On Reading Monsters

Monster with lightning

Modernist Monsters

I’ve made a terrible mistake… As a scholar of modernist literature, the idea of reading monsters isn’t surprising. We accustom ourselves to knowing the great figures of our academic discipline can also be monsters. Some brilliant scholars play coy about Ezra Pound’s fascism and awareness of the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps and genocide, but I believe Matthew Feldman when he says the typewriters give up the goods. We are used to asking these difficult questions of T.S. Eliot’s antisemitism; Orwell’s misogyny; Woolf’s racism (Tolkien’s too, for that matter); or just about everything about Wyndham Lewis.

But I moved away from modernism in A Modernist Fantasy, or rather I moved modernism itself to look at those who shifted from it to the popular pulp. This was partly to include or even emphasize those who led normal and tedious lives, teaching modernist literature and writing mainstream entertainments for the young, or the radical poets who turned to children’s adventure novels.

Then I discovered I was still reading monsters.

Worse, I felt sympathy and had mis-interpreted the fragmented archive. It transforms one entire body of not-quite-modernist works. My terrible mistake, I think, reflects a common quandary in our approach to the modernist archive in relation to the art, and in relation to the artist. I want to argue that the individual talent is not like a catalyst – it is profoundly altered by the creation of art, and that change (if not the personality) lingers on in the creative work itself. But that is a hermeneutics of engagement, not one of suspicion… For that I need an example.

The Popular Monster

David Eddings was a popular, very popular, fantasy novelist. It also looks like he served a one-year jail term for child abuse and lost his tenured professorship at what is now Black Hills State University before writing fantasy novels that shaped my childhood. As I note in A Modernist Fantasy and “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism,” he was also an accomplished professor teaching modernist literature. His lecture notes are not simply capable, they are even by today’s standards, pretty good. And this made me think again about how I approach, in my profession, those other earlier modernist monsters we hold up as a canon.

Eddings married Judith Lee Schall, and they eventually settled in Spearfish, South Dakota when he took up a faculty position teaching English literature at Black Hills State College[1]. They then adopted a son, Scott David Eddings,[2] and later a daughter, Kathy. In January, 1970, they were arrested at their home on charges of child abuse in relation to their son.[3] Eddings’ lawyers moved for a separate trial from his wife, as well as separate counsel. This was only granted at his own expense, $50 a month.[4] During the trial, they lost custody of both children[5] and eventually agreed to a plea of misdemeanor child abuse with one year in jail, and an agreed statement of fact that “between the fall of 1966 and Jan. 22 1970, on dates other than those included…, on regular or separate occasions as part of a general scheme, [they] did consistently willfully and unlawfully cruelly punish and neglect a child under the age of 14, namely Scott David.”[6]

He planned to divorce his wife after the jail term and sought advice from his lawyers for it: sue for alienation of marital affections.[7] His later letters to his father also depict her as wildly tempered and capable of real violence.[8] In any case, they did not divorce. Their marriage survived, though she changed her name to Leigh Eddings, and he was already using this new spelling of her middle name before her jail term ended. He did not change his name, but he did say he left his tenured faculty position over a pay dispute… Surprisingly, his department chair and the college President both backed him up in glowing letters of reference[9] written after they had already terminated his position and the stories were widespread in the news – in other words, it wasn’t just to get rid of him. How we interpret all of this is, however, inherently speculative.

I am compelled to tell this story not to gossip about the dead or to knock down some readers’ (or just my own) brass idols but because the Wikipedia editor censored it. If I take seriously that editor’s concern that there could be many people with the initials D. and L. Eddings in the USA, the answer is that it would seem “David Carroll Eddings” and “Judith Lee Eddings” in Spearfish, as tenured literature faculty and wife at Black Hills State College, whose archives include a calendar countdown for the same jail dates with the “Good Time” exit date circled[10], well, that lowers the odds of mistaken identity…

Reading Monsters: Biography, Affect, & Critique

But what does this mean? Is there a difference in their degrees of culpability? Are the clearly sensationalistic early newspaper reports exaggerated? (they begin with a torture dungeon but grow significantly tamer over time)[11] None of that can be known now – the couple agreed to a statement of fact in the plea, so there is no final judge’s determination or testimony based on an expert assessment of the evidence. Their defense lawyers argued the sensationalism of the news coverage had already punished them, and they included for sentencing what would have been expert testimony that they were not “the malicious sort”[12], but the extent of their individual culpability and the extent of their crimes is a closed history now.

Does this mean we should we never read Eddings? Should we never read Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Lewis, and so forth? Should publishers donate the profits to charity?

This is where I learned a good deal from Eddings’ popular pulp. His novels are changed utterly with this biographical knowledge, but the change is one of affect and feeling not interpretation. Rather than accepting the death of the author, I want to adopt some of the postures of postcritique to ask about how we as readers respond. Eddings returned to writing while in jail, which led to his first published novel, High Hunt. He later suggested he co-authored it with his wife, but this wasn’t possible. He completed the first draft in March 1971 while they were both in different jails, about half-way through their terms.[13] The novel opens with his own abusive relationship with his father, where being hit as a child is followed by him showing affection and asking his father for a story. The abuse bound up with love is telling. This self-exploration during his jail term is plainly the driving motivation of the highly autobiographical novel.[14]

That modest success was then followed by striking gold in the 1980s fantasy market. Eddings’ Belgariad novels started in 1982 and earned millions – tens of millions during his fantasy writing career. Those books are also symptomatic. They depict an idyllic childhood, serenely innocent children, a woman like his wife who experiences her happiest moments in life while gently holding a toddler, there’s a direct juxtaposition of his own alter-ego in the books and an abuser, and a failed marriage saved by the birth of a son, and the tremendous gentleness this awakens in his parents. In short, I now read Eddings’ later fantasy novels as an impossible attempt at atonement, a desperately failed wish put to paper, and a tortuously painful digging out of his and his wife’s shame.[15] As a modernist scholar, this changes nothing about how I interpret the books or recognize their extensive allusions to literary texts or pro-labour politics. It is a change of affect not interpretation.

