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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Separated at Birth?

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/11/06 at 02:37 AM

While paying my respects among the obituaries for Hunter S. Thompson, I read that Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side had been an important early influence. (Isn’t this kind of curiosity, wanting to know what came before, one of the most basic, primitive features of the scholarly mind?) When I got around to Walk, the relation to Thompson seemed clear. Let’s say Algren displays lots of narrative brio. But the first part of the book, set in the Rio Grande Valley, in the (literally) godforsaken town of Arroyo, sparked an odd association. The narration was surprisingly disjointed, shifting between paragraphs, or between sentences, similar to the swerving rants of the novel’s alcoholic sidewalk preacher, Fitz Linkhorn.

In its dreamlike juxtapositions, Walk on the Wild Side oddly resembled something I’d read a couple of years ago, John Hawkes’s 1951 novel, The Beetle Leg. Both are set in arid, futile locations: the Hawkes a thousand miles or so west of the Algren, in the death-in-life of an inhabited ghost town, the former construction camp of a dam. The dam has failed to bring life to the desert, but a handful of zombie-like characters remain. Nothing happens there, it would seem, other than the dam slowly shifting the width of a beetle’s leg every year (thus symbolizing a High Modernist topos, the least possible difference). This early novel of Hawkes’s is High Modernism at its highest, an intensely wrought exercise in narration by omission. The individual elements of the story, disconnected from each other, take on a numinous quality, though it’s a cold glow. I could imagine that a young David Lynch read this book and burned with the thought of making movies just like it. Which he didn’t. Even at his best, there’s a whiff of cheese about Lynch’s work. Hawkes is much too dry for any curdling.

In sensibility, Hawkes is nothing like the social realism of Algren. I had a very strange consciousness reading Walk of the time between its 1955 publication date and its 1931 setting. It’s very much a historical novel. (But how long will that mere quarter century remain perceivable? Will someone reading one hundred years from now notice it?)

In both books, however, the lack of connection between narrative elements becomes a formal device for representing the aridity of the setting, the lack of life between the (physically and emotionally) scattered inhabitats. The narration becomes as spare as the landscape.

But get away from the dry and the comparison ends. By the time Walk gets to New Orleans, its central location, things get very wet, gin and sin and all that, and the characters start talking like the songs in the American Anthology of Folk Music (which is okeh with me).

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest difference between the novels: after leaving Arroyo, the narration of Walk on the Wild Side is driven by its characters. It feeds off their dialogue, mimics them. The narration of The Beetle Leg is driven by its sentences. It shapes them, whittles them down till they’re as spare as bones in the desert.


I put Hawkes on my to-read list in about 1965, but never got around to it. In between times he was almost forgotten, so I was able to relax. Until you came along. I read Algren about that time, but I don’t remember much but disjointedness and a lot of vivid sordidness.

A lot of American “realism” has a strong quality of caricature—vivid “characters” whom most readers would never meet. Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell are two examples—in Tobacco Road, IIRC, a guy trades a raw turnip for sex with a 15-year old.

I suspect something like that might be true of Algren.

By John Emerson on 01/11/06 at 09:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment


It’s not quite as over the top as Tobacco Road, but Walk on the Wild Side has a good number of such types.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/11/06 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Algren on the Valve? Bodacious. I perused the Man With the Golden Arm, once, eons ago; the flick with Sinatra was not bad--off-kilter cinematography and a mingus-noir bad craziness soundtrack. Though Algren is not my fave (nor is much of the Kerouac school; Chandler/Hammett more suited to my tastes in pulp), Algren as formative influence on HS Thompson seems interesting. I don’t recall much of Algren’s style (there is a collection of his short stories as well) other than a sort of primitivism--but as they used to say, when lit. people still valued integrity, there is an authenticity to Algren’s writing, as there is, occasionally, even in the gonzo madness of HST. Ho-wood (and perhaps people like Lynch are to blame) has of course taken that whole beat-expressionist doom to the bank for decades, the urban drunk-druggie scenes of an Algren now sort of a cliche; and the kids who want the kicks of Beat, Inc. don’t read Algren or Kerouac or even HST, when they got Johnny Depp, corporate Beat.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/11/06 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Funnily enough, when Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassidy were unknowns they regularly fantasized about going to Hollywood and becoming screenwriters.

Somewhere ("The Proud Highway”?) Thompson clearly explained that he felt Algren’s “Linkhorn” character, and that character’s background, perfectly captured the essence of the type of men who became Hell’s Angels. In fact he wanted to begin his Hell’s Angels book with a chapter consisting of pages and pages of excerpts from Algren—much more than ended up in the final draft—but he wasn’t very politic in asking for permission, and he and Algren ended up exchanging unfriendly letters on the subject.

I’ve always thought that HST’s earliest stuff owed an unacknowledged debt to Norman Mailer, but I could be wrong. Also, I’m not familiar with Algren’s work, so maybe I was just picking up some common stylistic tendencies of the early 60s.

