Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

22 JULY, 2013

The Lincoln of Literature: Mark Twain, The Atlantic, and the Making of the Middlebrow Magazine

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How Twain entered the literary elite and purged literature of elitism.

“Maybe … Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends,” Hunter S. Thompson grumbled in his meditation on journalism, politics, and the subjective, intimating that Twain was a media-opportunist who masterfully manipulated his public editorial output to serve his personal agendas. The “devious fraud” label has, of course, been slapped at one point or another onto just about every public persona who dared to reach critical success. But whether or not Thompson’s assessment was fair, Twain — who was himself curmudgeonly critical of the popular press, human nature, and even his fans, and from an early age dispensed delightfully irreverent advice — was a man who knew how to get what he wanted. And what he wanted, perhaps ironically, was very often public approval — not just the mere troves of fan mail he received from the common people, but the literary world’s highest seal of approval.

That’s precisely what he saw in the opportunity to write for The Atlantic Monthly, so he pursued it with unequaled relentlessness. In the process of this professional push, however, he made a lifelong personal friend. In the introduction to The Mark Twain Collection — a short but endlessly enjoyable compendium of the beloved author’s critical essays, short stories, and recollections published in The Atlantic during his stint there between 1874 and 1880 — Ben Tarnoff, author of the forthcoming The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, traces the genesis of that relationship, both professional and personal:

He might’ve been a beggar, or a drunk. He swayed when he walked, and spoke slowly. His clothes were careless, his hair an ungovernable knot of curls. In the winter of 1869, he entered the bookshop at 124 Tremont Street in Boston and took the stairs to the second floor. There he knocked on the door of America’s most prestigious periodical, and swaggered in to introduce himself.

This was how Mark Twain’s relationship with The Atlantic Monthly began. From its founding in 1857, the magazine served as the nerve center of the New England intellectual establishment. Its contributors included the biggest names in American letters — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe* — and its taste set the standard for the rest of the country. Moral seriousness, moderate liberalism, and a respect for the classical tradition pervaded its pages. Its judgments reigned supreme: no one wielded more power over that still-forming idea called American literature than the editors of The Atlantic.

Twain’s march into the magazine’s office was precipitated by a review of his book The Innocents Aboard, the humorous autobiographical travelogue that catapulted him into literary celebrity, had received from an Atlantic writer named William Dean Howells, the magazine’s assistant editor. “There is an amount of pure human nature in the book that rarely gets into literature,” he had written. “Even in its impudence it is charming.” Tarnoff surmises:

Naturally, Twain wanted to meet the author of that review. … Twain must’ve been curious: the book’s irony, irreverence, and freewheeling flow made it an unlikely focus for The Atlantic’s praise. Worse, Twain wrote for a popular audience, not a literary one. The Innocents Aboard wasn’t sold in bookshops but by traveling salesmen who hawked it door to door alongside cookbooks and the Bible. Its readers belonged to the rising bourgeoisie of a rapidly industrializing nation — the Great American Middlebrow, hungry for fun and distraction.

William Dean Howells with Mark Twain

And so a relationship of mutual gratification commenced:

The wild-haired stranger who swept into 124 Tremont Street in the winter of 1869 desperately wanted approval from the world that The Atlantic represented. He craved the respect of America’s cultural elites, despite his tendency to provoke and bewilder them. In Howells, he found a perfect partner in crime: someone who spoke with highbrow authority, yet also understood the genius of Twain’s popular art.

[…]

They had differences to overcome. Twain was intense and impatient; Howells was mild and genial. Howells dressed conservatively; Twain dressed outrageously, with a “keen feeling for costume” that only grew more extravagant as he got older. Yet they also had much in common. Despite Howells’s lofty position in New England’s literary firmament, he came from modest, Midwestern origins. Born in backwoods Ohio, he had started out as a typesetter like Twain. He had grown up listening to the shrill whistles of steamboats, like Twain, and to the drawling, hollering sounds of Western speech. Both men had hustled their way up with hard work and, despite their success, always felt like outsiders in the East.

It took five years for them to feel comfortable enough with each other. Twain published his first piece in The Atlantic in 1874 and the two became fast friends, smoking cigars, sipping Scotch, and laughing well into the night. In fact, Howells became for Twain what Ursula Nordstrom was for Maurice Sendak — his fierce editor and greatest public champion, his relentless private confidant, his unflinching friend:

He didn’t simply make Twain a better writer; he also explained Twain’s significance to the wider world. He elevated the author of The Innocents Aboard from a popular entertainer to a transformative literary figure — into the “Lincoln of our literature,” as Howells called him.

