TOUTS -- 1996

January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.

January 1996

In The Father, Sharon Olds produced one of the most moving works by a recent American poet I have read in a long time (I've mentioned it, more briefly, once before.) It is a real book, too: although divided into a lot of separated poems, it gives the effect of being one long poem (and, really, it must, or so I think, be read as if that were just what it is). Its ostensible subject is the long death by cancer, and the speaker's response to it, of the speaker's father, towards whom, healthy or dying, her responses are by no means simple. This does not seem especially attractive. Yet the book is neither morbid nor unhappy. It may be merely peculiar in me to have found it, in fact, a beautiful book about difficult love for difficult people--oneself, perhaps, among them--in the hardest of hard times; but so I did, and thus I read it rather positively.

This month, Olds has published a new book, The Wellspring (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, $21). It, too, is (I think) not simply a collection of poems but a unified book forming, really, one long poem. The "wellspring" of the title should not be defined in any way that reduces its many resonances; but if one were to say (in real shorthand form) that it refers to the speaker's "eros"--sexual and other--as she experiences and gives it to others over the first fifty-three years of her life, then one might just be within shooting distance. One would not, however, therefore have indicated how wonderful this book, too, proves to be. It is a joy to have read it (I swallowed it whole within minutes of finding a copy) and an equal joy to contemplate rereading it over the years we manage to survive with one another. Run, do not walk.

Having seen the recent movie versions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility during the last two months of 1995 (Persuasion, in fact, I saw twice, and with pleasure on each occasion), I treated myself to a re-reading of both novels. I now have Pride and Prejudice sitting in my to-be-read pile, awaiting a snowy day--no problem this winter in Philadelphia!

The movies are really very good. Despite some difficulties--for instance, a misconceived scene between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth during a concert in Bath (Austen's Anne Elliot would not, I think, ever allow herself to act in a way that would catch the attention of a crowd in quite the way the movie's Anne Elliot does), and a badly mistaken Fellini-like moment near its end when Anne Elliott and Wentworth, at last mutually assured of their love for one another, walk through a street circus--Persuasion is (but by just a mite!) the better movie of the two. But that judgment may merely reflect my preference for the book upon which it based, a book I find incomparably the most powerful of Austen's novels, perhaps because I also find it the most desperate.

Pride and Prejudice was broadcast on American television screens during January of 1996 on A&E and rebroadcast in January and February of the same year. Martin Amis had a nice piece about the series, and about Austen, in the January 8, 1996, issue of The New Yorker. It is well worth seeing; tapes are available--and the two movies just mentioned remain in theaters. Clueless, based loosely on Emma, will soon--if not already--be available on tape, and three [!] other Emmas are apparently now on the drawing boards. Information about all of these dramatizations is available from JaneInfo. This burst of Austenmania may be all the excuse anyone needs to set up shop with a pile of her books for the rest of the winter. But so what if it's a mania? Austen always repays re-reading.

I also read Marilyn Butler's Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). This is a book that will make a perfect present for anyone who wonders why older ("comprehensible") forms of literary criticism no longer get written.

Literary articles were, once upon a time, a staple of "serious" general circulation magazines. True, they were not always especially clever; and the legendary attacks of hacks on great poets early in the last century have not made their absence one that many people are inclined to mourn too much. Nonetheless, their gradual disappearance from this market did indicate interesting trends in publishing criteria, on the one hand, and the professionalization of literary discourse, on the other. What, then, does one make of the increasingly noticeable return of such articles to general-interest periodicals? Clearly, the "culture wars"--whatever else one can say about them--have helped to bring "literature" (or something that at least seems to resemble "literature") back as a topic that editors assume can have broad reader appeal.

Thus The New Yorker, which last year brought us Janet Malcolm's embarrassingly self-serving piece about the difficulty a biographer of Sylvia Plath faces in arriving at "truth," now brings us Joan Acocella writing on "Cather and the Academy" in its November 27, 1995, issue. The article, a specimen of reactionary and antifeminist criticism, is nonetheless (in the echt New Yorker mode) readable and even interesting, if not always agreeable or convincing. At any rate, it does draw renewed attention to Willa Cather, a great writer.

In its December 18, 1995, issue, Jeremy Treglown writes about Anthony Powell. The University of Chicago Press's reissue of Powell's great novel A Dance to the Music of Time (twelve volumes in four; paperback) gives Treglown occasion for a "book review" that attempts, more or less witlessly, to assess Powell's contribution to English literature. The essay's one bright moment--Treglown's momentary realization that Powell is an experimental writer--is, unfortunately, completely squandered, for he appears to have no idea what the experiment is, and his essay degenerates quickly into gossip, bookchat, and arch description of his visit with the ninety-year old writer.

In the January 1996 issue of Harper's, Jane Smiley (whose recent Moo [New York: Knopf, 1995] is a novel any academic reader will adore) takes on Huckleberry Finn--which she skewers--and the process of literary canonization--which she also skewers--in a stunningly interesting essay. I am not sure that I agree with her any more than I agreed with Acocella on Cather (or Treglown on Powell, for that matter); but no matter: she is far more exciting to disagree with than either of them. Her essay makes me want to run out and read Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I have never read and which she compares, to the detriment of the later novel, to Huck. It is an essay well worth anyone's time.

It is followed in the same issue, by the way, by Tom Engelhardt, writing well about the abortive Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Enola Gay/Hiroshima exhibition.

I discussed a paleontological romance in August and another in September of 1995--and now I have a third. George Gaylord Simpson (who died in 1984) left a manuscript that has been published this month under the title The Dechronization of Sam Magruder (New York: St. Martin's Press). A foreward by Arthur C. Clarke, an afterword by Stephen Jay Gould, and a memoir by Simpson's daughter, Joan Simpson Burns, all make for a degree of overkill in the presentation of this tiny work. The work itself, however--which relates the irrevocable translation to a time some eighty million years ago (the end of the Cretaceous) of a twenty-second century scientist named Sam Magruder--is fascinating, both about the dinosaurs that Magruder encounters and about the evolutionary implications of the mammals he also observes. Simpson was one of the leading paleontologists of the century (and a specialist in mammalian evolution). This book may be only a slight jeu d'esprit; however slight, it is also enormously engaging--and a fast and interesting read for anyone who likes to think (and to watch an expert think) about the deep past . . . and about his present and the nature of his work, which is also Simpson's subject in this little book.

February 1996

This month, I read Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random, a 1748 novel that I had managed to miss till now--and was I ever mistaken to have missed it for so many years. I read it the edition edited by Paul-Gabriel Boucé for the Oxford English Novels series. This is a text that is, for the most part, well-annotated: there was little I needed to know that the notes did not tell me, and only a little more that they did tell me that I did not need to know. But Boucé's edition is not the only one out there. This book survives in many modern editions and, wherever you bump into it--although most people as old as I am no longer need to bump into it, having read it already many long years ago--you'll enjoy it.

A horse of a mildly different color, but (in its odd way) almost as much fun as Roderick Random, is George Walker's rapturously-entitled Theodore Cyphon; or, The Benevolent Jew (London 1796). Hard to find (there is an 1803 American edition, although this won't be of much help to people who don't enjoy reading long novels on microfiche), it's a book worth seeking out at your nearby rare book collection. The title is only the first funny thing about it (and--need I add?--the reason I looked into it in the first place); but in truth it's not simply a funny book at all, and looks in fascinating ways at many abuses of late eighteenth-century English society.

In 1799, George Walker went on to publish The Vagabond, and it, too, makes for very interesting reading--especially in comparison to Theodore Cyphon. The later book appears to reflect the same kind of change of heart and mind that many thirties leftists underwent in our own century. The product of a hardcore, born-again neoconservative, it is reactionary to a fault. The only abuses it sees in the British society it depicts are the abuses perpetrated by the Godwins, Holcrofts, Wollstonecrafts, and others of that ilk, all of whom would claim to "reform" Britain only in order to destroy it. The putative dangers of the French Revolution have come home to Walker in a major way during the three years that separate these two books: the reformist impulse of the earlier work has disappeared completely. The book is written with some spirit, although a critique of it (the only recent one I have thus far found) by A. D. Harvey (in the Review of English Studies, 1977) overrates its sense of humor (or so I thought) while understating its political impulses. These are both extremely interesting books to read, separately and (even more so) together. I look forward to reading more of George Walker.

In what is (surprisingly) not an altogether different intellectual universe--that of the "problems of society" novel, if such a genre may be distinguished and so called--I found the most recent book by John Grisham, The Rainmaker, worth reading. I continue to be surprised and fascinated by the avidity with which his books are sold (and, presumably, read) in a society which sometimes seems to me to have moved so far to the political right that, of all people, mild-mannered John Grisham of Mississippi reads as if he had been sent to us straight from Castro's unreconstructed Cuba . . . and no one seems to notice. Want a civil rights tract (of a peculiar sort, to be sure)? Try A Time to Kill. An anti-death penalty tract? The Chamber will suit your every need.

Or, if what you have in mind is a saga concerning the moral turpitude of lawyers in a society that, secretly, really values that turpitude, and also concerning--what is even worse than lawyerly turpitude--that of the large corporations whose nefarious and inhumane interests toady lawyers serve, then this newest book fits the bill. Huh? Say wha'? Newt, you listenin'?

In addition, his books are--if you will forgive so low a criterion--fun to read.

March 1996

This month I have continued reading George Walker, the late eighteenth-early nineteenth-century novelist about whom I wrote last month, looking most recently at The House of Tynian. (I could locate only the pirated Dublin 1795 edition, not the London first). Walker continues to strike me as eminently readable; this--a more typical romantic novel than either Theodore Cyphon or The Vagabond--is a great deal of fun, even if no one is ever in much doubt about how it is going to turn out. Will the lovers, separated by class prejudice, find their way to one another anyway? . . . good grief: you tell me, and you haven't even read the book yet. Plot is not Walker's strong suit, but there are other reasons to read him.

I also took the interest that reading Walker excited to reread, for the first time in about thirty years, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which--to my surprise--I loved. I followed up by rereading Henry Fielding's Shamela and Joseph Andrews, which I had not read for almost as many years--and which I was not surprised to love all over again. It seems pointless to recommend such chestnuts--but they are so much fun, and someone might be missing reading (or rereading!) them, why not?

For an exhibition with which I have been involved, I've also read Nick of the Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky, an 1837 novel by Penn alumnus Robert Montgomery Bird (Medical, 1827); I read the paperback edition published in New Haven: College & University Press, [1967], edited by Curtis Dahl. (You can check out the remains of Penn's exhibition at its URL if you're curious; and my own "opening night" remarks are also checkable for the totally masochistic.) I won't rehash here what gets said in those two places, but I do want to emphasize that, warts and all, Nick will be a truly fascinating and an enjoyable book for anyone who finds the tale of early American settlements of "the West" interesting. I am also prepared to recommend one of Dr. Bird's early plays, The City Looking Glass: A Philadelphia Comedy--although it might be a tad harder to take than Nick for those who are put off by highly conventional plots and characters.

