Friday, March 13, 2015

A new collection edited by Harold Holzer “brings readers back to the very moment of Lincoln’s death 150 years ago”

For the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s murder, The Library of America has just published President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning, which gathers more than eighty eyewitness reports, newspaper articles, medical records, trial transcripts, speeches, letters, diary entries, and poems.

Harold Holzer, editor of the volume, is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era. He has authored, coauthored, and edited more than forty books, including Lincoln and the Power of the Press; Lincoln at Cooper Union; and, for The Library of America, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now. He is Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society.  (Photo: Dan Pollard)


What’s the aim of this collection, what sorts of insights and discoveries do you hope readers will find?

The idea is to bring readers back to the very moment of Lincoln’s death one hundred and fifty years ago and show how his mourners, his avengers, his admirers, and his foes all reacted. From the people in the Lincolns’ box that night to the funeral to the testimony at the trial of the conspirators, here are the fascinating firsthand accounts of the unfolding events, expressing shock, sorrow, indignation, and thirst for revenge. In the days of emotional upheaval that followed, and later, we see the event fully considered, what it meant for posterity, and the elevation of Lincoln, in literature and memory, into an American icon. It’s pretty remarkable to hear these voices again.

What does the experience of reading these contemporary, firsthand eyewitness accounts offer readers that standard narrative histories don’t?

There are many wonderful books about the assassination and its aftermath. But they’re unavoidably reflective and interpretive. The firsthand accounts, written in a rush of immediate emotion, have a palpable reality to them that one can’t find in narrative history. These writers did not know how events were going to turn out. Newspaper reports were long and beautifully written. The true-crime-type reports of the manhunt for the conspirators are edge-of-seat dramatic. And the lamentations, familiar and unseen, prose and poetry, take a reader’s breath away.

What do the pieces tell us about the diversity of responses to Lincoln’s murder in the North and the South?

Not everyone mourned Lincoln, as my introduction tries to make clear. But I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming number of Northern responses, even from Democrats, was respectful, bordering on reverential. Partisan politics was for a time forgotten in the wave of mass grief. Recent studies suggest a wave of celebratory defiance, but in truth these were isolated incidents—quantitatively they add up to very, very little. Read, for example, the reporting from the anti-Lincoln New York World. They once ridiculed Lincoln—taunted him—and now they echoed the voice of grief.

What does the volume tell us about Lincoln’s place in the stories Americans tell about themselves, then and now?

Murdered or not, Lincoln would always have occupied a significant place in American history as the president who preserved the Union and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He certainly thought so, and I couldn’t agree more. But as this book reveals, Lincoln achieved an almost divine status in America’s so-called civil religion by becoming the symbolic final casualty of the war for union and freedom. In giving his life that the nation might live—as some saw it, and to paraphrase his own tribute to fallen soldiers at Gettysburg—he became a martyr to liberty, and you can see that sacred place emerging for him as the literature continues to appear in the months and years following his death.

Are there writers you came particularly to like or admire while working on the book?

I love the newspaper writers—and I am assuming that the “Big Three” New York editors, Henry Raymond of the Times, James Gordon Bennett Sr. of the Herald, and Horace Greeley of the Tribune, wrote or contributed much to the most important editorials their papers ever published. I am also quite taken with the overseas eulogies, from Ibsen, Tom Taylor in London, and the somewhat cooler comments by Disraeli. I can’t help adoring Whitman—he was unparalleled in wringing every last drop of literary opportunity he could wrest for himself after Lincoln’s death. On the one hand the masterful long elegy “Lilacs,” on the other the simpler “Captain,” which was his big performance encore for the rest of his career as a lecturer and reader. I guess my newest favorite is diarist George Templeton Strong, who scrawled daily entries in a tiny hand in his journals for his entire life—he’s quite extraordinary, great attention to detail.

Most interesting discovery you made while assembling the book?

The letter from Clara Harris, the senator’s daughter who was in the presidential box when Lincoln was shot. She confides to a friend that all the spurting blood that souvenir-hunters later swabbed, saved, or sold from the scene, belonged not to Lincoln (she was right—his wound was impacted), but to her poor fiancé, Henry Rathbone, whom Booth slashed with a knife before jumping to the Ford’s Theatre stage. Henry bled profusely and nobody paid much attention with the president of the United States lying unconscious. All those blood-stained fabrics that collectors lust after today—boy, would their owners be shocked if they were somehow subjected to a DNA test.

Piece or pieces you think readers will find most surprising?

I think readers will be galvanized by the testimony we reprint from the trial of the assassination conspirators. It’s rarely printed in such detail. I think it takes the alleged mystery out of the plot—it was all Booth’s and he was rather crazy. No Catholic Church plot, no Confederate government last gasp. One racist, wild-eyed actor who couldn’t differentiate between his stage roles like Marc Antony and real life, and a small band of impressionable followers. Although their audacious plot to dismember the entire government wasn’t entirely successful—the conspirator assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson couldn’t bring himself to do it, and General Ulysses S. Grant left town rather than join the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre—Lincoln was not the only victim. Secretary of State William Seward nearly died as a result of a brutal knife attack that same night. To some Americans, the world as they knew it was coming to an end.

How does Lincoln’s assassination compare with more recent national traumas, such as the assassination of President Kennedy and the September 11 attacks?

I lived through the JFK assassination and even for/as a kid, the shock and sadness were palpable. But Kennedy died a man of great promise unfulfilled; we mourned for a beautiful family of course, but also a presidency largely incomplete—what might have been. Lincoln, on the other hand, died at the apex of his power and popularity, triumphant. I wasn’t there, although sometimes I feel I was, but this volume shows us that Americans mourned the senselessness of the tragedy—an act that made a huge hero into an even greater one (perhaps more like FDR). September 11 was yet another kind of story—that one compares more, I think, to Pearl Harbor, a day that provoked grief and anger over wanton destruction and an assault on the homeland. They’re all somehow linked I suppose in our national litany of violence and death. I still think that Lincoln’s murder stands out—the first presidential assassination, of a man who had been underappreciated in his lifetime and was for many becoming truly beloved.

