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Thomas Larson: The Great Literary Future Behind Us

December 20, 2013

The fourth installment of The Social Author examines how literature lost its conversational dynamic, and why that’s a bad thing.

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Image from Flickr via giesenbauer

By Thomas Larson

Among the still-active maxims of literature’s evolving identity is that writing is carved in stone while speech and social authorship, once uttered, blow away. As I noted in my previous Guernica essay, capitalizing on this dynamic is the secret of the Bible’s reach. When a reader switches to the aural realm, reciting and hearing the book makes the page—and its message—more compelling. The Bible lasts because it works both orally and in print. The book achieves immortality because it is a number one print seller and the most talked about and handled book in our language.

What is also fascinating to see, across time, is an oral form accommodate, and be partially replaced, by print. The novel, a wholly printed text after Gutenberg, had narrative antecedents in the centuries-old recited epic. The novel’s touchstones are its intimate characters, intricate plots, and winding verisimilitude, whose compressed leaves allow all those things to multiply slowly and deliberately. It’s a print-enabled long form, which by the time of Dickens and Trollope coursed on to a thousand pages per book. (Such a book takes about twice as long to read as the first season of House of Cards takes to watch.) By the 20th century, we deemed most literary those doggedly print-only authors: Don DeLillo, for example, who writes terror-toned postmodern tales that coil and strike from their page-obsessed quiet.

Our literary history has been redefined via the women’s movement, and our growing multiculturalism. We embrace a plurality of expressive authorship over the purity of literary form.

Despite the bookish sanctity of DeLillo, or, say, Jonathan Franzen, Octavia E. Butler, or Raymond Carver, the whole web of America’s literature is not reflected in the work of these sorts of private writers, who’ve flourished the last 75 years. Our literary history has been redefined via the women’s movement, and our growing multiculturalism. We embrace a plurality of expressive authorship over the purity of literary form—poem, play, novel. We celebrate those unrecognized voices, oral and textual, of the last three hundred years: ex-slaves, women, immigrants, Native Americans, diarists, debaters, bloggers, graphic artists, songwriters, hip-hop poets, memoirists, hyper-texters, video essayists, and more. This inclusion, some of it bulking up the Norton anthology or reimagined in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’ A New Literary History of America (“in which literary means not only what is written but also what is voiced”), has expanded what literature is or should be. Where did these authors come from? Not out of nowhere. They nurtured themselves in a kind of secondary, parallel habitation of the word, which is rooted in the multivocal discourses of the 19th century.

***

Here’s a way to think about the limitations of the print-only author: Take five popular literary writers of the last 100 years (Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace) and five of roughly equal stature from the 19th century (Douglass, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Twain, Whitman). What’s the difference? None of the first five is known for their talk, less still for their public engagement. Their predecessors are renowned not only for their writing, but for talking, lecturing, performing. Our literary forebears are separated from us by the loudness of the 19th-century’s acoustic space, which, due to the 20th-century’s paperback book trade and the cloistered study of literature in universities, gave way to an environment of soundless reading.

The 19th-century writer argued with and educated an audience, which, in turn, experienced an author’s development of his or her ideas in real time.

In the previous century, we deified the print-pure writer: Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger forged careers (and personae) by not speaking—to anyone. But many 19th-century American authors used their speeches, storytelling, and table talk, an interactive trial and error, to inform their writing. I like to think Emerson and Twain balanced the sensory spectrum in their work, while stay-at-homes Melville, Hawthorne, and Henry James nursed prose of rhetorical excess. The 19th-century writer argued with and educated an audience, which, in turn, experienced an author’s development of his or her ideas in real time. (In his Hartford home, Twain read aloud his stories to his children after dinner, and his essays to his billiard-playing friends after the kids went to bed.) Print, before it shushed everyone, accompanied and reinforced the oral. The idea was that a writer’s speaking voice—the actual sound or style—was there, on the page, still audible in, or made audible by, the reader. A sounding quality that was, in the course of the 20th century, muted.

In 1948, as the period of the ink-only writer solidified, Lionel Trilling defined and lauded Mark Twain’s colloquial speech as a new literature in his essay, “Huckleberry Finn.” Trilling wrote that Twain’s style was “simple, direct, and fluent, maintaining the rhythm of the word-groups of speech and the intonations of the speaking voice.” During the 19th century, the Yankee turn on British grandiloquence was, Trilling writes, “the American reader,” “keenly interested in the actualities of daily speech. No literature, indeed, was ever so taken up with matters of speech as ours was.”

