Tuesday, September 30, 2014

`He was a Lion'

Beginning today, Good Letters, the blog at Image journal, is hosting “In a Domain of Sheep, He was a Lion: Tributes to D.G. Myers from Friends & Colleagues.”

`The Great Divorcer For Ever'

“I have many more Letters to write and I bless my stars that I have begun, for time seems to press, -- this may be my best opportunity.” 

Carefully, hopefully weighed words from John Keats, who was writing to his friend Charles Brown on this date, Sept. 30, in 1820. Five months later he was dead. Keats was writing aboard the Maria Crowther, a brig bound for Italy, off the Isle of Wight, at Yarmouth. This was the start of the poet’s final voyage. His traveling companion was the ever-faithful Joseph Severn. Boarding at Gravesend was a Miss Cottrell, a woman of about eighteen who, like Keats, was dying of consumption. In his John Keats (1963), Walter Jackson Bate reports: “Miss Cottrell…had unfortunately reached that state where the invalid is humanly tempted to compare notes, and she did this throughout the trip, with a great deal of curiosity about Keats.” She outlived Keats but died several years later in Naples. The specter of Fanny Brawne shadows the letter: “The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death.” A few sentences later, Keats sets off a psychic explosion when he asks Brown to “be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead.” Bate describes the phrase as “the first really open admission” that Keats knows what others have suspected and hoped to deny: Soon he would die. Bate writes: 

“Certainly Keats—from now until almost the end (indeed from the spring of 1819 until the end: in a sense perhaps from the beginning)—was exemplifying that extraordinary capacity which we so often find among the English at their best, and perhaps more frequently than among most other peoples, to grow calmer as emergency increases and demand deepens.” 

As Bate goes on to sample Severn’s letters from the journey, Keats seems even more admirable a human being, not the ethereal wraith of legend: “he cracked jokes at tea”; “my wit would have dropped in a moment but for Keats plying me”; Keats loses his breakfast, but only in “the most gentlemanly manner.” Severn almost faints on deck but is revived and cheered by Keats who praises his gift for “sailorship.” In his letter, Keats formulates an Irish bull-like paradox worthy of Beckett, a great Keats admirer: 

“I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators [sic], but death is the great divorcer for ever.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

`Obscurely Wise and Coarsely Kind'

We are preparing a Festschrift for D.G. Myers, who died on Friday. Thanks to the generosity of its publisher and editor-in-chief, Greg Wolfe, the journal Image will host our remembrance of David and his contributions as writer, scholar, blogger, teacher, father, husband and friend. We expect it to be up and running within several days. Editing the contributions of so many writers has been a humbling task, one that provides welcome distraction from the knowledge that David’s words are at an end. Dr. Johnson’s lines from “On the Death of Dr. Levet” offer consolation:

“Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny,
Thy praise to merit unrefined.”

Dave Lull found this photograph posted by David Myers five years ago. I’ve never been in better company, all around.

Again, thanks go to Dave Lull for alerting me to David Myers’ web pages from the Texas A&M University server preserved in the Internet Archives, and to a remembrance of David and links to some of his work at Commentary.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From the Family of D.G. Myers

Cynthia Fierstein, D.G. Myers’ sister-in-law, reports of David’s death on Friday: “He was home and surrounded by his family, friends, and his books.” She passes along this message:

Here is the information regarding funeral and shiva visiting hours for Naomi's husband, David.  The funeral will be Monday at 4:30 p.m. at Epstein Memorial Chapel, 3232 E. Main St.

Shiva visiting will be at Naomi's house, 2645 Bryden, starting Tuesday morning, through Friday morning. Shiva is a time to visit the family (and really all are welcome) and then there will be services at the house in the morning and the evening. Services will held from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 6:45 to 7:30 p.m. Visiting hours will be from 8:30 a.m. to noon and 3 to 8 p.m.

Here is a simple guide to Jewish mourning practice:

1.  It is traditional for the immediate family to be seated in low chairs, eating some traditional foods.  The mourners will not come to greet you but you can come to them.  There will likely be lots of people, many of them orthodox.  Do not be offended if someone of the opposite sex does not shake your hand, some of them don't for religious reasons.  No need to dress up but it would be most respectful to dress modestly.  There is a traditional phrase to say to mourners to alleviate you from struggling to know what to say.  It will be posted in the house (English and Hebrew).  Feel free to talk to the mourner but take your cues from them.

2. DON'T BRING FOOD, the Jewish community will be providing meals for the family.  Everything has to be strictly kosher.

3. Flowers are not a part of the Jewish funeral tradition., If you wish to make a charitable donation in David’s memory, Naomi asks that your direct your contributions to the options below:

A.  Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi

Funds for the children will be established. These will be custodial accounts for the benefit and welfare of Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi.  Donations can be made by sending checks made out to Naomi Myers, Dov, Saul, Isaac or Mimi Myers. 2645 Bryden Rd., Bexley, Ohio, or if you wish to donate directly to the funds, that information will be available in the next week or so.

B. Zusman Hospice, care of Wexner Heritage Village, 1151 College Ave., Columbus, Ohio 43209.

C. The research fund of Dr. Steven Clinton.

Checks made out to: James Cancer Hospital.  Please write on memo line: Fund#302024  OR  Prostate Cancer Prevention Fund

Mail to:  The James Development Office. 660 Ackerman Road P.O. Box 183112 Columbus, Ohio 43218-3112.

D. Congregation Torat Emet, 2375 E. Main St., Bexley, Ohio 43209.

 Thank you for all your love and support.  Please feel free to forward this to anyone you think might want it.


