August 20, 2010

The Eyes Have It: Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Eyes of the World

Literary Deadheads may recall that David Dodd first wrote about Harold Bell Wright’s 1914 novel The Eyes of the World on his web site, The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which preceded his fine book of the same topic (see p. 203 of that book for a print reference to Wright’s book and its offshoots). One interesting recent find in the Grateful Dead Archive is a splendid copy of that tome, inscribed to the band’s founding archivist Eileen Law by Deadheads Kim and Bob Hilton of Bar Harbor, Maine. (It is available now as a Google book and in a modern reprint edition.)

Bell’s book is interesting to Dead scholars for indirect, even oblique, reasons—but those reasons lead to themes that are in fact central to the scholarly study of the band as a cultural, historical, artistic phenomenon.

The novel takes place largely in Southern California, focusing on an unlikely friendship between an older novelist and a young painter. The novelist is enormously successful but considers his work corrupt, debased because of its appeal to popular, prurient tastes; he cuts a Faustian figure in the book, constantly goading and chiding his young apprentice but leavening his mordancy with occasional flashes of calm meditation on the meaning of art and the role of the artist in society. It is a frank statement about the Romantic ideal of the purity of art, and the dangers of being seduced by mammon.

That frankness is what jars most—Bell’s six previous novels had been savaged by the critics (nor has his reputation improved with time), and The Eyes of the World reads like one long, tendentious response to those critics. (See the entry on Wright in Wikipedia for some of those critical dismissals, including particularly pointed—and mordantly funny—attacks singling out this book as his worst.) But the philosophy put forth in the book—of not pandering to popular, vulgar tastes, of honoring the muse as the only way to earn immortality—is at heart a classic expression of the Romantic, bohemian ideal that later defined the hippie milieu which birthed the Dead, and certainly describes their own attitude to their music. (Bell even opens the book with an epigram from Wordsworth.)

The title of the book is a phrase that the older novelist uses when admonishing the young painter: “the eyes of the world” here means the shallow, superficial, easily misled impressions of the public, not the deep, universal awareness that Hunter’s use of the phrase describes in his lyric. Still, the myriad interconnections between the book and the song make comparing them a revealing exercise. Students interested in how the Dead’s art fits into broader arcs in American cultural history will find Bell’s novel an intriguing, if didactic, expression of the debate over high and low culture at the turn of the century. And for those interested in exploring Hunter’s extraordinary mindscape, the way these themes find expression and perdure in a phrase whose literary function changed so dramatically over time is especially fascinating.

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