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

I’m divided between the brilliant metaphor of Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and the incredibly professional report AP Washington bureau chief Lawrence Gobright somehow composed and filed just minutes after learning of Lincoln’s assassination—after rushing to the scene and somehow getting into the presidential box for a few minutes so he could report firsthand. He knew Lincoln well, had covered him ably during the war. He must have been in genuine shock, probably grieving too. But what a consummate professional. He wrote the stories that the whole country first read, before the analysts, eulogists, and odists took over. By the way, Lincoln was a pretty fair writer too, to say the least. The coda to the volume features Lincoln’s own unsurpassed comments on death and sacrifice—Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural—as well as his breathtakingly poignant condolence letters (Ellsworth, McCullough, and Bixby). It doesn’t get any better than that.

Book excerpt: Read Gideon Welles’s account of the night of the assassination and of the chaotic days immediately following.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Fall 2015)

Last summer we announced the titles for the first half of 2015; several of those titles are still at press and will be arriving in our warehouse in the coming weeks. Meanwhile we've been putting the finishing touches on the list of publications for the remainder of the year—including a collection gathering the works of an author (and subject matter) new to the LOA pantheon, as well as a two-volume anthology that resurrects several under-appreciated novels that are either out of print or hard to find.

At the end of the list we note two last-minute additions—both paperbacks—to our spring list.

LIBRARY OF AMERICA SERIES

Elmore Leonard
Four Novels of the 1980s

Gregg Sutter, editor
City Primeval • LaBrava • Glitz • Freaky Deaky
September 2015
Library of America #267 / ISBN 978-1-59853-412-2


Women Crime Writers
Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s
(two volumes)
Sarah Weinman, editor
September 2015 / Boxed set: 978-1-59853-451-1
Volume One: The 1940s
Laura, by Vera Caspary • The Horizontal Man, by Helen Eustis • In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes • The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Library of America #268 / ISBN 978-1-59853-430-6
Volume Two: The 1950s
Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong • The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith • Beast in View, by Margaret Millar • Fools’ Gold, by Dolores Hitchens

Library of America #269 / ISBN 978-1-59853-431-3


Frederick Law Olmsted
Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society

Charles Beveridge, editor
With 32 pages of illustrations
October 2015
Library of America #270/ ISBN 978-1-59853-452-8


Edith Wharton
Four Novels of the 1920s

Hermione Lee, editor
The Glimpses of the Moon • A Son at the Front • Twilight Sleep • The Children
October 2015
Library of America #271 / ISBN 978-1-59853-435-5


James Baldwin
Later Novels

Darryl Pinckney, editor
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone • If Beale Street Could Talk • Just Above My Head
October 2015
Library of America #272/ ISBN 978-1-59853-454-2


BOXED SET

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (three volumes)
Ilan Stavans, editor
The complete Library of America edition • 197 stories • more than 2,500 pages • includes Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album, a 128-page illustrated guide to the life and work of the Nobel Prize-winning writer
September 2015
Collects Library of America #149, 150, 151 /ISBN 978-1-59853-455-9


NEW PAPERBACKS: MAY 2015

Thomas Paine
Common Sense, The Crisis & Other Writings from the American Revolution

Edited and with an introduction by Eric Foner
ISBN 978-1-59853-433-7

Football
Great Writing about the National Sport

John Schulian, editor
ISBN 978-1-59853-417-7

Friday, January 30, 2015

An interview with Tim Page on the music critic who “managed to demystify an art that was often regarded as otherworldly”

The Library of America recently published Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954, which gathers hundreds of reviews and several essays by a musician who did double duty as a composer and a critic. Tim Page, who edited the collection, describes Thomson’s importance and the many joys awaiting music lovers who encounter his writings for the first time.

Tim Page is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for The Washington Post. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of more than twenty books, including Parallel Play, a memoir; Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson; and the two-volume Library of America edition of the novels of Dawn Powell. (Above: Virgil Thomson with Tim Page giving a master class in criticism at Juilliard in 1987. Photo © Bonnie Geller Geld)


What’s the aim of this collection? What sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

Virgil Thomson wrote about music so vividly that one can almost hear it on the page—it was an extraordinary gift, almost synesthetic. He invokes the years before and after World War II and summons a musical civilization that has now largely vanished. We wanted to preserve the best of Virgil’s music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, for which he was music critic from 1940 to 1954. He published three large collections of his work during his lifetime, as well as a paperback selection in the late 1960s that gathered some later reviews. We included all of these pieces, and added about 100 pages of reviews that were never reprinted.

Why Virgil Thomson in The Library of America? How would you characterize his contribution and legacy? His influence?

Criticism is an art in itself, and a number of American writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Willa Cather among them—have practiced this art as journalists at the highest level. Virgil was likely the best American music critic—indeed, perhaps the finest such critic who ever worked for a daily newspaper. He wrote about music as a professional, without undue romanticism and with a healthy suspicion of what he called “the music appreciation racket.” He was brilliantly succinct and funny and he managed to demystify an art that was often regarded as otherworldly. What makes Virgil so wonderfully interesting is his use of the English language and his ability to convey pretty complicated musical ideas in terms that all readers can understand.

How did you come to know Virgil Thomson, and how did you come to edit this collection?

We had met in 1979 but he never remembered me until I began to publish in The New York Times a few years later. He liked my criticism and asked me if I, along with my then-wife Vanessa Weeks Page, would edit a collection of his letters. The book was published, Virgil was pleased, and we were asked if we would compile a collection of his complete music criticism. We ended up with a huge amount of material, enough to fill several volumes, but for a number of reasons the project was shelved in the mid-1990s.

Twenty years later, I got a call from The Library of America, for whom I had also assembled two volumes of the writing of Dawn Powell. We decided not to do all of Virgil’s work—like many critics, he had to do some hack work every now and then—but we kept the best of it, and the book stands as a monument to his originality, audacity, and importance to musical thinking in the mid-twentieth century.

Why a book of writing about music? What’s the connection between writing-writers and composers-musicians in this period?

You learn a great deal about an art when you read articulate reviews of practitioners of the art. Many composers have been fine critics—one thinks immediately of Schumann and Berlioz and there are others. None was better than Virgil Thomson. And the staff of writers that Virgil brought to the Herald Tribune was remarkable—Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, John Cage, William Flanagan, Arthur Berger (who had a staff position), and many more.

What was the Herald Tribune’s contribution, and place, in cultural life during the years Thomson worked there?

The Herald Tribune was liberal, educated Republican in its outlook, back when the GOP was far less populist than it is now. It placed a high premium on good writing, unlike the much more literal (back then) New York Times.

