In Elisa Gabbert’s column Mess with a Classic, she revisits canonical works of literature and addresses the anxiety of confronting the art of the past (and the past in general).
Last fall, at a party, my husband and I and two friends decided to start a “Stupid Classics Book Club.” It began as a joke, and then struck us as a genuinely good idea. The project of this book club would be to read all the corny stuff from the canon that we really should have read in school but never did. None of us had been English majors, so we’d missed a lot. I pulled out a notebook, and we spent the next hour and a half in a corner, coming up with a list of “stupid classics.” As we went, we had to figure out exactly what we meant by “stupid”—we did not mean lacking in intelligence, or bad. For me, “stupid” meant relatively short, accessible enough to be on a high school syllabus, and probably rehashed into cliché over time by multiple film adaptations and Simpsons episodes. The quintessential example was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Anything too long or serious—Proust, Middlemarch—was excluded from the list, even if we all wanted to read it, due to failing those criteria. We did not assume any of the classics would actually be stupid.
We were wrong on that last count. The first book we chose to read was Fahrenheit 451. We’d all read some Ray Bradbury as kids, but not this one. A couple weeks later, when my friend Mike texted to say he had almost finished it, I texted back “No spoilers.” He responded with a semispoiler: “It’s … good for this book club.” I opened it up and read the first page:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.
I’m not always against laying it on thick, but I knew from the first sentence that I wasn’t going to like this. After thirty or forty pages, I texted Mike: “This book is so dumb it should be burned.” In the end, all four of us hated it. You might think the book’s central message (censorship is bad) is inherently noble, but nope: Bradbury wrote it in response to critics who had complained that his work was racist, sexist, xenophobic, et cetera. That motivation is present in the text, but just in case you missed it, Bradbury spelled it out in a coda to the book he wrote in 1979:
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
In Bradbury’s view of the universe, white men write good and important books, while “the minorities” and “women’s libbers” try to censor them. Except for one manic pixie dream girl who shakes Montag out of his complacency and is swiftly killed off (I missed her when she was gone), all the women in Fahrenheit 451 are zombie harpies. Montag eventually joins a band of men who have memorized the great books, the only way to save them from burning: “We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli or Christ, it’s here.” They are the heroes protecting the Western canon from being destroyed by cultural criticism. To be very clear, I don’t think we should burn or censor books, even ones I find morally repugnant. But my reasons are different from Bradbury’s (this, again, from the 1979 coda): “For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.” And it’s not just the bad politics; it’s a sloppy, silly book. I commented to the group that it felt like a NaNoWriMo novel that had never been revised, and it basically was—Bradbury wrote the first draft as a short story in nine days, then expanded the story to novel length in another nine. We don’t have a fireplace, but after the book club met, we threw our cheap paperback copy in the trash.
For our next pick, the members of the SCBC all agreed we wanted something we knew would be good. We went with Frankenstein, which John had read before, but not in twenty years or so, so it seemed like fair game. I was amazed by how different the novel was from my received ideas about it. I had not expected the monster to be so articulate, or to have read The Sorrows of Young Werther (my reaction bordered on jealousy—I haven’t read that!). I could also never quite decide how to picture the monster. If I’ve seen a movie version of a book before I read it, I inevitably picture the actors from the movie; I saw and heard Anthony Hopkins in my head while reading The Remains of the Day, though I’ve never actually seen the movie, just the trailers. But I didn’t picture Boris Karloff or the boxy, bolted head of Halloween masks. Mary Shelley’s description of the creature didn’t match: “his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness.” Victor Frankenstein “had selected his features as beautiful”—but is appalled at the uncanny living result. Once it escapes, the monster bounds around the snowy Alps like a yeti, so I pictured something hirsute, like an Edward Gorey drawing, with perfectly round yellow eyes. The one thing I thought I knew, the monster’s physicality, I had gotten wrong. Almost everything about the book defied my expectations.
