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From: Alex David Groce <Alex_Groce@gs246.sp.cs.cmu.edu>
Subject: Re: (urth) modernism
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 13:40:28 

I also agree that if you had to assign a critical label to Wolfe, it would
be as a modernist (much more so than a post-modernist).

I suspect, though, that the most important literary influences on Wolfe are
not modernist--I don't particularly see Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, or Woolf as
key to understanding Wolfe.  He's mentioned both Woolf and Faulkner in essays
or interviews, and I'm sure he's familliar with them, but I think that their
_stylistic_ experimentations have had very little impact on his work--the
modernist view of art/literature (if you can pin it down) more so, but still
not that strong.

I would argue there are two (somewhat arbitrary, I think Wolfe would say, 
given his views on genre and mainstream) major source groups to look at:

(1) Mainstream literary sources:  

The most significant here, I think, is Proust.  There is the highly visible
influence on "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," but also the running theme of 
memory:  the nature of memory is a central concern in ALL of Wolfe's work--
most clearly in BOTNS and PEACE.  And I would argue, without spoiling 
anything, that it's one of the focal points of OBW (and couldn't LONG SUN be 
retitled "The Memory of Silk").  This is part of the reason why Wolfe seems to
be often at his best when he's writing in a first-person confessional mode, 
making some particular soul's memory of the past be the whole work.  Proust
can be called a modernist, and sometimes is, but as Alga points out, he's an
odd kind of modernist.

Borges is also always looming over Wolfe's work, although I think more so in
BOTNS than elsewhere--you could almost (if you're willing to really stretch
some points) say that every story in Ficciones is reproduced in miniature in
BOTNS ("Funes the Memorius" and "The Circular Ruins" are obvious ones)--always
when Wolfe touches on paradox or time, or starts writing about fictional books
within books (the Gold story of how the world is a construct of frauds that
become real in PEACE is quintessential Borges--is it a lie when "the universe
makes our lies become true?") Borges' shadow is showing.

Some other writers that I see in Wolfe's work are:  Chesterton (Father Brown
& Silk, but Chesterton's also had a strong influence on Wolfe's worldview),
Kipling (the Mowgli/Frog, but also Kipling's feel for soldiers/engineers--
Wolfe's loving detail in describing how the world works and the detail of 
people doing their work), Dickens (who is the topic of several Wolfe stories--
and the source of Sam Wellerisms, and I suspect Wolfe sees cities much more in
the fashion of Dickens/Chesterton/Stevenson than as Joyce saw them or with 
Eliot's disdainful eye), Conrad, Kafka ("Forlesen"), Robert Graves (since
Severian takes a limp and a wife and some prophecies, not to mention a 
narrative form, from stuttering Claudius), H. G. Wells, and Poe.  There's a 
strong Victorian streak in Wolfe.

But equally important are the "anonymous" sources that can be called mainstream
(and the fed the other source)--the Arabian Nights, both by themselves and
filtered through Proust's constant evocation of them, Greek and Roman (and
to a much lesser extent, Norse) mythology, and fairy tales.  Not only do
Wolfe's characters tell these kinds of tales, but the tales they live out are
often (as many genre stories are) versions of these old types with a highly
varied background and less purely archetypal characters.

Finally, the Gospels and the traditions of the Catholic Church influence not
only Wolfe's choice of stories and the implications he puts into them, but the
trappings of the guilds, manteions and the metaphysics he chooses.

Note that while Wolfe's way of combining these sources can be called modernist
(and especially his habit of reworking sources and altering the uses of a form)
his literary techniques avoid most modernist experiments:  disjointedness,
stream-of-consciousness, extremely incapacitated or mentally aberrant narrators
(when Wolfe's narrators say they are possibly insane or lying, it is not meant,
I think, to be something unusual, as some of the narrators in Faulkner (either
_The Sound & The Fury_ or _As I Lay Dying_) who are meant to be difficult to
parse, alien--rather, they are evincing Wolfe's idea that we are ALL, to some
extent, mad and incapable of expressing the truths of our experience fully
either because of misunderstanding our reluctance to accuse ourselves), or
typographical experimentation.  Rather, Wolfe prefers "traditional" narrative
techniques with prose that is formal and ornamental, Latinate and rich--the one
"new trick" he applies a lot is the use of fictional documents that have a
history themselves that explain the presence of the text we are reading.  But
this trick is derived, I think, from Poe & H. Rider Haggard & everyone else
who has added "verisimilitude" to a romance by claiming "I translated this
manuscript found in a bottle" or "here is a letter from my strange cousin who
went to explore the ruins of America" than from Nabokov or more recent sources.
I'd love to consider Nabokov more of an influence, in that there are some 
striking similarities, but we have Wolfe's report that he didn't come to 
read Nabokov until well after he had developed the traits I find in both.

(2) Genre sources

While Wolfe draws general ideas from the history of the genre (sword & sorcery
trappings, generation ships, the planetary romance), and relies heavily on
our expectations (not always violating them, often just using them--any SF
reader should quickly suspect once he has a few clues that the towers are old
rocket-ships) it seems that Jack Vance is the real center of science fiction's
literary influence of Wolfe.  I see very little, if any, sign of Asimov or
Heinlein or Clarke, or, for that matter, Dick or Bester, in Wolfe.  Other
writers he's on record as admiring, from Damon Knight and Fritz Leiber to
R. A Lafferty and Ursula K. LeGuin (when he likes her work--Wolfe seems to have
shared my distaste for THE DISPOSSESED) also seem to have had little visible
influence (presumably with Knight the influence was more personal).   I think
that when Wolfe encapsulates the genre, he tends to encapsulate it through the
filter of Vance--which is why Wolfe's sword & sorcery and generation
starship tales take on a strong element of the planetary romance (a tour of
cultures).  Lovecraft and Clarke Ashton Smith show through here as well, but
Smith through Vance, and Lovecraft as someone to evoke rather than in a real
sense to resemble.  Interestingly, this Vance-ness shines through the fact that
even Wolfe's most morally questionable protagonists are usually light-years 
from Vance's cynical rogues and that Wolfe almost never views a society through
the abstract, critical, satiric eyes that Vance often employs.

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32
Alex David Groce (agroce+@cs.cmu.edu)
Ph.D. Student, Carnegie Mellon University - Computer Science Department
8112 Wean Hall (412)-268-3066

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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