Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eve Stwertka remembers Mary McCarthy’s “thrillingly civilized life”

Eve Stwertka remembers Mary McCarthy at the
New York Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Eve Stwertka’s remembrance of Mary McCarthy. Stwertka, Professor Emerita at SUNY Farmingdale, shares the duties of co-trustee for the Mary McCarthy Literary Trust with Margo Viscusi. Together they edited the collection of essays, Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy.
Mary McCarthy was a crucial presence in my life. We met when she became my tutor, at Bard College, in 1945, and she continued to be my mentor, benefactor, and good angel. I owed her my first job, at Partisan Review, and she hosted my wedding. Eventually, she asked me (together with another friend) to be her Literary Trustee.

Reading Mary’s reminiscences one come across quite a bit of turbulence: There’s the early death of her parents, the miseries suffered from a wicked uncle, an illegal abortion, five husbands, marital rows, illnesses, miscarriages, and that notorious law suit at the end.

But, at the same time, to know Mary, over the years, was to be smitten by the life of friendship, beauty and pleasure she constantly created. To visit her was a treat. And that was as true in the walkup tenement in New York, with its bathtub in the kitchen, as it was later, in her elegant Paris flat and on the seacoast of Maine where she spent many summers. Her hospitality was extraordinary, her parties exhilarating, the food and drink, delicious. And guests were always drawn into some sort of fun, like swimming in secluded ponds or picking overblown roses to make rose-petal jelly. When she served lobsters, the mayonnaise had to be homemade. And the ice cream had to be cranked by hand.

Above all, there was great conviviality with other writers and many clever people of her time, so that the most pleasurable aspect of her gatherings was usually the conversation.

And, Mary was diligent. Up early, she took a cup of coffee into her study and shut the door for the morning. She kept her desk tidy, stuck to the limitations of her manual typewriter, took pains with her research, and answered all letters, often in her exquisite Catholic-school handwriting.

What I observed, then, was a thrillingly civilized life that Mary willed into being—a well-wrought life, with a strong emphasis on good workmanship.

And this reminds me of something she said in a Paris Review interview, about the concept of “Finding Oneself.” “I suppose,” she said, “everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self. But, what I think, is that you really must make the self. It is absolutely useless to look for it—you won’t find it. But it’s possible . . . to make it. . . . You can finally, in some sense, make and choose the self you want.”
At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Ross Posnock on Henry James
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow
Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ross Posnock on Henry James’s fascination with the “terrible town” of New York

Ross Posnock speaks at the New York
Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Ross Posnock’s tribute to Henry James. Posnock is Professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity and the editor of Henry James: Novels 1903–1911, the sixth and final volume in the Library of America edition of Henry James’s novels.
“I like to think of my relation to New York as . . . almost inexpressibly intimate,” Henry James confessed in The American Scene, his memoir of his 1904 repatriation after a near twenty-year absence, a book that devotes fully a third of its remarkable near 500 pages to the city of his birth. “You care for the terrible town,” James remarked to himself; despite its “shameless” “swaggering and shouting,” its rude indifference to history, he loved New York, and to be on its streets was always, he said, an “adventure, an adventure I admit, as with some strident, battered, questionable beauty, truly some bad bold charmer.” The bad bold charmer never stopped arousing his imagination; he was fatally responsive to her seductive wiles.

Sometimes the seduction was closer to trauma: He tells us of his visit to Ellis Island where he found the immigrant in the act of “knocking at our official door” to be a “drama poignant and unforgettable” but also shocking because only now does James (addressing himself in the third person) “sense the degree that it was his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien.” Wandering among the immigrants in Central Park, unnerved by their ease yet impressed by the fastidious appearances of many of the children and their parents, commending especially their “gleaming” teeth and “varnished” shoes: he finds “thrilling” “the sweet ingratiation of the Park” and declares it “New York at its best.” His response is more uneasy after descending into the “whirlpool” of the “dense Yiddish quarter” of Rutgers Street on the Lower East Side, where he feels fascinated—“for once agreeably baffled”—by “swarming” “aliens”: “the scene here bristled , at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds . . . the scene hummed with the human presence beyond any I had ever faced . . . producing part of the impression, moreover, no doubt, as a direct consequence of the intensity of the Jewish aspect.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow’s chronicles of the American century

