It all started in another book… A prequel. After an archival project retracing global networks of late modernist radical poetry groups in the Second World War, I found several poets turned to popular pulp. And I don’t mean Day-Lewis’ punning mysteries as Nicholas Blake – more like the New Apocalypse’s Henry Treece, Ruthven Todd, or Alex Comfort. They wrote fantasy novels with magic and swords, or for Todd: cats in space. The post-war years were a time of need, and poetry (especially radical) never pays its bills. So, after picking up its tab and archival traces in Personal Modernisms, I wanted to relax with pulp. I wanted simplicity.
That’s how I found myself in the basement of the Reed College Library’s Special Collections in Portland – it was even a road trip: a journey, a quest. A “Reedie,” David Eddings, later became one of the best-selling fantasy authors of the twentieth century, as far from modernism and into pulp as possible. I’d become curious after giving my little sister a set of his books, at the same age I was given them when they first appeared in the 1980s. So in Portland with Eddings’ papers in hand, ostensibly a splurge during research on Robert Graves and the Beats, I discovered an irruption of the marvellous. Eddings had been a tenured professor of English literature before quitting the profession. Worse still, he’d taught Modernism! I held his lecture notes from three courses on modernist English and American literature. When his quest narrative gave cheeky dialogue between an ancient wizard and a young boy (the target audience), he set free choice and determinism in conflict amidst a magical prophecy by asking why two and two make four.
Was he really thinking of “two and two make four” as the expression of determinism in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground? Well, he had lecture notes on it… He identifies Dostoyevsky as the prototype of the sociological novel in all of his modern writing courses, pointing to The Idiot and the underground man specifically. Even his lengthy (and very good) lecture materials on Ulysses close with the troubling assertion that Molly Bloom is deliberately obscene. Rather than seeing her “gusto for life,” we’d do well to regard her as the creation of a mind trained to think of women as filth: “She is deliberately obscene” as well as “life itself.” Oddly, in retrospect, Eddings’ lust-driven character Salmissra the snake queen also has “The catalogue of Molly’s lovers p 731” (Fonds 7.20), yet her sexuality is neutral, neither good nor bad.
Inconceivable! Political radicals and a modernist legacy amidst fantasy’s medievalisms and reactionary nostalgia? Could Futurism really shake hands with the anti-modern?
But more was at work than this curiosity of my transformed childhood fandom. There was a lesson for my other self: the dusty prof in corduroy with elbow patches about to teach the textual variants of Hilda Doolittle. Eddings was a professor teaching modernism about as long as I’ve been as I write this, so underestimating seemed foolish. And if modernist concerns infiltrated Eddings’ fantasy novels, he was surely not alone. William Morris and Hope Mirrlees were obvious early voices, and my crew of radical poets in Personal Modernisms included several who turned to the genre after World War II. They were already infected by modernism. But what of those late arrivals who were only ever in the mainstream, like Eddings or Terry Brooks and Guy Gavriel Kay in the same 1980s moment? Was there anything a modernist might look to in fantasy outside of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany (and even then perhaps because they sit so close to modernism’s more comfortable discourses with science fiction)? For Eddings, there were also pop culture commentaries that tended toward the dismissive. Farah Mendlesohn calls Eddings’ conclusion to the Mallorean series a choice so predetermined it’s pointless, yet with his lecture notes, the inevitability of choice seems the point. It would be less different from the freedom to believe that two and two is four in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four than the two remaining volumes of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Orwell’s not bad company in which to share modernist sources.
Eddings also had a simple prose style with what some describe as minimal world building without the grit of “real life.” It’s like those who say he wrote for money, as if we don’t find ledgers in modernist notebooks (ahem, Dylan Thomas). But he set the rumours in motion in interviews by saying the commercial success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings inspired his turn to the genre: he found a copy of this late modernist predecessor in a bookshop in its 78th printing and hence a commercial model. His teaching notes and diaries revealed something different: a world as elaborate as Tolkien’s written prior to the narrative that became his Belgariad series. Except, Eddings’ lecture notes on Marx and Engels weren’t wasted, so economic and material conditions preceded ideology in his demesnes, unlike Tolkien… In each course he included a discussion of Marx and “system critics.” In “The Modern Novel,” his course introduction detailed the material forces shaping the aesthetic, structural, generic concerns of the novel form, especially commercial mass production. But for Eddings, the world-building that he built out from these critical interests was expunged from the commercial product (ahem, Lester Del Rey). Tolkien was also in his 1960s syllabus (long before the 78th impression) set amidst British modernists (Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, no less). So much for the story of commercial opportunism. When we pause to consider fantasy’s world building and form beside the allusive compulsions of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and H.D., it seems odd to exclude such contemporaries and descendants.
