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Monday, April 30, 2012

Lary Wallace on what Michael Herr didn’t tell Stanley Kubrick

Guest blog post by Lary Wallace, a collector of rare Michael Herr materials and contributing editor for The Faster Times 

Michael Herr thought he was done with Vietnam by the time he first met Stanley Kubrick, at a dinner party at Kubrick's estate in 1980. He’d just given prolonged and painful birth to Dispatches (1977), his sui generis masterpiece about his time as a correspondent in Vietnam, and had then lent his hand to Francis Ford Coppola for the voiceover narration on Apocalypse Now (1979). But, as Herr recounts in his memoir Kubrick (2000), after their first meeting, the period 1980–83 became “one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions.” This began a twenty-year friendship. Starting in 1985, Herr and Kubrick collaborated on adapting Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (1982) into Full Metal Jacket (1987),  for which their screenplay would receive an Oscar nomination.

One thing Herr confessed during those early long phone conversations was that he had reviewed Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) during his first writing gig after college, a year-long pro bono stint at The New Leader, where he “had followed Manny Farber . . ., one of the best of all writers on movies.”
[N]aturally, he called someone in New York and had them go down into the catacombs of the New York Public Library to find the review and send it to him. He liked it. I’d given it a rave. I gave it a better review than Stanley himself did.
The review is definitely a rave, as anyone knows who’s gone spelunking after it. It’s a fascinating document, especially considering their later relationship, but it’s not, as Herr would have us and Kubrick believe, the first review of a Kubrick film Herr had ever written. That was his review of Spartacus (1960), which he wrote as a twenty-one-year-old undergrad for Syracuse 10, his college literary magazine. I found it in their archives when seeking out Herr’s apprentice work, and no one, as far as I can find, has ever mentioned this review in print, least of all Herr himself. It provides impressive evidence that Herr was a perceptive and appreciative critic of Kubrick’s films more than twenty years before he ever wrote one.

“A lot of Spartacus is phony and vulgar,” Herr writes in the review’s opening line, but this isn’t nearly as insulting as it at first appears. Kubrick, after all, didn’t write the script, and wasn’t brought onboard until production had already begun. (Kirk Douglas had fired director Anthony Mann after just one week of filming.) Kubrick was more hired hand than auteur, a circumstance Herr was evidently aware of. Listen to the way he attacks Dalton Trumbo’s script, and then consider how, a quarter-century later, he would infuse Full Metal Jacket with the very qualities—authentic dialogue and freedom from political cant—that Spartacus lacked:
Trumbo’s scenario is full of the social-dramatist’s favorite and most offensive dodge: manifesto instead of human speech, the kind of talk that staggers even the best actors and that furthers no dramatic development whatsoever. . . . Trumbo’s vision of Marxism is the most adolescent one imaginable. . . . The journey of the rebelling slaves across Italy is shown to be an extended and unbelievable idyll, their community is naively utopian, and the slaves themselves are so noble and so selfless that after a while you start laughing in the wrong places.
Nevertheless, Herr regards Spartacus as “one of the few American pictures of the past year that I really liked. . . . It is cinematically clean, and so well directed, by Stanley Kubrick, that you can often overlook the lack of real drama and be moved just by what you see.” He compliments Kubrick’s “sure eye for landscape,” as well as the “original[ity]” of “the scenes of spectacle.” He expresses “sympathy [...] for Kubrick’s failure to get good performance out of all of [the cast]” due to the awkward dialogue.

