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Monday, February 28, 2011

Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy channels Duke Snider

“Duke Snider, a Prince of New York’s Golden Age of Baseball, Dies at 84” reads the headline in today’s obituary in The New York Times and goes on to describe him as a “star among stars” during the eleven seasons he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. “Snider was a colossus, one of three roaming the center fields of New York.” The others were Willie Mays of the New York Giants and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, and each October at least one of the three teams played in the World Series during this era. “The three became symbols for their teams, as the fans argued over who was the best: Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”

Snider hit forty or more home runs in five consecutive seasons, something neither Mantle or Mays achieved. Impressive as he was the plate, Snider also inspired fans with his fielding. As the Times obit says, “He moved back on the ball brilliantly and unleashed powerful throws.” Fans watching him play at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field felt close to the action. As Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, “In the intimacy of Ebbets Field it was a short trip from the grandstand to the fantasy that you were in the game.” No one has captured that fantasy—and Snider's starring role in it—better than Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint as Alexander Portnoy describes his youthful prowess as an outfielder to his therapist:
. . . Or just standing nice and calm—nothing trembling, everything serene—standing there in the sunshine (as though in the middle of an empty field, or passing the time on the street corner) standing without a care in the world in the sunshine, like my king of kings, the Lord my God, The Duke Himself (Snider, Doctor, the name may come up again), standing there as loose and as easy, as happy as I will ever be, just waiting by myself under a high fly ball (a towering fly ball, I hear Red Barber say, as he watches from behind his microphone—hit out toward Portnoy; Alex under it, under it), just waiting there for the ball to fall into the glove I raise to it, and yup, there it is, plock, the third out of the inning (and Alex gathers it in for out number three, and folks, here’s old C.D. for P. Lorillard and Company), and then in one motion, while old Connie brings us a message from Old Golds, I start in toward the bench, holding the ball now with the five fingers of my bare left hand, and when I get to the infield—having come down hard with one foot on the bag at second base—I shoot it gently with just one flick of the wrist, at the opposing team’s shortstop as he comes trotting out onto the field, and still without breaking stride, go loping in all the way, shoulders shifting, head hanging, a touch pigeon-toed, my knees coming slowly up and down in an altogether brilliant imitation of The Duke. Oh, the unruffled nonchalance of that game!
Snider reflected on his career after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Philip Roth: Novels 1967-1972 (includes Portnoy’s Complaint); Baseball: A Literary Anthology (includes this passage from Portnoy’s Complaint)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Djuna Barnes remembers what it was like to be young and uncomfortable in the theater

In a recent Guardian blog post David Jays reminds us that “autobiographical writing about theatre is typically a blend of myth and memory.” As testimony he cites the Djuna Barnes memoir included in The American Stage about her days with the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village during the first decades of the twentieth century.

An amateur group of writers and artists, the Players produced some of the first plays of Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, Edna Ferber, Theodore Dreiser—and three one-acts by Barnes. Tickets were only by subscription, with new plays offered every three weeks in a converted stable. It was an experiment ripe for myth-making. As Jays writes:
A fervid modernist, Barnes’s addictive journalism always reads as if she had taken sober fact for an evening of bar-hopping. Her 1929 piece . . . is less an analysis of early Susan Glaspell or Eugene O’Neill, and more an ardent, if humorous, paean to her own youth, turning into myth as she wrote.
But let’s hear Barnes tell it:
Why, in those days we used to sit on the most uncomfortable benches imaginable in that theatre, glad to suffer partial paralysis of the upper leg, and an entire stoppage of the spinal juices, just to hear Ida Rauh come out of the wings and say “Life, bring me a fresh rose.”
We used to sit in groups and recall our earlier and divergent histories. . . So we talked, and so went our separate ways home, there to write, out of that confusion which is biography when it is wedded to fact, confession and fancy in any assembly of friend versus friend and still friends.
Then where was the catch in the blood? When and on what day, or succession of days did we, unknowingly, walk over our own dead line and into the general life of the world which, until then, had been the audience. . . . Our legend was bought and paid for by those who did not live to walk over.
Similar accounts pervade theater history. As Jays concludes, with wary delight:
The bliss of being young, questing and exquisitely miserable colours [Barnes’s] account. It’s an enduring, entrancing current in theatre writing: the detail may be suspect, but the feeling runs true.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The American Stage: Writing on Theatre from Washing Irving to Tony Kushner (include two pieces by Djuna Barnes); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Barnes’s 1914 article for The New York Press “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud”)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bill Moyers interviews James K. Galbraith about how John Kenneth Galbraith might have viewed the 2008 financial crisis