This also comes from Cynthia:

“Naomi would like to compile a collection of stories about experiences you may have shared with David so that she can create a book for Dov, Saul, Isaac and Mimi to better remember their father. Naomi's sister, Cynthia, has generously taken on the responsibility of collecting the stories from anyone who would like to contribute.  Nothing is too short or too long, feel free to include David's crazy side and/or off-color jokes. Please send your stories, memories, and thoughts of David to both Naomi (naomijmyers@gmail.com) and Cynthia (cynthia.fierstein@me.com).  As David was an avid internet, facebook and twitter user, please feel free to share this request with anyone who knew him either in person or electronically.  Please do not post these stories on facebook or twitter but send to the above emails.”

`Of What Might Still Happen'

The association was immediate and puzzling: When I learned Friday at the conclusion of Rosh Hashana and the start of Shabbes of David Myers’ death, Henry James appeared to me, though not spectrally. James, of course, was not above a good ghost story. I mean in the way the illustrious and humble dead, those dear to us, enter our thoughts unprompted, like good Samaritans. David and I valued James highly. In his assessment of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, he noted Roth’s allusions to “The Middle Years” and its often-quoted writer’s manta: “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Provocatively, David ranked The Portrait of a Lady as the second-greatest novel written in English (after Lolita) “since the era of Dickens and Eliot.”

But the James who came to me was mine, not David’s. Henry James is a continent, one we settle incrementally across time, reading and rereading him, weighing our lives against his books. Soon I recognized the late James of “The Altar of the Dead.” He writes of George Stransom, an aging man who, like all of us, accumulates his dead. I’ve known the story for more than forty years and it carries with it the image of a church sanctuary, dark and rustic, illuminated only by votive candles arranged on wooden tiers. I won’t recount the story, but James reminded me of poor dying Stransom, at last contemplating forgiveness for Acton Hague, honoring the dearest of his dead, Mary Antrim, and reconciled to the his nameless fellow supplicant. The story concludes:
“`Yes, one more,’ he repeated, simply; `just one!’ And with this his head dropped on her shoulder; she felt that in his weakness he had fainted. But alone with him in the dusky church a great dread was on her of what might still happen, for his face had the whiteness of death.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

Our friend D.G. Myers, proprietor of A Commonplace Blog, died Friday evening at the age of sixty-two. This week we have been preparing a Festschrift for David. Some thirty-five friends have been invited to share memories of this teacher, writer, scholar, father, husband and friend. We hope to have it posted early next week. For now, our thoughts are with Naomi and their children. David titled his final post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

`The Very Essence of Manliness and Condensation'

We grow sensitized to significant names, turning our minds into indiscriminate search engines. I happen regularly upon “Chekhov” and “Jonathan Swift” because those writers are often more important to me than the context in which I might find them. Another name frequently unearthed by Kurp-Google is Samuel Johnson. Without searching, I happened this week upon three notable references to him. The first was in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2002) by Terry Teachout: 

“Like Johnson, Mencken was resolutely unsentimental, ebulliently grim, full of the sanity that comes from an unswerving commitment to common sense. But for Johnson `the mind can only repose on the stability of truth,’ while Mencken found nothing to be `wholly good, wholly desirable, wholly true.’ This unequivocal rejection of the possibility of ultimate truth, a position irreconcilable with his scientific rationalism, left him with nothing but a concept of `honor’ as shallow as the Victorian idea of progress in which he believed so firmly (and so paradoxically). Though he was for the most part a genuinely honorable man, honor for Mencken would seem to have been little more than a higher species of etiquette. In 1917 he wrote of himself: `His moral code…has but one item: keep your engagements.’ No more revealing thing has ever been said about H.L. Mencken.” 

In “The Artist,” an article published in 1924 and collected in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949), Mencken referred to Johnson as “the Roosevelt of the Eighteenth century. Johnson was the first Rotarian: living today, he would be a United States Senator, or a university president.” This is amusing, a classic Mencken takedown, but utterly mistaken. Elsewhere, Mencken said: “The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist, Jack.” And he called Calvin Coolidge a Rotarian. It was an all-purpose slander.    

Second, I found C.S. Lewis writing on June 22, 1930 (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, 1986):

“I am delighted to hear that you have taken to Johnson. Yes, isn't it a magnificent style — the very essence of manliness and condensation. I find Johnson very bracing when I am in my slack, self-pitying mood. The amazing thing is his power of stating platitudes — or what in anyone else wd. be platitudes — so that we really believe them at last and realise their importance. Doesn't it remind you a bit of Handel? As to his critical judgment I think he is always sensible and nearly always wrong. He has no ear for metre and little imagination. I personally get more pleasure from the Rambler than from anything else of his & at one time I used to read a Rambler every evening as a nightcap. They are so quieting in their brave, sensible dignity.” 

Lewis gets Johnson almost right, certainly righter than Mencken. About platitudes: Read naively, Shakespeare, Milton and Johnson seem filled with them because for centuries readers have sifted their words for wit and wisdom. It’s a common reaction among students: “I didn’t know [fill in the blank] said that.” “Always sensible and nearly always wrong?” Not quite. Think of what he writes about Swift. Easy to quibble, but even when wrong he’s usually compelling. 

Third, I found this in a brief essay, “What Is Prayer?” in Village Hours (Canterbury Press, 2012) by Ronald Blythe: 

“On Sunday, I preached on Dr Johnson, who wrote his prayers down. Although he was masterly in his summing up of other men, he was ill-suited to sum up himself. Mercifully, he had James Boswell to tell him who he was. Thus we have two accounts of him which never quite come together. But then this would happen to most of us. Autobiography and biography may be about the same person, but they are sure to be miles apart.” 

Who among us could accurately sum himself up? Montaigne, perhaps, though he would have denied it. We’re blind to ourselves and generally to others.

