the self, as well as the conflation of the cosmic and the idiosyncratic in the poet’s voice, gave substance to Tocqueville’s description of a literature both severely deprived and immensely enlarged by comparison with those which it was in the process of displacing. But to the extent that democratic literature was stripped of all inherited references, whether social or cultural, and pierced through to the most sensitive part of the individual self, it engaged the reader in an acutely personal act of reception, appraisal and response. Somewhere along the course charted by Tocqueville, a reversal of emphases, foreseeable and yet fairly traumatic, had taken place: literature had shed some of its significance as index, or gauge, of the progress of democracy, and it had gained instead an unprecedented directness of address. Through that directness, an immediacy of communication with the reader could be established, which only a few writers of exceptional intensity, like Swift, or Rousseau, or Dostoievsky, had in the past been able to achieve within the existing framework of conventions. Increasingly, the American writers whom literate Frenchmen would be tempted to read would assert their individuality over and above their representativeness, and no more so than Whitman, whose tantalizing blend of physicality, idealism and artistic freedom was to set off in France the most discordant assortment of responses imaginable.
47It was the symbolist poet Jules Laforgues, much admired by T. S. Eliot at the time when the latter was looking in the direction of Europe for signs of an aesthetic renewal, who first presented translations of some of Whitman’s poems in a little review called La Vogue (1886); almost simultaneously, French versions of a few other pieces, ranging from “Faces” to “The Song of the Broad Axe”, were published by another symbolist poet born and brought up in the United States, Francis Vielé-Griffin. However the discovery of Whitman’s name by no means triggered off a sustained interest in his work. For two decades, and despite the growing reputation of Whitman as a literary figure, only a handful of his poems found their way into French periodicals. This curious discrepancy affected the very nature of his influence, lending it a diffuse quality and causing it to be felt as an atmosphere rather than as a shaping force. Undoubtedly, there was a touch of paradox in the reverence bestowed on the good gray poet, or on the shaggy celebrator of democracy, by those fastidious young men who shied away from bad manners, indulged in clannishness and prided themselves on their distrust of bourgeois realism, but the paradox resolved itself into a common passionate quest for freedom. Through his rejection of literary conventions, and his use of a startlingly unfettered language, Whitman appeared as the archetypal liberator. French symbolists did not learn from him how to write Whitmanese in French, but they were encouraged to invent new forms of expression that would be consonant with the genius of their own language. The debate which has engaged the attention of literary historians as to whether or not Whitman can be credited with directly influencing French practitioners of “vers libre” stems, I feel, from a mistaken perception of the problem. To the extent that they were aware of the specific demands of their medium, French “verslibrists” were bound to transform the Whitmanesque utterance. Perhaps one of the advantages of being a foreign writer is that he is structurally protected against the anxiety of influence.
48However, by the end of the l900’s, Whitman’s image in France had undergone an important change. Just as the European continent was beginning to recognize and honor new values, such as natural simplicity, open-air exercise and the worship of action, hitherto held to be characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon temper, a French critic and man of letters, Léon Bazalgette, fell so thoroughly under the spell of Whitman that he decided to devote his life to the dissemination of his gospel. In a spurt of enthusiasm which did not abate for years, he prepared a complete translation of Leaves of Grass, which he followed up soon with a biography of the poet, Walt Whitman, l’Homme et l’Oeuvre. Rarely had the morbus biographicus infected a book so fatally. Imitating and amplifying the hagiographic tone of Horace Traubel’s earlier homage, Bazalgette piles hyperbole on hyperbole in his eulogy of Whitman’s outstanding virtues. Not once did he suggest that Whitman, like any other mortal, offered traits and suffered from limitations which were not entirely admirable. In the mythologizing process, the hero had to be divested of all unseemly flaws.
