Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 24, 2010

"neglected"? "masterpiece"?

Robert McCrum lists a few "neglected masterpieces," among them, oddly, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." Or perhaps not oddly: perhaps this is just an indication of the difference between American and British schooling. Generations of American schoolchildren would have loved to neglect old Bartleby, but didn't get the chance.
I have always been uneasy with the term "neglected masterpiece" — such a thing is really quite rare, whereas the phrase isn't. There aren't many books that genuinely deserve to be called "masterpieces." Also, what counts as "neglected"? Often books so designated aren't neglected at all, but rather are just given less attention, and less universal attention, than they deserve.
However, I will admit that "neglected masterpiece" has a certain flair to it that "pretty good book that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves" lacks.
And I will say this: the best historical novel I have ever read, and one of my very favorite books, is almost completely forgotten now, less than thirty years after its publication: The Succession, by George Garrett.

2 comments:

  • There are numerous neglected, but quite worthy, works of fiction. I'm reading through one right now: NAPOLEON SYMPHONY by Anthony Burgess. A delightful work that I recommend wholeheartedly. That said, it's no masterpiece.

    But I did stumble upon a nearly-forgotten literary work that I do think qualifies for the title of "neglected masterpiece." That would be Nikos Kazantzakis' THE ODYSSEY: A MODERN SEQUEL, which is an astonishing, breathtaking achievement.

  • Thank you for continually dropping titles of books into your posts. I picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from you a couple years ago, and more recently The Ghost Map, and now I am reading Succession. Succession is wonderful, and I had to request that my library buy it--their not having it was an obvious backing to your contention that it is almost completely forgotten.

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