At Heathrow's duty free shops, between a flight from Charles de Gaulle and another to Newark near the end of the month, I bought an Abacus paperback edition of Jane Gardam's Crusoe's Daughter. Bought it, as it happens, for the wrong reason: the blurb on the back mentions something "nuclear" about the book and, since I teach a class on the Manhattan Project, and am always looking for "literary" works that might be apposite, I thought it might be worth looking at. And bought it, as it also happens, with the wrong expectations: I thought I'd look at it briefly when I boarded the plane and then sleep. Wrong on both counts. A paragraph or so, very late in the book, mentions the narrator's dismay with a nuclear waste dump located not far from her home. That's about as "nuclear" as the book gets. And, although I did pick the book up after we took off, I did not go to sleep; instead, I read the damned thing (with occasional peeks out the window at the surface of the North Atlantic, which, from six and a half miles up, has a particularly interesting aspect).

Gardam seems to have but a slight publication record on this side of the ocean--The Queen of the Tambourine (1991), also an Abacus paperback in the UK, has only just appeared here as a hardbound publication (and now--June 1996--as a Picador paperback)--despite a record of Whitbread and Booker shortlistings and prizes at home. Crusoe's Daughter is a wonderful book, and for anyone who happens (as I happen) to be reading/rereading eighteenth-century English fiction, or is already knowledgeable about that period, the novel, with its constant references to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, will be a treat. But it is also a book that looks--from an extremely odd perspective--at a long swatch of English twentieth-century history, with a special concentration on the years leading up to and including the event that finished off Great Britain as a serious world power, World War I, from the debilitating effects of which the country seems entirely unrecovered still. The author's energy seems to flag somewhat in the period following that War although, before changing "seems" in this sentence to anything more definite, I would want to think longer about how much the apparent failure of energy is in fact intended as a kind of comment about the impact of the War not entirely dissimilar to the one I have just made. In any event, the impact of the book survives, for me, this slight uncertainty about its latter pages, and the narrator's voice is simply a triumph, as is--and who, finally, would have dared to expect any such thing?--her concluding conversation with Daniel Defoe. This is a simply wonderful book.

Why Gardam is not better known in this country is, now that I realize how much she has written (including children's books, novels, and collections of short stories), a complete mystery to me. But curiously, she seems not much better known at home, judging from the reaction to her name--viz.: none; or, more accurately, "Would you mind spelling that?"--when I asked an English friend, flying from Heathrow a few days after I did, to pick up the paperback Queen of the Tambourine for me. He did; I hope to get to this one just as soon [!] as I finish Tom Jones (let's all hold our breath . . . ).

April 1996

Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996) is a 430-page book I could barely put down. The story of the 1958 bombing of Atlanta's Reform Temple, a partial biography of the Temple's Rabbi, Jack Rothschild, and a meditation on the links between anti-black and anti-semitic terrorism, Greene's history has (post-Oklahoma City) a grim currency that its author might not have counted on when she began work on this tale of an especially ugly underside of Huey Newton's American apple pie. But even without that currency, the story she has to tell proves to be fascinating in its own right.

In 1958, Atlanta must have seemed about as interesting to me as Yankton; and probably just about as close. At any rate, the bombing is not something that registered on my Richter scale at that time. Visiting Atlanta late in the 1980s, however, I found myself driven to the Temple by a self-described good ol' redneck boy from Columbus, Georgia. He was going there to pick up his daughter from Sunday school (his wife is not a good ol' girl), and mentioned that this was where the bombing had taken place. When I waxed ignorant ("What bombing?"), he mentioned the reference to the bombing in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, about which I was, then, equally ignorant. Too Southern--and therefore polite--to comment (as I would have in his place) about another damned ignorant Yankee, he explained both to me; and I did later encounter Uhry's play. Greene's book, unlike the play, is much more than I would have expected I'd want to know about the bombing; I would have been wrong.

By and large beautifully written (so beautifully that its few flaws are almost more irritating than they might have been in a less well-written book), The Temple Bombing is also astonishingly moving. Greene's tribute to Rothschild, her evocation of the stresses and timidities endemic to southern Jewish life in postwar America (only southern?), her exploration of the ways in which Atlanta's Jewish and African-American communities moved towards one another in a joint effort to right a long history of injustice, her implicit suggestions that similar work could and should be done that concentrated on the roles of, e.g., Atlanta's Roman Catholic Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan and of Atlanta's African-American business and university communities, especially Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, her patient and restrained dissection of George Michael Bright (a work of unusual journalistic and personal courage): all this combines with a gruesomely engrossing history of a disgusting incident to make The Temple Bombing a book I recommend unreservedly. The incident seems tiny. Greene--who wrote a previous book called Praying for Sheetrock--presents it with a clarity and roundedness that will quickly disabuse the most skeptical reader of that illusion.

In the very first of these monthly reading reports (August 1995), I mentioned Thomas Perry's then more or less newly-published Vanishing Act. Perry is a writer of odd little books that are generic throwaways: "thrillers," immensely easy to read and, so you would suppose, then to toss. His, however, I happen to like very much indeed; I find The Butcher's Boy, Metzger's Dog, and Sleeping Dogs (a sequel to The Butcher's Boy) particularly enjoyable. Big Fish is (for me) a "nuclear" novel, quite apart from its other virtues. Island is the only one of his novels that, for me, doesn't quite work. Its premise strikes me as simply a little too "cute"--and "cute" is not really the métier of Dr. Perry.

Vanishing Act (New York: Random House, 1995) concerns a young woman of partly Seneca heritage from upstate New York. Her work involves her with people who have an urgent need to disappear but who, for one reason or another, are unable to call upon the resources of the government's witness relocation program. Often these are women caught in abusive relationships. Jane Whitefield gets them to new lives. It's an enjoyable book, but more akin to the relatively weak Island than to The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog, memorable books that represent Perry at his best. This month, Perry has published a sequel to Vanishing Act. Dance for the Dead (New York: Random House, 1996) is (so the dustwrapper tells us) one of many "Jane Whitefield" books that the author has stockpiled with Random for publication every April for the next umpty-dozen years. I thus approached it with a sinking heart. How much like "Ace" Parker--whose decline since the height of the now-too-long-ago Godwulf Manuscript resembles a logarithmic curve almost directly proportional to the grim efficiency with which he churns out another dim-witted Spenser novel year after year after year--would Jane-Whitefield-assembly-line techniques make Perry? My surprise was great, as was my pleasure, for this sequel is, if anything, better than its predecessor. It does not end with quite so random, unbelievable, and tediously prolonged a finale; its parts cohere, but surprisingly; and the central character is not only better-drawn here than she was in her first outing, she is also far more likeable. If you don't know Perry, I still recommend starting out with The Butcher's Boy or Metzger's Dog. But Dance for the Dead is another extraordinarily entertaining book. How nice to read a well-educated author who likes entertainment--and trusts his own talent enough to know that even his entertainments have the capacity to stick around in the craw and provide material on which to chew for a while.

Another entertainment just published is John Darnton's Neanderthal (New York: Random House, 1996), a fiction in the "paleontological mode" I have occasionally mentioned elsewhere in these pages (August 1995, September 1995, and January 1996) (although dinosaurs do not happen to appear in Darnton's book). The premise is vaguely familiar: in a "lost world" with some overtones of "Shangri-La," intrepid anthropologist explorers are about to stumble upon . . . well, can you guess? (Hey, is the title a clue, or what?)

Okay. So it's garbage. I loved it anyway.

Petru Popescu, Almost Adam (New York: William Morrow, 1996), is more or less the same book, published more or less simultaneously, its premise and plot more or less identical. The major difference is that, instead of Neanderthals in Asia, Popescu brings us Australopithecines (both gracile and robustus) in Africa.

So how come I didn't like this book as well as Darnton's? Hard to say . . . but the characters are flatter than Darnton's, the mad scientist madder, the clichés more familiar, the prose more convoluted . . . Neither of these books is "literature." But one is a better entertainment product than the other. (Nonetheless, both should make dandy bad movies. [And for yet another such novel, see Philip Kerr's Esau.])

Writing in The New York Times Book Review for April 14, 1996, by the way, Francine Prose reviews both novels together. She asks exactly the wrong questions about them. She seems to expect books of this sort to be written by people who want to write "literature" and who may also be at least mildly disappointed when she slaps their wrists for failing to have done so. But why in the world should anyone ever have had such a suspicion?

Dealing with our friendly neighborhood Australopithecines from a very different point of view is Johns Hopkins geologist and paleontologist Steven M. Stanley in Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve (New York: Harmony Books, 1996). Roughly two and a half million years ago, Stanley argues, the uplift that produced the Isthmus of Panama shifted global oceanic circulation patterns in ways that promoted the modern era of Ice Ages. (We are currently in a major interglacial period.) Far to the east, an African primate--Australopithecus--found the resultant climatic changes inimical to its continuation in the lifestyle to which it had been long accustomed. Wooded habitats shrank. As the primate moved, under duress, to more dangerous savannas, its susceptibility to predation increased dramatically. Most members of the species probably failed to survive these changes. But some, Stanley suggests, must have made behavioral adjustments. These proved ultimately to enhance their or their offspring's chances for survival.

Stanley uses the Eldridge-Gould model of punctuational rather than gradual evolutionary change to show that these behavioral adaptations--which needed to be fairly speedy, under the changed and more dangerous environmental circumstances the creature found itself encountering--led to fairly rapid genetic and somatic changes out of which emerged a new species, Homo. For some quite specific reasons, having to do with prolonged immaturity and the need for equally prolonged familial care of Homo in infancy, the abandonment of arboreality and adaptation to life on grasslands proved to be the needed precondition for the development of the big brain by means of which the new creature was better able to earn its living than the old.

From rudolfensis to neanderthalensis to sapiens--us--Homo continued to evolve rapidly, all because of a series of accidents and contingencies that Stanley describes in detail--a little too repetitiously, perhaps; the book is enjoyable, especially its first seven chapters, but it would have benefitted from editorial pruning. The last two chapters give us, first, boilerplate human evolution in twenty-five pages or less (8), which is followed by the dangerously entitled "a dubious future" (9), equally boilerplate but far more portentous without having anything specific to say (in any event, the chapter's title says it all).

Warts and all, this is a book where a non-scientist gets to watch a paleontologist think. Not only am I grateful for that opportunity but also I appreciate the additional time Stanley took, once he had written and published the professional paper on which it is based (Paleobiology, 18 [1992], 237-257), to write it up all over again for the interested non-specialist: me. It would be nice if professors of other disciplines (perhaps even in the humanities) had such generous intellectual manners.

Having finished the long and thoroughly pleasurable process of re-reading Tom Jones, as I'd hoped to do last month, I find myself with nothing to say about the book other than "run, don't walk." After I finished it--in the curious version annotated by Martin Battestin, with a text established by Fredson Bowers (Wesleyan University Press, in the 1982 revision)--I glanced briefly at F. R. Leavis who, in The Great Tradition, explains to dullards like me--and in his most authoritative, not to say "authoritarian," voice--why Fielding is not someone who merits our serious engagement: his limitations are too legion. "Lighten up, F. R.," one wants to say--but it is too late. Sage and serious, Leavis did much to kill the sense readers might once have felt that humor is among the tools to which reading is open, a murder that leaves him with lots to answer for. In any event, Tom Jones is simply wonderful. I would not want to risk letting thirty-six years go by again without reading it a third time. Not that that's much of an issue . . .

