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Friday, October 29, 2010

John Kenneth Galbraith on “Black Tuesday”

In his 1955 best-selling book The Great Crash, 1929 economist John Kenneth Galbraith sets the stage for the week of the Crash with a hundred pages of what the Atlantic Monthly called “a trenchant and timely re-examination of the most spectacular boom and bust period in American history . . . Mr. Galbraith’s prose has a grace and wit, and he distills a good deal of sardonic fun from the whopping errors of the nation’s oracles and the wondrous antics of the financial community.”

The market survived the volatile 12,894,650 trades on October 24, “Black Thursday,” when the Exchange got word during the afternoon that various banking executives were meeting. They decided to pool resources and support the market. When Richard Whitney, vice-president of the Exchange, appeared on the floor “debonair and self-confident” and posted an order for 10,000 shares of Steel at 205, the price of the last sale, the message, Galbraith notes, was clear:
This was it. The bankers, obviously, had moved in. The effect was electric. Fear vanished and gave way to concern lest the new advance be missed. Prices boomed upward.
Friday and Saturday trading was heavy but prices held steady. Monday was a different story. While the volume of trades was less than Black Thursday, losses were worse. In the last hour three million shares were traded at rapidly falling prices.The bankers met again that afternoon but this time no Richard Whitney stepped forward. The statement they released was not reassuring:
It was no part of the banker’s purpose, the statement said, to maintain any particular level of prices, or to protect anyone’s profit. Rather the aim was to have an orderly market, one in which offers would be met by bids at some price. The bankers were only concerned that “air holes” . . . not appear. . . To the man who had stock on margin, disaster had only one face and that was falling prices. But now prices were to be allowed to fall. The speculator’s only comfort, henceforth, was that his ruin would be accomplished in an orderly and becoming manner.
The curtain rises on “Black Tuesday”:
Tuesday, October 29, was the most devastating day in the history of the New York stock market, and it may have been the most devastating day in the history of markets. It combined all of the bad features of all of the bad days before. Volume was immensely greater than on Black Thursday; the drop in prices was almost as great as on Monday. Uncertainly and alarm were as great as on either.
Selling began as soon as the market opened and in huge volume. Great blocks of stock were offered for what they would bring; in the first half hour sales were at 33,000,000-a-day rate. The air holes, which the bankers were to close, opened wide. Repeatedly, and in many issues there was a plethora of selling orders and no buyers at all. . . . By [the close] 16,410,030 sales had been recorded on the New York Stock Exchange—some certainly went unrecorded—or more than three times the number that was once considered a fabulously big day.
Most historians use this date as the beginning of the Great Depression.

Of Related Interest
  • View the full American Experience documentary The Crash of 1929 with commentary by John Kenneth Galbraith.
  • Read “In Goldman, Sachs We Trust,” an excerpt from The Great Crash, 1929, about the oversized role the investment banker played in the meltdown.
Related LOA works: John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society & Other Writings 1952-1967 (includes The Great Crash, 1929 with Galbraith's 1997 introduction "A View from the Nineties")

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mark Twain and Emma Lazarus: Two visions of the Statue of Liberty

Mark Twain was among the painters and writers asked in 1883 to contribute sketches and letters to be auctioned at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York to raise money to build the pedestal that would hold the Statue of Liberty. Twain sent a check and an alternative proposal “Why a Statue of Liberty When We Have Adam!”
What do we care for a statue of liberty when we’ve got the thing itself in its wildest sublimity? What you want of a monument is to keep you in mind of something you haven’t got—something you’ve lost. Very well; we haven’t lost liberty; we’ve lost Adam.
Another thing: What has liberty done for us? Nothing in particular that I know of. What have we done for her? Everything. We’ve given her a home, and a good home, too. . .
But suppose your statue represented her old, bent, clothed in rags, downcast, shame-faced, with the insults and humiliation of 6,000 years, imploring a crust and an hour’s rest for God’s sake at our back door?—come, now you’re shouting! That’s the aspect of her which we need to be reminded of, lest we forget it.
Twain’s statue of the biblical Adam didn’t get built. Writer Constance Cary Harrison also had to conjure an image of Lady Liberty to persuade Emma Lazarus to contribute. When first approached, Lazarus demurred. She didn’t write “to order” and made fun of her “portfolio fiend” friend. But Harrison had read Lazarus’s articles about the plight of Russian Jews abroad and knew of her volunteer work at the hospital on Ward’s Island:
“Think of that Goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” The shaft sped home—her dark eyes deepened—her cheek flushed—the time for merriment had passed—she said not a word more, then.
“The New Colossus” was the only poem read at the exhibition. It was printed in the catalogue, in Art Amateur magazine, and widely reported in the press. Another contributor, James Russell Lowell, wrote to Lazarus from London in December 1883:
I must write again to say how much I like your sonnet about the statue—much better than I like the Statue itself. But your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’être which it wanted before much as it wanted a pedestal. You have set it on a noble one, saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.
Lowell grasped Lazarus’s great achievement. As Paul Auster has written, “The New Colossus” reinvented the statue's purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.” “Mother of Exiles” replaced “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

But the poem faded from memory even before the statue was erected. At the dedication on October 28, 1886 (124 years ago today), “The New Colossus” was not read. Lazarus died a year later of Hodgkin’s Disease, her poem forgotten. In 1903 Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler raised enough money to engrave the poem on a bronze tablet and place it on the second floor of the Statue of Liberty. There it languished in obscurity until the fiftieth anniversary of the statue spurred the Slovenian-American journalist Louis Adamic to begin a crusade to popularize it.

It caught on. Immigrant screenwriter Billy Wilder had Victor Francen recite it at a Fourth of July celebration in the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn. In 1942 in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur Priscilla Lane delivers its four most famous lines (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .”) to an enemy agent at the top of the Statue of Liberty. In 1945 the bronze tablet was moved from the second floor to the main entrance.

Listen to poet Carolyn Forché read “The New Colossus”

Related LOA works: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems; Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sylvia Plath and Anne Stevenson: Two uncommon poets born two months apart

A recent post on Women’s Voices for Change begins, “It seems each year that October 27, Sylvia Plath’s birthday, brings more darkness around her memory.” California’s Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes then tries to lessen that darkness by calling attention to the warmth in Plath’s work, “the muscularity of her efforts, her relationship to the natural world, and the woman she was yet to be.”

Getting past the Sylvia Plath myth to get to the poetry seems to be more than an annual problem. In 2001 psychologist James C. Kaufman coined the term the “Sylvia Plath Effect” (“the phenomenon that creative writers are more susceptible to mental illness”). In the five decades since her death a rancorous debate has raged over which of several biographies portrays her life more accurately—and each one struggled to shift the focus from her life to her work.

Yet Plath is different from Keats and Rimbaud and other revered poets who died young. As A. Alvarez writes: “For Plath, death, and the rage and despair that attend it, were her subject, and she followed the logic of her art to its desolate end. Her last poem, ‘Edge,’ is literally her own epitaph. Her life and work are not just inextricable, they seem at times virtually indistinguishable.”

Much of the rich appeal of Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath comes from biographer and poet Anne Stevenson’s unraveling of the sometimes mystifying imagery of Plath’s poems by identifying correspondences with her life. The seven sections of “Poem for a Birthday” from 1959, for instance, become more accessible if we know that lines like “Now they light me up like an electric bulb” and “Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers” relate to the electroconvulsive therapy treatments Plath received after her first suicide attempt in 1953. The “dubious note of hope” Stevenson finds in the last section “The Stones” contrasts sharply with the “merciless, lashing rage” in “A Birthday Present.” Written in September 1962, this was one of the first poems created in the five-month blaze of creativity that preceded Plath’s death and is one of the most memorable of those published posthumously in Ariel (1966).

