In the Moment, On the Edge

What was literary impressionism? It is not an easy question to answer, since literary impressionism was less a movement than a sensibility. The impressionist writer ...

What was literary impressionism? It is not an easy question to answer, since literary impressionism was less a movement than a sensibility. The impressionist writer aimed to give the reader a sense of immediacy and direct experience. As with impressionist painting, the illusion is that one is experiencing the scene in the moment. The stress is on perception, on the subjectivity and partiality of vision of both narrator and characters. Readers of impressionist literature quickly come to recognize that our vantage is determined by a perspective that is limited, yet powerful and engrossing. English-language novelists often recognized as literary impressionists include Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and Stephen Crane.

Sometimes the impressionist work involves a frame narrator, and we readers are meant to experience the book as if we were present and listening to the story. Here, for instance, from the opening section of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a quintessential example:

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mudflat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

In today’s world, where our senses are continuously bombarded, these efforts of 120 years ago to create an atmosphere in which readers will feel and experience the story with an extra degree of presence have strong appeal. At the same time, they remind us that one must use care in believing quite what one sees, as hinted in Conrad’s novel by the emphasis on light and darkness.

Such appeal is heightened by the fact that these writers were taking stock of the most modern aspects of their world. For all the interest in traditional storytelling principles, their innovations mirrored the novel technology of radio and early film and responded to new forms of vision generated by astronomy and other sciences. They also aimed to influence some of the biggest political and moral issues of their time. Conrad’s exposure, in Heart of Darkness, of the crass cynicism and ethical bankruptcy of imperialism, using the techniques of impressionist storytelling, is thus representative.

Today’s readers might see Conrad and his generation as succumbing all too easily to racial and other stereotypes, but, in bringing heightened technique to the great political issues of their day, they nevertheless speak powerfully to us. Many in the arts today feel a renewed sense of urgency to use their craft as part of an effort to address worldwide calamities such as climate change and the rise of authoritarian leaders.

Impressionism is a way of expressing the anxiety, bewilderment, or even aggression that these men feel as they stare at the blank pages in front of them.

The eminent art historian Michael Fried has set out, in his own energetic and independent style, to answer this question—what was literary impressionism?—and to do so unencumbered by the general principles that have so far cohered around the term in the work of literary critics and art historians. This may bother some readers who expect a more direct engagement with the critical history of the term. Fried’s approach is to start the inquiry afresh, using detailed readings of passages in individual works to derive his own answer to his title’s question. “If my specific readings and my overall argument cumulatively gain traction on their own terms,” he writes, “I shall consider this book a success.”

Included in Fried’s analyses, in addition to books by the novelists listed above, are works by W. H. Hudson, Rudyard Kipling, Frank Norris, H. G. Wells, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Jack London, Erskine Childers, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan books), among others. His list, made up both of well-studied writers and those almost never discussed by literary critics, is refreshing, cutting across categories of canonicity and style. The book effectively creates a sense of a cohort, or sensibility, if not an actual movement, that at times overlaps with—and, in Fried’s view, is ultimately eclipsed by—the more full-fledged literary phenomenon of modernism.

Fried defines literary impressionism as an obsession on the part of these turn-of-the-century writers with the act of writing itself; that is, with the act of actually impressing ink, or pen, or printing mechanism onto paper. Impressionism is a way of expressing the anxiety, bewilderment, or even aggression that his writers (they are all male) feel as they stare at the blank pages in front of them, or at those pages as they start to fill with handwriting or with type. Writing is a fully material act, and this materiality gets played out within the literary text as a struggle; this for Fried constitutes the “impressionist problematic.” If the conceit of the impressionist writer in the usual formulation is to obscure the quality of writing in favor of presence and perception, Fried finds the materiality of writing itself to impinge on these texts; therein lies his interest.


The Material Life of Criticism

By Andy Hines

Carefully and creatively, Fried teases out the various ways writing gets reimagined as a matter of conflict, and often of violence. Though he stops short of explaining why impressionist authors experience writing as a brutal act, the passages on which he concentrates teem with a strange fury, focusing on acts of ghastly violence or their aftermath. These passages are likely to shock a reader today, as they would also have unsettled their original readers, at the turn of the 20th century.

These passages include, as a small sample: the discovery of the grisly remains of a young man—blown up by a bomb he had accidentally detonated—which is followed in the novel by a sensational murder (Conrad’s The Secret Agent); the horrifying beating and drowning of a Jewish man as he attempts to mount a lifeboat already full of terrified and vindictive passengers (Norris’s Vandover and the Brute); and scene after scene of two boys who relentlessly beat each other up over many years, their bloody fights closely tied to the protagonist’s youth and maturation (London’s Martin Eden).

In Fried’s analyses, these and many other sequences involving intensely violent, physical events generate fundamental questions about writing. In fact, one could say that he reads these events as being a kind of writing, or, perhaps more exactly, as enacting a struggle around writing and its base materialism. In passages that feature dead or dying bodies, acts of violence, or memories or forecasts of such events, Fried finds a performance and deep consideration of the scene of writing and its material effects.

This is surprising. Why, one wonders, should these often horrifying sequences offer a forum to display aspects of the fact of writing? After all, one might imagine writing to function, instead, as an antidote or alternative to the kind of violence represented in these passages. Fried steers away from this question, choosing instead to present in detail a proliferation of these sequences, connecting their often harsh content with the nature of writing as a physical act.

one comes away from “What Was Literary Impressionism?” wondering how strange it is that such a diverse and interesting group of writers found their own craft so traumatizing.

