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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

James Baldwin: Sentences like no one else

One of the most striking passages in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, appears in the 1961 essay “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve: A Forum:”
Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years if I'm lucky—I can be President too. It never entered this boy's mind, I suppose—it has not entered the country's mind yet—that perhaps I wouldn't want to be.... [W]hat really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro 'first' will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he will be president of?
What would Baldwin make of Obama’s America? This passage is vintage Baldwin, turning a question around to gain a new and provocative perspective. He did much the same trick in his famous riposte to a British television interviewer: “When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual, you must have said to yourself, ‘Gee, how disadvantaged could I get?’” “No,” Baldwin snapped back, “I thought I hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous you could not go any further. I had to find out a way to use it.” (see 0:32 of YouTube video)

In his review of the new collection in The Los Angeles Times Lynell George expands on how momentous Baldwin's attitude was for American culture:
We hit the jackpot—all of us—anyone interested in engaging in candid albeit stakes-changing debate, anyone who had an investment in equity, humanity and its future. We gained tremendously from the variegated prism through which he viewed and translated the world.

From the late 1940s until his death in 1987, Baldwin walked into the very center of the maelstrom—whether it was the rhetorical theater of debate or the very front line of violence of the Jim Crow South—but he wasn't simply everywhere at once: He was deeply invested in each and every outcome.

The pieces in the new collection bring to mind F. W. Dupee’s review of The Fire Next Time in The New York Review of Books in 1963:
As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals. He probably has, in fact, no real competitors. The literary role he has taken on so deliberately and played with so agile an intelligence is one that no white writer could possibly imitate and that few Negroes, I imagine, would wish to embrace in toto.
Dupee then quotes a passage from The Fire Next Time:
Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices.
About this passage Dupee remarks: “Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams.”

In “Universal Blues,” her review of the new collection for Columbia Journalism Review, Kimberly Chou tries to locate the source of Baldwin’s incantatory prose:
A preacher’s son, Baldwin grew up in Harlem as a teenage evangelist, entering the pulpit at fourteen and abandoning it three years later. In his nonfiction above all, one can see that the skill for oratory stayed with him—transferred to the page for a wider audience. His language could sometimes be baroque. Yet his message always cut straight through, even when his opinions were hard to swallow. The reader feels compelled to keep reading, no matter how raw or unapologetic the subject material.
Lynell George takes the measure of the breadth of Baldwin's achievement:
... what this volume underscores is Baldwin's immense cross-disciplinary range—as a reader, thinker, lecturer and pundit. Though race was a theme that was never out of arm's reach, his preoccupation with societal ethics and humanity was tantamount. And though, as Kenan points out in his evocative introduction, Baldwin first and foremost considered himself a novelist, it was the essays—particularly "The Fire Next Time" and "Notes of a Native Son" that cemented his fate, which [Kenan points out in the introduction] "transformed Baldwin into something more than a writer for the American public and world at large—if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the civil rights movement's Moses, James Baldwin had become its Jeremiah, despite his protestations of speaking for no one but himself."
Like many other writers, Baldwin felt the need to declare his independence from his literary forebears. The new book includes his savage review of Richard Wright’s Native Son, comparing it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wright had introduced Baldwin to the New York literati and their relationship never recovered.

In an interview with NPR, editor Kenan describes what he believes to be one of the reasons for Baldwin’s enduring appeal: “He lifts the veil,” Kenan says. “White people felt that they had an insight into black America that they didn't have before.”

Related LOA works: James Baldwin: Collected Essays; James Baldwin: Early Novels & Stories

Monday, August 30, 2010

The centennial of Theodore Roosevelt's “New Nationalism” speech at Osawatomie, Kansas

On August 31, 1910—one hundred years ago—at the dedication of the John Brown Memorial State Park in Osawatomie, Kansas, former president Theodore Roosevelt gave the most memorable speech of his political career. Roosevelt’s delivery, the speech’s content, the audience’s response and the reaction that followed made it the high point of the sixteen-state, three-week whistle-stop tour by private railway car across the trans-Mississippi West.

The tour was a smashing success. In 1908 Roosevelt decided to honor the pledge he made after he won re-election in 1904 and not seek a third term. He handpicked William Howard Taft, his secretary of defense, to succeed him, thinking Taft the best choice to carry on his policies. But twenty months into Taft’s term, Roosevelt was having second thoughts. Republican leaders complained that Taft was no Progressive. They needed Roosevelt to unite them again. He had agreed to this speaking tour while he was abroad and now it was snowballing into something larger than Roosevelt had planned or imagined.

In an extensive article posted online in the Kansas Historical Quarterly Robert S. La Forte describes the scene:
All through the 30th, when the festivities started, people poured into Osawatomie—“singly … in pairs, by the dozens and scores.” They came “on foot, bicycles, motors, buggies, wagons, trains and [in] every manner … possible.” Even though it was raining, the Graphic reported, “they had on their sunshine disposition … and were ready to hear 'Teddy' speak.” But as the great day dawned the rain diminished and then stopped. And, while acres of people, as one observer described them, waited at the Osawatomie station for his arrival, they sang Moody and Sankey hymns to keep their spirits dry. Then the colonel's train appeared. Pandemonium broke loose! The crown shrieked, whistled, cheered, and cried “hello Teddy!” Roosevelt stepped out onto the rear platform and just smiled, bowed, and looked like he enjoyed it immensely. It was a bully occasion!
At 2:15 P.M. Roosevelt was introduced by Kansas Governor Walter Roscoe Stubbs to approximately 30,000 people in the park. Here is a man, Stubbs said, “whose name is synonymous for liberty, justice and righteousness in private and public life and whose power and influence for good is greater than any … ruler in the world today.” Then “Teddy” mounted the kitchen table which picturesquely served as his podium at Osawatomie. High above a surging throng which continually cheered, he spoke for one and one-half hours. The set up, reported in the Daily Capital, was much like a country fair, with booths where sandwiches and drinks were being sold. All during the speech people continued to buy food at those stands and the vendors continued to hawk their wares. Not everyone could hear his high-falsettoed voice, but everyone cheered.
President Taft had recently dismissed the writer of the Osawatomie speech, Gifford Pinchot, from his post of chief of the Agriculture Department’s Division of Forestry for insubordination. And some credit the caustic Kansas journalist, William Allen White, for several of the speech’s more colorful passages. As Roosevelt biographer H. W. Brands has written: Roosevelt “had never stated his objectives so comprehensively or packaged them so concisely as a single approach to the country’s problems.”

The phrase “New Nationalism” did not originate with Roosevelt. It had been coined by the journalist and political philosopher Herbert Croly in his book, The Promise of American Life, which argued that a strong central government as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton could be used to serve Jeffersonian ideals better than Jefferson’s preference for a limited government. Roosevelt read and liked the book and adopted its ideas. As he described it in his speech:
This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.
Upon hearing about Roosevelt’s attack on the judiciary, President Taft became so outraged he reportedly flung a golf club across the course.

At one point Roosevelt deviated from his prepared text to say:
[W]ords count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts. This is true everywhere; but, O my friends, it should be truest of all in political life. A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics. No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election; and, if he makes such a pledge and does not keep it, hunt him out of public life.
According to Roosevelt biographer Kathleen Dalton, his “audience thought he was saying President Taft needed to be ‘hunted out of public life’ and they cheered.”

