TOUTS -- 1995

August, September, October, November, December.

August 1995

This is the very first of the Touts.

Robert T. Bakker's Raptor Red (New York: Bantam, 1995), the tale of a Utahraptor and her struggle to find a new mate--after the unfortunate death, during a hunting accident, of her first--may not please everyone. A predatory dinosaur's tribulations in "Utah" and on the "Pacific Coast" some 120 million years ago (during the early Cretaceous), told from the dinosaur's point of view, may seem likely to prove either a bit too much of nature, red in tooth and claw, for some readers or--worse--just too cutesy-poo for words. But Bakker is a serious vertebrate paleontologist (his Dinosaur Heresies [New York: William Morrow, 1986], written for a general audience, floated the notion that some dinosaur species were not cold-blooded and sluggish but rather warm-blooded and quick) and, perhaps because he has so completely vivified the geography and the ecology of Raptor Red's world, this book successfully skirts these dangers. Is it literachoor? I don't know; but I loved it. It is as wonderful an imagined prehistory as Björn Kurtén's novels about contacts between Homo Neanderthalis and Homo sapiens (Dance of the Tiger [1980] and Singletusk [1986]). Since Bakker's characters lack language, it may therefore be even more of a feat.

The late nineteenth-century American writer Harold Frederic--"the bard of Utica"?--is remembered, if at all, for The Damnation of Theron Ware), a wonderful--and wonderfully strange!--book. Just for fun, if you've never read anything by him, try The Copperhead, The Deserter, or--in a different sort of line--March Hares. They're short, always a plus. If you like them, then try Theron Ware. Other extraordinary books by him will remain to anticipate (e.g., The Market-Place). I picked up Frederic--and spent the month of August reading every bit of his fiction--after finding him touted in Edmund Wilson's Upstate (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), a book I read in July and itself also well worth reading. Wilson was right.

Looking for some good literary history/criticism? I've read two exciting books of literary criticism more or less recently (that is, as of August 1995). While they're not exactly "current" themselves, my enthusiasm for them is very much so. One is Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). This book changed the ways I think about modern American poetry. Along the way, it also makes important points about how the physical form in which they first appeared affects our understanding of modern poetic texts--points likely to be dear to the heart of any special collections librarian.

The other book, William E. Cain's F. O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism (also published by Wisconsin, 1988), looks at the process of canon formation through analyzing the work of one of the great Americanists of our time. I read this book together with two novels about Matthiessen, May Sarton's 1950s Faithful are the Wounds (available as a W. W. Norton paperback) and Mark Merlis's 1990s American Studies (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994). All three books offer rich rewards for anyone interested in the academy, the study of English (and American) literature, and American political and sexual life in very bad times. The differences between the two novels are themselves fascinating.

For a different kind of fun, try Thomas Perry's The Butcher's Boy, Metzger's Dog, and Sleeping Dogs (this last a sequel to The Butcher's Boy). Perry has a new thriller out this year, Vanishing Act (these novels have all been reprinted in paperback editions). He has a Ph.D. (in English literature) and has been an administrator at USC. It doesn't show.

Alan Furst's fine espionage novels, Night Soldiers and Dark Star, were joined this year by The Polish Officer (New York: Random House): good, dark reads, all of them.

I happened to recommend it to a friend recently and am reminded to repeat here that Musa Mayer's Night Studio, a staggering memoir of what it was like to grow up the daughter of a Famous Man--a character in someone else's life--should not be forgotten. Her father was Philip Guston, a major New York School artist. A book this good should have got more and better notice when it appeared.

Later addenda: (1--31 July 1996): I had originally gone on to write here about Mayer's death, young, of breast cancer, but a reader ["reader"?? of this??], John Burgdorf, tells me that she survived that cancer and went on to write a second memoir, this one about that experience, called Examining Myself: One Woman's Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery (Faber, 1993). I didn't know about that book nor about the events it describes (happier by far than the one I somehow [mis]learned about); but I will read this second book with pleasure just as soon as I can find it. Thank you, Mr. Burgdorf!
(2--2 August 1996): I should have added to my remarks about Night Studio, when I originally wrote the few lines above about it, that it is a book I think of together with Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, almost the locus classicus of the "minor classic." The comparison struck me immediately on first reading Mayer's book, except that I don't think it all that "minor." (I happen not to think Gosse's memoir is "minor," either.) I should also have remarked that, simply considered as a physical product, Night Studio happens to be among the most beautifully produced of late 1980s Alfred A. Knopf books (New York, 1988). If you can find it in its original edition, as opposed to a later Penguin reprint and a forthcoming Da Capo reprint about which Ms. Mayer herself now informs me, do. Some books deserve to be read as they were first made. This is one of them: reading it becomes a pleasure in every sense.

