Sunday, September 02, 2012

`And Nothing But Books'

Three new books arrived in the house last week. From an online dealer in New Hampshire I ordered Janet Lewis’s third novel, Against a Darkening Sky (1943), completing my collection of her fiction. This is the pleasingly compact but substantial edition published in 1985 by Swallow Press/Ohio University Press. It’s a paperback, nothing special except for the inscription inside the front cover:

 “Best wishes always to
[illegible] Gretchen
Janet Lewis”

Someone, in pencil and in a different hand, added “Ackermann” after “Gretchen.” Between pages 134 and 135 I found a book mark from Printers Inc. Bookstore, “An International Community Bookstore and Coffee House,” in Palo Alto, Calif., not far from Los Altos, where Lewis lived for much of her life. Against a Darkening Sky is the only one of Lewis’ five novels set in the twentieth century – California in the 1930s. The setting is the fictional South Encina, near San Francisco, at “the northwestern end of the Santa Clara valley.” In a note before the text, Lewis writes: 

“South Encina is not a `real’ place. I wish that it may assume for the reader, however, a little of the reality of Barchester, or of Wessex.” 

From another dealer, in Berkeley, Calif., I ordered a 1991 paperback reprint of Guy Davenport’s book-length poem Flowers and Leaves (Bamberger Books), originally published by Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society in 1966. I’ve only read excerpts, never the entire poem, which seems to contain much undigested Pound and Zukofsky. In Part II, Section 5, Davenport writes: 

“Night whistler, do you mind my song?
Daimon of the Neuse, stone or monodist,
Or herm of brass in a Carolina river,
All forms upon the others pun.” 

The stanza distills many familiar Davenport themes, including the centrality of the personal daimon and, in the final line, the notion stated in the first paragraph of the title essay in The Geography of the Imagination (1981): 

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” 

On Monday I ordered through interlibrary loan Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (Hoover Institution Press, 2012) by Tom Bethell, and it arrived on Friday from the University of Illinois at Chicago (another interlibrary loan miracle). Hoffer was a hero to me from the time I started reading his newspaper column in 1968. Bethell writes of the young Hoffer, who lost his vision for eight years:
“His life was books, blindness, recovered sight, more books, and nothing but books.”

[ADDENDUM: Helen Pinkerton clarifies the inscription in my copy of Against a Darkening Sky: “The name written in your used copy of Janet's novel is `Gretchen Ackerman.’ I knew her as the second wife of William (`Bill’) Ackerman, professor of Medieval Literature at Stanford for many years. After his death, she moved back to New Hampshire, where she came from. She taught literature herself at College of Notre Dame (Belmont, CA) in some of the same years that I was there. Her stepson is the Will Ackerman, who made a name for himself as a composer, performer, and producer of Windham Hill musical recordings. The book's South Encina is based on `South Palo Alto,’ a portion of Palo Alto that was earlier called `Mayfield,’ and preceded Palo Alto as a station on the Southern Pacific Railroad. It is still called South Palo Alto, though incorporated as part of Palo Alto. Not that that is important at all to the book.”]


D. G. Myers said...

Against a Darkening Sky—an understated and under-appreciated novel. Mary Perrault is one of the great mothers in literature. I wrote about the novel here.

Anonymous said...

I,too,read many of Eric Hoffer's weekly newspaper columns during the short period in the late 1960's when he wrote them. They were a cheering antidote to the temper of the times. All the columns have been collected into a book, The Syndicated News Articles (Hopewell Press, 2010).

Bethell's book is a fine read, but he gets a little too wildly speculative about Hoffer's early life.