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Monday, May 30, 2011

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Memorial Day Address, 1884

Within days of the attack on Fort Sumter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the future Supreme Court Justice, withdrew from his senior year at Harvard College and joined the Fourth Battalion of Massachusetts Volunteers. By August he was first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry, and saw considerable action in the war, suffering wounds at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.

Twenty years later, on May 30, 1884, as Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Holmes infused memories of his wartime service into his address before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic in Keene, New Hampshire, and delivered one of the most quoted Memorial Day speeches ever given. Some excerpts follow:
. . . as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead. For one hour, twice a year at least—at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves—the dead come back and live with us. 
I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours. 
I see a fair-haired lad, a lieutenant, and a captain on whom life had begun somewhat to tell, but still young, sitting by the long mess-table in camp before the regiment left the State, and wondering how many of those who gathered in our tent could hope to see the end of what was then beginning. For neither of them was that destiny reserved. I remember, as I awoke from my first long stupor in the hospital after the battle of Ball's Bluff, I heard the doctor say, "He was a beautiful boy," and I knew that one of those two speakers was no more. The other, after passing through all the previous battles, went into Fredericksburg with strange premonition of the end, and there met his fate. 
I see another youthful lieutenant as I saw him in the Seven Days, when I looked down the line at Glendale. The officers were at the head of their companies. The advance was beginning. We caught each other's eye and saluted. When next I looked, he was gone. . . 
It is not of the dead alone that we think on this day. There are those still living whose sex forbade them to offer their lives, but who gave instead their happiness. Which of us has not been lifted above himself by the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of sorrow has traced its excluding circle—set apart, even when surrounded by loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives? . . . 
Comrades, some of the associations of this day are not only triumphant, but joyful. Not all of those with whom we once stood shoulder to shoulder—not all of those whom we once loved and revered—are gone. On this day we still meet our companions in the freezing winter bivouacs and in those dreadful summer marches where every faculty of the soul seemed to depart one after another, leaving only a dumb animal power to set the teeth and to persist—a blind belief that somewhere and at last there was bread and water. On this day, at least, we still meet and rejoice in the closest tie which is possible between men—a tie which suffering has made indissoluble for better, for worse. . . . 
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death—of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s “Memorial Day Address 1884”)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

John Muir’s “long moment of ecstasy,”
My First Summer in the Sierra

View of Upper Tuolumne Valley
May 26 marks the centennial of the publication of My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir’s landmark account of the summer he spent in 1869 as a thirty-one-year-old herding sheep (which he came to call “hoofed locusts”) to the “high, cool, green pastures of the Sierra.” Muir would revisit the journal he kept that summer, revise and rewrite it, and then revise it again. As biographer Donald Worster writes in A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir:
For all its seeming spontaneity and immediacy, the printed version was a much-labored over and retrospective account. . . . What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountain sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls. . . . Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. . . . He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
Muir always traveled light but never without his notebook. My First Summer in the Sierra is filled with his fine line sketches; his observations of plant and animal life, the shapes of landscapes and waterfalls, the changing textures of light and shadow; humorous accounts of his dealings with crazy shepherds, rampaging bears, and skittish sheep; and lyrical passages on the impact a firsthand experience of nature has on the senses and the spirit. Here is Muir on how his day begins:
July 19. – Watching the daybreak and sunrise. The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn; the silver firs in the middle ground catching the flow on their spiry tops, and our camp grove fills and thrills with the glorious light. Everything awakening alert and joyful; the birds begin to stir and innumerable insect people. Deer quietly withdraw into leafy hiding-places in the chaparral; the dew vanishes, flowers spread their petals, every pulse beats high, every life cell rejoices. The very rocks seem to thrill with life. The whole landscape glows like a human face in the glory of enthusiasm, and the blue sky, pale around the horizon, bends peacefully down over all like one vast flower.
Muir’s experiences that summer would lead to his path-breaking research into the glacier formation of the surrounding valleys—and deepen a passion that fueled his writings and work for the next forty-five years. He would go on to inspire the movement to create the first National Parks, co-found the Sierra Club, and become America’s first great environmentalist. As Worster writes:
What [Muir] gave the [conservation] movement was indispensable: the compelling image and words of a prophet standing before unsullied nature in a posture of unabashed love. That love of nature was both rhapsodical and worldly, a love that knew no bounds but knew how to compromise. He inspired Americans to believe that nature deserved higher consideration. Plenty of others shared that belief, but no one articulated it better.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: John Muir: Nature Writings; Treasury of American Nature Writing (6 books)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut on “the only thing you can teach” writers

