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Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior
by brooke allen
ivan r. dee, 244 pages, $26

I’ll write because I’ll give
You, critics, means to live;
For should I not supply
The cause, th’effect would die.

Robert Herrick’s quatrain is a reminder which critics do well to bear in mind when they sit down to practice their craft. But to suggest that critics acknowledge their dependence is not to ask them to confess that they are therefore parasites, or worse. George Steiner’s declaration, early in his career, that “when he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow,” is far too self-suspicious. (Not to mention infelicitous as a working metaphor: could even the nimblest of naked critics, facing the sun at just the right angle, really achieve such optical confirmation of his neuteredness?) 

Brooke Allen is a critic who knows that her craft is a potent one. In a review of a Clive James book in the New Criterion (June 2003), she offers her answer to the charge that “those who can’t create, criticize,” which is this: “A culture amounts to a sort of extended conversation, and conversation demands response and commentary as well as declarative statement.” A culture, of course, is much more than a conversation, but it is also a conversation, and those who can speak to us meaningfully about our literature can get us to see things and to hear things that we might have missed or misheard without their help. The critical art is a genuine art, an honorable branch of the teaching arts or guiding arts, and Allen is right that a thriving culture demands that it be done, done freely, and done well. 

Allen’s Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior is a collection of essays previously published in leading journals; for the most part they are book reviews, the books being recent biographies of famous writers English and American (Hans Christian Andersen is the only non-angloscribe). Such a collection sounds rather old-fashioned, like something in the lives-of-the-poets line, but her writing is neither canned bio nor hasty journalism, and she is so well informed and perspicacious that these pieces surpass their generative occasions and succeed in standing alone as worthwhile essays.

She presents eighteen writers (seventeen men and one woman) in historical order beginning with Samuel Pepys in the 1660s and ending with Simon Raven in the 1970s. Thus the “three centuries” of the subtitle. They are mostly major authors, with a few important minor leaguers included. Thus the “good writing” of the subtitle. But what about the “bad behavior”? Allen’s preface begins this way: “The Western tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.” I instantly began to think of counterexamples, as this pronouncement sounded a little stale and a bit willful; her sample of ten or twelve writers who might be called canonical, stretched over three centuries, is no basis for extrapolations of any kind.

But after this snappy lead Allen does not proceed to some dubious thesis”that creativity and socio-pathology are somehow reciprocal, that bad boys make better writers, or even that prose is the curse of the drinking class. Rather, she takes the occasion to state her high regard for what people with literary ambitions have been able to accomplish despite their malfeasances and miseries: “What is surprising is that so many writers have held on to artistic rectitude in the face of all-but-insuperable personal failings.” At the end of her brief preface, in fact, she pulls the punch of her opening, admitting, “The writers in this book would seem to have little in common. They prove, if such proof again be needed, that there is no such thing as an ‘artistic temperament’; there never has been. There are only artists, infinitely variable and fascinating.”

In ending her preface with this unguarded assertion, Allen gives a preview of the qualities that she will exhibit as our guide on this literary tour: she is sincere and vulnerable (vulnerable to the spell, to the charm, of the art she undertakes to write about”an essential quality in a critic, by the way); she is disposed to admiration and undisposed to categorization; she is, in a word, humane.

As for the actual principle of inclusion at work in this collection, if it is not bad behavior, what is it? Allen says no more about it, but the strong impression as one follows her through the centuries is that her keenest interest is sparked by the sight of upward striving. The sole aristocrat in the group is Byron, and there is no member of the leisured classes here, except perhaps for Henry James. Virtually all of the writers profiled are people of humble birth and ordinary means trying to write their way up, sometimes achieving fame and fortune (with its familiar occupational hazards) sometimes achieving merely a lifelong struggle to pay the bills. The cruxes in such careers, where ambition and responsibility collide, where creativity and constraint interact, provoke Allen’s genuine sympathy, and she is eager to discover and to make clear to us where a writer’s reach exceeds his grasp, or his grasp his reach, and the myriad ways that a writer’s “inner life” (her phrase) intersects with his publishing life.

The behavior that Allen reports is not uniformly bad. Jane Austen was “a model citizen”: “While her contemporaries courted the spark of divine madness, she was and is perhaps the sanest writer in the language.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Thackeray, and Bram Stoker endured their share, or more, of misery while evidently inflicting little misery on others. “Kindness” is a characteristic for which Allen expresses the highest respect, and she is pleased to report that Austen, Lord Byron, and Wilkie Collins all possessed it: “Kindness is not an easy quality but a difficult one, closely allied with intelligence, sensibility, and the rarest of all virtues, tolerance.”

But the bad behavior is bad indeed. Pepys was a drinker, wife-beater, and adulterer; Lawrence Sterne drove his wife insane with his ceaseless infidelities; James Boswell was alcoholic, depressive, adulterous, and a puerile toady; Richard Sheridan was an adulterer, drunkard, and woman-abuser; Byron “mixed hatred with lust and behaved in a sadistic fashion” as he preyed upon both sexes, though Allen informs us, in extenuation, that today he would be diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (“hypersexuality . . . is one of the more common symptoms of manic-depression”). In America, Sinclair Lewis was alcoholic, egotistical, and “an atheist with no political illusions””though for his championing of “the wavering, imperfect liberal spirit,” Allen says, we should be grateful” and William Saroyan was “a monster of narcissism” whose self-devouring ego allowed him to give us no lasting work.

