Thursday, August 4, 2022

Reading Joseph Conrad Today: an Interview with John G. Peters

By Alexandra Steele

John G. Peters, “Silence, Space, and Absence in Joseph Conrad’s African Fiction,” TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 63.4 (2021).

The Joseph Conrad, Mystic Seaport (2011); photo by olekinderhook,
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Joseph Conrad is more often mentioned than read. What things help to explain this?

This is true to a certain degree. Heart of Darkness I think is read regularly in classes, but less so Conrad’s other works, ones that in the past were regularly studied. This is likely a product of two factors. First, with the broadening of the literary canon, there are simply more works to choose from than in the past. Second, Conrad is a product of his times and he (and his narrators) sometimes express views and language that would not be appropriate now. Also, Chinua Achebe’s famous article, “An Image of Africa,” criticizing the racial views and portrayals in Heart of Darkness has probably contributed to this trend as well.

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2” series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. Photo by Stuart C. Shapiro, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

For readers not familiar with his works, could you give us a short list of his best writing—perhaps in the order we might work our way through him?

I would suggest the following: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, “The Secret Sharer,” “Youth,” and Typhoon, in that order. There are, of course, other valuable works, but these are I think his best.

Bust of Joseph Conrad, by Jacob Epstein, 1924, at National Portrait Gallery, London

What should we know about Conrad before starting his works of fiction?

Conrad is a difficult writer. His skepticism, world view, and the moral dilemmas in his works contribute to this difficulty. In addition, his narrative experimentation adds strongly to the difficulty in approaching his works. Of course, some works, like Typhoon and “Youth,” are fairly straightforward narratively, but many others present significant challenges to the first-time reader. For example, there is one chapter in Lord Jim where it is impossible for the first-time reader to have any real idea what is going on because the narrator, Marlow, is telling his tale to a group of listeners who have much more knowledge of the events than do first-time readers.

Mr. Joseph Conrad

Do you have any favorites among his works, either on or off the list you shared? 

This is a somewhat difficult question because several of his works (in particular Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent) have different aspects that recommend them. If I had to choose one particular favorite, I suppose it would be Heart of Darkness.

Unsurprisingly, Conrad’s work is often polarizing. In an era of heightened sensitivity to issues of race-based injustice, what specific value do you believe texts like Heart of Darkness and “An Outpost of Progress” hold?

“An Outpost of Progress” is a somewhat straightforward, anti-colonial text, and that aspect I think lets modern readers know that there were works written at the time (not many) that were critical of Western imperialism. Heart of Darkness expresses a similar sentiment but is a much more complex work, dealing also with a journey into the self and investigating such questions as the nature of the universe, the nature of knowledge, and the nature of human existence. Although both works express sentiments that would not be considered appropriate today concerning race, I think they can be seen as measuring devices as to how race was viewed historically as opposed to today. In short, I think we can learn where we used to be with such questions, where we are now, and where we need to go in the future.

Imperial Federation map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886,
reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Is there a text you see as the antithesis of Conrad in terms of sound and space? That is, someone—perhaps from approximately the same era—whose works are the antithesis of Conrad’s?

Given my argument concerning Conrad’s ultimate conclusion that the West is a metaphysical void (its empty space being emblematic of its cosmological emptiness), I think that most of the writings of the turn of the 20th century (Conrad’s most productive period) would run counter to Conrad’s views. I’m thinking specifically of works such as John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property or H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay or George Gissing’s The Odd Women, that is those works that extended the Victorian novel of social conscience (as opposed to the Modernist world view that Conrad posits). These authors were excellent at their craft, extremely popular, and well thought of in the literary world of the time, but underlying all novels of social conscience is an essential affirmation of society. They certainly identify social ills, but their assumption is that if such ills were cured, society would be a better place and that we can get there because ultimately society is based upon transcendental truths. This latter idea is precisely what Conrad rejects (as did so many other Modernists). Conrad, who was good friends with H. G. Wells for about a decade, had a falling out and is reputed to have once said to Wells something to the effect, “The difference between us is that you hate humanity but think they can be improved, while I love humanity but know that they cannot.” 

Joseph Conrad signature (1922)

What about his work is of particular interest to you?

I have always been taken with the moral dilemmas Conrad’s characters encounter and how they seek to create meaning (contingent not transcendental) for themselves in the face of what they see as an empty universe. I also find his narrative experimentation to be an outward manifestation of this world view.

How has the reception and criticism of Conrad changed during your academic career?