Roosevelt would go on to call for directors of companies to be held personally liable for corporate actions, for the details of corporate affairs to be made completely public, for graduated income and inheritance taxes, a revamped financial system, a comprehensive workmen’s compensation law, a commission of experts to regulate the tariff, limitations on the political activities of corporations, stringent new conservation laws, and regulation of child labor.

Roosevelt had never before used phrases quite so radical: “The essense of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.” “The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare. . . .” And he quoted Lincoln, “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Westerners cheered the New Nationalism. Conservatives in the east attacked it, calling it socialism, anarchism, communism. Yet much of what Roosevelt outlined here would in effect become the platform for his candidacy as the Presidential nominee for the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party in the election of 1912. The divisiveness cost the Republicans the election, however, and from then on Progressivism became for Republicans the path not chosen.

Related LOA works:American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton; Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches

Friday, August 27, 2010

H. L. Mencken and Sara Haardt: “America’s foremost bachelor” tied the knot eighty years ago today

How ironic that H. L. Mencken should first meet Sara Haardt in 1923 at Baltimore’s Goucher College when he delivered a lecture on “How to Get a Husband.” Haardt was then a 24-year-old English professor at the women’s college, the youngest on the faculty, and Mencken eighteen years her senior. “Call me a liar if you will,” Mencken would write to a friend the day after the lecture, “but last night I lectured at Goucher College and discerned no less than 27 appetitizing [sic] cuties in the audience. It greatly astonished me; I always thought education ruined the complexion.” Mencken doesn’t mention that during a dinner party following the lecture he discovered that Haardt was an aspiring writer and asked her to send him some of her short stories. Haardt confessed that she had been submitting stories to The Smart Set, the magazine Mencken edited, since she had been “big enough to lift a stamp.”

So began the love affair of Mencken’s life. The world knew Mencken as a confirmed and outspoken bachelor. “Bachelors know more about women than married men,” he famously wrote. “If they didn’t, they’d be married too.” And on another occasion: “If I ever marry, it will be on sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself.” But Mencken’s quips didn’t anticipate the tenacity and charm of the young writer from Montgomery, Alabama. As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers recounts in Mencken: The American Iconoclast, shortly after their first meeting Haardt confided to a faculty friend, “I’m going to marry that man!” Rodgers provides a striking portrait of Haardt:
A contemporary wrote that from across a crowded room Sara looked “alarmingly beautiful: oval face full of magnolia blossom texture, fine features framed in dark curls, luminous almond-shaped eyes, full sensuous mouth”; a graceful figure with a soft cheesecake-y form that James Cain admired, and “well dressed in a quiet, tasteful way.” As for her voice, it was low like that of her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead, gently Southern, as another put it, “without a trace of cawn pone.” Sometimes Sarah’s voice could verge on a growl when she said what she thought of people . . . “she had plenty of wit,” according to Cain, “of a smoldering, ironical kind,” accompanied by a throaty laugh.
Their courtship would last seven years, much of it conducted through letters. The seven hundred letters they exchanged during their twelve years together are collected in Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. The first letter occurred shortly after their first meeting in May, 1923, the last a few days before Haardt’s early death of tuberculosis on May 31, 1935. While we might characterize their correspondence as “love letters,” what they reveal is their growing discovery of each other’s intelligence, wit and culture, or as Rodgers puts it, “In this almond-eyed, delicate woman, Mencken was to find a soulmate.”

The actual marriage ceremony was brief. Mencken considered weddings “barbaric rites.” They moved the wedding date up a week from September 3 to August 27 to avoid the press, and only ten guests and one photographer joined them at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church for the event. It wasn’t until their train reached Halifax and their honeymoon began that the couple relaxed. “It is a grand experience to be able to look a hotel detective in the eye,” wrote Mencken to his close friend George Jean Nathan.

In her brief life Sara Haardt would write forty short stories and two short novels. Her death would interrupt her work on her most ambitious project, The Plantation, a “novel she hoped would provide,” in Rodgers’s words, “a greater understanding of the traditional Southern order and its effect upon those confined within it.” Mencken had edited and published several of her stories and he wrote the introduction to a collection of seventeen of her stories, Southern Album, he published after her death.

Mencken’s diary reveals just how much his wife’s last days and death affected him. There is barely a mention of her in 1935—only one entry for the entire year after May 31—and just a handful in 1936. It is not until the fifth anniversary of her death, on May 31, 1940, that Mencken addresses in detail his wife’s illness and death, his feelings for her, and what their life together meant to him. What follows is but a short excerpt from that entry in The Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher:
Sarah is dead five years today—a longer time than the time of our marriage, which lasted four years and nine months. It is amazing what a deep mark she left upon my life—and yet, after all, it is not amazing at all, for a happy marriage throws out numerous and powerful tentacles. They may loosen with years and habit, but when a marriage ends at the height of its success they endure. It is a literal fact that I still think of Sarah every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day. . . . Marriage is largely talk, and I still recall clearly the long palavers we used to have. . . . We had plenty to talk of. I talked out my projects to her, and she talked out hers with me. I don’t think we ever bored each other. I know that, for my part, the last days of that gabbling were as stimulating as the first. . . . I have never known a more rational woman, nor another half so charming. . . Thinking of her, I can well understand the great human yearning that makes for a belief in immortality, but I do not believe in it, and neither did she. . . I’ll have her in mind until thought and memory adjourn, but that is all. Whether or not it is better so I do not know, but there is the fact as I see it. We were happy together, but all beautiful things must end.
Read the exclusive LOA interview with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers about H. L. Mencken.
Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The House of Walworth, American Gothic, and Gilded Age Literature

The Fall of the
House of Walworth

by Geoffrey O’Brien
(Henry Holt, 2010)
Geoffrey O’Brien, editor-in-chief of The Library of America, recently published his latest book, The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America (Henry Holt). As the book’s title itself makes clear, the literature available to him during his day job influenced his writing, and we asked him to list those works that were particularly on his mind while he wrote this slice of American history.
In my book The Fall of the House of Walworth, I sought to reconstruct the inner and outer worlds of a distinguished but remarkably ill-fated nineteenth-century family whose lives were caught up in various kinds of mania and one spectacular murder. Although the book is non-fiction, the literary antecedents I bore in mind as I worked tended to be fictional. These were six that helped particularly in setting my course:

Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of the Usher.” Poe was favorite reading matter for several of the Walworths, and the neurasthenic Roderick Usher might have served them as a perverse role model. My book’s title pays unavoidable homage to Poe’s long lingering influence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables. The ancestral curse of the Pyncheons, symbolized by their elaborate dwelling-place, rhymed nicely with the 55-room Walworth Mansion and its gloomy heritage.

Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland. The ancestor of American Gothic, Brown sounded themes of trance, madness, and religiously inspired murder in this dreamlike concoction.

Herman Melville: Pierre, or The Ambiguities. The early chapters of this often grotesque successor to Moby-Dick powerfully evoke the world of upstate New York that Melville knew well.

James Fenimore Cooper: The Pioneers. Cooper’s fictionalized version of Cooperstown, founded by his father, informed my sense of the earlier period in which Chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth established his family’s power and prosperity.

Dashiell Hammett: The Dain Curse. A more modern version of Gothic from the 1920s, Hammett’s thriller, tinged with opium and cultishness, was a model of storytelling.
On its Paper Cuts blog, The New York Times has posted a copy of its June 4, 1873, article about the murder at the center of O’Brien’s book.

