LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 58, No.1 - Spring 2012
Editor of this issue: Laimonas Briedis
The Curious Position of Antanas
in the Canon of Lithuanian Literature
ELIZABETH NOVICKAS is the translator of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker (Open Letter, 2009) and Kazys Boruta’s Whitehorn’s Windmill (CEU Press, 2010). She is currently translating Giedra Radvilavičiutė’s essays for Dalkey Archive Press and Petras Cvirka’s Frank Kruk.
This essay examines some of the works of the Lithuanian-American writer Antanas Tulys (1898-1977), and attempts to determine why his work has not become a part of the canon of Lithuanian literature. The author concludes that there are a number of reasons, including in part his failure to glorify the immigrant experience and the snarling, cynical surface he presents to the reader. Curiously, his works may have more relevance to Americans, but because Tulys wrote in Lithuanian, these individual readers either never had or no longer have the language skills to read him.
A friend, whom I shall graciously leave unnamed, once told me a story about finding a single Lithuanian book in a Canadian library—a copy of one of Antanas Tulys’s short story collections. With all of a nineteen-year-old’s passion, she stole the book from the library as well as surreptitiously destroyed the card catalog entry, because, as she said, “If there was to be only one Lithuanian book in that library, I didn’t want it to be that disgusting Tulys.”
Although this act of canon revision may seem rather drastic (I am not blameless in regard to passionate hatreds myself, having organized with my roommates a ritual bonfire of several particularly unloved textbooks upon graduation), it is no more than what all of us do whenever we pick up a book, read it, and interact with it in some fashion, hopefully other than to throw it across the room in disgust. As Jerry Varsava has written, “...canon revision is most ably advanced through the individual reader’s engagement with literary texts.”1 Allow me the liberty to call Tulys’s work “literary” for a moment. Then Tulys presents us with an interesting case study of how works become, or fail to become, part of a literary canon. Using the other two elements of Varsava’s proposition, i.e., “individual readers” and “engagement,” we should be able to define a fairly clear picture of exactly where Tulys fits in the canon of Lithuanian literature.
It cannot be said that Antanas Tulys (1898-1977) has completely escaped notice. He is mentioned in such standard works as Lietuvių enciklopedija (where he earns a photograph and a half column of text), Lietuvių egzodo literatūra, 1945-1990, and Lietuvių literatūra svetur, 1945-1967. In addition, Vladas Kulbokas wrote and published a detailed book of Tulys’s life in 1984. Besides these works published in the United States, Tulys also earns an entry in the Lietuvių literatūros enciklopedija from the Lithuanian Institute of Folklore and Literature, and in earlier works, such as Emigranto dalia: lietuvių beletristikos rinkinys, published in Vilnius in 1973.
However, a group of Lithuanian
graduate students at the University of Illinois (two of whom had
received bachelor’s degrees in literature at Lithuanian
universities) had neither heard of nor read his works. When, after
reading a selection of Tulys’s stories, they were asked their
opinion of it, they used these words to characterize it: paprastas
(ordinary, common), banalus (banal), nesubtilus (not subtle),
primityvus (primitive), šlykštus (disgusting,
filthy), vulgarus (vulgar), liūdnas (dismal, gloomy). One student, a
graduate of Vilnius University, upon learning that Tulys was born in
the same village in Lithuania where he grew up, mentioned that he
vaguely remembered that there was an exhibition in the local museum
about some writer who had immigrated to the United States. From these
remarks, one can assume that Tulys’s standing in the canon is
perhaps not so very secure. But surely one can suggest that
“engagement,” although in this case a unanimously
negative one, is engagement nevertheless. 2
The Engagement of Literature
I once heard a Lithuanian say, “Jaučiuosi kaip balta varna” (I feel like a white crow). To my ears, the phrase was not only charming, but also remarkably apt, especially since I have actually had the startling experience of seeing a pure white albino sparrow amongst a flock of normal ones. But to Lithuanian ears, the phrase may seem banal, the same way that the English phrase “sticking out like a sore thumb,” simply rolls off the tongue and into neighboring ears without exciting much comment or thought.
