Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 5)

Last month, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. This week, I take a very brief look at the novel from a Feminist perspective and conclude with some brief, final thoughts. I have to say, looking back at a favorite novel through a variety of lenses has been a challenging but rewarding task. I actually had quite a lot of fun with it and thought about the novel in new and different ways.

Feminism

A theory which need be applied to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but which seems surprisingly lacking, is the Feminist approach. Perhaps the small amount of feminist criticism written about this novel, or at least the difficulty in finding it, is due to the fact that feminist and queer theories are both relatively “new” schools (in terms of the overall history of theory and criticism), coming about at roughly the same time and, naturally, queer theory took firm hold of Dorian Gray. Be that as it may, it seems to me that much should be said about the lack of female presence in Dorian Gray, and also about the disturbing picture of women presented in the minor character roles which do exist for them.

In her essay, “Chloe Liked Olivia,” Virginia Woolf states that, “all the great women of fiction were . . . not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that” (Leitch 1024). This is absolutely true for Sybil Vane. Not only is she seen simply and briefly through men’s eyes (Oscar Wilde, as the writer, but also Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, as observers) but she also must play a boy on stage. Further, her importance in the story is only to the extent that she causes Dorian’s first slip into wickedness.

Other female characters in the novel include: Lady Agatha, Mrs. Vane, Lady Victoria Wotten, and Lady Brandon, all of whom only exist within the story to further the male roles. As a feminist, I wonder how Virginia Woolf must have read The Picture of Dorian Gray; I believe it is doing a great disservice to feminist theory to leave such a marker text out of the discussion. Though Queer theorists may have seized Dorian Gray –and for good reason– there is still room for discussion on many points of feminist theory, especially taking into consideration the role that Oscar Wilde’s own wife must have played on the portrayal of Sybil Vane. And, further, what does a gay man, married to a woman, have to offer the feminist community?

Concluding Thoughts

The possibilities for examining a text like The Picture of Dorian Gray are endless, but one must stop somewhere, at least for a little while. Any school of criticism can be applied to such an extraordinary text, and thus bring about new questions and new modes of examination. Placing many theories side-by-side, or interlacing them, perhaps, is an even greater way of coming up with new ideas, noticing nuances that were once overlooked.

The point of this series is to consider a single novel from a variety of critical perspectives, and to explore how one might go about that process. It demonstrates how The Picture of Dorian Gray has “changed” over time (or how reception of it has changed), simply by being read again and again. I hope that, after thinking of how different generations have read this one novel, we might remember to think more broadly, even more exotically, about other texts we read in the future. It is important to keep in mind that, just as two people reading one text at the same time will not walk away with the same feeling, the same understanding of it, so too will different generations, different cultures, different religions, different classes, and different genders have even further interpretations of that text. The experiment, indeed, arose from my own re-readings of a number of books, many of which I responded to quite differently with each new reading.

This series, I hope, is just a beginning, a tip to the iceberg of understanding. I hope, personally, to continue to ask questions about my reading(s), to re-examine old ideas, and to revisit texts from a new perspective; and, by doing these, I hope to encourage my own growth as a reader (and writer).

Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism; and Dorian Gray and Marxism. If you have any ideas about another novel (or short story) that I should try this kind of experiment on, let me know!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 4)

Last month, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. This week, I take a very brief look at the novel from a Marxist perspective. This is the shortest of the series by far because, quite frankly, I have not spent much time with any formal study of Marxism, save reading a few Terry Eagleton books.

Marxism

Another interesting approach of theory, and one that has been taken by critics during their examination of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the study of a text as a historical product, or as a cultural producer. Raymond Williams argues that literature is “a specific historical product, carrying class values” (Leitch 1565). He goes on to claim that, “literary forms and genres are determined by the social roles they play” (1566). So, what does this mean for Dorian Gray?