49Unbelievably crude as they may appear to us, Bazalgette’s claims for Whitman’s individual person (as distinct from the artist ) help us understand the confusions which attended the critical debate in France for so long . In a way which our more permissive—and less hypocritical—age has made obsolete, the question of Whitman’s homosexuality remained at the core of the discussion, with the mode of the discourse oscillating rather wildly from absolute horror at the daring of Whitman’s calumniators to ill-suppressed irritation at the stupidity of the issue itself. As early as 1894, Bazalgette vented his furor at a German scholar, Nordau, who had intimated in his book, Degeneracy, that Whitman suffered from sexual inversion:
How can he fasten such loathsome slanders and grotesque accusations on to the name of the great noble and venerable Whitman, that large renovating soul which future ages—the offspring of his own mind—will set on an equal footing with Shelley, Emerson or Schiller? O good Old Gray Poet, who could ever have imagined that a university doctor, full of the pretention of scientific lore, would question not only your glory and your healthy life-throbbing poems, but the very greatness and purity of your being?44
50Bazalgette’s biography of Whitman was of course his expanded answer to Nordau, but this ill-advised canonization fuelled in time an indirect and witty reply from Guillaume Apollinaire. In a chronicle published on April 1st 1913 in Le Mercure de France (Apollinaire said later that he had composed his piece, rather nicely suited for the day, with the assistance of the young poet Blaise Cendrars), he explained that he had been fortunate enough to secure a first-hand report on Whitman’s funeral, and he went on, tongue in cheek, to describe the ceremony in all its details. The mourners congregated on a vast tract of land usually occupied by travelling circuses and fenced in for the occasion. Three pavilions had been erected on it: one for Whitman’s body, one for a barbicue and one for the storage of beverages ranging all the way from whisky and beer to pure water. Among the crowd of three thousand and five hundred people attending the funeral were poets, savants, New York journalists, political men from Washington, oystermen from his native district, stage-drivers, negroes, former mistresses and cameradoes, medical nurses or doctors from the Civil War, parents of wounded or killed soldiers and of course homosexuals:
Pederasts had come in throngs, Apollinaire wrote with a flair for the teasing detail, and the most popular of them was a young man in his early 20’s, famous for his beauty, Peter Connelly, an Irishman who had been a streetcar-driver in Washington, D.C., then in Philadelphia, and whom Whitman had loved above all others. Everybody remembered seeing Walt Whitman and Peter Connelly sitting on the curb and eating water-melons. So, on the occasion of this celebration, or rather funeral, big heaps of water-melons had been provided for the public.
51The end of the so-called faithful report turns into a bit of almost surrealistic description, with the coffin-bearers crawling on all fours into the funeral vault because the door was so low, and the crowd reeling its way back to Philadelphia amidst a profusion of songs and mutual caresses.45
52This delightfully provocative skit, which seems to hover between sheer fun and a disguised plea for the right of the artist to be judged only in terms of aesthetic criteria, set off a train of protests and counter-protests—some of them written or inspired by Apollinaire himself—which further confused the situation.46 Nothing in fact better suggests the uneasy fascination exercised by Whitman on a number of minds than the compulsive reappearance of the issue of homosexuality in some recent, or fairly recent, French criticism. As late as 1955, a disciple of Bazalgette writing in the magazine Europe on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, could become incensed at the proposition that Whitman was homosexual;47 in the same commemorative issue, another critic attacked André Gide with the claim that he had maligned Basalgette and disfigured Whitman’s personality by projecting into it his own perverse fantasies.48 Fortunately, Gide had long since begun to retrieve the writer and the poet from under the layers of irrelevant criticism, though in a sense his realization of Whitman’s literary greatness was rooted in an even deeper response to his homosexual nature. However, a major difference remained between Bazalgette, or his followers, and Gide: what was perceived by the former not only as abuse, but as a threat to be rationalized away, became for the latter, through the power of words, a magnificent opportunity for a shock of recognition which involved the man and the artist in a process of mutual validation.
53Gide’s attention was first directed to Whitman’s writings by the poet and critic Marcel Schwob in 1893, at a time when he was painfully trying to come to terms with his own homosexual tendencies. Though no evidence remains that Whitman was instrumental in the release of the energies which went into the composition of Les Nourritures Terrestres (1897), it is more than likely that the unabashed gospel of desire which burns through the pages of the book derives some of its self-confidence and sense of urgency from Whitman’s own defiance of conventional standards. But the importance of Whitman’s example could not be divorced for Gide from a perception of the revolutionary quality of his language. Literature, as he conceived of it at its fullest and most inspiring, was a two-way process: just as complete moral independence issued in a fresh boldness of utterance, it was that boldness which testified to the writer’s genuine autonomy in life. Poor Bazalgette, with his “prettified” (Gide’s own word) version of Leaves of Grass had drained the marrow out of the book, and substituted the palest of ghosts for what Whitman himself had described as his own flesh and blood. There was nothing for Gide to do but to translate the poems anew. He worked on the project intermittently during the first World War, until Valéry Larbaud, the man of letters who introduced Joyce and D. H. Lawrence to the French, decided to put together an anthology of Whitman’ s writings and enlisted Gide’s cooperation. The book came out in 1918 under the title Whitman, Oeuvres Choisies, Poèmes et Proses, with a long preface by the editor. For the first time in France, Whitman stood revealed to a public which extended beyond the boundaries of the Paris intelligentsia. Among other pieces, Gide had chosen to translate the famous section 24 of “Song of Myself”, in which the poet introduced himself as a cosmos and celebrated his turbulence and fleshy sensualness. Bazalgette’s hero-worship was being finally displaced by a revelation of the good gray poet’s subversively candid generosity.