I was in the middle of re-reading those novels with my sons when the extent of my terrible mistake first became clear. But we’re still reading them… They are populated with loving families, beautiful childhoods, perfectly innocent toddlers – the readerly affect, the feeling I have in response to these novels now, is one of pity and anguish. You see, I am also an adopted son… I feel it most strongly when the novels show moments of domestic bliss or comfortable companionship. They reveal how an abuser confronted his own position in intergenerational violence and abuse, his culpability, what he lost and how fully it was gone, then somehow turned that pain into something different – but not without first bleeding into the page, and not without me thinking about their adopted son. Thinking of how differently I might feel if my own story had been more the monster than the dream. That fantasy became a thing of comfort for many young readers. I can hardly imagine what it meant for his wife, Leigh, to read such books offering hard truths about herself, themselves, and their culpability. And my sons love it like a warm blanket for a cold night.

Rather than a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” I’d like to follow postcritique’s attention to affect. Rather than the death of the author, which would here be a way of killing off the monsters to keep only their hoard of treasures, I wonder how looking the monster full in the eyes may instead awaken another possibility. I don’t have that with Pound, but surely the Pisan Cantos have a richness when we realize the yawning profundity of Pound’s guilt. Eliot’s Prufrock can hardly hide as some product of a catalyst when we see Old Tom’s letters and the inhibited sense of connection those foibles spawn. But while we may cringe over how Eliot treated his first love, cannot the failure of that treatment also open to us a greater sense of feeling for Prufrock? If I can find something that brings my children great comfort when it’s read to them, is that in some sense a recognition of an attempt to atone?

What Now?

Some people suggest it’s a symptom of political correctness gone wrong when we hold the creative work responsible for the crimes of its creator. The sins of the father and all… I think that’s a dodge. The work can’t be read without the crime, but it can go different ways. I can’t read an Anne Perry novel without thinking of it… In epic fantasy, the love triangle at the heart of The Mists of Avalon, a book vital to so many, is forever perverted into abuse… But revulsion isn’t the only affect. There are also pity and pain, even while being careful not to centre the experiences of the abuser. In particular, I think anguish is a potent entry to discussing the affect of a creative work.

When Eddings died, he bequeathed a gift in Leigh’s name to the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver of $10 million for pediatric asthma treatment and research, and bequeathed an $18 million gift to Reed College for an endowed professorship in English and need-based scholarships for students of limited means. Perhaps the monster grew, by writing, to comprehend how irrevocably it had made a terrible mistake…

Notes

[1] Eddings, David. Teaching. Box 7, Folders 15–20. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[2] “Mr. And Mrs. David Eddings Adopt First Child, Scott David,” Queen City Mail (Spearfish, South Dakota), 10 March 1966, p. 5.

[3] “Witnesses Tell of ‘Child Abuse’,” Black Hills Weekly (Deadwood, South Dakota), 11 February 1970, p. 1, 3.

[4] “Couple Granted Separate Trials In Spearfish Child Abuse Case.” Deadwood Pioneer Times, 2 May 1970, p. 1.

[5] “Court Denies Petition for Child Custody,” Rapid City Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota), 16 May 1970, p. 2. “Appeal Trial Set In Child Custody,” Black Hills Weekly, 24 February 1971, p. 3. “Hills Couple Denied Custody,” Black Hills Weekly (Deadwood, South Dakota), 23 June 1971, p. 4.

[6] “Pair Sentence to Year in Jail on Child Abuse.” Rapid City Journal, 15 September 1970, pp. 1, 2.

[7] Eddings, David. Notes. Circa 1971. Box 7, Folder 8. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[8] Eddings, David. Letter to George Eddings. Circa 1993. Box 8, Folder 12. David Carroll Eddings Papers.

[9] Eddings, David. University of Washington – Catalog, Correspondence, Records. 20 March 1970. Box 7, Folder 21. David Carroll Eddings Papers. Special Collections & Archives, Reed College Library, Portland, OR. 2 August 2016.

[10] Eddings, David. Notes.

[11] “Eddings Couple Faces Sentencing on Child Abuse,” Rapid City Journal, 15 August 1970, p. 2. Even in my personal experience, newspaper accounts (especially those of small towns) can embellish a lot – the first story featuring me in the early 1990s to promote a concert opened with a romantic (and impossible) stroll through venues and locations. I didn’t complain because it helped, but it also awakened a wariness I’ve carried ever since.

[12] “Pair Sentence to Year in Jail on Child Abuse.” Rapid City Journal, 15 September 1970, pp. 1, 2.

[13] Eddings, David. Notes.

[14] The novel parallels Eddings’ life in many respects. The break-up of his engagement with his college sweetheart while drafted and serving in Germany, his return to Tacoma, WA, his relationship with his brother and father, all play a clear role in the novel as well, also including his struggles with alcoholism.

[15] Many scenes across the novel series are altered by this knowledge. The adoption of the orphaned child Errand by Polgara and Durnik, the protagonist’s peaceful and idyllic childhood, Ctuchik as abuser, the healing of Barak and Meril’s marriage by the birth of their son (and the gentleness it awakens), and many specific passages about children, toddlers, and the joy and tenderness they awaken in the character suggest a very different relationship between author and work.

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