Virgil arrived as what our parents might have called a “whippersnapper”—a gifted composer known in avant-garde circles with a cosmopolitan Parisian background of which he made much. He could be maddeningly arrogant and dismissive but he was also so brilliant that the paper not only put up with him but spurred him on, much to the outrage of more traditional musicians.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw between Thomson’s world and the classical music world today?

We’re living in a vastly different era. As recently as thirty years ago, all four of the New York general-interest newspapers (the Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and Newsday) had staff classical music critics, and the Times had five or six of them. Today, I would guess that less than twenty people in the United States make their living mostly as music critics. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are all down to one staffer each. Information is spread very differently than it was, and an education in classical music is no longer to be expected of one’s audience. There are some advances—internet reviews and the general understanding of technology that allows our young people to create their own experimental music at home for next to nothing—but much has been lost, too. It always seems to be the best of times and worst of times, doesn’t it?

How did you decide which of the uncollected pieces to include?

There were a number of reviews of artists and compositions that have inspired much recent interest that Virgil did not include in his own collections. Aficionados of the baritone Gerard Souzay, the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston, the violinist Ginette Neveu, and the pianist Michelangeli, among others, will be interested in what Virgil had to say about them.

Which piece do you think readers will find most surprising?

When Virgil was putting together his own collections, I think he had his eye on posterity and tried to leave out some reviews that will strike many later readers as “wrong.” He panned Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” for example—and wait till you see what he wrote about the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony!

What do you consider the most important thing you learned from the example of Thomson’s criticism about writing music reviews and music articles? Did Thomson ever offer you any practical advice as a writer?

Virgil read my Times work regularly and was never hesitant about suggesting ways I could have improved it. He taught me to be clear, succinct, and descriptive—also not to fear wit as long as it was organic and didn’t seem tacked on.

I should add that I don’t invariably agree with what Thomson wrote. Indeed, I often find that disagreeing with a critic is a good way to develop your own aesthetic. I got into this line of work because I wanted to argue with a lot of prevailing views. One thing I will say for Virgil is that he managed to review—and review intelligently and with some support—a lot of new music that had nothing in common with his own, a generosity that is not common among composers. As for the standard repertory, he took nothing for granted. If he wanted to take apart the “Missa Solemnis,” he would—and even those of us who love the “Missa” would agree that it just might be, as Virgil suggested, “too high and too loud too much of the time.”

Do you have a favorite piece?

I could be coy and say that I’d choose whatever one I’m reading now! In fact, that’s pretty close to the truth. For me, the joy of this volume is the immersion into Virgil’s sensibility, and that holds steady throughout the book. When I put it down, I miss his company.

Audio: “Virgil Thomson on What Makes a Good Music Critic,”
an interview recorded in 1948, shortly after the publication of The Art of Judging Music, which is included in its entirety in the new Library of America edition.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bernard Malamud reads from his story,
“The Mourners”

This week’s Story of the Week selection is Bernard Malamud’s “The Mourners,” first published in 1955 and collected in The Magic Barrel (1957), which would win the first of his two National Book Awards.

Thanks to Calliope Audio Readings, we can hear Malamud himself read his story. We’ve include the text below this three-minute excerpt, so you can read along while you listen to one of America’s master storytellers.


This free excerpt is provided by Calliope Audio Readings, which offers recordings of Malamud, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, James Jones, Philip Roth, William Styron, and John Updike reading from their own works.

*   *   *

Arriving at the top floor he banged his fist on Kessler’s door. “Gruber, the landlord. Open up here.”

There was no answer, no movement within, so Gruber inserted his key into the lock and twisted. Kessler had barricaded the door with a chest and some chairs. Gruber had to put his shoulder to the door and shove before he could step into the hallway of the badly lit two-and-a-half-room flat. The old man, his face drained of blood, was standing in the kitchen doorway.

“I warned you to scram outa here,” Gruber said loudly. “Move out or I’ll telephone the city marshal.”

“Mr. Gruber—” began Kessler.

“Don’t bother me with your lousy excuses, just beat it.” He gazed around. “It looks like a junk shop and it smells like a toilet. It’ll take me a month to clean up here.”

“This smell is only cabbage that I am cooking for my supper. Wait, I’ll open a window and it will go away.”

“When you go away, it’ll go away.” Gruber took out his bulky wallet, counted out twelve dollars, added fifty cents, and plunked the money on top of the chest. “You got two more weeks till the fifteenth, then you gotta be out or I will get a dispossess. Don’t talk back talk. Get outa here and go somewhere that they don’t know you and maybe you’ll get a place.”

“No, Mr. Gruber,” Kessler cried passionately. “I didn’t do nothing, and I will stay here.”

“Don’t monkey with my blood pressure,” said Gruber. “If you’re not out by the fifteenth, I will personally throw you on your bony ass.”

Then he left and walked heavily down the stairs.

The fifteenth came and Ignace found the twelve-fifty in his letter box. He telephoned Gruber and told him.


“I’ll get a dispossess,” Gruber shouted. He instructed the janitor to write out a note saying to Kessler that his money was refused, and to stick it under his door. This Ignace did. Kessler returned the money to the letter box, but again Ignace wrote a note and slipped it, with the money, under the old man’s door.

After another day Kessler received a copy of his eviction notice. It said to appear in court on Friday at 10 a.m. to show cause why he should not be evicted for continued neglect and destruction of rental property. The official notice filled Kessler with great fright because he had never in his life been to court. He did not appear on the day he had been ordered to.

That same afternoon the marshal came with two brawny assistants. Ignace opened Kessler’s lock for them and as they pushed their way into the flat, the janitor hastily ran down the stairs to hide in the cellar. Despite Kessler’s wailing and carrying on, the two assistants methodically removed his meager furniture and set it out on the sidewalk. After that they got Kessler out, though they had to break open the bathroom door because the old man had locked himself in there. He shouted, struggled, pleaded with his neighbors to help him, but they looked on in a silent group outside the door. The two assistants, holding the old man tightly by the arms and skinny legs, carried him, kicking and moaning, down the stairs. They sat him in the street on a chair amid his junk. Upstairs, the marshal bolted the door with a lock Ignace had supplied, signed a paper which he handed to the janitor’s wife, and then drove off in an automobile with his assistants.

Kessler sat on a split chair on the sidewalk. It was raining and the rain soon turned to sleet, but he still sat there. People passing by skirted the pile of his belongings. They stared at Kessler and he stared at nothing. He wore no hat or coat, and the snow fell on him, making him look like a piece of his dispossessed goods.