As Baker puts it, “Wilde’s chief concern was always with art, the artist, the critic, or the effect of art and criticism on society at large” (350). Thus, it stands to reason that Oscar Wilde set out, in Dorian Gray to have the text act as a cultural producer. He is not simply mirroring his own personality, but offering a suggestion, a warning, to society; beware the wrath of vanity, of imitation, and of idolatry. Baker solidifies this idea, that Dorian Gray is alerting the people, en masse, by stating, “Wilde believed that the progress of society was dependent upon the progress of the individual” (351).

Another case for a Marxist reading of Dorian Gray is an idea posited in “the Dialectics of Dandyism.” Glick presents further discussion on the idea of real versus appearance (as in Dorian and his picture) when she writes, “Marx makes it clear that while the distinction between what appears to be and what really is functions as a smoke screen for capital, the split between appearance and essence is not imaginary” (133). She goes on to explain that appearances are necessary to conceal inner relations, and that these “secrets” are present in The Picture of Dorian Gray as made example by the passage, “I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us.  The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it” (Wilde 7). Thus, Dorian Gray acts as a cultural product and producer, in that it was written to produce a sense of acknowledgment in the reader, and that, since its publication, cultures (especially, as Glick explains, the Queer community) have been affected by it.

The exploration of art and consumerism as both rivals and necessary conspirators is a fascinating one to me; I know there is a great deal of literature on the subject, though I have spent perhaps far too little time engaging with it. My consideration of Dorian Gray as a novel that both rejects and utilizes consumerism has encouraged me to consider other topics similarly. It is especially interesting to me that an aesthete, like Wilde, would so cheekily critique the very concept he personally faults. Wilde wrote for an audience, after all, so he cannot be excepted from his own criticism (as someone like Salinger, say, could be, because Salinger ultimately did reject the spectacle of it all and continued to produce art without making it consumable.)

Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; and Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism. I will return next week with the final installment, Part 5: Dorian Gray and Feminism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Glick, Elisa. “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique 48 (2001): 129-63.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 3)

Two weeks ago, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism and then considered the opposite perspective, Reader-Response theory. This week, I return to a more textual consideration as opposed to an audience-focused one.

The post-structuralists are most likely to be fascinated by the idea I put forth in part one of this series; that, perhaps, Oscar Wilde was both presenting himself to the public and, at the same time, chastising himself for doing so; it is the idea Jacques Derrida presents in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” and what he might call “remedy and drug” (Leitch 1837). Derrida writes, “a text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible” (1830). The discussions, then, of whether Oscar Wilde was being autobiographical or not; of whether Dorian Gray were a real person or not; of whether Sybil Vane represents Wilde’s wife or not, would be of great interested to the deconstructionists because they are all unanswerable and ever-changing, they are all “play.”

If it is the case that Wilde knows what he is doing by “[calling] into account the overly self-conscious artist who projects his own personality too severely on the public” only to then “put too much of [himself] into it, would be of great interest and amusement to Derrida and the deconstructionalists [sic] (Baker 350, 352). Similarly interested would be Baudrillard, for two reasons: the presence of a portrait in the story, one which becomes the reality, leaving the person a “simulacrum” and the projection of Wilde onto his own work, confusing reality and fiction. Baudrillard argues that copies and reproductions become more desirable than the original, that they “provide all the signs of the real and short-circuit all its vicissitudes” (Leitch 1733). This is certainly true of the painting of Dorian Gray; “the hideous corruption of his soul” is demonstrated by the changing face of the copy in the portrait, rather than on Dorian’s own visage (Wilde 104). As for Wilde’s projection of self onto the pages of his novel, Baudrillard would find this another means of copying real life and making it more interesting, more accessible, and more desirable than the life itself. Why bother living a life, with all its bothersome detours and “vicissitudes” when one can sit back and read a life, one carefully directed and presented?

