Peter Conrad’s Flight from Precision

Richard Poirier

  • Imagining America by Peter Conrad
    Routledge, 319 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0370 6

When the Redcoats first encountered the Colonial revolutionaries they were quite unexpectedly beaten, and according to an anecdote in Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New, they were beaten because they were the best-trained infantry in Europe. They had been so well trained that when they looked at the rough American terrain on which their opponents had chosen to meet them, they could not see it. Instead, what they saw was a European battlefield on which they expected to march in formation to meet and overwhelm a similar formation of the enemy, rather than uncouth renegades shooting from behind trees. A gridiron of style, a trained mode of perception, preceded them into battle, creating the illusion that in front of them was only what they intended to find.

Though he doesn’t mention Rosenberg, or any other critic for that matter, Peter Conrad, Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, is convinced that a similar destiny was in store for the English writers of the 19th and 20th centuries who ‘imagined’ America during their visits to it. They imagined it not freely but in obedience to various pre-existent notions both about the continent and about themselves. The imaginative metamorphoses of America are located in the writings, in turn, of Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens (gathered in Chapter Two under the heading ‘Institutional America’), Oscar Wilde and Rupert Brooke (‘Aesthetic America’), Kipling and R.L. Stevenson (‘Epic (and Chivalric) America’), H.G. Wells (‘Futuristic America’), D.H. Lawrence (‘Primitive America’), W.H. Auden (‘Theological America’), Aldous Huxley (Psychedelic America’), and Christopher Isherwood (‘Mystical America’).

As the chapter titles suggest, each of these writers is supposed to see America as if it were shaped by a literary genre or in conformity to some cluster of images. America for the Trollopes and Dickens becomes, therefore, a failed novel: in place of a society it has institutions which destroy any possibility of ‘character’. Wilde, and in a slightly different way Brooke, delighted in what displeased their predecessors. The failure of America to create any semblance of European private life meant for them the absence of domesticity, and a corresponding opportunity for the workings of perverse and decadent theories of aesthetic reform. Brooke is said to be different from Wilde because, whereas Wilde tried to ‘ally art with the muscularity of sport’ during a visit to the Harvard gym, Brooke, reporting on a baseball game between Yale and Harvard, ‘more decadently turns sport into ballet’, though why myth, religion or Shakespeare are not also made ‘decadent’ by the same transformation goes unexplained, unless for Conrad ballet itself is ‘decadent’.

At first, Kipling and Stevenson were happy that America was an alternative to the Victorian novel, since they were looking for the epic and the chivalric romance. H.G. Wells was also happy at first – nearly everyone in the book eventually comes to think of the place as ‘hell’ – since America represented ‘the novel’s logical successor, science fiction’. Lawrence expected to discover yet another answer to the moribund European novel in a mythological past existing beneath the institutional, enterprising or technological surfaces.

Subsequent English visitors praise America for the very reason that it fails to live up to these earlier literary expectations. Because America has of late become a public ‘hell’, it all the more affords, out of some benign neglect, a private haven for anyone’s ‘thing’. Auden can satisfy his infantilism while subscribing to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr; Huxley can freely investigate the subliminal Gods with the assistance of drugs; Isherwood can commune with Swami Prabhavananda along with any number of sun-tanned meditators and/or boyfriends. There is therefore a sequence to the ‘discoveries’, or rather, a progressive contraction, moving from institutional life that destroys individualism, through the promise of free exploration and rebirth, to the blank acceptance or celebration of self-extinction.

In the act of ‘discovering America’, Conrad tells us in the introductory chapter, these writers were really ‘discovering’ themselves. And yet all of them were known to be what they were, for good or ill, before they got there. What really happens in this book is that Conrad uses writers the way they are alleged to use America – as a tabula rasa on which he freely projects what he prejudicially wants to report. But while it is obviously possible to think of America as a tabula rasa, it is not possible to think that way of the printed page, unless, that is, you are Mr Conrad. The persons he describes are caricatures, often scurrilously drawn, of figures who can be otherwise known or accounted for. Where facts or what was actually written stand in his way, he blithely ignores, changes or distorts. An early example occurs directly after his statement that in ‘discovering’ America these writers were really ‘discovering’ themselves. Of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour in 1882 Mr Conrad says that ‘America for him was a theatre, a place in which he could play at being himself and be handsomely paid for doing so. Wilde enjoys America because he can merchandise a self there, turn existence into gratuitous performance. America liberates him from the pieties of the society into which he was born and changes his outlawry into celebrity.’ Wilde was not, of course, born into English society, whose ‘pieties’ he satirises, but into Anglo-Irish society, and as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, he had already famously ‘played at being himself’. Why would a man already cartooned in Punch and burlesqued by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, which had opened in New York and other American cities months before his arrival, still ‘need’ America to ‘liberate’ him or to make him celebrated? In what sense is a man, not convicted of any crime until 1895, who was to marry in 1884 and proceed to father two children, an ‘outlaw’ in 1882? If he had by then even come out of the closet, which he hadn’t, it would have been at most into some private hallway protected from Mr Conrad’s or anyone else’s view. And what is ‘gratuitous’ about a performance still crucial to an understanding of the history of literature and of cultural styles? Should he not have been ‘handsomely paid’? Should he have been paid less? At the other end of the book is a remark about two of Wilde’s later associates that at least disposes of the issue of his American income: Auden’s admonishment of Isherwood for his work in Hollywood, Conrad tartly observes, combines ‘existential reprimand with a middle-class Philistine’s envy of the rewards’.

