Practicing Post-Modernism:

The Example of John Hawkes

by John M. Unsworth

Contemporary Literature 32.1 (Spring 1991)

"The excitement of contemporary studies is that all of its critical practitioners and most of their subjects are alive and working at the same time. One work influences another, bringing to the field a spirit of competition and cooperation that reaches an intensity rarely found in other disciplines" (x). In these remarks on "contemporary studies," Jerome Klinkowitz takes for granted that contemporary writers and their critics belong to one "discipline," the academic discipline of literary study. This affiliation of criticism and creative writing within a single institutional framework does indeed compound the influence that critic and author have on one another's work, as it multiplies the opportunities and the incentives for cooperation; but rather than simply celebrating this fact, as Klinkowitz does, we ought to inquire into the consequences of the professional interaction and practical interdependence of author and critic, particularly as it affects the creativity of the former and the judgment of the latter.

John Hawkes provides an excellent opportunity for such an inquiry, for several reasons. Discovered by Albert Guerard in 1947 and vigorously promoted by him in the years that followed, Hawkes was the first American "post-modern" author to gain notoriety.[1] Writers of Hawkes's generation were, in turn, the first in this country to spend their entire creative lives in the academy: they have used that position with unprecedented success to shape and control critical reception, especially through the mechanism of the interview. At the same time, as Guerard's influence on Hawkes demonstrates, criticism can shape a writer's understanding of what is important in his or her creative work.

There are two places to look for evidence of the kind of influence I am discussing: in the author's work and in representations of that work, either by the author or by the critics. In what follows, I will look at a short story by Hawkes which encodes a drama of authorial influence on critical reading, and along with it I will consider a critical essay on the story which enacts the part scripted for the reader in that drama. Thereafter, I will take a broader sampling of Hawkes's critical fortunes, with an eye not only to the migration of descriptive language from author to critic, via the interview,[2] but also to the genesis of that language in the writing of Hawkes's earliest and most influential critic, Albert Guerard.

The story and the critical reading I start with were both published in a 1988 anthology called Facing Texts: Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics, edited by Heide Ziegler. This volume deserves comment in its own right, as an emblem of post-modern literary practice. The title of the anthology refers to the fact that it pairs creative texts by prominent first-generation post-modern authors with critical essays on those texts; what makes the volume emblematic is that the critics were in most cases hand-picked by the authors themselves. In fact, as her preface informs us, Ziegler herself was picked by one of those authors: Facing Texts originated in a suggestion made by William Gass to an editor at Duke University Press, that Ziegler should edit a collection of contemporary American fiction. Ziegler says that, when the project was proposed to her,

I immediately recognized that in effect I was being offered the opportunity to realize one of my pet ideas: to bring together . . . unpublished pieces by authors as well as critics that would, in a sense, defy the chronological secondariness of critical interpretation. Such a book would make the relationship between author and critic an unmediated encounter, with authors and critics becoming one another's ideal readers.

. . . if possible, the pieces offered by the authors should indeed be hitherto unpublished so as to give the critics a sense of the exclusiveness, even privacy of their work and thus convey to them the impression of a close encounter with the respective author. . . . [and] the authors should choose their own critics in order to ensure that the close encounter I had in mind would not, unintentionally, be hostile, and thus destroy the possibility of mutual ideal readership. (ix)[3]

In Hawkes's case, Ziegler's solicitude is unnecessary: his contribution to this volume was designed to foster the kind of reading that she desired for it.

"The Equestrienne" is a portion of Hawkes's 1985 novella Innocence in Extremis, which is, in turn, an outtake from a novel, Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. A large part of the novel is devoted to relating the misadventures of "Uncle Jake," as recalled by his daughter; relative to that story, Innocence in Extremis is an extended flashback, to a time when Uncle Jake, as a boy, visited his ancestral home in France with his father and family. "The Equestrienne" is one of the three set pieces that make up the novella, but it has been published here without introduction or reference to the context in which it was developed, and it can be read as a free-standing, very short story.[4]

In "The Equestrienne," Uncle Jake's French grandfather (referred to exclusively as "the Old Gentleman") stages an exhibition of dressage, on what we are told is one of several "occasions deemed by the Old Gentleman to be specially enjoyable to his assembly of delighted guests" (216). In this, the first of those (three) occasions and the only one presented here, a young cousin of Uncle Jake's performs for an audience consisting of the visitors (including Uncle Jake), members of the household, and some neighbors, all seated in rows of plush Empire chairs arranged in a courtyard of the family chateau. The girl and her horse are the center of attention, but the performance itself is the medium for an interaction between the audience and the Old Gentleman.

In this case, the audience in the tale clearly stands for the audience of the tale, and almost from its opening lines the text signals the effect it wants to achieve -- most notably in the modifiers that cluster around descriptions of the represented audience. As an example, take the passage just quoted: "the days of harmony and pleasure were further enhanced by certain occasions deemed by the Old Gentleman to be specially enjoyable to his assembly of delighted guests." It is the narrator who tells us that days already harmonious and pleasurable were "enhanced" by what is about to be related; and while we might be privy to some delusion in the Old Gentleman when we are told that he "deemed" his entertainment "to be specially enjoyable" to his guests, any distance between his objective and their reaction is collapsed in the very same sentence, when we learn that they are in fact "delighted." Each detail of the performance is similarly described and received. "The gilded frames and red plush cushions of the chairs shone in the agreeable light and . . . moved everyone to exclamations of surprise and keen anticipation." In the world of the text as we are given it, the light is "agreeable," and the audience is unanimous in its expression of "surprise and keen anticipation." Throughout the tale, the reactions of the audience consistently confirm what the narration announces. "Through the gateway rode a young girl on a small and shapely dappled gray horse. Here was a sight to win them all and audibly they sighed and visibly they leaned forward. . . . [an] already grateful audience" (216).

