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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 d├ęcor. 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
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