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Friday, December 13, 2013

How Jonathan Edwards talked about God

The William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Philip F. Gura is the editor of Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening, just published by The Library of America. Among his many previous books are Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical and Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel.

The following essay originally appeared online in the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post (November 21, 2013).

Why should one be interested in the writings of the eighteenth-century American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards?

Edwards the merciless logician who published lengthy tomes in which he denied that we have free will and defended the notion that all humans struggle in bondage to original sin? Edwards, the fire and brimstone preacher who stared dispassionately at the bell rope across the space of the meetinghouse as he described God’s everlasting and just hatred of sinners and their proper condemnation to a vividly imagined hell? Edwards the apologist for emotional religious revivals that made his spiritual descendants Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Swaggart into household names?

The answer is simple. We should read him for his mastery of language, and that is why he is in the Library of America. All attempts to speak of ultimate things are metaphorical and as such depend finally on the resource of language. Words are all we have to express such thoughts and perhaps our only way of “knowing” the world. And in this case in particular, Edwards helps us, as far as language goes, to understand our humanity. His language bends backward and forward, and allows us better to know ourselves, no matter in what religion we believe.

Consider two central matters for such self-knowledge: the presence in the world of sin or evil, and of its opposite, grace. With respect to the former, Edwards did not believe that some evil quality is “infused, implanted, or wrought” into human nature. Rather, evil is privative, “the withholding of a special divine influence to impart and maintain those good principles, leaving the common natural principles of self-love, natural appetite” to themselves without the government of superior motives. Innate depravity is spiritual emptiness, a longing for something larger than us, a lack of something that only grace can restore.

Edwards’s elaboration of this concept is striking. When man sins, he argued, superior principles leave his heart, as “light ceases in a room when the candle is withdrawn.” He is thus left in a state of “darkness, woeful corruption, and ruin,” like “a fatal catastrophe, a turning of all things upside down, and the succession of a state of most odious and dreadful confusion.” To compensate for this loss of spiritual compass, man acts predictably, immediately setting himself and his natural inclinations in God’s place.

Now consider Edwards’s Personal Narrative, in which he describes what he believed a genuine conversion. Just previous to this moment he had continued to rebel against the seemingly irrational notion of God’s utter sovereignty, “in choosing who he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased.” This seemed a “horrible” doctrine. “But I remember the time very well,” Edwards wrote, “when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty . . . but never could give an account how, or by what means, I was thus convinced; not in the least imagining, in the time of it, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s spirit in it; but only now that I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it.”

There was nothing special in the event, yet the experience was utterly transformative. Moreover, it pertained to the matter of sight. Edwards “saw further”—we would say he had insight—and his life was irrevocably changed. “The appearance of everything,” he continued, “was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything . . . in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” It was a transcendent, with a small “t,” experience.

In his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, Edwards explains this further. When one receives grace, “There is a new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind, from anything that ever their minds were the subjects of” before. In the experience of a saint, something new “is felt, perceived, or thought” which could be “produced by no exalting, varying or compounding of that kind of perceptions or sensations which the mind had before; or there is what some metaphysicians call a new simple idea.”

Edwards borrowed the notion of “a new simple idea” from John Locke. After one experiences something new, he has a new idea of it that reorganizes all previous knowledge, makes everything congruent to it, much in the way that William James describes truth’s instrumentality. Something is true for us when it works for us, James explains, when it accords with other parts of our belief system.

But after Adam’s transgression, man was incomplete. He lacked something. His heart, or soul, or, as Edwards would say, his “affections,” were defined and dominated by self. When grace is added to that picture, though, all in the heart is realigned, so that goodness flows. One sees the world aright, sees what matters, and is a different being. Edwards thought this a supernatural event, God’s arbitrary and free gift. But the power of the experience—and how his words speak to us—resides in Edwards’s notion of a radical realignment of one’s sensibility as the result of purely natural phenomena, specifically, a right perception or seeing. New simple ideas can and do occur at frequent points in our lives; but the key is to recognize them as significant, as true, in such a way that they have a transformative effect on us.

Edwards speaks to us in this way, enlightening us as to what matters in our lives, and does so in language that, while it partakes of the clarity and symmetry of eighteenth-century rhetoric, continues to move our heart, our “affections,” as he would say. To borrow a sentence from Edwards in his discussion of grace, “Unless this is seen, nothing is seen that is worth the seeing.” That is why we should read him.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Battle of Chattanooga (November 23–25, 1863): “Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown”

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

On the afternoon of November 25, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant stood on Orchard Knob east of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and pondered what to do next. It was just over a month since he had arrived at the town where the Army of the Cumberland, in the aftermath of its defeat at Chickamauga on September 20, found itself besieged by the victorious Army of Tennessee under the command of Braxton Bragg. Grant’s job was to break the siege and defeat the enemy.

It was a daunting task. The Confederates looked down upon their beaten foe from defensive positions along Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The Rebels had also moved westward along the Tennessee River to sever the Yankee supply line, leaving the Army of the Cumberland in a perilous situation. The Lincoln administration labored to relieve the beleaguered army, dispatching two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and one from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in Mississippi to do what they could to pry open the Confederate grip on Chattanooga. Having lost faith in the ability of William S. Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland’s commander, to salvage the situation, President Lincoln turned to the victor of Vicksburg to save the day. Elevated in mid-October to a command that spanned the area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River valley, Grant took advantage of an option provided in his orders to replace Rosecrans with George H. Thomas, who promised Grant that he would hold Chattanooga until his men starved.

By the time Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23, the Union forces were ready to take action. Rosecrans and his chief engineer William F. Smith had already framed a plan to reopen a supply line along the Tennessee River. Grant ordered that it be implemented. Meanwhile, he hurried forward William T. Sherman’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee, intending to entrust the key blow of the upcoming battle to Sherman instead of Thomas or Joseph Hooker, who had come westward with the Potomac soldiers. It was not until November 23 that Grant could set his plan in motion. That day Thomas undertook a reconnaissance in force that easily captured Orchard Knob. The result was more than Grant expected. Still, one observer noted that he was “well pleased at what had been accomplished. He seems perfectly cool, and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on. Its a mere matter of business with him.”1

That night there was a near total eclipse of the moon. Major James A. Connelly of the 123rd Illinois Infantry noted that “it was ominous of defeat, but not for us; we concluded that it meant Bragg because he was perched on the mountain top, nearest the moon.”2 As noon came on November 24 “the fiercest and most tremendeous roars of both cannon and musketry” broke out along Lookout Mountain. Hooker’s men scrambled up its slopes, driving the enemy away. That night Union observers could see “Camp fires and flashes of musketry” illuminate the mountain’s slopes: the following morning Grant’s headquarters discovered that Hooker’s men had planted a United States flag at the summit.3 Meanwhile, Sherman had moved into place opposite the Bragg’s right on Missionary Ridge, ready to smash the Confederate flank and drive the Rebels off the ridgeline.

On the morning of November 25 Sherman attacked, only to discover that he has misjudged the terrain in front of him. Patrick Cleburne’s division repelled several Union assaults, and by early afternoon it was clear that Sherman was getting nowhere. On the Union right Hooker’s men found it tough going to make progress against the Confederates, in part because they needed to replace destroyed bridges. At Orchard Knob, Grant, Thomas, and several officers stood in a cold wind and contemplated what to do next as Confederate shells “whizzed past” every few minutes.4

By mid-afternoon Grant knew he had to do something. He directed Thomas to order his four divisions to move forward and capture, the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, and then await further orders. When the moment was right, he would order them to resume their advance.

