Difficult demands, corresponding charms

Macdonald-books

I drift back—early enough to cook the dinner—from a couple of days in California in the company of Ross Macdonald, not for the first time. The thirteenth occasion, I think. I must have seen, in a previous life, one of the films featuring Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer, either Harper (1966, based on The Moving Target) or The Drowning Pool (1975), both starring Paul Newman. There was a later film, Blue City (1986), based on an early Macdonald novel, not a Lew Archer book. But I only started reading Macdonald a few years ago, decades after going through the whole of Chandler and of Hammett (one of whose books made a strong impression on the sixteen-year-old Macdonald).

Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, though his parents were Canadian. After a difficult childhood, he studied at the University of Western Ontario and eventually received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1952: his dissertation was on Coleridge.

While I wait for The Archer Files to make its way through the postal system, I review my collection of Macdonalds: seven mass market paperbacks jostle the three handsome Library of America volumes which, between them, contain eleven full-length novels. The last of these, Four Later Novels, published this year, is a recent arrival on my shelves and awaits the week’s holiday towards the end of the year—probably, if I can last that long.

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(Kenneth Millar/ Ross Macdonald via Library of America)

Inclusion in the Library of America series probably hints at the status that Macdonald has achieved in the view of some influential readers, since The Goodbye Look (1969) prompted the New York Times Book Review notice by William Goldman (‘the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American’).

Thirty-three years before the first Library of America volume of Macdonald’s work appeared—the series was launched in 1982, with eight volumes published that year—Hugh Kenner published an essay, ‘Classics by the Pound’, which began by detailing some comparisons between the products of that list and ‘the esteemed French series Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’, not least the fact that early volumes suggest a tendency to play it safe, perhaps influenced too much by potential copyright problems with more recent writers. Kenner went on to remark that ‘one difference’ between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ross Macdonald was that Macdonald, ‘in devising his fables of modern identity, wrote them as things called “detective stories,” handled at Harvard with tongs’, while Stowe’s ‘famous eleven-Kleenex tract, sanctified by a testimonial of Lincoln’s, soars aloft into the Disneyfied sunsets of Literature.’ But, he added, a hundred years hence, should the Library of America series still be around, ‘it either will have atrophied into total irrelevance or else will have managed to embalm three novels by Ross Macdonald. Just watch. And you read it here first.’[1]

Kenner

(Hugh Kenner)

Ah, literary history. The friendship between Kenner and Macdonald dated back to 1950, when Kenner was teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kenner acknowledged his gratitude to Macdonald—Kenneth Millar—‘for his patience in expunging the flaws from the manuscript’ of Wyndham Lewis (1954); Macdonald reviewed Kenner’s Gnomon and his The Invisible Poet (on T. S. Eliot), while Kenner would contribute a piece to a collection of essays, memoirs, poems and photographs, Inward Journey: Ross Macdonald, edited by Ralph B. Sipper, published in 1984.[2] But the friendship ran into trouble long before the Sipper volume.

Sleeping Beauty (1973), my most recent outing in the Los Angeles/Santa Barbara area, is one of his most intricately plotted, with the trademark Macdonald complexities of generations of family history, unsuspected interrelations, threatening secrets and vulnerabilities, this one set against the backdrop of a disastrous oil spill. (Macdonald was politically engaged and environmentally concerned: when an underwater oil well blew out off Santa Barbara in early 1969, both Macdonald and his wife, novelist Margaret Millar, took part in the ensuing protests.)

Sleeping Beauty is dedicated to Eudora Welty. Two years earlier, the New York Times Book Review had run, on its front page, Eudora Welty’s hugely positive review of The Underground Man. The two writers’ correspondence had begun the previous spring and would develop into a close personal relationship. In January 1973, following Welty’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television programme, Macdonald mentioned that Buckley had recently been in Santa Barbara, ‘house guest of an old friend of mine, Hugh Kenner—a friendship that began to lose its virtue about the time that Hugh became literary godfather of the National Review, and has now eroded—but a friendship that I regret. In the late forties and early fifties Hugh and I taught each other a good deal, he more than I. Who is our most brilliant literary scholar? Alas, it is Hugh Kenner.—This summer he leaves Santa Barbara for Johns Hopkins.’[3]

Yes, that was the issue. Kenner had become friends with Buckley in the late 1950s and published his first contribution to Buckley’s conservative National Review in November 1957, his last more than forty years later. (My own knowledge of Buckley is pretty limited but I thought Best of Enemies, the 2015 documentary about the televised debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968 was tremendous: funny too.)

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(Eudora Welty via The Paris Review)

Is there a Ford Madox Ford connection somewhere here—apart from Kenner? Indeed there is. In the spring of 1971, Welty mentioned to Macdonald that she was writing a review of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford (‘I’m not sure if I can stand Arthur Mizener on Ford, anyway [ . . . ] I’ve been reading all the Ford I can, to get a little balance.’ In his reply, Macdonald mentioned having seen a part of the biography and being struck by ‘what seemed to me its rather dull antipathy towards its subject.’ And it’s true that, while Arthur Mizener made some valuable contributions to the body of biographical work on Ford, what queers the pitch is that he really disliked Ford and ends up not believing a word he says, hardly the best frame of mind to foster insight and understanding. Ford had to wait another couple of decades before Alan Judd and Max Saunders corrected the Mizener view.

Another of Macdonald’s friends was Richard W. Lid, whose book, Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art had appeared in 1964, dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’. Macdonald’s letter went on to mention this: ‘Dick wrote his own book on Ford—an analysis of the major novels which I think is the best thing done on him so far. Could be I’m prejudiced: I worked on it with Dick—this in confidence—and in fact he dedicated it to me. So when you told me you were involved with Ford, it closed another circle, dear Miss Welty, with a tinkle. But it’s no coincidence, is it? All writers admire Parade’s End and love The Good Soldier, and hate to see them fall into fumbling hands, unimaginative hands.’[4]

Thanking him for his letter—and Macdonald’s own copy of Lid’s book which he’d sent her—Eudora Welty said it was just what she needed ‘at this very point, when Mizener in his jovial disparagement was about to get me down.’ She claimed to see the traces of Macdonald’s work on the chapter devoted to The Good Soldier, ‘in the awareness of what Ford is doing in that marvelous book’, adding: ‘I don’t need to tell you I undertook the review not for love of Mizener but for love of Ford.’[5]

Eudora Welty’s review of Mizener’s biography is included in The Eye of the Story, a selection of essays and reviews. In that book, the review is immediately followed by her appreciation of Macdonald’s The Underground Man: ‘In our day it is for such a novel as The Underground Man that the detective form exists. I think it also matters that it is the detective form, with all its difficult demands and its corresponding charms, that makes such a novel possible.’[6]

We know that Ford greatly appreciated Welty’s writing.[7] I like to think that he would have admired Macdonald’s work too—‘fables of modern identity’ indeed.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 118, 123, 124.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (1954; New York: New Directions, 1964), viii; other details are from Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography, edited by Willard Goodwin (Albany, New York: Whitston Publishing Company), 2001.

[3] Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, editors, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015), 109-110.

[4] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 11, 12.

[5] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 13.

[6] Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (London: Virago Press, 1987), 258: review of Mizener, The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford, 241-250; review of The Underground Man, 251-260. The book is dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’.

[7] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 310; Sondra Stang, editor, The Ford Madox Ford Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), 510-512.