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The arrival of revivals.

I am fascinated by literary and theatrical revivals. Bringing something back is not merely re-discovery but a need to put things into place by yanking the history of time into a chart of understanding.

This satisfaction of compassionate fervor is easily seen in drama revivals where young audiences connect to their elders (and sometimes very elder acquaintances). The reason usually given for the success of a revival in the theatre is that the work remains, or is newly relevant, to present conditions. While a historic document produces awe, it does not emanate warmth, but a revival, no matter how long-ago dated in first appearance, promises freshness and consequent new reactionary power.

Examples in the theatre abound every season. Last year it was South Pacific, in which the revisit to the romance of World War II in its southern seas brought on an ocean of joyous sentiment. This season it appears to be Finian's Rainbow, an even more sentimental tale of the power of love and its exclusivity of adulterated sophistication. Along with it comes the adolescent springs of Bye Bye Birdie and the corn and grits idealizations of Ragtime. Some of these, and other, theatre revivals, are planned carefully for their time of arrival (a revival cannot arrive too early or too late for its comeback). Apparently, some themes and some conditions of human psyche and approaches to world events and their aftermaths of spirit are distinct and discrete, reserved for restricted accounts of historic expenditure. Some other themes and conditions are perennial, appearing year after year, without regard for the history of the times.

In literature, revivals are a different breed. First, because there may be no such thing, purely, as a revival in literature. A book does not die, it needs no re-mounting once it has been bound into form. Yet, this simplistic difference needs a qualification, for while books do not die (unless they are shredded or burnt, and even then they live on in the mind), they do fade away. And are usually forgotten till some bright, earnest publisher seizes on the opportunities to bring back a neglected author. Sometimes this kind of revival has an outstanding effect. The case of Herman Melville is probably as good as any example of a successful revival. All but forgotten at his death and until the early 1920s, Melville became the potent reminder of obsessive energy, and of darkness that could never be extinguished by light. For a while, Edgar Allan Poe languished in the darkness he so earnestly and yearningly sought, until his torch, too, was seen for the horizons it laid open to view. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American writers, however, have not, in the main, experienced revival while the popular ones have remained popular for two centuries, among them Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Jack London. Still, the barometer has fallen on once eminent American writers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and even Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos in the twentieth century have seen their shadows shorten, and no significant revival has risen to enthrone them again. (Emily Dickinson's rise to fame is not a revival, but a discovery that claimed a permanent foothold in our national literature.)

In contemporary times, at least in publishing terms, revivals have run a ragged course. I am thinking of revivals that have not resulted in a continuity of attention, and have worked only fitfully even in their active pursuit of applause. By this, I mean, a re-publication, and subsequent critical attention and then a sinking from sight--again--of the writer's work and the writer, usually ones who have passed from earthly scenes. Three examples come to mind of writers whose promise has been acclaimed again and again, and whose familiarity runs a short time on invitational visits by publishers, eager perhaps to make a dollar out of their guests but also possibly genuinely committed to their guest writers' achievements and visions.

I have taught Henry Roth's Call It Sleep several times during my tenure as a professor of literature. Each decade the work is discovered and a new printing is delivered. The same is less true of Daniel Fuchs' Williamsburg trilogy; to the best of my knowledge this fine work of three separate but linked novels has been revived only once to loud critical acclaim and little popular reaction. An even lesser known but equally brilliant writer (though exploring a far more exotic world) is Alfred Chester, whose work has periodically been discovered and brought to public notice, and then faded into a niche corner of the library.

What makes a revival work? The more basic question may be--what makes a work worthy of revival? Is it--again to resort to temporal spheres--a matter of social history and demands of reflection? Is this the reason Fuchs' extraordinary tale of Depression life, and Roth's profound exploration of the same condition and historic period, have made critically lasting but seemingly fleeting impressions in their revival (and original) appearances? Must a historical novel--perhaps in one sense all novels are historic documents in that they portray humanity at a specific, fixed period of time--relate to the times in which it is published, and revived? The answer seems obvious and simple: OF COURSE NOT. For, if the answer were in the affirmative, then novels of past eras would lose their value, and the reader would have only a Mao-style literature to convey significance. Yet even answering this question in the way I have responded to it evades a basic issue. Why do some writers and their work come back to live a long life and others to rise from the dead and turn into ashes of oblivion again? In the case of Alfred Chester, the phenomenon of a writer inconstantly revived and available at a publisher's turn of mood but unjustly re-ignored, proves intriguing and provocative. Perhaps Chester is like another writer whose work comes up again and again referentially but has never gained a wide foothold in literary and popular esteem. I am thinking of Baron Corvo, another "niche" writer who finds supporters in every age after his own, but never a wide army of readers in any era. Perhaps, then, revivals work differently for different writers, no matter how clearly the writer's skills are proclaimed. "Niche" writers are revived because there is always room for a niche--small but steady goes the exotic ripeness of such work. Revivals encompassing a more popular space of favor and gaining an invidious hold on a new reader's daily world--are rarer, and this may be the reason Fuchs' and Henry Roth's profound achievements--and they are profound--never gain the wearing of the jewelry of realistic art they deserve.