There is no point in piling up further examples; suffice it to say that this high pitch of appreciation is insistently sustained, the only two discordant notes resolving into it almost immediately. In the first of these, contemplating his cousin, Uncle Jake thinks "with shame. . . of himself and his shaggy and dumpy pony" (218). In the second, shortly thereafter, his mother whispers to him: "mark my words, dear boy. That child is dangerous." These are important moments, but the importance lies not so much in any pall they cast over the performance as in the evidence they give of its irresistible charm. Uncle Jake's insecurity and his mother's mistrust soon give way to the universal sentiment: Uncle Jake realizes that "he wanted to become [his cousin] and take her splendid place on the gray horse," and even his mother admits, "'she is a beautiful little rider, Jake. You might try to ride as well as she does. It would please your father'" (219).

In her essay on the story, Christine Laniel remarks that "The Equestrienne" "focuses on one of the most pervasive metaphors in Hawkes's works, which he analyzes as essential to his fiction writing when he refers to 'horsemanship as an art'" (221-22). Specifically, Laniel is suggesting that Hawkes offers dressage as a metaphor for the artistic use of language. That much can easily be read between the lines from which she quotes, but taken in full these lines also suggest that the same metaphor might be extended to include an association of other kinds of horsemanship with other ways of using language -- after all, the audience is composed of equestrians:

Nearly everyone in that audience rode horseback. Most of them were fox hunters. Their lives depended on horses. . . . Yet for all of them their mares and geldings and fillies and stallions were a matter of course like stones in a brook or birds in the boughs. Most of the horses they bred and rode were large, rugged, unruly, brutish beasts of great stamina. The horses raced and hunted, pulled their carriages, carried them ambling through sylvan woods and took them cantering great distances, but little more. So here in the Old Gentleman's courtyard the spectacle of the young equestrienne and her gray horse schooled only in dressage appealed directly to what they knew and to their own relationships to horse and stable yet gave them all a taste of equestrian refinement that stirred them to surprise and pleasure. They had never thought of horsemanship as an art, but here indeed in the dancing horse they could see full well the refinement of an artist's mind. (218)
The thrust of this passage, it seems to me, is first to suggest horsemanship as a figure for the use of language in general, and then to distinguish between the nonutilitarian "refinement" of its use in fiction and the practicality of more quotidian language used with an end in mind, as for example to convey information (in "rugged, unruly, brutish" words "of great stamina" but no elegance). In this scene "artist" and audience share what might be called a professional interest in horses, not unlike the professional interest in language Hawkes shares with his readers; and while it may be the general reader and not the critical one who takes language as "a matter of course," even the most perspicacious fox hunters among us are obviously supposed to be "stirred" to "surprise and pleasure" at Hawkes's demonstration of verbal dressage. In fact, at the conclusion of the performance the story explicitly announces the lesson we are to draw from it: "the audience rose to its feet, still clapping. They exclaimed aloud to each other, while clapping, and smiles vied with smiles and no one had praise enough for the exhibition which had taught them all that artificiality not only enhances natural life but defines it" (220). Hawkes's instruction of the reader is too deliberate to be unintended and too obvious to ignore, so it must be explained. In Laniel's analysis, the author at these moments is "forestalling interpretation by anticipating it. As a consequence, the critic is thwarted in efforts to unveil supposedly hidden significations, which are obtrusively exposed by the writer himself"(222). She regards this aspect of the story as a problem only for a criticism which needs "to unveil supposedly hidden significations"; as we have seen, though, "The Equestrienne" does more than interpret itself: it so relentlessly superintends response that it is likely to frustrate any reader, and not merely a certain sort of critic.

But for Laniel at least, the "alluring fascination" (222) of "The Equestrienne" survives in its strategy of "seduction, which implies the obliteration of reality and its transfiguration into pure appearance"(226). That is, although she acknowledges that the story reads its own moral, she still finds Hawkes's presentation of "the artificial" fascinating, because it undertakes "the willful deterioration of language as the vehicle of meaning."

This deterioration is said to take place in a series of puns and paradoxes (sister-sinister, mastery-fragility, innocence-corruption, and so forth) and in sentences like the following (which explains the effect of the Old Gentleman's having positioned the girl sidesaddle on her horse, with her legs away from the audience): "The fact that she appeared to have no legs was to the entire ensemble as was the white ribbon affixed to her hat: the incongruity without which the congruous whole could not have achieved such perfection" (217). In this sentence, Laniel says,

we are made to experience both frustration and supreme satisfaction, since the expected word is missing and yet is virtually present, enhanced by the strange, incongruous connections that implicitly suggest it. By establishing the curious relationship of the logically unrelated, by uniting the like with the unlike in sudden and unexpected juxtapositions, the poetic text produces a jarring effect, so that we are left with the notion of a fundamental vacancy, of a basic lack that is the very essence of aesthetic pleasure. (228)
Yet the sentence Laniel has chosen not only contains the "missing" word -- "perfection" -- but emphasizes it by placing it in the ultimate position. And in any case, Hawkes's notion of an "incongruity without which the congruous whole could not have achieved such perfection" is more plausible as a model than as an occasion for Laniel's observation that the "jarring effect" brought about by "the curious relationship of the logically unrelated" results in "a fundamental vacancy . . . that is the very essence of aesthetic pleasure."