It didn’t quite work out that way. After Union artillery commenced shelling the ridge, Thomas’s men “moved forward at the rifle pits of the enemy as if they knew they were going to succeed,” as Smith described it. The Confederates “broke from behind their protection and up the hill, our men following with chear upon chear and the cannon and musketry on top of the hill pouring shot and shell upon them.”5

In truth, the advancing Yankees had no choice. Having taken the rifle pits with relative ease, they discovered that they were now vulnerable to deadly fire from the ridge above them. Withdrawal would only expose them to more fire. The only option was to advance without waiting for orders from headquarters. Some commanders thought that the crest of the ridge was the ultimate objective; others thought the advance was to stop at the rifle pits. That confusion no longer mattered. “The line ceased to be a line,” Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs recalled. “The men gathered towards the points of least difficult ascent” and streamed up toward the crest. Although Confederate artillery fired away, Major Connolly later explained that “they couldn’t even scare us, as they couldn’t depress their guns to reach us, but had to blaze away far over our heads.” As Smith described it, “Regiment after regiment gained the top and planted their colors—most of them gaining it by the many roads that passed from the valley to the top of the ridge.”6

That was not how Grant had planned it. Meigs recorded how Grant declared that “it was contrary to orders, it was not his plan—he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault, but, as the men[,] carried away by their enthusiasm had gone so far, he would not order them back.” What had seemed at first akin to suicide had turned into a smashing success.7

That evening no one could quite believe what they had seen, although it did not take long for the assault on Missionary Ridge to pass into legend. Bragg’s “beaten and discontented army” was “in full retreat”; Tennessee and Kentucky were now safe from invasion. It was, Meigs decided, “[t]he grandest stroke yet struck for our country.… It is unexampled—Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown.”8

Years later the editors of Century Magazine suggested to Grant that Bragg had detached some of his army to attack Knoxville in early November because he thought the Missionary Ridge position was impregnable. With “a shrewd look,” Grant replied: “Well, it was impregnable.”9

1 William Wrenshall Smith: Journal, November 13–25, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 576.
2 James A. Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, December 7, 1863, ibid., 593.
3 Smith, ibid., 577-78.
4 Montgomery C. Meigs: Journal, November 23–25, 1863, ibid., 585.
5 Smith, ibid., 580.
6 Meigs, ibid., 587; Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, November 26, 1863, ibid., 590; Smith, ibid., 580.
7 Meigs, ibid., 587.
8 Ibid., 589.
9 Ulysses S. Grant: Chattanooga, in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888), vol. III, 693n.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

David Rieff on how his mother, Susan Sontag, lived as “a citizen of the Republic of Letters”

The author of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (among many other books) and the editor of the journals and notebooks of Susan Sontag, David Rieff spoke with us recently about Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, the collection of his mother’s writing that he edited for the LOA.

In Sontag’s view, who were the most important European writers undiscovered or neglected in the U.S.? Did she think of herself as a critic who bridged the intellectual worlds of Europe and America?

As an American, my mother was uncompromisingly engaged in the great political issues of her time—the Vietnam War, feminism, American power after the Cold War. But as a writer, and without denying or repudiating her “American-ness,” my mother saw herself as an international person, if you will, a citizen of the Republic of Letters—an idea that, while of course she knew it to be metaphoric, counted for her. So the idea that the U.S. and Europe were two separate and distinct worlds did not make much sense to her. That said, as someone steeped in French culture particularly, early in her career she brought writers like Nathalie Sarraute, Roland Barthes, E. M. Cioran, and others to the attention of New York publishers. Later in her career, my mother often offered to write prefaces to works she hoped U.S. publishers would have translated.

The seminal essay “On Photography” changed the way people thought and wrote about photographs. What led Sontag to her interest in photography?

I don’t believe there was one event. In cultural terms, at least, and perhaps in others as well, my mother was interested in virtually all the arts, not only photography. I simply think, as with many writers, there were some subjects about which she felt she had a great deal to say (like photography) and others, such as, for example, ballet, which she loved and followed, where her relations to them was as a devotee rather than as a critic.

Several of the previously uncollected pieces in the volume explore cultural attitudes toward women, beauty, and aging, speaking to issues central to the emerging women’s movement. Did Sontag identify herself as a feminist?

Unquestionably. But what my mother meant by identifying herself as a feminist and what others wanted her to mean by it, were two very different things.

Did Sontag have any personal favorites among these essays?

I think like most writers, my mother liked best the essay she was working on at the time. She was not a great one for looking backwards in any domain of life including her own work.

How, in Sontag’s view, were her essays related to her other work (fiction, filmmaking, playwriting, etc.)?

I don’t think she thought in such terms. I do know that she treasured her identity as a novelist and short story writer, and at least in some ways, valued it above that of all her work in other genres. But this was a feeling, not a judgment or any sort of demotion of her work as an essayist, filmmaker, playwright, etc.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Jefferson Davis Tries to Rally Confederate Morale (Fall 1863)

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Fred C. Frey Chair in Southern Studies at Louisiana State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

The summer of 1863 had been a poor one for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s army was not just repulsed from its invasion of Pennsylvania but bloodily beaten at Gettysburg. At the same time, William S. Rosecrans maneuvered Braxton Bragg’s Confederates out of Middle Tennessee at the cost of less than six hundred Union casualties. Farther west, Ulysses S. Grant had at last captured Vicksburg, the strongest Confederate citadel of the Mississippi, and delivered complete control of the “Father of Waters” to the Union. Lee safely retreated into Virginia and spent the rest of the year rebuilding his army, aided partly by a controversial offer of amnesty to deserters who returned to their units.

The only good news came in September when Bragg, after receiving reinforcements from Mississippi and Virginia, took advantage of Rosecrans’s dispersed positions in northwest Georgia south of Chattanooga. The ensuing battle along Chickamauga Creek on September 19–20 devastated the Union Army of the Cumberland and forced it to retreat back into the city. Bragg initiated a siege, but his senior commanders expressed great frustration that they had not aggressively pursued Rosecrans’s fleeing army and taken Chattanooga. As a result, Jefferson Davis found himself traveling to Georgia in an attempt to contain something close to a generals’ mutiny. When Davis arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee overlooking Chattanooga on October 9, four of Bragg’s corps commanders called for his replacement. Addressing the army the next day, Davis reminded them that “obedience was the first duty of a soldier” and “prompt, unquestioning obedience” of superiors “could not be too highly commended.” He then confidently predicted that the Army of Tennessee would soon “plant our banners permanently on the banks of the Ohio.”1

Davis toured through Alabama, eastern Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas after he restored a semblance of order to the Army of Tennessee. In Wilmington, he celebrated the steadfastness of North Carolina residents, particularly in the “Eastern portion of the state which had suffered the most from the enemy and was perhaps the most loyalty and devoted portion of the whole State.”2 Davis was undoubtedly thinking of western North Carolina, which some Confederates believed was infected with the same poisonous unionism that defined East Tennessee. Despite Davis’s pronouncements about solidarity between regions, the Mountain South remained suspect throughout the war. But Davis himself overlooked a much more serious problem in eastern North Carolina: the continuing exodus of black families from the region. The Union army had captured New Bern in March 1862 and black residents began fleeing to Union lines almost immediately. In late 1863 Brigadier General Edward Wild recruited a sizable number of black North Carolinians into his “African Brigade,” which then began raiding tidewater plantations to free more enslaved people and recruit more soldiers for the Union. Davis’s vision of the Confederacy excluded free black people, but they nonetheless represented an increasing threat to the survival of southern independence.