A little more than a year later, in the final part of the New Leader piece—an omnibus review that took on two movies in addition to Lolita—Herr declares:
There is more class in Lolita than there is in all of Advise and Consent and [The Man Who ShotLiberty Valance spliced together. I can’t say that Stanley Kubrick has gotten all that much better, only that he is still very good, the best U.S. director working today. A lot of people, in and out of the press, thought that Kubrick had sold out by making Spartacus, and that he would be doing it again by attempting Lolita. But those who watched Spartacus with novocained sensibilities ought to see Lolita as soon as possible. It is one of the most satisfying Hollywood movies since the same director’s Paths of Glory, four years ago.
Where Herr blames Trumbo for Spartacus’s faults, he credits author and screenwriter Vladimir Nabokov with Lolita’s success—too much of it, in fact. Although Nabokov received sole screen credit, Kubrick rewrote his screenplay extensively. Nabokov’s reaction was mixed, as he recounted in the foreword to the version of the screenplay he published twelve years later:
A few days before, at a private screening, I had discovered that Kubrick was a great director, that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used. The modifications, the garbling of my best little finds, the omission of entire scenes, the addition of new ones, and all sorts of other changes may not have been sufficient to erase my name from the credit titles but they certainly made the picture as unfaithful to the original script as an American poet’s translation from Rimbaud or Pasternak. 
I hasten to add that my present comments should definitely not be construed as reflecting any belated grudge, any high-pitched deprecation of Kubrick’s creative approach. When adapting Lolita to the speaking screen he saw my novel in one way, I saw it in another—that’s all, nor can one deny that infinite fidelity may be an author’s ideal but can prove a producer’s ruin.
So when Herr writes that, “I hate to think of the mess that might have resulted if anyone else had done the screenplay,” or that “Nabokov has more than respected his own brilliance,” or that Nabokov “has gotten most of what was vital about the book into the film,” he doesn’t know that it’s Kubrick he’s actually praising. That’s not his fault; few people could have known then the true provenance of what had made it to the screen.

What’s truly hard to believe is that Kubrick, when he read this review some twenty years later, could have remained silent to Herr on the matter of authorship. But, come to think of it, maybe he thought that best. Maybe he let that one pass, reassured by the proof in Herr’s final lines that he was about to embark on a project with someone who, at the least, considered film a writer’s and director’s medium before it’s an actor’s:
[A]s Quilty, the walking catalogue of depravity, Peter Sellers is superb, an antic serpent handling dialects that range from Cocktailese to Ruritania-Dutch. In fact, it may be that he is too good. Occasionally, in his lunatic soliloquies, he chafes against the fine, firm style that Nabokov and Kubrick have so beautifully achieved.
Maybe, after reading this, Kubrick decided, uncharacteristically, to simply leave well enough alone.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962 (includes the novel Lolita as well as the screenplay Nabokov wrote for the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film. It differs substantially from the final film.); Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1969–1975 (includes the full text of Michael Herr’s Dispatches)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Robert Polito on the “melancholy and yearning” of David Goodis, who “always seems poised for rediscovery”

Robert Polito, director of the Graduate Writing Program at the New School, author of the National Book Critics Circle award–winning Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, recently spoke with us about David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s, which he edited for The Library of America.

What was David Goodis’s unique contribution to American crime fiction?

If Hammett and Chandler might be said to head up the great initial wave of American crime novels with a focus on the detective, then Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Patricia Highsmith spanned the next crucial wave, let’s call it the nouvelle vague, where the attention tilts to the criminal. Highsmith reinvented the lost-American-in-Europe novel out of Hawthorne and James for crime fiction, Thompson devised those astonishing self-consuming experimental fiction structures. But Goodis to my ear crafted the sharpest sentences. Listen to this bit from Dark Passage:

[Vincent Parry] began to remember the days of work, the day he had started there, how difficult it was at first, how hard he had tried, how he had taken a correspondence course in statistics shortly after his marriage, hoping he could get a grasp on statistics and ultimately step up to forty-five a week as a statistician. But the correspondence course gave him more questions than answers and finally he had to give it up. He remembered the night he wrote the letter telling them to stop sending the mimeographed sheets. He showed the letter to Gert and she told him he would never get anywhere. She went out that night. He remembered he hoped she would never come back and he was afraid she would never come back because there was something about her that got him at times and he wished there was something about him that got her. He knew there was nothing about him that got her and he wondered why she didn’t pick herself up and walk out once and for all. She was always talking in terms of tall bony men with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks and very tall. He was bony and very thin and he had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks but he wasn’t tall. He was really a miniature of what she really wanted. And because she couldn’t get a permanent hold on the genuine she figured she might as well stay with the miniature.

Those little repeated phrases are the bars of the psychic prison Parry lives inside, and the only other writer I know who sounds this way is Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans.

Is Goodis a pulp writer? A hard-boiled writer?

