Friday, February 27, 2009

Literature without children

The novel entitled Lolita is “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,” says Humbert Humbert, concluding the novel. Next week I begin teaching it. Even before I begin, I am in despair. Although most of the students are likely at least to purchase the book and haul it to class, the number of those who attempt much more will be vanishingly small. I am under no illusion that reading is anything but a minority pursuit or that a minority of a minority read as if they lives depend upon it. But I am not really talking about reading. I am talking about something that precedes reading—a dim recognition if not respect for the fact that books do not merely furnish a room, but sink piers until they rest on bedrock for the foundations of a civilization.

“Unlike animals,” writes the pseudonymous Asia Times essayist Spengler, “human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them.” This is the basis of culture: man makes and draws and writes and shapes and builds to “overcome mortality,” creating a “dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn.” If the young are unwilling even to pick up the artifacts of their culture, or only go through the motions of doing so, they are accepting that they will be defined by the physical limits of their lives, and nothing more. No wonder so many of them will soon begin to poison their bodies with alcohol and drugs, if they have not already done so. Oblivion is the only alternative they can imagine to a life without meaning or transcendence.

But I don’t blame them. As Pierre Ryckmans observes, most people would never read at all if they were not told about it first. I blame those who have told the young about books and reading—their miserable teachers, and many of the writers themselves.

I belong to a generation of critics and professors who have small interest and less understanding of books, except in as far as they can be made to serve as something else—an occasion for a little sex chat, a gavel for bringing to order a meeting of the Central Committee, a level and theodolite for defining the limits of their lives, or a map to where the foundations lie so they can seek to destroy them.

Even worse are the writers themselves. Only recently, after the birth of four children in five-and-a-half years, as I sit exhausted and happy from changing diapers, winding up toys, cooking dinner, pulling pajama tops over fine-haired heads, reading bedtime stories, and picking clothes off the floor and turning off lights, have I begun to appreciate how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing. Daisy Buchanan’s entire life seems arranged to relieve her of the burdens of motherhood, while Brett Ashley decides courageously that she is “not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children.” In no way does this distinguish her from most women in American fiction. Outside of My Ántonia, I cannot think of a single American novel that celebrates a woman’s sexuality by acknowledging the deepest fulfillment of it—in childbirth. The contrast with the Hebrew bible, in which barrenness is a curse that lifts women to greatness in asking God’s help to overcome it, could not be more striking. Dolores Haze’s is not the only voice missing from the concord of children at play. American literature is a low-fertility-rate literature.

Never before had I been struck by how small a commitment American writers had made to the future—through children. Upon reflection, I wondered how many of them even bothered to raise families of their own. For a representative selection of American writers, I turned to the contents of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, the volume covering 1914–1945. Here are the number of children for each writer in chronological order:

Edgar Lee Masters, 3
Edwin Arlington Robinson, 0
Willa Cather, 0
Gertrude Stein, 0
Robert Frost, 6
Susan Glaspell, 0
Sherwood Anderson, 3
Carl Sandburg, 3
Wallace Stevens, 1
Mina Loy, 3
William Carlos Williams, 3
Ezra Pound, 2
Hilda Doolittle, 1
Marianne Moore, 0
Raymond Chandler, 0
T. S. Eliot, 0
Eugene O’Neill, 3
Claude McKay, 1
Katherine Anne Porter, 0
Zora Neale Hurston, 0
Nella Larsen, 0
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 0
E. E. Cummings, 1
Jean Toomer, 0
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1
John Dos Passos, 1
William Faulkner, 2
Hart Crane, 0
Ernest Hemingway, 4
Thomas Wolfe, 0
Sterling Brown, 1
Langston Hughes, 0
Kay Boyle, 6
John Steinbeck, 2
Countee Cullen, 0
Richard Wright, 2
Carlos Bulosan, 0

Forty-nine children born of thirty-seven writers—a child-to-writer ratio of 1.32, the fertility rate of a former Soviet Bloc country. By comparison, the total fertility rate in the U.S. in 1945, the last year of before the baby boom, was 2.49.

Why should I be surprised that my students are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror of the literary achievements which compose their American inheritance? The Sound and the Fury—told by an idiot, full of incestuous desire and suicide. The Grapes of Wrath—no future, no past, and too many people without either. An American Tragedy—thwarted desire, murder, or maybe not, prison, execution. Native Son—more murder, more prison. Sister Carrie, Appointment in Samarra—more thwarted desire, more suicide, with a little futility thrown in for good measure. After a while, a young man or woman of decent upbringing and normal impulses would not be crazy to conclude that this is a literature of a people in irreversible decline. That this is not true about the American people, but is true about its literature, says more about our books than our students.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

In total despair

Kazimierz Brandys would tell his classes in Polish literature that “they are in front of a man who is in total despair,” according to Patrick Kurp, who quotes Pierre Ryckmans quoting him. Earlier today, in my class on Jewish literature, I knew exactly how Brandys felt. Oh, not for his reasons. Brandys claims that it is an “absurd task” to teach students to “understand the work of literature.” Since that is not what I try to do in my classes, I do not share his sense of the absurd.

But I was in total despair nevertheless. The class was scheduled to discuss Pirke Avot, a small miscellany of Tannaitic maxims, the closest thing in Jewish literature to the Greek Anthology, except in prose rather than verse, a tractate of the Mishnah tucked into the section dealing with courts and the legal system because the rabbis did not know where else to tuck it. It was also the first post-biblical text that the class had tackled—the first thing, since nine-tenths of them are devout Christians, which might have struck them as deserving the special name of Jewish literature. Avot is a strange work. It contains some famous sayings from Hillel, Jesus’s contemporary: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone then what am I? And if not now, when?” But this is immediately followed by the dull and homely wisdom of Shammai, his great rival: “Make your learning of the Torah a fixed obligation. Say little and do much. Greet everybody cheerfully.” (And pull up your socks!) Avot goes on like this for five chapters, mixing the trivial and exalted, before ending with Ben Bag Bag and Ben He He (the names are part of its strangeness). I cannot imagine what I would make of it if I were a young Christian first encountering it with an Orthodox Jewish professor. In any event, I came to class prepared to be assaulted by confusion, some frank boredom, perhaps even outrage.

Instead, out of a class of thirty, I was confronted by more than half who did not have the text with them, had not purchased it for class, and had not read it in advance. I stared at them. My mouth opened but no words came out. For the first time in my professional career, I had absolutely no idea what to say to them. If Brandys thinks it is absurd to teach people how to understand the work of literature, then what is it to stand in front people who are unembarrassed to have no literature with them to understand or not or whatever. It is not as if Pirke Avot is difficult to obtain. Even if they could not get their hands on the course text they could have found it elsewhere—here, for instance, or here or here or here or here. You can’t teach anything at all about books, their refuge, their nourishment, their flickering light, to people who can’t even rouse themselves to pretend an interest in something they haven’t bothered to look for or pick up.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hollywood novels

Hollywood’s big night of self-congratulation culminated with the Oscar for best film going to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Sean Penn used his best actor’s acceptance speech to épater la bourgeoisie who oppose gay marriage. The morning talk shows graded and ranked the starlets’ gowns. The stuff that dreams are made of, the politics of futile leftist gesture, the glamorous marketplace of well-toned flesh—as long as Americans think of Hollywood in trivial terms it will seem trivial. Novelists have tried to construct a different picture, but not always successfully. Before any of the eight-and-a-half pound statues were awarded on Sunday, Frank Wilson Jesse Freedman had considered the “two most enduring” Hollywood novels, noting his “inability to connect” with either of them. He didn’t explain his reaction to The Loved One, but described The Day of the Locust as “surprisingly incomplete” and “curiously undeveloped.” Hollywood and the movies have exercised a pull on writers’ imaginations since Harry Leon Wilson wrote Merton of the Movies, which founded the genre in 1922. If Waugh and West don’t do it, there are several other good Hollywood novels that Frank Freedman might want to read instead. Three stand out.

Brock Brower’s Late Great Creature is the story of a horror-movie star, the product of the European stage like Bela Lugosi, but in talent more closely resembling native-born Lon Chaney. Born in 1900, Simon Moro is a contortionist genius who can shape his body into an imitation of anything, from a man-sized flapping raven to the dead. A bankable star of German cinema before the rise of Hitler, he is relegated in Hollywood to playing monsters or Nazis. “The bad Nazis I didn’t mind,” Moro says. “I could do them as objective reality, Brechtian, if not as a real character. Build up a loathing in the audience that was healthy. But the good Nazis.” The ones who turn against Hitler and die bravely. “They were migraines, maybe eight different pills I had to take to sleep at night. Such lies. The studio was trying to bank some sympathy for me, for after the war, that was the idea. My de-Nazification. But all I wanted to do was see that the public didn’t forget.”