If Davis ignored the determination of many black North Carolinians to fight for the Union, he confronted head on the problem of white southerners who their personal welfare ahead of the well-being of the Confederacy. In his speech at Wilmington, Davis condemned “the wealth gathered and heaped up in the spirit of Shylock, in the midst of a bleeding country” that “would go down with a branding and a curse.”3 As Davis knew, the opportunities for profit in running the Union blockade were substantial, especially in Wilmington, the last open Confederate deep-water port on the Atlantic. Loyal ship captains were supposed to return with cargoes of weapons, ammunition, medicine, shoes, and salt, but few could resist the temptation to stock their holds with luxury goods that sold quickly to still-wealthy members of the southern elite. In urban areas inland shopkeepers often withheld goods from sale until the prices rose. Confederate newspapers labeled such practices “extortion” and condemned merchants as public enemies, but no easy solution presented itself. What was the appropriate profit to make in a time of war? Shopkeepers had to pay their rent and feed their families like anyone else. Nonetheless, they became ready scapegoats for a Confederate government that needed targets for the mounting public anger over the toll, duration, and experience of the war. Military reverses in the summer of 1863 did not guarantee Confederate defeat in the war, but they did increase pressure on the Davis administration to ensure that sacrifices were borne equally, and that such sacrifices would ultimately produce victory.

1 Jefferson Davis: Speech at Missionary Ridge, October 10, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 547.
2 Jefferson Davis: Speech at Wilmington, November 5, 1863, ibid., 553.
3 Ibid., 552.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wendy Wasserstein: Edith Wharton’s “desire to love & to look pretty”

Born sixty-three years ago, on October 18, Wendy Wasserstein (author of such plays as the The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig) was taken from us much too soon. In 2001 she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and had to scale back her speaking engagements and workload. Then, in 2007, after battling lymphoma, she died at the age of 55.

First page of Wendy Wasserstein's speech,
found in the LOA files. (Click to enlarge.)
While organizing a trove of files for the Library of America archives, we came across the typescript for a speech by Wasserstein, with her handwritten notes over each of its three pages. A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Wasserstein was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the LOA’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining her on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Wasserstein chose Edith Wharton, and her remarks appear below. (She opened with a reference to Henry Adams, the subject of Schlesinger’s comments.)

* * *
I think, I hope, that Henry Adams would be happy. I’m going to talk about Edith Wharton tonight, but first I want to say that Terrence McNally came by my house yesterday and he saw my shopping bag from The Library of America full of books and he said to me, “They are the best publishers of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and I can’t tell you how much those volumes have meant to me.” So he was very jealous at first when he saw the shopping bags and then when he saw it was Edith Wharton, he calmed down.

The other thing I want to apologize a little bit for is my speech; I currently have Bell’s palsy and I was thinking tonight, what would an Edith Wharton character do in this case? And I thought Undine Spragg would think, who’s on the guest list tonight, and should I come there to be socially and literarily ambitious? And then I thought May Welland would have done the proper thing and taken to her bed. So actually what I do at most times in these cases is consult Edith Wharton herself. I actually have a letter of Edith Wharton’s that I keep above my desk, and I will read this letter to you. It is a letter she wrote after she received a request from the American Women’s Pen Association. She answered them:

Dear Madam,
I have received your kind note in behalf of the League of American Pen Women inviting me to the authors’ breakfast which you are to hold in April in Washington. Unfortunately, I had to postpone my visit to America and see no way of my being there this spring. Would you kindly tell your committee how much I am gratified by their invitation and how greatly I regret being unable to accept it. Please believe me.
Yours truly,
Edith Wharton
So in my mind, Edith Wharton did what she really wanted to do. Following Edith’s lead, my feeling was, I really wanted to come to The Library of America tonight, and therefore am here.

Future generations of readers have benefited from Edith Wharton’s ability to write “believe me” letters and stay home to write. Edith Wharton’s life spanned two centuries. She was born in 1862 in New York, and died in 1937. She lived in Paris for the last three decades of her life as an ex-patriot. Looking over her work in Library of America editions, what is remarkable is how prolific she was. She was the author of more than 40 published volumes, including novellas, poetry, war reporting, travel writing, and books on gardens and house décor. Recently, we’ve come to know Edith Wharton as almost an American Jane Austen, a basis for Merchant-Ivory and Martin Scorsese period films. Her works have become the costume dramas of a kind of Masterpiece Theater cinema. But if you read Edith Wharton, it’s far deeper and richer than that.

I first came across Edith Wharton when I was in high school. I frankly had no idea that there was a New York woman writer of that era who had written so much and written so well. In high school we had read Jane Austen. But we had never read Flannery O’Connor or very many other American women novelists, and on top of that I went to a women’s high school. I found Edith Wharton on my own actually, in Scribner’s bookstore. And when I came across her that first time, I read The House of Mirth, and I was amazed by it. I thought, I can’t believe someone did this and got the city so well, and pictured it so acutely, and I also remember thinking, I can’t wait until I’m older and I really know that this is right. And I read her again in college, The Age of Innocence, and again I went to a women’s college, and we weren’t really studying very many women writers then either.

And so Edith Wharton became more and more of a beacon light to me. As I read more Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, those authors who were thought to know about class and money, to my mind Edith Wharton knew just as much and more. To my mind, she was like Chekhov, because she knew about a society in which class was changing. She knew about a society, beginning with details like spoons and forks, place-cards, and suddenly expanding to the much larger aspects of life and how that society was changing. As I began writing plays, Edith Wharton’s knowledge of a New York dinner party seemed to me like Chekhov’s knowledge of afternoons at a Russian dacha, and who came to sit and have tea and how things changed regarding love and marriages, all beginning with those smaller moments.

What I came across as I was looking through Edith Wharton in the Library of America collection was the autobiographical fragment [“Life and I”] that had never been previously published, and I’m just going to read a little bit of this to you because I thought it was extraordinary. It begins:

My first conscious recollection is of being kissed in Fifth Avenue by my cousin Dan Fearing.

It was a winter day, I was walking with my father, & I was a little less than four years old, when this momentous event took place. My cousin, a very round & rosy little boy, two or three years older, was also walking with his father; & I remember distinctly his running up to me, & kissing me, & the extremely pleasant sensation which his salute produced. With equal distinctness, I recall the satisfaction I felt in knowing that I had on my best bonnet, a very handsome bonnet made of a bright Tartan velvet with a white satin ground, with a full ruffling of blonde lace under the brim. Thus I may truly say that my first conscious sensations were produced by the two deepest-seated instincts of my nature—the desire to love & to look pretty.
She then goes on to say that that yearning to be pretty was not vanity, but rather an idea to look at the world as harmoniously composed. And I thought that yearning for both love and prettiness could be discarded in a politically correct manner of the writing of a privileged woman, or you could look at it in another way, of a woman actually telling the truth, and saying that this is what I see in this world. And as I look at photos still in style pages, on party pages, documenting life in New York, I think, Edith Wharton knew somewhere there is a subtext of looking for love and wanting to look pretty. And it’s an honor to talk about her tonight. Thank you very much.