David Goodis literally was a pulp writer when he started out writing fiction in the late 1930s, publishing by his own estimation five million words in five years in magazines with titles like Wings, Battle Birds, Fighting Aces, The Lone Eagle, Gangland Detective Stories, True Gangster Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, 10 Story Western, Air War, New Detective Magazine, Double-Action Detective, Popular Sports Magazine, Sinister Stories, Thrilling Western, Dime Western, Captain Combat, G-Men Detective, and Dime Detective, among others. His stories appeared under his own name and probably under a half-dozen pseudonyms (including Lance Kermit, Logan C. Claybourne, Ray. P. Shotwell, and David Crewe). Some of the novels in this Library of America Goodis volume were paperback originals, others first appeared in hardcover. But neither in those early pulp stories nor in his classic novels would I style him a hard-boiled writer. Melancholy and yearning were his notes, not toughness and violence.

Why has he remained mainly a cult figure?

Good question—Goodis always seems poised for rediscovery, and he’s virtually the cult figure’s cult figure, such that Jean-Luc Godard can slyly name a character in Made in U.S.A. “David Goodis,” as though the words are part of a secret code. So many American crime writers mask their root sadness in stoicism, or in rote tough-guy, inverse sentimentality. But Goodis just puts the sadness and loss out there. Here is the opening to his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion:

After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business. You figure that there’s no use in trying to fight back. Things are set dead against you and the sooner you give up the better. It’s like a mile run. You’re back there in seventh place and there isn’t a chance in the world. The feet are burning, the lungs are bursting, and all you want to do is fall down and take a rest.

Goodis was twenty-two when he published that, a year out of Temple University. If Jim Thompson for all his narrative brilliance is too violent for some readers, maybe Goodis is just too sad. Yet I always hear so much wit and exuberance, even joy, in the cunning rhythms of his lines. Let’s hope that this is now his moment.

Why do you think his books have appealed so much to filmmakers?

It’s probably not the plots, since often the films alter his plots. Classic noir fiction, and Goodis is an exemplar of this quality, might be summed up as all those beautiful sentences telling you the most terrible things. Classic noir film also is all about insinuating mood and atmosphere, and Goodis was the maestro of moody, atmospheric insinuation.

Is it ironic that the work of a Philadelphia writer should be best known to Americans in a French movie version?

Another in the long line of American-French ironies, I suppose. I think Goodis was America for Godard and Truffaut, and the tangle of webbing connecting American crime fiction to such French phenomena as existentialism is strong and obvious. Recently I was struck again by a fascinating moment in Pauline Kael’s famous 1967 review of Bonnie and Clyde [included in the recent LOA collection, The Age of Moviesed.]. There Kael proposes that, “If this way of holding more than one attitude toward life is already familiar to us—if we recognize the make-believe robbers whose toy guns produce real blood, and the Keystone cops who shoot them dead, from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s gangster pictures, Breathless and Band of Outsiders—it’s because the young French directors discovered the poetry of crime in American life (from our movies) and showed the Americans how to put it on the screen in a new ‘existential’ way. Melodramas and gangster movies and comedies were always more our speed than ‘prestigious,’ ‘distinguished’ pictures; the French directors who grew up on American pictures found poetry in our fast action, laconic speech, plain gestures. And because they understood that you don’t express your love of life by denying the comedy or horror of it, they brought out the poetry in our tawdry subjects.” That captures something vital, I think, in the America to France and then back to America circuit of someone like David Goodis.

Do you have a particular favorite among the five novels collected here?

Probably Street of No Return, perhaps his most Beckett-like novel, issued by Gold Medal coincidentally the same year as the first English publication of Waiting for Godot, another story of some tramps who wind up back where they started.

How did you discover Goodis yourself?

Early on I discovered him without knowing that it was Goodis I was experiencing through the movies Shoot the Piano Player and Dark Passage. But I first read the novels in the 1980s, after Barry Gifford started reissuing them for Creative Arts/Black Lizard. Which means, in a real sense, I discovered David Goodis through Geoffrey O’Brien, the editor-in-chief of the Library of America, since Geoffrey wrote the beautiful introductions to those Goodis reissues.

