Richard Kopley, The Formal Center in Literature: Explorations from Poe to the Present (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018), 192 pp. Studies in English and American Literature and Culture.
Of the parts in Aristotle’s famous definition in the Poetics that “a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end” (Aristotle 2321 [1450b]), the middle is certainly the one that has received the least attention. Richard Kopley’s The Formal Center in Literature deals with this middle ground in a way that is more strongly reminiscent of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) than to Edward Said’s Beginnings (1975), placing itself firmly into the tradition of formalism and philology. Well-known within Poe Studies as an advocate of close reading, Kopley offers fifteen chapters on the form of literary texts, mostly novels and short stories, from Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). The volume is a culmination of Kopley’s work on what he has called the “formal center” in Anglophone literature since his 1988 essay on “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The formal center, Kopley defines, may be “a single point,” “parallel words or phrases,” or a chiasmus (6); it “is usually framed by parallel language or passages, but may be indicated, too, by narrative divisions or narrative time” (7). Discussing hypotheses on the relevance of chiasmus to premodern literature such as its mnemonic value, Kopley establishes a humanist rationale for the assumption that “as long as we have a sense that there is a metaphorical center to our knowledge, a felt center to our being, to our aspiration, then there will be literal centers in some works of literature” (11). While the monograph engages with some Cultural Studies issues such as sexuality (ch.s 9, 12, and 13) and multiculturalism (ch. 15), its approach amounts to a clear focus on the self-reflexive qualities of canonical literary works, examining such devices as allusion (18) and mise-en-abyme (74) as well as motifs such as echoes (59), mirrors (88-89), circles (43), or scales (96). Kopley’s monograph features readings of central parallelism in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust,” Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Kopley finds central chiasmus in Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow,” Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Smith’s White Teeth. Finally, in some instances, Kopley identifies the formal center with a particular emblem such as the ouroboros in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and the supper table in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” While most of the chapters are rather short (six to seven pages long), these readings are without exception detailed and erudite. The monograph shows Kopley as a strong proponent for the traditional principle of charity in interpretation, but his work should also become part of the discussion about the New Formalisms (see Theile and Tredennick) and it needs to be involved in a conversation with Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles’s Narrative Middles: Navigating the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (2011), which is curiously absent from Kopley’s book.
In his readings, Kopley hunts down the most subtle of textual symmetries, particularly with regard to phrases that occur at the same distance from the middle of the text, and which thus mirror its two halves. Kopley finds significant formal centers in literary texts regardless of the method of composition employed by the author. Indeed, one of the most intriguing thoughts with regard to questions of literary composition and critique génétique is that the formal center is the result of a process of composition that reaches the middle—the climax in Gustav Freytag’s dramatic nomenclature—and then uses the first half to structure the second. Kopley’s reading of Smith’s White Teeth factors in Smith’s own descriptions of her writing process “up to the middle” (qtd. in Kopley 130), demonstrating how this method of composition leads to chiastic structures throughout the novel that encapsulate the cultural hybridity at its thematic core (126).
The three Poe chapters furnish a good example of Kopley’s minute, detective-like attention to detail but they also show that some of Kopley’s interpretations would have benefited from the inclusion of more non-biographical aspects. Kopley builds on earlier work by himself and David Ketterer, finding in the formal centers of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “The Man of the Crowd,” and “The Gold-Bug” evidence of Poe’s troubled biography, including Poe’s late mother, his drinking problem, and the relationship to his foster father. In a critical move that seems rather deconstructive, Kopley argues, as he has in the past for the Dupin tales (see Kopley, Edgar Allan Poe), that Poe inscribed his own signature in “The Man of the Crowd” via the combination of the suffix “-ed” and the prefix “de-,” which evoke the name “Eddy” in such central phrases as “deepened […] deepened” (27; emphasis in original). Based on Poe’s extant letters and writings, there is no way to tell whether this is a coincidence or intentional, yet Poe’s invention of the detective story as well as his penchant for cryptograms and secret writing make him one of the most likely candidates to do such a thing. However, such a biographical reading invites charges of reductionism (Weiner 139) and also leaves many questions open that concern the relationship between form on the one hand and literary and political history on the other. Likewise, I would have wished for more theoretical analyses of the potential reasons for the cultural importance of the formal center and chiastic structures overall. For instance, Kopley’s readings of Arthur Gordon Pym, “Bartleby,” Alice, and “The Dead” all revolve around biblical echoes and mythological imagery, so what is the role of religious texts in the specifically modern history of the formal center? While Kopley does not make too much of this himself, it is remarkable that the further we advance in literary history, the less clear-cut the chiastic linguistic correspondences appear. Kopley already sees a “fractured symmetry” in Hemingway (85), and there is a relative scarcity of texts after 1950; the exceptions are Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), Smith’s White Teeth (2000), and Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” (2011). Is this the result of the choice of the texts to be included in the corpus or of a change in patterns of composition? Nevertheless, Kopley’s achievement here is to have brought the significance of the formal center to the forefront in texts that were published during and after the dispersal of classical rhetoric over the course of the nineteenth century. Posed against the insecurities of postmodernism, Kopley’s optimist outlook—that “indeterminacy is only a step toward determining, that uncertainty is only a step toward knowing” (11; emphasis added)—advances very far in the direction of absolute certainty and transparency, perhaps too far with regard to how quanta entangle, what the future holds, or what a text means.
Viewed within the broader field of Rhetorical Studies, there would have been interesting avenues for further research, for instance, based on the work done in Anthropological Studies on Chiasmus and Culture (see Wiseman and Paul). In his discussion of “The Dead,” Kopley makes explicit that he is not interested in “centers in terms of rhetoric or affect” (71). Yet linking the formal center to rhetorical issues would lead to interesting further questions such as: What is the relationship of Kopley’s central schemes of parallelism and chiasmus to the tropes as they appear, for instance, in Kenneth Burke’s list of master tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony) that furnished the model for Hayden White’s analysis of nineteenth-century historiography? What is the relevance of chiastic structures for postmodern literary texts, where one would expect them to be playfully exposed? And for literary theory itself—as we encounter it, for instance, in Louis Montrose’s formulation of the New Historicist interest in “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history” (Montrose 5)?
Intended for a broad audience (Kopley 6), the relative brevity of the individual chapters sometimes leaves something desired with regard to the question of what “cultural work” (5) the literary texts are performing. However, originating mostly in the classroom, many of Kopley’s chapters would furnish excellent texts to teach in combination with their primary materials, as they alert students to the formal aspects of literary writing. The historic and thematic breadth of the texts under discussion also adds to the persuasiveness of Kopley’s argument for the relevance of the center, opening up intriguing possibilities for further chapters in the cultural history of the literary center. What impulses the study of literary centricity can give to approaches grouped under the heading of New Formalism remains to be seen; in drawing attention to a still strangely underdiscussed aspect of form, Kopley’s ideas deserve to be in our center of attention.
Gero Guttzeit (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)