icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

Oxfordian Snobbery

Many years ago I came across one of the books espousing the "Oxfordian theory," the belief that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.

For a short while I took the idea seriously, and I'm excusing myself here on the grounds of being young and in rebellion against the orthodoxy taught in the first-rate English department of the Ivy League university from which I had recently graduated. I remember attending a family gathering where my cousin Wyman H. Herendeen, a rising star in the academic world of English literature, a scholar of Shakespeare and his contemporaries no less, was disgusted with my newfound interest—and did not hold back in sharing his opinion.

So it's somewhat interesting to see that the new Roland Emmerich film, Anonymous, is pushing this nonsense once again on the suckers who are, apparently, born every minute.

Back when I first encountered the "Oxfordian theory" and the horde of similarly hilarious and factually-challenged contenders for the authorship of our greatest writer, the thought that I might someday be a writer myself was as absurd as these crackpot theories are to me now. But now that I am a writer, I see the whole controversy differently.

The greatest flaw in the Oxfordian theory is its snobbery: the contention that a glover's son could not have written plays (and sonnets and long poems) that are glories of English poetic language, and that portray scenes of court life and history that their author could not have "known." And the funny thing about my perspective is that writing has made me more of a snob, not less.

Perhaps the awareness of my own snobbery helps guard against it. That is, now that I have written some books that I am proud of, that reflect my own verbal ability and storytelling skills, I find I am both a harsher judge of others' work, and also more forgiving. Part of me wonders why so much inferior work is not only published, but makes the bestseller lists and the big bucks, is turned into blockbuster films and TV shows, while my more than prime-time-ready Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander languishes in the "bargain books" section of Amazon, un-optioned. The other part of me recognizes the labor that goes into creating any work of fiction, from the heights of a Jonathan Franzen opus to the depths of James Gould Cozzens's By Love Possessed.

Being upper class has very little to do with being a good writer. I read Possessed a few years ago, out of curiosity. The book was a huge bestseller in 1957, and it was on my parents' bookshelf in the apartment where I grew up, probably a gift from my father, who knew little or nothing about "literature," to my mother, Smith College educated, who liked good writing (Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, William Trevor). One day I wanted to see what this thick hardcover with the pornographic-sounding title was about. And, wow! This is, unequivocally, hands down, the worst novel I have ever read! By a long shot. Nothing else even comes close.

But I read it all the way through. At least I think I did. The prose is so impenetrable it's hard to be sure. I stuck with it because, like many people, I don't like to "abandon" a book once I start, and also because it was inconceivable that the whole thing could be this bad. Surely it had to get better, or why would it have received such great reviews?

I had no answer at the time. Then, yesterday, while reading the New York Times Sunday book review, I saw the back essay by Dwight Garner extolling a new release, a collection of essays by Dwight McDonald, including a take-down of Cozzens's Possessed. The great thing about owning a Kindle: I bought the collection then and there, at the breakfast table, and started in.

Honestly, I was hoping McDonald would be a little tougher on Cozzens. But he did give one reason for the book's warm reception. Cozzens had been writing for thirty years, and critics and the literary establishment thought he was overdue for recognition. (Do we ever feel like that now about writers? No, I would say the writing world has grown far too big and diverse.)

Ultimately the whole business left me as puzzled as before, except for the thought that fashions in literature change, as in everything else. And some of the changes between 1957 and now are good ones. Really, really good. Nobody can write something like Possessed and have it taken seriously. We can self-publish all kinds of crap, and blog bad or indifferent writing like an ongoing epidemic of diarrhea of the keyboard, but nobody is going to give us any kind of award for prose that sucks big time, whether we poop it out for thirty days or thirty years.

I don't mean to single out poor old Cozzens. But he is dead, and I'm not hurting his feelings. People have been making fun of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the prolific, successful and admired novelist who started his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the famous phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night…"and of James Fenimore Cooper and other novelists of the Victorian era for years. They used to be revered names. Now they're just punch lines for literary standup comedy.

Writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald go in and out of fashion, their reputations rising and sinking as tastes change. Reading McDonald's essay was a fascinating look at a time when the fashion was very different. Not all that long ago, scorning Hemingway was unthinkable. Now it's so routine we're probably having a backlash and for all I know he may be in again. Maureen Dowd just wrote a column asking us whether we're "Hemingway or Fitzgerald girls." Books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and the work of Henry Miller challenged the archaic standards of "decency." In his 1961 essay on the "new" Webster's unabridged dictionary, McDonald referred to "four-letter" words, saying the editors of the dictionary had decided to list all except "the most important one." Now "fuck" is printed in The New Yorker.

But back to snobbery. McDonald tells us that Cozzens was a Republican, an upper-middle-class lawyer whose ancestors were Loyalists during the American Revolution, and that he considered himself "better than other people." As McDonald points out, a real aristocrat doesn't have to say that. It's implicit in his outlook and everything he does.

Cozzens was a snob, not an aristocrat. (To be fair, I also suspect, after reading up on him online, that much of what he said in interviews was taken out of context.) There's an aristocracy of writing, just as there is of every kind of talent and ability. Some people have it, regardless of their background or education. A genuine talent for something like writing, which requires literacy, will spur the holder on to acquire whatever he needs, including education, to do the work he's driven to do. And we don't know that the education in Stratford was all that bad. Perhaps, like Jane Austen and her heroines, most of whom had no governess and little or no formal education, the young Shakespeare read because, as Austen's Elizabeth Bennet explained to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, "such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means."

Then: London. Anyone could reinvent himself there, just as in New York City today. And let's not lose sight of perhaps the most important fact of all: Shakespeare wasn't making all these stories up out of nothing. Like most authors before the tyranny of the life-plus-70-years copyright law, he drew on other authors' recent works: Sir Thomas More for many of the history plays; other sources for the comedies and unclassifiable plays. Writers are also readers, and what they write is inevitably an outgrowth of the works of other writers. Austen was inspired by Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth. She didn't start writing novels out of the blue without having read any.

Good writers don't copy, but they necessarily work with what's come before. They add their own style, their own twist. Shakespeare didn't have to have been a courtier, or have fought in an overseas war, to write his plays. He did have to have read about the past, to have heard stories of court life. He undoubtedly met or overheard or, for all we know, had lovers who were courtiers and aristocrats, people who supplied the "background" and the "research" for his writing.

What he brought to it was his genius. His talent. Edward de Vere was a fucked-up son of a bitch from a typically dysfunctional aristocratic family. This is the strongest argument in favor of his being the real Bard of Avon, but it's not enough. Many writers are fucked-up beyond all recognition (like me), and most aristocrats were until sometime in the late twentieth century. But many more writers are not, or only mildly so. It's not a prerequisite for great writing. Talent is. And there's nothing with de Vere's name on it that even remotely resembles Shakespeare's style or possesses a fraction of its timeless brilliance.

Every time I read a book that has the kind of grammatical error in it ("between you and I" or "whom shall I say is calling?") that makes me want to hack the book into pieces, set them on fire and dump them in the East River, I ask myself: is this a good story? Is it otherwise well-written? And if the answer is yes, I tell myself not to be a snob, to think of Shakespeare and the language of his time and the King James Version of the Bible, with their very different standards of English prose, and let it go. Not to be an Oxfordian.
Post a comment