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: Henry Adams's predictions for the future

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How Leonard Schneider became Lenny Bruce: The influence of Joe Ancis, Joe Maini, and Lord Buckley on his early career

This week marks the publication of The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground, a collection of 57 selections—memoirs, poems, novels, comedy routines, letters, essays, and song lyrics. Edited by Glenn O’Brien, the anthology takes the reader on a journey through America’s subterranean scenes: the worlds of jazz, of disaffected postwar youth, of the racially and sexually excluded, of outlaws and drug users creating their own dissident networks—from Bop to Beat to Punk.

In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a writer for Prestige magazine, reviews the early career of comedian Lenny Bruce, whose routine on the danger of drugs is reprinted in The Cool School, and the influence of his friends Joe Ancis, Joe Maini, and Lord Buckley (whose irreverent piece “The Naz” is also included in the book).

*     *     *
Maybe it really was those days and nights out at sea that did it. Stationed aboard a Navy destroyer in his late teens and early twenties, young Leonard Schneider would “[s]ometimes . . . talk out loud up on the bow,” vocalizing all those thoughts he’d be thinking because, after all, “out at sea you have a lot of time to think. All day and all night I would think about all kinds of things.” A couple decades later, when he wrote his memoir, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965), that’s how Lenny Bruce chose to frame his stylistic development—or this aspect of it, anyway: “[t]his process of allowing one subject spontaneously to associate itself with another.” Which is, Lenny added none too modestly, “equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness.”

I’ll leave to others any comparisons with Joyce, but to pursue the question of where Bruce got his style—not just his free-form and -flowing spritz but the entire repertoire, the slang, the Yiddishisms, the scandalous and sacrosanct subject-matter—we need to take our inquiry beyond the sailor’s lonely days and nights at sea and into the places where Bruce began honing his craft in earnest, after getting himself discharged—by pretending to be a cross-dresser—from the Navy.

His first gigs after the Navy were doing impressions-based routines, Sid Caesar–derivative, around Brooklyn and Coney Island. It was this material that got him his first big break when, in 1950 at the age of 25, he was invited to appear on the popular radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. His mother introduced him to the audience—it was that kind of innocent—whereupon Bruce proceeded to do imitations within imitations: a Bavarian imitating Bogart, a Bavarian imitating Cagney, a Bavarian imitating Edward G. Robinson. You get the idea. But Bruce would soon be putting his gift for mockery to far more mischievous use, because Bruce had met Joe Ancis.

He’d met Ancis hanging out at Hanson’s, the New York City delicatessen where all the comics liked to gather, bullshit, commiserate, and show off for each other. Nobody showed off like Joe Ancis. He was “the original sick comic,” writes Albert Goldman in Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974), the book that’s done more than anything to keep Ancis’s legend alive over the decades:

Joe was never a professional performer. Too terrified of rejection to risk the flak from the ringsiders. Yet he was so heavy that guys like Buddy Hackett and Lenny Bruce sat for hours listening to Joe’s rap without ever sticking in a word of their own.
Even though Ancis was too sensitive for any venue larger than Hanson’s luncheonette, his act did make its way indirectly into some of the largest venues in America, via the comics he’d influenced. Primary among these was Bruce himself, who’d acquired from Ancis a more refined version of the kind of free-association spritz he’d been developing on the USS Brooklyn—a spritz that now entailed, in Goldman’s words, “serious rapping about intellectual themes, taking off into wild way-out travesties and extravaganzas. All the tricks of stand-up comedy—the timing, mugging, dialects and sound effects—but also physical clowning and practical jokes and crazy bust-out gags.” From Ancis, Lenny also acquired, for better and worse, his preoccupation with Jewish themes and his liberal use of Yiddish-language phraseology employed as slang.

Bruce succeeded where Ancis did not because Bruce knew how to take rejection and return for more. After his showing on Talent Scouts, Bruce started getting slightly better gigs up in the Catskills and down on Broadway. But soon he left with Honey, his wife, for California, where he tried and failed dismally to make it in movies and where he started playing the burlesque houses, some of the bawdiest in all of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, at one point even partnering up with Honey as a stripper-comic team.

Although Ancis had already turned Bruce on to jazz by the time he got to California, it was another man, Joe Maini, who made him a full initiate to the jazz lifestyle. If Ancis turned Lenny on to the potential of Jewish humor, Maini turned him on to the artistic and existential potential of the black man’s sensibility. “Every bopper was supposed to be as good with his needle as he was with his horn,” Goldman writes. “Joe Maini was one of the best with both.”

One other figure who should not be ignored—although Goldman all but does so—is Lord Richard Buckley, the “Hip Messiah,” who by the late 1940s had already “become a legend among working comedians and a favorite of bebop jazz musicians,” according to Stephen E. Kercher in his wonderful book Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (2006).

Onstage Buckley was a one-of-a-kind performer who combined the manner of an English patrician with the imagination and spontaneity of a surrealist artist (he wore a distinctive Salvador Dali mustache) and the irreverent, outlaw attitude of a hipster from the streets (he earned a reputation for smoking marijuana onstage). Buckley was most famous for appropriating the patois of urban African Americans (which he believed possessed great “power, purity and beauty”) and then rapping in his “Hipsomatic” dialect free form, parodies of the Gettysburg Address (“Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before daddies swung forth upon this sweet, groovy land, a swingin’, stompin’, jumpin’, blowin’, wailin’ new nation, hip to the cool groove of liberty . . .”), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and, most notoriously, the lives of Mahatma Gandhi (“The Hip Gahn”) and Jesus (“The Naz”). Overall, Buckley's unique characterizations and free-form improvisations made a lasting impression on Bruce, particularly at a time when he was struggling to forge his own technique.
All the elements were now in place for Bruce. The finely honed impressions and accents would be put to much more gravitational purposes than simply yukking off of movie stars, while the flair for a seamlessly incorporated and varied slang would flatter the sensibilities of the self-styled hipster as it also lent a singular kind of music to his ideas. He hadn’t stopped being Leonard Schneider just because he’d changed his name to Lenny Bruce. But he hadn’t become Lenny Bruce just by changing his name from Leonard Schneider, either.

Related posts
Andy Borowitz on the challenge of selecting the 50 funniest American writers

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Henry Adams anticipated today’s world in his “speculations about the shape of things to come”

Schlesinger at a 2004 Library of America
event celebrating the publication of the
LOA edition of Studs Lonigan.
Photo by Star Black.
Born ninety-six years ago, on October 15, the eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was an unfailingly supportive advisor and friend of The Library of America right up until his death in February 2007. A prolific writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Schlesinger served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. During his tenure at the White House, he discussed with President Kennedy the need for a comprehensive, authoritative edition of American writing, such as The Library of America would later become. He was a longtime member of the LOA Board of Advisors.

A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Schlesinger was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the twentieth-anniversary celebration of The Library of America, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining him on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Wendy Wasserstein. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Schlesinger chose Henry Adams, and his remarks appear below.

* * *
What a glorious moment this is! I can remember when The Library of America was only a gleam in the eye of Edmund Wilson—and here it stands today, a cultural triumph as brilliantly and securely established as the Pleiades series in France, a marvelous boon to the reeducation of the American people.

I think few would be more admiring of this achievement than the Library author I have thought to speak about tonight—the great historian and mordant social commentator Henry Adams (1838–1918).

His Education led all the rest when a panel mobilized by the Modern Library voted for the greatest non-fiction book written in English during the twentieth century. And Adams would feel as querulously at home in the twenty-first century, much of which he anticipated in his obsessed speculations about the shape of things to come.

