Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Crumbling Idols

Hamlin Garland, author of the classic novel Main-Travelled Roads, also wrote Crumbling idols: twelve essays on art, dealing chiefly with literature. Writing in 1894, he laid out his literary manifesto.

I just finished reading the latter. Now...on the one hand, it strikes me as strange to read so many “shoulds” and “oughts” in anything these days relating to art. On the other hand, it’s refreshingly clear, which is more than I can say of some of the stuff I’ve read lately. :)

Garland wrote at a time when the “experts” looked to Britain for examples of good writing. Or at the very least, they considered New England "the place." But American writing should focus on the regional and the present, Garland argues. And it shouldn't be set in ancient Rome or Scotland.

I found myself nodding over some of his statements. Like this one: “The quality most needed in literary discussion today is not learning, it is candor.” I also liked his quote from Lowell: “Lives of the great poets teach us they were the men of their generation who felt most deeply the meaning of the present.”

He argues that knowing Shakespeare is good, but that the bard himself would have been the first to explore issues the people of his day were talking about. He probably did not set out to write for the ages; he wrote for his contemporaries.

Garland talks about those who outwardly applaud the superiority of Shakespeare but then leave “Shakespeare to gather dust on his library walls while he reads the newspaper and meets his friends in conversation about the latest comic opera.” His point? Don't bemoan the fact that people aren't reading classics much. Instead, go write what they will read--a great story from your region of the country as only you can tell it. It just might turn into a new classic.

1 comment:

heather said...

I blogged about this a couple of years ago--a friend of mine asked me to critique her book. When I offered a few thoughts, she said, "You say that because you're a modern reader." It got me thinking about what it means to be a modern reader and writer and what it means to write in today's world, fully present in not just the global times but in my neighborhood, community, family.