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Under the influence

Double Lives American Writers' Friendships Richard Lingeman Random House: 272 pp., $24.95

April 09, 2006|Matthew Price | Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

EVEN if the writer generally works in solitude, writing does not happen alone. Editors, agents, friends, lovers, husbands, wives, children, readers: The writer is bound by a web of influences, dealings and connections, each of which is volatile in its own way. Writers' lives are littered with broken relationships -- Yeats said you could perfect the work or the life, but not both. Yet is this really so?

In "Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships," biographer Richard Lingeman puts a hopeful gloss on literary relationships. Oh yes, we get plenty of knock-down, drag-out blowups -- F. Scott Fitzgerald jousting with friend/rival Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken lampooning erstwhile pal Theodore Dreiser as a country bumpkin -- but Lingeman wants to show how, even at their worst, each of these relationships should be seen as a kind of creative partnership. The route to perfection of the work, he suggests, is through the entanglements of life.

Literary friendships have been a crucible for some of the most important works of American literature. Take Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who met in the summer of 1850 in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The diffident, reclusive Hawthorne, enjoying hard-won success with the just-published "The Scarlet Letter," was immediately taken with Melville, a young up-and-comer at work on his most ambitious novel yet. (One guess -- it's about a whale.) The two formed an unusually close bond, but Lingeman dismisses speculation that they became lovers. He'll have none of that, reminding us that the dynamics of male friendship in the 19th century "were deeper, more passionate and more influential than those of today."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Writer identifications: In the Book Review section Sunday, a caption accompanying the review of "Double Lives" switched the identifications of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Wharton is pictured at left and Cather at right.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 16, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 4 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Writer identifications: In a caption accompanying the April 9 review of "Double Lives," the identifications of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather were switched. Edith Wharton is above left and Willa Cather, above right.

What matters is how Hawthorne "changed the nature of Melville's great novel, sending him diving to darker depths." Lingeman contends that Hawthorne's brooding aesthetic, with its heavy freight of symbol and damnation, unleashed a potent fury in Melville. Indeed, some months after their first meeting, Melville offered to send Hawthorne "a fin of the 'Whale' ," noting that his book had been "broiled in hell-fire."

Not all the friendships detailed in "Double Lives" were rife with such metaphysical melodrama. Lingeman's chapter on William Dean Howells and Mark Twain is his most tepid because there were few intellectual fireworks or psychic dramas. More interesting are Lingeman's studies of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather: Here are two examples of a writer needing to unlearn certain habits of mind to realize her true self.

Like many ambitious Gilded Age writers, Cather and Wharton fell under the spell of Henry James. Bad move: Only the Master could write like the Master. It took Wharton a friendship with James to overcome his stylistic grip on her. James warned her not to follow his path to Europe, exile and ambivalence about his home country. "DO NEW YORK," he exhorted. It was good advice.

Cather's problems were more acute. She did not have Wharton's wealth, she was plagued by sexual confusion and suffered from the distractions of a full-time job as managing editor of McClure's, a feisty, muckraking periodical. A 1908 meeting with Sarah Orne Jewett changed all that. Jewett, author of "The Country of Pointed Firs," would die the next year, which makes the Cather-Jewett friendship all the more poignant. Jewett's letters, writes Lingeman, "contain some of the most generously helpful words ever written by one American writer to another."

Crucially, Jewett was "Willa's only link to America's sparse female literary tradition." She urged Cather to find a quiet place to center her life "and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country -- in short -- you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up." As Jewett did with her home state of Maine, Cather must sink her roots deep into her native soil of Nebraska. The rest is literary history -- and some of the finest work by an American writer.

Lingeman's sensitive treatment of Cather and Jewett is moving, but let's face it, who doesn't relish a good literary scrap? On to the fights, then.

Lingeman, an editor with the Nation and author of biographies on Sinclair Lewis and Dreiser, delivers the goods in his sketches of Dreiser and Mencken and the fractious camaraderie of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Mencken and Dreiser waged war on the puritans of early 20th century culture, but as Lingeman shows, Mencken's standards of friendship were so ridiculously high that anyone was bound to disappoint. After writing three separate raves of Dreiser's controversial 1911 novel "Jennie Gerhardt," Mencken went after Dreiser for largely imagined offenses. Mencken, it turns out, was a bit of a prude, and he needled Dreiser for the latter's excursions into bohemian Greenwich Village.

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