As pointed out in question #5, there is a good deal more emphasis on Conrad’s cultural blind spots now than there once was. Despite what seems obvious to modern readers (the issues of race and colonialism in his works), it wasn’t until the late 1940s (a Marxist-influenced reading of Nostromo) that anyone even talked about these issues, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the topic became a prominent interest of scholars. Of course, that was before my time really. The major shift I have seen personally has been I think the same shift in the reaction to most authors, that is considerably greater emphasis on issues outside the literary text itself, particularly focus on social and cultural issues, whereas when I was a beginning scholar, the primary commonality among most approaches to Conrad (and other authors) was an emphasis on the text itself. 

Joseph Conrad (1904)

What parts of Conrad’s achievement hold up in 2021, and what elements have faded into obscurity?

I think Conrad’s works have a flexibility or complexity to them that has kept them current. Scholars interested in colonialism, culture, environmentalism, psychology, gender, and narrative (areas of current interest), for example, will all find fruitful areas to mine. It seems that whatever approach to literature has been current ever since Conrad was writing, scholars have been able to find in his works things worthy of study. As for what may have faded into obscurity, I suppose Conrad’s investigation into an empty universe and the human response to this phenomenon is something that does not have the same interest for scholars that it once had (although I deal with this issue in my article and still find it to be a valuable topic to investigate). 

Joseph Conrad signature (1925)

Like many modernists, Conrad is not particularly sympathetic toward women. Does this enhance or detract from his arguments that there is little separating the civilizations of Europe and Africa?

As a product of a time that saw distinct gender hierarchies, I think that such hierarchies have been seen to have existed across cultures of that period, so in that sense there would certainly be little separating civilizations of Europe and Africa it would seem to me. Conrad’s portrayal of women has often been seen to be limited. As early as Grace Colbron’s 1914 article on the topic, this limitation has been discussed. Conrad does have some sympathetic portraits of women in his works, such as Emilia Gould in Nostromo, Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, and Natalia Haldin in Under Western Eyes, and Nina Almayer in Almayer’s Folly. But invariably such figures (with the exception Nina Almayer) have little if any power to effect social change or even significant change in their own lives, and in their affirmative qualities, they often exhibit elements of the “angel in the house.” 

Silence seems key to Conrad’s sense of place and meaning. What is Conrad himself silent on and how might those omissions contribute to our understanding of his work?

Silences, both literal and metaphorical, permeate Conrad’s works, and these voids or omissions point to his view of the nature of the universe, but the also point more specifically to the nature of knowledge, contending, in various ways, that it is impossible to know anything with certainty. For Conrad, the best one can do is an approximation rather than certainty.

Photo by Piotrus, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Say you teach a class where Heart of Darkness and “An Outpost of Progress” are central texts. What other works of fiction would you want to incorporate into the semester and what would you title the class?

In such a class, assuming that it were limited roughly to the historical period of those pieces, I would look to include other texts set in the colonial world. Many of Kipling’s texts, such as Kim or “The Man Who Would Be King,” would be appropriate, particularly as a counter to Conrad’s views. Other works might include E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, and perhaps works from the particularly popular vein of colonial fiction such as H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or She. In each instance, a different response to colonialism and the colonial world arises. 

Photograph of Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, speaking in Dhaka, Bangladesh,
photograph by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

In your opinion is there a current-day Heart of Darkness already written or filmed, or has culture moved on from this particularly problematic portrayal of race?

I’m afraid that I am not well versed in contemporary film or fiction, so it is difficult to say. V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River has often been seen to be in some ways a response to Heart of Darkness, and there have been some African writers who have also written responses to the novel, although I have not read those works myself. 

What are some of the most successful film versions of Conrad’s writing? Conversely, which films have failed? Do the respective successes and failures of adaptations tell us anything about what his works are, at base?

Probably the most successful adaption of Conrad’s works to film has been I think Apocalypse Now. Despite the different setting, the film does a good job of translating the essence of Heart of Darkness (except that the Marlow figure in the film is a less sympathetic character). Some years ago, TNT did a version of Heart of Darkness, featuring John Malkovich as Kurtz, but I personally thought it quite bad. Around the same time, a mini-series was done of Nostromo, but it seemed to confuse the time shifts in the novel unnecessarily, I thought. A prominent film version of Lord Jim was done in the 1960s, but its primary problem was its failure to translate the significantly conflicted view of Jim that appears in the novel. In the 1970s, Ridley Scott did a film version of The Duel (titled The Duelists), which I thought was quite successful. The fact that so many film versions (and there have been many others) have not typically been successful I think tells us that it is very difficult to translate the moral, cosmological, and narrative complexity of Conrad’s works into film. Although film is very different from the stage, it is probably worth noting that Conrad’s himself attempted to adapt several of his works to the stage, but they were all largely unsuccessful.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on what I hope will be a book on Conrad and silence, tentatively titled Joseph Conrad and the Silence of Modernism. The TSLL article will form part of one of the chapters. The book looks at such silences as spatial silence, narrative breaks by Conrad’s narrators, the inadequacy of language, and narrative and epistemological barriers between original events narrated and what the reader eventually receives. 