Laura Miller notes in her Salon review that “O'Brien was fortunate: The Walworths were prodigious writers—of letters, journals, poetry, monographs and, yes, novels.” But, Thomas Mallon adds in his review for The New York Times, “however central the novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth (1830–73) may be to O’Brien’s crackerjack new history of one family’s mayhem, it seems safe to say that he will not soon be joining Welty, Wharton and Whitman at the right-hand reaches of The Library of America’s long, august shelf.” Or, as Geoffrey himself writes in the book, Walworth’s fiction displayed a “staggering slovenliness.” In at least one of the novels, “once Mansfield became embroiled in cataloging women’s clothing, it was difficult for him to get back to the story.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

American Fantastic Tales nominated for a 2009 World Fantasy Award

The 2009 World Fantasy Award Nominees were just announced and we were delighted to find The Library of America's two-volume set American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps/from the 1940s to Now, edited by Peter Straub, among the nominees in the Anthology category.

We got an additional thrill when we saw four of the contributors to American Fantastic Tales among the nominees in other categories:
  • Caitlin R. Kiernan, who contributed the story “The Long Hall on the Top Floor,” was nominated for her novel, The Red Tree.
  • Jeff VanderMeer, who contributed the story “The General Who Is Dead,” was nominated for his novel Finch.
  • Brian Evenson, who contributed the story “The Wavering Knife,” was nominated for his collection Fugue State.
  • And Gene Wolfe, who contributed the story “The Little Stranger,” was nominated for two collections, The Very Best of Gene Wolfe and The Best of Gene Wolfe.
When American Fantastic Tales was published in October 2009 volume editor Peter Straub gave The Library of America an exclusive interview in which he discussed the tricky question of how writers and readers of Fantastika may (or may not) differ from writers and readers of literary fiction.
Library of America: In his famous essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft wrote that tales of “cosmic fear” would always find an audience among those of “requisite sensitiveness” but that “relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to tappings from outside.” By contrast, Joyce Carol Oates has explained the addictiveness of “tales of the gothic-grotesque” by noting that “readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call ‘literary fiction,’ assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose?” Are they talking about the same readers? How would you characterize the audience for American Fantastic Tales?

Peter Straub: Lovecraft supposed that his tales would find their best audience among the imaginatively refined, while Oates wishes to remark the inherent superiority of realistic literary fiction over hypothetically cruder, more compromised genre work. It does not seem likely that they are speaking of the same readers. Over Lovecraft’s supposition hovers the flavor and atmosphere of Decadence, of The Yellow Book and Swinburne and Ernest Dowson; Oates’s position is more daylit and reasonable, but both positions are radically divisive. Lovecraft’s assumptions about his audience are completely personal to him, and of interest primarily for psychological reasons. Oates expresses a deeply familiar literary opinion, one with wide general acceptance. For that reason, it is worth looking at.

All fiction, literary or genre, seeks to manipulate its readers. Every novel is an effort to present a completely formed and coherent view of the way its particular world works, and every novelist is doing her best to make her case persuasive. As Marilynne Robinson once remarked, novelists are always standing on top of a hill, shouting, “No, you’re all wrong, this is how the world works.” In this regard, there is no essential difference between the writer of a literary novel and the writer of a crime novel. The differences have to do with matters other than manipulation: open-endedness, psychological acuity, formal beauty, the quality of the prose, depth of feeling, alertness to ambiguity, suggestions of the world’s depth and richness, supple transitions, and a hundred other things. A writer of the fantastic may or may not possess the kind of writerly authority implied by these considerations, but if she does, her work might as well be called “literary.” It won’t be, though; the fences are too high. However, to be completely frank, work of this kind is always as good, in a literary sense, as most “literary” efforts, and often better than most.

To see what I am talking about, a reader could turn to John Cheever’s “Torch Song,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Daemon Lover,” or M. Rickert’s “The Chambered Fruit.” Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” is one of the greatest stories of the past two decades, worthy of a dozen rereadings. To answer your final question, the audience for these stories is open-minded, imaginatively playful, and interested in complicated, richly rewarding pleasures.
Related LOA works: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now (boxed set); H. P. Lovecraft: Tales

Monday, August 23, 2010

A toast and a tear for Dorothy Parker, writer and poet, for her 117th birthday

Project Elegance celebrated Dorothy Parker’s birthday yesterday with a bouquet of quotes. Our favorite: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

In “A Toast and a Tear for Dorothy Parker,” his 1944 review of The Portable Dorothy Parker, Edmund Wilson reflected on the close connection between Parker’s work and her era:
. . . the thing I have particularly felt is the difference between the general tone, the psychological and literary atmosphere, of the period—the twenties and the earlier thirties—when most of these pieces of Mrs. Parker’s were written, and the atmosphere of the present time. It was suddenly brought home to me how much freer people were—in their emotions, in their ideas, and in expressing themselves. In the twenties they could love, they could travel, they could stay up late at night as extravagantly as they pleased; they could think or say or write whatever seemed to them amusing or interesting. There was a good deal of irresponsibility, and a lot of money and energy wasted, and the artistic activities of the time suffered somewhat from its general vices, but it was a much more favorable climate for writing than the period we are in now.
And on Parker in particular:
When one has bought Dorothy Parker . . . one has really got a book. She is not Emily Bronte or Jane Austen, but she has been at some pains to write well, and she has put into what she has written a voice, a state of mind, an era, a few moments of human experience that nobody else has conveyed.
Laurence Senelick echoed Wilson in his introduction to “The Jest,” his selection of one of Parker's drama reviews from Vanity Fair for The American Stage:
In the age of disillusionment that followed the Great War, the wisecrack best conveyed the fashion for cynicism. No wonder that the “Round Table” at the Algonquin Hotel, the journalists’ luncheon club she frequented with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Franklin Pierce Adams, Alexander Woolcott, and George S. Kaufman, was commonly known as the Vicious Circle. The bon mots of these mauvais langues—such as the barb that Katherine Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”—were made public in their columns the next day.
Parker would not have been happy being characterized as a wisecracker, since she once wrote: “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

The Dorothy Parker Society website contains a great deal of material about Parker’s life and work. The society has a newsletter; it conducts an Algonquin Round Table walking tour, and the site has a page filled with audio of Parker reading her poems (requires RealPlayer).

Related LOA works: Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays of the 1930s and 1940s; The American Stage: Writings on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Friday, August 20, 2010

Frank Kermode (1919–2010), leading literary critic of his generation

In his epilogue to the 2000 reissue of The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, a collection of lectures Allen Tate has called “a landmark in twentieth-century critical thought,” Frank Kermode makes one of his signature observations:
It was my belief that in referring to the sound of a clock not as “tick-tick” but as “tick-tock” we substitute a fiction for the actual acoustic event, distinguishing between genesis of “tick” and apocalypse of “tock,” and conferring on the interval between them a significance it would otherwise lack. The fictive end purges the interval of simple chronicity. It achieves a “temporal integration”—it converts a blank into a kairos, charges it with meaning. So it can be argued that we have here a tiny model of all plots. . . . our sense of, or need for, an ending transforms our lives between “the tick of birth and the tock of death,” and stories simulate this transformation but must not do so too simply.
This brief excerpt illustrates what students of literature and even casual readers have come to cherish in Kermode’s criticism: the graceful, effortless movement from common observation to thought-provoking insight.