Liesl Schillinger with E. L. Doctorow
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Liesl Schillinger’s tribute to E. L. Doctorow. Schillinger is a journalist, literary critic, and translator based in New York. Her translation of the novel Every Day, Every Hour, by Nataša Dragnić, was published in May by Viking.
Before I begin speaking about the man I’m here to induct tonight into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame—the matchless E. L. Doctorow—I would like to piggyback on the marvelous anecdotes that Sidney Offit just now gave us about his best friend, the late writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut came from Indiana, and so do I. My high school in West Lafayette offered a course on Vonnegut—so proud were they of his Hoosier roots—and I took that course when I was 12. Fifteen years later, by which time I was living in New York and working at The New Yorker, I met Vonnegut at a book party in the Hamptons for Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty. He was standing by the pool, away from the rest of the guests, smoking. I went up to him, reverently and a little fearfully, hoping he would let me stand next to him and smoke a companionable cigarette. He did. I told him I was afraid to tell him that I, too, was a Hoosier; because I knew from his book Cat’s Cradle how he hated it when people exaggerated the coincidence of mass affiliations—like being “Hoosiers,” or Cubs fans. (He had nicknamed such fake groups in Cat’s Cradle: “granfalloons.”) Looking not at me, but up into the sky, he mournfully said, “We are all lost animals, looking for a herd.” Looking around this room: seeing the great E. L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Pete Hamill, along with scores of people who have come here to celebrate these remarkable authors, and who uphold the continuing importance of the written word, I’m now thinking: this is my herd.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reader’s Almanac looks back after two years

This month marks the second anniversary of Reader’s Almanac. Many thanks to all our readers for your support and comments—and to our legion of guest bloggers who have generously contributed so many illuminating and popular posts this past year. This seems an appropriate time to reflect on which posts readers have enjoyed the most.

Reader’s Almanac Top Ten for the past year (7/11 – 7/12)
  1. Andy Borowitz’s marketing copy for The Library of America: “Does being funny get you girls?” – March 17, 2011
  2. Looking back: what readers enjoyed most from Story of the Week – January 4, 2012
  3. Forthcoming from The Library of America (Summer–Fall 2012) – February 1, 2012
  4. The 50 Funniest American Writers: Who made the list? – August 11, 2011
  5. Jim Moore on how reading Kenneth Rexroth changed his life – August 16, 2011
  6. Forthcoming from The Library of America (Winter–Spring 2012) – August 1, 2011
  7. Lev Grossman on Ernest Hemingway, verbal membrane, and The Sun Also Rises – August 30, 2011
  8. The “Best” Short Stories? Two lists—one recent and one from 1914—show their strengths and limitations – June 6, 2011
  9. Truman Capote and Harper Lee: Immortalizing each other in fiction – October 1, 2010
  10. Andy Borowitz on the challenge of selecting the 50 funniest American writers – October 13, 2011
These findings suggest many of our readers were looking for laughs this past year: three of the top ten posts relate to LOA’s breakout bestseller, The 50 Funniest American Writers*: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion (*According to Andy Borowitz). We were delighted that our January recap of the most popular entries on Story of the Week attracted so much attention. Anyone who enjoys Reader’s Almanac should certainly subscribe to this weekly mailing. And we are very pleased that two of our guest blog posts ranked so high. Moore and Grossman are standouts among a score of exceptional contributions in our “Influences” series. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the new life awarded to a 2010 blog post about the memorable friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Readers made it not only one of the year’s most popular posts—they vaulted it onto the all-time top ten roster (see below).

