I have a guilty love for celebrity gossip that I have had to quash, because it so often comes with paparazzi and invasiveness and all sorts of immoral things like that. So I take my need to find out the squabbles between famous people to those who are either dead or were happy to flaunt it, or both. I’m talking Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford levels. And so I was completely tempted by Literary Feuds: a century of celebrated quarrels – from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe (2002) when I saw it in Maryland last year. I’ve just written ‘Maryland’ on the inside, so I don’t actually remember where I was, but perhaps Thomas would be able to tell me.
This book is basically a who’s-who of people I’ve never read, I’ll be honest. It’s worth listing them all, in case you can’t make out the words on the book cover. Ready? *clears throat*
Mark Twain vs Bret Harte
Ernest Hemingway vs Gertrude Stein
Sinclair Lewis vs Theodore Dreiser
Edmund Wilson vs Vladimir Nabokov
C.P. Snow vs F.R. Leavis
Lillian Hellman vs Mary McCarthy
Truman Capote vs Gore Vidal
Tom Wolfe vs John Updike
Now, I’d heard of all those people except Bret Harte, and knew at least a tiny bit about all of their lives, but the only two I’ve actually read complete books by are Gertrude Stein (not a success) and F.R. Leavis. I did try to read Lolita once, which was… also not a success. The focus is certainly heavily towards Americans, presumably because this is an American book, rather than because American authors are more predisposed to feuds.
I guess my point is, you don’t need to know and love these authors to find this book interesting. Each chapter looks at the two authors in question, developing how far they’d got in their careers when their paths crossed, and then talks about their initial relationships. What I hadn’t expected, going in, was how many of these pairings started off as friendships – particularly Hemingway and Stein. Literary Feuds ended up being sadder than I’d imagined, as it’s much less fun to read about friendships turned sour than it is to read about catty, knowing enmities.
So, some feuds centre about ambitions – Dreiser and Lewis fell out over which of them won a Nobel Prize, which isn’t a sticking point I’ve ever had in a friendship (though, as a – for the time being, at least – member of the EU, I am a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, donchaknow). Leavis launched an extraordinary attack on Snow, for the presumption of trying to find some common ground between literary scholars and scientists – and Arthur has fun in this chapter, highlighting what a ridiculous character Leavis ultimately was. The most extraordinary feud, I think, was between Hellman and McCarthy – which centred around a libel charge Hellman initiated after watching a McCarthy TV interview.
But Arthur isn’t a gossip merchant. What makes Literary Feuds such an impressive book is the amount of research Arthur has put in. Each chapter is essentially the work of a biographer; he may not give us every moment of the sparrers’ lives before and after the feud, but what he does say gives the impression that he knows it all. And, what’s more, he throws in something of the literary scholar too – assessing, on occasion, which author has been more deservedly remembered; analysing which are the authors’ greatest successes and biggest failures. As I say, I’m a newbie to most of these authors, so these segments provided useful tips for future reading – particularly in the Lewis/Dreiser chapter.
So, I came to the book shamefacedly looking for gossip. What I found was much more than that – intelligent, empathetic analyses of authors’ lives and works, alongside the storytelling ability to outline the issues each pair encountered in an enjoyable, page-turning way.