Copyright © 1955, 1958, renewed 1977, 1986 by Bernard Malamud. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Friday, November 21, 2014

An interview with Laurence Maslon on one of America’s “great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms”

The Library of America has just published the two-volume boxed set American Musicals, gathering sixteen of the best librettos, with their lyrics, from Broadway’s “Golden Age.” Laurence Maslon, who edited the collection, discusses the significance of the era and the joys of assembling an anthology celebrating the enduring qualities of these box-office successes.

A professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Maslon is the author of several books about musical theater and popular culture; he also co-wrote (with Michael Kantor) the companion volume to the Emmy-winning documentary Broadway: The American Musical and is the host of the weekly radio program Broadway to Main Street.


What’s the aim of this collection, and what sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

The American musical is one of our culture’s great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms. But it’s an elusive one because like most theatrical events, it’s transient; it leaves behind a cast album, or a badly made film version, and some happy memories. This is the first attempt to memorialize the theater experience by putting all of the major books and lyrics to the seminal musicals of the medium’s Golden Age into one collection. In this way, American Musicals will be both a great reference source and a road map, as it were, for the evolution of this art form.

What makes for a great book/libretto for a musical? How do they compare with “straight” theatrical literature?

Writing the book for a musical is one of the trickiest and least appreciated jobs in the theater (or literature, for that matter). A book has to be economical, pointed, and streamlined in order to allow for songs, and yet still provide a sense of setting, structure and narrative. Not to mention the jokes! One of my favorite things about any musical is the “tipping point”: that moment when “mere” dialogue can’t handle the intensity of the moment and the character must burst into song. It takes a very skilled writer to find that transition and make it work.

What show or writer do you think readers of the collection will find most surprising?

That’s a trick question: any musical you don’t yet know will be a surprise to you. Still, the collection puts Moss Hart and Irving Berlin’s wonderful revue As Thousands Cheer in print for the first time; it makes the preoccupations of Americans during the Depression seem both fresh and timeless. Readers may also be amused at how risqué Pal Joey is and how politically provocative Finian’s Rainbow is; these may be your grandfather’s musicals, but they don’t read that way.

What was the most interesting discovery you made while putting the collection together?

The early days of musical theater writing—the 1920s through the end of World War II, actually—were not kind to later curators of posterity—editors and publishers. Since no one imagined the shows would last as important cultural artifacts, versions were prepared for performance, but no definitive final version was readied for print. In the case of the first three shows in the collection (Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey), it was often a bit of puzzle to derive the authors’ intention from the manuscript alone; I had to use sheet music, programs, vocal scores—even photos to put the texts together.

What drew you to the American musical?

What wouldn’t? I saw 1776 when I was eight, and it changed me forever. As I grew up—and collected original cast albums and the like—it occurred to me that the American musical says as much about who we are as a people as does a “straight play.” Perhaps more so, as it folds in our characteristic music, dance, performance, personality and so on.

Why the focus on these particular four decades?

Show Boat (1927) is the first great narrative musical. The next four decades saw the stage musical bloom and grow in so many different venues: songs on the radio, cast recordings, film adaptations, national tours, and, of course, on Broadway itself, which was, in its day, a very potent laboratory for experimentation of a popular form. Critics refer to the well-crafted, largely narrative, and highly accessible shows from this period as exemplars of Broadway’s “Golden Age.” The musicals that have lasted and become an affectionate part of our culture come from this period. The closing parenthesis is a matter of taste; certainly by 1970 (with Sondheim’s Company), the style and tone of the musical changed. I also like the felicity of the fact that the last musical in our collection, 1776, is the most American of all.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw with Broadway musicals today?

Today, the American musical has diversified as much from its late 1960s world as the primetime television broadcast schedule has from its late 1960s format. Musicals today have developed into more atomized forms and they are constructed and produced for niche audiences: rock fans, cartoon fans, families, and so on. Once upon a time, the American musical spoke to all audiences.

Do you have a favorite scene or lyric in the collection?

My filthy mind has always been tickled by a lyric in “Den of Iniquity” from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, sung by a couple intoxicated by their mutual erotic satisfaction:
The radio I used to hate,
But now when it is dark and late,
Ravel’s Bolero works just great—

In putting together the libretto for this collection, it was clear that this lyric was actually a change from the original 1940 song (which referred to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 “sounding” great); it was altered for the 1952 revival—by which time Lorenz Hart had died. So who made the change? Richard Rodgers? John O’Hara? We’ll never know—but the Library of American anthology, with its copious backmatter, gives us both versions.

Also of Interest

• Which musicals are the best from Broadway’s Golden Age? Laurence Maslon discusses the selection process for collection in this online article for Slate.

• For a recent episode of his radio program Broadway to Main Street, Maslon played a sampling of the hit songs from the musicals included in the collection. Listen to the broadcast on the program’s site.

Friday, October 24, 2014

An interview with Jed Perl: how the lives of visual artists were “woven together with the lives of novelists, poets, and intellectuals”

The latest Library of America volume, Art in America 1945–1970, was published earlier this month to effusively glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. The nearly 150 selections in the volume capture the excitement and vitality of the creative explosion during the years following World War II, when the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. We recently interviewed Jed Perl, who edited the anthology. Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author of New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, and other books.

What’s the aim of this collection, what sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

With Art in America I want to show how the lives of visual artists in this country have been woven together with the lives of novelists, poets, and intellectuals of all stripes. That’s why it was so important to include—along with the writings of the painters and sculptors themselves and the terrific critics of the time—work by people ranging from the playwright Tennessee Williams to the novelist Mary McCarthy to the political and social critic Dwight Macdonald to the poet Randall Jarrell. One of my gripes about our cultural life in general is that everybody gets Balkanized—all too often poets are only conscious of other poets, novelists of other novelists, painters of other painters. I’ve always liked the idea of cultural cross-fertilization. As an art critic I’ve certainly learned a lot from critics of other art forms. And part of what’s so fascinating about the years just after the war is that the world of art and literature and culture was smaller, almost a village or a neighborhood—so that there was more communication across disciplines and media.

Why a book of writing about art? What’s the connection between writing/writers and art/artists in this period?

