Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From
Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
$23.95, 240 pages, ISBN 0-312-27209-X.
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
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.
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
1Myrick Land, an
American newspaperman, published The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem
in 1962, mostly on British feuds.
Chinee" is from the best known of Harte’s poems.