In November 2010, to celebrate the publication of John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967, Bill Moyers engaged in a far-ranging discussion with volume editor James K. Galbraith about his father’s life and work. We have just posted the entire interview on the new Library of America channel on YouTube.

One of the most interesting exchanges occurred when Moyers asked what the senior Galbraith might have thought about the recent financial crisis:
Moyers: Shortly before his death someone wrote that your father’s lifelong sermon on social democracy was destined inevitably to fail in a society of rugged individualism; but at the end of his life, in that little book called The Economics of Innocent Fraud, he seemed optimistic about the ability of government to improve the lot of the fortunate.

Galbraith: The less fortunate.

Moyers: Yes, the less fortunate.

Galbraith: The government’s ability to improve the lot of the fortunate was never in doubt. [laughter]

Moyers: Yes. Do you think he’d take that back today. . . I’m asking you to channel him and that’s unfair.

Galbraith: Yes, I agree with that [laughter]. . . Let me just recharacterize dad’s position on the American economy which goes back to the start of his career as a major writer in this area with American Capitalism in 1952. He was a quintessential realist about who we are, and he saw that his fellow economists were essentially mythmakers, that they had this view of small, competitive enterprises and rugged individuals. But in fact, the American economy was a colossus of industrial power which was rooted in large corporations, powerful unions, and a strong government.

That was clearly the case and anybody who had come through the Second World War and been part of the management had dealt with that on an hour-to-hour basis. And he continued to develop that vision through The Affluent Society and especially in The New Industrial State, which was written at a time when this system was at its zenith in terms of the kind of stability and prosperity that it brought to the population as a whole. So he, on the whole, was quite optimistic about the ability of American institutions to deliver an acceptable outcome. . . .

Let me say another word about him as an economist. He was in some sense one of the very few economists of the last century who were pure-bred economists. He did not come to the subject from some place else. He was not a failed mathematician or a second-rate physicist or bringing in the tools of another discipline. He came up in agriculture, matured in the management of the wartime control system, studied the effects of strategic bombing. It was economics and economic processes all the way through for him.

So he felt that what economics should do is cope with the system as it is. And from that point of view, given the problems that we have now, I think his approach would have been—well, I have to say I think it was very similar to mine: Let’s analyze the fundamental causes of the crisis. Let us see what went wrong. And let’s see what tools we happen to have that we can use. In this case, as I said earlier, the fundamental problem was a breakdown in the rule of law in the financial sector. The essential solution is rooted in the use of the Department of Justice in an effective way, in the first instance. And then you have to use powers to restructure the institutions that you will have dealt with at that time.
Watch this exchange:

Related LOA works: John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Toni Morrison’s 80th birthday: Remembering her friendship with James Baldwin

Today, February 18, marks the eightieth birthday of Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, editor, and educator. In 1998 Morrison edited two volumes of James Baldwin’s works for The Library of America: Early Novels & Stories and Collected Essays. Although they were born just seven years apart, Morrison and Baldwin came from seemingly different generations of writers. They met in 1973 when Morrison was an editor at Random House and tried to sign Baldwin to a book deal. No contract ensued but they quickly became friends. “I dig Toni, and I trust her,” Baldwin wrote to his biographer David Adams Leeming.

