Voices of the Past and Their Precarious Persistence
Forgotten Authors, C.S. Lewis’s Long Tail, Cases of Neglect, Easy Offense, More
¶ Fading from view. A quarter century ago the Los Angeles Times Book Review ran a symposium featuring thirty-six well-known authors listing neglected writers they believed deserved greater attention. As an artifact, the symposium is a study in itself.
To begin with, only twelve on the roster are still alive. In the last twenty-four years, twenty-four participants passed away—two thirds of the list! Besides that, many of the participants are nowadays somewhat obscure themselves. The symposium represents a curious phenomenon: the forgotten writing about the forgotten.
¶ Those neglected and those not. To be sure, some of the list are every bit as famous today as they were then, if not more so—for instance, Margaret Atwood and Alain de Botton. Atwood suggested Hjalmar Soderberg‘s Doctor Glas,
an astonishing novel . . . first published in Sweden in 1905 [which] caused a scandal because of its handling of sex and death, not to mention abortion and euthanasia. . . . A few years earlier and it would never have been published; a few years later, and it would have been dubbed a forerunner of stream-of-consciousness. It occurs on the cusp of our century, opening doors we’ve been opening ever since.
De Botton recommended Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave,
a seductive mixture of diary, common-place book, essay, travelogue and memoir–arranged in loose paragraphs, in which Connolly gives us his views on women, religion, death, seduction, infatuation and literature. . . . I’d find it hard to pursue a friendship with anyone who didn’t have any sympathy for it—and hard to hate someone who did.
Of course, some of the neglected authors or books have fared better than those who recommended them. I had to look up Simon Leys, but he recommended two books that seem to have only grown in interest since the turn of the millennium, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (“The only novel in the entire history of fiction which ever managed to introduce God as a plausible character!”) and C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (“A less-known essay by an otherwise famous author, yet perhaps his most important work. . . . Can modern man survive the moral collapse of his culture?”).
Case Study: The Abolition of Man
¶ Long-tail Lewis. Many readers see Abolition as a secret decoder ring for postmodernity, which is all the more astonishing because it’s now 80 years old. Lewis published the book, derived from a set of dry academic lectures, back in 1943. Fans of the book regard Lewis as something of a prophet, foretelling the cultural shift toward radical subjectivism. Says Rhys Laverty, writing at The Critic,
Lewis saw a future in which the rejection of transcendent values would allow a technologised elite to re-make nature as they saw fit, ultimately overthrowing human nature itself—a process made possible through the ideological capture of education.
Lewis later dramatized his argument in his sci-fi novel, That Hideous Strength, which borrows themes and language from Abolition—even in places repurposing the older book for dialog.
And why not? A popular sci-fi novel would seem like a more reliable vehicle to convey his argument than a stodgy academic monograph; frankly, it’s a bit amazing Abolition was ever published. But thanks to champions such as Simon Leys and now more ubiquitous boosters, it’s easy to find people who insist Abolition is Lewis’s best book. And the pool of enthusiasts expands by the year.
It’s so strange: the person is already gone, but, yes, a book continues to live.
—Eugene Vodolazkin, The Aviator, translated by Lisa C. Hayden
¶ Still speaking. An author’s legacy is collaborative; the only way voices of the past persist into the future is reader engagement in the present. No surprise: If an author’s concerns don’t map onto those of the current day, they’ll struggle to find readers. This does not mean a book must speak directly to the present; an author might never have imagined how their ideas would slide into different contexts decades or even centuries later. But the book must equip a modern reader with adaptable and applicable ideas, language, arguments, and the like.
Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos was, for instance, written 40 years ago. “It is probably the book that resonates most clearly with our present discontents and may well be the only one of his works that will continue to be read widely in decades to come,” says Law and Liberty editor Brian Smith. “This isn’t to say that aspects of the book aren’t dated. Readers will be excused for looking up Phil Donahue, Leo Buscaglia, and a handful of other references that would have been immediately familiar to Percy’s readers in the 1980s. But these callouts appear in the course of questions and scenarios we still face today. . . .”