He was a modern, indeed a post-modern, man in many of his concerns. About the role of women, for example, “The American always ostentatiously ignored sex, and American history mentioned hardly the name of a woman. . . . American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless.” Yet, Adams said, without understanding the movement of sex, history was “mere pedantry.”

He was early in spotting the revolution underway. “The woman had been set free. . . . In every city, town, and farmhouse, were myriads of new types—or type-writers—telephone and telegraph-girls, shop-clerks, factory hands, running into millions on millions, and, as classes, unknown to themselves as to historians. . . . All these new women had been created since 1840; all were to show their meaning before 1940.” He almost predicted Rosie the Riveter.

Julia Ward Howe was the only woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters at the start of the twentieth century. “If we put Julia Ward Howe on our membership lists,” Adams wrote the Academy’s secretary, “. . . I do not see how we justify omitting Edith Wharton.” Adams protested in vain. The author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was too much of a patriotic saint, and Edith Wharton, alas, wrote novels about divorce. For years after Mrs. Howe’s death in 1910, the old guard succeeded in keeping women out. Edith Wharton was not elected to the Academy until 1930, a long twenty years after Henry Adam’s protest.

Adams was also prescient in his concern over the concentration of private economic power. As he commented when large corporations first began to afflict and undermine our democracy, the Erie Railroad, he said, had “proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than Erie . . . will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.”

He continued gloomily, “Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporation, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law—and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape.”

Some years later he defined what he called McKinleyism as “the system of combinations, consolidations, trusts, realized at home, realizable abroad.” He would not be in the slightest surprised by the dismantlement by the Reagan and Bush administrations of effective restraints on corporate power—McKinleyism in spades.

But what especially establishes Adams’s postmodern character are his technological anticipations. He was obsessed by the acceleration of history. “The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” Adams wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard . . . the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a thousand times greater in 1900 than in 1800; —the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time.” Nothing, Adams thought, could slow the technological juggernaut. “The law of acceleration . . . cannot be supposed to relax its energy to suit the convenience of man.”

Adams’s law of acceleration now hurtles us into a new age. The shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is more dynamic—and more traumatic—even than our great-grandparents’ shift from a farm-based to a factory-based economy. The Industrial Revolution extended over generations and gave time for human and institutional adjustment. The Computer Revolution is far swifter, more concentrated, more drastic in its impact.

Henry Adams’s old contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is fulfilled today in the replacement of the Dynamo by the Computer. In 1909 Adams foresaw the dissolution of what he called the Mechanical Phase into the Electric Phase, to be followed by the Ethereal Phase, which, he predicted, would last till about 2025. Maybe the Internet represents the transition from the Electric to the Ethereal Phase.

Nor was Adams unaware of the catastrophic possibilities of his Law of Acceleration. On April 11, 1862, almost 140 years ago today, a few days after the battle of Shiloh, while the Monitor and the Merrimack, pioneer ironclads, were maneuvering around Newport News, Henry Adams wrote, “I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science shall have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.”

All I can do is to say: read Henry Adams!

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Library of America’s book manufacturer went 219 days without taking out the trash

Edwards Brothers Malloy, located in Ann Arbor, has been the exclusive printer for Library of America series volumes since 2006—one of only a three or four printers in the country who can accommodate the rigorous specifications for LOA books.

The firm is also one of America’s most environmentally friendly companies; they recently boasted to us that “counting the number of days between trash pick-ups is one of our favorite things to do.”

In 2009 the plant on Jackson Road in Ann Arbor was officially designated a Zero Landfill facility; that is, hardly any waste is ever shipped from that building to a landfill. Virtually all wastepaper is pulped, metal (including printing plates) is recycled for reuse, and other waste is sent to an outside facility to be used as fuel for power generation.

A few months ago the plant recently clocked 219 days between pick-ups of its garbage. Even more remarkably, that was the second longest interval since they began keeping track eight years ago. Their goal is to take out the trash just once per year—and they’re well over halfway there!

Picture to the right is Charlie Montgomery, former Machine Maintenance Supervisor at Edwards Brothers Malloy’s Jackson Road plant, who passed away recently after forty-three years with the company. Charlie spearheaded the quest to become a Zero Landfill facility. He is shown alongside a sign he made out of scrap metal recycled from the plant.

Of related interest:
How a Library of America book is born

Friday, September 27, 2013

Christopher Carduff on the “everyday sublime” of John Updike’s short stories

A contributing editor at The Library of America since 2006, Christopher Carduff is also the estate-appointed editor of John Updike’s posthumous publications. He recently spoke with us about the two-volume set of Updike’s Collected Stories that he prepared for the LOA.

Updike’s achievement is various and extensive, ranging from twenty-odd novels to collections of poems, memoirs, criticism, and more. To what extent do you think his future literary reputation will rest on the 186 short stories collected here?

To a large extent, actually—and in two distinct ways. First, considered as a whole, the stories can be seen as an endlessly inventive, ongoing exploration of the possibilities of the form over five decades—perhaps the richest body of stories by any North American writer of his generation, a cohort that includes Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro. Second, and more important, when the stories are considered individually, perhaps a dozen or so will eventually become known as masterpieces, among the best short stories ever written by an American. “Pigeon Feathers,” “Packed Dirt,” “The Gun Shop,” “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” “The Cats”: these are among the handful of stories that tomorrow’s readers will perhaps come to see as the concentrated essence of “Updike”—in much the same way that we now see “Bartleby” and “Daisy Miller” and “The Bear” as the concentrated essences of Melville and James and Faulkner.

How do the stories relate to the novels, particularly the Rabbit novels?

As Updike said in his introduction to the collected Rabbit novels, Rabbit was his ticket to the America all around him—his ticket to a discussion and dramatization of all the sweeping social forces of the postwar world, from the sexual revolution circa 1960, to the political and social upheavals circa 1970, to the events of the Carter, Reagan, Clinton years. The Rabbit saga constituted Updike’s contribution to “public fiction,” a running report on the state of the nation from 1960 to 1990 as reported through the passing thoughts and thoughtless actions of a wholly invented American Everyman.

The short stories, on the other hand, are almost always “private” in their nature and effects. They are autobiographical and domestic, dealing on the most intimate level with such matters as being a son, a husband, a father, a lover, a churchgoer, a citizen, an artist. And almost all of them, whether told in the first or third person, feature a narrator or protagonist who is an Updike stand-in, who shares Updike’s own experience of what it is to be an educated white middle-class Protestant male of his particular small-town background and his particular historical moment. It is these autobiographical short stories—the ones that deal not with “public” issues but with the miracle of existence, with the inner life and the dogged pursuit of one’s own self and soul—that I think of as his signature achievement.

You’ve arranged the stories not as Updike did in his own collections, but rather in the order of their composition.

That’s right. Now, for the first time, they can be read in the order in which they came out of Updike’s typewriter and were submitted to The New Yorker. Whenever Updike sent a story to the magazine—he had a first-refusal contract with The New Yorker at the age of twenty-two—he marked the date of submission on the first page of his copy of the typescript. Updike deemed this the date of composition, regardless of subsequent revisions, and I’ve followed his practice here. Almost all his typescripts are in the collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard; those that are not, I have dated by circumstantial evidence, usually correspondence with his New Yorker editors. The texts reprinted here are those of Updike’s last revision, and some of them incorporate changes he made in the copies of the first editions kept in his office library.

What’s the chronological span of the collection?

