The Proper Care And Maintenance Of Your Novel - For Historians On The Go Casey Reeder.

Novelists have the same sort of gifts for historians as they had for the people of their own time. The good novelist takes the stream of time and finds pieces and parts that were unnoticed or unmarked in it and develops them. As Henry James put it, the novelist’s mind is like a spider web collecting magical bits of reality to be put to paper. In the great novelist the “very particles of air produce revelation.”1 As a contemporary to the world he or she is describing the novelist has access to bits of reality that a historian looking from the present does not. The novelist had first hand-access to the world he or she illuminates and felt the things of it as they were in progress. The historian studies things in time always as static things. The novelist dealt with the world in time when it was alive. The novelist had no concern over what had failed to survive for him to observe he only had to worry on the strength of his perception. Unlike other historical documents the novel and the work of art place the things of events and people in a backlight- it electrifies them. The work of art in its self-containment is valuable as capturing the perishing experiences of time- thoughts, feelings, moods, zeitgeist- and then showing them in extrapolations that explore the more powerful meanings. They are useful much in the way that the documents that a microhistorian uses are. They are case studies that it can be hoped gather with their activity some of the obscured things not shown in traditional historical narrative and not revealed by standard documents and statistics.


George, Perkins, ed. The American Tradition in Literature, 11th ed. (New York, New York: McGrawHill, 2007), 169.

Great men like Zola and Balzac reflect their times as well as shape them. What we find in the novels of Flaubert are the thoughts and senses of the people he shared his time with. The great artist has been idealized as representing his or her time. This is an idealization and so the historian, skeptical by the nature of his or her work, may not accept it whole-heartedly. There is a truth though in the idealization that the student of history may be guided by. The great writer of the stature of Balzac or say Hugo or Proust feels the milieu of his moment more profoundly capturing it in his work. He also helps to create his milieu and gives us insight into it in this way. The good student of history will gain a deeper understanding of how the moods of a historical moment worked by analyzing the great artistic works. What is important is not just what was intentionally put on the page. The value is not just in what a writer like Zola will intentionally moralize on. The novelist in the dynamic of their work unintentionally reveals the biases and obsessions and feelings of the time. The good student will analyze a work’s ideas from the outside. He or she will look for the implications for cultural history in what is between the lines. In all three books we have read for this class there is a lack of freedom. Characters are caught in their situations of class and society like a vice without escape. This was an intentional design of their authors. Maurice in the beginning of ‘The Debacle’ is captured in the ideas of Paris, among them the new Darwinism. He justifies war as “vital for the very existence of nations.”2 His course through the novel is the story of how the ideas he has been filled with from Paris interact with the larger French and Prussian societies in the raw events of war. He lacks self-determination he is controlled. David in ‘Lost Illusions’ is controlled by his place as a poor rustic and is unable to break

Emile Zola, The Debacle, trans. Leonard Tancook (New York, New York: Penguin, 1972), 46.

into Parisian society. The way that David attempts to enter society as the archetypal poet is also determined by society in its preset roles. His attempt is clearly doomed by the force of society around him. Fridrick in ‘A Sentimental Education’ is a puff of a character who goes through the shifts of society unable to make and dent in the world settling in the end to a abandonment of sophisticated society. Throughout his journey he is surrounded by others who are overdetermined by trauma and events in their past and who conform to their position in society. The fear of overdetermination was a new one when these books were being written. It was a new thing to find in literature this idea of characters who are so determined by material and social forces. In France at the time society was becoming more important to everyone. The industrial revolution began to knit the country close together. There was a new relation of the average citizen in the industrialized world where the fate he had was no longer the one of his caste. The average person had new freedom. Ironically though it seemed that this freedom was more conditioned then ever before was thought. The forces of the extremely sophisticated and developed French society were, as demonstrated in these novels, felt as suffocating. The pressures of a modern society were felt much sharper then in the older France. As well the scientific mindset was penetrating into the way man viewed himself. Man was begun to be viewed as an object to be observed as it was acted upon by materialistic forces. This new view of man combined with the new society to create a great fear of determinism. This was the demon that captured much of the century’s mind. The books bear out the fact of this force in the culture. This obsession of the time was not necessarily an appropriate or realistic one. The fatalism undoubtedly created its own determination in that people who felt they lacked freedom would be less likely to exercise

any opportunities that came along. It is perfectly possible of course that this obsession was only a creation of the elites but even if this was so the obsession was broadcast to the general public through works such as these novels which made sure that the ideas and concerns were known by everyone. These ideas undeniably touched the way life was lived whether they emerged from the bottom or from the top of society. Reading these novels gives the historian a feel for exactly how the ideas were felt in experience. In all of the three novels there is a negative view of people as they relate to commerce. There is a poisoning of regular people through. Men are made coarse and mean and hypocritical through their search for money. All three authors have this understanding regardless of their personal politics. In ‘The Debacle’ Fouchard the uncle of Maurice refuses to sell food and drink to starving soldiers because he thinks he can get more from the Germans. The mill owner Delacherch changes his support from Louis Napoleon and even becomes sympathetic to the invading Germans because his trading has been hurt. In ‘Lost Illusions’ Jerome-Nicolas Sechard is a character completely circumscribed by commerce. His narrow mind has come to live completely within commerce without any other interest. He is so suffused with mindless mercantilism that he cheats his own son overcharging him for his worthless business. Some of the color of the anti-comercial feeling of the time is here perhaps in this character. There is a sense that commerce limits people and makes them crude. All of the novels have characters that are narrowed by commerce like this. ‘Sentimental Education’ portrays a world suffused with mercantilism and commerce. The character Fredrick is constantly noting the clothing of people around him. The act of love is conditioned by commerce as mistresses and coquettes are gained and lost through money. All of the characters are