Severely weakened by his battle with cancer, Baldwin spoke about Morrison to Quincy Troupe in November 1987, just three weeks before he died, in what would be his last interview:
Troupe: What do you think about Toni Morrison?
Baldwin: Toni's my ally and it's really probably too complex to get into. She's a black woman writer, which in the public domain makes it more difficult to talk about. . . . Her gift is in allegory. Tar Baby is an allegory. In fact all her novels are. But they're hard to talk about in public. That's where you get in trouble because her books and allegory are not always what it seems to be about. I was too occupied with my recent illness to deal with Beloved. But in general she's taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don't know how to put this—Beloved could be about the story of truth. She's taken a whole lot of things and turned them upside down. Some of them—you recognize the truth in it. I think that Toni's very painful to read.
Troupe: Painful?
Baldwin: Yes. Because it's always or most times a horrifying allegory; but you recognize that it works. But you don't really want to march through it. Sometimes people have a lot against Toni, but she's got the most believing story of everybody—this rather elegant matron, whose intentions really are serious and, according to some people, lethal.
At Baldwin’s funeral service at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine on December 8, 1987, Morrison was one of several eulogists. Her remarks movingly described how indebted she felt to her friend:
The season was always Christmas with you there and . . . you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts. . . You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention. . . . The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who could go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world. . . The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did.
You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No, This is jubilee. “Our crown,” you said, “has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, “is wear it.”
And we do, Jimmy. You crowned us.
Watch a 2001 C-Span interview with Toni Morrison:

Related LOA works: James Baldwin: Early Novels & Stories; James Baldwin: Collected Essays; The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works (includes Morrison’s 1996 “Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guillermo del Toro to direct H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness; Edmund Wilson and Cthulhu

Daniel Zalewski’s recent New Yorker profile of director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) chronicled his passionate efforts to develop one of H. P. Lovecraft’s best-known later works into a major motion picture:
The movie that he most longs to make is an adaptation of a grandly ridiculous H. P. Lovecraft novella, At the Mountains of Madness, in which explorers, venturing into Antarctica, discover malevolent aliens in a frozen, ruined city. Some of the aliens mutate wildly, which would allow Del Toro to create dozens of extreme incarnations. He said, “If I get to do it, those monsters will be terrifying.” . . . To anybody who owns thousands of comic books [as Del Toro does], At the Mountains of Madness is as central to the American canon as Moby-Dick. . . . Del Toro loves the story, in part because Lovecraft combines terror—the panicked effort to escape the creatures—with metaphysical horror: “The book essentially says how scary it is to realize we are a cosmic joke.”
Although the project has yet to receive a green light, Del Toro recently confirmed that he will be the final judge of the winner of the short film competition at this year’s H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival.

Prompted by Zalewski’s piece, Jon Michaud wondered whether the name “Cthulhu,” the giant alien being that recurs in many of Lovecraft’s tales, had ever appeared before in the magazine’s pages. It had, once before, in a 1945 essay, “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous,” by Edmund Wilson. Lovecraft fans had besieged Wilson with complaints when his 1944 essay, “A Treatise on Tales of Horror” failed to include their revered author. In the earlier essay Wilson contended that the contributors to several recent collections of horror stories suffered by comparison with the genre’s more literary practitioners—Joseph Conrad, Nikolai Gogol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Lewis Stevenson. The only contemporaries he thought worthy of inclusion were Walter de la Mare and Franz Kafka.