Dated language, examples, and the like are no impediment if the concepts appear fresh or can be refreshed. In that case, some obscurity might even be a plus, lending the book additional aesthetic appeal and possible authority from modern readers feeling as though they’re accessing a recovered treasure. In the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of people enthusiastically—and justifiably—recommending Nikolai Berdyaev’s The End of Our Time (1933) and John Crowe Ransom’s God Without Thunder (1930). They’re both worth reading; sequestered on their end of the timeline, Berdyaev and Ransom expose issues modern authors easily miss.
Lewis’s Abolition is identical. Sure, aspects of the book are dated. What else would we expect from something published 80 years ago? But it features ideas that extend far beyond the decade of its composition. In a recent essay, for instance, educatorexplains how Abolition speaks to modern pedagogical challenges: “Lewis’s Abolition of Man is a manual for how education was changed from a classical/medieval model to a progressive model. It is also, therefore, a manual for how to recover the classical/medieval model.”
If that’s meaningful to you, it warrants picking up a copy. Besides, you don’t want to be guilty of what Lewis himself dubbed “chronological snobbery.” In the 60 years since his death he’s proven a wonderful beneficiary of his own sensibility.
¶ Dropping knowledge. You never know where a book’s influence might be felt. Shadrach Kabango, the rapper known as Shad who hosts Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution, cites Abolition’s influence on his 2021 album, TAO. Lewis might have been a prophet, but it’s an easy bet he never saw this one coming.
Shad connects Lewis’s “highly prescient 1943 book” with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. “The books were written something like 70 years apart but totally connect on the topic of preserving our humanness against certain threatening ideologies and technologies,” he says, elaborating in another interview: “We see ourselves like every other piece of raw material in the world, you know, data points. So this guy was kind of theorizing about that 70 or 80 years ago, and now we’re in the place where we’re actually doing that to ourselves.”
“Can modern man survive the moral collapse of his culture?” It’s an open question for anyone interested in human flourishing—and survival—and Lewis’s Abolition provides one of many possible resources to probe the issue.
Gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries.
—Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
¶ Lost to us. Of course, as the Los Angeles Times Book Review survey shows, not every author is as fortunate as Lewis or even Percy. There are more authors than we ever fathom who’ve dropped out of our awareness. Depending how far you go back, countless more have even dropped out of the historical record. For all intents and purposes it’s as if they never existed.
“We estimate that more than 90% of medieval manuscript copies of chivalric and heroic narratives have been lost,” says Katarzyna Anna Kapitan of Oxford’s Linacre College. “Moreover, we were able to estimate that some 32% of chivalric and heroic works from the Middle Ages have disappeared over the centuries.” In other words, the vast majority of medieval manuscript copies of these books seem lost to time and even a third of the works themselves!
Lewis never imagined anything like the ongoing attention his books receive. As mentioned before, he assumed his star would set a few years after he died. He got that wrong—but not because it was a bad guess. The odds are always on obscurity.
¶ Two Singers. Consider the case of Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer, the older brother of novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. While Isaac went on to to win the National Book Award (1974) and the Nobel Prize (1978), Israel faded from view before those prizes were awarded—even though he was considered a larger figure than his brother for many years. A new two-volume collection of his work will reacquaint some with the older Singer, but I wonder if the younger Singer is already en route to obscurity as well, only read by a handful of aficionados in literature programs.
¶ Recovery effort. Or what about Leigh Brackett, Olaf Stapledon, and Edgar Pangborn? Forgotten sci-fi authors and winners of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award highlighted by James Davis Nicoll at Tor.com. How about Molly Keane, Antonia White, or Elizabeth Jenkins? Neglected women authors praised by Sloane Tanen at Electric Lit.
As the conveyor belt of culture pushes ever more content in and out of our minds, prizes and articles such as these can help recover the memory of forgotten authors through renewed exposure. The New York Society Library has, for instance, shared some fascinating features taking a second look at the overlooked; see here, here, here, and here.
¶ Preventative measures. Some authors maintain enough interest they’ve never fully dipped out of view. But because of the collaborative nature of an author’s legacy, if we want them to persist we must continue to highlight their work and recommend it to others.has shared her love for Willa Cather, particularly My Àntonia, which she recommends as a—perhaps the—great American novel.