Friday, September 26, 2014

D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

Our friend D.G. Myers, proprietor of A Commonplace Blog, died this evening. This week we have been preparing a Festschrift for David. Some thirty-five friends have been invited to share memories of this teacher, writer, scholar, father, husband and friend. We hope to have it posted early next week. For now, our thoughts are with Naomi and their children. David titled his final post “Choosing life in the face of death.”

`Presences As Well As Meanings'

Indulge me as I play the game of dividing the world’s writers into two categories: those indifferent or hostile to language and those for whom it’s candy, a toy or at least an absorbing pastime. At work I spend many hours reading the words of engineers and mathematicians who find language an impertinence. They think in numbers, vectors and joules. Written words are inefficient and slow them down, and organizing sentences becomes a laborious act of translation. Such impatience with language is hardly limited to scientists. Think of the novelists, poets and other literary types who treat words like cold oatmeal, stirring it in the bowl with little enthusiasm. Why work if you don’t like your tools? 

In the nineteen-eighties, the late John McGahern wrote a previously unpublished scrap of essay, “Playing with Words,” collected in Love of the World: Essays (Faber and Faber, 2009). McGahern is the finest Irish fiction writer after Beckett, a writer not without humor but a serious man. His prose is starkly elegant and not at all artsy-fartsy. His thoughts here are a surprise: 

“As with most serious things, it began in play, playing with the sounds of words, their shape, their weight, their colour, their broken syllables; the fascination that the smallest change in any sentence altered all the words around it, and that they too had to be changed in turn. As in reading, when we become conscious that we are no longer reading romances or fables or adventure but versions of our own life, so it suddenly came to me that while I seemed  to be playing with words in reality I was playing with my own life. And words, for me, have always been presences as well as meanings. Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living.” 

That’s it: writers live twice, and often more intensely as a result, in their bodies and again in their words. Some experiences remain incomplete until articulated in language artfully arranged. McGahern says he has no interest in arguing about either religion (he refers to Hume) or art. He writes: 

“Most good writing, and all great writing, has a spiritual quality that we can recognize but never quite define. In his wonderful little piece on Chateaubriand, Proust recognized this quality both by its presence—the blue flower on the earth—and its absence from the more worldly glittering prose of diplomat and traveler. Call it moral fragrance or style or that older healing word—magic.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

`The Root of All Other Vices'

You quickly regret asking people what they believe. It’s a high-minded question inviting a pompous response. Even people who believe in little beyond themselves feel compelled to hand out platitudes to the crowd. The question and resultant answer are, in truth, a form of self-advertisement, in Norman Mailer’s sense. As a package they translate into: “Aren’t I a fine fellow? Don’t you wish you shared my ideals?” Whenever NPR aired the segment called “What I Believe,” that was my signal to turn to the country station. A more interesting question is: “What do you know?” 

In 1938, the year of the Moscow show trials, the Anschluss, Munich and Kristallnacht, Clifton Fadiman asked twenty-one “intellectuals” – his word – to articulate their beliefs. The result was I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time (Simon and Schuster, 1939). The book is an elaboration of an earlier volume, Living Philosophies (1931). Among the worthies responding in I Believe are W.H. Auden (who was soon to write of the waning “low dishonest decade”), George Santayana (who eschews the question of belief entirely and substitutes a twenty-page autobiography; he was then working on Persons and Places), and Jacques Maritain. Also on hand are Pearl Buck and James Thurber. Here is a sample of the former’s wisdom: “For myself, I choose life anyhow, anywhere. Whatever my mood or circumstance, I know I choose life.” Brave words, worthy of a Nobel laureate. 

The straightest talk in the book is Rebecca West’s. In 1936-1938, West had made three visits to Yugoslavia and now was working on her masterwork, the 1,100-page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). The volume is part travel book, part personal revelation, part meditation on history at the brink of World War II, and remains compulsively rereadable. Of how many travel writers can we say the same? Patrick Leigh Fermor, of course, and Evelyn Waugh, but few others. In her contribution to I Believe, West says some foolish things, and carries on long-windedly about geophysical and sexual politics, but most of her thinking is mordantly cant-free: 

“If we do not regard as sacred our own joys and the joys of others, we open the door and let into life the ugliest attribute of the human race, which is cruelty. I believe this vice to be as much of a shame and a doom to humanity as the original sin of the theologians; and I believe it to be the root of all other vices…Hatred necessarily precedes love in human experience.” 

One wonders how Pearl Buck took her book-mate’s words. In her report on the Nuremburg trials collected in A Train of Powder (1955), West writes: “'The Nazis were maniacs who plastered history with the cruelty which is a waste product of man’s moral nature, as maniacs on a smaller scale plaster their bodies and their clothes with their excreta.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

`A Kind of Eccentric Attraction'

Three cheers for the “minor” writer. Major status has more to do with marketing than enduring literary worth. The first readers of Tolstoy and Henry James may have suspected their men were major, but as contemporaries they were in no position to say so categorically. Time is the judge. I’ll cite one of David Myers’ diktats: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz).” 

Matt Hunte told me he learned of Henry Green’s novels from something I had written. I referred him to Isaac Rosenfeld’s withering 1950 review of Nothing in which he insists that Green “…is not a major novelist, that he does not have a major sensibility, and that his work, granting its excellence, is nevertheless quite small.” My instinctive reaction is to accuse Rosenfeld of snobbery, perhaps reverse-snobbery because Green wielded a snobbish English club of his own. 

