Recently I asked Wetta what he was reading. His reply:
The Judges of the Secret Court is a novel by David Stackton, first published in 1961 and reissued this year by New York Review Books. It concerns the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the near-assassination of William Seward. Much of it is told from the perspective of John Wilkes Booth, here a weirdly needy misanthrope; yet the point of view shifts rapidly, and we are led through the narrative by an assortment of characters on both sides of the plot: by the conspirator Lewis Payne, by Mrs. Surratt (who owned the boarding house where the conspirators sometimes met), and by Edwin Stanton, the dictatorial Secretary of War who pursues the assassins with the paranoia and blood-thirstiness of a Grand Inquisitor. As a novel it is gripping, although the fluidity of so many points of view sometimes leaves a reader bewildered and out of balance—which may well be an effect Stackton desired. Disequilibrium characterizes this world embittered by war. Booth and Stanton are grandiose political schemers driven mad by loss, one by the loss of his inane sectional fantasies, the other by the loss of his last chance to gain power. Booth suffers the appropriate fate of the stupid, dying in a burning barn, while Stanton is allowed to vent his frustrations through his secret military tribunal. As John Crowley points out in his introduction to the NYRB edition, the machinations of that court have a greater relevance in the age of Guantanamo than they did in 1961; and Mrs. Surratt, whom Stackton considered a hapless bystander to the plot, is, in a final act of cruelty, hanged on the gallows with her dress tied at the hemline so it will not billow as she drops.Visit Stephen Wetta's journal.
There are no heroes in the novel. Men of government such as Stanton and Andrew Johnson are repugnant; secondary characters like Mrs. Lincoln, Edwin Booth and Laura Keene, the actress, are crazy or superannuated. The one character who possesses any greatness, Abraham Lincoln, exists here only to be shot and then to die; and even his greatness is troublesomely qualified: “He was a great man, and greatness is an enigma. It is also amoral, and we cannot have that. Nobody likes to have his little game seen through. And yet it could not be denied. A fire was going out. So few of them had ever realized until now that it had warmed them.” Stackton is epigrammatic and mystifying, and not particularly warm himself. Nevertheless, his Lincoln, glimpsed so briefly while dying, is worth any five hundred pages of Gore Vidal.
In All the Little Live Things, published in 1967, Wallace Stegner revives his character from The Spectator Bird, Joe Allston. Allston is a retired literary agent, a liberal snob of the educated classes, and not particularly likeable. In this novel he is engaged in generation-gap warfare with a vagrant motorcyclist named Jim Peck, a punk who has decided to do some eco-crashing on property that Allston owns in rural California. I was intrigued by the idea of Stegner doing a hippie. Kesey was his student at Stanford, so you would think that Stegner knew the type. Jim Peck is a good character and ropes us in early. He’s a hippie guru whose mystical patter gets him laid, a lot. To reach his Allston-subsidized island you have to swing like Tarzan on a vine over a stream to his tree house, or cross on a bridge that tends to flip upside down. The hippie kids, particularly the girls, go there nightly, much to the narrator’s disgust. Peck, of course, is every bit as phony as Allston is bigoted. The tension between the two men is enough to fuel the novel, but Stegner, alas, doesn’t seem as interested in Peck as I was. Instead his focus shifts to Marian Caitlin, a neighbor woman whose sweetness and optimism probably reflect hippie ideals more truly than do the nightly antics of the orgiasts down the hill. Stegner is never boring, and certain scenes display wonderful literary virtuosity, particularly one that describes a drunken cocktail party in the heat of a California afternoon. Yet a note of moral earnestness akin to sentimentality creeps in as Marian dies slowly of cancer, and the novel is drained of its toughness and humor. One wishes Stegner had made more of Peck and Allston; and yet he does make Allston a begrudgingly admirable figure in the end.
Stegner often gets mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and Jim Harrison—manly writers, you know—probably because he could fish, hunt and (I assume) ride a horse. He belongs to the American West, and yet there’s a sense in which his writing does not stand in the great tradition of American prose. That, Robert Alter says in his recently published Pen of Iron, is characterized overwhelmingly by the stylistic influence of the King James Bible. We find it, for instance, in Moby Dick, where Melville’s “heterodox engagement with the Bible” leads him into biblical cadences and homiletic parodies. Ahab becomes Job, the whale is Leviathan, and Melville’s agnosticism is rendered through a “biblical forcefield” of archaism, synecdoche and allusion, all of which enjoy the Rabelaisian power to stand belief on its head. Likewise, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, while possessing precious little “biblicizing tendency” in its own profuse prose, transports the story of David and his sons to the American south and powerfully employs biblical tropes (“dust,” “clay,” “flesh,” “blood,” “land,” “curse”) to create a secular, Ecclesiastical sense of human vanity.
Alter believes the King James influence on American writing is most usually found in the parataxis of Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy, among others. Everyone is familiar with Hemingway’s style: that string of parallel independent clauses conjunctively linked. The paratactic style has long been used by prose writers for descriptive purposes, but American writers rely on it not merely to describe scenes or scenery but to report sequences of significant acts, even to relate introspective moments: thoughts, feelings, moods. Hemingway uses “unadorned sequences of parallel utterances” to “intimate strong feelings and fraught relationships,” and brings to his prose the stark, mystifying candor of ancient Hebrew poetry.
Hemingway is a writer whose time has gone, or so I believed. When I was seventeen I was bowled over by him and even decided I might be able to write like him. Sadly, I was discovering him at the very moment he was becoming passé. The feminist and gay rights movements were making his brand of machismo seem irrelevant if not downright comic, and when I later discovered Nabokov’s judgment, that Hemingway wrote “books for boys,” it seemed accurate. But lately there’s been a renewal of interest in him. Woody Allen has used him as a character in a recent film. His first marriage is the subject of a popular novel, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. My students no longer roll their eyes when his name is mentioned; in fact, he seems to be about the only classic writer young people are reading.
Out of curiosity, I picked up A Moveable Feast to see what the Hemingway experience is like these days. I found it hard to take, for prose so easy to read. It’s not that the writing is mannered. Mannered writing I can deal with. But somehow it doesn’t ring true. It’s artificial, dated—not just mannered. Still, I did get caught up in the thing, especially during the scenes involving Scott Fitzgerald, or the passage describing Hem’s conversation with Gertrude Stein about homosexuality. What is it about Hemingway that can fascinate a critic as intelligent as Robert Alter? Could it be that sniffing the Bible in a writer’s prose is sufficient for the great translator of the Pentateuch? And how about my students? Hemingway’s cult of manliness must be welcome in an emasculated world. It must be that. Then again, there’s the lost mystique of the writer’s life: bread and wine in a garret, a loving woman who supports her husband while he “works,” a universe where a promenading Aleister Crowley is mistaken for Hilaire Belloc by Ford Madox Ford. To a generation of writers checking out the ratings on GoodReads and Amazon, how romantic, how remote.