But the “enthusiasm of [Lovecraft’s] admirers” was “so insistent” that Wilson decided to look into his work “more seriously.” The 1945 essay detailed his findings and as a “tribute to such power as H. P. Lovecraft possesses” Wilson was willing to “suspend disbelief . . . in regard to the omniscient conical snails.” But overall he was not impressed: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” Wilson did find Lovecraft intriguing as a person and a scholar. “His long essay on the literature of supernatural horror is a really able piece of work.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: H. P. Lovecraft: Tales (includes At the Mountains of Madness); Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s (includes both “A Treatise on Tales of Horror” and “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous”)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Henry James’s The Bostonians, published 125 years ago today, sparks a scandal

The Bostonians proved one of the most troubling of Henry James’s publishing efforts. It first appeared in thirteen installments in The Century magazine (February 1885–February 1886), but by the time of the last installment James’s American publisher, James R. Osgood and Company, had gone bankrupt. Scrambling to recover his losses, James had his English publisher, Macmillan & Co., bring out the first edition in London on February 15, 1886. The American edition appeared a month later.

In his novels of the late 1880s—The Bostonians, The Tragic Muse, and The Princess Casamassima—James turned to political topics for the first time and soon discovered that his readers did not follow. Richard Watson Gilder, publisher of The Century, was reportedly alarmed to find his subscribers falling away. Many found James’s portrait of his two main characters, a Boston feminist and her young protégé, scandalously close to the well-known “Boston marriage” of Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett (although James’s biographers claim he drew more from observing his sister Alice’s relationship with Katharine Loring). Even his brother William chided Henry for creating a “portrait from life” in basing the character of Miss Birdseye on the veteran abolitionist Elizabeth Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister-in-law.

Henry found these attacks “harsh and unfair” and protested (perhaps too much) that he had “not seen Miss Peabody in 20 years” and had created Miss Birdseye “from my moral consciousness, like every person I have ever drawn.” Yet he was dismayed at the book’s reception, as he later wrote to William in October 1885:
I fear The Bostonians will be, as a finished work, a fiasco, as not a word, echo or comment on the serial (save your remarks) have come to me (since the row about the first number) from any quarter whatever. The deathly silence seems to indicate that it has fallen flat. I hoped much of it, and shall be disappointed—having got no money for it, I hoped for a little glory.
William reassured his brother of the novel’s success after he was able to read it as a book. His assessment echoed that of many contemporary reviewers:
Never again shall I attack one of your novels in the magazine. . . . The truth [is] that it is superlatively well done, provided one admits that method of doing such a thing at all. Really the datum seems to me to belong rather of the region of fancy, but the treatment to that of the most elaborate realism. One can easily imagine the story cut out and made into a bright, short, sparkling thing of a hundred pages, which would have been an absolute success. But you have worked it up by dint of descriptions and psychologic commentaries into near 500—charmingly done for those who have the leisure and the peculiar mood to enjoy that amount of miniature work—but perilously near to turning away the great majority of readers who crave more matter and less art.
Mark Twain famously declared that “I would rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven than read [The Bostonians].” Later critics developed a keener appreciation. In his essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” Edmund Wilson wrote:
The first hundred pages of The Bostonians, with the arrival of the young Southerner in Boston and his first contacts with the Boston reformers, is, in its way, one of the most masterly things that Henry James ever did.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Henry James: Complete Novels; Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s (includes “The Ambiguity of Henry James”)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day query: Is Edna St. Vincent Millay “America’s foremost love poet”?

Complaining about the pressure she feels every year on Valentine’s Day, Bonnie Stewart blogs that she finds “the words I’d like to steal” for her “un-valentine” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink.” What is it about Millay’s love poems, written almost a century ago, that explains their enduring appeal? J. D. McClatchy, editor of Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems, credits it to her being a “romantic ironist”:
. . . it was less passion itself than her perspective on it that gives her poems their distinctive tone. . . The final couplet of one sonnet phrases the disparity perfectly.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
[from “Pity me not because the light of day”]
The slow heart and the swift mind are the instruments of our undoing, and art does not side with either. Millay’s dramatization of desire’s knotted toils and of understanding’s cold comforts remains a remarkable achievement.
In a 2001 biography, What My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Daniel Mark Epstein claimed a unique position for Millay:
[Edna St. Vincent Millay] was America’s foremost love poet, a poet of the erotic impulse and erotic condition whose finest lyrics invite comparison with the sonnets of Philip Sidney and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the amorous verses of Catullus and Horace. . . . Our major poets of the twentieth century —T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens—together did not produce three love poems comparable to Millay’s “Pity me not because the light of day,” “Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink” or “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls.”
Question for Valentine’s Day: is Millay “America’s foremost love poet”? If not Millay, who is?

