- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

By Anthony Arthur
St. Martin's, $23.95, 240 pages

There is nothing, someone once said, like a good feud to keep things lively, and, in "Literary Feuds," Anthony Arthur takes an interesting look at several writers who, for a variety of reasons, some sensible, some inane, clashed with each other.
We get glimpses into the lives of Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, C.P. Snow and F. R. Leavis, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe and John Updike (with Norman Mailer and John Irving as walk-ons), watching them take shots, most of them cheap, at each other.
Mr. Arthur states that a purpose of his book "is to satisfy the curiosity of readers about the sometimes paradoxical relationship between these writers' lives and their work." He also tells us that his "sense of the real reason for the widespread interest in the perceived foibles of writers is that we wonder how people who so vividly describe human failure (as well as triumph) can themselves fall short of perfection."
Mr. Arthur's cast of characters is a motley group of literary heavyweights and lesser notables. We all know Mark Twain, but mention Bret Harte's name and some rather sophisticated readers will immediately think of a recent professional wrestler, not of the author of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." We learn, or are reminded of what we learned in biographies don't expect anything new from Mr. Arthur of the relationship the two had, of their "partnership." We see Twain come to know that he was in a different league than Harte. That Harte was a drunk how many artists don't have problems who was not good about paying his debts, didn't help their friendship.
Mark Twain didn't want to be associated with Harte in the minds of readers and critics. The need to be number one in the literary game is a grand ambition, and ambition, as Mr. Arthur recognizes throughout the book, is certainly part of most artists' personalities.
Certainly, Ernest Hemingway wanted to be recognized as the best even if it meant trying to destroy the reputations of anyone he considered a serious competitor. "Papa" denounced, mocked, parodied, and verbally (and sometimes physically) assaulted the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein. As vindictive as Hemingway was, we still have the wonderful writing in "A Movable Feast."
Whether it was the Nobel Prize that created problems or not doesn't really seem to matter. Sinclair Lewis ("Main Street," "Babbit") won, the first American to win in Literature; Theodore Dreiser ("Sister Carrie," "An American Tragedy") didn't. How many major writers have won; how may major writers have not? Now that the cash award is over a million dollars, it would be nice to be a fly on the walls of those places well known writers gather after the award is announced. Jealousy is also part of the packaging of an artist. The big prizes (even the little ones) not only help bank accounts, but also tell artists their vision is being considered.
Vision is at the root of the squabble between Edmund Wilson, an eminent critic whose work is still readable, and Vladimir Nabokov. It seems that Wilson didn't like his friend's translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." Wilson made his opinion known publicly and privately. Nabokov, a Russian by birth, didn't know Wilson felt, well … Russian. Their animosity grew as Nabokov's reputation (and sales) grew.
Culture, in its many guises, forms the basis for many of the spats in "Literary Feuds." In the case of C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, the old, rather boring debate over the primacy of literature or of science came to another of its inconclusive heads. Snow, novelist and scientist, and Leavis, the feared critic and founding editor of Scrutiny, came to loggerheads in the rarified atmosphere of scholarly essays and speeches.
It would be hard to conceive of scenarios in which most artists would feel the need to draw weapons other than puns. Who won? Who lost? Does it matter? Is Snow still read anywhere other than stuffy graduate school seminars? And when was the last time you heard or read the name of F.R. Leavis, though his work on Joseph Conrad and Gerard Manley Hopkins is still among the best done on these two Masters?
If the feud between Snow and Leavis made the newspapers, the battle between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy was certainly fodder for the cocktail party circuit. That the two writers were very active politically didn't help matters. Indeed, Hellman, a respected dramatist who became widely known for her memoirs (some of what she passed off as fact in her autobiographical writings has been discovered to be fictional), and Mary McCarthy, a solid fictionist best known for "The Group," went so far as to involve lawyers in their war.
McCarthy's often quoted remarks to Dick Cavett, when he asked her about "overpraised" writers, deserves another telling: "The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer… . " That would seem to be enough, but when Mr. Cavett asked "What is dishonest about [Hellman]," McCarthy says, "Everything. I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" These two talented women, if not their work, still attract attention. A new play about them, "Imaginary Friends," is on Broadway.
If the feud between Snow and Leavis took place on a higher plane, so to say, and the one that Hellman and McCarthy waged was shrill and harsh, then what happened to Truman Capote and Gore Vidal is black humor. Once again, two pals suddenly discover that they don't like each other, and in the process of snapping at each other, generate enough publicity to get each of them on talk shows and in bad movies. Both men get down and dirty. Mr. Vidal: "It is inhumane to attack Capote. You are attacking an elf."; Capote: "Of course, I'm always sad about Gore. Very sad that he has to breathe every day."
Crude and crass, yes, but the two wordsmiths had developed public personas that necessitated being nasty. Celebrity was all. (Although Mr. Arthur mentions the problems Gore Vidal had with Norman Mailer, who punched him out, the focus of his attention is the Capote-Vidal feud.)
Mr. Mailer also figures in the final chapter of the book. The main characters are Tom Wolfe, the man in the white suit, and John Updike, who needs no introduction.Mr. Wolfe is best known as the author of many splendid books in which he took an often ironic look at some of the oddities of the last decades of the 20th century. He is also known as the novelist who gave us two large books, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987) and "A Man in Full" (1998). In a review of the latter novel, John Updike took Wolfe to task for what Mr. Updike considered the book's weaknesses.
Upon rereading Mr. Updike's review, which appeared in The New Yorker, it is difficult to see what bothered Mr. Wolfe. The same is true for Norman Mailer's review of the same novel in The New York Review of Books. Both reviews identified apparent weaknesses in "A Man in Full," and also praised the novel when it deserved it. Tom Wolfe replied to these two reviewers by calling them "old bags of bones."
"Literary Feuds" can be a fun book if read for all the wrong reasons. Don't have time for the biographies, turn here. Don't realize that writers can be, as Roger Rosenblatt wrote (and Mr. Arthur cites), "a bad lot on the whole petty, nasty, bilious, suffused with envy and riddled with fear," buy this book. But then go back to "Huck Finn," return to "Main Street," reread "In Cold Blood," … And when you do, thank this "bad lot."

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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