54Unfortunately, this moment of insight, during which several writers or men of letters—one of them, Louis Fabulet, was to publish in 1922 the first unabridged translation of Walden—joined around Valéry Larbaud to disseminate Whitman’s poetic message in an exciting context of freedom and promise, was virtually the only one of its kind in the history of French letters. Even such eminently vital figures as William Carlos Williams or Allen Ginsberg did not reach out, at least on their own terms, to French readers, and have remained to this day the subject of an essentially academic discourse. In 1959, Europe, the periodical which had commemorated the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, brought out a special number on the literature of the United States. Despite the editor’s claim that it offered “the most comprehensive treatment ever published in France of American poetry, that widely ignored and yet major branch of American literature,”49 the selection of names and excerpts strikes the reader as distinctly uninspired: Sandburg, Masters, Stevens, Williams, McLeish, Cummings, Lowenfels, Malcolm Cowley, Ogden Nash, are presented in that order, as if their individual productions could somehow be averaged out and taken in charge by the same vague label. What is missing is a sense of the directions in which the more imaginative among them had been experimenting, sometimes at the cost of the very notion of an identifiable prosody.
55This, however, reflects in turn on a deeply entrenched reluctance of the French to associate poetry with freedom. From Malherbes and Boileau to Valéry and on to René Char and Francis Ponge, formal restraints have always been felt to be inseparable from, and indeed consubstantial with, true poetry. The poet’s struggle with words, the immense care with which he fits them into rigid patterns, conveys his sense of the ceremonial and ritualistic nature of the poetic language. As one will recall, it was not long before Victor Hugo’s boast that he had put a red hat on the French dictionary was dissolved in Mallarmé’s ascetic, aristocratic utterance. Whitman’s call for a grand comprehensiveness which would exclude all exclusions, and his bold enactment of this program, did impress a few important twentieth-century French poets, notably Paul Claudel (though he denied having been influenced by Whitman) and Saint John Perse (who acknowledged the debt), but I would be inclined to say that on the whole Whitman was more meaningful for practitioners of other literary genres, to which strict formal rules need not apply. If Gide was an early illustration of that paradox, a more recent one would be the contemporary novelist Jean-Marie Le Clézio, who bore witness to Whitman’s seminal influence (he was fifteen when he first read Leaves of Grass) and hailed his poetry as a prophetic delineation of the modern world in its brokenness and yet teeming vitality:
[So] there could be a poetry which was not pretty, pretty salon-like entertainment, playing with words, rhythms and ideas just for the delight of connoisseurs. I knew I could never forget the opening of this song [“Song of Myself”], the deep vigorous voice which went straight into my mind, finding and animating memories I would never have thought mine, speaking not only for my present or my past, but mysteriously for my future—“I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter”—as a diviner. The sound of this voice came to me as if it were my own voice speaking, with such precision, such truth and strength, even in the splendor, that I knew there could not be other poetry. What Whitman has told us we still do not know completely, but he has shown us the way, as Rimbaud did with the same words: the straight unutterable beauty of the modern world, the locomotive in winter, the electric telegraphs of the earth, the bridges, the towns, the countries—“You, ferries! You, planks and posts of wharves! You, timber-lined shades! You distant ships! You rows of houses! You window-pierced façades! You roofs!”—All this endless enumeration, which is the material frenzy of our time. There cannot be any other poetry now, because the explosion of consciousness and language, which Walt whitman and his fellow-men have set in, is still lasting.50
56However—and this is the grain of truth hiding in Bazalgette’s inflated portrait of Whitman—there was a period in France after World War I when genuinely democratic imaginations went to Leaves of Grass for inspiration and sustenance. Jules Romains, the prolific novelist of Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, spoke warmly of the appeal exercised on him by Whitman’s mystic and cosmic perception of the world; the “unanimist” school, which he briefly led, was an attempt to acclimatize in Europe both the amplitude and the brotherliness of his vision. In 1929, Marcel Martinet, the editor of the then socialist paper L’Humanité, published a collection of poems in free verse, Chants de l’identité, Eux et Moi, which was, as the title indicates, an undisguised tribute to Whitman.51 The danger, though, with such a response, was that by imperceptible degrees the immense reverence felt for the man and the inspirer was apt to turn into an infatuation with the doctrine that his verse was enunciating, or more exactly was taken to be enunciating. As a result the ideological pressure could become so intense that the concern with art and its irreducible autonomy all but vanished. When a contributor to Europe, intending to pay to Whitman the supreme democratic compliment, wrote that “his language, in prose and verse alike, was aimed at the crowds,”52 he was both distorting historical evidence and damaging the poet’s integrity. It was as if the democratic saint could only be glorified at the expense of his literary achievement.