When Twain submitted his first story to The Atlantic in 1874, titled “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” he cautioned Howells, who had by that point become editor in chief of the magazine, that the sketch “has no humor in it” and hardly warrants any pay. Instead, Howells fell in love with it and persuaded the publisher to pay Twain the highest rate in the magazine’s history — a feat particularly heartening in light of Twain’s famous advice to aspiring writers: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Tarnoff writes:

Howells wanted more. Soon, Twain had another idea: he would resurrect the “glory & grandeur” of his years as a Mississippi steamboat pilot in a series of reminiscences for The Atlantic. Twain suggested doing one every other month, but Howells insisted on one every month. Twain agreed. The Atlantic didn’t pay as much as other magazines, but, as Twain told a friend, its “awful respectability” made up for it. Also the chance to work with Howells, in whom Twain had total faith.

Howells was also an indispensable purveyor of timeless wisdom on writing, and once gave Twain an essential piece of advice that Joyce Carol Oates would come to echo more than a century later:

Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear.

To be sure, however, the relationship was one of mutual benefit — while Howells helped Twain hone his craft and bask in the literary glory of writing for The Atlantic, Twain helped the magazine become a more marketable commodity for a popular audience:

Although he remained respectful of The Atlantic’s origins, the editor recognized the need to push the magazine into new territory. The Civil War and its aftermath had transformed America. The rules of warfare, politics, and business were being rewritten; conventional wisdom of all kinds was crumbling. The modernizing nation demanded new literary forms, and Howells found them in the faithful representation of everyday life — realism, he called it, although he awarded the term to any author he admired, from European novelists like Zola and Tolstoy to Americans like Henry James and Twain. What these writers had in common was their lifelike use of detail, Howells believed. Their work struck a refreshing contrast to the “intense ethicism that pervaded the New England mind” — the preacherly tendency to make literature serve up a moral. In the pages of The Atlantic, Howells crusaded against this cultural residue of Calvinism, forging his realist revolution from inside the heart of the establishment.

Twain gave Howells a soldier in this revolt: an artist with a gift for what Howells called the “simple, dramatic report of reality.” He also served a more practical function: he was popular, and Howells needed to sell** magazines. Despite The Atlantic’s prestige, its circulation fell sharply in the 1870s, against competition from more-middlebrow magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s. So Howells leaned on Twain for marketable stories to prop up The Atlantic’s flagging finances.

[…]

These masterpieces helped purge American literature of its genteel moralism. They challenged the elitism that had excluded large swaths of ordinary life from literature. They fulfilled Howells’s demand for greater realism, and secured Twain’s permanent place in the culture.

The Mark Twain Collection presents ten of the masterpieces born out of the Twain-Howells collaboration, from the maddening stickiness of jingles (“A Literary Nightmare,” February 1876) to a timeless, timely rant on the dehumanizing effect of modern technology (“A Telephonic Conversation,” June 1880). Complement it with Twain’s critique of the press, issued mere months before he began writing for The Atlantic.

* Missing from the roster of notable contributors: The Church of Scientology

** Still the case. ibid.

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10 JULY, 2013

Edward Gorey’s Vintage Book Covers for Literary Classics

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Melville, Conrad, Colette, Chekhov, Chaucer, Gogol, Kafka, Shaw, Pushkin, and more.

The great Edward Gorey, mid-century master of the macabre and darkly delightful, was a prolific illustrator of his own irreverent books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary , The Shrinking of Treehorn, among countless others, and would occasionally illustrate existing literature, like classic fairy tales, H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But Gorey, unbeknownst to many, also designed dozens of book covers, including a number for some of literary history’s greatest classics during the paperback revolution, primarily while working at the Doubleday art department between 1953 and 1960. Here are his finest such masterpieces:

'Lafcadio's Adventures' by André Gide (Doubleday, 1953)

'The Black Girl in Search of God' by Bernard Shaw (Capricorn, 1959)

'Redburn: His First Voyage' by Herman Melville (Doubleday, 1957)

'My Mother's House and the Vagabond' by Colette (Doubleday, 1955)

'Come Back, Dr. Caligari' by Donald Barthelme (Doubleday, 1964)

'Picture of Millie' by P. M. Hubbard (London House & Maxwell, 1964)

'Pleasures and Days and Other Writings' by Marcel Proust (Doubleday, 1957)