Anne Stevenson devoted three years of her life to writing Bitter Fame, which was authorized by the estate. Although Alvarez, who knew Plath briefly, was outraged by the biography for both personal and literary reasons, Janet Malcolm’s controversial investigation into the art of biography, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, ends by finding Stevenson’s account “by far the most intelligent and the only authentically satisfying” of all the biographies. For Stevenson, the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, the contretemps over the biography threatened to overshadow her career as a poet. That danger was remedied somewhat in 2007 when the Poetry Foundation awarded 74-year-old Stevenson its Neglected Masters Award. Andrew Motion has called her “one of the most individual poetic voices to have emerged on either side of the Atlantic in the last fifty years.”

Stevenson has written three poems for Plath: “Nightmare, Daymoths”; “Hot Wind, Hard Rain”; and “Letter to Sylvia Plath.” She wrote “Letter” in 1988 just as she was finishing her biography, as one stanza acknowledges:
Dear Sylvia, we must close our book.
Three springs you’ve perched like a black rook
between sweet weather and my mind.
At last I have to seem unkind
and exorcise my awkward awe.
My shoulder doesn’t like your claw.
“Letter to Sylvia Plath” ends on the kind of affirming note that seems appropriate as a birthday remembrance:
We learn to be human when we kneel
to imagination, which is real
long after reality is dead
and history has put its bones to bed.
Sylvia, you have won at last,
embodying the living past,
catching the anguish of your age
in accents of a private rage.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Anne Stevenson: Selected Poems; Poems from the Women’s Movement (includes Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant”)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Moved by a story, Henry James writes to Edith Wharton for the first time

It’s hard to imagine that the young Edith Wharton was shy. Yet that is her explanation for why she failed to meet Henry James the first two times their paths crossed. She wore her newest Doucet dress, “a tea-rose pink, embroidered with iridescent beads,” to a dinner party in Paris in 1887 when she was just twenty-five. He never noticed her and she didn’t speak up (“those were the principles in which I had been brought up”).

Later, in the 1890s, when they were both part of the entourage of the painter Daniel Curtis and his wife in Venice Wharton donned what she believed to be a particularly fetching hat. Another failed effect.

James did begin hearing about Wharton through their many mutual friends. As she wrote more, their pieces began appearing in the same magazines. In 1899 she sent him her first book of tales, The Greater Inclination. James wrote a caustic note to a friend: he had read “the fruits of her literary toils.” What was best in them was “her amiable self.” What was “not best was quite another person.”

Then in October 1900 Lippincott’s Magazine published “The Line of Least Resistance,” a story set in Newport about an unfaithful wife and a weak-willed rich husband. Readers in Wharton’s high society circle in Lenox, Massachusetts were appalled: they thought the millionaire bore a scandalous resemblance to Emily Vanderbilt’s brother-in-law. James loved it. Reading it prompted him to write this historic first letter from England on October 26, 1900 (110 years ago today):
Dear Mrs. Wharton,

I brave your interdiction & thank you both for your letter & for the brilliant little tale in the Philadelphia repository [Lippincott’s]. The latter has an admirable sharpness & neatness, & infinite wit & point – it only suffers a little, I think, from one’s not having a direct glimpse of the husband’s provoking causes – literally provoking ones. . . The subject is really a big one for the canvas – that was really your difficulty. But the thing is done. And I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it – it’s an untouched field, really: the folk who try, over there, don’t come within miles of any civilized, however superficially, any “evolved” life. And use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts; they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine. Only, the Lippincott tale is a little hard, a little purely derisive. But that’s because you’re so young, &, with it, so clever. Youth is hard--& your needle-point, later on, will muffle itself in a little blur of silk. It is a needle-point! Do send me what you write, when you can kindly find time, & do, some day, better still, come to see yours, dear Mrs. Wharton, most truly,
Henry James
After many more letters they finally met in December 1903; for the remaining thirteen years of James’s life they would become close friends and traveling companions, despite a nineteen-year age difference.

Of related interest:
  • Great Books, Half Read recounts Edith Wharton’s hilarious tale of motoring with Henry James (and why he should never ask for directions)
  • The Mount, the Lenox estate Edith Wharton designed, hosts numerous Halloween-themed events this week, including readings of Wharton’s ghost stories
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, & Other Writings; Henry James: Complete Stories

Monday, October 25, 2010

John Berryman and Saul Bellow: “joined forces” for twenty years

Most readers believe that Saul Bellow based the character Humboldt in his novel Humboldt’s Gift on the poet Delmore Schwartz. Bellow’s biographer Ruth Miller finds the origin more complex: “Humboldt is a composite person; the failed poet is Delmore Schwartz but only in part. Part is also Isaac Rosenfeld and John Berryman.”

In the memoir Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson (Berryman's wife at the time) recalls witnessing the developing friendship between Bellow and Berryman (whose birthday is today, October 25) when the two men were teaching at Princeton in 1951:
Returning from a Sunday walk down by Lake Carnegie with Monroe Engel and Saul, John said to me, “I like Bellow more each time I see him. A lovely man. And a comedian. He threw a log he found at the edge of the lake into the water and, with a gesture of command, said “Go. Go be a hazard.”

A few days later John came home with a typescript of Saul’s new novel and said “I’m going to take the weekend off to read this.” Seated in his red leather chair, immobile for hours except to light a cigarette, make a note on a small white pad, run the corkscrew he liked to toy with through his fingers, or let out a high-pitched “eeeeeeeeeeeee,” which meant he was laughing so hard he couldn't get his breath, he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having. After the first chapter, he said, “It's damn good.” When he finished, “Bellow is it. I'm going to have lunch with him and tell him he's a bloody genius and so on.”
Published in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March was a critical and financial triumph that catapulted Bellow to fame and won for him the National Book Award. In the same year Partisan Review published Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet; its publication in book form three years later established Berryman as a new and distinctive voice. Berryman would later dedicate to Bellow “Dream Song 75” in his Pulitzer Prize–winning collection 77 Dream Songs (1964).

In 1971, in his last letter to Bellow, Berryman exulted about the birth of his daughter, his high expectations for his own first novel, and Bellow’s news of starting Humboldt’s Gift.
Let’s join forces, large and small, as in the winter beginning of 1953 in Princeton, with the Bradstreet blazing and Augie fleecing away. We’re promising.
Berryman jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis on January 7, 1972 (“he tilted out and let go” in biographer Paul Mariani’s phrasing). Bellow was at that time several hundred pages into the writing of Humboldt’s Gift.

In his introduction to Recovery (1973), Berryman’s unfinished and posthumously published novel, Bellow quotes from that last letter and remembers his friend of twenty years:
What he said was true: we joined forces in 1953 and sustained each other for many years. . .

His poems said everything. He himself said remarkably little. His songs were his love offerings. These offerings were not always accepted. . . . he snatched up the copy of Love & Fame which he had brought me and struck out certain poems, scribbling in the margins, “Crap!” “Disgusting!” But of one poem, “Surprise Me,” he wrote shakily, “This is certainly one of the truest things I’ve been gifted with.”