In his Library of America interview about Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973 volume editor and best friend Sidney Offit shared some of the tips he and Vonnegut swapped as fellow creative writing teachers:
Kurt understood the short story and the structure. He once did a chart for me. He said the only thing you can teach is development. A story has to have a development and change. And that is right on the mark. I’ve taught much more than he had in terms of years and schools—at NYU, Hunter, the New School. And I have to tell you: the gift for narrative, for storytelling, is rarer than the gift for poetic prose or elegant language—it isn’t even close. The students I have had over the years who could write stories were eventually published. . .
In his many popular talks on storytelling, Vonnegut frequently used a chalkboard to draw the chart Offit refers to. There’s a YouTube clip of the beginning of one of these talks (see below). An essay in A Man Without a Country called “Here is a lesson in creative writing” offers a longer version that moves from the Cinderella story to explore the contrasting structures of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Hamlet. Vonnegut ends by pondering the strange similarities of fairy tales and tragedies:
The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

And if I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, “Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?”
Lapham’s Quarterly has posted most of this essay—with Vonnegut's drawings—but leaves out an opening paragraph that seems particularly appropriate for graduation season:
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
Watch Kurt Vonnegut discuss “the shapes of stories”:

Also of interest:
Related LOA work: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War—and Lincoln's letter home

Perhaps the most memorable and poignant character in Adam Goodheart’s splendid new book 1861: The Civil War Awakening is Elmer Ellsworth, the self-made young colonel and friend of Lincoln, whose death, at twenty-four, on May 24, 1861,
even more than his life, seemed to mark the passing away of one era and the beginning of another. He would be, briefly, the war’s most famous man. And for that moment, the entire conflict, the irreconcilable forces that set state against state and brother against brother, would seem distilled into—as one who knew him well would write—“the dark mystery of how Ellsworth died.”
Ellsworth first achieved fame as a bold and innovative military drill instructor in the late 1850s when his chance meeting with a fencing teacher who had served in the French Zoaves—the elite fighting force named for a band of fierce Algerian warriors—led him to adopt the Zoaves’ exotic drills for his volunteer cadre of Chicago law clerks and shop assistants. Goodheart describes their first public performance:
Some forty cadets in the traditional blue-and-buff uniforms of eighteenth-century militias—Algerian Zouave-style attire had been ordered but didn’t arrive in time—gave a performance that was more like a gymnastics event (or a nineteenth-century version of Cirque de Soleil) than any military drill the onlookers had ever seen. Instead of forming neat lines, shouldering their guns, and marching straight ahead, these militiamen leapt and rolled and yelled, loaded muskets while lying on their backs, jumped up to fire them and then fell again, thrust and twirled their bayonets like drum majors’ batons—all with a beautiful and precise synchrony.
When Ellsworth and his Zouaves toured the north in 1859–60, they started a “Zou-Zou” mania. Twenty-five thousand watched them drill in Albany, New York. Ellsworth, benefiting from the new invention that could reproduce many photographs from a single negative, became “the first male pin-up in America’s—and perhaps even the world’s—history.” The tour also brought Ellsworth into contact with Illinois attorney Abraham Lincoln. When the tour ended, Ellsworth became, in short order, Lincoln’s law clerk, his enthusiastic and effective presidential campaigner, his bodyguard, and his friend.

