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Books: Frail Fits

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THE FINE ART OF LITERARY MAYHEM (242 pp.)—Myrick Land—Half, Rinehart & Winston ($5).

Visitors who dropped in at No. 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris in the 1930s occasionally found Gertrude Stein waving a delicate handkerchief at her dog. “Play Hemingway,” she would say. “Be fierce.” The dog would growl.

Gertrude Stein’s disenchantment with Hemingway touched off a literary brawl between the two that was better publicized than most but considerably tamer than some—as this lucid and witty guide to literary feuding demonstrates. The casual insult. Author Land points out, is not enough to constitute a feud. Carlyle, for instance, was not feuding with Emerson when he referred to him as “a hoary-headed and toothless baboon,” or with Swinburne when he refused to meet him on the ground that he did not want to know a man who was “sitting in a sewer and adding to it.” Nor was Truman Capote seriously feuding when he remarked of Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Novelist Nelson Algren was unable to goad either Sloan Wilson or Herman Wouk into a full-dress feud when he wrote: “If The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit married Marjorie Morningstar on my front porch at high noon, I wouldn’t bother to go to the wedding.”

The truly great literary feuds lasted years, sometimes lifetimes, and were passionately contested. Literary men (literary women for some reason seldom seem to feud) are not necessarily more addicted to feuds than painters or musicians. But they are better equipped to conduct them, and in some cases they all but abandoned their careers to wage them.

Fool & Poet. Alexander Pope was such a compulsive feudsman the wonder is that he had time to write at all. Small (4 ft. 6 in.), sickly, and morbidly sensitive, he despised the world with fine impartiality, managing to skewer 63 “major” enemies in his verses and more minor ones than anybody cared to count. But he always had venom to spare for Colley Gibber, the actor-turned-playwright who improbably became the poet laureate of England. Of Gibber’s appointment, Pope wrote:

In merry Old England, it once was the Rule,

The King had his Poet, and also his Fool.

But now we’re so frugal, I’d have you to know it,

That Cibber can serve both for Fool and for Poet.

Cibber retaliated by citing a friendly service he had done Pope. The poet, Cibber explained, had once been “slyly seduced to a certain house of carnal recreation near the Haymarket” by a young nobleman who wanted to “see what sort of figure a man of [Pope’s] size, sobriety and vigor (in verse) would make when the frail fit of love had got into him.” Cibber, waiting in an adjoining room, became worried about Pope’s health and the future of English poetry. He rushed through the door, “found this little hasty hero, like a terrible tomtit, pertly perching upon the mount of love” and pulled him away.

Unlucky Lender. Most literary feuds. Author Land demonstrates, have deceptively simple beginnings. Tolstoy not only refused for 17 years to talk to Turgenev, his neighbor, but threatened to shoot him as a result of a chat the two had had about bringing up a daughter. Dostoevsky insulted Turgenev in print and lampooned him in The Possessed (as Karmazinov) because unlucky Turgenev had made the mistake of lending him money. Thackeray and Dickens, as the two reigning Victorian novelists, were naturally wary of each other, but their feud did not really begin until Thackeray made some passing reference to Dickens’ well-known affair with Actress Ellen Ternan. After that, they never spoke until they passed one day in the lobby of a London club. Thackeray reached for Dickens’ hand and said, “We have been foolish long enough.” Several days later Thackeray was dead, and Dickens wept at his grave.

In 1944, Sinclair Lewis was attacked without warning by an old admirer. Critic Bernard DeVoto, who had once found Lewis “the finest American novelist of his period.” Now DeVoto decided that Lewis was peddling a phony picture of America and suggested to his readers that “words like ‘fool’ and ‘liar’ might profitably come back to use.” Lewis promptly obliged: “I denounce Mr. Bernard DeVoto as a fool and a tedious and egotistical fool.” he wrote, “as a liar and a pompous and boresome liar.” And yet so fickle are literary tempers that after years of skirmishing, Lewis gave a speech enthusiastically seconding DeVoto’s appointment to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Playwright Henry Arthur Jones, who quickly lost favor with post-Victorian audiences, denounced his old friend George Bernard Shaw as “an irresponsible braggart,” a “blaring self-trumpeteer” and “the pope of chaos.” Max Beerbohm, who greatly admired Rudyard Kipling, observed caustically that “in Kipling’s short stories, men are portrayed from an essentially feminine point of view.” Said Alphonse Daudet, when asked to write an article about Zola’s 20-volume history of the Rougon-Macquart family: “It would be to advise Zola to go and hang himself from the highest branch.” Why did they feud? Says Novelist Vance Bourjaily, characterized by his friend Norman Mailer as “insignificant”: “Literary feuding is one of a number of fairly silly things which writers do when they’re not writing well … a sort of athletic metaphor for our real situation, and a very inaccurate one.”

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