The archives also revealed a “real life” with plenty of grit, which differs from the narratives he offered of himself or that provide the biography on Wikipedia. Once seen, it became impossible to overlook in the terribly clean novels, just as his modernist preoccupations with allusion increasingly demanded attention. Even Eddings’ often repeated story of leaving his vaguely described (implicitly sessional or adjunct) tenured teaching post in protest against administrative fiscal greed is belied by his checklist prior to moving away from Dakota. The most important phrase in his “to-do” list is a question not a ledger: whether or not to sue for alienation of marital affections. He abandoned tenure and teaching modernism to work in Safeway, it would seem, to save his marriage. Clearly it was a strong relationship and lasted, and she appeared as co-author to his books after 1996 despite a series of strokes that left her unable to communicate – he cared for her at home, even though by then he was a millionaire. The many goody-goody troubled marriages in his fiction, in this context, suddenly become impossible to ignore, even if the narrative voice never dwells in a way that alienates the young reader. The wizardly drunkards are equally complicated by the drafts in his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery journals and a disturbing life chart graphing emotions against alcohol over a timeline of major events. Like the modernist authors on whom I work – Durrell, Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart, Wilde, Henry Miller – his public comments were storytelling to disguise deep-set intellectual and emotional concerns that, in retrospect, appear blindingly obvious in his superficially simplistic prose. It’s a plainness Hemingway shows took great effort. And yes, even Papa is much there in Eddings’ first novel as a student at Reed, though he valued Faulkner more.
I now had a popular pulp author known for squeaky clean narratives who suffered infidelities from his lovers, struggled against addiction for most of his life, abandoned a tenured career for painful reasons, and had read deeply in Joyce, Woolf, Huxley, Amis, Durrell, and many others while admitting to only Chaucer, Spencer, and Malory after his turn to pulp. He even used his time in Alcoholics Anonymous to outline his series The Dreamers as a response to the formal innovations of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, a work already in his lecture notes as a prototype, just as Dostoyevsky anticipated his prophetic determinism. Was this kind of literary interest typical of the genre as a whole? Well, that’s my next book…
Most tellingly, I set Eddings’ thesis and his fiancée’s, both completed in 1954, side-by-side: his a novel and hers a project on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four years later, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter remarkably akin to Hemingway’s in In Our Time. It may even have been her model – she too had a college teaching career in literature. It seemed clear to me that a literary author painfully aware of the stylistic complexities of modernist prose had moved from the aesthetic to the commercial. His thesis-as-novel, How Lonely Are the Dead, mirrors Hemingway’s style with Fitzgerald’s concerns, and in his own phrasing, oh boy, was he commercial! The literary and the radical had not, however, vanished. Critiques of settler colonialism appeared in his (anonymous) letters to the editor, his recognition of philosophical anarchism (read: sympathetic) occurs in his lecture notes, and he set up an opponent in fascism (Pound) to set beside elitism (Eliot) in lectures from the mid-1960s that could be trotted out in our notebooks today. My recreational turn to my childhood pulp was not the break I needed after a deep archival project. It was an entangled nest of modernist legacies.
While in the basement at Reed, waiting to climb Mount Tabor to pick blackberries (no allusion to Heaney since they were for eating now) with a colleague at work on Mina Loy and Pound (authors deeply influential in Eddings’ lecture notes), I realized it would be ridiculous to keep up the pretence anymore. I cannot not genre modernism. The convoluted academic prose of justifications only showed insincerity. It didn’t work, struggling to keep the modernist, the radical, and the fantastic apart. The scenario’s nearly an allegory – and here, it’s no longer “nearly.” Of course there was a modernist fantasy. Of course modernism and subversion met in a radical fantastic. Of course there was a fantastic form of modernism. And of course their offspring conversed. Of course this was a superficially simple narrative of a quest, from Vancouver to Portland, to find a relic. And of course it really didn’t mean any of those things. It meant something more to literary criticism and conceptualizations of movements, periods, and especially genres. Modernism’s legacy might need as much attention as its origins, its lowbrow as much as any other market, and its persistence and echoes after its moment just as much as its first statements. There’s Nicole Peeler’s modernist PhD before her urban fantasy career, just as Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris: A Poem” precedes the magical Lud-In-The-Mist, or rethinking Eliot’s Arthurian Jessie Weston in the misprisions of the strong poetess of the 1980s Mists of Avalon.
But Goblin Modernism is another project. It’s A Modernist Fantasy, set in motion by a modernist scholar tripping into the archives of fantasy’s popular pulp.
About the Author
James Gifford is Associate Professor in the School of the Humanities and Director of the University Core at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He teaches and writes about too many things in too many disciplines after taking degrees in English, Humanities, and Music. His most recent books include Personal Modernisms and From the Elephant’s Back, his next A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic is nearing the end of its quest, and he’s just completed a decade-long project, “To seek a home beyond the unknown sea”: The Collected Works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century multilingual Canadian poet, translator, and travel writer. He also edits the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of The Year’s Work in English Studies. He tweets at @GiffordJames and began blogging 15 years too late.
This blog first appeared in The Modernist Review, 30 September 2016.