To an American ear, though, there is a volume about Lithuanian culture spoken in the phrase. Only in a culture accustomed to paying close attention to nature and specifically to agriculture, could such an apt saying, or banality, as the case may be, have come into being. In the same way, the sore thumb has its own tale to tell, of a culture perhaps given much to activity or to building.
Webster’s Second Edition defines the word banal merely with a list of synonyms: commonplace, trivial, trite, hackneyed. Certainly, when we begin reading a work of literature, we are not doing so in hopes of finding something ordinary; quite the contrary, we are looking for something that will momentarily let us escape from the commonplace, for a chance to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to be carried along by an experience outside of our own day-to-day routine.
Tulys’s heroes frequently are quite ordinary people: a woman on vacation who fears her youth is past in “Trumpas moters žydėjimas” (A woman’s brief blossoming); a prostitute whose fears that her daughter is now a competitor for business come true in “Mazgas” (The knot); a waitress in “Mergina, kuri visus mylėjo” (The girl everyone loved); or a coal miner and his wife in “Bankas užsidaro” (The bank has closed). These are not people who find success in life; their lives and experiences are invariably brutal and disappointing. Tulys does not so much take us out of the commonplace as quite thoroughly rub our noses in it. Most of the stories are set in out-of-the-way places, such as Florida or the coal-mining towns of Central Illinois, where a large number of the first wave of Lithuanian immigrants settled, rather than in urban cultural centers. Even the stories set in Chicago (“Skatukas”) paint it the way it was earlier in the twentieth century—a large but bleak industrial city.
Even the sexual encounters in these stories are presented as bleak. Pranas Naujokaitis defends them with the claim that, “Tulys does not exalt or admire pornographic things; rather he raises repugnance with them.”3
In these several respects then, perhaps Tulys cannot be said to fulfill the requirements of entertainment. However, like the balta varna, much depends upon one’s cultural and historical perspective. To this reader, having spent sixteen years of her life in Central Illinois and having grown up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, when it was still far more of an industrial than a cultural center, and having heard the stories of various elders—American-, not Lithuanian-born—of what it was like to live through the Great Depression, the stories have more relevance, echoing events, places, and lives that seem entirely real, than for a Lithuanian growing up a half a continent away under completely different circumstances. Skatukas, the half-wit, could have occupied the corner seat in the bar across the alley from where I grew up.
As another example, this time of a tale set in Lithuania, the story “Varlės šermenys” (The frog’s funeral) in the collection Tūzų klubas, (The aces’ club) I find quite amusing—I, too, remember my sister and I recruiting our older cousin to help us bury a pet mouse with all of the proper ceremony, including white gloves, a coffin made from a cigar box, and a proper incantation over the grave site. The insistence of the young boy in the story that his pet frog numirė (died as a human does) rather than nudvėsė (died as an animal does) is a distinction that speaks of the traditions of an ancient agrarian language, quite striking to a native English speaker, obviously less forceful, or perhaps even banal, to a native Lithuanian speaker. Lithuanians could probably find the behavior of the adults in this story, particularly the priests, morally offensive. But after all, the Church has been lampooned and criticized in many Lithuanian works of literature, from the lazy, superstitious Boniface Bobbin in Kazys Boruta’s Baltaragio malūnas (Whitehorn’s Windmill) to the hypocrisy rampant in Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas’s Altorių šešėlyje (In the shadow of the altar).
