Category Archive 'Criticism'

11 Apr 2017

Style is Often Crap

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Tom Simon takes a pretty successful poke at Annie Proulx in the course of a lengthy attack on pretentious literary modernism. Yay, Papa Hemingway! Boo! Jimmy Joyce!

This mania for stylistic weirdness, enforced by the blocking troops of Modernist criticism, led in the end to a situation where even quite ordinary newspaper reviewers would shout praise for the ‘experimental’ brilliance of bad prose rather than admit to the nudity of the reigning monarch. One of the reigning monarchs of the nineties was Annie Proulx, who was extravagantly lauded for the following sentence in Accordion Crimes. A woman has just had her arms chopped off by sheet metal, and this is how Proulx describes it:

    She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Every story is a conversation between writer and reader, even though the writer is effectively deaf and seldom hears what the reader is saying. Here is a rough transcript of the conversation as it transpires in the passage above:—

    Proulx. My character is stunned. Absolutely gobsmacked. Don’t I do a wonderful job of telling you how gobsmacked she is? She’s not just amazed, she’s rooted.

    Reader. I don’t think that’s how people react to having their arms chopped off.

    P. Now if I were one of these hack commercial writers, I’d talk about her. But see how cleverly I do everything by indirection! See how poetic I am! The barn is built of clapboards, you see—

    R. I don’t care about the clapboards. This woman is bleeding to death!

    P. And you can see the wood grain because the paint has all been worn off, but I wouldn’t put it that way, oh no, I’m a Writer, I am. So I said to myself, what’s a better action verb to use in this place? Why, chewed, of course! But that’s not poetic enough for me, because I’m a Special Snowflake, I am. So I changed it to jawed instead. Isn’t that original? Aren’t I clever? Look at meeee!

    R. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean chew; it means to natter on endlessly, just like you’re doing now. Now will you stifle it and get on with the story?

    P. Now I describe the swallows, and they’re so ironic, because they’re unconcerned, don’t you see? And they’re just carrying on about their business, darting out of sight and coming back—

    R. All this while that poor woman’s arms are flying through the air? They must be miles away by now.

    P. That’s not my point. My point is that they’re catching insects, don’t you see, and the insects are like moustaches! Isn’t that clever? Only a Writer could have come up with that simile! Look at meee!!

    R. I think you’re mistaking me for someone who cares.

    P. And then I describe the rest of the scene, and I’m just as clever about that, and the windows don’t just make reflections, they make swirled blue reflections, because I’m a Writer, I am, and look at me being all impressionist!

    R. I think I’m going to skip on a bit.

    P. Spoilsport! All right, I’ll get in a bit about my character, since you seem so anxious for me to be all boring and nasty and commercial and stick to the silly old point. What do you think I am, the six o’clock news? So her blood is spurting, no, that’s too ordinary, leaping from her stumped arms—

    R. You mean from the stumps of her arms. ‘Stumped’ means something completely different. It has to do with not having a clue, hint, hint.

    P. I’m a Writer, I am, and you can tell because I don’t let myself be limited by your silly old bourgeois rules. Her stumped arms, I said, and I’m sticking to it. And then she hears the wet thuds of her forearms—

    R. Ewwww.

    P. —against the barn, and then the sheet metal hits, and it’s not just the sound of it hitting, it’s the bright sound, because only a Writer would use something as nifty as synaesthesia to put her point across. See? I know about synaesthesia! I’m smart! Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEEE!!!!

    R. If you don’t get on with the story, I’m going to say the Eight Deadly Words.

    P. (momentarily taken aback) Which are?

    R. ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ I mean, if you’re going to stand there jawing (see, I used the word correctly) about swallows and moustaches and swirly blue windows, while the woman you have just mutilated is bleeding her life away — well, if you care as little as that about your own characters, I don’t see why I should give a damn. You haven’t even noticed that she’s in pain!

