Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Masterpiece

Posted on April 19, 2011 by


Edwin Mullhouse - A Novel by Steven Millhauser.

Edwin Mullhouse – A Novel by Steven Millhauser.

I grieve that I was yet to be born in 1972, when “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright” was published.

It was, as my father told me when he gave me his paperback copy, an under-appreciated masterpiece of American literature. I have since formed the opinion that its lack of success is caused by a pervasive misunderstanding of the book’s intent and tone.

Where do we go these days for book reviews? (Or rather, where do we go when our goal is to explore the admittedly U.S.-centric Zeitgeist of the world’s readers?) I searched Amazon for “Edwin Mullhouse” and found that the book had been reissued in 1996, only to be greeted with downright insulting praise for its “heartfelt evocation of childhood” (Publishers’ Weekly).

I wonder how much of this is the fatuous and maudlin desire to remember ’50s America as the white-picketed idyll that graced so many brand-name cookbooks and World’s Fairs. I wonder what kind of person Amazon user “edible cville…” must be for “Edwin Mullhouse” to have “brought back many of [their] own memories of childhood”. I wonder what they think of us, to recommend this book to “anyone who wants to remember their childhood”.

I deny wholeheartedly that any of “Edwin Mullhouse” makes an appearance in my childhood. Well, all right, I did have some infinitesimal portion of Jeffrey’s inhuman penchant for words, but notwithstanding that and the differences that arise from being a girl I managed to blunder through my younger years without once becoming a sociopath.

Back up, because that sentence is deliberately very long and convoluted so that I could trip you up with the bit at the end.

“Edwin Mullhouse” is a supremely creepy book. Jeffrey’s entirely adult, pedantic, scholarly voice is no gimmick, and neither is it lazy chaff that falls away from Millhauser’s attempt to either a) accurately depict childhood or b) satirize the life of an English grad-student (which Millhauser was when he wrote the bulk of the book).

Millhauser does both of these things very well, which is precisely why he depicts childhood brutality so clearly. And Jeffrey is brutal. In his absolute refusal to acknowledge his own brilliance, he becomes obsessive. He feeds from his subject Edwin’s perfectly normal childhood. He is a parasite: a person whose vanity is best sated kow-towing to the accomplishments of others, eyes swivelling about, trying to catch the faintest whiff of artistic effort that he might brilliantly comment on it.

Those like Jeffrey avoid the brash and distasteful act of pure creation; their genius is more pure, abstracted. They look upon their subjects as pets. To be a genius is to appreciate. And to this end, Jeffrey grooms his personal genius.

I think perhaps “Edwin Mullhouse” is a satire of literary critique in general (likely the process of getting an MFA in particular) but to me it has most value when read more broadly: as a satire of obsessive attention. If you’ve ever known a stalker or an obsessive fan you will recognise Jeffrey. You’ll know by the end of the book that Jeffrey will have a lineup of personal genii throughout his life, and shudder to think about what that means.

Please read this book. It tussles with “Perfume” and “House of Leaves” for the title of “Book I Wish I Could have Written and Know I Might Have if I Were a Bit Smarter and Born Earlier”.