Monday, August 03, 2009

`The Qualities of Their Minds'

“On my way home from work in the snow I paused in front of the second-hand bookshop which opened up a year or so back in a little hole-in-the-wall on Twelfth Street – the one where I bought my Greek grammar, and, more recently, a set of Gibbon for three-fifty, and where one usually gets into a very intense literary discussion every time one wanders in, though I don’t know who these people are at all. I didn’t have it in mind to buy anything…”

This is the poet Amy Clampitt writing to her brother Philip from New York City on Feb. 3, 1955 – a time and place she makes sound beautifully, impossibly civilized and vibrant. This is the Manhattan of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Seize the Day and Charlie Parker (who would die a month later, on March 12). Only an oaf would deride the United States in the nineteen-fifties as stifled or reactionary. Clampitt’s is a sensibly genteel world we’ll never see again.

“…but there was a window display on Henry James – a couple of minor first editions, a couple of pictures, and some lovingly selected quotations about him from Conrad and T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis; and since for years I have regarded Henry James as a sort of private guiding light as well as probably the greatest American novelist, there was nothing to do but drop in and pay my respects (almost the way a properly brought up Catholic will bend the knee before the altar every time he enters a church).”

I’ve never seen such an altar in a bookstore window in any city where I’ve made the rounds – Cleveland, Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal, Houston, Seattle. Marketing has replaced literary reverence and celebration.

“There was nobody there but one of the partners, and pretty soon (he is, whoever he is, exceedingly learned, and I had hitherto thought, rather pedantic – but I guess I was wrong) we were talking about historians and I was realizing that after I finish Trevelyan’s History of England (which has sent me straight back to Shakespeare – the two Richards and both parts of Henry IV so far) I have got to read Macaulay and Carlyle – not for the facts, which I never retain in any detail for very long, but for the qualities of their minds.”

Ah, the dedicated reader’s dilemma and delight – books propagating promiscuously, the naughty things, one leading to another and another. Years ago, seated on adjoining stools in a Cleveland bar down the block from the bookstore where I worked, my brother and I figured out we read in the same way – trolling footnotes and bibliographies, decrypting allusions, looking for leads, for the next fix. What I most like here is Clampitt’s explanation, in effect, for why she reads: “for the qualities of their minds.” We read Keats and George Eliot for the sheer pleasure of their company, their Keatsian and Eliot-esque minds.

“Presently we got around to James again, and to the inexhaustibility of his quality of mind – every time I reread anything, as I have just reread The Wings of the Dove, I have the feeling that I hadn’t really understood it before, and this seems to be the experience of everybody who cares for him at all. (One of those lovingly selected quotes, I forget from whom, called him the most intelligent man of his generation – a queer kind of superlative, but possibly true.) Then the phone rang…”

We no longer have such bookstores or such conversations in them. We have blogs.

[Clampitt’s letter is from Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt (edited by Willard Spiegelman, Columbia University Press, 2005). As a bonus, look at the photo from 1989 of Clampitt standing with 18 other “Literary Lions” at the New York Public Library. In the second row enjoy the unlikely spectacle of Joseph Mitchell standing between Elmore Leonard and Hunter S. Thompson.]


William A. Sigler said...


I read your blog for the sheer pleasure of your company, and I recognize keenly how intoxicating is the quality of a mind that can make life not only more explicable, but more comfortable.

Ezra Pound (who so often comes to my mind when reading your blog posts) talked about this very issue in a 1962 Paris Review interview with Donald Hall. In it he expressed regret he had given his life over not to the pursuit of his own fortress of truth, but to the company of interesting minds. He meant actual personal relationships, not just via books, of course. In the same vein he noted that the saddest day in his life, his own loss of innocence, was the day Henry James died, because up to then he was assured that there was someone alive who knew.

Eric Thomson said...

Ezra Pound came to my mind too but only as the victim of a savage parody of his radiophonic aberrations.

Some supporting evidence, albeit anecdotal, on 1950s New York. The host of a popular weekly radio programme broadcast from New York (on Tuesday evenings at 9:05 p.m. on WQXR 96.3, not that I was even alive to corroborate any of this) was required - mirabile dictu -only to confine himself to “books of a high standard or else open up some question of broad literary or social interest.” His name was Gilbert Highet (Latinist, parodist, and much else) and his talks formed the basis of People, Places, and Books (1953), A Clerk of Oxenford (1954), Talents and Geniuses (1957), The Powers of Poetry (1960), and Explorations (1971). Among Highet’s colleagues at Columbia were Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun.‘Beautifully, impossibly vibrant’ can't be too far wide of the mark.

willard spiegelman said...

As the editor of "Love, Amy," a fan and scholar of Clampitt's poetry, and a reader of poets' letters, I am pleased to see that a literary life is still available, even at second hand, today. It's not the same, of course, but the communities still exist. Amy lived a Bohemian life as a single woman, a writer, in Manhattan, and she also lived in total obscurity until the age of fame -- she was 63 when her first book was published. Until then, she read and wrote voluminously, and participated as a reader in the culture of Anglo-American literature on which she had been raised, and to which she then began to contribute.