Robert Hughes's Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; rpt. Warner Books, 1994) is a book I've had kicking around for a while; I finally got to it this month, thanks to a long cold. Like Todd Gitlin's recent The Twilight of Common Culture, which I mentioned here in December of 1995, it is a view of the current culture wars, written, in this case, from a decidedly unacademic and generally conservative point of view. I didn't agree with much of it, and objected to certain aspects of it quite vociferously; yet it is an intelligent conservative reading of the American culture wars, far different from the ignorant excesses of people like d'Souza and Kimball, with a perspective that Hughes's non-American background (he is an Australian) makes just off-angled enough to be occasionally quite interesting and amusing. (Hughes has a sense of humor, too. This helps.) The book is worth attention, even from people who will eventually (like me) find little of it to their taste.

May 1996

Messages from My Father (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), a new book by Calvin Trillin, appeared within the past few weeks; I read it instantly. It is very short. An extended reminiscence of the writer's father, Abe Trillin, the book is at once side-splittingly funny and intensely moving. It sheds an enormous amount of light on the experience of coming of age in the 1950s in an upwardly mobile midwestern family and then at Yale (a place about which my own feelings tend to be less charitable than Trillin's); it is, really, a simply wonderful book about the '50s.

In this sense, the book is a kind of coda--quite self-consciously so--to the equally side-splittingly funny, and then, ultimately, far darker Remembering Denny (Farrar 1993), a memoir of Roger D. Hansen (Yale '57) written after his suicide, and a stunning book. Hansen, a professor of international relations at the time of his death, was a person whom his classmates at Yale thought of as a future President of the United States. He didn't make it. It would surely be misleading to compare this earlier book to The Education of Henry Adams, also a depiction of a deserving boy and his dad who both fail to become President; yet it nonetheless has something of the feel (for me, at least) of a latterday Education of Henry Adams.

Messages from My Father and Remembering Denny deserve to be read together. I read them, accidentally, in reverse order; I don't think it made a difference, for any order would be good.

I have been reading Trillin for a long time, not only in The New Yorker and The Nation but also in the books he has been publishing since An Education in Georgia: The Integration of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes (New York: Viking, 1964)--a book now so old that one of its central characters has died more or less naturally of what I am loathe to call "old age" after a long career as a physician; the other (as, now, Charlayne Hunter-Gault) is a print and television journalist. From some of his books I have, for years and too frequently, read passages aloud--especially Chapter 5 from American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974)--to willing (and, I suppose, unwilling) victims. They are wonderful books. But these two more recent books--Messages from My Father and its predecessor, Remembering Denny--are, miraculously, better still.

A repeated theme in these monthly touts is the risks to which popularity and low generic identity put books and their authors. Trillin is a journalist (and, worse, a humorist) and thus almost automatically not someone we need to take seriously; indeed, his writing is far too pellucid to trust even when it apparently cavorts with seriousness. This month, I have yet another book to recommend that suffers under similar difficulties, in this case, the double burden of appearing to be an entertainment (of the mystery-courtroom thriller type) and of being a bestseller (yuck! what could be worse?). Surprisingly, these faults to the contrary notwithstanding, it turns out to be quite a lovely novel, beautifully imagined and written. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (New York: Harcourt, 1994; rpt. in paperback as a Vintage Contemporary, 1995) does indeed concern mysteries and courtrooms. Set in a fishing village on an island in Puget Sound, it also concerns the persistence of the past; the bigotries endemic to American life; the internment of Americans during World War II; the impact of their participation in combat on several young men who served during that war; and the combination of community and isolation that island life seems, in Guterson's world, to enforce. This is another book I picked up more or less by accident. It proved almost impossible to put down, despite its (self-conscious?) references to Joyce's "The Dead," and stands on its own (un-Joycean) two feet quite nicely.

Earlier Guterson wrote and published a book I found less successful, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, a collection of short stories. Originally published in 1989, it has just been reissued (also by Vintage Contemporaries) in the wake of the success of Snow Falling on Cedars. The self-consciousness I thought might characterize the allusions to Joyce in the novel is a more prominent feature of the stories in this book, which--while some of them have their moments--struck me as overwritten and underrealized. Several ghosts--less frequently Joyce, more frequently Raymond Carver--hover in their background; but the author's own voice is not yet heard consistently throughout.

Last month, I commented on Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing, and this month I have at last caught up with her first essay in this genre, Praying for Sheetrock (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1991). This book retails the unhappy recent history of McIntosh County, Georgia, and the efforts of its African-American citizens to find a modicum of entrée into the civic life of this tiny place that borders the Georgia coast. Most of the place was closed to them because it happened to reside in the vest pocket of its Sheriff, Mr. Thomas Hardwick Poppell. While he does not emerge from Greene's pages as especially racist, relative to the opportunities his time and position afforded him, he does not smell like a rose, either. Mr. Thurnell Alston assumes a leadership role in the local black community and eventually does both good and ill in that position.

Greene's book is by no means as mordantly funny as the best book about southern political life I have ever read, A. J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana (still available in paper from LSU [1970; $11.95]); but Liebling was able to find, in the now-distant time when he wrote that book, more to laugh at than Greene finds, perhaps because underneath his humor was a large residue of hopefulness. Greene seems less hopeful. The progress she charts--and, to be sure, it is progress, although it is difficult always to be certain that it is--moves at a pace positively glacial. People's lives, alas, do not: they go to hell faster'n you can run 'round Robin Hood's barn. The book is, like her newer one, worth reading.

Incidentally, a librarian would notice that LC's CIP record for this book is itself not without real charm. Tom Poppell, the sherrif, rates an added entry by name. Mr. Alston gets none. No doubt this is not unconscious racism but merely an objective judgment about who matters in Greene's book: white Poppell. I sure do believe that; and I hope you do, too.

Reading Greene's two books sent me back to read, belatedly, Lillian Smith's 1944 novel, Strange Fruit (reprinted by Harvest in a 1992 paperback). It's pretty easy to see why the southern ag school of New Critics didn't respond too warmly to Miz Smith: damn fool was not only a woman, sufficient grounds for suspicion in itself, but also she wrote about race, politics, and economics in ways that (unaccountably) failed to etherealize them. A Faulkner (by way of serious contrast) knew how to treat such issues properly, elevating them to the level of Tragedy. At that metaphysical level they might safely remain outside any realm in which merely human action could affect them. Smith's characters, alas, are just plain ugly folks caught in quotidian traps they are too stupid or mean-spirited to break free of. Who could possibly care or be moved by such simplemindedness? Really, this is little more than agitprop.

Oh, well. I liked the book a lot, and look forward to reading Killers of the Dream and One Hour, both of which now await me.

In the first of these monthly columns, written in August of 1995, I recommended the then newly-published espionage novel by Alan Furst, The Polish Officer, author of Night Soldiers and Dark Star. Furst has now published another book in this genre, The World of Night (New York: Random House, 1996). This is not a bad read. Like The Polish Officer, however, it seems thin by comparison with Furst's earlier novels--almost "unfinished," in fact, alongside them. (He has written earlier novels still; but Furst chooses not to cite them among his previously published works and, having read a few of them, I am inclined to agree with his judgment.)

Set, like The Polish Officer, in the first years of World War II, The World of Night involves a Parisian film producer who somehow comes to work for the Resistance. Simultaneously, however, he also finds himself in the hands of the Nazi occupation government. His dilemma is further complicated by his revivified love for an actress with whom he had had a long ago affair and who now lives in Vichy, the unoccupied zone. A host of other factors, too many of them indifferently explained, also affect his situation. The book is, in fact, characterized by haste. "Not a bad read," it might have been better, as Furst's two best novels have already shown.

Gillian Rose has written a memoir entitled Love's Work: A Reckoning With Life (New York: Schocken, 1996). Rose is a philosopher who finds herself travelling ("New York, Auschwitz, Jerusalem. My three Cities of the Dead") and confronted by mortality--her own mortality, as well as that of far too many others. The book sounds as if it ought to be something you don't want to pick up; it is, instead, something you cannot bear to put down. It is also a book about which--aside from recommending it very highly--one fears trying to say much. It feels light, it looks tiny, and (although it is actually neither) one worries about bruising it too easily. Not, it turns out, a real worry: this is a tough little book, as well as an extraordinarily beautiful one. The grimness of Rose's themes are, perhaps surprisingly, not as tough as her thought; and the pleasures of this slender volume, perhaps because they are so thoroughly unexpected, would be difficult to exaggerate.

June 1996

For many years, Louis Adrian Montrose has been publishing well-written, provocative, and interesting essays on topics in Renaissance English literature. Now he has published a book, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996--available in both paperbound and hardbound editions). The second half of the book is an extended reading of one play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and by itself is worth the price of admission. Montrose has a lot to say that is worth hearing, and his book--"literary scholarship" though it be--is one that non-specialists will enjoy. That is not common in these days of professionalspeak.

Montrose's essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream pays tribute to an earlier study of the play by David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Yale Studies in English, 164 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966). I had occasion to re-read Young's book shortly before I read Montrose. The book was not all that I had remembered it as being: it positively glowed in memory, and what book of criticism could live up to that sort of fond recollection, bathed in the nostalgia of the now-distant era when I was first learning my own way through Renaissance English literature? . . . and, of course, my tastes and expectations have changed in the thirty years since I first read Young (as one might have hoped). His book nonetheless remains an exemplary New Critical reading of a great play. Montrose's warm words about it, richly deserved, predisposed me to read his book as if it were the product of a generous spirit as well as a first-rate literary mind.

Rebecca Stowe's new novel, in bookstores this month, concerns an academic. I haven't yet read it but did pick up--and then zipped through--her first novel, Not the End of the World (1991; in paper from Norton, 1993). The story of a twelve year-old girl having a very bad summer, this book displays a wonderful ear and a wonderful voice. It does so while capturing a particularly gruesome period in American life, the era when John Kennedy waved nukes at Cuba and backyard bombshelters seemed to matter. The narrator has a little problem with thoughts of falling bombs; but it may indicate something of the flavor of Stowe's novel that this is not the greatest of her problems. Maggie and her many alter egos don't actually "resolve" those problems, either. This is a tiny book and an unusually acid one. Its brevity in no way impedes its corrosive strength.

Yet another recent book that serious people will avoid like the plague is John Grisham's The Runaway Jury (New York: Doubleday, 1996). A report in The New York Times (probably from June 13th?) about the closure of Shakespeare & Co.'s Upper West Side store as a result of the competition from the new Barnes & Noble superstore a few blocks further north, quotes--in the midst of many crocodile tears shed by the store's remaining aficianados--someone slightly less enamored of the place; s/he recalls, less than joyously, the propensity of its clerks to make you feel like a low dope if you dared to buy a book like Grisham's; in fact, it is The Runaway Jury specifically that s/he cites.

Well, for whatever it's worth, I've read it . . . and confess that I am so low as to have enjoyed it thoroughly. Is it without flaws? No. On the other hand, novels--as Randall Jarrell said some years ago--are "long works in prose with a flaw" (and this one has a big hole right in the center of its plot). Is it literature? Beats me. Is it readable? is it fun? Uh-huh. A suit against a tobacco company for the wrongful death (from cancer) of a lifelong smoker occasions the "courtroom drama"--much of which takes place far from any courtroom--that Grisham presents. His characters are satisfactory simulacra of people one might know; their actions either grotesquely obvious or incomprehensible until explained.

