Tuesday, October 31, 2006

`It Is Not Natural For a Man to Write This Well Every Day'

Henry David Thoreau is at his least attractive as a political thinker, which is why his work appeals, fleetingly, to adolescents. If they are not abidingly interested in natural science, American intellectual history or great prose, their enthusiasm inevitably wanes when they have rent to pay and children to feed.

Walden is one of the few books I have carried around with me and pored over with Talmudic intensity and devotion. I was then in my early twenties, but soon I rejected Thoreau and his example. I suppose he was a reproach to me and to the choices I had made, and that accounts for some of my rejection, but his privileged berth in life – Harvard, a father in business, a 19th-century New England town and its tolerance for eccentricity – enabled Thoreau to live a life devoted to writing as an end in itself. Yet, in his youthful arrogance, Thoreau presumed to lecture others on the proper conduct of life. As a result, only in the last decade or so have I reclaimed Thoreau on my terms, by rescuing him from himself. Alfred Kazin, as intense an admirer of Thoreau the writer as I, has the honesty to point out the obvious:

“All his feelings are absolutes, as his political ideas will be. There is none of that mocking subtlety, that winning ability to live with contradiction, that one finds in Emerson.”

And this, from the same chapter in An American Procession:

“For youth the center of the world is always itself, and the center is bright with the excitement of the will. There is no drama like that of being young, for then each experience can be overwhelming.”

Young people and addicts of any age share this quality. Each experience must be a “peak” experience – pure, intense, extreme, an end in itself. Anything less is fraudulent and cowardly. How interesting that Thoreau the teetotaler should so often use intoxication as a metaphor for exalted feelings. This is the familiar Holden Caulfield stance of perpetual adolescence. Of course, without the self-centeredness of youth and its blindness to contingency, the species might not possess the necessary brazenness to survive. Kazin again:

“Thoreau’s creed is refreshing. But anyone who thinks it a guide to political action at the end of the twentieth century will have to defend the total literary anarchism that lies behind it.”

Kazin is withering on the subject of Thoreau and his vehement support for John Brown:

“Now John Brown brought to the surface what had long been buried in the soul of Henry David Thoreau….All the damned-up violence of the man’s life came out in sympathy with Brown’s violence. Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry clearly roused in Thoreau a powerful sense of identification. Apocalypse had come.”

Kazin might be talking about the privileged, white, middle-class kids who joined the Weathermen and built bombs – like the daughter, ironically named Merry, in Philip Roth’s An American Pastoral. Today we would diagnose John Brown for precisely what he was – a terrorist and religious fanatic, though Thoreau was not alone when he likened Brown to Jesus Christ. More than 30 years before he wrote An American Procession, in a review of Thoreau’s journals (reprinted in The Inmost Leaf), Kazin defined Thoreau’s enduring appeal:

“…it is the unflagging beauty of the writing, day after day, that confirms its greatness among writers’ journals. It is not natural for a man to write this well every day. Only a man who had no other life but to practice a particularly intense and truthful kind of prose could have done it -- a man for whom all walks finally came to an end in the hard athletic sentence that would recover all their excitement…For in and through his Journal he finally made himself a prose that would fully evoke in its resonant tension and wildness the life he lived in himself every day.”

Even Kazin’s praise carries an implied rebuke. Thoreau lived to write. But without his family (especially his sister Sophia) and friends like Emerson, he could never have composed his two published books, his posthumous travel volumes, his poetry, essays and letters, and the 2-million-word journal he kept for 24 years. Thoreau accomplished all that work and was only 44 when he died.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Tunnels and Bridges

My birthday gifts arrived incrementally this year, with the gifts from my wife coming from Amazon.com on Saturday, two days late. I had asked for the three-disc recording of William H. Gass reading his novel The Tunnel, and the Library of America’s new Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Hart Crane. When the box arrived in the mail, it seemed too small to contain so much language, even in its digitalized form.

Longtime readers know of my longtime devotion to both writers. Gass I first read in 1968 or 1969 – the beautiful stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. His first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life, I carried in college like a Bible or talisman, with a superstitious regard for its powers to ward off dull prose. Among the so-called metafictionists or post-modernists – Barth, Barthelme, Elkin, Coover, Pynchon, et al. – Gass is the one to whom I have remained most loyal, because of his loyalty to language, its beauties and potentials.

Gass worked almost 30 years on The Tunnel, which Knopf finally published in 1995. As bookmaking, the 652-page, black-white-and-red volume – I bought the first edition as soon as it appeared -- is a work of art. The 45-hour recorded version is put out by the invaluable Dalkey Archive Press, which also keeps the paperback edition of the novel in print. I have never listened to an audio book, so I’m not certain what to expect from the text, the voice or myself, especially over such a long stretch of time. I don’t like wearing headphones and I’ll probably listen to Gass reading with the book in front of me – the discs are keyed to the novel’s pagination. I’m looking forward to this experiment. I listened to several minutes of the opening, and Gass’ voice sounds perfect: Midwestern-flat, plainspoken, no excesses of emoting. Gass recorded the book last year, when he turned 81, in a St. Louis studio. This must have been an exhausting undertaking – the novel is exhausting, and at the same time energizing, to read – but his voice sounds strong, weathered, stoic and definitely not like an octogenarian’s.

The booklet accompanying the discs includes “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” “Structural Description, “Cast,” “Levels of Organization,” and other ex post facto addenda that I suspect are intended as tongue-in-cheek by Gass. I’ve read the novel twice and I can’t see that any of this auxiliary matter contributes much to the experience. My favorite inclusion in the booklet is a black-and-white photo of a benignly gnomish Gass in the recording studio, seated at a lectern, microphone in front of him, text open about three-quarters of the way through, the novelist’s hands flat on the open pages, reading glasses on his nose and another pair on a cord resting on his belly. He is reading. He looks like a preacher – Jethro Furber? -- intoning Scripture.

In his essay about Hart Crane, “The Last Elizabethan,” collected in Facsimiles of Time, poet-critic Eric Ormsby writes:

“Like Whitman, Crane sought a way to praise authentically in the modern world. Could there be a harder task for any poet in a century that George Orwell once likened to `a cesspool full of barbed wire’? And like Dickinson, he struggled mightily to forge a style of tremendous compression in which by a multifoliate image, his `petalled word,’ he might clasp and conjoin all the irreconcilable torments of a lifetime. In reaction against T.S. Eliot, and especially The Waste Land (which for Crane signified an `impasse’), he worked to articulate a voice that was radiantly affirmative while remaining unmistakably modern.”

Ormsby, as usual, is on the money. Few poets give me so much unmediated pleasure as Crane (Shakespeare, Keats, Stevens, a few others). The saddest thing about the new Library of America collection is that of its 850 pages, only 144 are poetry. Crane died a suicide at age 32. The rest of the book consists of Crane’s small body of essays and reviews, and a generous selection of his letters – the best and most essential written by a poet since Keats.

Listen to this stanza from the seventh section of The Bridge, titled, like Gass’ novel, “The Tunnel”:

“O caught like pennies beneath soot and steam,
Kiss of our agony thou gatherest;
Condensed, though takest all – shrill ganglia
Impassioned with some song we fail to keep.
And yet, like Lazarus, to feel the slope,
The sod and billow breaking, -- lifting ground,
-- A sound of waters bending astride the sky
Unceasing with some Word that will not die …!”

“The Last Elizabethan,” indeed – but more Marlowe than Shakespeare. Crane is our necessary poet of the city. This memory is embarrassing but in 1975, while still living in Cleveland, my hometown as well as Crane’s, and working in a bookstore downtown, I had those lines in mind when I wrote a poem that started like this: “The city glowed beneath a dirty cloud.” Sometimes, memory is merciful: I have forgotten the rest and burned the draft decades ago. But that line remains to torment me, in part because of the Crane linkage.

I’m not a collector of knickknacks. My approach to home décor is minimalist (my wife would say “neurotic”). One keepsake I have preserved is a rust-covered nut about six inches across. Tom Zimmie, professor and acting head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., gave it to me. It comes from the Brooklyn Bridge, a relict of the original structure dating from its opening in 1883. I interviewed Zimmie about 15 years ago for a newspaper story. He had been part of the engineering team that evaluated the structural integrity of the bridge Crane called “steeled Cognizance.” In Zimmie’s suburban garage I noticed a heap of rusted iron on the floor. It was 19th-century scrap, leftovers from the work his team had done on the bridge. Would I like a souvenir? I chose the nut because, though it weighs five or six pounds, it’s compact and, because its six sides are flat, it makes an excellent bookend. It’s my palpable connection to Walt Whitman, to the Roeblings pere et fils, and to Crane, whose new volume it’s holding up on my shelf.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

`America the Mix'

Why should we be surprised that Alfred Kazin, the Brooklyn-born son of Jews who fled tsarist Russia, became an “Americanist,” a celebrator of all that is best in American culture, especially literature? After all, the obligatory hyphens – “Russian-Jewish-American” – are a giveaway. Like so many of us, Kazin answered to the idea of America, the impossible challenge the Founding Fathers set for us, to live up to our accomplishments and bottomless potential. This has nothing to do with patriotism, nationalism, jingoism or militarism. It is not about politics. It has to do with the unlikely experiment launched in 1776.

