Monday, May 31, 2010

The patriot dead

The first Memorial Day—then called Decoration Day—was held on May 31, 1869, to dedicate the new Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. When the ceremonies were concluded, the New York Times declared the day a “conspicuous failure.” The age was a “material” one, the paper editorialized sadly, for which “sentiment” was too “fleeting” to support a “solemn festival.” But the deeper problem was that the first Memorial Day was really, as it was more accurately described by the Baltimore Sun, Union Memorial Day. Although President Grant had said “Let us have peace” in officially proclaiming a national day to commemorate all who had been killed in the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic flatly refused to place floral decorations on the graves of the Confederate dead. (The graves of “colored soldiers” were decorated after the dedication exercises at Cypress Hills had closed.)

For several years, as a consequence, Memorial Day was “an appeal to patriotism of one section at the expense of the pride and feeling of the other section,” the Times observed. It was not truly a day to remember the “patriot dead,” but a triumphalist jamboree, a “memorial of the triumph of Northern loyalty over Southern rebellion.”

Before long, accordingly, the South began to hold separate Memorial Day services a month earlier than the North. On the Confederate Memorial Day on April 26, 1875, Nathan G. Evans Clement A. Evans, a former brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia, told the crowd that had gathered in Augusta, Ga., to lay the cornerstones of a Confederate monument that, when constructed, the monument would

say to us the Confederacy has expired; its great life went out on the purple tide of blood that flowed from the hearts of its sons. We have buried it; we do not intend to exhume its remains. We are utterly defeated, and we dismiss our resentments.On the same day, Union and Confederate veterans in Little Rock issued a joint call for the decoration of every soldier’s grave, North and South.

For a long time, their call went unheeded. Jefferson Davis did not help the cause of national reconciliation when he wrote three years later that Confederate Memorial Day “commemorate[s] men who died in a defensive war” and whose “heroism derives its lustre from the justice of the cause in which it was displayed. . . .” Six weeks later, as if replying directly to Davis, William T. Sherman told the large crowd gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, including President Hayes, that “all over this broad land this memorial day has been dedicated to the beautiful custom of decorating with earth’s fairest and freshest flowers the graves of the patriot men who died that we might possess in peace a united country and a Government worth having.” And patriots, in the idiom of 1878, did not include the Southern dead. “Our forefathers are called patriots,” acknowledged the Atlanta Constitution the next year, “and our fathers are called rebels.”

Perhaps because of revanchist opinions like Davis’s—or the suspicion of them—Memorial Day remained a sectional observance even when it was legally declared a national holiday in 1885. By the turn of the century, however, hearts had begun to change at last. In the Spanish-American War, Northern and Southern soldiers had come under fire together again. Albert D. Shaw, the Grand Army of the Republic’s commander-in-chief, said publicly that the last Sunday in May should henceforth commemorate all American soldiers who had died in battle. “On this occasion there could be tributes alike to the fallen men of the confederacy, the union army, and the brave soldiers who died in the war with Spain,” he said.

Shaw was not speaking for himself alone. On Memorial Day 1900, Confederate and Union veterans joined together to unveil a monument on the Antietam battlefield. “I am glad to meet, on this memorable field, the followers of Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet with the followers of Grant and Sherman and Sheridan, greeting each other with affection and respect,” said President McKinley, who had himself fought for the Union at Antietam. Although he admitted that he was glad that “we were kept together and the Union was saved,” he was also glad for Appomattox and the meeting there between Grant and Lee. “There must be comfort,” he mused, “in the fact that American soldiers never surrendered to any but American soldiers.”

From that day to this, Memorial Day has been a truly national holiday. Any differences between Americans are set aside in the grateful recognition that we are united by the best among us: American soldiers who have never surrendered—with God’s help, will never be forced to surrender—to any but American soldiers.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Emma Wolf’s stories

Barbara Cantalupo, ed., Emma Wolf’s Short Stories in the Smart Set (Brooklyn: AMS Press, 2010). 247 pp. $87.50.

The mother of American Jewish fiction, Emma Wolf (1865–1932) published four other novels in addition to her popular and pioneering Other Things Being Equal, but she also wrote a decade’s worth of short stories for the Smart Set, the irreverent and glossy “magazine of cleverness” that is customarily described as the New Yorker of its day. Wolf finished her run before H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan took over as the magazine’s most famous editors, and a century later the Wolf scholar Barbara Cantalupo has redeemed the stories from serial oblivion and packaged them for the first time in a single volume.

“Curiously,” she writes in the Introduction, “none of these stories takes into account Jewish culture, as did . . . Other Things Being Equal. . . .” Equally curious is their lack of “cleverness.” Cantalupo quotes the historian of the Smart Set on the term’s connotation at the time of the magazine’s founding:

To be “clever” in 1900 was to be au courant, One-Up, ahead of the game, a trifle jaded and a wee bit cynical. It was not quite the same thing as being “smart,” or fashionable; in fact, it was “clever” to be affectedly careless of fashion [and] . . . to puncture . . . hypocrises and inconsistencies with good-natured raillery.The “clever” set, in short, were the hipsters of their day, substituting “good-natured raillery” for smug knowingness. Little of this attitude sneaks into Wolf’s stories. What they display instead is a sort of teasing mischievousness, as when a dying girl welcomes a visitor in “A Study in Suggestion,” the first story in the volume, published originally in 1902:“It is all right,” she assured him, with a laugh, the gurgling merriment of which only added to his annoyance, as she held out her pretty hand; “it’s not a joke. I really am dying, though appearances are against me. You need not look so angry and disappointed.”Running deeper than this superficial verbal sauciness are Wolf’s values, which were not particularly up-to-date. Born with a “useless arm,” as a childhood friend recalled, a victim of polio who rarely left the house, a lifelong spinster, Wolf was a perhaps surprising advocate of home and family and monogamous marriage. “The deformed man is always conscious that the world does not expect very much from him,” wrote Randolph Bourne, himself a hunchback, in 1911. “And it takes him a long time to see in this a challenge instead of a firm pressing down to a low level of accomplishment.” For Bourne, the challenge of deformity led in a straight line to his literary challenge to bourgeois expectations.