Out of that passion came Twain’s novels, our “classic prose,” in Trilling’s phrase: “He is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.”

Twain exploited male and female narrators, whether in print (often parodying Walter Scott novels) or as live storytelling (his tales told in dialect by crazy Westerners), and it’s no stretch to say that Twain’s out-loud, indigenous style mirrored a favored—and trusted—way for Americans to speak: direct (Harry Truman, Chris Christie) is better than long-winded (Woodrow Wilson, Mitt Romney); unadorned (Elmore Leonard, Walter Cronkite) is more emotionally honest than ornate (John Updike, Masters & Johnson); parallel constructions (Martin Luther King, Christopher Hitchens) are more persuasive and memorable than the cumulative style (David Foster Wallace, Keith Olbermann).

These elements of the American tongue seeded our literacy: Samuel Clemens’s stagecraft as the multi-personalities of Mark Twain, the passionate lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the chautauquas of the great agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, led people to want to read—to attune their eyes to the sounding sense of these orators and tale-tellers. According to Tatiana Schlossberg in McSweeney’s, the U.S. literacy rate rose from 80 percent in 1870 to 95 percent in 1940. Nearly all Americans are taught to read, a hallmark of universal education. But today the majority read no literature after their schooling; only a few go on to read for pleasure. To rival the immersive ease of film and TV, readers need to be inspired or entertained, something at which the speaking voice excels. Today, the voice grounds the celebrity memoir, where the talentless and famous get book deals (Sarah Palin, Justin Beiber) not because they can write but because a book can be marketed via their visual/audible presence on TV or in the movies. As long as celebrity autobiography sounds as though the star is talking, one is induced to read.

Other oral-based staples of the 19th century include the Indian captivity and the slave narratives, along the lines of Mary Rowlandson and Harriet Ann Jacobs. These tales of bondage and freedom open with the drama of liberation and end with the blessing of literacy: the illiterate person escapes, tells the story of her horrid treatment, which is then verified or, sometimes, written or edited by a famous author; or else the ex-slave authors the story herself, her emancipation demonstrated by the ability to write.

***

Like most church-bred abolitionists, Emerson was a fiery orator. Robert Richardson tells us in Emerson: The Mind on Fire that the Unitarian minister was, by the mid-1850s, lecturing some 80 days per year, on tour by train for six months, barnstorming New England and the upper Midwest. His venue was the lyceum—modest, non-religious meeting halls—providing then, Richardson notes, “what YMCAs and community colleges provide now,” that is, direct education for lifelong learners. As often as Emerson inspired the crowd, he provoked their disagreement, becoming the lightning rod for abolitionist and free-thinking (read: non-Biblical) beliefs.

Emerson’s prose—twisted syntax, classical erudition, is a conflation of thoughts arranged helter-skelter from his journals. But his speech (alas, no recording exists) was, hearers said, clear and profound.

Emerson’s prose—twisted syntax, classical erudition, is a conflation of thoughts arranged helter-skelter from his journals. But his speech (alas, no recording exists) was, hearers said, clear and profound. As Emerson himself wrote, speaking exhilarated him:

Precisely what the painter or the sculptor or the epic rhapsodist feels, I feel in the presence of this house, which stands to me for the human race, the desire, namely to express myself fully, symmetrically, gigantically to them, not dwarfishly and fragmentarily.

Could those last two adverbs refer to the confines of the printed word? His essays are masterpieces not of structure, but of singularly rich sentences that, strung together, achieve didactic, even quotable, sonorousness at the expense of neighborly cohesion. Writing may arise from, but should not, literally, mimic talk: Emerson advised his flock to keep a journal, “rendering account to yourself of yourself in some more rigorous manner and at more certain intervals than mere conversation.” Lecturing simplifies journal and essay to benefit an audience; it also enacts language in the speaker’s body. For Emerson, essaying was incomplete without its spokesman, one of many reasons he championed the songfulness of Walt Whitman’s poetry.

My characterizing Emerson, in his time, as a complete living author—my catchall term for the speaker-conversationalist-performer-writer I’m identifying is the “social author”—pushes literary history’s reverence for the writer aside to make room for a broader definition. For most today, if they read him, Emerson is the maverick American essayist. But for those 150 years ago he was primarily a lecturer, a big-idea man who embodied flesh-and-blood concepts like self-reliance and character-over-intellect for the masses, promulgated hall by hall.