Like many writers, Kazin felt the pull of the years immediately preceding his birth (in 1915, six days before his friend, Saul Bellow), the era into which his parents were born. Thus, on the third page of A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, the selection he made from the journal he kept for 60 years, Kazin wrote:

“I have never been able to express the excitement I get from `Americana,’ from Constance Rourke’s saying, `the poet of American nationality’ – from the very names Cope, James, Peirce, Dickinson, and Roebling in Lewis Mumford’s The Brown Decades – from Thomas Bee’s Hanna and The Mauve Decade – from the letters of William James. To think of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henry James, of Emerson and Whitman and Dickinson in the same breath, as it were, gives me extraordinary satisfaction. Makers and movers and thinkers – observers in the profoundest sense. I loved to think of America as an idea, to remember the adventure and the purity, the heroism and the salt.

“Of course I love all this from the outside, as the first native son after so many generations of mud-flat Russian Jews who never saw the United States. But my personal need is great, my inquiry is urgent.”

The individual entries in Kazin’s journal are not dated, but this passage seems to come from about 1938, when he was 23 and commencing work on his great American love song, On Native Grounds (1942). Two themes run consistently through his journals – what it means to be an American and what it means to be Jewish. In a passage probably from the 1950s in which Kazin discusses the search for cultural roots by Jewish intellectuals, he writes:

“But look who’s talking! No one could love America’s Protestant thinkers – Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Lincoln, et al. – more than I do.”

In the Bicentennial year, while writing An American Procession (1984), Kazin composed this lovely reverie:

“How they struggle in, the members of my procession, my American congregation. How they fall in around my typewriter to show themselves a family. I keep seeing Willa Cather on that train doing the long trek homeward to Nebraska, and those lonely reporters from Mark Twain to Ambrose Bierce, Hemingway, and Ring Lardner, hunched down in the dead of night in small-town newspaper offices with the tawny yellow shades drawn against the one street light.”

In 1990, when Lewis Mumford died at the age of 94, Kazin noted:

“In 1931, with The Brown Decades, Mumford changed by life by documenting what by instinct had long been my favorite period of cultural history in America – from the Civil War to the nettlesome nineties. The book brought home to me the painters Thomas Eakins, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, and George Fuller; the poet Emily Dickinson; the architects Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, and John Wellborn Root. Best of all, his book instructed me in the building of Brooklyn Bridge, from boyhood an icon in my life.”

And, from his final decade (Kazin died in 1998), he left this freestanding sentence:

“America the mix, the grand mix, the mixed-up kid.”

Saturday, October 28, 2006

What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About Books

On Thursday, on the campus where I work, a graduate student in English asked, “Do you read much post-colonial literature?” As an opening gambit for conversation, the questioned stymied me. It felt like a Charlie horse in my mind or like trying to answer a question in a language I don’t speak. I don’t think in such categories. She reminded me of a woman I once worked with who said she only read books written by women. George Eliot? Christina Stead? Great! But no Dickens? No Joyce? I felt bad for her.

Like all human creations, books are acts of individual genius or its absence, not products of arbitrarily defined political categories. I told her the only African writers I could remember reading were Camus, Gordimer and St. Augustine, and the best novels about that continent were written by Conrad and Naipaul – non-Africans. She asked about J.M. Coetzee and I said, yes, I forgot, I had read a couple of his books but they were dull and I see no reason to try another. Now it was her turn to have a Charlie horse. I didn’t want to sound snotty and I wasn’t interested in starting an argument. We are both readers but we had nothing to talk about, because literature is about love and we do not love the same things.

I defer again to Alfred Kazin, in Writing Was Everything:

“For many years now, academics high and low have preempted serious criticism, have been riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount. This will get them closer and closer to the work of art. What nonsense. What gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art.”

The key here is “general reading,” not reading as a form of political indoctrination, vocational training or cryptanalysis. I suspect it has never occurred to my grad student that the foremost reason for reading is pleasure, and that to read more books is to experience more pleasure and to enlarge one’s capacity for pleasure. Some people have a vacuum – or a propaganda poster -- where their aesthetic sense ought to be.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Writing Was Everything

Yesterday, in my three cheers for the arts in America in the 1950s, I mentioned, in passing, John Cheever. His inclusion seems obvious. His prose is impeccable, his stories are funny and sad, and I carry some of them around in my head – “The Swimmer,” of course, “Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Country Husband,” “The Sorrows of Gin,” “The Superintendent,” and that little gem “Reunion.” I’m also fond of most of his novels, especially the Wapshot books and Bullet Park. One reader, however, was incensed by Cheever’s presence. He sent a brief e-mail accusing me of being “middlebrow” and “bougeois” [sic], among other things. He dismissed Cheever as “a typical New Yorker writer” – a meaningless complaint I’ve heard for decades. What does Cheever have in common with Isaac Bashevis Singer, J.F. Powers, Peter Taylor, John O’Hara, John Updike, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, Donald Barthelme and Vladimir Nabokov? Who among them is typical of the magazine’s fiction writers?

Cheever needs no defense. Among his admirers have been Saul Bellow, V.S. Pritchett and Guy Davenport – an unlikely triumvirate. The late Alfred Kazin knew Cheever from 1937, when both were contributing to The New Republic, and he remained an admirer of the man and the writer. In Writing Was Everything, his book based on the Massey Lectures he gave at Harvard in 1994, Kazin called Cheever’s work “sultry and lyrical at once,” and wrote:

“What struck me in Cheever’s stories was the personal suffering of characters firmly embedded within the most bourgeois of circumstances, which were quietly unsympathetic and, at worst, discreetly hostile. It didn’t seem to matter that the always clever protagonist was internally dying in suburbia or that his melancholia had been advanced by too many martinis.

“The style was verbally irreproachable too -- `almost perfect,’ as the editor William Shawn liked to say about a story he particularly like….He wrote in this style and tradition as if he never had to learn it. Still the stories were wryly serious, desperately ironic, full of that special distrust of postwar American hedonism felt to the point of hysteria by those who had seen the depression end, but only with the war. And they were funny, in Cheever’s politely macabre way.”

It’s telling that Kazin resorts to qualified characterizations, near-oxymorons – “quietly unsympathetic,” “discreetly hostile,” “wryly serious,” “desperately ironic,” “politely macabre.” They hint at Cheever’s characteristically mixed tone of jolly desperation and pained bonhomie, of men too polite and well-bred to scream, like the drunken father in “Reunion.” Kazin goes on:

“Cheever was always in crisis, and it was a crisis never resolved in any of his stories, left hanging in the air after the story is done.”

Then Kazin adds a general observation, one that goes well beyond Cheever, and that I think is profound:

“In his pages, literature and life are necessarily intimate. The one lesson as a critic I seem to have been born with is that no storyteller can escape that intimacy.”

It occurs to me that the tone of voice I find most attractive in fiction is the intimate, whether it is genuine, faux or some hybrid of both. Look at such varied works as Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, The Ambassadors, Kinbote’s notes in Pale Fire, Humboldt’s Gift, Richard Stern’s Natural Shocks and Stephen Dixon’s Phone Rings. The voice is conversational, seductive, authoritative even when shaky or uncertain, and we find it convincing because we agree to be convinced, soothed by the assurance of the voice. When Cheever interpolates in the middle of a story –“Why, in this half-finished civilization, this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?” – we nod our heads and ask the same question and find no adequate answer.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

You Say It's Your Birthday

The Poet Laureate of England and I have two things in common: our admiration for Philip Larkin and the date of our births. Andrew Motion and I were born on Oct. 26, 1952. I would love to quote an appropriate line from Motion’s poetry, but it’s rather dull and nothing seems to fit. Instead, I want briefly to celebrate the misunderstood era into which we were born, and make it an all-American affair. It’s customary to think of the 1950s as a culturally barren time, especially among those who sentimentalize the 1960s, but the record shows the arts in the United States were flourishing.

Earlier in 1952, Ralph Ellison had published Invisible Man, which Saul Bellow reviewed in Commentary and rightly judged a “superb book.” Bellow himself was completing The Adventures of Augie March and Vladimir Nabokov was polishing Lolita. Raymond Chandler was working on The Long Goodbye, and William Gaddis on The Recognitions. John Berryman was about to publish Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in the Partisan Review, and the Dream Songs were germinating. Marianne Moore won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year. Wallace Stevens’ Selected Poems was published in England, though his teacher and friend, George Santayana, died on Sept. 26. Auden, Lowell, Bishop and Cheever were working. Ezra Pound was in the nut house. Leon Edel was about to publish Henry James: The Untried Years 1843-1870, the first installment of his five-volume summa. The first issue of Mad magazine came out in October 1952.

Charlie Parker was falling apart that year but managed to record a great concert in Boston with Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, among others, were thriving. Just before leaving Columbia, Frank Sinatra recorded “The Birth of the Blues” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” – portents of the even greater to come. Elvis Presley was driving a truck. Robert Zimmerman was listening to Hank Williams, who died Jan. 1, 1953, in the back seat of a Cadillac.

Among the American artists represented at the Venice Biennale that year were Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Alexander Calder. Hopper, Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth served as jurors for the watercolor section of a show of works on paper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jackson Pollock painted “Blue Poles.”

And an Internet search turned up a notable bit of television trivia: NBC broadcast the first episode of Victory at Sea, one of my father’s favorite shows, at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26, 1952.

Can you suggest a subsequent year with a comparable flowering of American culture?

Happy birthday!