“Aren’t we all despicable creatures?” Allen asks companionably. Well, yes. “Isn’t it the artist’s duty to portray the human being”the whole human being, including the despicable elements?” Yes again. And the implicit corollary, which Allen in her readings demonstrates well, is that it is the reader’s duty to engage with the whole humanness of each writer, because literary art is never reducible either to a fungible commodity or to a politically serviceable construct, but is, when it is genuine, a mysteriously unmanageable manifestation of human personhood. Allen, of course, is not dogmatic about the efficacy of these close encounters of the literary kind and does not work by reduction but rather approaches her subject with respectful suggestiveness. “Writers’ lives are not always particularly interesting,” says Allen. “Knowledge of them does not necessarily add to one’s enjoyment of the work. In some cases, though, such knowledge does enrich our understanding.”

A few cases in point: James Boswell’s great Life of Johnson , she says, had effects that the author never intended and could not have foreseen: By writing his “paean to . . . Johnson, whom he genuinely worshipped, Boswell finally slammed the door on Johnson’s dying tradition.” He “effectively killed off the ideal of high decorum in art, and in doing so helped pave the way for new definitions of art and its function . . . .” As for Nathaniel Hawthorne, Allen cannot warm up to his “twilit soul”: “The artist who created strong, passionate, brilliant heroines . . . refused to educate his own intelligent daughters. The moralist who was so deeply preoccupied with the sins of the past was content to condone the preeminent sin of his own day, slavery . . . .” He was “essentially a negative, elusive character.” The unfortunate William Makepeace Thackeray, whom Allen admires tremendously, lived a life of “unremitting labor” as “a uxorious family man forever denied marriage or acknowledged love,” and in his fiction he is unable to allow his characters happy endings beyond the “cold comfort of self-knowledge.” She finds Simon Raven, author of the ten-volume roman fleuve Alms for Oblivion, to be incapable of “real emotion or strength” in his writing because in his life he had an immunity to love: “The lack of love harms his writing: all his books share a tiresome coarseness and a tendency to sentiment.”

Certainly my understanding of several of these writers has been enriched by Allen’s labors, and I would guess that readers whose understandings need no enrichment could also enjoy her efforts. If there is a weakness in the collection, it is only a generic weakness, in that literary essays about Books That Are Known To Matter can be just ever so slightly slack. Allen’s very skillfulness in this form conduces to lend the proceedings an air of privileged relaxation; we often seem to be settled comfortably in a quiet corner of the members’ reading room. The blood and tears (and other bodily fluids) spent in the tangled lives of the people who made these familiar works are acknowledged feelingly, and yet there is no particular urgency to the reconsiderations undertaken here. The blood, the tears, and the rest have long ago been stanched, dried, and remingled with the dust; the arrivistes have long since arrived.

Which is only to say that this collection lacks some of the energy of Allen’s first collection, Twentieth-Century Attitudes (2003), in which she contributed to discussions that have more currency. To debates on the worth of writers such as Rohinton Mistry, John Barth, Grace Paley, Saul Bellow, Iris Murdoch, James Baldwin, and others, her contributions, valuing common sense and direct experience over academic theory or aesthetic partisanship, are consistently engaging. In Artistic License , I found Allen to be at her sharpest and most enjoyable in treating the lesser-known and lower-grade writers, such as Bram Stoker (author of Dracula ), L. Frank Baum (creator of The Wizard of Oz ), and G. A. Henty (Victorian author of “boys’ novels”). These pieces seemed to bring out her best. Some of Henty’s dozens of titles, full of “imperial verve and muscular Christianity,” have been reissued for use by home-schooling families, Allen reports, and she takes the occasion to write an appreciative essay on him that includes cautions about his limited virtues and contains her advice, as a mother, about “infinitely better books” for children than his. Also of unexpected interest is her essay on Baum, a morally wholesome, financially clueless, domestically contented, and politically liberal fellow who “succeeded in writing simply while never sacrificing emotional sophistication or his natural respect for every child’s moral capacities.” Allen suggests that those who are concerned to teach children such important lessons as “the value of diversity” might make good use of Baum’s stories, which “almost always involve a group of highly diverse but equal individuals, each of whom contributes something to the resolution of the plot.”

The capacity for admiration is rare; to find it combined with a talent for discernment and an ear for good writing is rarer still. As Allen remarks in that New Criterion piece on Clive James: “What he writes of Randall Jarrell is true also of himself, at his best: ‘We never feel, when reading him, that he is at his most concentrated when he is being most destructive. It is in the effort to draw our attention to merit that he achieves real intensity, and there are few critics of whom that can be said.’” Allen is also among the few.

J. A. Gray is Associate Editor of First Things .