I read it again now and see what he meant. I am moved by the life of a man I loved. He prays to be surprised by the “blessing gratuitous” “on some ordinary day.” It would have to be an ordinary day, of course, an ordinary American day. The ordinariness of the days was what it was all about.
Of related interest:
  • Patrick Kurp has also blogged about the Berryman-Bellow friendship
  • Read an interview with Janis Bellow about the forthcoming publication in November of Saul Bellow: Letters, which will include many of his letters to John Berryman
  • Below: A video of John Berryman being interviewed by A. A. Alvarez in 1966 and reading “Dream Song 14,” which begins “Life, friends, is boring”

Related LOA works: John Berryman: Selected Poems; Saul Bellow: Novels 1970-1982

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ninety years after publication, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street still resonates with readers

On October 23, 1920, Harcourt, Brace & Howe published Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and no one ever looked at small-town America in quite the same way again. Lewis’s masterstroke was to make Main Street “the climax of civilization” on the first page:
This is America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called “Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.” But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills.
The book became an immediate sensation. Biographer Mark Schorer called its publication “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” As of 1922 an estimated two million Americans had read the book. Ludwig Lewisohn conjectured that “Perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” Biographer Richard Lingeman estimated that “Main Street earned Lewis perhaps three million current [2002] dollars.”

Lewis found a way to appeal to both those who were nostalgic for small town America and those who were dissatisfied with it. His publisher Alfred Harcourt speculated that many of the book’s buyers were urbanites who had lived in small towns. Lingeman agreed:
Most native-born adult Americans in 1920 had grown up in small towns or rural areas. The United States was still a small-town country, despite the great leap of urbanization over the previous forty years. Half its population lived in towns of 2,500 or less.
Lewis himself was born in a small town of 2,800: Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He understood that small towns have familiar types: malcontents like his protagonist Carol Kennicott, solid folk like her husband Will and her best friend Vida Sherwin, and outsiders like the effeminate and poetic tailor Erik Valborg or the outspoken radical handyman Miles Bjornstam.

But most of all, Lewis struck a nerve with women readers, through his vivid descriptions, his varied characters, their common fear of gossip, and, most of all, his appealing approach to sex. As Lingeman wrote in Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street:
Main Street is franker about sex than most novels of the time, but Lewis keeps it within the marital relationship so as not to alienate the married women who made up a bulk of its readers.
These women were drawn to Main Street for its perceptive and realistic portrait of a modern marriage. Said one reader: “I lived every page of Main Street for fifteen years.” Another repeated Carol’s mantra, “I must go on,” but her courage sometimes faltered: “I have sat on the slippery edge of a bath tub and privately wept, many and many a time. Dear tender treasured longings which cause us who hunger to weep!”
Ninety years later, Main Street continues to resonate with readers. Julie on My So-Called Gifts blog recently finished reading it and wrote:
Reading Main Street has helped me to accept that although clothing styles, automobiles and ways of communicating have changed in the 90 years since it was written, the restrictive attitudes and judgmental glances detailed in the novel are still found in the Minnesota towns that surround me today. . . I wish that [Sinclair Lewis] was still alive so I could thank him for observing my experience before I was even born and documenting it in such a way that I could learn from it.
Of related interest:
  • In 1930 Lewis was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. You can read his Nobel autobiography, his Nobel lecture, and watch a short silent video clip of him in Stockholm here.
  • The Sound of Blackbirds blog has recapped the poets and songwriters who attended the 20th anniversary of the Sinclair Lewis Writer’s Conference in Sauk Centre earlier this month
Related LOA works: Sinclair Lewis: Main Street and Babbitt; Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan: Desolation Angels led to “Desolation Row”

In his new book, Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz opens his chapter on “The Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg’s America” by noting the impact the Aaron Copland–scored movie of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men had on eighteen-year-old Jack Kerouac in 1940. Nearly two decades after catching the movie at a midnight show, Kerouac recaptured the experience in “54th Chorus,” a poem he included in Mexico City Blues.

Fast forward another twenty years and Kerouac’s Beat doppelganger Allen Ginsberg is filmed reciting “54th Chorus” when he and Bob Dylan visit Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts:
[Ginsberg invoked] specters, fatigue, mortality, Mexico, and John Steinbeck’s boxcar America, while he and Dylan contemplated Kerouac’s headstone. And when Dylan included footage of the event in the film he made in and about the Rolling Thunder tour, yet another complicated cultural circuit closed, linking Kerouac listening to Copland and watching Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1940 with the scene at Kerouac’s grave in Renaldo and Clara in 1977.

Dylan never met Kerouac (who died forty-one years ago today). But he loved Kerouac’s “breathless, dynamic, bop phrases.” Wilentz details the close and complex relationship between the folk-music crowd and the Beats in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. Dylan arrived there in January 1961, having read the Beats in Minneapolis:
I came out of the wildness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was pretty much connected, “ Dylan said in 1985. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Felinghetti . . . I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic. . . . it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.
But while Dylan could identify with Kerouac as another “young man from a small industrial town who had come to New York as a cultural outsider,” the friendship he developed with Ginsberg transformed both their lives. They first met at a party thrown by Wilentz’s uncle in December 1963 and their bond deepened over decades, “each influencing the other,” as Wilentz writes, “while their admirers forged the counterculture that profoundly affected American life at the end of the twentieth century.”

A recent post by John Dorsey about On the Road reminds us that twenty-first century writers are discovering Kerouac afresh:
What I had failed to realize before this moment is that things have never been innocent, they’ve never been easy, you just couldn’t Tweet about them. So what makes Kerouac vital today? In these turbulent times he offers a sense of stability, the knowledge that what you are feeling is normal, that we all have fears, no matter how different they may be. You are the Kerouac of future generations, so is the guy sitting next to you in the food court; you just have to be willing to travel, even if it’s only in your mind, and be willing to unpack your sense of adventure.
And in an interview about the new film adaptation of On the Road by Walter Salles and Jose Rivera (director and screenwriter respectively of The Motorcycle Diaries), Kristen Stewart, who plays Marylou, revealed that On the Road was “her first favorite book” when she read it at fourteen. Due to be released in 2011, the film stars Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, and also features Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, and Terrence Howard.

Of related interest:
  • Read The New Yorker excerpt from Bob Dylan in America on “Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America”
  • Tom Graves reviews the Rhino boxed set The Jack Kerouac Collection, including his recordings with Steve Allen, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims
  • Micropsia reports on a Q&A with Walter Salles about his documentary In Search of On the Road, which includes segments with Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp, and David Byrne and audition clips from previous attempts to make the novel into a film
Related LOA works: Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957-1960; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes three poems by Ginsberg)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philip Roth, Albert Camus, and plagues

Philip Roth’s latest novel is receiving widespread critical attention, including a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review. Literary critic Elaine Showalter (who edited the LOA volume of Louisa May Alcott) writes to us about a literary precedent that many of the reviewers seem to have overlooked:
I’ve been surprised that very few reviewers of Philip Roth’s Nemesis have pointed out that it is a brilliant and compassionate American re-imagining of Albert Camus’s fable, The Plague (1947). Camus’s narrator, later revealed as the enlightened Algerian doctor Bernard Rieux, begins: “the unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- in Oran.” Similarly, Roth sets the unusual events of the polio epidemic in the summer of 1944, in another sweltering port city, “equatorial Newark.” Like Camus, Roth juxtaposes the war and the epidemic to highlight the parallels between the tragic and absurd fate of the young men fighting in France and the Pacific, “because this was real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste, and damnation, war with the ravages of war—war upon the children of Newark.”