ADDENDUM: My oldest son has contributed two more noteworthy events from 1952: On March 27, Sam Phillips started Sun Records in Memphis, and Joe Strummer (John Graham Mellor) was born Aug. 21. I know, I know: Strummer was English, but listen to the music.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Samuel Beckett, Nature Boy

When I stumble upon a writer rhapsodizing nature, swooning over the seasons and the great cycle of life and the supernal beauty of fungus, beaver dams, and deer ticks, I think of a passage from Samuel Beckett’s first great book, Watt, the one he wrote in France while working for the Resistance:

“The crocuses and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep’s placentas and the long summer days and the newmown hay and the wood pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo in the afternoon and the corncrake in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others and the chestnuts falling and the howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling `The Roses are Blooming in Picardy’ and the standard oil-lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the sluch and every fourth year the February debacle and the endless April showers and the crocuses and then the whole bloody business starting all over again.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

`Rich and Faithful Strength of Line'

My brother, who knows more about painting than I’ll ever know, told me on Sunday about William Sommer (1867-1949), who lived for much of his life in and near Cleveland, where we were born and where my brother still lives. The name sounded familiar, and now I realize I associated him with Hart Crane, another one-time Clevelander, who wrote a poem in 1922, “Sunday Morning Apples,” dedicated “To William Sommer”:

“The leaves will fall again sometime and fill
The fleece of nature with those purposes
That are your rich and faithful strength of line.

“But now there are challenges to spring
In that ripe nude with head
Into a realm of swords, her purple shadow
Bursting on the winter of the world
From whiteness that cries defiance to the snow.

“A boy runs with a dog before the sun, straddling
Spontaneities that form their independent orbits,
Their own perennials of light
In that valley where you live
(called Brandywine).

"I have seen the apples there that toss you secrets, --
Beloved apples of seasonable madness
That feed your inquiries with aerial wine.
Put them again beside a pitcher with a knife,
And poise them full and ready for explosion --
The apples, Bill, the apples!”

In a letter to a friend, Crane described the poem as “a homely and gay thing” and said he wrote it “out of sheer joy.” Sommer by then was living in Brandywine, a rural area 20 miles south of Cleveland now best known for its ski runs. Crane’s poem is a celebration of his fondness for Sommer and his paintings – his “rich and faithful strength of line.” Of course, Crane’s poetry shared the same strength, so he is simultaneously announcing his own poetic project. The poem celebrates seasonal change, a theme that later supplies Crane with scaffolding for The Bridge. Clive Fisher, Crane’s most recent biographer, rightly describes the poem as “twenty complex but jubilant lines in honour of his friendship with William Sommer.”

Sommer was born in Detroit, the son of German immigrants, and was largely self-taught as an artist. He earned his living as a commercial lithographer and moved to Cleveland in 1907. Through friends who trained in Europe, and a visit to the Armory Show in 1913, Sommer absorbed the lessons of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Matisse. In 1919, he met Crane, then just 20 years old. I love reading about these supposed provincials and their collisions with Modernism. Crane thought of The Bridge as his covert response to The Waste Land, his affirmation to Eliot’s negation.

From the library of the university where I work I checked out the catalogue of the Sommer memorial exhibition held at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1950, a year after the painter’s death. The book is crudely designed, the reproductions are black and white, and it most resembles a high-school literary magazine. I still don’t have a good idea how Sommer’s work looks, though now I realize I have seen it before. During the Great Depression, Sommer worked painting murals for the W.P.A., including a 20-by-24-foot work in the periodical reading room of the Cleveland Public Library. It depicts Cleveland a century earlier, in1833. Judging from the photograph of it in the catalogue, it’s a conventional, idealized rendering – church, courthouse, livestock, married couple with child, all bathed in glorious sunlight. No wonder I don’t remember it, though I spent a lot of time in the library on Superior Avenue.

At some point, reading again about Crane becomes depressing. His poetry, at its best, is exalted, yet by the time Sommer was painting the library mural, his friend had been dead a year, a suicide. Crane had tried to act as an agent for Sommer’s work in New York City, but Sommer was a regionalist in the literal sense. He preferred to remain in Brandywine. Crane wrote in a letter to Waldo Frank:

“He hates to let his pictures leave him. Against that impasse, I guess, nobody’s efforts will be of much avail. It’s just as well, of course, if he has triumphed over certain kinds of hope. I admit that I haven’t, at least not entirely. I still feel the need of some kind of audience.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

Nostalgia and Cantankerousness

My favorite among the composers’ memoirs I have read is Virgil Thomson’s eponymous volume, published in 1966 when Thomson was 70. His biographer, Anthony Tommasini, calls it “an engaging narrative, cantankerous and sweetly nostalgic,” though he also faults it for a certain “indistinctness” in its characterizations of friends and lovers. That doesn’t bother me because I first read the book not out of admiration for Thomson’s music, which I still don’t know very well, but for its evocation of turn-of-the-century Kansas City, and for the clarity and precision of his prose, and the book rewarded me on both fronts.

I have visited Kansas City only once, and had a good time. My mental picture of the city has also been formed by Edward Dahlberg’s portrait of it in Because I Was Flesh, and by some of Calvin Trillin’s writings about Kansas City-style barbecue. Also, I knew Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Thomson emphasizes this distinction in the opening sentences of his memoir:

“To anyone brought up there, as I was, `Kansas City’ always meant the Missouri one. When you needed to speak of the other you used its full title, Kansas-City-Kansas; and you did not speak of it often, either, or go there unless you had business. Such business was likely to be involved with stockyards or the packing house, which lay beyond the Kansas line in bottom land. The Union Depot, hotel life, banking, theaters, shopping – all the urbanites – were in Missouri.”

This is not ex-pat Parisian bitchiness, but its Midwestern cousin. The reason I bring up Thomson’s memoir is because I found a commonplace book I was keeping 20 years ago in which I copied out many of his sentences, including the following, which seem more apropos today than in the eighties or in the mid-sixties when Thomson wrote them:

“Truth is, there is no avant-garde today. Dada has won; all is convention; choose your own. What mostly gets chosen in any time is that which can be packed and shipped. And for everything that can be packed and shipped there is a conditioned public, from the universities, where Cage and Boulez are gods, to those cities, all too common West and South, where Mozart and Brahms are still a rarity and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has not yet been heard.”

And this, from the chapter Thomson devotes to his tenure as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, from 1940 to 1954:

“My literary method, then as now, was to seek out the precise adjective. Nouns are names and can be libelous; the verbs, though sometimes picturesque, are few in number and tend toward alleging motivations. It is the specific adjectives that really describe and that do so neither in sorrow nor in anger. And to describe what one has heard is the whole art of reviewing. To analyze and compare are stimulating; to admit preferences and prejudices can be helpful; to lead one’s reader step by step from the familiar to the surprising is the height of polemical skill. Now certainly musical polemics were my intent, not aiding careers or teaching Appreciation. And why did a daily paper tolerate my polemics for fourteen years? Simply because they were accompanied by musical descriptions more precise than those being used just then by other reviewers.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

`The Echo Maker'

My review of Richard Powers' novel The Echo Maker was published today in the Houston Chronicle.


Charles Burchfield was a painter, mostly of watercolors, who kept an almost daily journal for 56 years. Written in pencil, ink and crayon, it amounted to 10,000 manuscript pages and more than 2 million words. J. Benjamin Townsend spent 15 years reading, collating, transcribing and editing the life-in-words, which has housed at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, in Buffalo, since the artist’s death in 1967. In 1993, the State University of New York published the result: Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place, Townsend’s 737-page selection, arranged chronologically within thematic categories. We can be grateful for Townsend’s labors: The generous volume is prudently edited and intelligently annotated, and even readers without an interest in Burchfield or American art can enjoy the journals for what Townsend calls, flat-footedly, their “great social and cultural interest.”

“They also provide,” Townsend writes in his Introduction, “a strikingly late culmination of two major literary genres: the capture in journal form of a vanishing native landscape and the nineteenth-century spiritual autobiography.”

Yes, Townsend is an English professor. In contrast to Burchfield, who is consistently bluff, focused on the near-at-hand and naïvely appreciative of almost everything, Townsend drags in irrelevant references and detects allusions where none exist. His index, for instance, includes six references to Walt Whitman, but all refer to Townsend’s own citations in introductory material. There’s no evidence in the journal that Burchfield read Whitman or even knew who his was. In fact, among 19th-century American poets, Burchfield seemed partial to the school-marm favorites – Longfellow, Bryant and Whittier. Among the moderns he preferred Vachel Lindsay and Robert Frost (whom Burchfield visited in 1924, in Vermont). There are single citations in the index to Eliot and Pound, but again they refer to Townsend’s words, not Burchfield’s.

Burchfield had exceptional taste in literature. He loved the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. He read Yeats’ play as early as 1915. He read and appreciated Winesburg, Ohio, when it was published in 1919. He adored Willa Cather, read all of her books as they appeared, and internalized her vision. Here’s a journal entry, ostensibly non-literary, from Oct. 15, 1948:

“The grass colors beautiful – orange yellow, sun-lit, rich reddish brown, pastel shades of pale brown pink, pale ochre, light gray creamy white, and some weed that gave off a slate gray color. With the sunlit fields of dead grass against a blue-black eastern sky, I thought of My Antonia.”

