restricted access Failure and Success in America: A Literary Debate (review)
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Martha Banta. Failure and Success in America: A Literary Debate. Princeton UnIv. Press, 1978. 568 pp. $30.00; pb $12.50. "The boots of the men clump/On the boards of the bridge./The first white wall of the village/Rises through fruit-trees./Of what was ¡t I was think1ng?/So the meaning escapes." The Metaphors of Wallace Stevens' Magnifico—mind-boggling as they are—may seem mere child's play beside the intellectual acrobatics and semantic somersaults of Martha Banta as she carries us through conflations like the following, from her chapter on 'fate, Will, and the Illusion of Freedom": "If Stein believed in art as fate, and Mailer insists upon style as character, and Bellow suggests that character ¡s fate, and all had hunches about fate as luck, where are we?" (p. 216). The patient reader, having traveled with Banta this far in her elaborate peregrinations, may well ask the same question. In her study Banta brilliantly accumulates detail upon exhaustive detail to capture that perennial American dialogue whose central conflicts seem, ¡ncidenta i Iy, so well resolved in poet-insurance man Wallace Stevens himself, and whose themes have been picked up, once more, in Joseph Epstein's recently published Ambition: The Secret Passion. Her purpose is to investigate the multifarious (and sometimes nefarious) meanings of success and failure held by Americans since the very founding of the idea of America and to involve us dramatically in "the still-continuing debate over the nature of winning and losing in the American context" (p. 3). It is no accident that Banta's study must itself be evaluated in that context. Banta opens the debate by developing "the fundamental questions raised by the book's implied admonition: more than survival." The first of the six major divisions of the book ("The More or Less of Success") "asks whether mind and heart are satisfied with bodily survival or whether something else is demanded before success is acknowledged. It also begins to consider this book's other concern--! ess than perfection—by questioning whether the one true criterion for success is to have reached that point past which there is nowhere better to go" (p. 3). In the four chapters that constitute this first part of the study, Banta begins to introduce to us the major voices whose concerns we will contemplate: William James, insisting on the something more than mere physical survival that touches on "the nature and value of survival" (p. 17); Henry Adams, in his "elegantly witty contemplation of a tired world running down and fading away," questioning even survival (p. 29); Thoreau and Emerson, believing that through "thought" we can confront material reality yet still pursue goals that both derive from and transcend it (p. 33); and Norman Mailer, straining for such achievement and feeling a "pain of inconsequence" that validates "the relationship of power with God he feels is rightfully his" (p. 53). Before long we have met a host of other pervasive voices—Mark Twain, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Benjamin Franklin, Melville, Faulkner, Hawthorne, et alia; and we have expanded, in the second division of the book ("Ideas of the Land"), to an evaluation of "some of the fertile image-ideas"--Amer i ca as geographical "place," as "woman who waits," as "wonder," as terrain for "lumlnism" and "terribi I Itâ*," as possession and possessor, as ego and loss of ego—"that have emerged from the minds of several explorers of America" (p. 150). Banta—not inaccurately but not freshly eithei—suggests that these ideas about the land are integrally tied to our beliefs about ourselves and our possibilities for success, tied to that delicate balance the Puritans attempted between "the idea of mission and the idea of profit," between subservience of ego "to God and that egocentric desire to "cultivate the land in order to make its possessors thrive in earthly terms" (p. 146). Part Three ("Winning and Losing") takes us into contemplations about various types of success and successful Americans, about the morality of success—whether "getting goods" is consonant with "being good," whether "being right" allows us also the luxury of "being happy" (p. 172). And Part Four ("Renewal or Revenge") concentrates...


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