The earliest story here is “Ace in the Hole,” written in 1953, when Updike was a twenty-one-year-old Harvard senior. It concerns a reckless Rabbit-like young man who cannot make the transition from high school basketball star to responsible husband and father. The last one, “The Full Glass,” was written half a century later, in 2008, shortly before Updike’s seventy-sixth birthday. It is a self-consciously valedictory story, in which the Updike stand-in’s nightly ritual of pills and water becomes a kind of secular communion with the universe, “a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” Early and late, all the stories aim, in Updike’s famous phrase, to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

Are any stories omitted from this Library of America set?

Apart from a few things published in The Harvard Lampoon—juvenilia that have no place in his canon proper—the most obvious omissions are the eighteen stories concerning the recurring characters Richard and Joan Maple and the twenty stories chronicling the life of the Jewish American novelist Henry Bech. These, as Updike wrote, “do gain from being grouped,” and will be grouped in a later Library of America volume, together with the ten essay-stories of the 1970s known collectively as “Interviews with Insufficiently Famous Americans.” Included here, however, are “Snowing in Greenwich Village” (1956), the first Maples story, and “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1964), the first of the Bechs, on the (perhaps) shaky ground that when Updike wrote each of these stand-alone stories, he didn’t know he was beginning a short story cycle.

Do you think Updike has been an influential stylist? Do you detect the influence of his short stories on writers working now?

The lush, descriptive, pensive “Updike style”—the “everyday sublime” that characterizes the autobiographical short stories—is justly celebrated but only seldom imitated. In his novels Nicholson Baker proves to be both the truest and the most unabashed of Updike’s direct disciples: he “toasts the visible world” with a glass filled to overflowing, then out-toasts and out-drinks Updike to dazzling and intentionally hilarious effect. Among today’s short story writers, Roxana Robinson and Antonya Nelson have confessed to being under the spell of Updike’s fiction, especially in their lyrical evocations of family life. And Paul Harding, in the sentences that make up Tinkers and Enon, seems very much the Updike protégé in his precision of diction, his aching nostalgia, and the very cadences of his thought. All of these writers, I think, would admit to sharing Updike’s belief that describing God’s creation with fidelity is a devout act of praise.

Do you have a favorite Updike story?

I have a dozen of them, but if I had to choose just one, it would be one of the earliest, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” written in 1958, when Updike was twenty-six. It is the perfect evocation of the moment that comes to most Americans somewhere around the age of twenty—the moment when, after a couple of years of college or service or whatever, you return home to find that “home” is no longer yours, it’s become your parents’ house and you are, for the moment at least, homeless. And that your life is no longer among the people there—your parents and grandparents and high school classmates—and it really isn’t in the present either. Instead it’s a kind of a star on the horizon, portending God only knows what, but that you are excited to follow. It’s the story in which Updike comes into his full powers as a storyteller, and delivers a virtuoso verbal performance—and creates a unique emotional atmosphere and pattern of events and imagery—that can only be described as, well, Updikean.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20): Missed Opportunity

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

In June 1863 the Union Army of the Cumberland under William S. Rosecrans commenced a skillful campaign of maneuver. In just over twelve weeks it drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg out of its namesake state and into northern Georgia. Jefferson Davis compelled Robert E. Lee to detach two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of James Longstreet and send them to reinforce Bragg in anticipation of a counterstrike.

After several days of skirmishing, on September 18 the Confederates commenced their advance. One Texas soldier, William W. Heartsill, looked forward to giving the Yankees all they could handle. As he lay down for the night seeking warmth in “my old Green army coat,” Heartsill readied “to think and dream of comeing events or of loved ones at home.” It was time to beat back “cruel invaders that come to drench our sunny south in blood and drag us to worse than slavery.” There was only one thing left to do: “Up southrons and strike for God and our native land may the God of the right hover ore our Battle flag and may our independance be dated, from the begining of this pending contest,” a fight that promised to be “one of the most sanguinary and decisive battles of the war.”1

Sanguinary certainly describes the Battle of Chickamauga, which took place over the next two days. Heartsill’s regiment spent September 19 advancing to the sound of the guns and encountering prisoners and fields covered with dead. The next day it advanced to the front. A cannon ball took the life of brigade commander James Deshler—“It is useless to pass eulogies upon Gen D. for to know him was to love him,” Heartsill remarked—but by that evening the Texas soldier could scribble his recollections of the events of the day by the light of a fire that had just that morning warmed a Yankee’s body.2 Elsewhere the woods caught fire, consuming the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers.

In two days of battle each side had lost nearly one third of its strength in dead, wounded, and missing. In later years people claimed that Chickamauga meant “river of death,” and the battle seemed to sanctify that understanding. During the second day of fighting, Kentucky soldier John S. Jackman, who served in a Confederate brigade commanded by none other than Ben Hardin Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother-in-law, crossed the same ground covered by the division to which Heartsill belonged. Jackman was chilled by what he saw: “The dead of both sides were lying thick over the ground. . . . Men and horses were lying so thick over the field, one could hardly walk for them.”3 Late that morning the Kentuckians advanced, only to be repulsed three times. Helm was mortally wounded, one of some 18,454 casualties in a force some 66,000 strong.

Unfortunately for Heartsill, Jackman, and their fellow Confederates, living, wounded, and dead, Chickamauga was not decisive. Although the Rebels punched right through a gap in the Federal line on September 20, Union corps commander George H. Thomas conducted a gallant defense along Snodgrass Hill, winning the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” At first, it appeared that Thomas might have merely staved off the inevitable, for Rosecrans pulled his army back into Chattanooga, Tennessee, only to find himself besieged by the pursuing Bragg. There it looked as if the Yankees might be starved into submission. Once the Confederates dug in and waited, however, their own generals began feuding. Before long Bragg found himself in heated combat, not with the bluecoats, but with his own commanders. President Davis declined to relieve Bragg, instead shuffling a few subordinates and earmarking Longstreet to advance upon Knoxville, Tennessee, defended by a force under the command of the ill-fated Ambrose Burnside.

Abraham Lincoln had his problems with his generals as well. When reports reached Washington claiming that Rosecrans was dispirited, desperate, and might even abandon Chattanooga altogether, the President decided to turn to the only general in the west upon whom he could rely. Orders went out naming Ulysses S. Grant commander of the newly-created Military Division of the Mississippi, putting him in charge of operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Given the choice to retain Rosecrans or to elevate Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland, Grant chose the latter, and wired Thomas to stay where he was. Back came the answer: “I will hold the town until we starve.”4

1 William W. Heartsill: Journal, September 17–28, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 523.
2 Ibid., 525.
3 John S. Jackman: Diary, September 18–20, 1863, ibid., 532.
4 George H. Thomas to Ulysses S. Grant, October 19, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, volume 9, ed. John Y. Simon (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 302.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Story of the Week selection on the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga
The Nameless Dead,” Kate Cumming (a Confederate Army nurse)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

Elmore Leonard died on August 20 at the age of 87. In the months before his death he had been working on his 46th novel. He had also been looking forward to the publication of the Library of America edition of his best fiction and had given his final approval to the selection of novels for three LOA volumes. (The first collection, scheduled to appear in September 2014, gathers four novels, all set in Detroit and published in the 1970s).

A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Leonard was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the twentieth-anniversary celebration of The Library of America, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining him on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Richard Price, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Wendy Wasserstein. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Leonard chose John Steinbeck, and his remarks appear below.

* * *
I’m not certain how academic critics rate John Steinbeck, perhaps not up there with Hemingway and Faulkner, but I honor him today because fifty years ago he set me free. It was one book in particular, Sweet Thursday, published in 1954, that did the job.