After the firing on Fort Sumter President Lincoln called for the mustering of 75,000 militiamen and Ellsworth undertook to create a new regiment of Zoaves under his own command from the ranks of New York’s firefighters. In The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It Lincoln’s secretary John Hay describes his first encounter with the new creation:
In the afternoon we went up to see Ellsworth’s Zouave Firemen. They are the largest sturdiest and most magnificent men I ever saw collected together. They played over the sward like kittens, lithe and agile in their strength.
Following Virginia’s decision to secede on May 23, Ellsworth’s “Zouave Firemen” were selected to lead the first major Northern incursion into rebel-held territory, an amphibious assault on Alexandria, where, just across the Potomac, a large Confederate banner flew atop the Marshall House, in full view of the White House. Ellsworth’s decision to cut down that flag himself proved his undoing. As he descended through the trap door, swathed in the huge unfurled flag, the innkeeper, a devout secessionist, leveled a shotgun at him at point-blank range and fired, instantly killing Ellsworth.

On May 25 Lincoln wrote to Ellsworth’s parents:
My dear sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surprisingly great. This power, combined with fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, I ever knew.
News of the killing inspired new rounds of Union recruits. In the beginning of May Lincoln had asked for 42,000 more volunteers. Within four weeks of Ellsworth’s death, five times that number would enlist. As Goodheart writes, “Ellsworth’s death made the North not just ready to take up arms, but ready to kill.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year as Told by Those Who Lived It; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Philip Roth wins Man Booker International Prize 2011

The judges for the Man Booker International Prize announced today that they have awarded the 2011 prize to Philip Roth. Roth was chosen from a list of 13 eminent contenders.

Presented once every two years to a living author for a body of work published either originally in English or widely available in translation in the English language, the Man Booker International Prize, worth £60,000, is awarded for “continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.” The 2011 award is the fourth time this prize has been given. It has previously been awarded to Ismail Kadaré in 2005, Chinua Achebe in 2007, and Alice Munro in 2009.

Rick Gekoski, chair of the judging panel, commented today:
For more than 50 years Philip Roth's books have stimulated, provoked and amused an enormous, and still expanding, audience. His imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally. 
His career is remarkable in that he starts at such a high level, and keeps getting better. In his 50s and 60s, when most novelists are in decline, he wrote a string of novels of the highest, enduring quality. Indeed, his most recent, Nemesis (2010), is as fresh, memorable, and alive with feeling as anything he has written. His is an astonishing achievement.
In response, Roth issued the following statement on video (below):
I would like to thank the judges of the Man Booker Prize for awarding me this esteemed prize. One of the particular pleasures I've had as a writer is to have my work read internationally despite all the heartaches of translation that that entails. I hope the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work. This is a great honor and I'm delighted to receive it.
The judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize 2011 consists of writer, academic and rare-book dealer Dr Rick Gekoski; publisher, writer, and critic Carmen Callil (who, in a twist that itself could have come from a Roth novel, resigned from the panel in protest); and award-winning novelist Justin Cartwright. The prize is sponsored by Man Group plc, which also sponsors the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

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

Monday, May 16, 2011

John Ashbery translates Rimbaud’s Illuminations, “the book that made poetry modern”

This week marks the publication by W. W. Norton of John Ashbery’s new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. “It is fitting,” Harold Bloom writes, “that the major American poet since Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens should give us this noble version of the precursor of all three.” In the introduction to his interview with Ashbery in the April Boston Review, Adam Fitzgerald echoes Bloom’s sentiment:
Despite his short writing life, Rimbaud looms so large it is impossible to underestimate his impact on the poetry and poets of the last century—Ezra Pound translated him, T. S. Eliot borrowed from and reformulated him, and Hart Crane, in his more ecstatic moods, boasted of himself, “I am Rimbaud come again!”
For Ashbery Rimbaud embodied what as a high school student he was beginning to discover about modern poetry. As he tells Claude Peck in the Spring issue of Rain Taxi, even in English the second line of the first Rimbaud poem he read—“what soul is without its flaw?” from “O Saisons, O Chateaux”—seemed to young Ashbery “to be poetry for me as I hadn't seen it before.”