After the war, though, his career fizzles. As the novel opens, Moro is sixty-eight and making a low-budget adaptation called Raven. Cast in the title role, he is working for the first time in eight years. The director, a veteran of beach movies, worries about the loss of the definite article. “Sure, it frees you a little more from the original,” he says, “but a straight Poe title really helps that Family rating.” Moro stages a sort of dramaturgic coup, wresting control of the film from the director for his own purposes—namely, to expose moviegoing for what it really is, a socially approved dangerous voyeurism.

Darcy O’Brien was the only child of cowboy star George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, a leading lady of the silent era. He was also a Joyce scholar, an English professor at Pomona College, when at thirty nine he published A Way of Life, Like Any Other, the story of a boy’s growing up with two Hollywood actors who were the spitting image of O’Brien and Churchill. After a glowing evocation of the star’s feted life (“great banquets . . . with steaks so big they drooped over the plates”), O’Brien gets down to work. The parents divorce and fail in their different ways to adjust to growing obscurity and enforced idleness. The mother, who makes Norma Desmond seem like a carefree lunchtime companion, bathes naked in front of her son, takes a string of lovers, threatens suicide, gets drunk every night, disappears from his life for years at a time, and finally—blessedly—dies. His father never remarries. He retreats into Catholicism and cares for his ex-wife’s elderly mother, letting the house fall to ruin while “he would lie abed, hour after hour, leaving undone the simple tasks that distinguish man from brute, the farmer from his animals.” To get his life moving forward again, his son looks up his father’s only living friends—an automobile salesman who interested him in the John Birch Society, and the director John Ford. His father seeks to dispense fatherly wisdom, but because his intellectual development was stunted by becoming a star, he has no wisdom to dispense: “The anus was an important thing. My father always washed it thoroughly with soap and warm water after defecating, unless he was caught in a public place, and the upshot of it was, he had the anus of a man half his age. If I wasn’t taking care of myself down there, I had better hop to it.” O’Brien conclusively proves that, while it may be many things, film acting is not A Way of Life, Like Any Other.

Larry McMurtry’s Somebody’s Darling was the occasion of the one and only fan letter that I have ever written to a novelist. Having greedily consumed his last three novels immediately upon publication, I could not wait to get home with my new purchase of McMurtry’s latest. I stayed up most of the night reading it. My laughter was so hard that, leaving me breathless, it developed into a full-blown asthma attack. I ended up having to go to the ER. I took Somebody’s Darling along with me and coughed with hilarity into my oxygen mask. Afterwards I sent McMurtry the bill. He replied with a postcard: “Dear David: Thanks for writing. I’m glad I made you laugh, and will definitely keep trying.” Nothing about covering my bill.

Jill Peel is a director who has risen from the bottom of the film industry. She continues to feel a deep respect for the technical artisans, the makeup artists, editors, costume designers, cameramen, sound engineers, script girls, best boys, gaffers, and grips who supply the magical and dependable craftsmanship behind successful Hollywood movies, although they are insufficiently recognized even by the industry that wrings its bread from their sweat. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confines the technical awards to a separate night and smaller banquet hall. Go to the home page of the Oscars and try to find any news of them. For McMurtry, though, who values craftsmanship above all other qualities in fiction, it is they who are responsible for whatever significance the movies may have. Jill is one of them, and the novel takes up the question of what happens to a craftsman of undaunted integrity when she finds herself a commercial success, a hot commodity. Among the things that happen: she lights out for Texas (where else?) with a sixtyish screenwriter, a different kind of product from an older Hollywood, in tow. No novel manages to say more about the “art” of the movies, because no Hollywood novel is less concerned about dreams and more about the waking human comedy.

In addition to those three there are several more good novels about Hollywood or the film industry, all of which have been neglected in favor of (usually lesser) titles. Here is a full list:

• Katherine Albert, Remember Valerie March (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939). The first of its kind—the rise and fall of a film diva. Extremely scarce; deserving of a reprint edition.

• William Boyd, The New Confessions (New York: Morrow, 1988). A Scottish director goes to Hollywood, films Rousseau’s Confessions, gets blacklisted.

• Brock Brower, The Late Great Creature (New York: Atheneum, 1971).

• Robert Carson, Love Affair (New York: Holt, 1958). A film star, his career sputtering, marries a “beautiful narcissistic movie queen” to get back on top. Includes an early jape at the fashionable empty left-wing politics of film actors. By the writer of A Star Is Born.

• Richard Grenier, The Marrakesh One-Two (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983). A screenwriter tries to get rich by doing the script for a life of Mohammed. The Muslim countries bid for the location rights.

• Doris Grumbach, The Missing Person (New York: Putnam, 1981). “Fabulous Franny Fuller,” movie star, pin-up girl, sex symbol of the thirties and forties. See Albert above.

• MacDonald Harris, Screenplay (New York: Atheneum, 1982). A young man who accepts a stranger’s invitation to “get into pictures” finds himself transported to the black-and-white world of the silent movies where passion can be expressed only within the limitations of censorship.

• Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (New York: Random House, 1945). As Hitler comes to power in Germany a movie musical is made in London about old Vienna and a girl who sells flowers in the Prater.

• Clive James, The Silver Castle (New York: Random House, 1998). The adventures of a street urchin in Bombay's slums to Bollywood film star and back again.

• James McCourt, Kaye Warfaring in “Avenged” (New York: Knopf, 1984). “Cégèste, why must the show go on?” “But where else would the show go?” “Ah, that is clearly a metaphysical question. It has no relation to the facts of life as we know them—celebrity, amphetamine, cocaine, and world-round roller coasters.” And yet the show goes on.

• Larry McMurtry, Somebody’s Darling (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).

• Alan Marcus, Of Streets and Stars (Yucca Valley, Calif.: Manzanita Press, 1960). In the tradition of Day of the Locusts only funnier. Life among the grotesques who populate Hollywood, especially the “little people” of the studios.

• Darcy O’Brien, A Way of Life, Like Any Other (New York: Norton, 1977). Still in print in a New York Review Books edition.

• C. K. Stead, Sister Hollywood (London: Collins, 1989). A New Zealand girl deserts her family and decamps to Hollywood, where she has an affair with a producer, is arraigned before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and enjoys success as a scriptwriter. Along the way she meets Bogart and Bacall.

• Bruce Wagner, Force Majeure (New York: Random House, 1991). Title refers to the clause in a screenwriting contract that lays out all possible reasons for cancellation without pay. By the writer of Nightmare on Elm Street and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Down with the flu

To explain the sudden slowdown in posting. Everyone in the Commonplace house—both parents, all four children—have been down with the flu. And we all received flu shots too! No experience in fatherhood is more difficult than trying to care for sick children (and tend to a sick wife) when you are sick yourself. I want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my kipa and glasses, not enough energy to remove them, but noses need to be wiped, vomit cleaned up, temperatures taken, diapers changed, Diet Cokes fetched. When everyone is asleep at last, and I have a moment to write, I dive into bed and pull the covers. . . . I’d started a cheery reply to Frank Wilson’s dare-double-dare on Hollywood novels. I had some better ones to suggest. But they will have to wait.

Friday, February 20, 2009

AP English and literary knowledge

The other day a Texas A&M graduate wrote to the English department, soliciting help from the “literature people” in fighting the efforts of parents’ group in the north Texas town of Cleburne who seek to remove Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth from the reading list in Advanced Placement English.

Apparently the AP teacher gives incoming students the choice over the summer to read either Follett (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) or Edward Rutherfurd’s London. Both books come in at more than eight hundred pages, though Follett’s extra hundred and forty may tip the balance for most students in his rival’s favor. The parents complain that The Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel of twelfth-century England, contains two graphic rape scenes and more explicit sex and violence, making it inappropriate for seventeen-year-olds. Perhaps sensing the difficulty of defending it on substantive grounds, the novel’s champions take a procedural tack. Students have a “constitutional right” to read the novel, and a public school teacher has the “academic freedom” to assign it. “You can only ban a book if you find it is pervasively vulgar,” one supporter told the school board in an open meeting. But no one has proposed banning the book—that is a bloody shirt. The parents group wants to strike it from the AP reading list, acknowledging they have no ambition to see it removed from the shelves of the district’s libraries.