September 1995

Jane Hilberry's small (twenty-one-page) and gorgeous book of poems, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, originally appeared in a seventy-copy edition printed by students working under James Trissell's direction at The Press of Colorado College. RLIN reports copies at both New York Public Library and Brown University, but I have never seen a copy and it is not easy to find. Now Jones Alley Fine Press has produced a second edition of 1000 copies. (Jones Alley is located in Colorado Springs, according to the book's imprint; but actually--or so it seems--it can be found at 4460 184th Avenue., S.E., Issaquah, Washington 98027, the address to which I sent my payment.) Hilberry's poems are beautiful beyond hope. I have put one of them (as a sample) among the poems that, anthologically, I keep elsewhere on this honeycombed page. With postage, the chapbook costs $14.50--and, small or not, it is a bargain at that price.

A completely different kind of book is the new study by Lawrence Graver, An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). Concerned with Levin's quite literal "obsession" with the Diary and the Holocaust--a reporter during the War, Levin had witnessed the liberation of some of the western camps--Graver's book is almost a compulsive read itself (not entirely unlike watching a car crash in slow motion). But in addition to its gruesomely fascinating story, it also sheds light on many different topics, among them, America's response to the Holocaust; Cold War literary politics; the intregration of Jews into American literary life; and--last and far from least--a writer, Meyer Levin, whose very nearly total neglect deserves reconsideration.

Last month, I recommended a paleontological romance by Robert Bakker. This month, a new contender in the field--not, as it happens, an overly crowded one, of course--is Michael Crichton's sequel to Jurassic Park, called The Lost World (New York: Random House, 1995). "Something has survived," proclaims the back of the dustwrapper. At first blush, unhappily, this judgment seems premature.

October 1995

I have been teaching William Gilmore Simms's 1835 novel, The Yemassee in a class on "westerns." This is a book which must elicit many (and complicated) responses from readers who, in the 1990s, are not often likely to share the author's antebellum--indeed, antediluvian--views on matters of race, gender, and social organization. I've also read, although not to teach it, Simms's 1852 novel, Woodcraft. Set in South Carolina at the end of the American Revolution, Woodcraft relates the response of a group of true-blue Revolutionists to the theft of their property by Tories and their (as you will expect) successful efforts to prevent the thieves from realizing the full benefits of their knavery. All well and good, except for the fact that the "property" in question consists not only of homes, estates, furniture, and farming implements, but also of human beings.

Simms, alas, is a very good writer. As is exemplified by one of his great set-pieces, chapter 20 of The Yemassee--well worth a look even if you read nothing else he wrote--he can be deliciously wicked and clever. Nowadays, however, he is not often read--among other reasons, his attitudes are far too obviously appalling for most readers to suppose that his literary virtues can possibly compensate for them. (His books are also disgustingly long for most modern readers; but that is another matter altogether.)

Oh, dear. What can I say after I've said I'm sorry? I think he is worth reading despite his loathesome attitudes, perhaps because I persist in an ineradicable affection for reading the work of literary lame ducks, perhaps because he poses what I find fascinating questions of reader response, perhaps because he illuminates--about as humanely(?) as it is possible for them to be illuminated--the motives behind such attitudes as those he forthrightly espouses. (One could imagine some other possible explanations, I suppose; but these possibilities I resolutely refuse to entertain.) I haven't read any other Simms, as yet; but I can easily anticipate reading more of him, in a desultory manner, over time. His work raises interesting questions about literature and its relations to social and human values that students and readers generally can afford to encounter (or so it seems to me) far more blatantly than what they will find in many (apparently more "genteel") works of American literature that actually pose similar questions.

A very different book, which I enjoyed in completely different ways, is Norbert Elias's Reflections on a Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 1994, available in paper). Jephcott's translation of Elias's own text also prints the transcript of a "Biographical Interview" with the sociologist by A. J. Heerma van Voss and A. van Stolk. Here I find Elias remarking:

I read in an English review recently--and it made me very angry--that I am perhaps the last representative of classical sociology, someone striving after the great synthesis, and so on. It made me angry because I would rather be the first one to open a new path. It shocks me again and again to find so many people losing heart, as if nothing was worth the trouble. There is so much to be done, and so many people are wasting their time with nonsense or being intellectually corrupted. My experience is that I am gradually seeing something new, something I did not know, and in that I am setting an example: one can do it, and it is worth the trouble.

