“Our Poor Perishable World”

I wrote an essay on photographer Robert Adams, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and landscapes as sacred spaces that has been published in Issue Eight of The Common, a literary journal about “the modern sense of place.”

An excerpt:

Eden, unworthiness, ultimate judgment, grace: Adams’s is a biblical language of sin and possible redemption. Thinking of the Riverside picture in these terms, one can understand the blinding whiteness of the sun as a metaphor. Not only is it representative of our own destructiveness, suggesting that the further we push down the path of sprawl and development, the less of the current landscape’s beauty we’ll be able to see; it is also a symbol of our inability to comprehend what lies beyond this process—whether you believe that is more like heaven or hell. In Adams’s view, the landscape is sacred. And the quality of attention he gives to it is itself a form of prayer. At Yale, while I looked at hundreds of Adams’s beautiful photographs, beautiful even when they are records of humankind’s most wanton destruction, the treatment of landscape in an altogether different artist’s work came inexorably to mind.

The essay has been published online; read it by clicking this link.

Recommended Reading, Late 2013–May 2014


Kara Walker

Around this time last year I posted a number of articles, essays, and interviews that I had enjoyed reading. Here is an equivalent list for 2014. Once again, the selection is of pieces I was able to save to Instapaper, and does not include things I read in print. These are listed in the order in which I read them; a quote accompanies each link.

Nick Faust, “Get Off,” The New Inquiry. “Artists are giving themselves over and opening themselves up to those things that stick out, that linger, that give pause, that provide both evident visible pleasure and inwardly-kept satisfaction, that they can’t get out of their head, that horrify them but they come back to, that humiliate and punish, that build and nurture, that annoy and tease, that they find themselves needing more and more of.”

Arthur Krystal, “The Missing Music in Today’s Poetry,” Chronicle of Higher Education. “Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization.”

Thessaly La Force, “A Teacher and Her Student: Marilynne Robinson On Staying Out of Trouble,” Vice.  Robinson: “Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation [that is the mind’s role].”

Pico Iyer, “Hyderabad in Five Colors,” New York Review of Books online. “Now India is drawing from some of the global order’s latest fads, but only by superimposing them upon what still, poignantly, remains one of the most uncared-for and impoverished populations on earth.”

Mike Sperlinger, “Two Slight Returns: Chauncey Hare and Marianne Wex,” Afterall online. “In their choices, the vicissitudes of their reputations, and the political valencies of their work, there are parallels which suggest how vocations can unhinge careers, and how giving oneself over entirely to the work might mean abandoning it altogether.”

Jacob Mikanowski, “Papyralysis,” Los Angeles Review of Books. “The very fact that books are frail physical objects is part of what makes them endearing. They’re like us. We don’t live in a realm of pure thought, and neither do they.”

Brian Droitcour, “Splay Attention,” The New Inquiry. “For me, ten seconds can feel like an excruciatingly long time to look at a painting or a photograph. If I’m writing about a work, maybe I’ll suppress my impatience and give it a full sixty seconds. Looking at an image for fifteen minutes—even five!—is hard to fathom.”

Zadie Smith, “Man Vs. Corpse,” New York Review of Books. “I stared at this drawing, attempting a thought experiment, failing. Then I picked up a pen and wrote, in the margins of the page, most of what you have read up to this point. A simple experiment—more of a challenge, really. I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Suzanne Hudson, “Last Call,” Artforum.com. “This trip to Venice was something else. My curiosity about what happened after the official story ended got the best of me.”

Mark Slouka, “Nobody’s Son,” The New Yorker online. “I lost my father this past year, and the word feels right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced. As if he could just turn up, like a sock or a set of keys.”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Ghosting,” London Review of Books. “The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” The New Yorker online. “Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity. Woolf is celebrating getting lost.”

Leslie Jamison, “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?” The New Republic. “I think the volume asks quite a bit more: Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.” [N.B.: Jamison also just published an essay collection titled The Empathy Exams, one of the best books I’ve read this year.]

Haley Mlotek, “Tracing Ana,” The New Inquiry. “There was no label large enough for all the art that Mendieta made. That is, until she died, and there was one label for what she was: gone.”

Hilton Als, “The Sugar Sphinx,” The New Yorker online. “The diary [Kara] Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.”

Ruth Margalit, “The Unmothered,” The New Yorker online. “I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.”

Where’s the Rage? Kamila Shamsie and Pankaj Mishra In Conversation,” Guernica. Mishra: “It’s then that you begin to suspect that the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism.”

Nick Thorpe, “Why We Should Love Material Things More,” Aeon. “If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?”

The Guy Davenport Reader


Counterpoint Press has published The Guy Davenport Reader, an anthology of the late writer’s fiction, poems, translations, and commentary, edited by his onetime student and now literary executor Erik Reece. Reece’s afterword mentions the “shrewd critic Wyatt Mason.” Looking online this morning I realized that five years ago today Mason was considering Davenport’s stupendous output, as part of his now-defunct Harper’s blog Sentences. In that post Mason reprinted Davenport’s personal essay “Findings,” which I, too, offer as holiday/weekend reading. Click through to read it, and Mason’s commentary.

Recommended Reading, January–June 2013

101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.

101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.

Near the beginning of the year I began saving articles, essays, and interviews that I liked to a folder in Instapaper. Here is a selection of my favorites, in the order in which I came across them. Bear in mind that this does not include anything I read in print, or many things I read online; the article had to go into Instapaper first before it could be logged in my “favorites” folder. Nevertheless, get your preferred read-it-later bookmarklet or printer ready.

Wells Tower, “The Old Man at Burning Man,” GQ. The magazine’s description: “It’s something we’ve all been meaning to do. The father-son bonding adventure. You know: the big fishing excursion, the road trip down Route 66. Last year, Wells Tower took a completely different approach with his dad: Burning Man, the world’s largest chemically enhanced self-expression festival. They went to witness the Slut Olympics. They went to see the art. They went to discover what draws 60,000 people to one of the least hospitable places on Earth. Then they set up camp and took off their clothes. And things got truly interesting.”

Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, “Imperfect Strollers, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan,” Los Angeles Review of Books. From the essay: “Two recent debut novels, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, question such optimism in the transformative potential of the flâneur’s wandering gaze.”