However, entertainment is not the only reason why we value literature. Primary among the values of literature is what it teaches us about life. If the ancient Greeks saw a role for tragedy in representing a human life as a model for the pupil to improve his soul, then certainly we cannot view the characters in Tulys’s stories as models to be emulated, although they most certainly can be viewed as models for what not to emulate. On the whole, these are not sympathetic characters; in a reversal of the tragic model (or perhaps in response to the Platonist objection to this model), in most cases their ill fortune is not based as much on chance as upon the very actions and motives that drive them. The surgeon who breaks his hand at the picnic (“Piknikas”) is there solely for the purpose of advancing his career; Blondie’s daughter’s path into prostitution (“Mazgas”) and dreams of becoming rich are no more than the mirror of her mother’s path in life; the humiliation suffered by Veronika, who fears her youth is gone (“Trumpas moters žydėjimas”), is brought on by her own vain desire to remain sexually attractive.
But as Wayne Booth comments, “Even satiric fictions that present a snarling surface address us with what amounts to a friendly offer: ‘I would like to give you something for your own good—a nasty medicine that may cure you.’”4 For the most part, these are immigrants who have lost their anchor in life in pursuit of the American Dream. The poker players in the title story “Tūzų klubas” remember the words of a deceased partner, “We stuffed our pockets, left our heads empty and now we’re pigs with paper horns.”5 Without anchor, these characters flounder in the New World: Veronika, for example, could be interpreted as a victim of the American idealization of and fixation with youth.
Friendship is indeed another reason why we value literature. While reading, we are in the company of the author, real or implied, and in that companionship we look for many of the same things that we look for in friends in real life. Booth discerns seven measures of literary friendship, which he characterizes as invitations to active experience (i.e., the act of reading), ranging from the sheer quantity of invitations offered to the range of kinds of offerings. He quite rightly points out, however, that these measures are actually ”‘spectrums of quality’ on which every reader will discover some preferred mean.”6 It is not at all surprising that each individual reader, as in real life, will find that not all of his friends are equally interesting to other friends, since each of us brings to our friendships a different set of needs and a different set of expectations.
Of particular interest in this case is Booth’s sixth criterion of literary friendship: the distance between the author’s world and our own. Tulys’s world isn’t a pleasant one: the characters inhabiting his stories are often hypocritical, stingy, selfish, vain, and repugnant. We aren’t invited to make friends with these people as much as to be repulsed by them. Frequently, as in the story “Trumpas moters žydėjimas,” we don’t find a single sympathetic character, not a single person with whom we feel a bond or can identify with.7
Tulys’s world is indeed a harsh one, not one that many people can stomach. That does not necessarily make him a bad friend: I would merely call him a difficult one. What he offers, for example in a story like “Paskutinis pasimatymas” (“The last visit”), is the viewpoint of a bitter, disappointed, suspicious person who sees evil everywhere. The narrator, returning to his home in Lithuania after a twenty-year absence, suspects that his mother and brother (who perhaps is really only a half brother, the son of a gypsy) are plotting to kill him in order to prevent him from laying claim to the family homestead. However, the conflict and distrust between the narrator and the family he left behind in Lithuania plays out a scenario that foreshadows the same distrust and conflict that I have seen played out numerous times by a later generation of Lithuanian-Americans and the relatives whom they met, sometimes for the first time, after the fifty-year reign of the Iron Curtain came to an end, a conflict much more delicately described by Irene Guilford-Mačiulytė in The Embrace.
