Into the Canon: 'Middlemarch'

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
george eliot.jpg

I'm about halfway through, and the book has suddenly started to pick up. All the pieces are on the board and the game is afoot. (I'm intentionally being rather vague here, for those who might decide to read.)


I want to, again, reflect on how well the form of Middlemarch--not just as a book, and not just as long book, but as a long, slow fictional philosophical work--will hold up in this era. Let us stipulate that Middlemarch is a masterpiece of ambition. I'm only halfway through and Eliot's rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing. A few weeks ago, someone in comments mentioned "violence" in characterizing Eliot's sudden shifts in phrasing:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea -- but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect.

This is George Eliot in conversation with herself, or rather the "voice" of the novel in conversation with itself. For a split second you almost see Eliot writing and can feel her scratching out sentences. I'm not saying this is what actually happened. But the effect is there.

Getting back to the point, I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I'm not particularly well-read--especially in the area of modern fiction. But I know I've seen the descendants of Hemmingway, Austin and Faulkner. Are writers today trying to approach the form with the same sort of ambition? Does anyone have time? I would hear from some folks in the MFA-world on those questions.

At any rate, I'm enjoying myself. The book demands patience. I could use more myself.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/into-the-canon-middlemarch/250588/