Stamp of Belgian Congo (1909)

Monday, July 11, 2022

Consumerism & Identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman: A Conversation with Cailin Roles

By Clara Mundy

“‘The Surface on Which You Work’: Self-Alienation and the Culture of Narcissism in The Edible Woman,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 63.3 (2021): 276-98.

Aerial view of downtown Toronto (from helicopter),
with view of Toronto Islands and Lake Ontario in the background

Many people are first exposed to Margaret Atwood (1939-   ) through the classroom, either in high school or university. When were you introduced to her work? And what was your first impression?

I read a little of Atwood’s poetry as a teenager, but I was introduced to her prose when I read The Handmaid’s Tale for an undergraduate course called Feminist Writing. Of all the horrors in that book, I was most disturbed by the closing “Historical Notes” and the idea of academics making bawdy jokes about Offred at a conference. I’d also just read Kristeva’s Powers of Horror for the first time, and my final paper compared the themes of abjection and exploitation in The Handmaid’s Tale to those in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet. The conclusion was extremely critical of academia, and I remember feeling both terribly mature and, when I recalled the stack of grad school applications on my desk, more than a bit hypocritical.

A photo from a campus visit to Cornell on April 9, 2012

Atwood has had such a long and prolific career, producing over 40 works of fiction, criticism, and poetry. What are your top 5 Atwood works, beginning with your favorite?

The Edible Woman, of course, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and The Blind Assassin.

Buenos Aires, 11 December 2017 - Margaret Atwood gives an interview
with Alberto Manguel in the National Library

What has made this your favorite piece?

Many drafts ago, my article on The Edible Woman was my Master’s thesis. During the defense, a member of my committee asked why I chose The Edible Woman since it’s lesser known, tremendously strange, and so complex you feel like you’re just scratching at the surface. But that’s why I like it! It resists simple explanations, appropriately so.

The Edible Woman was published in 1969, when it was much less common for a frank depiction of womanhood, consumerism, and eating disorders. Has your view of the novel changed from the first time you read it? If so, how?

The first time I read The Edible Woman, I was mainly interested in the connections Atwood draws between food and power. On the second read, I grew more curious about Atwood’s representation of aging women. I’m not sure I would say my view of the novel has changed drastically, but that it has become more nuanced, and I am less inclined to give a single-sentence answer to the question, “What’s The Edible Woman about?”

Canadian author Margaret Atwood with her first Italian publisher Mario Monti (Longanesi & C)
in Milano, 1976 for the Italian translation of “The Edible Woman”, “La donna da mangiare.”

What artists — of all media, not just literature — do you view as influences to Atwood’s work?

Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not sure if she would agree, but I see flickers of Angela Carter in her work. And Doris Lessing. Perhaps this is cheating, but I would love to hear Atwood’s response to Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods.

What influence do you think the culture she grew up in has had upon her work?

As I discuss in my article, Atwood’s understanding of Canadian identity critically informs her understanding of post-war consumerism. More than that, I think Atwood’s environmentalist writing implicitly critiques the effects of settler colonialism in Canada.

Princes’ Gates - Toronto Exhibition Place

The Edible Woman deals with topics that would eventually become mainstays of Atwood’s work, such as feminism and animal rights. How do you view the development of her thoughts on these topics over the past 50 years?

Though I am not sure I can adequately describe Atwood’s development as a writer, it has been interesting as a reader to see the ways her work has increasingly focused on the environment. Perhaps in the future we will not be asking whether Atwood is a feminist writer, but if she is an ecofeminist writer.

Animal Rights Activists protesting at a Circus
against the use of animals in entertainment in NSW, Australia

Are there still insights to be drawn from this novel in 2021?

Absolutely! Though The Edible Woman understandably does not offer an easy solution or escape from late capitalism, Marian demonstrates how one might begin to critique their positionality and modes of consumption.

If you were to lead a book club in which you pair The Edible Woman with its thematic and stylistic opposite, what novel would you choose?

Taking the question to its extreme, my first thought was Atlas Shrugged—it would certainly lead to an interesting conversation about competitive individualism! More seriously, it would be fascinating to juxtapose the neat, reserved prose of The Edible Woman to the excess of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s comics.

Margaret Atwood - 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair

Alternately, if you were able to buddy-read any novel with Atwood, what would it be and why?

One obvious answer—and you see this in the literature quite a bit—is Lady Oracle, because it deals with many of the same sort of questions about power, body image, and eating. If I could step outside the novel form, though, I’d like to put The Edible Woman in conversation with Marvel’s miniseries WandaVision, to think about what it means to cope with trauma by forcing yourself to conform to a normative family structure. WandaVision’s themes, of course, are further complicated by Marvel’s relationship to its parent company Disney and its representations of the U.S. military, which could pair interestingly with Marian’s conflicting roles as a critic and agent of capitalism.

