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Literature is the “Stuffy” Art

A student recently confronted me with the maxim that most poets, novelists, and playwrights suffer from a disease he called “universal stuffiness.” Trying to be “relevant,” I agreed that literature on the whole was perhaps the stuffiest of the stuffy pursuits called the arts. I then assigned him a term project calling for the demonstration of his statement. By the time we talked about his investigations the next week, he had reached some tentative conclusions: the stuffiness of literature is pervasive throughout the whole of English and American literature; it transcends movements, traditions, and mainstreams; Shakespeare was the stuffiest of them all by far; and it really isn’t so bad to be stuffy after all, if it’s done right. We agreed, then, that the primary business of reading literature is an effort to experience as much of its stuff as possible. Hence, the stuffiness of critical writing, teaching, and so on. Our discussion finally led, surprisingly enough, to a question worthy of Socrates: What, then, is the stuff of stuff?

So it really isn’t all that bad to be stuffy. After all, Whitman describes the grass as “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” And Whitman himself is “stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff that is fine.” He is large and contains multitudes—of stuff. We sat there and discussed all this, starting to throw around quotations. And we didn’t think much of it was in any way significant at first. But then we began to see that writers refer to various kinds of stuff quite regularly and that they use the term with deliberation and at crucial times in their works, and that the term often serves a function where no other will do—expressing an almost non-verbal experience bringing the medium of language to perhaps it farthest limits. My student’s research thus had me looking for an explanation of why being stuffy on paper isn’t so bad after all.

Embarking on a study of this phenomenon, I wanted ultimately to check precisely how people use the word “stuff” in everyday language. The dictionary says it’s “(1) material to be worked up in manufacture or out of which anything is to be or may be formed; raw material; hence, any material regarded indefinitely; as lava is curious stuff, (2) the elemental part; essence; as, he was of good stuff.” We stuff envelopes and turkeys, in basketball a center stuffs a basket, a pitcher puts stuff on his curve ball, we stuff ourselves with food, we display stuffed dummies and animals, we ask someone if he has the stuff for one thing or another-and such stuff (there I go again). But the word in most of these usages reaches beyond the realm of explainable language and thought, carrying a groping toward essences that cannot be verbalized. Because this sounds very much like the experience literature often seeks to convey, it naturally gets a bit stuffy at times.

Shakespeare is worse than most. A. C. Bradley dealt with his stuffiness long ago actually: “His tragic characters are made of the stuff we find within ourselves and within the persons who surround them.” Bradley also saw in King Lear Shakespeare’s attempt to “free himself from the perilous stuff that weighed upon his heart.” And so he “wrought this stuff into the stormy music of his greatest poem.” Sounds stuffy, indeed; but let’s trace the kind of stuff we find in his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, Capulet describes Paris as “stuffed, as they say, with honorable parts.” Simple enough description. Similarly, Portia in The Merchant of Venice matter-of-factly declares “what stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn.” And Don Pedro in Much Ado: “The barber’s men hath been seen with him; and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.” Seemingly frivolous uses multiply: “What stuff wilt have a kirtle of?” and “I’m stuffed, cousin; I cannot smell.”

But we look to Shakespeare for an explanation of the stuff of life, and the more famous references provide such eminently quotable philosophy. Prospero’s “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and Sir Toby’s “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” are among the most remembered. Yet there is also the ironic “Yet do I hold it the very stuff of conscience to do no contrived murder” and the poignant “Horribly stuffed with the epithets of war” of Othello as well as Antony’s “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff” in Julius Caesar. In each case, the stuff is the dynamic energy of life itself, and the creation of being is a structuring of this primal stuff. In his plays on the whole, Shakespeare is attempting to wring meaning out of this human stuff.

The bard thus uses his stuff carefully. In response to Hamlet’s apostrophe to man speech, Rosencrantz replies: “There was no such stuff in my thoughts.” Speaking to the Queen, Hamlet cries “And let me wring your heart; for so I shall, if it be made of penetrable stuff.” And the King tells Laertes “you must not think that we are made of stuff so flat and dull that we can let our beard be shook with danger and think it pastime.” Plotting against Edgar, Edmund confides “If I find him comforting the king, it will stuff his suspicion more fully.” Finally, Macbeth carries in it the heavy stuff that Bradley refers to. Lady Macbeth expresses her approval of her husband’s actions: “O proper stuff.” And yet Macbeth seeks a remedy for his wife’s strange malady as he seeks to “cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.” Characteristically, literature becomes as stuffy as it can at this point and the doctor advises Macbeth as he must: “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” All this is reason enough for George III to ask if there was ever “such stuff as great as part of Shakespeare” and to follow with “Is there not sad stuff?”