He returned repeatedly to Lewis Carroll, and read all of the prolific John Burroughs and John Muir. He knew Emerson and was deeply read in Thoreau, both Walden and the journals. He identified deeply with Thoreau. Burchfield wrote this passage on July 23, 1914, when he was 21:

“Spend afternoon reading Thoreau’s Walden. From a chance quotation from his `Autumn’ in a magazine which was, in brief, his sole entry for Nov. 14, 1860, -- `Yellow Butterflies Still’ – I expected a book more of a chronology of nature than a philosophical treatise, but the book is nonetheless interesting and vital. In it I find that he was pursued by the same doubts as I am myself and I have derived from him a new courage, for he speaks from having met & conquered the doubts.”

Burchfield first read Moby-Dick in 1924, near the start of the Melville revival, and frequently quoted it in his journal. Townsend says the experience “awakened in him the nationalist heroic spirit.” He reread the novel in 1938, quoted a passage from Chapter CXXXII (“The Symphony”), and wrote: “Nowhere, I believe, but in the Bible, is there such fine writing as that.” Burchfield also repeatedly read Robinson Crusoe, The Call of the Wild and Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil.

He read Gone With the Wind and saw the movie, and judged it “tiring and exhausting.” On March 6, 1942, he noted of the film: “I am more than ever convinced that to have a [great] work of art, you must first have a great theme.” I wonder if he was consciously echoing Melville’s exhortation in Chapter CIV (“The Fossil Whale”) of Moby-Dick:

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.”

Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916. He never received a conventional liberal-arts education, but his culture was broad. He loved music (especially Sibelius) and movies, and read for the best reasons: pleasure and self-knowledge.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


I have finally looked at and read Charles Burchfield’s Seasons, a volume Guy Davenport published with Pomegranate Artbooks in 1994. The spine is already broken in the library copy I have, several pages are held only by threads, and the color reproductions appear washed out, but Davenport’s essay, as you ought to expect, is provocative and gracefully learned – another grateful act of homage from one American artist to another. Davenport might be writing about himself when he says: “[Burchfield] exhibited no trace whatever of the bohemian propensities we associate with artists.” In other words, an artist’s job is to make art, not to posture and parade the self.

This week, without setting out to do so, I have written about several artists born in my home state, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, William Dean Howells, and now Burchfield, who was born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, in the northeastern corner of the state, east of Cleveland. Davenport places Burchfield in an artistic context that explains everything and nothing, as is always the case with individual genius:

"Quite early in the century Burchfield began to paint landscapes in an original Expressionist manner, apparently without influence. He belonged to school, had no master, did not derive from any other painter. We can point to Van Gogh's whorls of light around stars and to his writhing trees. We can remember Samuel Palmer and William Blake. But none of these influences can be traced. In many paintings Burchfield uses cartoon-strip squiggles (agitrons, cartoonists call them) to indicate movement or vibrancy. From the cartoonist's vocabulary he took also squeans and blurgits to indicate shafts of light and the sounds of crickets.”

Blake, Van Gogh Winsor McCay and George Herriman as precursors? It fits. Burchfield’s paintings are unlike any others I know. They are vibrant (even the gloomiest winter scenes) and exalted and sometimes funny (like the best comic strips). Here’s Davenport:

“Exaggeration is native to comedy, and comedy in Burchfield is a dimension of joy. The enormous dragonflies, with their comic-strip agitrons, appear in paintings of extraordinary lushness in color and light.”

With Burchfield, we question the meaning of the stickiest word in the art lexicon – realism. Again, Davenport:

Visionary is a word that recurs in writing about Burchfield. Its use is problematic in that the visionary heightening characteristic of his ecstatic landscapes is always grounded in the real. Anyone who has visited the terrain around Argenteuil and Giverny has wondered how bland and ordinary a countryside can be so magically beautiful in a canvas by Monet. Impressionism in the hands of Pissaro, Van Gogh, and Seurat kept moving toward the visionary and the abstract. The step from Van Gogh to Willem de Kooning is a short one, but one that Burchfield never took. Or took, rather, in his own way, into an idiomatic calligraphy of his own devising, a sign language for radiant light, for wind, for insect song, for emanations. `To see nature with the eye of an interpreter,’ he wrote toward the end of his life in his journal (June 30, 1964).’”

Davenport relates this line from Burchfield’s journal to our Puritan inheritance, to our predisposition for reading nature as “God’s other book,” as Davenport put it. He relates this to early American botanists, Francis Parkman’s histories and Thoreau (whose work Burchfield read). Parallel with his painting we also have the 10,000-page journal Burchfield kept for 56 years, until his death in 1967. In 1993, the State University of New York published an ample selection, edited by J. Benjamin Townsend and titled Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place – “with which,” Davenport writes, “he takes his place among American writers.” I’m browsing in it now.

Davenport next gives us a rhapsodic passage in which a painting by Burchfield (The Three Trees), a poem by Emily Dickinson (“Four trees upon a solitary acre”), and Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed are placed side by side. I won’t try to describe what Davenport does here because that would diminish his scholarly art. Please read it.

Burchfield had a fondness for yellow, and the first color plate in Davenport’s book reproduces one of my favorites among Burchfield’s paintings, Yellow Afterglow, from 1916. Two years earlier, on July 26, 1914, while reading Thoreau’s Walden, Burchfield noted in his journal:

“Afternoon calm and peaceful. A few wisps of clouds appear. Sunset the `yellow light' kind. What a miracle that yellow light is coming as it does well after the sun has dropped below the rim of the world. All things become saturated with yellow light, even our thoughts. And so I sit in the saffron air, climbing the heights. At times I read slowly from Thoreau’s Walden. I bless the chance that sent the book into my hands. It had always been my intention to read it, but like most good resolutions, it was put off. From reading it, the doubts that have assailed me –i.e. whether a spiritual life was to be preferred to a sensual existence, and whether to work for money, or for the love of my work– were banished. Thus as I sat and dreamed into the future, my mind was dissolved into the yellow and carried by it to undreamed of heights. Life seemed full of good things.”

By profession Burchfield worked as a designer of wallpaper, in Cleveland and Buffalo. Here’s Davenport on the seeming tension between painter and commercial illustrator, artist and father of five:

“`If only,’ Picasso once said to a critic, `you could see the paintings in my mind!’ We do not need this evidence of the artist’s interior world; even those of us who are not artists have it. But in the case of artists who move in the world as level-headed and practical businessmen (Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives, insurance executives; William Carlos Williams, pediatrician), the discrepancy between the daily round and intense creativity is suspiciously instructive. The imagination seems to thrive on stolen time. Some of Burchfield’s most brilliant paintings were done in after-hours and on weekends. Henri Rousseau began as a Sunday painter.”

Davenport judges Summer Solstice, reproduced on the cover of his book, to be Burchfield’s “ultimate achievement.” Of it he writes:

“It is what all works of great art must be, a communication of a state of mind. It must also be native to its medium, however much it can claim kinship with others; in this watercolor, with the in tensest melodies of Sibelius, with other pastoral visionaries like Turner, Samuel Palmer, and Monet. The tree is a geyser of green and gold. It is a Romantic painting in that the artist has imposed his own ecstatic feeling onto an innocent tree in a meadow (of no interest to a cow, except as shade). It is not a Mediterranean painting; it is Northern, it is Druid, Scandinavian, mystical. And yet it is thoroughly American -- Thoreau could have come close to finding words for a description of it. It could illustrate Tolkien's golden tree brought back to the Shire from Rive dell. It is a poem by Emily Dickinson. It is music by Elgar. No other American painter could have done it. Genius is always unique.”

And always profligate. Like Davenport himself (scholar, painter, teacher, poet, essayist, fiction writer, and so on), Burchfield worked in many forms, ignoring arbitrary genres, schools and established, pre-approved ways of doing things:

“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”

Friday, October 20, 2006


But for a certain stiffness in the syntax, we might take the following as James Wood assessing the challenging merits of, say, Henry Green:

“If we take him at all we must take him on his own ground, for clearly he will not come to ours. We must make concessions to him, not in this respect only, but in several others, chief among which is the motive for reading fiction. By example, at least, he teaches that it is the pursuit and not the end which should give us pleasure; for he often prefers to leave us to our own conjectures in regard to the fate of the people in whom he has interested us.”

The author of the passage is William Dean Howells (another Ohio boy, like Anderson and Crane) and his subject is a still-young but already brilliant Henry James. Howells is reviewing James’ first masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady, in 1882. I came across this prescient evaluation while reading Mark Twain: A Life, by Ron Powers. Howells has been nearly forgotten, I suspect. I’ve read only three of his novels -- The Rise of Silas Lapham, Indian Summer and A Hazard of New Fortunes -- but it’s as a 19th-century precursor of Ezra Pound or Ford Madox Ford – literary brokers, talent scouts, catalysts of good writing -- that Howells ought to be remembered.

For 41 years Howells was a friend of Twain, until the latter’s death in 1910; and for 49 years a friend of James, until his death in 1916. Howells died at the age of 83 in 1920 (the year Charlie Parker and Paul Celan were born). How many men can we think of who met James Russell Lowell, Emerson, Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain and James? And how many effectively championed writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Bret Harte, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harold Frederic , Charles W. Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett and Abraham Cahan? Later in the James review, Howells asks a question every reviewer or critic ought to ask:

“Could anything be superfluous that had given me so much pleasure as I read?”

He goes on:

“It seems to me that an enlightened criticism will recognize in Mr. James’ fiction a metaphysical genius working to aesthetic results, and will not be disposed to deny it any method it chooses to employ. No other novelist, except George Eliot, has dealt so largely in analysis of motive, has so fully explained and commented upon the springs of action in the persons of the drama, both before and after the facts. These novelists are more alike than any others in their processes, but with George Eliot an ethical purpose is dominant, and with Mr. James an artistic purpose.”