I would suggest that to call a writer “minor” is not necessarily to damn him. Green and Rosenfeld both are minor if that means neither of them is Proust. But literary judgments are not mutually exclusive. I’ll go on happily rereading Rosenfeld and Green – especially Green – without jeopardizing my love of Proust or any of the other bona fide major-leaguers. Matt replied, interestingly: “Yes, Rosenfeld described Green as a minor writer, which I suppose is fair if we're using the definition Guy Davenport did here.” Asked by the interviewer how he would situate himself “in American (and other) literature,” Davenport replies: “As a minor prose stylist.” He goes on: 

“A major work takes its art to a high perfection and is usually innovative (Dante and Shakespeare would be the great examples here). More importantly, the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying. `Of inexhaustible interest,’ said Pound. 

“Minor writers may have charm, a polished finish, and a kind of eccentric attraction. Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, Michael Gilbert -- fine fellows and impeccable stylists, but when compared to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, or Proust, minor. I would place Poe and Borges among the minors, splendid as they are. They are narrow. A Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them. 

“I am a minor writer because I deal in mere frissons and adventitious insights, and with things peripheral.” 

This shouldn’t be mistaken for false modesty or the ersatz humility of an artificially bloated ego. Davenport rightly weighs his worth. Only the broadly read can make such judgments and stand by them convincingly. I love Colette but feel no impulse to burden her with superlatives. She doesn’t need my help, and hype only hurts. Here is Joseph Epstein on a favorite from the minor leagues: “Max Beerbohm was the world's greatest minor writer, with the full oxymoronic quality behind that epithet entirely intended.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

`A Loyalty Long Before He Has Any Admiration'

According to the interviewer from The Economist, Larkin’s “Going Going” suggests “everything is getting bleaker, harsher, cruder, faster.” He asks the poet’s old friend Kingsley Amis, “Do you share that vision?” and the novelist replies: 

“Yes. Yes. And I’d also say that most people shared it too—going back a long way. There’s always an ideal happy state from which our present condition is a sad degeneration, and it encompasses things as reasonably important as sexual guilt and so on to the times when the streets were clean…I think I’d rather have instinctive pessimism than its opposite.” [p. 177, Conversations with Kingsley Amis, 2009] 

Americans are said to be optimists, that our country was founded on an implicit faith in new beginnings, second chances. We’re a republic of rejects, defenders of the defenseless, and pessimism is so self-sabotagingly defeatist and spiritually lazy. But optimism, in its softer-headed forms, is so naïve, a reckless denial of reality and, in its own way, spiritually lazy. Where is one to stand on the great optimist/pessimist divide? Why are both types so complacent? And why so defensive? In Orthodoxy (1908), in a chapter devoted to these questions, the self-identified optimist G.K. Chesterton endorses “primal loyalty to life” and dismisses the optimist/pessimist dichotomy as “a deep mistake.” He writes: 

“The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.” 

In other words, we’re born into the world and it remains blithely indifferent to our approval or condemnation. Might as well get used to it. In 1972, Larkin was commissioned to write a poem for inclusion in a government white paper, How Do You Want to Live? A Report on the Human Habitat. Starting with the sanctimonious title, the project seems an unlikely undertaking for Larkin, who bragged that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” He referred to the poem as “thin ranting conventional gruel,” but the setup sounds like a joke, a parody of the blinkered bureaucracy and the cant-averse poet. The government commission censored the poem, originally and rather blandly titled “Prologue,” before publishing it. Removed were “spectacled grins,” “takeover bids” and “Grey area grants.” In a May 1972 letter to Robert Conquest, Larkin writes: 

“Have you seen this commissioned poem I did for the Countess of Dartmouth’s report on the human habitat? It makes my flesh creep. She made me cut out a verse attacking big business—don’t tell anyone. It was a pretty crappy verse, anyway, not that she minded that.” 

“Going, Going” is, at best, second-tier Larkin. The crankiness is merely strident. Most of Larkin’s humor is absent and he comes at his subject too directly. The result is preachiness. Even in his darkest poems, Larkin is a master of indirection. Too head-on, as in the stanza beginning “Of spectacled grins approve,” and he turns into a nag. When Larkin’s speaker in “Going Going” says “Things are tougher than we are, just / As earth will always respond / However we mess it about,” he sounds, on one hand, like a pessimist, acknowledging that things have grown messy. On the other, he’s no climate-change alarmist reveling in Jeremiads. The second-to-last stanza is pretty good, until the final hectoring, Joni Mitchell-esque line: 

“And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.” 

When Larkin published the poem in The High Windows (1974), he restored the original title and the pre-censorship text. The day after completing “Going, Going” he wrote to Monica Jones, “I’ll never be laureate.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

`Able to Do the Best that Remains to Do'

“My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told.” 

Which he never did. Charles Lamb, after his own sui generis fashion, was stoical, not indulgent of self-pity or much given to the confessional mode. No one would confuse his account with the self-dramatized ravings of Anne Sexton. Like many comic writers, his humor is interleaved with suffering. Above, in May 1796, at age twenty-one, he writes to his school friend Coleridge, likewise no stranger to unhappiness. But Lamb was a paragon of mental health weighed against his sister, Mary Lamb. On this date, Sept. 22, in 1796, Mary fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife and attacked their father. Five days later Charles wrote to Coleridge:

I will only give you the outlines. My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad house, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses, — I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt.”

Charles obtained Mary’s release from lifelong imprisonment on the condition he take legal responsibility for her. He never married. They lived together until his death, even collaborating on Tales from Shakespeare, which has remained in print since 1807. Mary suffered psychotic episodes for the rest of her life and outlived her brother by 12 years. Here are the subsequent lines in the second letter to Coleridge (again, written by a twenty-one-year-old): “…thank God I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write, —as religious a letter as possible— but no mention of what is gone and done with. —With me `the former things are passed away,’ and I have something more to do that [than] to feel. God almighty have us all in his keeping.”