No one has raised the obvious question. Why do high-school seniors need to know the book? By his own frank admission, Follett writes “entertainment fiction.” The style of his novel about the building of a medieval cathedral is annoying in the extreme. As the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer observed, “A problem in writing about times long ago is a novelist’s uncertainty about his voice. How did people talk way back then? How did they express affection, anger, lust? The writer must invent his diction and create his tone. Mr. Follett seems to have decided that 12th-century Englishmen favored 20th-century cliches (‘mindless brute,’ ‘hot and bothered’). . . .” The reviewer then supplied some examples of the novel’s typical prose: “But William was a real servant of the devil. Aliena thought: When will we be rid of this monster?” Or: “Oh, Richard, you're caught in a terrible web, and it's all because you saved me.” And: “Torturing a man without killing him was like stripping a girl naked without raping her.” Or: “William had lost count of the alehouses they had wrecked, the Jews they had tormented and the virgins they had deflowered.” After becoming frustrated with Follett’s compulsive resort to a particularly cold-fleshed cliché (“his heart was in his mouth”), one reader toted the number of its occurrences and found seventeen in all. Despite the limp writing, The Pillars of the Earth was listed among the one hundred books most often “challenged” by the patrons of public libraries during the nineties, according to the American Library Association, and for some that will be reason enough to tackle it.

Given world enough and time there might be a place in the high-school English curriculum for Follett’s potboiler. The notion, though, that there are certain works of literature which, as Hugh Kenner once wrote, “every civilized American should be familiar with, seems not to be commonly advanced.” And no one in Cleburne, Texas, seems to have advanced the argument that, regardless of explicit sex and violence, The Pillars of the Earth offers nothing of any value whatever for students of English literature. According to the College Board, the purpose of Advanced Placement is to help high-school seniors “develop the content mastery and critical thinking skills expected of college students.” Over the last three decades, nearly three hundred different literary works have been featured in questions on the AP exam. You might wonder at the clear prejudice for the second half of the twentieth-century, and the relatively high number of mediocre books by “minority writers” (Bless Me, Ultima, Ceremony, Monkey Bridge, My Name is Asher Lev), but the list of works that AP teachers have been asked to teach is a serious one. The author most frequently cited was Shakespeare; sixty some questions were about him. The single work referred to most frequently was Invisible Man with Wuthering Heights close behind. Neither Follett nor Rutherfurd are to be found, because reading neither will assist students in developing content mastery and critical thinking.

Why then does an AP teacher ask her students to read either? My own experience of AP, four decades ago, makes me suspicious of her motives. I had the sort of English teacher who believed that literature was the study of noble sentiments and overflowing feelings. “Every year she would read A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas,” recalled the romance novelist Kathryn Lynn Davis, another of her students, “and every time she would weep at the same parts, just as though she’d never read it before.” I wanted to throw up. She would describe to her class how she watched soldiers returning home from war and thinking to herself, “Somewhere out there is he whose heart is destined for mine, and I may never find him.” I winced, even though I pitied her spinsterhood. (Davis is more discreet: “She would tell really bizarre stories in class.”) If she ever wrote a novel, she confessed, she would call it Blue Remembered Hills, a line from Housman (“Into my heart an air that kills”). Even though I had dogeared and heavily underlined my copy of Housman, her cloying enthusiasm for him nearly caused me to abandon him for good. Instead, I kept my Housman secret. I memorized Howl for a class assignment, and derived much adolescent pleasure from her open disgust at my performance. I trace my lifelong dislike for the Romantics to her influence. And my critical contrarianism was set deeply in concrete by rebelling against her book choices. She assigned Tess of the D’Urbervilles; I stubbornly wrote a paper on V. She praised beauty and softly undulating phrases; I developed a white passion for direct statement and elbow-throwing truth. She gave me a D for the class.

Then the AP test rolled around. Two “open-ended” questions were posed:

(1.) Choose a character from a novel or play of recognized literary merit and write an essay in which you (a) briefly describe the standards of the fictional society in which the character exists and (b) show how the character is affected by and responds to those standards. In your essay do not merely summarize the plot.

(2.) Choose a work of recognized literary merit in which a specific inanimate object (e.g., a seashell, a handkerchief, a painting) is important, and write an essay in which you show how two or three of the purposes the object serves are related to one another.
For the first I chose Artur Sammler and described his “screwy visions” of a society in which “dark romanticism” had taken hold. For the second I chose Rubashov’s pince-nez in Darkness at Noon and tried to show how his handling of them diagrammed his progress toward a public confession of treason. And now I must brag. I received the highest possible score on my exam, the first student from my high school in several years to receive a 5. In those days your AP teacher called to tell you your score. “I can’t believe you got a 5,” my teacher kept repeating, perhaps a little unprofessionally; “I can’t believe you got a 5.” Her incredulity served to confirm my decision to pursue a career in literature. If she could be so wrong, and my decision to write about Bellow and Koestler instead of her weepy favorites so right, then perhaps I was on to something.

The ersatz elitism of AP English is a lousy preparation for college-level work in literary study, and I suspect that The Pillars of the Earth and London, impractically long historical novels about long-ago England, appeal to that flowery-scented superiority which some AP teachers seek to cultivate in their students. Can it be admitted at long last, though, that English literature is a discipline of knowledge rather than a fine sensibility; that some works of English literature must be known before others; that there are even some works every civilized American should be familiar with, although there will be much disagreement over what they are; and that an AP English teacher who assigns “entertainment fiction” instead is not doing her job?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The murderer’s fancy style

Speculating on the table manners of dictators, Nige quotes Lolita. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert Humbert says.

But what does he mean? (Humbert, that is.) Nige quotes him to humorous effect, because it is pretty obvious that Humbert is not offering up a universally acknowledged truth. Here, for example, is Jack Henry Abbott, who stabbed a waiter to death just six weeks after Norman Mailer had got him freed from prison:

[Y]ou have sunk the knife to its hilt into the middle of his chest. Slowly he begins to struggle for his life. As he sinks, you will have to kill him fast or get caught. He will say “Why?” Or “No!” Nothing else. You can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder. You’ve pumped the knife several times without even being aware of it. You go to the floor with him to finish him. It is like cutting hot butter, no resistance at all. They always whisper one thing at the end: “Please.” You get the odd impression that he is no imploring you not to harm him, but to do it right. If he says your name it softens your resolve. You go into a mechanical stupor of sorts. Things register in slow motion because all your senses are drawn to a new height. You leave him in the blood, staring with dead eyes.Nothing particularly fancy here. Perhaps the quadruple prepositional phrases, which delay the word gentleness from being connected with murder. The style is not nearly as distinguished as Mailer and Jerzy Kosinski maintained when Abbott was still in prison. What is impressive is the extraordinary consciousness of a murder’s every detail accompanied by not the slightest itch of remorse. This is the prose of a sociopath.

Humbert is not a sociopath. Just two sentences after calling attention to his prose style, he asks his readers—addressed as “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” because Lolita takes the form of a speech for the defense—to consider the purpose for which he is writing: “Look at this tangle of thorns.” Alfred Appel’s note is of little use: “[A]nother H.H., the penitent, confessor, and martyr to love, calls attention to his thorns, the immodest reference to so sacred an image suggesting that the reader would do well to judge H.H.’s tone rather than his deeds.” Why Appel was unwilling to spell out the reference is unclear. Here is the account in the Gospel according to Matthew, as translated by Ronald Knox:[T]he governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the palace, and gathered the whole of their company about him. First they stripped him, and arrayed him in a scarlet cloak; then they put on his head a crown which they had woven out of thorns, and a rod in his right hand, and mocked him by kneeling down before him, and saying, Hail, king of the Jews. And they spat upon him, and took the rod from him and beat him over the head with it. At last they had done with mockery; stripping him of the scarlet cloak, they put his own garments on him, and led him away to be crucified. (27.27–31)Instead of Roman soldiers, Humbert is putting the crown of thorns on his own head. He does not mean to identify himself immodestly with Christ; he means to seek Christ’s atonement. The novel entitled Lolita will be his act of repentance in which he seeks to repair the damage that he has done to the girl who cried herself to sleep “every night, every night.” In the last pages of the novel, on his way to turn himself into the police for murdering Quilty, he stops on a bluff overlooking a little town in a valley. He becomes “aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like a vapor. . . .” He contemplates the peaceful and geometric landscape. Even more beautifulwas that vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment, as it rose to the lip of granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth. And soon I realized that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home and the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.His confession could not be more clear. At the end of his book, Humbert acknowledges, publicly, that he has committed the crime of stealing her childhood from Lolita. The passage never fails to move me, no matter how many times I read it. It builds slowly, carefully swelling the melody of children at play, to the finale of confession. The knowledge of his guilt emerges from Humbert’s art in summoning, in prose, the reality of that musical vibration. But I would not describe this passage—perhaps the best paragraph of English prose written since 1865—as “fancy.” It is not simple; the sentences are long, averaging some forty words; and its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is 12.0, although it is difficult to imagine many high-school seniors who would be patient enough to read it with full comprehension to the end. But complexity is not at odds with plainness. As a public confession of the intimately personal, this passage is appropriately written in an exacting plain style.