Recently on Reader's Almanac:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Geoffrey O’Brien and Robert Polito on David Goodis, “our most crafty and elegant crime stylist”

Humphrey Bogart, David Goodis,
Lauren Bacall
David Goodis had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for just three years when in December 1945 he seemed to get his big break. He sold his story Dark Passage to Warner Brothers for $25,000. The next year The Saturday Evening Post serialized it and Julian Messner published it as a book. The 1947 movie, written and directed by Delmer Daves and reuniting Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall for the third time, proved a hit. But not only would sustained success elude Goodis, the fall from it would become one of his most compelling themes. Even the opening lines of Dark Passage hint at his dark view of the world:
It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.
Goodis’s short-lived marriage fell apart, few of his screenplays were produced, and by 1950 he was back living with his parents in Philadelphia. Yet it was in that quiet urban setting that over the next seven years he wrote the ten novels, all of them paperback originals, that defined his style. Geoffrey O’Brien describes that style in Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir:
Anyone who spends some time with [Goodis’s] books learns to identify their peculiarly intense atmosphere, their outbursts of eloquence, their sense of the world as an abyss made for falling into. His best books have a unique poetry of solitude and fear. They read like the improvisations of someone compelled to keep writing, to keep the words, the pages coming toward him. He writes knowing he must fill the page, finish the episode, continue as far as the next episode, the next book. His central image is ultimately that of the wounded man, his strength gone, pulling himself forward, yet sensing that he won’t make it, that it will all have been in vain.
O’Brien singles out The Burglar (1953) as exemplary:
The Burglar (1953) stands out for its evocation of a Romantic death-wish in the context of a disposable drama of low-grade crooks coming unraveled in the wake of a bungled break-in, an evocation which culminates memorably in an offshore Liebestod in Atlantic City. The Burglar’s prose style is notable as well: Goodis seems really to have worked on this one, piling on little flourishes of syncopation that remind us how musical his ear could be. If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels they might have sounded a bit like this, as bop prosody modulates the stark lines of pulp narration.
Reviewing David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s in The Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin was also struck by the “neurotic intensity” of the hero of The Burglar:
Toward the end of the novel, he and his beloved are on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and the sight of the passersby prompts him to offer this tender aria: "Look at them walking. When they take a walk, they take a walk, and that's all. But you and I, when we take a walk it's like crawling through a pitch black tunnel."

As you might imagine, things don't end well for this couple. But the most striking thing about Goodis is that you feel worse when everything does work out.
Volume editor Robert Polito, in his introduction to a previous edition of Street of No Return, calls Goodis “our most crafty and elegant crime stylist.”
Noir is characteristically a language of objects, places, and names, an idiom that in a few bluff words summons worlds. . . . For Street of No Return Goodis devised a snaky diction, at once fantastic and matter-of-fact. Here objects tend to speak. A bottle, a blackjack, a window, a train, even Hellhole itself. “No sirree, the Hellhole said to Captain Kinnard of the Thirty-seventh District, this is our boy Whitey and we won’t letcha have him…It wasn’t anyone’s voice and yet Whitey could almost hear it talking. He began to have the feeling a lot was going to happen before morning.”
Over the years since they were first published, many of Goodis’s novels have become hard-to-find collector’s items. With the publication of this LOA volume, American readers can now discover what cult fans of David Goodis have been raving about for quite some time.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s; Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s (includes Down There by David Goodis)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon on Edgar Rice Burroughs and A Princess of Mars

"With My Back Against a Golden Throne
I Fought Once Again for Dejah Thoris."
A Princess of Mars frontispiece by Frank E.
Schoonover, courtesy of Dr. Robert Zeuschner.
It would be quite a shameful irony if the mixed reviews and disappointing initial box office performance of the movie John Carter tarnished the reputation of its seemingly ageless source material, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As the character John Carter notes in the book’s opening pages, “So far as I can recollect, I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago.” Actually John Carter turns a hundred this year—and he still looks fabulous.

The character John Carter first appeared in the pages of All-Story Magazine in February 1912 in a serialization of “Under the Moons of Mars,” a six-issue event that launched the writing career of the thirty-five-year-old itinerant pencil sharpener salesman. Retitled A Princess of Mars when it was published as a book five years later, the story of a Confederate War veteran battling monsters and winning an alien princess has captivated readers for the century since.

