Originality in literature

Nowadays, originality is seen as the greatest and most central of literary virtues. However, it only arose as a literary virtue during the Romantic period, comprising inventio (practical skill of an artisan) and creatio (associated with artistry and the exaltation of the individual author and his/her original input). Before that era, getting ‘inspiration’ from previous texts was very common, and also we can find the same plots over and over throughout literary history. In fact, according to Roland Barthes, ‘all texts are made from traces of already existing texts. They are but a fabric woven with allusions and references’. But that won´t make non-connoisseurs feel less cheated when they find out that worldwide celebrated authors ‘borrowed’ from previous writers or the extent to which Shakespeare himself drew from prior works by chroniclers and other playwrights. However, why do we know about Shakespeare then, but most people have never heard of Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest to list but a few of those whose plots and characters (some in turn previously ‘inspired’ in prior works) he copied? Does that imply that if a writer takes from a previous text and improves it he/she makes it his/her own?

SHAKES

Despite the compulsion for novelty that rules the market nowadays, there is nothing really new under the sun. The consumer of culture tends to look for something new and different rather than something better, but forgets that the ultimate aim of literature is mostly the portrayal of the old and unchanging human nature in all its manifestations: love, hatred, jealousy, infidelity, loyalty, violence…

And well, quoting John Erskine: ‘Is it the originality of genius in art to say something no one has ever thought of before, or to say something we all recognise as important and true? As for the question of priority, even stupid things has been said for a first time; do we wear a laurel for being the first to say them?’

 

Sources:

JSTOR

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF THEORY AND CRITICISM

 

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Graham Greene

Born in 1904 in what Virginia Woolf called “the leaning tower generation”, Graham Greene came from a world of inherited privilege which made him feel uneasy in the face of poverty and injustice, and lead him to flirt with the left in his youth only to become disillusioned with all forms of government and suspicious of any state intervention later. He felt that the old liberal myths had been debunked by reality in a politically unstable and hostile world. This aspects of his background inform his novels, in which romantic and paradoxical protagonists -reflecting the author’s nature- are usually faced with moral dilemmas or depart from convention to a certain extent. This situation leads them to an uncertain moral quicksand they strive to make sense of. This atmosphere as well as his protagonists’ character traits gave rise to the term ‘Greenland’ to refer to this peculiar yet familiar world.

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Called by some a ‘Catholic writer’, he rejected this label saying that he just was ‘a writer who happened to be a Catholic’. He converted to Catholicism just before marrying a Catholic and used to hold theological discussions with the priest in charge of conducting his instruction, during which he defended atheism and agnosticism. He later said that he considered himself to be a ‘Catholic agnostic’. Four of his novels stem to a certain extent from Catholicism and are even called by some ‘his Catholic novels’; Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. Both in The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, the protagonist faces the moral implications of infidelity and in The Heart of the Matter those of suicide.

Greene experienced both during his life and that makes the novels very realistic, authentic and heartfelt. Suffering from depression, Greene used to say that he had ‘a character profoundly antagonistic with domestic life’. In the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life, he mentions that his grandfather was bipolar and that he would have diagnosed as such at the time he was writing it. He attempted suicide on several occasions before coming of age, one of them by playing Russian roulette and resorted to psychoanalysis for some months when he was 17.

His experience in the Secret Service during World War II provided him with material for several of his espionage novels or ‘entertainments’, as he somewhat derogatorily called them –The Ministry of Fear, The Confidential Agent, The Human Factor, The Quiet American-. However, we can also find a certain philosophical taste to them.

Greenland is a very special environment where anyone who has experienced failure, moral dilemmas, has felt the burden of boredom, has faced injustice or is aware of what underlies the façade of convention -which really equals saying anybody who is human and has a brain- will feel at home.

The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is n account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

casual ward

He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and get a cold treatment as he does so in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.

Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

East End 1903

He gets immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End were men in one room working for 15 hours a day encaged in a tiny room, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnesses the life of those dying of consumption, those who can only afford to have rotten meat once a week, and who can only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. And he lives with those who can not even afford lodging and try to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, sleep in the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experiences life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.

 

Down and out in Paris and London, by George Orwell.