Jhumpa Lahiri, “Notes from a Literary Apprenticeship,” the New Yorker. From the essay: “My love of writing led me to theft at an early age. The diamonds in the museum, what I schemed and broke the rules to obtain, were the blank notebooks in my teacher’s supply cabinet, stacked in neat rows, distributed for us to write out sentences or practice math.”

Ariel Dorfman, “My Lost Library: Books, Exile, and Identity,” Chronicle of Higher Education. From the essay: “The initial, customary words (“Ariel? Tengo malas noticias. I’ve got bad news.”), were followed by a surprise. The victim was not a human being. It was my library.”

Brian Blickenstaff, “The Saga of Tomsan,” Slate. On how an American journeyman revolutionized Japanese soccer—and why it isn’t happening in the U.S.

George Scialabba, “Progress and Prejudice,” Salmagundi. From the essay: “I, at least, am the lucky beneficiary of two or three centuries of progress. And since the carbon footprint of classical music, great novels, independent film, and most of my other chief pleasures is fairly low, it seems like sustainable, universalizable progress. Do I embody moral progress as well? That’s a harder case to make, but not impossible.”

George Packer, “Upgrade or Die,” the New Yorker online. Are perfectionism and inequality linked?

Rob Horning, “Google Alert for the Soul,” The New Inquiry. From the essay: “Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express, but social media have made that untenable. In response, authenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media—what I here call the data self.”

Benjamin Kunkel, “Aftermath and Prelude,” n+1 online. From the essay: “I didn’t expatriate myself for political reasons. But a part of my reluctance to come back to live in the US, as I did in December, was political estrangement from this country, something easier for me to deal with when I’m abroad.”

Joshua Rothman, “The Impossible Decision,” the New Yorker online. On whether or not to go to graduate school.

Greg Allen, “101 Spring Street by Donald Judd (and ARO Architects),” Architect. Changing nothing about Donald Judd’s original vision for his cast-iron building home and studio made for an unprecedented restoration project for ARO.

Richard Nash, “What Is the Business of Literature?,” Virginia Quarterly Review. As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.

Justin Erik Halldór Smith, “Interpreting Tino Sehgal,” jehsmith.com. From the essay: “What generally happens is a sort of split between two possible approaches among the interpreters. One is to riff, to recount impressions of whatever the quotation might induce one to think (or even to feel). The other is to try, within the constraints imposed by the work, to be as scholarly as possible and to get at what the author might in fact have meant. I belong squarely in the latter camp.”

Adam Kirsch, “Rocket and Lightship,” Poetry. Billed as meditations on life and letters.

Sandra Allen, “In Patagonia in Patagonia,” the Paris Review Daily. From the essay: “By the time I’d finished Shakespeare’s introduction to the Chatwin, I felt convinced I’d never needed a book as badly as I needed In Patagonia in Patagonia.”

Ian Crouch, “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting,” the New Yorker online. From the essay: “Looking at my bookshelves, I am aware of another kind of forgetting—the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting.”

Laura Owens, “‘It’s Spelled Motherfuckers.’—An Interview with Rachel Kushner,” the Believer Logger. Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers is one of the best books I’ve read this year. And her publicist deserves a raise for Kushner’s omnipresence in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christy Wampole, “The Essayification of Everything,” the New York Times. From the essay: “I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment ‘the essayification of everything.'”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” the Paris Review. The first line: “When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade.”

Joanna Kakassis, “Austerity Lentils,” Foreign Policy. (Link may require you printing the article or logging in to the website to read it.) Subtitle: “What a country cooks when it’s collapsing.” That country: Greece.

James Fenton, “What Are We Going to Do About the New Philip Larkin?,” the Threepenny Review. From the essay: “In the story of Larkin’s estate we find examples of both radical tidying up and extensive preservation.”

Michael Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission,” Artforum. From the essay: “Art is no longer discovered in biennials and fairs and magazines, but on the phone.”

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

“We Don’t Go ‘Gazing’ At Art”

Although Ingrid Rowland’s thoughtfully critical review of Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science is not available in full online, it contains a small disquisition on a topic of interest to theorists of and writers on contemporary art. The relevant excerpt:

Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”

By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.

For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.

Foner and McGirr, eds, American History Now

Today I received a copy of American History Now, a brand-new collection of historiographical essays edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr. Published for the American Historical Association by Temple University Press, the book supplants The New American History, which came out in 1990 and was revised in 1997. The new volume is an imaginative overhauling of the invaluable sourcebook of essays on recent developments in American history, increasing the total number of texts and dividing them roughly evenly between accounts ordered chronologically and those ordered thematically. If you have the earlier edition—I do, and it was very useful for my comprehensive exam—you’ll want this one, too, as the editors have invited a new generation of scholars to weigh in with fresh surveys of their particular fields of expertise. A few examples will suffice: Alan Taylor on the colonial era; Kim Phillips-Fein on the last four decades; Erez Manela on “The United States in the World”; Sven Beckert on the history of American capitalism; Mae Ngai on immigration and ethnic history.

The Los Angeles Review of Books

I’d like to point you to the Los Angeles Review of Books, a new and ambitious book-review publication. A temporary site was launched last spring, and despite its interim nature it boasts some wonderful review-essays. I’ve been reading it since April, and scanning its Table of Contents reminds me of some thoughtful and sharply written pieces, including Kathryn Schulz on Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne; Barbara Ehrenreich on human-animal relationships; Chris Kraus on Simone Weil; and Mark McGurl’s controversial response to Elif Batuman’s controversial review of his book on MFA fiction-writing programs. I eagerly await the unveiling of the full LARB site, and hope its funding (from UC Riverside and other places) creates a sustainable platform for such writing for a long time to come.

David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading

Published on Bookforum.com on October 29, 2010. To see the review in context, click here.

Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin would readily admit that what, how, and why one reads inevitably change over time. What concerns him is that the act of reading is itself now being changed by the times. The quiet space we require for reading “seems increasingly elusive in our over-networked society,” he writes, “where … it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know.” I have suffered from a form of this allergy to deep engagement and its corollary need for “information”; for the better part of the past decade I mostly engaged with books indirectly, distractedly, through journalistic reviews of the kind Ulin writes so capably. If I counted up the words I read about, say, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, I probably could have (and should have) read the book itself. But I digress and perhaps overshare—other symptoms, Ulin suggests, of the age.