The connection between the visual and literary arts is a very ancient one—it goes back to the Latin phrase, from Horace, “ut pictura poesis.” Over the centuries the phrase has meant different things to different people—but basically it makes an analogy between what can happen in painting and poetry. Words can paint pictures and pictures can tell stories. Poets of the postwar years like John Ashbery and James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara were acutely aware of this. But more generally, I think there’s something exhilarating about seeing how words can explicate pictures—and the great variety of ways that words can be used to explain the work of an artist like Pollock or de Kooning, ranging from Clement Greenberg’s muscular formalist approach to Harold Rosenberg’s and Meyer Schapiro’s focus on the imaginative freedom of the artist.

Why the focus on this particular twenty-five-year period?

The quarter century after World War II was the time when American artists first took the world stage. The story goes from the moment right after the war when the Abstract Expressionists—who had struggled in obscurity during the Depression—were beginning to be widely known to the period in the late 1960s when American art was going global. There are many ways to tell this story. You can see how America’s economic success after the war fueled the success of American art. But you can also argue that in becoming more and more global and less and less local, American art risked losing some of its vigor and individuality. There are some pieces in Art in America—John Bernard Myers’s wonderful “Junkdump Fair Surveyed” and Thomas B. Hess’s “The Battle of Paris”—that begin to explore some of the troublesome aspects of American art’s success story.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw with the art world today?

Today’s art world is awash in a kind of money that was unknown fifty years ago. It is hard to remember that although Pollock and de Kooning were famous in the 1950s, they were not making an extraordinary amount of money. I think that many of the kinds of seriousness and playfulness that we encounter in the writing in Art in America are still alive in the studios of artists today—but more and more of the contemporary artists I know feel oppressed by the global art world, which has become a behemoth that casts a very long shadow over the lives of working artists. The publicity machines that keep Koons and Hirst and Murakami afloat take up much too much oxygen. And the frenzy in the art fairs and the auction houses has a pace that has nothing to do with the life of art—which is the life of the imagination. I don’t mean to romanticize the 1950s and 1960s; every period has its particular challenges. But there was a modesty about the art world back then—despite all the swaggering egos—that encouraged deep thought and deep feeling.

How did you decide which images to include?

I wanted Art in America to capture the wonderful heterogeneity of the years after World War II. So the images were selected to support this vision of a time when artists were working in many different ways—representationally and abstractly, with a ripe painterly brush or a cooler, maybe more Olympian, approach. People often imagine that pluralism in the arts is a new idea—a postmodern idea. Part of what I wanted to show with Art in America is that at any given time there are a wide range of different kinds of approaches being pursued. Art is intensely personal. Art is nothing if it’s not personal. We talk about period styles, and of course there may be some truth to such talk. But within a period style, each artist develops a personal style. Finally, it is because no two people are alike that no two artistic expressions can be alike.

Which piece or writer do you think readers will find most surprising?

I think most people who open Art in America are going to find some old friends (Greenberg, Rosenberg, O’Hara) mingling with writings that will surprise them—like the funny little poems that Dwight Ripley devoted to the art world in the 1950s, which I treasure for their gossipy charm, their buoyancy, their esprit.

What’s the most interesting discovery you made in the course of putting the volume together?

The letter about Pop Art by the wonderfully independent San Francisco artist Jess was a terrific discovery. So far as I know, it’s never been published. A friend of mine, the critic Michael Duncan in Los Angeles, suggested including it. Jess was as interested in pop culture allusions as the Pop Artists, but he wanted to give those allusions a magic and a mystery that he obviously didn’t see in much of the work that was emerging in New York in the 1960s.

Do you have a favorite piece?

One favorite piece? I can’t say I do. I like different pieces for different reasons. There will always be a special place in my heart for the writings of Edwin Denby and Fairfield Porter, which are simultaneously mystifying and exacting. Fielding Dawson’s “Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline” has a wonderful romantic atmosphere. And I’m especially pleased that I’ve been able to include the work of Sidney Tillim, whose spirited and now virtually forgotten criticism catches so much of the polemical excitement of the 1960s.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers on the new, expanded edition of H. L. Mencken’s autobiographical trilogy

The latest Library of America volume, H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition, containing Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, goes on sale in bookstores everywhere this week. It also includes Days Revisited—over 200 pages of material that Mencken stipulated could not be published until twenty-five years after his death.

We recently interviewed Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who edited the volume. Rodgers is the author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, and she previously edited the Library of America edition of Mencken’s Prejudices.


Where does the Days trilogy fit in H. L. Mencken’s life and work?

From 1930 to 1935, when Mencken was married to the writer Sara Haardt, they lived at 704 Cathedral Street in the Mount Vernon district of downtown Baltimore. As happy as he was during these years, Mencken very much missed his old home at 1524 Hollins Street in West Baltimore, which he said was “as much a part of me as my two hands.” In the spring of 1936, after Sara’s death, Mencken moved back to his old home and began systematically exploring the house and neighborhood. He started writing a series of autobiographical essays about his childhood and early youth. Two pieces about colorful neighborhood characters were published in The New Yorker in 1936 and 1937, but he didn’t really get going on the book until 1939. Even then his progress was not always steady or smooth, since he was also traveling, working on his column, covering the presidential conventions, and writing “The Sunpapers of Baltimore,” “The Charlatanry of the Learned,” “A New Dictionary of Quotations,” and the fourth edition of The American Language. He also fell ill. But Blanche Knopf kept at Mencken with such steady encouragement that Mencken remarked to her, "I really should call it ‘Blanche’s Days.’”

Why do you think Mencken claimed Newspaper Days was his favorite book?

Mencken was writing Newspaper Days at a time when he was disillusioned with the state of journalism, and especially with his own newspaper (The Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun). Always an advocate of limited federal government, Mencken opposed FDR’s restrictions on the press, so much so that he resigned from writing for the Sunpapers on January 16, 1941. Escaping into the past—his salad days as a young newspaperman, when, as he put it, the human race could spend “weeks, months and even years without being badgered, bilked or alarmed”—was such a joy that he wrote Newspaper Days at a rate of 3,000 words a day, an all-time high for him. When it was finished, he worried that it would only be of interest to newspapermen; on the contrary, it is probably the volume that has the most resonance for modern readers.

What does this book from American journalism’s heyday tell us about newspapers and the media today?