But not for Wolf. In one story, for example, she condemns the “dogma of hereditary instinct,” au courant in her day, which was associated with “the iconoclastic ooze of Ibsen, Shaw and Company.” Over against it she affirms “the religion of parenthood” and the dogma of indissoluble marriage. Again and again, her stories give the nod to parental responsibility and the purity of unbroken conjugal promises.

I can enter into the reactionary spirit of her middle-class affirmations as easily as any conservative who is happily marriage with four kids. What troubles me about the case of Emma Wolf, however, is the way in which the defense of marriage and parenthood has been unmoored from anything that might transform them into something more than Bourne’s “low level of accomplishment.”

Judaism might have provided Wolf with such moorings, but by her mid-thirties, when she began to publish regularly in the Smart Set, Wolf had drifted away from Jewish tradition. An unexpected image of what was left to her of it occurs in “The Knot,” the longest story in the collection. In the midst of the fire after the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, Lucy Heath watches as a “scorched scrap of paper” floats down and settles “like a dove” upon her shoulder. She plucks it off and reads two lines:Arise, shine, for thy day is coming and the glory of the Lord shall appear upon thee.Cantalupo does not note the source, but Wolf is quoting the first two verses of Isaiah 60:Kumi ori ki va oreykh
ukhvod YHVH alayikh varah.
The first verse is inverted and sung by religious Jews on Friday evenings in the hymn l’khah dodi, welcoming the Sabbath. Ironically, the image of floating down like a dove shows up later in the chapter (v 8), and the chapter as a whole is a prophecy of Zion’s restoration and Jerusalem rebuilt. But Emma Wolf was not a Zionist (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine had been active in America for over a decade by the time Wolf wrote her story). She does not even seem to have intended the quotation from Isaiah to prophesy the rebuilding of San Francisco. In fact, the immediate effect is muddled. Lucy recognizes that the scorched paper containing Isaiah’s words are froma leaflet from a prayer book, wafted over miles of blackened ruins to her seared soul. Was it a message? She thrust it into her bosom in wondering awe.Lucy does not comprehend the message at first, because the scrap from Isaiah turns out, a few pages later, to be a metal-grinding foreshadowing of her reunion with her husband, whom she had divorced years earlier to go off with another man. She subsequently left her lover too, and when she bumps into her first husband in the city’s ruins, Lucy tries to explain. She never even married her lover. And why? “The years had married me—indissolubly—to you, John,” she says. When the time came, she found that she could not go through with her second marriage without sacrificing her “ideal of purity.” And not only hers:The ideal of all honorable women. It is a simple thing: I belonged to you. The day I married you I gave myself to you forever—my thoughts, my honor, my devotion.Ah, the purity of a woman’s eternal love! Needless to say, Wolf has moved quite a distance from Isaiah’s original place in Jewish liturgy. She had testified to something similar in Other Things Being Equal when, on his deathbed, Jules Levice finally blesses his daughter’s mixed marriage to a Unitarian by reciting birkat habanim on the head of his future son-in-law. It is the one and only time in the novel that Wolf employs a Jewish idiom, and its unironical adaptation for the purpose of blessing a non-Jew who is assisting a Jew in violating Jewish law shows just how far Wolf had wandered from her native tradition.

Barbara Cantalupo’s well-edited volume of Wolf’s stories is a valuable addition to our knowledge of public middle-class ideology in the first years of the twentieth century, and of how a certain type of American Jew felt safe in abandoning Judaism for it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Revelation at shul

After praising the scene in Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy in which the main character finds “release” during an accidental visit to shul, I was struck by the fact that I had enjoyed a similar scene in Zoë Heller’s remarkable novel The Believers. As I wrote in my review:

On a whim (“a mild, touristic curiosity rather than any spiritual longing”), [Rosa Litvinoff] enters an Orthodox shul and plops herself down in the men’s section, momentarily satisfied to have caused a “kerfluffle,” but when she is removed to the women’s section, she finds herself lingering and then, against all expectation, the “austere melody” of ets hayim hi (“It is a tree of life”) as the Torah scroll is restored to the ark makes her hairs stand on end: “A thought came to her, as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song.”Immediately I knew that I had stumbled upon a new convention in a certain type of Jewish fiction—call it the convention of “revelation at shul” in fiction of teshuvah or return to Judaism. (In Heller’s case, the return is a character’s; in Messer’s, the author’s—if only in the sense of narrowing her sights to the Jews.)

The locus classicus of the “turning” event is the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s sudden reversal of his decision to become a Christian. Nahum Glatzer explains what happened. A non-believing Jew, Rosen­zweigwished to enter Christianity as did its founders, as a Jew, not as a “pagan.” Rosenzweig attended the synagogue services of the New Year’s Days and the Day of Atonement [in 1913] in preparation for the church. Here was a Jew who did not wish to “break off,” but who deliberately aimed to “go through” Judaism to Christianity.But something happened in shul to change his mind. As Glatzer puts it, “He was stopped on his way and called back into Judaism.” Whatever happened in shul made it “no longer possible,” Rosenzweig wrote to Rudolf Ehrenberg a few days later, underlining every word, to become a Christian.[1]

Oddly, Rosenzweig never wrote about the experience. He never even discussed it with friends. His mother guessed what had happened, and told Glatzer about it years later, after her son’s death in 1929. Since Glatzer’s book on the philosopher’s life first appeared in 1953, however, Rosenzweig’s decisive turnabout has become one of the defining motifs of modern Judaism.

I expect that more and more uses of the convention will crop up in American Jewish fiction in the years to come, especially since hostility to Orthodoxy is out of fashion among younger Jews. Even so, I must admit, speaking not as a literary critic but as a practicing Jew, the revelation in shul is foreign to my experience. I might even argue, in fact, that the original and originating event in “Jewish” literature is Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3–9).

For the regular shul-goer, like me, there are no blinding revelations. Now and then there are skin-prickling sensations of God’s presence, but for the most part, being in shul is like being in a close friend’s living room. You can relax and spread out—the capaciousness of the long Jewish worship service encourages you to spread out—in the comfortable knowledge that you are not intruding. Unlike the church’s liturgy, which means to inspire awe, the purpose of Jewish liturgy is to make conversation with God a common and familiar act. Often, in truth, it is only afterwards that the marveling arrives.