But re-reading The Plague last year, Roth decided to make some significant structural changes for his book. “I could have had a doctor tell it, the way Camus does,” he told The (London) Times. Instead, he made his narrator a polio victim who survives, and his protagonist a young athlete and playground director, Bucky Cantor, who epitomizes the simple values of manliness, sportsmanship, and honor. Bucky’s values are not trivial in the face of panic, fear, persecution, and arbitrary death. Camus, who had been a champion football goalie until he was sidelined by tuberculosis, said in the 1950s “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport.” Ultimately, Roth argues, in the spirit of Camus, we are at the mercy of the “malicious absurdity of nature” and live in an indifferent, Godless universe. We create meaning and dignity for ourselves by joining with others in resistance to our fate. With its solid historical context and familiar setting in Jewish Newark, Nemesis is unmistakably a Roth novel, but also a humane and profound fable about the human condition which deserves to be read alongside The Plague.
In a recent post reviewing Nemesis, blogger Mike Ettner also notes the similarities and points out that Roth had mined this material over fifty years ago in a never-published story that he showed to Saul Bellow:
[A] draft short story Roth had shared with Bellow back in 1957 reminded the elder writer, in one respect, of The Plague by Albert Camus, a book Bellow disliked. He warned Roth against writing stories too beholden to a controlling idea: “I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’ The Plague was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.” . . . And yet there is no mistaking the correspondences between the fictional devastations visited upon the populaces in Camus’ The Plague and Roth’s Nemesis and contemporary or near-contemporary events in Europe.
Nemesis will appear in a future volume of The Library of America’s definitive collection of Philip Roth’s fiction; so far the series has published all the novels and stories through 1995.

Related LOA volumes: Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959–1995

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Recently uncovered: at least ten British ships sunk during the Siege of Yorktown

In the waters of the mouth of Virginia’s York River, there are as many as twenty-six ships, swamped since the Siege of Yorktown 229 years ago. In recent years a total of nine have been located and identified, and according to an article in the Virginia Gazette, a ship that is believed to be the tenth will be featured this weekend at a presentation coinciding with the anniversary of the siege, commemorated annually on October 19—the date Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces in the South, surrendered to George Washington in 1781.

Several of the ships were sunk by cannon fire, but many were intentionally scuttled by British forces to keep the fleet from falling to the enemy during a battle that had turned into a complete rout. The following day, in a letter to Henry Clinton (the British general who failed to come to the rescue in time), Cornwallis reported that during the preceding three weeks the French and American armies had moved their artillery batteries closer and closer to the British lines, maintaining a relentless and devastating barrage:
Our works in the meantime were going to ruin . . . Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty.
What Cornwallis fails to relate is one tactic that Ron Chernow recounts in George Washington: A Life:
In desperation Cornwallis took former slaves who had defected to the British lines and contracted smallpox and pushed them toward the allied lines in a version of germ warfare. One American soldier reported "herds of Negroes" who had been "turned adrift" by Cornwallis for this grisly purpose.
Soldiers examining the battlefield after the surrender were shocked at the large number of black cadavers.

The Articles of Capitulation were signed at 11:00 a.m. on October 19, but the signal event marking the surrender occurred at 2:00 p.m. when the allied forces lined up along a lane a half mile long. The contrast was dramatic: the French on the left side, with dress swords and polished boots, the Americans on the right, as eyewitness Baron von Closon described them, “clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them were almost barefoot.” Drummers led the almost 8,000 defeated British and Hessian soldiers as they marched between the columns, their colors furled. Reportedly, the British troops studiously ignored the American side, looking only at the French as their fifes and drums played “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Another German officer, Captain Johann Ewald, captured in his diary the significance of what he saw:
I have seen many soldiers of this army without shoes, with tattered breeches and uniforms patched with all sorts of colored cloth, without neckband and only the lid of a hat, who marched and stood their guard as proudly as the best uniformed soldier in the world. With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves . . . But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm—which these poor fellows call ‘Liberty’—can do!

Related LOA works: George Washington: Writings (includes 43 pages from his Journal of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1–November 5, 1781); The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

Monday, October 18, 2010

Warren Keith Wright (1954–2010)

It is with sadness that the staff and directors note the passing of Warren Keith Wright, who for several years has been a proofreader for The Library of America, as well as a supporter of the series since its inception. He died unexpectedly and suddenly last week, due to cardiac arrest.

A resident of Arbyrd, Missouri (a rural town of just over 500 residents), Keith was also a contributor to the British magazine Opera and served as moderator (under the penname Bradford) on the Web site The Diary of Samuel Pepys, where fellow online colleagues have been posting remembrances.

One of the many remarkable things about Keith is that, while he became a charter subscriber to the LOA in 1982 and he took on the lion’s share of proofreading in recent years, most LOA staff members and directors never met him in person, and the few who did saw him just once, during a visit to New York two decades ago. Instead, his cheerful support was provided by correspondence, both “snail mail” and e-mail, as described in the Winter 2008–09 issue of the Library of America Newsletter:
He vowed to read every volume. And then he started writing letters—more than 200 so far—that have endeared him to the LOA staff. . . .

And thus began the fruitful relationship between Wright and the LOA, in which he continued to comment and to question possible errors, which were often corrected in future printings. His letters were “delightful,” said LOA president Cheryl Hurley, and many in the New York office have come to consider Wright a friend, though he has visited only once.

Over the years Wright’s letters have become chattier. In 1995, as he dissected a volume of Faulkner, he pointed out the word “cooter,” explaining that as “that classic reference White Trash Cooking confirms, a cooter is a turtle.”
Four years ago, Keith was hired by LOA as a freelance proofreader, which he did while taking care of his ailing mother (who died two years ago). He told us, “It made me think of Mrs. Frances Trollope, mother of British novelist Anthony Trollope, who tended the sick while writing her own novels.”

His favorite Library of America author, he said, was Dawn Powell. “She has an attitude toward life that I find very congenial, that life is a hard job but there’s some fun to be had out of it.” And, through his many letters and e-mail messages, Keith offered the rest of us plenty of that fun, and we will miss him greatly.

October 18, 1851: Melville’s Moby-Dick is published in London as The Whale

On October 18, 1851, Richard Bentley published Herman Melville’s sixth novel The Whale in London: 500 sets in a beautiful binding of brilliant sea-blue wavy-grain cloth covers with cream cloth spines, emblazoned in gold from top to bottom with diving right whales.

Why America’s great American novel was published first in Great Britain under a different name is a tale of pirates and misadventure—and ends by having a considerable impact on the fate of the novel’s reception in America.

In Melville’s day, there was no international copyright. American publishers competed by being first on the docks. When proofs from Great Britain arrived they rushed new books into print before others could. By the 1840s American authors discovered that if they published their work first in Great Britain they could get the benefit of British copyright—and if they could arrange for a near-simultaneous American publication they could avoid pirated editions. For his first five novels, this is exactly what Melville did, the American edition appearing no later than six weeks after the British.

However, this plan had drawbacks. London’s Victorian publishers removed anything obscene or politically suspect—and did so without conferring with the author. Melville tried to exert control over his new novel by having the text set in type and plated on his own. This probably helped the accuracy of the American edition but the British edition was going to be reset anyway. Two days after sending the corrected proofs to London, he decided to change the name of the book from The Whale to Moby-Dick and to dedicate it to his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Bentley received these changes in time to insert the dedication, but not to change the title. Hence, the British edition is called The Whale. Harper & Brothers published the American edition as Moby-Dick, or, The Whale on November 14.