This is marvelous critical insight, almost two decades before James entered his final grand phase – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. I’ve always thought James drew his novelistic essentials from three writers: Eliot, Hawthorne and Turgenev. Three years after Howells’ review, James himself wrote of Eliot, whom he had met and described as "magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly":

“What is remarkable, extraordinary - and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious - is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man.”

This appeared in the May 1885 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which Howells had edited from 1871 to 1881.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


The epiphanies that accompany certain acts of reading are often diverting but always suspect, for the diurnal mind values novelty and diversion above all. If you await revelation, it will arrive but a week later you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. Only rarely does enlightenment prove lasting.

I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot of the library at Earlham College, in Richmond, Ind., reading Prejudices: Third Series, published in 1922 by H.L. Mencken. This was in the fall of 1984, and I was the court reporter for the city’s newspaper, the Palladium-Item. Mencken would have savored the pretentiousness of the name and the statue of Pallas Athena in the lobby.

I had already read much of Mencken but now I was reading him systematically, as a form of career counseling. I had been a reporter for five years and was for the first time feeling confidence in my abilities, accompanied by dissatisfaction. I had covered a capital murder trial gavel to gavel and was feeling feisty, but I also hated Indiana and its oppressive blandness. Mencken, of course, was a ready ally but I was reading him more as a stylist than a pundit. I had been trying out in the newspaper some of the experiments in prose I admired in not just Mencken but in Liebling, Mitchell and Kempton. I was after humor, raffishness and revelations of personality, and my editors wanted speed, accuracy and quantity. It’s an old story.

The enlightenment came when I read Mencken’s final piece in the volume – “Suite Americane.” The French, of course, in Mencken’s hands, makes the title an oxymoron. It’s an uncharacteristically impressionistic piece for Mencken: Three sections (“Aspiration,” “Virtue,” “Eminence”) of sentence fragments, each a snapshot from American life, connected only by ellipses. Here’s a sample from “Virtue”:

“Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna….Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks….Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World….Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they’ll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach….Ticket-choppers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form….Family doctors in poor neighborhoods, faithfully relying upon the therapeutics taught in their Eclectic Medical College in 1884….Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from insect bites….”

Mencken here is walking a tightrope of tone. He is satiric but not savagely so, as he certainly is elsewhere. Along with the satire I hear empathy, an understanding of the human lot, especially when it comes to women. I think of Edward Hopper’s enigmatic paintings (Reread “Women hidden away…” and then go here) and the fiction of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis – all contemporaries of Mencken. “Suite Americane” embodies Mencken’s conflicted feelings about America and Americans, his mingling of fondness and revulsion. For those who pigeonhole Mencken strictly as a critic of American cretinism, read “On Being an American,” also collected in Prejudices: Third Series. For instance:

“It is my contention that….there is no country on the face of the earth wherein a man roughly constituted as I am – a man of my general weaknesses, vanities, appetites, prejudices, and aversions – can be so happy, or even one-half so happy, as he can be in these free and independent states. Going further, I lay down the proposition that it is a sheer physical impossibility for such a man to live in These States and not be happy – that it is as impossible to him as it would be to a schoolboy to weep over the burning down of his school-house.”

The disgust at provinciality is there, but so is the gusto and gratitude. The big revelation for me as a writer, sitting in my car on the campus of a Quaker college in Indiana, was that prose could wield ambiguity, that humor and pathos, laughter and sentiment, could coexist. Mencken was being snotty, but not merely snotty. Writing, even in newspapers, need not be cartoonish. The job was to mirror contradictions – in our shared reality, in the writer’s own sensibility -- without making a confusing hash of it, and to do it using the details of American life. Read this from “Eminence,” the third section of “Suite Americane”:

“….The old lady in Wahoo, Neb., who has read the Bible 38 times….The boss who controls the Italian, Czecho-Slovak and Polish votes in Youngstown, O….The professor of chemistry, Greek, rhetoric and piano at the Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Tex….The boy who sells 225 copies of the Saturday Evening Post every week in Cheyenne, Wyo….The youngest murderer awaiting hanging in Chicago….The leading dramatic critic of Pittsburgh….The night watchman in Penn Yan, N.Y., who once shook hands with Chester A. Arthur…The Lithuanian woman in Bluefield, W.Va., who has had five sets of triplets….”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

`I Still Tremble with Passion'

Four years before his death in 2004, Donald Justice conducted a lengthy interview with the English writer and scholar Philip Hoy, and in 2001 the edited interview was published as a book by Between the Lines. Justice was one of our best poets. He spoke softly in an age when poets shrieked. The interview is thoughtful and nostalgic but never toothless, and several notable excerpts follow. As a young man, Justice considered becoming a composer, and he studied at the University of Miami with the composer Carl Ruggles:

“Ruggles is one of those gifted amateurs of the arts that America produced, especially in the early modern period – Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield among the painters, Charles Ives and Roy Harris among the composers, and Sherwood Anderson, perhaps Hart Crane, among the writers. For me these artists have long seemed the truly American type of artist, though not necessarily as profound or world-shaking as some of their contemporaries. Nevertheless they may be the ones we can be secretly most proud of.”

This is shrewd and accurate and seldom noticed, though I would rank Ives and Crane much higher than Justice apparently does. He’s right: As an American, I’m proud of all these artists, and especially proud that Anderson and Crane come from Ohio, my home state. Later in the interview, Hoy quotes from a notebook kept by Justice and excerpted in Oblivion, a selection of the poet’s prose: “A copy of Chekhov’s stories lying open on a table. I realized as at once how glad I was that this man had lived. And that I did right to be glad. Of what writers now could that honestly and simply be said?” To which Justice responds:

“I hold Chekhov in very high esteem, yes, even when he is not quite at his best. One learns to like everything certain writers write. Well, almost everything.”

Again, Justice is right. To some writers, my allegiance is absolute. Even their minor or mediocre work, their juvenilia, is dear. This attitude, of course, is uncritical or pre-critical, and it’s nothing I would even attempt to defend in print, except to say that the existence of such writers gives me great pleasure and a sense of reassurance. I can’t get enough of them – Chekhov and Henry James, for instance, and Donald Justice.

And here is a curious observation, based on his 1982 return to Florida, the state where he was born, that sounds like the germ of a Justice poem:

“I have a distinct memory of walking out onto the golf course behind our house late one night, walking our dog, and standing there looking up at the moon as it flooded the fairway with light. Very nice. I felt touched by an emotion I must have been inventing.”

Then, as though to dispel the impression that he is a poet only of twilit nostalgia, Justice assaults the literary theorists who helped destroy English departments, literacy and the love of literature:

“I disliked practically everything about them: their jargon and their grammar, their vast intellectual pretensions, their easy disdain for things they knew little or nothing about and had no interest in, their lousy taste in literature and the other arts, their nasty politicking, their hatred of the past and the tradition in favour of the fashionable and the perfectly silly…But please don’t get me wound up. It’s been years and I still tremble with passion.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mark Twain, American

Two writers on why Mark Twain was the way he was and, by implication, why Americans are the way we are:

“The invention and function of frontier humor had less to do with genial amusement than with building a psychological structure against chaos. The rattlesnake wilderness that stretched outward from Boston and Philadelphia and New York was not ready yet for drawing-room aphorisms or comedies of manners. Here lay vastness, loneliness, alienation, depravity, and many interesting varieties of sudden death.”

Ron Powers, Dangerous Waters: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, 1999.

“[Twain] showed touches of that abysmal melancholy which had led the boatmen of the Ohio and the Mississippi and the miners of California to drift into lonesome ditties; he struck out, as they did, into a wild burlesque. His obscenity was also of the pioneer piece…Emotion he seldom revealed except in travesty; one of his favorite forms of comedy was to create the semblance of an emotional scene, beguiling the reader or hearer into the belief that this might be true, then puncturing it.”

Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, 1931.

Monday, October 16, 2006


On Saturday I was checking out books at the library of the university where I work, when a man stepped in line behind me. He was 60-ish, wore a garish Hawaiian shirt and resembled Ford Madox Ford. We nodded, I collected my books and left. Twenty minutes later, I was browsing in a bookstore near campus when the same guy showed up, two shelves away. We laughed at the minor coincidence, said hello and returned to browsing. A few minutes later, we met again at the table of recently published books. He explained that his wife had graduated in 1970 from the school where I work, and that she had taken an English class that required her to read four books a week. That obligation had turned into a pleasure, and she has ever since read four books each week. His job is to track down appropriate titles – thus, libraries and bookstores. He said nothing of his own reading habits, but handed me a volume from the stacks in front of us and said, “This is a beautiful book. Wonderful. I got it from the library, then bought us a copy.”

I’m not an impulsive buyer, even of books, but I listen to a man (even one wearing a Hawaiian shirt) who reads a book borrowed from the library, then invests in his own copy. That’s a man who knows his pleasures and is willing to shell out a little cash to gratify them. Based on appearance alone, before I cracked the covers, The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds is an attractive object. The cover art, by Paul Catherall, is as colorful as a memorable sunset, yet muted. The book, published by Perigee Books, is small but has a pleasant heft. The typeface is clean and pleasing. The book is amply illustrated with black and white photographs, drawings and graphs, and the author is named Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Yes, he is English.

