December 11, 2007

Comparative Review: 1000 Identical Historical Novels

One occupational hazard I deal with is reading a very high volume of very bad literature. When I was 17, a freshman in college, and an idiot, I basically thought that graduate school was where you would go after college to re-read all your favorite books without the royal pain in the ass of going to class. I thought everyone could write his or her dissertation on one of the fifteen most famous books ever written, not worrying too much about saying anything new, and go out and get a job and teach courses like the ones I spent a lot of time designing, stoned, in my dorm room, when I was avoiding reading the fifteen most famous books ever written. This was largely because one of those books turned out to be The Faerie Queene and another one Paradise Lost, two books which I still regard with loathing and, possibly not coincidentally, incomprehension.

A few years later I learned from one of my graduate student instructors, one of the nicest and most perennially fatigued and harried educators I had at Cal, that it is totally still possible to write a dissertation on any of the most over-read, over-analyzed, beaten-to-death famous literature if you want to; you just have to find an angle no oneâs taken before. This GSI was such a nice fellow that I donât want to run any risk of his finding his dissertation snickered about in my blog, because Iâm about to explain why I think about him every single day as a cautionary example of how badly a dissertation project can get out of hand if youâre not careful. So Iâll simply explain that his dissertation was on a topic very like the use of prepositions in Danish translations of D.H. Lawrence. Very, very like that. And when he would explain what he was in the middle of working on, years in and apparently with quite a way to go, it was totally evident that he had no idea how heâd gotten there and that heâd never, as a stoned, naive undergrad, pictured this as his lifeâs work. But this is what happens if you want to write a PhD dissertation on D. H. Lawrence nowadays: you have to find some angle that no one in his right mind would already have taken.

The pit of Danish prepositions yawned beneath me when I started grad school with dreams of writing a dissertation about the single most feted and written-on â and best â author in US history. But I appear now to have marched myself down the other path, which involves hunting down and writing about stuff that no oneâs written a thing about or even heard of, which will preferably lead to finding a book so obscure that only one copy was ever printed and that one was remaindered immediately. The good thing about this is that if there turns out to be one single thing worth saying about that book, Iâll damn well be the only one saying it.

Unfortunately, the novels Iâm interested in are all popular fiction, all dealing with the same subject, all written during a specific historical period before TV, when people were desperate for entertainment and would read anything as long as it wasnât the almanac again, and all genre fiction, which means theyâre all the same. In my apparently endless quest for the ever-more-obscure, the lost-to-history, the ready-to-be-rediscovered, I have read approximately a million of these novels in the last several months, and Iâm now prepared to share my initial findings. Ladies and gentlemen, history seems to do a pretty decent job of deciding what itâs going to preserve and what can go ahead and get lost to it. Itâs not like all these novels are awful; some are great. But some are bad.

As a budding connoisseur of the bad book, Iâve learned a few things. One is that not all bad books are immediately unworthy of reading; some of them are actually quite bad in very interesting ways, and some are at least interesting although they are quite bad. Another thing Iâve learned, at least about the kind of historical fiction Iâm reading, is that contrary to what you might think, the more stupid and outlandish the charactersâ names, the better the book is likely to be. This is a purely statistical observation. If your main characters have names like Eliphalet or Pinetop or, God help me, Miss Pussy, the bookâs probably at least going to be a well-paced and interesting read. If theyâre all named John and Betsy, brace yourself, because youâre in for 400 pages of nothing. One of the things to keep in mind about this is that, while I cannot find any record of such a law on the books, I have inferred that some legislation must have been passed in the mid-1880s requiring every novel to contain at least one beautiful young woman named Virginia and at least one male personage named Ezra; these names are therefore strictly to be excluded from consideration in assessing the probable quality of the book. If the setting of the book happens to be antebellum, the male slaves are required to be named Cornelius, Shadrach, and Scipio, and the novel is likely to throw in an actual Aunt Rhody and Uncle Ben just to be safe; this is likewise unworthy of notice.

Itâs also kind of amazing how many novels start the same way, with some kind of Mad Libs variant on:

Toward the close of a [Month] afternoon in the year 18[Year], Miss [Spinsterish First Name] [Jarring and Arrhythmic Last Name], having learned by heart the lesson in [Subject] she would teach her senior class on the morrow, stood feeding her [Name of Domestic Animal] on the little square porch of the [Puckered-Sounding English Name] Academy for Young Ladies.

or, for the masculine version:

[Virile and/or Biblical First Name] [Name of Ice-Cream or Donut Franchise], Esq., of [Last Name From Above] Hall, in the county of [Name of Former British Monarch], was no inconsiderable man in his Lordshipâs province of [State], and indeed he was not unknown in the colonial capitals from [Obscure Village] to [Long-Abandoned Backwater].

Those templates are from Ellen Glasgowâs Virginia and Winston Churchillâs Richard Carvel, respectively, but really they could be from any of about a hundred novels. No, not that Winston Churchill.

Given that so many of these novels are very, very similar, itâs always nice to find one that has its own thing going on. This weekâs darling is S. Weir Mitchellâs novel In War Time.