Reader’s Almanac All-Time Top Ten (from 2010-2012)
  1. Andy Borowitz’s marketing copy for The Library of America: “Does being funny get you girls?” – March 17, 2011
  2. The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades – January 3, 2011
  3. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan: Desolation Angels led to “Desolation Row” – October 21, 2010
  4. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita first published in the U.S. 52 years ago – August 18, 2010
  5. Looking back: what readers enjoyed most from Story of the Week – January 4, 2012
  6. Forthcoming from The Library of America (Summer–Fall 2012) – February 1, 2012
  7. The 50 Funniest American Writers: Who made the list? – August 11, 2011
  8. Truman Capote and Harper Lee: Immortalizing each other in fiction – October 1, 2010
  9. Adam Levin: American literary influences on The Instructions – January 19, 2011
  10. James Baldwin on hearing Martin Luther King preach in Montgomery – January 14, 2011
Being funny may not get him girls but it does keep Andy Borowitz atop the top ten list. Since July 2010 we have published 320 blog posts, and a number of our earliest posts continue to hold their own: in particular, Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan reading at Jack Kerouac’s grave and the tortuous history of how Lolita got published. One of our first guest bloggers, Adam Levin remains the most popular. But much more remarkable is the phenomenon of readers reviving old posts. This happened not only with the Capote-Lee piece but also with James Baldwin’s insightful account of hearing twenty-nine-year-old Martin Luther King preach in 1961. That joins the list for the first time with this update. We hope publishing this list will lead many of you to discover what others have found enduring in these posts—and to find some gems on your own among the others.

Also of interest:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

LOA launches online companion for new collection of 1950s science fiction novels

What made science fiction in the 1950s so special? Barry N. Malzberg explains how various forces conspired to make those years the “golden decade” for science fiction novels:
[A]t the end of the nineteen-forties, science fiction accounted for perhaps fifty books, hardcover and paperback, published commercially in a year. The field supported perhaps seven magazines. . . . Five years later, there were forty magazines fighting for space on the various newsstands, hardcover and paperback novels and collections were coming out at the rate of two to three hundred a year, and one book editor, Donald A. Wollheim at Ace, was publishing more science fiction in a month than had appeared in all of 1943
Malzberg’s essay is included in the online companion to the much-anticipated two-volume boxed set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which will be published in October.

Curated by Gary K. Wolfe and hosted by The Library of America, the companion features appreciations that have been written exclusively for the site by contemporary science-fiction masters:
Among the many bonus materials on the site are:
American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s will arrive from the printer soon, and copies can be purchased directly from the LOA website for delivery in August. The books will be available from stores on September 27.

Also of interest:

Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates’s ability to tap the “chaotic and wild places inside us all”

Eleanor Bergstein introduces Joyce Carol Oates
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Eleanor Bergstein’s tribute to her friend Joyce Carol Oates. Bergstein is a novelist, screenwriter, and director best known for the movie Dirty Dancing, which she wrote and co-produced.
I honor the work of Joyce Carol Oates for its wildness, its risk, its integrity of emotional detail—for all the things we long for in our own work, and in our lives. Occasionally people flail around in the authenticity of feeling they find in her—assuming it must be drawn from biographical details of living people. Rather instead, her work holds out to us the elegant possibility of owning the chaotic and wild places inside us all, places that accumulate and out of which we try to make a self. She creates characters who are often invisible to themselves at the same time they are harrowingly present to us, people with yearning hearts and chaotic souls desperate to order their lives in the face of the disarray of the outside world.

Years ago, after first reading Wonderland, I flattered myself that I understood the world better. Many years later, I continue to turn to Joyce’s work, hoping to understand myself better. I came upon her first published stories in literary reviews when I was starting out as a writer—and I remember saying to myself, “Oh so there’s that in the world.”