The Lost Art of Reading expands upon an essay Ulin published last year, and though pocket-size and only 150 pages, the book attempts to weave together several narrative threads. It is a personal essay recounting the author’s longstanding literary enthusiasms (Joan Didion, Alexander Trocchi) and his experiences as the father of a teenage son. It is a journalistic summary of recent commentary on e-readers and the neuroscience and psychiatry of attention. And though Ulin recognizes that “literature doesn’t, can’t, have the [cultural] influence it once did,” the book is also what its title advertises: a paean to the intimacy and attention demanded of book readers, and the sense of empathy that develops from engaging with books. The first two threads at times feel like filler, especially when Ulin draws liberally from still-current titles like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Eva Hoffman’s Time, and David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Yet, as one might expect of so dedicated a reader, the final argument is cogent. Particularly strong is his elucidation of the political fallout of our “distracted time.” Using the momentousness of the 2008 presidential election as a “frame” (one of his favorite terms), Ulin channels and deploys Didion’s 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to speak clearly of a “comprehensive dissolution, in which the very idea of a common ground, or common narrative, has been rendered obsolete.”

Books like The Lost Art of Reading, however, face a fundamental challenge. It’s one thing to explain what is good or bad about a particular novel or nonfiction title, as Ulin does week in and week out for the Los Angeles Times. But the transactions between author and reader he attempts to describe here are so unique that descriptions of them are necessarily vague. Ulin ends up saying: “This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.” And: The process of reading “is (or should be) porous, an interweaving rather than a dissemination, a blending, not an imposition, of sensibilities.” Well, yes, but such statements rely heavily upon just the kind of empathy and engagement he praises. The self-selecting audience of The Lost Art of Reading—or, for that matter, any hymn by Alberto Manguel—can make concrete such abstractions by reflecting upon its own experiences with literature. Books like this remind readers why they do that now-idiosyncratic thing they do. Turning browsers into dedicated readers, to say nothing of figuring out how to counter the distractions of the times, seems an altogether more complicated task.

Michael Greenberg

For several months I have read, in a fugitive manner, Michael Greenberg’s essay collection Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life. A compilation of roughly thousand-word essays he has published in the Times Literary Supplement, the book, so far as I can tell, amounts to a haphazard index of New York, a careful and sympathetic accounting of its odd places and characters. I peruse it standing up. I read in a West Village bookstore about a longtime fixer in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Greenberg grew up, and in an Upper West Side indie about Hart Island, a potter’s field where thousands of New York’s anonymous dead lie buried. Now I’m pleased to discover that Greenberg has inaugurated a new column, “The Accidentalist,” in the new issue of Bookforum. Read his first entry, about a “strange fever,” here.

Reconsidering Christopher Lasch

One of my summer goals is to read (or re-read) several of Christopher Lasch’s books, from The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963 (1965) to The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), as a prelude to reading Eric Miller’s new biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. Reviews of Miller’s study have begun coming in over the transom. Andrew Bacevich warmly welcomes the book in the new issue of World Affairs, and Alan Wolfe reviewed it in a recent issue of The New Republic. Rochelle Gurstein, once a student of Lasch’s, takes issue with Wolfe’s piece, recommending Bacevich and Jackson Lears as better guides to Lasch’s thinking. (Lears’s 1995 consideration is not yet available online.) I would add two enjoyable, deeply thoughtful essays to Gurstein’s recommendations. One is the reminiscence Lasch’s University of Rochester colleague Robert Westbrook published in Reviews in American History in 1995, and the other is Louis Menand’s 1991 NYRB essay. Unfortunately both require subscriptions to read online, though Menand’s piece was reprinted in his 2002 collection American Studies (it begins on page 198). Also useful is the Christopher Lasch bibliography-in-progress, maintained until 2003 by Robert Cummings. UPDATE, 5/25: Former Lasch student Chris Lehmann reviews the biography in the summer issue of Bookforum.

The Voice Literary Supplement

I’ve just surfaced from a particularly pleasant internet-as-black-hole experience. After reading Craig Fehrman’s entertaining article on Mark Twain’s house, I wandered over to his website. There I found a link to Rick Perlstein’s 2002 essay on plagiarism and writing history, published in the Voice Literary Supplement. From there I found a page with links to the contents of more than a dozen issues of the VLS. Good reads abound: Mike Davis on Jane Jacobs (April/May 2000); Luc Sante on street vendors (December 1999); Benjamin Kunkel on W.G. Sebald (June 2000); Michael Eric Dyson on Stanley Aronowitz (September 1998); and much, much more. For those wanting to learn more, Joy Press compiled a brief oral history of the VLS on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary.

John Gray on The Shock of the Global

John Gray has written the first review I’ve seen of The Shock of the Global (Harvard), an anthology of historians’ writings about the 1970s edited by a super-group of three Harvard-based historians and a colleague from Berkeley. His assessment: “While what one contributor calls ‘the declining autonomy of the United States in international affairs’ is occasionally acknowledged, the idea that globalization might be undermining America’s position in the world is nowhere systematically examined.” Read more in The New Statesman.

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890

Detail view of the facade of the Reliance Building. Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr.

The Reliance Building (Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr)

This month I have been reading books on the history of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed several that are deemed classics in their fields—namely William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. But rather than sing their praises yet again, I want to mention a new book, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury’s Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (University of Chicago Press, 2009). It’s a slim, engaging study that places a handful of the city’s first skyscrapers, including The Monadnock, the Masonic Temple, and the Reliance Building, in the context of the raucous decade during which they were erected. While Merwood-Salisbury does include some formal description, a far greater proportion of her book is given over to analysis of “architecture and anarchy,” strikes by building trades union members, and the skyscrapers’ relationship to civic reform efforts, such as sanitation. Even the technical innovations that allowed the skyscrapers to reach above ten stories in the first place, such as steel-frame construction, are examined from the standpoint of their impact upon the labor that goes in to their building. This push-and-pull between aesthetics and politics played out in the pages of The Inland Architect, the house journal of the city’s architecture professionals, and the newspaper and periodical press, which Merwood-Salisbury mines to strong effect.