57Some such massive ideological bias explains, I believe, the startlingly enduring success of Jack London with a large section of the French reading public. I am not referring here to the tales set in the Northern wilderness, like White Fang or The Call of the Wild, though their popularity with young readers may have helped in a first stage. With his more adult, and more political, novels, London captivated the fancy of his admirers through a combination of acute class consciousness and romantic despair. He thought of himself, one of his French critics recalls, as a war correspondent in the battle that the leading class was waging on the proletariat, but he was also, and simultaneously, a visionary in the manner of Van Gogh, “a witness to our inner depths, a seeker after the impossible, bound for no place in particular, except death, and eager to get there first.”53 The list of his books translated into French and available in paperback editions included more than fifty titles in the mid-50’s.54 From among that impressive array, London’s dystopia, The Iron Heel, stands out as probably the most highly appreciated and certainly the most frequently discussed. No fewer than three prefaces for as many editions were composed betwwen 1923 and 1946. The first one, written by Anatole France, hinted at the significance of the novel for France; besides a pointed reference to the 1871 Commune, it quoted from the socialist leader Jean Jaurès to the effect that capitalism had already won a major victory by securing the support of the powerful Catholic Church.55 By contrast, the author of the 1932 preface expressed reservations about the novelist’s implicit political stance; he blamed him for his pessimism, and objected to his presentation of revolutionary action as the work of a handful of determined individuals acting on behalf of the mass of the oppressed.56
58In fact the indirect charge of elitism levelled here at London may be construed as a condemnation on theoretical grounds of the very quality which most fascinated French readers, namely a pervasive sense of power, a talent for describing the unleashing of primitive energies and dramatizing their effect on the civilized—perhaps over-civilized—structures of society. Curiously enough, one is reminded of such early novels by Malraux as La Voie Royale, in which sub-human conditions provoked individual self-assertion, so that Marx and Nietzsche seemed to be locked in a merciless competition for supremacy in the author’s mind. However, what ultimately matters here is the promotion of the wild and the forceful through London’s almost compulsively recurrent descriptions of violence. At a time when, at least in France, the psychological novel seemed doomed to a fatal decline because it could not hope to better the achievement of Proust and move beyond its refinement, the coarseness and simplicities of American writers who, like London, were less than accomplished craftsmen, appeared a reasonable price to pay for the surge of vitality flooding their works.
59Such at least is the submerged thesis in several articles published during World War II in a special issue of the periodical Fontaine meant to honor the culture of the great allied nation. “Where the French writer endeavors to convince you through the strictness or the elegance of his deductions,” Denis de Rougemont, one of the contributors, wrote in an article entitled “American Rhetorics”, “the American writer attempts to carry you along with him by a dramatization of his material.The French style at its best is characterized by the practice of understatement and foreshortening, the American style by lyrical accumulation and repeated aggressions on the reader’s sensibility. One is predicated on static forms of organization, the other on rhythmical effects.” Because American literature is “poised between the immediacy of sensation and an ability to integrate and convey the sensational,” Denis de Rougemont further remarked in what amounted to a nice updating of Tocqueville’s theory, “it commands an extraordinary power of emotion. But it still awaits its proper intellectual style.”57
60Though there is a good deal of insight in this estimate, and tactical skill in its wording, it is too directly the product of a binary form of thinking, and resorts too easily to generalizations out of a mistaken sense of the homogeneity of American literature. To be more precise, it would seem that the group of French writers or critics who expressed their views in that special issue of Fontaine were so embarrassed about the fatigue of their own cultural tradition—a feeling undoubtedly sharpened by France’s recent defeat at the hands of Hitler’s Germany—that they went on to appreciate the merits of American literature almost exclusively in terms of its straightforwardness and uncomplicated energy. Conspicuous among these was André Gide, who confessed his admiration for Dashiell Hammet (he held The Red Harvest to be an extraordinary achievement) and admitted that Steinbeck’s novels and stories kept him under a spell. When he tried to identify the virtues shared by these arch American writers, he did not, to say the least, shun oversimplification: “All of these new American authors,” he wrote, “have their attention childishly [“enfantinement”], so to speak, engaged in the present moment and in the immediate reality; they stay away from books and are free from the ratiocinations, the preoccupations and the twinges of remorse which thicken the atmosphere of our old world.”58 For once, one is tempted to say, Gide, who usually was so anxious to avoid being caught howling with the pack, reflected an attitude which was becoming increasingly characteristic of the French intelligentsia. Only this sort of guilty fascination for the hard-boiled and the simple-minded can account for the success and prestige enjoyed in France by Erskine Caldwell, who for a long time vied with Faulkner for the honor of being held to be the greatest Southern writer alive. Jean Cocteau once wrote about Stravinski’s music that it hits you rhythmically both on your head and inside your heart.59 Caldwell pounded on the brains of his French readers so effectively, while overwhelming their hearts, that he had their critical sense numbed for years.
