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Leithauser's Darlington's Fall: "Amazing Merger of Art and Science"

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

FALL 2002 • VOLUME 7, NUMBER 2

BY LAURA PURDOM

 
 
BEN BARNHART
  Brad Leithauser, Emly Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities and avid observer of nature, teaches course in composition, fiction writing, modern European fiction, and light verse at MHC.

Obsessed with tropical butterflies, mild-mannered Russel Darlington will go to almost any length to capture a rare "miracle on the wing" and make his name as a lepidopterist. This fictional turn-of-the-century Hoosier, whose accomplishments never match his soaring ambitions, is the unlikely hero of Darlington's Fall: A Novel in Verse (Knopf, 2002), by Brad Leithauser, Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke. Just as unlikely as its unromantic protagonist is the novel's seemingly daunting form--the three hundred-page book is composed entirely of irregularly rhymed ten-line stanzas. Yet it is this combination of a prosaic champion and a story told in verse that makes Leithauser's novel "utterly absorbing and impossible to put down." So says Donal O'Shea, Mount Holyoke's dean of faculty, whose praise is echoed no less fervently by critics farther from home, among them John Updike, who calls Darlington "an amazing merger of art and science, verse and narrative."

In shaping Darlington, Leithauser, the author of five previous novels and four volumes of poetry, married his skills as a storyteller and poet with his passion for natural history. Given to epic feats of research, the author spent seven years writing the novel, during which time he devoured scores of natural history books, visited museums around the world, interviewed entomologists, and even learned how to mount butterflies. In an effort to understand the focus and landscape of Darlington's obsession, Leithauser journeyed to the haunts of tropical butterflies in South America's Amazon Basin and twice to the Micronesian island of Pohnpei (formerly Ponape).

Chasing down multifarious facts delights Leithauser, but it was another quest that led him to write Darlington in verse: the pursuit of "little lyrical moments." Citing authors such as Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Cheever, who are "constantly yearning to wax lyrical," Leithauser says he wanted to have the opportunity in Darlington to "let fly." Says Leithauser, "With poetry more allowances are made. You want to go now for twenty lines describing a jungle or an Indiana cornfield in winter or a train crossing the Rocky Mountains? All of these are images from Darlington, and all of them are moments where I really had fun, independent of the story."

In Updike's view, as well as the views of other critics, Leithauser's decision to write the story in verse was inspired. "Prose," says Updike, "could not have provided a narrative so richly embroidered, so darting and animated in its impulses and inspirations, so glitteringly exact in its evocations of nature." Writing for publications such as the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal, critics have unanimously praised Darlington's verse. In the New York Review of Books, W. S. Merwin applauds Leithauser's "virtuoso handling of the stanza he has chosen for his story: the authority and grace with which he fulfills and varies it, the apparent ease and tact of the rhymes, and not only the pace but the underlying awareness of how that pace can be used to draw the reader's attention forward into the narrative."

Leithauser's lyric stanzas paint a cast of compelling characters, among them Russel Darlington's wealthy, world-weary father, perpetually shrouded in smoke, and the misanthropic Professor Schrock, Russel's horribly disfigured mentor. Characters emerge from Leithauser's verse with pristine clarity and generous wit--characters such as the housekeeper Mrs. Houlihan, "A woman who, in her surpassing rectitude,/Daily contends with a host of enemies:/Dust, drunkenness, idleness, seafood,/Underdone meat, mold, uppity tradesmen, dirty hands,/Waxy ears, women with no sense of shame, dungarees,/Dogs, dumbbells, do-nothings (the list expands)."

As a novel in verse, Darlington is not a novelty, but it is a rarity. Since the end of the Victorian era, verse narratives--a form as old as storytelling itself--have been few, though a handful of other writers, such as Derek Walcott, have bridged the narrative-verse divide. Still rarer are artistic collaborations between brothers, the type of partnership that led to the drawings that illuminate Darlington's chapter headings. The author's brother Mark Leithauser, chief of design at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., created twelve graphite drawings that provide a gothic counterpoint to the novel's nineteenth-century atmosphere.

A family connection informs Leithauser's next book project as well. Turning as he did in Darlington to the Midwest of his childhood, Leithauser will set his next novel (in prose) in post-World War II Detroit. It will be "a re-creation of my parent's world--the world before me," says Leithauser, who was born in 1952. This time the hero will be a man obsessed not with science, but with science fiction. As with Darlington, meticulous factual investigation will inform every detail of the book. Leithauser--poet, novelist, and marathon researcher--is looking forward to visiting Detroit's historical society and revisiting his favorite sci-fi classics. No doubt Leithauser's next book will display the same passionate attention to detail as does Darlington. As Leithauser says in a note preceding Russel Darlington's tale, "If the people are fabrications, I'd like to think the insects are genuine."

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