We celebrate the work of Joyce Carol Oates for what she has done—and what she is about to do. Sometimes the work terrifies, sometimes comforts, sometimes breaks our hearts. Hers is not a reassuring world—it shows us landscapes of the soul and of the street that startle us and frighten us.

We try to tame Joyce by making her an exotic. Doesn’t she write rather more than the usual number of books, we say? Might not we call her Gothic? Isn’t there a lot of violence, rape, murder, so much of everything. I think of Blonde, A Widow’s Story, them, Mudwoman, stories that burn off the page, mothers, sisters, Mike Tyson, a scrap of paper on a windshield, that sly humor if one looks for it, the locations of her childhood to which she returns again and again—exotic Lockport? Relentless. One might say check the newspaper if you think Oates is extreme, but this is beside the point. I believe the reason we are alarmed by the bleak and strange world she portrays is because it is located so clearly in our hearts.

I have seen Joyce dance with grace and be wickedly funny and I never try to guess what she will do next. The world she imagines is both ours and only and completely and forever hers. I am honored to present her and her work.
Joyce Carol Oates edited volume #204 of the Library of America series, Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.


Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Friday, July 13, 2012

Elizabeth L. Bradley on Washington Irving’s greatest contribution to American letters: the New York story

Elizabeth L. Bradley pays tribute to Washington Irving
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Elizabeth L. Bradley’s tribute to Washington Irving. Bradley is the author of Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York and the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Washington Irving’s A History of New York.
According to Wiki Answers, Washington Irving is the “Father of the American Short Story.” While Irving, a lifelong bachelor, might have been tickled by this paternity suit, I’m not sure he would have appreciated the glib assumption. To be the father suggests that other nineteenth-century American writers, his literary descendants, are the actual masters of the form. I can already guess which names are leaping to your mind: Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Chopin, James, Crane. And that seems to be always the way with Irving—his is the name in parentheses—the prequel, the run-up. “Yes, of course, Irving, and then the fun begins!”

But, in fact, the fun began with Irving. He gave us the original American dreamers, Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, and set their delicious fantasies against a transcendental backdrop—the “fairy mountains” of the Catskills—that prodded us, gently but firmly, to see ghosts and dream dreams of our own. His New York tales transformed a new country into an ancient wilderness, layered with meaning and larded with stories. Before Thomas Cole ever made his way up the river, Irving was the Hudson River School.

He also brought the American frontier to life for readers without steam engines, and seduced Americans into a love affair with the Alhambra, which is still evident in Spain’s contemporary veneration for the Bard of Sunnyside. He was a crusader for author’s rights and strong copyright protection centuries before the Author’s Guild. He dubbed our city “Gotham,” and he may (with apologies to Thomas Nash) have invented the American Santa Claus.

No one would fault me, I think, for stopping there. But I revere Irving for still another innovation: his “temporary jeu d’esprit,” the History of New York, which made the twenty-six-year-old satirist famous and gave us a narrator unlike any other: Diedrich Knickerbocker, a grumpy know-it-all with a fondness for street food and deep roots in the neighborhood—in other words, a real New Yorker! During Irving’s lifetime, Knickerbocker was the genealogist of the Hudson River Valley, studying “with the zeal of a bookworm” any “genuine Dutch families snugly shut up in their low-roofed farmhouses.” He was the narrator of every Dutch tale you hold dear from your childhood—they are all from his pen—but he is also the emblem of Irving’s greatest contribution to American letters: the New York story. The combination of delight and mockery that marked the History has become the vernacular of centuries of New York storytellers, who share Irving’s belief in the singularity of the New York experience, and his mission to share that experience with the larger world. From the works of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman to those of Paula Fox and Jonathan Lethem, New York stories owe much to Irving’s first satirical ode to the city. We may choose not to cheer on the Knicks, but as readers, writers, and New Yorkers, we must always salute the Knickerbockers.
Irving’s great New York stories are collected in volume #16 of the Library of America series, Washington Irving: History, Tales, & Sketches, edited by James W. Tuttleton.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Monday, July 9, 2012

John Matteson on the “alternately repelling and attracting” electricity between Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Guest blog post by John Matteson, distinguished professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and author of the recently published The Lives of Margaret Fuller (W. W. Norton)

We still don’t know exactly what they meant to each other.