Laniel also tries to restore some ambiguity to the story by arguing that Hawkes's "rhetoric of seduction" is always "reversed into derision, as an insidious vein of self-parody gradually penetrates the text" (222). As she sees it,

Hawkes's writing cannot function without initiating its own ironical debunking. The "morality of excess" [Innocence in Extremis 55] that guides the artist in his work also guides Hawkes in his writing, as exemplified by the profusion of superlatives and comparatives in the novella and in all his fiction. But this very excessiveness entails a crescendo, an escalation into more and more incongruous associations, so that his texts are relentlessly undermined by their own grotesque redoubling. (235)
Self-parody is indeed an abiding characteristic of Hawkes's writing -- and often its saving grace -- but though the language we have already quoted from "The Equestrienne" does suggest an excessiveness that might easily escalate into self-parody, Laniel herself admits that "during the performance of the equestrienne the burlesque element is extremely slight" (233). Consequently, when she makes the argument that this text undermines itself she is forced to rely entirely on evidence collected from other, later sections of the novella and from the originary novel. Still, even if there is no parody in "The Equestrienne," its absence makes it worth discussing.

In general, the significant gap in Hawkes's work is not between appearance and reality but between the serious and the parodic elements that constitute his fiction: the uneasiness of his texts is that while his self-parody seems deliberate, it doesn't ground or control the seriousness with which he presents his primary material. Since the critic is bound to make statements about the text, and since making those statements usually involves taking a position relative to the text by offering a reading, critics have often resolved this conflict in the text by going too far in one direction or the other -- either affirming the response offered by the text (the more common tactic) or overstating the control exercised by the parodic element. Laniel's piece is unusual in that it does the latter, but in order to make this case she has to read beyond the immediate text. By so doing, she is in effect submitting "The Equestrienne" to the control of a self-parody which develops across other, broader contexts. This move begs the question of whether the parodic strain controls the larger contexts from which she abstracts it. In fact, I would argue, it does not -- the uneasiness simply reasserts itself when we look at Innocence in Extremis or Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade as texts in their own right.

The significance of Hawkes's unstable self-parody, both with regard to its presence in his other fiction and its absence in the present case, is bound up with the problem of the audience and its response. In order to avoid the problem Laniel has with contextualization, let us look briefly at a discrete work, Travesty, written by Hawkes in the early 1970s.

Travesty is the monologue of a man who intends to crash the car in which he, his daughter, and an existentialist poet (the lover of both his wife and daughter) are traveling. Papa, the driver, denies being jealous or having any murderous motive; instead, he tells Henri (the poet) that his plan is to create an "accident" so inexplicable that their deaths will have to be understood as the deliberate execution of an abstract design. Henri is apparently nonplused, since Papa reproaches him for his failure to appreciate the beauty of the thing: "Tonight of all nights why can't you give me one moment of genuine response? Without it, as I have said, our expedition is as wasteful as everything else" (82). The response Papa wants from Henri is specifically an aesthetic one, and he sees it as a mark of Henri's artistic insincerity that he is not able to provide it. But, as the reader well understands, the detachment from self-interest which such a response would require is too much to expect, even from an existentialist.

As a monologist, Papa necessarily speaks for Henri, and in a similar way Hawkes, as a writer, speaks for the reader. His conceit is auto-destructive, but self-parody -- a pre-emptive mode of discourse -- is by definition both exclusive of and also highly attentive to the audience. The element of self-parody in Travesty asserts itself as the difference between the supposed reality of death within the fiction and the reality of death supposed which is the fiction -- Hawkes, in other words, is Henri if he is anyone in this story. But as this equation suggests, the parody does not extend to Papa, and much of what he says is seriously intended, not least his confessed need for a response:

Let me admit that it was precisely the fear of committing a final and irrevocable act that plagued my childhood, my youth, my early manhood. . . . And in those years and as a corollary to my preoccupation with the cut string I could not repair, the step I could not retrieve, I was also plagued by what I defined as the fear of no response. . . . If the world did not respond to me totally, immediately, in leaf, street sign, the expression of strangers, then I did not exist. . . . But to be recognized in any way was to be given your selfhood on a plate and to be loved, loved, which is what I most demanded.(84-85)

Self-parody, this suggests, is more than an attempt to forestall a feared lack of response (or an undesirable response); it may also become a way to avoid "committing a final and irrevocable [speech] act." On one level, Hawkes is deadly serious about everything that Papa says; on another, he implicitly denies responsibility for the ideas Papa expresses. At both levels, he precludes response -- within the narrative through the technique of monologue, without it through the technique of self-parody. The effect on the reader is, as Laniel says, often baffling: the proffered position is clearly untenable, and yet the parody does not enable an alternate response because it equally clearly does not control the text.