In case the name S. Weir Mitchell doesnât ring an immediate bell, he was a famous doctor in the second half of the 19th century. This was just as modern psychology was developing and before it was professionalized, so I donât know quite what to call him, but he was an early head-shrinker who specialized in female nervous disorders â basically, what the medicine of the day called neurasthenia, which was Greek for âfeeling blue, agitated, and cooped up because your lot in life ainât so hot.â He developed the preferred âcureâ for neurasthenia, which was, of course, enforced bed rest and utter deprivation of company, sensory input, and mental stimulation. He was the doctor who confined Charlotte Perkins Gilman to her bed and drove her insane, and at whom she wrote âThe Yellow Wall-Paperâ after she escaped and ran away to California and married her cousin, and before she killed herself. (In case, like me, you like to immediately go and look these things up for yourself, she calls him out by name on the fifth page.)

Oh, and in 1884 something possessed him to write a Civil War novel.

Like any good monomaniac, he certainly sticks to his theme. Reading his novel, youâd hardly know there was a war on, except insofar as it provides background for him to talk about such things as:
The medical profession, changes in;
Neurological research, the importance of;
Shutting up and lying in bed, the advisability of;
Women, the social-climbing aspirations of;
Teenage girls, the childlike qualities of; and
Young doctors these days, deficiencies of.
War also comes up vaguely in order to furnish the occasion for one wounded soldier to develop a disorder called âpyaemia,â which at that time apparently meant âfiguring out that your hospital roommate is probably the guy who shot you,â and it sometimes comes up in the passages in which Mitchell, in a philosophical moment, is wont to reflect on Moods, the changing nature of. This is a passage about how our young protagonist Dr. Wendell is Not Having a Good Day:

With some people, their moods are fatal gifts of the east or the west wind; while with others, especially with certain women, and with men who have feminine temperaments, they come at the call of a resurgent memory, of a word that wounds, of a smile at meeting, or at times from causes so trivial that while we acknowledge their force we seek in vain for the reasons of their domination.

Thatâs actually kind of lovely, but do not think that this dreamy stuff, this damned poetry, is all that this novel is made of. No, within two sentences weâre talking about the balance of humors in the body, and then this happens two pages later when we catch up with our effeminate Dr. Wendell on his walk home:

He was rapidly coming to a state of easier mind, under the effect of the meerschaum [pipe]âs subtle influence upon certain groups of ganglionic nerve cells deep in his cerebrum, when, stumbling on the not very perfect pavements of the suburban village, he dropped his pipe[.]

It is also important to note that Dr. Wendell, possessed though he may be of a nervous disposition, and (as we are told on page 5) not a little adversely affected by having to walk past trees with reptilianly-textured trunks, is himself a good enough nerve doctor to spend most of the early pages of the novel popping into patientsâ rooms and telling them to shut the hell up and lie still.

In addition to his interesting approach to medicine, Mitchell is also the only person I have ever encountered who, when endeavoring to describe a fifteen-year-old girl upon a train, would choose to evoke her youth and freshness thusly:

But this little existence, now sent adrift from its monotonous colony of fellow polyps to float away and develop under novel circumstances, was a very distinct and positive individual being.

Or, several pages later, to sketch her heart-rending reunion with her dying father the pyaemic in this charmingly clinical manner:

He made no sign in reply. Nature had not waited for man to supply her anaesthetics, and the disturbed chemistries of failing life were flooding nerve and brain with potent sedatives.

The novel keeps going and going; we talk about virtue and toothbrushes, whether sponges can be considered alive, why itâs a good idea to have three pen-wipers on your desk, statistical evidence in favor of vaccinations, and how to confess love to a girl when you only know how to talk like a 19th-century medical textbook. You might think this sounds like a bad book, and it probably is, but I think itâs great. Itâs kind of a rib-tickler, although I canât tell whether itâs meant to be, especially because Mitchell doesnât sound like a guy with much of a sense of humor about his profession. Better yet, although thereâs an Ezra, at least so far thereâs no damn girl named Virginia with roses in her hair. There are microscopes and surgeons instead of swords and cavaliers, nerve tonic and milk punch instead of juleps and Confederate Pickle. Contrary to my hypothesis, it moves along nicely for a novel without a single Lemmuel or Jeff-Jack or Aunt Pittypat in its pages, no white men named Powhatan, no Brother Tombs, no Rainy-Day Jones and no slave named Leviticus. Even more surprisingly, Mitchell seems to have allowed all his female characters to get up and walk around and do things; only the soldiers are confined to their beds, left to pick at the wallpaper in the amputee wing of what is actually called, so help me, the Stump Hospital.

And anyway, it does not do to nitpick or fault-find or look at things too closely, for, as Mitchell reminds us, âIf our eyes were microscopes and our ears audiphones, life would be one long misery.â True words, my friends, true words.

Posted by katie at December 11, 2007 11:01 AM

A series of short, bewildered requests for clarification:

-What the hell is Confederate Pickle?
-Leviticus? Scipio? Really? Why?
-Miss Pussy. Are you serious?

And a general response:


Posted by: Dianna at December 12, 2007 10:44 AM

A series of short, belated clarifications:

1. Evidently Southern ladies like making various kinds of pickles and giving them fanciful and/or patriotic and/or fancifully patriotic names. Confederate Pickle was one that showed up in one of these damn novels. There was another commemorative one, made by the same lady character, that I can't quite remember the name of, but it was something like Pickett's Charge Pickle. Or maybe Picklett's Charge.

2. Really! Hell if I know!

3. Yes. Yes, I am.

Posted by: katie at December 13, 2007 01:19 PM