Genius, Genius; Who Has the Genius?
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Okay, here’s a little quiz. Which of the following writers possesses literary genius to the highest degree?
Dante or Boccaccio?
Ben Jonson or John Webster?
Richard Brinsley Sheridan or Oliver Goldsmith?
Shakespeare or Goethe?
Donne or Herbet?
Voltaire or Montaigne?
John Dryden or Alexander Pope?
Samuel Johnson or Addison and Steele?
Blake or Keats?
Wordsworth or Coleridge?
Byron or Shelley?
Browning or Tennyson?
George Eliot or Charles Dickens?
Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte?
Carlyle or Newman?
Flaubert or Zola?
Balzac or George Sand?
Theodor Fontane or Thomas Mann?
Tolstoy or Gogol?
Dostoevsky or Pushkin?
Pasternak or Rilke?
Nietzsche or Kierkegaard?
Kant or Hegel?
Hawthorne or Poe?
Melville or Harriet Beecher Stowe?
Emerson or Thoreau?
Samuel Sewall or William Byrd?
Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather?
Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen?
D.H. Lawrence or James Joyce?
T.S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats?
Faulkner or Hemingway?
Fitzgerald or Steinbeck?
Mailer or Vidal?
Edith Wharton or Sinclair Lewis?
Willa Cather or Kate Chopin?
Sylvia Plath or Emily Dickinson?
Thomas Wolfe of James Agee?
Delmore Schwartz or Lionel Trilling?
Joyce Carol Oates or Mary Gordon?
Toni Morrison or Alice Walker?
James Baldwin or Richard Wright?
John Updike or Reynolds Price?
Philip Roth or Saul Bellow?
The list could go on, of course, and I’m sure I’ve left off some writers who have been tapped as geniuses by awards like the MacArthur genius grants. John Sayles, for example, is not on the quiz, and the modern wonder boy of wonder boys, Dave Eggers, fails to make the list of writers on this quiz. The list raises other questions as well. How do you decide, for example, between Shakespeare and Goethe? Between Faulkner and Hemingway? Can you measure a degree of literary genius in literary works? What about Updike and Price, Roth and Bellow? Can we measure the genius of contemporary writers in the same way that we measure the genius of Milton, Austen, or Wordsworth? The biggest question that the list raises, of course, is “what constitutes literary genius?” Do we really know it when we see it? If we wanted to name the greatest literary geniuses of American literature, for example, would the list look like the canonical list of authors contained in the older editions of the Norton Critical Edition of American Literature?
In Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature, essayist Joseph Epstein, surely one of our own contemporary literary geniuses, has tried to address some of these questions. When Epstein was the editor of The American Scholar, the journal was a model of literary genius led by his own wide-ranging columns on literature, philosophy, and culture. It was as if Montaigne had been transported to the twentieth century; we are indeed fortunate that Epstein is still collecting his essays, most recently in In a Cardboard Belt: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, just out from Houghton Mifflin.
Here, Epstein assembles a stellar cast of twenty-five contemporary writers, ranging from, among others, Reynolds Price, Anthony Hecht, Hilary Mantel, A.N. Wilson, and Joseph Blotner to explore the points at which literary genius emerges from the pens of twenty-five English and American writers, ranging from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton to T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, and Hemingway.
Epstein take a stab at defining literary genius in his introductory essay, when he observes that timelessness, grandeur of vision, and originality of outlook comprise genius in the writer. According to that definition, the jury is still out on Updike, Roth, Morrison, Eggers, Franzen, and others. Is Eggers really writing fiction that is timeless or that demonstrates a grand vision? Does Franzen’s The Corrections or Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities express such a grand vision? Do they deal with timeless themes? Which novel—Anna Karenina or The Corrections—deals in a timeless fashion with “all happy families [that] resemble each other in some way, [and] unhappy families that are unhappy in their own way”?
Literary Genius raises the questions for us, and the contributors attempt to address them. In carefully and lovingly crafted essays, each modern writer weaves his or her subject’s biography and writing into a colorful tapestry that reveals the subject’s true genius. For example, Tom Shippey observes that Chaucer’s genius “lies in his unique ability to combine a clear and penetrating insight into human weaknesses with a warm and wide-ranging sympathy.” Reynolds Price finds that Milton’s innate power for manipulating word and phrase toward a larger end, as well as his fertility of mind and language, comprises Milton’s literary genius. According to Hilary Mantel, Jane Austen’s ability to make a text that is “never fully read and that goes on multiplying meanings” proves a true mark of Austen’s genius.
Epstein’s collection will have you scurrying to the shelves to find your copy of The Scarlet Letter, Paradise Lost, Middlemarch, Light in August, or Pride and Prejudice to re-read it.
The principles of selection in the collection remain mysterious, however; why include William Hazlitt and not Emerson, for example? Where are Shelley, Coleridge, and Virginia Woolf, whose genius surely rivals Joyce’s and Faulkner’s. These are the kinds of quibbles that I mentioned earlier. Inevitably, such collections will leave out one author or another; however, the book would appear to be even more complete if the editors of such books would provide the reasons that some writers were included and some not. In spite of such quibbles, though, these essays provide a splendid glimpse of the creative fires burning in the minds of many of our most cherished writers. Epstein’s collection also provokes us to more conversation about the nature of literary genius and who indeed possesses it and to what degree.
Books mentioned in this column
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature by Joseph Epstein (Paul Dry Books)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.