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Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe
Anthony Arthur
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
$23.95, 240 pages, ISBN 0-312-27209-X.

Thomas J. Mayock
Annandale, Virginia

Literary feuds are sometimes referred to as a "rich field." Translated, this means that authors have been trashing each other ever since Aristophanes took on Euripedes, and their brawls, however distasteful, are fair game for literary critics, not to mention newspapers and booksellers. Whole volumes have been written on individual set-tos. Not so common are surveys such as this by Professor Arthur1.

Anthony Arthur has been teaching writing and literature at California State University, Northridge, and has produced books on topics as diverse as World War II and seventeenth-century German Anabaptists. The present volume consists of seven essays on face-offs between prominent American writers, plus one on C.P. Snow versus F.R. Leavis. The others are Twain versus Harte; Hemingway versus Stein; Lewis versus Dreiser; Wilson versus Nabokov; Hellman versus McCarthy; Capote versus Vidal; and Wolfe versus Updike.

Arthur is very clear about why he wrote the book. He believes that the more you know about an author’s life, the better you understand his works. In this, he differs from the New Critics, who believed literary biography to be irrelevant. Of his match-ups, Twain-Harte is a little remote from twenty-first century concerns. The others speak to their Zeitgeist and reverberate today.

Bret Harte and Mark Twain were friends and associates in Jumping Frog times in California, but Harte ran out of celebrity early and became a notorious drunk sponging on his friends. It is, of course, an enduring tradition in the Republic to dispatch ill-assorted citizens to represent America in foreign parts, and prominent writers, such as Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, were often granted such sinecures. When Twain heard that President Hayes was being pressured to send Harte to China, to react with "the heathen Chinee"2 he protested violently, only to see him posted to a city in the Ruhr. He persisted in accusing his erstwhile—and pitiable—friend of an impressive calendar of sins. Jealousy and exasperation appear to be the culprits in his case.

If Twain was reluctant to admit that Harte had anything to teach him about mining camp fiction, Hemingway after he became successful seemed intent on trashing any of his contemporaries who might be considered his teacher, benefactor or equal. Arthur tells the story in a vivid account of the master’s relations with Gertrude Stein, whose companion Alice B. Toklas voiced doubts about the toughness of the tough guy Stein had doted on in the morning of his career. Hemingway doesn’t come off very well.

By 1930 the Swedish Academy had decided that it was time to award a Nobel to an American writer, and not just any American writer but one who shared the negative view many Europeans held of American culture. This narrowed the field to Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, the ultimate winner. When Dreiser subsequently slapped Lewis for his remarks at a boozy writers’ dinner in New York, the newspapers treated it as a sporting event, and it is not entirely clear to this day why Lewis chose such a venue for his discontents, besides distilled spirits.

Throughout the book Professor Arthur’s technique is to sandwich such antics with appraisals of the combatants’ literary worth so that even the most resistant reader will absorb something of value. He provides interesting copy on the Wilson-Nabokov falling-out, but Snow-Leavis is probably more instructive. On a spring day in 1959 C. P. Snow, a scientist, novelist and official, in short, a pundit, delivered a lecture to Cambridge undergraduates in which he lamented the lack of understanding between literati and technocrats—the two cultures. While he was fairly mild about this, he felt that the literati bore most of the blame, being accustomed to grouse about improvements without which their lives would have been short, brutish and unliterary. Three years later he was attacked by F. R. Leavis, an illustrious Cambridge don, in an unusually viperous outburst. Little is heard about the two today on this side of the Atlantic, but their argument blossomed at a time when British industry was suffering from overemphasis on the arts in education. This cleavage persists in contemporary debates about globalization.

The Hellman-McCarthy set-to between "two old ladies" involved the American Left’s affair with Stalinism and, eventually, Hellman’s veracity. In contrast, the Capote-Vidal fight appears more as purely personal, featuring an alleged scuffle at the Kennedy White House. The Tom Wolfe versus John Updike piece revisits journalist-artist tensions. It would be hard to find a more tragic and mutually destructive act than Hellman’s suit against McCarthy for publicly calling her a liar. Hellman hoped to bankrupt her. Instead, when Hellman died, McCarthy may have been within reach of proving her point. The controversy revived the split among American liberals over Stalin’s crimes. Vidal’s suit against Capote was equally vindictive.

The text is tastefully presented by St. Martin’s and the endnotes thoughtfully indicate when the sources are available online. In all these sketches, Arthur deals sympathetically and neutrally with the combatants. He could have followed the blurb-writers’ prescription for any non-fiction and included more sensational and scandalous detail or claimed that he had uncovered new and vital information. But his choice of feuds and his balanced accounts provide a short course on literary and social trends and he wraps the whole in smooth, unobtrusive, and entertaining prose, as befits a teacher of writing.


1Myrick Land, an American newspaperman, published The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem in 1962, mostly on British feuds.

2"The heathen Chinee" is from the best known of Harte’s poems



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