The instability I have been describing might also be regarded as a side effect of characterization. Hawkes is fond of creating figures of the artist, but these figures never completely fill the role in which they are cast; most often they are people who have the sensibility of the artist but who do not actually create art. Cyril in The Blood Oranges, Papa in Travesty, Uncle Jake in Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade are all men whose medium is action, not language, and who do not pretend to present the fiction in which their artistry is conveyed to the reader. In Travesty, the distinction would seem to be mooted when narration is placed entirely in the hands of "the man who disciplines the child, carves the roast" (44) -- but in fact it persists, since Papa's "creation," the actual crash, cannot be presented within the narrative structure Hawkes has set up and so is not presented at all. In other words, although Hawkes's novella develops in the space between the disclosure and the enactment of Papa's intentions, the aesthetic Hawkes has embodied in those intentions can be expressed only in words, never in action -- hence the equation of Hawkes with Henri. Seeking to evade both the irrevocable commitment of unfeigned statement and the fear of no response, Hawkes has adopted a narrative perspective that results in a fiction which implies but does not constitute the realization of an aesthetic.

If the conflict between a desire to present this aesthetic and the fear that it will be rejected is settled in Travesty by giving the narrative over entirely to statement, in "The Equestrienne" Hawkes experiments with the opposite solution, usurping the response of his audience. Rather than seducing the reader, this makes her superfluous: hence Laniel's frustration at trying to present a reading of the story as given -- something that her recourse to other texts demonstrates she is ultimately unable to do. And like response, the absence of a controlling intelligence is dislocated in "The Equestrienne" from a metatextual position to a thematic one: "All at once and above the dainty clatter of the hooves, they heard the loud and charming tinkling of a music box. Heads turned, a new and livelier surprise possessed the audience, the fact that they could not discover the source of the music, which was the essence of artificiality, added greatly to the effect" (219).But even within the story, this absence proves to be more apparent than real: at the end of the girl's exhibition,

the Old Gentleman appeared and as one the audience realized that though they had all seen him act the impresario and with his raised hand start the performance, still he had not taken one of the red plush chairs for himself, had not remained with them in the courtyard, had not been a passive witness to his granddaughter's exhibition. He was smiling broadly; he was perspiring; clearly he expected thanks. In all this the truth was evident: that not only had he himself orchestrated the day, but that it was he who had taught the girl dressage, and he who had from a little balcony conducted her performance and determined her every move, and he who had turned the handle of the music box. Never had the old patrician looked younger or more pleased with himself. (220)
The Old Gentleman is not "a passive witness" to the presentation; he is its conductor, and his curtain call might be compared to Hawkes's persistent assertion of the authorial self in his interviews: in both cases, the creator remains behind the scenes during the actual performance but reappears afterward to make sure that its significance is properly understood.

The nature of Hawkes's dilemma and the variety of his attempts to resolve it are characteristically post-modern, in that they demonstrate a very real need to assert critical control over the text, combined with a desire that the reader should be persuaded to a particular aesthetic position. Such desires are not peculiar to post-modern authors, of course: Henry James once admitted to dreaming, "in wanton moods, . . . of some Paradise (for art) where the direct appeal to the intelligence might be legalized" (296). Late in his life, James made that appeal to future readers in his prefaces to the New York edition of his works, but he might well have envied the post-modern author, who can address the contemporary reader through the mechanism of the interview.

Hawkes's inclination to avail himself of opportunities to discuss his work has resulted in quite a substantial body of interviews.[5] In these interviews, Hawkes propounds his aesthetic program, characterizes his fiction, and explains his intentions in specific novels; the images and analogies he uses migrate visibly from the interviews to the criticism and reappear in the questions posed by subsequent interviewers. In this way, the language of Hawkes's self-descriptions comes to dominate the critical reception of his work, functioning -- to borrow an idea from Kenneth Burke -- as a "terministic screen."[6] Hawkes's career also demonstrates, however, the influence of critics on authors: although the authority of this particular terministic screen is derived from Hawkes via the interview, Hawkes himself seems to have derived many of its component terms from Albert Guerard's early analyses of his work.

Hawkes has often acknowledged his debt to Guerard, but to fully understand the nature of that debt we need to know something about the history of the relationship between these two men. Hawkes was not much of a student when he came to Harvard: the semester before he left for the war, he had flunked out.[7] His career as a writer started in Guerard's fiction writing class at Harvard, which he took after returning from service in the Ambulance Corps during World War II. At that time, he had just started working on his first piece of fiction, the novella Charivari, and though manifestly talented, he lacked experience both as a writer and as a reader of modern fiction. Prior to 1947, he had written only some juvenile verse, which he submitted to qualify for Guerard's class; during that class (for which he wrote The Cannibal,), Hawkes's "reading of modern experimental literature was largely confined to poetry," according to Guerard (Introduction xn). In a recent interview, Hawkes recalled that when they first met, "Guerard . . . was probably in his early thirties, but to me he was an awesome figure. He was quite formidable, quite authoritarian, extremely knowledgeable, a novelist himself, and he had so suddenly and abruptly praised my fiction at the outset in such a way as to give me real confidence" ("Life" 112). Obviously, in the course of this long friendship Hawkes has had many occasions to express his ideas about fiction, and it is likely that Guerard's published criticism of Hawkes reflects those ideas to some extent. We may even grant that, as Guerard has faded from the forefront of contemporary criticism, and as Hawkes has become firmly established as one of the major talents of his generation, the balance of power in the relationship may have shifted somewhat in recent years. But it is nonetheless clear that Guerard played an influential role in molding Hawkes's understanding of the value of his own fiction. The nature and extent of that influence is clear if we compare a few passages from Guerard's early criticism to Hawkes's subsequent self-evaluations.