I guess I like this passage because it is, in its way, a statement of a sort I might make about why I read the vast quantities of stuff I read. It also illustrates something of Elias's tone in this fascinating memoir, which, among many topics, deals (painfully) with his experiences as a German grunt in World War I, as a student, as a refugee trying to eke out a living in England, and as person trying to understand something of the forces shaping the interesting times in which it was given him to live. It would be difficult to try to explain--but do they need explanation?--the power of the words he recalls his father saying when, during a 1938 visit to his son, then living in London, he explained why he and his wife (Sophie, Elias's mother, d. Auschwitz ca. 1941) would not stay in London with their son but were returning to Breslau (now Wroclaw): "Ich habe nie etwas Unrechtes getan, was konnen sie mir tun?" Well worth reading; as is Elias generally if you happen not already to know his work.

Incidentally, Elias speaks very warmly about his early studies of philosophy at Breslau under the direction of "my revered teacher" Richard Honigswald ("I learned how to think from him; . . . he taught me, through his example, to trust thinking"); and he says this even as he recalls a fundamental disagreement that arose between himself and Honigswald (his research supervisor) about an essential point in philosophy that impeded the progress of his doctorate. Richard Honigswald has been the recent subject of a conference held in Germany at which one of the keynote speakers was his son, Henry Hoenigswald, himself a professor (emeritus) of linguistics at Penn. His granddaughter works at Penn's Law Library.

November 1995

I no longer recall how we happened to speak about it but, when a now-retired Penn medievalist and I ran into one another last December (1994) in San Diego (at--of all places--the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America), we both waxed enthusiastic about Connie Willis's brilliant long novel, Doomsday Book (available in paperback from Bantam). I remarked on how lovely an introduction to fourteenth-century English village life the book seemed to me, a non-specialist. He agreed but then added that, although he had been touting the book to friends and colleagues, in the field and out, for years, his experience was that, as soon as he told them that it is "science fiction," they'd nod politely (as they would to any other gentle but insane person) and move quickly on. Some of them might later recall that his wife writes science fiction (how odd!) and thus assign his lapse into tastelessness to extra-literary considerations; others would just think him a nut.

Doomsday Book begins in Oxford, where a number of history dons and their students are planning an investigation of pre-1340 (i.e., pre-plague) Oxfordshire. Fair enough . . . except that this is twenty-first century Oxford and the methodology depends on a time machine that will send a graduate student back to the early fourteenth century for research on her thesis. The bulk of the novel takes place not in the twenty-first century but in the fourteenth. The student gradually discovers that, first, several unforeseen circumstances leave her in some serious danger of not being found to be picked up by her twenty-first century colleagues and returned to her "now"; and, second, something has gone quite skewey with the date to which Oxford's time machine has actually sent her, as opposed to the date she had expected to encounter.

It's a wonderful novel. But it is science fiction. There's no doubt about that--and readers who already know they don't like this kind of book won't like this kind of book.

I have, however, recently bumped into another novel set in England's fourteenth-century--to be sure, this is (like the paleontological novels I spoke about in August and September of 1995) not a category of fiction in danger of overwhelming any reader--and it is not science fiction. It is also very good. Barry Unsworth's Morality Play has just been published in the United States (New York: Doubleday, 1995; the U.K. edition has been out for a while). It concerns quite a number of matters, not all of them pleasant. One that many of the people I know who are interested in early English drama will find interesting is its major focus: the travels and travails of a group of travelling players.

The troupe has been sent by their lord as a Christmas present to another lord in the north. They never reach their destination. Instead, after bumbling into a village recently the scene of a murder, they make an effort to adopt their dramatic skills to that crime's representation. This is (for many reasons) a surprising, but not a particularly bright, idea. The local lord, involved in this murder right up to his eyebrows, proves inclined to resent ignorant intrusion into its solution. His power makes his resentment palpable. Representatives of the King's Justice are also present, but the nature of their concerns depends on a somewhat peculiar definition of "justice."

I won't say anything more about the book except that the ways in which the players adopt their set speeches to an improvisational dramaturgy rooted in the experience of the community they have temporarily joined would, I think, warm the cockles of the Living Theater's heart. Oh, well, I should add that there is a slightly acrid taste of homophobia in the book, as well; but I didn't say the book is perfect.

Speaking with a colleague as we both left the library one dark November evening, I recommended Sharon Olds's The Father to her, and I am reminded that it is a book well worth mention here (it is available in paperback from Knopf). The Father looks like a collection of the author's poems, but when I read it I thought it really one long poem in many small parts, all written during and about the protracted death of the poet's father. Olds, a well-known poet, needs little praise--hold on: is that really true of any poet these days?--but this is a book so astonishingly good that if you have, by some mischance, not yet picked it up and zoomed right through it, this is a terrific moment to remedy that lacuna in your reading. [Addendum (3 October 1996): I wrote about this book once more, as well as about a more recent book of poetry by Sharon Olds, in January of 1996.]