In 1820, Lamb began publishing in The London Magazine the pieces that would become his Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). His alter ego gave Lamb the room to safely mingle misery and comedy. No other writer I know is so tonally dexterous as Lamb. In the final paragraph of “All Fool’sDay,” after contemplating scripture, he writes: 

“I have never made an acquaintance since, that lasted; or a friendship, that answered; with any that had not some tincture of the absurd in their characters. I venerate an honest obliquity of understanding. The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you. I love the safety, which a palpable hallucination warrants; the security, which a word out of season ratifies. And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

`In the Squamous Heads of Scabious'

Hybridized citrus trees grow in the yard behind our house and hang over the wooden fence. The fruit is attractive – brightly green, yellow and orange – and fragrant, but inedible. A retired physician whose hobby was tree-grafting had crossed lemons with grapefruit and other unholy minglings, and the resulting fruit is bitter and pulpy. Even the dog won’t play with them. In addition, the branches are spiked with long wooden thorns and the bark peels off in sheets like sunburned skin. I was reading bound volumes of old USDA bulletins about pomology and grafting, and found a reference to desquamation, not a word I know but one I could figure out from context. It means peeling or scaling. 

In his Dictionary, Johnson gives us “the act of scaling foul bones,” which seems a cousin to what I was after, then I consulted the OED and found what I was looking for: “the removal of scales or of any scaly crust” (accompanied by a Johnson citation) and “a coming off in scales or scaly patches; esp. that of the epidermis, as the result of certain diseases; exfoliation, ‘peeling.’” That confirmed my sunburned-skin simile. For the final usage it gave “that which is cast off in scales,” citing one of Johnson’s definitions of rust: “The red desquamation of old iron.” 

I finally heard the echo and realized I was familiar with squamous cell carcinoma, having worked for several years as a medical reporter. The root for this growing family of cognates – for instance, squamify, squamose, squamiform, though not Squamish -- is the Latin squama, “scale.” The OED gives ten related definitions for squamous, including this: “Bot. Furnished or covered with, composed of, squamæ or scales.” We’re not quite back to my Dr. Moreau-esque citrus tree, but the OED does reunite us with an old friend, Sr. Thomas Browne, credited with introducing more than eight hundred words into English. Here he is in Chapter III of The Garden of Cyrus: “In the squamous heads of Scabious, Knapweed, and the elegant Jacea Pinea, and in the Scaly composure of the Oak-Rose, which some years most aboundeth.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

`A Natural Distance from Conventional Behavior'

The charm of a good fairy tale is the way it straddles worlds, ours and another that operates with an alternate physics but similar morals. Soft-hearted and -headed teachers and parents try to fob them off as cute and whimsical, and some translations abet the fraud, but kids know better. Despite the bowdlerizers, fairy tales can be savage and unforgiving though not in the way Bruno Bettelheim theorized. Frances Spalding writes in Stevie Smith: A Biography (1988): 

“When she was seven years old her mother gave her for Christmas a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The climate of these chilling fantasies, in which fate is simple and peremptory, had a profound influence on Stevie’s mental landscape. All her life she was to return to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a copy of which, in German, was found beside her bed at Avondale Road after she died.” 

Spalding’s summary is tersely precise: “fate is simple and peremptory,” amenable to change through trial and ritual but without guarantees. Not everyone lives happily ever after. This appealed to Smith who was more than half in love with death, easeful or otherwise, and who lulled adults into thinking she was writing for children. “The Frog Prince,” accompanied by a Churchill-like drawing of the creature, is her version of a story collected by die Brüder Grimm -- Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859). She adapts their “The Frog Prince; or, Iron Henry” (Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich; literally, “The Frog King; or, The Iron Heinrich.”) Smith does away with the story’s third-person narration and its focus on the king’s daughter, and shifts it to the frog who has doubts about becoming a prince again when the spell is broken: 

“The story is familiar
Everyone knows it well
But do other enchanted people feel as nervous
As I do? The stories do not tell. 

“Ask if they would be happier
When the changes come
As already they are fairly happy
in a frog’s doom?” 

Hardly childish thoughts. The frog comes to wonder if feelings of frog-complacency, being comfortable as a tailless amphibian, are a part of the spell. Jack Barbera and William McBrien in Stevie: A Biography (1985) quote a note left by Smith: “`The Frog Prince’ is a religious poem because he got too contented with being a frog and was nervous of being changed back into his proper shape and going to heaven. So he nearly missed the chance of that great happiness, but, as you will see, he grew strong in time.” See the poem’s final lines, in which the adjectives are dense with meanings: “Only disenchanted people / Can be heavenly.” Smith writes in another poem, “How do you see?”: “Oh I know we must put away the beautiful fairy stories / And learn to be good in a dull way without enchantment, / Yes, we must.” Kay Ryan says of Smith: 

“Nobody knows how to be light much of   the time. Maybe not even the Dalai Lama. Stevie Smith had some natural advantages, a natural distance from conventional behavior.” 

Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and Jacob Grimm died on this date in 1863.

Friday, September 19, 2014

`It Has No Grave Flaws and Is Charmingly Written'

“The weather on Sunday, 19 September was very settled, according to the Meteorological Journal. It came in a fortnight of consistently `Fine’ weather and was on the day in London a minimum of 57 degrees and maximum 60, to rise on the Monday to an unusually clement 70 degrees, amongst the three warmest days in September that year.” 

That is, 1819, the heart of John Keats’ “Great Year,” when he composed most of the poems and letters we remember and read. The weather report is provided by R.S. White in John Keats: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). On this date 195 years ago Keats wrote the last and greatest of his odes, “To Autumn.” That day he walked along the River Itchen near Winchester. Two days later, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he describes the experience: 

“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.” 