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Junot Díaz makes a persuasive case for the book’s enduring allure in his introduction to the just-published Library of America hardcover edition of A Princess of Mars. He starts with the hero:
A consummate fighting man, the ex-Confederate army veteran is modestly described by Burroughs as a splendid specimen of manhood, standing two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with Wisterian steel-grey eyes “reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative.” He has a good heart too, enjoys a laugh, likes children, and “has the manners of a Southern gentleman of the highest type.”
Carter is holed up in a cave, his partner dead, about to prepare a last stand against some hostile Apache Indians when he is suddenly transported, naked, to Mars where, in Díaz’s words, “a whole array of prismatically colored races . . . have a universal allergy to clothes and . . . are locked in a perpetual cycle of conflict.” Carter finds himself the only white man in a world of color.
"The Old Man Sat and Talked
with Me for Hours."
Frank E. Schoonover,
courtesy Dr. Robert Zeuschner
(Click to enlarge.)
Fortunately for our hero his Earth-bred muscles grant him immense advantage on the weaker gravity of Mars. On Mars Carter can leap immense distances and kill a twelve-foot tall Green Martian with a single blow of his fist. . . He becomes a superman. 
And so, with his Teutonic radiance thus restored “this queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble” sets out to conquer himself some Mars. 
Like its hero, A Princess of Mars is a headlong rush, crackling with the kind of thrills and invention that made Burroughs one of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century. There are escapes and captures and more escapes and captures and of course swordfights aplenty. . . . Despite the fact that Dejah Thoris is a Red Martian egg-layer Carter even manages to knock her up, species difference presenting no barrier to John Carter’s superior Earth sperm. 
[The story] never settles into any one pattern: some of the time it’s pulp scifi; some of the time it’s Walter Scott chivalric; and some of the time it’s Brintonesque ethnography. It’s a kaleidoscopic mash-up to end all kaleidoscopic mash-ups and yet despite all this whirl of disparate influences the damn thing holds together.
The influence of A Princess of Mars on other artists over the years has become legendary, as Díaz notes:
The novel became a seminal text in the early science fiction canon, inspiring a slew of imitators, and even a pair of related genres, the planetary romance and the sword-and-planetary, practiced by the likes of Leigh Brackett and Michael Moorcock, and which you still finds examples of being written today (Paragaea anyone?) . . . Even the original source of Superman’s powers—Earth’s weaker gravity—was a direct swipe from Burroughs. Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas all have acknowledged the influence Burroughs’s Mars had on their creativities.
In an interview with io9 about writing the screenplay for John Carter, Michael Chabon (another Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist) described what impressed him about Burroughs:
Obviously, Burroughs was a narrative machine. He really knew how to keep a story going, and he knew how to use cliffhangers, and really propel you through the story. He had that great “pulp novelist” narrative drive. He also had a really fertile imagination, in a way that reminds me of Jack Kirby in comics, where he would just toss off one concept after another, in many cases never to return to them again . . . . Just continually dreaming up new amazing vistas or societies or creatures whatever they may be. [There's] kind of a heedless quality to that imagination.
Díaz agrees with Thomas D. Clareson’s assessment in Some Kind of Paradise: The Emergence of American Science Fiction that “after Burroughs wrote, American science fiction was never the same.”
At a fundamental level Burroughs is vital to our understanding of what is called the American Century. Situated at a key juncture in the U.S.’s development—the precise instant the America we now know was a-birthing—his work both prototypically embodies and prototypically unravels primal American fantasies about race, masculinity, history, human-ness, coloniality, and civilization. 
All of these things—the jones for alterity, the critique of modernity, and the unforgettable image of John Carter bounding across the dead sea floor of Mars—go a long way in explaining why of all of Burroughs’s frontier romances A Princess of Mars continues to call to us, long after all the rest, including his great success story, Tarzan, have faded.
Also of interest:
  • Read an excerpt from the Junot Díaz introduction to A Princess of Mars on The Wall Street Journal blog
  • Scott Meslow in The Atlantic on “Why Did It Take 100 Years for John Carter to Make It to the Big Screen?”
  • View a video review of art and illustration, 100 Years of John Carter, as well as John Carter apps at thejohncarterfiles.com
  • Watch a clip from Cosmos in which Carl Sagan recalls how as an eight-year-old he was entranced by Burroughs’s Mars novels

Related LOA works: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (includes original illustrations by Frank E. Schoonover); Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs; American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now (2-volume boxed set)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

“This King Business”: A Dashiell Hammett Story Restored

Guest blog post by Terry Zobeck, a Hammett collector who was 16 when he first read The Maltese Falcon.