On Wednesday The London Review of Books posted a short notice that Frank Kermode died on August 17. What Kermode meant to the Review was quietly on display in the cascade of links below the notice: more than 200 articles and reviews he had contributed over the past thirty years. LRB’s blog linked to Kermode’s June 1979 article in The Observer that called for a new literary journal and prompted the Review’s founding.

Frank Kermode wrote his first book at the age of twenty, a study of Aaron Hill, the eighteenth-century theater manager who introduced castrato singing to England. The publication of his last book, Concerning E. M. Forster, was timed to coincide with his ninetieth birthday. In the intervening years Kermode published more than sixty books, held professorships at six different universities, served as a visiting professor at many colleges and universities in the United States, was a judge for the first Booker prize, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, the first critic to be so honored since William Empson.

In 1963 Richard Poirier offered this appraisal: “Frank Kermode is generally regarded as the best practicing critic in England today, free of the polemical or theoretical limitations that have been ascribed to F. R. Leavis or I. A. Richards and credited with the power, which Matthew Arnold required of good criticism, “to ascertain the master-spirit.” Thirty-three years later, in 1996, David Lodge confirmed Kermode’s enduring status, writing “In my opinion, and that of many others, Frank Kermode is the finest English critic of his generation.” Writers also perceived a different sensibility at work in Kermode’s judgments. Philip Roth admitted that although he dislikes reading reviews, "if Frank Kermode reviewed my book I would read it".

Kermode’s breakthrough critical work came in 1957 with The Romantic Image, which John Mullan briefly summarized in his obituary for The Guardian:
It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today's average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries–yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style.
Throughout his career Kermode moved easily between modernism and other literary periods. “Wallace Stevens, as even hostile critics will admit, is a deeply interesting poet” begins Kermode’s short (just 134 pages) introduction to the prose and poetry of Wallace Stevens (1960), a book credited with introducing Stevens to the English speaking world as a “maker of worlds.” His Arden edition of The Tempest in 1961 set the standard for annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare’s Language (2000) became a bestseller in England.

Kermode’s writings often seemed ubiquitous. As Helen Vendler observed in the Washington Post obituary. “You were either reading a new book by Sir Frank or else reading a book he reviewed. He was always in the present." He patterned his “literary journalism” after Edmund Wilson. In his introduction to Continuities, one of his many collections of essays, he explains:
Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the non-specialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain.
Kermode famously testified for the defense in 1966 when a Conservative Member of Parliament initiated a private prosecution to declare Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr., obscene. The trial lasted nine days and the court found for the prosecution but when the decision was overturned in 1968 it was considered a turning point in British censorship law.

Alan Samson, Kermode’s publisher at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, revealed what he will miss to the Guardian's Alison Flood:
He's probably the greatest literary conversationalist I've ever known - it wasn't just the lectures and the monographs and the books, it's the fact that just talking about a writer he'd say incredibly pithy, intelligent things which would prompt you to go and read them again. He knew he had exceptional gifts, but there was a modest manner about him. He knew he was smarter than everyone else, but he was this pipe-smoking, beguiling man who listened to what you had to say.... It's the wreath of pipe smoke, and the benign smile and wisdom, which I'm really going to miss.
Readers can experience some of this beguiling modesty in the video of the ninety-minute interview Alan Macfarlane conducted with Kermode in February 2008.

As wide as his interests ranged, Kermode kept returning to one poet. As he put it in the epilogue to The Sense of an Ending:
[Wallace Stevens] remains the poet who, when the mood is right, speaks most directly to me; he understood fictions, and he understood the radiance associated with the notion of kairos, a radiance he sometimes associated with the seasons (kairos, after all, means “season”). He also understood that the imagination is always at the end of an era, and that “One day enriches a year.” . . . He wrote of midsummer that it was
. . . the last day of a certain year
Beyond which there is nothing left of time.
In 1997 Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson co-edited Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books. Helen Vendler wrote: “Now at last—in a handsome thousand pages [Kermode and Richardson] have given us—in the durable and elegant Library of America format—a Stevens for the foreseeable future.”

Excellent obituaries of Frank Kermode can also be found at The Telegraph and The New York Times.

Related LOA works: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose; Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita first published in the U.S. 52 years ago

After what he called “five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labors,” Nabokov finished writing Lolita in December 1953 and began submitting it to publishers. “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation.... I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” So went one of the many rejection letters. Five leading publishers—Doubleday; Farrar, Straus; New Directions; Simon & Schuster; and Viking—all turned it down.

That was when Nabokov’s European agent, Doussia Ergaz, recommended Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press in Paris, publisher of Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs. Nabokov was then teaching Russian Studies at Cornell and feared he would be fired unless the book was published under a pseudonym. Girodias would publish it, but only with Nabokov’s name as author. Nabokov agreed but was wary, as he expressed in a letter in July 1955: “You and I know that Lolita is a serious book with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such. A succès de scandale would distress me.”

Girodias printed 5,000 copies of Lolita in English in September 1955. It sold mostly to English tourists and did not receive any critical attention until, in an interview with the London Times, Graham Greene named it one of the three best novels of 1955. This prompted John Gordon of the Sunday Express to order a copy and to denounce it as “about the filthiest book I’ve ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” The ensuing brouhaha (Gordon pointed out that Greene had been sued by Shirley Temple “for having said the little girl made her living out of displaying her thighs for the delectation of middle-aged gentlemen”) made Lolita into an international sensation. Responding to Gordon’s attack in Esquire, Dorothy Parker wrote:
I cannot regard it as pornography, either sheer, unrestrained, or any other kind. It is the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls ... an anguished book, but sometimes wildly funny, as in the saga of his travels across and around the United States with her.... [Nabokov’s] command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—alright then—a great book.
The New York Public Library “Sessions” pages, edited by Rodney Phillips and Sarah Funke, recount the dramatic story of the American publication:
Though copies of the Girodias edition were making it into the United States, Nabokov still wished for an American edition. Jason Epstein, then an editor at Doubleday, hoped to convince Doubleday's president, Douglas Black, to take the novel, by playing upon Black's desire to refight the court battle he had recently lost over Edmund Wilson’s The Memoirs of Hecate County. In an attempt to gain ground, Epstein arranged for an excerpt (about a third of the novel) to appear in Doubleday's June 1957 Anchor Review, with critical praise from Partisan Review editor F.W. Dupee. The Anchor volume featured Nabokov’s specially written explanation of the genesis of the novel and his defense of it on the grounds of “aesthetic bliss”: “On a Book Entitled Lolita.”

Throughout the summer and into the fall, Nabokov endured delays and denials by Doubleday, Simon & Schuster and even Putnam’s. He settled on the small independent publisher Ivan Obolensky, but when his offer, too, fell through, Putnam’s made good on an earlier proposal, and went into production.

On publication day [August 18], Putnam’s president, Walter Minton, sent a congratulatory telegram:
By the end of the day, 2,600 orders had been received.
The “blast” referred to by Minton was Orville Prescott's pan, although Elizabeth Janeway's review that had appeared the previous day in the Sunday Times was a rave. Lolita would go on to be the first book since Gone With the Wind to sell 100,000 in its first three weeks.