Tulys’s Place in the Canon of Lithuanian Literature
In examining Tulys’s place in the canon of Lithuanian literature, we must invariably turn to the entire question of how exactly a canon is created and the criteria by which works of literature are included (or not). According to Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1988), classics are not valued as much by unchanging criteria as by the effects of historical and cultural processes. Milhály Szegedy-Marzák takes it a step further by stating that: “Canons are inseparable from discourses of value based on ideology.”8
Tulys, writing of a bygone period and place, namely, the immigrant experience in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century and, specifically, the first wave of emigration from Lithuania, is writing of a minority experience and, furthermore, of a group whose experiences remain largely unwritten. This first wave of immigration consisted, to a large degree, of uneducated illiterate peasants seeking a better life or escaping service in the tsar’s army. Rimvydas Šilbajoris sees Tulys’s work as representing not so much a specifically Lithuanian experience as a general one: “The characters in his collection of short stories [...] share the full measure of human vices and weaknesses with any stereotype Irishmen, Italians or whomever.”9 And if, as Szegedy-Marzák observes, national canons “were meant to provide a sense of security and belonging,”10 then Tulys’s work, based in a distant setting, written about a group that no longer has an identity (having long since dissipated into the great American melting pot) and written in a language foreign to the descendants of that group, is most surely doomed. His work has no relevance to contemporary Lithuanians, who, despite the last twenty years of immigration to the United States and their own share of hard times, still cling to their vision of America as the Promised Land. When the doctor’s wife in “Piknikas” roundly condemns the other people at the picnic for arriving at the shores of the Promised Land thin and hungry and proceeding to eat “like pigs,” Tulys is making an observation that a modern immigrant wouldn’t find particularly comfortable, although given the statistical difference between the proportion of obesity in the United States and Lithuania, Tulys’s point here is unarguable.11 However, the doctor’s and his shrewish wife’s ambitions are no more to be admired than those of the people they condemn.
Tulys was of some ideological interest in Lithuania during the Soviet period: a collection of his stories was published in Vilnius in 1973. In the introduction to that collection, Vytautas Kazakevičius describes his stories:
The writer, particularly in his first collection, mercilessly reveals the workingman’s pain, debasement, and misfortune brought on by capitalism [...] A. Tulys in his own way adds to our knowledge of the Lithuanian way of life in the capitalist world...12
The critic nevertheless finds fault with Tulys’s writing, in that it fails to fulfill the requirements of Socialist Realism: although it unmasks the dehumanization of capitalism, it fails to provide the reader with an alternative, i.e., a Soviet perspective. Tulys’s heroes do not vanquish capitalism as much as succumb to it.
But it is perhaps Tulys’s message that Lithuanians are not necessarily moral, upright, decent people, better somehow than all others, and his related message—that life in America doesn’t necessarily do anything to improve them—that is probably the most galling to his critics, be they of a socialist slant or not, and the true reason why his work will never fit easily into the Lithuanian canon.
Of interest in examining the critical stance are the frequently completely conflicting statements about Tulys, a tendency which is revealing in the same way as the lady who did protest too much.
One obvious example is the commentary about Tulys’s style of writing, a frequent topic of discussion (the students also mentioned the menkas (poor) quality of his writing style). I. A. Richards, writing about critical theory, argues that, although this criticism is an invalid one, critics are extremely apt to engage in it. Using the term “technical suppositions,” he argues that it is a common “blunder of attempting to say how the poet shall work without regard for what he is doing.”13 Different critics alternately praise and condemn Tulys’s style. According to Naujokaitis, “...his style is sufficiently picturesque and accurate; he competently wields a literary sentence...”14 Šilbajoris, although otherwise among the mildest of Tulys’s critics, writes: “The writing rarely reaches the level wherein the raw material of reality becomes art. Most frequently it is mere reportage; heartfelt, but unimproved speech.”15 None of the critics see the very real connection between the “unimproved speech” Tulys uses and the subject of his writings.
Naujokaitis, quoted above as denying that Tulys exalts pornography, on the very next page, contradicts himself with: “...the gentle lyricism is ruined by the vulgar, pornographic scenes at the end of the story,” and “...in it there is a clear tendency to admire pornographic scenes.”16 Vytautas A. Jonynas also points out that other critics have described Tulys as pornographic, but denies this, though, in his opinion, that is due more to Tulys’s general incompetence.17 Of course, from the perspective of more modern times (and writers like Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Ričardas Gavelis, et al.) the charge appears absurdly old-fashioned.