My students' warm response to Mildred Walker's 1944 Winter Wheat emboldens me to mention that hers, too, is a wonderful book that people seem (unaccountably) to neglect in droves. A bildungsroman about a young girl raised on a Montana wheat farm, its author's and its subject's insignificant gender, as well as its setting's unimportant geography, all seem to have combined to push it right out of sight, where it might have remained but for an imaginative paperback reprint from the University of Nebraska Press (where someone has obviously thought long and hard about what is insignificant and what is unimportant). Walker's writing is absolutely certain and controlled from her very first sentence. Her story is as hard-edged, as beautiful, and as deeply moving as the landscape in which she locates it.

I suggested to my students, following the lead of one of them, that Winter Wheat is not only a bildungsroman but also a war novel (1944, after all . . . ). The more I think about it the more I think this is an especially sensible way to read Winter Wheat. But whether you find this approach to it sensible or not, I think you will find the book itself well worth your while. So far, every one who has read it on my suggestion has liked it--well, okay, so my students might have been lying ("Is it wrong to make your teacher happy?"). But some (not students!) have even begun buying copies to give to friends. Take a look for yourself. The world doesn't present us with enough truly gorgeous books. And Walker has more.

December 1995

I put on all my own syllabi a phrase I stole from an English instructor whom I first met in 1959: "Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking." I thought he was right then; I still think so. Nonetheless, even though Todd Gitlin's new book, The Twilight of Common Culture: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), is very sloppily written, it is not simply a specimen of sloppy thinking. It is, in fact, a book worth taking the trouble to read.

Nonetheless, its warts are pretty clear. For example, writing about why the press proved so quick to fall upon the "p.c. story" with respect especially to the university, Gitlin comments:

The journalists get to defend the ideal of transparent prose coupled with the ideal of objective standards. In the populist mood, all the educated classes are under suspicion together for "elitism." When they defend the ideal of objectivity--and yes, "Western Culture"--they defend some Platonic idea of themselves (p. 182).
Where, looking at this mess, does one even begin? The relationship--or lack of relationship--of these sentences to one another? the author's ability to decline instantly into the heart of abstraction? the problem of the antecedent referent ("the educated classes" instead of "the journalists") to the word "they" in the final sentence?

Logic also fares badly, as this sort of writing might lead someone who recalled my instructor's dictum about the relationship between writing and thought to expect. Trying to show the absurdity of leftist objections to a multicultural history textbook series proposed for adoption in the California school system, Gitlin notes that, "where a previously adopted world history text had devoted only one of its forty chapters to African history and ancient American Indian cultures combined, one-eighth of the new seventh-grade book was devoted to the Indians, or Native Americans, alone--an increase by a factor of ten." He goes on: "Nor did the critics seem to care that the [proposed new] textbooks frequently represented a radical departure from the history taught in earlier decades" (p. 11). These are interesting points, of course, but "more" and "different" do not necessarily equal "better" and never have. Gitlin may have genuinely good reasons for liking the proposed new texts and feeling astonished that they should have come under attack from people on the left. These reasons don't happen to be them. Since Gitlin could easily have provided such reasons, his reader wishes he had taken time to do so.

His self-aggrandizing rhetorical stance seems not only unnecessary but also embarrassingly miscalculated: in the thick of a student-faculty controversy at Berkeley, for instance, "I" reach out to others armed with "facts" only to find that they are arguing about "truth effects" (pp. 157-8). Tsk. Or: after discussing "political correctness," Gitlin writes that "the power of the media is not necessarily to tell us what to think but the power to tell us what to think about" (p. 168); yet his own previous discussion has itself demonstrated precisely the media's power to tell us what to think (by virtue of its ability to define how we think about an issue). And one could go on: the book has warts in plenty. (Has Henry Holt, along with everyone else, abandoned line editors?)

I have used others of Gitlin's works in my courses (most recently, The Murder of Albert Einstein); he is normally a better writer than he is here. (By the way, my copy of that book--despite being read and then used in classroom discussion--had a spine that did not crack apart, as this one's did [at pages 264-265] on its first reading.) Perhaps it would be charitable to suppose that he was so anxious to get his thoughts out into the public realm that he did not take time to present them as carefully as they deserve. The problem with this book is that they deserve better expression than Gitlin has given them. An intelligent social thinker, he has written a book that, however badly-written, is very far from stupid. It is, warts and all, important.