Opinions in British media had a strong influence on American readers. The first review of Moby-Dick in The Boston Post of November 20 began: “We have read nearly one-half of this book and are satisfied that the London Athenaeum is right in calling it: ‘an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.’” The October 25 Athenaeum review went on to remark on the “assortment of curious quotations” in the appendix. But Melville had not included an appendix. The Athenaeum review was reprinted in full in the November 22 Boston Statesman and cited with excerpts in the December New York Eclectic Magazine and the December North American Miscellany.

At the end of November the New York International magazine reprinted a rather savage October 25 London Spectator review: “This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad . . . it repels the reader instead of attracting him.” The review ended by ridiculing the book for using a first-person narrative when everyone on the Pequod perishes.

What Melville discovered when his copies of the British edition arrived months later was that Bentley had left out the Epilogue in which Ishmael recounts how he survived. The opening Extracts, intended as a kind of overture, had been moved to an appendix. Scholars have found some six hundred differences in wording between the American and English editions and thirty-five passages in the American edition not in the British.

No American reviewer bothered to discover that the difficulties the London reviewers had with the British edition probably did not apply to the American edition. Melville’s total earnings from Moby-Dick: $556.37.

Of related interest:
  • Read about Melville’s first meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne in a previous Reader’s Almanac post
  • Melville.org includes links to historical information and contemporary reviews of Melville’s works
  • Caleb Crain has recently been researching the history and significance of “sperm squeezing” as described in Moby-Dick
  • The bloggers at Southern Fried Science are engaged in a yearlong reading of Moby-Dick in the context of current marine science
Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Complete Fiction and Other Prose Works

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eugene O’Neill and George Jean Nathan: transforming American theater together

It seems uncanny that the careers of a critic and a playwright could have been as inextricably entwined as were those of George Jean Nathan and Eugene O'Neill (whose birthday is today, October 16). As co-editor and drama critic of The Smart Set, Nathan was seeking to publish the new voices of post-World War I America. Their paths crossed in May 1917 when O’Neill submitted three of his “fo’c’sle” plays to H. L. Mencken, Nathan’s co-editor:
I have never seen anything of this kind in The Smart Set and I have small hope of it being the type of material you desire. But I do hope, and hope it strongly, that you will read them. I want these plays, which to me are real, to pass through your acid test because I know your acid is “good medicine.”
Mencken read them, wrote O’Neill he liked them, and forwarded them to Nathan, who decided to publish all three: The Long Voyage Home (October 1917), Ile (May 1918), and The Moon of the Caribees (August 1918). “That was my first ray of recognition,” O’Neill later said.

O’Neill and Nathan didn’t actually meet until May 1919, as O’Neill would recollect:
I can’t for the life of me recall much about my first meeting with Nathan. It was with John D. Williams at some restaurant, I believe, and I was three-fourths “blotto.” . . . The second meeting was at the Royalton at his apartment, and I still have a letter written by Nathan a few days later in which he speaks of being gratified at discovering that I was as proficient at drinking cocktails as at concocting dramas.
For the next three decades they met, talked, and continually corresponded: O’Neill sending Nathan scripts and Nathan responding with detailed critiques, which O’Neill claimed to value but rarely followed. In 1920 Nathan was instrumental in bringing O’Neill’s full-length play Beyond the Horizon to the attention of Broadway producer Williams. In a “thank you” letter O’Neill calls Nathan the play’s “godfather.” Beyond the Horizon would win O’Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. Nathan’s support for O’Neill’s first and only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, in 1933 led him to dedicate the play to Nathan.

O’Neill fell out of favor in the 1940s as years passed without him producing a new play. When he returned in 1946 with The Iceman Cometh, the reception was cool, except for Nathan. His 1947 review begins:
The Iceman Cometh . . . makes most of the plays of other American playwrights produced during the more than twelve-year period of O’Neill’s absence look comparatively like so much damp tissue paper. . . It is, in short, one of the best of its author’s works and one that again firmly secures his position not only as the first of American dramatists but, with Shaw and O’Casey, one of the three really distinguished among the world’s living.
The Iceman Cometh would be the last new work of O’Neill’s produced in his lifetime.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays; The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes Nathan’s complete review of The Iceman Cometh)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

E. E. Cummings and The Enormous Room: making jail literature modernist

Born 116 years ago today, E. E. Cummings’s first major book was not poetry but the autobiographical novel The Enormous Room, first published in 1922, the annus mirabilis that also saw the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land.

The Enormous Room took its name from the large barracks in France where Cummings slept with thirty other Allied prisoners for two months in 1917. Cummings had arrived in France in August, a year out of Harvard, to drive ambulances for the Red Cross. But the fellow ambulance driver he befriended on the voyage over, William Slater Brown, turned out to be an outspoken pacifist. When the French censors found mentions of “war weariness” and Emma Goldman in Brown’s letters home they recommended both be arrested. Cummings would probably have been released but out of loyalty to his friend he refused to profess hatred for all Germans. In October the two were shipped off to La Ferté-Macé, the detention barracks.

Cummings's first letters home painted a reassuring picture of life in internment. On October 24 he wrote: “days spent with an inimitable friend in soul stretching probings of aesthetics, 10 hour nights (9 P.M.-6:45 A.M.) and fine folk to converse in five or six language beside you—perfection attained at last.” But the high spirits didn’t last. The food was inadequate, Brown contracted scurvy, the two friends were separated in November, and Cummings came down with a rash and an infection.

Luckily for Cummings, his father had connections. He had been Harvard’s first instructor in sociology and in 1917 was perhaps the most famous Unitarian minister in Boston. His plaintive letters, reprinted as the introduction to The Enormous Room, finally succeeded in securing his son’s release on December 19. Worried about his son’s seeming lack of direction, Edward Cummings offered to finance a trip abroad for his son if he would write up his “French Notes.” And in July 1920 Cummings retired to a tent on Silver Lake in New Hampshire to spend the next five months doing just that.

Most publishers did not know what make of the manuscript. It wasn’t really a novel or an autobiography and what was with all the French phrases and odd typography? After half a dozen rejections, Cummings left the task of finding a publisher to his father who succeeded in placing it with Boni & Liveright.

While it was not a commercial success—it had already been remaindered by the time Cummings won the prestigious Dial Poetry Award in 1925—most critics greeted it as something unique. In a roundup review of World War I novels in 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald singled it out: “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings. Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its immortality.”

Reviewing a reissue of the book in 1995, Samuel Hynes wrote:
. . . as jail literature it is moving, funny, endlessly interesting. But it is as an early American modernist text that it is most touching. It is our modernism when young: lively, energetic, playful, both overwritten and underwritten, endlessly confident in what a new art of prose could do, at that point in history when our brash nation thrust itself forward into the great confusion of the world after the war.
Of related interest:
  • Daily Art Fixx has an appreciation of E. E. Cummings the artist
  • Zoe in Wonderland also posted an appreciation of The Enormous Room
  • The entry on Cummings on poets.org includes links to several of his best-known poems and to an essay for readers new to poetry from his era, “A Brief Guide to Modernism”
  • Notable American Unitarians has posted Malcolm Cowley's profile of Cummings
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson; Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (includes Vive la Folie!, Cummings’s 1926 account of a performance by Josephine Baker)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Arna Bontemps, poet, novelist, anthologist of the Harlem Renaissance

Arna Bontemps would have turned 108 today. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of a Creole bricklayer and teacher, Bontemps grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Upon graduating from Pacific Union College, Bontemps accepted a teaching position at the Seventh Day Adventist Harlem Academy and arrived in New York just as The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, published his first poem “Hope” in its August 1924 issue.