In a 1964 interview for Life Magazine, Jane Howard asked Nabokov, “which of your writings has pleased you most?”
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.
Related LOA works: Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962 (includes the screenplay Nabokov wrote for the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film. It differs substantially from the final film.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ira Gershwin, a writer of immortal songs and “an unshowy show-business professional”

Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), author of indelible songs that continue to permeate the airwaves, died twenty-seven years ago today. He began writing songs with his younger brother George (1898–1937) in 1917, but it was with Lady Be Good in 1924 that they scored their first Broadway hit. The show starred Fred and Adele Astaire and included the songs “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm,” still standards today. Over the next thirteen years the Gershwin brothers would write thousands of songs, including hits for more than a dozen musicals and four films. In 1932, Of Thee I Sing, the show they wrote with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, became the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

WICN.org’s extensive post on the history of the Gershwin song, “Embraceable You,” captures how the brothers worked together:
The perennial question in songwriting of which came first, the words or the music, is easily answered in the case of the Gershwins. George’s music came first, followed by brother Ira’s lyrics. George explained, “I hit on a new tune and play it for Ira and he hums it all over the place for awhile till he gets an idea for a lyric. Then we work the thing out together.” Ira confirmed that the music was first, saying, “Since most of the lyrics … were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable.”
Ira could spend hours finding the one right word. As he described it to Robert Kimball, editor of Ira Gershwin: Selected Lyrics, he tried to “capture the way people spoke to each other—their slang, their clichés, their catchphrases.” Clichés were his gold mine. “The literary cliché is an integral part of lyric writing. The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to an appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness.”

The brothers differed both in working styles and in temperament. As Brad Leithauser characterizes this difference in his New York Review of Books essay assessing several books about Ira:
Most of the writing about the Gershwins has, understandably, highlighted George, who brought genius to a partnership to which Ira contributed talent. In addition, George—the taller, handsomer, and more sociable of the two, the “ladies’ man” who had affairs with a French countess and Paulette Goddard—had a near-monopoly on glamour; no cocktail party was ever heated up by spicy speculations about what the bespectacled, square-headed, and very married Ira might be up to. Almost proudly self-effacing, Ira was somebody who took satisfaction in being an unshowy show-business professional. It’s an irony he would have appreciated: that so unromantic-looking a man did so much to mint the language of romance in his time.
While they were working on the movie The Goldwyn Follies, George collapsed into a coma from an undiagnosed brain tumor and died two days later. It would be three years before Ira wrote again. He would go on to create popular songs with Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen, including the Oscar-nominated “Long Ago and Far Away” (with Kern) and “The Man That Got Away” (with Arlen).

Leithauser notes that the last song George and Ira wrote together was “Love Is Here to Stay.”
As parting shots go, it’s pretty much unbeatable, both for the sweetness of its melody and the agile tenderness of its lyrics. The sentiments may be familiar:

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But—our love is here to stay.

Yet if this looks like the usual outsize boasting of the Tin Pan Alley suitor, one need only substitute “music” for “love” in the last line in order to change hyperbole to understatement. The music of the brothers does more than endure. It ramifies.
More information about the Gershwins and many excellent recordings of their songs can be found at their official site.

Related LOA works: Ira Gershwin: Selected Lyrics; George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies

Monday, August 16, 2010

William Maxwell, novelist, editor, born 102 years ago

Today is the birthday of William Keepers Maxwell Jr. (1908–2000). Author of six novels and scores of short stories, he wrote his first story at 24 and continued to write and publish into his 91st year. A legendary editor at The New Yorker for more than forty years, Maxwell shaped the work and careers of writers who defined the literature of the second half of the twentieth century: Harold Brodkey, Mavis Gallant, Shirley Hazzard, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, and the three Johns—Cheever, O’Hara, and Updike. In two volumes The Library of America has collected all six of his novels, 27 of his stories, several essays, and 40 of what Maxwell called “improvisations,” or literary fairy tales.

Maxwell moved from small-town Illinois to New York City when he was 25, but much of his fiction recreates his childhood world: “I had no idea then," he later wrote, "that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The look of things. The Natural History of home . . . All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story.”

As volume editor Christopher Carduff put it in one of his two LOA interviews about Maxwell, “I think Maxwell, in reaction against Spoon River and Winesburg and Zenith, wanted to bring fiction-readers the good and surprising news that one could be born, raised, and buried in a town like Lincoln, Illinois, and yet be happy and fulfilled and receptive to the best that life has to offer.”

When he was ten Maxwell’s mother died from the influenza epidemic of 1918 and this traumatic event governs the action in two of his most acclaimed novels: They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Recalling the experience of reading So Long, See You Tomorrow (and then wanting to read “every short story I could find”) Alice Munro wrote, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.”

In May 1945 Maxwell married Emily Gilman Noyes, a woman thirteen years his junior he had met eight months earlier when she interviewed for a job at The New Yorker. They deferred their honeymoon until 1948, and their four-month tour of Europe became the basis for Maxwell’s fifth novel, The Château:
I walked into our house on a country road forty miles north of New York City, put the suitcases down, and with my hat still on my head sat down to my typewriter and wrote a page of notes for a novel. I thumbtacked it to the bookcase behind me and didn’t look at it again. For the next ten years I lived in my own private France, which I tried painstakingly to make real to the reader. It was my way of not coming home.
Interweaving travelogue and history, The Château follows the adventures of a thinly disguised couple as they tour postwar France, much of the drama drawn from the Maxwells’ own late summer stay with a family in Blois. Their experiences frequently diverge from what the guidebooks promise:
He yawned. The guidebook slipped through his fingers and joined the pocket dictionary on the rug. After a minute or two he got up and stood at the window. The heavy shutters opened in, and the blackout paper was crinkled and torn and beginning to come loose. Three years after the liberation of France it was still there. No one in a burst of happiness and confidence in the future had ripped it off. Germans, he thought, standing where he stood now, with their elbows on the sill. Looking off toward the river that was there but could not be seen. Lathering their cheeks before the shaving stand . . . Did Mme Bonenfant and Mme Viénot eat with their unwelcome guests, or in the kitchen, or where?
Summing up Maxwell’s achievement in his review of the two Library of America volumes in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote:
He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation. In “Nearing Ninety,” he likened death to lying down for a pleasant afternoon nap and found “unbearable” only the thought that “when people are dead they don’t read books.” His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.
The LOA volumes include a detailed chronology written by Christopher Carduff which Updike singled out for praise: “[Carduff’s] twenty-nine pages labelled ‘Chronology’ approach the intimacy and interest of a full-length biography.”

Related LOA works: William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories; William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Art of the Interview: Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Henry James

In a recent blog post for The American Scholar Bob Thompson shares the rules he developed—and the insights they unlocked—over his four years of writing about writers for The Washington Post. The most important rule he discovered when he interviewed Joan Didion in 2005:
Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child. I had read the book in galleys and found it remarkable. “Are you going to talk to her?” an editor asked, and I quickly said yes. But I had not thought the assignment through. The real question, I soon realized, was what we were going to talk about. Here was a writer, after all, who had just put everything she knew about death and grief into print.
He formulated a plan to stick to questions about writing. “Talking about writing, we both managed to keep our composure for an hour and a half.” This became his Didion Rule: “When in doubt, ask writers about writing.” Thompson goes on to describe what applying this rule revealed in his discussions with Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Marilynne Robinson, Art Spiegelman, and, in the category of “toughest interviews,” Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth.
Roth started things off by imposing the Didion Rule preemptively: he said he would discuss only his writing and would answer no questions about his personal life. Fine. Yet in Roth’s case, this created a major hurdle, because, as his readers know, he is an exceptionally brazen alchemist of the personal into the fictional.
Thompson dramatized the hurdles Roth threw in his path in his account of the interview—and it worked. When he called Roth months later to interview him about winning the PEN/Faulkner award, Roth surprised him by saying, “I liked what you wrote.”

