“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” British poet laureate Robert Southey declaimed in a letter to schoolteacher and aspiring poet and novelist Charlotte Bronte in 1836.
Eleven years later, in October 1847, Bronte refuted Southey’s proclamation when the British publishing firm of Smith, Elder, and Co. brought her Gothic romance Jane Eyre to the Victorian reading public; the novel, produced under the pseudonym Currer Bell, was an immediate critical and commercial success (1847 was a banner year for the Bronte sisters of Haworth, UK: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey found a publisher, as did Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).
Today, more than 150 years after Charlotte’s death at a mere three weeks shy of her 39th birthday, her dark and masterfully plotted novel about the ardor between the title character, a strong-willed governess, and her employer, the enigmatic and brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, not only continues to be widely-read in several languages, but has been translated into feature films and television movies more than 25 times, and is universally regarded as one of the most influential literary works ever composed, spawning a popular 1966 prequel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Wide Sargasso Sea, providing back story for Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane wife confined to the attic of his estate, was a favorite read of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as noted in a quaint anecdote by historian William Kuhn in Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, a unique and original account that explores the woman behind the icon.
Regarding the library of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (dubbed Jackie O by the press and public), writes Kuhn, “her personal selection of books she decided to keep, to read, to commission [in her role as editor at Viking and Doubleday], was not just a row of books standing on the shelf. It was her self-portrait.” As novelist Nancy Mitford wrote: “The books of somebody who reads are an infallible guide to the author’s mentality.”
Reading Jackie is a conspicuous labor of love and deep respect, “a revealing biography of the former First Lady and her career in publishing”, edited by her former colleague Nan Talese (whose past editorial relationships include Ian McEwan and Margret Atwood) and published by Doubleday, Jackie’s longtime editorial home. Kuhn writes early in the work that Jackie “went from being a figure caught in the blare of flashbulbs every time she walked on the street to being a woman who helped put enduring statements of why art matters into print.”
Why Art Matters: this is where the task assigned to the cultural essayist becomes an onerous one. The near-existential question I have been grappling with since reading Kuhn’s meticulously researched book is how to address the relevance of a work like Reading Jackie – a biography culled from the detritus of a well-bred woman’s affection for art and literature – to a culture wherein literary reading has declined significantly in direct proportion to rising Internet use (PopMatters readers notwithstanding, Alexa demographics report that you’re a well-read crowd).
A November 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) finds that negative trends in American reading habits “have demonstrable social, cultural, and civic implications.” The current generation is simply too hardwired into the world of mass media (television, computers, video games, cell phones, social media) and the more facile fragments of pop culture – think Justin Bieber or the exploits of Charlie Sheen – to cultivate a taste for reading and cultural activities, the NEA frets in a separate report.
In other words, personalities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, celebrities with an intellectual bent, are few and far between in modern times.
“What of the current generation?” I asked the author of Reading Jackie in a recent email dialogue. “How will we ‘read’ them in the future? By their Netflix choices? Their Twitter and Facebook histories?” “When I taught history at Carthage,” Kuhn replied, “(young students) were certainly better at picking up visual details from movie clips I showed in class – often things I missed – than at reading texts, which they invariably regarded as very hard work.”
Kuhn went on to say that when he sits down to read a newspaper (the real thing manufactured of pulp and ink) he pays “much more attention to it than when I glance at the news headlines online. I guess I conclude from that that long forms of fiction and non-fiction may die out, although short stories and short essays may revive.”
That’s bad news for Moby Dick and Don Quixote. In point of fact, the two literary works that most closely parallel Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ personal biography are Melville’s metaphor-laden whaling adventure and Miguel De Cervantes’ immortal satire of chivalric code featuring the deluded errant knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, a broken-down former soldier who, in the opening chapters of the epic novel, is literally driven mad by his preoccupation with adventure novels, “the solace of my soul and the entertainment of my life.” Cervantes also illustrates through Don Quixote that nobility (or a personal sense of nobility) can be a form of madness.