On the other hand, Naujokaitis is perceptive enough to point out inconsistencies in other critics’ assessments of Tulys. He quotes from a review by the critic B. Pranskus, whom he labels as a “tarybinis” (Soviet) critic, “The author is able to reveal the characters’ experiences and psychology...”18 He then points out that the emigré critic Kęstutis Keblys was unable to find in him any deeper understanding of humanity: “Events and situations are more important to him than people. Tulys does almost no analysis of people, does not penetrate to their interiors.”19
Jonynas admits that irony and even
misanthropy are characteristic of many serious writers, but denies
Tulys even this: “His irony reeks of pride, a drought of
feelings and naked morality.”20
The accusation of
“naked morality” is strangely at odds with the
charges of pornography, anti-religious sentiment, and cynicism that
other critics mention. His assessment is also at odds with
Šilbajoris, for whom Tulys “...feels very injured
by reality and for that reason ‘punishes’ it ... in
[his own] manner.”21
The critics do seem to agree on one thing, however, and that is that Antanas Tulys is a stranger to Lithuania. Šilbajoris describes him as “a ‘real’ American, an emigrant of the older generation, looking at the nation’s catastrophe only from afar.”22 Jonynas quotes Kęstas Reikalas (Algirdas Titus Antanaitis): “More than once, the impression arises that even now, after several decades and several books, Antanas Tulys feels more like a guest than a master of the house in Lithuanian literature.”23
It is this aspect that appears to be the most important one contributing to Tulys’s unpopularity. As Herrnstein Smith points out, “what may be spoken of as the ‘properties’ of a work—its ‘structure,’ ‘features,’ ‘qualities,’ and of course its ‘meanings’—are not fixed, given, or inherent in the work ‘itself’ but are at every point the variable products of particular subjects’ interaction with it.”24 Tulys’s work is born of an experience and a culture that is no longer Lithuanian and thus fails to provide, for most of the quoted critics at least and for the students from Lithuania, an embodiment of Lithuanian values and ideals. Revealingly, when Tulys is compared to other writers, he is most often compared to foreign, not Lithuanian, authors. Šilbajoris remarks that the setting of Tulys’s short stories is the same as that of “works of native American authors, particularly those in the twenties and thirties who wrote with a ‘social conscience,’ such as John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, or even William Faulkner.”25 Jonynas compares his writing to American pulp fiction and furthermore maintains that Antanas Vaičulaitis, in his 1961 review of Tūzų klubas, was misinterpreted when he compared Tulys to Guy de Maupassant, thereby going so far as to attempt to revise the opinions of a respected critic and writer who was well-known as a friend and admirer of Tulys. I myself find some similarity to Flannery O’Connor (a suggestion that was met with a gasp of horror from the canon-reviser mentioned at the beginning of this essay), who also specializes in drawing ugly, even revolting characters, although Tulys lacks O’Connor’s deep sense of religion and redemption.
I hope the reader of this essay has not missed the particular prejudices of my own that I mention in this essay, which accounts for my own individual engagement with Tulys. My position, as an American of Lithuanian descent, puts me personally closer to Tulys than almost any reader competent enough in Lithuanian to read him. I, too, have seen my share of grasping, ambitious Lithuanians and remarkably impious priests, as well as spent a number of years in Downstate Illinois, listening closely for the echoes of the early coal-mining generation of Lithuanians. But the distance afforded by growing up somewhat outside the Lithuanian community allows me the luxury to not feel personally affronted by it, or perhaps the perspective to see that these people, after all, are Americans. I am perfectly willing to grant that my personal associations may be irrelevant to a ‘true’ reading of Tulys, whatever that may be. However, I suspect that a selection of Tulys’s works translated into English would probably find a more receptive audience, if for no other reason than that his stories have what could be called an archeological or historical interest, since without the Lithuanian names, these stories could be told of any immigrant. Tulys might even had found himself a place of honor among such regional writers as Edgar Lee Masters, one of the few who touched upon life in the Central Illinois region. It is a curious position that Antanas Tulys occupies in the canon of Lithuanian literature. Had he written in English rather than Lithuanian, he possibly would have found himself an audience more willing to accept him as a friend.
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