I have come to these thoughts on reading--for the first time--a collection of short fiction by Alvin Levin, Love Is Like Park Avenue. Levin is another Jewish-American writer--like Roth and Fuchs--of the Depression era. (Interestingly, Fuchs writes of Brooklyn life, Roth of Manhattan existence, and Levin of the Bronx's share of broken dreams and fantasy-defenses. The Jewish-American experience of Queens would have to wait till the '40s and '50s, and the Staten Island experience has not yet been deeply evoked.) Like Fuchs and Roth, Levin writes of Depression immobility, and its avenues of escape into the factories of dreams, though Levin's fiction carries more of a wistful dreaming than Fuchs' and Roth's. Levin's world contains poverty but not of the overwhelming weight that dooms the lives in Roth's and Fuchs' worlds. Levin's characters are not so much disillusioned as evasive about their life stories, finding in rationalization and procrastination and sometimes a stubborn blindness to their conditions a way of coping with the limits imposed on them. They cannot be said to be suffering openly from loss since, by their fabrications and weaving of the tapestry of their fantasies, they avoid the clanging recognition of damages. They feel the damage inflicted on them but believe they can ignore it by paying attention to a willed other-existence. They push history aside in favor of a timeless itinerary of self-absorption.

Levin is an extraordinary writer, accomplished in his use of clear direct sentences and a quasi-Joycean style of interior monologue. His characters speak in the run-on sentences of unspoken soliloquies, and his sure mastery of their voice and gesture is astounding. Part of the problem for the reader (in Levin's own time--the late '30s and '4os--and probably in the currency of the twenty-first century) is that Levin is sucked into his characters' ramblings and never quite gets out of the luxuriant swamp of their inner dialogue; in his writer's journey he gets waylaid into the brilliance of monologue and forgets the destination of story--or rather a narrative with a purpose in mind beyond the beauty of recorded language and profound mood. In essence, his fiction is a dialogue between reader and character with no plot to concern them except threads of never-quite-sewn stories. Levin exposes a character's soul through ramblings but not a story through the territory of plot.

Levin's immobility to utilize the structure of plot is likely to keep limiting his appeal. He admitted the limitation to his publisher, James Laughlin, of New Directions, early in their acquaintance. Laughlin encouraged the unknown writer to keep fast hold on his extraordinary talents of characterization and mood-rhythm, but he also suggested Levin indulge in plot from time to time. Levin wrote to Laughlin, in defense of his approach to writing, in August of 1939::

Dear Laughlin,

I don't want to offer a free advertisement to places of local color; I want to fit feelings and emotions and despair and faith into background, but I can't decide, so far as construction goes, whether to fit background to feeling or feeling to background. Why can't I make Hemingway simple? Why can't I break down the studied construction of Hemingway or Caldwell so that we might really understand how men feel in the struggle against losing control of their world? In the choice between suggesting and proclaiming I choose the latter, but I feel that this choice implies a million characters and a million activities and I don't know how to put the characters and activities together for the reader's benefit. Main characters and central plots are out. At least I think so right now. But, otherwise, as you say, "It gets a bit thick after a while."

And in a letter a few months later, Levin wrote:

Dear Laughlin,

Love is Like Park Avenue [the title Levin gave to his novelin-progress, made up of stories he was writing to fit into a unified thematic whole] is piling up pages but it still hasn't plot and I doubt if it ever will have plot in the sense that novels have plots. Its [sic] like a newsreel and the daily papers and talking about things, like a journey to the city and back.

This volume of Levin's writing, which includes almost all he published (and some unpublished material), is invaluable. The contents include a full bibliography (a triumphant achievement since most of Levin's work appeared in obscure and expired magazines, and he never finished the novel he promised New Directions he was writing). It also includes a compassionate introduction by James Reidel, who sees both the greatness and smallness of Levin's views of fiction-telling, and suggests the paradoxes of Levin's philosophical arguments and rationales, and a preface of affection by John Ashbery, who fell in love with Levin's writing on a first reading and could not find sight of him and his work for years after.

The Leviniana revival may--and I hope it will--bring renewed appreciation

of this reclusive writer, but the question remains: how long will the revival last, and will another one be needed to take place decades hence?

Works Cited

Alvin Levin. Love Is Like Park Avenue. Edited, with an Introduction by James Reidel. Preface by John Ashbery. New York: New Directions, 2009.

Henry Roth. Call It Sleep [1934; reprint 1960s]; Mercy of a Rude Stream [Vol. 1, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, 1994; Vol. 2, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, 1996; Vol. 3, From Bondage, 1996].

Daniel Fuchs. Williamsburg Trilogy, 1937 [Summer in Williamsburg; Homage to Blenholt; Low Company] [reprint 1972].

Alfred Chester. Jamie Is My Heart's Desire, 1953; The Exquisite Corpse [Black Sparrow, 2004, reprint]; Behold Goliath; Head on a Sad Angel [stories, 1990]; Looking for Genet [essays, 1992].
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Title Annotation:INFORMED: A Democratic Supplement
Author:Tucker, Martin
Publication:Confrontation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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