In an essay in the Sewanee Review, I criticized Michael Chabon because “[h]is characters are strangers to the synagogue, and it no longer even occurs to them to wonder if there is any warmth to be found inside.” (That last phrase is a blatant allusion to Bialik’s poem “Al Saf Bet Hamidrash,” which is discussed briefly here.) By comparison, any Jewish novelists who find any warmth at all in shul are to be welcomed like guests.

[1] Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken, 1962), pp. xvii–xix. First edition was published in 1953.

All the way back to Exodus

Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009). 230 pp. $24.00.

Once upon a time, Detroit was a great Jewish city. By the Second World War, it was home to eighty-five thousand Jews, who prayed sporadically (if they prayed at all) in twenty-three synagogues, most of them concentrated along the Dexter and Linwood corridor, nearly all of them now converted into black Protestant churches or abandoned to ruin.

The Jews of Detroit migrated steadily north and west, staying just ahead of the advancing African Americans, who poured into the city from the rural South starting in 1914, when Henry Ford announced that he would pay five dollars a day to anyone, including African Americans, who would work on the new assembly line at River Rouge. By 1950 the Jews had settled into Oak Park, but within the decade they were on the move again, opening up the suburbs of Southfield and then Farmington. “These aren’t new issues for Jews, about trying to read the signs, and knowing when to leave, what you may lose by staying behind,” remarks a character in Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy. “All the way back to Exodus.”

The 61-year-old Messer’s intelligent first novel, published not quite a year ago by the University of Michigan Press, is a fictional inquiry into “these issues.” Harry Levine owns a wholesale shoe store on Grand River Avenue just south of Joy Road (“Joy Road—now there was a misnomer”). The rundown neighborhood is represented by the “magnificent, decaying Riviera Theater” across the street and down a few blocks, whose “festering” sign leads Harry’s sister Ilo to call it “the Iviera.”

When Harry and Ilo arrive at work on Halloween morning in 1966—one of the best things about her novel is that Messer is exacting and definite about dates and addresses, wanting to locate her narrative at a fixed and particular time and place—they find a message soaped on the store’s front window: Honky Jew boy. When Harry goes to the basement for a bucket and brush to clean the window, he discovers that a back room has been “made into something, someone’s notion of a clubhouse, or a living room.” A circle of chairs, including a “fifties-style armchair with no legs” and a “dingy plaid couch with worn arms that had an old brocade curtain thrown over it,” surrounds ashtrays overflowing with marijuana cigarettes, “whole ones and parts,” a record player stacked with Motown albums, and a pile of Black Panther literature (“It was for example the exploitation of Jewish landlords and merchants which first created black resentment toward Jews”).

Harry immediately realizes that the clubhouse or living room was set up by the teenaged son of the black man who is his upstairs tenant and occasional day laborer. What he only vaguely senses is the racial tension that would explode into violent rioting nine months later. Grand River and Joy covers those nine months, subtly graphing the pressures as they rise to the boiling point.

Messer’s strategy is to study the relationship between Harry and Curtis, his tenant and sometime employee (Curtis’s angry and militant son Alvin, who will play a central role in the riot scenes to come, remains sullenly in the background until then). But Messer also follows Harry’s wife Ruth through her interactions with Jewish neighbors who are considering whether to move out of the city, family who have already moved out of the city, and fellow members of the Detroit Council of Jewish Women, who discuss the politics and morality, over coffee cake, of moving out of the city.

Harry’s conversations with Curtis are a little stilted, as might be expected from such an ancient genre (fiction in the form of philosophical dialogues). Curtis explains the plight of the black artist, for example:

Look at those young people writing the Motown songs. They’re writing beautiful stories, set to music. . . . Of course, the Motown stars are not the only talent around. I tell that to my son. They wouldn’t sound like much without the Funk Brothers playing behind them. Do they get any credit for what they do? No. But they keep playing their music anyway. Great music. Great musicians. Playing over on Twelfth—at the Chit Chat, Eagle Show Bar, Collingwood. If you’ve got the talent and the need, you keep on, no matter who pushes you down.Harry’s reply? “You’re what my anthropologist daughter would call an informant.” He offers Curtis a drink and a l’hayim. “We’re informing each other,” he says, “seeing what the other has to teach.”

More informative, though, are Ruth’s scenes. Easily annoyed (slow speech, slow movements, saying the obvious thing), Ruth is a special type of Jewish woman who has rarely appeared, even in the pages of American Jewish fiction—the highly intelligent but undereducated housewife who lives for books and ideas, who relishes insight, and who has no ready access to them. The third of seven children born to a kosher chicken-slaughterer, she is the perpetually frustrated outsider, even in her own family. Messer describes her with astonishing penetration.

Nevertheless, Ruth’s husband Harry is the center of the novel. And the very fact that he is in the wholesale shoe business—he is neither a writer nor the graduate of a writers’ workshop—sets Grand River and Joy apart from most other first novels. Messer is very good at capturing the feel of such a business. Like Philip Roth, she obviously believes that most of what a man is is what a man does all day during working hours.

And yet the most powerful scene in this plainly written, briskly paced novel occurs in a little boxy shul that Harry stumbles upon while he navigates the back streets of Detroit, trying to avoid rioters and National Guard troops to reach his store. The shammes flags him down. “Just in time,” he says, handing Harry a yarmulke. “They need one more for the minyan.” While the old men in the shul chant the traditional morning prayers, Harry plunges into memory, reliving the first time that he and Ruth had ever slept together. He snaps to with a flush of shame, but then:Deep within the privacy of his tallis tent, he saw that the horror that had seized the city could release him. It could open his life, push him out, tell him go, be, do.Grand River and Joy is neither a great novel nor even a compact admirable well-made novel, but it is something worth honoring, because it is unlike so much contemporary American fiction. (That may explain why it was published by a university press rather than a commercial New York house.) Messer’s novel tells how real places and real events, recognized with shocking minuteness, are what release men and women into their real lives.

Update: Michigan has recently released a paperback edition of Messer’s novel.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot, the original basis of the Christian holiday known as Pentecost, begins this evening. A Commonplace Blog will be at rest for the next two days, celebrating the zeman matan torateynu.