Rorotoko, a website that publishes original first-person statements by authors that describe their books, featured Chicago 1890 at the beginning of the month. Here are a few of Merwood-Salisbury’s own words:

→ The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95). I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.

Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated. This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.

To read more from this interview, click here. To see a video recording of a lecture on this subject that Merwood-Salisbury delivered at the Skyscraper Museum last year, click here.

David Blumenthal and James A. Morone, The Heart of Power

I’ve just finished David Blumenthal and James A. Morone’s The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (University of California Press), which discusses eleven presidents’ encounters with illness alongside their attempts to influence health care policy. Blumenthal, professor of medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School and an adviser to Barack Obama, and Morone, a professor and chair of political science at Brown, are certainly up to this task, and the book is a pretty good, if sometimes repetitious, read. Particularly engaging are chapters on the Democrats who dreamed of Heart_of_Powernational health insurance, from FDR and Harry Truman to JFK and Lyndon Johnson. The chapter on Johnson draws on newly released archival material to present a “secret history of Medicare” that counters the popular narrative granting credit for the program to Senator Wilbur Mills. It turns out that LBJ, master manipulator of Congress that he was, was in on Mills’s “surprise” packaging of three separate bills—the ones that became Medicare Part A, Medicare Part B, and Medicaid—all along, graciously working behind the scenes to clear the path for the senator to dramatically reverse his longstanding anti–health insurance stance (and even following this narrative line in his autobiography).

I’m neither a health care expert nor a scholar of Johnson, so I can’t assess how fresh this “secret history” really is. Yet the book, published by the University of California Press, is obviously aimed at a broad audience, ostensibly offering ballast to anyone debating health care in 2009 and 2010. The final chapter goes so far as to offer “eight rules for the Heart of Power,” among them “passion,” “speed,” “hush the economists,” “go public,” and “manage Congress.” Curiously, though, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the Times’s Week in Review section, is among the only editors to have responded to the book. I guess the vicissitudes of book publicity will always escape me: I would imagine that powerhouse academic authors plus reputable academic press plus hot-button topic would equal widespread review attention. But despite the fact that The Heart of Power was featured on the cover of the NYTBR, where it was reviewed by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and was the prompt for an article in the Week in Review, there’s not much else out there. (I canvassed the web and Lexis-Nexis.) Here’s an interview with Morone on Open Source, a radio program based at Brown. These pieces came out in September, so perhaps others are on their way. For what it’s worth, Reich’s assessment of the book, and his description of Obama’s action on the authors’ lessons, seems to me insightful and fair. Here are his thoughts on the latter topic:

The book was written before President Obama began his push for universal health care, but he seems to have anticipated many of its lessons. He’s moved as quickly on the issue as this terrible economy has let him, and he has outlined his goals but left most details to Congress. Nor has he been too rattled by naysaying economists (although the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office set him back). The question remains whether, in the months ahead, he can knock Congressional heads together to clinch a meaningful deal, and overcome those who inevitably feed public fears about a “government takeover” of health care and of budget-busting future expenditures. “The Heart of Power” suggests that the odds are not in his favor.

David M. Henkin, City Reading

Henkin_City_ReadingDavid M. Henkin’s City Reading (Columbia University Press, 1998), the last book I read in 2009, comes close to my current ideal of the historian’s first book. It offers a fresh look at familiar territory: in this case, the public spaces of antebellum New York City. It’s short: based upon Henkin’s 300-page dissertation, the main text is a mere 180 or so pages. Despite that brevity, it engages a big idea: the formation of a new public in the wake of the city’s rapidly growing—and changing—population and economy. (This public is brought together, Henkin suggests, by reading in public, with commercial signage, handbills and posters, newspapers, paper currency, and the like as the citizenry’s common texts.) In doing so, Henkin is unafraid to push back against received wisdom: he suggests a somewhat novel conception of the nineteenth-century “public sphere” that counters Jürgen Habermas’s many followers, who lament everything after the demise of eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture. The book is rooted in thorough research: Henkin went through several archives’ worth of lithographs and photographs depicting the city, then interwove the insights he gained from them with contemporary observations drawn from New Yorkers’ diaries and visitors’ travelogues. He has marshaled enough evidence to convince readers that he isn’t extrapolating too broadly from too shallow a pool of sources. And the writing is largely free of obscurantist jargon. City Reading has weaknesses: to my mind, in striving to demonstrate the emergence and coherence of this new public Henkin underemphasizes the consistent confrontation among New York’s varied residents—which led to such clashes as the 1849 Astor Place Riot and the 1863 Draft Riots, both mentioned in passing in the book. (For more on this, see, for example, Lisa Keller’s 2008 book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, also published by Columbia.) Yet novelty, ambition, depth, and (especially) brevity seem to me admirable traits for a young scholar to aim for. To read reviews of Henkin’s book, click here and here.

Some Favorite Books Published in 2009

The editors of Frieze magazine invited me to write about some of my favorite books published this year. My response was paired with that of Amit Chaudhuri and is published in issue 128 (January-February 2010). To see the piece in context, and to read Chaudhuri’s list of the year’s literary highlights, click here. Of the books I mention, the only one I reviewed was by Steve Nicholls; read that review by clicking here.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.’

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on Bookforum.com on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon

Last night, T.J. Stiles’s new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction from an award committee chaired by Yale historian David Blight. By coincidence I just happened to read a thoughtful, generous (but by no means naive) review-essay about the book written by Steve Fraser. It’s in the current issue of The Nation, and can be found online here. “Whatever their Weltanschauung, many of these studies [a genre Fraser dubs “the misunderstood robber baron” biographies] are first-rate histories, and The First Tycoon … is no exception. Vanderbilt’s rise from small-time ferry boat operator on Staten Island to the dominant figure in the nation’s maritime (steamboat) and land (railroad) transportation system is a fascinating story, and Stiles tells it well. His writing is lively and colorful. He is a meticulous and exhaustive researcher with an instinct for the telling anecdote.” Fraser’s byline notes he is at work on a book about “America’s two Gilded Ages,” which most likely expands on his essay “The Two Gilded Ages” in the summer issue of Raritan. I recommend both of Fraser’s pieces. [Update, 11/24: Stiles has responded to Fraser’s review here, and commented thoughtfully on the process of responding here.]

