Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens

Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens

by John Plotz


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691159461
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

John Plotz is professor of Victorian literature at Brandeis University. His books include The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics, Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (Princeton), and a young-adult novel, Time and the Tapestry: A William Morris Adventure. Plotz is the editor of the B-Sides series at Public Books.

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Pertinent Fiction: Short Stories into Novels


Walter Allen's magisterial 1981 Short Story in English begins with his version of the Mikado's little list.

Everywhere in the world, whenever the short story is discussed, a handful of names crops up, Chekhov and Maupassant always, then Poe and Kipling and Joyce, and probably Katherine Mansfield and Hemingway as well.

Allen presumably means to refer to the tastes of modern middle-class readers, tastes shaped by the standards that Edgar Allan Poe enumerated in 1842: a story ought to be unitary, compact, and achieve an effect of immediacy on the reader. Franco Moretti argues that it is a rare form or genre that outlasts thirty years, but those criteria held good in Poe's own day, and from Chekhov to the present, they have also held sway. So perhaps only a Victorianist would fault Allen for omitting the heyday of British realist fiction from his list. Measure realism's golden age from Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers in 1837 to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda in 1876 — or even stretch the era a bit to include quasi-naturalist novels like Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) — and only Kipling even comes close.

Allen is not alone in skirting the British's novel's heyday when compiling a short story pantheon. This missing half century is not mere happenstance, but a clue about the gap between Poe's criteria for short fiction's success and the formal attributes Henry James had in mind when he at once praised and disparaged his novelistic predecessors for writing "large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary." And when Somerset Maugham agrees that the "long, unwieldy shapeless novels of the Victorian era" are England's chief contribution to world literature, he adds a revealing corollary: that "English writers on the whole have not taken kindly to the art of the short story."

Scholars who agree with the Poe litmus test have often subscribed to the delay hypothesis, evident for example in Korte's proposal that "the short story 'proper' emerged in Britain with considerable delay, not until the late nineteenth century." Dean Baldwin argues, along related lines, that "the rise and fall of the British short story is intimately connected to the economics of writing and publishing" and that "between 1880 and 1950 [but not before] the market for short fiction became sufficiently broad, deep[,] varied and flexible to accommodate all writers of talent and many of very limited abilities." By his reckoning, it was only from the 1880s onward that "art and commerce ... existed in creative tension, and [a surprising range of authors] turned the short story to their financial and artistic advantage." Taken together, the delay theory and Baldwin's economics-of-publishing argument seem to militate against praising or even perhaps studying with too much attention the short stories of the early and mid-Victorian era.

I propose a different way of thinking about the place of the short story in the changing shape of nineteenth-century British fiction, a way perhaps more in keeping with Tim Killick's recent argument about the generic categorization of short fiction in the early nineteenth century: "Short fiction does not fit into a single overarching agenda. ... The position and credibility of short fiction was by no means established. Consequently the boundaries of the genre had to be negotiated at every stage." Stories, tales, sketches (even interpolated tales within longer fiction) by James Hogg, John Galt, Charles Dickens, and others reveal nineteenth-century short fiction as an art form that both represents and reflects upon readerly semi-detachment — albeit in changing ways as the century wears on.

This chapter covers writers in three different historical moments: James Hogg from 1810 to 1830; John Galt, Dickens, and Poe from 1830 to 1840; Dickens alongside Eliot and others from 1840 to 1875. The conditions for the production of short fiction and the dominant form such short fiction took varied enormously in those three periods — not least because of the rise of the sketch in the second period and the cultural dominance of the novel in the third. In each period, however, the possibility of semi-detachment, and the question of what it means for someone to become partially absorbed into the world of the story, shaped the writing of short fiction in subtle but ultimately crucial ways. My argument for the generic specificity of semi-detachment in British short fiction aims to accomplish three things: first, to shed light on overlooked features of the tales and stories of the romantic era; second, to offer a new way of thinking about the concurrent emergence in the 1830s of the long-lived genre of the short story and relatively short-lived genre of the sketch; finally, to replace the "delay hypothesis" about the British short story during the heyday of the Victorian realist novel with the hypothesis that we should think of the British short story as flourishing within the novel itself, taking the form of pseudo-interpolated tales.

James Hogg: Strategic Undecidability

If we begin the history of the British short story not in 1880 as Baldwin proposes, nor even in 1842 with Poe's genre-shaping review, but back in the era of the romantic tale, we are immediately faced with the problem of short fiction defined not by singleness but by incompletion, rupture, and uncertainty. In the story of the rise of the short story, James Hogg has perpetually found himself out of place, out of time, and surprisingly out of luck. Poe's acolyte Brander Matthews speaks for a surprising congeries of critics when he proclaims the short story "is one of the few sharply defined literary forms. It is a genre ... a species as a Naturalist might call it, as individual as the Lyric itself." For nearly two centuries, a remarkably durable consensus, critical and creative alike, has coalesced around the insistence that, in Poe's terms, "a certain unique or single effect" is the acme of the author's ambition and that "the immense force derivable from totality" should be understood as an unmistakable impression produced on the reader by a single event.

