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What the Thunder Said: James's Hawthorne and the American Anxiety of Influence : A Centennial Essay by John Carlos Rowe, University of California, Irvine "And, Reuben," he added, as the weakness of mortality made its way at last, "return, when your wounds are healed and your weariness refreshed-return to this wild rock, and lay my bones in the grave, and say a prayer over them." —Hawthorne, "Roger Malvin's Burial" I have sent you a little biography of Hawthorne which I wrote, lately, sadly against my will. I wanted to let him alone. —Henry James to Grace Norton, December 21, 1879 In the history of American literature, the thunder has spoken two very different prophecies, each of which may be considered a metaphor for a powerful and complicated conception of Anerican literary nationality. Melville's Hawthorne says, "No! in thunder," thereby figuring the strong poet's denial of his tradition. This "No!" may serve for the powerful commitment to a native American literature that would involve the repression of the past: of Europe, its history, and the "foreign" by critic and artist alike. What the thunder also says is: "Give, Sympathize, Control," in T. S. Eliot's poetic translation of the fifth Adhyaya of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in his own fifth and final part of The Waste Land.1 Eliot's thunder not only recalls us to the larger traditions of western literature, but it does so by suggesting that our very denial is part of the process whereby we shall return to such tradition. Eliot's idea of tradition reveals the essential contradictoriness of literary nationality, and it is just this contradiction that I would figure from the beginning in the thunder's divided speech. For Eliot La] national literature comes to consciousness at the stage at which any young writer must be aware of several generations of writers behind him in his own country and language, and amongst these generations several writers generally acknowledged to be great. . . . It is not necessary that this background should provide him with models for imitation. The young writer, certainly, should not be consciously bending his talent to conform to any supposed American or other tradition. The writers of the past, especially of the immediate past, in one's own place and language may be valuable to the young writer simply as something definite to rebel against. He will recognize the common ancestry, but he needn't necessarily like his relatives. For models to imitate, or for styles from which to 1. Melville to Hawthorne, April, 1851, in The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 125; for Eliot's explanation of the title of part V of The Waste Land, see "The Waste Land" and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1934), p. JT. THE HENRY JAMES REVIEW 81 WINTER, 1983 learn, he may often more profitably go to writers of another country and another language, or of a remoter age. Eliot's defensiveness about his own cultural identity is especially marked in this passage, which is taken from his address at Washington University in St. Louis in 1953. The writer aspiring for a national identity needs a native tradition if only to justify his departures, repressions, and divergences. And yet earlier in this address, Eliot had noted that the "two characteristics which I think must be found together, in any author whom I should single out as one of the landmarks of national literature" must be "the strong local flavor combined with unconscious universality." Eliot finds this combination in Poe, Whitman, and Twain, "three authors . . . who have enjoyed the greatest reputation abroad."2 The landmarks, then, of nationality are themselves characterized in part by their international reputations and universal characteristics. The young writer's rebellion is thus already involved in the fate of this tradition as part of his ultimate rediscovery of the unconscious universality of his own local sources and influences. "No! in thunder" is thus not the antipode of the thunder's other message. The artist's "control" of his material, his apparent authority over his work, merely disguises in his autonomy or "genius...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 81-119
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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