That same day, Keats transcribed “To Autumn” and sent it in a letter to another friend, Richard Woodhouse. He was not yet twenty-four when he wrote the poem, and would be dead seventeen months later. In one of the best books ever devoted to a single writer, Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks writes: 

“`To Autumn’ – and it is this which makes its calm poise a thing of such dignity—is a poem of parting: the parting of the day, the parting of the swallows, the parting of Autumn, the parting from life. Partings moved Keats to special sympathy, tact, and pleasure.” 

Even the arch-anti-Romantic Yvor Winters had grudgingly good things to say about “To Autumn.” Keats’ poems, he writes in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967), “offers melancholy for the most part unexplained, melancholy for its own sake, combined with detail which is sensuous as regards intention but which is seldom perceived with real clarity. There is almost no intellect in or behind the poems; the poems are adolescent in every aspect.” About the final ode, however, Winters adds: 

To Autumn is the most nearly successful of Keats’s poems. It has no grave flaws and is charmingly written. But it is not very serious, and the style, although controlled, is excessively mellifluous. Of all the unintentionally comical poems in the language, the Ode on Melancholy is possibly the most amusing [he cites the final six lines of the second stanza].”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

`Made Artful by Long Commerce with the World'

Secretly, I’ve always felt sympathy for Polonius, the windbag mocked by that other, less critically recognized windbag, Hamlet. Such a reading of the play is unconventional, I know, but the prince is insufferable, a template for today’s over-educated, under-experienced know-it-alls. His posturing and waffling bring about the death of almost every major character in the play, including himself. Hamlet refers to Polonius as “a tedious old fool” but Samuel Johnson, while not ignoring the lord chamberlain’s  failings, thinks otherwise: 

“Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.” 

This Polonius recalls another aging man with a daughter in jeopardy, King Lear, one of whose daughters, Goneril, says: “Old fools are babes again.” A man “declining into dotage” deserves our pity if not respect. Elsewhere, in The Rambler #50, Johnson writes: 

“To secure to the old that influence which they are willing to claim, and which might so much contribute to the improvement of the arts of life, it is absolutely necessary that they give themselves up to the duties of declining years, and contentedly resign to youth its levity, its pleasures, its frolics, and its fopperies. It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of childhood.” 

Polonius is a man of affairs, a diplomat and trusted adviser to Claudius. To retain such a position, he has learned to be an applied psychologist, quick to diagnose motives and sniff out treachery, while skilled in flattering his boss. One wishes he spoke less often and gave more thought to his words, but his loyalties, of necessity, are divided among the king, his son and daughter, and himself. Johnson suggests his age may be taking its toll on his gifts. He goes on: 

“Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius.” 

Here is one of Polonius’ speeches to Ophelia, from Act II, Scene 1: 

“That hath made him mad.
I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him. I feared he did but trifle
And meant to wreck thee. But beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king.
This must be known, which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.” 

Johnson praises Polonius’ intelligence in this passage: “This is not the remark of a weak man. The vice of age is too much suspicion. Men long accustomed to the wiles of life cast commonly beyond themselves, let their cunning go further than reason can attend it. This is always the fault of a little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world.” Though probably not aware of the applicability of his words to himself, Polonius’ thinking is original. He is not play-acting, not parroting another’s words. 

In his recent essay on Hamlet, Theodore Dalrymple (a Dr. Johnson for our age) refers to Polonius as “the king’s pompous and verbose adviser.” I might quibble with “pompous” (he has Ophelia and Laertes to think about, after all), but Dalrymple’s conclusions as to the perennial “Hamlet problem” (and, we might add, the Polonius problem) are sound: “Our impatient and hubristic pretense, repeated throughout history, that we fully understand ourselves and others inevitably leads to nemesis.” Shakespeare’s play reminds us that we remain mysteries to ourselves. Hamlet is blind to Hamlet, and Polonius to Polonius. 

Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709, and died Dec. 13, 1784.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

`They Never Stop Working'

I happened on “Spare Time,” an essay by V.S. Pritchett previously unknown to me. He wrote it in 1978 for The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, founded in England in 1884 as a sort of trade union for professional writers. Tennyson was its first president and among its early members were Shaw, Hardy, Masefield, Galsworthy and Wells. Pritchett’s essay is collected in Author! Author! (Faber and Faber, 1984), an anthology of selections from The Author edited by Richard Findlater. Pritchett begins with a conventional and not very promising theme, writers and money, and quietly turns it into a meditation on the importance of time, “the one necessity of their lives, not simply for high jinks—everyone has that—but time for their particular work.” He distinguishes two sorts of time important to writers: “…the clock time of his prose factory and the vitally necessary unending time of reflection; without the latter his work that clocks in will be dead and automatic.” 

Writing has a long gestation because the writer never knows what might prove useful. If he is, as Henry James suggests he ought to be, “one of those on whom nothing is lost,” he has no spare time, no “down time,” no time to kill. A hastily written pen-for-hire piece of journalism may have decades-old origins unknown even to the writer. Every thought, every experience, every book read, might come in handy. Pritchett alludes to Keats’ notion of “negative capability” and adds: “A writer must have the capacity to become passive and lost in doubt in order to be open to new suggestion. He must alternate between clocking in and clocking out.” With Kipling, Pritchett is the greatest of English story writers, and his observations have obvious relevance for those writing fiction, but also for poets, essayists, critics and even bloggers. The alternating and even simultaneous spells of passivity and rigor sound very familiar. Much of the rest of Pritchett’s essay is given over to anecdotes about how the greats – Balzac, James, Kipling – budgeted their time. In the final paragraphs he turns autobiographical: 

“I find that reading Russian novelists, mainly of the nineteenth century, is good for my `negative capability’ – a state, incidentally, that means a state of vagary, doubt and indecision as well as self-annulment. I get pleasure for its own sake out of Gibbon on an idle Sunday evening; also from classic works of travel. If I work hard it is partly to offset a lazy mind. Painters taught me to love landscape. In London or if I chance to stay in the country I stand staring out of the window at the trees or garden. Gardening is good for writers: pruning and weeding are like proof-correcting. I like sleeping an hour or so in the afternoons. I like doing the local shopping in Camden Town: one hears such strange remarks.” 

