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Friday, August 31, 2012

Remembering Faulkner scholar Noel Polk (1943–2012)

On August 21, Noel Polk, professor, literary scholar, critic, and poet, died at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Emeritus Professor of English at Mississippi State University and editor of the Mississippi Quarterly, Polk was best known for his editorial and critical work on William Faulkner and his critical work on Eudora Welty. The five volumes of Faulkner’s novels he co-edited with Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner for The Library of America involved painstaking research to reconstruct the most authoritative text for each novel, a process he described in the Notes on the Texts for each volume:
The Polk texts attempt to reproduce Faulkner's typescripts as he presented them to his publishers before editorial intervention. They accept only those revisions on typescript or proof that Faulkner seems to have initiated himself as a response to his own text, not those he made in response to a revision or a correction suggested by an editor; this is a very conservative policy which rejects many of Faulkner's proof revisions in favor of his original typescript.
Reconstructing Faulkner’s novels as he originally intended posed numerous problems for Polk as he recounted in his introduction to his collection of essays, Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner:
[Faulkner] took almost no interest in the printed forms of his books: he occasionally fought losing battles with editors over their alterations, but he never restored his original intentions back to what had been editorially altered. And he never revised a novel after it was published; for all we know, he never even re-read his novels (except, of course, those passages he read in public). For all intents and purposes, when he gave a typescript to his publishers he lost interest in it and proceeded immediately to the next blank page; what proofing he did he did with some obeisance to his professional duty, but he took no pleasure or interest in these more mechanical stages of literary production.
Polk’s opens his essay “Where the Comma Goes: Editing William Faulkner,” with an eloquent brief for the role of the scholarly editor:
Scholarly editing is the ultimate act of criticism, because it involves a wider range of issues than interpretation alone does, from macrocosmic ones like the author’s meaning, to more mundane and microcosmic ones like where does the comma go? Dealing with all these issues responsibly requires extensive knowledge of publishing history and of publishing techniques and procedures, of standard usage in the author’s period, of the author’s preferences at any period of his or her career, of the author’s relationship to commercial editors, to financial considerations, and to the political and cultural times, and of the author’s practices in composing, revising, and proofreading. The editor must be sensitive to an author’s most subtle nuances of style, punctuation, and spelling, as well as to larger issues in the work, but also constantly aware of the complex interaction between his or her own aesthetic sense and the author’s, because in order to determine where the comma goes the editor must constantly differentiate between authorial error and authorial intention. Finally, the editorial act is central to the critical enterprise because editorial decisions impinge directly upon questions of canon and literary history.
Polk’s essays detail the seriousness and care with which he tackled his research—“untold hours trying to parse out fine Faulknerian distinctions between ‘diningroom,’ ‘dining room,’ and ‘dining-room.’ It’s not all fun.”—but they also include transporting passages about his delight in discovery:
Few things in my scholarly life have given me the kind of personal pleasure that I got from showing the manuscripts of The Sound and the Fury to a friend late one cluttered Friday afternoon at the Alderman Library. You who have held it know that it is, simply, gorgeous. It and the manuscripts of Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!, are almost objets d’arts, each individual page a canvas sensual to the fingers and pleasing to the eye: rule-straight lines of highly stylized handwriting forming a visual counterpoint to the scope and power, the psychological chaos, of the world the handwriting is creating. The pages thus speak eloquently of a shoring up against that chaos, of compression, of control.
Polk had long wished to realize Faulkner’s dream of publishing a version of The Sound and the Fury which used colored ink to represent the time shifts in the sometimes bewildering opening Benjy section. Last month the Folio Society published a limited edition of The Sound and the Fury that Polk co-edited with Stephen Ross that uses fourteen different inks to mark each time period.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels (5 books)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on “the very vortex of hell,” Second Manassas (The Second Battle of Bull Run), August 28–30, 1862

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

On the afternoon of August 30, 1862, Union general John Pope was determined to smash Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s line once and for all. For the better part of two days he had launched assault after assault against the Confederates, who were deployed along an unfinished railroad cut that ran along a ridge northwest of the battlefield of First Manassas. At one point the Rebels’ ammunition had run so low that they had taken to throwing rocks at the attackers. One more time, Pope believed, and victory would be his.