Your clothes get dirty and you can’t afford having them washed. You run out of soap and razor-blades. You start avoiding prosperous friends in the street. You discover hunger. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles. You start thinking: in a day or two I’ll be starving”; this is Orwell’s description of the process of slipping into poverty. Down and Out in Paris and London” starts in a Paris slum where Orwell lived in 1929, in a lousy hotel in the rue du Coq d’Or among the yells of Mme. Monce, loud prostitutes and children in the street. It’s a narrow street crammed with derelict buildings packed with immigrants of every conceivable nationality, most of them eastern Europeans.

This fantastic book describes the writer’s personal experiences among the inhabitants of an often ignored social stratum, the underworld present in every society and every nation in the globe. “People in this sort of background had given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty freed them from ordinary standards of behaviour he states. Our protagonist, Orwell himself, spent a year and a half in the Coq d’Or until he ran out of money and started his descent to deprivation where boredom is also a fellow traveller, as there’s nothing to do and being underfed, nothing interests you”– he says. However, according to him there’s also a feeling of relief, “as your worst fear is just in front of you and you discover that you can stand it.”

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After leaving the Coq d’Or, and going to a pawnshop where he had to accept whatever they gave him, finding a job became imperative. He went to see a Russian friend, Boris, an unemployed waiter who thought that being English was a great asset in the pursue of a job as a waiter. However, as Boris was lame and Orwell didn’t have any experience, took weeks before they could find a job. In the meantime, while now and then Boris collapsed in bed weeping desperately as money oozed away, Orwell tried fishing in the Seine river so that they could eat, but found that fish had become cunning after the seige of Paris. Appealing to the solidarity of his fellow country men, Boris suggested that they could get in touch with a Russian secret society in Paris; apparently they were looking for articles on English politics, which could make things easier for Orwell too. So, they went to the secret hideaway, where the Russian revolutionaries demanded 20 Francs from them as an entrance fee. The revolutionaries asked Orwell about British politics and seemed satisfied. However, when Boris and Orwell went to the hideaway again, the Russian revolutionaries had vanished into thin air with the entrance fee money.

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They start looking for jobs and they find two possibilities; there was work in the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, but not until some time had passed, so in the meantime they had to start working at the Hotel X. Orwell describe the caste system in there: the manager was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the maître d’hotel, then the head cook, the chef du personnel, the cooks, the waiters, the laundresses and sewing women, the apprentice waiters, the plongeurs (dishwashers) and the chambermaids. Orwell worked as a plongeur, the lower job a man could do, and he describes it as follows:

not enough sleep, continuous toil, one felt neurastenic and with fatigue; there were discarded scrapes of meat on the floor, rats and filth – even so, his workmates stated that they had known worse dirtier places-. “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world, no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art.” Among the responsibilities of a plongeur, is washing up, keeping the kitchen clean, preparing the vegetables, making tea, coffee and sandwiches, doing the simple cooking and runnning errands. It also implied tacitally no free day and no fixed working hours, although it was an average of 15 hours per day. They pay was just enough to keep the worker alive, the only holiday was the sack, a plongeur didn’t have time to marry. At that moment there were “men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10-15 hours a day, trapped in a routine that made thought impossible.”

After 5-6 weeks of working in the Hotel X, Boris disappeared, as the Auberge was about to open. Orwell left the Hotel X, but as they arrived they saw that it would take weeks for the Auberge to be ready. They employed them in the necessary works without pay. As soon as Orwell left, he went to the Auberge clean, shaved and in a new suit to feel the “curious sensation of being a customer where you have been a slave’s slave.”

Down-Out-10

He contacted a British connection -he hadn’t lost touch with the other world completely- so that he could get a job and then he got ready to leave France. But he travelled to England only to learn that his employers had gone abroad and that the prospect of a job had vanished; again, he exchanged his clothes for older ones and money. “Clothes are powerful things”, he claims as he noticed the change in people’s attitude toward him once he changes his suit for shabby clothes. Then, he starts experiencing and describing an even lower stratum of society populated by tramps. Firstly, he looked for the cheapest place to sleep, a battered looking house (know as a kip) in East London, which was full of oriental immigrants. There, he slept with several men in the same room. As he ran out of money -even more-, he changed his lodgings, as he only had a half penny left, and decided to go Romton, one of the London spikes (casual wards). There he met Paddy, an Irish man who had been a tramp for the last 15 years, who explained how the spikes worked. After queuing for a while at the entrance, a lady with a crucifix welcomed them inside, and gave them tea while she talked about religious subjects, and once the tea time was over, the lady insisted on their kneeling down and pray as part of the deal. “Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on your knees for it”, says Paddy.