I’ll never forget the scene in which Doc, the marine biologist, sits down to write.
Doc bought a package of yellow pads and two dozen pencils. He laid them out on his desk, the pencils sharpened to needle points and lined up like yellow soldiers. At the top of a page he printed: OBSERVATIONS AND SPECULATIONS. His pencil point broke. He took up another and drew lace around the O and the B, made a block letter out of the S and put fish hooks on each end. His ankle itched. He rolled down his sock and scratched, and that made his ear itch. “Someone’s talking about me,” he said and looked at the yellow pad. He wondered if he had fed the cotton rats. It is easy to forget when you’re thinking.
He feeds the rats and remembers he hasn’t eaten.
When he finished a page or two he would fry some eggs. But wouldn’t it be better to eat first so that his flow of thought would not be interrupted later? . . . He fried two eggs and ate them, staring at the yellow pad under the hanging light. The light was too bright. It reflected painfully on the paper. Doc finished his eggs, got out a sheet of tracing paper, and taped it to the bottom of the shade below the globe. It took time to make it neat. He sat in front of the yellow pad again and drew lace around all the letters of the title, tore off the page, and threw it away. Five pencil points were broken now. He sharpened them and lined them up with their brothers.
Doc looks out the window to see a car drive past and a girl come out of the Bear Flag and walk along Cannery Row.

He writes a few lines after observing the way the girl walks, with pride but not vanity. And his pencil point breaks. “He took another, and it broke with a jerk, making a little tear in the paper. He read what he had written; dull, desiccated, he thought.” The scene ends with Doc getting up and going across the street for a beer.

It amazes me that a writer as renowned as Steinbeck knew the tricks of putting off writing. I’ve found myself paying bills—and that might’ve been, un- or sub-consciously, an incentive to get to work. It encourages me that it was part of writing and not a disease.

But what encouraged me much more is in the prologue of Sweet Thursday. A character, Mack from Cannery Row, says he was never satisfied with that book. He says,
I would of went about it different. . . . I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing—I kind of like to figure out what he’s thinking by what he says. I like some description too . . . I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it—but not too much of that . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story.
He suggests putting it right at first or in chapters, which Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday. Chapters 3 and 38 have headings: Hooptedoodle one and two.

That became the backbone of my tendrils for success and happiness in writing fiction: mainly don’t describe too much, unless you really know what you’re doing. In my rules, I say “These are rules I picked up along the way to help me remain invisible while I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.” And if you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over. For me that is what John Steinbeck inspired, the simplicity that if you can’t do it well, don’t do it. If you can do something well . . . from that time on, 1954, I concentrated on telling my stories in dialogue so I wouldn’t have to describe the characters.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ian Frazier on why Ring Lardner is “a major figure in twentieth-century letters”

Photo by Sigrid Estrada
Writer and humorist Ian Frazier, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the author of many books (including the best-selling Travels in Siberia) spoke with us recently about the newly published Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings, which he edited for The Library of America.

Why should people read this book? Why should they care about Ring Lardner?

Ring Lardner wrote like nobody else, caught the feel of his era like nobody else, and knew how to make people laugh with a voice or a plot change-up or a small misspelling. He was a major figure in twentieth-century American letters.

Contemporaries called the language of Lardner’s stories “Lardnerese.” What is Lardnerese? What were his special gifts or contributions as a stylist?

As this anthology shows, Lardner heard his own voice with perfect clarity from the time he was a teenager. Just as clearly, he registered the way people around him talked in the Midwestern places where he lived and where he worked as a young man. He had a genius’s ear for living speech, and he went beyond the range of ordinary orthography to capture that speech in writing. His typewriter was like a John Cage prepared piano—it made sounds, and produced corresponding narratives, that were all its own.

How did your sense of Lardner as person or writer change while working on this book?

He was an amazing man—passionate and ice-cold simultaneously. As I learned more about him I saw him as an enigmatic, cold American—like a Clint Eastwood character in a Western, or like D. H. Lawrence’s definition of an American: “isolate, and a killer.” Those qualities come out especially, I think, in Lardner’s brilliant, often hilarious, and always merciless stories. But Lardner was a good friend and a gentle family man, too. That is apparent in his letters and in his biography. He had outstanding, remarkable children.

If Lardner were around today, what do you think he’d be doing for a living?

He would be writing—no one with a gift as great as his would be able to ignore it. But I’m not sure what. If he were around today, or if Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Harold Ross were around today, today would be something other than it is.

Do you detect his influence on other writers?

Definitely. On Thurber, for one. He laid out a Midwestern scene for Thurber to populate with Thurber characters. Lardner’s middle-class settings and small-town plots presage O’Hara, Updike, and Cheever. And Lardner’s view of the psychic obtuseness and frailty and in-spite-of-themselves lovability of baseball players has influenced the way generations of writers have portrayed athletes.

Best discovery while working on book?

I loved rereading pieces, well-known and not, that I hadn’t looked at for a long time. I had never seen his World War I writings, and I really enjoyed those. I hadn’t known how much the war had been a part of his early career and life. I admired Ellis Abbott, whom he courted in Lardnerian prose and who married him—luckily for him. She was a Midwestern aristocrat of the first rank, and a really cool person.

What do you think readers will find most surprising?

Maybe the extreme, ahead-of-its-time modernism of his short plays.

Favorite piece in collection?

The Young Immigrunts! This is a magic piece of humor writing. “ ‘Shut up,’ he explained,” is as funny as it is possible to be in only four words. But every line in this story is a magic trick. The only difference between this story and what actual magicians do is that their tricks can be explained. I’ve looked at The Young Immigrunts dozens of times, always with the same mystified delight, and I still couldn’t tell you how it was done.

Read The Young Immigrunts—in its entirety, with original illustrations by Gaar Williams—at The Library of America’s Story of the Week!

Monday, August 19, 2013

John Hollander (1929–2013)

John Hollander at a 2004 event to celebrate
the publication of American Wits.
Photo by Star Black

It was with great sadness that we learned over the weekend that poet and critic John Hollander had died at the age of 83. Hollander was a longtime advisor to The Library of America, who freely offered his incomparable expertise and shepherded six volumes to print, including the landmark two-volume collection American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century.

LOA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien recalls the pleasure of having Hollander for a colleague:
Working with John Hollander on his two-volume Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century was like being given an intimately detailed tour of a country until then scarcely known. The large familiar landmarks—Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Poe—took on a new character when surrounded by scores of their contemporaries from every corner of that culture of verse which for John was a luxuriant garden. He wasn’t interested in reducing literary history to a few essential writers: his taste for poetry was expansive, extending to a multitude of minor and occasional voices. The hours spent getting texts and notes in order for this immense undertaking remain in memory as a delight, informed as they were by his profound knowledge and by an affection equally profound for the materials in hand. Nothing could have been less dry or schoolmasterish than his capacity to find the hum of poetry even at its most attenuated frequencies.
Other Library of America volumes edited or co-edited by Hollander include Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898, American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems, and the Paperback Classics edition of the Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass. He also served on the advisory board for the two volumes of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century.

See today’s New York Times for an extended summary of Hollander’s remarkable career.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. celebrates the environmental vision of his ancestor
James Fenimore Cooper

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.’s tribute to his great-great-grandfather James Fenimore Cooper. Mr. Cooper is the author of numerous books on space exploration and was for many years a staff writer at The New Yorker. His remarks were delivered by his daughter, film producer Molly Cooper, joined on stage by her cousin Sage Mehta, who offered a reading from one of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels.
Molly Cooper,
with Sage Mehta in the background
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
My father once told me that people who talked too much about their ancestors were like potatoes: The best part of them is underground. I always try to remember that, but it may be a tough piece of advice to follow tonight.