In gathering men for the final assault, Pope left a single brigade and an artillery battery to watch matters on his extreme left flank. Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren deployed the 10th New York to the west, along with Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett’s Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, along a hill just south of the crossroads at a hamlet named Groveton, while Warren’s old regiment, the 5th New York, remained in reserve. Both New York regiments were outfitted in colorful Zouave uniforms: the red pantaloons of the 5th helped mark them as one of the most visible regiments in the entire Army of the Potomac, and they were rumored to be George B. McClellan’s favorite volunteer regiment. But the beloved Little Mac was nowhere to be found at Second Manassas. Neither was the enemy, at least for these Yankees, and the men of the 5th stacked their arms and rested.

Suddenly soldiers from the 10th emerged from the woods in front of the 5th. They were fleeing rearward as quickly as possible, pausing only long enough to alert their fellow Zouaves that the enemy was upon them and coming quick. And so they were: nearly thirty thousand Confederates under the command of James Longstreet, spearheaded by John Bell Hood’s fiery Texas brigade, were advancing on Pope’s exposed left flank. The New Yorkers were all too familiar with the Texans, for the adversaries had met just over two months before at Gaines’ Mill. No sooner had they fallen into line than bullets began ripping through their ranks. At first the 5th could not readily return fire lest they hit their retreating comrades: they could barely manage a single volley before the Confederates charged.

Within minutes the New Yorkers broke. Many of them were cut down by the pursuing Confederates as they scrambled downhill towards a creek and crossed it to a ridge in the distance. At first Hazlett’s guns, bypassed in the initial Confederate assault to the south, stayed in position, until the battery commander realized that he stood in danger of being cut off. In orderly fashion the artillerists limbered their guns and pulled back.

Warren finally rallied what was left of his command at Henry Hill, the site of hard fighting in the 1861 battle. His old regiment was shattered. Of some 560 men, over half had fallen, with some 120 men killed. Back on the hillside, one of the Texans termed the carnage “a ghastly, horrifying spectacle,” while another observer said that from afar the colorful uniforms made the hillside look as if it were covered by wildflowers. Years later the regiment’s survivors returned to the field to dedicate a monument marking the events of that day. As one of them recalled, “where the regiment stood that day was the very vortex of hell.” (quoted in Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas by John J. Hennessy)

For Confederate lieutenant John Hampden Chamberlayne, who had been among the defenders at the railroad cut, it had been a most memorable contest. “All day long they threw their masses upon us, all day they fell back, shattered & shrieking,” he told his mother of the action of August 29. The next day had been even worse: Chamberlayne claimed that the fighting “was by far the most horrible & deadly that I have ever seen.” Although the battlefield was covered with Union dead, the foe was not destroyed. “Their discipline & the night saved them from a rout,” the lieutenant concluded.

Doubtless both the stubborn resistance of Pope’s army and nightfall played a role in preventing disaster at Second Manassas. Yet the result served as a reminder of just how hard it was to achieve total victory in one single decisive clash. Aside from Warren’s brigade and Hazlett’s battery, the Union left flank was completely vulnerable to Longstreet’s devastating blow. Terrain had helped slow down the momentum of the Confederate attack, as did the rapid response of Union defenders elsewhere in shifting to face the new threat. Still, if one could not destroy an enemy army at one blow under such circumstances, it seemed unlikely ever to happen. Enamored of visions of decisive battle, Civil War generals reluctantly learned that only after a series of indecisive bloody battles and trying sieges would they be able to pound the ragged enemy into submission and surround a foe decimated by desertion and starvation as a prelude to surrender.

