By Katherine Giuffre

Stanford University Press. 200 pages. £21.99. ISBN 978-1-5036-3582-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When Picasso, “a twenty-five-year-old impoverished painter living in squalid conditions in Paris”,  exhibited Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 the reactions were generally not favourable. The collector Leo Stein laughed at what he referred to as a “horrible mess”, and the painter André Derain said, “This can only end in suicide. One day Picasso will be found hanging behind the Demoiselles”. Picasso put the canvas away and only displayed it again in 1916. But, points out Katherine Giuffre, it “became one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century”.

Giuffre refers to some other examples of works now considered of importance which were initially either dismissed or ignored: “Moby Dick was so unpopular that it effectively ended Herman Melville’s flourishing writing career”. And Henry David Thoreau’s books lingered in their publisher’s warehouse until he bought the unsold copies to save them from being pulped: “I have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes” he said, “over seven hundred of which I wrote myself”.

The point she’s making is that the new and different very often aroused a hostile reaction of one kind or another. There are plenty of other examples she could have used. Van Gogh’s paintings only one of which sold in his lifetime. Now you have to queue to see the blockbuster shows of his work. But it’s interesting to look at why people, including many who were otherwise intellectually active, viewed something unusual with suspicion.  Was it a simple lack of understanding, or did they truly think that what they read or viewed or listened to presented a threat to civilised living?  “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? ”, wrote W.B.Yeats. And people rioted at the first performance by the Ballets Russe of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

As a contradiction to neglect being a means of dismissing the new, Giuffre chooses to look at the Brontë sisters and the ways in which their writings were received by critics and the wider public. It seems to be true that books like Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering Heights were popular, at least with general readers. What really seems to have caused controversy was the revelation that the novels, which were first published under male names, had, in fact, been written by women : “The Brontës, writing novels that passionately and unapologetically exposed the inner lives of their protagonists, clearly violated every precept for femininity, upended every rule for proper female decorum, and usurped every privilege usually reserved for the male counterparts”.

There was also the question of the social and political implications of what the Brontës wrote about and how they wrote about it.  Giuffre refers tellingly to a December 1848 review by Elizabeth Rigby which savagely attacked Jane Eyre. Bear in mind that 1848 was a significant year in terms of the revolutions across the Continent and the political unrest in Britain. Rigby was in no doubt about what was behind the novel: “We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre”.

In France in the nineteenth century the Salon held sway when it came to the standards set for anyone wanting recognition as a painter. The competition for a place in its annual exhibitions was fierce, and in 1863, following Napoleon the Third’s intervention, the Salon des Refusés was created so that some of the artists whose work had been rejected could display their canvases.

One of the paintings in the exhibition was Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, now considered a modern masterpiece but at the time causing consternation and controversy. It showed a naked woman with two fully-dressed men gathered around a picnic spread, and with another young woman in the background washing herself in a stream. Giuffre points out that it was based on an engraving by Raphael, but the matter of the men being clothed in contemporary dress clearly changed the setting to a modern location. There was also the fact that the naked woman in the foreground didn’t seem at all embarrassed by the situation and was looking directly at the viewer in a quite open manner. It was a kind of “Well, what are you looking at?” stare that was evident.

Among the criticism levelled at Manet was that, although talented, he “persisted in reproducing repulsively vulgar subjects, scenes devoid of interest”. And it was suggested that “All his efforts should be directed towards expressing living nature in its most beautiful forms”. Like the Brontës it was proposed that he “must be ill, either physically or morally”. The work was said to be unhealthy. There were indications that he might have been suffering from “an acute affliction of the retina”.

His work wasn’t alone in being attacked. The artists who generally became known as Impressionists  took a beating. The majority of the reviews of the first Impressionist show in 1874 were hostile. They pointed to what they claimed was the “unfinished” nature of the paintings, and there were jibes about “palette scrapings” and the artists having “declared war on beauty”. Giuffre sees much of the reaction as arising from the insecurity of the bourgeoisie who were unsure of their place in society and therefore unwilling to hold themselves open to ridicule by supporting something that had not received official approval. She directs our attention to the fact that the Impressionists sold better in the United States where “new money” had more confidence in its role.

Was Emily Dickinson “an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse” writing short-lined little verses that broke all the usual rules that applied to writing poetry?  And mostly refusing to circulate them beyond her immediate friends and relations? The story of how and why Dickinson’s poetry was written and what happened to it when it fell into the hands of those determined to make it “respectable” is well-known, but Giuffre manages to tell it again without losing the reader’s interest. What was put into print after her death was not what Dickinson intended in terms of layout, punctuation, and other factors. It was tidied up by those who thought they knew best.