61In retrospect, it appears that even the finest and best informed French minds had not, by 1950, perceptibly advanced beyond Tocqueville’s insights, except for the fact that they were now inclined to reverse his value judgments and to praise behaviors or attitudes which Tocqueville had viewed, on balance, as markedly regressive. Nor do I believe that other attempts to come to terms with American literature along the same lines would stand a better chance of producing convincing results. The debate instigated by Tocqueville between aristocratic literature and democratic literature was vitiated from the outset by a failure to realize that absence of tradition should under no circumstances be equated with absence of wit. It simply makes no sense to assume that American literature at its most characteristic must lack intellectual sophistication because it takes its start from unpromising cultural premises. Indeed one might as well, and perhaps with better reasons, claim that awareness of a cultural predicament sharpens the most creative minds and stirs them to original and complex expression.
62No one of course has pondered these issues more intensely than Emerson. As early as 1837, in his famous discourse on the American Scholar, he addressed himself to the problem of defining the structures which mediate between the self and others in a country freed from inherited standards like the United States. His answer, as every one knows, was to negate the necessity of mediation, and to predicate an ontological identity between all partakers of the Oversoul:
The orator distrusts at first the fitness of his frank confessions, his want of knowledge of the person he addresses, until he finds that he is the complement of his hearers;—that they drink his words because he fulfils for them their own nature; the deeper he dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public and universally true. The people delight in it; the better part of every man feels, This is my music, this is myself.60
63This elated recognition of a common ground, which encourages self-trust and self-expression while eliminating the dangers of plagiarism, both Gide and Proust have celebrated in connection with their reading of American authors. Their comments are often allusive, compact, or take the form of anecdotes, as is fitting for minds engaged in a private process of assimilation. Gide, for example, tells us of his inner exultation at Emerson’s freshness in a laconic Journal entry dated 1893: “Emerson, cette lecture du matin.”61 In a different context, Gide again explains how, in 1913, he shared the excitement of discovering Thoreau with Louis Fabulet, who was to translate Walden a decade later: “I remember the day when Fabulet met me in the Place de la Madeleine and told me about his discovery. ‘An extraordinary book,’ he said, ‘and one that nobody in France has heard about yet.’ Well, on that day, I had a copy of Walden in my pocket.”62 Proust, too, fell under the spell of Thoreau in those years. At one point, he considered translating Walden, but when his plan aborted, he strongly urged a friend to read the excerpts available in French which had been published in a small periodical, La Renaissance Latine, and he did so out of a conviction which was wholly Emersonian. Invoking the same grand overarching identity, but somehow reversing the order of the terms, he described for his correspondent the rare joy to be extracted from those “admirable pages”: “It will seem,” he wrote, “that you are reading them out of your own soul, so strong is the sense that they issue from your most intimate experience.”63
64In fact, Proust had discovered Emerson much earlier, at a time when he was groping his way out of the distinguished wistfulness of the decadent 1890’s. His first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896), with its studied melancholy title, drifts elegantly from sketch to sketch, but borrows from Emerson more often than from any other source for the radiating light of its epigraphs. Two of them are lifted from the essay on History, one from the essay on the Poet and one from the essay on Love.64 Cumulatively, they express a faith in the destiny of man, as well as a confidence in the artist’s ability to convey its transcendent beauty, which represent for Proust everything that he was then striving after under the graceful ripples of his fiction. Unquestionably Emerson was for him at that stage the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit, to use Mathew Arnold’s celebrated definition. But again, an awareness of the common fund to which all men have access, and of its availability to each and everyone of them under varying forms precluded any embarrassment. As Proust himself remarked in an extended metaphor which has the freshness of personal experience,
we cannot take for guides the writers whom we admire, because we have in ourselves a magnet, or a carrier pigeon, which sets the direction for us. However, as we streak ahead on our own course in response to that inner instinct, there are moments when we look briefly, on our right or on our left, at a new book by Francis Jammes or Maeterlinck, at an unfamiliar page by Joubert or Emerson; the reminiscences that we find in them, as if by anticipation, of the very same idea, of the very same feeling, of the very same artistic effect that we are just then busy expressing, please us like so many amiable road signs informing us that we did not take the wrong turn; or perhaps, as we rest for a while in a wood, we receive confirmation of our route through the flight nearby of kindred birds, which speed on their way without even seeing us. A dispensable message, perhaps. Not quite useless, though.65
65For all its pregnancy and universal relevance, however, a democratic literature is attended by special difficulties, which more traditional or more aristocratic forms of expression never encountered. Proust seems to have sensed the problem in a note in which the aesthetics of Ruskin and those of Emerson are briefly contrasted. “Ruskin’s thought is very different from that of Emerson; the latter [Emerson’s] is completely encompassed in a book, that is to say in an abstract object, a sign of itself stripped of everything else.”66 Referring perhaps to the same mental make-up, Tocqueville had discussed in a chapter of Democracy in America the propensity of many Americans to use generic terms or words with a marked abstract slant. This habit, he explained, which both dignified and blurred the speaker’s thought, suited rather well the character of a nation bent on dissolving individual traits into a grand, but dim, conception of man.67 No one today would endorse the shaky linguistic premises of Tocqueville’s theory, but his perception of a conflict between the aims of a democratic literature and the demand expressed by art, by art, that it concern itself with particulars and resist the temptation of premature generalization, remains one of his most valuable insights.