Among those commanders who were frustrated by the indecision of battle was Robert E. Lee. Never again would Lee enjoy such an opportunity to smash his opponent as at Second Manassas, although he would seek once more to turn exposed Union flanks at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Helping to frustrate that latter effort in Pennsylvania would be none other than Warren, whose appraisal of the situation from the summit of Little Round Top led him to hurry reinforcements to that position, including none other than Hazlett’s battery (although Hazlett would be cut down in the ensuing clash). For the moment, however, the Confederates claimed victory. Whether they could make any use of it would be decided in the next few weeks, as Lee decided to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; The Civil War: The Second year Told by Those Who Lived It

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Critics assess The Library of Congress’s “Books That Shaped America” Exhibition

“Lists are like traffic accidents, aren't they? You just can't stop—I mean, you have to stop and look, you know, and you have to rush in because you feel like you can help.” So Ron Charles, deputy editor of The Washington Post’s book section, comments on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about “Books That Shaped America,” the new exhibition currently at The Library of Congress through September 29.

The exhibition features 88 titles, all by American authors, that “have had a profound effect on American life.” The show’s organizers—curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress—consider it “a starting point—a way to spark a national conversation on books and their importance in Americans’ lives, and, indeed, in shaping our nation. . . . Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States.”

Why 88? Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, explains on Talk of the Nation: “That's the magical question, 88. Eighty-eight was the number of books that, when we got down to it, were actually going to fit in our exhibition space.”

Dimunation considers Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe emblematic of the collection:
It changed the way that Americans talked about race, both at the time of the Civil War and after. It also spawned an industry that Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been quite unhappy with, with the Tom plays and the sort of avenue toward racist depiction.
The exhibit also includes rare items to supplement several of the books, such as a dimestore novel by Louisa May Alcott and a recent Cuban book art creation of Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Many reviewers commend the list’s diversity and how it reflects American ideals. Michael Dirda in The Washington Post applauds how it
ignores the familiar high-culture shibboleths and embraces cookbooks (Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking) and schoolbooks (McGuffey’s Primer), mysteries (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), political tracts as well as poetry, both Dr. Seuss and Dr. Spock. . . . Just skimming through the titles . . . underscores that in this country anything can be questioned, nothing is set in stone, everything can be changed. We are, after all, a nation founded and grounded in revolution.
Only three authors have multiple entries: Benjamin Franklin has three titles; Harriet Beecher Stowe, two. And some familiar, canonical names are missing: Poe and Emerson, Pound and Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis. Pressed by Charles in their NPR interview to position James Fenimore Cooper, Dimunation puts him “in 89, 90, and 91.” For Charles it is the missing books that create a “negative space around it that's so interesting.” He finds, for instance, that the absence of religious books leaves “an enormous hole”:
[H]ere we have a book, The Book of Mormon, that is responsible for one of our 50 states. You know, Goodnight Moon cannot claim that. Religion influenced this country very dramatically right from the start. The first bestsellers were collections of sermons, you've got Thomas Shepard, people we don't even know anymore. Cotton Mather wrote 450 books. Where are all these religious thinkers, and why aren't they on here?
On NPR’s The Takeaway historian Kenneth C. Davis laments other omissions:
My number one miss is Hiroshima, by John Hersey, the most important book about the most important event in the twentieth century. It’s about the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city on August 5, 1945. Along those lines Profiles in Courage by John f. Kennedy, a book that got into the language and certainly added to the Kennedy mystique. Going back a little bit further in time Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the first book of history about the American experience here in the United States. . . The Influence of Sea Power upon History by Alfred Mahan influenced not only Americans to build worldwide navies but was also a book that reached around the world and certainly influenced Teddy Roosevelt to build the great white fleet. And Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
For Tim Cavanaugh, writing on Reason.com, the list suggests that “two-thirds of America's cultural history took place in only the last 112 years. That at least is the evidence from the publication dates, just 27 of which are from before the twentieth century. Only 20 predate the Civil War.” Cavanaugh closes his review with a video clip that offers dramatic testimony to the enduring power of one omitted author. The poker scene from the 2001 film In The Bedroom turns when one character’s recites a passage from Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth.”

