An instinct

In the days of Betty Friedan, an object of feminist scorn was Phyllis McGinley, poet of suburban domesticity. The hate has gone away now, if only because the immensely successful writer of the middle twentieth century is now unread. A fast history of her representative evanishment from memory, if you need one, is Ginia Bellafante’s “Suburban Rapture,” New York Times, December 24, 2008.

Acting on the need isn’t mandatory, though. The historical point about Phyllis really makes itself. It has a completely self-evident background, for example, here on these four pages from The New Yorker. “War war war! Fiddle dee dee!” Miss Scarlett had protested a short time before they appeared, but by now the date on the cover had advanced to October 25, 1941. The war had been on for more than two years as of then, and Pearl Harbor was less than two months in the fully foreseeable future. So no, say the images on the pages to you, as of 1941 and also as of ever after: don’t ignore and don’t evade. Fiddle dee dee won’t work, and now you are obliged to know that it never did. You always had to look.

And you did look at this corpus. The prose is showing its age, but ah, the pictures . . .

But the consecutive corpus is actually five pages long, and you looked only at pages 1, 3, 4 and 5. Except for the little dog-doodle by James Thurber, page 2 is read-only, and one part of the reading it imposes on you is not in prose. There it is, below the dog: the poem by Phyllis McGinley.

See how The New Yorker’s typographers have helped you identify it the way a timetable identifies a train. Yes: Phyllis McGinley, poet of America’s northeastern burbs, classified this section of her lexicon into an English or Shakespearean sonnet, a consist actually devised by Surrey. That arrangement of words is a form, and it belongs to literature. After the war, when Americans who had survived the war needed to forget, literature went looking within its forms and found there a Phyllis technique for forgetting the whole by remembering parts. After a while, when the work of forgetting was complete, that phase in the history of form could be broken back down to the parts: octave and sestet, salvageable steam engine and children. Phyllis McGinley herself (1905-1978) could be trucked to the antique store, and while we’re at it ubi sunt the Spasmodic poets and Mrs. Humphry Ward?

But affection isn’t mortal on schedule.

Look at this Phyllis. If the looking gets you to think, as unerringly as birdsong, some such word as “face,” perhaps the association has evoked a notion of being loved face to face, regardless of what you know better. So a possibility remains that in some nest somewhere there always will be a Phyllis, regardless of the But you know better words that persist in saying things like “pathetic fallacy.” Ahistorically, just as a matter of biological necessity, a Phyllis nest may still be building somewhere for us, regardless of who the Phyllis of the moment may be.

Teaching aid: I prepare to teach “Ulysses” for the last time

A Note about Joyce and the Jews

Toward the end of the Ithaca episode in Ulysses, the conversation between Stephen and Mr. Bloom turns to the subject of their two ethnicities, Irish and Jewish, and Stephen sings Bloom a ballad about a Jewish woman who cuts off the head of a little boy named Harry Hughes. The ballad is a folk version of the legend of Hugh of Lincoln, which English majors will recognize (oh well: ought to recognize) from another version: the ending of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.

Chaucer died in 1400. The roots of the murderous canon of Christian tales about Jews go deep into English culture. As George Orwell’s excellent 1945 essay “Antisemitism in Britain” will demonstrate, Jew-hatred became impolite in England after the rise of Hitler, but it has always been present and – impolite or polite – it has never gone away.

Among Joyce’s important literary contemporaries, for instance, the expressed attitudes toward Jews generally ranged from snide (George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and, yes, at the beginning of his career, George Orwell) through defamatory (the professional Catholic G. K. Chesterton and his collaborator Hilaire Belloc), with suggestions of genocide audible offshore from Eliot’s Jew-hating mentors Charles Maurras (French) and Ezra Pound (American). Virginia Woolf sincerely loved her Jewish husband, but she despised his family and every other Jew who crossed her path. Over the years a few non-Jewish authors have raised their voices against the general detestation, but only a few. From the Victorian era I can single out George Eliot and Charles Dickens; from the desperate years just before World War II, J. R. R. Tolkien and Basil Bunting; from today, J. K. Rowling. But today, also, literary England has a flourishing population of open Jew-haters with solidly established reputations, from A. N. Wilson on the political right to Tom Paulin on the left. About the hate, down the centuries, little to nothing has changed.

To all this the great exception is James Joyce.

One biographical explanation is straightforward. From 1905 to 1915 Joyce taught English in a commercial language school in Trieste, a city that’s now in Italy but was then part of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one of his students there was a Jewish businessman named Ettore Schmitz. Schmitz was also a novelist, he and Joyce became friends, he introduced Joyce to some members of Trieste’s Jewish community, and the rest is literary history.

Or, say, a small part of the rest. The big part, the interestingly mysterious part, we might think about in the form of a question: what immunized Joyce against his culture’s normative attitude toward Jews?

No, I don’t expect you to answer. I certainly can’t, myself. But what I can ask you to do is be aware of how different Joyce was and is from his European Christian culture, how profound was his rejection of it, and how radical was his experiment in synthesizing a replacement culture out of words alone.

— English 440 (James Joyce), University of Hawaii at Manoa, spring 2019

Audio: Stephen Crane

At the Library of Congress’s wonderful National Jukebox site (new last May) I recently discovered this item, “Coming Home from Coney Isle,” by a duo, Ada Jones and Len Spencer, who recorded a whole stack of dialect novelty songs in 1905 and 1906.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/1068

When I heard the disdainful “Aw, gee” and the plaintive, “Will I open the window?” I thought, “This sounds just like the dialogue in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.” Well, it turns out that that was no accident. Your proof:

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/6020

— a song called “Chimmie and Maggie at the Hippodrome.”

Americanists may want to give this site a listen.