The decline of region

It is not true that I “blame” the graduate writers’ workshops for the decline of region and place in American fiction, as one commentator charges. Nor am I suggesting that locating fiction requires a novelist to immortalize his hometown—as John O’Hara did to Pottstown Pottsville (Gibbsville in the novel) in Appointment in Samarra. Although The Great Gatsby is not set in Fitzgerald’s native St. Paul, it does not take place in some nebulous utopia. The “holocaust” that occurs in the novel could have occurred nowhere else but on Long Island.

So strongly is Long Island identified with Gatsby, in fact, that Alice McDermott—a child of the Island—explicitly sets herself in a line of descent from Fitzgerald. In Charming Billy (1998), she describes the characteristically lower middle-class Long Island of her fiction as a “toehold in a world of spacious lawns and famous artists and summer colonies where wealthy people had once called their mansions cottages. . . .”

McDermott is unusual for her generation, though. When one of her contemporaries makes use of a Long Island setting—think of the suburban house to which Sammy and Rosa move in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, for example—the result is an exact fictional address (127 Lavoisier Street, Bloomtown) and a hasty evocation of a place that could be located almost anywhere (“as if Bloomtown, with its swimming pools, jungle gyms, lawns, and dazzling sidewalks, were the various and uniform sea of childhood itself”).

The problem is that an entire generation of American writers since 1970 has belonged to a common tradition, sharing a common background and forging common ties:

Richard Ford (MFA, Irvine, 1970)
Kent Haruf (MFA, Iowa, 1973)
Thom Jones (MFA, Iowa, 1973)
T. C. Boyle (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Allan Gurganus (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Ron Hansen (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Denis Johnson (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Edward P. Jones (MFA, Virginia, n.d.)
Melvin Jules Bukiet (MFA, Columbia, 1976)
Ellen Gilchrist (MFA, Arkansas, 1976)
Alice McDermott (MA, New Hampshire, 1978)
Tobias Wolff (Wallace Stegner Fellow; MA, Stanford, 1978)
Jayne Anne Phillips (MFA, Iowa, 1978)
Louise Erdrich (MA, Hopkins, 1979)
Lee Martin (MFA, Arkansas, n.d.)
Michael Cunningham (MFA, Iowa, 1980)
Jim Shepard (MFA, Brown, 1980)
Madison Smartt Bell (MA, Hollins, 1981)
Cristina Garcia (MA, Hopkins, 1981)
Richard Russo (MFA, Arizona, 1981)
Padgett Powell (MFA, Houston, 1982)
Bob Shacochis (MFA, Iowa, 1982)
Robert Olmstead (MFA, Syracuse, 1983)
Eileen Pollack (MFA, Iowa, 1983)
David Wroblewski (MFA, Warren Wilson College, n.d.)
Susan Straight (MFA, UMass Amherst, 1984)
Brad Watson (MFA, Alabama, 1985)
Michael Chabon (MFA, Irvine, 1986)
Jeffrey Eugenides (MA, Stanford, 1986)
Ann Patchett (MFA, Iowa, 1987)
David Foster Wallace (MFA, Arizona, 1987)
A. M. Homes (MFA, Iowa, 1988)
Tom Perrotta (MFA, Syracuse, 1988)
Renè Steinke (MFA, Virginia, 1988)
Dan Chaon (MFA, Syracuse, 1990)
Elizabeth McCracken (MFA, Iowa, 1990)
Christine Schutt (MFA, Columbia, n.d.)
Abraham Verghese (MFA, Iowa, 1991)
Paul Harding (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Jhumpa Lahiri (MA, Boston University, n.d.)
Janet Peery (MFA, Wichita State, 1992)
Junot Diaz (MFA, Cornell, n.d.)
Kevin Canty (MFA, Arizona, 1993)
Edwidge Danticat (MFA, Brown, 1993)
Martha McPhee (MFA, Columbia, 1994)
Susan Choi (MFA, Cornell, 1995)
Bonnie Jo Campbell (MFA, Western Michigan, 1998)
Tova Mirvis (MFA, Columbia, 1998)
Alice Sebold (MFA, Irvine, 1998)
Kamila Shamsie (MFA, UMass-Amherst, n.d.)
Adam Haslett (MFA, Iowa, 1999)
Z. Z. Packer (MFA, Iowa, 1999)
Rachel Kushner (MFA, Columbia, 2000)
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Salvatore Scibona (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Joshua Ferris (MFA, Irvine, 2003)
Daniyal Mueenuddin (MFA, Arizona, 2004)

The foregoing list could have been extended even farther. What outsiders to university life may not fully realize is that academic disciplines are organized nationally rather than locally. Academic openings are not advertised in the local paper, but in a national job list. The case of someone like Susan Straight, a native of Riverside, California (my own hometown), who moved up from teaching at the city’s junior college to a professorship at the University of California campus there, is vanishingly rare. Career advancement typically entails packing up and relocating across the country.

In truth, the whole idea of a literary career has been redefined since 1970 in academic terms. When she graduated with a masters degree from Harvard in 1969, Francine Prose followed her husband to India and launched herself as a novelist by writing a novel. “What’s hard to get people to understand now is, at that time, there were hardly any MFA programs, and no idea of a career track for writers,” she said later, looking back upon the start of her career. She did not even have a “sense of career” when she started out—“it was much more like play,” she said.

Now, however, a young writer settles upon a literary career by attending a graduate writers’ workshop where she will be instructed in a curriculum that varies little from school to school, and certainly not according to the place where the school happens to be located. After graduation she will join something like a diplomatic corps, being posted from place to place, most likely without ever setting down roots in anything but the common background and common ties of her generation.

A distinguished Prose style

My life-and-works essay on the novelist Francine Prose has been brought out from behind Commentary’s pay wall, since it leads the list of Essays and Opinion at Arts & Letters Daily this morning. I hereby apologize publicly to Miss Prose for causing her the queasy ambivalence of being praised in the “intellectual home of neoconservatism.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Trade secrets of a pedagogue

Now that the semester is over—I filed my last grade early this morning—I have some peace and quiet in which to reflect upon teaching. I have been thinking about it quite a lot, since a few students took the occasion of my leaving Texas A&M University to remark that they enjoyed class. I was touched, but I am not sure that I trust them. It is far too easy to confuse good teaching with a lively classroom performance. On my last pilgrimage to Sudbury, shortly before I departed for graduate school, J. V. Cunningham warned me that he had learned the most from his driest professors, partly because he expected nothing else from them.