 View the complete list of 88 titles. Join the discussion by taking a survey at The Library of Congress.

Previous Reader's Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA Titles: Here are a few of the 30 LOA titles on the list (and one that isn't): Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Jack London: Novels and Stories; Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings

Monday, August 13, 2012

William Gibson on “a seamless pop artifact,” The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Last year The Guardian asked twenty-four leading science fiction writers to choose their favorite novel in the genre. Only one book was selected twice: Michael Moorcock and William Gibson each chose The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957) as his favorite. Moorcock cites the book's many layers:
Bester's predictions included a world where all the powerful aristocratic families carry the names of Heinz, Chrysler, Sara Lee and most of the brands we are familiar with; a world where democracy has been subverted and strange cults, reflecting aspects of our modern world, have grown up. For me, it made as strong an impression as [John] Bunyan and reminds me why the best science fiction still contains, as in [J. G.] Ballard, vivid imagery and powerful prose coupled to a strong moral vision.
Richard M. Powers cover
for Signet edition (1957)
In The Stars My Destination Bester transplants Alexandre Dumas’s enduring tale of relentless revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, far into outer space and a complex and dark future. With themes of teleportation, cybernetic body enhancement, and megacorporate political control, the novel prefigures many of the elements that later characterize cyperpunk fiction. Gibson, “noir prophet of cyberpunk” and inventor of the term “cyberspace,” credits the book with having a profound effect on him:
Perfectly surefooted, elegantly pulpy, dizzying in its pace and sweep, TSMD is still as much fun as anything I've ever read. When I was lifting the literary equivalent of weights, in training for my own first novel [Neuromancer (1984)], it was my talisman: evidence of how many different kinds of ass one quick narrative could kick. And that sheen of exuberant postwar modernism? They just aren't making any more of that.
The Stars My Destination is one of the novels selected for the two-volume Library of America collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which will arrive in bookstores in late September (and is available now through the LOA website). To celebrate the inclusion of The Stars My Destination in the collection, Gibson has contributed an original essay to the set's companion website in which he describes what he discovered when, in his twenties, he reread Bester’s seminal novel:
It blew, as we used to say, my mind. I hadn’t, I saw, actually been able to read it fully before. It had been too fast for me, too gloriously relentless, too brilliant. I hadn’t been able to appreciate the extent to which Bester strips the dross from classic mechanisms of fiction, because I hadn’t yet known that dross. There hadn’t yet been enough of me to be thrilled by all that the book accomplishes. 
It was, I saw in my twenties, a book that had absolutely ignored everything that science fiction had been doing when it was written. It was built on bones pilfered from Dumas and Dickens (steal only the best). It was clad in a skin of archly sophisticated Mad Ave ur-hipness, with all the grot and glitter of a fully happening dude’s postwar Manhattan (something no other science fiction writer of the era was able to offer). It was, I recognized then, an utterly urban thing. It made most of the rest of its assumed genre look hick. 
Bester’s protagonist hurls himself naked from a spaceship, fuelled by hatred. Bester’s novel hurled itself naked from the science fiction of its day, fuelled by something hipper than hatred, more potent. Into that vacuum, and on, into the actual 21st Century, Gully and the book rock. 
It is, as Bruce Sterling remarked to me on our first meeting, “a seamless pop artifact.” Few and far between, such artifacts; each one a complete anomaly.
Read Gibson’s entire appreciation here.

Also of interest:

Friday, August 10, 2012

An interview with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell about Jack Kerouac and the “universal experience of being alive”

Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell spoke with us about the forthcoming publication of Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, which she edited for The Library of America.

Is it strange that a Haitian-born woman artist and writer should feel such an affinity with a working class French Canadian male poet from Lowell, Mass?

Gender is overrated. And, if allowed, will create obstacles between people, as will culture, class, and generations. That Kerouac showed up male in this world, and I showed up female, is significant only in terms of our own individual journey and its prescribed challenges, but not in our relating to each other. What connects us in this world is Soul.

