Interview with Gavin Jones, Author of “Failure and the American Writer”

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“What a loser.” Ouch. Not something we would ever want said of ourselves. Americans do not look kindly on failure or failures. What role have they played in American literary history? Which characters in American classic novels would you categorize as failures? How many American writers thought of themselves as failures or thought long and hard about failure? These are the kinds of questions Gavin Jones addresses in his book, Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History. I was intrigued by the title and asked Mr. Jones for an interview. He graciously agreed, and this is the result. 

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Gavin. The publicity materials for your book say that you argue that your chosen subjects were, “the great theorists of failure.” How did you happen to choose the writers you did and how do they compare to writers of roughly the same period in other countries who examined similar themes, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, George Gissing or Thomas Hardy? Is there something about American culture that cries out for literary treatments of the subject of failure?

To the extent that Victorian culture emphasized the success ethic, then certainly one can see a broad interest in failure in the literature of the nineteenth century more generally, though obviously the success/failure binary has a special place in American ideology and thought, and hence in cultural production. But it’s not just that there’s “more” failure in America, that it’s a bigger theme. The real point is the way that it becomes part of the structure and the style of the works themselves.

I was interested that you begin your book with Henry Adams, who spent much of his life examining the subject of failure and considered himself one. Could you compare him with William James who experienced similar crises of confidence but who seems to have gotten over them in a way that Adams did not? Does Adams ever strike you as simply a whiner compared to James?

If by “whiner” you’re referring to a particular tone of voice, a particular style, then yes, Adams is definitely a whiner because he manages somehow to make us hear the whine of his self-lacerating inadequacy at the level of the sentence. I don’t think James ever sought to enact failure in his style, but he offers an important theorization of the ubiquity of failure as a normative state of being – one that lies at the base of the pragmatists’ theory of fallibilism as a way of being in the world, the necessary conditions of perception and understanding.

“Failure, then, failure!” James wrote, “so the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no mere apology or formal expiation, will satisfy the world’s demands, but every pound of flesh exacted is soaked with all its blood. The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these results.” Nice, huh?

Can anyone really blame readers of Melville’s day or of our own for not embracing Pierre?

Certainly not. It’s a huge aesthetic failure that critics have tended to redeem as an allegory of deconstructive interpretation, or of the collapse of national ideals, or . . .  [insert methodology here]. I don’t see why we have to excuse the book by shifting it onto other grounds. Why not just accept it as a failure, and from that point try to understand how it structures the failure it represents?

I was not clear what the connection was between Poe’s liking for hoax as a genre and failure. Can you walk us through that?

Sure. The Poe chapter is overall a bit odd. I’m trying to argue that failure becomes an affective, readerly response to Poe’s work. That is, we come to feel failure in our reaction to the text, just as we do with the hoax, which, because when we know it’s a hoax it necessarily fails as a hoax. For example, if I was going to write a hoax that I wanted to succeed as a hoax, then I wouldn’t call it “Balloon Hoax.” I would probably just call it “Balloon.” And hope people fall for it.

You write in your book, “As a whole, the nineteenth century produced a remarkable collection of authors who, like Adams, wrote not around failure but through it.” Do you mean in American society at large or in their own lives? Could you give us some examples of what you mean here?

I don’t think it’s the case that these writers fail in their lives, or that they fail any more than anyone else. It’s difficult to argue that Henry Adams failed in his life, being as he was one of the most significant intellectuals of his generation. But somehow writers like Adams felt failure in an especially intense way, and found ways to express that felt failure in their works. The main point is that literary discourse has the power to sustain this failure, making it visible – performing it, if you will – as a state of being, rather than an event that’s passed over on the road to success.

You refer to “curious crises of narrative authority that haunt even the most canonized works of American literature.” How do they differ from British works in that respect such as, say, Ford Madox Ford’s work of a later period, The Good Soldier? Is it at all significant that one of the main characters in that novel is an American?

I’m not interested in the Modernists. By the time you get to Modernism, failure becomes a cute aesthetic ploy – an inverted means to succeed through “failing.” It loses its literal, experiential value, in my opinion.

I was struck by this wording in your book, “rigorous is the language of failure in American literature of the nineteenth century.” How did that language differ from that in works of the twentieth century such as Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night?

I’m sure that continuities could be found across the centuries, though I think in the nineteenth century there’s more failed language – that is, not just the theme of failure, but an embodiment of it, especially in structural inconsistencies and contradictions that give failure an unintentional impact. It shows itself in textual flaws that wouldn’t get past modern-day editors!

You say this of Edgar Allan Poe, “Fictional prose narrative seems naturally connected to the world of credit and credibility, yet Poe’s poetry also shared surprisingly intimate relations with its surrounding business culture.” Was that true of other American poets? Edwin Arlington Robinson, perhaps, or Edgar Lee Masters? Were American novelists more preoccupied with failure than poets were? Was Melville’s poetry as dark as his fiction?

I did get a bit stuck in the prose tradition, mostly because narrative has the power to make failure visible as a series of stages; hence the ubiquity of the plot of decline. But poetry has a power to make us see the moment of failure – take the shortness of Emily Dickinson’s poems as the embodiment of the curtailed life.

You refer to “the weird sociology of Poe’s writing.” Could you elaborate?

What I mean is that Poe’s writing had a very immediate and somewhat antagonistic relationship to his society. He was very much in a dialogic relationship with his times – more so, I think, than other writers at the time, and certainly more than today’s writers. For example, he published a story serially that attempted to solve a sensational murder case in real time. He adapted and revised the story as new facts in the case emerged. Basically, he was trying to have a primary impact on his time, trying to mess with its collective mind.

I found this passage quite interesting, “The criticism Melville received did not simply state that he was a bad writer producing poor books. Rather, he was described as a failing writer specifically.” Could you compare the trajectory of his career to that of Fitzgerald?