But in this passage Humbert is not a murderer. The killing of Quilty might even be an act of rough justice. Here he is, at last, an admitted pedophile—no longer “an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy,” who seeks to fancy up his crime by calling it nympholepsy instead. The adjective fancy, used as the antonym of “plain,” dates from the mid-eighteenth century and derives from cookery and fashion. Over the course of his novel Humbert gradually sheds his verbal ornamentation, his fine writing, as he comes to atone plainly for the evil he has done, not to a fancy of his imagination, but to this Lolita, his Lolita. You can always count upon a murderer for a fancy prose style when he wishes to dissemble his true monstrosity. You can count upon an honest man, who makes repentance, for a plain style.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The novel and the car

Matt Kenseth won the rain-shortened Daytona 500, the opening race of the 2009 NASCAR season, yesterday. In an unexpected and wonderful post earlier in the day, Edward Byrne praised stock car racing: “Nowhere else in sport does the risk of one’s life become so apparent, and at Daytona the danger exists for the full 500 miles as the racers never escape from one another, tense and focused for hours, always only one mental slip or one mechanical defect away from tragic disaster, from death.” Despite novels and poems on many different sports, “rarely have serious authors examined stock car racing,” Byrne says.

Rarely? I do not know of a single novel on the theme. There have been movies aplenty, including Pixar Studios’ Cars, the perfection of the genre. (The sequel is scheduled for summer 2012.) As a symbol of American freedom, the car plays an important supporting role in road novels like Charles Portis’s Dog of the South (1979). The car as a visual treat (“whose design matches the aesthetics one might find in modern works of art,” as Byrne describes the stock cars in yesterday’s Daytona race), the appeal of cars as captured by Old Car and Truck Pictures, a site that I haunt as if it were a showroom, is found only in Nabokov:

A veritable Proteus of the highway, with bewildering ease [Quilty] switched from one vehicle to another. This technique implied the existence of garages specializing in “stage-automobile” operations, but I never could discover the remises he used. He seemed to patronize at first the Chevrolet genus, beginning with a Campus Cream convertible, then going on to a small Horizon Blue sedan, and thenceforth fading into Surf Gray and Driftwood Gray. Then he turned to other makes and passed through a pale dull rainbow of paint shades, and one day I found myself attempting to cope with the subtle distinction between our own Dream Blue Melmoth and the Crest Blue Oldsmobile he had rented; grays, however, remained his favorite cryptochromism, and, in agonizing nightmares, I tried in vain to sort out properly such ghosts as Chrysler’s Shell Gray, Chevrolet’s Thistle Gray, Dodge’s French Gray . . .Ellipses in the original. Although his credo was that “Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up,” Nabokov did not make up these colors. Shell gray was one of the colors in which Chrysler New Yorkers and Windsors were available in 1950. So too for Chevrolet Fleetlines and Stylines, which could be purchased in thistle gray in 1951.

There was never an American car named the Melmoth, although the name sounds plausible. (It was an allusion to Melmoth the Wanderer, a four-volume Gothic novel from early in the nineteenth century.) There was an American car named the Marmon, however, and it appears in Wright Morris’s first novel My Uncle Dudley (1942), a Depression-era picaresque. The unnamed “Kid,” who narrates the story, and his uncle Dudley find themselves stranded in Los Angeles. “You had enough milk and honey?” the uncle asks. They hit upon a scheme. They round up six passengers who are willing to share expenses to Chicago. With the money they buy an old Marmon:On the sidewalk in front of a garage was a big car with little wire wheels, an old Marmon but she still had class. AIRPLANE ENGINE—SWEET RUNNER, the windshield said. We walked on by—there was even a tire on the spare. All of them held some air and the one up front had some tread showing, retread maybe but showing anyhow. We crossed the street for a side view and she really was some wagon, belly right on the ground and a high, smooth-lookin hood. The little wire wheels did something to me somehow. We went back and walked by again and she had seven seats—could be eight with three riding in the front. I looked inside and the dash was keen as hell. She had a rear-end transmission and somehow I liked that too.The story, a sort of Canterbury Tales along Route 66, is nothing out of the ordinary. But Morris’s novel pays attention to something that few other road novels do: the experience of driving. A man is more sensitive to the first signs of trouble with his car than with himself, Erich Fromm says somewhere in The Art of Loving. As if that is not the way a man should be. The Kid, who drives the Marmon on the cross-country trip, knows otherwise: “She felt good up through the floor board and through my shoe. She knocked a little on the rise—but that was cheap gas. I let her out a bit on the flat and at forty-five she was loose and idle, fifty-five drew her up where she was snug. When a car is snug she feels like a cat in your hands. And when you are snug with the car you purr right back.” Take that, mental disease!

When the car breaks down or gets a flat—a locus classicus in road novels, even in Lolita—the men climb out of the Marmon and swap stories and philosophies. And in one remarkable scene (best thing in the novel), they compare hands. Then, the car fixed, the flat patched, they climb back in, and the Kid resumes the drive. There are few American novels devoted to this, a central rite of passage for the American male. John Coy has a low-key children’s book called Night Driving (1996), with evocative illustrations by Peter McCarthy, about a son’s car trip with his father. I enjoy reading it to my own sons far more than they enjoy hearing it. (Their tastes run these days to Batman and Spider-man.) In no other American book that I can think of is the drama contained wholly in a car. Allan Seager wrote a lovely fictional memoir entitled A Frieze of Girls (1964), tracing his growth through a series of girlfriends, but there is no equivalent American novel—nothing that could be retitled A Frieze of Cars. Except for Morris and one or two others, most American writers neglect the meditative, out-of-body experience in which you dutifully follow the road’s stitching for hundreds of miles, even though you are not seeking any source.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Top 100 blogs

The Times of London has put up a list of the one hundred best in what reporter Bryan Appleyard calls the “blogscape” (a better word than “blogosphere,” he rightly says). In the category of Words, seven are named:

• Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence. If Kurp is not the dean he is the best of us book bloggers.

• Frank Wilson’s Books, Inq.—The Epilogue. Appleyard characterizes it as a “hub” where “many bloglines intersect.”

• James Wolcott’s blog at Vanity Fair. The prose is “high-dandy,” as Appleyard calls it.

• Jessa Crispin’s Blog of a Bookslut. The blog is not “from several hands,” as Appleyard the paper has it (he they may be thinking of the monthly web magazine). Crispin is reliably amusing from a reliably “hip” perspective.

• Joseph Sullivan’s Book Design Review. Lots of jacket art—more jacket art than book design, really—with critical comments interspersed.

• The Orwell Diaries. Published by the Orwell Prize, the blog follows the diary, day by day, as Orwell wrote it: “Each diary entry is published on the blog exactly seventy years after it was originally written by Orwell, beginning in 1938. . . .”

• And, finally, this self-same Commonplace Blog.

The Times includes Nigeness under the category of Original Thinkers, but Nige thinks originally in strikingly original words. He is more literary than philosophical, but should be read no matter what category he belongs to.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How they ignored Lincoln

Little did I know, when I tried earlier today to redraw the map of American literary English to include Lincoln, that I would be nearly alone among book bloggers in even mentioning the second centenary of his birth. Edward Byrne, who reread “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in Lincoln’s honor, was one of the few others.

Over at the Valve, Rohan Maitzen celebrates Darwin Day. It was indeed an extraordinary coincidence that two of the greatest prose writers in English should have been born on the same day. But Maitzen, a Canadian, is not interested in Darwin the writer. He represents a “view of life” in which she finds “grandeur.” And just in case you are in any doubt over what she means, a few days earlier she had said that, if you were in a “Darwinian kind of mood,” you’d probably get a kick out of an interview in which Ian McEwan boasted that atheists enjoy a “much greater and livelier sense of interest and connection with the world. . . .” (What has become of the Valve, by the way? Originally created as a “literary organ” of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a counter-MLA founded to advocate “the teaching of literature as literature,” the collective blog is more likely to discuss Obama and the stimulus package, the plight of adjunct professors, teaching film or comics in composition classes, the Suleman octuplets, Paul McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money,” robots.)

The National Book Critics Circle continued its roundup of finalists for its annual prizes, examining Helene Cooper’s autobiography The House on Sugar Beach yesterday and studying Allan J. Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation earlier today. The Circle last glanced at Lincoln just before Election Day—in connection with Barack Obama, naturally.