Another post-structuralist who must be noted, and whose theory need be applied to Dorian Gray is Michel Foucault. In The History of Sexuality, he writes of “a policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses” (Leitch 1652). That the sexuality of Dorian Gray and indeed Oscar Wilde was policed, is indisputable. Wilde was sentenced to solitary confinement for his “acts of sodomy.” Foucault would offer that this had to happen. In order for homosexuality to be talked about, it was necessary for it to be publicly punished and, consequently, shoved into the spotlight:  “Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex, and especially of course questions of the Intermediate Sex” (Schmidgall 229). Oscar Wilde’s sacrifice, though not intentional, allowed for debates to be fueled and discussions to be brought about. Then, incrementally, the act of talking about homosexuality allowed for the inclusion of it in new texts.

Please visit Part 1 and Part 2 for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism or Dorian Gray and Reader-Response. I will return next week with Part 4: Dorian Gray and Marxism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Schmidgall, Gary.  The Stranger Wild: Interpreting Oscar. Dutton: Penguin, 1994.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

 

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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Reader-Response

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 2)

Last Wednesday, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. A polar argument for dissecting Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is to switch focus from Wilde’s intentions, to that of the readers’ receptions.

Reader-Response

Stanley Fish, “self-proclaimed inventor of reader-response theory” provides an entirely different way of understanding our own interpretations of The Picture of Dorian Gray (Leitch 2067). Fish believes that we “[locate] meaning not in texts but in readers, not in individual response but in the protocols of communities.” If Fish is correct, then we can attribute each generation’s criticism of Dorian Gray to the cultural, sociological, religious, and financial situations of its time. For instance, the vast majority of first critical responses to the novel were negative. How does a novel like The Picture of Dorian Gray go from being an outrage and abomination to being read in almost every high school and college literature curriculum?

As Fish states, it is our “communities, rather than the texts, [which] govern and generate interpretative communities” (2069). That is to say, it is not Oscar Wilde or his writing who have changed over time, but the way we have been taught to read the novel. At first publication, the homosexuality present in his work was an affront to social decency and morality. The first critics are not so much concerned with the message of art and artist as they are with Oscar Wilde’s inclusion of taboo ideas. Later, in the 1940s and 1960s, critics become interested in Oscar Wilde, the man and author. Focus shifts, then, from outrage over homoerotic motifs to the debate over how much of Oscar Wilde is truly in The Picture of Dorian Gray and other writings. As we reach the 1970s, after the Vietnam War and ideas of “free-love” and sexual revolution have stormed through Europe and the United States, homosexuality in literature becomes, if not a norm, at least not a surprise: “what a number of Urnings [homosexuals] are being portrayed in novels now!” (Schmidgall 376).

So, the contemporary critics of the day were educated in a different way and in search of new ideas. In the 1970s, critics such as Donald Lawler and Charles Knott completely desert the homosexual critique and the need to examine how autobiographical Dorian Gray is to Wilde’s life; instead, they begin to look at the origin of Dorian Gray, the writing process behind the famous novel. Still, into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, theoretical criticism for The Picture of Dorian Gray is fluid and changing. In the 1990s, for example, in wake of new laws on child-care and changing ideas of the damages of corporal punishment and discipline, comes psychoanalytic approaches to understanding The Picture of Dorian Gray as a text on child abuse.

Most recently, with Elisa Glick’s often cited “The Dialectics of Dandyism,” comes a new, Queer theory approach to Oscar Wilde, a look, not so much at homoeroticism and the evils of homosexuality, but at the role Oscar Wilde’s work plays in forming a queer identity, a literary rebellion of oppression. The point that Fish makes, then, that all literature is read anew, depending upon education and interpretations, is valid. Each new generation will read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a new manner, deeming different ideas important and different passages significant, depending on what that person’s interpretative community has chosen to demonstrate. A quick Google Image search for covers of the novel, comparing them across time and culture, will put this into sharp focus.

Please come back next Wednesday, when I consider Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Glick, Elisa. “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique, no. 48, 2001, pp. 129–163.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Schmidgall, Gary. The Stranger Wild: Interpreting Oscar. Dutton: Penguin, 1994.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 1)

Original artist unknown.