Before they met, Margaret Fuller went to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson speak multiple times and relished “the atmosphere of his thoughts.” She called him “that only clergyman of all possible clergymen who eludes my acquaintance.” Still, she seemed reluctant to form a friendship, though it’s unclear whether her shyness—unusual for her—arose because he intimidated her or because she feared she would find him wanting. When at last they sat down together at Emerson’s home in Concord, in the summer of 1836, Fuller was still recovering from her father’s death the previous fall. It is almost too easy to conclude that she was looking for another man of substance to fill the gap. This was probably true, but she was also looking for an ally. To help support her orphaned siblings, Fuller needed employment. Few could supply connections like Emerson.

From the outset, electricity crackled between them, alternately repelling and attracting. A man of instinctive distance and reserve, Emerson thought Fuller “carried too many guns” and tacitly predicted, “we shall never get far.” But, fortunately, she stuck to her strong suit: she kept talking. Her conversation, peppered with satiric observations about mutual acquaintances, amused and bewitched him. Her initial visit, arranged to last two weeks, extended to three. Emerson became Fuller’s cheerleader, praising her talent and urging her to write. And, as Fuller had hoped, he more than once helped her find employment; neither her work at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School nor her editing of The Dial would have happened in his absence. However, the blessing was highly equivocal. The Temple School gave her experience and The Dial brought her something like fame. But transcendentalism was never a great moneymaker, and Fuller never received her expected wages for either project. Fuller was attracted to Emersonian thinking because it emphasized the value of mind and soul without seeming to ask much about the possessor’s sex. However, there was a flavor of exploitation in the work she was given, even if Emerson sincerely apologized for the failure of The Dial to repay her efforts.

Both Fuller and Emerson prized unseen reality above the visible, and both believed fervently in the tireless pursuit of self-culture. It must have seemed to observers that a man and a woman could hardly be more likeminded. Yet in their friendship the seemingly minor differences could sometimes trump the grand similarities. For Fuller, genius was a matter of both intellect and emotion; Emerson’s idea of intellect was cool and smooth as marble. Fuller complained that his “light will never understand my fire; [his] clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle.” She wanted an intimacy of spirit that both Emerson’s status as a married man and his habitual aloofness made it uncomfortable, if not impossible, for him to supply. She arraigned him with “inhospitality of soul.” Emerson wrote that he would like nothing better than “to melt once for all these icy barriers” that stood between them, but the distance proved too great. He told her, “You & I are not inhabitants of one thought of the Divine Mind, but of two thoughts, that we must meet and treat like foreign states, one maritime, one inland, whose trade and laws are essentially unlike.”

Fuller could not excuse his failure to understand her. She asked bitterly, “[W]hen my soul, in its childish agony of prayer, stretched out its arms to you as a father, did you not see what was meant by this crying for the moon . . . ?” “You are intellect;” she later wrote to him, “I am life.” As an affiliation of the mind, their relationship went as far as it could go; as an affinity of two hearts, it never really began. By the time Fuller left New England for New York in 1844, she was transcendentalist no more. During her entire time in Manhattan, she wrote to Emerson only twice.

Nevertheless, Fuller’s death aboard the Elizabeth in July 1850 left Emerson shocked and stunned. In his journals during the months that followed the wreck, he returned to her memory again and again. He collaborated with two of her other closest friends, William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke, to write a memoir of her that remains one of the most significant American biographies of the nineteenth century. Perhaps his most fitting tribute to her was his tersest. He said of her passing, “I have lost my audience.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Journals 1820–1842; Selected Journals 1841–1877

Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore, “the stealth weapon of American poetry”

Alice Quinn pays tribute to Marianne Moore
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Alice Quinn’s tribute to the poet Marianne Moore. Poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1987 to 2007, Quinn is Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts. She is the editor of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop.
It is an almost fantastic honor to be offering a few remarks upon the induction of Marianne Moore into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, especially in the presence of so many contemporary writers whose work I love who are present tonight to be inducted, too.