Entertainment with a moral purpose: a concept positively classical--Spenser, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Nicholas Easter is the risen Talus (FQ V); and--granted the minor difference that we no longer live in an especially chivalric age--his methods are just as unambiguously heartwarming as the Big T's.

A partisan of low literature from all eras, not just our own, I am currently teaching a writer universally recognized as someone whose formal virtues were of a low order indeed: the lad wrote (urp!) plays, not A Good Thing in his (or any) era. Having recently discussed one of his plays--The Taming of the Shrew--with my students, I was curious to see what one of his contemporaries, who occasionally worked with him, made of this play, and thus found myself reading John Fletcher's The Woman's Prize: or, The Tamer Tamed (written circa 1611). In Fletcher's play, Kate has died and we watch Petruchio marry again. The event--as Fletcher's title suggests--turns out a bit differently this time, however. It is Petruchio, not his second bride, who ends the play as Kate had ended the first, doing an (anachronistic) imitation of Winston in the final sentence of 1984.

I read the play in Fredson Bowers's edition (The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, volume 4 [Cambridge University Press, 1979]). It must, I am sure, be possible to imagine an edition less useful for a normal human being to read . . . but my imagination quails before that prospect. This is a pity. The play is not only interesting and enjoyable, but also, at a time when gender tensions in Tudor and Stuart literature specifically and the period generally are the subject of enormous scholarly attention, it ought to be attracting its share of that attention. That it is not doing so is a real, if unfortunately somewhat backhanded, tribute to Mr. Bowers's skill in burying the play in a recondite old-spelling format shorn of any assistance to readers of the sort that explanatory (as opposed to textual/bibliographical) footnotes normally attempt to supply. I suppose its inutility also indicates his more general failure to see through the defects of his editorial theory into the readers's needs that editorial practice might attempt to address. Edmund Wilson, who bears a name noticeably unrevered in bibliographical or textual scholarship circles, was right to criticize such practice in his polemical essay, "The Fruits of the MLA." But Wilson seems merely to have read literature, poor dope.

July 1996

The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, relates Walker's adventures in the recovery and interpretation of fossil remains of Australopithecus and various kinds of Homo. The book focuses on Homo erectus--what, when I grew up, was called "Pithecanthropus erectus" or "Java Man"--and most especially on the specimen, excavated in Kenya just west of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolph) between 1984 and 1988, now known as the Nariokotome Boy.

I began the book slightly put off by what seemed its narrator's initial arrogance. To my surprise, however, I rapidly proceeded through its three hundred pages and ended it not only with much more regret than I would have expected from my response to its beginning, but also with genuine appreciation for Walker and Shipman's depiction of how many diverse disciplines contribute to the understanding of fossil evidence. The book creates, as it were, a set of expanding circles within which the mute bones of the Nariokotome Boy are eventually made to speak with ever-increasing complexity. They speak, it would also seem, more forcefully than the boy himself, alive, is likely (on the evidence of his musculature) to have been able to do.

As someone whose own specialization is not paleontology but books and literature, I found Walker's speculations (unfortunately withheld until the book's last few chapters) on language and its connection to the fossil record of, indeed to the question of what constitutes, Homo sapiens (as opposed to erectus and Neandertalis), suggestive and fascinating. The rankest of untutored amateurs, I am in no position to comment on Walker's suggestions; they certainly make sense to me, but that is an armchair reaction, not a scholarly one. I am quite certain, however, that, whether his answers are ultimately validated by other discoveries and accepted by other researchers, his questions will repay thought. They may even interest other people who, like me, come to them from entirely non-scientific fields to which language is nonetheless, if for other reasons, also central.

Typical American is a novel Gish Jen published with Houghton Mifflin (Boston) in 1991. It has recently been followed by Mona in the Promised Land (New York: Knopf, 1996). I'd missed the first one but finally got to it--just as the new one rolled in--and found it simply wonderfully funny and sad at once. For a while, you think (if you've read in the novel of European immigration, for instance) that you're experiencing something like déjà vu; but it isn't quite the same thing at all. Oh, sure, the issue of survival on the mean streets of New York does indeed rear its all-too-familiar head, but the context in which our hero hits these nasty pavements--will he finish his Ph.D. and get a tenure-track position?--is not quite the same worry that his predecessors faced in the 1920s; Anzia Yezierska's "Salome of the Tenements" (for one glorious example) lives in a different universe altogether. [Addendum, 21 January 1998: Salome of the Tenements has been reissued (1995) in paperback by the University of Illinois Press in Alan Wald's series, The Radical Novel Reconsidered: pick it up and read it. It's short and it's sweet.] In Mona, reviews and dustwrapper both indicate, the Chinese-Jewish Connection comes in for a bit more explicit examination than seemed true of Typical American; all I can say is, I'm looking forward.

Another 1991 publication, Verlyn Klinkenborg's The Last Fine Time (New York: Knopf), looks pretty specialized: you think that you need to care about a Polish neighborhood bar-and-grill in Buffalo, New York, in order to read this book, which is about both the family that owned and ran it and that peculiar time in American history, post-World War II and its prosperity. Wrong wrong wrong: you don't need to care about Buffalo, Klinkenborg's family, or American history at all, since Klinkenborg's writing is so good that he makes you care about it all, whether you thought you would or not. So you keep on racing through the book, thinking you really don't care but just can't put it down. . . . This book is obviously mandatory reading for anyone going to Buffalo--as I am; but I passed it to a friend, and, while he, too, is also going to Buffalo, his tastes are a lot more focused than mine. Nonetheless, he, too, was last seen plowing through it . . .

A friendly bookstore passed on to me an "Advance Reading Copy" of Sonia Soto's translation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997), due to be published in the U.S. in February, 1997. (El Club Dumas appeared in Spain in 1993.) I read it with real enjoyment. Very late in the novel, at a fairly curious cocktail party, a host showing a guest around stops to remark, "Look who's arrived. You know him, don't you? Professor of semiotics in Bologna . . . " That Bolognese Professor co-occurs not only with the host and guest remarking his attendance at this odd party; intertextually speaking, he also co-occurs--as an eminence grise?--throughout the rest of this extremely enjoyable novel, which might, from a (perhaps too jaundiced?) point of view, be thought of as a kind of echo.

The book is told from at least two narratorial points of view. The main point of view is that of a rare book scout--a person whose job it is to find antiquarian manuscripts and printed books and get them to their proper niche in the marketplace. This particular scout deals with materials at the upper end of the market. Here we see him seeking, as he supposes, to authenticate a manuscript chapter from Alexandre Dumas's classic The Three Musketeers for one client while, for another, he is trying to compare, as he also supposes, an allegedly unique copy of a 1666 occult text, for which its author-printer was burned the following year, against what appear to be two additional copies of the book, both in private hands, one in Lisbon, the other in Paris, and both of which, if possible, he is also charged to obtain.

The other narratorial perspective comes via the voice, only occasionally interjected directly, of a scholar of Dumas and similar nineteenth-century fictions that we read "for the plot." He appears to lie behind the extremely odd events of this novel: for as Lucas Corso, the scout, pursues both errands simultaneously, he finds himself enmeshed in events that bear an ever-increasing resemblence to those Dumas had retailed in The Three Musketeers--except that, in decidedly unfictional ways, people keep winding up dead after he has seen them, and he himself is attacked on several occasions throughout the tale. Eventually coming to accept that he is living "within" Dumas's plot and that he also has a kind of guardian angel with him--named "Irene Adler," she seems to have been sprung from a different nineteenth-century fiction altogether, one by A. Conan Doyle--Corso slowly unravels one plot only to discover that it is not the main plot at all; and the rest of the book moves on to a somewhat unexpected conclusion.

A third narratorial point of view a reader encounters here is the author's, conservative in literature and literary styles and, perhaps, also politically. Indeed, The Club Dumas can be regarded as a late effort to revive the novel of plot and adventure (in the manner of, e.g., The Three Musketeers or Scaramouche) which its author vividly admires and tries hard to emulate. He may be a bit too self-conscious entirely to succeed in this task, but nonetheless this book is fun and well worth reading.

For people who work with older manuscripts and printed books, it will be something of a special treat, although part of that treat will be seeing where the author gets it wrong as much as where he gets it right. (A translator who had ever heard of, e.g., Raymond Lull would have helped here, of course.) John Dunning, however, Arturo Pérez-Reverte ain't: this book owes much more to "literary" than to "genre" traditions and isn't at all the sort of "bibliomystery" about which John Ballinger and others have written. Alas, I am sorry to have to report that book collectors as a class do not fare well in The Club Dumas. It may be Eco light (in the mode of Foucault's Pendulum); it's still worth a look-see--and soon to be at a bookstore near you . . .

One of Pérez-Reverte's earlier books, The Flanders Panel (1990), was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published in 1994 by Harcourt. It is now (June 1996) available in paper from Bantam. This one also tells a good story, although The Flanders Panel is set in the world not of rare books but of art (Old Masters, specifically). Its central character is a restorer at work on a Flemish painting of the later fifteenth century. In it she discovers a clue to a murder that played a small part in then-contemporary European dynastic politics. That clue is revealed partly by the game of chess two of the people the portrait depicts are playing. Additionally, she finds a Latin tag, revealed by x-ray photography, under a tablecloth subsequently extended to cover over the tag at a time very close to when the painting was created. Somewhat astonishingly, she finds herself slowly drawn into the same game of chess that the board represents--the author likes this device, which he also uses in the later book as Lucas Corso finds himself "inside" the plot of The Three Musketeers--and, every time a piece is taken, someone dies. However engrossing--and it is engrossing--this novel comes close to being fatally marred, for me, at least, by what the author may have felt was a sympathetic but which I found a profoundly phobic view of homosexuals, as represented by his depiction of one of the book's central characters. Others may disagree.

Michael G. FitzGerald has written a book about Picasso that anyone who still believes that worlds of commerce have nothing to do with worlds of art and creativity needs to ponder very seriously indeed. The arts, a natural meritocracy, may indeed be a career open to talents, and FitzGerald's book may change no minds on that matter. But it is, I thought, simply astonishingly useful in showing how good dealers, good publicity, good social contacts, and MONEY all have a lot more to do with what rises to the top of the canonical swimming pool than we ordinarily like to think.

This is not a book in which we learn that--in the canonical pool, as elsewhere--la merde surnage; Picasso remains . . . well, whatever he is. (Having just visited Picasso and Portraiture at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, I too feel strongly that, "whatever he is," it is something extraordinarily special. If you're in the neighborhood, go see this show. Be prepared to give it time; it is simply enormous. And, like the now sold-out Philadelphia Cézanne exhibition also adorning the summer of 1996, it is well worth every moment you can give it, and then some.) FitzGerald's book does remind us of how much energy and effort go into making the "extraordinarily special" generally recognized and admired, so that it can pay off while its creator is still around to enjoy the fruits of his talent. It's a book, in short, about marketing. ("But culture isn't "marketed"! you say. Right.) Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-Century Art was published last year (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). It's terrific.