Richard Marcus reviews a DVD from the Lee Boys. Roger K. Miller discusses Jesse James. The New York Times’ Paper Cuts interviews British novelist James Hamilton-Paterson. Mark Sarvas visited the Norton Simon Museum, and brought home Instructions for American Servicemen in France During World War II, the facsimile of a “pocket guide” prepared by the U.S. Army. Bianca Steele considers an argument against traditional meter. Jerome Weeks reviews Brendan McNally’s Germania, an “oddball thriller” by a local author. Ron Silliman lists the books that he has recently received. Maud Newton returns to Muriel Spark. Jessa Crispin admits that she forgot to say Happy Darwin Day yesterday and supposes she should wish her readers a happy Friday the 13th instead. “Did you know,” she asks, “Friday the 13th used to be celebrated by all day sex?” Knowledge that is worth having!

Have our literary intellectuals lost interest in Lincoln? Do they not rank him among the great writers? (Our greatest presidential writers in order: Lincoln, No. 1 . . . Long pause then Adams and Jefferson bracketed second, closely followed by Grant (4) Theodore Roosevelt (5) Reagan (6) Obama (7).) Or is a once-in-a-lifetime national holiday, the second centenary of our greatest president’s birth, too contaminated by patriotism to be deserving of mention?

Jumpy beat of American English

“I prefer American English,” Stuart Evers writes in the Guardian’s book blog, trying to explain why three-quarters of the titles he owns are by Americans: “I like the way it sounds; its rhythms and its cadences. Give me a diner over a café, a sidewalk over a pavement, a bar over a pub and definitely a gas station over a petrol forecourt.”

Philip Roth said something remarkably similar in The Counterlife, trying to explain why he wished neither to make aliyah nor to become a more traditionally Jewish writer: “My sacred text wasn’t the Bible but novels translated from Russian, German, and French into the language in which I was beginning to write and publish my own fiction—not the semantic range of classical Hebrew but the jumpy beat of American English was what excited me.”

I don’t quote Roth to diminish Evers in any way. Since the death of Sir Malcolm Bradbury, rare is the British writer who has celebrated the writing from these shores over that of his own island. Evers does not say exactly why he prefers sound of American English. He does go on to praise the “sibilance” of the phrase gas station, saying that you can hear the sound of tires inflating. Well, maybe.

And Roth’s “jumpiness,” while a more thoroughgoing explanation, is also not sufficient. Much American English has a jumpy beat, but not all. Not the South’s English. The urban mongrelized English, the trollop among languages that will sleep with any language on earth and introduce new bastards into the vocabulary (nada, blitz, kosher, macaroni), the linguistic encounter that makes rapid code-switching necessary and acceptable, is what Roth describes. But he is a city boy. And a second-generation American Jew. The jumpy English of the Newark streets is what he grew up speaking.

The South’s English is more oratorical, or as Richard M. Weaver would put it, more sermonic. And ironically, it owes more to the semantic range of classical Hebrew than to the language of the streets. But this is not to say that it does not have a beat and flourish all its own. The ignorant visitor says that the Southerner drawls. He does not. He draws out his point. Slowly. At length. Taking the time to enjoy it. As a Yankee teaching in the South, I have long enjoyed the linguistic clash that occurs when I talk with my students. The Southern tradition of deference is strained to the breaking point by my Jewish intellectuals’ habit of constantly interrupting them. Their English is obliged, if only for a time, to become more jumpy; mine, more periodic.

Yesterday of course was the second centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. In honor of the day I reread the Second Inaugural Address. The son of a border state who was raised in the “West” belonged nevertheless to the tradition of Southern oratory. Lincoln was fully conscious of the debt that he owed to that Bible-haunted style of American speech. He refers directly to the Bible and quotes Matt 18.7. More than that, he enters into the language of the Authorized Version, and makes it his own. Consider: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” God tells man after he has eaten the fruit (Gen 3.19). In Lincoln this is turned and adapted, but to a slightly jumpier beat: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” he says after affirming that North and South read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Lincoln suggests that slavery is an offense that continued “through His appointed time,“ but that “He now wills to remove. . . .” Replying angrily to Eliphaz the Temanite, who had argued that suffering is punishment for sin, Job says:

Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow, and as an hireling looketh for the reward of his work: So am I made to possess months of vanity, and wearisome nights are appointed to me. (7.1)Not only does Lincoln allude to these words, in which Job compares man’s “appointed time” to the length of a slave’s servitude, but he also loops the argument through a periodic sentence of seventy-eight words and ten clauses. But immediately then he draws up short, hotly interrupting himself: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” This is a rhythm more naturally associated with postwar American novelists like Bellow and Ellison, but it has been a part of American literature for nearly two centuries. It is what, I think, Evers and Roth mean by the sibilance and jumpy beat of American English. It is somewhat better described as a language that denies itself no available resource and that ranges from phrases appropriate for God to the rapidfire back-and-forth of the combative pavements.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

But if she was not a lesbian?

Reading the scholarship on Death Comes for the Archbishop, I stumbled upon the following passage from a ten-year-old article. The author is discussing the eclipse of her reputation during Cather’s own lifetime. Critics like Granville Hicks, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling—all three on the intellectual Left—attacked Cather for “her neglect of contemporary social realities, her retreat into a nostalgic past that forswore the complexity of modern life.” But more was involved. The attacks derived not merely from their politics but “from the critics’ fundamental misogyny.” Their “ideas of radicalism seldom extended beyond the white male identity.” (Not surprisingly, our author finds all three “tremendously overrated.”) Then he tries to explain how Hicks, Wilson, and Trilling could have been so short-sighted:

Just as Cather’s identity as a woman, and probably also her lesbianism, enabled her to appreciate the position of ethnic minorities, so too was the mainstream critical denunciation of the works closely tied with the preconceptions of her critics.1What is striking is how much is taken for granted in this little passage. How much is set off, like a holy of holies, from argument! There is no external evidence whatever that Cather was a lesbian; not a single reference to sexual relations, not even in passing, is found in her extensive correspondence.2 Nevertheless, Cather’s lesbianism is now the common opinion of literary scholars. And this merely suppositional lesbianism is then supposed to be fons et origo of what is in fact one of Cather’s great literary achievements—her “appreciation,” her deep imaginative sympathy, for “ethnic minorities.” It is nothing for which she deserves praise. It is a “preconception.” All lesbians—all women, for that matter—share it.

But what if Cather was not a lesbian? What if she captured “The Hired Girls” so memorably, not because she lusted after them, but because she could imagine herself as one of them? What if she understood the Navajo and Hopi so well (“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it”) because she studied them closely, and not because, as a lesbian, she too felt as if she belonged to an ethnic minority. (Cather never once uses the terms ethnic or minority in her letters.) What if scholars never learn the complete facts about Cather’s friendship with Edith Lewis? They observe that she and Lewis lived together from 1912 until Cather’s death in 1947, and they snicker knowingly. If the known facts admit another possible explanation, though, and if nothing further can be determined, then how can a lesbian relationship between the women be so positively assumed? Why wouldn’t the alternative explanation be equally plausible? (Because it doesn’t enjoy lesbianism’s prestige, that’s why.) What if Cather sought, with Edith Lewis, a refuge from the stupefaction of sensuality that she describes repeatedly, and with obvious distaste, in Death Comes for the Archbishop:His fat face was irritatingly stupid, and had the grey, oily look of soft cheeses. The corners of his mouth were deep folds in plumpness, like the creases in a baby’s legs, and the steel rim of his spectacles, where it crossed his nose, was embedded in soft flesh. He said not one word during supper, but ate as if he were afraid of never seeing food again. When his attention left his plate for a moment, it was fixed in the same greedy way upon the girl who served the table—and who seemed to regard him with careless contempt. The student gave the impression of being always stupefied by one form of sensual disturbance or another.Perhaps she lived with Lewis precisely to avoid “sensual disturbance,” and to put all her creative energies into her writing instead. I advance this merely as an alternative explanation of the known facts, which has the logical effect—not that literary scholars are affected by logic—of invalidating the assumption that Cather was a lesbian. Outside a political preference for lesbianism over chastity, there is no reason to accept one explanation over the other. Except, perhaps, that the alternative explanation also accounts for Cather’s clear tendency, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, to sympathize with Bishop Latour’s celibacy over Padre Martínez’s debauchery. It is, as the Bishop says, a question that had been “thrashed out many centuries ago and decided once for all.”

1. Nicholas Birns, “Building the Cathedral: Imagination, Christianity, and Progress in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Religion and the Arts 3 (1999): 1–19.

2. James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 141.

Kindle and kids’ books

With all the buzz over Amazon’s Kindle 2, and all the handwringing and fist-pumping over the possibility that ebook readers will replace paper-and-binding books, no one has given any thought to children’s books and whether hand-held devices will appeal to kids.