I can close my eyes and see Marianne Moore’s picture in nooks and crannies and on the walls of the Gotham Book Mart, where I felt inducted into the literary life of the city in the early 1970s, guided by the writers who frequented that place and whose books the founder, Frances Steloff, would keep in stock at any cost.

In a new, wonderful book of essays entitled My Poets about her relationships to the poets she loves best, the young poet and critic Maureen McLane calls Marianne Moore “the stealth weapon of American poetry, with a ferocity and a lacerating intelligence few poets have matched.” And further on, “Her pointed social satires remind one of Jane Austen, her baroque syntactical devastations reminiscent of Henry James.”

All of her great contemporaries admired her—W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and I am certain Gwendolyn Brooks.

Moore, the great Modernist poet—who gave so much of herself from age 30–34, from 1925–29, as an editor of the manifestly supreme literary journal, The Dial, bringing along such writers as Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce—was a poet of such originality that her peers were always striving to characterize her achievements in the highest terms. Randall Jarrell noted, “She is, sometimes, as tersely conclusive as Grimm” . . . “Or as wise as Goethe” . . . “Or as beguiling, as full of propriety, as Beatrix Potter” . . . “Or as elevated as the Old Testament” . . . “Or as morally and rhetorically magnificent as St. Paul” . . . .

When Elizabeth Bishop first met her, in the spring of 1934, the year she graduated from Vassar, she wrote to a friend,

“A couple of weeks ago I met Marianne Moore . . . Frani, she is simply amazing. She is poor, sick, and her work is practically unread, I guess, but she seems completely undisturbed by it and goes right on producing perhaps one poem a year and a couple of reviews that are perfect in their way. I have never seen anyone who takes such ‘pains.’ . . . She is really worth a great deal of study.”

And in this way Moore definitely became a model to Bishop, who fourteen years later wrote of this poet she appreciated from such an early age,

“The precocious child is often embarrassed by his own understanding and is capable of going to great lengths to act his part as a child properly; one feels that Miss Moore sometimes has to make things difficult for herself as a sort of noblesse oblige, or self-imposed taxation to keep everything ‘fair’ in the world of poetry.”

Moore—a resident for many years of Brooklyn, which she described as “this city of freckled / integrity” and a passionate Dodgers fan and co-author with (then) Cassius Clay of some pretty charming verse, would have been delighted with this honor. In her poem, “New York,” she identifies what it is she feels is best about the place,

it is not the dime-novel exterior,
Niagara Falls, the calico horses and the war-canoe;
it is not that ‘if the fur is not finer than such as one sees others wear,
one would rather be without it’—
that estimated in raw meat and berries, we could feed the universe;
it is not the atmosphere of ingenuity,
the otter, the beaver, the puma skins
without shooting-irons or dogs;
it is not the plunder,
but ‘accessibility to experience.’
I think we New Yorkers would all agree lo these many years later that this is so. Randall Jarrell, in summing up his appreciation for her beautiful poem, “Armour’s Undermining Modesty,” expressed what I feel about so many of the poems I love most:

“I don’t entirely understand it, but what I understand I love, and what I don’t understand I love better.”

Thank you for the opportunity to praise this unique and absolutely admirable American poet.
A generous selection of Marianne Moore’s poetry can be found in volume #115 of the Library of America series, American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Shelley Fisher Fishkin on the enduring infamy of two fire starters: Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau

Guest blog post by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of American Studies at Stanford University, editor of The Mark Twain Anthology, and author of the forthcoming book, Reading America: A Companion to Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (University of California Press, 2013)

Sam Clemens first visited Lake Tahoe in 1861. From that moment on, he was tough on all other bodies of water.