Time and curiosity seem to be less on tap today—the tyranny of the instantaneous deadlines of social media, blogs, and websites is steadily encroaching upon thorough, quality work. As a young reporter, Mencken made it a point to study books on things he did not know much about; he interviewed his subjects, applying shoe leather to pavement as necessary. On the other hand, newspaper editors today would never tolerate an uncommunicative reporter or keep in their employment one who invented stories. Yet both of these were common enough in the early 1900s, during Mencken’s first years as a reporter. As Mencken wrote, “In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office . . . today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire.” Part of this was a lack of technology—there were only two telephones in the office, “and no one ever used them if it could be avoided.” Also few papers had correspondents in the field, and wireless and ocean cables were undependable.

So after the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, hoping to revive the circulation of his newspaper with some exciting war news, Mencken simply fabricated details of the battle. Mencken never gives any indication that he recognizes how outrageous his exercise in manufactured news had been; he recounts it with self-congratulation and humor here in Newspaper Days. He gloated that he had “guessed precisely right in every particular of the slightest importance.” (Yet in 1906, when asked about his views of journalistic responsibility, he stated “exaggeration and deliberate falsification will have to die.”)

What’s the story behind the Days Revisited material—when was it written, when did it come to light, what’s its significance? How does it change our view of Mencken?

The Days books proved to be so popular they revived Mencken’s reputation. They also struck a chord among men and women who had shared similar childhoods, who after the publication of Happy Days began sending Mencken letters with their thoughts and impressions. This correspondence triggered more memories, and, as was his wont, Mencken started keeping a careful record. His “Notes, Additions and Corrections” were written mainly between 1943 and 1946, with perhaps a few entries after that up to 1948. Because he was writing about people who were still alive, he sealed these papers under time lock, not to be opened until twenty-five years after his death, which turned out to be in 1981. As he put it, “the passage of time would release all confidences and the grave close over all tender feelings.”

Several biographers, including myself, had access to these typescripts, but they are published for the first time in The Library of America edition. They are important not only because any new writings from Mencken, and these are wonderful and characteristic, are a gift to American letters, but also because they provide context, a window onto race relations, for example, as well as cultural beliefs and other aspects of Mencken’s time and place. What I find so interesting is that from this heritage and this particular family, Mencken became a journalist and started breaking barriers from an early age.

Why did you decide to include photographs?

As a boy, Mencken was an amateur photographer before he became keenly interested in writing. The photos here are those that were taken by him as a boy, and again later, during 1939–1940 when he was revisiting the locations for the Days books. He loved Baltimore so much he wanted to keep a record of the buildings and places he had described. These photographs are wonderful period images of a Baltimore that once was—and, in a very few instances, still remains.

What’s your favorite passage or moment in Days Revisited?

The writing here is typical, classic Mencken, full of caustic observations and witty asides, displaying the ease of a highly skilled writer. There are many passages to choose from. I like this one: “The worst burden that a competent and ambitious young man can carry is a stupid wife. When . . . she is also egotistical and bossy, his case is almost hopeless.” Or this one, about the suicide of a young girl: if she had lived, Mencken wrote, “she’d be a grandmother, with her conscience long since worn to a stump and her old age lighted by sentimental memories of her first love affair.” Or his disappointment in the new residents who have moved into his neighborhood and have destroyed the park (Union Square) in front of his house: “I have sat at my office-window and watched their little children digging great holes in the lawns: the poor brats had never heard of lawns and regarded every spot of grassland as a mere field. The depredations of these yahoos inspired a saying in Baltimore: ‘There are now only 45 states in the Union. West Virginia and South Carolina have moved to Maryland, and Maryland has gone to Hell.’”

What’s your sense of how this new edition—and Mencken’s writing in general—will be received?

When the original Days trilogy was published (1940, 1941, 1943), it became such a sensation that the Armed Forces published a pocket edition that was a GI favorite. One copy actually went into Normandy after D-Day, was read by many soldiers and traveled through thirty cities in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, before it was donated to the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Mencken is enjoying another resurgence of popularity today, especially among millennials. They are studying him in classrooms, quoting him, and are keenly interested in his take on all kinds of subjects, like the Scopes Trial. Baltimore students show a tremendous amount of curiosity in his old house at 1524 Hollins Street.

Why is this so?

According to a study by the Pew Research Center (March 2014), this generation identifies itself as “independent libertarians” rather than conservatives or liberals; Mencken’s libertarian point of view strikes a chord. There is even a twitter account—@HLMenckenBot—with nearly 10,000 followers. The pendulum is swinging back toward Mencken!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lorenzo Carcaterra remembers how Elmore Leonard “brought his characters close enough to life they could be touched”

Photo by Kate Carcaterra
Last week The Library of America published Elmore Leonard: Four Crime Novels of the 1970s, which contains a quartet of crime novels set in Detroit: Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch.

Lorenzo Carcaterra, the best-selling author of Sleepers and Gangster, whose most recent novel, The Wolf, was published earlier this summer by Random House, recalls what it was like learning the novelist’s trade from Leonard himself, whom he met thirty years ago.


The Master

Pete Hamill. George V. Higgins. Jack London. Alexandre Dumas. Harry Crews. Victor Hugo. Ernest Hemingway. Dashiell Hammett. John Irving. These are just a few of the writers whose works I have read, studied, and absorbed over the course of decades, as have thousands of others. They are the masters whose lessons never waver, who offer fresh insights with each new work and with every re-reading. At the very head of that distinguished group is Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, the dean of my writing university.

I was fortunate not only to have gone to school on Leonard’s work—learning as much as I could about pacing, using dialogue to not merely tell but describe, and realizing that not every hero need be painted with an unvarnished brush—but also to have spent time in his company.

I first met him on a People magazine assignment in 1984, flying to his home in Birmingham, Michigan, fresh off the success of his novel Stick. He was reed slender and soft spoken, never saying more than what needed to be said, his pristine office dominated by a large framed photo of Ernest Hemingway holding a fish nearly as tall as he was. “Got that in Key West,” Leonard said, catching me staring at the photo. “Didn’t pay much for it. Don’t think the fella who sold it to me knew that was Hemingway. Just another guy who caught another fish.”

He was in the early phase of the success that was to follow him for the rest of his writing life, but that didn’t seem to affect him much. He was a working writer before the media started glancing his way, before the accolades came pouring in, before books landed with yearly regularity on the bestseller lists. He had been working at his craft since selling his first short story in 1951, a western, and he didn’t stop until his death last August when he was just about halfway through yet another novel.