August 1996

During the past several weeks, I have been reading Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. I read it in a translation ("revised and updated," whatever this means) by Eleanor Hochman and published in 1991 by Signet. We think of The Three Musketeers as a book for the young; I read it for the first time, this late in my life, for no better reason than that I felt strongly my complete ignorance of Dumas after enjoying, last month, Arturo Pérez-Reverte's forthcoming novel, The Club Dumas, a book that pays a great deal of hommage to The Three Musketeers. So I picked up The Three Musketeers--despite its dispiriting length; even though I had never previously felt much angst about having missed it; and without having ever expected to bother about catching up with it.

Now that I have read it, I cannot understand my indifference. The Three Musketeers is surely one of the most purely enjoyable books I have ever read. In some respects, it resembles such action-packed tales as Treasure Island. Do I need to remind anyone that "action-packed" is not exactly high critical praise these days? Perhaps I should therefore confess that that, too, was a book I enjoyed (once I had been shamed into reading it by Terry Belanger's off-handed comment--quoting someone else, probably his ever-quotable grandmother--that anyone who had not done so was a "savage"). Once I'd read him, I came to agree with her (more or less), and I recall going on to Kidnaped and The Master of Ballantrae with real pleasure. I suppose she might have made such a comment about Dumas, as well, and--if she did--then she was right again.

All of the criticism I have read about The Three Musketeers (not much) is quick to tell me that Dumas works a typically nineteenth-century street: the provincial lad come to the Big City to make good, the bourgeois success story, the tale of the career open to talents. Balzac, Stendhal, and Dickens are among the Great Writers who also advert to such themes. Sure enough: if one needs this sort of critical stuff to justify the expenditure of time that reading a six-hundred-and-twenty-page book requires, then it is, no doubt, the sort of critical stuff that carries enough high seriousness for anyone.

I actually thought the novel was interesting for an altogether different reason. The critics I read uniformly notice that Dumas reduces public events to private intrigues. Naturally enough, they seek better explanations of why one should invest time in reading so low and slovenly a work, despite this central failing; hence their emphasis on the provincial-lad-makes-good theme, for the respectability of which they can point to higher literary exemplars than Dumas himself. They're clearly right in both respects.

Far from finding the public-private motif merely reductive and trivial, however, I wonder whether, in a new, post-Cold War critical environment, one might not want (ever so slightly?) to reconsider one's long-accustomed scorn for such trivialization. Now that we are not required by the exigencies of "our long twilight struggle" to see political affairs as arenas of high and desperate moral conflict and are, instead, free to view politicians as the buffoons and morons they so often are (and as many of them amply demonstrated themselves to be in San Diego during mid-August's Republican convention), Dumas's view of the basic motives undergirding political strife (war between England and France because Buckingham and Ann of Austria are in love? puh-leeze!) no longer seems quite so doltish at all. Sex as a political factor?! Try telling that one to Dick Morris.

I emphasize that this is merely something about the book that is "interesting" and not "essential" to the experience of reading it. My main point is that it's a terrific read. I am now embarked on Twenty Years After. Dumas is not assisted by the astonishingly lousy translation proferred by Oxford's World Classics's edition (edited by David Coward) in which I am reading this book. Still, I am completely engrossed. At my side, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask wait patiently. It may be December before I get through all of them and their twenty-seven hundred-plus pages. Gott in Himmel!--Dumas was not short-winded. Thank goodness.

A brief article by Don Lessem, "The Great Museum Makeover," appears in the August 1996 (vol. 5, no. 4) issue of Earth. Lessem is the author of Kings of Creation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), a popular book about the new dinosaur paleontology that I read with pleasure when it appeared. In this article, he discusses how various American and Canadian natural history museums, following a British model, are refashioning themselves not only for new audiences but also in order to take account of the kind of new scholarship his book had reported. Interesting in its own right, the article is also of importance to people who, like me, work in other sorts of cultural institutions that face analogous challenges. At least for a while, its publisher has made the article available in an online incarnation, so anyone who is interested can get to it this way. It's worth a look.

For reasons having to do with a Penn program, I found myself this month enduring a forced re-reading of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. This is a book "which the world has read with malaise," Leon Edel once cracked--an uncharitable assessment with which, alas, I fully agree. Learned colleagues, trying valiantly to assist me in speaking about this book with the impressionable young, have urged me to notice (and, I suppose, admire) its ironic self-reflexiveness. Unhappily, I am blind to the presence of this--or damned nearly any other--virtue in this very bad, unfinished, and posthumously-published book. For its public existence Hemingway himself ought not to bear full responsibility, even though he wrote the thing: it is not a book he chose to publish. On the other hand, unfortunately, its self-aggrandizing sentimentality is his alone.

Edel's crack is found in his brief introduction to a more interesting essay in a surprisingly similar vein: the Canadian John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse. I read the book in a 1970 edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press). That edition predates scholarship that dates its composition not to the late 1920s and very early '30s, as Glassco claims, but rather to the 1960s, slightly after Hemingway concocted his Parisian dream. In short, both books are later fabrications of earlier selves, earlier lives, re-visited much later in their authors' lives.

The books resemble one another in other ways, too. Glassco is no less egomaniacal than Hemingway; he, too, seems to repress, while at the same time he reveals, a heftily homoerotic disposition; again like Hemingway, he loathes women even--especially--as he beds them; and the book ends with an utterly astonishing view of the great love of his Paris years as a kind of vagina dentata, followed by a brief peroration warning men against giving themselves to "these lovely succubi"--women, in case you don't get it--who are "as dangerous as they were thought to be by the medieval clergy." Compare Hemingway, threatened by homosexuality yet finding Fitzgerald attractive (and thus repellent); delighted by Zelda's deleterious impact on Scott Fitzgerald; or revealing an exceptionally curious view, in the last pages of his Feast, of the woman who, by preying on the innocent young Ernest portrayed in his book's early pages, leads him into a different love, a view that shucks for himself and attributes to her all responsibility for the end of innocent young Ernest's marriage to Hadley.


Even the virtues of both books are rather on the charmless side; yet Glassco's is nonetheless a far better book than the infinitely more rebarbative A Moveable Feast. For starters, its author had the good taste to stay alive long enough to finish it (whatever the real date at which he did so happens to be) and he wanted it published. It is complete in a way that Hemingway's book simply is not, so a case for its ironic self-reflexiveness can be made (I think) more successfully than with Hemingway's book (even if that argument by no means excuses its excesses). What comes closer to excusing them is the book's humor. Hemingway is not often noted for his sense of humor, least of all for his sense of humor about himself; Glassco is frequently very funny indeed. Unlike Hemingway, he consistently retains the point of view of the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old child he was when the incidents he recalls took place; as a result, one is inclined to credit Glassco with, and at least in part excuse him for, the callowness of youth in a way that Hemingway does not so readily permit.

I have input an extract from the Memoirs in which several part-goers discuss Jane Austen, this for students in a class I am teaching in the fall of 1996. It is a scene in which Gertrude Stein is dissed, as she is so often by Hemingway; why is it so much easier to take than Hemingway's similar scenes? Glassco owed Stein much less than Hemingway did; on a personal level, the incident is far less offensive than what Hemingway describes. Moreover, his point of view is that of a young man with his dander up, not of an old fart getting (at last!) a revenge on a benefactor he could not exact while she remained alive. That nastiness mars A Moveable Feast throughout, not only with respect to Stein but also in its treatment of Fitzgerald, whom Hemingway can forgive neither for his dangerous attractiveness nor for having died twenty years earlier . . . instead of living on, like Hemingway himself, his talent fled, an old man now nothing more than Life magazine's Great American Writer. Glassco has no such bone in his throat. Suggestive of his humor, perhaps even indicative of a good deal of his tone throughout, the extract is worth at least a peek.

September 1996

For a class I am teaching this fall, I've recently re-read Northanger Abbey. It's a book that needs no help from me: unalloyed pleasure from beginning to end. For the same class, I also re-read George Walker's Theodore Cyphon, about which I wrote here in February of 1996. It's still lousy . . . and also still (I am embarrassed to confess) a great deal of fun. In addition, I am again plowing slowly through Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, a rhetorical masterpiece and a thoroughly loathesome piece of work that one must (rats!) nonetheless admire. Simultaneously, I continue to near sight of the end of Twenty Years After, the first of Dumas's sequels to The Three Musketeers. Very nearly just as good as the earlier novel, it too is a simple pleasure.

Less likely to be well-known already is a good book of poems by Michael Fried, To the Center of the Earth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994; and now [1996] reprinted as a Noonday paperback). Fried is an art historian whose fine study of Courbet I have been slowly wending my way through; another book on Manet is just out (from Chicago). Fried has also published poetry over a period of many years, most of it through small London-based presses. To the Center of the Earth is his first American book appearance as a poet; it is worth reading. The poems are usually very short; when they work, they are, brevity and all, extremely powerful. These two simple lines turn out to resonate far longer than a reader might expect under the title "Wartime":

Shadows of leaves on a cement wall
Tremble in the shadow of a breeze.
Another poem, entitled "A Visit to David Smith," also moved me:
The granite hill inside the hill of pine.
"Listen. Do you want to know why I like nature--
The mountains and the birds and all that?
Because they're already made. I don't have to make them."
The rose light branching in the thunder orchard.
"The Light of the Moon" is a somewhat longer poem, about his cat awaiting death, and is (for me) the best in the book. But what does that word mean in a book filled with as many pleasures as this one is?

Another recent book I've read--"devour" might be the more accurate word; I couldn't put it down even though I wanted (needed!) to--is Lawrence W. Levine's just-published response to neoconservative critics of the university and its changing curricula. The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) is genially written, unhysterical in tone, and uncompromising--a lovely book, and a useful one, filled chock full of gems.

As one example, I found enormous enjoyment in Levine's quotation from former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin--this for many reasons, some familial, some related to my fond memories of an eminent library colleague, the late Edwin Wolf 2nd, lambasting the "canary." One of the great intellectuals of our time (as his frequent citation by many psuedo-intellectuals demonstrates in spades), Boorstin is seen here in his full glory commenting on how "the notion of a hyphenated American is un-American" (p. 162). Un-Americanism is a topic on which someone who sang as melodiously as he before HUAC is surely a recognized expert.

I was more delighted still to find, as a second example, Levine--a historian--paralleling my feelings as a sometime teacher of literature:

Those of us fortunate enough to have written, taught, or studied history during the past several decades have been free as never before to move into neighborhoods once blocked to scholars, teachers, and students, to learn from people previously invisible to us, to study subjects once thought beneath us, to take into account the heterogeneity and complexity of our society. (p. 146)
He couldn't have said it more eloquently if he had been praising the virtues of reading trash . . . and seeing if it might be interesting anyway: the burden of my sweet song.

I started to write these comments about Levine's book in the wake of a morning (10 September) when I'd heard an NPR "Morning Edition" commentator, one David Frum, explaining why legitimization of gay marriage is a bad idea. To represent the quality of his language and thought by the word "stupid" would be completely inadequate; but his presence on that program reminded me yet again that the darling medium of my academic and liberal chummies could teach even Mr. Bill lessons in pusillanimity. In such a world--clearly aching, however ignorantly, for a return to Warren G. Harding's "normalcy" (and no more aware than he even of what the bloody word for it might be)--Levine's book is welcome indeed. I yearn to see what the stupids have to say about it: one predicts Great Sport coming. Or would, if they could only write or think.