How do you think The Edible Woman’s commentary on consumerism fits into the influencer-filled society of 2021, where the platforms meant to connect us are now being simultaneously used to advertise to us?

On one hand, it is hard to imagine a middle-class Canadian woman in 2021 believing she could easily opt out of consumerism. On the other hand, isn’t that what countless advertising campaigns promise? If you buy our product, you’re a responsible consumer who cares about sustainable consumption (and just don’t think about the fact that we exploit the imprisoned for cheap labor). Like Duncan in The Edible Woman, it’s a form of commodified non-conformity.

Atwood has never shied away from including politics in her work, yet she’s also been hesitant to label her work as strictly “feminist.” How do you think Atwood set herself apart from 2nd-wave feminism, and do you think that this separation has altered readers’ response to her novels?

From my understanding, Atwood’s unwillingness to label her work “feminist” is due in part to the term’s ambiguity. “Feminist” is often used as a catch-all word for anyone who generally believes in women’s equality, though as Atwood has highlighted, there is no single, stable definition of what “feminist” means or what constitutes feminist politics. My personal definition of feminism is informed by queer politics and is inextricably tied to antiracism and trans rights. The Edible Woman shows many possible forms of and responses to second-wave feminism—Joe’s monologue about women’s cores, for example, reads like a paternalistic response to The Feminine Mystique, while Ainsley’s homophobia satirizes the ways Friedan and others excluded and further marginalized lesbian feminists. While I cannot confidently say this is the case, I hope that Atwood’s separation from second-wave feminism has encouraged readers to interrogate the work behind the word “feminist.”

Women’s March 2017-01

How have perceptions of Atwood’s work, especially her first novel, changed over time? Has that change been identical among students and literary critics?

I taught a class last spring on The Handmaid’s Tale, and it seems that since I was first introduced to Atwood’s work, students are more immediately critical, and rightfully so, of the ways Atwood circumvents any significant discussion of race. As for The Edible Woman, I’ve noticed that critics writing in the 2000s respond differently to Marian’s eating habits, often engaging with them as an extended metaphor rather than as something that requires medical diagnosis.

There’s no doubt that Margaret Atwood has had a lasting impact on both literature and politics. How do you foresee the next generation of writers building on Atwood’s contribution?

I hope to see many more Indigenous ecofeminist writers receive offers from mainstream publishers. Right now, there’s a gap, not because that writing doesn’t exist, but because it has not received the same level of attention and financial assistance.


Monday, June 20, 2022

Jean Toomer and What it Means to be American: An Interview With Justin Parks

By Megan Marshall

Justin Parks, “Race and National Identity in Modernist Anthropology and Toomer’s The Blue Meridian,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 62.3 (2020): 344-67.

Passport issued to writer Jean Toomer by the United States Government, 1926

What initially drew you to the long poem, “The Blue Meridian,” by Jean Toomer (1894-1967)?

I had been wanting to spend some time with it for several years, since I first read about it, so the article was an excuse to do that. I work on poetry, so I was intrigued by this poem that didn’t seem to get nearly as much attention as the much more famous Cane. Of course “The Blue Meridian” doesn’t hold up to Cane, which is really Toomer’s masterpiece, but sometimes as a critic I’m more interested in what I can find to say about a text than in my own aesthetic experience in reading it. Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the poem! I am particularly intrigued by the way the poem stages issues of nation and cultural belonging, and especially race. Its handling of race is of course problematic by contemporary standards, as I and others have pointed out, but the particular ways in which it is problematic make the poem all the more compelling as a reflection of its period.

Scott and Violet Arthur with their family during the Great Migration, 1920

For readers who haven’t heard much about the Harlem Renaissance, could you give us a brief introduction?

The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the arts and culture centered around the Harlem neighborhood in upper Manhattan that took place during the 1920s. Harlem was an important center of the African American population following what became known as the “Great Migration” of African Americans attempting to escape the rural poverty and racial violence of the South and find work in Northern industrial centers such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit after World War I. The movement’s major intellectual leaders were W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, both highly educated and well respected African American thinkers. The movement fit into Du Bois’s vision of “racial uplift,” in which the “talented tenth”—a kind of intellectual and cultural elite consisting of the top tenth of the African American population—would pull the rest of the race up behind it, as it were. (This was in contrast to the “bottom-up” ideas of racial uplift associated with figures such as Booker T. Washington.) Alain Locke is best known for publishing an anthology of writing titled The New Negro in 1925, which included many of the period’s writers, and thus reads like a who’s who of the movement. The movement is most often associated with writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Renaissance Theater and Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, New York City, 2014

What was Toomer’s role in that Renaissance?

