Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Typical Ambiguities

This has been a busy week that proved yet again, as though it might still need proving, the relentlessness of life, which shows scant respect for the concept of retirement.  This is the last week of the eighth decade of my life.  It already has included an oh-so-close bicycle accident that had my spouse for many hours in the Emergency Room and left her for the time being looking like a war casualty, and her family members shaken.  Less dramatic has been my attempt to get my vegetable garden properly laid out as I dodged between thunderstorms.   Also, I am in the terminal push of final revisions on a scholarly book that must be returned to the press within a few weeks.

            Under these circumstances, naturally, I need to tell you about the latest addition to my library—a library to which further additions are theoretically forbidden.  But I happened upon a practically new copy of the Library of America edition of Shirley Jackson’s Novels & Stories and got it, against any rational expectation, with a single-digit bid.

 Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

            The short story is, in my opinion, the queen of prose genres, and certainly one of the great genres of American literature in particular.  I grew up reading O. Henry, whose collected volumes lay strewn about my grandfather’s house in Arkansas.  In my early reading years, when ours was a nation of magazine-readers, most popular American magazines published short stories.  That is part of the world we have lost.  Short stories are a wonderful introduction to the world of fiction.  I would never have developed my love for Henry James if I had been obliged to read The Golden Bowl cold-turkey, without being coaxed to the big novels by degrees, through short stories and then The Turn of the Screw.  I certainly read a few of Jackson’s stories at their original publication

            Jackson wrote one of the most famous short stories in the English language: “The Lottery” (1948).  You probably have read it, but if you haven’t I am not going to be the one who tells you about it.  To this day it appears to hold its instantly established record as the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker.  In the volume just acquired the editor concludes with an appendix (“Biography of a Story”) in which Jackson gives her bemused account of the story’s reception.  Not untypical of the letters received at the offices of The New Yorker was one that begins thus: “Never has it been my lot to read so cunningly vicious a story as that published in your last issue for June.  I tremble to think of the fate of American letters if that piece indicated the taste of the editors of a magazine I had considered distinguished.”

            But the story that captured my attention this week was one I had not before read: “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” which originally appeared in Story magazine in 1943.  This is a very “in-group” title, the group in this instance being literature professors of my generation.  For Seven Types of Ambiguity is a once-famous book of literary criticism published in 1930 by the English “New Critic” William Empson, then a wunderkind of twenty-four.  Jackson was twenty years my senior, but she was also an English professor and married to another.  She must have been teaching at Bennington while I was studying at Sewanee in a quite similar English department where names like Empson, Ransom, Warren and Wellek were confused with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  How very different are things today.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

 William Empson (1906-1984)

            The Empson book is brilliant, ingenious, and deeply annoying in equal measures.  His categories do not always on mature thought prove to be inexorable.  One could expand his “method,” if you want to call it that, to seventeen or seventy types of verbal ambiguity, or perhaps reduce the seven back to one.   But none of this matters in Jackson’s story, where the book’s role is thematic in a way sufficiently signaled by its title alone.   The setting of the story is a large old New England second-hand bookshop.  Two principal characters are an intellectual and impecunious young man in whom I can easily recognize my younger self, and a middle-aged man in whom I fear to recognize my older self.  The young man would love to buy a used copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity but makes do with reading it by fits and starts during frequent visits to the bookshop.  The older fellow wants to buy up several yards of nice sets of classic writers at one fell swoop.  This story, too, has a “surprise ending” illustrating perhaps the “banality of ambiguity” but perfectly in tune with the mood of my own week.  I still hear people asking—usually somewhat obliquely—some form of the question “What exactly is it that literature is good for?”  If one has to ask the question, one is probably unable to receive the answer, which is—also somewhat more obliquely posed—“to help make sense of life”.  For life, as you may have noticed, has its ups and downs and puzzling uncertainties.