Deadly Musings

Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction

Michael Kowalewski
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    Deadly Musings
    Book Description:

    "Violent scenes in American fiction are not only brutal, bleak, and gratuitous," writes Michael Kowalewski. "They are also, by turns, comic, witty, poignant, and sometimes, strangely enough, even terrifyingly beautiful." In this fascinating tour of American fiction, Kowalewski examines incidents ranging from scalpings and torture inThe Deerslayerto fish feeding off human viscera inTo Have and Have Not, to show how highly charged descriptive passages bear on major issues concerning a writer's craft. Instead of focusing on violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon, he explores how writers including Cooper, Poe, Crane, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wright, Flannery O'Connor, and Pynchon draw on violence in the realistic imagining of their works and how their respective styles sustain or counteract this imagining.

    Kowalewski begins by offering a new definition of realism, or realistic imagining, and the rhetorical imagination that seems to oppose it. Then for each author he investigates how scenes of violence exemplify the stylistic imperatives more generally at work in that writer's fiction. Using violence as the critical occasion for exploring the distinctive qualities of authorial voice,Deadly Musingsaddresses the question of what literary criticism is and ought to be, and how it might apply more usefully to the dynamics of verbal performance.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2117-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION Reading Violence, Making Sense
    (pp. 3-24)

    In beginning to think about American fiction, one could do worse than to adopt Jake Barnes’s more general proposal about life on a drunken night in Pamplona: “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”¹ Jake’s desire to learn eventually what life “is all about” (though even this possibility is qualified by a “maybe”) does not represent an attempt to reduce, pacify, essentialize, or beautify his existence. It exemplifies...

    (pp. 25-62)

    “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”: so Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, writer of crime fiction and author of dozens of novels and screenplays, once declared in an interview.¹ He did no more than echo a long line of American writers, not all of them novelists, who have agreed—if not publicly inNewsweekinterviews, then implicitly, in the imaginative energies of their work—with Walt Whitman’s assertion, in his preface to the 1855 edition ofLeaves of Grass, that “the greatest poet” “swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any...

    (pp. 63-81)

    Poking fun at James Fenimore Cooper’sThe Deerslayerhas traditionally been a kind of literaryrite de passagefor other authors. The novel is, for Lawrence, one of Cooper’s “lovely half-lies”; for Twain, just “a literary delirium tremens.”¹ Lawrence is temperamentally incapable of doing what he recommends: reading the novel as “a kind of yearning myth” and not a realistic tale.² Both he and Twain measure Cooper’s performance against the standard of what Lawrence calls “actuality.” Both prefer and value realistic fiction, or at least they value it enough to crow over Cooper. Their particular brands of intemperate response rely...

    (pp. 82-104)

    “It would be difficult for me to take Poe up,” Allen Tate remarked in 1949, “‘study’ him, and proceed to a critical judgment.”¹ The prospect of taking Poe up forty odd years later seems no less difficult or problematic, for he still seems as odd as he was ingenious, as neurotic as he was impetuous and original. Poe’s life and work offer a logjam of temperamental contradictions, a complicated braid of heterogenous impulses, attributes, and posturings. Something like a cross between William Blake and O. Henry, Poe was a poetic visionary who tried to master the American magazine fiction market...

  8. CHAPTER IV Violence and Style in Stephen Crane’s Fiction
    (pp. 105-130)

    “There are writing men,” Stephen Crane wrote in 1897, “who, in some stories, dash over three miles at a headlong pace, and in an adjacent story move like a boat being sailed over ploughed fields.”¹ Crane is remarking upon what his friend Harold Frederick successfully avoids in establishing a “perfect evenness of craft” in his fiction. He was generous in finding such “evenness” a worthy quality, for it constitutes an expressive condition Crane himself seemed temperamentally incapable of achieving. The alternating dramatic styles that Crane says Frederick avoids from story to story aptly characterize his own work, sentence by sentence....

  9. CHAPTER V The Purity of Execution in Hemingway’s Fiction
    (pp. 131-161)

    There is a long tradition of disliking Hemingway’s work—one matched, in venerability, only by Hemingway’s irascible depictions of those who object as frustrated schoolmarms. Much of the disapproval is aimed at his preoccupation with violence. Many commentators on his work have sensed “with increasing certainty after the shotgun blast in 1961,” Frederick Crews says, that “the writer whose imagination reverted to goring, maiming, crucifixion, exploded body parts, and agonies of childbirth was by no means a simple realist of the out-of-doors.”¹ Yet long before Hemingway’s suicide, critics like D. S. Savage (in 1948) were complaining about the “crude, violent...

    (pp. 162-193)

    In contemplating how best to approach the author ofThe Hamlet, we might rephrase what a character in that novel asserts about Flem Snopes: William Faulkner don’t even tell himself what he is up to. Not if he was laying in bed with himself in an empty house in the dark of the moon.¹ Such an avowal may or may not describe how Faulkner actually worked, and I do not mean to imply that his frequent self-depiction in interviews as what Joseph Reed calls a “gentleman dirt-farmer and guts-writer” who denied “he ever saw a theme or a symbol” is...

    (pp. 194-221)

    Alice Walker is one of the few readers who openly declares that she likes Flannery O’Connor “because she couldwrite.” Wary about issuing bulletins concerning O’Connor’s fiction, Walker says: “if it can be said to be ‘about’ anything . . . it is ‘about’ prophets and prophecy, ‘about’ revelation, and ‘about’ the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual grace without it.” Her impatient quotation marks here are meant to suggest that these topics grant rather than restrict O’Connor’s scope; that, yes, writers can still write about religious subjects like spiritual grace, revelation,...

    (pp. 222-247)

    Thomas Pynchon is “possibly the most accomplished writer of prose in English since James Joyce,” Richard Poirier justly affirms, not because he is “the best novelist, whatever that would mean,” but because “sentence by sentence he can do more than any other novelist of this century with the resources of the English-American language and with the various media by which it is made available to us.”¹ Yet as Pynchon becomes the subject of numerous critical Baedekers, his verbal charisma—to borrow some of his favorite and borrowed terms—is in danger of being routinized; his narrative animation is rendered more...

  13. POSTSCRIPT Style, Violence, American Fiction
    (pp. 248-256)

    There can be a “violence of mirth, or wrath or suffering,” Emerson reminds us in his late essay “The Tragic,” a piece that alternately clouds and brightens as he muses on “the House of Pain.”¹ Reflecting on the belief “in a brute Fate or Destiny,” which he calls “the bitterest tragic element in life to be derived from an intellectual source,” Emerson consoles himself by saying that this belief “disappears with civilization” and the introduction of “a better public and private tradition.” He knows that only thebeliefin this “tragic element” can be “circumscribed,” not the actual “laws of...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 257-290)
  15. Index
    (pp. 291-301)