In 1955 a Fulbright Fellowship enabled Ashbery to move to France where he lived for the next ten years, deepening his knowledge of all things French and, as he told Paul Auster at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, “completely changing my life,” developing what Gertrude Stein called “a unique view of my own Americanness” and “a kind of ‘other’ muscle for writing that helped me in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated.”

In the Rain Taxi interview Ashbery explains Rimbaud’s continuing appeal, especially to music icons like Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan:
Rimbaud has always appealed to misfits and delinquents, who are very often poets. Poets are very often of those persuasions. And he was so utterly an outlaw, in such a profound sense of the term. His bisexuality, for instance, if that’s what it was—he wasn’t even homosexual, as far as I know. Verlaine seems to have been his only male lover, and he lived with a mistress in Africa. He doesn’t seem to have ever thought about, “am I straight, am I gay?” or whatever, but just went about living each day as it came along, with its own set of questions and phenomena. He could be a real shit, too. These are all things that, how shall I say, delinquent poets glom on to and start running with. Also the fact that his poetry is totally un-paraphraseable is something that I and many other poets are trying to achieve—something that can be said in no other way, at which point it becomes poetry.
Rimbaud wrote the poems in Illuminations in prose. Fitzgerald and Ashbery explore when prose becomes poetry in the Boston Review interview:
Fitzgerald: So what’s the difference, in your opinion, between prose and prose poetry? 
Ashbery: I think one has to look for or be awake to the sudden appearance of poetry in prose. I’ve mentioned this when people ask me what I was trying to do in Three Poems. My answer was I wanted to call attention to the poetic quality of prose that seems totally prosaic, and which can sometimes suddenly grab and move you to tears while reading a newspaper or a timetable or a guide book, and penetrate that source of the awe with which we respond to poetry.
“This is the book that made poetry modern,” J. D. McClatchy writes about Illuminations, “and John Ashbery’s sizzling new translation lets Rimbaud’s eerie grandeur burst into English.” Ashbery closes the book’s preface with his own summation of what Rimbaud means to us today: “If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.”

Watch a video of John Ashbery with Paul Auster (at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival) discussing why he went to live in France, its impact on his writing, and why he translates.

Also of interest:
  • A selection of poems from Illuminations appear in the June issue of PN Review, including the final poem, “Genie,” which, in his preface, Ashbery calls “one of the greatest poems ever written.”
  • Watch a video (YouTube) of Ashbery reading Rimbaud’s poem “Promontory” at The New School and read Stephanie Paterik’s blog post about the February 7, 2011, event.
  • Watch a video (YouTube) of Rimbaud's “After the Flood” being read in French, followed by Ashbery reading his translation, at New York University, May 12, 2011.
  • Rain Taxi has posted a fascinating collection of contrasting lines from several different translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations (at the bottom of the interview page).
  • John Ashbery and Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival; February House, a previous Reader’s Almanac post.
Related LOA works: John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987; Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s (includes the essay “Axel and Rimbaud”)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sidney Offit shares memories of his friendship with Kurt Vonnegut

This month’s Library of America interview celebrates a beautiful friendship. Sidney Offit, editor of Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973, first met the author in the early 1970s, shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It was a time, Offit reports, “when there were two writers who young people seemed to read as scripture: Kurt was one, Herman Hesse was the other.”

Both aging amateur athletes in their forties, Vonnegut and Offit discovered they shared an enthusiasm for chasing tennis balls, and pursuing other adventures together. In a 1979 article about William Buckley, Vonnegut lists pages of names of his “New York friendships” (“a friendship with a person you have met at least once”)—only Sidney’s is crowned with “(best friend!).” In the LOA interview Offit shares many memories of their times together:
LOA: Vonnegut uses tennis as part of Rosewater’s therapy in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In your memoir you note that the historian James Flexner, one of your tennis six, viewed each player’s style as indicative of the player’s ego and character. Of Vonnegut he said, “his service is modest and he seems less interested in winning than just having fun and not embarrassing himself.” What did you learn about Kurt by playing tennis with him all those years?