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde 4). One of my favorite novels is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was thrust into the critical pool upon its first release in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and it has remained in that pool, wading through theoretical waters, ever since. The novel has been critiqued by hundreds of scholars, from all schools of theory and research. But what makes Dorian Gray such a compelling research topic? What can the different theories bring to light about the novel? How do we read Dorian Gray and get what we “should” from the work? Is it important that Oscar Wilde may have written the novel as an autobiography?

To answer these questions, I would like to consider how this novel has been treated by five different theoretical perspectives, which I will divide into a five-part series, as follows: First, a Formalist approach to Dorian Gray, discussing the idea that the best artists put nothing of their own personality into their product; second, the reader-response theory and its implications on The Picture of Dorian Gray over time, such as how cultural shifts and experiences change the way we view the novel; third, the post-structural ideas of “play” and “remedy vs drug”; fourth, the text as a historical product, as informed by Raymond William and Marxism; and fifth, the feminist view, or lack thereof, on Wilde’s work.

This is a source-informed but somewhat recreational attempt to examine, in non-linear fashion, a variety of ways in which Dorian Gray has been treated in literary theory and criticism. I was intrigued by Wilde’s assertion that diversity of opinion about an artwork essentially keeps that artwork alive. Since diverse opinions continue to surround Dorian Gray after nearly 130-years in print, it seems fair to say that this work of art is still very much alive. 

Formalism

T.S. Eliot writes, “no artist produces great art by a deliberate attempt to express his personality” and that a “poet has, not a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality” (qtd. in Leitch 1096). To argue or to agree with Eliot and the Formalists, one must first do two things: define “great art” and decide what favor or disfavor has been done by an artist attempting to express himself in his work. The first of these two things seems, to me, an impossibility. There can be no definition for great art, any more than there can be definition for art in general (how often has this conversation come up?). So, for my purposes, I reject the need to classify art as good or bad, and instead focus on whether Oscar Wilde is autobiographical in Dorian Gray; if so, are the Formalists correct in their argument that a writer’s biography and personality must be kept separate from an artist’s work in order for the work to be, shall we say, effective?

According to one researcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray is all about Wilde. In his essay, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate,” Nethercot writes that one of Wilde’s methods of self-revelation “was his habit of introducing details from his own life and character into his descriptions of people he was writing about” (Nethercot 835). He goes on to argue that the narrator’s review of the “curious stories [becoming] current” about Dorian Gray in his twenty-fifth year is, in fact, Wilde’s own review of himself: “Wilde was twenty-five in 1879, and by that time the mask which he had at first endeavored to set up before his face in his daily activities and conversation had begun to slip” (841). Even Dorian’s “confession” monologue near the end of the novel can be viewed as an internal-struggle Wilde was having, himself unsure of how much of his personal life to make public, though he had been “confessing in public all along” (842). The mystery is, then, was Oscar Wilde consciously using his own life experiences and personalities in his writing and, if so, did he approve of that practice in general? Should we?

A wide reading suggests Wilde does put much of himself into his writing, and perhaps Dorian Gray was a type of public, yet veiled, “coming out” for the author. However, it is likely that Oscar Wilde knew the danger in which he placed himself by putting so much of his own personality into the pages of his text. Houston A. Baker writes that Wilde’s own view on the artist is that he “must have a strong personality, but he cannot simply thrust upon the world his own raw emotions in the work of art” (Baker 352). This opinion also seems to be made clear in the pages of Dorian Gray when Basil Hallward admits that he cannot exhibit his own work because he has “shown in it the secret of [his] own soul” (Wilde 8). Perhaps, then, The Picture of Dorian Gray is answering two of Wilde’s needs: to present himself honestly to the public and to publicly admonish himself for it. If this is the case, then Wilde confounds the Formalists not only by inserting himself into his fictional work, but by admitting he has done so and using the same work to reprimand himself (ultimately a kind of meta-insertion).