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems; American Sonnets: An Anthology (includes eleven sonnets by Millay)

Friday, February 11, 2011

George Kimball and John Schulian share their favorite boxing stories about Ali-Frazier, Stanley Ketchel, Bummy Davis

In a just-posted exclusive interview (PDF) with The Library of America, veteran sports journalists George Kimball and John Schulian describe what moved them to put together the new collection At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. “There’s an almost electrical charge to boxing that separates it from every other sport,” Schulian explained. “Boxing is elemental, visceral. It’s the closest thing to combat that most writers ever see.”

The editors spent a year culling through hundreds of pieces spanning a century in a process Kimball compares to “a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a particular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others.” Pressed to pick a favorite piece, Kimball retorted, “Come on, man. Which of your children is your favorite?” Schulian came up with three winners:
Schulian: I’ll give you three favorites: Mark Kram’s piece on the Thrilla in Manila is, to my thinking, perfect. I’ve long considered Kram was one of the great stylists in Sports Illustrated’s history, and this is his masterpiece. His language and imagery are rich and vibrant, and there’s a full-blooded quality to the emotion he obviously felt as he watched Ali and Frazier wreak havoc on each other. They had all come of age together, and now the writer was watching the fighters turn each other into old men who never should have fought again after this. There’s never been a story about a fight that was as powerful or moved me as profoundly. 
My other favorites are character studies of the kind of rogues who could find only one sport that would have anything to do with them—boxing. John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys” begins with the single greatest lede in journalism history: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Red Smith called it “the single greatest novel ever written in one sentence.” And the amazing thing is, the story just keeps getting better and better as Lardner unspools the short, crazy life of this go-to-hell middleweight. Fueled by booze and opium, wild about the ladies, and armed with a punch that once flattened Jack Johnson, Ketchel dwelled on the outer edge of boxing’s margins, and he paid for it. But, oh, what an unforgettable character. 
Bummy Davis, the “Brownsville Bum” immortalized by W. C. Heinz, was a different breed of cat, but just as wild and fearless and self-destructive and utterly mesmerizing. What separates the two of them is the circumstances of Davis’s death. Where the womanizing Ketchel gets played for a sap, Davis, who was a thumb-in-the-eye fighter, stands tall when armed robbers stick up the joint where he’s tending bar. One of the robbers calls Davis a “punch-drunk bum” and Davis starts swinging and the robbers start shooting. They’re still shooting when he chases them out the door with a bullet in him, and he stays after them until he falls on the sidewalk and dies in the rain. When Heinz paints the picture for us, it’s not mere sportswriting. It’s writing.
Read the full interview (PDF) with George Kimball and John Schulian.

Also of interest:
Related LOA books: At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing; A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Twenty poets celebrate the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Bishop in New York City

Last night poetry lovers filled the 900-seat Great Hall at Cooper Union to hear twenty poets celebrate the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Bishop by each reading one of her poems. As organizer Alice Quinn noted in her interview with the Best American Poetry blog before the event, the readers reflected the far-ranging influence Bishop has had on several generations of poets:
There will be poets in their 30s like Gabriele Calvocoressi and Tracy K. Smith and mid-career poets like Elizabeth Alexander, Kimiko Hahn, and Vijay Seshadri and magisterial figures like John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Mark Strand, Jean Valentine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Marie Ponsot. So many of these poets down the years have been and are teachers, and Bishop's reputation has grown in classrooms all over the world.
The event was presented by the Poetry Society of America and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, with the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Foundation, Poets House, and the Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y. Joelle Biele, Frank Bidart, Tina Chang, James Fenton, Jonathan Galassi, David Lehman, Robert Polito, Katha Pollitt, and Tom Sleigh rounded out the stellar roster. (John Ashbery was not able to participate as planned.)