casual ward

Once in the spike, the authorities only allowed each tramp to keep eightpence and they had to hand any sum to them at the entrance, but most tramps would rather smuggle their own money by tying it in a piece of cloth so that it didn’t chink. Once registered in the office, an officer who treated them like cattle lead them inside. They were searched before bathing and there were 50 stark-naked men packed in a room 20 feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels for all. They bathed in used water. There were no beds, they slept on the floor. After midnight, a man began making homosexual attempts upon Orwell, after which it was impossible to go back to sleep. At 8 in the morning they were out. The meal tickets they had been given lead them to a coffee shop where they were reluctantly served tea and four slices of bread. Paddy wanted to go to the Edbury spike and he explained that the Edbury spike was similar to Romton but tobacco was confiscated at the entrance. Under the Vagrancy Act, tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike.

Down-Out-3

After Edbury, they went to a Salvation Army shelter, of semi-military discipline, and then they went looking for a friend of Paddy’s, Bozo. Bozo was a screever (pavement artist). He made his drawings on the pavement with artist’s chalks. He mainly painted cartoons, but had to avoid pro-socialist content due to the police and avoided religious charities, as he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He considered himself in a class above ordinary beggars, but the enemy of society all the same. In Bozo’s lodging house Orwell meets blacks, whites and Indians from all kinds of backgrounds, including a former doctor. Bozo explained to Orwell the different types of tramps that populated the streets: Organ-grinders and acrobats, who were considered as artists more than beggars and screevers who were somewhere in between, as they were only sometimes considered as artists. He introduced Orwell to a real artist who had studied art in Paris and copied Old Masters on the pavement. “It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off and foreigners. The English are mean”. Sometimes he talked like an art critic about the colours in nature. I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show. It don’t cost anything to use your eyes”. “If you got an education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself ‘I’m a free man in here – and he tapped his forehead – and you’re all right”. Bozo had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. Bozo represents an optimistic outlook quite different to the common assumptions on life on the road and poverty, an exceptional character and a remarkable man. As long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he considered himself free in his own mind.

“Down and out in Paris and London” is an often humorous yet realistic narration which invites to reflection about class issues and reveals the lives of the inhabitants of the lower strata of society, full of ignored poverty-stricken people, rich with stories and experiences utterly alien to the official average citizen.

The interbellum years II: the crisis.

Hoover came into power 1929. A critical year. He believed that technology and expertise would lead USA to a permanent state of prosperity. Industrial production had increased by 30% during the last ten years, but the characteristic prosperity of the 20s was an illusion and ended in financial disaster. In 1929 the unemployment rate rocketed and 60% of families fell below the poverty line. Several factors contributed to this long crisis:

  • structural weakness of the banking system.

  • Inability of borrowers to repay loans, which lead to a epidemics of bank failures.

  • Unequal distribution of wealth and income (23-29 the income of the wealthiest 1% increased dramatically). Concentration of resources in hands of the wealthy, who didn’t need to spend their money. As a consequence assembly line production, which was aimed for a very different niche, remained stored and the stock surplus lowered prices, which was in turn translated into unemployment and financial failure for the companies. No unemployment insurance: the relief burden fell on state and municipal governments and private charities. Crisis hit during a shift from traditional industries to newer (steel and textiles to processed food, auto-mobiles and tobacco, heavily dependent on the stock market).

  • Farm prices depressed since the end of WWI, when European agriculture revived.

  • Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements and defaulted on their debts putting pressure on the banking system.

  • Protectionist measures: residential construction rose in 1924 and 27 and plummeted in 1929. One of the reasons was the restrictions to immigration. Republican tariff policies damaged foreign trade.

  • Economists and bankers introduced measures founded in past experiences no longer relevant.

  • The Federal Reserve, in order to curb stock market speculation slowed down the growth of the money supply then allowed it to fall after the crash, producing a liquidity crisis. Reduced amount of money available to consumers to spend.

  • USA, UK and most countries in Europe and Latin America insisted on clinging to the Gold Standard after WWI: each currency had a fixed value in relation to gold. It made their economies slow down.

market crash suicide

The Stock Market Crash took place in October 1929. As a result, Hoover was blamed and the new way of life was named after him by his opponents: shanty towns built by the homeless was called Hoovervilles. There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. Newspapers were called “Hoover blankets”, and empty pockets inside out were “Hoover flags”.

hooverville

Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929; most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased the demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and consisted of tents and shacks. The authorities did not officially recognize these “Hoovervilles” and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private properties, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity.