The last two days my son Saul, six next week, has carried The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The House at Pooh Corner to school. He can read neither book. Both, however, are fine editions—small octavo volumes with sewn signatures, clear ten-point type with one-point leading, nice thick paper. Saul likes the feel of them in his hands. It is hard to imagine his carrying a Kindle with the same pride.

And what about pop-up and lift-the-flap books? My two-year-old son Isaac can’t get enough of them. He takes them to bed, and in the morning he “reads” them quietly to himself until his father comes to lift him out of the crib. For Isaac, lifting the flaps is what constitutes “reading.” And again it is hard to imagine his taking a similar delight in a Kindle, even if Amazon could solve the technical problem of how to lift the flap on an electronic text.

I am only thinking out loud. It seems likely, though, that Saul and Isaac are forming their book-handling habits at an age before they are capable of reading. A Kindle is not going to change such habits; at best it will assist them. Don’t ebook readers appeal only to those, in other words, who are already hooked on books?

Monday, February 09, 2009

The fox’s apology

Few are those who, having been introduced to Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, are not anxious to proclaim themselves a hedgehog. Who would wish to know many small tricks when he could know one great one? Not intellectuals, that’s for sure. “Virtually by definition,” Theodore Dalrymple writes in the current issue of the City Journal, “they like to address themselves to large and general questions, not small and particular ones. . . .” An intellectual congratulates himself upon being centripetal, not meandering; he does not “come across” or “happen upon” something, he goes looking for it. A good part of being a hedgehog involves feeling superior to foxes.

I have been a fox all my life. I sweat the small stuff. I get hung up on details. I’m all over the place. I know the Arcadia and Moll Flanders, but I can’t explain why the novel or the concept of the individual emerged when they did. I know that literature is good writing where “good” by definition has no fixed definition, but I don’t know what makes writing good in every instance. I know Derrida holds that the endless deferral of meaning constitutes the essence of life, and Foucault that truth is a function of power, without knowing either to be the case, or how to apply these theories in advance to texts I haven’t read. I know there are writers, like the young J. V. Cunningham when he was first starting out, who are sure that their thought forms a system—what holes in it they are sure can be worked out—but I am resigned to being more like the the older Cunningham, who found himself “left with limited insights, the plain implications of experience but restricted in generality, and cold assumptions whose systematic development unfolds as one lives them.”

Perhaps something more impersonal can be said for the fox. How many are there in literary history! Erasmus and Montaigne are the ideal types; the Renaissance humanist, with his motto humani nil a me alienum puto, belongs to the species almost by birthright—More, Castiglione, Vives, Reuchlin, Sidney. Except for some early hedgehogs like Milton and Bacon, English literature is very nearly a literature of foxes until the Romantics arrive to push them out—Donne, Jonson, Burton, Hobbes, Herrick, Browne, Dryden, Locke, Pepys, Rochester, Johnson, Swift, Addison and Steele, Pope. And while the fox does indeed treasure happenstance as a principle of discovery, figuring the world of learning will never bend to his will, he is not entirely without method. His method, though, is eclectic.

I don’t mean that the fox is merely various. The word for his method is not accidental. It comes from the Greek eklektikos, “selective.” In the history of philosophy, it refers to the practice of sifting the schools and doctrines to separate the valuable from worthless. It is what Donald R. Kelley, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas and chief proponent of eclecticism at the moment, calls a Higher Plagiarism. It borrows what is true and rejects what is false, and assembles the truths into a temporary dwelling. It looks with suspicion and disgust upon the sort of education in which a pupil submits to the authority of a recognized master, replacing it with a kind of serial discipleship—sitting at the feet of this one and that one. It licks the icing off books.

Such foxy eclecticism has strengths and weaknesses. Its weaknesses are well-known, since the hedgehogs are forever pointing them out. It is not sufficiently exercised, they grunt and snuffle, about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance. Their objection has The Anatomy of Melancholy and the Journal to Stella dead to rights, but the fox would prefer to do without the objection than do without the books. The strengths of his eclecticism are less obvious, but no less real. Easily familiar with human ignorance, it is not easily taken in by intellectual giants who turn out to be Egyptian pretenders or Nazi collaborators. Although there has been tension between them, it makes common cause with skepticism—for both are equally suspicious of dogma and claims to knowledge before the fact. Its habits are, in Kelley’s phrase, inadvertantly comparative and necessarily historical. Its method of critical selection enables the eclectic fox to skirt the trap of sectarian disputes. And while it does not gaily dismiss contradictions with allusions to bulk and multitudinousness, it is able to subscribe to opposing views—the belief, for example, that the Hebrew bible is both divinely inspired and compiled by human hands—and still get business done. For it is not a confession, but a life.

When I started this blog—ironically late, if Bianca Steele is correct—I selected its title with care. For nearly four decades I have kept commonplace books. They have spilled over into volumes; they clutter my desk. Whatever I have seen into print can be traced back to them; they are ultrasonographs of my published offspring. But they contain much else besides, and serve additional purposes. They are everything that hedgehogs dislike—they are fragmentary, merely dredged up and raked in, a slow stumble through literature—but they suit my native abilities, such as they are. And what is more, they provide literary precedent for book blogging, as I realized when I finally started this project sixteen weeks ago. Not every book blog is written on the model of the commonplace book; perhaps not even the best are written on the model of it; but it is a traditional model, a convenient and useful model, and one that once enjoyed a greater prestige than it does today.

As Ann Blair wrote in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Strictly speaking, the commonplace book was a humanist innovation, but like most Renaissance practices it adapted a concept with a glorious ancient pedigree to suit contemporary . . . needs.” It became the “crucial tool for storing and retrieving the increasingly unwieldy quantity of textual and personal knowledge that guaranteed copiousness in speech and writing.” As such it was perfectly suited to “the Erasmian ideal of eloquence through copia rerum or abundance of material.”[1]

Book blogging on the model of the commonplace book has attracted some of the most interesting foxes now writing about books—Patrick Kurp, Bill Peschel, Elif Batuman, Nige, Perry Middlemiss, Michael Gilleland, Ron Slate, Nigel Beale. These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness. And besides, they know that David Garnett’s little novel would not have been nearly so charming if it had been called Lady into Hedgehog.

[1] Ann Blair, “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (1992): 541–551.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Historical novels of faith

Yesterday I started teaching Death Comes for the Archbishop. As befits a student of Gerald Graff, my custom is to place course reading in the context of brewing and simmering literary debates. I wanted to contrast her “narrative,” as Cather preferred to call it, to the postcolonial novel (“The Church can do more than the Fort to make these poor Mexicans ‘good Americans,’ ” Bishop Latour reflects. “And it is for the people’s good; there is no other way in which they can better their condition”). So far so good. Now, what is a postcolonial novel?

Luckily I came across a passage in a Guardian essay from nine years ago in which D. J. Taylor asks the same question, then provides a kind of answer:

What kind of books are these, in which the white man’s burden, taken off into a quiet clearing and stealthily unpacked, turns out to contain all kinds of alluring plunder? In her penetrating study, Traces of Another Time [1990], the American critic [Margaret] Scanlan defined this genre as the “sceptical historical novel.” The public past it outlined is not one of triumph and achievement, but one inglorious and violent. It focuses on defeat rather than victory . . . and draws attention, however subtly, to stupidity and arrogance rather than to heroism.Matthew Kneale’s Whitbread-winning English Passengers (1999) provoked Taylor to ask the question, but he mentions several other Commonwealth novels that “mine these themes of imperial duplicity and decay”: J. G. Farrell’s brilliant Siege of Krishnapur (1972), William Boyd’s Ice-Cream War (1981), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1987), Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar (1988), Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1991). Tracing their descent through Heart of Darkness (1898), which he names as the “core text,” Leonard Woolf’s Ceylonese Village in the Jungle (1913), A Passage to India (1924), and Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934), Taylor decides that recent postcolonial novels represent a “literary tradition in late maturity, rather than a dazzling new strike into the historical unknown.”

Since the United States has never been an imperial power, despite Leftist sloganeering, postcolonial novels show up in American literature only when, like Updike’s Coup (1978) or Vikrem Seth’s Suitable Boy (1993), they are set in a former outpost of the British Empire. Otherwise, like Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) or Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), they belong to immigrant literature.

If postcolonial novels are more broadly redefined as skeptical historical novels, though, several American examples leap to mind, starting with such “anti-westerns” as Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958), E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times (1960), and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964). More recent efforts to inject skepticism into the historical novel would include Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979), Morrison’s Beloved (1986), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1996), Jane Smiley’s All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), Valerie Martin’s Property (2003), and Geraldine Brooks’s March (2005). These would more appropriately be called revisionist novels if the term had not been corrupted, as I have written elsewhere, by neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust.