I am not sure I want to try to sum up Gitlin's entire argument, even if I felt able to do so. A crucial aspect of it, however, is Gitlin's explanation of the ineffectiveness of one potential leftist locus of oppositional political leadership, those people (usually in the university) committed to the extension of egalitarian change and social justice. ("Mobilization for equality and against arbitrary power . . . is the Left's main business," he writes [p. 236].) Such people appear, he says, to have chosen to act not in a genuinely political ("communal") sphere but instead to have abandoned that sphere to the right in favor of more local, narrow, self-absorbed and self-interested actions. In consequence, they have come increasingly to speak only to and of themselves, not to or of society as a whole. Gitlin proposes the advantages of an entirely altered perspective (discussed--alas, far too sketchily--in chapter 8, "The Fate of the Commons"), based on a revitalized sense of "the commons," "majorities," and "a political system of mutual reliance and common moral obligation" (p. 236).

This may sound like pie in the sky. However, in this otherwise malevolent Newtonian political era, I find Gitlin's perspective sympathetic, his goals attractive, and his concern for their political realization refreshing. Sure, I wish he had written a better book. I am glad that he at least wrote this one--and I hope others read it.

Ours is not, by and large, a literary culture that knows how to value its entertainers; but one whom I think we ought to value highly has just published another book. Like his earlier ones, it is well worth the attention of anyone who enjoys a good read. William J. Caunitz's Pigtown was published by Crown (who--like the friendly folks at Holt, just mentioned above--might have proofread the book more carefully than they appear to have done). The sixth novel written by this former NYPD officer, it is also one of his strongest. It follows books such as One Police Plaza, Suspects, and Black Sand, in which Caunitz's fortunate readers will have encountered such things as an Arab-Israeli miniwar fought largely on the BQE (a New York City highway) or a traffic in rarities that moves easily from Greece to the basement of The Pierpont Morgan Library.

Caunitz's stories are all told from a cop-centered point of view. Pigtown is set in the 71st Precinct, site, once upon a time, of Walter O'Malley's ballpark and now a neighborhood in which Hasids rub uneasy shoulders with African-American, Rastafarian, and Hispanic neighbors. It opens with a body emerging--with difficulty, given the state of the shmear in the back of its head--from a refrigerator, and quickly takes its reader from that opening deep into worlds of drugs, organized crime, the quotidian horror of slum streets--and cheese.

Caunitz is interested in the criminal and business worlds he portrays. But his real interest is the world of the cop, and he draws his cops with affection, compassion, or--occasionally--real rage. Lt. Matthew Cosgrove Stuart, Inspector Suzanne Albrecht, Detectives Joe Borelli and Helen Kahn, Inspector Patrick Sarsfield Casey: these are the characters whom Caunitz brings to vivid life in Pigtown, along with at least some of the strains and stresses their job presses upon them. Caunitz makes his reader care about these people and about the institution for which they work (and for which, often, their forebears also worked). In fact, by the time the book ends, he has made his reader care about them more than about the specifics of the crimes and the criminals around whom their days revolve. That is one of Caunitz's many triumphs, along with the betrayed lover's sense of New York that this book, like all his books, conveys. (This is a book for New Yorkers!)

Pigtown is also reminiscent of the Victorian problem novel, the problem in this case being the uneasy relationship between the "quotidian horror" of the City's streets and the culture of corruption in New York City's Police Department. In a surprising number of more or less recent mysteries and thrillers, I note, a reader can discover where at least some practitioners of political fictions are currently hiding out, protected by generic expectations that enable them to write whatever socially or politically critical comment they damned well please in a literary form to which few people pay any attention. Pigtown, curious happy ending and all, falls squarely into this duplicitously serious form.

Tom Topor's The Codicil New York: Hyperion, 1995) is another "entertainment." A Vietnam War novel pretending to be a thriller, it concerns a lawyer who, no longer able to practice, earns his living as an investigator. Early in the novel, he is hired to find the illegitimate child of a recently deceased businessman who has left this child some fifty or so million dollars in a codicil to his will. This sum represents something of a test of the Christian charity of his wife and legitimate children: will they eagerly await the child's discovery (if it ever existed and can be found)? This is a test they do not all pass, you will be unsurprised to learn, but that predictable outcome is not the major burden of Topor's book.

The Codicil looks, from yet another point of view, at how the Vietnam War came home to America--and at what it continues to do and mean to this society. Like Pigtown, in other words, The Codicil is a political novel in disguise. It just looks like thriller trash.

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