That being said, I share many aspects of the self with Kerouac: I am French, through my mother; I went to Catholic school, and spent my adolescence in a French boarding school; I also immersed myself, during my early adulthood, in Eastern philosophy and practices—I profoundly understand The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and Some of the Dharma; I am now an American, and I too partake in the “permissible dream” that America remains; I am a poet as well—I share with Kerouac, as with most poets, a peculiar, raw sensibility and experience of the real world that we take great pains to translate and articulate.

In true poetry, a poet undresses, removes these layers that are superficial boundaries between people, exposes this Soul, and allows it to move. Soul needs silence. When someone sits down to read, there happens a kind of undressing of that person as well—the armors and masks we wear are no longer useful here—the aloneness of the reader roams well through the silence of Soul, as it does through gender, culture, class, and age.

Why do you think Kerouac’s poems still speak to us?

I heard the late Peter Gomes say in a sermon that the Incarnation proved a success when Christ cried out from the cross, “Father, why have you abandoned me!”—Christ felt then fully what it is like to be born human.

Kerouac’s poems still speak to us because he did undress for us, in order to reach this element of Soul that we all share, this universal experience of being alive, the human abandonment—the rage, the fear, the pain; the desire to partake of more of the goodness we encounter all too rarely, and which we could distribute much more selflessly, if it weren’t for the rage, the fear, the pain . . . we recognize it all in Kerouac’s poems, we empathize with him while being moved.

When and how did you first encounter Kerouac’s poems?

Having grown up first in the Haitian, and then in the French school system up to the Baccalauréat, I met Kerouac late “on the road,” casually at first.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write to discover what I know.” In my maturity as a writer, I am startled by that same revelation all the time. However, I now have come to realize that this was true on school benches as well—exam time: you sit in a bare, hard classroom filled with students inwardly feeling terribly anxious, but all looking confident as they are handed essay questions—you must pick only one. But while you write, it all comes tumbling down. Now, I picked Kerouac . . . or did Kerouac pick me?

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

Hard question—it’s like having to choose a favorite psalm in the Bible—so much depends on the mood or the needs of the day. As do the psalms, Kerouac’s poems possess the excess, the outrage, the lyrical flights, the extreme tenderness and profound understanding of the human ability to drown within oneself, and yet to thrill all the same.

There are so many beautiful poems! How to choose only one? And even within a poem, a wholly successful one or not, there may be just one immortal line that somehow drives a dagger through your heart. I have managed to insert many of my favorite dagger-lines in the introduction for the book, one of them being a sober gift: “Believe in the holy contour of life.”

But if I had to choose, let’s say in Mexico City Blues alone, I might pick the 30th Chorus, or the 235th, the 14th, 100th, 84th, 89th, 55th, 196th, 53rd, 42nd, 105th, 128th, 171st, 216th, 227th, 228th, or the 229th. For my personal selection, I’ll take Emily Dickinson’s counsel any day, when she said, “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

What new things did you discover about Kerouac and his poems while working on this book?

Besides rediscovering, marveling anew, at the sheer beauty and originality of Kerouac’s poetic genius, what I discovered while working on this book, and what will remain with me, is a friend.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bill Marx on the influence of “slice-and-dice” Edgar Allan Poe on “acid-in-your-face” Ambrose Bierce

