Sunday, August 06, 2006

BOOK REVIEW / Gordon Hauptfleisch
Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships by Richard Lingeman

Friendship, friendship, sure, but despite what the old song says - not always the perfect blendship. Especially when it comes to writers - a sensitive, moody lot, the quintessential practitioners of the tortured artist effect in which virtually every nuance of affability and falling-out is wrung out in Richard Lingeman’s insightful and incisive Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships. From a pat on the back to the stab in the back, an assorted and sundry sampling of interpersonal reinforcement and mutual you-scratch-my-ego admiration, literary assistance and professional feedback, and friendly rivalries and short-fused feuds are captured as he traces the kith-centric chronicle from early misery-loves-company artistic alliances that marked “The Puritan and the Pagan” companionship of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, to the problematic misery-loves-anything but “Three for the Road” camaraderie of Jack Kerourac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.

Going beyond the interrelationships themselves, Double Lives also affords an engrossing exploration of the cultural and societal landscape in which these friendships were pursued, impressing upon the reader how the temper of the respective times has a bearing on the friendships fashioned and finished-up. In this regard, the early- and mid-19th century must be understood in the distinctive light of the newly emerging American Renaissance identity - the effort of relatively few serious writers to sever national literary ties to English dominance.

As this movement is significantly marked by the publication of Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Lingeman appropriately begins with a focus on the friendship of Hawthorne and Melville not only in the narrow sense, but also in more broader terms that, by extension, serves as a bookish benchmark by which the considerations of literary friendships and cultural concerns for the subsequent 100 years are measured. Hawthorne, then, though aloof by nature, not only took a big step merely by his out-of-character acceptance of an invitation to a momentous social and literary gathering -- thereby solidifying his relations with Melville -- he also sensed and was spurred on by a larger need for “intelligent, cultivated companionship.” And similarly, Melville, driven by his desire to further develop an idiosyncratic American literature, mixed the personal with the idealistic as he “hungered for literary companionship - a soulmate. And he invested in Hawthorne, 15 years older, his thwarted filial need for his own dead father.”

Lingeman does not, refreshingly, delve too much into psychobabble-skewed analysis, but his social perspective does shine a strong light needed to fully illuminate discussions of such questions as homosexuality -- issues, he takes pains to explain, that need to be considered in the context of their era. Far from the later gay-tinged accounts of Henry James, Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, and certainly distant from the promiscuousness that marked the relationships of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassady and other Beats, the homoerotic language used by Melville toward Hawthorne -- language many scholars have construed as love overtures -- need to be understood in the expressions of “transcendent oneness” suitable for the mid-19th century. “It seems more logical,” Lingeman notes, “that the flowery rhetoric, typical of the times, was meant as effusive thanks for Hawthorne’s gift of understanding, so deep and complete that Melville considered them to be separate hearts beating in a single body.”

In a more strictly literary and professional vein, when the main purpose is professional betterment, the road can get rocky. Though H.L. Mencken championed Theodore Dreiser’s books in the beginning, and both were initially drawn to each other in common enough cause -- artistic freedom and German sympathies during World War I -- the chapter title “The Believer and the Skeptic” points to an essential philosophical difference, and indeed, their ever-increasing disputes put to rest a sustaining and deep friendship. On the other hand, the friendship of Henry James and Edith Wharton, “to the Jamesian manner (and subject matter) born,” evolved from tenuous ties and James’ mentoring status while Wharton developed her own voice, and they both eventually benefited from a more equitable association with mutual morale boosting and writing advice.

Bringing the pair more platonically close, and bringing the rarefied “Master and the Millionairess” lofty perch more amusingly down-to-earth, is an account, in one of the book’s highlights, of James and Wharton taking joyrides-of-sorts -- chauffeur-driven ones, of course -- in a newly purchased and new-fangled motorcar. In one particular instance, they get lost and, seeking guidance, Wharton becomes “perhaps the first woman in that dawning auto age to tell a man to ask, for heaven’s sake,” for directions. Which James eventually does, in typically longwinded Jamesian fashion -- Lingeman reprints Wharton’s recollection, from A Backward Glance, of James’ inquiring encounter. Every polysyllabic word in every needlessly convoluted run-on sentence is uttered, only to be tersely answered that he’s already on the road he’d been looking for. It may have been these kinds of good-times extra-literary activities and quirks that led Wharton to comment upon James’ death in 1916, “We all who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line.”

As related in "Poor Scott, Poor Ernest," F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway also mixed business with pleasure until relations soured, and while Fitzgerald was helpful in launching Hemingway’s career and advising him on writing and editing matters, it wasn’t much of a two-way street -- especially after the success of The Sun Also Rises. The novel, Lingeman says, “acted like steroids on Hemingway’s ego. The apprentice was taking over the shop.” Lingeman is thorough in his recounting of the many ways the ingrate Hemingway denigrated Fitzgerald -- lies and distortions that Hemingway even repeated in A Moveable Feast.

There was a breaking point for Fitzgerald, though, at which point he “now considered the friendship in its dying fall. Scott was through with playing the eternal patsy in a sadomasochistic duo.” Hemingway wasn’t content, however, even after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940: Writing to the publisher Charles Scribner, he contends “Scott was a rummy and a liar and dishonest about money with the inbred talent of a dishonest and easily frightened angel.” “It was to be” Lingeman concludes, “a rivalry unto the death.”

On a more satisfying note, and in the most deeply affecting portrait of Double Lives, Lingeman discusses the friendship of “The Westerners,” Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, “a model of such relationships between two authors. It ran for forty years with some bumps but without serious breakdowns.” The start of the alliance came when Howell, as assistant editor and then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, began an effort to recruit more Western writers, and Twain was his big catch, a highly valued prospect who, Howells astutely assessed, had more potential beyond his abilities as a mere comic writer. “Howells,” Lingeman notes, “provided the sympathetic editorial encouragement Clemens needed to break the mold of vernacular humorist and grow into historical chronicler and, ultimately, novelist.”

As Lingeman describes it, it didn’t take long before this professional bond expanded into the personal realm. Despite the minor squabbles here and there, overall there was an understanding, sensitivity and responsiveness between the two men, a humane and humanity-filled consideration for the thoughts and feelings of each other, even as Twain grew more pessimistic in life -- having formed the Damned Human Race Club -- with Howells never wavering from a more sanguine sensibility.

Especially touching and telling is the comfort they took in each other upon the deaths of family members, until they were, as Twain put it, just “a pair of old derelicts drifting around now, with some of our passengers gone & the sunniness of the others in eclipse.” Upon the death of Twain’s daughter, Howell -- who had lost his daughter, Winnie, seven years earlier -- wrote Clemens, as Lingeman relates:

…he had thrown himself upon on Winnie’s grave “and experienced what anguish a man can live through.” ...He recalled Clemens’s kindness. “You came in one day when we were bleeding from the death of Winnie, and said to me, 'Oh did I wake you?’ because I suppose my heavy heart had got into my eyes, and I looked sleep-broken. I have never forgotten just how you said it, and the tender intelligence you put into your words…” There was not much more he could say...

Even for writers, words sometimes fail, but it doesn't matter in the face of true friendship and the tacit understanding that takes over in the silence of bigger moments and inexpressible alliance. Indeed, it's the kind of personal bond found in the "perfect blendship," as the songwriter would say or, as Lingeman reminds us of Rilke's words, in the bond of "two solitudes [who] protect and touch and greet each other."


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