Guest Blog: Burned – The White-Hot Deaths of 8 Literary Movements
By Patrick Smith
“The term ‘Movement’—and it’s always written with a capital ‘M’—has always given me the heebie-jeebies, it’s very pretentious,” science-fiction icon William Gibson told Andy Diggle in a 1997 interview. “I was so taken aback the first time I heard the word ‘Cyberpunk.’” Of course, since Gibson’s meteoric success with the publication of Neuromancer in 1984, he has understood the fickleness and ephemerality of literary trends too well to not be suspicious of the inevitable outcome.
“As soon as I realized it was happening I was calling all the different people I was associating with and saying, ‘Duck and cover! It’s a labelling operation! Don’t let them do this, we’re dead in the water!’ But everyone I called just said, ‘Oh, I want it on the back of my jacket, this is so cool!’ And at that point I just thought, Yeah, you can have it on the back of your jacket but you’re gonna have it on your tombstone one day.”
Discussing literary movements can be a lot like conversations about football over beers or organizing the important events in one’s life by decade: arbitrary, often interesting, occasionally enlightening—and never quite as tidy as we’d like.
Far from avoiding the vagaries of historical, social, technological, and cultural contexts and events, literature is conceived and forged in the lacunae. Leave it to a SF writer, then, to best articulate how literary movements live and die, rising and falling with a society’s corresponding lurches and heaves.
Gibson’s Neuromancer crashed a comfortable, if relatively uninspired literary scene like a runaway truck through a convenience-store window. Since the Counterculture revolution had gone moribund a few years before, the suburban angst and hyperrealism of John Updike, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver were the order of the day for many mainstream readers. The New Wave in science fiction that had migrated from Britain to the States in the 1960s and featured Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Leigh Brackett, and others died on the vine, leaving a vacuum filled ably by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and a few other daring souls.
But the infatuation with Gibson’s groundbreaking novels and short stories was diluted to some extent when quasi-punk rocker Billy Idol, resplendent in leather and studs on MTV’s heaviest rotation (when MTV still played music), co-opted the cyberpunk vibe and, in Gibson’s words “burned that look.”
As it turns out, after incendiary, often brief lives, all literary movements flame out in an evolutionary supernova as violent and chaotic as language itself. Here are eight examples of writers who ushered in literary movements or introduced their own unique styles and perspectives—only to be burned.
The dates in parentheses indicate the writer’s or movement’s most active period.
- Walt Whitman (1855-1892)
Walt Whitman not only chronicled his own observations in intimate detail in poems such as “Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but laid bare his soul for the reader, defining and distilling life’s essence through his poetry. In the first edition of his iconic Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman fleshed out in verse a philosophy that suggested directions for a national literature, works that once and for all would separate America, now a century old and headed for a horrific internecine struggle, from its European roots. Endlessly fascinated by both America and the messy, wonderful cultural stew of New York City, he revisited and expanded Leaves of Grass until just weeks before his death in 1892, the last edition coming in at nearly 400 poems.
Whitman broke with tradition, substituting his own recipe for an unimaginative, stagnant art that had become stale with overuse. Celebrated in life perhaps as much for his public persona and jaunty demeanor as his poetry, Whitman is more known about today than known, even though his work continues to influence writers and poets in countless ways.
What burned Whitman?
The Gilded Age in America and the rise of corporate culture.
- Emily Dickinson (1858-1865)
In sharp contrast to the public celebrity of her contemporary Whitman, Emily Dickinson lived a quiet life of relative privilege and seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts, writing simply for the joy of expression and intellectual challenge poetry provided in her own staid life. Dickinson’s turning inward for inspiration and her language—replete with em-dashes and caps—influences poets today.
Writing of the poet’s proximity to the Civil War, a connection—at least chronologically—shared with Whitman, editor Thomas H. Johnson writes, “Since Emily Dickinson’s full maturity as a dedicated artist occurred during the span of the Civil War, the most convulsive era of the nation’s history, one of course turns to the letters of 1861-1865, and the years that follow, for her interpretation of events. But the fact is that she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current.”
What burned Dickinson?
The poet’s reluctance to see her work in print. Despite Dickinson’s influence on subsequent generations of poets, her legacy would be far stronger today had she been recognized and canonized in her own lifetime.
- Ezra Pound and the Imagists (1912-1917)
Imagism, an offshoot of the Modernism so influential in Europe before making its way to America, flourished for less than a decade in the years immediately preceding World War I. The movement synonymous with controversial American Ezra Pound—the self-assured poet and scholar could be notoriously, pathologically difficult—and including counting among its practitioners the accomplished poets H. D. and Amy Lowell, benefited from his well-worn erudition and a fanatical attention to the intellectual life (some good self-promotion didn’t hurt, either). Pound’s unsavory later life included his support of Italian fascists during World War II. His reputation tainted, the irrepressible logorrheic spent fourteen years in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital, where he continued work on his Cantos.
Although Pound has garnered much of the credit as the driving force behind Imagism in 1912, many of the ideas were first brought forth several years earlier in London during meetings of T. E. Hulme’s Poet’s Club. The movement’s working definition—“An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”—coined by Pound and embodied in his two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd/petals on a wet, black bough”) suggests that language and idea are inseparable.
What burned Pound and the Imagists?
World War I and Pound’s arrogance and megalomaniacal artistic ambition.