My investigations led me to the discovery that Shakespeare’s use of the stuffy found further expression later in American literature and that perhaps the word itself had become more Americanized than the stuffy English would like to admit. But I also found it in use regularly from Dryden to Auden, from Browning to G. K. Chesterton. While Dryden was to refer to “such woeful stuff as I or Shadwell write,” Dr. Johnson voiced his critical opinion of Ossian: “Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.” And like Shakespeare, Browning approaches the elemental in his stuffiness: “I count life just a stuff to try the soul’s strength on.” Less profound with perhaps the same basic meaning is Chesterton’s “Lord Lilac was of slighter stuff. Lord Lilac had had quite enough.” Finally, Auden half-whimsically philosophizes: “Loose ends and jumble of our common world. And stuff and nonsense of our own free will.”

Wandering between categories of English and American literature, I found stuffiness even creeping into the tales of Lewis Carroll, the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, and the revered Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In Fitzgerald’s translation we find some stuff among the loaf of bread, the jug of wine, and thou: “one half so precious as the stuff they sell.” Significantly also, there is a dimension of the stuffy in Alice’s Wonderland: “‘I have answered three questions and that is enough,’ said his father; ‘don’t give yourself airs! Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff? Be off or I’ll kick you downstairs.’ ” That is one way to deal with a stuffy monologue, and here the meaning is closer to my student’s original assertion. But I’m not so sure Edward Lear’s reference lends any further support: “How pleasant to know Mr. Lear! Who has written such volumes of stuff! Some think him ill tempered and queer, but a few think him pleasant enough.” Is Lear really so far from Shakespeare or from Josiah Royce who, changing Prospero a little, says that “The world is such stuff as ideas are made of”?

In any case, when the stuffy art crossed the ocean, some things changed, some remained the same. Predictably, the Franklin D. H. Lawrence called “cunning little Benjamin” also knew his Shakespeare: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time which is the stuff life is made of.” Alongside Whitman’s “hopeful green stuff” we can place Melville’s “Here’s stout stuff for woe to work on,” the “coronation stuff” in Moby Dick, and Henry James’ “the lost stuff of consciousness” in “The Beast of the Jungle” as well as his further references in Wings of the Dove: “with such stuff as the strange English girl was made of, such stuff that…she had never known.” Even Faulkner refers to “that same figment-stuff warped out of all experience.” Characteristically, Hemingway has Robert Jordan tell himself to “cut out all that dying stuff.” And in The Sun Also Rises Bill quips “Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs.”

Beyond these mere cursory mentions, Eliot’s concern with a certain kind of stuff is central to “The Hollow Men”: “We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. Leaning together.” And in his commentary on the poem, Donald Heiney uses the same motif: “The hollow men are the citizens of modern Western culture, synthetically stuffed with opinions, ideas, and faiths they cannot feel.” Whether dealing with primal stuff or simple stuff, American writers have long recognized their stuffiness. Thus, a collection of WPA writings in 1937 was entitled American Stuff.

A significant body of Black American poetry reflects a similar probing of elemental stuff. Frank Horne speaks of “The wise guys who tell me that Christmas is Kid Stuff,” hoping that “we can get back some of that kid stuff born two thousand years ago.” And in “Symphony” Horne builds up through a catalog effect toward the elemental “stuff of the symphony of life.” Similarly, Helene Johnson describes “the way your hair shines in the spotlight like it was the real stuff.” Commenting on the excesses of emotion, G. C. Oden asks “Does flight depend upon such feathered things? Or is it air? I do not trust the stuff.”

In the American tradition, the drama has been the predominant vehicle for the pursuit of stuff. From O’Neill to Albee, the theatre has strongly upheld the tradition of the stuffy. Mr. Brown in O’Neill’s The Great Cod Brown says “Billy’s got the stuff in him to win, if he’ll only work hard enough.” And in Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, Squier thinks Gabby has “heroic stuff in her.” In Odets’ Awake and Sing, Ralph declares “I got the stuff to go ahead.” Behrman’s End of Summer displays two distinct kinds of the stuffy. Kenneth is in the pattern we have been observing all along when he says “I deal scientifically with the human stuff around me.” But Will is a little more colloquial in his “when you are stuffed and inert with everything you want, then will be the time for me.” Then there’s Nick in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life: “I stood behind that bar listening to the God-damned stuff and cried like a baby”—and also his “They give everybody stuff they shouldn’t have.” Finally, Albee’s Martha brings it all home as she spits out “Maybe Georgie-boy didn’t have the stuff.” In varying degrees, the stuffiest parts of these plays carefully examine the elemental stuff of human existence in an effort to shape it into desirable patterns of reality, wringing a meaning out of that stuff which approaches the undefinable. At the limits of language the strengths and limitations of literature’s stuff meet.

Now what does all this stuffiness mean? My student presented his conclusions in a kaleidoscopic impression of the peculiar kinds of stuffiness literature affords its audience. In literary history the project resulted in a developing motif through periods, traditions, genres. And there was a visual dimension to the study in an attempt to deal with the experiences available at the limits of language—where the word “stuff” serves where no other will do. Every study has its stuff—history the stuff of events, philosophy the stuff of truth and being, the sciences the stuff of the physical world and living organisms, anthropology the stuff of man’s origins and behavior. Literature’s stuff may just be the stuff of stuff.


Ronald Primeau is professor of English at Central Michigan University.