Our third selection was my definitive “stupid classic”: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From the first sentence, I was delighted: “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.” I laughed out loud; it’s like a better, funnier version of the not-beautiful-woman-who-is-still-somehow-beautiful trope. I loved the next sentence, too: “At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.” Montag’s “symbolic helmet” is as terrible (I get that it’s a symbol, thanks) as “silent symbols of the after-dinner face” is great. I read on mostly for the prose, which is full of these anticlichés, these totally surprising phrases: one man is described as “about as emotional as a bagpipe” (I was not sure, at first, if this meant very emotional or not emotional at all); another as having “a kind of black, sneering coolness … but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan.” Two old friends are described as “thorough respecters of themselves and of each other.” A woman’s face betrays a “flash of odious joy.” I found the writing hilarious, appropriately full of contradictions, but also often beautiful:
It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-colored pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths.
I wrote to a friend at the time that I was enjoying the writing a lot, but didn’t really care about the story per se, the whole “devil inside” thing. This was before I got to the last twenty pages, the chapter titled “Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case.” Up to that point, the plot had pretty much aligned with the version I’d absorbed through cultural references and cartoons: the doctor transforms into a smaller, uglier, more evil person after drinking a magic potion in his laboratory. In this changed form, he’s free to roam about doing his sinister deeds; he can always change back and be innocent again. In this last chapter, Jekyll explains why he began his experiments. From youth he’d been aware of “a profound duplicity of life.” He was “in no sense a hypocrite,” he says, doing good actions while thinking dark thoughts. Rather, “both sides” were real: “I was radically both.” As Mr. Hyde, he discovers, he can give himself over completely to darkness: “I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.” He is completely free as Hyde, he believes, and completely free of consequence: “Think of it—I did not even exist!”
Then comes a moment that stunned me: One night Jekyll turns in late and wakes in the morning with “odd sensations.” Nothing in his room looks amiss, yet “something still kept insisting that I was not where I was, that I had not wakened where I seemed to be.” He has the feeling that he should not be in his own room, with its “decent furniture and tall proportions,” all present and accounted for, but in the dingy “little room in Soho” where he sometimes sleeps as Hyde. The displacement is not in the room but in his body—he looks down and sees not the “large, firm, white and comely” hand of Jekyll but the “corded, knuckly, dusky” hand of Hyde. He has gone to bed good and woken evil.
Initially, Jekyll explains, the more difficult part of the transformation had been going from Jekyll to Hyde, but the more he transformed, the more this reversed: “I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.” Eventually, he can’t sleep at all without spontaneously converting: “if I slept, or even dozed for a moment in my chair, it was always as Hyde that I awakened.” He cannot escape Hyde because Hyde no longer needs the potion, only Jekyll does, and Jekyll has run out of supplies. He is Hyde now, the evil “knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye.”
I had no inkling of this part of the story, which now seems to me infinitely richer and more complex than I’d imagined—it’s no longer simply about good versus evil, but rather any kind of unwanted or frightening change. I can read the final pages, which Jekyll narrates with the knowledge that it’s his last chance to “think his own thoughts or see his own face,” as a metaphor for aging or addiction or illness, the approach of death as a loss of the self—Jekyll’s last moments as the moments of lucidity when you recognize yourself as you are and remember the self that is disappearing, and can fathom the gap in between. The biographical note in my copy of Jekyll and Hyde tells me Robert Louis Stevenson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of forty-four. I’ve read this part over and over: “The kindly author went down to the cellar to fetch a bottle of his favorite burgundy, uncorked it in the kitchen, abruptly cried out to his wife, What’s the matter with me, what is this strangeness, has my face changed?—and fell to the floor.” It was his last transformation.
“You think you know, but you have no idea.” That’s the catchphrase for an MTV show called Diary that I’ve seen exactly once. In that episode, we follow Lindsay Lohan around for a day to see what her life is (supposedly) really like. Every time it cuts back from commercial, we hear Lohan saying that catchphrase. I think it should be the tagline for Stupid Classics Book Club, too. I thought I knew, but I had no idea. It was trendy for a while to publish lists of classics that “you don’t have to read.” In 2018, GQ named twenty-one books, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, and the Bible, that “you don’t have to read,” with suggestions for what you should read instead. Lit Hub published a list of “10 Books to Read By Living Women (Instead of These 10 By Dead Men).” Since when is it poor form to die? I find these lists incredibly tiresome. Of course, you don’t have to read anything. Some books will be triggering or make you deeply unhappy; there just isn’t enough time. But if you want to speak or write knowledgeably about them, you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like. I’m glad I read Fahrenheit 451 even though I despised it. Now I know exactly how it’s bad, and I can hate it for the right reasons.
