Detecting the Person behind the Poetry

George Landow, "Dickens among His Characters"

George Landow, “Dickens among His Characters”

I stumbled across an interesting article recently in The New York Review of Books about the sense we get of the author from reading his or her work. Tim Parks writes,

It seems impossible, at least for me, to read almost anything without being aware of the person behind it and without putting that person in relation to what he or she has written and indeed to readers of the book, to the point that I sometimes wonder, in the teeth of a literary critical tradition that has always told us the writer’s personality is irrelevant to any appraisal of the work, whether one of the pleasures of literature isn’t precisely this contemplation of the enigma of the person creating it. 

Literary critical tradition is not quite as vociferous on this subject as it was in the heyday of New Criticism, when W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley famously wrote their essay on “the intentional fallacy.” Seeking to banish the author from the conversation about literature, they asserted that the text was all that mattered. Later they would write a complementary article on “the affective fallacy,” seeking to also banish the reader.

Structuralism sought to banish the author in a different way, with Roland Barthes declaring “the death of the author.” It was literature’s version of no accident history: the forces that propel history or literature are so insistent, such theorists argue, that they can work through practically any individual. Great works are not dependent on great individuals but a fortuitous set of circumstances.

As with the intentional fallacy, the small amount of truth in this theory quickly appeared ridiculous once the idea was pushed to its limits. While it’s certainly true that authors don’t have complete control over their creations—people have been asserting this since Socrates got Ion to admit this in Plato’s dialogue by that name—it is also true that literary works owe a lot to the individuals who wrote them down.

Theorist Wayne Booth came up with a term that describes what Parks is getting at: “the implied author.” When we read a work, we sense an author who is guiding our steps. Sometimes this author intrudes into the text—think of Dickens interjecting commentary—but sometimes we just sense him or her.

Booth notes that the implied author might be a better person than the actual author. The implied Jane Austen, for instance, comes across as someone who frowns at idle gossip whereas the living, breathing Austen supposedly loved gossip. It’s as though she put on her best self, kind of like dressing for church, when she wrote her novels.

One could debate which is the real Jane Austen. Are we really our lesser selves? What’s to say that we can’t be considered our best selves as well? Anyway, Parks in his article loves the sense of meeting the person behind the words as he reads.

Here he is describing his approach:

It is difficult to pin down where and how this awareness of the writer starts. Like so much of what happens when we read, it has an elusive, shadowy existence. However, over the last year or two, I have found it clarifying to play this game: I try to identify a kind of conversation, encounter, or transaction in a novel that seems to be characteristic of its author, something that recurs frequently; when I’ve established that, I try to think of the reader’s relationship with the writer in the same terms.

The article then goes on to contrast two very different authors, James Joyce and Dickens. With Joyce, one comes across numerous instances of exchanges while with Dickens there is a heavy emphasis on “powerful figures befriending weaker ones”:

First the recurrent encounter, or exchange. An easy example might be the question of loans in Ulysses. An awful lot of the book is about characters asking each other for loans, or favors, errands, and chores, and every request is a little power game. People make demands—Stephen on Buck Mulligan, Buck on Stephen, the Englishman Hine on both and both on him, and others define themselves in the way they respond.

In Dickens, we frequently have powerful figures befriending weaker ones, or appearing to befriend them, offering them help, inviting them to be part of a group that may or may not be welcoming or beneficent. Likewise the person befriended may or may not be worthy and loyal. He may, like Uriah Heep, accept another’s patronage in order to manipulate him and steal from him.

Parks has only gotten started, however. In the second part of his exercise, he asks,

Can I think of my reaction to the book, the emotions brought into play by its story and style, as in some way analogous to that recurrent transaction? Is the author beginning to form with me this kind of relationship that recurs so frequently in his novels?

Joyce, Parks says, asks immense favors of us: he wants us to give considerable time and effort to understand what he’s saying. Many readers think that he demands too much.

Dickens is trickier. On the one hand, he appears to want to befriend us, and one reason we read Dickens is to enter the warm friendships we encounter, whether it be the Pickwick Club, David Copperfield’s circle of friends, or others. On the other hand, Parks picks up sudden lapses, as though Dickens is ultimately worried that friendships we so long for will let us down:

[Unlike Joyce], Dickens befriends us. That’s evident at once. He reaches out his paternal hand. He writes inviting prefaces. He talks about both characters and readers as his family. His seductive prose is brilliant but never really difficult, witty but never abstruse, always warm. We feel an attraction to the man that reinforces or perhaps even exceeds our appreciation of the writing. We would like to be part of his world, his club. Dickens loved clubs and of course his first novel is about a club. The Pickwick Club. Even today there are Dickens clubs in countries round the globe. Readers love to aggregate around the man. And we notice that happiness in Dickens is almost always a happiness with a group of people, a small community, not with passionate couples.

All the same, Dickens’s plots encourage us to be alert to friendships that seem attractive and easy. David Copperfield is mistaken when he allows the older and more charismatic Steerforth to take him over. Anyone who befriends the Micawbers will be let down. Perhaps this anxiety that one can get it wrong when befriending others explains those sudden odd lapses in Dickens when rather than lavishing attention on his readers he suddenly seems determined to be rid of us as quickly as possible, to wrap up his story and be away. The last part of Dombey and Son is emblematic. But even David Copperfield ends in a hurried, unconvincing fashion, as if Dickens felt it might have been a mistake to befriend us, and we too feel disappointed; the relationship we hurried into is not quite as rewarding as we hoped. Or is it that relationships in general can never sustain that Dickensian festivity for long?

What Parks says about Dickens can also be said about two authors I have long admired, Henry Fielding and Lucille Clifton. With each of them, I feel that I am being offered a special friendship and brought into special intimacy. And yet, with each, I find that I am allowed in only so far before being given the cold shoulder. It’s as though, while they acknowledge and wish to honor our longing for connection, they worry that our emotional needs will devour them if they allow us to get too close.

Fielding seems to establish an easy familiarity with the reader by his genial insults in Tom Jones. Then one realizes that he’s very defensive and actually means to insult us. His sense of privilege as a member of the gentry both seeks out and resents the rising middle class who are reading his books.

Clifton, on the other hand, makes a show of sharing with us things that people don’t normally talk about and, in so doing doing, made it acceptable to talk about such things as a woman’s hips, menstruation, menopause, and child abuse. She must really trust us to let us in this far, we feel. At a certain point, however, we discover that her very openness operates as a shield.

It’s as though she has developed a trick for dealing with her anxieties: she talks openly about whatever makes her feel defensive. Self-conscious about your large hips? Swing them extra freely. Torn apart by your father’ abuse of you when you were a child? Come out dancing.

Maybe I’m cheating when I talk about Lucille since she was my colleague for 15 years. I can indeed say that I got close but no closer. I came to realize that, whatever I knew about her, I knew on her terms.

I didn’t resent her for this since it made sense that someone with her biography would hold the world at arm’s length. But given how warm her poetry seems, it did startle me.

Parks, like literary biographers in general, offers us characters as complex as any in the books that we read: the authors themselves.

This entry was posted in Clifton (Lucille), Dickens (Charles), Fielding (Henry), Joyce (James) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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