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whose posterity is it?

 An essay from the late and not so great Willett's Magazine.


There’s a popular literary game, which consists of predicting which writers will “endure”. Whenever the waters of clickbait grow still and old, some webzine site will stir it up by playing this old game, asking what names among today’s writers will be counted in a hundred years. Heated arguments will break out: the question of whether the works of Stephan King will be recognized one hundred years from now as the greatest American fiction of our time will elicit heated comments, and there will surely be much knocking of the elites.

Nobody seems to predict that a writer that they don’t like will be recognized in one hundred years. Nor does anybody ask about the institutions that preserve for posterity the reputation of a writer. Instead, these predictions rely on a sort of amorphous popular will, with powers beyond any dreamt up by Rousseau. The general will will judge the quick and the dead. That’s the sense.

There are two issues here, actually. One is that the posterity of a work is a form of credentialling – that time awards a good quality seal to the lucky genius. Auden, beautifully, captures this, in my opinion, specious idea:

Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats

Auden wrote that in 1939, and part of him knew that time and the Nazis were definitely not pardoning those who lived by language, but condemning them: hence the aborted careers of scores of poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and the lot. Time may well condemn to very long, or even perpetual, obscurity those writings that have not stuck, in some way, to the usual institutions, or that emanated from condemned ethnicities or genders.

The other issue is projecting one’s own taste and time on the future. Here, we do have historical evidence, although it is never used by any of those who play the game. It is as if posterity hasn’t been there before us. But it has.

So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?

Over the long term, my feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Statius. Who even recognizes the name? Ovid, Lucretius, or Catullus just weren’t in the running. Lucretius did not have a very great posterity in the Roman world, and only came into European culture, really, when a manuscript of the Nature of Things was discovered in 1417 in Florence, according to Stephan Greenblatt. So over time, posterity is swallowed up in such unexpected events that we can’t guess. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer the question – we need relatively short term posterity. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous, as, for instance, an economic structure that is generally the same over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka’s manuscripts didn’t, despite his dying request. So it goes. Statius, when all is said and done, had a good run – as good as Shakespeare’s. He’s gone now: even the Loeb Classical library is not all that enthusiastic about The Thebiad.

Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory, which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century, was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a group who would preserve it, and upon this group was projected contemporary attitudes: true posterity would consist of people like the friends of the poet, gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. The posterity of the poem was the posterity of the people who read and understood the poem, the educated audience. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift’s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller — the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it.

One new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature in the vulgar tongue. One has to take that into account, as well as the relatively rapid changes that tend to traverse the academy, which is very much a product of capitalism and has been, for the most part, absorbed in the mechanism of vocationalisation. That mechanism, of course, makes sense once we factor in the costs of higher education. In the Anglophone world, the bright Ph.D in English or Comparative Lit might owe as much as 100,000 dollars in student debt, and faces an absolutely pitiless job market. It is no exaggeration to say that the humanities in the U.S. were assassinated by the regime of tuition hikes and the withdrawal of public financing. Education for its own sake, culture for its own sake, it is fair to say, is no longer the major part of the academic mission, and when it is, its teachers feel a nagging guilt. This is because they are betraying their best students – and they know it.

Another factor, one whose effects are unknown – but that I think we can see in the reputation of male writers from the 60s to the 80s – is the changing composition of who counts in posterity. For the longest time, say, a couple thousand years, women hardly counted at all. This fact has a well known bearing on the rarity of women writers, given the institutions that actively worked to suppress women writers. But it has an as yet unstudied effect, as well, on posterity, which has always been in the hands of a massively male dominated circle. Virginia Woolf asked about Shakespeare’s sister – we can ask about Virginia Woolf. Her reputation was, in the hands of the masculinist opinion-makers,  battered as much as possible after her death. She was snobbish. She wasn’t serious. Or her feminism wasn’t serious. Or her pacifism was disgusting. Or she was a lesbian.  In the sixties, Virginia Woolf’s stock was much, much below D.H. Lawrence’s.  