Accept the name skeptical historical novels, then. What is striking to me is the number of novels, over the same course of time, that mine American history, not for themes of duplicity and decay, but for triumph and achievement: Paul Horgan’s Distant Trumpet (1960), Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971), Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels (1974), Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (1980), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985), Hugh Nissenson’s Tree of Life (1985), Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler (1996), Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). They belong to the same literary tradition as Willa Cather. Call them historical novels of faith—not necessarily religious faith, but the faith that, even if men and women living in the past may not have shared the crochets and opinions of the present, they were neither stupid nor arrogant as a consequence.

Repertoires and abilities

For nearly four decades now literary scholars have been keeping themselves awake with the bogey of the canon. The time has long passed for giving the bad idea a decent burial. I propose to replace it with Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between repertoires and abilities.

Ryle sets out to answer Socrates’ question “Can virtue be taught?”[1] It can, but only if it is cared about—deeply. Deep caring is the proof that education has succeeded. “[W]e can properly be described as having learned or been taught standards of conduct when, under the influence of other people’s examples, expressions, utterances, admonitions, and disciplines, we too have come to care deeply about the things they care deeply about,” Ryle writes.

The reason most of us laugh at moral education is that “the idea strikes us as ridiculous that there should exist expert tutors or crammers in fidelity, modesty, or generosity. . . .” But this is to reduce education to only one sort—what Ryle calls “instructing by dictating,” or what is now derided as a sage on the stage. But there is another sort of education. Ryle gives the example of learning to play the piano. “The wisest theorists in the world can lecture as eloquently as you please,” Ryle says; “but the clearest memories of their doctrines will not, by themselves, enable Tommy to play the piano.” Starting with five-finger exercises, practice is also needed—ten thousand hours of practice to become a virtuoso, if recent research is to be believed. “Learning doctrines by heart is one sort of learning,” Ryle concludes; “learning to do things is another sort, and one which is not generally much assisted by learning doctrines by heart.”

For these two sorts of learning, Ryle suggests the shorthand terms repertoires and abilities. They are usually confused, because both can be acquired. But the ability to play the piano is not the same as a repertoire of pieces that can be readily played, from a familiarity with them. What is more, a repertoire is nothing without the ability to use and enjoy it. And the abilities are implicit within the repertoire. They are not an abstract set of movements, like swinging the arms or standing on tiptoe, but the concrete skills required to play these pieces in exactly this way.

Ryle goes on to argue that there is a third category—the value of conduct. I may acquire the ability to do something, but this is no guarantee that I will use it morally. For instance, a man may be a well-trained surgeon, but there is nothing in his training to prevent him from killing instead of healing patients on the operating table. Indeed, his training has equipped him to kill more efficiently, if he chooses. Similarly, you may acquire an ability to play a game, but this will not insure that you will play the game to win. These motives and desires are separate and distinct from the abilities and repertoires.

You must also, therefore, learn to care deeply for the things you are handling, the actions you are performing. The very fact that a repertoire is a selection, Ryle observes, embodies the necessary degree of necessary caring. If you care deeply enough about playing the piano you don’t play just anything at all. No one cares deeply for an arbitrary gathering. A person cares only for what has been selected with care and preserved out of the conviction that it is worth something.

[1] Gilbert Ryle, “Can Virtue Be Taught?” in Education and the Development of Reason, ed. R. F. Dearden, P. H. Hirst, and R. S. Peters (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 44–57.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fiction and the empirical turn

The reason there are not more good novels about sports, Mark Athitakis speculates in a reply to my post on football novels, is that “most sports are too defined by their mythologies—it takes a diligent and attentive novelist to collapse their clichés and find something new to say about the subject.”

This hits the mark, or at least where mediocre sports novels are concerned. Malamud’s Natural, a novel that Athitakis singles out as a better novel about baseball, is instead a perfect example of what he is talking about. Here, for example, is the notorious scene in which Harriet Bird shoots Roy Hobbs, after asking if he will be the greatest player ever. When he answers, “That’s right,”

She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle). The bullet cut a silver line across the water. He sought with his bare hands to catch it, but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut. A twisted dagger of smoke twisted up from the gun barrel. Fallen on one knee he groped for the bullet, sickened as it moved, and fell over as the forest flew upward, and she, making muted noises of triumph and despair, danced on her toes around the stricken hero.The original incident involved Eddie Waitkus, a 29-year-old slick-fielding first baseman and decent hitter, but no candidate for greatest player who ever lived. During the 1949 season, while hitting a soft .306 for the Philadelphia Phillies and leading the All-Star balloting, he was shot in the chest by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who had been infatuated with the ten-years-older ballplayer ever since he broke in with the Chicago Cubs, crying when he was traded to Philadelphia and building a little shrine to him in her bedroom. On June 16, she left a note saying that it was “extremely important” to see him “as soon as possible.” Waitkus went to her room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Chicago’s North Side, where they were both staying. He told what happened next:When she opened the door, she took a look and said, “Come in for a minute.” She was very abrupt and businesslike. I asked what she wanted and walked through the little entrance hall over to the window. When I turned around there she was with this .22-caliber rifle. She said, “You’re not going to bother me any more.” Before I could say anything else, whammy!Waitkus, who had fought with the U.S. Army on New Guinea, winning four battle stars, joked to reporters: “I guess I zigged when I should have zagged.” He marveled, “She had the coldest looking face I ever saw. No expression at all. She wasn’t happy—she wasn’t anything.” Asked why he had gone to her room, Waitkus said, “I thought it might be someone I knew—someone from downstate or a friend of a friend.” He did not know the girl, although he may have met her without remembering. “We ballplayers get a lot of letters from girls and don’t pay any attention to them,” he explained. “We call them ‘baseball annies.’ ”

Away from reporters, Waitkus confided to friends that the bullet’s impact felt like six men slamming him against the wall. Four operations were required to drain his lung, but remarkably he recovered and returned to baseball the next season, batting leadoff and playing all 154 games for the pennant-winning Phillies, winning the Associated Press “comeback of the year” award. But the story did not end happily. His son was convinced that the shooting changed Waitkus forever, turning him into a reclusive alcoholic and perhaps even contributing to his death from lung cancer at fifty-three. “Different doctors through the years have expressed the theory that the stress of the shooting, combined with the four operations, allowed the cancer to take hold,” the younger Waitkus told Ira Berkow of the New York Times nearly four decades later. “So I think Ruth Steinhagen was more successful than she thought.”

Steinhagen herself was released from the Kankakee State Mental Hospital two and a half years after the shooting, pronounced sane, all criminal charges against her dismissed. She disappeared from public view. The next month Waitkus’s claim for $3,500 was dismissed by the Pennsylvania Workmen’s Compensation Board, which ruled that the ballplayer was “not in the course of his employment” when shot in a hotel room.

I have repeated the Waitkus story at some length to contrast its irreducible factuality, its hard-surfaced concreteness, to Malamud’s lyricism. The story of Eddie Waitkus is richer and more chilling than the myth of Roy Hobbs. For that matter, Waitkus is a more interesting ballplayer—or at least a more interesting case—than Malamud’s hero. Throughout the summer Roy Hobbs blazes away with his golden bat:It was not really golden, it was white, but in the sun it sometimes flashed gold and some of the opposing pitchers complained it shone in their eyes. . . . There was a hot rhubarb about that until Roy promised to rub some of the shine off Wonderboy. This he did with a hambone, and though the pitchers shut up, the bat still shone a dull gold. It brought him some wonderous averages in hits, runs, RBI’s and total bases, and for the period of his few weeks in the game he led the league in homers and triples.What were the numbers? Who knows? Not knowing, how can it be believed that Roy’s averages are “wonderous”? While he may have “led the league in homers and triples,” that is not particularly informative. Leagues have been led (since 1930) by as few as 22 homers and eight triples. Maybe he played in a weak league.

By contrast, it can be said with exactitude and certainty that Waitkus hit .285 in his eleven-season career, getting on base at a .344 clip—just about the rate of an average hitter, or thirty-seven fewer times every 500 at-bats than Stan Musial, who debuted the same season—with a slugging percentage (.374) that ranks second-worst all time among first basemen with at least 4,000 at bats. And though one baseball historian grades him A- in the field, he played at a position where good or bad fielding has a relatively small effect upon the game and where much more robust offensive production is usually expected. The real question about Waitkus is this. How did he manage to play eleven seasons as a regular in the big leagues?

The answer: a high batting average, especially before the shooting, when Waitkus hit .296 in 448 games, combined with his graceful fielding, appealed to the unexamined assumptions and folk psychology of baseball men, who were still living by metrics and dogmas established three quarters of a century or more earlier for a game still in its infancy.