    P. (angrily) This isn’t about her. This is about me! Me, meee, wonderful ME!! Damn you, why aren’t you looking at ME!!!

Of course this conversation is ruthlessly suppressed in the New York Times review by Walter Kendrick, who singled out that very sentence, in all its scarlet and purple excess, as ‘brilliant prose’. B. R. Myers was kinder to Proulx, if only in the interest of brevity:

    The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.

The sad truth, I am afraid, is that self-consciously ‘literary’ writers do not write to be read; they write to impress the critics, and if their ambitions are particularly lofty, to have their books made required reading for hapless English majors. Then the English majors, or a depressingly large percentage of them, buy into the pernicious notion that this self-regarding drivel really is ‘brilliant prose’ — and, still more, that brilliancy of prose is the primary and sufficient purpose of literature — and the whole sorry swindle is perpetuated for another generation.

Proulx’s star has more or less fallen since Myers launched his attack, but the sentence cult goes on.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

06 Aug 2015

Modern Statements By the Old Masters

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John Seed imagines what a number of the Old Masters would have said, if obliged to explain their work using contemporary artistic jargon.


02 Sep 2014

George Orwell, Literary Mediocrity

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Will Self, the BBC Magazine, takes a potshot at the posthumous reputation of English Letters’ equivalent of Aristides the Just, the pious George Orwell.

Each generation of talented English mediocrities seizes upon one of their number and elevates her or him to become primus inter pares. Of course, these figures may not, in fact, be talented mediocrities at all, but rather genuinely adept and acute. However, what’s important is that they either play to the dull and cack-handed gallery, or that those who sit there see in them their own run-of-the-mill reflection.

The curious thing is that while during the post-war period we’ve had many political leaders, we’ve got by with just a single Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell. …

It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity – and like all long-lasting leaders, he has an ideology to justify his rule. Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, is frequently cited as a manifesto of plainspoken common sense – a principled assault upon all the jargon, obfuscation, and pretentiously Frenchified folderol that deforms our noble tongue. Orwell – it’s said by these disciples – established once and for all in this essay that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it’s comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers.

The only problem with this is that it’s not true – and furthermore, Orwell was plain wrong. …

As for most people who bother with the matter admitting that English is in a bad way – hardly. Since 1946, when Orwell’s essay was published, English has continued to grow and mutate, a great voracious beast of a tongue, snaffling up vocabulary, locutions and syntactical forms from the other languages it feeds on. There are more ways of saying more things in English than ever, and it follows perfectly logically that more people are shaping this versatile instrument for their purposes.

The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don’t like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped. In this respect they’re indeed small “c” conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.

Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently.

Read the whole thing.

16 Nov 2013

100 Greatest Novels (From the Perspective of 1898)

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“Three Editors” — Shorter as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, December 1894.

Clement K. Shorter (1857-1926) was editor of the Illustrated London News, a prominent journalist, book collector, and critic (specializing in the Brontes). In 1898, in The Bookman, he published a chronological list of the 100 Greatest Novels, restricting himself to one title per author, and excluding living authors, though he felt obliged to include an addendum of eight works by “writers whose reputations are too well established for their juniors to feel towards them any sentiments other than those of reverence and regard.”

TLS blog:

1. Don Quixote – 1604 – Miguel de Cervantes

2. The Holy War – 1682 – John Bunyan

3. Gil Blas – 1715 – Alain René le Sage

4. Robinson Crusoe – 1719 – Daniel Defoe

5. Gulliver’s Travels – 1726 – Jonathan Swift

6. Roderick Random – 1748 – Tobias Smollett

7. Clarissa – 1749 – Samuel Richardson

8. Tom Jones – 1749 – Henry Fielding

9. Candide – 1756 – Françoise de Voltaire

10. Rasselas – 1759 – Samuel Johnson

11. The Castle of Otranto – 1764 – Horace Walpole

12. The Vicar of Wakefield – 1766 – Oliver Goldsmith

13. The Old English Baron – 1777 – Clara Reeve

14. Evelina – 1778 – Fanny Burney

15. Vathek – 1787 – William Beckford

16. The Mysteries of Udolpho – 1794 – Ann Radcliffe

17. Caleb Williams – 1794 – William Godwin

18. The Wild Irish Girl – 1806 – Lady Morgan

19. Corinne – 1810 – Madame de Stael

20. The Scottish Chiefs – 1810 – Jane Porter

21. The Absentee – 1812 – Maria Edgeworth

22. Pride and Prejudice – 1813 – Jane Austen

23. Headlong Hall – 1816 – Thomas Love Peacock

24. Frankenstein – 1818 – Mary Shelley

25. Marriage – 1818 – Susan Ferrier

26. The Ayrshire Legatees – 1820 – John Galt

27. Valerius – 1821 – John Gibson Lockhart

28. Wilhelm Meister – 1821 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

29. Kenilworth – 1821 – Sir Walter Scott

30. Bracebridge Hall – 1822 – Washington Irving

31. The Epicurean – 1822 – Thomas Moore

32. The Adventures of Hajji Baba – 1824 – James Morier (“usually reckoned his best”)

33. The Betrothed – 1825 – Alessandro Manzoni

34. Lichtenstein – 1826 – Wilhelm Hauff

35. The Last of the Mohicans – 1826 – Fenimore Cooper

36. The Collegians – 1828 – Gerald Griffin

37. The Autobiography of Mansie Wauch – 1828 – David M. Moir

38. Richelieu – 1829 – G. P. R. James (the “first and best” novel by the “doyen of historical novelists”)

39. Tom Cringle’s Log – 1833 – Michael Scott

40. Mr. Midshipman Easy – 1834 – Frederick Marryat

41. Le Père Goriot – 1835 – Honoré de Balzac

42. Rory O’More – 1836 – Samuel Lover (another first novel, inspired by one of the author’s own ballads)

43. Jack Brag – 1837 – Theodore Hook

44. Fardorougha the Miser – 1839 – William Carleton (“a grim study of avarice and Catholic family life. Critics consider it the author’s finest achievement”)

45. Valentine Vox – 1840 – Henry Cockton (yet another first novel)

46. Old St. Paul’s – 1841 – Harrison Ainsworth

47. Ten Thousand a Year – 1841 – Samuel Warren (“immensely successful”)

48. Susan Hopley – 1841 – Catherine Crowe (“the story of a resourceful servant who solves a mysterious crime”)

49. Charles O’Malley – 1841 – Charles Lever

50. The Last of the Barons – 1843 – Bulwer Lytton

51. Consuelo – 1844 – George Sand

52. Amy Herbert – 1844 – Elizabeth Sewell

53. Adventures of Mr. Ledbury – 1844 – Elizabeth Sewell

54. Sybil – 1845 – Lord Beaconsfield (a. k. a. Benjamin Disraeli)

55. The Three Musketeers – 1845 – Alexandre Dumas

56. The Wandering Jew – 1845 – Eugène Sue

57. Emilia Wyndham – 1846 – Anne Marsh

58. The Romance of War – 1846 – James Grant (“the narrative of the 92nd Highlanders’ contribution from the Peninsular campaign to Waterloo”)

59. Vanity Fair – 1847 – W. M. Thackeray

60. Jane Eyre – 1847 – Charlotte Brontë

61. Wuthering Heights – 1847 – Emily Brontë

62. The Vale of Cedars – 1848 – Grace Aguilar

63. David Copperfield – 1849 – Charles Dickens

64. The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell – 1850 – Anne Manning (“written in a pastiche seventeenth-century style and printed with the old-fashioned typography and page layout for which there was a vogue at the period . . .”)