Offit: Jimmie got it right. Kurt was all about fun. He’d get off some great lines. We were playing tennis once with our sons. We won the first two games. But then they were coming back strong. Suddenly, Kurt said to me: “Hey, let’s fall on the ball and run out the clock.”

LOA: Can you share some of your adventures with Kurt?

Offit: In the seventies a German filmmaker who had learned from Kurt about our Ping-Pong matches was determined to shoot us in action at the Broadway parlor where we boarded our paddles. A day or so before the filming Kurt and I decided to warm up. We arrived some time mid-afternoon and were greeted by the manager who had a way of looking at us as if we were visiting a speakeasy. “Ah, yeah, Kurt and Sid,” he said. “Table one.” At the time Kurt’s name was world famous but even some of his ardent fans didn’t recognize him. On the other hand, I was appearing on a local TV news show on Channel 5 three or four times a week, debating politics. Viewers may not always recall my politics but my face seemed to be familiar to perhaps as many as a half million New Yorkers.

Well, Kurt had invented this game of 100. “The hardest part of us ole guys playing Ping-Pong,” Kurt said, “was picking up the ball.” We were banging away—perhaps 86–82—when our ball flew over to where some kids were playing. This young guy brings the ball over and looks at me. “Say,” he says, “aren’t you the professor on television?” Kurt got a kick out of that. “Yes,” I replied. “What are you doing here?” he wanted to know. “I’m playing Ping-Pong with Kurt Vonnegut.” You could see the boy’s eyes light up. He ran over to tell his friends. “Guys, guys, that’s Kurt Vonnegut.” Then he came back with our ball. “Mr. Vonnegut,” he asked, “would you autograph this ball for us?” Of course, Kurt wouldn’t let me live down that I was the one who got recognized. “So you’re my famous friend.”
Read the entire LOA interview. (PDF)

Watch a video clip (YouTube) of Vonnegut and Offit playing a spirited game of Ping-Pong:

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Woody Allen on how S. J. Perelman influenced his writing

When asked recently by The Browser for five books that “resonated with him,” Woody Allen came up with a surprising mix: two novels, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Machado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner; one memoir, Really the Blues by jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (with Bernard Wolfe); one biography, Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel; but only one book of humor: The World of S. J. Perelman. In the accompanying interview Allen discussed Perelman’s pervasive influence:
The funniest human being in my lifetime, in any medium–whether it’s stand-up, television, theatre, prose, or movies–is S. J. Perelman. There is nobody funnier than S. J. Perelman. . . 
Those of us who grew up with Perelman found it impossible to avoid his influence. In music, if you grow up listening to Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk or Louis Armstrong and you listen to their recordings over and over, then you start to play their kind of riffs and rhythms naturally. I’m sure an actor who adores Marlon Brando—worships him and sees every movie he’s made—starts to play a scene and a little bit of Brando creeps into it. It’s the same with Perelman: you read him over and over again—as I did and many of my contemporaries did when we were growing up—and then when you write, it’s hard to escape his influence. He had such a strong, inventive style.
Adam Gopnik offers a thumbnail sketch of the humorist in his introduction to Perelman’s contribution to the Library of America anthology Americans in Paris:
S. J. Perelman (1904–1979) was the matchless rococo stylist and poet of Hollywood vulgarity and New York neuroses; his great subject was always the mismatch between the romantic images of the world he had absorbed as a boy . . . and the messy and venal reality those images turned out to conceal.
Remind you of anyone?