My father, when my brother and sisters and I were young, used to read The Leatherstocking Tales to us out loud. We would lie on the floor, put our heads under the couch, and go to sleep. It was a great many years before I finally came around and learned to appreciate the books in their own right.

One of the important things about Cooper is that, as a novelist, he has chalked up a great many “firsts.” This may not have been as difficult for America’s first well-known novelist as it would be for writers today; back then, the field of “firsts” was fairly open. For example, he wrote our first international blockbusters. He wrote the first Westerns. He wrote the first novels of the sea by someone who had actually been to sea. He was the first American novelist to make a living from his writing. And, of course, he was, in The Leatherstocking Tales, the first novelist to bring the American wilderness, and the American Indian, to a national, and then an international, audience.

Cooper’s love of the wilderness led to his being a very early, and major, source of the conservation movement in this country. He came by his love of the wilderness naturally. He grew up in Cooperstown, a village founded in 1789 by his father. It is at the foot of a large lake—the Glimmerglass of The Deerslayer. It was, and is, surrounded by woods. Cooper, and his next older brother, William, grew up in these woods and on the lake. “They are quite wild,” their older sister Hannah wrote of them. When their father was elected to Congress in 1797 in Philadelphia, his wife, who hated the wilderness, wanted to move the family with him; but her two youngest children put their collective feet down and refused to go. She remained. Cooper wrote in the introduction to The Pioneers, published in 1823, that it was his childhood in Cooperstown that gave him his strong feelings about nature; it was these feelings that later in his writings he broadcast across the country and around the world.

He was also an early source in this country of the environmental movement. Environmentalism, of course, goes a step beyond conservation, because by conserving nature, you preserve that which sustains you. The whole succession of the five Leatherstocking Tales is a steady progression westward, as Leatherstocking and his friend Chingachgook keep moving on in order to stay ahead of the settlers with their axes, chopping down the forests that Leatherstocking and his friend depend upon for a living. In The Pioneers, much is made of the “wasty ways” of the settlers. They cut down trees indiscriminately, including the sugar maple, which uniquely supplied them with the makings of maple sugar, a major product of the woodlands. They haul in fish by the net-full, leaving most of them to rot on the shore. One of the great scenes in The Pioneers is the migratory flight of the passenger pigeons over the Lake, darkening the sky. The settlers run out with their shotguns, peppering the sky with shot and bringing down the birds by the thousands; Leatherstocking shoots just one, leading to a homily about never killing more birds or fish than you actually need, lest you destroy that which sustains you. As you know, the last passenger pigeon died early in the last century.

In a sense, Cooper still lives. For one thing, his books have not been out of print since the early 1820s, not true of any other American novelist. And environmentalists in Cooperstown, which include some members of my family, are very apt to quote him in their never-ending battles against local unplanned developers. Cooper’s descendants are still in Cooperstown; indeed, the story of Cooper children compelling their mother to stay there has been repeated at least once. Cooper is at his best when he is writing about nature, whether it be the wilderness or the sea. Melville and Conrad have acknowledged their debt to him. Cooper’s writing can at times be turgid—if two old pioneers, or two old salts, are cracking jokes, it is time to turn the page. But give him a break. He was writing before almost any American novelist you ever heard of. When he is in the woods or at sea, he is unbeatable; at its best, his writing is powerful and lyrical. He was the most prominent literary pioneer of this country. I am very happy that The Empire State Center for the Book and The New York Library Association have selected him for the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

Now I will stop, lest you think I really am a potato.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

A recent Story of the Week selection:
Storm and Shipwreck,” from James Fenimore Cooper’s Ned Myers

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott
Daniel Gallant on Miguel Piñero
Paul O. Zelinsky on Maurice Sendak

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Paul O. Zelinsky on Maurice Sendak: “books for children can and should acknowledge a full range of human emotions”

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Paul O. Zelinsky’s tribute to Maurice Sendak. Zelinsky is a Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator of such celebrated children’s books as The Wheels on the Bus, Rapunzel, and Z is for Moose.
Paul O. Zelinsky
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
I want to express my gratitude for the privilege of inducting Maurice Sendak into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. I only wish that he could be here to accept the honor, which I understand came very close to happening only last year, but it proved to be impossible. Maurice Sendak is already, I am fairly sure, the most honored figure in American children’s literature, having won every major award in the field. But as everyone in the field knows, it’s unusual to find a children’s book creator even in the running when honors are going to makers of grown-up art. This award, and the company it places him in, would have pleased Maurice greatly.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I presume to speak for him. I knew Maurice, perhaps not as closely as some, but longer than most, since the fall of ‘71 when I had the luck to be in the first class he ever taught. So I have heard him express many opinions and ideas, always with great fervor. And I seem to have absorbed these ideas well enough that I now carry around inside my head a little Maurice Sendak voice, which rises up occasionally to render praise or spew invective in the unrestrained and hilarious way that you might have glimpsed if you saw Stephen Colbert’s interview with him on television.

The idea that put Maurice on the cultural map was his insistence, embodied in picture books that caught the attention and earned the love of young readers everywhere, that books for children can and should acknowledge a full range of human emotions, not just the pretty or instructive ones. There is wildness in every soul, and that is as it should be. From the beginning, Sendak’s drawings were unusually expressive—vivid, funny, and full of spirit. He was already highly visible as an illustrator when Where the Wild Things Are unleashed this radical idea on the world. That it is no longer radical is proof of its enduring influence. Sendak’s books affected the very way Americans understand what childhood is.

These books don’t set out to teach lessons, but they do contain ideas—not intellectual statements, but something more like thoughts wrapped in a mystery. Maurice looked for reverberations and he looked for meaning, and he believed fiercely that what he discovered, if he worked it up right, would be accessible to anyone of any age who was open to it. If one of these right, reverberating images happened to upset the adult guardians of good behavior, it was not Maurice’s concern. In the Night Kitchen’s sensual dream broke through boundaries and disturbed a great many gatekeepers not because Maurice wanted to, but because the book needed to.

Maurice Sendak loved art; he loved it high and he loved it low. For years he worked to the strains of Mozart, who made his way into the illustrations of Outside Over There. Melville was not only an obsessively favorite writer, Herman Melville was, and still is, Maurice’s beloved German Shepherd. A massive collection of antique Mickey Mice infested Maurice’s house. He got the Disney people to give him a videotape of Pinocchio at a time when Disney cartoons were rigorously kept unavailable outside of their measured theatrical release. No matter how high or low Maurice’s own art is, and whether it works best for people whose age is one digit long, or two, or three, it is fully appropriate to pay tribute to it, and to him, here, with this induction.

Coming together like this to honor a great talent, we are also honoring ourselves, creating a link between us and this artist, or what there is of the artist that lives in our heads, in a way that links us together as well. And in the end, isn’t that the best place and the perfect response for an artist and his art?

Still, there was a Maurice Sendak who very much had his own head and didn’t need to live in ours; he lived in Brooklyn, then in Manhattan, and even though he moved to Connecticut for the second half of his life, he never gave up his Greenwich Village apartment, which qualifies him all the more for this New York State award. I miss him a lot. I am proud to induct Maurice Sendak into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott
Daniel Gallant on Miguel Piñero
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