His comment, in Innocents Abroad (1869), on Lake Como? “I thought Lake Tahoe was much finer.” Lake Como, he continued, “is clearer than a great many lakes, but how dull its waters are compared with the wonderful transparence of Lake Tahoe!”

He was similarly unimpressed by the Sea of Galilee, commenting in that same volume, that
The celebrated Sea of Galilee is not so large a sea as Lake Tahoe by a good deal—it is just about two-thirds as large. And when we come to speak of beauty, this sea is no more to be compared to Tahoe than a meridian of longitude is to a rainbow. The dim waters of this pool cannot suggest the limpid brilliancy of Tahoe; these low, shaven, yellow hillocks of rocks and sand, so devoid of perspective, can not suggest the grand peaks that compass Tahoe like a wall, and whose ribbed and chasmed fronts are clad with stately pines that seem to grow small and smaller as they climb, till one might fancy them reduced to weeds and shrubs far upward, where they join the everlasting snows.
Two years after Innocents Abroad came out, Twain averred in a lecture, “Now if you would see the noblest, loveliest inland lake in the world, you should go to Lake Tahoe. . . . I have seen some of the world’s celebrated lakes and they bear no comparison with Tahoe. There it is, a sheet of perfectly pure, limpid water, lifted up 6,300 feet above the sea—a vast oval mirror framed in a wall of snow-clad mountain peaks above the common world. . . . It is the home of rest and tranquility and gives emancipation and relief from the griefs and plodding cares of life.”

The next year in Roughing It (1872), he described Lake Tahoe as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” he wrote, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.”

Mark Twain celebrated the beauty of Lake Tahoe every chance he got. His comments are still invoked by realtors in advertisements for property near the lake and feature prominently in magazines designed to promote tourism there. So why, a little over a year ago, did the U.S. Board on Geographic Names deny the request from the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names to designate a lakeside beach “Sam Clemens Cove?”

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lary Wallace on how Fort Dix prepared Michael Herr for Dispatches

Guest blog post by Lary Wallace, a collector of rare Michael Herr materials and contributing editor for The Faster Times
The lifers gripe, too. . . . A lot of them will say that Dix is a dead end for careers, a sounding board for civilian interference, a center that half-trains 100,000 Ultimate Weapons a year, and most of those six-monthers. They are putting in for Viet Nam (you pick up grade there), for Fort Benning or Fort Bragg (you really train there), or for return tours in Guam, in Korea, in Germany. Somewhere, there’s good duty.
That’s the debriefing Michael Herr delivers on his way out of “Fort Dix: The New Army Game,” his 1966 feature-story for Holiday in which he revisits the training post whose “chief business . . . is the basic training of recruits from” just about the entire Northeast. To convince all concerned of “the vital relevance of the foot soldier in the nuclear age,” the New Jersey base had “taken on the name of ‘The Home of the Ultimate Weapon,’ which for all its rhetoric fell like a short round on the average trainee until recently; the fighting in Viet Nam has restored it by proving that infantry is never obsolete.”

Two years earlier, Herr had been a recruit at Dix; two years later, he would be a correspondent in Vietnam. At Dix he had been one of the “six-monthers” mentioned above, ready reservists who’d agreed to six months of active duty in exchange for a certain kind of immunity from further service, back when that was still an option. In Vietnam he would be reporting the war on behalf of Esquire, an opportunity that gave him all the access and material he needed to write his classic war memoir Dispatches (1977).

This Fort Dix piece usually gets mentioned in books and scholarly articles that deal with Herr’s time in Vietnam, but these never offer much detail on its contents or even bother to quote directly from it. Most often, it gets mentioned for its influence on John Sack, already at Esquire, and his own Vietnam book, M. Proper credit should be given to how it prefigures Herr’s own book.

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