In an inventive bit of programming three additional readers took turns between poems giving voices to the correspondents responsible for the contents of the new collection, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Joelle Biele. Paul Muldoon read letters from William Maxwell and Howard Moss, Alice Quinn read those from Katharine S. White, and Maria Tucci read as Elizabeth Bishop.

The letters frequently related to the poem about to be read. For instance, Muldoon cited this letter of May 13, 1948, from William Maxwell about “The Bight”:
Our style expert says we can’t grant two of your requests on the proof of The Bight. The italic subtitle is against the style of the magazine, and the lower case “g” in the fourth line from the end is, he says, against English and would look monstrous. I don’t know what “against English” can possibly mean, and personally, I like things that look monstrous. But these two details would, it seems, rock the foundations of the magazine, and I hope you won’t mind our leaving them the way they are.
    Cordially yours,
        William Maxwell
When Bishop included the poem in A Cold Spring she kept the upper case “G” in the line “Click. Click. Goes the dredge.” But she restored the italics for the subtitle, which fittingly for last night’s reading was “On My Birthday.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters; William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories

Monday, February 7, 2011

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Summer–Fall 2011)

We are pleased to announce the Library of America’s Summer–Fall 2011 publication schedule, an exciting list of titles which displays the quality and depth of American literary history.

Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
S. T. Joshi, editor
September / Library of America #219

Harlem Renaissance Novels (two volumes)
Rafia Zafar, editor
September / Library of America #217 and #218
  • Cane, Jean Toomer 
  • Home to Harlem, Claude McKay
  • Quicksand, Nella Larsen
  • Plum Bun, Jessie Redmon Fauset
  • The Blacker the Berry, Wallace Thurman
  • Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes
  • Black No More, George Schuyler
  • The Conjure-Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher
  • Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps

Philip Roth: The American Trilogy 1997–2000
Ross Miller, editor
October / Library of America #220
  • American Pastoral
  • I Married a Communist
  • The Human Stain

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973
Sidney Offit, editor
June / Library of America #216
  • Cat’s Cradle
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Breakfast of Champions
  • Stories

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Sanford Schwartz, editor

The 50 Funniest American Writers*:
A Humor Anthology from Mark Twain to The Onion
   *according to Andy Borowitz


Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight
Joseph J. Corn, editor

Library of America Paperback Classics (four volumes)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, with an introduction by Harold Bloom
  • James Weldon Johnson: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, with an introduction by Charles Johnson
  • John Muir: My First Summer in the Sierra and Selected Essays, with an introduction by Bill McKibben
  • George Washington: Selected Writings, with an introduction by Ron Chernow

And if you own an e-Reader: We are also finishing up a first batch of Library of America e-books, which we expect to release this spring and which will available in several formats that will accommodate most devices. Watch this space in the coming weeks for a separate announcement.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th birthday

Guest Blogpost by Lloyd Schwartz

Elizabeth Bishop has become such an increasing presence in our literary landscape, it’s hard to believe that it’s been more than thirty years since her death, and that February 8 would mark her 100th birthday. Celebrations will be taking place in New York, Boston, Worcester (where she was born), Nova Scotia (where she lived as a child), and Brazil (where she lived for nearly two decades).

The Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (still the most comprehensive collection of her work) came out in 2008. Bishop’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has just this month issued new, expanded centennial editions of the Poems and Prose volumes, along with an unsettling volume of her correspondence with The New Yorker, where she published most of her poems and stories. Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence shows that even though that journal prized her contributions, they sacrificed much of her originality and energy on the altar of “house style.”