One carp: I am sure there is a good reason for Beacon's having taken Wesley Tanner's decent design and produced a book that looks and feels dreadful (well, hell, I am a librarian). Unfortunately, I cannot imagine what such a reason might be. The book has been printed, it would appear, against the grain of its paper stock; brand new, the leaves are already warping quite severely in their boards. Bad show, Beacon.

From "the canary" to The Sparrow is quite a leap: Mary Doria Russell's novel of that title (New York: Villard, 1996), a kind of latter-day Jesuit Relation, is utterly un-redolent of Daniel Boorstin. Reporting the investigation, after the return of the one surviving member of a Jesuit mission, of what happened on and to that mission, the book is almost unbearably moving, even though, at its end, I was not exactly surprised by its outcome. I also felt (mildly!) that the author's energy flagged slightly as the book reached its conclusion, and that her willingness to investigate the nature of evil in a theocentric universe did not entirely live up to its promise (or its premise). Well, so what? Warts and all, The Sparrow is an enormously enjoyable and thoughtful novel that deserves to be read attentively and with sympathetic engagement. The eight members of the mission--four Jesuits, four civilians (two of them women)--are lovingly drawn. So are the Jesuits who interrogate, and finally to try to heal, the severely damaged survivor.

None of this, I suppose, sounds too unusual; but the novel's conceit is unusual. It is set in the year 2060; as a corollary, the mission it recalls has taken the eight people not to "the New World" but to a literal new world 4.3 light years away, in the Alpha Centauri system. They are responding to an Arecibo SETI receiver's pickup and correct interpretation of music radio broadcasts from that planet. Knowing that there are "nearby" sentient lifeforms, the Jesuits simply decide they must go. It is, after all, their job.

I've only just finished the book, and write still in its spell. Whatever its ultimate place in my memory, however, right now it's all too clearly another book I couldn't put down.

And yet one more recent book that fell, for me, into that same category is Paul Fussell's Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996), a combination war memoir-autobiography. This is a book with so many pleasures--not least among them the delights of disagreeing with its author or, much rarer but, with this prose-proud writer, almost better, of catching him out in the odd moment of a badly-written sentence--that one hardly knows where to begin.

It probably needs to be said that this book clarifies the case for a revised view of World War II that many reviewers were too obtuse to understand in Fussell's earlier (and also excellent) Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989; and out in paperback). Many found it far easier to accuse Fussell of indifference to the desperate plight of those whom the Nazis or the Japanese oppressed or killed, or of indifference to genocide itself, than to think through the distinctions that Fussell made in that book. Far from indifferent, Fussell saw suffering everywhere--and thus he did not, could not, see that war as "the good war" it is too facilely remembered as having been.

Instead, Fussell recalled it as a horror from beginning to end. Those horrors, and more, get aired again in this memoir. No abstractions, they left their mark on the author's body and on his mind. The burden of this memoir is not only to tell how they did the one, during the war itself, but also how they did the other, in the years since the young soldier returned from Europe.

Apparently incidentally (but really not at all incidentally), the book also illuminates a great deal about literary criticism and its practice, and--something I found of great interest--reading: how we choose what we read and how we choose what we attend to. There must be people who still think that scholarship should (somehow) be "objective." By indicating how his own scholarly and literary career has been agenda-driven, whether or not he himself was conscious at the time of his own agenda, Fussell demonstrates the impossibility of such a notion while simultaneously showing that bugabear leftists are not the only agenda-mongers out there. Everyone has an agenda. It is one of the nicest things about this crotchety book that, reading it, we get to watch its supremely self-conscious creator come to recognize his own.

In sum, Fussell has written another gorgeous book. For this most recent of his gifts one can only be grateful.

October 1996

This past March (1996), I had the opportunity to see Diana Rigg as Mother Courage in a production of Brecht's play at London's National Theatre. This is a play I know well, and I've seen it beautifully performed on several occasions in the past. This time, however, I found it very nearly unwatchable--not because it was done so badly but because, instead, it was done so well that I found watching it an almost unbearable experience. This impression was not changed when it turned out, later, that I had happened to see the play on the afternoon of the day--as I learned when I left the theater to get to Victoria for my train to Brighton and encountered the first newspaper reports--of the killings in a classroom-full of school children at Dunblaine: I had, unfortunately, not left Brecht's world behind me, safely ensconced in the theater.

In no sense is Mildred Walker's Dr. Norton's Wife a Brechtian fiction or Walker herself a Brechtian writer. Yet this book also opens with a very nearly unbearable, though very different, scene: a woman falling. It sounds simple, and perhaps it is: Sue Norton is not severely hurt by her fall, which in one sense has no other impact on her, either. But the scene makes clear to the reader how entrapped she is in a body that no longer functions as she expects it to. That entrapment--in her body, for Sue; with and by her body, for those around her who, like her husband and sister, care for her in her illness--is the burden of this claustrophobic but lovely novel.

Dr. Norton's Wife deals, among other topics, with bodily representation and self-representation, illness, and the role of women in the then male medical world. All are matters that students, scholars, and readers find exciting nowadays. The book is also a prolonged meditation on the nature of love. The clarity and remorselessness characteristic of Walker's writing are beautifully on view. It's a wonderful book.

Originally published in 1938, Dr. Norton's Wife was written by a Philadelphia-born writer who is, as I write, a nonagenarian Portland, Oregon, resident.

Her novels are being republished as Bison paperbacks by the University of Nebraska Press, which is slowly bringing all of Walker back into print. One hopes that this imaginative project meets with real success: Walker is simply too good a writer to "misplace" once again.

More or less simultaneously, Nebraska republished as well Mildred Walker's 1941 novel Unless the Wind Turns, the book she published after Dr. Norton's Wife. This is also immensely readable.

A couple in a troubled marriage travel, for a September vacation, back to the husband's boyhood Montana home in the eastern reaches of the Rocky Mountains. Their expectations for this trip are not exactly congruent. Serena Davis has invited another couple, a physician and his wife, and a single man in whom she is interested--also a physician, and a Viennese refugee from the anschluss--to accompany them. Group travel is very far from the kind of vacation and, more importantly, renewal of their faltering marriage, that John Davis had looked forward to in planning this trip. Nonetheless, the fait has been accompli and so, when they arrive in Montana, it's a small group that heads into the mountains for three weeks of camping. Instead, they run almost immediately into a vast forest fire that they must join in fighting.

The novel covers three days: arrival, fire, and aftermath. In its way, reading it is as claustrophobic an experience as reading Dr. Norton's Wife. That word--"claustrophobic"--feels right to me, but I think I use it mean that both novels are so intense that you feel unable to leave them behind easily. (In fact, both kept me up far later than I should have done.) But the word also means that these are books in which the characters find it "hard to breathe." It is a tribute to Walker's writing that her reader will share that feeling--and find it pleasurable.

In her introduction to the Nebraska reprint, Dierdre McNamer mentions that Serena may be the first fictional heroine to travel to the Rocky Mountains with her diaphragm tucked into her rucksack. It is certainly a surprising moment, in a novel of this date, when it pops out for use. (In fact, Walker does not name the object; I myself would have thought that, had she named it at all, she would have called it, not a "diaphragm"--first used as a word for a contraceptive, says OED, only in 1933, and, at that date, in specialized medical literature--but a "pessary"--the more common term [and one which my mother, only two years older than Walker, used through the 1960s].)

Such surprises typify Walker's unblinking gaze. This is a writer who repays every bit of the attention she should now begin to receive, thanks to Nebraska's republication project.

I recently got around to reading, for pure fun, Kim Stanley Robinson's Icehenge. This novel, written in three parts, deals with a mysterious monument containing an inscription in Sanskrit and found on Pluto [!] about halfway through the next millennium. It shows various people looking, Rashomon-like, at what the presence of this monument may reveal about human history, both recent and very long ago. Robinson has written, among much else, three alternative California and three Mars terraforming novels; what I've read of them has been among the best science fiction I've encountered lately. Icehenge is not quite up to them . . . and even so it is a novel with a real narrative pull and a sense of significant mystery that many writers would not be able to pull off--or even try to achieve. Robinson does so beautifully; this book is worth a look.

For a class I'm teaching, I recently had occasion to reread Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, by William Godwin. First published in 1794, and many times republished and revised, this is yet another novel that has managed to survive quite nicely without me. It does so, however, in a sort of "second tier" of eighteenth-century fiction: the sort that you could read if you had world enough and time . . . but it is a book that deserves far better than that.

Its relative neglect strikes me as deriving from some of the same pressures--political pressures, to put no finer a point on it--that Cary Nelson identified (in Repression and Recovery) as responsible for the neglect of a vast body of American poetry of the first half of the twentieth century. "We" don't respond well or warmly to literature of the left (despite the hypocritically hysterical cries of the p.c. educational and literary police) and find means to downplay it even when its merits ought to attract huge gobs of critical energy and reader interest. Godwin's wonderful book is, I suppose, a "left-leaning" novel (to the degree that such a term has any relevance at all to this book). It is also a lot of other things, as well, including a magnificent psychological portrait of the wages of ideological entrapment. If you have somehow managed to miss it, or have forgotten just how magnificent a book Godwin wrote in this, his first "major" novel, take a gander: it is a book with great rewards.

This time around, I dropped my old George Sherburn edition in favor of the Penguin edition, edited by Maurice Hindle (1988). Hindle's introduction is smarter, his apparatus better and more informative than Sherburn's. And to think there are people who genuinely don't imagine that literary study is capable of advancement! On the other hand, the book is printed on toilet paper . . .

I also read Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women in another Penguin edition. Godwin wrote this memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft very soon after her death, which followed the birth of their child Mary. (Mary would later become a writer herself; Frankenstein is among her works.) It's an astonishingly moving book, one that seems well in advance of its time (and perhaps even in advance of our time) in its assumption that Wollstonecraft's body was hers to do with as she wished, this specifically in matters sexual. True, Godwin did have difficulties in dealing with what seem to have been Wollstonecraft's homoerotic attachments; no matter. His book is worth a careful reading. So, for that matter, are Wollstonecraft's own Mary and Maria (readily available in yet a third Penguin, this one edited by Janet Todd and also including Mary Shelley's Matilda). I was not enamored of her style but both books were interesting throughout and their easy accessibility is welcome.

For the same course for which I've been reading these writers, I also reread Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I won't live long enough to reread these books as often as they deserve or as I want.

November 1996

A few weeks ago, the newly-published Library of America edition of James Thurber (with texts selected, so it claims, by Garrison Keillor) arrived in the mail. I opened it eagerly, only to find a collection consisting largely of excerpts, not complete works. I doubt that this sort of predigested crap is what Edmund Wilson had in mind when he proposed an American equivalent to the Pléiade editions of French authors . . . but, in this case, anyway, it's what we've got. No doubt copyright restrictions and uncooperative publishers are to blame; but, once they knew that such problems would affect the volume, then LofA's editors ought to have canned the bloody project until it could be done correctly. I was not amused by their failure to exercise such commonsensical judgement in this instance, particularly when I discovered, after starting to read one of the works included in the volume, that it had been improved by shortening. (In the mode, so to speak, of the improvements administered to Louis XVI by a grateful public.)