Reviewing the life and work of Ambrose Bierce in the July-August issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, Bill Marx wonders: “Is journalist, short-story writer, and poet Ambrose Bierce one of the biggest SOBs in American literature?”
A spirit of aggressive disdain runs through his four decades of prose, from his furious assaults in his weekly columns for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle to the acid-in-your-face definitions of The Devil’s Dictionary, the startling violence of his Civil War stories, his Grand Guignol horror yarns, ghost tales, and sci-fi fables.
Marx locates one of Bierce’s animating influences in the “slice-and-dice reviewing style of Edgar Allan Poe.” Much like Poe, Bierce was fond of ridicule:
“Ridicule, as I venture to use it myself,” wrote [Bierce] in the Chronicle in 1890, “seems to me to be the most excellent of offensive weapons because it hurts without damaging. No man’s good reputation is permanently impaired by ridicule, yet most men would rather be slandered rather than ridiculed. It is monstrous hard to bear; it lacerates the sensibilities horribly—if artfully done.”
Yet, Marx writes, the energy that fueled Bierce’s venomous journalistic efforts generates a different result when he turns to fiction:
His bedeviling ferocity, born of an excess of satiric disdain, is also the key to Bierce’s continuing appeal as a writer. The author’s reputation as a misanthrope obscures how the gauche energy of his allegories are actually their strength: His heavy hand penned wholly original stories that avoid staid moral messages or conventional intimations of the supernatural. The Civil War stories, for instance, are admired for more than just their documentary value: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with its death’s head japes and narrative somersaults, is considered by critics to be one of the finest “experimental” American stories of the period. . . .
Told in a lean, tongue-in-cheek style, Bierce’s wised-up supernatural and horror stories are head-scratching hybrids, twisted bridges between Poe’s Gothic scarefests and the overripe monster mashes of H. P. Lovecraft.
Being called an “imitator of Poe” rankled Bierce. As he wrote a friend in 1909: “If I had left the tragic and supernatural out of my stories I would still have been an 'imitator of Poe,' for they would still have been stories; so what’s the use?” Yet he clearly revered Poe, writing in the essay “Who Are the Great?”: “I should say that the greatest American that we know about, if not George Sterling, was Edgar Allan Poe.” As Arthur M. Miller has written “Having accepted Poe as the leading arbiter and expert in the field of the short story, he wrote after his leadership, and tried to excel him. . . . To Bierce there was only one ‘right’ kind of fiction form, and Poe had invented it.”

In his essay Marx finds the contrast between Bierce and Poe best exemplified in the opening paragraphs of Bierce’s “compact masterpiece, ‘One Summer Night’”:
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture—flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation—the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil. 
But dead—no, he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid's apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he—just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So with no particular apprehension for this immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
Premature burial fascinated both writers. Poe famously explored it in “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” and “The Premature Burial.” Bierce used it in no less than six of his tales.Yet their approaches to the subject couldn’t be more different, as Marx details:
For Poe, premature burial is a fixation that generates psychological panic once nightmare becomes reality. For Bierce, it is a relaxing experience, an invitation to take a nap. How or why did Henry Armstrong end up in a casket under the ground? Bierce offers no explanation, just proffers a tongue-in-cheek gibe at the threat of oblivion. Henry’s “pathological indifference” to ultimate reality burlesques our fear of death as well as American pragmatism: When six-feet-under, you might as well be reasonable, face facts, and not make a fuss. The best thing is to mark time before the end comes, somewhat behind schedule.
This appreciation for Bierce’s somewhat relaxed attitude toward death leads Marx to speculate on whether Bierce’s mysterious death may have been a form of “performance art”:
Even the mystery of the author’s death may have been the capstone of a life dedicated to ridicule. According to biographer [Roy Morris Jr.], a reasonable case can be made that Bierce’s publicized intention to go down to Mexico to cover Pancho Villa (“To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”) was nothing but an exercise in fatalistic performance art, a dodge concocted to cover up the writer’s plan to commit suicide in a place where his body would never be found: Death Valley. Bierce may have plotted his demise as his final grisly farce, driving the credulous fools to distraction one last time.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierc: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs; Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Works

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Remembering Gore Vidal: playwright, novelist, essayist, critic

“To find someone writing in English, who, like Gore Vidal, distinguished himself as a historical novelist, a commercial playwright, a political activist, and a dandy, attracting controversy and opprobrium along the way, one would have to go back to Edward Bulwer-Lytton,” writes Laurence Senelick in The American Stage. Reviewing Vidal’s life and work in The New York Times, Charles McGrath also conjures with evocations of another era, describing “Mr. Vidal” as “at the end of his life, an Augustan figure, who believed himself to be the last of a breed. He was probably right.”