Another forceful public author was Margaret Fuller, contextualized in literary history as a columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, author of the feminist tract Woman in the Nineteenth Century and editor of The Dial, the organ of the Transcendental Club. In her day, Fuller was an intellectual and a teacher, regarded more as a “conversationalist” than a writer. The French novelist George Sand thought Fuller’s prose was “curiously inferior to the impressions her conversation gave you.” Her talks, mostly for women, were informal affairs in intimate venues, where current topics like “divine love” or women’s equality were robustly received. For Fuller to publish accounts of such talks legitimized her authority to a readership devoted to men and their publications. The Dial had, in the 1840s, only 200 subscribers; it’s likely that her well-spokenness spread much further, via direct communication with audiences.

And then there’s Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855 and got lost, largely unread, in the rush up to the War Between the States. During the war he volunteered in Union army hospitals in and around Washington D.C. He attended to the dying, some as young as thirteen. He often took dictation of their last words, in the form of letters home. One scholar argues that by visiting the expiring soldiers, the subject of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman set out “to do in person what his book had failed to do.” In his journals, Whitman estimates that in three years he spent time with some 80,000 men. This sounds like a boast about book sales, the sort an author makes once he’s got a bestseller. But I think there’s also a touch of humility to the exaggeration: Whitman loved practicing democracy—bed-by-bed, person-to-person, mouth-to-ear, hand-on-heart.

Unable to get his book read, Whitman did the next best thing: he took himself/the book (there is no difference for him) to these strangers, all potential readers, certainly captive listeners: one by one he delivered lines and witnessed them received; one by one he bore the last words of the dying to their families, words he sculpted with remembered utterance as he wrote. All his life, Whitman re-voiced much of Leaves of Grass in new editions, the reviser a re-speaker, his text, borne on his lips, in service to others.

As Whitman speaks, he is listened to; the other speaks, and Whitman listens in return.

That structure of shaping his words through dialogic interplay is one key measure of Whitman’s free verse. Ample precedent exists in American literature for our writers’ calling out for a response. More and more, contemporary writers no longer conceal their passion for such engagement. If you bend an ear (to the chatty detachment of Geoff Dyer, the self-therapy of Elizabeth Gilbert, a gazillion blog posts), you hear a kind of vocalist’s fluency, almost like a rhythm section, humming along, drawing just enough attention to itself as the soloist soloes above.

Recently, the documentary filmmaker David Hoffman remarked that one nagging unknown of the 19th-century’s most famous orator, Abraham Lincoln, is how he sounded. (Imagine our never having heard Barack Obama.) “If I had a choice,” Hoffman said, “to see [a film of] Lincoln or to hear him, I want to hear him. I know what he looks like. I don’t know what he sounds like. Everything is in the power of voice.” The greatness of the Gettysburg Address lies in its tightly packed style—ten sentences, 270 words, Biblical cadences pinged on Anglo-Saxon words. A face speaking without sound means we get about one percent of the person. Add sound and suddenly the person (and, if well-attuned, the message) rings whole.

Had we kept nurturing our blustery orality—which many, especially the post-Robert Frost poets, gave up for print and long-windedness in the 20th century—our writing would have grasped its multimedial potential much sooner.

I want these aural elements—timbre, volume, rhythm, pitch, voice—to live in our literature as they once did. Perhaps that’s the new social author’s calling: to maintain intimacy with the oral realm. Another way to say this, had we kept nurturing our blustery orality—which many, especially the post-Robert Frost poets, gave up for print and long-windedness in the 20th century—our writing would have grasped its multimedial potential much sooner. I wonder whether a more ear-alive book culture would have had room for—and lionized—Sylvia Plath and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this why the beat writers continue to fascinate us, still noisily contemporary with their baggy mix of verse and prose and jazz? What has been gained by muting our literature’s conversational dynamic, its author-and-audience give-and-take, except a desire for its return?

***

Where next for “The Social Author”? I’m going to leap out of the past and linger with a few current writers, speaker-orators, musicians, and TV personalities who make the visual-oral stage central to their message, among them, Christopher Hitchens and Rachel Maddow. I’ll also take an off-ramp or two into Dylanology and the oral vs. the written Mike Tyson, with some surprises along the way.

Thomas Larson is the author of three books:
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative
, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the forthcoming The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.

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