Also in the works are a volume of Bishop’s correspondence with her first mentor, Marianne Moore, and a new collection of essays by leading Bishop scholars about her posthumous publishing history. In Brazil, the late seventeenth-century house that she restored in Ouro Prêto is now on the market for $2,000,100 (this is not a typo) and her watercolors are now being sold at skyrocketing prices. In 2005, her best known poem, the villanelle “One Art,” was recited by Cameron Diaz in the Hollywood movie In Her Shoes. No one would be more surprised than Bishop.

One of the most controversial developments since her death has been the appearance of her unpublished poems, mostly in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, edited by former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. For the first time, the general public had access to drafts and fragments (and some very-nearly finished poems) available before only in the archives of the Vassar College Library. Many critics found this publication a revelation of Bishop’s surprisingly messy working process and considered some of these poems—often unusually autobiographical and a number of them explicitly lesbian love poems—significant additions to her canon (many of these are included in the Library of America Elizabeth Bishop). But several critics, outraged at seeing work Bishop had not intended for general publication, felt that it was a betrayal.

It seems never to have occurred to anyone to see what Bishop herself might have had to say on the matter. But someone finally examined Bishop’s will, which explicitly gives her literary executors “the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the press.” End of controversy. Here’s my favorite:
Breakfast Song
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

From Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn. Copyright © 2006 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com.
Let the centennial celebration commence!

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Lloyd Schwartz; American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E. E. Cummings to May Swenson (includes nineteen poems by Elizabeth Bishop)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jo Ann Boydston, distinguished John Dewey scholar and member of LOA Textual Standards Committee, dies

Jo Ann Boydston (right) in Naples, FL, with
LOA president Cheryl Hurley in 2009
We are saddened to learn that Jo Ann Boydston, who helped to formulate the textual policies for The Library of America in the early 1980s and has served on the LOA Textual Standards Committee ever since, died Tuesday, January 25, in Naples, Florida. A widely respected scholar, Boydston was a key figure in the field of modern textual editing.

For more than thirty years Boydston directed the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University and in her role as general editor oversaw the publication of the 37-volume edition of The Collected Works of John Dewey, a project that is considered a model of scholarly excellence. “She was known for her innovative techniques and for the incredible precision that she demanded,” said current Center director Larry Hickman in an interview earlier this week with the university paper, The Saluki Times.

As a member of the LOA’s Textual Standards Committee, Boydston helped create the policies and procedures governing the selection of an authoritative version for every work published in The Library of America. G. Thomas Tanselle, LOA trustee and chairman of the Textual Standards Committee said, “Jo Ann was one of the people I have most respected in the field of scholarly editing, and she was a delight to work with. I feel fortunate to have had an association with her going back to the 1960s. When the Library of America was being organized, she seemed a natural choice for the Textual Standards Committee, and her learning and good sense have left their mark on the policies we have followed.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pete Hamill receives A. J. Liebling Award

Journalist and author Pete Hamill has been selected by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the winner of this year’s A. J. Liebling Award. A masterful sportswriter, Hamill also has a special connection to Liebling: he was the editor of both Library of America volumes of his work, one of which was The Sweet Science and Other Writings. In an exclusive interview conducted shortly after the publication of that volume, Hamill spoke of Liebling’s appeal as a boxing writer:
LOA: In January 2003 Sports Illustrated ranked The Sweet Science as #1 of the 100 best sports books ever, hailing Liebling as “pound for pound the top boxing writer of all time. . . . Liebling’s writing is efficient yet stylish, acerbic yet soft and sympathetic.” What makes Liebling’s writing on boxing so great?

Hamill: Above all, he had sympathy for the fighters, and those rogues and craftsmen who helped shape them. As a young man, Liebling had taken his own lessons as a boxer. He learned the hard way how difficult an apprenticeship each fighter must serve, how much skill was involved, how much discipline and will. He knew that the toughest prizefighters could be the gentlest of men. He knew that the toughness they exemplified was not the same as meanness, nor still another version of the loudmouth with a pea-sized heart. The prizefighter was a living example of the stoic virtues Liebling saw growing up in New York, then during the Depression, and most of all, among those who fought World War II. He expressed that sympathy without ever lapsing into sentimentality.
Read the rest of the interview here (PDF).

