Saturday, August 22, 2009

Henry James and Don Draper

I'm coming clean. I'm standing at the platform and announcing it boldly. I can't stand Henry James. No student of mine will ever have to read him in my class. Here is a sample of what I don't like (from The Golden Bowl, published 1909). Take a deep breath, dear reader:

"He was intelligent enough to feel quite humble, to wish not to be in the least hard or voracious, not to insist on his own side of the bargain, to warn himself in short against arrogance and greed. Odd enough, of a truth, was his sense of this last danger--which may illustrate moreover his general attitude toward dangers from within."

Or this:

"Humble as he was, at the same time, he was not so humble as if he had known himself frivolous or stupid. He had an idea--which may amuse his historian--that when you were stupid enough to be mistaken about such a matter you did know it. Therefore he wasn't mistaken--his future might be MIGHT be scientific. There was nothing in himself, at all events, to prevent it. He was allying himself to science, for it was science but the absence of prejudice backed by the presence of money?

AAAAAAAAAARGH! Now I don't mind working for what I get. And I don't mind a long sentence and I certainly don't mind subtlety. But I'm not crazy about surfing--word surfing, where you have the subject in your hand or the vague idea of what might be important and you're surfing across the rest of the sentence, trying to hold on till you find the verb. Or the connection. Or whatever the hell is going on. Here's another shorter one (always welcome):
"It had been said as a joke, but as, after this, they awaited their friend in silence, the effect of the silence was to turn the time to gravity--a gravity not dissipated even when the Prince next spoke."

Gore Vidal referred to the "marvelous ambiguity" of James. My own quote would be closer to "huh?".

I don't always LIKE ambiguity, you know? I like things right out on the table most of the time. The temperature is 86 degrees. It's August. My birthday is September 12. (still a few shopping days left)

Don't get me wrong. I would far rather read Golden Bowl than any vampire book. Or any sci-fi book or fantasy. Sorry, that's my personal taste.

It's not that James is taciturn like Hemingway, who never tells you anything. You have to figure it out. He once said that his work was 10% above the surface and 90% below. It's amazing that he got away with that, but he did. He is the buried influence of everyone writing today who is told, "show, don't tell."

Here's what that means.

Bob answered the phone angrily.

That's telling.

"Hello!" Bob yelled into the phone and threw it across the room.

That's showing.

Bob shredded the phone into little plastic bits, sharpened his Swiss Army knife to kill his next subway victim, and decided not to answer the phone.

That might be a little of both.

Get it? Adverbs are bad. BAAAAAAAAAAD.

Well anyway, it's not as though James holds back words. He puts in plenty of words. More words than you want to hear. But somehow, the content, to me, gets lost. Somehow, his words are opaque and mysterious. I'm left wondering what he has said.

Jump forward to MAD MEN's Don Draper. He is more of a Hemingway character. He never says much, only occasionally to clients. That's when he shows his soul.

The show is brilliant. Its quality is so high, it's been a while since a TV program got this kind of buzz, probably since The Sopranos. And the clear star is Jon Hamm's Don Draper. He's sexy and handsome in a bone chilling way. I find him cold. Without heart. He's Michael Corleone across town, working in an ad agency.

His wife is Betty. She is a terrible mother, one of the worst. She yells at the kids and has no interest in them. She is cold also and a shell of a person. Thing is, she knows it. She sees a psychiatrist for it. Don doesn't. He thinks he's fine. Betty is as beautiful as Don is handsome. There are many more plots, but I guess what I'm trying to say is the show is very sparely written. They don't say much. And there always seems to be a little lag before someone says something, although that could be me. It's very Hemingway and very un-Jamesian and yet sometimes I don't know what anyone is thinking.
Living the last Week of the Dream, dear reader.


At 6:10 AM , Blogger Kay said...

I must watch Mad Men next season, have missed seeing it til now.
I am lukewarm as far as James goes ... Shakespeare too! (Tho' I don't admit that very often in public.)

At 7:50 AM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

You can admit it here, Kay! Any time! Mad Men is really good.


At 11:25 AM , Anonymous Edith Wharton said...

I love Henry James - I find his sentences simple, refreshing, and intelligent. Sorry!

At 11:58 AM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

Oh Edith, love is so blind.


At 1:08 PM , Anonymous Edith Wharton said...

Oh Becky, you are so funny. You should be a writer someday - but, I have learned - never date a writer - They are too messed up!

At 2:32 PM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

You don't know how true that is, Edith.


At 11:50 AM , Anonymous Edith Wharton said...

Oh, Honey - I do know how true it is. That's why I never married Henry or dated him for too long. He would show up and then not show up - and, he only wanted me when he needed something. Don't waist your time honey - Those writers are all messed up and have big issues! Love ya honey - we will have coffee soon. Edith

At 9:08 PM , Anonymous Edith Wharton said...

oppss...imagine Edith writing "waist" instead of "waste" - Time for me to go back to my mansion.

Love ya Becks,


At 9:26 PM , Blogger Becky Motew said...

I think Henry played for the other side, Edith. Maybe you didn't know.....



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