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn

Published in Bookforum, December/January 2010. To see the review in context, click here. To hear the author discuss the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” click here.

Stewardship of the land remains as contentious an issue today as it was one hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for conservation and ran into opposition from corporate lumber and mining interests. In The Big Burn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan tells the story of Roosevelt’s prophetic vision for America’s landscape and the debates he gleefully exacerbated. The book focuses, with cinematic flair, on the August 1910 forest fire that ravaged three million acres in the northern Rockies, while providing an opportune challenge to the newborn US Forest Service.

Egan_Big_Burn_coverUnlike The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s nearly thousand-page chronicle of Roosevelt’s conservation consciousness that was published last summer, Egan’s portrait moves swiftly. It emphasizes the president’s relationship with Gifford Pinchot, an enormously wealthy friend and adviser who bankrolled the Yale School of Forestry after studying the practice in France. On walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park and during swims in the Potomac, the duo would reminisce about formative years spent in the American West and the restorative capacity of the region’s soaring mountains, dense forests, broad plains, and crystalline rivers. Building on the ideas of naturalist pioneers like John Muir, they vowed to shield millions of acres from irresponsible forms of clear-cutting, strip-mining, and other harmful development. Past presidents had rarely thought about such issues, much less acted on them. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service, and Pinchot immediately assigned graduates from the initial forestry class at Yale—who would come to be known as “Little GPs”—to begin surveying swaths of Idaho, Montana, and neighboring states. It wasn’t easy: Gilded Age robber barons hoping to profit from the West’s natural resources had stooges in Washington, among them Idaho senator Weldon B. Heyburn, who scrapped with Pinchot in congressional hearings and strangled the Forest Service’s budget.

Political obstacles left the rangers poorly paid and underequipped, and they were no match for conditions in the summer of 1910. Extremely dry weather, regular lightning storms, and the sparks thrown off by trains rushing along newly constructed tracks ignited thousands of little blazes. On the evening of August 20, a strong wind called a palouser descended from the mountains and unified the smoldering patches into a firestorm of hurricane force: “What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.” Egan’s patient reconstruction of the devastating fire, drawn from Forest Service archives, journalistic accounts, diaries, and letters, is the heart of the book. Cutting back and forth across the region—one wishes the book contained more maps—Egan tracks the efforts to save remote outposts like Wallace, Idaho, undertaken by little-known rangers like Ed Pulaski, Elers Koch, and Joe Halm. Working with a motley assortment of townsmen, laborers imported from across the West, and even prisoners—and shielding themselves against flames that looked like “an airborne stream”—the rangers dug fire lines and set backfires while helping thousands of terrified residents flee to safety.

After several days, the fires diminished. Eighty-five people were dead. The devastation, Egan implies, provoked Roosevelt into open confrontation over the necessity and purpose of the Forest Service with President Taft, his handpicked successor, who increasingly seemed an impediment to the cause of conservation despite pre-election promises to further Roosevelt’s vision. The final section of Egan’s book tracks the legacy of the “big burn,” highlighting the triumphs (increased Forest Service budgets, increased respect) and setbacks (continued logging, a later Forest Service chief who drifted into corporate arms) that attended Pinchot’s protection campaign well into the presidency of another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano. Did the burn “save America”? Based on the evidence Egan presents, a case can be made that, however important his politicking on behalf of his rangers, Pinchot’s belief that fire should always be contained was harmful to his cause in the long run. Egan’s impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.

NB: Amazon is pushing the book; to see photographs from its pages, read an excerpt and an interview with Egan, and buy the hardcover for just $14, click here.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Artforum.com. Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, so I was happy to learn yesterday that her next book will arrive in 2010. It is an essay collection titled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, and it will be released by Yale University Press. It seems likely that it is a version of the four lectures Robinson delivered last spring at Yale under the same title, which can be viewed online at this page. (News via The Second Pass.)

LRB Turns Thirty

After a lapse of about eighteen months, I’ve renewed my subscription to the London Review of Books just as the journal celebrates its thirtieth anniversary and launches a newly redesigned website. John Sutherland, a contributor for three decades, profiles the LRB and its editors for the Financial Times, recounting its “marsupial” early issues (enfolded within the NYRB), some controversies it has raised, and a number of the contributors who are identified with it. Click here to read the article.

Nota Bene: Two New Editing Projects

Two books on which I worked as editor and/or copyeditor have just been published. The first is Produce, Distribute, Discuss, Repeat, an anthology of essays and one interview that concerns Anton Vidokle’s artistic practice. It is the eighteenth book in the Lukas & Sternberg series from Sternberg Press. I wrote a preface for the collection; among the contributors are Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, Boris Groys, and Maria Lind. More information about the title can be found here. The second title is the catalogue accompanying Rosalind Nashashibi’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which opens November 13 at the Bergen Kunsthall in Bergen, Norway. The book contains an interview with Nashashibi and short texts by the artist, as well as essays by Dieter Roelstraete and Martin Herbert. For more information, click here. Shameless plug: I am available as a freelance editor and copyeditor for art publications. See my “about” page further information.

Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience

Published in Frieze 127 (November-December 2009). To see the review in context (website registration required), click here.

Charlotte Klonk
Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000
Yale University Press, 2009 ($75)

Thirty years ago, artist and writer Brian O’Doherty revealed some of the political and economic implications of the ‘white cube’. It is, we now acknowledge, anything but a neutral container. While O’Doherty’s polemic holds up well, it doesn’t address at length how such design features as coloured walls, wainscotting and decorative furnishings were slowly excised from the typical gallery environment. Art historian Charlotte Klonk’s limited but engaging study Spaces of Experience traces just this history. Ranging idiosyncratically across the last two centuries, she examines the influence of colour theorists, psychologists, businessmen and artists on the design decisions undertaken by museum directors in Europe and the USA. Klonk shows how changing theories of perception and individuality, as well as evolving attitudes toward gallery visitors, were at the centre of some surprisingly intense debates about how to present art.