motivated constantly by a search for wealth. The climax of the novel turns on debt as well as love. The fate of characters is determined by their wealth from inheritance in the end more then personal qualities. In the new economic activity of the industrial revolution commerce was taking on new importance in France. There was though in response as shown in these novels great resentment of commerce. The resentment shown in these novels is as sharp and potent as any celebration of commerce shown in any other document. At the same time as a new industrial economy was rising so were the ideas of socialism. There was a potent mix as can be seen in these novels of anti-commercial feeling. The fear of the narrowing of the man from the new industrial economy is shown. The student of history can feel and see in these novels the feelings that the new industrial economy was provoking. These novels are essential to understanding the way that the darker sides of commerce were felt by people living in the changes. The dynamic of these thoughts are shown in their development by the authors. For instance in Flaubert we can see how some of the feelings of disgust also carried something of a fascination in Flaubert’s obvious pleasure in his cataloging of senses. Again even if this was a creation of elites these views were soon to be shared by regular people through these works. In reading these works the student of history gains knowledge of how the thought process of these ideas worked at the time. The bits of reality shine in displaying the phenomena. Bits and pieces of experience of commerce come out. The fact that commerce had this negative connotation to it is important in understanding the development of ideologies and policies. There was a new appreciation of reality in the nineteenth century. Reality was material now. The Scientific Revolution had created a new world of the senses. There

was a hard fixed reality to be observed now, objectively. In the work of all three of these authors we can see this. These three writers were realists. They sought to portray life in a more scientific light then in the past. In doing this they reveled in the sensual. It is not often thought of as a consequence of the Scientific Revolution but in these works we can see a new appreciation of the bare of life. These are novels of sense in the pure and buzzing. There is a new appreciation for life as it is lived in the moment. We would not get this knowledge of the nineteenth century’s thought through any other historical document. Displayed here is how the Scientific Revolution gave to life something of an added sweetness even if it also was, as Weber would have it, disenchanting. The other side of the coin of science is revealed as the vividness of life is brought out by the thoughts of materialism. In ‘The Debacle’ Zola writes of a “field…full of weapons lying there stiff and forlorn beneath the sweltering sun.”3 of cabbages “wet with heavy dew, and their thick greeny-yellow leaves retained drops as pure and bright as jewels.”4 These were new types of description in literature. In strict constricted realism was presented the world new. The world was found shining with hardness and realness. This reality was not necessarily less then before. It could be more. In trying to write a scientific narrative these writers were writing with newly vibrant bits of experience. The sense of the world at the time was being awoken by science as much as it was being disturbed. At the end of ‘An American in Paris’ Gene Kelly speaks of Paris as being the city where everything is so much more real and explains that this is why artists flocked to it. Undoubtedly the works of the great realist writers played a part in this movie’s sense of Paris. In the France of the nineteenth century reality was being newly enriched by the scientific

3 4

Emile Zola, The Debacle, trans. Leonard Tancook (New York, New York: Penguin, 1972), 48. Emile Zola, The Debacle, trans. Leonard Tancook (New York, New York: Penguin, 1972), 208.

mindset. Reality gained new sweetness in its objective sharpness. The scientific mindset is seen today as having been perhaps over applied in the nineteenth century to some fields. But here in these novels we see how the new experience of science was shaping everyday experience positively. Again, even if only the elite at first felt this it would soon spread down the rest of society from the beauty and force of the narrative of books like these. In ‘Lost Illusions’ Balzac writes of a press that “creaked in such a fine style that you would have thought that it was a bird that had dashed itself against a windowpane and flown off again.”5 In describing things objectively these authors were discovering the power of simple reality and then showing it to their readers. In ‘A Sentimental Education’ there are the great and wondrous moments set in the nature of Fontainebleau. “The rain stopped almost at once and when they drove back into town the street cobbles were glistening in the sun.”6 “Near the inn a girl in a straw hat was drawing up buckets from a well and each time one was on its way up Frederic listened to the rattle of the chain with an indescribable joy”7 It can be argued the extent to which these feelings were shared in everyday life but it cannot be argued that they were not shared at all. This is an important insight into the stream of time of nineteenth century France that we could not realistically gain anywhere else then in novels. The stream of time was become more vibrant because of science. The great novels are still being mulled over and new insights found in literature studies today. The oldest works are still yielding new gifts to new readers. They will likewise also still have new insights for the insightful historian. The insights we gain

Honore De Balzac, Lost Illusions, trans. Kathleen Raine (New York, New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 72. 6 Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education, trans. Douglas Parmee (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989), 352. 7 Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education, trans. Douglas Parmee (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989), 356.

may at times be shaky and uncertain. This is the way with all of cultural history however. If cultural history is useful then it is very useful to look at novels. In great novels we have culture in its distilled pure form presented to us. The works of the great novelists are cavernous and they offer more then we can absorb. There are great riches to be found and insights that would never have occurred to us before. We must be knowledgeable in cultural history especially of how much we miss in events when looking into the past. We can easily draw false conclusions but this does not make the attempt to draw correct ones less important or useful. The great novels help us to appreciate life more and so they help the historian to appreciate history more. They give the richness of life to a historians understanding. This does not mean that we should by any means neglect the factual documents of history. But we should not hide either in their certainty for in the uncertain things of history there is simply too much value also.

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