In 2004, Pretor-Pinney, described in the author’s bio as a “former science nerd,” founded The Cloud Appreciation Society, which he tells us has 1,800 members in 25 countries. Visit their web site to see hundreds of photographs of clouds, this time in color. Pretor-Pinney is dotty and obsessive and, I think, quintessentially English in his enthusiasm. His writing ability is middling but his enthusiasm – his book amounts to a cloud taxonomy – is admirable. He is not a professional meteorologist but an old-fashioned amateur, riding his hobbyhorse out of love. His Introduction begins:

“I’ve always loved looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”

Of course, much of their beauty lies in their ephemeral nature. When I think of clouds in literature, I think first of Aristophanes, then of Hamlet, the scene where the insufferable prince toys with Polonious, likening the shape of a cloud to a camel, a weasel and a whale. “Very like a whale,” says Polonious, supplying Lord Byron with a poem, who in turn supplied Ogden Nash with a poem. Pretor-Pinney cites Aristophanes and quotes the appropriate lines from Hamlet, but makes no mention of Byron or Nash. His literary citations in general are thin, and he uses Shelley’s “The Cloud” as an epigraph. He doesn’t mention Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman or Wallace Stevens, but partially redeems himself with citations from Milton, Keats, Ruskin, Emerson and Thoreau. The author of Walden he describes as “a big fan of clouds in general” and proves it by quoting Thoreau’s journal for Sept. 7, 1851:

“The most beautiful thing in nature is the sun reflected from a tearful cloud.”


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lemon Tree, Very Pretty

In January 2005, I bought my wife a small Mexican lime tree and a smaller lemon tree for her birthday. The lime, spiked with long thorns, has doubled in size. The lemon has grown spindly. In Houston, both bear fruit in the fall, and both bore ample crops last year. The boys and I ate some of them right off the tree and the rest we kept to flavor our seltzer. This year, the lime tree is bare. The lemon bore two fruits, one of which my 3-year-old tore off the tree months ago. The other, mostly yellow but still marbled with green, is almost ripe. The acidic scent of both trees, even without flowers or fruit, attracts butterflies. Saturday morning, a large black-and-yellow swallowtail methodically worked it for more than an hour.

Based on his translation of “I limoni” (“The Lemon Trees”) by Eugenio Montale, included in Harry Thomas’ Montale in English, I want to read more by Lee Gerlach. In his brief note about Gerlach, who was born in 1920, Thomas says he is “a prolific poet and translator, unreasonably overlooked by publishers.” That’s enough to get my attention, plus the fact that Gerlach published his first book of poems, Highwater, in 2002, when he was 82. Though he grew up in Milwaukee, Gerlach has lived for 50 years in southern California, “a region whose topography rather closely resembles that of Liguria,” Thomas tells us. Here’s Gerlach’s version of “I limoni”:

“Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.

“Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.

“You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.

“You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
In every fading human shadow
Something divine let go.

“The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
And light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised corners of the sun.”

I, a transplanted Northerner (like Gerlach), find this poem unspeakably beautiful. The first time I saw oranges and lemons growing on a tree I was 15 and visiting my aunt and uncle in Florida. The fruit, too colorful, too rounded and perfect, looked artificial, like a display in a department store window. My aunt had a lemon tree in the backyard. She picked lemons with the same casualness with which she folded sheets or set the table. To me it was magic. I remember my maternal grandmother, born in 1888 in central Pennsylvania, saying that for Christmas she and her sisters sometimes got a single orange each for Christmas, and it seemed to them like a miracle, as it does to me: “Your mind seeks,/makes harmonies, falls apart/in the perfume, expands/when the day wearies away.” What a sublime and uneasy pleasure it will be to eat that lone lemon.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

`The Study of An Outward Object'

In his day Emerson was a celebrity, like his contemporary Charles Dickens. He wrote and also preached and lectured, from the pulpit and the stage. That’s how he made much of his living and supported his family, and many of his best known books – Representative Men, English Traits, The Conduct of Life – started as lectures.

I have been trolling in The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, and published last year by the University of Georgia Press.
Reading Emerson rekindles my attentiveness. I want simultaneously to relax and focus when I read his prose, and his style encourages that for often there is no necessary linkage, no plodding cause-and-effect inevitability, between one sentence and the next. This results not in confusion but, when Emerson is in especially good form, a sense of intellectual sparking that mimes the brain’s own electrochemical strategies. Thoughts and images flash and link with other thoughts and images that precede and follow. The organization is dynamic and looping, not static and linear, like a homegrown precursor to hypertext without the pretension. Here’s a taste of “Powers of Mind,” first delivered in Boston, in March 1858:

“Invisible repugnance to introversion, to study of the eyes, instead of that which the eyes see; and, in like manner, to employing the mind to analyze itself, instead of the world; and the belief of men is, that the attempt is unnatural, and is punished by loss of faculty. I share the belief that the natural direction of the intellectual powers is from within outward; and, that, just in proportion to the activity of the thought on the study of an outward object, as architecture, or farming, or natural history, ships, animals, chemistry, in that proportion the faculties of the mind had a healthy growth; but a study in the opposite direction, had a damaging effect on the mind.”

Apart from the pungency of the writing (I like the abrupt specificity of “architecture, or farming,” etc.) this grabbed my attention because it reminded me of certain blogs that come highly praised but that I find tiresome and distasteful. The blogs I have in mind seem as self-infatuated as a teenager’s diary. They lack the “outward object” Emerson endorses. They study the eyes, as he puts it. The best blogs proceed “from within outward.” They must be about something while reflecting a sensibility of some probity, experience, deep feeling and wit. Whining and navel-gazing don’t count. If certain blogs were translated into their physical-world counterpart – the angry guy at the end of the bar with an opinion on everything – most of us would get up and leave.

Two pages earlier in the same lecture, Emerson writes:

“Our experience is irregular, spotty, in veins, very knowing on specialties, profoundly ignorant of the connection of things. There is affectation in assuming to give our chart or orrery of the interior universe; and Nature flouts those who do, trips up their heels, throws them on their back.”

An “orrery” is a clockwork model of the solar system – an aptly cumbersome metaphor for pretensions of self-knowledge. Three pages later, Emerson opens the window and floods the room with fresh air:

“The inward analysis must be corrected by rough experience. Life itself is mixed. Neither can oxygen be breathed pure; yet without oxygen we could not live. We must alternate waking with sleep: But that is no objection to waking. Solitude is pernicious if continued; but solitude is not a peremptory condition of sanity.”

Emerson reminds me of prescient observations Christopher Lasch made almost 30 years ago in The Culture of Narcissism. For instance:

“The record of the inner life becomes an unintentional parody of inner life. A literary genre that appears to affirm inwardness actually tells us that inner life is precisely what can no longer be taken seriously.”

Friday, October 13, 2006

Thank yous

The university where I work as a science writer will honor its international students in mid-November. As part of the celebration, I was assigned to determine the nationalities of all these students and the languages they speak. Then I had to find out how a simple English phrase – “Thank you” – is expressed in each tongue, and a colleague will design posters incorporating all that multilingual gratitude. The list is not quite complete, but I already have 32 languages identified and know how to say “thank you” in, among others, Urdu, Kadazan, Romanian, Bengali, and also Polish: Dziekuje!

I think of that lone Polish student and wonder if he is happy among so many Americans and other strangers. I single him out because I’ve been browsing again in Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, published earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi, and have noticed how often the theme of thankfulness, of gratitude before the undeniable reality of existence, recurs in Milosz’s interviews, as it does in his essays and poems. He once wrote "O happiness! To see an iris,” and says in his great poem “Blacksmith Shop”:

“It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”

The theme for Milosz is clearly rooted in his Catholicism and its centrality to his moral and aesthetic vision. As he says, “He was thankful, so he couldn't not believe in God.” Also striking is the vehemence with which Milosz denounces Philip Larkin, specifically his great poem “Aubade.” In a 1983 interview he says:

“I guess it is correct to say that every poetry is directed against death – against the death of the individual, against the power of death. That’s why I was so angry a few years ago when I read a poem by Philip Larkin on death, a desperate poem about the lack of any reason – about the complete absurdity of human life – and our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death, which is true. But the poet shouldn’t do that. The poet shouldn’t take a passive attitude – how do I explain, it is very difficult – and attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.”

Unfortunately, Milosz weakens his stance by citing what he deems a more appropriate – “masculine,” he says – attitude toward death: Dylan Thomas’ melodramatically adolescent “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” He goes so far as to attribute to Larkin an “effeminate love of the nonsense of human existence.” This, I’m sorry to say of a poet whose work I love, is nonsense and a significant critical lapse.

In a 1994 Paris Review interview with Robert Faggen, Milosz returns to the theme: “I know Larkin’s `Aubade,’ and for me it’s a hateful poem. I don’t like Larkin. He was a wonderful craftsman, very good indeed. As a stylist I rank him very high, because he exemplifies precisely my ideal – to write clear poetry with a clear meaning, and not just an accounting of subjective impressions; but I don’t like his poetry which I consider too symptomatic to be liked.”

Pressed to explain, Milosz says:

“Symptomatic of the present, desperate worldview, or weltanschauung. It seem to me that there is no revelation in his poetry….He proposes a sort of desire for nothingness as opposed to life – which didn’t bring him much. I’m afraid we have completely lost the habit of applying moral criteria to art. Because when somebody tells me that Larkin is a great poet, and that it’s enough to write great poetry by forsaking all human values, I’m skeptical. Probably that’s my educations and instincts speaking.”