I think it is a sign of the times that Lawrence’s posterity has taken a huge hit since then. If we were to take a survey now among the literati, it would be a good bet that Woolf would come out before Lawrence. This would have surprised the English critics of the 1950s. F.R. Leavis, the editor of the enormously influential Scrutiny review, campaigned hard against her, excluding her from the Great Tradition. For Leavis, the great English novelist of the 20th century was clearly D.H. Lawrence. The Leavisian antagonism against Woolf is shared by many of the common sense English critics up to this day. As James Wood has observed, what connects Leavis, John Bayley, and John Carey – all influential English literary critics  – was an abhorrence for all things Bloomsbury, and especially Woolf. I’d add Christopher Ricks to that number. Frank Kermode, a literary politician if ever there was one, caught something in the air in 1978 when he wrote that Woolf seemed to be coming into her own again. And, in an unconsciously sexist phrase, he gave away the side that opposed Woolf:

There are even attempts to develop, from some of her remarks, a theory of androgyny, founded in her reading of Coleridge; Roger Poole, sympathetic to feminism, nevertheless makes some sturdy qualifications here, and one is glad of them, for a bass voice strengthens the chorus.

Ah, those bass voices….

Certainly she is taught more than Lawrence in the U.S. In my own opinion, Woolf is a more interesting writer than Lawrence, more of an artist: Lawrence would simply have been incapable of the formal pleasures of To the Lighthouse or Jacob’s Room. Woolf, as The Years shows, was perfectly capable of the multi-generational epic so adored by the bluff and morally hearty school of critics. However, I don’t know how to “rank” them against each other besides making such observations. The need for the ranking exercise stems partly from the classroom, and even in that locus, to my perception, there is a failure to teach canon-making – the critical intelligence that the student can bring to his or her own experience of literature, art, films, etc., with, always, the codicil that other intelligences may come to other conclusions.  The entertainment industry, on the other hand, is fully aware of this fact, which is why it is profligate with ranking exercises, while it prizes only one: earnings.  One of the reasons that ranking has a slightly masculinist air to it is that it invites the same kind of hierarchical projection we see in other places in the patriarchy, and the same kind of boxing matches in which what is at stake is as much the ego of the critic as the worth of the artist. 

However, this observation may be my quirk. Posterity, up to now, has ranked us whether we want it to or not. Since the late nineteenth century, we have developed a certain feeling for the statistical, a sixth sense for frequencies, as we find ourselves in nets of them: polled, counted, interviewed, surveyed, etc. To return to the Woolf vs. Lawrence matchup:  Lawrence scholars have been complaining for decades about the lack of interest in the great D.H., but perhaps this is a reaction to Lawrence being pushed, by English critics, as the greatest, the novelist up there with Joyce, Proust, Mann, etc. The whole crew.  Whereas even with the discouraging word in the years immediately after her death, Woolf always sold. The interest of academics and the larger circle of literati in Woolf has not, really, been a ranking movement – there’s no Leavis out there for Virginia Woolf. It seems somehow tasteless, a misunderstanding of Woolf’s own sensibility, to get all frothy about the greatest.

This, possibly, tells us something deeper about the very idea of posterity, its claim on the living. If there is a future beyond our coming climate change deaths, I think it is fair to say that the next hundred years will see a take off in the posterity of certain writers who were, by gender or race, not considered previously by all the white guys. At the same time, there may be a reconsideration of the whole meaning of lasting a hundred, two hundred, years. 


So here’s a concrete question. Given these circumstances, what chance does, say, Stephen King have to be remembered to future generations? And what chance do the brilliant mandarins, the literary novelists, have? To pose the question wholly in one category of literature – in poetry, I suppose, the same question could counterpoise Marilyn Hacker and, say, Li’l Kim, or John Ashberry and Bob Dylan.

On the evidence of genre alone, gothic and horror writers have a pretty good survival rate. At least three or four writers of gothic novels in the eighteenth century are still in print, and still found on the shelves of medium sized public libraries, as well as being assigned in classes and being made into films (the addition of media technologies has a major impact on posterity, I should note: printing did everything for, say, Lucretius, while it did little for Statius). Books by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and William Beckworth are still in print, as are those by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan La Fanu from the nineteeth century. That is just in English culture – there is also, of course, Theodore Gautier (author of the original Mummy story) and Gaston Leroux; there is ETA Hoffman and Meyrink.