Compression, psychological penetration, and above all singleness of effect have been at the heart of every generic taxonomy since Poe. True, Goethe influentially described the short story as presenting an eruption of the fantastical into the everyday — "a singular or unprecedented event which occurs as part of everyday reality." Even there, though, the singular has its place, as the moment of fantastical disruption around which all explanations, and all of the story's actions, must coalesce. Small wonder that few people have trumpeted the short-fictional credentials of James Hogg, even though his acme in the 1820s coincides with the triumph of many of the short story's godfathers: Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alexander Pushkin.

It is worth noticing, though, that Poe's criteria, enshrined by Matthews and virtually every successor in the field, actually rule out a range of formal possibilities — many of them essential components of the realist novel. Oscillation between detachment and absorption seems to be ruled out by Poe's recipe for the short story — as do the temporal unfolding, the episodic contingency, and the experiential accumulation that Ian Watt and Franco Moretti (in somewhat different ways) singled out as crucial to the novel's brand of fictive realism. Realist novels of the era can succeed by varying or combining different temporal schemes, so that effects are spread out through flashback, concentrated to a sensation, or understood only retrospectively. Stories are denied that luxury, and therein lies a serious problem for Hogg's reputation.

Poe's categories have been rethought in a number of productive ways recently. Recent attention to the role that The Thousand and One Nights played in shaping emerging conceptions of fiction in early modern Europe provides a welcome alternative to a straightforward history that walks dutifully through Spectator sketches (of the "Inkle and Yarico" variety) and the performative arabesques that structure Eliza Haywood's Fantomina to arrive, by a kind of motiveless teleology, at Maria Edgeworth's moral and national tales. The various pregenres to the modern short story — among them the fabliaux, dirty jokes, and shaggy dog stories that crop up in Aesop and migrate in various ways from The Thousand and One Nights to The Decameron and Chaucer — offer a much more varied set of contributing antecedents to nineteenth-century short fiction.

To that revisionist work I want to add consideration of the unique formal properties of short fiction that lend themselves to new ways of approaching the readerly experience of semi-detachment. Doing so helps lay bare some of the fascinating formal possibilities opened up by Hogg's experimental short fiction — possibilities that also reappear, albeit in a somewhat tamed and controlled form, in novels later in the century. Thinking about how semi-detachment operates in Hogg's stories and tales, that is, helps clarify short fiction's role as a kind of proving ground, during the romantic era, when Poe's rules about singularity of effect were not yet gospel for some of the most interesting features of the later realist novel — among them, the pseudo-interpolation of stories into the larger diegetic frame of the novel.

James Hogg's quarter century of fiction writing began in 1810 with The Spy ("one of the places the modern short story was born") and eventually spread to the scores of tales, stories, elaborate jokes, sketches, records of local customs, melodramatic vignettes, and linked story cycles constituting the core of Winter Evening Tales, The Shepherd's Calendar, Altrive Tales, and The Three Perils of Man. Although André Gide excavated and effectively recanonized Hogg's remarkable novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a proto-modernist masterpiece, the relationship between Hogg's short fiction and his era's debates about textuality, fictionality, and literary authority is interesting enough in its own right. Hogg's commitment to the staging of conflict between narrative frames — not simply shifting focalization but actively disrupting it — is not absolutely unique in his own day: links abound to the long-form fictions of his friend and rival Walter Scott. However, when it comes to tracing a through-line in the ways that effects of semi-detachment can operate in short fiction, Hogg stands almost alone. His works make cunning use of central mysteries that lend themselves to various sorts of explanation — Satanic possession, individual madness, collective delusion, or simply the distorting lens of history — but which finally resist the triumph of any one explanatory schema over its alternatives. The consistent effect of such explanation-production and explanation-denial is to leave readers in much the same state that Ford describes with the half-reflecting pane of glass: peering deeply into a world that they suspect of being merely an illusion. Yet by a strange reversal, it is the possibly illusory quality of that world that makes them gaze so deeply, so attentively.

Critics have noted Hogg's attachment to disputation and undecidable problems. To take those observations a step further: Hogg's short fiction practices what we might want to call (on the model of Bakhtin's "polyglossia") polydoxy. Hogg addressed the reader's own doubts about the plausibility of the fictional world — the reader's feeling of being at once within and without this invented world — by staging the intersection of profoundly disjunctive belief systems within that world itself. The reader is accordingly faced with some of the same problems that will return to characterize long-form Victorian fiction: about the relationship between divergent perspectives on a single event, sequentiality, and the nature of the episode — that is, the question of what constitutes a significant action or event within a world where narrative significance unfolds contingently rather than being foreordained or authorially sculpted.