Wherever you turn in this book Conrad sounds brisk, assured, giddy in his confident marshalling of terms, patterns, brisk, assured and misleading. He is anxious always to be dazzling, outrageous, ‘brilliant’ in adducing connections. The sentences move with a metronomic regularity never deflected by recalcitrant textual or historical evidence, and lest we choose to look at any of the works from which he takes his many quotations, he is careful not to supply page references, bibliography or even the exact date of letters. Dickens, according to Conrad, had decided that ‘America mortifies its victims by depriving them of their characters,’ so that Martin Chuzzlewit, which began to appear serially a year after Dickens’s American Notes, has as its meaning that ‘promotion to institutional status is death to character.’ There’s no point arguing here against so flat a reading of either book, since it is offered merely as a wind-up to one of Conrad’s bravura follies. At the end of the chapter he tells us:

America revenged itself on Dickens by making him the victim of his own prophecy. It first made a public man of him, and then it killed him. His second trip there, between November 1868 and April 1869, ruined his health and hastened his fatal heart attack in 1870, and it did so because he allowed himself to become an institution, a commercial property freighted about the country by a lecture agency ... Selling himself to a delirious public, killing himself in order to bring his novels alive in dramatic readings, Dickens was suffering a morbid American institutionalisation. America exacts a penalty of those it celebrates and enriches: it had made a classic of him, and was urging him to confirm his immortality by dying.

To begin with, anyone who knows anything about Dickens is aware that more than any figure in the history of literature he can be credited with institutionalising the business of writing. America was only one of his lucrative territories, and a reason for the controversial nature of his first trip, in 1842, was his outspoken remarks on copyright protection for his own work. America did not ‘make a public man of him’ any more than it made a ‘celebrity’ of Wilde, and it had no responsibility for his business ventures as a public reader. Three major lecture tours were undertaken by Dickens in the British Isles (1858, 1861 – 65, 1866 – 67) before his one tour in America. Contrary to the allegation that this one tour ‘ruined his health’ is the known fact that he was so sick before his departure that some of his friends asked him not to go. Still better known, and more important to the issue at hand, are the correct dates of his American tour. It did not take place between November 1868 and April 1869 but a full year earlier: he therefore did not die a year later but two years later. He died, in fact, while on a final lecture tour in England, collapsing after a reading in St James Hall in March 1870.

Nor is Conrad any less misleading about Dickens’s first trip to America. Having served up some ersatz fare about American Notes (‘in Dickens’s nightmarish America, there is emptiness: panic has driven away even the houses’ – whatever that means). Conrad then takes us to the oyster bars. They sound sinister indeed – if you haven’t read Dickens, that is:

The oyster bars of New York are doubly fugitive, both subterranean and cellular. They are excavated beneath the ground, approached by ‘downward flights of steps’, and constructed to reflect the ungregarious nature of the oyster eater, who has something to hide. Dickens imagines ‘the swallowers of oysters ... copying the coyness of the thing they eat’, recoiling into the protective casing of their guilty privacy. Hence cubicles are erected to barricade them from one another, and they sit apart indulging their solitary vice ‘in curtained boxes, and consort by twos, not by two hundreds’.

In the relevant passage, however, Dickens is quite charming about oysters, oyster-eaters in New York, and oyster houses: ‘At other downward flights of steps, are other lamps, marking the whereabouts of oyster cellars – pleasant retreats, say I: not only by reason of their wonderful cookery of oysters ... but because of all kinds of eaters of fish, or flesh, or fowl, in these latitudes, the swallowers of oysters alone are not gregarious; but subduing themselves, as it were, to the nature of what they work in, and copying the coyness of the thing they eat, do sit apart in curtained boxes, and consort by twos, not by two hundreds.’