When I was younger, as a teenager and in my twenties, I often took for granted that “good art” was good—I was, if anything, overly trusting of authority—but I didn’t take the time to actually experience that art’s goodness for myself. The older I get, the more likely I am to think That’s underrated about stuff that’s completely established canon. (Sylvia Plath? Underrated! Led Zeppelin? Underrated!) It’s not that these artists don’t get enough attention; it’s more that when something good is widely appreciated, we take it less seriously. Popularity itself makes art feel like a joke; we assume if it’s famous, it must be obvious. In high school, I wasn’t impressed by the boys who owned Led Zeppelin albums (my friend Catherine might say they weren’t rising to the challenge of modernity), so I didn’t pay attention to Led Zeppelin. Now I listen to Led Zeppelin and think, Excuse me, this fucking rules.
On the first day of April this year, I felt an itch for some vernal ritual, some formal celebration of National Poetry Month and spring, though spring is my least favorite season. The Waste Land seemed just the thing, so I found a recording of T.S. Eliot reading the poem on YouTube and played it on a loop all morning like background music. It sounded so good, I opened the poem in a browser tab and vowed to keep it open all month, to dip into at random, whenever I wanted some gorgeous, contextless language. I first read The Waste Land in college, but I felt like I had never really read it—the way my instructors talked about it, I just assumed I wouldn’t understand it, so I didn’t bother trying. I’m sure they meant well, intending to prepare us for the difficulty, but instead they scared us off. I now feel lied to, like they just wanted to keep The Waste Land for themselves. The back of the copy I bought at my college bookstore pulls the same trick, deepening its aura of obscurity: “When The Waste Land was published in 1922, initial reaction to the poem was decidedly negative. Critics attacked the poem’s ‘kaleidoscopic’ design, and nearly everyone disagreed furiously about its meaning. The poem was even rumored to be a hoax.” Can a poem be a hoax? John Ashbery used to show his classes unlabeled poems by Ern Malley—the invention of two Australian writers who hated modernist poetry—and Geoffrey Hill—an actual modernist poet—and have them guess which one was the spoof. They were right about half the time, because, of course, they were only guessing. Ashbery liked the fake poems, which were designed to be confusing. But poems that are not a little confusing have no mystery. Maybe all good poems are a bit of a hoax.
When reading Shakespeare, you can be pretty sure that any familiar phrases originated with him. This isn’t quite so with The Waste Land. Many of Eliot’s lines are famous on their own, but the text is so allusive, you might recognize a line from its source material instead—take “hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frere!” (the last line of Eliot’s first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” and the last line of Baudelaire’s preface to Les Fleurs du mal). Another reference to Les Fleurs du mal in “The Burial of the Dead” is less obvious: line 60, “Unreal City.” Eliot’s line note is “Cf. Baudelaire: ‘Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves.’” It’s not quite a translation of the line, but more of a shorthand for it. Reading The Waste Land again recently, the phrase reminded me of something, but what? Not Baudelaire. Was it reminding me of itself, the first time I read it many years ago? No, it came to me—“unreal city” is a bit of a verse from an Okkervil River song called “Maine Island Lovers,” on an album released in 2003, which I listened to obsessively in grad school. Sometimes, lately, I get a glistening feeling that references, which are often, in any case, unintentional, are not one-way but reciprocal, that Eliot is referencing the Okkervil River song as much as the other way around. In the right mood, reading The Waste Land, I can feel unhooked from time, like Proust’s narrator of Swann’s Way dozing in his “magic” chair—the poem seems to allude both backward and forward, to reference the future.
This is why it’s worth reading the classics—to spend enough time with a text that a reference to it isn’t just outside you, but connected to your intimate, lived experience. You become part of the weave of the fabric.
Read earlier installments of Mess with a Classic.
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).