Giuffre is seemingly more concerned to deal with the story behind the poems, the way Dickinson lived, who she knew, what she was interested in. There was a long-standing relationship with Susan Gilbert which was effectively left out of early accounts of Dickinson’ life. It’s still not really known what the nature of that relationship was.  Instead, according to Giuffre, an image was created “of the author as a timid and virginal recluse, uneducated in literature, writing from pure instinct as a way to alleviate the broken heart she had suffered from some mysterious unrequited love”. This was meant to give her work wider popular appeal. But the critics still wrote against her. One said: “Miss Dickinson in her poetry broke every one of the natural and salutary laws of verse. Here is the very anarchy of the Muses”. But she followed her own path and became a genuinely original poet.

A term like “Delirious Cocksuckers” might bring about a burst of outrage from some sensitive readers, even now in our supposedly more-tolerant times. It refers to the “kind of homosexual Swiss Guard” clustered around the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russe. He’d left St Petersburg because he was openly gay in a society that wasn’t inclined to accept such behaviour, and relocated to Paris where homosexuality wasn’t illegal. Principal among his followers was the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky who, it was said, often appeared to hang suspended in the air when he made one of his fantastic leaps.

Diaghilev’s most famous triumph was the opening night of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. It was almost a deliberate act of provocation and designed to create a sensation and attract publicity. Which isn’t to suggest that was all it was: “The sets and costumes were stunningly colourful, the music and choreography were strikingly modern, and the dancers were energetic and powerful”. It not only changed ballet by challenging the established rules about subject-matter, tempo, and the techniques of dancing, it had an influence “on the rest of the art world – not only music and design, but also fashion, painting, and even poetry”.  However, the immediate effect was, as Diaghilev no doubt anticipated, that a riot broke out in the theatre. Advocates of the new ideas in the arts, and their traditional opponents, traded insults and blows while the musicians and dancers did their best to carry on regardless of what the audience was doing.

I think I ought to point out that Katherine Giuffre is a “specialist in the sociology of art and culture and studies social networks and communities”, so literary and art criticism isn’t at the forefront of her writing. When she turns to how James Joyce’s Ulysses was received she is largely concerned to deal with matters of censorship. It was. she says, “bound up with social control in rapidly urbanising societies where traditional mores no longer held sway and where diverse populations mixed more frequently”. Her account of the legal battles fought over the right to read what an enemy of the book described as “damnable hellish filth from the gutter of a human mind” is brisk and informative. Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review, a standard bearer for the modernist movement, was taken to court for using extracts from Ulysses. Later, when the book was published by Sylvia Beach from her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, and imported into America, there were further legal tussles until Ulysses was cleared by the courts for open sale.

It’s notable that women were closely involved with the struggle to get Ulysses into print and available for anyone to read. Margaret Anderson, Sylvia Beach, and Jane Heap were essential to not only the publication of Joyce’s work, but also in providing support at a time when there was little coming in from other sources. A couple of other things occur to me. One is that The Little Review is worthy of a study in itself. It was described in The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography (Princeton University Press, 1946) as “one of the few outlets in this country for ideas and techniques which were to influence profoundly much of our later writing”. And on that question of “influence” it can still be a matter for debate about the amount of influence Joyce had. And even whether or not that influence was, when it came to straightforward questions of literature, always for the good.

Giuffre looks at Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, largely from the point of view of how it was criticised by members of the black community in America. Hurston had grown up in a small town populated by blacks, and had been a student at Howard University. She moved to New York and was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. But when her book appeared in 1937 it was seen by Richard Wright as being in “the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh…….The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought”. He accused Hurston of pandering to white tastes. Another black writer, Ralph Ellison, likewise found fault with Hurston’s portrayal of black lives. It might be relevant that both reviews were published in the New Masses, a Communist Party publication. The Party was then keen to promote the interest of blacks, provided they were in line with Party politics. And Hurston’s writing was seen as “not serious” and “not political”.

Katherine Giuffre may not have broken any new ground with her study of six examples of creative works that aroused opposition of one sort or another when they first came to wider attention, but which, she avers, had a place in the creation of modernism. However, she has produced a lively and thoughtful account of how and why the new and different could cause outrage.