66I believe that there is no general answer to the problem, except in the sense that it is the responsibility of each American artist recognizing his native predicament to work out a form, which will compensate for the paucity of inherited structures and be, of itself and by itself, self-validating and self-sustaining. Not only Emerson, but Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and more recently Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, did in a very real sense invent new genres in the act of formalizing the originality of their experience. Nor should any a priori limitation interfere with the democratic writer’s right to define and implement his own vision of form. The efforts of the post-modernist writers to reach out to a non-representational type of literature seem to me perfectly consonant with the principles of democratic art; they try to capitalize on the semiotic possibilities of language, just as the practitioners of the tall tale a hundred and fifty years ago tried to capitalize on its semantic flexibility. The only obligation placed on the democratic writer is that he must every monent, as Emerson so forcefully intimated, break into new, untried forms out of an ultimate faith in, and fidelity to, himself.
67While the driving energy behind these notions cannot be denied, their vagueness—the inevitable price to pay for emphasizing dynamism rather than form or structure—sets severe limits to their value as critical tools, and all too often induces lazy thinking. To take one example, I have always felt uncomfortable about the use of the word “organicism” when applied, probably in supine acceptance of Coleridge’s vocabulary, to the major writers of the American Renaissance. I conceive of the utility of the concept to describe the change in mood and assumptions which characterizes romanticism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I accept the interpretation of “Song of Myself” as a brilliantly successful attempt to convey the irresistible surge of life and its pulsation through the tension between flow and form, but I have never come across a reading of the poem which would convince me that it is organic in the sense that a tree, for all the eccentric design of its branches, is demonstrably organic. Perhaps I would feel happier if a less ambitious and more technically descriptive term like “functionalism”, with its ambivalence and its frequent reference to a man-made, man-designed artifact, could be substituted for it in most cases. Once again, I find myself reminded of Tocqueville’s misgivings about generic terms, and of his warning to those who might be tempted to succumb to the heady comprehensiveness of abstraction: “An abstract term,” he wrote, “is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”68
68Shall I say, then, that for me American literature at its best and most characteristic is not unlike the skyline of one of your cities? Though it jars my Old World sense of proportions and thwarts my desire for continuities, I am fascinated by its principled heterogeneity, and by the daring, casual and yet not really arrogant self-sufficiency of its individual units: democratic aesthetics posits a right of expression for every person out of a common belief in freedom as the ultimate social bond. This, however, does not alleviate the task of the responsible critic, who must at the same time loosen his concepts to cope with the incessant flux of creation and sharpen his categories to make it intelligible. T. S. Eliot ‘s essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is likely to retain its relevance and urgency for many more decades.
69In concluding this series of talks, I would like to offer a few comments about the three writers whom a majority of cultured French readers would probably agree in describing as the tallest skyscrapers on the American literary skyline: Poe, Melville and Faulkner. I am well aware that there is a major paradox about assigning democratic qualities to the three of them, and indeed I would not want to press my claim with equal firmness for each. I think however that there is a small, but meaningful, common denominator to the exceptionally sympathetic response which they have been able, as American writers, to elicit from their French admirers.
70Faulkner, as my compatriots like to recall, was first discovered by the French, more specifically by André Malraux, who wrote a brilliantly imaginative preface for the French version of Sanctuary. In that preface, Malraux insisted on the many forms of violence—lynchings, rapes, murders—which situate the novel geographically and socially, but he made the point that this ubiquitous savagery is linked in the author’s mind with isolation and an infuriating sense of helplessness, as though metaphysical anxiety were in direct proportion to the absence of any common standards, of any sustaining social hierarchy. “There is no ‘man’ in Faulkner,” Malraux remarked, “no values, no psychology even, in spite of the interior monologues to be found in his early books. But there is an ever-present Fate, which stands erect behind all these creatures, so different and so alike at the same time, much as Death waits behind the door of an hospital ward for incurable patients.” Faulkner’s haunted manner stands at the opposite pole from “the beautiful inhibited novels of Flaubert” (Malraux’s own phrase), and this makes him a remote heir to Emerson’s imperially subjective aesthetics. Contemporary art, Malraux went on to explain, has turned its back on the permanent angular solidity of objects; a painting by Picasso has almost ceased to be a picture, to become a mere signal, a trace left by the passage of a tensely preoccupied genius. Faulkner belongs to the same category of artists. Isolated from other men by a compulsive inner vision, he tells his reader of some universal predicament, of which individual perverseness and the decay of Southern society are only terrifying emblems. “Just as Lawrence wraps himself up in sexuality,” Malraux further wrote with a touch of the grandiloquent, “so does Faulkner burrow his way into the irremediable.”69
71Much of the more recent Faulkner criticism in France has echoed and amplified Malraux’s judgment. Over and over again, the metaphysiacal implications of his technique have been scrutinized, while the dislocation of the narrative framework under the pressure of imagination has been perceived as a crucial instance of radical innovation (Claude Simon, the French novelist who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize, and whose fiction has often been discussed in the light of Faulkner’s own, once called Faulkner “the Picasso of literature”70). I have a suspicion that Emerson, who hated the well-built, humdrum, mimetic novels of Victorian England, would have been taken by the dark philosophical overtones of Faulkner’s fiction and responded to the universality of his message.