Vidal often weaved scenes and people from his life into his writing, and his close friendships with fellow playwrights, including Tennessee Williams, disinclined him to criticize plays. However, on those occasions when he wrote about theater, Senelick observes, he delivered “the elegantly styled responses of a discriminating and intelligent insider.” Here he traces the theater’s “beautiful circle of love”:
The desire to give pleasure is a fundamental characteristic of the popular artist. . . .The literary pleasure givers are happiest using the theater, loneliest in the novel. . . And it is understandable. A most tangible audience responds like a lover to pleasure given, and in his audience’s response the artist is himself ravished by what he has done. The result is a beautiful circle of love which at its truest has been responsible for much good art in the theater along with most of the bad.
Vidal joined the lonelier pleasure givers in crafting some twenty-five novels, the most popular being his series of scrupulously researched historical novels. By far the most popular was his lively portrait of our sixteenth president in Lincoln, published in 1984. In one scene, excerpted in The Lincoln Anthology, Lincoln and William H. Seward pay an unannounced visit to lame duck president James Buchanan at the White House in 1861:
Lincoln was staring at a pile of white marble blocks, at whose center the base of an obelisk rose. “They’ve still not finished that monument to Washington?” 
“No, sir. In fact, nothing is ever finished here! No dome on the Capitol. No street pavings. No street lamps. Nothing ever done to completion here except, sir, one thing.” The old man’s head now rested on his shoulder and the bad eye was entirely shut as, with a quiet joy, he pointed out the window. “There,” he said. “Look.” 
 Lincoln stared at a huge red-brick wall. “The one thing that the Executive Mansion has dearly needed since Mr. Jefferson’s time was a proper barn. . . . You don’ t know the pleasure it has given me these last four years to see this beautiful barn slowly rise from that swamp they call the President’s Park.”
“And watch the Union fall apart,” said Lincoln to Seward as the two men crossed the President’s Park . . .
McGrath writes in his obituary that in the opinion of many critics “Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays.” Objections to America’s foreign policies permeate Vidal's political essays, yet, as Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes in The Mark Twain Anthology, “Any attempt to read Vidal’s blunt dissent from American pieties as anti-American is of necessity derailed by the fact that Mark Twain was there first.” Reveling in their shared antipathies to the course of American empire, Vidal wrote the introduction to an edition of Twain’s Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays.
[Twain’s] To the Person Sitting in Darkness was published as a pamphlet in 1901, a year in which we were busy telling the Filipinos that although we had, at considerable selfless expense, freed them from Spain they were not yet ready for the higher democracy, as exemplified by Tammany Hall, to use Henry James’ bitter analogy. Strictly for their own good, we would have to kill one or two hundred thousand men, women and children in order to make their country into an American-style democracy.
In other essays Vidal studiously reappraised and resurrected the work of writers he deemed underappreciated. When he declared Dawn Powell a “comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens” in The Antioch Review in 1981, he sparked a revival of interest in her work that led to many of her books returning to print and, eventually, to her inclusion in The Library of America. Six years later, he published an extensive title-by-title review of her fourteen novels in The New York Review of Books, (the review appears in full on The Library of America’s Dawn Powell website):
For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been. In those days, with a bit of luck, a good writer eventually attracted voluntary readers and became popular. Today, of course, "popular" means bad writing that is widely read while good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers. Powell failed on both counts. She needs no interpretation and in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O'Hara or even the late, far too late, Katherine Anne Porter. But Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life's feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up.
Vidal was a close friend of Richard Poirier, the founding chairman of The Library of America who died in 2009, and he dedicated the 1983 novel Duluth to him. He also served for many years on the board of advisors for The Library of America, and he closely followed the progress of the series, offering advice and suggestions and writing an introduction especially for a paperback edition of Lincoln’s writings and speeches. His presence, advice, generosity, and wit will be missed.

Related LOA works: The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner; The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now; The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works; Dawn Powell: Novels 1930–1942; Dawn Powell: Novels 1944–1962
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