Dismay provoked me to toddle my body over to the bookcases where I have been known from time to time to keep real books. There I found my own, now old copy of Thurber's The Years With Ross (Boston: Atlantic, Little, Brown, 1959). This book concerns Harold Wallace Ross, founder and first editor of The New Yorker, and is what, injudiciously, I had started to read in the LofA Thurber before grasping the point that what I held in hand is an incomplete cheat and rip-off, not the poor forked beast itself.

I paid forty-five big ones for my copy of Thurber's Years With Ross when I bought it back in April of 1979, but had somehow managed not to get to it during the years when it had been awaiting its turn in the queue. That turn now come, I sat down and gobbled it up in a flash. In Genius in Disguise, Thomas Kunkel's recent biography of Ross, Kunkel remarks, with only a trace of superciliousness, that Thurber manages, despite his wonderful style, to give the impression that Ross was more or less Thurber's assistant in creating and putting out The New Yorker. He's right. So what? It's not a work of scholarship, nor even particularly good history . . . and who bloody well cares? A book this funny and engaging deserves to be read whole. I'm sorry I waited this long to get to it, although it seems as ripe today as it must have seemed when fresh.

By the way, at an AAUW sale--which is where I got my copy of The Years With Ross seventeen years ago--"big ones" translates into "cents." The book, I can say without fear of contradiction, was worth every penny I paid for it, even taking inflation into account. (I was, however, made instantly jealous when an early reader of these lines told me that, at Bryn Mawr College's Owl, his copy cost him only twenty-five big ones this past year. When I think of the interest on twenty cents, steadily compounding since 1979 . . . )

Reading Thurber's memoir of Ross prompted me to read as well Wolcott Gibbs's 1950 play, Season in the Sun (New York: Random House, 1951). This is a standard "well-made play" (in an American rather than an English mode), comically treating the vaporous mid-life anxieties of a writer for an unnamed "fifteen cent magazine" (Thurber also calls The New Yorker that in his memoir; Ross disliked the term). During a late-summer vacation, spent with his wife and two children at an ocean-front cottage on Fire Island, the writer agonizingly tries not only to work up the courage to leave the magazine but also to write the book which, he is convinced, he has always had inside him. His editor shows up (the Ross character, here named "Dodd") in order to dissuade him from any such course of action.

I'd never read any Wolcott Gibbs, so I'm not sure what, if anything, I expected; but Season in the Sun is a peculiar play. It isn't very funny to read (although one can see that, in a good production, it might have been a reasonably comedic experience, and I gather it ran for about a year, which must translate into Broadway success). Its treatment of women is either dismissive (Emily, the writer's wife) or misogynist (the predatory woman who first tries her hand at snaring the writer and is left, at the end of the play, trying her hand at Dodd). It gratuitously makes two homosexual characters the butts of jokes (the Fire Island setting presumably makes this all right); yet they turn out to show (along with Dodd) the most physical courage in the play. The few sentences ever quoted from the writer's book-in-progress berate New York for what we might call (in code) its "cosmopolitan rootlessness": no "Americans" live there. Hmmm. Gibbs himself was, I gather, one of the few native New Yorkers to work, early and later on, in a major role at The New Yorker; that seems like an odd perspective for him to have taken (although, of course, he does not take it).

Gibbs's general point seems to be a typically fifties one: don't rock the boat, stick with your knitting, and do both as part of an organization, not as anything grotesquely "individual." Yet the play's depiction of an "organization man" avant la lettre and his spouse as dead from the neck up (and, in her case, from the waist down) undercuts that view; and Gibbs also skewers the writer's idiotic notions about the various lacks of his "fictional" New York. I think the play is "typically fifties" in its inability to contend with or even understand its own confusions. Perhaps that is why, despite my various dissatisfactions with Season in the Sun, I found it extraordinarily interesting and well worth the short time it took to read.

Gibbs reminded me of other mid-century popular playwrights to whom no one any longer pays the slightest jot or tittle of attention. S. N. Behrman positively leaps to mind in this category. Behrman is a writer nowadays almost entirely lost but still living people (me, for instance) can remember him as a real literary and theatrical figure. I remember, as a boy, seeing the Broadway production of The Cold Wind and the Warm (probably in 1958 or '59?), based on Behrman's own memoir, The Worcester Account (New York: Random House, 1954, itself originally a series in The New Yorker). Years later, I read almost all of his plays, his novel The Burning Glass (Boston: LIttle, Brown, 1968), both of his memoirs (People in a Diary [Boston: Little, Brown, 1972] as well as The Worcester Account), his essays, as collected in The Suspended Drawing Room (New York: Stein & Day, 1965), and his wonderful books about Duveen (New York: Random House, 1952) and Max Beerbohm (Portrait of Max [New York: Random House, 1960], also originally printed as New Yorker series).

No more than Thurber's Ross would you want to read Behrman on Duveen or Beerbohm for (burp!) "information." You'd read these books because they are very damned well-written indeed. His plays seem less well-written. More correctly, they are too well-written, too contrived, too full of people speaking (in a phrase originally used of Spenser by Jonson) "no language." I enjoyed them all and still recommend them to anyone seeking to understand the wild and outrageous variety of twentieth-century American literature. Not all of it, after all, was produced by the canonized modernist saints we valorize in cookiecutter classroom after cookiecutter classroom.

But that, after all, is the subject of meditations for another season . . . as might be, to think about what I've just been writing about in more general terms, the sorry decline into trendy People-ese of the periodical in which these people all appeared. The New Yorker used to be a magazine to which one might, without feeling sullied by it, pay some attention. Now a mere "property," one of many that the Newhouse holding company owns, and run by neither a Ross nor a Shawn but by something like a chief operating officer unencumbered by discernible interests, opinions, or intelligence, it is in a state long past intellectual death and approaching mere prostitution. From the "integrity" promised by Ross's prospectus through Richard Rovere to Joe Klein? O tempora! o mores!

Thomas Kunkel's above-mentioned Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker (New York: Random House, 1995; now available in a paperback reissue) suits, alas, the current New Yorker all too well. The author thanks its present editor for her assistance, though no trace of whatever help she provided can be found in his "notes"; he publishes the book with a firm headed by her husband; and he does this under the no doubt cordial financial auspices of the Newhouses, whose properties include his subject's magazine and his publisher. For anyone left who ever wondered what "monopoly capitalism" might actually mean; who ever imagined that authors might benefit from a degree of independence from their subjects; who ever forecast that conglomeratization might have an interesting impact on cultural life: for all such skeptics, this is a book worth attention. It is not a book that will alleviate their skepticism in many ways, however.

For anyone interested in Ross or The New Yorker, on the other hand, judgment cannot be even this friendly: Kunkel has written a bad book. In the Acknowledgements, he smilingly reassures us--simultaneously patting himself on the back--that he has written the first "real" book about Ross. Somewhat surprisingly, therefore, a reader may notice that quite a lot of it reads like Thurber refrito. The apparatus ("notes") clears up no mysteries. On page 252, for instance, Kunkel retells a tale told by Thurber (pages 273-274), but he cites Ross's daughter as its source (Thurber cited his own memory) and makes its goat an unnamed telephone caller (Thurber had made the goat Woollcott Gibbs). Notes exist to explain or resolve such discrepancies; it might have been nice to see a note for this one. I could cite other, similar difficulties.

Far more annoying, Kunkel answers few of the questions a reader might have liked to see answered. Throughout his (many) pages, the writers and artists with whom Ross surrounded himself and his magazine come and go, their (always eccentric) personalities rather than their products all Kunkel seems concerned with (more evidence of People-ization?). Offering, as he tells us, a corrective to the previous view of Ross as an inspired if eccentric bumbler, Kunkel never makes the man's intelligence or methods clear, fails to discuss in a way that makes any coherent sense the editorial strategies he and the magazine developed, and effectively reduces his entire book and its subject to a series of anecdotes in a less-elegant-than-Thurber imitation of Thurber. His protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, he even leaves Ross as an eccentric bumbler.

Kunkel is at least correct, I believe, in supposing that Ross needs and deserves a serious biography. He still needs one.

I went back to read the first of the Ross biographies after finishing Kunkel's. Nothing about it raised my opinion of Kunkel. Dale Kramer published Ross and The New Yorker in 1951 when Ross was still alive (I read the 1952 [London: Victor Gollancz] edition). It's not unlike a fairly ordinary New Yorker-style "Profile," which must surely be the effect Kramer aimed at. It's not scholarly, it's not very analytical: yet the lineaments that Kramer and Thurber both trace in their "Ross," lineaments that Kunkel claims to correct, are essentially no different from those to be found in Kunkel's later book. Kramer's is actually a pretty good little book. Its closeness to its subject gives it a sprightliness that Kunkel might have done well to emulate, while--since it lacks the nostalgic tone ("ou sont le Ross d'antan?") of Thurber--it is a sunnier book than his.

The irritations caused by the LofA Thurber and reading The Years With Ross have obviously had an impact on my recent reading. There's more than what I have yet mentioned. That late book also sent me to the early book Thurber wrote with E. B. White, Is Sex Necessary?, originally published in 1929 and reprinted--with an introduction by White from a 1950 reissue--in the 1990 Harper Perennial reprint which I read. Once again, I feel apologetic for lacking any clue about how I missed this book until now. In truth, I should probably not have missed it, for, with the exception of a few passages, this is surely a book I'd have liked much better when I was younger than I did now. To be sure, this is another interesting text. (Do I overuse that word? Very well, then, I overuse that word--but I mean it quite specifically about a book which, like this one, I may not have enjoyed but which was worth my time and attention anyway.) Surely others have already tried to answer the questions, most specifically about mid-century misogyny, it raised for me, but I don't know their answers, if any. The questions nonetheless seem both intriguing and relevant to a far larger crowd of people than Thurber alone.

I went on from there to zoom through the play Thurber wrote with Elliott Nugent in 1940, The Male Animal (New York: Random House). Like Gibbs's 1950 Season in the Sun and the plays by Sam Behrman mentioned above, it's another damned curious piece of work. It is set over the Homecoming Weekend at "a Mid-Western college town" (read "Columbus"; it's the Michigan game). Easy enough; but the play also combines--pretty uneasily, it seemed to me--domestic comedy and a dispute over "intellectual freedom." We get two lovers' triangles, not just one: two sisters and four lovers, two of the lovers football jocks, two what I suppose we are to envisage as bookish intellectuals. Moreover, hard on the heels of the dismissal of some "red" faculty members by fiat of a granite-headed Board of Trustees, one of the bookish intellectuals voices plans to read Vanzetti's last letter to his freshman composition class. An ill-timed editorial written by the other for a student publication makes public this evidence of the lurking presence of the Red Menace here, even here, at good ol' OSU, exactly at the moment when, with the Trustees gathered together for Homecoming, it cannot escape the attention of the Trustees's Head Troglodyte. Oh, horrors!

The play "dismisses you from the theatre in a spirit of dazed hilarity," the blurb quotes longtime Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson as saying. Well, golly. "Dazed" I certainly was by this play (although not so dazed that it made me forget why I always thought Mr. Atkinson something of a pill when he was yet a man and not a theater). Still and all, the transmogrification of political dispute into the stuff of domestic comedy is no small achievement. As would any reader, I, too, admired intensely the way this play contains and controls, by trivializing, whatever issues of any import it momentarily regurgitates front and center, thereby suiting them to the presumed capacities of your average Broadway theater audience. And thus, if for no other reasons, The Male Animal is another play that merits additional thought. Something odd was happening in mid-century American non-avant garde literature. I am far from certain that anyone has paused long enough over such stuff to ask what it might have been.