It was Guerard who brought Hawkes and James Laughlin together, and when, in 1949, New Directions published Hawkes's first novel (The Cannibal,), Guerard provided the introduction. This introduction is the earliest critical analysis of Hawkes's work, and its influence on later Hawkes criticism, including the author's own, is inestimable. In it, Guerard says that "Terror . . . can create its own geography" (xiii) and announces, in terms that persist to this day, that "John Hawkes clearly belongs . . . with the cold immoralists and pure creators who enter sympathetically into all their characters, the saved and the damned alike. . . . even the most contaminate have their dreams of purity which shockingly resemble our own" (xii). Not long thereafter, the Radcliffe News published Hawkes's first interview, entitled "John Hawkes, Author, Calls Guerard's Preface Most Helpful Criticism" (March 17, 1950) -- and so it would seem to have been. Guerard's remarks about sympathy for "the saved and the damned alike" are reflected in Hawkes's earliest published critical writing (1960), in which he talks about the experimental novel as displaying "an attitude that rejects sympathy for the ruined members of our lot, revealing thus the deepest sympathy of all" ("Notes on Violence").[8] As late as 1979, Hawkes still describes himself as being "interested in the truest kind of fictive sympathy, as Albert Guerard, my former teacher and lifelong friend, has put it. To him the purpose of imaginative fiction is to generate sympathy for the saved and damned alike" ("Novelist"27).[9]

In his 1949 introduction, Guerard confidently compares Hawkes to William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Djuna Barnes (although he predicts that Hawkes "will move . . . toward realism"), and he concludes -- on a disciplinary note -- that "How far John Hawkes will go as a writer must obviously depend on how far he consents to impose some page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter consecutive understanding on his astonishing creative energy; on how richly he exploits his ability to achieve truth through distortion; on how well he continues to uncover and use childhood images and fears" (xv). In an addendum to the introduction, written for The Cannibal,'s reissue in 1962, Guerard notes that "the predicted movement toward realism has occurred" but reiterates the importance of nightmare and "vivifying distortion" in Hawkes's fiction (xviii). The concepts of distortion and terror, and the paradoxical linkage of purity and contamination, have since become staples in the discussion of Hawkes's work: the Hryciw-Wing bibliography lists at least twenty-one essays with the words "nightmare" or "terror" in the title (beginning with a review by Guerard in 1961), and countless others have incorporated the same idea into their arguments.[10]

Guerard's addendum also praises Hawkes for being able "to summon pre-conscious anxieties and longings, to symbolize oral fantasies and castration fears -- to shadow forth, in a word, our underground selves" (xviii). In his first essay in self-explanation, presented at a symposium on fiction at Wesleyan University in 1962 and published in Massachusetts Review, Hawkes himself states:

The constructed vision, the excitement of the undersea life of the inner man, a language appropriate to the delicate malicious knowledge of us all as poor, forked, corruptible, the feeling of pleasure and pain that comes when something pure and contemptible lodges in the imagination -- I believe in the "singular and terrible attraction" of all this.

For me the writer should always serve as his own angleworm -- and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the blackness, the better.("Notes on The Wild Goose Chase" 788)

The image of the fishhook is a more memorable formulation of Guerard's claim that Hawkes's fiction has the ability to "shadow forth our underground selves"; certainly it seems, in keeping with the metaphor of which it is a part, to have set itself deep in Hawkes's vision of his own work.

In a 1964 interview, one which has remained among the most often cited, Hawkes told John Enck: "my aim has always been . . . never to let the reader (or myself) off the hook, so to speak, never to let him think that the picture is any less black than it is or that there is any easy way out of the nightmare of human existence" ("John Hawkes" 145). In 1971, the piece in which the metaphor originally appeared was reprinted along with Enck's interview in John Graham's Studies in Second Skin (the dedication to which reads: "For Albert Guerard, who led the way" -- Graham is another of Guerard's former students), and in 1975 the image returns in the following exchange with John Kuehl:

Kuehl: You once referred to fishing for yourself.
Hawkes: I said that "the author is his own best angleworm and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the darkness the better.". . . I mean that the writer who exploits his own psychic life reveals the inner lives of us all, the inner chaos, the negative aspects of the personality in general. . . . our deepest inner lives are largely organized around such impulses, which need to be exposed and understood and used. (Kuehl 164-65)

It is perhaps significant that a few pages later, Hawkes remarks: "For me evil was once a power. Now it's a powerful metaphor" (166).[12]

The "powerful metaphor" of authorship as auto-piscation was also used by Hawkes the year before to open an influential essay called "Notes on Writing a Novel," which was first printed in 1973 in the Brown Alumni Monthly, reprinted the next year in TriQuarterly, and finally revised and collected in a 1983 volume fittingly entitled In Praise of What Persists. In that piece, Hawkes relates the following anecdote:

A scholarly, gifted, deeply good-natured friend once remarked that "Notes on Writing a Novel" is a deplorably condescending title. . . . At that moment. . . . I thought of a metaphor with which I'd ended a talk on fiction ten years ago at Boston College, when I said that "for me, the writer of fiction should always serve as his own angleworm, and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the darkness, the better." But when I proposed "The Writer as Angleworm" as an alternative, my friend pointed out that preciousness is worse than condescension. (109)
The "friend" remains unnamed, but it is somehow appropriate that Hawkes has trouble remembering the genesis of his image, mistaking the Wesleyan venue for a Boston College one; in an interview given in 1979 and published in 1983, he makes a similar mistake when Patrick O'Donnell remarks on "the fetus fished out of the flood in The Beetle Leg." Hawkes responds: "Yes. Thinking of that image reminds me of an interview with John Graham where I said that 'the writer should be his own angleworm [etc.].'" By this point Hawkes is not remembering the occasion on which he originally formulated the idea but misremembering one on which he quoted it -- the interview with Enck, published in Graham. Hawkes goes on to dwell on the image at some length, demonstrating that it still informs his understanding of his own work, however vague its origins:
It's an interesting paradox: separating the artist from the human personality, the artistic self from the human self, then thinking of the artist's job as one of catching, capturing, snaring, using a very dangerous and unpleasant weapon, a hook, knowing that his subject matter is himself or his own imagination, which he has to find himself and which he catches ruthlessly. It's a very schizophrenic image, full of dangerous, archetypal maneuvers in the deepest darkness within us. ("Life" 123)
Hawkes's choice of words is revealing, in that schizophrenia is often linked to the presence of an overpowering authority figure; we have already seen that Hawkes initially regarded Guerard as "an awesome figure . . . quite formidable, quite authoritarian." In a 1971 encounter called "John Hawkes and Albert Guerard in Dialogue, "Hawkes jokes about that "awesome" authority, but with an insistence and intensity that belie his tone.

Hawkes: . . . I have long suspected that I'm a fiction created by Albert Guerard. I think I knew from the very first moment we met. (14)
when I met him, and for years afterwards, he was, as a teacher, a ruthless authoritarian, a tremendous disciplinarian. About fifteen years ago, I had thought that I had achieved some kind of equality with Albert, at least on a personal level, and had escaped this terrible awe, and the awesome business of father/teacher, but now I've been plunged right back into it. (15)
My writing has been filled with awkwardness. . . . It's always been Albert who has pointed out where the distorting glasses have been taken off, or where the writing was flabby. . . .
Guerard: That's fantasy. It's not true at all . . . (25-26)

Despite Hawkes's bantering manner (and Guerard's denial), it is obvious that this relationship was an extremely important one for Hawkes, and his gratitude seems more than slightly tinged with the anxiety of influence. This is understandable, in light of the fact that for more than a decade after leaving Guerard's class, Hawkes submitted each of his novels to Guerard before publishing it; and in at least one instance, Guerard seems to have exercised his authority in the form of a veto. As Hawkes tells it, when Guerard read the manuscript for The Lime Twig, "he sent it back saying 'Jack, this is deplorable; it's a good idea, but poorly conceived and written, and you'll have to start over again'" ("Life" 112). After that, it took Hawkes four years to revise the book, and although Guerard continued to exert a shaping influence on Hawkes's career, this was the last time he was given a manuscript for preapproval.

Elsewhere in his dialogue with Guerard, Hawkes says, "just as you controlled everything else, you are, as a matter of fact, responsible for my fiction becoming increasingly so-called 'realistic"' (23), but after The Lime Twig this realism coincided with a new emphasis on the comic and a marked uneasiness on the part of Hawkes:

Beginning with Second Skin, I was reluctant and partly afraid to ask my mentor for his approval of my work. That was the first manuscript I published without Guerard's pre-reading. I know he likes Second Skin a great deal. . . . [but] I don't think he likes the next two novels all that much; my feeling is that he thinks The Blood Oranges is, in some ways, a falling off. But he liked Travesty a great deal. . . . The reason that we first went to France was because Guerard, himself, is partly French. . . . So France was the world that Guerard represented. ("Life" 113)
If Hawkes was conscious of his comic novels as a departure from the kind of writing approved of by his mentor, Travesty (a "French" novel) would seem to have been his gesture of reconciliation. His next book, The Passion Artist, returned to the earlier style and setting and was very favorably reviewed by Guerard.

With regard not only to Hawkes's stylistic oscillations but also to the genealogy of his self-understanding, the central issue is the relation of the artist to the contents of his unconscious mind. In exactly this connection, Frederick Busch -- one of John Hawkes's earliest and friendliest critics -- recently wondered whether

John Hawkes, studying his life, perhaps studies his art as well. . . . [he] now faces the danger he has faced throughout a distinguished career - - of tapping his usual psychic resources, of using his usual dreams, of relying upon his usual metaphors, and therefore of risking the loss of new language, new fictive worlds.

. . . I go so far as to sorrow over his considerable praise from academics. . . because I fear that they seek to encourage Hawkes to write what is "teachable" and teachably "post-Modern."