Pritchett’s prose, seldom flashy or attention-seeking, is Dickensian but with brains. His sentences can be aphoristic without being sententious. He notices things and makes them pertinent. He has an ear. In his words is a marvelous absence of self-consciousness that doesn't lapse into a faux-naïve impression of naturalness. Pritchett has a gift for using unexpected words. Oddly, the passage just quoted has at least one thing in common with Emerson’s prose: Not one sentence follows inevitably from the proceeding sentence. Whereas in Emerson the effect is of shiny, tawdry little bits arranged in patterns like costume jewelry, in Pritchett the reader is buoyed along by the current of the writer’s gusto for the world and its inhabitants. “I have a lot to say,” Pritchett suggests, “so please pay attention and try to keep up with me.” He was seventy-eight when he wrote “Spare Time” and was still writing stories and reviewing books. In “Gibbon and the Home Guard,” the first piece collected in the 1,139-page Complete Essays (1991), Pritchett writes: 

“Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

`Even in This State of Wonders'

“I admire the pattern of the collar you sent John very much and thank you for him; also for the [Dickens] book entitled `A tale of two Citys [sic]’. I can hardly say I like it, though it is well written.” 

Bella Williams was sixteen when she critiqued Dickens’ novel for her brother James on Nov. 25, 1860. With their mother, Eleanor Williams, she had also read Dombey and Son, which she rated “next to Davy Copperfield in my estimation.” When Eleanor read Dickens’ story “The Haunted House,” she wrote in another letter: “Dickens always gives a surprise. It is not what would be expected from the title. [It] is quite interesting but not equal to his other stories that I have read. The caracters [sic] do not seem to live as they do in some others.” Bella also read Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, and Eleanor admired Jane Eyre. In contrast to Eleanor’s assessment of the characters in “The Haunted House,” she and her family come alive in `This State of Wonders’: The Letters of an Iowa Frontier Family (ed. John Kent Folmar, University of Iowa Press, 1986). The book gives the lie to the notion that all American settlers were cretins out to kill Indians and rape the land. 

The patriarch was John Hugh Williams, born in Wales in 1805. He emigrated to Philadelphia at age seventeen, trained as a watchmaker and engraver, and married the boss’ daughter, Eleanor Anderson. They moved west to St. Clairsville, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.V. In 1847, Williams became a leader in founding the Church of New Jerusalem in Ohio. They were followers of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), as were Blake and Emerson (who called him “a colossal soul”). In 1855, the family, now with six children, moved west to the village of Homer in Webster County, Iowa. After the economic panic of 1857, William arranged for his son James to go to work as a watchmaker for a fellow Swedenborgian in Augusta, Ga. Most of the seventy-five letters collected in `This State of Wonders’ were exchanged by James and his family back in Iowa between 1858 and March 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1860, Bella’s husband George wrote to James, describing an expedition in a snow storm to gather firewood. It recalls Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: 

“There was a dead buroak [burr oak] up on the hill and John said that he would go and get it; it was burnt down and we loaded it on the sledge and started toward home. We went about ten rods [168 feet] when the off runner hit a little nole [knoll], and threw the wood to the near side and the runner b[r]oke down. We managed to fix it so we could ride home on it.” 

The following date, Bella also wrote to James. Folmar uses a phrase from the final paragraph for the title of his collection: 

“On the 23rd we had the quietest and heaviest fall of snow I ever witnessed even in this State of wonders and it continued calm until yesterday evening when the wind—which was coming out from the south east—rose and the snow began to `kelter’ and has continued to do so since.” 

I’m uncertain whether “State of wonders” refers to Iowa or is a scriptural or Swedenborgian allusion. Nor does the editor explain “kelter” or why Bella puts the word in quotation marks. The OED gives four definitions, all nouns, none of which seem pertinent: “a coarse cloth used for outer garments,” “good condition, order; state of health or spirits” [variation of kilter, as in “out of kilter”]; “money, cash,” and “rubbish, nonsense.” 

In his epilogue, Folmar fills in the very American coda. After Fort Sumter, James Williams, a native-born Northerner, enlisted in the Twenty-first Alabama Infantry Volunteers. He led his company at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and was cited for gallantry. By June 1863, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. He commanded a small battery, Fort Powell, in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and was regimental commander during the final months of the war. He lived for the rest of his life in Mobile, Ala., and died in 1903. His brothers John, Jr. and Joseph, served in Company G of the First Iowa Cavalry. They died in 1933 and 1891, respectively.

[Dave Lull passes along the definition of “kelter” as an intransitive verb in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to move restlessly: undulate,” “chiefly Scottish.”]

Monday, September 15, 2014

`What Is Read with Delight'

My middle son is studying trigonometry and second-year French, and last week he experienced the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus realization that schooling is often reducible to brute memorization. Public school didn’t prepare him for this reality. Rote learning is disapproved of today, by students and teachers, but there’s no other way to embed functions and irregular verbs in one’s primary data base – that is, memory, preferably long-term. I reached the same conclusion at thirteen, a year younger than Michael, while studying Latin. Vocabulary and grammar must be reviewed with sufficient frequency to become second nature, and it’s a grind. Only then can fluency and ready application follow. Dr. Johnson puts it like this in The Idler #74, published on this date, Sept. 15, in 1759: 

“The necessity of memory to the acquisition of knowledge is inevitably felt and universally allowed, so that scarcely any other of the mental faculties are commonly considered as necessary to a student: he that admires the proficiency of another, always attributes it to the happiness of his memory; and he that laments his own defects, concludes with a wish that his memory was better.” 

