The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

[AMENDED MON 19/11/2007]


From "Lost New York", the first essay in The Last Empire. Gore Vidal is reviewing a novel called Many Mansions by Isabel Bolton, published 1952 and set in 1950:
The old lady finished her reading: 'If her book should fall into the hands of others addicted as she was to the habitual reading of novels, what exactly would their feelings be?' One wonders - is there such a thing now as a habitual reader of novels? Even the ambitious, the ravenously literary young Adam seems to have a suspicion that he may have got himself into the stained-glass window trade.
Of course, Vidal has been raising this question for all of his career, and continues to do so today. I think it's certain that there are fewer and fewer literary references in public discourse, and that people in general don't have a literary common ground (other than Harry Potter). When I was at university I met an old fella who told me his father would meet with friends of an evening to read aloud their favourite passages from Thomas Hardy, and that this wasn't at all an unusual pastime. But then I suppose Dickens was the TV of his day, and followed with the kind of unifying, street-emptying attention people would one day give to Z Cars.


In 1876 Vidal kind of provides his own answer, through the mouth of his narrator Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler:
My pen delays...Stops. Why write any of this? Why make a record? Answer: habit. To turn life to words is to make life yours to do with as you please, instead of the other way round. Words translate and transmute raw life, make bearable the unbearable. So at the end, as in the beginning, there is only The Word.
I don't quite agree with this, but it's a good answer. Not quite as pithy as the beginning of his answer to a long, rambling and (to judge by the reaction) irritating question I posed to him when he was on a book tour in 1998: "Writing is basically an extension of thinking."


I posted a little while back that 1876 was much taken up with the buying of American politicians, but despite the massive and widespread corruption which Vidal depicts, I wasn't prepared for the thrilling change of gear in the final section, when the presidential election goes to the wire. Up to this point, grand theft has seemed wrong but still sort of fun, committed by boring or jovial rascals; in any case, everyone does it, fortunes are there to be made in the Gilded Age and only the terminally unlucky or foolish suffer (we are talking here about the elect, the members of the American oligarchy which, of course, did not and does not exist - not the Civil War veterans who occasionally intrude on the narrative with their raggedness and missing limbs.) And then, having jollied and joshed us, Vidal gets serious, and it's like a slap in the face.

-- SPOILER ALERT 1876 --

The candidates are Governor Samuel Tilden (Dem, dry, highly intelligent but somewhat charmless, a reformer) and Rutherford B. Hayes (Rep, a man seemingly without qualities other than being the one candidate his party can unite behind). Tilden will neither take bribes nor buy favours; Hayes is no more corrupt than any of his peers, which is still saying a great deal. Tilden has already won the popular vote by a quarter of a million, has 184 electoral college votes, and one more will secure him the presidency; Hayes is on 165, and needs all of the 20 remaining votes from Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina and - yes - Florida. The results from all four of these states are in dispute.

Tilden addresses the press:
With altogether too much delicacy Tilden referred to the current "subject of controversy," making the point that in the twenty-two previous presidential elections, the Congress had simply recorded the votes sent them by the Electoral College. But now the Congress must choose between two absolutely conflicting sets of votes sent them by four states.

Tilden reminded the audience that three years ago the Congress had declared illegal the present Government of Louisiana, whose Returning Board has just seen fit to reverse the state's popular vote. Tilden also spelled out the illegality of the South Carolina and Florida boards. But where he ought to have thundered his contempt for the most corrupt and now tyrannous Admininstration in our history and unfurled his banner as our rightful lord, he was throughout his address very much the dry constitutional lawyer and in no way the outraged tribune of a cheated people.
All the way through this final section, Tilden is almost, almost there, but not quite. It should be his, it must be...and yet he seems to be unable to clinch it, despite the egregious nature of Republican attempts to pervert the count. By the time I got to this part, I was already experiencing a serious case of deja vu:
During the week since the electoral commission was given the two (actually, because of a technicality, three) sets of Florida returns, things did not appear to go well for us despite the brilliance of Charles O'Conor.

For one thing, the commission has never seriously tried to examine any of the initial voting frauds in Florida. The Republican case is based on the fact that the Hayes returns are the only valid ones because they have been signed by the carpetbag Republican governor of the state, while those favouring Tilden were only signed by the state's attorney general. For a whole week the number of angels able to dance on that pin's head have been counted and re-counted.
The entry for Tilden on Wikipedia notes:
While the Republicans boldly claimed the election, Tilden mystified and disappointed his supporters by not fighting for the prize or giving any leadership to his advocates. Instead he devoted more than a month to the preparation of a complete history of the electoral counts over the previous century to show it was the unbroken usage of Congress, not of the President of the Senate, to count the electoral votes. [Bigelow v 2:60]
The italics are mine.


I came to 1876 totally cold (apart from recognising the name of Rutherford B. Hayes), began it with mild trepidation, continued with pleasure, raced through the end, and put it down with real satisfaction. A thirty year-old novel about a one hundred and thirty year-old scandal, which shines a powerful light on America today. Yup, I'd say that's a vindication of the stained-glass trade.

It's accepted that the presidential election in 2000 was 'troubled', 'controversial' - that's to say, stolen. But no-one describes the 2004 election in those terms, which is astonishing given the number of complaints of irregularities. Gore Vidal wrote the introduction to Rep. John Conyers' report What Went Wrong in Ohio, which goes into these concerns in depth and is available as a PDF.

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At 19 November 2007 at 18:14 , Anonymous Charlotte Cook said...

Nice bit on literature. Please check out the website and consider contributing there ... even request to be listed there.

This examination and exploration of fiction among committed fiction readers has been exploited on the web to sell books but not to further the discussion and enlarge our familiarity with great reads. Habitual Reader sells nothing. Therefore I would hope you would look there and see if you haven't found a community. I certainly look forward to reading more of your blog!
Charlotte Cook

At 20 November 2007 at 18:44 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Thank you very much. Actually I find it moderately difficult to do regular bits on literature for this blog, and to keep up to date on those of a few friends. But I will drop by.

At 21 November 2007 at 00:02 , Blogger Joe said...

The thing with good writing is that it is endlessly translatable to different eras - it's why the best stories live on through decades, centuries or far, far longer. Just been sent the new Penguin SF anthology edited by the great Brian Aldiss, mostly from his old Penguin collections plus some new material. In his introduction he says much the same, how going back through older short fiction he often found work written for one age which addressed concerns of today perfectly.

And of course, the same can be true of non fiction; I recall reading of a fundamentalist Islamic reader leading religious zealots in a jihad against Western forces, a struggle for supremacy under the burning sun, the West using superior training and firepower against religious zealotry. Not a scene from recent events but the Madhi Army being cut to pieces by British Empire troops with their Maxims and gunboats as a young Winston Churchill watched.

All the more reason to worry about the decline (apart from Harry Potter) we seem to see in regular reading... If we are told we need to exercise the body more regularly for health then surely we also need to read more to exercise the brain, the intellect and the imagination...


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