According to Hoover recovery was just round the corner. But the reality was that families lived on soup and beans only, without meat and fresh vegetables for months. Family providers were in question and they walked long distances looking for a job while their families had to stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check. The crops rotted in the fields, as prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile. The blacks were the first to lose their jobs and Mexican Americans were deported. Those who were poor before the crisis subsisted better because they were used to subsisting in poverty, but middle class was hit hard. Many professionals and white collars refused to ask for charity and those who fell behind on mortgage payments lost their homes. As health care declined, people stopped going to the doctor, because they could not pay assistance. Banks approached collapse and customers rushed in to withdraw their deposits causing bank failure.

The interbellum years I: from prosperity to poverty.

Right after the WWI, the USA lived a period of prosperity without precedents and became the richest country on Earth. National per capita annual income increased by 30%. The manufacturing process in factories was greatly modernised, increasing production per worker/hour by 75%. A new culture of consumer goods emerge superseding the old rural values. Migration from rural areas to cities in search of new opportunities grow, and people are eager to buy the new goods advertised by the media. Advertising, electrodomestics, cars and purchase on credit by installments buying plans offer exciting possibilities. The is what Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”. Birth of mass entertainment and blooming of many magazines and publications. Writers like Dorothy Parker wrote short stories in these publications.

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Many American authors went to exile, as living in Europe was cheaper, but also in search for values and beliefs (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound). This generation of writers was baptised by Gertrude Stein as the lost generation and their main trait is their disillusionment and disenchantment after the war. In “This side of paradise” (1920) Fitzgerald describes a young generation at a dead end: “fully dedicated to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shake.” This generation of writers had faced the horror of war, had witnessed massive death and destruction and they lost all faith in institutions, history and the human being. Abstract ideals such as progress and liberty were no longer to be trusted. They felt a vacuum after the war, and the new optimistic idealism was totally meaningless and decadent to them. The superficial materialism of postwar society with its modern commodities, consumerism, conformity and contentment was no substitute for values like altruism, solidarity and heroism. They felt nostalgia.

johnny got his gun

“Johnny got his gun”

When the WWI finished, Woodrow Wilson was in office. During his two terms, several important changes were introduced in society through legislation, and none of them were ‘spur of the moment’ laws, but the consequence of a long time of previous brewing:

  • The Eighteenth Amendment was approved in 1919, a controversial law, the Prohibition introduced restraints in civil liberties, it had been in the background since the times of the Puritans and encouraged by the Methodist Church and the Temperance Movement, who made it gain momentum. The Prohibition was officially working until 1934, when it was officially repealed. The crime rates increased, as the upper class was willing to break the law to have access to alcohol (Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”, 1922) and organised crime bloomed, enriching those who dominated the illicit business, such as Al Capone. Speakeasies, bootleggers and bathtub gin were born and will always remain as symbols of those times (as seen in The Great Gatsby”, 1925).

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (women suffrage) was approved, after a long period of struggle by the Suffragist Movement. Victorian values regarding sex and relationships was rapidly fading and women enjoyed more freedom in this respect (as described by Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker).

  • The Emergency Tariff Act and the Emergency Quota Act, signed in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, established protectionist measures aimed at hindering the introduction of European imports and also set migration quotas related to race and origins, restricting the entrance to certain ethnic groups (it’s consequences are mentioned throughout “Manhattan Transfer”, by John Dos Passos). This severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

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When Harding dies from a heart attack in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took up the torch and ratifies the measures taken by the latter. Due to a decreasing number of Nordic immigrants, writer Madison Grant warned that the Anglo-Saxon stock was about to be overwhelmed by lesser breeds (mainly South and East Europeans, Asians and Africans) with inferior genes, and Harding revises Harding’s Immigration Act, polishes it and ratifies it as the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, establishing a quota of 2% of each national group. The quota subsisted until the 60s. Hostility towards immigrants increased and paved the way for a KKK renaissance in rural USA which would eventually spread to cities, across all social classes.

TONY HARRISON, a working class poet.

Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.

“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise

and England made to feel like some dull oaf

is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes

and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.

tony harrison

He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”

(Them and [uz])

He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.

In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:

“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem

and taking a short cut home through these graves here

they reassert the glory of their team

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”

(V)

Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:

“…

I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,

free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,

free to say up yours to Tony Blair,

to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading

and regret the restoration of his heir.

…”

Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.