The Shaping of the Modern World

Who were the people we talk about in discussing human history? What did they look like? Find out at this excellent part of the Shaping of the Modern World website from the Brooklyn College Core Curriculum, with portraits of the world's greatest authors and thinkers. The site also includes readings, glossary, and other resources for learning more about how human ideas have evolved to today.

Visit the Shaping the Modern World site.


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Everything Old Is New Again

Authors and Literature as Cultural Icons
In the old days, that is, the real old ones, during the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth up to World War II, authors were stars. They had the status of public figures, of movie stars, rock stars, and other “face” celebrities today. They were celebrities because, one, they could do something most people could not do, write, and two, they had ideas and knew how to put them into a form other people could understand. The fact that they could do that made them the media figures of their time; and the media, of course, for the most part print, movies, theater, radio, and even some early TV, lapped it up. It turned authors themselves into literary characters who were often more interesting than the ones in their books.

So in the nineteenth century you had Oscar Wilde, a showman every bit as flamboyant as Wild Bill Hickok or P.T. Barnum, who polished his public persona to a crystal gleam and pioneered the idea that books were not the only things a celebrity author should sell. Victorians could eat off Oscar Wilde chinaware, pour tea from Oscar’s tea service (in his sunflower design: Oscar decided the sunflower, with its golden head turned up to the sky, was his flower), wear Wilde’s signature knee britches and cravats, and even dip Oscar Wilde snuff. You had Dickens who made more money from his readings, where he impersonated every character with a separate voice, than he did from his books; and Samuel Clemens who invented Mark Twain and then became him, loving every moment of it.

In the twentieth century, there was Big Papa Hemingway, who shot lions and actually started to talk in the clipped, manly way his characters did; F. Scott Fitzgerald who personified the “flaming youth” of the twenties; William Faulkner, always the Southern gentleman, beloved by Life and Look magazines because he looked like one; William Butler Yeats, the romantic Irish poet, photographed in flowing capes and scarves; Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Joanie Mitchell of her time, who did stadium-sized readings for tens of thousands of fans; Dorothy Parker who became a radio personality; Gertrude Stein, whose unmistakable face and mannish clothes made her the shocking “avant garde” darling of the press; E. M. Forster whose upper class accent and populist views made him “Mr. Democracy”; and T. S. Elliot who wore pale green face powder to make himself look more ethereal, as he thought a poet should look like, so no one would mistake him for Papa Hemingway.

People read sometimes six newspapers a day, and authors were part of the public flow of ideas. You did not just see their names in an occasional book review that managed to squeeze its way past the TV listings. Authors knew that in order to sell books they also had to sell themselves, and keep themselves in the public eye.

The young Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden were great at this. Both were well-spoken, from nice suburban English families, while spouting Communism and pacifism for the press. The modern era wanted faces to put in front of ideas, and authors supplied them. It wanted to consume ideas the way we now consume style fads. Publishers were delighted. They were mostly small companies, often growing out of book retailing, and did not have to sell a million books to stay in business. But having a few star authors would keep them there.

Then, sometime after World War II, something happened. An immense change occurred in culture, education, and book publishing, some of it working in favor of authors, and some of it definitely not.

First, there was the introduction of the paperback book, which came directly out of the cheap “pocket books” that the Army supplied soldiers with during the war. You could take Hemingway with you into battle; the army printed millions of books, and this format outlasted World War II.

Second was the G.I. bill, which sent millions of American boys (mostly boys, not girls) to college.

Before World War II, only a small, elite percentage of Americans went to college — any college, including state schools. But after World War II, huge numbers of young men were being sent off to school by Uncle Sam, and now English departments were becoming the arbiters of “li-trary” excellence. They were not going to leave it to the publishers and the authors, who only had ideas to parley.

English profs were going to decide who was worth reading and who was not, and since English profs themselves were not going to be stars, they did not want the mere authors of books to be stars anymore, either. The author was supposed to be known “only by his work.”

In other words: “Read and not heard.”

Occasionally he’d be invited to give a reading at an English department tea. But it was important for readers to understand that literature was something that needed to be taken with a good dose of castor oil. To be taken seriously, it had to be as difficult as college physics. So the profs foisted on the kids a “canon” of great literature, headed by books like Ulysses, which could jump over its dirtiness because it was so difficult to read.

