March 2011

Kevin Frazier

Star-Crossed

Nikolai Gogol, Ralph Ellison & Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or three writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.

March Birthdays:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning – born March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, England
Nikolai Gogol – born March 31, 1809, in Sorochyntsi, modern Ukraine
Ralph Ellison – born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, United States

1 – Browning:  The Fuller-Hawthorne Connection

I first came to Elizabeth Barrett Browning through Virginia Woolf’s Flush, the story of Browning’s cocker spaniel. Flush isn’t Woolf at her best, but it offers a nice dog’s-eye view of the Browning legend.  

Browning’s story is doubly appealing because her defining adventures came relatively late in life. For many years she was an invalid in her father’s home. Then at the age of 40 she eloped with the dynamic young Robert Browning, when he was still largely unknown as a poet. In 1846 she moved with Robert to Italy. There, she grew healthy, lived happily with her husband, and wrote her most famous works, including the long verse-novel Aurora Leigh.  

One of the most popular poets of her generation, she enjoyed a broad acquaintance among British literary figures -- everyone from Wordsworth and Tennyson to Arthur Hugh Clough and Harriet Martineau. In addition, she was friends with many American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came to Florence in 1858.  

Browning and Hawthorne both owed a large artistic debt to their relationship with Margaret Fuller. A prominent and outspoken feminist, Fuller edited the leading American transcendentalist journal, The Dial. She also wrote the pioneering book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which applies transcendentalist thought to feminist goals. Funny, energetic and confident, Fuller seemed to excite admiration and censure in equal degrees: her vitality was simply too much for many of her contemporaries to accept.     

Hawthorne knew Fuller for many years. She provided a bit of the inspiration for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, and much of the inspiration for Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. Like Hawthorne, Fuller was associated with the commune at Brook Farm. The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s predictably skeptical take on Brook Farm, as well as his predictably skeptical take on Fuller and another transcendentalist, Martha Hunt. Zenobia has Fuller’s intelligence and magnetism, and believes many of Fuller’s feminist and transcendentalist ideas. Though Hawthorne crudely punishes his heroine at the story’s climax by disposing of her with a standard suicide-by-drowning, she’s the most powerfully imagined character in the novel, and she rules the book as thoroughly as Hester rules The Scarlet Letter.      

Browning’s much more generous vision of Fuller is contained in Aurora Leigh. The book mingles Fuller’s life and personality with Browning’s own, as well as with many other influences. Aurora is a vibrant hybrid: she comes to us with the intimacy of autobiography but also with some of the artistic distance created by Browning’s mixed feelings towards Fuller. As poetry, the 11,000 lines of Aurora Leigh are predictably uneven. As a character, though, Aurora is magnificent. She floods her way through the novel, overflows its pages with her currents of intelligence, narcissism, rebellion, conformity, doubt, humility, arrogance, generosity and love. Her contradictions make it hard for many modern readers to decide whether they approve of her, but this is what keeps her interesting.  Unlike, say, Jane Eyre, who has an astonishing ability to arouse almost universal sympathy, Aurora sometimes grates on us. Her convictions can be more nakedly self-serving than she seems to realize, and she suffers from odd crosscurrents of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, taking refuge in Victorian lines of thought that now seem either offensive or absurd. She’s the Bill Clinton of literary characters, devouring her experiences with the self-serving presumption that her inconsistencies will be justified in the end by the passion of her concern for others. Is she admirable or simply deluded? She’s both, obviously, and much else besides, and unless we’re stuck with the dull idea that we can only enjoy characters who share all our practices and beliefs, Aurora is a riveting creation.

2 – Gogol and Browning:  Serfs and Slaves

Browning, in anticipation of Edward Said, recognized her direct personal connection to slavery: she never forgot that her father’s fortune came from the slave labor of Jamaican sugar plantations. She became a vocal abolitionist, and wrote a number of poems on the subject. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is, for instance, a lurid depiction of a slave who kills her baby because it was “far too white… too white for me.”  

In a more abstract and rhetorical vein, Browning wrote a cutting denunciation of America’s betrayal of its founding principles, “A Curse for a Nation.” The curse is as relevant now as it was back then, though for different specific reasons, and the poem is sharpened by Browning’s stern disappointment with a country she in many ways admired:

Because ye have broken your own chain
    With the strain
Of brave men climbing a Nation’s height,
Yet thence bear down with brand and thong
On souls of others, – for this wrong
    This is the curse. Write.