'The Secret Agent' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1953)

'Victory' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1957)

'Chance' by Joseph Conrad (Doubleday, 1957)

'War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells (Doubleday, 1960)

'St. Peter's Day and Other Tales' by Anton Chekhov (Doubleday, 1959)

'Troilus & Criseyde' by Geoffrey Chaucer (Vintage, 1966)

'Tales of Good and Evil' by Nikolai Gogol (Doubleday, 1957)

'Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard' translated by Lee M. Hollander (Doubleday, 1960)

'Lady Barberina and Other Tales' by Henry James (Grosset & Dunlap, 1961)

'The Ambassadors' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1958)

'The Awkward Age' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1958)

'What Maisie Knew' by Henry James (Doubleday, 1954)

'Amerika' by Franz Kafka (Doubleday, 1955)

'The Masters' by C. P. Snow (Doubleday, 1959)

'The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories' by Alexander Pushkin (Vintage, 1957)

'The Romance of Tristan and Iseult,' as retold by Joseph Bédier (Doubleday, 1953)

'The Web and the Rock' by Thomas Wolfe (Grosset & Dunlap, 1939)

'Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats' by T. S. Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982)

Find more Gorey gold in the Brain Pickings archive — including some rare, limited-edition vintage gems — and swing by my Pinterest collection of Gorey art.

Metafilter; portrait of Gorey via Vol. 1 Brooklyn

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08 JULY, 2013

Graphic Canon vol. 3: From Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, Visual Artists Take on The Classics

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Ulysses in six panels, Colette in pen and ink, Yeats in watercolor, and other literary springboards for art.

In 2012, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2 — Russ Kick’s fantastic compendium of literary art and comics from Lewis Carroll to the Brontë Sisters by way of Darwin — came in as one of the year’s best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction. Now, Kick is back with the final installment in his trilogy: The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest (public library), a magnificent 560-page tome offering artful takes on classics published after 1899 by such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

Among the 84 contributing artists are longtime favorites like Matt Kish, whose Moby-Dick illustrations remain indispensable, Molly Crabapple, who illustrated Salvador Dali’s manifesto in a Brain Pickings Artist Series collaboration and visualized the power of introverts, and the great R. Crumb, who brought comics to album covers and memorably illustrated Bukowski. Their remarkable range — from the minimalist to the elaborate, the rugged to the dreamy — infuses these classics with new dimensions of celebratory love and appreciation.

'The Voyage Out' by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard

'The Voyage Out' by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard

'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish

'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish

In the introduction, Kick writes of the project’s ethos, all three volumes of which were edited simultaneously and thus bear the same editorial sensibility:

I asked the artists to stay true to the literary works as far as plot, characters, and text, but visually they had free reign. Any style, any media, any approach. Spare. Dense. Lush. Fragmented. Seamless. Experimental. Old school. Monochrome. Saturated. Pen and ink. Markers. Digital. Silk-screened. Painted. Sequential art. Full-page illustrations. Unusual hybrids of words and images. Images without words. And, in one case, words without images.

'The Dreaming of the Bones' by W. B. Yeats, illustrated by Lauren Weinstein

'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Jenny Tondera

'Colette' by Cherí, illustrated by Molly Crabapple

At the heart of the project is the recognition that literary classics have always inspired visual art. Kick adds:

The Canon was always meant as an art project, part of the ages-old tradition of visual artists using classic works of literature as their springboard. It was also conceived as a celebration of literature, a way to present dramatic new takes on the greatest stories ever told. It turned into a lot more — a survey of Western literature (with some Asian and indigenous works represented), an encyclopedia of ways to merge images and text, a showcase of some of the best (and often underexposed comics artists and illustrators. And a kicky examination of love, sex, death, violence, revolution, money, drugs, religion, family, (non)conformity, longing, transcendence, and other aspects of the human condition that literature and art have always wrestled with.

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, illustrated by David Lasky

'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D. H. Lawrence, illustrated by Lisa Brown

'Nausea' by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb

'Nausea' by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb

'Naked Lunch' by William S. Burroughs, illustrated by Emelie Ostergren

Given my undying love for Anaïs Nin’s diaries and letters, which have been the subject of several Brain Pickings Artist Series original collaborations, I was particularly delighted to find this contribution by Mardou:

Anaïs Nin's diaries, illustrated by Mardou

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3 was preceded by the equally fantastic The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Images courtesy Russ Kick / Seven Stories Press

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