While Dashiell Hammett’s five novels rightfully are celebrated as his major legacy, his short stories also deserve praise and preservation. Library of America series volume #125, Crime Stories & Other Writings, collect 24 of his best, including 20 of the 28 tales featuring the Continental Op, Hammett’s unnamed, middle-aged, overweight, tenacious man-hunter.

In keeping with Library of America textual policy, all the texts on which the 2001 volume were based were original magazine appearances. All, that is, except for “This King Business,” an Op adventure first published in the January 1928 issue of the pulp Mystery Stories.

According to the Note on the Texts “no copy is known to be extant,” so The Library of America had to rely upon the version that appeared in the collection The Creeping Siamese (1950), edited by Frederic Dannay, who was better known as “Ellery Queen.” In reprinting these stories, Dannay often took out his blue pencil, chopping sentences and whole paragraphs. He even re-titled some stories on no authority but his own.

“This King Business” happens to be one of the more egregious examples of Dannay’s editing. I know, because in 2008 I purchased a copy of the original pulp—at a steep price. But what could be more appealing to a Hammett collector than to have the only known original copy of one of his stories? (I’ve since learned of the existence of two other copies).

Last May, I did a side-by-side comparison of the two texts, and was surprised by the extent of Dannay’s edits. I documented 83 changes, some small, others more significant. Several of the latter come during the climax, and affect (for the worse, in my view) the mood and tone of the story. Around this time I was introduced to Don Herron, the Hammett scholar and guide of the Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco, whose website, Up and Down These Mean Streets, is devoted to all things hardboiled. He suggested I do a guest blog post to restore Hammett’s original text. I agreed, and have since done the same for a dozen more stories for which Hammett’s texts are not available currently.

Then it occurred to me that The Library of America might be interested in my discovery. I received an email almost immediately asking if I could provide a copy of the story so that they could include the restored text in the next printing of the volume. My daughter and I carefully photographed the pages of the fragile pulp and sent them off.

The latest printing of The Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings (scheduled to arrive from the printer later this month) now contains the original version of “This King Business.” As a collector and admirer of Hammett’s work, I am pleased to have played a small part in restoring to print the definitive text for one of Hammett’s best stories. And I am especially impressed by The Library of America’s quick decision to go to the expense and trouble of getting it right. This time, nothing but the texts as Hammett wrote them.

Also of Interest:

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862: “The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

The Battle of Shiloh began the morning of April 6, 1862, when six divisions of the Confederate army commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Pierre G. T. Beauregard launched a surprise attack out of the woods near Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee against five divisions of General U. S. Grant’s Union forces. At the end of a day of the fiercest fighting of the war, the Rebels had pushed the Yankees two miles from the opening line of battle. But 25,000 Union reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell and General Lew Wallace arrived during the night and at daylight on April 7 the Union army counterattacked and regained all the lost ground.

One member of the reinforcing brigades was nineteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce; his recollection of the battle, “What I Saw at Shiloh,” though written almost twenty years later, is often acclaimed as, in S. T. Joshi’s words, “the best piece he ever wrote.” Here he describes being part of the Union counterattack:
But now our commanding officer rode from behind us to the front, waved his hand with the courteous gesture that says après vous, and with a barely audible cheer we sprang into the fight. Again the smoking front of gray receded, and again, as the enemy’s third line emerged from its leafy covert, it pushed forward across the piles of dead and wounded with protruded steel. Never was seen so striking a proof of the paramount importance of numbers. Within an area of three hundred yards by fifty there struggled for front places no fewer than six regiments, and the accession of each, after the first collision, had it not been counterpoised, would have turned the scale.
The scale of Shiloh, even more than the outcome, proved a shock to both sides. As James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom:
Coming at the end of a year of war, Shiloh was the first battle on a scale that became commonplace during the next three years. The 20,000 killed or wounded at Shiloh (about equally distributed between the two sides) were nearly double the 12,000 battle casualties at Manassas, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson, and Pea Ridge combined. Gone was the romantic innocence of Rebs and Yanks who had marched off to war in 1861.
Grant remarked on the scale of the conflict in his April 8 letter home to his wife:
Again another terrible battle has occurred in which our arms have been victorious. For the number engaged and the tenacity with which both parties held on for two days, during an incessant fire of musketry and artillery, it has no equal on this continent.
But few eyewitnesses registered the impact of Shiloh more dramatically than Brigadier General William T. Sherman in his April 11 letter to his wife. Sherman had just taken command under Grant in March and during the first day of battle at Shiloh his forces took the brunt of the Confederate assault. Sherman himself was wounded in the hand and had three horses killed under him.
The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war. Mangled bodies, dead, dying, in every conceivable shape, without heads, legs, and horses! I think we have buried 2000 since the fight our own & the Enemy, and the wounded fill horses, tents, steamboats and Every conceivable place. . . . I still feel the horrid nature of this war, and the piles of dead Gentlemen & wounded & maimed makes me more anxious than ever for some hope of an End but I know such a thing cannot be for a long long time. Indeed I never expect it or to survive it.
Also of interest:

Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes letters about Shiloh by Generals Grant and Sherman); Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs (includes “What I Saw at Shiloh”); Grant and Sherman: Civil War Memoirs (boxed set)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Laurence Senelick on the plays of Arthur Miller’s middle phase, experimentalism in theater, and (of course) Marilyn Monroe

Laurence Senelick, Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory and director of graduate studies at Tufts University, recently spoke with us about the fourteen plays in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1962–1981.

This second volume of Arthur Miller’s collected plays feels like it inaugurates a new phase of his career. Do you agree? How would you describe Miller’s middle period?

Miller began as a playwright following the model of Ibsen: a well-wrought dramatic structure building up to a revelation of a moral dilemma. This is the shape of All My Sons. Yet by Death of a Salesman he was already alloying this formula with expressionistic elements, and in View from the Bridge, experimenting with a chorus. In other words, Miller was always trying out new possibilities and techniques. He rarely let the form determine the content (note the protracted length of Incident at Vichy or Some Kind of Love Story, both one-act plays), but let the shape fit what he had to say.

Why are these plays less well known?

The audiences for Miller’s first plays were his age and had been through many of the same experiences that he had—the Depression, World War II, the Cold War. By the 1960s and ’70s, the audiences were younger and more enthusiastic for theatrical experimentation. Brecht, Grotowski, the Theatre of the Absurd, collective creation were more appealing than Miller’s moral debates. The critical establishment, eager to embrace the fashionable, toppled older idols and were quick to condemn Miller’s new work. So they had short runs or no runs. They were not made into films. The same thing happened to Tennessee Williams.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Adam Wilson on being “bested” and exhilarated by Raymond Carver, Sam Lipsyte, and Mary Robison

by Adam Wilson
(Harper Perennial, 2012)
Adam Wilson, who just published his debut novel, Flatscreen, in February, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of writers who “beat him” to what he wanted to do.
Three books have made me feel as if I’d read and imitated them long before I ever picked them up. The first is Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When I was nineteen, I believed that the stories I wrote filled a void the world had left open for minimalist short fiction about Americans in blue collar jobs. A kind professor alerted me to my belatedness and turned me on to Carver. Despite my loss of potential market share and the realization that, as a Jewish kid from the upper middle class suburbs, I didn’t have much to contribute to the genre, I was exhilarated. Carver led in so many directions: back to Chekhov and Babel, laterally to Richard Ford and Tom McGuane, forward to Joy Williams and Amy Hempel. 
The second is Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, which I read while living in Austin, Texas, where I had a job holding up a giant orange arrow at a highway exit ramp. While arrow holding, I developed a notion that I would write a dark comic novel of latent adolescence and suburban drug use, a post-9/11 treatise on the state of the American dream. Then I read Home Land, realized I’d been preceded, and moved to New York to study with this new master.
Lipsyte, an excellent teacher, turned me on to Mary Robison. From that encounter I have yet to recover. Like both Carver and Lipsyte, Robison wrote under the tutelage of the renowned sentence sorcerer Gordon Lish, and her early stories are exemplars of the Lishian aesthetic: tightly wound, highly charged, and bubbling with unresolved tension. They’re beautifully crafted still lifes, as sharp and precise as German paring knives; the kind of stories published in The New Yorker (many of hers were) and taught in creative writing workshops for their faultless attention to word choice. In Robison’s stories, not a comma is out of place, and if her characters are often in extremis, the taught rigidity of Robison’s prose acts as a rejoinder to chaos; her stories are impregnable containers, safe havens of structural fortitude.