While teaching in Harlem, Bontemps became acquainted with many Harlem Renaissance figures: Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes. Bontemps and Hughes would collaborate on a poetry collection, a play, two books for children, and two benchmark anthologies, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). As Bontemps would later write: “there was a happening in black America in those days . . . suddenly stars began to fall on a part of Manhattan that white residents had begun abandoning.”

Bontemps’s first novel, God Sends Sunday, about a black jockey in the 1890s, was published in 1931. Although Du Bois criticized it for depicting the seamy side of black life, others hailed it for its unique depiction of black people’s interest in the sporting life and its use of Creole language. That same year, Bontemps left New York for a teaching position at the conservative Oakwood Academy in Alabama. “The golden days were gone,” he later wrote, “or was it just the bloom of youth that had been lost?” Unfortunately, a confrontation with the Oakwood administration led to Bontemps moving his wife and five children back to his father’s small home in California. Reportedly written on top of a sewing machine, his second novel, Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (1936), about Gabriel Prosser's aborted slave rebellion, is often acclaimed as his masterpiece.

When his third novel Drums at Dusk (1939), about a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, received a mixed response, Bontemps stopped writing fiction. He instead sought a degree in library science from the University of Chicago. During his subsequent twenty-two-year career at Fisk University, Bontemps substantially expanded its holdings, acquiring the papers of such prominent African Americans of letters as Du Bois, Hughes, Charles W. Chesnutt, W. C. Handy, and Jean Toomer, among others.

In 1946 Bontemps collaborated with Countee Cullen to turn God Sends Sunday into the musical St. Louis Woman with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and featuring the song “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The show ran 113 performances and is noteworthy for the Broadway debut of Pearl Bailey as Butterfly.

Author or editor of more than fifty books, Bontemps is considered one of the foremost historians, chroniclers, and preservers of black cultural heritage. His works include a stream of biographies, histories, and fiction for children, including the 1949 Newbery Honor Book Story of the Negro. Among the other significant anthologies Bontemps edited are The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972), a collected of essays of notable figures of the period and including Bontemps’s own reflections, and Personals (1963), a collection of his own poetry and his thoughts on Harlem Renaissance writers.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E. E. Cummings to May Swenson (includes four poems by Bontemps); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from God Sends Sunday)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mark Twain and George Washington Cable: The “Twins of Genius” Tour

Today is the birthday of George Washington Cable. Born in New Orleans in 1844, Cable fought as a youth as a Confederate calvalry trooper in Mississippi. After the war he became an outspoken journalist in New Orleans advocating the civil rights of freed slaves. His research into Creole culture led to his best-known work, Old Creole Stories (1879), and the novels The Grandissmes (1880) and Dr. Sevier (1884). Eighty years later, Edmund Wilson would write in Patriotic Gore, “[Cable’s] work during the seventies and eighties . . . is astonishing for its intelligence, its boldness, and its brilliance.”

In Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain describes the “vivid pleasure” of touring New Orleans in 1882 with Cable as a guide and hails him as “the South’s finest literary genius.” Like Twain, Cable promoted his work through public readings and two years later jumped at the chance to join Twain on what would be his penultimate lecture tour. Cable had just published Dr. Sevier, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be published in January 1885. But the “Twins of Genius” tour was more a proto-rock-and-roll event than a book tour: they logged 103 performances in 80 cities, beginning in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 4, 1884, and ending in Washington, DC, on February 28.

Cable and Twain took turns onstage. Cable read somewhat stiffly from his work; Twain memorized every line and prowled the stage, timing his drawled delivery for maximum effect. Ticket prices ranged from twenty-five to seventy-five cents in towns; seventy-five cents to a dollar in cities. The performances drew as many as a thousand in Washington and Philadelphia; the average audience elsewhere was between five and six hundred. When the turnout looked low in early November, Twain wrote his tour manager J. P. Pond: “We must have men to patrol the streets with bill-boards on their backs. We must resort to any methods —& if we then still have such houses as we had to-day & last night, it will mean that we can't draw & better quit. Hurry up, old man!”

During the Christmas break, Twain decided to tweak his material. He made his final piece a 23-minute excerpt from his new novel: parts of chapters 38 and 39—the “Evasion” chapters in which Huck and Tom “free” Jim from slavery. After he premiered the new addition on December 29, Twain described the reaction in a letter to his wife: “It went a-booming . . . it's the biggest card I've got in my whole repertoire.”

A devout Presbyterian, Cable refused to travel or perform on the sabbath. One of Cable’s proudest moments was when he persuaded Twain to join him at church on the final stop of their tour. Twain summed up their adventures in a letter to William Dean Howells:
It has been a curious experience. It has taught me that Cable’s gifts of mind are greater and higher than I suspected. But . . . you will never, never know, never divine, guess, imagine, how loathsome a thing the Christian religion can be made until you come to know and study Cable daily and hourly. Mind you I like him . . . but in him and his person I have learned to hate all religions. He has taught me to abhor and detest the Sabbath-day and hunt up new and troublesome ways to dishonor it.
You can read Cable’s reminiscences of Twain here.

Of related interest:
  • The University of Virginia website features an interactive program of a performance, a map of the tour, and a roster of tour dates with links to reviews and letter references.
  • Listen to Roy Blount Jr. read Cable’s “The Song of Cayetano’s Circus” in Segment Four of The Republic of Verse

Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes six selections from Cable’s Creole Slave Songs); The Complete Mark Twain Library

Monday, October 11, 2010

Joel Barlow, Joaquin Miller, Walt Whitman, Trumbull Stickney, Hart Crane, Robert Frost: poets appraise Columbus

Many poets have evoked Columbus over the years. In 1787 one of the “Hartford Wits,” thirty-four-year-old Joel Barlow, published his long epic poem The Vision of Columbus by subscription; his readers included George Washington and Thomas Paine. Twenty years later he revised it extensively and republished it as The Columbiad. In this excerpt Columbus first sees the New Land:
High moved the scene, Columbus gazed sublime,
And thus in prospect hail'd the happy clime:
Blest be the race my guardian guide shall lead
Where these wide vales their various bounties spread.
What treasured stores the hills must here combine!
In 1892 Joaquin Miller composed “Columbus” for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. For decades this poem, memorized by millions of schoolchildren, rivaled the Gettysburg Address in popularity. “Sail on” memorably closes each stanza, leading to the climax:
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
    And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
    A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
    It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
    Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”
The same anniversary year moved Walt Whitman to write “Prayer of Columbus.” Here Columbus is not one of the heroic voyagers of Whitman’s 1870 “Passage to India” but “A BATTER’D, wreck’d old man” composing a last desperate prayer that isn’t answered until the last stanza:
And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal’d my eyes,
Shadowy, vast shapes, smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.
Ten years later Trumbull Stickney would adopt a much more critical stance in a fifteen-line broadside:
You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviours, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.
In the late 1920s Hart Crane found in Columbus’s journals the solution to how he would begin his epic 1930 poem, The Bridge. Columbus’s descriptions resonated with Crane’s own experiences of the Caribbean and in the “Ave Maria” section of The Bridge Columbus appears as one mystically redeemed by his first experience of the new continent:
I thought of Genoa; and this truth, now proved,
That made me exile in her streets, stood me
More absolute than eve—biding the moon
Till dawn should clear that dim frontier, first seen
—The Chan’s great continent . . . Then faith, not fear
Nigh surged me witless . . . Heaving the surf near—
I, wonder-breathing, kept the watch,—saw
The first palm chevron the first lighted hill.
In “America Is Hard to See” (1951), Robert Frost contrasts how as a youth he viewed Columbus when he would have “had Columbus sung / As a god who had given us / A more than Moses’ exodus.” Now older and more sardonic, he realizes:
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we should have to put our mind
On how to crowd but still be kind.
Listen to N. Scott Momaday read “You say, Columbus with his argosies” in Segment Five of The Republic of Verse.