Klonk_Spaces_of_ExperienceThe gallery designs of the 19th century were shaped primarily by scientific theories: Goethe’s discussion of colour had museum directors calibrating their walls to match the dominant hues in their painting collections; later, in the 1890s, Wilhelm Wundt’s stimulation experiments prompted a scramble to eliminate ‘sameness’ in gallery architecture. Such scientific considerations were intertwined with social and political questions. Were spectators to be treated as a liberal body politic that could learn, in galleries, the art of citizenship? Or were they individuals seeking intimate, emotionally charged encounters with masterpieces?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter view came to dominate, leading to rapid changes in display strategies: art works were given more breathing room; period details and furniture were removed; patterned papers and colour were banished from the walls. This story, as Klonk tells it, is almost exclusively German, populated by figures such as the gallery directors Wilhelm von Bode, who was inspired by collectors’ homes, and Ludwig Justi, who hung canvases extremely low down and (radically!) in a single row.

But with the ascent of a Weimar ‘culture of pure exteriority’, in which functionalist shop window displays contributed to the spectacle of the street, the main tenets of gallery display changed once again. Klonk’s book excels in tracing this evacuation of distinctiveness, though it also takes on a polemical tone. It is clear that she admires Bauhaus-era designs for ‘collective experience’, such as those by Herbert Bayer, Friedrich Kiesler, El Lissitzky and others. It is equally obvious that she laments how quickly they were neutered and co-opted, especially by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and his corporate-minded board members at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Somewhat perfunctory discussions of Documenta, artists’ installations and recent ‘starchitect’-designed museums bring Klonk’s history up to the present. But she believes, rightly I think, that such developments ‘represented no deviation from entrenched modes of viewing, no challenge to individual contemplation, and certainly no departure from the idea of the spectator as consumer’ made popular in mid-20th-century New York. Despite this, Klonk is not despondent; it is precisely by unearthing earlier models that emphasized the gallery as ‘a space of public interaction and communication’ that we may finally be able to reconstitute it as a space in which to explore ‘issues relating to human social interaction’. Spaces of Experience is a useful first step in this recovery effort.

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recently published and available, so I thought I’d post it to the site. Slavery and abolitionism are not my specialties, so this piece is largely descriptive; please don’t look to the text below for an understanding of where Drescher’s book fits within the historiography of slavery and abolitionism.

Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge), a sweeping comparative history of slavery and its eradication, is the fruit of Seymour Drescher’s fifty years of scholarship on the topic. As the title indicates, Drescher is particularly interested in abolition, and he therefore examines historical developments based on their effect, whether positive or negative, on the institution of slavery. His analyses of local events focus primarily upon Britain, France, the Iberian peninsula, and their New World colonial outposts; less attention is devoted to slavery in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Drescher’s book is arranged in three broad narratives: one concerning the “extension” (or rise) of slavery; one focused upon slavery in “crisis”; and one charting the “contraction” of slavery. A shorter fourth section discusses the unexpected “reversion” to slavery during the second quarter of the twentieth century (which took place in the forced-labor camps of the Soviet Union and Germany).

Drescher_abolitionAt the outset of his book, Drescher describes slavery as a “perennial institution” and outlines the ways in which Christians and Muslims enslaved each other (but not their co-religionists); describes the organization of African society and its ability to facilitate of the export of slaves after initial Portuguese contact; and the shift from Mediterranean to transatlantic slaving. He suggests that a “freedom principle” arose in the consciousness of serfs and peasants in northwest Europe during the fifteenth century, leading to the gradual incorporation of contracts for labor and the recognition that a line divided those who possessed a modicum of freedom from the far greater number of people who did not.

What, then, inaugurated abolitionist movements? Drescher suggests that increasing New World agitation on behalf of national independence and individual emancipation during the American Revolution, the messy Franco-American revolutions of the 1780s to the 1820s, and the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s created a situation in which European citizens could no longer ignore the contradiction between “free soil” policies at home and the use of slave labor at the edges of empire. Drescher believes that this contradiction was felt most acutely in Britain, and that the nascent abolitionist movement there capitalized upon a rising tide of moral indignation among the general public. Through an expanded print sphere, increasing associational activity, and the process of mass petitioning, British abolitionists led three waves of protest (1787-88, 1791-92, 1806-07) whose cumulative force resulted in the abolishing of the slave trade by Britain’s government. Indeed, the fact that Anglo-American societies possessed “the most highly developed public sphere on the face of the earth” during the Age of Revolutions was “the most distinctive, durable, and consequential development in the demise of New World slavery.” By virtue of Britain’s global naval dominance during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was able then to “internationalize” abolition through a patchwork of bilateral treaties with powers in Old World and colonies and emerging nations in the New World.

Two more popular pushes in Britain, which Drescher describes with obvious relish, led to the emancipation of all of the empire’s enslaved peoples in 1833. He is careful to note, however, that the later efforts to transition from slavery to free labor do not follow the immediatist policies of Britain and France (which abolished slavery—for the first time—during its own revolution, in 1794). Instead, the tenacity of slaveholders, their fears of slave rebellions, and the inability of abolitionists to prove free labor more efficient than slave labor, as well as the fact that attacks on slavery seem always to arrive at the height of the institution’s economic power, conspired to create a situation in which gradual emancipation predominated. (One striking thread running through Drescher’s book is the fact that slave rebellions in the Americas often worked against the interests of slaves back in the halls of power at the seat of empire.)

The public sphere, though preeminent in Drescher’s account, is only one lens through which he views abolitionism during the nineteenth century. In each region on which he focuses, Drescher not only examines the impact of newspapers and public outcry, but also women, the church, the working and middle classes, and slaves themselves. Drescher’s comparative perspective allows readers to understand more fully which of these factors were real agents of change in which region; for example, whereas in the inaugural push for abolition in Britain depended to a large extent on the efforts of women and the church, they played a much smaller role in the initial efforts toward abolition in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. Few previous considerations of abolitionism have ranged as widely as does Drescher’s; even a recent collection edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, Prophets of Protest, limits itself largely to the United States. Drescher’s synthesis of a broad range of materials and his comparative perspective offer readers an opportunity to consider anew the history of slavery and abolition in our country.

Review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters

My brief review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters (Yale) appears in the fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Click here (and scroll down) to read it. “[Goldberger] is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of ‘aesthetic ambition’ and ‘social purpose,’ exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter.” Though Goldberger’s book arrived in stores a few weeks ago, I’ve yet to find much other review coverage, a fact that may be due in part to the preponderance of discussion concerning Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which is published in the same series. I’ll update this post with links to any coverage I come across. In the meantime, Goldberger’s personal website offers a fairly extensive archive of his writings on architecture from the past decade.