Conrad seems to do everything with the material except read it. In the chapter ‘Aesthetic America’, where everything is honed to fit his parody version of Aestheticism, we learn that Rupert Brooke’s description of the Niagara Falls ‘is entirely self-referring, austerely unconnected with human affairs’, even though, when Conrad had other purposes in mind – a contrast between Wells and Brooke at the Falls – he had earlier claimed that Brooke’s description constitutes ‘a political premonition’ in 1913 of the war which was to change him from ‘an aesthetic weakling into a warrior’. Of course poor Rupert had no more premonition of the war in 1913 than did Henry James, Henry Adams or anyone else. That is, he had none at all. His description of Niagara can best be understood, not as political premonition, but as literary derivation, and if Conrad ever listened to prose or poetry instead of scanning it for images, he would have heard in Brooke’s language, not ‘a rebuff to the safe Victorian piety about nature’, but a rather confused indulgence in Victorian sage-grandiosity. Not a glum indulgence, however, as is clear from a letter he wrote during the trip to A.F. Scholfield, a friend from King’s College days. Admitting with pleasant eagerness that ‘I’m so impressed by Niagara. I hoped not to be. But I horribly am,’ he goes on:

I am a Victorian at heart, after all. Please don’t breathe a word of it: I want to keep such shreds of reputation as I have left. Yet it’s true. For I sit and stare at the thing and have the purest Nineteenth Century grandiose thoughts, about the Destiny of Man, the Irresistibility of Fate, the Doom of Nations, and the fact that Death awaits us All, and so forth. Wordsworth Redivivus. Oh dear! oh dear!

If anyone can make mistakes, then by the same token anyone, even accidentally, ought to get things right more often than Conrad does. There are so many errors and misinter-pretations tumbling over one another that it becomes impossible to trust anything he says. What can be done with a critic so coarse and inattentive that he can refer to Lawrence’s Studies, a masterpiece of exploratory criticism, as a ‘sulphurous denunciation of “classic American literature” ’? In support, he claims that Lawrence in a letter of July 1918 reports that ‘even his typist transcribing them collapses, as if after exposure to their contagion.’ The letter says nothing of the sort. It in no way suggests a cause-and-effect relationship, and instead indicates that the typist never even got to the work: ‘I sent the American essays to a friend in London, who was going to put them with a “safe” friend to have them typed. The friend collapsed and they are hung up. I don’t want to go to an ordinary typist.’ he wrote to Cecil Gray.

Peter Conrad’s readings of Lawrence are utterly tone-deaf, and not to be able to listen to Lawrence, to move with the cadences of his voice, is not to know what he is saying. As a characteristic example, he asserts that, in Lawrence’s essay ‘Pan in America’, ‘Pan escapes from Wordsworth’s tame lakeland to America where, Lawrence announces, he is reincarnated as Walt Whitman. The lustful goat-god becomes the tutelary spirit of American transcendentalism, and is renamed “the Oversoul, the Allness of everything”. In America, Lawrence declares, “Pan is still alive.” ’ As it happens, Lawrence’s essay, brilliantly supple and funny, turns Conrad’s argument on its head:

‘Oft have I heard of Lucy Gray,’ the school-child began to repeat, on examination day.

‘So have I,’ interrupted the bored instructor.

Lucy Gray, alas, was the form that William Wordsworth thought fit to give the Great God Pan.

And then he crossed over to the young United States: I mean Pan did. Suddenly he gets a new name. He becomes the Oversoul, the Aliness of everything. To this new Lucifer Gray of a Pan Whitman sings the famous ‘Song of Myself’: ‘I am All, and All is Me.’ That is: ‘I am Pan, and Pan is me.’

The old goat-legged gentleman from Greece thoughtfully strokes his beard, and answers: ‘All A is B, but all B is not A.’ Aristotle did not live for nothing. All Walt is Pan, but all Pan is not Walt.

This, even to Whitman, is incontrovertible. So the new American pantheism collapses.

Lawrence can be made to ‘announce’ or ‘declare’ crudities only by someone deaf to the extraordinary mobility of his writing, his play with and against polemical assertion, his exuberant wit.