Toomer was kind of like the movement’s mascot. Cane came out early—in 1923—and everyone was reading and talking about it. It really galvanized the movement, and Toomer had trouble living up to the expectation to produce a successor, which is no doubt at least partially why “The Blue Meridian” took so long to write (and why he didn’t write much of note after that). Cane was in many ways more a product of Greenwich Village bohemianism than the Harlem Renaissance, which it slightly predated. So Toomer wasn’t really a “Harlem Renaissance writer” in the strict sense.

First edition cover of Cane, 1923

If you could recommend another of Toomer’s works, what would it be, and why?

Cane really deserves its reputation as the most significant of Toomer’s texts—really, it’s one of the most significant texts of that entire period. To me, the most fascinating thing about Cane is the range of genres it manages to incorporate, from lyric poems to narrative prose to elements of Southern Black folk and storytelling traditions. Of course, it’s been written about a lot, so as a critic, I find it’s more interesting to work on texts that have received less attention, which was one of the things that drew me to “The Blue Meridian.” I would add that as advice to students who aspire to academic careers: find texts that have received less coverage to write about!

Black Lives Matter mural being painted on a street, North Carolina, 2020

The US Census categorizes Americans as it counts them. What might Toomer’s works suggest about this practice?

As I wrote in the essay, census categories often mark important shifts in terms of how we think about race in relation to national culture. For instance, in 1920, the category “mulatto” was removed from the census, which implies that one would have had to identify as “either-or”; Black or White. This either-or logic is very much a part of how we have tended historically to think about race in the US (as well as many other aspects of culture besides: Hatfields and McCoys, Democrats and Republicans, etc.). The census still tends to reflect our collective ideas: for instance, the 2010 census still used the term “Negro,” which is obviously problematic, but the official explanation was that older members of the African American population still identified themselves as such. We’re very much living with a charged racial atmosphere in 2021: in recent weeks, Derek Chauvin’s trial for killing George Floyd last year, which touched off a summer of protests, has taken place—with yet more police killings occurring even as the trial unfolded (including one in Minneapolis, the same city where Floyd was killed, and one—shockingly—of a thirteen year-old in Chicago). Chauvin was convicted of murder, unlike the perpetrators in similar previous cases, so hopefully that will serve as a precedent in cases involving uses of unnecessary force, especially against members of minority groups, by law enforcement. Racial injustice and violence, which have always been there but have maybe been less visible at times, are very much part of the national conversation at the moment, and that has a bearing on the categories we use and the way we talk about race.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, 1964

How should we understand the phrase “the man of blue”?

I think Toomer’s blue man is precisely the image he adopts to get out of the either-or bind I just mentioned. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed according to color, and blue—absurd as the image is—suggests a kind of blending of all races, all colors.

Main eastern theater of the Civil War, Virginia, 1862

What is interesting about Toomer’s family and education?

What’s interesting about Toomer is that he really did represent a very mixed background. His maternal grandfather was a Civil War hero and (briefly) Reconstruction-era governor of Louisiana, the first African American to hold the office of governor of any state. Toomer grew up mostly within the Black upper middle-to-upper class milieu of Washington, DC. He was really unsettled as a young man, studied here and there, and tried a bit of everything. The story “Kabnis,” which ends Cane, is a fictionalized account of his own experiences teaching in the South as a young man—an experience that I guess you could say completed his education. (The story fits into the narrative pattern of the young Black Northern-educated intellectual who goes to the South to supplement this formal education with a “folk” education—a trope you see in the work of Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and the poet Sterling A. Brown, to name just a few.)

Waldo Frank, 1918

Was there anything in Toomer’s biography that especially surprised you?

Yes! He was very close to Waldo Frank in the early twenties, when Frank was a much more famous, better established cultural figure. As I mentioned in my essay, they had a falling out—ostensibly over Frank’s foreword to the 1923 edition of Cane, which positioned Toomer as a “Negro writer,” as well as Frank’s exoticizing depiction of African Americans in his novel Holiday, which was published the same year. Of course, those are good reasons for a falling out on their own, but it seems that the real reason they fell out was good, old fashioned jealousy: Toomer was having an affair with Frank’s wife, Margaret Naumburg, with whom he shared an intense interest in the teachings of the mystic George Gurdjieff. In fact, Toomer seemingly liked to court scandal, which he did most openly and publicly by marrying Margery Latimer in 1931, in clear violation of the then-strong miscegenation taboo. News of the marriage made national headlines. One gets the sense that whatever his personal attractions may have been, Toomer also liked to ruffle feathers by resisting racial norms. This fits his profile generally, as an intellectual who was particularly resistant to categories of race.

