Monday, January 16, 2006

F.O. Matthiessen, Yale College, 1923

For the past few weeks I've been absorbed in the mind of F.O. Matthiessen, the great American scholar who is perhaps best known today as a fatality of McCarthyism.

Matthiessen, Professor of History and Literature at Harvard at his death, was gay and leftist at exactly the wrong time in American history. He was dogged by the Boston media as an Ivy League subversive, which ultimately led to his fatal plunge from the 12th floor of a Boston's Hotel Manger on April 1, 1950.

His greatest academic competition at the time was Newton Arvin, a Smith professor and -- like Matthiessen -- an expert in Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman. Arvin's story, recorded some years ago in Barry Werth's The Scarlet Professor, was similarly pathetic -- his home was raided for gay porn, which led him to rat on two younger colleagues, dragging down his career and theirs.

So much for human interest.

Both of these men live on through their works, and their works and the works of their subjects have already set 2006 on its course.

Matthiessen left behind a monumental work of literary scholarship: American Renaissance : Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. I saw it some weeks ago in a second-hand bookstore, and it has taken over my January. It focuses on a short but extraordinary time, 1850-1855, when American letters exploded into life, with the production of Emerson's Representative Men (1850), Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre(1852), Thoreau's Walden (1854) and Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855). The key works, more or less, of the Founding Fathers of American Literature. Henry James, of whom Matthiessen wrote a biography, is something of a supporting character throughout.

Matthiessen takes each of these writers and deals with them both individually and collectively, as friends and antagonists. The transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, the anti-transcendentalism of Hawthorne and Melville -- I haven't gotten to Whitman yet, so I can't say where he stands, but here's Matthiessen's precis: "Emerson's theory of expression was that on which Thoreau built, to which Whitman gave extension, and to which Hawthorne and Melville were indebted by being forced to react against its philosophical assumptions." Among all these, Matthiessen also spots a key influence: the 17th Century metaphysical poet Thomas Browne.

He also goes in great and sometimes pedagogical detail on the way Hawthorne and Melville approached symbol and allegory differently. Matthiessen really gets into all of these writers at a very deep level, probably more so than their respective biographers do, I'm guessing, because he gets into the mechanics of writing and style, and how each played off the other. Some of it is in this regard a struggle to get through, but all the way through you feel you're learning something. Learning everything. Matthiessen gives you new eyes to see these writers.

I dread his multiple 3 pt.-type footnotes, but I find myself reading and underscoring them as well -- in fact, sometimes that's where the real gold is; that's where he's most cogent, when by way of explaining some larger complex point he accidentally boils it down, sets you off on some other fascinating lead, or just drops some curious bit of information -- such as that Melville, an extremely close reader of Hawthorne, had almost nothing to say about The Scarlet Letter or that neither Emerson or Henry James in all likelihood ever read Moby-Dick.

The problem or I guess the challenge with reading a critical survey like this is that you have to come up as well as possible to the level of the critic. That is to say, you have to read and re-read the books under discussion, which is what I'm doing, reading Matthiessen at some length and then stopping to do some background work, returning to the American classics he discusses.

It's always illuminating to take on this kind of work; I've done it in the past (and still do occasionally) with Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature, and I've done it with Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae and Harold Bloom's The Western Canon.

I don't need any of these people for a reason to read the books they tackle, but they make for great conversationalists, great tour guides, great, crazy, illuminating teachers. Illuminating is precisely the word for Matthiessen: he throws light on his subjects in so many amazing ways. He takes you back to mid-19th Century America, delves into the letters and journals of his subjects, and closely, scrupulously, meticulously reads all their books.

I'm reading and underscoring, reading and underscoring -- just like Melville did with Hawthorne's books -- and hope ultimately to have some coherent thoughts on all involved therein.

I've read Emerson's "Nature," Walden, and I've spent most of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day absorbed in The Scarlet Letter, whose perfection seems a little more obvious every time I pick it up.

More to come -- I need to get my random little notes together and weave them into something that doesn't sound superficial and silly and dull (the fear I live with); I'm not sure I'll ever achieve the necessary perspective -- Matthiessen is Obi-Wan and I'm a not particulaly promising Luke Skywalker -- but I'm learning and re-learning a lot.

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