One strong driver of reputation is that a book generates a character. Frankenstein, or Dracula, or, the Mummy, or – going towards another genre – a Sherlock Holmes overshadows the works in which they were represented. King has not, I believe, created that kind of character, unlike, say, Ann Rice. Furthermore, King is proudest of his thousand page works. One thing about gothic and mystery fiction is that it is generally either small or medium sized. As it gets more literary, however, the larger size helps. Hugo’s Notre Dame with the hunchback is a Stephen King sized novel.

Again, though, one can’t just bet on this recipe. Film, which now plays a major role in the posterity management of fiction, is very stagily centered around character; yet that is simply to say that it is stagily centered about the star. Hector Lector is a famous character who, I feel, may be fading into obscurity, but is still remembered as a character, and he is taken from a Thomas Harris novel that nobody predicts a long posterity for (although who knows?). In that sense, Hector Lector might well outlive his bookish source entirely. Who remembers a single book by George Du Maurier? And yet his mesmerist, Svengali, entered popular lore. On the other hand, the process goes into reverse with films, too. Who remembers the name of the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Rather, one remembers Jack Nicholson. Or at least that’s what I do.

Posterity for a mandarin depends a lot on networking, on circle-making. It isn’t necessary to be part of the establishment, but it is helpful, if one is on the outs with the establishment, to create a counter-establishment. Compare, for instance, the posthumous fates of D.H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys – both writers of big novels, both of a philosophical bent, both obsessed with sex. Powys has his fans – Steiner called the Glastonbury Romance one of the three great books of the twentieth century. But really, Powys never made a counter-establishment. He became quaint – that is, he was on the outs with the conventions of the modern novel, but he never had a following that theorized that extra-territoriality. Lawrence, however, was the establishment rebel par excellence. There’s nothing like breaking decisively with Bertrand Russell to show that 1, you are a rebel, and 2, you know Bertrand Russell.

Now, my comments so far have not been about the quality of these writers at all. My notes have been about posterity as an effect not of the popular will, nor of quality, but of social forces.

Certain American novelists I like best – Gaddis, for instance, and McCarthy – are, I think, not destined for a long posterity. Gaddis is like George Meredith – he is eccentric enough as a writer that he attracts only a passionate few. But Meredith was able to produce one or two conventional novels, like the Ordeal of Richard Feveral. Gaddis only produced prodigies: The Recognitions, J.R. One hundred years from now, I have my doubts these novels will be much read. But that says nothing, to me, about their intrinsic quality. As for McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, the case is trickier. I can see his later novels, which to me are much worse than his earlier ones, enduring. But his difficult works, Suttree, Blood Meridian, and some of the shorter early ones, are too negative, and, though movie like in their own ways, not movie like in Hollywood ways.  Of course, this is where the educational institutions come in, creating the substructure of posterity. Joyce seems to be the limit case for these institutions, but it could well be that McCarthy would join Faulkner on the curriculum. I wonder.


There is an enlightenment moment in the posterity imago – it consists in assuming that the world will not end. This was quite a radical thing in the thirteenth century. I wonder if it isn’t still a radical thing. I’ve recently talked to two people, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both of whom assured me that the world was going to undergo a disaster in the next one hundred years. In fact, the expectation that the world is going to end seems so deeply etched in the Western template that it might be impossible to erase. In this sense, too, the prediction of the posterity of one’s favorite author is generally made without any attention to how posterity works. It is, in other words, a combination of incredible optimism and a severely narrow sociological viewpoint. Like heaven, purgatory and hell, posterity, that secular afterlife, is on the rocks. Time is much more indifferent than even Auden imagined. Yet I still can’t believe that. The incredible indifference to climate change on the part of our governing class shows that we can not trust them, any longer, with posterity. Posterity, in the future, I think, has to be oppositional, or it won’t be at all. We have to take it from them, take it back from them. In the long run, we aren’t all dead.