By scriblerus on 01/11/06 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s nice to be called bodacious! I’ll take as a New Year’s resolution: to do my part for a more bodacious Valve.

To make an obvious point, if one combines John and the Doctor’s points, one comes upon the interesting (in a good way!) question of the artifice of authenticity. (The character from Tobacco Road I remember is a woman w/only two nostrils for a nose. She ends up buying a Ford & driving it w/out oil. The car dies, but not before killing a black youth in a hit-and-run. It’s a grim book.)

& thanks Scrib for reminding me that Hell’s Angels is on my reading list.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/11/06 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Algren, as I remember, had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, playing the same part of “the sexy American primitive” that Ben Franklin had. Apparently he really was somewhat of a primitive, too.

In other words, even if his characters as written were caricatures, the people he actually knew and was writing about were genuinely peculiar too. (I don’t think that was true of Erskine Caldwell, who apparently was a patrician with Communist leanings).

I have met actual people who were too vivid for good fiction: the people in the Christian glue-sniffing commune; the developmentally disabled anarchist with Doukhobor connections who climbed Mount Rainier barefoot; and the midget heir (and not-too-distant cousin to a head of state) who did nothing but smoke dope continuously starting at age 15.

But I’m just lucky.

By John Emerson on 01/11/06 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of moderation or deletion, I would like to say I find this thread itself more authentically literary than the 10 preceding it, and the 10 following it. There are no shortage of theorists, aesthetes, or criticism or meta-criticism or whatever it is the Harry Blooms-in-training produce; yet rarely is there -on the Valve or most lit-blogs--some person uttering, like, “here is a writer who I dig, man.” There exists nothing worse than the careerist lit-twit who can give you 10 different interpretations of Titus Andronicus, correct your french irregular verbs, and tell you that all literature other than that produced by English or French aristocrats, or perhaps Roman senators, is worthless and vull--garr. He’d have you toss not only your collection of beat writers and sci-fi and pulp stash, but your math and logic texts as well. One of the Beats’ (and ah use the term loosely) more admirable aspects (and there are some not-so-admirable aspects) was the authenticity, and the lack of irony, the refusal to indulge in the Masterpiece Theatre chit-chat game. (Andre Breton also refused to do that obviously). 

I find the anti-rationalism of the Beats or Algren to be somewhat objectionable--one reason I enjoy reading say a Pynchon more than the somewhat narcissistic Kerouac, tho’ I will grant that Ti Jean had perhaps a better understanding, of loss, tragedy, desire in a sense--but far less objectionable than the Bloomsbury-like insider dialogue of most literature departments. (That’s not to say the gangsta-marxist dialogue is superior).

By Dr. Deeply on 01/12/06 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Doctor:

Thank you for the compliment. I would want to avoid, however, the stigma of what our Jonathan Goodwin has elsewhere called the “New Appreciationism.” Although I do like recommending books, the books I want to talk about are the ones that present challenges or problems, stuff I don’t understand. Books are great occassions for thinking.

Perhaps the difference is between talking about things you like and talking about things you do not like. Your comment has given me an idea. I think I might do up a separate post on this subject after the Moretti festivities have drawn to a close.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/12/06 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

De Nada. I don’t want to appear as if I were claiming sincerity and confessionalism and “nakedness” are inherently good qualities in writing:  Jonathan Swift over Sylvia Plath and most the 60s writers anyday.  But the Bloomsburian types, and the sort of Updike or Beattie realists have sort of dismissed all the delightfully eccentric, whimsical, and yes darker aspects of traditional English lit. as well as the beats and naturalists such as Algren. It is not Gulliver’s Travels, or the likes of Coleridge, or Lewis Carroll or Conan-Doyle that one sees being discussed on lit-blogs these days; it’s Woolfe, maybe some Henry James, Victorian mush, Janey Austen (ugh).  According to the lit. spinsters, Austen and Woolfe are the authentic, and Swift and Lewis Carroll novelties or oddities. That is sad. If Pound was correct in the best writers are great intellects, men such Dr. Johnson, Swift, Voltaire, Lewis Carroll are Apollos compared to the harpies such as Austen, Victorians, and Woolfe. (’scuzi if that is a bit off-topic)

By Dr. Deeply on 01/12/06 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson--

I would distinguish Steinbeck, Caldwell, and perhaps apres-le-lettre Algren and Selby from “realism” --they’re naturalists, writing in a genre pioneered by Frank Norris.  Grotesques popluate their fiction for almost utopic purposes, to hammer home what the gaping deficiencies in our political, social, or spiritual lives turn us into.

By on 01/12/06 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When I read anything described as realist or naturalist I am always struck by the degree of coloring that the authors give their material, as well as by the overly-vivid material they select for fictionalizing. But it’s done by selection of data to present.

Madame Bovary was Flaubert spilling his guts out by projection in imagined bits of concrete data. (I don’t claim that this is an original insight).

I am willing to cop to appreciationism.

By John Emerson on 01/13/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. D—you lost me with Austen, despite what I said above. And I think that Henry James’ stock has declined in the last decade or so.