72A similar case might be made, and indeed has been made, for Poe on the strength of his immense power of generalization and abstraction. Despite an accumulation of heterogeneous details which turn some of his tales into a display of paraphernalia, Poe is the least circumstantial of American writers. His work has the timeless quality of those “musées imaginaires,” which Malraux erected in the latter part of his life by sifting through the aesthetic heritage of mankind. Perhaps we should re-read the very insightful chapter which William Carlos Williams devoted to Poe in his early book In The American Grain. Williams gets at the fundamental issues which engaged Poe’s imagination and made him the poet of an increasingly problematic reality. Rather unexpectedly, in view of Williams’s own commitment to the concrete particulars of existence, he descried in Poe a sort of Ur-democratic writer, articulating the epistemological tensions between the self and the world in complete disregard of any but the most general and impersonal factors. Except for the literary difference that Poe substitutes characters dominated by a logic of their own (Dupin, that “living syllogism”71, would be the inevitable reference here) for the transcendent intuition of Emerson’s American Scholar, the same abstract stage remains set for an exploration of what lies at the source of man’s identity and antedates all forms of social organization.
73Interestingly, it is this aspect of Poe’s work which has moved steadily to the fore in the estimation of his three most dedicated French champions. Baudelaire recognized in him a sister-soul victimized by a brutish society, a rebel who refused to pander to the vulgarity of his public, and a cursed poet, torn between a fascination for perverseness and the claims of supernal beauty. Mallarmé, who came next, fastened his attention on the craftsman, the obsessive artist in words, and also on the absolute model, who refined his medium to an incredible degree of purity. Then Valéry, at the end of the chain, expressed an almost theological respect for Poe—“the only unfallen writer,” as he called him in a letter to Gide72—, and devoted an essay to his most difficult and abstruse work, Eureka, in which he praised the cosmological philosopher able to mate poetry and science, spirit and matter, beyond the limits of classical physics. Set in this context of exegesis and lofty theorizing, Poe’s manner seems to lose much of its offensiveness, or rather the ponderous, convoluted phrasing which has antagonized so many readers and critics in the United States is turned into a positive asset: it enacts a desire to move away from common language, and reflects a strategy which aims at forging an altogether new idiom, beyond the conventional distinctions between the natural and the artificial. Behind this rather tortuous plea, there remains of course the suspicion that the music of “The Raven” will never sound quite the same to a trained native ear and to the unreliable organ of even the most fastidious—in his own language—French poet.
74If it takes some stretching to fit Poe’s writings into the framework of democratic aesthetics, and to ascribe the shock of recognition experienced by Poe’s celebrated French advocates to a common rejection of whatever might historicize the mind, the fiction of Melville appears almost providentially attuned to the anxieties about man’s predicament, which most of us in today’s world regard as our unshakable heritage. Albert Camus sensed that affinity as early as 1938, when for the first time Melville’s name appears in his Notebooks. In later years, he frequently returned to the symbolic significance of Melville’s career, extracting from it the substance for some very personal reflections: “Melville at age 35: I have accepted annihilation,” or again: “Something inconceivable and mad in the fact that no author, under any imaginable circumstance, can be honest with his readers: Melville.”73 His most articulate comment on Melville is to be found in an introduction which he prepared in 1952 for a collection called “Les Ecrivains Célèbres.” He identified in Ahab a mythical figuration of the rebel, “l’homme révolté,” led by the irresistible logic of evil “to take up arms first against the creation and the creator, then against his fellows and against himself.”74 Further on in the same article, he pondered uneasily over the death sentence passed on Billy Budd by Captain Vere. Reacting against the view that this late piece of fiction was Melville’s own pacified version of The Tempest, he expressed his dismay at the way in which the author had obscured even further his answer to the question about man’s ontological destiny which has haunted successive generations: “At the height of consent,” Camus queried, “isn’t Billy Budd the worst blasphemy?”75 Obviously, Melville had probed the depths of existential despair long before Camus did. But Melville was also, in his French critic’s estimate, a classical writer by the range of his sympathies and by the firmness of his hold over reality (this made him for Camus a much greater artist than the excessively allegorical Kafka). All in all, he was one of the most capacious minds that ever existed, worthy, as Camus put it in a lecture delivered in Sweden shortly after he received the Nobel Prize, to be named with Tolstoï and Molière as his supreme models.76
75Just as personal and intense, though keyed in a very different mode, was the response to Melville of another important French writer, Jean Giono. Giono was a man of the South, worshipping the dry light of Provence, and to that extent he resembled Camus, whose vision had been shaped by the brightness of sand and rock along the Algerian shore. Unlike Camus, however, Giono never left his native province, preferring to depend on imagination his own and that of the writers he loved, for the climactic meetings of his life. With two friends, he began in 1936 to work on a translation of Moby Dick, which he had recently discovered (at the time, very few French people even knew about the book). When the job was completed three years later, he decided that he would write a preface for it, and he started entering comments or remarks in his Notebooks like so many stepping stones to the future text. “A book from democratic America,” he jotted down one day, and on another occasion: “as the reader progresses in Moby Dick, he will realize how terribly contemporary it is.”77 As it turned out, however, the power of Melville’s mind energized him well beyond the composition of a mere introductory piece. The preface that he had in mind gathered to itself miscellaneous elements which were, so to speak, floating about, and developed into full-fledged narrative fiction. But the title, both graceful and casual which he chose for his novelette, Pour Saluer Melville, continues to testify to that freakish birth.