But Robison’s stories did not prepare me for her later, looser novels. Subtraction (1991), Why Did I Ever (2001), and One D.O.A., One on the Way (2009) give me the feeling of having been brain-robbed, bested, and literarily star-crossed. 
When I read Why Did I Ever, I was on the thirteenth draft of my own novel, Flatscreen. My book concerns a young man so paralyzed by modern life that he rarely leaves his mother’s basement. By this time, of course, I knew the story, the various episodes, and the way they’d pile on. I knew its characters, their growths, their traits and tics. Still, something felt wrong. The book was long. Boringly long. The flashbacks conveyed essential information, but slowed the book down. I wanted my narrator’s dilemma to feel urgent. I considered shrinking the chapters, replacing the lost material with short interstitial chapters that would take the form of lists, recipes, and emails. This wasn’t exactly a new idea, but I felt I could do it freshly. Robison, it turned out, had beaten me to it and done it better than I ever imagined it could be done. 
Why Did I Ever is made up of 536 small chapters, some short as a sentence, none longer than a page, some numbered, others titled. Its narrator is Money Breton, a Hollywood script doctor, a Ritalin addict with two difficult adult children, two childlike, and even more difficult boyfriends, and the kind of dry humor usually shared by fat male standup comedians and teenage depressives. Chapter 16: “Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn’t going to anyway, but it was there, it was my Z plan.”

Money is at loose ends—she’s on the verge of losing both her job and her boyfriends; her daughter is a moody sometime heroin addict presently in recovery, and her son has recently been sexually assaulted. To cope, she takes speed and alphabetizes everything in her apartment, including the contents of her fridge. She takes more speed and drives around the American South, radio on, ashtray filling. She also talks incessantly to herself, as if to affirm her autonomy. Chapter 520: “I’ve chosen now as the time to be sick in a bucket.” [my italics] Money even forges friendly letters to herself from the IRS (“You are paid in full”), an extraordinary effort in self-delusion.

This self-delusion is embedded in the novel’s structure. The fact that the chapters are sometimes numbered, sometimes titled, and the apparently arbitrary order in which the chapters appear, attests to Money’s relentless and futile drive to find order within an unquantifiable world. “Evan is the same age as Dix,” Money tells us, “over thirty, under a hundred.” Robison doesn’t eschew the perfectionist tendencies of her earlier work; she interrogates those tendencies and exposes them as artifice, false constructs providing false comfort. Her characters often resort to spewing inconsequential facts in place of conversation. “‘Shiner Bock is brewed in Texas,’ Dix says. He says this because it is a thing he knows.” It’s funny, but it’s also, somehow, heartbreaking. Each loose piece of trivia is something to grab onto, solid ground among the feints and deceptions.

When discussing the Internet, experts often resort to a radio metaphor: it’s hard to tell the signal from the noise. Robison’s short chapters attempt to distill some semblance of signal, a temporary true north within the infinite nothing. If her stories are still lifes—frozen images, excruciatingly scrutinized—then the late novels feel like strange slide shows, a comic procession of images, the accretion of which challenges and replaces the false imposition of narrative order. “The now is just arithmetic to me,” Money tells us.

All of which is what I was planning to do in my book! But reading Mary Robison wasn’t discouraging. No, I was elated, excited, inspired. As readers—and I consider myself one above all else—this is why we keep reading, the holy payoff of years spent flicking pages under the flashlight’s glow, scanning thousands of texts in search of the book that probes like surgical tubage, reaching up through miles of guts in a straight path to your heart.
“If you smashed The Catcher in the Rye into Jesus’ Son, you might have something quite close to Flatscreen,” wrote William Giraldi in Bookforum, “a narrative of wayward youth for our beguiled new century on the brink of a discovery we might not welcome. . . . but there’s far more heartwreck than hilarity in these rambunctious pages.” Darin Strauss found the novel “erudite and hilarious, raunchy and topical, and flat-out fun. Nicholson Baker meets Barthelme with a dash of Nabokov.” In March The Paris Review announced that Wilson won this year's Terry Southern Prize for Humor for his story "What's Important Is Feeling" and his contributions to The Paris Review daily. Wilson is the founder and former editor of The Faster Times. He teaches creative writing at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (includes What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)
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