There were some bumps along the road but he kept at it, waking every morning at 5 and writing two pages of fiction before heading off to work at an advertising agency. Among those early works two stand out as classics: the short story “3:10 to Yuma” and the novel Hombre. Through those early years, he helped raise a family that would grow to five children, cave to the lure of drink and then come back to beat it, lose some jobs (he was dropped by one ad agency for copy he wrote about a pick-up truck—“It never breaks. You just get tired of looking at the S.O.B.”), wrote for movies and TV and kept at the novels. His turning point came when he signed with the legendary Hollywood talent agent, H. N. Swanson.

“I liked his westerns,” Swanson would tell me a few years after I met Leonard. “But no one was buying westerns anymore. I asked him two questions. Asked, ‘Do you like girls?’ He said yes to that. And then I asked if he could write a contemporary novel and get himself out of the west. He told me he could. I told him to get back to me when he did.”

A year later, a Leonard novel called The Big Bounce landed on Swanson’s desk. He read it and then called Leonard. “I kept the conversation simple,” Swanson told me. “I told Leonard he was going to be a very rich man.”

Leonard worked the writing hard, making certain that each word chosen mattered, each sentence written essential. And every character fully sketched and brought close enough to life they could be touched. His heroes were lawmen and criminals and none were drawn in simple black and white. They were, to quote former New York State Supreme Court Justice and novelist Edwin Torres (Carlito’s Way), “people who lived after midnight and at that hour there is no black and white. At that hour every cat is grey.”

I stayed in touch with Leonard long after that profile ran in People, but I didn’t need to speak to him to keep learning about the writing life. All I needed to do was read his work—from the “Detroit novels” (four of which are included in the new Library of America collection) to his take on Hollywood with the brilliant Get Shorty down to Florida with LaBrava and into the world of music with Be Cool (where my son has the distinct honor of having a character named after him—Nick “Nicky Cadillac” Carcaterra). There are many lessons to be learned from reading an Elmore Leonard book and one cold hard fact that’s a take-away: he will never be topped.

He might have been the first to start a chapter in the middle of a conversation. “I thought George was,” Leonard told me, meaning George V. Higgins. When I asked Higgins the same question, he said, “I was pretty certain I lifted that from Dutch.” Others were watching as well. The opening scene of Lethal Weapon II begins in the middle of a car chase. “It’s nice to be read,” Leonard said.

He is gone now but the work will always remain, a reminder that for more than fifty years we were in the company of one of our greatest writers. There are the movie adaptations for those curious to see how they translate. They range from the horrible (both versions of The Big Bounce) to mediocre (Be Cool) to classic (Get Shorty and Hombre with Paul Newman and Richard Boone, one of Leonard’s favorite actors). “He’s got the look,” he said of Boone, “and he’s comfortable with the words.”

And then there’s Justified, sadly going into its final season. Every episode, practically every scene, is a tip of Timothy Olyphant’s hat to Leonard. Watching that show comes a close second to reading the work itself, it is that good and true. Raylen Givens may well end up being one of Leonard’s greatest gifts to us.

I miss Elmore Leonard. Miss hearing that sweet, humble voice that never surrendered to ego or brag, easy to smile, quick with a story, faster with a sharp line. It was an honor to be in his company, even for a short time. But he leaves behind a massive body of work that will age well with each passing year. The stories fresh, the characters memorable and the dialogue always true.

The lessons of the Master on the page, waiting to be learned.

Previously on Reader’s Almanac

Monday, August 25, 2014

An interview with Gregg Sutter on Elmore Leonard’s “dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character”

The latest Library of America volume, Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, recently arrived from the printer and will go on sale in bookstores everywhere this week.

We recently interviewed Gregg Sutter, who edited the volume. Sutter first met Leonard in 1979 and began working for him in 1981. He is currently at work on a biography of Leonard, from the unique perspective as his full-time researcher for more than thirty years.


What was Elmore Leonard’s greatest contribution to the post-Chandler tradition of American crime fiction?

Elmore did not come out of the Chandler tradition, which broadly includes the subgenres of detective, mystery, suspense, thriller, and crime fiction. Elmore’s writing school was Hemingway for the Westerns and George V. Higgins for the crime stories. He wrote dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character, from the point of view of both the good guys and the bad guys. Characters “auditioned” for their roles. If they couldn’t talk, they were in danger of getting bumped off. He frequently described the freedom he felt as a writer. “I make it up as I go along,” he said.

Who were the writers who influenced him?

Ernest Hemingway had the most profound influence on Elmore. He studied Hemingway intensely when learning to write and well beyond, saying he always could pick up a Hemingway story and be inspired. But Hemingway lacked a sense of humor, according to Elmore. He found the natural humor he sought in the work of Richard Bissell. Finally, in the early 1970s, he read the work of Higgins, which had a liberating effect on his writing, especially showing Elmore how to tell a story with dialogue alone.

What did Leonard accomplish in his Detroit novels from the 1970s and where did he go from there?

With his body of work in the 1970s, especially the four novels included in the Library of America volume, Elmore began to be noticed in publishing and crime fiction circles as a rising star, even though he had been writing for thirty years. He also developed and refined a style that has been often imitated. Starting in 1981, Elmore set novels in South Florida, where his characters—often with a Detroit connection—migrated and found new opportunities, mainly criminal. These works did not go unnoticed. By mid-decade, he was recognized as one of the greats of contemporary American fiction.

As a Detroit native yourself, do you feel a special connection to these books?

Absolutely. Detroit in the 60s into the 70s was known nationally for the auto industry, its sports teams, and Motown—and that was about it. I looked to New York and Los Angeles for cultural direction. By the mid-70s, it was Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s New York that had my attention. Then in 1975, I read Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard and that same devotion to place was bestowed on my hometown of Detroit, in novels, by an author who captured its sound and atmosphere.

You didn’t start working with him until the 1980s, but do you know of any anecdotes connected with the composition or reception of the four novels in the LOA collection?

Before Fifty-Two Pickup, Elmore was best known for his westerns and his film work. Five of his previous six novels had been in paperback, which didn’t exactly raise his profile. But he was back in hardcover with Fifty-Two Pickup and soon discovered by The New York Times, which sang his praises, especially for Unknown Man No. 89. They said, “he can write circles around almost anybody active in the crime novel today.” The Switch, released in paperback, failed to receive the same critical attention as the others, but it was every bit as significant.

What were the high points and low points of working with Elmore Leonard?