Related LOA works: Four Centuries of American Poetry (5 volumes); Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose; Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters; Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays

Friday, October 8, 2010

James Thurber: “Nobody else ever reads a volume of letters and anybody who says he does is a liar”

In the October 8, 1938, issue of The New Yorker James Thurber finds inspiration in a passage by Henry Steele Commager on the Letters of Henry Adams:
Adams was a great letter writer of a type that is now almost extinct . . . his circle of friends was larger perhaps and more distinguished than that of any other American of his generation.
In the short spoof “The Letters of James Thurber,” Thurber ponders how his own letters might compare:
James Thurber was a letter writer of the type that is now completely extinct. His circle of correspondents was perhaps no larger but it was easily more bewildered than that of any other American of his generation.... The effect of Thurber’s letters on his generation was about the same as the effect of anybody’s letters on any generation; that is to say, nil. It is only when a man’s letters are published after his death that they have any effect and this effect is usually only on literary critics. Nobody else ever reads a volume of letters and anybody who says he does is a liar.
I have been unable to find any one of Thurber’s many correspondents who saved any of his letters.... “We threw out when we moved,” people would tell me, or “We gave them to the janitor’s little boy.” Thurber gradually became aware of this on his return to America (the Final Phase) because of the embarrassed silence that always greeted him when, at his friends’ homes, he would say, “Why don’t we get out my letters to you and read them aloud?” After a painful pause the subject was quickly changed, usually by putting up the ping-pong table.
The publication in 1981 of The Selected Letters of James Thurber and in 2002 of The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber reveal Thurber actually to be, in Robert Gottlieb’s words “a compulsive correspondent as well as a sentimental one, churning out streams of letters,” as many as 1,200 a year. Most of his correspondents treasured them, although Janet Maslin notes in her review of The Thurber Letters that one of his old flames did destroy his lovestruck letters to her the night before her first child was born. Maslin clearly disagrees with the author of The New Yorker piece about the what might be gained by reading the letters of James Thurber:
With datelines ranging from "Hell, Friday" to the vacation spots frequented by Thurber and his second wife, Helen, these letters truly roam the wide world. They can—and should—be admired by anyone interested in comic genius, the lost art of great correspondence, the arcs of ambition, celebrity and age ("Our generation is melting away like snow in the sun," he wrote shortly before his death in 1961), the wonders of inspired whimsy, and the transformation of youthful enthusiasm into chronic dissatisfaction.
Of related interest:
  • Thurber’s “You Could Look It Up” was a recent Story of the Week.
  • Keith Olbermann reads a Thurber selection every Friday evening. Watch him read “A Box to Hide In” from the LOA collection James Thurber: Writings and Drawings.
  • The 2010 Thurber prize was awarded this week to Steve Hely for his literary-pretension-skewering novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist.
Related LOA works: James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (includes "The Letters of James Thurber"); Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education

Thursday, October 7, 2010

George Washington returns General Howe’s dog after the Battle of Germantown

In his new biography Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow confronts the popular belief that George Washington was a brilliant military strategist during the Revolutionary War. He shows Washington, in battle after battle, devising tactics that were too complicated, ignoring his military instincts, gathering inadequate intelligence, making poor decisions, and dangerously exposing himself to enemy fire. From the outset of his military career until the end of his Presidency, Washington does, however, emerge as a masterful motivator of men and a consummate politician with a knack for the personal touch.

The Battle of Germantown, which occurred 233 years ago this week, offers exemplary evidence of these traits. After the disastrous Battle of Brandywine in early September and British General William Howe’s capture of Philadelphia, Washington was eager to rally the spirits of his troops in one last engagement before winter. Howe had settled most of his main army of 9,000 troops in Germantown, a small town six miles northwest of Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Recalling his successful nocturnal raid across the Delaware the previous December, Washington devised a plan that involved a forced nighttime march of 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia in a four-pronged attack that would surprise Howe in a pre-dawn raid. The heavy fog on the morning of October 4, 1777, helped cover the American army’s approach and caused the first wave of British troops to retreat, but only after they had set fire to a field. The ensuing mix of smoke and fog made communications between the rebel forces impossible and some ended up shooting one another. A British regiment turned Chew’s House, a three-story stone country home, into an impregnable fortress, and Washington lost valuable time and many lives deploying three regiments to try unsuccessfully to take it.

In just three hours the Continental forces were routed. The final tally was grim: 150 Americans killed, 520 wounded, and 400 captured versus 70 British killed, 450 wounded, and 15 captured. In a letter to his brother, Washington put a good face on it: “but for a thick fog rendered so infinitely dark at times, as not to distinguish friend from Foe, at a distance of 30 yards, we should, I believe, have made a decisive and glorious day of it.” In his report to John Hancock, Washington passed over that twice as many Americans as British had been killed. “Upon the whole it may be said that the day was rather unfortunate than injurious. We sustained no material loss of men . . . and our troops, who are not in the least dispirited by it, have gained what all young troops gain by being in actions.” Washington’s forces now knew that they could “confuse and even rout the flower of the British army with the greatest ease.”

Glad to hear anything that sounded like good news after its flight from Philadelphia, the Continental Congress commended Washington for his bravery and even forged a medal in his honor. Howe was apparently also impressed, recording that he didn’t think “the enemy would have dared to approach after so recent a defeat as that at Brandywine.” Howe’s response may have been influenced by two notes he received from Washington two days after the battle. One complained of the behavior of Howe’s troops: the torching of mills and the annihilation of Charlestown. The other was just two lines, most likely penned by Washington's aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton:
General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return [to] him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar appears to belong to General Howe.
Of related interest:
  • A recent post on the Symon Sez blog includes more details about the Battle of Germantown and Washington’s note to Howe about the dog.
  • Francis Spring Ronalds, writing in American Heritage, contends that the return of Howe's dog was more an opportunity to gather intelligence than an act of kindness

LOA related works: George Washington: Writings; The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nobel oblige: Steinbeck predicts a winner, and the burden of winning the Prize

Over at The Literary Saloon, M. A. Orthofer is performing his obligatory annual run-through of likely winners for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which will be announced tomorrow. [Update, 10/7: And the winner is Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.]. Earlier this week, Orthofer wrote at length about Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (currently a professor at the University of California, Irvine), who had been leading the Ladbrokes odds until this morning, when Cormac McCarthy overtook the #1 spot. Other American contenders (according to the oddsmakers, at least) include Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon, John Ashbery, and perennial favorite Philip Roth.

This flurry of speculation takes us back nearly half a century, when John Steinbeck proved himself the ablest of prognosticators. Steinbeck received the Prize in Literature in 1962, and he sent a copy of his Nobel lecture to Saul Bellow with the inscription, “You’re next.” And indeed Bellow was the next American to win the prize, in 1976 (in a year Americans swept all the Nobel categories)—although Steinbeck had died eight years earlier and didn’t live to see his prediction come true.

