A passage in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield has become a familiar adage: “I love everything that is old; old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.” Two items in that catalogue — old friends and old books — have gained a particular significance in my life. A good deal of my daily reading, accordingly, is re-reading. And sometimes, without my conscious planning, a pattern emerges. In the past couple of weeks the theme might be called Murder into Art, though I was strangely slow to apprehend it.
I’ve had on my bedside table for the past couple of weeks a copy of Dreiser’s "An American Tragedy (1925)". It’s a book I like to dip into now and again. Only in middle life did I come to appreciate Dreiser, when I read his remarkable “Trilogy of Desire.” If you are interested in understanding American capitalism, I know of nothing better. Sister Carrie is a masterpiece, too, but there is a depth to An American Tragedy that makes me return to parts of it repeatedly. It revels in moral ambiguity, and in its exposure of the limitations of human agency.
Its anti-hero Clyde Griffiths is a young man of ambition and ability but of limited social capital. He gets his working-class girlfriend pregnant. She demands that he marry at the very moment that a far more desirable sexual and social opportunity appears in his life. Clyde plots to break free by murdering his knocked-up factory girl in a fake boating accident. After hundreds of pages of legal and courtroom stuff that walks a fine line between the riveting and the tedious, he is convicted and executed. Dreiser “based” the novel in an actual murder case in Herkimer County, New York, in 1906, in which one Chester Gillette was convicted of having drowned his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown. The case had been a sensation, and Dreiser researched the voluminous journalistic literature with meticulous care. His fiction frequently transposes the “historical reality” with extraordinary fidelity, down to textual details of the betrayed girl’s pathetic letters. Yet he morally confiscates his material. It is one of the brilliances of the novel that Clyde might actually be “innocent.” Art imitates life, but enjoys (or simply takes) liberties that, if we are willing to play along, change everything.
Another long and challenging book I found myself coincidentally rereading makes that claim explicitly. It was probably in the summer of 1860 that Robert Browning stumbled upon a curious old book in a Florentine flea market. Because of the color of its aged vellum binding, it would come to be known to literary history as the “Old Yellow Book.” The Old Yellow Book was a unique anthology, or perhaps dossier, of pamphlets concerning a sensational murder case in Rome at the beginning of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini was charged with the homicide of his estranged young wife Pompilia and her parents, Pietro and Violante Comparini. Franceschini was found guilty and beheaded; his four plebeian henchmen were hanged.
Most of the pamphlets are legal documents, written in the repellent technical Latin of the lawyers, prepared for Franceschini’s trial. But if you have the learning and the stamina to make your way through them — and Browning had lots of both — they tell a story, or rather several stories. There is a mismatched married couple — an arrogant and brutal aristocrat joined in an arranged marriage with a thirteen-year-old girl. There is the girl herself, practically a cipher, but a template of pathos. There are the girl’s shadowy and grasping parents looking out for the main chance. There is a worldly young cleric with a penchant for abused young wives. From every signature fold of the Old Yellow Book rises the faint sickly sweet smell of a Roman society and a Roman Church at an exquisite moment of decay.
From this unique, antique scrapbook Browning drew the materials for what most people consider his masterpiece — the long, complicated, and very difficult poem entitled The Ring and the Book. The title expresses by way of metaphor Browning’s theory of the relation of “art” to “truth.” A fine goldsmith making a ring must stiffen his pure gold with a firmer alloy to make it strong enough to withstand his hammers and incising tools. Once the desired form is achieved, however, he burns away the alloy in an acid bath, leaving the ring perfect and pure. For Browning the Old Yellow Book was the alloy, the story he made from it the perfect ring.
In the latter years of his life, and for decades following his death in 1889 Browning commanded the celebrity of a rock star. There were Browning Societies both in England and America, with many flourishing local chapters. So great was the poet’s vogue only a hundred years ago, and so highly regarded was this poem of his, that the Old Yellow Book itself was reproduced in facsimile and also in English translation as one of the volumes in Everyman’s Library — a collection designed to publish the thousand books deemed most necessary for an educated English reader.
But I own neither the facsimile published by the Carnegie Institution (1908) nor the translation in Everyman’s Library. What is on my shelf might be called the New Puce Book. This is a 1970 reprint of The Old Yellow Book as translated and commented upon by John Marshall Gest for the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1925 (same year as Dreiser’s novel). John Marshall Gest (1859-1934) was an eminent Philadelphia attorney, later a judge, and a rare specimen of a now probably vanished Anglo-American type: the lawyer/man of the letters. It’s still very much worth reading The Lawyer in Literature (1913), which gathers together several of his studies of individual writers.
This time I actually read Gest’s commentary on the Old Yellow Book. He is a Browningite, but no Browningolator. He waxes indignant at the poet’s goldsmithing procedures, and his flippant attitude towards musty Latin briefs. As a legal historian he finds them fascinating, particularly in their casual assumptions concerning judicial torture, and he rather debunks Browning’s versions of the characters in the drama. Of course when history battles with poetry, poetry is bound to win. Murder becomes more respectable when it is Art.