But the Didion Rule may sometimes yield more than an interviewer bargained for. Henry James notoriously gave only three interviews during his lifetime. The New York Times headlined his third and last interview in 1915, “Henry James’s First Interview,” perhaps because it was the only interview over which James exerted complete control. Having recently been made honorary chairman of the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps, James, at 71, had been busily writing impassioned letters, articles, and essays on behalf of the war effort. As part of this campaign he agreed to be interviewed in February by Preston Lockwood, a young Times correspondent. But he wasn’t happy with the result. As James’s secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, wrote in her Diary Notes:
H. J., finding that it wouldn’t do at all from his point of view, has spent the last four days re-dictating the interview to the young man, who is fortunately a good typist. . . . I think the idea of H.J. interviewing himself for four whole days is quite delightful. [from Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920, by Pamela Thurschwell]
Knowing how closely James managed the account of the interview makes the following passage all the more remarkable:
Mr. James has a mobile mouth, a straight nose, a forehead which has thrust back the hair from the top of his commanding head, although it is thick at the sides over the ears, and repeats in its soft gray the color of his kindly eyes. Before taking in these physical facts one receives an impression of benignity and amenity not often conveyed, even by the most distinguished. And, taking advantage of this amiability, I asked if certain words just used should be followed by a dash, and even boldly added: “Are you not famous, Mr. James, for the use of dashes?”

“Dash my fame!” he impatiently replied. “And remember, please, that dogmatizing about punctuation is exactly as foolish as dogmatizing about any other form of communication with the reader. All such forms depend on the kind of thing one is doing and the kind of effect one intends to produce. Dashes, it seems almost platitudinous to say, have their particular representative virtue, their quickening force, and, to put it roughly, strike both the familiar and the emphatic note, when those are the notes required, with a felicity beyond either the comma or the semicolon; though indeed a fine sense for the semicolon, like any sort of sense at all for the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood, on which the whole perspective in a sentence may depend, seems anything but common. Does nobody ever notice the calculated use by French writers of a short series of suggestive points in the current of their prose? I confess to a certain shame for my not employing frankly that shade of indication, a finer shade still than the dash. * * * But what on earth are we talking about?”
To be fair, James agreed to the interview, which was conducted almost exactly a year before he died, because of his deep feelings about the important service the ambulance corps was providing in France as the German front moved closer to England. He anticipated the impact the war would have:
“. . . such things may any day begin to occur at the front as will make what we have up to now been able to do mere child’s play, though some of our help has been rendered when casualties were occurring at the rate, say, of 5,000 in twenty minutes, which ought, on the whole, to satisfy us. In face of such enormous facts of destruction—”

Here Mr. James broke off as if these facts were, in their horror, too many and too much for him. But after another moment he explained his pause.

“One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.”
For the past four years The Library of America has been conducting its own exclusive interviews with the editors and authors of each new LOA collection. You can find interviews with John Ashbery on his Collected Poems 1956–1987, Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick (one for each volume), Pete Hamill on A. J. Liebling (one for each volume), J. D. McClatchy on Thornton Wilder, Joyce Carol Oates on Shirley Jackson, and many more in our interviews archive.

Related LOA works: Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes four pieces by Joan Didion); Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959–1995 (six volumes); Henry James: Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers & English Writers

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne first meet 160 years ago

On an August day in 1850, one of the most momentous meetings in American literature occurred. During a picnic hike up Monument Mountain, near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met for the first time. Hawthorne was 46, Melville fourteen years his junior. Publisher James T. Fields, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the hike's organizer, Dudley Fields, brought Hawthorne. Editor Evert Duyckinck and writer Cornelius Mathews invited Melville.

David B. Kesterson on Hawthorne in Salem quotes Duyckinck’s colorful account of the hike, which occurred on Monday, August 5:
As we scrambled over the rocks at the summit . . . a black thunder cloud from the south dragged its ragged skirts towards us . . . They talked of shelter and shelter there proved to be though it looked unpromising . . . Dr. Holmes cut three branches for an umbrella and uncorked the champagne which was drunk from a silver mug . . . we scattered over the cliffs, Herman Melville to seat himself, the boldest of all, astride a projecting bow sprit of rock while little Dr. Holmes peeped about the cliffs and protested it affected him like ipecac. Hawthorne looked mildly about for the great Carbuncle . . . ." [Evert Duyckinck to his wife, Aug 6-Leyda, Melville Log, 384]
Hawthorne had reviewed Melville’s novel Typee favorably four years earlier (“The book is lightly but vigorously written; and we are acquainted with no work that gives a freer and more effective picture of barbarian life.”). Within days of their meeting Melville wrote an exultant review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (a book published four year earlier): “. . . it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes & fascinates me.”

Melville quickly became a frequent visitor at Hawthorne’s home and in conversations that lasted deep into the night he and Hawthorne plumbed what Melville called “ontological heroics.” Hawthorne’s wife Sophia gives a vivid description of Melville in a letter to her mother shortly after their first meeting:
When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected, an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.
The younger novelist seemed to find in Hawthorne’s writings and companionship the inspiration he needed to recast his work in progress. When he published Moby-Dick in November, 1851, he dedicated it to Hawthorne. Sadly, by then their relationship appears to have mysteriously cooled. After the publication of Moby-Dick they would meet again only twice.

In a recent blog post Caleb Crain, author of American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation, muses on the Melville-Hawthorne relationship and on whether Melville’s elegiac poem, “Monody,” may have been written with Hawthorne in mind.

Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick; American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes Melville’s poem “Monody”)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Charles Sherrod and Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, August 1964

The 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City was supposed to be a simple and straightforward coronation of Lyndon Johnson as the presidential candidate. However, it opened on August 22 with nationally televised hearings before the Credentials Committee of delegates from the rogue Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) demanding to be seated. The MFDP was challenging the legitimacy of the state’s official delegation, because the Mississippi Democratic Party excluded blacks from membership and because its platform called for a rejection of civil rights and a repudiation of the national Democratic platform. The dramatic testimony by MFDP delegates like Fannie Lou Hamer (Hulu video below, prefaced by an ad), a sharecropper who described being beaten and shot at simply for trying to register to vote, so galvanized the country and upset the administration that President Johnson interrupted televised coverage of the hearings by calling a presidential press conference.

As field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the organizations behind the creation of MFDP, Charles Sherrod was an eyewitness to the tense negotiations at the convention between MFDP and such national Democratic leaders as Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey. The MFDP’s proposed compromise of “proportional representation” was rejected and countered with a compromise offering non-voting seats to two members of the MFDP delegation. A heated debate ensued with many influential leaders, including Martin Luther King, recommending the compromise. Sherrod explains the MFDP’s final decision in “Mississippi at Atlantic City,” an excerpt from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973:
Our society is famous for its buck-passing, white-washing tactics. That is one reason the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party could not accept the administration’s compromise. It was made to look like something and it was nothing. It was made to pacify the blacks in this country. It did not work. We refused to adopt a “victory.” We could have accepted the compromise, called it a victory and gone back to Mississippi, carried on the shoulders of millions of Negroes across the country as their champions. But we love the ideas of our country; they mean more than a moment of victory. We are what we are—hungry, beaten, unvictorious, jobless, homeless, but thankful to have the strength to fight. This is honesty, and we refuse to compromise here. It would have been a lie to accept that particular compromise. It would have said to blacks across the nation and the world that we share the power, and that is a lie!
Forty-six years later, in his January 2010 keynote address at “Fifty Years after the Sit-ins,” a conference at the University of Virginia School of Law, Charles Sherrod—husband of former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod—recollects Emmett Till, working on a chain gang, fear, and passing the torch. Joan Walsh recently posted an appreciation of Charles Sherrod’s civil rights career on Salon.