Black Lives Matter demonstration, Germany, 2020

“The Blue Meridian” was first envisioned in the 1920s, and published in 1936. How might the poem be received by non-academic readers today?

It contains some really resonant images that I think we can still learn from (even if we would cringe at some of its racial politics, particularly its attribution of race to “blood”). I think the future the poem projects, in which we would no longer be divided on the basis of skin color, remains desirable, if still quite remote from where we are today. The poem could serve as a very powerful reminder to non-academic readers that the racial inequality and tension we see today is nothing new, that—if anything—it is the single most persistent and painful issue in US history, even if the way we think about race has changed over time.

Franz Boas, 1915

Franz Boas (1858-1942) is considered the founder of the American anthropological tradition, and emphasized a democratic perspective on culture. In what ways has your knowledge of his work influenced your understanding of contemporary race relations?

Boas was really the first intellectual of national (or even international) standing to advocate for cultural relativism. The prevailing idea in anthropological discourse up until Boas’s time was heavily influenced by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and held that different cultures could be understood vertically, as representing different stages of evolution, with Anglo-American culture (of course) at the top. Boas argued for a horizontal definition of culture, in which non-Western cultures represented not earlier stages of development, but simply different cultural norms; any one culture was every bit as “modern” as the next, and had its own standards and norms. In addition, Boas was a vocal opponent of scientific racism. For Boas, there was nothing essential about race; race was merely an expression of an individual’s enculturation within a particular group, a social construct rather than a set of innate characteristics. He influenced a whole generation (or more) of anthropologists that included Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, and Zora Neale Hurston, and his ideas have been very influential.

W.E.B. Du Bois with his wife, Nina, and daughter, Yolande, 1901

You touch on W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), an African American sociologist who went on to found the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). How did his landmark ideas shape Toomer’s writing?

In The Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903 and is still one of the great texts of American literature, Du Bois writes that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” He made that declaration at the beginning of the century, but he almost just as well could have made it at the end, since it turned out to be so prescient. This is also the problem Toomer tries to “solve” in “The Blue Meridian”: He proposes that the idea of racial difference predicated on Black-versus-white logic will be eradicated when these categories become so intermixed they become meaningless and a new hybrid race—the “American”—emerges. In The Souls, Du Bois also described what he called African Americans’ “double consciousness”—a complex idea with a long afterlife, but at risk of oversimplifying, we could say is the consciousness of being both Black and American. We can also see the influence of this idea on Toomer, as he imagines national identity in effect becoming racial identity through the hypothetical emergence of this “new” race, the “American.”

Black Lives Matter protesters, Oregon, 2020

Scientific racism attempts to provide “evidence” of racial inferiority, citing biological anthropology to suggest a difference in evolution between certain groups. Where might we see this pseudoscience impacting current views of race?

I think we can hear an echo of these views whenever we are faced with an essentialist understanding of race, which still happens, for instance, in discussions about achievement gaps in terms of education or income, incarceration rates, crime, etc. On the one hand, there is nothing essential about racial difference. On the other, it is a very powerful cultural construct.

Civil rights march, Alabama, 1965

If Toomer were alive today, what is one thing that you would want to ask him?

I would want to ask him what signs of progress he could see in our attitudes concerning racial and cultural differences in relation to national belonging over the past hundred years. I would also want to ask him how (if at all) his own views concerning race had changed since he wrote Cane and “The Blue Meridian.”

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen, Chicago, 1931

What are you currently working on?

Broadly speaking, my work addresses US poetry in relation to modernity. I am currently working on a monograph on poetry and crisis in the 1930s Depression, which I’m hoping to complete a draft of during my current sabbatical (I’m almost there). To put it briefly, I argue that the economic and social crisis of the period finds its corollary in a crisis with respect to language as a social and material phenomenon. There’s a skepticism concerning language as a medium of communication and source of cultural cohesion, which poetry—as a language-based art—addresses in various ways, sometimes by attempting to embrace elements derived from the period’s mass media and popular culture as a means of bring poetic language up to date, and at others by turning its back on modernity altogether to embrace the outmoded and the primitive. I see these two seemingly contradictory trends as representing a kind of “Janus-faced” response to modernity during the Depression, which revealed the US to be constituted by an uneven geography defined by the existence of the hypermodern alongside the premodern. My work on Toomer doesn’t fit into the project, but there is some overlap in the sense that many poets in the thirties harbored a genuine ambivalence toward modernity—which one certainly sees in Toomer’s work, and in the period’s anthropological discourse, which itself very often registered a kind of intellectual skepticism toward the rhetoric of progress.