Since I’ve started venting here and elsewhere, I’ve found that a lot of the things that pissed me off in 1985 are no longer as true as they were, and something like that may be happening to you too.

By John Emerson on 01/13/06 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Contra appreciationism: I saw an interview 1,000 years ago in which John Cleese was taking liberties w/his Python collaborators. He said that Terry Gilliam, being American, was of course stupid, and only had two things he could say about anything: “That’s fucking great” or “That fucking sucks.” One of my first college teachers made a similar comment about most of my fellow students, w/out the expletives. At times it seems we could reduce our language to three gestures: pointing at some thing, thumbs up, thumbs down.

Of course I exaggerate. But then there’s Wittgenstein’s lectures on aesthetics, where he goes on and on about the vapidity of calling something “beautiful.”

Yes, I too am a appreciationist. But it brings its own set of problems.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/13/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wittgenstein’s skepticism towards “beauty” (and from what I have read, literature itself) should be acknowledged. But the most powerful beat writers and New Journalists are certainly eschewing any sort of belle-lettrist notions of Longinus-like eloquence, are they not? I mean, read enough world history of the last 100 years and you may think the history of literature itself is a bad joke, and understand Adorno ‘s point that “After auschwitz, poetry is impossible”. Literary “appreciation”, especially of the classics, is difficult for anyone who has some mature understanding of 20th. cent. Literature of all sorts--traditional, countercultural, sci-fi-- often does serve as a type of intoxication (perhaps what Wittgenstein was hinting at in his typically oblique and frustrating manner); and this intoxication, not unrelated to various pop culture intoxications (pop-rock-rap music, movies, sports, consumerism) prevents or at least obscures historical and economic awareness. (I think Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home” does capture this basic sense of American amnesia or narcissism: Pvt. Krebs returns to Kansas after seeing the stacks of dead, tanks, machine guns, gas-- all the accoutrements of modern warfare-- and his mom fixes him some bacon and eggs.)

Most American consumers don’t “see” Verdun and trench warfare with 1 millions men dead in 2 weeks or so, or the Beer Hall Putsch, or the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, the camps, Hiroshima and ‘Nam: and literature and Ho-wood’s “spin” of the 20th cent. wars do not really come close to capturing the death and madness...Burroughs once yawped something like “there is not one idea or dream that Hollywood has not mocked and pimped” or something....

Those writers--and I would include the beats, New Journalists, Pynchon, some of the “cyberpunk” writers in this group-- who deal, somehow, with the wars, the deaths, absurdity, capitalism/communism to some sense--are worth reading. Those who don’t or gloss it over are worthy of scorn

By Dr. Deeply on 01/13/06 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know what appreciationists do, really. But my choice of readings is governed by appreciation or something like it. If I read a book, it’s because I hope to like it. I’m willing to grant that not everyone likes the same things, and that perhaps some of the stuff I read I appreciate is crap.

I sometimes read a book because I enjoy hating it, though not often. But that’s like minus-value appreciationism.

There are certain sorts of criticism which can be applied equally well to great books and crap, and while I wouldn’t want to forbid them, I’d hate to seem them become too influential, much less mandatory.

By John Emerson on 01/13/06 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are certain sorts of criticism which can be applied equally well to great books and crap, and while I wouldn’t want to forbid them, I’d hate to seem them become too influential, much less mandatory.

This is a great point. I wholeheartedly agree. But I just remembered a mini-crisis moment in my graduate studies, when I was talking w/a fellow who student who confessed that they thought Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a great book and were moved to tears each time they read it. What does one go from such a response?

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/14/06 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m against Appreciationism as well really. Better skepticism towards even the most hip of hepcats than a sort of literary cheerleader. And since writers such as Woolfe and the victorians have ascended into critical prominence, shouldn’t the Anti-appreciationists, in decent James-Dean style, sort of sneer at that as well? You are perhaps reaching for the J-Edgar button but I suggest one pragmatic and enjoyable solution to the sort of, hmmm, estrogen-fueled hegemony of most English departments might entail some decent, old-fashioned misogyny here on the SS Valvinius.  What say thee Larry.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/14/06 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Doc, I’d say no. No Little Rascals, He-Man Woman Haters Club here. I’ll save my hating for (1) myself & (2) those who are out to really get me (in other words, I prefer real politics to virtual politics).

You keep talking about getting censored. Are you trying to bring it on?

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/15/06 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does misogyny mean “he-man woman hater”? I don’t think so, man. There are a few women writers I admire to some degree--Didion, sort of--but it’s not like misogyny is not a somewhat noble literary tradition.  Consider Nietzsche for one--his comments on women, liberals, and the Victorian should be memorized.  Many 20th century writers had misogynist strains.  Trashing any number of male intellectuals or writers is always fashionable; but there are few males willing to refer to Virginia Woolfe’s or the Bronte’s writing as the bloviated, sentimental, pompous dreck that it is.

By Dr. Deeply on 01/15/06 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread is going sour. I would rather talk about books than authors. If we cannot change the topic, I will close down comments.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 01/15/06 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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