Union in the News for June 30, 2000
How a Prominent Irish Writer Paid a Posthumous Price for His Sharp Tongue
By Scott Heller - The Chronicle of Higher Education
George Moore, 1852-1933
by Adrian Frazier
(Yale University Press)
"I cannot think of the place I was born without a sensation akin to nausea," the prolific novelist, critic, and playwright George Moore once wrote of Ireland. It was vintage Moore, sharp-tongued and troublemaking. During a 60-year career spent largely in England and France, he mingled with Europe's leading modern artists and writers. Yet many became enemies, thanks to his accounts in several literary memoirs and 16 novels. Moore's appetite for so many genres and alienation from the Irish literary scene ultimately crippled his reputation, says Mr. Frazier, a professor of English at Union College in New York, who spent 10 years on this biography.
Q. If you had to compare George Moore to a contemporary literary figure, who would it be?
A. That's a hard question. I think Edmund White is an often fascinating stylist who is scouting new conceptions of masculinity, and writes very fine literary criticism and autobiography and sometimes fiction. He doesn't have the same scope and energy as Moore. Moore aspired to be Turgenev or Zola, to surpass James. I'm not sure that Edmund White has the same aggression. And Edmund White has marked himself very definitely as a gay male writer. Moore wanted to stimulate fascination with the margins of sexuality. He wasn't arguing for the rights of any group of people.
Q. Moore self-consciously constructed a public identity as an author. Why is that important?
A. It wasn't an absolute innovation on his part. But it does reflect a sense of an artist's self as something that must be created, managed, and revised. If you're going to be a great author, you're not just putting out individual books and they do or don't do well, willy-nilly. You have to conceive of yourself as a great master. Oscar Wilde did this. So did James.
Q. Yet over time, Wilde and James succeeded where Moore did not.
A. Moore succeeded, certainly to his own satisfaction. From the 90's till his death, he was a dominant literary and intellectual personality. What he didn't succeed at was beyond his control. It's what happened after he died. It's astonishing to me that Confessions of a Young Man, which everyone recognizes was crucial in shaping the world of ideas and manners that anticipated the 1890's decadent sensibility -- this is out of print.
Q. So what happened?
A. There was the rise of a socially concerned, politically committed novel. And the emergence of many memoirs in which revenge is taken on Moore. Yeats pretty much set in stone an image of Moore as a clown, as inferior, as someone who was sexually despicable. What also probably didn't do him any good is that the critical schools of the 1950's and 60's were genre-based. And they tended to focus on the modernist literary text, as opposed to the life and culture that went beyond the text.
Q. If Moore comes back into scholarly vogue, it will be through which door?
A. People are so interested now in varieties of masculinity and in criticizing the notions of normative sexuality. Those are things that Moore illustrates better than anybody. And his interest in religion, as a nonreligious person. The Brook Kerith, his book about Jesus, is written with enormous sincerity and knowledge.
Q. In reviewing your biography, Denis Donoghue describes Moore as merely "parasitic" of better novelists like Zola and Flaubert. Do you agree?
A. I like Denis Donoghue, and I like much of his writing. But his description of Moore as a man without talent is absurd. Denis Donoghue likes austere authors, High Catholic sensibilities, authors that display an esoteric intellectual superiority. Moore is not to his taste. That's a value judgment as good and also as empty as every other value judgment.
Q. Still, if Moore doesn't win a new readership, have you failed as his biographer?
A. I didn't take that as my task, to make the best case possible on novel after novel. The assessment of Moore's books, the value you place on them, will follow from knowledge. That will take a good deal of time. But the desire to mock and to condescend to a writer that Virginia Woolf calls a great writer, that Ford Madox Ford calls a great writer -- that seems to me an expression of our taste, not of his value.