Nikolai Gogol was Browning’s contemporary, and he also wrote about slavery -- in his case, the system of serfdom in nineteenth century Russia. Yet Gogol had no desire to be taken for a champion of the rights of the serfs, and he worried over the way liberal critics praised Dead Souls as a denunciation of serf-holding landowners. He thought of his novel, published in 1842, not as a tool for abolition but as an ambitious modern version of the Divine Comedy. Dead Souls was supposed to be the Inferno, with the Purgatorio and the Paradiso to follow.       

Really, though, the brilliance of Dead Souls renders any sequel unnecessary. To begin with, it’s the novel that first fully establishes the Russian literary obsession with physicality. Here it is, on page after page, the incessant interest in the ways that people shrug their heavy shoulders and look up from under their eyebrows, the telling nature of the chairs and sofas they sit on, the solid yet revelatory rugs and paintings in their rooms, the textures of the wind and the rivers. Gogol is the starting point for what we tend to think of as the Tolstoyan or Chekhovian eagerness to observe the world in sharp-eyed significant detail -- even though, as Nabokov has entertainingly emphasized, Gogol almost always customizes his observations to meet surreal or absurdist ends.   

In addition, Dead Souls is a wellspring for much of Dostoevsky’s later method. The novel’s constant hints of comic madness mutate in Dostoevsky’s hands -- help shape those great passages where his characters expose their wildest perceptions. At times Dostoevsky’s fiction reads like an epic teasing-out of the psychological hints suggested in Gogol’s writing. Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls, wants to create the illusion of himself as a propertied aristocrat by buying up serfs who have died, and he could easily take his place among the figures in Demons or The Idiot. We all might have enjoyed seeing Dostoevsky open Chichikov up for us, giving us a more direct access to the swirling comedy of the Chichikovian mind.  

The best parts of Dead Souls are precisely the ones where Gogol’s physical and psychological interests come together, like the wonderful passages where Chichikov pictures his purchased serfs returning from the dead. He reads the lists of their names, and feels the serfs coming to life in front of him. “Dear me!” he thinks, “how many of you have been crowded in here? What sort of lives did you lead, my friends?” Then he begins addressing them in his imagination as their ghosts materialize with sumptuous vividness.

3 – Gogol and Ellison: Unfinished Work

The success of Dead Souls, and the need that Gogol felt to follow it up with an even greater work, tormented him for the rest of his career. He was confronted with much the same dilemma that Ralph Ellison faced after the spectacular response to Invisible Man in 1952. Like Gogol, Ellison produced a book that grew into much more than a normal literary success. Invisible Man answered to a critical compulsion of the time, the search for the Great Black American Novelist. Winning this title was a mixed blessing for Ellison. Many critics used their recognition of Ellison to gloss over their blindness or condescension towards much of the African American fiction that had come earlier: works as varied and essential as Martin R. Delany’s Blake, published serially from 1859 to 1862, Charles W. Chesnutt’s 1899 short story collection The Conjure Woman and his 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, the Zora Neale Hurston masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God from 1937, and Richard Wright’s Native Son from 1940.    

Ellison, unattractively but not so shockingly, contributed to this blindness through his desire to be seen as the only black novelist who mattered, and he seems to have shown little except contempt for the literary abilities of his black predecessors and contemporaries. Still, his vanity and pettiness aren’t all that different from what you find in Ernest Hemingway or Robert Frost or Norman Mailer. Given the extraordinary amount of later harping on Ellison’s less appealing qualities, you have to wonder about the double standard that’s been applied to him. Egomania and an ungenerous streak are fairly common features among novelists, and they don’t discredit Ellison’s writing even if they demolish his unsought standing as a pleasant role model.

Comparing Ellison with Gogol, it’s interesting how similarly -- and disastrously -- they responded to the challenge posed by the acclaim for their work. Both of them decided that their next book must be a great step forward. It had to be bold and groundbreaking, vastly stretching their range as writers. And perhaps fatally, they didn’t keep this opinion to themselves. Over the years they piled up hundreds of pages -- thousands of pages, for Ellison -- and let people around them know just how high their aspirations were. Yet after they died, the follow-up books were revealed as shambles, stories that grew without either novelist ever being able to bring them under control. Gogol apparently burned much of the continuation of Dead Souls, but the chapters we have are weak enough to make us suspect that the rest wasn’t much better. And the posthumous publication of Three Days Before the Shooting shows that Ellison couldn’t quite figure out how to animate all of his ambitious material or convey why it mattered to him so much.   

