Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonah Siegel reviews What Was Literary Impressionism?

Michael Fried. What Was Literary Impressionism? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018. 408 pp.

Review by Jonah Siegel

Michael Fried is fascinated by makers and the conditions of making. In What was Literary Impressionism? he proposes that we read a number of texts from the end of the nineteenth century for what he believes they reveal about their authors’ preoccupations and experiences at the moment of literary creation. He calls out figures that speak to him of paper or ink, of writing or erasing. An alert and opportunistic reader, Fried creates a network of heuristic structures that allows him to relish a vision of struggle between artist and medium that is at once titanic and abject.

Literary impressionism, as Fried understands it, has nothing to do with the movement in the fine arts. It is a phenomenon manifested when literary texts reflect in particularly violent ways on the materiality entailed in their own making, thereby drawing attention to their authors’ own vexed relationship to the production of texts.

Time will tell if Fried will be able to reroute readers and scholars in such a way that his own use of the term gains currency, but he has not drawn a path from his approach to any other current in the field. On the contrary, in the course of one footnote he makes a pile of much of the extraordinarily diverse work that has touched on literary impressionism hitherto—including work ranging from Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconscious (1981) to Ian Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979) to many other fine-grained and not at all similar studies of the topic; describes them as “standard accounts”; and considers a survey of their formulations “beside the point” (p. 340 n. 21).

Fried’s resistance to conceptualizing his claims and linking them with those of others will make them less broadly useful than they might be. Still, his intellectual energy and his brilliance as a reader combine to make each one of his analyses a treasure house of local insights. The moments of bold reading are certainly one of the main strengths of this compendious and under-structured book, the other being the catholic nature of the canon to which he applies his analyses. Fried’s bold indifference to much important work in literary studies is part of a disarmingly democratic approach that allows him to engage with a rich tradition of texts that are well worth considering together, but which have generally have been kept apart from each other either by the constraints of field specialization or by spoken or unspoken hierarchies of value. In this book William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) both get as serious a response as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) or Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915).

One challenge the book will face in winning converts is that Fried’s formalist commitments require loyalty to a set of interpretative preoccupations that can run the risk of seeming as reductive in their ultimate tendency as they are bold in their formulation. It will be for the individual reader to say if more is gained or lost when a scene in which a man’s face reflects a heart broken by the collapse of his hopes becomes an occasion to reflect back on the blank sheet Conrad was confronting as he wrote; or if Frank Norris’s “A Memorandum of Sudden Death” (1902)—a brutal and detailed story of the crushing of a man’s hands to prevent him from entering a lifeboat—is best read for its brutal evocation of the ethical challenges entailed in witnessing or participating in human evil, or instead for the ways in which the loss of hands might say something about the place of the material in writing.

The absence of engagement with the psychological or ethical dimension of the works Fried addresses seems a loss, especially given how much actual physical and moral brutality is represented in the selections he reprints. Indeed, the relation of Fried’s arguments to the themes of violence, mutilation, and death glimmers always at the edges of this book, a topic or set of topics he seems to invite without admitting into his discussion. It is possible others may connect the dots Fried has laid out with such vivid clarity.