65. The Scarlet Letter – 1850 – Nathaniel Hawthorne

66. Frank Fairleigh – 1850 – Francis Smedley (“Smedley specialised in fiction that is hearty and active, with a strong line in boisterous college escapades and adventurous esquestrian exploits”)

67. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – 1851 – H. B. Stowe

68. The Wide Wide World – 1851 – Susan Warner (Elizabeth Wetherell)

69. Nathalie – 1851 – Julia Kavanagh

70. Ruth – 1853 – Elizabeth Gaskell

71. The Lamplighter – 1854 – Maria Susanna Cummins

72. Dr. Antonio – 1855 – Giovanni Ruffini

73. Westward Ho! – 1855 – Charles Kingsley

74. Debit and Credit (Soll und Haben) – 1855 – Gustav Freytag

75. Tom Brown’s School-Days – 1856 – Thomas Hughes

76. Barchester Towers – 1857 – Anthony Trollope

77. John Halifax, Gentleman – 1857 – Dinah Mulock (a. k. a. Dinah Craik; “the best-known Victorian fable of Smilesian self-improvement”)

78. Ekkehard – 1857 – Viktor von Scheffel

79. Elsie Venner – 1859 – O. W. Holmes

80. The Woman in White – 1860 – Wilkie Collins

81. The Cloister and the Hearth – 1861 – Charles Reade

82. Ravenshoe – 1861 – Henry Kingsley (“There is much confusion in the plot to do with changelings and frustrated inheritance” in this successful novel by Charles Kingsley’s younger brother, the “black sheep” of a “highly respectable” family)

83. Fathers and Sons – 1861 – Ivan Turgenieff

84. Silas Marner – 1861 – George Eliot

85. Les Misérables – 1862 – Victor Hugo

86. Salammbô – 1862 – Gustave Flaubert

87. Salem Chapel – 1862 – Margaret Oliphant

88. The Channings – 1862 – Ellen Wood (a. k. a. Mrs Henry Wood)

89. Lost and Saved – 1863 – The Hon. Mrs. Norton

90. The Schönberg-Cotta Family – 1863 – Elizabeth Charles

91. Uncle Silas – 1864 – Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

92. Barbara’s History – 1864 – Amelia B. Edwards (“Confusingly for bibliographers, she was related to Matilda Betham-Edwards and possibly to Annie Edward(e)s . . .”)

93. Sweet Anne Page – 1868 – Mortimer Collins

94. Crime and Punishment – 1868 – Feodor Dostoieffsky

95. Fromont Junior – 1874 – Alphonse Daudet

96. Marmorne – 1877 – P. G. Hamerton (“written under the pseudonym Adolphus Segrave”)

97. Black but Comely – 1879 – G. J. Whyte-Melville

98. The Master of Ballantrae – 1889 – R. L. Stevenson

99. Reuben Sachs – 1889 – Amy Levy

100. News from Nowhere – 1891 – William Morris

And those lucky living eight:

An Egyptian Princess – 1864 – Georg Ebers

Rhoda Fleming – 1865 – George Meredith

Lorna Doone – 1869 – R. D. Blackmore

Anna Karenina – 1875 – Count Leo Tolstoi

The Return of the Native – 1878 – Thomas Hardy

Daisy Miller – 1878 – Henry James

Mark Rutherford – 1881 – W. Hale White

Le Rêve – 1889 – Emile Zola


I thought the list was very interesting as a testament of conventional (if somewhat retarditaire) critical opinion of the period. I was also most delighted to be provided with listings of so many now-forgotten titles, once greatly admired, and immediately proceeded to start collecting and reading them. It is interesting see how the fortunes of (most, but not all) individual novels and authors commonly go up and down. The novel-most-admired-in-1898 is commonly forgotten in 1930. Autre temps, autre livres!

Our list was clearly complied at a time when the reputation of several of the great Russians had yet to catch on. Mark Twain was clearly too vulgar and colonial to have attracted the admiration of Clement K. Shorter. I thought most of his list was predictable, but I really relished hearing about all the unfamiliar titles, all those Walter-Scott-inspired historical novels. Even better, these older books tend to be free these days. Just download the ebook to your reader and go.

15 Apr 2013

Contemporary Poetry: High-Minded and “Evolved”


poetry reading

David Yezzi kicks the simpering, prating, effeminate ass of contemporary poetry around the block.

Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun. Most poets choose to play it safe, combining a few approved modes in a variety of unexceptional ways: lyrical, pastoral, whimsical, surrealist, lyrical-pastoral, pastoral-surrealist, interior-lyrical, whimsical-lyrical-interior-surrealist, and so on. These poems feel at home in coffee shops and on college campuses; they circulate breezily among crowds of like-minded poems and all of them work hard to be liked. (They are also beloved of prize committees and radio hosts.) Not since the Edwardians has a period style felt so pinched, though, ironically, today’s poetry is offered as “new”—either ground-breakingly populist or transgressively avant-garde. As Joshua Mehigan puts it in a recent issue of Poetry:

    In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game.

How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.

Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.

05 Apr 2011

Now Playing at the Only Movie Theater in Hell…

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The late Susan Sontag’s hyperintellectual perspective was formed as part of the post-WWII Beat, Queer, Żydokomuna (a Polish term for the well-known Jewish cultural penchant for Marxism) international left-wing counter-cultural intelligentsia. Sontag actually broke with the left in the early 1980s, after the news of what had happened in Cambodia came out, but inevitably over the course of her long literary career, Susan Sontag was normally to be found in the mainstream of contemporary political fashion, and she several times went on the record saying very foolish things.

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, the sharp-tongued Joseph Epstein took the occasion of the publication of a new memoir of life with Sontag by one of her former minions, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, to deliver some just criticism for some of Sontag’s worst statements and behavior and to put her in her place in cultural history once and for all.

In Epstein’s view, Susan Sontag was just a pretty girl with a remarkable gift for self-promotion.

A single essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published in Partisan Review in 1964, launched Susan Sontag’s career, at the age of 31, and put her instantly on the Big Board of literary reputations. People speak of ideas whose time has not yet come; hers was a talent for promoting ideas that arrived precisely on time. “Notes on ‘Camp,'” along with a companion essay called “Against Interpretation,” vaunted style over content: “The idea of content,” Ms. Sontag wrote, “is today merely a hindrance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.” She also held interpretation to be “the enemy of art.” She argued that Camp, a style marked by extravagance, epicene in character, expressed a new sensibility that would “dethrone the serious.” In its place she would put, with nearly equal standing, such cultural items as comic books, wretched movies, pornography watched ironically, and other trivia.

These essays arrived as the 1960s were about to come to their tumultuous fruition and provided an aesthetic justification for a retreat from the moral judgment of artistic works and an opening to hedonism, at least in aesthetic matters. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” ended, “we need an erotics of art.” She also argued that the old division between highbrow and lowbrow culture was a waste not so much of time as of the prospects for enjoyment. Toward this end she lauded the movies—”cinema is the active, the most exciting, the most important of all the art forms right now”—as well as science fiction and popular music.

These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner. They read as if they were a translation, probably, if one had to guess, from the French. They would have been more impressive, of course, if their author were herself a first-class artist. This, Lord knows, Susan Sontag strained to be. She wrote experimental fiction that never came off; later in her career she wrote more traditional fiction, but it, too, arrived dead on the page.

The problem is that Sontag wasn’t sufficiently interested in real-life details, the lifeblood of fiction, but only in ideas. She also wrote and directed films, which were not well-reviewed: I have not seen these myself, but there is time enough to do so, for I have long assumed that they are playing as a permanent double feature in the only movie theater in hell.


Good abuse, but not entirely just. True, Susan Sontag yearned to write important novels, to score a breakthrough with some plus nouveaux nouveau roman and also to rise to the level of auteur in the most challenging regions of the cinema where she felt herself most at home as a critic and a fan. And it is true that she was not particularly successful as a novelist. Her earlier novels The Benefactor and Death Kit were formalist experiments whose only excellence lay in inducing sleep with certainty. Her later novels seemed to me even less interesting.

Her films were clearly not successful. I cannot defend or criticize her four films, as I too am waiting to see them repeatedly in the hereafter with mild alarm. But Sontag does deserve better on the basis of her essays and her criticism.

It is easy to mock the manifesto calling for criticism as an erotics of art, rather than a hermeneutics. Susan Sontag’s rhetoric and critical aspirations were bold and uninhibited and a trifle prone to overreach, but her critical essays were also a breath of fresh and exotic air blowing into middlebrow American culture from the heights of Montparnasse.

