Tagged: Nelson Algren
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28 Sep 2014 at 4:55 am #5925
Yeah, we’ve gone over this before but damned if I can find the discussions here, if they still exist. Anyway this topic is important enough to garner its own thread.
28 Sep 2014 at 5:29 am #5926
A brief synopsis off the top of my head:
SUTTREE is both historical and autobiographical but it is fiction too, not a memoir.
William Faulkner is a major stylistic influence, something critics noticed right away, but McCarthy was also influenced by those novelists who influenced Faulkner–such as Joseph Conrad–and so the weight of Faulkner’s influence must be measured.
George Washington Harris is a major influence, both of Faulkner’s Sutpen and McCarthy’s Suttree. The Har-de-har-har in Harrogate stems from Harris and Sut Lovingood. More on him momentarily.
James Joyce was an influence, ULYSSES especially. And of course Dante stands behind Joyce. I think that McCarthy had these two authors in mind from the beginning, that he planned his mosaic after them with the first trilogy representing animal man or id-dominated man, the next trilogy the ego-dominated man, and the last trilogy with the super-ego dominated man–after Joyce’s work. Things don’t always go according to plan.
Davis Grubbs was an influence, particularly with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Fly them.
Nelson Algren was an influence, particularly with his stories in THE NEON WILDERNESS and his rambling novel, A WALK ON THE WILDSIDE. The cat opening of the movie made from the book. It was no accident that McCarthy’s publishers sought out Nelson Algren to review SUTTREE when it first appeared.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an influence, particularly of the narrator/Suttree’s use of the oversoul. Some have pointed to Walt Whitman instead of Emerson but I’d include both, as well as other poets such as T.S. Eliot, Yeats, and Keats.
Hermann Hesse was an influence, through the general Buddha story in SIDDHARTHA and perhaps in some other ways I’d like to discuss.
Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN was a great influence. See Worthington’s recent book-length study on the subject, especially the brilliant essay on influence and intertextuality.
Herman Melville certainly had a major influence on BLOOD MERIDIAN, and some have seen Billy Budd in SUTTREE, a stoic Billy Buddha Buddy Suttree. The paralysis and distance and loneliness of Suttree may be autobiographical rather than literary, but the interpretations here belong to us readers.
Additions to this list are welcome.
01 Oct 2014 at 5:08 am #5940
- This reply was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by Richard L..
I want to talk about how much of an influence George Washington Harris was on SUTTREE–much, much more than just the prefix of the name. But before I do I need to discuss H. L. Mencken as a McCarthy influence.
McCarthy has Suttree encounter the chief counsel of the Scopes Trial on the streets of Knoxville. A friend, he says, not only to his lawyer father but to Darrow and Mencken. This autobiographical aside is telling in that Mencken, who was not a lawyer, is mentioned in such a casual way. I’m sure that McCarthy was well-read in Mencken’s books.
H. L. Mencken’s style influenced a great number of authors such as Raymond Chandler and Robert Penn Warren (at least in ALL THE KING’S MEN). Mencken’s use of colorful similes probably influenced McCarthy’s style in BLOOD MERIDIAN. But the biggest influence it had in that novel was on the pontifications of Judge Holden, for the Judge paraphrases Nietzsche as if he had been schooled only on Mencken’s translation of Nietzsche, which, as modern Nietzsche scholars agree, is more Mencken than Nietzsche.
Mencken’s dispatches from Tennessee during the Scopes Trial were widely republished and collected. Not only did he make fun of the evangelical Christians, he suggested that their camp meetings sometimes turn into sexual orgies–something that George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood observed again and again. During his time, Mencken championed Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN as the greatest work of fiction that America had yet produced. Mencken claimed that Twain was “not so much amused by the spectacle of existence as he was appalled by it.”
01 Oct 2014 at 2:36 pm #5953
Don’t have much to add, Richard. I don’t know Suttree nearly as well as BM, honestly. Have definitely spent almost all my time going through BM in recent years. Hoping to put some serious effort into Suttree in the coming year or so. But this is a great thread to have as a reference. Thanks a bunch.
efscerboQuote02 Oct 2014 at 8:03 am #5960
Well, there’s nothing permanent but the change and I’m feeling so temporary that I’d wager that this thread will outlast my own corporal flesh. And maybe before this thread vanishes into the ether someone like you will see it and–who knows?–it could maybe be a positive influence down the road.