My love for the work of both poets, I know, reflects my own divided sensibility. Because, like Larkin, I am without religious faith, I can go only so far in my communion with Milosz. Temperamentally, emotionally, I have more in common with Larkin. I think Milosz willfully misunderstands Larkin, at least “Aubade.” I suspect it’s the poem’s great central stanza that particularly inflames the great Polish poet:

“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

This was anathema to Milosz, a succumbing to what he saw as all the worst primal drives of the 20th century, which lead inexorably to the horrors of Communism and National Socialism, which he experienced personally. Unlike Milosz, I hear no acquiescence in “Aubade,” no desperation and certainly no nihilistic glee. Rather, I hear a man struggling to remain clear-eyed in the face of inevitable oblivion, unwilling to settle for palliatives, too honest to embrace what he cannot believe. The tone is elegiac sadness.

In art, fortunately, one is not compelled to choose sides, one poet at the expense of another. Milosz and Larkin are not mutually exclusive loves. Aesthetic love is promiscuous without being unfaithful. I feel no compulsion to be rigorously consistent in matters of artistic taste. I can love Proust and Raymond Chandler, Schoenberg and Johnny Cash. Only in that sense, I think, is art democratic. Dziekuje.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The late Amy Clampitt wrote poetry that’s a bit rich for many palates, though I enjoy her work in small portions, doled out like slender slices of pâté de foie gras. Speaking of geese, I just read a brief address Clampitt gave at her alma mater, Grinnell College, in 1986. On her way to Iowa, Clampitt had visited a friend in Lancaster, Pa., on the chance she might see and hear the Canada geese on their northerly spring migration. Here’s how Clampitt describes the scene in “Predecessors, Et Cetera,” from her prose collection of the same name:

“I’d made my appearance, and we were just coming out into the snow – into the snow, mind you – and my friend said, `Listen!’ – and there they were, the geese honking as they passed overhead! It was the first time I’d heard that sound, I think, since I was a child on the farm – but I’ve thought of it often, and I’ve watched geese in flight and tried to write about how they looked…Is any of this important? It is if you agree with Wallace Stevens that the worst poverty is not to live in a physical world. I might paraphrase that and say that for me it would be a terrible deprivation to live in a world that took no notice of the migration of geese or of the ways of goshawks, falcons, kestrels…”

In another writer we might take such observations as evidence of sentimental nature worship, the sort of rubbish Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver won’t stop writing. But Clampitt was born a Quaker and is made of less frivolous stuff. The physical has primacy. Near the end of her address, she describes standing close to a kestrel perched on the back of a friend’s kitchen chair, and reminds us that another name for a kestrel is windhover. Of course, she quotes Hopkins’ great sonnet:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon…”

This leads her to conclude: “What does a writer need to know? In one word, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, written about them. But so I find it to be. There is less originality than we think.”

I love that final bald statement of humility – a fine motto for any writer, even a blogger. Clampitt reminds me of an April evening 11 years ago in upstate New York. Even in the southern foothills of the Adirondacks, snow remains on the ground into May – dirty black bergs in parking lots, scattered white patches in the woods. I took my oldest son, then 7, to a nature preserve near Albany, where the rangers were leading a twilight walk into the marshes to witness the spectacle of frog courtship. The frogs were Hyla crucifer, peepers the size of postage stamps with a pattern of ill-defined crosses on their backs. In April, males serenade females – a more reliable gauge of spring’s imminence than the return of the robins. At that latitude, spring returns incrementally.

We carried flashlights, 15 or 20 of us, and approached the booming in the night. Though tiny, peepers en masse, thousands of them, are almost deafening. Even when we shined our lights on them, to watch their throats balloon as they called, they ignored us. Everyone laughed, out of amusement and astonishment. Then another, more raucous sound began, impossibly, to drown out the peepers. It was past sunset, black without the flashlights. Directly overhead, flying no more than 25 feet off the ground, a flock of Canada geese honked like drunken saxophonists. In the dark, I felt privileged, disoriented and a little scared (the combined volume of frogs and birds was overwhelming). The darkness and the noise created an illusion of closeness, as though we were indoors, and again everyone, kids and grownups, laughed.

In Walden, Thoreau described “the circling groping clangor of some solitary goose.” Multiply that by dozens, and add the steady basso of the peepers. His journal is filled with references to frogs, including the genus Hyla, but he made relatively few observations of geese. Concord, Mass., is at the same latitude as Albany. On April 30, 1852, he followed the sound of the peepers and noted:

“It seemed to be a note of alarm. I caught one – It proved to be two coupled. They remained together in my hand. This sound has connexion with their loves probably.”

The bachelor Thoreau on the sex life of amphibians: “their loves probably.” Thoreau brought home several peepers. On May 1 he notes in the journal:

“One that got out in the evening onto the carpet was found soon after by his peeping on the piano. They easily ascend the glass of the window – jump 18 inches & more. When they peep the loose wrinkled skin of the throat is welled up into a globular bubble very large & transparent & quite round except on the throat side behind which their little heads are lost – mere protuberances on the side of this sphere. & the peeping wholly absorbs them – their mouths shut or apparently so. Will sit half a day on the side of a smooth tumbler.”

Clampitt in the kitchen with a kestrel. Thoreau in the parlor with a frog. Humans in the swamp with frogs and geese. “There is less originality than we think.” Another word for “less originality” is continuity.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

`Hilarious Frustration'

Some enterprising publisher, while returning his novels to print, ought to collect the scattered interviews of Peter De Vries, a writer who seems to have evaporated since his death at the age of 83 in 1993. For the initiated, his name evokes happy memories of puns, graceful prose, and laughing out loud – as well as the pain and sadness (and comedy) of his greatest novel, The Blood of the Lamb, a heavily autobiographical account of a widower losing a daughter to leukemia.

As editor of Poetry and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, De Vries was safely pigeonholed as a gentle satirist of suburbia – John Cheever with yucks. Between 1940 and 1986, he published 27 works of fiction. Some were minor bestsellers later adapted into movies and plays. Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, two are in print: The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. I’ve had to dig up the interviews De Vries gave to various newspapers and journals (even People). All are witty and thoughtful, and help illuminate an American literary culture now long gone.

Comic writers don’t earn academic respect. Humor, except when it’s in the service of politically correct satire, resists critical dissection. What could be funnier than an earnest attempt to define what is funny? Here’s De Vries, from an interview he gave in 1964:

“I’m past admiring [in literature] anything I don’t enjoy; divorce of appreciation from enjoyment…is the curse of academic literary analysis.”

De Vries once declared Anthony Powell one of his favorite writers, praising his “comedy-without-facetiousness,” Here’s what he said in a 1983 interview:

“The oblivious person, the fool, the man who slips on the banana peel is not funny in himself. There must be someone of wider consciousness watching the oblivious one….There can be layers and layers of this deepening perception, like the cow on the evaporated milk can.”

And more, from a 1966 interview with an editor assembling an anthology of “black humor”:

“Nobody has been funnier than Faulkner, nor has anyone had a better grasp of the human predicament than Mark Twain. And didn’t Yeats say Hamlet and Lear are gay? Frost said of this basic principle of playfulness (in discussing Edwin Arlington Robinson, of all people), `If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.’ Any comic worth his salt knows this instinctively, even without being able to put it in Charlie Chaplin’s word: `If what you’re doing is funny, don’t be funny doing it.’ Any attempt to isolate the `serious’ from whatever you want to call its opposite is like trying to put asunder what God hath joined together. The reverse is equally foredoomed. There’s a kind of hilarious frustration about it, like working one of those puzzles where you no more than get one pellet into its hole than the other rolls out again.”

Many writers and critics have blathered on about musical effects in literature. Poets, in particular, make pretentious claims about “writing jazz.” Here’s De Vries, perhaps speaking tongue-in-cheek, on the subject:

“The strongest single influence on my work is unmistakable – Debussy. Same emphasis on texture rather than structure; accumulated nuance rather than organized continuity; the chord of an experience in its own right apart from melody. That clear it up for you sweetheart?”

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

`A Small Corner of Hell'

We ought to get a little sick every time a journalist dies in the line of duty. For many Americans, and not always for bad reasons, journalists rank in esteem and credibility beneath lawyers and televangelists. Still, the tradition of courageous reporting lives on, or at least it did until Saturday when Anna Politkovskaya was found shot to death in an elevator in her Moscow apartment building. Saturday was Vladimir Putin’s birthday, and many suspect the timing was not coincidental.

Politkovskaya was best known for covering the war in Chechnya and for antagonizing Putin, who seems increasingly to draw upon his experience as an agent for the KGB. On Monday, Ron Rosenbaum blogged on the larger significance of Politkovskaya’s murder, in what he calls Putin’s “KGB-style dictatorship”: “I have a feeling that the entire history of the past 20 years, indeed entire post-1945 trajectory of world history will have to be re evaluated from the point of view of this repulsive crime and what it represents.”

In his report for the Guardian on Sunday, Tom Parfitt wrote from Moscow:

“In an anthology Another Sky, due to be published next year by English PEN, a writers' group campaigning against political oppression, Politkovskaya chillingly predicted yesterday's events: `Some time ago Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, explained that there were people who were enemies but whom you could talk sense into, and there were incorrigible enemies to whom you couldn't and who simply needed to be "cleansed" from the political arena. So they are trying to cleanse it of me and others like me.’”