Countless Americans found their way to the accessible cinema of Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut beckoned by the beacon of Sontag’s travelogues from the remote and inaccessible regions of Antonioni, Bresson, and Ozu. Sontag made the concept of the avante-garde into the art cinema’s equivalent of “the banner with a strange device.”

It was not enough, this passionate young woman persuaded readers, to appreciate the familiar and the beautiful, it was necessary to press on, to leap beyond present artistic and cultural forms of understanding and expression, to conquer strange new heights and plumb unprecedented depths. Susan Sontag seemed, back then, a cultural Joan of Arc, leading the literary and cinematic audience forward in a headlong assault on possibility and the existing state of literature and the arts in a brave and determined effort to break through the barriers and liberate new forms of cultural expression and understanding.

Today, when I watch Last Year at Marienbad or L’Aventurra, when I look into a novel by Nathalie Saurraute, I feel rather the way a veteran of a lost, romantic cause, like some aged grenadier of the wars of Napoleon, must feel thinking back and remembering Austerlitz or Marengo. I smile ruefully at the memory of being young and naive enough to believe that this sort of thing would come to anything, but I also remember the aspirations and the hopes we entertained back then.

Susan Sontag is extremely vulnerable to all the criticisms to which mainsteam Western high culture in the second half of the last century is vulnerable. She was naively romantic, prone to left-wing postures and insanity, and not above following the community of fashion herd into disgraceful positions. But she was still a heroine who, at times, at least, brought great honor to that same high culture and the same civilization her entire class was usually busy trying to destroy.

I knew her a little, and when I lived in New York, I would exchange greetings with her at the kind of key cultural events at which we would both invariably be present. I would also run into her sometimes at the revival houses, and we occasionally sat together and watched Mizoguchi or Renoir at Bleeker Street. Perhaps someday at the cinema in Tartarus mentioned by Mr. Epstein, I can sit beside her and discuss Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl.

13 Jan 2007

Marginalized Figures in American Art

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William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845
Oil on canvas; 28 1/2 x 36 in. (72.4 x 91.4 cm)
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown

John Wilmerding, in the Wall Street Journal, rhapsodizes over a pleasant enough America genre painting, dragging in the Ancient Greeks, and homing in unerringly on the real subtext of the painting: the sublimely important themes of race and inequality.

Following a period of renovation and curatorial research, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845) by the American genre painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) has gone back on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The star of the museum’s collection, the work is also generally acknowledged to be one of the classics in the history of American art. Why? Because it is both a beautiful and a significant painting. First is its formal beauty, the serene clarity of its composition, organized around its multiple pairings and reflections…

The structure is classical, consisting mainly of stable horizontals and verticals, along with the dominant triangle formed by paddle, boat and fishing spear, reminiscent of a Greek revival pediment dominant in American architecture at the time. The boat is centered in the nearground, parallel both to the picture plane and to the shoreline behind. In its solid volume and monumental stance the standing figure recalls the spirit of Greco-Roman statuary, such as that of the spearbearer. (Mount could have seen casts of ancient sculpture in his years of study in New York.) But the stillness, harmony and sense of equipoise are also an expression of nature’s hold on the American imagination in the mid-19th century, the country’s self-confident spirit, and Mount’s personal celebration of memory and meditation…

“Eel Spearing” appears to be apolitical, though its thoughtful mood and stable structure suit the sense of racial harmony. Mount achieves this by telling his story with characters marginalized in American society at the time — the child, the woman, the black. (Imagine how much more provocative his work would have been had the dominant figure been a black male.)

Wilmerding, astonishingly, overlooks the degree to which small dogs (not to mention: eels!) were not only marginalized in the wicked America of James K. Polk, but remain marginalized today.

Power to the pointy-eared terriers and the slimey anguilliformes!

The insensitive, of course, would say the painting merely represents a pleasant and nostalgic bucolic sporting idyll.

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