That’s a good point, but Fitzgerald didn’t respond to criticism by intentionally writing failed novels. He was always trying to succeed, I think, though he was very much haunted by failure – the failure of the old South, his father’s failure as a salesman, the imminent failure of his own talent. Now that I think of it, Fitzgerald’s story “May Day” would very much fit with my argument. I wanted to keep the book about the nineteenth century, though.

Could you tell us what you mean here, “Ambiguity is the formal correlative of failure in several ways”? And here, “Form shares in failure quite literally”?

“Failure and the American Writer” by Gavin Jones


There’s the nub of the argument: I analyze a series of linguistic structures, formal devices, and genres as the natural embodiments of failure – plot, character, narrative tone; genres such as the anecdote, the short story; figures of speech, such as hyperbole. Ambiguity, in Melville’s Pierre, is the inability to maintain a unitary purpose and meaning, just as the novel turns on its own intentions halfway through.

This is very interesting, “Thoreau turned to the genre of the anecdote to give form to failure.” Please tell us more.

The Thoreau chapter is my favorite; it’s very short and makes its argument well I think. The anecdote is, in a way, the ideal Transcendentalist genre, because it promises to generate great significance from a natural fact, just as the Transcendentalists turned to analogy to perform a similar function. So it’s especially significant that Thoreau’s anecdotes – just like his experiment in nature as a whole – dwindle into insignificance.

In your chapter on Stephen Crane you refer to, “Crane’s effort to find a style of failure.” Please elaborate. How does Crane compare to Conrad in that respect, for example?

Hmmm . . . that would get me into those Modernists again! I guess I’m trying to place Crane looking back, to the nineteenth century, rather than forward. The style of failure is found in Crane’s ironic narrative voice, which constantly deflates characters’ delusions of grandeur.

What do mean by “structural glitches of characterization” in Pudd’nhead Wilson? And “pieces of erroneous inventory”?

That’s an easy one. Basically, Twain changes his mind about his characters as he writes Pudd’nhead Wilson, making formerly white characters black, introducing major characters that go nowhere, changing the plot but failing to remove the minor characters associated with that plot – all of this evidence of sloppy and inconsistent composition remains in the text, as apparent mistakes.

Could you tell us what you mean by “botched” when it comes to a literary works?

It’s a very technical term (!), “to spoil by unskillful work.” Melville in a letter describes all his works as “botches,” to capture his feeling of compromised authorship, being forced to turn his desire to write philosophical epics into works that will appeal in the market. I use the term to capture this idea of literary craftsmanship, and of course its failures and compromises.

In your chapter on Sarah Orne Jewett you write, “In Jewett’s writings, failure becomes an oddly content and sustainable condition. To understand how this is so, and why it is significant, we must turn again to the formal properties in which failure takes shape: in Jewett’s case, the alleged failure of her stories actually to be stories.” You say of her, “Jewett declined to plot in an era obsessed with plots of decline.” Could you please elaborate? Again, was the theme of decline somehow uniquely American? The works of Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens are full of failures and families struggling not to slide down the social ranks.

Again, to reemphasize, I’m not interested in the theme of failure on its own – that’s everywhere. I’m really interested in how this theme is coincident with formal failure, for example Jewett’s obsessive resistance to plot, her resistance to ending, which shapes her ontology of humility. Dickens, on the other hand, and in an opposite way, is addicted to plot. I do argue that the thematic-formal relationship is, if not unique, then particularly strong in American literature of the nineteenth century. It’s up to readers to decide whether they are convinced.

Could you tell us what you mean by failure as a process in the works of some of the writers you discuss?

This should be apparent in all of the chapters. The obvious example is from Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain adds complex characterization to late revisions of early sections of the manuscript, so that we can see characters moving from the state of being “round” to the state of being “flat” (to use E. M. Forster’s terms). That’s the process, performed across narrative time.

Writing of Henry James you refer to his “oddly productive sense of failure.” What do you mean by that and what other writers have manifested the same?

James – and Jewett for that matter – lie on the cusp of the Modernist moment, in which the negativity of failure would become a productive aesthetic, something that defines a way of seeing and understanding (or not) seeing the world. But as a whole, my study shows how American writers in general found literary inspiration in a condition that would seem to belie productivity. That’s the irony of the whole book.

I loved this sentence, “What, James asks us to consider, does failure look like as a style . . . ?” Tell us more, please. What do you mean, for example, by “a massive excess of description to event”?

H. G. Wells likened James’s style to watching a hippo trying to retrieve a pea from the corner of his den. It’s a wonderful description – though one that annoyed James no end – of the constant hyperbole of James’s style, how enriched description always overpowers the experience described. I explore this in “The Beast in the Jungle” to show how this stylistic condition becomes a lived experience for the protagonist, who anticipates experiencing a great event only to find that he has not experienced anything at all. Failure is thus both stylistic and ontological for James.

You say of Lambert Strether of James’s novel The Ambassadors, “We can read Lambert Strether as the ultimate figure of modernity.” But isn’t he more of the dying off of the Gilded Age? Or do you mean that he is a proto- Prufrock?

Yes, that’s it. He tends to get read as proto-modernist, when I’m trying to tie him back to the nineteenth century.

Could you explain your decision to include Stephen Crane as one of the writers who depicts failure? I never really thought of The Red Badge of Courage as being about failure but of ultimate triumph against fear, for example. Could you discuss why you think it has more to do with failure than many of us realized?

The point really of Crane’s novel is that triumph against fear and cowardice are indistinguishable conditions. What got me interested in Crane, however, were the editorial changes he made to The Red Badge, ones that make his ironic tone much less certain, exactly to render indistinguishable such apparent opposites as success and failure.

Thank you for your time.