A Question about Blurbing and Review Quoting

I’ve just begun (and am enjoying) Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal. The book has just been released in an attractive paperback edition by Yale University Press, and its back cover presents blurbs from the geographically dispersed but uniformly respected literary intellectuals Azar Nafisi, Mario Vargas Llosa, Adam Zagajewski, and Ivan Klima. The front cover’s spare design features only one quotation from a review, by Mark Sarvas of the blog The Elegant Variation. This is the first time I have seen a quote from a blog on the front cover of a paperback. The blog’s title is italicized, a characteristic most style guides reserve for book and play titles, the names of periodicals and newspapers, and other such entities. Without denigrating Sarvas’s endeavor, which I read and respect, I wonder if this latter development—a typographical designation for an unedited online venue that places it on par with an entirely different range of publications—doesn’t do more harm than good, and potentially confuse readers unfamiliar with the online literary world. Am I simply being curmudgeonly or conservative? UPDATE, 9/30: Mark Sarvas and his thoughtful commenters respond here.

Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recent and widely available, so I thought I’d post it to the site.

This month New York City celebrates the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in the waters of the river that now bears his name. Only five weeks earlier, the French explorer and trader Samuel Champlain, aiming to expand his pelt trade, fought a decisive battle against Mohawk tribesmen alongside the lake that now bears his name. That same year, the Dutch set up their first permanent trading post in Asia at the west end of the island of Java. By 1609, in other words, commerce was knitting together the entire world. What united the English captain, the French explorer, and the Dutch republicans? All were seeking China’s access to fabled riches. “Europe and China are the two poles of the magnetic field of interconnection” historian Timothy Brook describes in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.

vermeer's_hatThis idiosyncratic and entertaining history uses five paintings by Johannes Vermeer and two additional artifacts to explore this global trade. Small details in the canvases—the officer’s hat in Officer and Laughing Girl, the globe resting on a cabinet in the background of The Geographer, the silver coins about to be weighed in Woman Holding a Balance—act as “doors,” in Brook’s phrasing, that open onto the seventeenth century, an age of worldwide mobility and social “improvisation” driven by the trade in porcelain, tobacco, silver, and other products. This was the first era in which isolation was exceedingly difficult, as the Chinese would learn: The globe had become “an unbroken surface on which there was no place that could not be reached, no place that was not implied by every other place.”

The officer’s hat, for example, is impressively elaborate, with a broad brim surely made from the fur of beaver pelts (as opposed to less stiff wool felt). But by 1657, the approximate date of Vermeer’s painting, the European beaver population had been decimated, so it’s fair to assume the material for the officer’s prized possession had been slaughtered and skinned in what is now Canada. In explaining how this pelt ended up in a Delft drawing room, Brook offers a sharp précis of the early Canadian beaver trade that focuses on Champlain and the “ladder” of tribal alliances that brought him westward and into contact with foes like the Mohawks. So, too, the silver coins in Woman Holding a Balance lead Brook on a journey across the world. First noting that Vermeer’s depiction of money-counting is positive, possibly reflecting a new “ethic of accumulation,” Brook goes on to describe the silver boom town of Potosí in Peru and the complicated networks of exchange by which hundreds of tons of its natural resource ended up China. Among his many vignettes Brook highlights the ways in which standardized currencies were changing the conditions for trade and explains the interdependence of Spanish settlers and Chinese workers in the trading outpost in Manila (even after a massive battle that led to the decimation of this Chinese population).

Why did so much silver end up in China, making it a “tomb of European moneys”? At the time, there were few European goods that the Chinese didn’t already make for themselves, often of a higher quality and at a lower price than what the Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch could offer. So the European traders exchanged the raw material they were extracting from new-world colonies for porcelain, spices, textiles, and tea. It was a massive trade: Approximately three million pieces of porcelain arrived in Holland in the fifty years after the first boatload (which was captured from the Portuguese) docked in 1602.

Brook describes in great detail the cultural exchanges that attended this bartering. He suggests that these sustained interactions not only required accommodations from each party but also actively fostered what historian Fernando Ortiz called transculturation, the process “by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved.” Brook, a historian of China whose specialty is the Ming dynasty that came to an end during this period, seems to be an advocate of openness to this process. He consistently details the ways China tried to fend off Western influences, from tobacco to Christianity, while noting the advantages gained by the Dutch, such as sole trading rights with Japan, by virtue of their monomaniacal desire for trade and profit.

Much goes unexplored in Brook’s discussion, including the political conditions that gave rise to this global trade and the newly invented corporate structures that underlay it. Yet his synthesis of material drawn from autobiographies, the writings of other historians, ledger books, and, of course, Vermeer’s paintings, is sophisticated and expertly told. Brook describes China as the great lure that “haunted the seventeenth-century world,” and shows how desire for its riches opened the first lines of global interconnection that mark the world in which we live today.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell

Published in the September 2009 issue of the Brooklyn Rail as “Community Centering.” To see this review in context, click here.

Rebecca Solnit agrees with one aspect of commonplace thinking about disasters: once a hurricane’s winds subside, an earthquake’s upheavals abate, or an explosion’s concussive force dissipates, the trouble is far from over. But the premise of Solnit’s forceful new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is that nearly everything else we are told about the aftermath of such events is wrong. Conventional wisdom suggests that the veneer of civilization is so thin as to be nearly translucent, and that at moments of desperation we regress to a Hobbesian state in which self-interest predominates to the point of violence. We expect looters to cart off large-screen televisions from the local Best Buy. We assume survivors will hoard water, food, and clothing. In such situations, we believe, compassion extends only as far as one’s family, or perhaps to one’s immediate neighbors. To counter this potential anarchy the full weight of institutional law and order must be brought to bear upon the devastated area—not only cops must patrol the streets but so, too, must the National Guard. And the recovery efforts must be managed by large organizations experienced in such relief work, whether governmental (FEMA) or non-profit (The Red Cross). Or so the story goes.