I have read translations of two of Politkovskaya’s books – A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya (The Harvill Press, 2001) and A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (University of Chicago Press, 2003). I read them because, like most Americans, I knew so little about Chechnya, a recent slaughterhouses. Also I had heard of Politkovskaya’s reputation for bravery and gritty reporting. She was born in 1958 in New York City, where her parents were diplomats at the United Nations. She seemed real, doing what every dedicated beat reporter does but in a part of the world where that can get you killed.

The books, without context, can be dizzying, but Politkovskaya focuses on the lives of ordinary Chechens, and the editions I read came with useful introductions and ample footnotes. She was more storyteller than political analyst, but made no pretext of “objectivity” in the American sense. I would suggest you read Politkovskaya’s books – the most fitting way to eulogize a writer – to remind yourself that journalism can be mortally important. She gave the title “Executions of Reporters” to a section of A Small Corner of Hell, and in it she wrote:

“Silence does not bode well. That’s what the war has taught us.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

`The Most Interesting Five Minutes'

Last year, novelist Jerome Charyn published Savage Shorthand, a book that reveals its purpose in its first sentence: “It’s the one book I have two copies of.” Charyn refers to The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, the one with the Milton Glaser cover of three Cossacks on horseback, an obvious reference to Babel’s most famous work, Red Cavalry. It sits on my shelf, too, and it’s the first Babel I read, sometime in the late 60s. I still hold a memory of reading it on a city bus in Cleveland, crossing the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge westbound, going home, seated on the right side with the winter sun low in the sky. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Babel’s work is filled with images of the sun likened to everything from an orange to a lopped-off head.

We need certain writers, especially their energy, at unexpected times. I was sick last week and missed two days of work, an unusual event that always makes me feel guilty. One of the advantages of deep reading is having a writer housed somewhere in consciousness that can answer almost every shift in mood – a sort of well-stocked literary pharmacy. For almost two days I wanted to read Babel and nothing else – “Di Grasso,” “Guy de Maupassant,” “The Sin of Jesus,” “The Story of My Dovecot,” and other familiar stories.

Charyn’s book is not scholarly or definitive, neither academic-style criticism nor conventional biography, nor does it claim to be. It’s a heartfelt homage, a love letter, and it’s easy to see Babel’s raffish energy in Charyn’s own fiction. He says each of Babel’s best stories “is like a land mine and a lesson in writing; it explodes page after page with a wonder that’s hard to pin down. The structure of the stories is a very strange glass: we learn from Babel but cannot copy him.”

We forget his best stories are literature and enjoy them like a cunningly elaborate fireworks display. First, astonishment. Only then do we ask, “How did he do that?” The accomplishment seems almost impossible when we recall we are reading a translation from the Russian. Babel’s prose is more exciting and precise than that composed my most writers of English.

Tolstoy, Babel wrote, “was able to describe what happened to him minute by minute, he remembered it all, whereas I, evidently, only have it in me to describe the most interesting five minutes I’ve experienced in twenty-four hours. Hence the short-story form.”

This helps us understand Babel’s devotion to the small in scale, to miniature epics, to prose in which not only adjectives but commas have been weighed. He read French (and Yiddish) and visited France, and his masters were Flaubert and Maupassant. There was no way he could have survived Stalin’s reign. Charyn writes:

“Babel’s `plumage’ – absolute belief in the cunning twists of language – was almost an attack on Stalin himself. He could have polished and polished with the purity of a Spinoza, be was still in some kind of fugue state…His existence had become a kind of Red Cavalry – a series of short takes with several narrators….”

Sunday, October 08, 2006

`The Shakespeare Wars'

My review of Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.


The winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature will not be announced until Thursday, though the judges have a small field of worthy contenders to evaluate, and it really shouldn’t take that long. Bellow is dead and besides he had already won it, as did V.S. Naipaul. That leaves only two deserving candidates – both alive, both un-Nobeled: Geoffrey Hill and Philip Roth. In a world more just than ours, both would have copped it a long time ago and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The Nobel, at least in literature, is a reliable gauge of high-minded mediocrity. Who didn’t get it but could have? Tolstoy, Henry James, Chekhov, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Nabokov and Borges, for starters. And who, instead, did get it? Tagore, Romain Rolland, Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, Mikhail Sholokov, Toni Morrison, Dario Fo, Elfriede Jelinek – a shameful list, and that’s the condensed version.

To be fair, the Swedish Academy has occasionally blundered into sanity and responsibility. Yeats got it. So did Eliot, Beckett, Montale, Singer and Milosz, but the list of recipients is disproportionately awful. We don’t, after all, have forever: Roth is 73; Hill, 74. Both have undergone explosions of unrivalled creativity and self-renewal in their 60s and 70s. Here is what I wrote about Roth last May when I reviewed Everyman for the Houston Chronicle:

“In a late eruption of creativity recalling the last decade and a half of Henry James' career, Roth has accomplished what novelists one-third his age can only dream about and envy. Starting with Operation Shylock in 1993, Roth has published eight novels of unrivaled plenitude, emotional and social insight, and brilliance. From the death-haunted sex comedy of Sabbath's Theater (his greatest book) to The Plot Against America, a loving family chronicle disguised as alternative history, Roth has almost single-handedly revived our great expectations for fiction.”

Roth and Hill share a stringent vision of the world and a seeming ease at marshalling the English language, though one is a Jewish-American atheist and the other an embattled English Christian. In a short essay published four years ago in the Guardian, Hill wrote what might also stand for Roth if we change “poem” to “novel”: “An achieved poem is always beautiful in its own way, though such a way will many times strike people as harsh and repellent.”

He continued: “It is to be hoped - I mean, I hope - that the poetry I have been writing since 1992 squares up to, takes the measure of, weighs up, the violent evasions and stock affronts of the oligarchy of fraud. I don't, even so, write poems to be polemical; I write to create a being of beautiful energy.”

The same goes for Roth, though he would disagree, naturally.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

I.F. Stone

I’m convinced I.F. Stone is part of the reason I was not hired as a reporter by a newspaper in northern Ohio. This was about 25 years ago. I had been in the business for three or four years, and was working for a paper that fancied itself the smallest daily in the state. I wanted to move to a larger paper, preferably a metro, and managed to arrange an interview with a roomful of editors. According to my memory, we toured the paper, talked about my clips and engaged in the usual pointless banter that is standard for such occasions, until one of the editors asked me to name the journalists I most admired.

I was prepared for that one: H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, Murray Kempton and I.F. Stone. The first three names sparked no recognition in the faces surrounding me in the conference room, but one editor thought he recognized the last name I cited: “I.F. Stone? Wasn’t he a Communist?” I don’t recall my answer but clearly the editor was disturbed, and kept coming back to Stone’s reputed adherence to Bolshevism. My memory of the day stops right there, but I never heard again from that newspaper.

Stone is a legend among journalists – at least some journalists. He was dedicated to the truth and taught generations of reporters to mine the documents in search of the damning facts. His I.F. Stone Weekly was an amateur-looking publication with a severe dedication to professionalism. His prose was workmanlike, and the other journalists mentioned above put Stone to shame as stylists, but for him words were crystallized truths. Chrstopher Hitchens reviews a new biography of Stone in Vanity Fair. Here are some of typically tart remarks by Stone quoted by Hitchens:

"It was hard to listen to Goldwater and realize that a man could be half Jewish and yet sometimes appear to be twice as dense as the normal gentile. As for Agnew, even at a convention where every speech seemed to outdo the other in wholesome clichés and delicious anticlimaxes, his speech putting Nixon into nomination topped all the rest. If the race that produced Isaiah is down to Goldwater and the race that produced Pericles is down to Agnew, the time has come to give the country back to the WASPs."

Friday, October 06, 2006

`Dear T.S.'

T.S. Eliot wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marx in 1960, inaugurating a mutual admiration society that endured until Eliot’s death in 1965. Eliot claimed a signed photograph of Groucho hung in his office, next to pictures of Yeats and Valery. Groucho addressed Eliot variously as “Dear T.S.,” “Dear Mr. Eliot,” and “Dear Tom.” Did anyone else have the chutzpah to do so? On June 24, 1963, Eliot wrote to Groucho:

“I envy you going to Israel and wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country.”

Some 40 years earlier, in “Gerotian,” Eliot had written:

“My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.”

The libel was exacerbated by Eliot spelling “Jew” with a lower-case “j” – a snub that remained in place until 1963. Around the same time, in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” he wrote:

“The rats are underneath the piles
The Jew is underneath the lot.”

Unlike Karl Shapiro, who was both Jewish and a poet, I admire much of Eliot’s work. His Four Quartets is among the great poems of the last century. That he was anti-Semitic, and that this pernicious prejudice is reflected in some of his poetry, can no longer be rationalized away. The lines quoted above are deeply offensive. Yet he admired Groucho, who was Jewish, and found him amusing and worthy of a sustained correspondence. This is baffling and reflects the capacity of the human mind to erect discrete compartments. We are adept at holding mutually incompatible ideas.

Groucho and his wife eventually visited Eliot and his wife at their home in London, in June 1964. The following January, several weeks after Eliot’s death, Groucho wrote to Russell Baker:

“I was saddened by the death of T.S. Eliot. My wife and I had dinner at his home a few months ago and I realized then that he was not long for this world. He was a nice man, the best epitaph any man can have…”