And he turned out to be right. Perhaps my best professor in graduate school was Albert Cirillo, now an emeritus associate professor of English at Northwestern, who taught a seminar on Milton in which I was one of only two students enrolled. Nevertheless, he lectured for an hour and a half, took a fifteen-minute break, and then returned to lecture for another hour. Later, studying with Gerald Graff, I was taught to be suspicious of his opposite number, the familiar campus type described by Graff as the “undergraduate spellbinder.” I recognized immediately whom he was referring to: I had taken a course with Norman O. Brown while an undergraduate at Santa Cruz.

Yet I suppose that I became something of an undergraduate spellbinder myself. I am perfectly at ease in front of lecture halls accommodating a hundred students or more, probably because I lack all self-consciousness. I never worry about making a fool of myself. And maybe that is the first piece of advice I would pass on to a young teacher. If you are committed to guarding your dignity, if you seek to command respect through rank and prestige, you will end up with dignity and self-respect and very little more. Early on in my teaching career I made it a practice to acknowledge frankly when I was ignorant of something, although I also made a point of supplying the knowledge at a later date. It is even more important, I found, to admit errors and confusions.

Although I teach by the Socratic method, which entails plunging the students into confusion before rescuing them with clarity, I am aware that the confusion wants to persist. I introduce a text by identifying its chief problem. (A “novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” —Randall Jarrell.) Then I propose and reject several current or notorious answers before settling upon a more adequate resolution. My apology is that students ought to be shown that the pursuit of truth depends as much upon refutation and falsification as upon assertion and corroboration.

Students do not always wind up unconfused, however. They have been drilled, over the course of long years, to return their teacher’s view unworn, with the original labels attached to it, and they are not sure what is being asked of them if their teacher enunciates multiple, contradictory views. To make matters worse, I low-mark them for spitting back their lecture notes. “I already know what I think,” I point out; “and what’s more, I can say it more coherently.”

That indeed is the problem with blue-book regurgitation. The students have no clear understanding of what they are scribbling. They are parrots without a clue. “There is nothing wrong with agreeing with me,” I tell them; “after all, I am trying my damnedest to persuade you that I am right.” But if they are to understand the knowledge that I seek to impart, the students must take it to pieces, reconstruct it in a different order (and in different words); they must make it their own. For this reason I am far more likely in class to praise the “brilliant but wrong” (a phrase for which I became famous on campus) than the dutiful response, the correct reply to the fill-in-the-blank question.

Independence of thought is humbug, though, unless it also shows evidence of care. There is no faking it: I want my students to care as passionately as I do about the books and authors that I assign to them, but I am resigned to the unlikelihood of their ever doing so. Most are just piling up credits toward a degree. But I can insist that they begin to take care—to make themselves understood; to get their ideas right, in phrasing and predication; to be unkind toward cliché and conventional wisdom; to quote instead of paraphrasing; to open themselves to criticism and correction; to develop arguments, connecting fact to fact and proposition to proposition as if they were mapping a local terrain, rather than coughing up reluctant one-word answers or dropping random sentences into a conversation that they are not really following.

In short, I try as much as possible to make class into a dialogue. I do not stand in one spot behind a lectern but roam the hall as if I were Jerry Springer bearing a microphone among a studio audience. And in twenty years of classroom teaching I have never once used an overhead projector, dedicated computer projection system, or interactive whiteboard. I want the students to look at me, because I am talking to them. The transmission of knowledge is a human exchange, not a multimedia affair. As a teacher who is also a scholar, I do not merely hand knowledge on; I embody it. And as long as they are in my class, I expect my students to participate, like me, in the life of the mind. My rule is that I may call upon them at any time, without warning, and they may say anything at all in reply, except for one thing: “I don’t know.” For anyone on a university campus who says such a thing is saying that he does not really care to know. He will get nothing of what I am trying to teach him, then.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Blogging about books, and even replying to complaints about my “literary tunnel vision,” have had to be put on hold while I finish grading my spring classes. In the Nabokov seminar, the students were assigned a narrative account of their developing semester-long response to—understanding of—the magician. Some confused this for an invitation to name their favorite books on the reading list or to testify (with repetition) to their dislike for Nabokov. A few, though, caught hold of a single thread, which enabled them to unravel at least the hem of Nabokov’s garment.

As one student said early in the semester, “Nabokov mucks with your mind.” The best students in the course submitted to the mucking, and adjusted their thinking accordingly. In the Wall Street Journal today, Peter Berkowitz argues that the “true aim of the humanities is to prepare citizens for exercising their freedom responsibly.” At the moment I can’t think of a better example than Nabokov of liberal learning, as demonstrated by a handful of students who accepted his challenge to equate freedom with the unique stamp of individual expression.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bureaucracy and regionalism

The writers’ workshops have established a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who, in their professional lives, are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.

The result has been, ever since the emergence of a literary generation whose experience is limited to creative writing, the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction. Where, for example, is Michael Chabon’s “little postage stamp of earth”? Or Paul Auster’s? Or Denis Johnson’s? T. C. Boyle has never set two novels in the same place. Jonathan Franzen began his career by chronicling St. Louis’s demographic decline to the rank of Twenty-Seventh City, but then immediately he abandoned the scene of his growing up. The Corrections is set all over the place: in the vaguely located Midwestern city of St. Jude, at D——— College, in a New York consisting of familiar names but no specific details, in suburban Philadelphia, principally indoors, even in a post-Soviet Lithuania about which the best that can be said is No, we are not free-market, no, we are not globalized—which does not make it feel any more Lithuanian.

For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels. Even Francine Prose, who mainly sets her fiction in New York and its environs, where she has lived most of her life, wanders from place to place within this relatively small geographical area: the Hudson River Valley in Primitive People, Fire Island and Manhattan (and then Arizona, where she briefly taught) in Hunters and Gatherers, the city and Rockland County in A Changed Man, the Taconics in Goldengrove.

