Thursday, August 28, 2008

Henry James and the Art of Constraint

Of course I decide I'm going to post on this topic after leaving the book in question on the shelf in my office up in Lafayette, but, after a year or so of discussion on experimentalism in developing poetic texts in a non-inspirational way (many kudos to Mary Leader for that), I have finally heard of a method that would work for prose.

One of the biggest hurdles for my students to vault in my Intro to Creative Writing classes has been that the written work (poem or essay or story or novel, etc) is NOT primarily therapy. There are, of course, subsequent issues regarding this main tenet, among them the fact that one's innermost being really does not try to communicate in Longfellow-inspired rhyming couplets, one's soul really doesn't tend to use words like doth and t'was and gloaming. Mentioning anything that verges on the above statements shakes beginning writers to their very core. It shows in their class evals at the end of the semester, which makes it a bitter pill for both instructor and student to swallow.

The difficulty is in getting the budding writers to look at the manuscript produced as "it" rather than "my innermost soul in paper format." Thanks to the various things I learned in conversation (and class) with Mary Leader, I have ways to do that with poetry, but had difficulty in finding analogues in the world of fiction.

While trolling the various used bookstores of Indianapolis, I found a recent volume of The Uncollected Henry James, which, editor Floyd Horowitz claims, is a compiled selection of the earliest works by the great American novelist. Henry James burned his early papers, making research tough, and the journals submitted to had a tendency to publish anonymously, thus making the research work even more difficult. Horowitz followed his various leads, then ran the stories in question through a computer program to determine probable authorship. Based on his research (and the computer program) these are a selection of the stories determined to be among Henry James's earliest published prose works, dating all the way back to his tenth year.

In addition, Horowitz has found that, based on the James household library, Henry James used an unusual method to add an element of constraint to writing his early stories. His Latin lessons involved memorization of vocabulary, and Horowitz posits that this became the basis for writing many of these stories. For a number of the works in the volume he has issued, the central vocabulary for the works is found within a few pages of key words in the Latin/English dictionary James used for his lessons.

Whether this is actually the case will be determined by literary authorities far greater than I, but the method Horowitz mentions is intriguing regarding its possible use in creative writing classes. In looking at any foreign language dictionary, one can unlearn a rule of reading (that of not reading such a dictionary like a novel) and look at a random page for words that suggest a narrative. A random page of any foreign language dictionary gives a range of words that can be the basis for a draft. Opening my Cassel's German/English dictionary to page 320 gives me Misanthrop, Minze, mir, Minus, minuzios, mischen, miserabel. In English we have a miasanthrope, mint plants, a Me, a negative, something very small, an alloy, and miserable. Travel dictionaries give more translations per page and therefore a larger range of words, but with such a collection of base vocabulary, a narrative can be thought out and expanded upon based on entirely chance-based methods. Do beginning students have to write about Me-me-me dealing with uncaring parents and getting drunk at frat parties, and wrangling with daft roommates? No, they have a new framework to flesh out.

Whether or not Henry James actually did this in these stories that he may or may not have written, it's still an interesting--and quite forward-thinking--method to use for prose writing. I'm planning on introducing it to my students this semester. Sometimes trolling the Clearance section of used bookstores comes in handy.

1 comment:

Brian Burtt said...

I actually have some of that problem in writing philosophy as well.

I've joked (and my professors don't really appreciate the joke) that I went into philosophy of education as a means of self-therapy. To a significant degree, that's true. Yet I'm trying to find the right in-between point: to write about stuff that's important, vital, at the core of what I want to say something about--and yet something that contributes to a conversation rather than being more along the lines of a primal scream.