The Image of a Writer

November 28th, 2012

Early in 1851, Herman Melville’s friend and publisher Evert Duyckinck asked the author for a daguerreotype to publish in his magazine, The Literary World. Melville, then in the midst of writing a massive, rumbustious novel that would become Moby-Dick, protested that he had no such photograph, adding, “And if I had, I would not send it . . . even to you.”

Eleven years later, the Atlantic Monthly editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, made a similar request to an obscure, retiring poet named Emily Dickinson who had written a letter asking if her verses “breathed.” Her response was much like Melville’s, if typically elliptical: “Could you believe me—without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves—Would this do just as well?”

In Humanities Magazine, Randall Fuller, an English professor at the University of Tulsa, explores the tension between literary art and democracy.

In reviewing Michael Kearns’s recent book Writing for the Street, Writing in the Garret: Melville, Dickinson, and Private Publication, Fuller focuses specifically on the 19th-century American writers Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, both of whom strongly reacted against the worry that “attaining a democratic audience sometimes entailed a diminishing of literary standards.” 

Fuller writes:

In some respects, Melville and Dickinson had the great misfortune of writing just as antebellum America was creating a mass audience for its authors. With almost universal literacy among its nonslave population, increasingly sophisticated publishing and transportation networks, and a widespread yearning for a national culture different from but equal to that of Europe, America had for the first time in its brief history a truly national audience that seemed within reach to many writers. […]

Attaining such popularity invariably involved certain trade-offs. As Kearns notes, “The work of authorship [then as now] requires engaging in publicity, negotiating the best deal, shopping one’s goods, reading and marking proof, and other activities that may strike a writer as unpleasantly sordid.” The correspondence of Hawthorne, Stowe, and many other writers of the period is filled with responses to requests for autographs, speaking engagements, and other chores that often took away from time spent writing.

More important, attaining a democratic audience sometimes entailed a diminishing of literary standards. For years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t studied in the academy because it was believed to be too popular, too sentimental, too unconcerned with exceptional language use. Even Whitman, one of the most vocal spokespersons for a broad-based national literature, expressed some reservations about mass audiences in his Democratic Vistas. “I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil,” he announced, “until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art. . . .” The only problem, he continued, is that too often the tastes of the crowd fail to encourage difficult ideas or rich and multilayered literary language. Publishers were therefore motivated to appeal to vulgar sensibilities in order to maximize profit. “It seems as if . . . there were some natural repugnance between a literary . . . life,” Whitman laments, “and the rude rank spirit of the democracies.”

As Kearns reveals in Writing for the Street, Writing in the Garret, Melville felt this particular conundrum with acuity. In a famous letter to Hawthorne, written several months after his refusal to Duyckinck, he complained, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.  . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” […]

Although Kearns focuses exclusively on Melville and Dickinson, his book is suggestive for the way in which both authors serve as forerunners to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It was precisely their distaste for a mass audience—which they viewed as degraded by the yellow journalism of daily newspapers and magazines—that impelled modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others to produce difficult works meant to distance themselves from the democratic readers of their period. Their solution to the problem of producing art in a democratic society has sent generations of students through the thickets of footnotes and reference guides.

On the other hand, serious authors who courted larger audiences quickly found themselves victims of overwhelming market forces, their lives commodified and branded by publishers and public relations. Twentieth-century prose authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac are among the best-known authors who became ensnared by their image. J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon reacted against the literary PR machinery by recusing themselves from the public eye.

Ultimately, if paradoxically, it was Dickinson and Melville’s refusal to court and attain a mass audience while they lived that has resulted in their enduring canonical status. Early in the twentieth century, both artists were “rediscovered” and appropriated by scholars and cultural opinion-makers. In classrooms and anthologies, and later in film treatments and book clubs, the two iconoclasts were, in Kearns’s words, “shaped to fit the alienated-artist, garret-dwelling, antimaterialistic narrative of early twentieth-century American literature.” If our understanding of Melville and Dickinson continues to change and develop, one interpretation continues to stand out. Both authors, in the words of scholar Thomas Inge, “represent the danger and tragedy of being an artist in a democratic, capitalist society, where pleasing the tastes of the mob and making money counted for more than producing a classic work of literature.”

As you read Fuller’s complete article, consider the questions he raises. What is the relationship between art and democracy? Can a work of literature both fulfill its artistic purpose and appeal to a widespread audience? If there necessarily exists some tension between artistic literature and a democratic society, what accounts for this tension? Is it something to do with the purposes of art? 

Related: Read Willa Cather’s short story “The Namesake,” which explores the meaning and purpose of art and stories. 

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