And when a writer “roots” his fiction in a place, it is often to create a base from which to launch expeditions elsewhere—as when Tim O’Brien sets In the Lake of the Woods in his native Minnesota so that his characters can turn to more important matters, including flashbacks and memories and secrets. Much the same is true for Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s overpraised trilogy. The novels are headquartered in New Jersey, where the ex-Sportswriter has a home. But Frank Bascombe’s New Jersey is not Philip Roth’s New Jersey. As a real estate agent, Bascombe is dedicated to moving property, not settling on it. The New Jersey of Ford’s novels is merely representative of American suburban sprawl. Which is to say that it can be found everywhere and nowhere.

There are exceptions, of course. One reason Marilynne Robinson stands apart from the rest of her generation is in her abiding respect for place and her clear determination to plant fiction firmly in a specific locale. Although Housekeeping takes place in a small Idaho town and Gilead takes place in a small Iowa town, Robinson returns to the setting of her second novel in writing Home, her third, testifying to her ambition to burrow more deeply into the story of the place. Her readers could find themselves around Gilead, Iowa, by using her novels as a map. Geography is of equal importance to Richard Russo. Although they are in three different states, the deteriorating rust-belt cities of Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls—Russo’s three best novels—illustrate what Allen Tate calls “that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors.”

With these words Tate defines regionalism, and Russo cannot exactly be described as a regionalist. Better to say that the characters in his best books inhabit equivalent sociological milieux. The regional differences between New York, Pennsylvania, and Maine interest Russo less than the sociological similarities.

The sort of regionalism defined by Tate has yielded to the national network of writers’ workshops. Even a writing program like Stanford’s, which was founded by the regionalist writers Wallace Stegner and Yvor Winters, has been nationalized. Creative writers are now primarily committed to their art or craft, which is just another way of saying that their client is the agency which trained and employs them. They may have offices in different locations, but their ambitions and interests have been centralized.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The unlocked archives

With the decline of Latin as the language of learning in England during the eighteenth century, scholars in many diverse fields—Gibbon in history, Blackstone in the law, Adam Smith in political economy—were constrained to address a more general audience of intelligent men and women rather than a closed society of the learned. Since then, some of the worst features of scholarship have been attempts to replicate Latin’s closed-door effect. Technical jargon, “referee journals,” the circulation of authoritative names, the flashing of credentials, questionable assumptions treated as self-evident truths—scholarship has fashioned itself to exclude the intelligent layman.

All that is changing. Not merely is English, the new language of learning, also the language of commerce and cruelly inhospitable to jargon, converting it to ordinary language as quickly as possible. (Witness the career of the word deconstruction. Introduced into English by Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man” in 1969, it began to be used regularly in the book pages of general-circulation journals between 1981 and 1983, and within a decade it had deserted the tight quarters of literary criticism to enter the discussion of foreign policy, fashion, and domestic politics. The word briefly enjoyed a vogue culminating in Woody Allen’s boring 1997 film Deconstructing Harry.)

What is even more important, the rise and spread of electronic archives like Jstor, ProQuest, LexisNexis, EbscoHost, Project Gutenberg, and many others, now make it possible for anyone, credentialed or not, to engage in archival research. Irritable mental gestures no longer need content themselves with merely resembling ideas; they can ground themselves now in demonstrable knowledge. And the knowledge is both wider and more certain than it was just a few years ago.

When I first wrote The Elephants Teach several years ago, for example, I was pretty sure that the term creative writing was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I had to hedge my bets by saying that his “1837 Phi Beta Kappa address ‘The American Scholar’ . . . apparently contributed the phrase . . . to the lan­guage” (emphasis added). All I had to fall back upon was my own wide reading. Just now, though, I double-checked to make sure. A few minutes were sufficient to confirm that the phrase was not used again until David Masson published his history of British Novelists and Their Styles in 1859. “It is the part of all poets and creative writers . . . to make rich the thought of the world by additions to its stock of well-known fancies,” Masson wrote, singling out “Scott’s creative writing” as having made the greatest contribution since Shakespeare to “the hereditary British imagination.”

And of course I can now distribute this tidbit of knowledge, not in the ponderous form of a scholarly paper, weighted down by the chains of footnotes and delayed by quarterly publication (at best!), but in a homely little blog. Where I can also correct my errors and reply to my critics with dispatch. And develop my ideas under relentless public scrutiny.

The effect is the democratization of scholarship, although you might not guess it from reading most online publication. Easing the conditions of scholarly research has not encouraged the development of the scholarly temperament. As easy as it has become to obtain knowledge, opinion-mongering is easier still. And so the self-contradiction: never before has the society of learning been more open, while that very openness discourages the patient accumulation and fidgety exactitude required for true leaning. Small wonder Miriam Burstein is reluctant to list her blog The Little Professor on her vita, despite the fact that her blog is a daily exercise in the life of scholarship. Blogs have earned the reputation for uninformed stridency, because few bloggers have accepted the invitation to visit the newly unlocked archives of human learning.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The regular and responsible gig

“The book critic with a desire to form himself in the older tradition,” John W. Aldridge said half a century ago, is faced “with a choice between occasional reviewing and even more occasional quarterly publication, but if he wishes to concern himself frequently and at length with contempo­rary work, to discharge in full his responsibilities to new writers and publications, neither will afford him the space he needs.”

How much has changed! Whether critics and writers realize it, this is one possible function of the book blog. For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves “fre­quently and at length with contemporary work”: to provide a running total of “new writers and publications.” For the first time, the book critic can accept a regular gig that, like the movie critic at a weekly magazine, allows him to keep up. If he has long coveted such a gig he has now the opportunity to assign it to himself. Motivated neither by whimsy nor program, but by a sense of responsibility to contemporary writing, he might produce a first draft of literary history in the form, not yet widely recognized in the literary world, of the book blog.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Frederick Buechner’s reinvention of a twelfth-century saint’s life is beginning to attract the attention of other book bloggers, which is a very good thing in itself—this is how great books overcome the indifference of “official” critics, by word of mouth, reader to reader—but it may also help to gather a larger audience for one of the best American novels of the past four decades. First published by Atheneum in 1980, Godric was the eleventh novel by an ordained Presbyterian minister who was said to have “established himself as a major literary figure” with his first novel thirty years earlier.