The profs wanted books that required some professorial (as in English department) accompaniment, in order to be enjoyed: books that had to be shepherded through their puzzled readerships. They wanted to show that literature was a high art form, like abstract painting, which the man on the street could no longer understand.

This was not all bad. It meant that literature could become extremely experimental since reading it merely for understanding and enjoyment was no longer a priority: you could try to swim through books that you had no idea what they were all about, and still feel good about it. And at the top were often some great books. Joyce, Beckett, Camus, Genet, Sartre, Faulkner: these were heavy hitters, making everyone afraid of Virginia Woolfe, who believed literature should be practiced "in a room of one’s own," away from those vulgar crowds and the necessities of the market.

A lot of this author castration came from a group of American profs known as “the New Critics,” who practiced “the New Criticism.” In the New Criticism, the author, his life and history, were of no importance. His or her gender, race, class, development, or even ideas should be completely divorced from his/her work. The author was simply a conduit for writing that only the college prof as its oracle could, from its murkiness, bring to light.

Strangely enough, what the New Critics were knee-deep in was “symbolism” (not French, often erotic, often sensationalist Symbolism; just plain knotty, hard-to-get, academic symbolism in which every aspect of the story, puzzlingly enough, had to symbolize something). Everything had to have a meaning, and often the author, uneducated and neurotic, wasn’t sure of the meaning himself.

This aligned literature and its practice with the other big religion of post-war America, psychoanalysis. The analyst and the college prof were now going to open up the brain of a piece of writing, without the stupid author there to interfere. They would show a gasping, note-scribbling audience of students and would-be readers exactly how a piece of literature had to be understood.

It was an amazing period for literary pursuits. Some of this is carried on today when criticism trumps writing, since the critic, like the analyst, is much brighter than the author (or patient). What it did was make authors feel like fumbling idiots, terribly dependent on college professors and critics to “get them.” The author as a public figure was dead; the writing, as some piece of “art” to be worked upon by the embalming critic, was . . . well, it was still around, but not nearly as important as any attention the critic gave it.

All of this made the work of any author who believed in himself extremely difficult. As for producing yourself in any way: you were held in total contempt. Your work had not been vetted by the critics and profs who had, by now, infiltrated publishing, since “li-trah-ture” was supposed to remain alive, like classical music, only on the college campus.

Therefore, you had a flood of trashy, commercial books, spit out by the new media conglomerates, who knew exactly what the dumbed-down reading public wanted; and you had “high literature,” from college writing programs. But the old idea that the writer was a genuine creator of ideas—and himself—well, sadly, that was taken over by rock stars, celebs turned politicians and vice versa, even fashion designers who could now issue a “statement” with a T-shirt.

We’d hit not only the “death of the author,” but her day-to-day humiliation, debasement, and starvation as well. The only idea that is changing that, in a courageous way, is the advent again of independent self-publishing, in which the author is putting out his or her ideas, and himself, in front of the public.

The independent publishing movement is really bringing books back to where they were earlier in the nineteenth century, when you did not go to school to become a writer, but went there to become a fully educated citizen. The movement toward independent publishing and/or self-publishing has said that the writer can, again, create his own persona, and use it. By making his work “public,” he publishes himself. This puts him in a position at odds with academia (which worships Whitman, Proust, and Woolfe — all self-published authors — and absolutely despises self-published writers: go figure that one out) and of course with conglomerate publishing, which simply sees this as an offensive gnat on the eyeball of an elephant. But it has given writing a lot more authenticity than it’s had in decades.

What’s happened to writing and writers is an ugly situation: you have to swim out against tidal waves of pretension and your own infantilization (You’re too stupid to know what your own work is about; only the professionals can identify, market, and sell you). But hopefully we can turn this situation around, although it seems at times that the odds against it are never very good.

However, the odds against any writer are always high, which is a reason why the author has to understand his own uniqueness first, in order to persevere and create books.

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Perry Brass is the author (and publisher) of 13 books, including 7 novels, through Belhue Press. His novel, Warlock, A Novel of Possession, won an Ippy Award in 2002 for Best Gay and Lesbian book. He can be reached through