The fault is not in capacity. My Uncle Kenneth once referred to an ample-figured woman as “ten pounds of sausage in a five-pound casing.” The metaphor doesn’t work for memory. In my experience, its capacity is elastic and possibly infinite, especially when we are young. That’s the only way I could have memorized so much Longfellow and Eliot, not to mention commercial jingles, sit-com theme songs, Latin verbs and much of the Burl Ives songbook. Strangely, and contrary to much modern thinking, Johnson disapproves of marginalia and the copying of favorite passages. His own memory was legendary, of course, and perhaps its prodigality blinded him to the capacities of lesser mortals. He continues:      

“If the mind is employed on the past or future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain. What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention; but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.”

Common sense commonly disregarded.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

`Part of This Camaraderie'

“At the library I felt free—free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.” 

Almost daily during the work week I visit the university library. The walk under the live oaks is bracing but I never confuse the hike with anything so mundane as cardiovascular health. Walking is its own reward – an allegory in miniature of life -- and I feel no need to justify it philosophically. Besides, the payoff, guaranteed, is books, almost anything I might want to read. When weighed alongside online access and such gifts as interlibrary loan, we inhabit a reader’s (and writer’s) paradise. We have no excuse for boredom. 

“It was in the Bodleian that I stumbled upon the now-obscure and forgotten works of Theodore Hook, a man greatly admired in the early nineteenth century for his wit and his genius for theatrical and musical improvisation (he was said to have composed more than five hundred operas on the spot). I became so fascinated by Hook that I decided to write a sort of biography or `case-history’ of him.” 

Reading has always meant writing, as eating means cooking. The first book I wrote, with volumes from the public library and my own, was a collection of presidential biographies, from Washington to Kennedy, one page each in a spiral-bound notebook. Next came the biography of a fellow Ohioan, started the day (Feb. 20, 1962) John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was nine, and used the newspapers and television news reports for reference. I still love biography. 

“It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions.” 

My editions were humbler, usually paperbacks, though I share his seemingly incompatible tastes for Browne’s sumptuous prose and the lethal K-Bar economy of Swift’s. How do people learn to write without reading widely, culling the weak and diseased from the strong and healthy? There’s no sustenance in lousy writing. 

“All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books—along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves—was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them between us, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.” 

With dedicated readers I sense true solidarity, stronger than mere politics or demographics. Reading old books from the library is like digging the first stratum of an archeological site, unearthing traces of bookish forebears and, at the deepest levels, the writer. Some books are best read that way. 

[The quoted passages are drawn from "On Libraries by Dr. Oliver Sacks in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review.]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

`Made Up of Unspoken Connections'

Some writers are age-specific. I got Thomas Wolfe out of my system at thirteen and remain in remission. Same for Hemingway and an entire genre, science fiction. Some writers, the rarest of all, we read early and never stop loving. That would be Kipling. I read Proust the first time prematurely, at eighteen, but the encounter served to bolster my resistance to lesser writers. I returned to him happily a decade later and contemplate a third engagement. 

With Sherwood Anderson, my timing was fortuitous because he is a writer best read early, recalled fondly, and seldom or never returned to, like an old girlfriend. In the summer of 1970, I had just graduated from high school and was about to become the first person in my family to attend university. In rapid succession I read Winesburg, Ohio (which I reread a few months later, at school), Poor White, Windy McPherson’s Son, Horses and Men, The Triumph of the Egg and The Portable Sherwood Anderson. The infatuation was intense, uncritical and largely extra-literary. We shared an Ohio birth and boyhood, and I recognized some of the places he wrote about. I liked the idea of coming not from a backwater but from a place certified by literary treatment. I liked Anderson’s emphasis on character and on an America from closer to my parents’ time. Poor White came out in 1920 and The Triumph of the Egg in 1921, the years of my mother’s and father’s births, respectively, in Cleveland. 

In January 1981, after not reading Anderson for years, I went to work for my first daily newspaper, the Gazette in Bellevue, in north central Ohio. Seven miles to the west on Route 20 is Clyde, Anderson’s home from the age of seven, his model for Winesburg and the home of a Whirlpool washing machine factory. My flagging interest in Anderson’s work revived, again for largely extra-literary reasons. I reread his stories with nearby, radically transformed landscapes in mind. 

The infatuation, I’m both relieved and sorry to say, faded a long time ago. When the Library of America brought out Anderson’s Collected Stories two years ago, I borrowed it from the library and browsed around in it (“Paper Pills,” “I’m a Fool,” “Death in the Woods”), but never bought a copy. This time I heard echoes of Turgenev, one of Anderson’s rare non-American enthusiasms. I’ll keep my old Viking edition of Winesburg but I’m not likely to read it again, cover to cover. His prose too often is soggy and generic. He succumbs too often to sentimentality and the close-at-hand cliché. In his essay “The Prose Sublime,” Donald Justice makes no great claims for Anderson but quotes a lengthy and quite lovely passage from Poor White and says: 

“It is a classic instance of things coming together even as they pass, of a moment when things may be said to associate without relating. The feeling raised by this perception is one of poignancy; perhaps that is the specific feeling this type of the prose sublime can be expected to give rise to. Made up of unspoken connections, it seems also to be about them. Probably it is not peculiarly American, but I can recall nothing in European novels, not even in the Russians, which evokes and gives body to this particular mood.” 

Anderson was born on this date, Sept. 13, in 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He died March 8, 1941, in Colón, Panama.