One of Fried’s primary scenarios, initially examined in his 1987 book Realism, Writing, Disfigurement: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (to which he refers at some length in What Was Literary Impressionism?) is what he calls the “upturned face.” These are moments when the writer or narrator encounters the face of a corpse, seeming to stare up at him through dead eyes. In Fried’s view, these upturned faces, in the context of the scene, implicate writing and the dead body as mutually signifying events. The upturned face functions like an allegory of the sheet of writing paper, and vice versa.

Fried never explains exactly why these authors saw the page in the deathly face and the face in the page, but it may be because—in his understanding—the scene of writing is both highly material and highly fraught. Of Conrad, for instance, he writes, “The continual restoration of blankness with each new sheet of paper … was the generative—as well as the most anxious—moment in his enterprise.” Or, again, “The scene of writing for Crane—for literary impressionism generally—has something ‘primordial’ about it, being prior to a certain recognition of its very nature,” hence eliciting so many jarring images of blankness, stamping, erasing, and the like.

Another primary scenario for Fried involves writing on the landscape itself. Examples include the protagonist in Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, attempting to wipe out his rejected daughter’s existence by blotting out the imprint of her feet on the beach; and the swivel marks of a mysterious snake across the sand in W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions.

Such scenes of allegorized writing can be exuberant, also fascinating. A chapter on maps, charts, and mists is one of the most effective in the book. Fried analyzes several works that feature a great deal of mapping, most notably Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands. In these books, large mapped areas come to stand in for the written page. For Wells in The War of the Worlds, the Martians’ black gas, one of their most effective weapons against their human victims, figures on the map/page as a huge ink blot. The Riddle of the Sands, a novel set mostly aboard ships traveling among a series of shoals and islands between the English Channel and the North Sea, features a scene in which the mariners must find their way to an island through a blinding fog. The characters are reduced to the same state as the reader, navigating only by the charts and maps reproduced in the text.

Further chapters home in on a variety of other scenes in which fictional worlds merge with the written and printed page. In this vein, Fried offers a detailed reading of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, probably the most canonically “impressionist” novel. He shows how the novel, which features a tortured and bewildering set of entanglements among its characters, also implicates writing—in its physical form of impression—in these heated and ultimately deadly personal interactions.

Another highlight is an analysis of the very under-read W. H. Hudson, whose writings on naturalism, particularly birds, were a huge hit among the turn-of-the-century literary elite. Scattered throughout are also insightful readings of H. G. Wells, who stands out in this book, as in his contemporary culture more broadly, as someone not quite in the fold, less likely to reiterate the impressionist tropes Fried elucidates than to reframe them.

Conrad is a central presence in this book. Fried argues that across Conrad’s works erasure is the key principle—indeed, it is a kind of writerly fantasy. This is, once again, a startling idea. Why would an author fantasize about erasing his own writing? Why should that desire be expressed in elaborate figurations of dead faces and bodies? This is one of several intriguing combinations of effects that Fried establishes through meticulous textual analysis, presenting Conrad as someone deeply conflicted about his own writing practice.

Material history of various kinds hovers in the background throughout What Was Literary Impressionism? Though Fried is dedicated to close readings of passages rather than to elaborating their historical contexts, he nevertheless provides some telling historical background. For instance, in discussing Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, he notes—in relation to a passage in which Wells describes the Beast People reverting to their nonhuman selves—that “human speech in the course of reverting to its animal equivalent is characterized … as analogous to lead type that is in the process of softening, being melted back, into unformed matter—into molten lead—an operation … that recent type-casting machines … had made part of the modern process of printing.” It is, again, the very mechanics of writing that in Fried’s view generate some of these works’ most memorable sequences.

One thing is certain: after reading What Was Literary Impressionism?, the reader will find upturned faces and other similar motifs everywhere. In this respect, it calls to mind Absorption and Theatricality (1980), one of Fried’s most influential books. There, he delineated two contrasting principles in mid-18th-century painting: works of absorption feature figures who seem to ignore the beholder, entirely involved in the world of the painting, whereas subjects in theatrical paintings solicit our attention, typically by looking directly at the viewer. One of Fried’s great gifts is to reveal, through his own intensive looking, paradigms that come to reorganize the way one regards a painting, even well beyond the works he discusses.

The accomplishment of What Was Literary Impressionism? is, similarly, to delineate a pattern that most readers would not otherwise notice. Why, he prods us to ask, should writing evoke as its mirror such extreme material events?

In the end, one comes away from What Was Literary Impressionism? less concerned with answering the title question than with considering how strange it is that such a diverse and interesting group of writers found their own craft so traumatizing. Perhaps this was a response to the insecurity of many of these men, who, in different ways, lived precariously. Conrad was an immigrant who barely made a living as a writer and who never lost his sense of imperfect belonging; Wells, whose mother was a lady’s maid, came from an exceptionally insecure class position; Crane suffered throughout his life from poor health and died, of tuberculosis, at the age of 28. All relied on the extreme vagaries of the literary marketplace.

Impressionism, for this group, may have been a way of expressing in writing a fact of writing: what it means to be vulnerable.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Edouard Manet, The Funeral (ca. 1867). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Manet’s unfinished painting is thought to depict the funeral of the writer Charles Baudelaire, which took place on September 2, 1867.