Stanford scholar sees failure as key element of success for some of America's most revered authors

English professor Gavin Jones finds that acclaimed 19th century authors solidified their place in the literary canon by embracing the imperfection of the human condition.

Courtesy of Gavin Jones Gavin Jones

In his latest book, Stanford Professor Gavin Jones analyzes theories of failure as portrayed in works of Poe, Twain and others.

A flop, a bankruptcy, a failed startup. In today's society, failures like these are often held up as a rite of passage.

But not so in 19th century America. While an ethos like that of Silicon Valley is content to write off failure as a stage before success, Stanford English professor Gavin Jones, a scholar of 19thcentury American literature, contends that failure can be a state of being, with integrity, and that it has been central to renowned creativity.

In his recent book, Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History, Jones analyzes theories of failure as portrayed in works of classic American literature. Through the pages of Poe, Twain, Melville and more, Jones argues that failure is one of the "central tropes of the American literary imagination."

No matter the renowned names of these authors, Jones found that they confronted failure at every turn of their careers – and not just in the literary marketplace. Their processes of writing and editing were often equally messy.

Jones says that failure was central to the success of America's most celebrated authors.

At once a period of exponential growth, technological progress and nation-building, the 19th century was also pockmarked by financial panics in every generation, plus the depression of the 1890s, the growing pains of American expansion, slavery and the Civil War.  Many of our most famous writers likewise struggled to make ends meet or to achieve popular success.

Amid the clamor to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps, writers like Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe were wrestling with what success in this new America meant. 

Through Jones' analysis, these American writers emerge "as the great theorists of failure who discovered ways to translate their own social insecurities into complex portrayals of the modern self, founded in moral fallibility, precarious knowledge and negative feelings."

Jones explains that our "investment in the dream of success actually creates, necessitates even, an obsession with failure."

As Jones sees it, these famous books, written by poor investors (Twain) and social recluses (Henry David Thoreau), succeeded in using literary form to theorize imperfection. They exposed the full suite of human inadequacies that society preferred to sweep under the rug.

 "These canonical authors were not only writing against the backdrop of the turbulent 19th century, they were creating its culture," Jones posits.

"Failure is a distinctive aspect not only of American literature but of American society more generally," Jones says. "By understanding something about the literature of this nation – its form, its technique, its style – we come to see how failure is a distinct and complex condition of American existence, of life lived in the shadow of impossible success."

Flawed characters, illogical plots

Scholars have long studied the theme of failure in the plots of American literature, but Jones takes the argument one step further by tracing failure in the production and structure of these classic texts.

While heralded as classics now, in their time works like Melville's Moby-Dick and Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage seemed dangerously messy, flawed, and even perverse.  Moby-Dick riled up its readers, who were shocked by its winding narrative, confused whether the book was meant to be an adventure story or an encyclopedia of whaling. Crane's critics noted that his masterpiece dispels the idea of human greatness and the possibility of good ethics, unraveling man's actions into shreds of impotence.

Through an analysis of textual history, Jones explores how authors often warped their plots and characters to suit their changing or uncertain interests.

Books by authors like Thoreau, Crane and Twain are peppered with apparent structural mistakes. They often failed to develop characters around a unified artistic purpose, left the editing process unfinished, and summed up over-complicated narratives incompletely.

But Jones notes that the more their books failed before audiences, the more successful they have become as literary classics.  "It's not just that we've come to value what early audiences rejected," Jones says  "There's something deeper in the process of literary creation itself.  It has a power over us not despite but because of its failures – all of its contradictions and anomalies."

The rampant anomalies and contradictions in these works have intrigued Jones since he was in graduate school. Rather than flawless pieces of literary perfection, he explains, even classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick "present really profound structural problems."

Think of what struck you as a bemused high school student when you came to the end of Twain's classic story Huckleberry Finn. Jones points out that what had been a complicated interracial relationship between Huck and Jim finally fractures, the ethical energy dissipates, and Tom Sawyer all of a sudden reappears, all without much explanation.

Or, recall the moment in Moby-Dick when Melville just tosses his character Bulkington from the ship into the sea. Here we can see Melville in the process of changing his literary goals. "Bulkington is sacrificed to Melville's attempted elevation of the book into a philosophical epic or metaphysical tragedy," Jones says.

Twain's fascinating failure

Twain's peculiar structural choices in the crafting of Puddn'head Wilson earned it an entire chapter in Jones' book. "Originally conceived as a superficial comedy about the visit of Italian conjoined twins to the American South," Jones explains that "Twain's manuscript grew out of control once he introduced the plot of switched racial identity." 

In the end, Twain had no luck finding a publisher for such a convoluted story, so he was forced to split the tales and "expunge the conjoined twins and most of their escapades from the published version."

Despite these edits, "Readers at the time thought Puddn'head Wilson was very disorderly, a failure laden with contradictions."

Twain preserved details from his earlier versions of the story in his final manuscript, which Jones then used to recreate the series of choices Twain had made in writing the novel, offering us a window into "Twain's self-conscious creation, arrangement and manipulation of his characters."

In the end, the novel is as flawed and contradictory as the characters within it. But what makes it so fascinating are its twists and turns, and all of the social and personal problems they expose. 

"Imaginative writers approached failure as a kind of social identity defined by anxiety in the face of economic uncertainty," Jones says. But, he adds, "In the realm of American literature, failure became a much bigger and more complex idea: a process of thinking, knowing, feeling, and being.

"Failure, as it unfolds in literary pages, becomes essential to an understanding of what makes us human – both within and beyond the pressures of social context."

Mackenzie Cooley is a doctoral student in Early Modern European History at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,