Sunday, September 08, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse: Why Not the Canon? A Contemplation of His Early Works

P. G. Wodehouse did not make the canon, at least as far as I can tell. I’m not surprised, really, when considering how so many of his themes and characters repeat themselves. Also, one might view his work as a bit sentimental and lacking introspection. I don’t agree with those views.

My sense is that Wodehouse became considered a “popular” writer (as did Anthony Trollope and Booth Tarkington), and they fell out of the canon in the late 1980s, during the celebrated “canon wars” –

I remember the 1980s on the Norman campus quite clearly. I would wander through Gittinger Hall as I was taking other course, just because I found the territory so fascinating. I took my first English course after graduating with my B.S. in Geology. It was taught by Larry Frank and covered gothic fiction. I loved it. I had a relaxed summer – I was selling oil and gas prospects after having returned from Amarillo, and I had a very flexible schedule. I could easily take courses, so I did – English courses, Music theory courses, and even an Astronomy course (which I dropped because I found it tedious). It was during the oil boom, and we were buying and selling leases, and even participating in drilling wells. I thought (hoped) it would go on forever. I had gotten back into swimming and tried out aerobics (popularized by Jane Fonda) and sometimes would even go to back-to-back lessons. I did not run too much, but sometimes mixed that in, along with long, long walks.

I took more English courses starting in 1985, eventually taking many undergraduate as well as graduate courses. It was a time of awakening, and I was fascinated by the ideas surging forth. Yes, it was ideological and political, but also there was an “undiscovered treasure” feeling in it all. Women and minorities whose writing had been more or less ignored became career-builders for those who dedicated themselves to them and who successfully introduced them into the canon. Kate Chopin was one writer who made it into the canon in the 1980s. She had been well-known for writing short stories or serialized novellas that appeared in popular ladies’ magazines. Zora Neale Hurston was rediscovered (thanks to the efforts of Alice Walker), Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and Russian futurists were almost mainstreamed. Modernists ruled. Heaven help you if you were a realist or humorist. Even the women fell out of favor. I’m thinking of Pearl Buck. Of course, some of the issue was political correctness. It’s hard to read Tarkington, Wodehouse, and Buck without cringing at times.

Nevertheless, they’re really quite wonderful – they describe the readings, writing, cultural institutions, new technologies (they were, after all, in the midst of another Industrial Revolution). For example, a Baedeker is a short name for a guidebook to foreign countries. So, for the first time I understood Mina Loy’s title, “Lunar Baedeker” – it’s a guidebook to the moon (or being moonstruck) – and that’s precisely how those magical years of discovery hit me. It was amazing to find entire new territories of writing – In the 90s, I had the amazing privilege of working in the collections of the Huntington Museum rare books collection and reading letters of H.D. discussing her psychotherapy sessions, and I was even more aware of the general times, the general zeitgeist.

Ironically, men who gained fame in the same way (for writing serial novels for the magazines), fell out of favor. In addition to Wodehouse, Trollope, and Tarkington, others also fell out of favor. John Dos Passos was deeply admired, but is more or less invisible today. O. Henry, Saki, and Jack London were also admired then, but not so much now. Occasionally, you’ll see “The Gift of the Magi” in a composition anthology, and perhaps “Call of the Wild” – but they are not the standards they once were.

I’m not even going to touch British literature from Restoration through the Victorian age. Women were incorporated into the canon, even the ones whose work was fragmentary and written pseudonyously (Ephelia in Charles II’s court), and the solid establishment pillars were pulled down as conservative critics got a short, sharp haircut and lost their strength.

But to return to the point at hand, I’m enjoying discovering for the first time the highly popular works of the past. They are engaging and entertaining, and they even contain elements that make them intriguing to me, a person who tended to favor the cryptic and inaccessible (while harboring a guilty appetite for Victorian and Edwardian detective novels).

Here is a brief overview of what I liked most in Wodehouse’s Uneasy Money (1916).  It’s in essence, a meditation on what the prospect of “easy money” does to people, either in the form of inheritance or by marrying into it. There are also a number of reflections on morality and ethics; namely, what it means to be “straight” vs “crooked.”

There are many stock elements:

Plucky women making their way in the world, supporting themselves:  Elizabeth Boyd and her bee farm, Claire Summers and the chorus, Polly, now Lady Weatherby, dancing barefoot in dance halls, a sensational hit as “The Barefoot Countess.”

Good-natured, decent, with internalized code of honor (which also slows them a bit): Bill Chalmers, Lord Dowlrish

Dissipated artists: Nuttham Bloomingdale Boyd, Elizabeth’s brother

Captain of Industry: Dudley Pickering, worth $30 million due to his cars

Lord Weatherby: aspiring painter (but sadly lacking in skill)

Quirky, mischievous animal: Eustace, the monkey

People who should not be carrying guns, carrying them: Dudley Pickering

Legal advisor whose error sets everything in motion: The youngest Nichols, who was Bill’s school chum, alerts Bill that he will inherit $5 million dollars from the man he cured of his golf slice. A later will was made just before the man died, but this does not come to light until later. In the meantime, Bill sets off to New York to find the woman he has supplanted, in order to do what he considers to be the right thing and to give her half.

Golf: Important here because Elizabeth’s uncle left everything to Bill after he cured him of his vicious slice

Pastoral ambitions:  Elizabeth and Bill both have desired to have a bee farm in the country

My favorite scenes:
Eustace, the monkey, wreaks havoc, throws eggs at people, while the publicist is energized by the possibility that the plan to garner publicity for Polly, Lady Weatherby, the Barefoot Dancing Countess, by having an unruly (or even marauding) exotic pet, will work. Obviously, I like physical humor (!) and irony.

At any rate, after reading at least 20 Wodehouse novels at this point, and continuing to study them, my thoughts are continuing to develop.  I do think that Wodehouse is definitely in a category by himself -- there are some subtleties that make the works different than, say, the work of prolific romance writer.

So -- I'll share those thoughts later, as they gel.