76Pour Saluer Melville is first and foremost a tribute to the spaciousness of Melville’s genius, and to his ability to merge, in true Emersonion fashion, individual experience and the most catholic form of representativeness. But it is also a witty, almost frolicsome, and yet deeply romantic meditation on the magnetic chain which binds the artist to his public no less tightly than the public to the artist. The plot is based on the trip that Melville took in 1849 to help promote the sale of White Jacket in England. While travelling on a stage coach bound for Exeter, he meets a beautiful young woman, Adelina White, who turns out to be a secret agent for the Irish cause. The two become involved in a platonic affair, which is also an oblique commentary on the artist’s greatness and fragility. Adelina literally awakens to herself under the spell of Melville’s language, but Melville, back home, needs to be told that she will read the book, Moby Dick, that he is feverishly composing: on the certainty of her sympathetic response his inspiration strictly depends.
77In the penultimate scene of the novelette, Giono has Melville, then in the throes of creation, meet Hawthorne, for whom he feels “a violent admiration”. With compulsive brusqueness, Melville begins circling around the issue which has been engrossing his mind.
‘I mean, that thing which eludes accomplishment,’ he said one day to Hawthorne, ‘that thing which eludes accomplishment and lies right across one’s life.
– Just what do you have in mind?’ Hawthorne said.
‘Did I say that I had anything in mind that was not the white whale?
– Indeed you didn’t,’ Hawthorne replied, ‘but there is always an inner ring to your words. You seem to be occupied by a personal passion.
- No,’ Herman answered after a moment. ‘I would rather suggest that mine is a general sort of passion.’ And he added with a smile: ‘Even if we had to fight no other opponents than, say, the gods, don’t you think that it would be exactly that? Just imagine some one who would in the end take his sword or his harpoon and engage in a fight with God himself!
– That would be unbelief.
– Unbelief in whom?
– In God.
– Not at all; else where would the merit be?
– Or the madness.
– Or the madness, if you prefer. In fact, what I have in mind is some one who would see God as plainly, to use a common phrase, as one sees somebody’s nose in the middle of his face, as plainly as the white whale above the waters of the sea. And that person, seeing Him in the fullness of His glory, having knowledge of all His mysteries, being aware of the farthest reach of His force at its most delirious, but not forgetting, never forgetting the wounds by which this god has been pleased to lacerate him, that person would nevertheless assault Him and hurl a harpoon.
– I believe that you will write a fine book,’ Hawthorne said, after remaining silent for a while.
78I would like to take my leave on this extract, unsatisfactory as it is in its English garb, because it suggests rather nicely the power of resonance of Moby Dick, in the middle of the twentieth century, on a sensitive and creation-oriented French reader. The situation is not unlike that of D. H. Lawrence responding with startling freshness to the American writers whom he chose to present, shortly after the end of World War I, in his pioneering book, Studies in Classic American Literature. Both Lawrence and Giono vibrate to what is universal in human experience and recognize the timeless relevance of art, but they do so out of a sense of their individualized condition which puts a very special coloring on their words. Both of them finally illustrate the process, by which the broadest, least particularized imaginative works call out the most autonomous part of the self and make possible, against initially heavy odds, an originality of perception which tallies the uniqueness of its object. Creative reading, as Emerson once hinted, is but another name for this conflation of extremes.
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Maurice Gonnaud, « Democratic Aesthetics », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 14 mai 2008, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : http://transatlantica.revues.org/1206Haut de page
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