Godric was like nothing he had written before. His first novel, appearing when he was twenty-three, was a rather slow-moving study of seven people on the margins of an Eastern college identified only as a “neo-Gothic music box.” Although widely celebrated, A Long Day’s Dying is more impressive in retrospect for its insight than its action. With his second novel Buechner became, according to his troubled contemporary Robert Lowry, the “white hope” of all those “who wish young American writers would quit slogging along in the muddy Norris-Drieser-Farrell prose tradition and move closer to the stylish neighbor­hood of Henry James.”[1]

Buechner tried hard to pump up the plot of his next novels and shed the Jamesian label. So he visited a U.S. Senate confirmation fight over a liberal cabinet appointee, a clergyman tempted by adultery with his next-door neighbor, a 1,500-acre community for retarded adults. Then came the Bebb books, a tetralogy (just like the Gospels) on the life and times of Leo Bebb, founder and sole proprietor of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., a mail-order seminary in Armadillo, Florida (“Put yourself on God’s payroll—start working for Jesus NOW”).

Buechner’s reward was to be compared to Peter DeVries instead of Henry James. Despite the Falstaffian girth and boisterousness of Leo Bebb, the tetralogy is not a satire but rather, as Guy Davenport said in reviewing the first volume, “almost embarrassingly a genteel comedy, beautifully written and told with the mastery of a craftsman.”[2]

Buechner needed to resort to more desperate measures if he ever hoped to break free of the genteel tradition. Theodore Nicolet, the clergyman hero of his fourth and weakest novel, The Final Beast, had bragged: “I’m famous for my imitations of saints. You should see me doing the martyrdom of Polycarp.” What was a throwaway line fifteen years earlier became the germ of his masterpiece. In 175 tightly packed pages—both style and action are tightly packed—Godric imitates a saint’s life.

Born in 1065 to Aedlward, “no villein bound to serve but a man born free as any man,” and his mirthful wife Aedwen (“she’d cover her mirth with her hands and shake till you’d think the fit was upon her”), Godric left home at a young age to become a peddler and then the steward for a nobleman. Discovering that his lord is a thief, Godric flees England to join the “Frankish knights” who seek to liberate Jerusalem from the “ungodly Turk.” Entering Jerusalem, “so fair I saw at once how men could die for her,” in 1101, he walks the Via Dolorosa, sees the “Holy Sepulchre itself,” dunks himself in the Jordan, hears a “porpoise voice” calling him, comes up “like one gone daft for joy,” and is converted.

Returning to England, he gives away all that he has, and after a spell keeping the door and ringing the bells of St. Giles in Durham, he becomes a hermit, making a cell for himself on the River Wear at Finchale. By then he was “some forty-odd.” For the next six decades he remained there, “rooted like a tree,” and lowering himself into the “icy Wear” or resorting to prayer to fend off memory and pride:

What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s reach for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You see to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.That Godric is also the earliest known English poet (author of hymns to the Virgin Mary, his sister Burcwen, and St. Nicholas) is appropriate, because prayer and poetry belong to the same class of human utterance—the symbolic actualization of transcendence. I quote this passage, however, not so much for a taste of Godric’s style—by this point the style has knocked smooth its roughness as Godric has abandoned his goods—but to comfort a friend who is struggling with God’s silence. “And what has Godric done for God or fellowmen through all of this?” he asks himself. “Godric’s war is all within.” But the same is true for many a man whose inner war leaves him doubtful that he has done for God or fellowmen, and Godric may also speak to them.

Written as the hermit’s memoir, dictated late in life to his disciple Reginald of Coldingham, whose contemporary Latin manuscript is the historical source of knowledge about Godric’s life, Buechner’s novel is at its best in detailing the unwilling saint’s war within:I can no longer hold my water and itch in places I haven’t scratched these twenty years for the clownish stiffness in my bones. It’s Reginald that has to swab my bum and deems the task a means of grace. I’ve got an old dam’s dugs. My privities hang loose as poultry from a hook. My head wags to and fro. There’s times my speech comes out so thick and gobbled I’d as well to save my wind. But the jest is bitterer yet, for deep inside this wrecked and ravaged hull, there sails a young man still.The message is subtle but powerful. The struggle to serve God is not carried out in flights of metaphysics, but in ordinary reality where humans age and ache. But the greatest achievement of Buechner’s novel is stylistic: Godric transcends the flesh not through sanctity but through the sinew and flex of memorable phrasing. You fully believe that he is a saint—not because his person is transcendent, but because his harsh unsparing language is.

“I know but little Latin like the priests,” Godric says in asking Jesus to teach him how to pray. And rightly, then, his speech is rough with a native Anglo-Saxon rhythm and vocabulary, almost entirely coarsened by a lack of Latin influence. In this way, Buechner solves the problem that bedevils every other historical novel I know about saints or patriarchs: he devises an entirely credible voice, which leads you to believe that you have in fact been plunged into distant and unfamiliar times when God’s name came more readily to man’s lips.

[1] Robert Lowry, “The Vision on the Hill,” rev. of The Seasons’ Difference by Frederick Buechner, New York Times Book Review (Jan. 6, 1952): 4, 28.

[2] Guy Davenport, rev. of Lion Country by Frederick Buechner, New York Times Book Review (Feb. 14, 1971): 7.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Literature and silence

Howard Nemerov defines good writing as getting something right in language. And the only proper response to rightness, he adds, is silence. No other answer is required or even imaginable. On this showing, the first test is whether the text leaves the critic with anything to say. The imme­diate experience of literary greatness, then, would be akin to clarity of vision or understanding; there would be nothing more to add. And the comic role of the English professor would be to scour about for some­thing to say anyhow.

Surely this is the effect that a certain kind of writer seeks. The prooftext is James’s story “The Middle Years” (1893), in which Dencombe, an elderly novelist staying at a health resort, receives an advance copy of his latest novel, “perhaps his last.” As he begins to read his own prose, Dencombe is reminded of the difficulties he faced in writing the novel, which also brought to his awareness, “though probably, alas! to nobody else’s,” the means by which he overcame them.