Likewise, Ralph Wood stumps for P.D. James. Through her detective fiction and dystopian modern classic The Children of Men, he says, “James offers the hope that all people of good will may yet be joined for the sake of the Good.”
One way to single out an author for additional attention is to highlight aspects of their work that might have fallen out of view. C.S. Lewis’s legacy has been bolstered in the last several decades by people championing his literary criticism, and HarperCollins has recently added several volumes to its catalogue for which readers were previously left scrounging used bookstores in hopes of finding.
Another example of widening the scope of an author’s legacy? Anton Chekhov. How many aspiring writers know to place the gun in Act 1 so they can use it in Act 3 thanks to him? Chekhov’s fiction legacy is secure. But what about his nonfiction? He left one deeply insightful work of investigative journalism, Sakhalin Island. “The book has not aged,” says Akhil Sharma.
His sentences deliver news, but they are primarily concerned with how human beings live their lives. In Chekhov’s case, unlike that of his contemporaries, this observation of human behavior is lacking in self-censorship. He is willing to write about anything, and he is willing to see everything with compassion. . . . Sakhalin Island is full of images of nature and eternity.
¶ The faded word.
It would be easy enough, and relatively accurate, to say that literature itself is the “most neglected” art form in our overwhelmingly visual culture, though almost everything we see starts from writing of some kind and the visual media are word-dependent in ways that are more or less invisible to the cultural consumer.
—Gary Indiana, Los Angeles Times Book Review
¶ In it for the money, and that’s mostly fine. We’d be naive to imagine that an author’s legacy is purely determined on the merits of their work. As discussed, it takes the ongoing interest of readers and other champions to keep books alive. And sometimes—oftentimes—that interest turns on financial incentives.
As Postrel points out, Willa Cather didn’t want movies made from her books. But the wishes of authors are not always known or considered. How would T.S. Eliot think about Cats? We wouldn’t have much Kafka to read if his last wishes had been observed. When an author dies, their literary estates—which can grow into full-blown companies—take over responsibility for their legacy and ongoing relevance. From the Economist:
Traditionally, managing the intellectual property of an author’s estate was a low-key affair left to grand-nephews and harried former agents. The modern era of more actively exploiting rights began 15 years ago, when star agents in America and Britain started vying for the estates of Ian Fleming, Vladimir Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh. The heirs of Agatha Christie and [Roald] Dahl, meanwhile, set up companies to oversee growing empires.
Sometimes they make curious decisions, like allowing filmmakers to create stories never envisioned by their originators, such as a teenage Willy Wonka. In other cases, they change the works themselves to fit with current sensibilities.
I know several people who are more than a little antsy about Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Narnia adaptation. Then again, even if she makes a hash of it, it helps keep the Chronicles front and center for readers. Even bad press is good press if we’re talking about staying in the public’s eye. Probably.
But What if We’re Easily Offended?
¶ Past discomfort. Sometimes the values or assumptions of the past don’t map easily or comfortably onto the present. Romance novelist Georgette Heyer, who died in 1974, remains popular decades after her most productive period. Unfortunately, some of her work contains antisemitic portrayals, sparking a present-day controversy about how to handle it.
Some advocate leaving her words untouched but publishing them with explanatory text. Others advise sanitizing the material for modern readers. Her publisher opted for the latter course, but the issues in contention, captured in this New York Times article, are instructive and illuminating.
Even books considered enlightened in one generation can strike us problematic (oh, I loathe that adjective) later on. People fret today about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Same with To Kill a Mockingbird, which schools regularly ban because students find it objectionable. “This is f*cking bullsh*t,” said one pupil, struggling with eloquence.
Writeson the controversy,
To Kill a Mockingbird is an intensely antiracist book; but its antiracism is rooted in liberal humanism and empathy (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells his children in what is perhaps the novel’s most celebrated passage). It stands in contrast to the current progressive ideology that fixates on identity and on hierarchies of oppression and privilege.
When we’re arguing with the past, we’re really arguing with the present.
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