I’m uncomfortable with the Formalist’s approach to literary criticism. The suggestion is that one can (or must) study a work for structural purposes only, rejecting any other context or outside influence that might have helped to create that text. While I see the benefits of this type of consideration in terms of critiquing the success or failure of plot structure, for example (or pacing, or narrative time, etc.), as a single method for evaluating the text it is too limited because it necessarily omits a number of important elements that influenced and allowed for the creation of the work in the first place. To me, a piece of literature (or art) should not be dissected from its context, be that social, economic, or cultural. 

Come back soon for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Reader-Response theory!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 
  • Nethercot, Arthur H.  “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate.” PMLA 59.3 (1944): 833-50.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Biography, Criticism, Essay, Irving Stone

Author Spotlight: Irving Stone

Every so often, a Twitter thread or Facebook meme or “Top Ten Tuesday” type survey will come around, asking people to share “a book you think everyone should read” or an “under-rated author people should try.” And every time this happens, I almost always recommend the same writer, Irving Stone, and one of two of his books, which happen to be personal favorites, LUST FOR LIFE and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY.

So, when a Twitter thread recently posed the question a bit differently (“which book/author have you stopped recommending?”) It gave me pause. I realized that, yes, I have slowly but surely begun to recommend Irving Stone less and less because, for some reason, people just refuse to read him.

To counteract my negligence, I have decided to put together a spotlight piece on Irving Stone. I hope that you will get to know him, a bit, and begin to understand why I think he’s worth reading. Maybe some of you will even give him a try!

IRVING STONE (1903-1986)

Irving Stone was a California writer best known for his biographical novels, a genre which owes its contemporary form largely to Stone’s first novel of “bio-history,” Lust for Life (Evory, 642). In these works, Stone would “novelize accounts of real people, based on meticulous research” (NNDB). His first biographical novel, a great success, was followed by other notable works in the same genre, including Love is Eternal: A Novel of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln (1954) and The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (1961).

Stone was born Irving Tennenbaum on July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California. In 1934 he married his long-time editor, Jean Factor, and they had two children together. According to Stone, he began reading at a very early age, and onward through life, which caused him to be given the nickname “bookworm” (Sarkissian, 361). As a boy growing up in San Francisco in the early 1900s, Stone bore witness to many momentous events, including the great earthquake of 1906, the World’s Fair of 1914, and the implementation of Prohibition in 1919 (Sarkissian, 362-4). When Stone was not yet in high school, his mother (who was uneducated but who “craved books and knowledge”) brought him to the University of California at Berkeley and demanded with “a burning intensity” that he promise “that no matter what happens” he attend that school (364).

Stone kept that promise, thanks in large part to several fortuitous instances of luck (and evasion). For example, when he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the registrar at his new school, Manual Arts High School, mistook “English and Composition” for two separate courses; this led to young Irving – a not great student in general—being awarded not eight units of As in “English and Composition” but sixteen units of As, eight each for the two separate subjects, which were not actually separate. The registrar asked Stone to confirm this, and he did. It was only much later in life that he admitted the deception (Sarkissian, 366).

Another fortunate event took place after his first semester at the University of Southern California (USC), where Stone enrolled because he had missed the deadline for Berkeley’s spring registration. Stone, quite sure of his inability to successfully complete courses in mathematics and the sciences, learned upon enrolling at Berkeley that they had enacted a new policy requiring two years of study in these very subjects (he had gotten through them in high school only because he had friends and classmates willing to do his work for him). Luckily for Stone, an exception was written into the rules whereby any incoming student with at least 14 credits of university coursework could waive the math and science requirements. Stone had completed exactly that many hours at USC, in anticipation of his eventual transfer to Berkeley (366).

So, Stone’s rise out of the lower classes and through academia is, by his own admission, largely due to certain circumstances of fortune, but also to his own abilities as a writer. Ultimately, honored his mother’s wishes by studying Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1923. He then earned his M.A. from the University of Southern California in 1924 (Evory, 641).