Since then a revolution has occurred. Bill James, who began self-publishing his Baseball Abstract in 1977 while working night shifts as a security guard at a Stokely Van Camp factory, almost singlehandedly changed the way ballplayers are evaluated. By introducing new statistical measures (secondary average, runs created, range factor), he was able to challenge baseball’s prevailing wisdom (that a .300 average is the mark of a good hitter, for example, or that a good fielder commits few errors). James has gained the reputation of being a statistical guru—the “Sultan of Stats,” as the Wall Street Journal hailed him a while back. This is to misunderstand his achievement. While he helped to invent sabermetrics, the in-depth statistical research into baseball performance, James does not consider it a branch of statistics. His characteristic procedure is to open an inquiry into an aspect of baseball by citing an assertion widely accepted as true, and then submitting it to withering examination, using statistics as his tool. “Sabermetrics,” he says, “is a field of knowledge which is drawn from attempts to figure out whether or not those things people say are true.”

James belongs to the empirical turn that has been negotiated in several disciplines of human thought over the past three decades. The law-and-economics movement, founded by Henry Manne in the early seventies, is another example. Experimental philosophy, with its slogan “No armchair speculation,” is one more. Two critics, E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Frederick Crews, have sought to guide literary study into empirical responsibility, although neither has met with much public success. Instead of new historical research into popular literary delusions, there is new historicism. As Crews says in an interview, “What’s happened in the humanities is a general assault on the idea of the empirical, the very idea of the rational, which is now associated with such social evils as racism, patriarchy, and so forth. And in the vacuum that is created by this denigration of the empirical, nothing is left but cliquishness, nothing is left but power.”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say—how much more so in the field of human endeavor that prizes the armchair more than any other. I am speaking, naturally, of fiction. As Tom Wolfe detailed at length in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” his infamous Harper’s essay of 1989, realism had fallen out of favor in the sixties to be replaced by “fictions” in which the action had no specific location, the characters had no background, came from nowhere, and said nothing that indicated any class or ethnic origin, “with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of novocaine.” The solution was basic research, or what Wolfe called reporting. It is “the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions”; what is more, it is “essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve.”

American novelists have sniffed at Wolfe, of course. And if I were to rephrase his argument, holding that American fiction badly needs an empirical turn, a rethinking of it as a means (in Crews’s words) “to study indefensible pretensions and to note how they cause intelligent people to shut off their critical faculties and resort to cultlike behavior,” I would be hooted out of the literary blogosphere. Their ignorance of sport except for its “mythologies” is not sufficient to explain the lack of good American sports novels; American novelists also have small belief and less interest in knowledge of any kind. That’s why the only American sports novels worth reading are those, like W. C. Heinz’s Professional, a 1958 book about a middleweight contender, by writers who have made a close study of their subject, as if it were something worth actually knowing.

Update: Here is a nice obituary for W. C. Heinz, who died a year ago later this month, saying just enough about The Professional to make you want to read more. Sports Illustrated puts the novel at #54 of its Top 100 Sports Books of All Time, but the list is remarkably uncritical.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

On writing in books

Patrick Kurp admits had he “stopped writing in books a long time ago. It came to seem like a form of vandalism, and when I’ve reread my annotations I was most impressed by their fatuity: ‘Symbolism!’ “Foreshadowing!’ That sort of thing.” And now I must tell my students never to read Anecdotal Evidence, because on the first day of class I routinely urge them to “make the books [for the course] your own. Write your name in them. Underline. Draw question marks beside passages you don’t fully understand. Make notes in the margins.” Then I tell them a story.

My senior year at Santa Cruz I shared a house with the poet Mark Jarman and two others. Graduation Day arrived. Mark’s family was in town to see him receive his diploma. His sister wandered into our sunlight-drenched living room on a hill overlooking Monterrey Bay. (Not for nothing did I coin a phrase for the difficulty of completing one’s studies in surroundings of such natural beauty: “The agony of gorgeous days.”) I remember that I was reading Herzog. I had a pen in hand. “Getting a little studying done?” Mark’s sister asked. Nope. Just reading. “Then why are you underlining?” she demanded.

Why indeed? I had never asked myself the question. Without benefit of much reflection, I told her that, when I had been in the Boy Scouts, I had been taught, if I were ever to become lost in the woods, that I should break branches along the way to prevent myself from tripping in circles. (The truth of this warning had been borne in upon me a few weeks earlier when my friend John Kucich and I had become hopelessly lost in the woods high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Without a fixed point of reference above the trees, we circled aimlessly for a couple of hours, frightening a stag at one point, who charged right past us, before we accidentally struck the road. Although we were both former Boy Scouts, we both forgot to break any branches.) “I underline in books for the same reason,” I told Mark’s sister sententiously; “to keep from going around in circles, and to find my way back.”

Opening the same copy of Herzog now many years later, I find my notes even more embarrassing than Kurp’s examples. Except for the conversation with Mark’s sister, which I scribbled on the end papers, most are even more groan-inducing than what I told her. “Ideas that depopulate the world,” Bellow writes. “That kill?” I have scrawled in the margins in fine-point blue ink. “Or that make the thinker more unique? More necessary?” Say again? A description of Ramona (she had “eyes that held metaphysical statements”) reminded me of my current girlfriend, with whom apparently I did not have a carefree relationship. A remark by Sandor Himmelstein, the Chicago lawyer who looked after Herzog one autumn, reminded me of Gordon Lish, my teacher Raymond Carver’s editor at Esquire: “We’re all whores in this world, and don’t you forget it.” Not that Lish was a whore. But this was his general attitude.

I also tell my students about the copy of Doctorow’s Book of Daniel which I prepared for a review in the student newspaper. At one place I underlined every word on the page. Every word. Boy, did that help me trace my way back to a memorable passage! Years later I had to hunt down another first edition of the novel to replace the one I had defaced.

I no longer underline every word on pages, but except for hardcover first editions of novels, I continue to read with a pen in hand, even on Shabbes, when I cannot use it to write. It is what I hold instead of a cigarette. Kurp suggests the habit may be just as bad, but I am a passionate scorer and composer of marginalia. Writing in books is something like Ascham’s method of double translation for me. My notes convert the author’s words into my own, and when I turn them back, I find that they have impressed themselves upon my memory. Perhaps the method does not work for everyone, or even very many, but it is the only form of intertextuality to which I subscribe.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Football novels

The heart-pounding finish of the Super Bowl yesterday (the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals by 27 to 23) led me to wonder why there are not more American football novels. Joiner (1971) is the most promising, and not because James Whitehead played football at Vanderbilt before an injury reduced him to literature. Eugene (Sonny) Joiner, narrator and protagonist, is an offensive lineman rather than a glamor player; he squints up at the game from an unusual position. (The Tex Maule novels that I started to read as a schoolkid, before “outgrowing” them, are entitled Quarterback, Linebacker, Running Back, Cornerback, and Receiver.) Ultimately, though, the novel falls victim to post-1968 nonsense. Styling himself a “radical historian,” Joiner teaches calculus and spelling to underprivileged children at a progressive school after he quits pro football, and becomes the disciple of a fifteenth-century Hussite.

Another ex-player, Peter Gent ran routes and caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the sixties, then wrote North Dallas Forty (1973), a novel that was more distinguished for its rage at the professional sport than for its scenes of action on the field. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough (1972) displayed a raw satiric talent, but was nearly as angry in tone as Gent’s novel, filled with gall. Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1972) has great fun with the language of the game (“Monsoon sweep, string-in-left, ready right, cradle out, drill-9 shiver, ends chuff”), but to adapt what Philip Roth wrote about The Natural, it is not about football as the game is played at Kyle Field, but a wild, wacky football which is more metaphor than reality.

Much the same is true of Howard Nemerov’s far less ambitious novel The Homecoming Game (1957), which does not even try to describe what occurs on the field. Here a professor’s F, leaving the star ineligible for the big game, serves merely as a pretext for an exploration of moral ambiguity. John R. Tunis, the greatest sports novelist of all time, wrote only one book about football. All-American (1942) is the best of a bad harvest—understanding that it is a boys’ book and that, like all of Tunis’s books, it has more to do with a boy’s fumbling for values than handling a ball. No one is better at describing the action on the field, but many readers will find Tunis dated, and his moral concerns inartistic and unliterary.

Perhaps the problem is that football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports, where ignorant coaching systems clash by night; or perhaps the problem is that Tom Buchanan cast the mold for football players in American literature, condemning them for all time to being represented as careless brutes. The truth is that it is the most masculine of sports, more so even than boxing, not merely because it requires manliness, which Harvey Mansfield defines as confidence in a situation of risk (boxing takes that too), but because it demands the masculine virtues—patience, patrimony, moral courage, physical strength, loyalty to friends, submission to legitimate authority, service to others.