I also read Thurber's 1933 My Life and Hard Times (this is one of four of his books that the LofA edition reprints in its entirety). Here too Thurber's use of humor to control a sense of profound unease with the conditions of ordinary American life would, I think, repay a good deal of thought. Of course, if I knew more of the Thurber criticism that already exists, I'm sure I'd find that it has already received such thought. It deserves it.

A late addition: I go on to comment on some changes in the method of composing these Touts, occasioned most particularly by the composition of this November 1996 Tout, at the beginning of the Tout for December 1996.

December 1996

I start off with some general reflections on these Touts, occasioned by a change in my process of composing and mounting them. For the past several months, I've added to and changed each month's Current Touts after it was already posted. The format of "electronic publishing" permits one to do just this sort of tinkering and, at first, I saw no reason why I should not take advantage of what the format allows, especially since I am a writer whose basic mode is to have second--and then third and fourth--thoughts (as well as a reader who just keeps on reading). Increasingly, however, it has seemed obvious that, for the sake of whoever actually reads these pieces, that's unfair. It assumes that a reader will come back to take another look--and since one can, in fact, only marginally imagine the reader who might want to look at these Touts once, the notion that there are readers who would consider a second visit to the same column seems literally 'round the bend.

What follows, therefore, is material that originally constituted late--and, as it turned out, topically unrelated--additions to the November 1996 Touts. What now remains in November consists entirely of material that, following up on my initial encounter with the Library of America Thurber, deals, one way or another, with writings that speak about Harold Ross, The New Yorker, or New Yorker writers such as Thurber, Gibbs, and Behrman. My reading tends normally to be far more miscellaneous--and in fact the books that follow, read more or less at the same time as those I wrote about for November, are more miscellaneous--than November's new consistency suggests. It seemed, finally, worth maintaining such consistency on the unusual occasion where I had found it when, at the same time, I was also abandoning any notion that people might keep on looking to see what I was adding to a column as the month plugged along. I may have thought of Current Touts as a sort of work-in-progress. But once something gets posted, it isn't "in progress" any longer for the person who encounters it. Now--except for the odd change in wording, which, an inveterate tinkerer, I can't promise to give up [and haven't!--11 February 1997]--it won't be.

The first book I mention this month comes from a universe, both literary and real, that most writers and most readers mercifully know nothing whatsoever about. Written by someone called Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments recalls his own childhood. It is nasty, brutish, and short. I recommend it without reservation and enthusiastically, with the one caveat that any reader had better be prepared for a book that will distress everyone who reads it.

Carol Brown Janeway translated Fragments: Memoirs of a Wartime Childhood (New York: Schocken, 1996) from German, the language in which the writer (whose first sentence tells us that he has no mother tongue) originally wrote his Bruchstücke. A musician and instrument-maker now living in Switzerland, Wilkomirski--is that his real name? he does not know; nor has he a known birth month, day, or year--opens his book with the death of a person who he supposes must have been his father. Too young to be certain what his memories even of this event are telling him, he continues to recall other "fragments" of his childhood experiences, all of them of a sort very few of his readers might have imagined. One, for example, is his leap to what may be safety over the battered fresh corpses of two babies. It proves to be safety, of a kind: obviously the author survived to write about it. But what is "safety," bought at this price (and paid for forever with this memory)?

What Wilkomirski is remembering, here and elsewhere in this book, are his experiences, not as an adolescent but as a little child, at Majdanek and a host of other camps, and a few later experiences, as well, that followed his release in 1945.

This is not a book that one wants to describe at too much length. Its power is in the simplicity and the straight-on vision with which the adult writer recalls the horrors the child he never was once saw. Wilkomirski's memoir reminded me of Reuben Bercovitch's controlled rage in his novel Hasen (New York: Knopf, 1978); his evocation of the voices of now silent children also recalled for me the voices of dead children that resonate throughout Peter Rushforth's immaculate Kindergarten (New York: Knopf, 1980). It seems worse, perhaps, in that this child must go on living: living, even though he will horrify people by sneaking under a table to grab other children's discarded cheese rinds, stuffing them into his mouth and pockets after he has been "liberated": how can people waste food, or not store it for future use when need arises? Even though he will exhibit unseemly terror when he learns that he is to be "transported" by train to a new home: no one who is sent to the transports ever returns. Even though he will realize, after reaching his foster parents' home and seeing in the cellar wooden racks (for storing vegetables, they tell him, not people) and the front-fed coal-burning furnace that heats this new, fenced-in home, that he has not left the camps at all (but this knowledge he will keep to himself).

And he does go on living, which is all that makes this memoir bearable. The author presents himself going on into his life despite a memory that reminds him always how tenuous is his hold--and ours--on "ordinary" stability [!], let alone anything more. Even what should be the joyous moment of the birth of his own first child, many years after the events he is here recalling, is chillingly transmuted through the sudden, unbidden recollection of a scene (the "birth" of a rat from the stomach of a dead Jew) that should be unspeakable--and yet must not be left unspoken.

A product of horror, Wilkomirski's stunning book is a monument to life. At its most horrifying, it nonetheless vivifies what Yeats himself could not have imagined fully when, in "The Second Coming," he wrote about the birth of a "terrible beauty."

I should probably add that both the novels by Rueben Bercovitch (Hasen) and Peter Rushforth (Kindergarten) mentioned above are also well worth any reader's attention.

Bercovitch writes about a group of children who eke out whatever they can manage of an existence outside the gates of a camp, living in the surrounding forest. The title is all too evocative of the role they play for the guards. Hasen seems as cold as the winter forest in which these children try to survive. It is not.

Rushforth's book, set in a Quaker boarding school in East Anglia over the Christmas holidays at a time long after the War, is less easily describable. Ever since I first read it, I have thought it perhaps the single best postwar English novel I have read, and I haven't changed that opinion (I live for the day its author publishes another novel). This one underwent a sea change when it came to America, so readers need to be conscious of which edition they choose. Alterations between the first UK and US editions were not marginal ("lorry" into "truck," "lift" into "elevator," "bonnet" into "hood") but involved creation of a new "frame" for Rushforth's story. I have no way of guessing what Rushforth's opinion of this change may have been; I think it a better book in its changed (American) version. Copies of David Godine's paperback reprint are still to be found; in any version, however, it will be worth patient attention. It is simply a gorgeous book.

Newly-published by Yale University Press is a book that deals with an utterly fascinating topic, Beth S. Wenger's New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise (New Haven, 1996). The world Wenger evokes won't seem--if, as I did, one happens to read it right after finishing Wilkomirski--all that bad. On the other hand, it wasn't all that good either; and the problems that Wenger's characters face and the ways in which they face them hold your attention.

Unfortunately, Wenger's writing is a bit pedestrian, not to say stiff, and her book has occasionally irritating lacunae. One would have liked, for instance, more information about the people she interviewed. Who are they? How did she find them? When did she speak with them? What social class did they emerge from, or rise (or fall) into? The lack of such information in a scholarly text was, or so it seemed to me, troublesome. I was surprised by a few other aspects of this book as well.

Another example: Wenger writes about how New York's Depression Jews kept their birthrates low (pp. 75-77) but omits any hint that abortion was a possible method of doing just that. But if I--born after the Depression and in no sense a scholar of this period--know people who found their way to the friendly neighborhood abortionist during the 1930s out of a deliberate sense that this was no time in which to be bringing children into the world--and I do--then there must have been others. (David Leviatin, in his book about the people of Followers of the Trail [Yale 1989], is suggestive in this respect.) The issue seems one that ought to have interested a person like Wenger who looks, from other perspectives, at the roles of Jewish women during this period. One is hard-pressed to imagine an explanation for its non-consideration, unless, perhaps, the opposition to abortion that some Jews share with some Roman Catholics and Protestants made its consideration seem politically unwise.

I was also surprised by Wenger's apparently unselfconscious adoption of an investigative strategy (p. 105) that deflects analysis of her subjects' political behaviors away from "national politics and party affiliation" towards "neighborhood politics." This strategy has (at the very least) the potential to keep this topic safely community-based and hence relatively conservative. I'd have liked to see it get a bit more explanation than Wenger provided.

I was, finally, surprised to find myself reading a sentence (p. 123) that tells me that "Government welfare . . . encouraged Americans to make demands of their government." Wenger's sentence grammatically turns a palliative--"government welfare"--into a cause. Considering that it is, after all, the Depression we're recalling here, the cause might instead have been thought of as an economic system in disarray, no? Wenger seems again to drift, without much explanation of what she is doing, into an unstated, and hence unargued and undefended, conservative view of the events she describes. I don't so much object to the view, although obviously I don't agree with it, as I do to its mere assumption.

Still and all, Wenger's a terrific topic, and the book held me despite my problems with it.

A sheer joy from beginning to end, Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder appeared as a book in 1995 (it had earlier been published as an article in Harper's) and has now been reissued in paper from Vintage (New York 1996). Weschler takes off from an initial focus on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, imagined and built by Kalamazoo College graduate and now Angeleno David Wilson, to a broader consideration of what we know, how we know it, and why we are interested in any of it at all. He has produced a brilliant meditation on the nature of collecting and collections, and his book is simply a gas--even if you don't work in a collecting kind of place like, say, a library.

I just happen to have read, prior to picking up Weschler, Aleida Assmann's "Text, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory." Her paper appears in the current issue of Representations (no. 56 [Fall 1996], pp. 123-134) and although, as an essay composed for a learned journal, it is unlike Weschler, it is both very readable and very smart. Engaged with many of the same kinds of concerns that Weschler also faces, it should interest the person who thinks that reading Weschler is a good way to spend some time.

Reading Weschler's book reminded me of some irritated comments I made in November about a once-good magazine. Since the early 1980s, a publisher's blurb tells us, Weschler has been a staff writer for The New Yorker. One wonders, if this is indeed the case, why his book--which Ross, Shawn, and Gottlieb all would have run in a moment, and gladly--needed to see the light of day first in Harper's. Someone commented to me the other day that the problem with The New Yorker nowadays is that it has become, in its current incarnation, just another magazine. That view seems partly correct to me, but too charitable by half: the truth is that it's even worse than a lot of other magazines out there now, and this despite the talent it seems to keep (for whatever purpose) still on tap. What a tribute to the demise of all that used to be implied in The New Yorker's proud advertising slogan ("the magazine for people who read").

And, for people who reread, I mention my continued pleasure in the rereading one of my courses has required of me this past semester, most recently taking me back to Austen's Mansfield Park and Emma. It feels like a long time since I read the first of these, and the process has not been assisted by anyone's recent attempt to turn Mansfield Park into a movie or television special. I found it far more complicated than I had remembered it, attitudinally, politically, in fact, in every way; and I enjoyed it thoroughly. About Emma, what is there to say? Neither of the two most recent movie versions does it justice and hence neither of them interfered in the slightest with my pleasures in the novel.

These are books that like to be read!

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