Consider what Hogg's short fiction is not. Walter Allen once declared Scott's "The Two Drovers" to be "the story that I recognise as the first modern short story in English." David Cecil, praising Scott's short stories over his novels, revealingly claimed that Scott lacked the "sense of form" but was saved in such short works as "The Two Drovers" because "a short story is the record of an isolated incident." Both critics understand Scott's mastery of short fiction to consist of the gradual winnowing out of alternative possibilities for understanding a given incident, until what stands revealed is what Poe called "the single effect." "The Two Drovers" highlights Scott's use of a gathering effect, a movement toward definitive singularity. In it, the murder of an Englishman by a Highlander and the latter's execution at the Carlisle Assizes serve to reconcile all divergent worldviews under a single, universally acknowledged justice — a justice explicitly recognized by the man doomed to die under it: "'I give a life for the life I took,' he said, 'and what can I do more?'"

The judicial ending of Scott's story puts every character into a single interpretive frame and thus secures the narrator's footing. In Hogg's fiction, however, there are no fair cops. Instead his stories end with sudden dilations, shifts in speech, and closing paragraphs that shift to other forms entirely: "An Old Soldier's Tale," for example, ends with a loosely germane stanza of a Scots song. In Hogg, there is always one further document to be unearthed, one further mystery to puzzle out, and one further genre to be dropped onto the page.

In Hogg's fiction, polydoxy can be found at the level of incident, plot, character, or motive — even in the question of what makes a given occurrence into a story at all. (To look ahead: in the Victorian novel, that question of pertinence or digression develops into a crucial question of what constitutes an episode, and whether episodes themselves constitute digressions from the plot of the novel, or instead, when appraised and ordered retrospectively, the embodiment of the novel's plot.) In "An Old Soldier's Tale," rival interpretive communities (Highland rebels and Lowland loyalists) can occupy the same space without acknowledging one another's existence — or they can decide to duel about what sorts of tales will survive from a particular period of war. A Lowland Scots soldier who claims to have done great duty for the government forces at Culloden is "drowned" (shouted down) and "overpowered" by a Jacobite loyalist who gives him hospitality for the night. Yet when his hostess has out-sung him, as compensation for his defeat, she lets him turn the tables and embark on a gory and largely incredible tale: how he was besieged, bungled his use of civilian hostages, and used a heroic handcuffed backflip to throttle his would-be executioner and win the admiration of his enemies.

In this story and others, Highland and Lowland Scots fail (and pretend to fail, and fail to pretend, and even fail to pretend to fail) to understand one another's words. Meanwhile, bemused or smugly obtuse outsiders — English tourists or local stuffed shirts — keep popping up, presenting themselves as authoritative voices with definitive explanations of fundamentally unparsable phenomena. Paranormal and dryly scientific accounts of lightning strikes coexist, and narrators pop up to declare various pieces of local knowledge impossible — yet irrefutable.

Hogg's commitment to shifting frames of believability jibes well with Maureen McLane's recent work on the ways that the various sorts of poetic authority interact, and resonates with recent investigations of the ways in which Victorian narrative strategies depend on a kind of magisterial "ethnographic authority." In Hogg's stories, the shifts are sudden, striking, and seem designed to alert the reader to the fact that the grounds for trust in the narrative's reliability have shifted. Such games are everywhere in Hogg's oeuvre, an irrepressible habit or imp of the perverse that sends his fictions teetering sideways into a condition of suspect textuality. Consider, for instance, the variety of authoritative claims embedded in just the title of one of Hogg's volumes of stories — Altrive Tales: Collected among the Peasantry of Scotland and from Foreign Adventurers by the Ettrick Shepherd — in which the "by" does double duty as a claim to have collected and to have composed the tales.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Through Bright Glass 1

1 Pertinent Fiction: Short Stories into Novels 19

2 Mediated Involvement: John Stuart Mill’s Partial Sociability 48

3 Visual Interlude I / Double Visions: Pre-Raphaelite Objectivity and Its Pitfalls 74

4 Virtual Provinces, Actually 102

5 Experiments in Semi-Detachment 122

6 Visual Interlude II / “This New-Old Industry”: William Morris’s Kelmscott Press 153

7 H. G. Wells, Realist of the Fantastic 175

8 Overtones and Empty Rooms: Willa Cather’s Layers 196

9 Visual Interlude III / The Great Stone Face: Buster Keaton, Semi-Detached 215

Conclusion: Apparitional Criticism 238

Notes 245

Bibliography 293

Index 315

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