As he sits on a bench outside, enjoying the sunshine and idling with his book, Dencombe is joined by a young admirer—a staff doctor at the health resort—who has also finagled an advance copy of Dencombe’s book. Seeing Dencombe’s copy, the young doctor excitedly calls it “the best thing he has done yet!” Dencombe does not reveal his identity, “because a person was always a fool for insisting to others on his work.” Doctor Hugh is inflamed by admiration, asking his companion whether he noticed this passage or “Weren’t you immediately struck with that?” He grabs the book and says, “There’s a beautiful passage toward the end.” But he has accidentally picked up Dencombe’s copy rather than his own, and he colors when he sees what Dencombe has done to the pages:

Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even for the collector, poor dears, with a second.For the novelist, in short, silence is not an option. Imperfect prose must always be answered with more perfect prose, adjusting it and read­justing it to get it exactly right. In his anxiety, though, he can never rest assured that it is exactly right or that there is even such a condition as “exactly right.”

For his admiring reader, though, the case is otherwise. “I see you’ve been altering the text,” Doctor Hugh says disapprovingly. The writer is a special pleader: he wants it both ways. He wants his reader to be horrified at any alteration of the text, but he also wants to alter it at will. Reader and writer are equally confident that good writing aspires to an ideal state of exact rightness, but the reader is far more willing to accept it in silence than is the writer, at least a certain kind of writer, who could be described worse than as a passionate and lifelong corrector of his own prose.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Ploughing old Zembla

The last text that I ever taught at Texas A&M, if you are curious, was Pale Fire. My students resisted it, or it resisted them, but ending with Nabokov’s 1962 novel, written as a “commentary to abstruse Unfinished poem,” gave me an unexpected chance to deliver a summa.

Everyone knows the basic outline of the novel. Charles Kinbote, a professor at Wordsmith College, rents a house next door to the poet John Shade. They strike up a friendship—of a sort. The true extent of the friendship is unclear, because as a “certain ferocious lady at whose club [he] had refused to speak” informs him in the Foreword, Kinbote is quite insane. Probably an “American scholar of Russian descent” named V. Botkin, he believes that he is really Charles Xavier the Beloved, the last king of Zembla (reigned 1936–1958), who was deposed by a revolutionary coup and is now living in disguise in the U.S.

When Kinbote comes into possession Shade’s last poem upon the poet’s death, he is disappointed. On afternoon walks together, he had “mesmerized” and “saturated” Shade with the dashing and heroic romance of Zembla, pressing it upon him “with a drunkard’s wild generosity.” And when he learned that, after several fallow years, Shade had begun a new poem, a long narrative poem, Kinbote was excited: “I felt sure that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain.” Instead he finds that “the final text of Pale Fire has been deliberately and drastically drained of every trace of the material [he] contributed.” The only mention of Zembla was in a line in which Shade describes himself while shaving:

And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the higheway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.
Although the finished poem is beautiful—“Shade could not write otherwise than beautifully,” Kinbote allows—Pale Fire is “void of my magic,” he laments, “of that special rich streak of magical madness which I was sure would run through it and make it transcend its time.” But when he rereads it with greater care and lesser expectation, Kinbote begins to discover “echoes and spangles of my mind, a long ripplewake of my glory.”

And so he decides to write a commentary, “an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me.” Shade’s 999-line autobiographical poem, turning on his daughter’s suicide and her parents’ desperate grief, is wrestled away from its author to become, via the magical madness of interpretation, a secretive and esoteric romance about “the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom” bordering Russia, which only the “scurrilous and the heartless” say does not exist. Shade’s poem, in Kinbote’s hands, is all about Kinbote.

The effect is a familiar one in literary criticism, if never dramatized to such horrific effect. Even J. Hillis Miller, in defending deconstructive interpretation from the accusation of being parasitical upon the literary text, does not deny its dependent status; he merely denies that any kind of interpretation whatever is any less dependent. But the text stands apart: “The poem in itself,” he writes in his well-known essay “The Critic as Host,” frequently reprinted, “is neither the host nor the parasite but the food they both need. . . .” It is “broken, divided, passed around, consumed by the critics canny and uncanny who are in that odd relation to one another of host and parasite.”[1]

Perhaps it is true that every later critic of Nabokov’s novel is parasitical upon Kinbote’s commentary, and perhaps it is even true, as Miller goes on to say, that any poem is “parasitical in its turn on earlier poems,” but neither truth undercuts Nabokov’s critique of critics who feed their reputations and obsessions off the carcass of literary texts they themselves seek to destroy (or “deconstruct”).

And that Pale Fire is such a critique is established by Nabokov’s allusion to the only other mention of Zembla in English literature. As Kinbote grudgingly reports, Shade scribbled a marginal note, citing Pope’s Essay on Man (1733), II.217–30, as his source for the name of Zembla:   Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
But where th’extreme of vice, was ne’er agreed:
Ask where’s the north? at York, ’tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he;
Even those who dwell beneath its very zone,
Or never feel the rage, or never own;
What happier nations shrink at with affright,
The hard inhabitant contends is right.
For Pope, in other words, Zembla represented the Far North of vice, sparsely inhabited. Those who dwell at the extreme latitudes contend that their rage is right, thinking that their neighbor is much “farther gone,” if not completely gonzo. (Shortly before his death, Shade confided to his next-door neighbor: “I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago.”)

In geographical actuality, Zembla is the subarctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya (Russ., “new land”), where the Soviets tested nuclear weapons starting in 1954. But Shade is ploughing “Old Zembla’s fields where [his] gray stubble grows.” This is a second allusion, which Kinbote mangles, saying that A. E. Housman “says somewhere (in a foreword?) exactly the opposite” of what Shade is saying.

In a lecture at Cambridge in 1933, later published as “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” Housman writes: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” He advances this physical reaction in defense of his view that writing poetry is “less an active than a passive and involuntary process,” even a “natural secretion.” Shade is not so much saying the opposite (just a few lines earlier, in fact, he had said that the “sudden image, the immediate phrase” makes “the little hairs all stand on end”) as he is entering into league with Housman—not a parasite upon the earlier images and phrases, but a fellow inhabitant of Old Zembla, the ancient realm of poets (Pope dwells there too), who feign “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else.”

New Zembla—Kinbote’s kingdom—is the realm of vice (for Pope) or madness (for Nabokov), where the self-regarding interpreter “intercoils” himself, in Kinbote’s own words, with “the innocent author,” and strangles him. How, then, a student asked, are we to write about Nabokov without becoming Kinbote? The answer, I replied, is not to submerge the author in ourselves, but perhaps to submerge ourselves in the author.

[1] J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry 3 (1977): 445–46.