But Conrad can only hold together his dreary and flat-minded schematisations if the writings he uses are made inert, deprived of the modulations of humour, which is no mean accomplishment when the roster includes Dickens and Lawrence, Oscar Wilde and Auden. Conrad is particularly severe about the last two and also about Rupert Brooke. It might well be unfair to suggest that this constitutes fag-baiting, especially since his mistreatments extend by calculation and miscalculation to everyone in the book. He is no less misleading about Dickens’s tour of America than about Wilde’s. And yet it’s worth asking why he gets so much more exasperated by Wilde’s fur coat than by Dickens’s oysters, or, for that matter, by Rudyard Kipling’s fur coat. Comparing the coats worn by Kipling in Brattleboro, Vermont, 1893, and by Wilde on arrival in New York from England, 1882, he remarks that ‘Kipling’s furs are the animal’s defences against an inimical climate. To survive the cruel Vermont winter, he had to grow a furry second skin. Wilde’s coat, on the contrary, symbolises nature sacrificed to art: seals and otters have been flayed merely to adorn his precious body.’ In what sense Kipling has an ‘animal’ body while Wilde has a ‘precious’ one, or Wilde has a ‘symbolic’ coat while Kipling has a real one, will not bear sorting out. That both were mighty cold homo-sapiens, to take a larger generic view for a moment, would be obvious had Conrad bothered to note, or discover, that Wilde arrived in New York on 4 January, that if Vermont has severe winters so does New York Harbour, and that on this particular day the reporters who waited for his ship complained of especially frigid winds and temperatures. If Kipling can wear a fur coat under such circumstances, why can’t Oscar Wilde? Doing a bit of Conradian analysis of Conrad, the reason for Wilde’s inelegibility becomes obvious: because of Wilde’s later-to-be-committed crimes against nature (1886 is the usual date assigned to the first transgression), his ‘precious’ body is not worthy of the natural protections allowed ‘animal’ bodies like Kipling and your average racoon, ocelot or skunk. No ‘second furry skin’ for that one, flayer of seal and otter!

If Wilde is to be left out in the cold, Auden, whose crime against nature is compounded by his becoming a naturalised American, is deep-sixed altogether. Although the chapter devoted to this is called ‘Theological America’, it has almost nothing to do with theology. There are some references to Auden’s association with Reinhold Niebuhr, presumably because it occurred in New York, but there is nothing at all about the central ‘theological’ influence on Auden – Kierkegaard – presumably because it did not occur there. Essentially the chapter is an exended diatribe, strictly adhering to the recipe used throughout the book: split the American episodes from the author’s life, garble them more or less completely, keeping it out of the eyes, add a pinch of salt, whip to frothy peaks, and serve immediately. Be sure to overheat. A sample: ‘New York, rigidly laid out in space on a numbered grid of streets, monitored in time by those flashing clocks on the tops of buildings, encouraged the punctilious ritualism of Auden, who didn’t know whether he was hungry unless a clock instructed him, and invariably left dinner parties at 9 p.m. to go home to bed.’ Or: ‘Auden looked forward to senility and did his best to advance it, behaving like an ungovernable, finicky baby, organising his regime around regular mealtimes and early nights, re-creating in his apartment on St Mark’s Place the squalor of the nursery.’ And one last, summary example: ‘Auden’s rebarbativeness, which became progressively fouler and nastier over the years, was the sign of his refusal to allow himself to feel at home anywhere. Prizing his own precious’ – that word again – ‘freedom as an alien, he set about systematically alienating other people ... he declined to visit Japan because he was convinced that the toilet seats would be too small for his sagging rump.’

The only questions raised by writing of this kind have to do not with Auden but with Conrad, and can only be inquired into by him, with a little help, perhaps, from his friends. But in recoil one might have the pleasure of recollecting the many affectionate and admiring and funny reminiscences by Auden’s friends, notably in the Conversations of Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky, hardly sentimental, inexperienced or patient observers of the human scene. The comments on Auden display only in an extreme form the mentality at work here, with its incapacity for understanding, accuracy or minimum attentiveness. Allowing for the fact that just about anything mediocre can get into print, how, nonetheless, does a book as positively bad as this one survive even the most primitive and slipshod editorial attention? Did no one point out the folly, to give a few more examples at random, of trying to adduce similarities between Wells and Henry James against the evidence of Boon and of James’s responses to it? Or that if Lawrence ‘rates killing highly as a mode of knowledge’, it is strange that he finds the picking of flowers sometimes abhorrent? Or that Mark Twain cannot be said to ‘embody the epic’ since he never wrote anything corresponding to one? Or that if you say that ‘jazz is anxious music, rhythmically frenetic and emotionally unbalanced,’ it only means that you have never heard of Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan or any other jazz musician?

To whom can the blundering and blustering juvenility of this performance be addressed? Not to anyone who knows anything, and not, God forbid, to anyone who doesn’t.