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963; Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963–1973 (includes Sherrod's "Mississippi at Atlantic City" and two profiles of Fannie Lou Hamer)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Henry David Thoreau:
August 9, 1854: “ ‘Walden’ published.”

Henry David Thoreau published only two books during his lifetime: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (James Munroe and Company, 1849) and Walden, or, A Life in the Woods (Ticknor and Fields, 1854). Thoreau began A Week when he went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. Intended to be a memorial to his older brother John, who had died of lockjaw three years earlier, the book was based on a boat trip they had made together in 1839. On the website dedicated to the writings of Thoreau at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Elizabeth Witherell and Elizabeth Dubrulle describe how the creation of A Week ended up overlapping with Walden:
At Walden, Thoreau worked diligently on A Week, but he also explored Walden Woods and recorded his observations on nature in his Journal. He entertained visitors and made regular trips to town; friends and neighbors began to inquire about his life at the pond. What did he do all day? How did he make a living? Did he get lonely? What if he got sick? He began collecting material to write lectures for his curious townsmen, and he delivered two at the Concord Lyceum, on February 10 and 17, 1847. By the time he left the pond on September 6, 1847, he had combined his lectures on life at Walden with more notes from his journal to produce the first draft of a book which he hoped to publish shortly after A Week.
Unfortunately, A Week sold only two hundred copies during the first years after publication. In a Journal entry of October 28, 1853 (PDF) Thoreau describes receiving from the publisher “in a wagon” 706 copies of its printing of 1,000.
They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. . . I now have a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself. . . . Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.
Thoreau would revise Walden seven times before it was published on August 9, 1854. His Journal entry for the historic day (PDF) is brief:
Aug. 9. Wednesday. —To Boston.
“Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.
His friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson captures a less Stoic post-publication Thoreau in a letter to a friend: “He is walking up & down Concord, firm-looking, but in a tremble of great expectations.” Walden fared much better than A Week. By the end of the year 1,744 copies of the 2,000-copy first printing were sold and reviews were mostly favorable, even as far away as England. Reviewing Walden for The Westminster Review, George Eliot wrote “. . . we have a bit of pure American life (not the ‘go-ahead’ species, but its opposite pole), animated by that energetic, yet calm spirit of innovation, that practical as well as theoretic independence of formulae, which is peculiar to some of the finer American minds. . . . There is plenty of sturdy sense mingled with his unworldliness.”

Related LOA works: Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod; Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems

Friday, August 6, 2010

Flannery O'Connor: the writer vs. the believer

There’s a lively debate currently energizing the posts at Big Questions Online over whether a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote in 1958 to a friend troubled about his faith—especially the lines “You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective. . . Your pain over its ineffectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God”—provides a persuasive counter-argument to the reasons Anne Rice gives in her recent public announcement on Facebook that she is “quitting Christianity.”

Many readers find it difficult to reconcile O’Connor’s devout Catholicism with the dark often horrific comedy of her fiction. Brad Gooch, author of Flannery: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, addressed the question in an exclusive 2009 interview with The Library of America:
LOA: Your biography closely chronicles what a devout Catholic O’Connor was: a daily communicant who enjoyed reading and discussing scholarly theological treatises. Yet she didn’t entirely discourage writers who took contrarian readings of her works. For instance, you recount her telling John Hawkes that she “liked very very much” his essay “Flannery O’Connor’s Devil” in which he finds her “authorial attitude in itself in some measure diabolical . . . that is, ‘the disbelief that we breathe in with the air of the times’ emerges fully as two-sided or complex as the ‘attraction for the Holy.’” Was it her aim, do you think, to create works that could be interpreted in antithetical ways?

Gooch: O’Connor forever crossed wires in her life and work. Conan O’Brien wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on O’Connor. One night on The Charlie Rose Show he put the riddle succinctly: “You’d think it was this bitter old alcoholic who’s writing these really funny, dark stories. Then you find out that she’s a woman and that she’s devoutly religious. It’s the opposite of what you would expect.” She definitely designed her stories to be read in a world not as given as she to literal belief in God or the devil. Such a trick was not easy and took a while to develop. While at Iowa, she sought guidance from a local priest: how could a Catholic girl be writing about snarly types like Haze Motes, who calls on a town prostitute. The priest told her she didn’t need to write for 15-year-old girls. She slowly parlayed this advice into a more sophisticated apology, borrowed from Thomas Aquinas by way of Jacques Maritain: art is a habit of the practical rather than the moral intellect. As she put it: “You don’t have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for.”

But the issue of contrary readings of O’Connor’s fiction is compelling, and has never been raised more provocatively than by her friend John Hawkes during her lifetime. Borrowing a line of reasoning from Dr. Johnson when he claimed that Milton was “of the Devil’s party” because Paradise Lost loses its zing when Satan is offstage, Hawkes finds the “diabolical” to be the guilty pleasure in O’Connor’s work. Privately—not to Hawkes—she judged the theory “off center.” But Hawkes was not alone in the camp that felt O’Connor was not the best reader of her own work, and her theological gloss perhaps spin, whether conscious or not. Firmly planted in this opinion was her progressive friend Maryat Lee, who found dissonance between O’Connor the story writer and O’Connor the theologian. “The writing is one thing and the thinking and speeches are another,” she wrote to a mutual friend. “Jekyll and Hyde if you will. Perhaps.”
Read the entire interview here (PDF).

There are an impressive number of websites dedicated to aggregating online essays and information about Flannery O’Connor. See in particular Comforts of Home, the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College & State University, and the Andalusia Foundation, which keeps her farm open to the public and which you can support with purchases from its gift shop—including the classic “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor” bumper sticker.

Related LOA works: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Paul Bowles centennial year: A tribute sparks a memory (updated)

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Paul Bowles (1910–1999), expatriate novelist, story writer, poet, composer, and translator. The author of four novels and dozens of short stories, Bowles is best known for his first novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949)—the haunting story of the misadventures of three young Americans trekking across the Sahara—and for his travel writing. His collection of travel essays Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue chronicles the 25,000 miles he traveled in Morocco in 1959 on a Rockefeller Foundation grant to record indigenous music for the Library of Congress. It regularly appears on lists of best travel books (most recently on World Hum’s 100 Best Travel Books).

A social outsider, Bowles spent the last 52 years of his life in Morocco. Critics often find it difficult to categorize Bowles. Robert Craft has called him “the last of the ‘Lost’ Generation and the first of the ‘Beats’.” Edmund White puts it more simply: “one of the four or five best writers in English in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Little Augury’s appreciative blog post yesterday about Paul Bowles’s and Cherie Nutting’s collaborative book, Yesterday’s Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles, prompted the book’s designer Elizabeth Avedon to recall her meeting with Bowles and Nutting to discuss the assignment:
Yesterday's Perfume holds the last work of Paul Bowles. I was fortunate to be invited to visit him in Tangier, Morocco, where he'd lived for 52 years, by Cherie and Paul about a year before he died in 1999. He’d liked a book I designed for photographer Peter Beard, Longing For Darkness: Kamante's Tales From Out of Africa, and I believe he mistakenly thought I needed to meet him to be able to design a book for them. I didn't tell anyone it wasn't necessary to travel to Morocco to design a book, I just packed my bags and filled them with a long list of sought-after American items he missed. He was very frail, but insisted on hosting the most wonderful dinner parties for me in Jane Bowles’ apartment, upstairs or downstairs from his own. He dressed for these occasions in an elegant Ralph Lauren robe and slippers. Sitting opposite me on the couch, he charmed me with fascinating stories about his travels in Mexico.
Readers can find information about upcoming events celebrating the centennial (in Portugal, Morocco, and Santa Cruz, California) at the official Paul Bowles site.