I also hear Mencken’s voice in Suttree’s repeated referrals to his paternal Saxon lord-of-the-manors vs. his Celtic distaff side. A common prejudice, but Suttree does this in the Mencken nomenclature. Mencken was always trumpeting the superiority of the Saxon “race” over the weak-minded, mystical Celts. Whenever the many superior minds among the Irish were pointed out to him, his reply was that the Irish maids were frequently lovely and that sometimes the Baron drinks too much.
This seems like something Suttree must have read and taken to heart.
02 Oct 2014 at 3:28 pm #5964
The Mencken-Judge and Mencken-McCarthy connections are exquisite. So nice. The humor is a big part of it as well, at least to my ear and tastes.
GlassQuote05 Oct 2014 at 11:28 am #5987
Before I leave this thread to the buzzards, I want to talk about the influence of George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood on SUTTREE.
Worthington says that HUCKLEBERRY FINN influenced SUTTREE and writes about the similarities between Huck and Sut, and then again between SUTTREE and Faulkner’s THE REIVERS. Marvelous stuff.
And of course, both Twain and William Faulkner acknowledged Harris’s influence. When Faulkner was asked to name his favorite literary characters, he rattled off several Shakespearean entities, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Bottom, Mercutio. . .”Huck Finn, of course, and Jim. Tom Sawyer I never liked much–an awful prig. And then I like Sut Lovingood from a book written by George Harris about 1840 or 1850 in the Tennessee mountains.”
In an article in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, September, 1960, M. Thomas Inge straightens out the George Harris/Sut Lovingood history and says that Sut was probably based upon several characters–including the unreconstructed rebel George Harris himself. Then Inge quotes a newspaper story that appeared in the August 20, 1858 issue of the Athens, Tennessee Post:
“SUT LOVINGOOD. We learn that Sut. Miller, the hero of the Lovingood papers, died suddenly in the neighborhood of Ducktown, a week or two since. Poor Sut! After having innumerable encounters and conflicts with man and beasts–had been shot several times, and consumed bust-head enough to run an over-shot mill for forty days and nights, he died ignobly at last from a blow inflicted with a fist of a fellow mortal.”
Inge says that this was William S. Miller, a corn farmer who owned a small piece of land on the western edge of Ducktown area.
Whatever his true history, the fictional Sut shared with his literary descendants–Huckleberry Finn, Suttree, et al–a sense of being thrown into this vale of life and suffering without their consent. Sut Lovingood says, I’d be glad to be dead, only I’se feared of the dying.
That attitude is just one of several bequests granted by Sut Lovingood to Faulkner and early McCarthy.
For instance, there is bird imagery. Sut Lovingood looks a bit bird-like and says that his long legs are due to his mother having took a powerful scare at a sandhill crane sitting on a pole. Milton Rickels says that Sut’s birth thus “connotes that he is fantastic and mythic, sired, like a Greek hero, by a wild bird on a wild hill country woman.”
We all know–those of us who can read–that part of McCarthy’s greater mosaic is the increasing disappearance of animals, and in particular flying animals are killed by McCarthy’s animal men in examples of mindless violence. In McCarthy’s novels, the freedom of flying things is juxtaposed to the spaces being fenced off and men being closed in.
The various jails and prisons in SUTTREE, both material and symbolic, abound. Harrogate is an animal man and he wantonly kills, first pigeons, then bats. Later, in BLOOD MERIDIAN, the Judge says that the flying birds are an insult to him and he would have them all killed or put into zoos. Like the historical Charles Wilkins Webber, the Judge kills them, stuffs them, and sketches them.
Like Suttree and Huckleberry Finn, Sut Lovingood has father-issues. He says that his father was mean and that the only good thing he ever did for him was to finally die.
Did McCarthy read the article on Sut Lovingood in the 1960 Tennessee Quarterly? Could be. Inge would later include it along with some other stellar essays in FAULKNER, SUT, AND OTHER SOUTHERNERS in 1992. I’m glad to have a hardcover copy of this book.