Hamill has long been advisor to and supporter of The Library of America and has worked on several LOA projects. In addition to the two volumes of Liebling’s work, Hamill edited James T. Farrell: Studs Lonigan and wrote a foreword for Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing. One of his own pieces on boxing, “Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato,” appears in the forthcoming LOA boxing anthology At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.

The author of eighteen books, Hamill recent completed his latest novel, Tabloid City, which will be published on May 5—the day before he receives the Liebling Award at the BWAA’s annual dinner in Las Vegas. He was chosen for the award by a committee of veteran boxing writers that included George Kimball and John Schulian (both co-editors of At the Fights), as well as Pulitzer Prize–winner Dave Anderson, Bernard Fernandez, Richard Hoffer, and Ed Schuyler. Click here for the complete list of past winners.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Arthur Miller writes The Misfits for his wife, Marilyn Monroe

Fifty years ago today United Artists released the most expensive black-and-white film made until that time. Arthur Miller wrote The Misfits, his first original screenplay, as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, whom he had married four years earlier. Biographer Christopher Bigsby quotes Miller:
I would not have written it except for Marilyn. I wrote it for her. It was the only time I did write anything for an actor and, had I not known her, I would not have begun such a thing. She had lost a child in early pregnancy, which really upset her a lot, so it was a kind of a gift. It was also the expression of a kind of belief in her as an actress.
Miller and producer Frank Taylor assembled a dream team for the project. John Huston, who had directed Monroe’s breakthrough picture, The Asphalt Jungle, would direct, and her leading man would be Clark Gable, the screen idol of her youth. But the dream quickly dissolved. In Miller’s words: “By the time we got to make the film . . . we were no longer man and wife. The film was there but the marriage was not.” At one point Huston had to halt shooting to send Monroe to a rehab hospital.

The Misfits was the last movie for both Monroe and Gable. Two days after filming, Gable suffered a heart attack and died ten days later. While the box office was weak, some critics felt that Miller delivered his desired gift. Reviewing the movie for The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas wrote:
Marilyn Monroe, the Saint of the Nevada desert. . . She haunts you, you’ll not forget her . . . It is MM that tells the truth in the movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts: “You are all dead, you are all dead!”—in the most powerful image of the film—and one doesn’t know if she is saying those words to Gable and [Eli] Wallach or to the whole loveless world. . . There is so much truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death, that she is overpowering, one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema.
New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman was less enthusiastic, writing that Miller wasn’t able to escape the “dialectical dialogue” that was the bloodstream of his theatrical art: “these uncommonly loquacious Westerners almost seem to be competing for the girl by offering her their troubled souls.” Kaufman found Miller more “bemused [by Monroe’s character] than perceptive about her.”
It is something like a man becoming infatuated with an attractive but undistinguished girl and, out of a sense of guilt, investing her with qualities which the world simply doesn’t see.
Yet Monroe’s performance won her the 1962 Golden Globe for “World Film Favorite,” just five months before her death. During the filming Monroe bonded with her co-star, fellow drug user Montgomery Clift. It was one of his last films and he did not have fond memories of the shoot. At 1 a.m. on July 23, 1966, The Misfits was on television and Clift’s live-in personal secretary asked if he wanted to watch it. “Absolutely not,“ Clift replied and, because he suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours later, those were his last words.

Also of interest:
  • Desert USA documents the filming of the movie in the Nevada desert
  • The PBS website features a gallery of photos related to the Great Performances documentary Making the Misfits
  • Read about Arthur Miller's collaboration with Elia Kazan on the productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman in a previous Reader's Almanac post
Related LOA works: Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944–1961 (includes the novella based on the screenplay for The Misfits); American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (includes reviews of The Misfits by Jonas Mekas and Stanley Kauffmann)
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