. . . like every writer who taps his inner imagery, [Hawkes] must determine when he is to avoid his own urgings and the temptation to use what becomes a habitual vocabulary of images. (When People Publish 110)

It is interesting that, in an earlier version of the same essay, Busch's pessimism was decidedly less pronounced:
In Death, Sleep & The Traveler, Hawkes may be thinking about who he is as a writer, what he has done, and what he ought to do. He may, at times, seem to be writing out of a sense of Hawkes. . . . When Hemingway became a student of Hemingway -- To Have and Have Not, as compared to its point of origin, "After the Storm," is a good example -- he failed to measure up to his teacher. While I do not see signs of such a failure in Death, Sleep & The Traveler, I do see Hawkes as engaged in the most profound examination of his own writings; and he is daring to risk being influenced by that seductive writer, John Hawkes. ("Icebergs" 62-63)
Busch's change in tone between 1977 and 1986 suggests that he does feel Hawkes, with the aid of his academic critics, has seduced himself. I would want to add only that Hawkes's "sense of Hawkes" has, from the beginning, been shaped and developed by his most important reader, Guerard. And although influence here reverses the direction it followed in the case of "The Equestrienne," in each case the academic context shared by reader and writer has fostered an extraordinary symbiosis, one which ultimately enervates both criticism and creativity.

In The Romantic Ideology, Jerome McGann says that there is "[an] essential difference which separates the journalistic and polemical criticism whose focus is the present from the scholarly and historical criticism which operates in the present only by facing (and defining) the past" (2-3). To date, much of the criticism of post-modern fiction has indeed been polemical and journalistic and has aimed at reproducing the ideology of the fiction it discusses. But even though no one at present can claim to have the same distance from post-modernism as we have from romanticism, it is still possible to submit post-modern fiction to a criticism that scrutinizes its cultural and institutional determinants. Indeed, as McGann points out, there are good reasons for doing so:

When critics perpetuate and maintain older ideas and attitudes in continuities and processive traditions they typically serve only the most reactionary purposes of their societies, though they may not be aware of this; for the cooptive powers of a vigorous culture like our own are very great. If such powers and their results are not always to be deplored, cooptation must always be a process intolerable to critical consciousness, whose first obligation is to resist incorporation. and whose weapon is analysis. (2)
What was new in 1947 has begun to age, and it is now time to ask what purposes are served by perpetuating the ideas and attitudes identified with it. The problem McGann describes is only exacerbated when author and critic are contemporaries cohabiting in one institution. Under these circumstances, the material inducements to cooperation may well subvert the independence of both parties: each is in the position to augment the prestige of the other, but neither is really in control. As McGann predicts, having been incorporated, each is controlled by the ideology of the institution that creates and confers their prestige, and both end up serving the most reactionary purposes of that institution. Where post-modernism is concerned, the institution is the academy and the ideology is that of professionalism. Others have pointed out before now that academic professionalism is itself at the service of larger cultural mechanisms, and that its most reactionary purpose is to co-opt and sequester intellectual energies -- whether critical or creative -- so that they do not disrupt the smooth operation of those mechanisms.[13]

Earlier I asserted that the post-modernism of Hawkes and his generation is continuous with modernism, but here that assertion needs to be qualified. First-generation post-modernism differs from its predecessor in one crucial way, namely in being institutionalized. Modernism, for the most part, rejected the security of the academy in order to take liberties with the culture; by contrast, post-modernism stands at the embarrassing conjunction of that modernist heritage of alienation and a practical condition of institutional respectability and security. The aesthetic similarities between modernism and post-modernism pale into insignificance next to this situational difference -- and since the aesthetic features of post-modernism serve purposes different from those they served under modernism, our advocacy of those features serves different purposes as well. It may be too late for authors such as Hawkes to alter their course, but it is by no means too soon for the criticism of post-modern fiction to put aside polemic in favor of analysis and begin resisting the urge to cooperate.


  1. According to Michael Koehler, the term "post-modern" was introduced (in English) in the 1940s by Arnold Toynbee, who used it to denominate the entire period from 1875 to the present. Koehler says that Irving Howe may have been the first person to call the literature after modernism "post-modern," in his 1959 essay "Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction." A good deal of the confusion that has accompanied the use of this term in recent years might be attributed to the failure to acknowledge that there have already been two generations of the postmodern and that, in many ways, the two have little in common. For the sake of clarity, I use the original form of the word (in which the hyphen privileges the modern) to refer to the first of these two generations, which sees itself as extending the project of modernism. In "postmodernism," on the other hand, the hyphen has dropped out and the agglutinated form, in which "post" gets top billing, implies the emergence of a new entity. This form of the word is increasingly common, but I would suggest that rather than being applied indiscriminately it ought to denote specifically that rising generation which conceives of itself as distinct from and often opposed to modernism. Back

  2. Kenneth Burke's idea of the migration of metaphor is relevant here: "In general, primitive magic tended to transfer an animistic perspective to the charting of physical events. And positivistic science, by antithesis, leads to an opposite ideal, the transferring of physicalist perspective to human events. Each is the migration of a metaphor" (Philosophy 147). In the present case, the migration consists in a transfer of an authorial perspective to the criticism of fiction. Back

  3. The other authors in Ziegler's anthology are Robert Coover, Guy Davenport, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, Susan Sontag, Walter Abish, and Joseph McElroy. Back

