restricted access Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer, and: Pieces of Resistance (review)
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Reviewed by
George P. Landow. Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. 198 pp. $17.50.
Eugene Goodheart. Pieces of Resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 210 pp. $29.95.

These two books are not so much about modern fiction as about what George Levine in a famous phrase has called "the boundaries of fiction." They are about (and, in the case of Eugene Goodheart's book, exemplify) the tradition of post-romantic polemics that more or less explicitly seeks to fill hollows left by the progressive erosion of religious and other conventional sources of authority throughout the nineteenth century: the tradition, that is, of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold. George P. Landow, chiefly a Victorianist, focuses on the beginnings of that tradition but is interested largely in its rhetorical aspects; Goodheart, chiefly a modernist, worries about the state of the tradition today and is also perhaps more "Victorian" than Landow in that his concerns are explicitly political and moral.

In Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer, Landow defines the genre of the "works of the sage" (or, even more awkwardly, "sage-writing") as characterized by an overall "prophetic pattern" (of interpretation, attack upon the audience, warning, and visionary promise) that in turn gives rise to a series of characteristic rhetorical strategies: alternation between satire and visionary statement; concentration upon the apparently trivial; episodic argumentation that often relies upon analogy; interest in grotesque contemporary happenings; satiric and idiosyncratic definition of crucial terms; and, most essentially, reliance upon the writer's character or ethos to establish credibility and authority. Landow's representative Victorian writers are Carlyle, Thoreau, Ruskin, and Arnold; somewhat less predictably, the modern representatives of the sage turn out to be Lawrence, Mailer, and Tom Wolfe.

Landow is himself an elegant and highly intelligent writer who proposes his taxonomy only somewhat tentatively as suggesting useful new connections among his chosen writers and new approaches to the study of nonfiction more than as offering a durable definition of a genre. This is just as well, for the generic claims do not seem compelling. It is hardly a striking argument to propose that the essential feature of the sage's genre is an appeal to the trustworthiness of the writer's ethos, for surely all rhetoric necessarily makes such appeal, whereas the rhetor can conceivably dispense with an appeal to either logic or emotion, if not both: Landow himself quotes Aristotle's generalization that the speaker's character "may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion." And it almost goes without saying that sages are, above all, those whom we trust. Moreover, the more particular moves characteristic of the sage's armamentarium are easy to find in other Victorian and twentieth-century writing, as Landow, to his credit, recognizes. Some of his exclusions may also seem unjustified. Emerson is specifically banished, being too genial ever to indulge in the sage's attack upon his audience; Newman is barely mentioned; later Victorians, like Pater and Morris, along with the Edwardians (Chesterton and Shaw, at least, would seem to deserve attention), are simply ignored. There is perhaps something a bit skewed about the title as [End Page 740] well. It derives from a newspaper characterization of Arnold about which he complains in Culture and Anarchy. Whatever its applicability to Arnold, however, "elegant" is hardly among the first words that come to mind in connection with Carlyle, Lawrence, and Mailer, for example, and it also seems more seriously to undercut precisely the contentiousness and eccentricity that Landow regards as central to the sage (and that forms the basis for the exclusion of Emerson).

But Landow is an excellent reader, whose explorations of his chosen subjects more than justify his book. It is no wonder that he should be an expert and sensitive reader of Ruskin or the other Victorians upon whom he has extensively written, but the discussion of Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon that closes the book is a very welcome surprise that leaves one wanting a much-extended account of Mailer's foray into what Landow aptly calls the "technological sublime."

Pieces of Resistance collects twenty-four of Eugene Goodheart...


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