Related LOA works: The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes "Waiting for Santy," Perelman’s sendup of Clifford Odets); American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes (includes Perelman’s “Avocado, or the Future of Eating,” about lunch in a Los Angeles drugstore); Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (includes Perelman’s “The Saucier’s Apprentice”); and Reporting World War II: Part Two: American Journalism 1944-1946 (includes “Take Two Parts Sand, One Part Girl, and Stir,” on wartime advertising)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville arrives in America

One hundred and eighty years ago this week, Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont began the nine-month tour that would result in the landmark Democracy in America (1835–1840).

They reached land on May 9 after thirty-seven torturous days at sea. The captain of their ship had badly mismanaged provisions: many passengers were sick and there had been little to eat during the last days of the voyage. No sooner had Long Island come into view than strong winds from the west threatened to delay the ship’s arrival in New York. Alarmed and desperate, the passengers rose up to persuade the captain to dock in Newport, Rhode Island, instead. Tocqueville’s letter home to his mother a few days later describes his first experience of America:
At eight o'clock in the evening we dropped anchor in the outer harbor of Newport. A fishing dory soon came to reconnoitre us. We were so happy to find ourselves at land that all the young people and the captain himself immediately embarked in the dory, and a half hour afterwards we arrived, not without wetting our seats a little, at the wharf of Newport. Never, I guess, were people so glad to be alive. . . 
We jumped ashore and each of us made more than a dozen awkward gambols before we got ourselves solidly on our feet. In this way we went to an inn where the captain treated us to supper. What I for one liked best about this meal was something that has no merit in your eyes, water. Ours hadn't been drinkable for several days.
The two tourists visited Newport early the next morning and Tocqueville’s keen anthropological insights begin:
We went to visit the town, which seemed to us very attractive. It’s true we weren’t difficult. It’s a collection of small houses, the size of chicken coops, but distinguished by a cleanness that is a pleasure to see and that we have no conception of in France. Beyond that, the inhabitants differ but little superficially from the French. They wear the same clothes, and their physiognomies are so varied that it would be hard to say from what races they have derived their features. I think it must be thus in all the United States.
Beaumont was even less kind:
We had been told that the women of Newport were noteworthy for their beauty; we found them extraordinarily ugly. This new race of people we saw bears no clear mark of is origin; it’s neither English nor French nor German; it’s a mixture of all the nations.
After observing Newport’s natives for three hours, they boarded the steamship President for the eighteen-hour ride to New York and their next excellent adventure.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Nobody Knows My Name”: Manuel Muñoz on Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha

What You See in the Dark
by Manuel Muñoz
(Algonquin Books, 2011)
Manuel Muñoz, whose debut novel, What You See in the Dark, was just published, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. He writes on how he encountered Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel, Maud Martha, in a class at Harvard.
Gwendolyn Brooks’s first (and only) novel, Maud Martha, came to me as a stack of photocopied pages from a local shop in Harvard Square. The book was out of print and available only in limited quantities, so the class trekked over to the shop to purchase the packet.

This was the early 1990s and the seminar on African-American women writers was led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The class was filled mostly with young white women who spoke about Octavia Butler, Ann Petry, Nella Larsen, and Toni Morrison with a commanding authority that I could never place. I sat mostly in silence in that class, bristling at times at how easily some drifted into shaky political commentary, Professor Gates always guiding the seminar back to the solid foundation of the texts at hand.

Professor Gates called me into his office a few weeks into the seminar, along with a beautiful, beautiful young man of mixed heritage (who was the object of my silent crush). I could look neither of them in the eye, and when Professor Gates sat us down and asked why we were so reluctant to speak in class, I had no answer. On the way out, he said, “I need you to speak up.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Arthur Phillips probes the “seamless circle” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire

The Tragedy of Arthur
by Arthur Phillips
(Random House, 2011)
Author of the just-published The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry with this exploration of what Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire means to him.
In my evolution from avid reader to reader-with-embarrassing-aspirations to novelist, I have noticed a disturbing trend: I no longer read fiction as I once did. I read as much as I ever have, but I’ve become a professional inspector, examining the author’s tools and tricks, asking an admiring “well now, how did he do that?” Sometimes I believe I can see the writer at work: here is where she added material to cover a flimsy joint; here is where he followed an outline; there is where he improvised. At times I believe I can even make out the starting point, that first stitch where the author began to weave outwards, the theme or character or image that first bubbled up for the author’s attention, convincing or commanding her that it was worth sitting down to write for the next two years.
Of course, I still have magical, unauthorial reading experiences, and in the hands of great writers, my thin skin of technical knowledge falls away and I am as exposed and loving a reader as I was as a little kid hoping Sherlock Holmes would kick Professor Moriarty off that cliff. I just read Moby-Dick for the first time (a couple of decades late), and before long I was just another of Melville’s foam-splashed fans, wishing the 672-page work was twice as huge again. Not that I insist on a diet of the dead: George Saunders’ collections of stories, Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline instantly turned me into a happy child, and do so on every re-reading.

And then, in a category all by itself, my white whale, unassailable, irreducible, built according to principles forever hidden from me, there is Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, a perpetual motion machine, a seamless circle, invisible to a technician’s eye.

I can find no starting point. I love almost all of Nabokov’s work, yet I can convince myself I see where some of his other books began, the plot hook or creep. Not Pale Fire.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Christopher Benfey on Lincoln’s Gettysburg sonnet

Guest blog post by Christopher Benfey, author of American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South and editor of Stephen Crane: Complete Poems and Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings, both published by The Library of America.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak at Deerfield Academy about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. The subject of the Civil War, during this 150th anniversary year, came up repeatedly, most pointedly in the contrast between Whitman’s open engagement with the war, both in the poems of Drum-Taps and in his nursing of wounded soldiers in Washington, and Dickinson’s less explicit response—in poems that seem, however cryptically, to register the distant fighting and dying. “War feels to me an oblique place,” she wrote her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was leading an African-American regiment in Florida. Inevitably, we talked about Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln: the stilted allegory “O Captain! My Captain!” (which reads as though protean Whitman was trying to squeeze himself into Dickinson’s tight meters) and the grand and mysterious masterpiece “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

One bright student raised his hand and asked, “Would you say that Lincoln was just a failed poet?” Well, no, I wouldn’t say that, I replied. In fact, I found myself saying instead that Lincoln was the third of the great American poets of the nineteenth century. Based on his three greatest speeches alone—his Gothic “House Divided” speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural—Lincoln, for the sheer pressure of his language and the surprising new uses he found for the rhythms and buried eloquence of our ordinary speech, stands above any American poet of his time other than Dickinson and Whitman.

Lincoln’s greatest poem is the Gettysburg Address. Scholars have teased out its echoes from Thucydides and noted its Biblical grandeur. But I think that beneath its artistry lie the formal skeleton and the verbal machinery of the sonnet. (I should note that there have been attempts to “translate” the address into the traditional 14-line structure of a sonnet.) For Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats, the sonnet provided a small field for exploring the shifting meanings of a few words. It generally had a simple, two-part structure, with a so-called “turn” signaling the seam. The two parts often fused an emotional subject with an analytic treatment, summed up in an epigram at the end.

At this point, someone will want to object that Lincoln’s sonnet is in prose. Well, so it is! But Emerson wrote “Woods: A Prose Sonnet,” in which he asked the woods to give him something new to say, “along with “the tune wherein to say it.” Lincoln finds a new tune for the sonnet in the sinewy prose of the Gettysburg Address. The specific words he “worries” include simple ones like “here,” used nine times, and most beautifully in the contrast between words and deeds: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.”

The more elaborate word of course is “dedicate,” used six times, which shifts from abstract (“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) to more literal (“to dedicate a portion of” the battlefield). After the great “turn” of the sonnet, which occurs with the reflection “But in a larger sense we can not dedicate…” Lincoln proclaims that “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here…” Then comes the closing, cinching epigram: “this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What poet could have said it better?

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set); Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (paperback)
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