From boyhood and through his university years, Stone worked odd jobs, including as a vaudeville musician, a milk depot employee, a delivery boy, and an usher (Sarkissian, 364-5). According to Stone, even before his fifteenth birthday he was working up to thirty-five hours a week, while going to school (365). This would have been possible –even probable—considering Stone’s family’s lack of income as well as the fact that child labor laws in the United States were not yet in effect until 1938. It is possible that much of this early experience would feed his later academic and professional interests, including his search for “the wellsprings of human conduct” and his particular interest in “social economics” including “labor relations, poverty controls, slum clearance, and the like” (Sarkissian, 368). In college, Stone “supported himself by playing saxophone in a dance band” (Krebs) and was also granted teaching fellowships at USC and at Berkeley (Sarkissian, 368).

After finishing college and graduate studies, Stone “supported himself by writing detective stories” and a few plays. It was only after being rejected 17 times that Lust for Life, his first success, was finally accepted for publication (Britannica). Stone was particularly interested in representing, honestly, the overlooked or the misunderstood – the underdogs of history. As Albin Krebs puts it, “what aroused Mr. Stone’s curiosity was the suspicion that a character had been misunderstood or unfairly misrepresented by previous studies” (para. 15). For this reason, he often wrote about “totally unimportant figures” (Sarkissian, 370) such as Clarence Darrow, or misunderstood (particularly by the American audience) personalities, such as Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo. In addition, Stone –again possibly due to the influence of his childhood, and especially the formative influence of his mother – “was also intrigued by how the women in the lives of men in the public eye influenced them” (Krebs, para. 15). This interest resulted in a tetralogy of popular novels, three of which, according to Stone, were about “women [who] had been traduced and vilified by history” (Sarkissian, 370).

In crafting his novels, what was most important to Stone was that the history informing his stories be as factually accurate and as detailed as possible, which takes a great amount of time and effort when one is writing about actual, historical figures. In his prologue to The Irving Stone Reader, he writes, “the biographical novelist must be the master of his material; the craftsman who is not in control of his tools will have his story run away with him” (19). Stone’s extensive and exhaustive research into his subjects led him and his wife to numerous countries, including a lengthy stay in Italy, where Stone spent years researching the life of Michelangelo. In addition to this, the pair spent two years living in Vienna, researching Sigmund Freud, and later moved to Greece to research the lives of Henry and Sophia Schliemann (Sarkissian 376).

Stone’s research did not simply lead to the completion of his novels, however; indeed, much of his work on these historical figures often resulted in other contributions to academia, such as bringing “much previously unpublished and important information into print,” including Freud’s papers and Michelangelo’s and Van Gogh’s letters (Evory, 643). Stone has also received numerous awards, including the Christopher Award and Silver Spur Award (1957), the Golden Lily of Florence, Rupert Hughes Award, Gold Medal from Council of American Artist Societies, Gold Trophy from American Women in Radio, Corpus Litterarum Award from Friends of the Libraries, University of California, Irvine (Evory, 641), and the John P. McGovern Award (NNDB). He also founded the Academy of American Poets in 1962 (Britannica).

Finally, although Stone withdrew from his Ph.D. program at Berkeley prior to completing his dissertation, he did eventually receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Berkeley, as well as honorary doctorates from A&H University, California State Colleges, Coe College, Hebrew Union College, and the University of Southern California (OAC).

Works Cited

  • Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series. Vol. 3. Ed. Adele Sarkissian. Detroit: Gale, 1986.
  • Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 1. Ed. Ann Evory. Detroit: Gale, 1981.
  • “Finding Aid to the Irving Stone Papers.” Online Archive of California. The Regents of the
  • University of California, 2009.
  • “Irving Stone.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Fantastic Fiction. Fantastic Fiction, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” NNDB. Soylent Communications, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 2013.
  • “Irving Stone, Author of ‘Lust for Life,’ Dies at 86.” Obituaries. New York Times, 2013.
  • Stone, Irving. The Irving Stone Reader. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1963.

All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


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