07 Oct 2014 at 2:37 am #5999
- This reply was modified 2 years, 3 months ago by Richard L..
We can appreciate Sut Lovingood more for having read SUTTREE, influence running forward and backward through collapsing time.
I just watched the DVD of a great little movie called THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES, starring Uma Thurman and directed by Vadim Perelman. I noticed the Suttree-like twinning in the movie, the McCarthy-like cat references right away, the Stanley Kubrick-like use of the bathroom scene. On the director’s commentary, Perelman explains his symbolism and, indeed, I think it is a brilliant film.
I’ve read all, or very nearly all of the crit-lit on McCarthy’s works. Unfortunately I’ve missed hearing the papers read before the McCarthy conferences–such as William Spencer’s Buddhist interpretation of SUTTREE.
Next I’d like to talk about a scene rarely even mentioned in the published critical literature: The Buzzard scene.
22 Oct 2014 at 8:03 pm #6019
Before I read a word of McCarthy, I wrote “The Animal Motif in the Sut Lovingood Yarns” (MA thesis, UT, 1966). Coming to SUTTREE in later years, I wondered about Harris’s influence on McCarthy and briefly mentioned it on the Forum and in the SUTTREE Casebook. Glad to see you’ve gone into considerable detail about that influence, Richard. Good job.
BobbyKnoxvilleQuote27 Oct 2015 at 5:49 am #7833
Somewhere, in a thread I can’t seem to find now, I quoted a passage from James R. Giles’ CONFRONTING THE HORROR: THE NOVELS OF NELSON ALGREN. The gist of it was that Algren, like McCarthy after him, was accused of slumming by some critics, of being “the bard of the stumblebum.”
Algren’s cast of characters were always of the lowly and downtrodden and, like McCarthy, he used rhetoric and point of view for contrast. The narration judges, like Algren’s police captain, from the back of the darkened room, as each character steps into the spotlight, one by one.
McCarthy’s narrative also has been criticized for using such a higher vocabulary than that of his characters. But rather than being a minus, this is a plus. This is part of what creates that marvelous contrast between the reader’s expectations and the human grotesques in the text.
The rhetoric seems biblical even when it isn’t because it is the bird’s eye rhetoric. Optical democracy? Well, not exactly. It is a hawk’s vision, picking and choosing what lens to use, and which subject is interesting and which is not. Like John Cant has written, it “expresses the paradox that lies at the heart of all serious pessimistic literature: its literary passion defied the very emptiness that it proclaims. It declares the inevitability of cultural entropy, but is itself an example of cultural vitality.”
For more on this, see Lydia R. Cooper’s excellent NO MORE HEROES: NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE AND MORALITY IN CORMAC MCCARTHY.
And. if I recall (and lord, I do not trust my memory of it now), we saw an advanced reading copy of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN here, way back when, and among the things we critiqued was the anachronistic electric chair in the opening section.
I think McCarthy’s publisher sent an answer, implying that the mistake was intentional, saying that was just McCarthy’s way of keeping readers on their toes, or some other infinite jest. Perhaps he was already in the know on Max Tegmark’s mathematical multiverse, in which it would make perfect sense.
Anyway, I would not be surprised if the source of that electric chair was Nelson Algren.
In an interview, Algren was asked to define the state of American literature. He replied:
American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, Isn’t anybody on my side?
It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in court by a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.
More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, Put me in the electric chair–my mother can watch me burn.
Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live.
I think it’s also the girl who says, It don’t matter what happens to me because it’s really happening to somebody else. I’m not really here.
Giles says, “The shift in emphasis following the phrase ‘more recently’ is revealing. Algren is acknowledging that his initial focus was on social victims such as the isolated prostitute in the hostile courtroom. At some point, his vision broadened to include more frightening victims (the young double murderer who fears only life) and the surreal (the girl who isn’t really here).”
See what I mean. The bird’s eye vision. The hawk changing focus.
And Giles concludes:
“Whether prompted by social protest or a sense of existential absurdity, Algren’s devotion to the lower depths is intended to challenge the reader in a way that the fiction of Norris and Dreiser could not.”
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