"To the Measures Fall" by Richard Powers Originally published in the October 18, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Another story only for subscribers. Perhaps The New Yorker is tightening up. I liked this story a lot: first, for its humor; second for its subtle sadness. The story begins in the Spring of 1963. “You” are riding a bike through the Cotswolds during a slight break from a semester abroad in York: “Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father.” During this bike ride you find an old book in a junk shop. It is To the Measures Fall, by Elton Wentworth, whom Churchill once called “This island’s Balzac . . . our much revered, much imitated national asset.” I should note, here, that besides being in the second person, this is also a type of “choose your own adventure” or some type of interactive story:
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic. How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?
You carry the book for sometime, never fully reading it in college. You look up Wentworth and find out that “[h]e wasn’t England’s Balzac; he was the James Michener of the Midlands.” Later you ask yourself this question: “And what was Wentworth doing, bringing out a book wrapped in Edwardian nostalgia three years after Dachau?” You get married and start graduate studies. Unfortunately, all of that goes down hill, though you have, by now, read the Wentworth, and it has a strange pull on you. You can’t determine whether it is brilliant or drivel. But the times they are a-changin’.
You get a job adjuncting at a nearby college, intros and surveys. But drumming up enthusiasm for Wharton and Cather is murder. These days, it’s all Pynchon and Barthelme, Coover and Gaddis and Gass. The canon goes up in smoke. You realize, belatedly, that you’re a co-opted, false -consciousness servant of Empire, a kapo of privileged heteronormative white paternalism, but it’s too late to retool.
I found your progress from lover of words to adjunct professor very sad but very funny too, because it is very familiar. Powers is really satirizing the academy, but what he shows is a generalization that is often true. Here’s the fate of To the Measures Fall when its popularity starts to upswing:
A modernist at New Mexico State proves that “To the Measures Fall” was really written around 1928, suppressed by Wentworth for two decades, then published, despite his objections, in a form he didn’t want. A Barnard associate prof proves that half the novel was the work of Wentworth’s longtime mistress. A graduate student at Indiana proves that the book is riddled with historical error. Scholars of all ranks show how Wentworth was the product of a thousand horrific cultural blindnesses and Eurocentric brutalities. Write a brief letter to no one, about what you once thought the book might mean.
You ultimately get out of the academy for good and end up being an attorney. Here is Powers poke at the reading group when you finally get your way and have them read Wentworth:
How are we supposed to care about these characters? I just wanted them all to get a life.
All of this is told in a clever tone, and I was chuckling throughout. But this story has a deeper aspect, a touching and unsettling current that runs beneath the humor and the form. A reader might feel for You, but mostly we chuckle or cringe at the familiar life path. But when You have children, Powers lets in a clue to what he’s doing in this story.
Your children become the heroes of their own plots, timeworn narratives in unrecognizable new bindings.
The story’s ending is very nice, slightly nostalgic and slightly bitter. I recommend it.