- Gertrude Stein (1909-1933)
Gertrude Stein’s work is more prevalent on syllabi in graduate seminars than on readers’ night stands, but her books Tender Buttons (1914) and The Making of Americans (1925), which the author unabashedly compared to the work of Joyce and Proust, were required reading for intellectuals of the day. Stein, along with her partner and amanuensis, Alice B. Toklas, made the Paris salon scene their own, hosting most of the generation’s most famous writers and artists (Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were frequent guests) and espousing a literary tradition that paralleled and perhaps even rivaled Modern art’s increasingly provocative sensibility.
Hers was an experimental, difficult prose. “Although Gertrude Stein could and did write intelligibly at times,” read the New York Times obituary on July 28, 1946, “her distinction rested on her use of words apart from their conventional meaning.” Mentor to Ernest Hemingway (to whom she declared his a “Lost Generation”), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, and other standard-bearers of the Modern tradition in America and foil to others—talented novelist Willa Cather, for one, didn’t have much time for Stein and her coterie—Stein was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the twentieth century.
What burned Stein?
Stein’s groundbreaking, uncompromising views of what art and writing could be and the author’s open, lifelong relationship with Toklas drove a wedge between Stein and the mainstream. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were savvier marketers of their work and more accessible writers, falling in line with Americans’ view of what literature should be and successfully absorbing Stein’s experimental riffs into their own fiction.
- Virginia Woolf (1919-1941)
Say what you will about the novels of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, two Modern lions. The work of Virginia Woolf stands up to both and still commands a wide readership. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) are two of Woolf’s finest novels, each along with her widely read short story “Kew Gardens” (from the collection Kew Gardens, 1919) a study in pointillist concision and one of the sharpest critiques of the Modern condition to come out of the period.
Having witnessed and written extensively on the toll that World War I had on a generation of soldiers and those who were left behind and suffering from recurring bouts of depression as she watched the world spiral yet again into chaos, Woolf drowned herself in 1941.
What burned Woolf?
- William Faulkner (1929-1954)
William Faulkner is a—arguably the—major figure in American literary Modernism, borrowing from and making his own the European modernists’ experimentation with language and an inside-out understanding of his character’s psyches in such classic novels as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom (1936).
Influenced by Baudelaire and Anderson (both of whom were stylistic innovators), as well as Twain, Housman, and others (who were more middle-of-the-road realists and storytellers), Faulkner adapted the interior monologue to a distinctly Southern literature and credited a new generation of American readers (and subsequently, a new generation of writers) with the ability to decipher and render increasingly complex narratives.
What burned Faulkner?
World War II, a turning away from a literature that some saw as “regional” in favor of post-war realism, and the subsequent rise of the Beat Generation.
- The Beats
Even more than half a century after the Beat Generation was subsumed once and for all into the Counterculture (1968’s Summer of Love and Woodstock might be a reasonable, though arguable, tolling of the movement’s death knell), a handful of names remain indelibly etched into culture’s collective memory: Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 1956), Jack Kerouac (On the Road, 1957), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, 1959), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (poet and founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco), to name a few.
What began at Columbia University in New York City as the search for a “new vision” in response to the academic rigor of literature eventually made its way cross country and took hold in San Francisco, forever changing American literature and culture. Almost sixty years later, On the Road remains a cult classic with angsty adolescents and MFAs and as recently as 2012 was adapted as a feature film. “Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own,” Ginsberg said of the movement. “We were all three, I suppose.”
What burned Burroughs, Ginsberg, and the Beats?
The movement’s success. The artistic Counterculture spawned—and, at least initially, driven—by the Beats manifested itself broadly in society and became mainstream, drawing attention away from the literature and putting the focus on sweeping cultural change and the movement’s commodification.
- William Gibson
At the outset of his career, William Gibson made his writing style difficult by design to keep away unworthy readers—not the kind of thing publishers and editors want to hear from their prize properties. In time, Gibson’s narratives have become smoother, the plotlines less labyrinthine and speculative and more grounded in recognizable, near-future contexts. Although still eerily prescient of tomorrow—witness the recent publication of The Peripheral, Gibson’s tenth novel—the author has spoken openly and at length about observing present circumstances and extrapolating into near-future realities. “The future is already here,” he famously opined, “it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Gibson has, it seems, accepted with equanimity his notion that styles inevitably burn. With a prose no less rigorous than that of his early work but this time focused on questions of identity and alienation in the here-and-now Digital Age, Gibson’s popularity has only increased since 1984, even if Neuromancer’s white-hot fever-dream companion remains elusive.
What burned Gibson?
Video, mainstream exposure and imitation of the author’s singular style, and—especially—Billy Idol’s disingenuous sneer.
Patrick A. Smith is professor of English at Bainbridge State College (GA) and an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine. His work includes“The true bones of my life”: Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collections Conversations with Tim O’Brien and Conversations with William Gibson, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and stories in numerous magazines and journals. He lives in Havana, Florida.
Images: Pound passport photo via Wikimedia Commons; City Lights via Wikimedia Commons; Faulkner via Wikimedia Commons; Gertrude Stein via Flickr.
Posted on January 7, 2015, in Literature and tagged American Literature, Books, Classics, English Literature, Gertrude Stein, Imagism, Literary Movements, Literature, Poetry, Walt Whitman. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.