I also just edited a special issue of another journal (Textual Practice) on the topic of literature in relation to extractivism, the concept/attitude that natural and human resources are exploitable commodities that should be extracted and turned to profit. My own article in the issue deals with the Depression-era work of Muriel Rukeyser and the contemporary poetry of Mark Nowak in relation to toxic mining practices. I am increasingly drawn to models of criticism that situate literature with respect to energy regimes, past and present—a field that has really gained momentum in recent years.

School room during the Great Depression era, North Carolina

Monday, May 30, 2022

On Betrayal and Male Friendship in Graham Greene: an Interview with Gregory Alan Phipps

By Mikayla Mondragon

Gregory Alan Phipps, “Male Friendships and Betrayal in the Fiction of Graham Greene,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 62.4 (2020): 415-36.

Graham Greene's home with a plaque designating that this was his home

For readers who may not be familiar with Graham Greene (1904-91), could you give us a brief introduction?

Graham Greene is, in many respects, the consummate twentieth-century author. He lived through the major political, social, and cultural transformations that occurred across the century, and he engaged with these changes throughout his literary career. He is also an author who resists classification. You can see the influence of authors like Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford in his writing, but he does not fit easily into the larger ambit of modernism. You can also see his experimentation with different genres (such as crime fiction) and literary style, but he tends to be selective in his usage. Finally, he is, in his own way, quite a spare and stark writer. He speaks in his autobiography about the importance of “compressing a story to the minimum length possible without ruining its effect,” and this approach is evident in his literature. He conveys a lot of emotion, conflict, and meaning through a limited use of words, and he rarely overloads his readers with description or explanation.

Church in Tabasco, Mexico

Which of Greene’s works is your favorite? Why?

The Power and the Glory. It is a novel about a specific subject in a particular setting—an anti-clerical purge in Mexico during the 1930s—but it is, above all, a brilliant portrayal of a hunted person entangled in questions of ethics, responsibility, and the meaning of life. It also offers a fascinating portrayal of a person’s conflicted relationship to the ideals of an institution in the absence of the material structures or hierarchies that normally sustain it.

All of Graham Greene’s books on a bookshelf

Would you be willing to give us a list of his best novels?

I would probably say, The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The Quiet American, and The End of the Affair.

What originally got you interested in Greene and his works?

He was one of the novelists I read and admired as I was growing up. I remember the first work of his I read was The Third Man, which, since it was written originally as the sketch of a screenplay, is actually a bit underdeveloped in its novel form. However, the edition I had also included another work that was adapted into a film called The Fallen Idol. This was an original short story entitled “The Basement Room,” which I thought (and still think) was wonderful. After reading these works, I proceeded to plough through many of his novels in the course of a year. I actually learned a lesson from this, though: if you really like an author, it is good to space out their works instead of reading them all at once. That way, you can keep discovering their literature at later points in your life.

Greene is interested in the subject of friendship, although he has an idiosyncratic take on it. Could you explore his philosophy of friendship in, say, Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter?

I am not sure if he has a particular philosophy. The male friendship riddled with threats of betrayal is a recurring theme across his literature, but it always seems to be an organic development within his narratives, as opposed to a perspective on life or society that he wants to convey through a novel. However, I think part of the reason for this impression is that Greene is a masterful writer of dialogue. Few authors are capable of expressing as much as he does through the ways his characters speak to each other. As a result, I rarely feel that Greene is trying to speak through his characters. Thus, his thematic interest in friendship and betrayal usually appears to be a reflection of his characters’ personalities and relationships, as opposed to an idea he wants to get across to his readers.

At one point, you suggest that characters in both of these works grow a stronger friendship as a result of betrayal. What message might this carry for Greene’s readers?

I think the point is that the moment of betrayal coincides with the moment that male characters truly become friends. It is almost as though the “great betrayal” has to occur in order for the friendship to exist. One might expect there to be a message about forgiveness woven into this dynamic, but in most instances, the so-called friends never see each other again once the betrayal happens (this is true, for instance, in The Heart of the Matter). However, Greene’s first published novel, The Man Within, does depict the fear and humiliation that haunts a character who has betrayed his friend, suggesting that, in Greene’s world, betrayal can be as traumatic for the person who commits it as it is for the victim. This idea also surfaces in The Power and the Glory, where the priest develops an almost friendly pity for the man who betrays him, recognizing that this act will weigh on the man for the rest of his life.

Blue plaque outside Graham Greene's Birthplace, St. John’s boarding house (part of Berkhamsted School) on Chesham Road in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. The writer Graham Greene was born here in 1904 when his father was housemaster.

Both Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter are considered the gold standard of Catholic novels, yet Greene objected being seen as Catholic novelist. Why do you suppose that was?

