National Post -- October 9, 2004
Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior
by Ian Garrick Mason
Ivan R. Dee, 244pp
If the title Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior leads you to think that Brooke Allen’s new collection of essays will ruthlessly expose the seemier side of famous writers, you’re partially right. Allen almost immediately points out that Western literature “has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.” Samuel Pepys was “a groper and a grabber”, Henry James was “petty, predatory, selfish, and catty”, and Lord Byron “one of the great shits of history” -- a description topped in frankness only by William Saroyan’s: “a world-class, king-sized, copper-bottomed Shit, with a capital S.”
But only partially right, because there’s nothing ruthless about her exposition. In these essays, most of which are in fact long reviews of literary biographies, Allen consistently writes with a tone of reasonableness and common sense. Indeed, she’s so un-ruthless that most of the biographers get off scot-free, and even her criticisms of Brenda Wineapple’s biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne are raised only in the essay’s final paragraph, at which point she calls the book “compelling” but “discordant”. Indeed, these reviews are more like overviews -- interesting, thoughtful overviews to be sure -- of classic authors, each of which presents the author’s primary character traits, the bad with the good. Whatever the book’s title (and her preface) may claim, this is not a tour of a rogue’s gallery.
Allen is a knowledgeable, confident writer, and her judgments are generally sound and well-presented. But as often happens when essays are gathered together, her writers’ tics show up more clearly. She is fond of diagnosing illnesses: William Thackeray, for example, had “recurrent digestive ailments” that “seem to have been caused by some chronic illness, possibly Crohn’s disease.” She falls prey to a subtle kind of intellectual over-writing: authors like Laurence Sterne and L. Frank Baum who tried their hands at business always fail “predictably” -- never “unexpectedly” or “tragically”; Sterne’s father was not merely “ill-equipped” for an independent life, but “singularly ill-equipped”; pedantic scholasticism is not just “nonsense” but “matchless nonsense”; Bram Stoker’s sunsets are “often almost painfully resplendent” -- which avoids the “achingly beautiful” cliché only at the cost of creating a new one. And her assertions are frequently too sweeping: Hans Christian Andersen apparently “told us as much about the human condition ... as any of the world’s writers and philosophers.”
Fifty percent of these essays were written for the New Criterion, a conservative journal of the arts, and there are recurring references to cultural decline throughout the collection. Baum’s Oz books embodied “characteristically American” values like egalitarianism, tolerance, and a mistrust of leaders -- “or at least they used to be characteristically American”, Allen pointedly adds. Her repeated digs against multiculturalism and political correctness seem like rusting reminders of the “culture wars” of the early 1990s. A more recent piece on nineteenth century children’s author G.A. Henty, who wrote historical adventure novels like A Dash for Khartoum: A Tale of the Nile Expedition, even displays a crass form of imperial nostalgia: compared to the “heady historical moment” of the British Empire at its peak, she complains, the Falklands War was “a pathetic affair”, generating only a “febrile and transient” excitement.
Yet in other pieces, Allen seems like a different person. In her essay on Sinclair Lewis and Main Street, she reflects that “Gopher Prairie at war is not so very unlike our own flag-waving “war on terrorism”.” Writing on Baum, she observes that “In Oz as in the real world, for example, war is too often based on illusory or meaningless differences, and patriotic bombast is born from base provincialism.” Where has the warrior gone?
When it comes to the adaptation of great books by modern filmmakers and playwrights, she seems equally conflicted. Andersen’s fairy tales have been distorted by “barbarians” like the Walt Disney Company, she declares, yet the film of The Wizard of Oz is “the equal of the book”. In an introduction written for the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Dracula, she condemns filmmakers for “ignoring and upsetting Stoker’s carefully built fictional edifice”, but lauds the film Nosferatu as “a major work of German expressionism” -- not as a carefully noted exception to her general opinion, but as an unrelated aside several pages later.
There seems to be a certain defensiveness at work here. Or, perhaps more accurately, a possessiveness. For Allen, it must be said, loves her authors. Her essays seek to defend them against over-theorizing critics and even too-critical contemporaries: she vigorously defends James Boswell as a genius capable of eliciting the informal humanity in otherwise dignified thinkers, despite having “little if any talent for abstract thought” himself. Her apparent changes of opinion may well be one result of her openness to the spirits of the writers she’s profiling: Henty’s robust imperialism may have tugged her one way, while Baum’s gentle wisdom pushed her the other. Her writers are spirits indeed; Allen channels them earnestly, and in presenting them unpolished she honours their memory. As Thomas Carlyle rightly grumbled about Thackeray’s feel-good speeches on English humorists, “the test of a great man is not whether he would like to meet him at a tea-party.”