Brave new worlds
DANGEROUS PILGRIMAGES: transatlantic mythologies and the novel Malcolm Bradbury Secker & Warburg £25
Saturday 13 May 1995
Literary relations between the United States and Europe form a long and tangled story, which Bradbury tells chronologically. The book is built round what are effectively essays on individual writers, interspersed with passages of general reflection and of more condensed information. This makes it easy to read in chunks, as well as to refer back to.
Bradbury opens with Chateaubriand and James Fenimore Cooper. The former visited America for five months in 1791: Bradbury demonstrates how in Atala (1801) he was able to project onto the decline of the indigenous nations a European Romantic melancholy which assured the book's rapid success. He quotes Cooper apologising for America's lack of the history, manners and society on which fiction depended, but goes on to show that in his Leatherstocking novels Cooper invented the Western, the first specifically American literary form. For an influential American imagining of Europe, Bradbury turns to Washington Irving, about whom he writes at loving and persuasive length. Not only did Irving create the tourist England of Stratford, Westminster and bucolic picturesqueness: he also naturalised European folk-tale motifs into an American setting, perhaps most powerfully in Rip Van Winkle. Irving, the first American to be a professional writer, created a poetic Europe for America and suggested to Europeans that America had its own poetry. This double achievement places him at the head of a new tradition.
Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne and their contemporaries are interestingly discussed, but the next high point in this book is the treatment of Henry James. James's peculiarly elusive intelligence, the way in which his thinking impregnates his fiction without being stated, has always made him a difficult critical challenge, and Bradbury rises to it admirably. As when dealing with Mark Twain, he uses an adept blend of biography and social history to establish the worlds in which James moved both in America and in Europe, but interwoven with this is an account of the three major phases of James's career which is both enlightening and shrewd. One test of a book with this one's encyclopedic ambitions is whether it can handle detail properly: Bradbury's paragraph on The Portrait of a Lady (1881) blends a paraphrase of the novel's structure with quotation in a remarkably lucid fashion.
The most familiar phase of this story is, of course, that of Paris in the Twenties, the Paris of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Here, little new is said about the usual protagonists, but Bradbury gives us a very useful account of the central role played by Gertrude Stein. "Stein may have created some of the century's most obscure and some would say unreadable books", he says, but "in facilitating one of the great cultural transactions of the century, the transatlantic passage of the modern, she was, as she said, a power, a legend and, well, a genius." He also conveys how exciting Stein would have been to know.
Bradbury writes as a liberal humanist, which means that his grasp of avant-garde work is not always certain. Like his predecessor George Orwell, he takes Henry Miller far too seriously - few non-academics, I suspect, have ever read much more than the dirty bits. However, for the most part his stance makes his arguments accessible and usually sympathetic. I was sorry that in dealing with more recent work he did not say more about Philip Roth, and that he accepts Gore Vidal's own pretence of being an American writer in exile rather than a participant in the transatlantic relationship. Vidal's magnificent historical novels are meant to educate, not just the Republic, but us.
These are minor cavils. Bradbury has read a very great deal and describes it enticingly. His text would have benefited from editing to remove repetitions, but reads easily. His final suggestion - that moves towards European union reflect and perhaps repeat the emergence of the United States - takes too benign a view of our politics but is thought-provoking. The one real pity is that this book is confined to the novel, because there is another side to this story. An account which does not deal with Longfellow or T S Eliot is necessarily limited, and we could do with a companion volume dealing as thoroughly and engagingly with poetic relations.
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