Update (8/15): Cherie Nutting recently sent along her own recollections of how Yesterday's Perfume came about:
In 1986, on my first visit to Tangier, I mentioned to Paul my idea to make a scrap book. He handed me Peter Beard's book (which Elizabeth had designed) and thought I might like it. I did. But it was actually Bruce Weber who, more than a decade later, urged me to contact “Betty” Avedon.

I contacted Elizabeth and asked her to design my book, and I showed her my ideas. I invited her to come to Tangier. I thought by coming to Tangier and meeting Paul, it would give her a better feeling for the work. Paul graciously invited her for tea in his apartment, which he had for himself and any guests each afternoon at 4. Paul Bowles didn't have dinners for others in his own apartment, because he was too old, but neighbors downstairs in Jane Bowles's apartment invited Paul, Elizabeth, and me for a few dinners during her stay in Morocco.

I was very pleased with Elizabeth's work. She transformed my ideas into a work of art.
Related LOA works: Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings (includes Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue); Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

John James Audubon: Evidence of his first published drawing found

For his first forty years, even while he was creating the outsize, visionary paintings that would become his self-published masterwork, Birds of America (1827), John James Audubon (1785–1851) struggled financially to support himself and his family as a drawing teacher and itinerant portrait painter. His first big potential break came in 1824 when, he noted in his diary, he received a commission to draw birds for a New Jersey bank note. (There was no national currency in those days. Independent banks printed their own currency. ) This would have been Audubon’s first published work, but no one has been able to find an example of the bank note or the illustration—until now.

After a decade-long search, Robert Peck, 57-year-old curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, a 99-year-old numismatic historian from St. Louis, have recently located what they believe to be the missing image among the sample sheets of a contemporary Philadelphia engraver. They recount the details of their discovery in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic (available August 31). As The Academy of Natural Sciences reports:
The bird illustration itself merits special attention. Although the heath hen drawing lacks the glorious colors and monumental scale of the images found in Birds of America, its qualities presage those that distinguish the subjects in the later masterwork. This humble grouse is depicted in an active, life-like pose rather than the stilted dispositions typical of the time. Moreover, details of its pose and placement in its habitat demonstrates the artist's first-hand and thorough knowledge of his subject.
Robert Peck suspects, however, that the bank note never made it into circulation. The bank probably found it unremarkable “especially in comparison to the majestic eagles, military heroes, and draped figures of Lady Liberty that typically adorned the paper money of the day. . . . A skittish, shy, running grouse doesn't instill great confidence in the bank,” Peck said

Listen to an NPR interview with Robert Peck about the discovery.

Image: Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society

Related LOA works: John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ernie Pyle still sets the style

To think that Ernie Pyle would have turned 110 today is one way of measuring just how far in the past World War II lies—and how enduring Pyle's reporting has proved. Ernie Pyle had already developed a following for his folksy syndicated columns about daily life in America when he began covering the war from London in 1940. Over the next five years his dispatches from Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific would make him the most read—and most imitated—reporter on the war. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was hit in the temple by Japanese machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa Honto, and died instantly.

In a 1950 reminiscence in The New Yorker, his colleague, wartime correspondent A. J. Liebling, offered this profile, “Pyle Set the Style”:
The thin old-looking reporter who was killed by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima in April, 1945 (he was only forty-four, but to enlisted men he seemed as old as a senior admiral), contributed a stock figure to the waxworks gallery of American history as popularly remembered. To a list that includes the frontiersman, the Kentucky colonel, the cowboy, and Babe Ruth, Ernest Taylor Pyle, to give him the full name nobody ever called him by, added G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman. The portrait was sentimentalized but the soldier was pleased to recognize himself in it, and millions of newspaper readers recognized their sons and lovers in Pyle’s soldiers and got some glimmer of the fact that war is a nasty business for the pedestrian combatant. Through millions of letters from home enclosing clippings, the soldiers learned that their folks read Ernie Pyle. He provided an emotional bridge. . . . He was the only American war correspondent who made a large personal impress on the nation in the Second World War.
Pyle’s dispatches focused not on military strategy but on the experiences of the common foot soldier, as in this report, “The God-Damned Infantry,” from Northern Tunisia in May 1943:
The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion. On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing. They don't slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else. The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men. There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia.
The above excerpts are from Reporting World War II: 1938-1946 (two volumes) and A. J. Liebling: World War II Writings.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Nathanael West as online muse

In his brief life Nathanael West wrote four darkly comic novels, two of them acclaimed masterpieces: Miss Lonelyhearts, a devastating portrait of a newspaper columnist overwhelmed by his readers’ sufferings, and The Day of the Locusts, an apocalyptic vision of the underside of the Hollywood dream. In a prescient article for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 Virginia Heffernan wrote “[West] seems to have become a writer, like Frank Norris or Djuna Barnes, whose work is periodically 'revived,' appreciated, and explained, and then returned to the hands of more stalwart fans.” Based on recent evidence a sustained revival of Nathanael West seems to be at hand.

For one, West today has his own Twitter account. Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, a dual biography of West and his wife, hosts both the Twitter account (in West's voice) and http://www.nathanaelwest.com/, a site devoted in equal parts to West, McKenney, and the book, and featuring a good deal of trivia and media about the couple.

Joe Woodward’s blog, The Nathanael West Project, chronicles on an almost daily basis his writing of a biography of West. Last week he posted a lengthy rumination for 3:AM Magazine, which included a description of the fateful last dinner party at West’s home in North Hollywood on Friday, December 13, 1940. That night West and McKenney hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham, Dorothy Parker, the screenwriters Albert and Frances Hackett, and the artist Hilaire Hiler.
No one at the party that night could have known it, but it was the last time any of them would see F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nathanael West alive. Fitzgerald would never finish The Last Tycoon and never see the whole of his Pat Hobby short story cycle published. And West, he would never get beyond the start of that fifth novel. The following weekend they would both be gone. Scott would die at the age of 44, the following Saturday, of a heart attack while reading the Princeton alumni magazine, and West, at 37, and his new wife Eileen, at 27, would die in a horrific car accident in the middle of the California desert.
A 1932 editorial in Americana, the short-lived magazine West co-edited with the Dadaist George Grosz, proclaimed. “We are the laughing morticians of the present.” This may help explain why West’s Wikipedia entry is one of the few with a link to Findagrave, a website where visitors can locate the graves of more than 4,000 writers and commemorate them with virtual flowers and comments.

On a livelier note, many clips are surfacing online of West’s screenwriting efforts, giving glimpses of his mordant style. Fans of Lost may enjoy the trailer for one of West’s last screenplays, Five Came Back (1939). Lucille Ball’s badinage in this clip from the same movie has a Westian flair. And Peter Lorre seems the perfect vehicle for West’s offhanded menace in Stranger on the Third Floor.

Related LOA works: Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings; Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology
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