Readable, engaging look at memorable fights among (mostly) 20th-century literary personalities.
Fulbright scholar Arthur (The Tailor King, 1999, etc.) maintains a lively enthusiasm in examining conflict among prickly literary lions, believing that these episodes address the “paradoxical relationship between these writers’ lives and their works.” His eight chapter-length essays also provide a rich background in different literary epochs. Ironically, some feuds grew out of writers’ early friendships in their years before fame, as in with Mark Twain and Bret Harte; although Twain was initially indebted to Harte, he turned on his mentor after Harte succumbed to impoverished mediocrity. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway’s early expatriate experiences, when he worshipfully attended the Paris salon of Gertrude Stein, were savagely mocked by him once his own fame was established, particularly in response to Stein’s cooling on his work. Interestingly, the most genteel clashes recounted here occur over aesthetic and philosophical conflicts (between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, and, less strikingly, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis), while the most vicious feud replays important political schisms between the Old and New Left, via Lillian Hellman’s ill-advised libel suit against Mary McCarthy. Finally, there is the post-1950s free-for-all among privileged white male celebrity writers as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, John Updike, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe have at it, managing to appear both witty and puerile in their elaborate jousts at one another’s expense. Although this is studded with fine-tuned bons mots (as when Vidal opines that to attack Capote is “attacking an elf”), the reader may finally agree with Wilson’s observation that literary feuds find notable authors at their most “querulous and unattractive.” Too, Arthur might have produced a more provocative work had he included more obscure writers and contemporary mud-slingers like Curtis White, Dale Peck, and Francine Prose.
Still, for literary enthusiasts, an amusing compendium of the vitriol and ego for which our most enduring writers somehow set aside the time.