With these final unfinished novels Gogol and Ellison engaged in a tragic waste of their brilliance. If they’d set their sights lower, they might have given us more books that were worthy of their exceptional skills, and we possibly would’ve seen that Dead Souls and Invisible Man represented extraordinary mergers of luck and ability -- circumstances that could never quite be recaptured even by the most diligent effort. I doubt, for instance, that Ellison could have matched the consistency of the remarkable string of novels Toni Morrison has written. I also doubt that Gogol, for all his skills as a playwright and short story writer, could have reached the heights of Dead Souls again, even if he’d published two or three more manageable novels instead of becoming lost in his giant Divine Comedy project.

Yet Gogol and Ellison wanted to push further than they’d already gone, and if we have to recognize their failure, we also have to recognize the nobility of their attempt. It’s easy to ridicule them for thinking they could outdo themselves, but for a serious novelist, what other choice is there than to try for more than you know you can accomplish? Every novel is a risk, and writers who fail at the level of Gogol and Ellison deserve our special admiration. As Americans, we possibly need to be reminded of this with extra force. Our cult of practical success -- which has ravaged novelists as different as Fitzgerald and Melville -- has always threatened to blind us to the occasional importance of literature as a form of artful and deliberately courted tragedy. For the artist as much as for everyone else, at least some degree of failure is necessary for, and often indistinguishable from, fulfillment.    

4 – Ellison and Browning:  Rejection and Commitment

Browning’s poetic persona is generally one of strong, proud commitment. She’s committed to the Risorgimento, abolition, marriage, her ideas of romantic love and compassion, the right of women to express themselves in literature, and many other causes and beliefs.       

The narrator of Invisible Man is the anti-Browning. He’s as consistent in either losing or destroying his commitments as Browning is in sustaining hers. Constantly searching for something to accept, a place where he can take a stand, he ends up either rejecting or being rejected by each group or institution he attempts to join. His groundless expulsion from college breaks his devotion to formal education, his job at the paint factory leads to his fight with Brockway, and his political involvement with the Brotherhood sours into disillusionment. Ultimately he retreats to his basement hiding hole, where he wires every inch of the ceiling with lights.  

As nearly all readers have recognized -- some more disapprovingly than others -- this is a person who has been betrayed so often that he will finally give his allegiance to nothing beyond his own viewpoint, even though he recognizes that his vision is partly shattered, composed of the many jostling or incompatible legacies he’s trying to hold together. You wouldn’t want to invite him to sign a petition or help you organize a political rally. He might support you today and then tell everyone tomorrow about all your worst flaws and hypocrisies. He begins each situation as a potential idealist, ends each situation as a harsh satirist. Throughout the novel he’s like an endless spool of barbwire, full of smooth twists that can abruptly catch you and slice you with their snags. He’s a genuinely disruptive individual, someone who can’t be subdued for long to any perspective, and who in the end can’t help his compulsion to rebel. He has none of the fatuous self-admiration of some of the Beats: he takes his condition as partly a curse, and he’s no more certain about the acceptability of his motives than he is about anything else.    

After all his experiences, the only things he seems to believe in are jazz and the complexities of his prose. His voice is as compound and variable as his personality. It starts as almost a parody of elegant writing, an acknowledgment of his skill in mastering the white literary tradition:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.

Yet like Stephen Dedalus -- whose command of English includes his awareness of it as a foreign language, one that the Irish can never take entirely as their own -- Ellison’s narrator refuses to settle for the poise of his stylistic fluency. Within a few pages he’s writing through the distortion of being stoned, listening to Louis Armstrong and drifting into a vision, his words running loose till they pick up a new pattern, the pulse of evangelical call-and-response:

And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the ‘Blackness of Blackness.’”

And a congregation of voices answered: “That blackness is most black, brother, most black…”

Invisible Man constantly finds new things to tell us, in language that’s a flexible combination of expert control and inspired improvisation. It’s no surprise that Ellison was never able to write anything better -- the wonder is that anybody could have written such an intense and sustained work in the first place. As the reputations of many of Ellison’s contemporaries now begin to fade, it becomes more apparent with every year that Invisible Man stands starkly apart from the other American novels of its era. It’s as singular and prodigious a book for Ellison’s time as Moby Dick was for Melville’s, and even now, six decades on, we still haven’t come to grips with Ellison’s accomplishment.