The day the award was announced, the University of Chicago held a press conference (see video below) at which Bellow recalled Steinbeck’s prediction and said: “I knew Steinbeck quite well, and I remember how burdened he was by the Nobel Prize. He felt that he had to give a better account of himself than he had done.” Bellow was of two minds about the prize (“A primitive part of me, the child in me is delighted. The adult in me is skeptical.”); he worried that he might lose his privacy and he graciously acknowledged other writers, including Henry Miller and Christina Stead (neither of whom ever did win), who were equally deserving.

Related LOA works: John Steinbeck: Collected Works 1932–1962 (four volumes);  Saul Bellow: Novels 1944–1982 (three volumes)

Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth

Tomorrow, October 7, the Gotham Screen International Film Festival will open with the world premiere screening of Radio Free Albemuth, the new motion picture based on the posthumously published Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Many thanks to Gabriel Mckee’s SFGospel blog for bringing this to our attention.

In an interview for The Library of America e-Newsletter in June 2009 Jonathan Lethem, the editor of LOA’s three Philip K. Dick volumes, addressed where Radio Free Albemuth fits among Philip K. Dick’s works:
Library of America: Some time over the next year a new movie, Radio Free Albemuth, starring Alanis Morissette, is due to be released. The movie is based on a novel Dick wrote before VALIS and originally entitled VALISystemA (it was published after his death as Radio Free Albemuth). The novel VALIS includes references to a science fiction movie “Valis,” which recapitulates the plotline of Radio Free Albemuth. Did Dick intend for all of these works to be intertwined? Can you help us sort the threads?

Jonathan Lethem: I’m not familiar with the movie project, apart from what you’ve heard, so I can’t predict how faithful or satisfying it might be for readers of VALIS or the other related works. The novel that the movie takes as its source, Radio Free Albemuth, is an odd duck in Dick’s shelf of published works in the sense that it was actually an earlier draft of the VALIS material, submitted for publication by Dick and then reworked so completely in the writing of VALIS that it appeared to his posthumous editors as a legitimate work of its own. It has champions—some who even prefer it to VALIS. I can’t agree, myself. It seems a fairly pedestrian and cautious feint at the material—readable, perhaps, but not essential. VALIS, meanwhile, is one of Dick’s great masterpieces, so I’m awfully glad that Radio Free Albemuth was written, if only to be rejected and rewritten.
Read the entire interview with Jonathan Lethem about Philip K. Dick: VALIS and Later Novels.

Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jonathan Edwards: the last great Puritan or the first Romantic?

Today is the 307th birthday of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian and minister credited with leading the first Great Awakening in America from his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1733–35. Historian Perry Miller calls Edwards “infinitely more than a theologian:
He was one of America’s five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels. He was much more a psychologist and a poet than a logician, and though he devoted his genius to topics derived from the body of divinity—the will, virtue, sin—he treated them in the manner of the very finest speculators, in the manner of Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, as problems not of dogma but of life.
The middle child—and only boy—of eleven siblings, Edwards showed an early aptitude and interest in investigative science and philosophical argument. Entering Yale at 12, he was studying Newton and Locke within two years and writing papers on rainbows, light rays, atoms, and especially spiders. “Of all insects no one is more wonderful than the Spider.”

At 24, fresh out of Yale with a Master’s degree, Edwards became assistant to his grandfather Solomon Stoddard at Northampton. From the start Edwards drew on his own spiritual discoveries to emphasize the importance of a personal conversion experienced through the senses as well as through reason. As he phrases it in his Personal Narrative:
I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking upon the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express . . . the appearance of every thing was altered . . . and scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning.
Images of light recur as metaphors for the sublime and mystical, most poetically in the 1934 sermon,“A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Though he delivered his lyrical, vividly imagined sermons in a monotone, they resonated with his congregation. Northampton recorded more than 300 conversions in the first six months of 1734. The fervor subsided in 1736, however, after news spread that Edwards’s uncle, Joseph Hawley, committed suicide over his “deep melancholy” about the “condition of his soul.”

Five years later, another awakening occurred, the same year Edwards delivered his most famous “fire and brimstone” sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
During the 1740s Edwards began requiring a public profession of faith as a condition of admission to the church, and his following dropped. When he discovered that some young parishioners had been circulating a midwife manual, he admonished them by reading their names from the pulpit. The outraged parents banded with other churchgoers unhappy with his leadership to oust Edwards in 1750.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. (includes “A Divine and Supernatural Light” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Damon Runyon: the man who invented Broadway

Damon Runyon, the writer who, in Jimmy Breslin’s words, “practically invented at least two entire decades of his times, and had everybody believing that his street, Broadway, actually existed,” was born 130 years ago today in Manhattan—the one in Kansas.

Runyon didn’t move to the other Manhattan until he had turned thirty. William Randolph Hearst, another interloper from the west, hired him to cover baseball and boxing for Hearst’s New York American. Soon after his arrival, as The Writer’s Almanac describes:
Runyon became a legend of baseball writing. When he wrote about baseball, he wrote about the game, but he mixed in gossip, the latest women's fashion, weather, funny quotes, gambling advice, and his opinions about other sports (or anything else, for that matter). Once, he wrote from the perspective of a small boy — another time, from the perspective of a baseball.
Baseball: A Literary Anthology includes two of his “digressive, irreverent, energetically facetious” pieces from this period. As Runyon became more popular his assignments changed. He was dispatched to Mexico to cover Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, overseas for the war in France, back to New York for Prohibition and murder trials. Harold Schechter writes, “Of the countless accounts of the 1927 Snyder-Gray murder trial [the inspiration for the James M. Cain novella and later the Billy Wilder movie Double Indemnity] . . . the most detailed and memorable coverage was provided by Damon Runyon.”

Runyon spent the better part of the twenties gathering the material for the stories for which he is best known. As Adam Gopnik writes in a lengthy appreciation in The New Yorker:
His method was a simple form of Broadway Zen: he went to Lindy’s, then an all-night Jewish deli on Broadway, and sat. “I am the sedentary champion of the city,” he explained. “In order to learn anything of importance, I must remain seated. Why I am the best is that I can last an entire day without causing a chair to squeak.”
Gangsters, prostitutes, con men, hit men, gamblers—Runyon inhaled their tales. The first of Runyon’s stories, “Romance in the Roaring Forties”appeared in Cosmopolitan in July 1929 and, as its first lines show, Runyonesque was born:
Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude’s doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you.
Eighty stories followed featuring characters with names like Nathan Detroit, Feed Samuels, Sky Masterson, Big Jule, Nicely-Nicely Jones, Madame La Gimp, and scores more. “The voice of those stories is usually the ‘historical present’,” Pete Hamill notes, “The simple device gives the stories a kind of energy that would be absent in most uses of the past tense. It looks easy, until you try to do it. The voice was above all urban, drawing on Yiddish, which in the 1920s was New York’s second language.”

Twenty movies were made from these stories (including Little Miss Marker, which made Shirley Temple a star) and several of his characters reappear in the 1950 Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls, which opened on Broadway four years after Runyon’s death. “I took one little section of New York,“ Runyon once said, “and made half a million dollars writing about it.”

Of related interest:
  • On Scholars & Rogues, Terry Hargrove’s appreciation of Runyon and one of his inventions: Roller Derby
  • The Somebody Dies blog on the Runyon story “Sense of Humor”

Related LOA works: Baseball: A Literary Anthology; True Crime: An American Anthology (includes “The Eternal Blonde,” Runyon’s account of the Snyder-Gray murder trial); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “Sense of Humor”)
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