  4. "The Equestrienne" appears in Facing Texts; Innocence in Extremis was published by Burning Deck in 1985; Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade was published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster in 1985 and then, as part of the Contemporary American Fiction series, in paperback by Penguin in 1986 Back

  5. According to Carol A. Hryciw-Wing's recent bibliography, forty-four interviews with Hawkes were published between 1950 and 1985. Back

  6. See Kenneth Burke, "Terministic Screens," chapter 3 of Language as Symbolic Action. Burke says that "even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (45). He goes on to elaborate the point as follows: "Not only does the nature of our terms affect the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than to another. Also, many of the 'observations' are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made. In brief, much that we take as observations about 'reality' may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms" (46). Back

  7. To my knowledge, the only personal nightmare ever related by Hawkes (for whom the nightmare has become a trademark) is a recurrent dream "about not passing courses and not graduating from Harvard, in which case I would not have been a teacher, et cetera" (Hawkes and Guerard 21). Back

  8. This brief essay and a story are accompanied by Guerard's "Introduction to the Cambridge Anti-Realists," among which Guerard includes Hawkes. Back

  9. This interview is accompanied by Guerard's review of The Passion Artist. Back

  10. Guerard himself, through all four revisions of his entry on Hawkes in the reference work Contemporary Novelists ( 1972, 1976, 1982, 1986), has continued to praise Hawkes for his use of "childhood terror, oral fantasies and castration fears, fears of regression and violence, profound sexual disturbances" (395). Not surprisingly in the 1986 entry Guerard seems somewhat dissatisfied with Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, because it contains so few archetypal dreams [which] echo powerful dreams in the earlier books"; for Guerard, it is only in these echoes that "the author's true voice is dominant" (397). Back

  11. This piece has not only been reprinted in Graham but also in Klein and in volume 29 of Contemporary Literary Criticism. Back

  12. Kuehl publishes this interview as a chapter in his book on Hawkes -- not an uncommon practice in book-length studies of contemporary authors. Back

  13. For a full-length discussion of professionalism as an ideological tool in the administration of culture, see Larson. Back

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Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

-------. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic
Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Busch, Frederick. "Icebergs, Islands, Ships Beneath the Sea." A John
Hawkes Symposium: Design and Debris. Ed. Anthony C. Santore and Michael Pocalyko. New York: New Directions, 1977. 50-63.

-------. When People Publish: Essays on Writers and Writing,. Iowa
City: U of Iowa p, 1986.

Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

Contemporary Novelists. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. New York:
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-------. Ed. James Vinson, 1st-3rd eds. New York: St. Martin's, 1972,
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Graham, John, ed. Studies in Second Skin. The Charles E. Merrill
Studies. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1971.

Guerard, Albert. Introduction. The Cannibal. By John Hawkes. 1949.
New York: New Directions, 1962. ix-xx.

-------. "The Passion Artist: John Hawkes." Rev. of The Passion
Artist, by John Hawkes. New Republic 10 Nov. 1979: 29-30.

Hawkes, John. "The Equestrienne." Facing Texts: Encounters Between
Contemporary Writers and Critics. Ed. Heide Ziegler. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. 215-20.

-------. "John Hawkes: An Interview." With John Enck. Wisconsin
Studies in Contemporary Literature 6 (1965): 141-55.

-------. "Life and Art: An Interview with John Hawkes." With Patrick
O'Donnell. Review of Contemporary Fiction 3.3 (1983): 107-26.

-------. "Notes on The Wild Goose Chase." Massachusetts Review 3
(1962): 784-88.

-------. "Notes on Violence." Audience 7 (1960): 60.

-------. "Notes on Writing a Novel." TriQuarterly 30 (1974):
109-26. Rpt. from Brown Alumni Monthly Jan. 1973: 9-16. Rpt. as "Dark Landscapes." In Praise of What Persists. Ed. Stephen Berg. New York: Harper, 1983. 135-47.

-------. "The Novelist: John Hawkes." With Thomas LeClair. New
Republic 10 Nov. 1979: 26-29.

-------. Travesty. New York: New Directions, 1976.

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Dialogue." A John Hawkes Symposium: Design and Debris. Ed. Anthony C. Santore and Michael Pocalyko. New York: New Directions, 1977. 14-26.

Hryciw-Wing, Carol A. John Hawkes: A Research Guide. New York: Garland, 1986.

James, Henry. Preface to the New York edition of The Portrait of a
Lady. The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction. Ed. William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 286-99.

Klein, Marcus, ed. The American Novel Since World War II.
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Klinkowitz, Jerome. "Cross-Currents/Modern Critiques/Third Series." The
Fiction of William Cass: The Consolation of Language. By Arthur M. Saltzman. Cross-Currents/Modern Critiques. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1986. ix-x.

Koehler, Michael. "'Postmodernismus': Ein begriffsgeschichtlicher
Uberblick." Amerikastudien 22.1 (1977): 8-18. Unpublished translation by Tom Austenfeld, held in Bowers Library, Wilson Hall, U of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

Kuehl, John. John Hawkes and the Craft of Conflict. New Brunswick:
Rutgers UP, 1975.

Laniel, Christine. "John Hawkes's Return to the Origin: A Genealogy of the
Creative Process." Facing Texts: Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics. Ed. Heide Ziegler. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. 221-46.

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Analysis. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.

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Contemporary Writers and Critics. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. ix-x, 3-13.