I’ll give an example of each. The low was when Elmore’s wife, Joan, died in 1993. She was his loving wife, smart friend and great editor. She was greatly missed, but Elmore quickly remarried and produced a string of great novels during the rest of the 1990s. The high points were the road trips with Dutch to exotic places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Tishomingo, Mississippi. Hanging out with Dutch was always fun, and it brought me even closer to his work.

Do you see links between Leonard’s personal life and any of these four novels?

Plenty. He weaves into all four novels elements of his personal life, such as alcoholism in Unknown Man No. 89, his background in advertising and the auto industry in Fifty-Two Pickup and Swag. Then, in The Switch, the contrast of the world of the country club party crowd in Detroit’s northern suburbs, with the bleak landscape of the city and its marginal inhabitants.

There was a scene deleted from Swag. Who cut it and why do you think it was cut?

My feeling is that the scene, while entertaining to read, slowed down the fast-moving Swag a little, so the editor cut it. I’m not exactly sure who would have made the decision to cut it or Elmore’s reaction. In any event, it’s great that the deleted scene is included in the Notes for Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, so readers can enjoy this fun scene with Stick and Frank.

Did you make any personal discoveries or reassessments while preparing the LOA volume?

My discoveries are just rediscoveries. Fifty-Two Pickup was the first Elmore Leonard novel I read. For me, it was the start a lifelong interest in his work as a fan and scholar. For Elmore, it was the beginning of a new phase in his career that would have glorious results. These Detroit novels have the same effect on me now as when I first read them in the 1970s, bringing forth a deep understanding of the landscape of Detroit, its sound and certainly its characters.

Do you have a favorite in the collection?

That’s tough but if I had to pick one from the collection, it would be Unknown Man No. 89. This novel established Elmore as “a new and important writer,” as The New York Times put it in 1977. Its plot featured a shootout on Main St. in Rochester, Michigan, near where I had lived as a student. The unreality of Elmore’s fiction combined with the reality of my life, created a feeling of attachment with Elmore’s work that never left me.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Forty years ago: Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff (August 9, 1974)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Facing near-certain impeachment after the Watergate scandal, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address and the following morning delivered an extemporaneous speech to the White House staff.

In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a magazine writer and editor who did his graduate thesis on Nixon’s oratory, takes a new look at his farewell remarks from a distance of four decades.


* * *
Outside the White House gates, crowds spent the night chanting, “Jail to the Chief.” On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon delivered his resignation speech via live broadcast and then managed a few hours’ sleep. At 4 a.m. his watch stopped, its battery at last run down on this, his very last day in the White House, the day he made his farewell remarks to the White House staff. It would be his final speech as a professional politician and, whether he knew it or not, his masterpiece. For sheer shamelessness, for raw naked honesty, for pathos and bathos, for autobiographical allusion and psychological revelation, there’d never been anything from a president quite like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.

Delivered in a moment of crisis, amidst a profound depression that would last for months, the emotion he exhibited in the speech was real. Everyone in the room felt it. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs would call the speech “one of the most dramatic moments in American history,” “an elegy of anguish,” “as rambling as the previous night’s had been disciplined.” His wife, Pat, was none too pleased “that after all the agony television had caused us,” as Nixon would write, “its prying eye should be allowed to intrude on this last and most intimate moment of all.”

Nixon allowed it to intrude nevertheless, and our understanding of this profoundly peculiar man is only the richer for it. On the speech’s fortieth anniversary, it’s well worth highlighting a few of those moments that make it a sui generis piece of political theater—those places where the speech achieves its transcendent strangeness, becoming literature writ historical, and history writ literary.

Nixon shared some wisdom remarkable in its lack of self-awareness: “[T]here are many fine careers. This country needs good farmers, good businessmen, good plumbers, good carpenters.” It was, of course, a want of good Plumbers—if not plumbers—that led to Watergate and its fallout, the most recent manifestation of which was Nixon delivering this very speech in farewell. It was an obliviously allusive line, perfectly naked in its grim humor and subliminal diagnostic accuracy.

He recalled his humble origins in Orange County, California, his father “sort of a little man, common man,” and yet “he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt.” But his father was nothing compared to his mother: “[M]y mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own.”

It was at this point in the speech that friend and former counsel Leonard Garment thought to himself, “Oh, my God, he’s beginning to break down. A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television.” David Eisenhower, too, thought his father-in-law was about to crack. He stood beside him along with Nixon’s two daughters, Julie and Tricia, and Tricia’s husband, Ed Cox. And of course, as ever, there was Pat. Except that Nixon would not mention Pat even once during the speech.

Wiping sweat from his upper lip, Nixon put on his glasses and read at length from a famous passage in the journals of Theodore Roosevelt (always something of a hero to Nixon), in which Roosevelt writes of his wife and baby daughter dying on the same day, and of how “the light went from my life forever.” Having finished his reading, Nixon choked up and fought back sobs and sniffling. There were plenty in the audience who’d given up the fight. Kissinger, for one, “was at the same time moved to tears and outraged at being put through the wringer once again”; “the anguish on the platform engulfed us all. In defeat and disgrace Nixon had at last prevailed; he had stripped us of our reserve; we were naked before these elemental feelings and our hearts went out to this man who transcended his extremity by refusing to act as if he were defeated.”

Pat stood by him with that same tight smile, pained and painful, that television viewers had known since Nixon’s Checkers speech, more than twenty years earlier. Kissinger did not approve of Pat’s omission from Nixon’s remarks—after all, “without his capacity for make-believe,” she “must have suffered the most grievously of all”—and he was not alone. Stephen Ambrose in his triple-decker biography of Nixon opines, “It was odd that Nixon could have given this speech without mentioning Pat, could have been so insensitive as to read another man’s description of his wife. It made many of those present, and those watching on television, wince.” Yet Julie, in a biography she wrote of her mother, responded to such criticism, “[T]hat would have been asking too much of any man. We were standing so close to my father that he could reach out and touch us if he wanted. . . . [M]uch of the regret he felt at that moment, yet left unspoken, was that he had let his family down.”

Winding toward his peroration, Nixon prescribed some enlightenment wisdom even less self-aware than the “plumbers” line: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

These weren’t the last words of the speech, but they were close. There could have been no more-appropriate way for Nixon to end his political career, vexing and perplexing, leaving us to wonder, as ever, just how much of his obliviousness was in fact self-destructive canniness.


* * *
Nixon’s farewell remarks and his Checkers speech are two of the 83 texts included in The Library of America collection American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.

Video of Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff
The speech begins at the 3:00 mark

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