I think many authors tend to resist such broad classifications. After all, various writers who have been identified as the leading figures in this or that famous literary movement pushed back against the idea that their works were an expression of the movement. Moreover, I think we can see throughout Greene’s career and life a distinction between a strong intellectual interest in Catholicism and a deep-seated Catholic faith. His faith seems to have moved in waves, and it remained precarious even at its high points. It may have been strongest when he was channeling it through his romantic life, such as during his courtship of his wife or his later relationship with Catherine Walston.

Do Catholic novels have a role in culture today?

Some of the specific issues with which Greene’s Catholic characters grapple might seem out of place today, but I believe many readers can connect imaginatively with the underlying conflicts he presents in his narratives. In The Heart of the Matter, the protagonist Henry Scobie lives as a good Catholic while barely paying his religion any mind. However, as his life spirals out of control and he sinks into subterfuge and corruption, he becomes more intensely aware of his faith. I think many readers can identify with the underlying conflict here. As long as we are following the conventional rules of a social institution or cultural doctrine, we can safely ignore them. It is as though superficial obedience relieves us of the need to think deeply about the issues. However, when we begin to clash against the rules, our complacent beliefs are shaken, and we are forced to examine our relationship to the larger paradigm.

A still from the movie “The Quiet American” directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz, based on Graham Greene’s book

Brighton Rock has been adapted on stage and even a film as recently as 2010. Why do you think Greene’s work is still relevant?

I think for the reasons I have already mentioned, but on a pragmatic level, also because his novels are on the short side. For example, The Heart of the Matter is longish by Greene’s standards, but it still only clocks in at about 270 pages. Why is this important? I think it matters because the art of the short novel is underappreciated, especially in contemporary society. There is an implicit idea that a masterpiece must be a long work, like Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example. Greene shows that a short novel can be just as profound as a much longer one. I appreciate long novels since I like to immerse myself in their worlds for an extended period; but I also see the value of short novels, which demand less of a commitment and tend to be nicely portable, which makes a difference if you are reading in more than one place.

St. John’s, a boarding house of Berkhamsted School in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. The writer Graham Greene was born here in 1904 when his father was housemaster.

Greene clearly drew upon his biography for his tales of traumatic betrayal, including betrayals he himself committed. Did he wrestle with the ethical implications of so bleakly re-telling stories from his past and even present?

Interestingly, Greene had a reputation during his lifetime as an intensely private person who disliked giving interviews, but then, his work is often heavily autobiographical. For example, The End of the Affair draws upon his affair with Catherine Walston. One of the reasons I was interested in revisiting his schooldays is that he regarded these years as the most miserable period in his life. In both Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter, you can see how he incorporates aspects of his schooldays into his literature—for example, in the latter, the relatively minor relationship between Wilson and Harris touches upon shared school experiences. Also, the first novel Greene wrote, an unpublished work entitled “Anthony Sant,” is set in a school and reproduces aspects of Greene’s traumatic experiences at his father’s boarding school. In this way, Greene started his literary career by recounting what was, for him, the worst experience of his life.

As a student, Greene experienced depression. How might his works be read differently in an era that talks more openly about mental health?

In retrospect, it seems evident that Greene was bipolar, but in his autobiography A Sort of Life, he uses the more tepid word “boredom” to refer to his bouts of severe depression. Then again, he also details how he took up Russian roulette to escape from this boredom, indicating that he realized the unusual depth and intensity of these low points. Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Greene only touches upon his bipolarity, preferring instead to treat his extreme and occasionally self-destructive behavior as symptomatic of the passions and demons that drove him. This approach downplays the role that mental illness played in his life and art, though I do think there is also the risk today of drawing too much upon this illness to explain the arc of his life. Biographers and critics would do well to treat such issues with balance.

This is the grave of Graham Greene in the graveyard of Corseaux, Switzerland

If Greene were alive today, what would you ask him?

He mentions in his autobiography that working as a writer for a newspaper was, for him, the ideal training ground for a novelist, for some practical reasons (for instance, the hours he worked left him relatively free to focus on his literature), but also because this job enabled him to pick up “lessons valuable to his own craft.” I think I would ask him if this assessment still holds true today. For example, now there are so many creative writing programs in universities—are these places ideal environments for young authors, or can they be inhibiting? Also, I might ask him what he would have asked Henry James. I worked on James for many years, and I know Greene was a devoted admirer of his works, but they are so different—not just in terms of their literature, but frankly, in terms of their lifestyles. So I wonder how Greene understood the point of connection between them.

U.S. trailer to the movie The Third Man

Greene’s works have had a rich legacy on screen. Could you please rank the film and television adaptations of his work for us?

As a film, I think The Third Man is a great work. The original adaptation of Brighton Rock is very good, too.

A plaque denotating Graham Greene as a novelist, film critic, and screenwriter

What are you working on now?

I am working on a book that explores interconnections between Hegel’s philosophy and scientific narratives about the Big Bang.