One of the characteristics of American literature in the period from 1800 up to 1950 or so is its individualistic heroes, often lacking a past and being somewhat estranged from society. Hence the sum total of Moby Dick's protagonist's backstory is "Call me Ishmael"; think also of Edgar Allan Poe's many isolated, rootless viewpoint characters, or Huckleberry Finn, the "poor motherless thing". It's not just a feature of American letters during the period, of course (Lord Jim, which I happen to be reading at the moment, is an obvious example), but it is a notable one.
This is in contrast with European novels of the same period, which tended to have large casts of characters with obsessively detailed backgrounds and complicated familial relationships - a good example being Emile Zola's "Rougon-Macquart" novels: twenty books about the history of two branches of an extended family during the Second French Empire. This, of course, harks back to a much older tradition: medieval and pre-medieval authors thought it of the greatest importance to locate their heroes in a family tree, and often go to some length to detail what so-and-so's father and grandfather and great-grandfather did before the proper story gets going.
(One doesn't need to be Sigmund Freud to observe that the former of these bodies of literature was mostly written by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants to a newly discovered continent with a so-called "frontier" and the latter was written by people whose ancestors had lived since time immemorial in densely populated landscapes with very conservative social mores.)
Tolkien sits interestingly between these two positions. On the one hand, his two heroes (which I still take to be Bilbo and Frodo even though a case can be made that Sam is really the chief protagonist of LotR) are given lengthy and detailed backgrounds, and it is even made clear that their ancestry and bloodlines have had a strong influence on the formation of their character. They are by no means "William Wilsons". And Tolkien was clearly deliberately channeling older forms of literature in this regard.
And yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings also explore very "American" themes: the leaving of home to make a new life elsewhere; the exploring of a vast and dangerous land in the name of adventure; the severing of familial ties (neither Bilbo nor Frodo appears to actually care about his relatives); the sense of estrangement from society (again, neither of them is exactly an integral part of their community even at the beginning of their respective stories). Neither of the ring-bearers is Bartleby the Scrivener. But nor are they like characters from a Jane Austen novel; they are escaping society, not finding their way in it.
Part of the success of Tolkien's work can therefore be attributed, I think, to his straddling two quite distinctive pre-modernist approaches to literature - the American and the European. He was very interested in the details of his world. But his characters are not embedded in them.
Never looked at LotR like that, but I think you're on to something. A strong case has also been made that LotR straddles pre-modernist and modernist literature.ReplyDelete
This is a massive generalisation, but there are works whose greatness peaks in a particular time, place, culture, and there are works whose greatness feels timeless. I know some would sniff at the idea that LotR is great literature, but I'd bet any (western?) audience of the last 1000 years would understand and appreciate it.
People will I am sure still be reading it for centuries to come.Delete
As we look back over a century of influence to Lovecraft I think Tolkien looked back a century to the eccentric English explorers, largely impervious to misfortune, rather than to America. England's empire granted easy access to Englishmen to the gates of the unexplored and the unmapped.ReplyDelete
American literature, that of the frontiersman, does not offer a sense of adventuring outside civilisation since America has had little civilisation and hardly history enough for a European to notice.
Do we really look back over a century of influence to Lovecraft, though? I question that.Delete
I also have a problem with describing the British Empire as 'English' when so many of its champions were actually Scots. Scottish nationalism enjoys propagating and luxuriating in the myth that they were victims of English imperialism when the truth is Scots were the Empire's vanguard.
I'm also not quite sure I agree with your final paragraph. Surely on those terms early American history is all about "adventuring outside civilisation" (although I would reject the premise that America "has had little" of it).
Not sure if your theory re Tolkien's popularity is accurate. But it IS interesting.ReplyDelete
I too think you are on to something here - coming to mind immediately is the character of Strider - before he is known as Aragorn. Or even Gandalf - about whom we know very little from the actual series itself. Not that either character is "American" as such but that they have that background-less feature which forces you to take their actions at face value and make your judgements based on those alone.ReplyDelete
Also I just re-read Moby Dick for the first time as an adult, and my god is it ever amazing!
I've not read Moby Dick since university days, and was put off it slightly by the sheer enthusiasm of my tutor. I'll go back to it before I'm old and grey...
That might explain a bit about why Egil's Saga is much easier for modern Americans to read. While you do have to get many chapters in before Egil is even born you don't have the same kind of sprawling and intersecting family trees that you have to keep track of in order to follow the story in, say, the Saga of the People of Laxardal or Burnt Njal's Saga.ReplyDelete
Also talk of Zola-style sprawling family trees brings to mind A Song of Ice and Fire which has an absolutely ginormous cast with thousands of connections between different characters. Despite the series having many things to complain about (such as Martin having a poor grasp of how feudalism operates) the fact that I can actually REMEMBER literally hundreds of characters from that series is pretty amazing since I usually don't have a good memory for that sort of thing.
GRRM does have his qualities as a writer, and characterisation is definitely up there. You can't accuse him of not being able to conjure up believable, distinctive characters by the bucket load.Delete
I think what makes it work is how he has the noble houses set up: name, standard look/personality of its members, sigil, words, terrain of their lands, distinctive castle, etc. etc. all work together as a sort of mnemonic device to help us keep track of everyone.Delete