sholis-webSolnit, however, contends that in the wake of disaster, altruism, purposefulness, and a sense of commonality bind people together. She was inspired in part by her experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, in which the ruptured earth created a parallel breach in normal priorities that led to a strange elation among the city’s residents. Everyday worries ceased to matter, if only temporarily. As she described it elsewhere, “the long-term perspective from which so much dissatisfaction and desire comes was shaken too: life, meaning, value were close to home, in the present.” In subsequently researching the 1906 earthquake (and fires) that wiped out much of the same town, the 1917 explosion of a French cargo ship carrying munitions through the narrows of Halifax Harbor, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, Solnit has uncovered a deep vein of benevolence, unselfish charity, and equanimity, all characteristics that contribute to what William James called the “civic temper.” There is Anna Amelia Holshouser, who set up a soup kitchen in Golden Gate Park three days after the 1906 quake and eventually served food to thousands of strangers. There is Vincent Coleman, a Halifax train dispatcher who lost his life rushing back to a telegraph office to warn incoming trains not to proceed. There are the hundreds of people who volunteered to escort through New York City nervous Arab American women and children in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

In the process of presenting this evidence, Solnit marshals a vast array of related topics and figures. As her previous books demonstrate, ranging widely is her modus operandi. Savage Dreams (which Solnit published in 1994) yokes together the mid-nineteenth-century war against American Indians and the mid-20th century nuclear tests that decimated acres of the same western states. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) expounds upon the many meanings of bipedal movement. The prize-winning River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003) spins outward from the photographer’s late-nineteenth-century technical achievements to mind-opening ruminations on the characteristics of modernity. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) offers a series of autobiographical essays that examine the possibilities inherent in uncertainty—and in the process touch on Renaissance painting, country music, and early American captivity narratives. So it isn’t surprising that while explicating the aftermaths of her five chosen disasters in this book, Solnit also discusses Hollywood horror movies, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, a Buddhist community’s reaction to recent wildfires, and the Diggers, a short-lived group of agrarian communists in seventeenth-century England. As with her earlier works, Solnit’s elegant and direct prose bridges the spans her mind fearlessly leaps across.

One can’t quite describe A Paradise Built in Hell as revisionist history, because for decades academics have observed and commented upon the generosity, friendliness, and attachment that characterize communities beset by tragedies. It is one of Solnit’s achievements, however, to set an intellectual history of disaster sociology—from early avatars like Samuel H. Prince and Charles Fritz to still-practicing scholars like Kai Erikson, E. L. Quarantelli, and Kathleen Tierney—in the context of anarchist and communitarian writings that theorize or call for this magnanimous spirit as a way of life. Many commentators marveled at the decline of partisan bickering in the first few weeks after September 11. Fewer critics have, like Solnit, openly lamented that the space for civil discourse created by such horrible events is so quickly abandoned for the status quo. This book not only excavates the memory of five “extraordinary communities,” it places them in the context of those who aimed to make the extraordinary ordinary.

In this regard, Solnit’s study can be viewed as a successor to Hope in the Dark, her slim 2004 open letter to an activist community disappointed by its inability to halt the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That book “tells stories of [activist] victories and possibilities because the defeats and disasters are more than adequately documented,” and offers spirited, wide-ranging reflections on the ways in which the masses foster change and wield power. Solnit is an activist aware of the forces raged against such communal assertions of power, and the sections of A Paradise Built in Hell dedicated to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina show clearly that the attempt to solidify the social gains of a “disaster utopia” is always a political struggle. For every concerned citizen who distributes supplies during the critical moments just after disaster strikes, there is an appointed official who swoops in to displace this spontaneous charity and enact institutionally sanctioned rules. For every person who finds a bridge to dry land after the levees in New Orleans break, there are Gretna sheriff’s deputies to block African American victims from that route to safety. Solnit dissects how such administrative inflexibility and “elite panic” hinders rather than helps recovery efforts.

Only in Mexico City does Solnit find long-term gains in the wake of its disaster. There the rapacity of corporate leaders asserting their property rights (with governmental forces as handmaidens) caused the working classes to band together to enact significant housing reform and to create unions in the textile industry. How were such changes made possible? “Revolution has a different legacy here,” Solnit suggests, “and the idea of radical change a different currency. It is as though they had an ability to recognize that disaster utopia, name it, connect it to other experiences, and make something of it. In other places, the unnamed qualities of a richer civic life and deeper ties often slip away for lack of a language and framework to prize them. It remains an orphan experience, unconnected and ultimately lost.”

Three Interviews with Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell is receiving a fair amount of press attention, including reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the B&N Review, and elsewhere. Most have been positive; Christine Stanstell’s review in the current New Republic, not yet available at the magazine’s poorly redesigned website, dissents from the general tone and offers a batch of very thoughtful criticisms. My own review of the book, published in the Brooklyn Rail, will appear here soon. In the meantime, here are links to three interviews with Solnit. One is by my old friend Lauren O’Neill-Butler and published on Artforum.com; one is by my new friend Astra Taylor and published in the fall issue of Bomb; and one is by a writer named Benjamin Cohen and published in The Believer.

Brenda Wineapple Appointed Director of GC Center for Biography

According to an e-mail just sent to the Graduate Center community from President William P. Kelly: “I’m delighted to report that that Dr. Brenda Wineapple has agreed to join us as the Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. Brenda’s achievements as author, biographer, scholar, and teacher are remarkable. Her most recent book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was published last year and earned glowing reviews, several major awards, and inclusion in the most prestigious “notable book of the year” lists. Brenda has also written highly acclaimed biographies of Janet Flanner, Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A recent essay, ‘Her Own Society’ published in The American Scholar, won one of this year’s Pushcart Prizes. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities (twice), and the Donald C.Gallup Fellowship in American Literature at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Her anthology Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing, a volume in The Writers World series, edited by Edward Hirsch, will be published in 2010. Brenda is currently at work on a book about America, 1848-1877, to be published by HarperCollins. We are very pleased to welcome her to The Graduate Center.”

New Issue of Bookforum Online

The September/October/November issue of Bookforum has been posted online. It contains my brief review of Cecelia Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (UNC Press). The issue’s loose theme is “Work in Progress.” As always, the pairing of reviewers and subjects is incredibly sharp, with Gregory Sholette writing about Julia Bryan-Wilson’s study of 1960s-and-’70s-era “art workers,” Joan Richardson on Morris Dickstein’s cultural history of the Great Depression (previously mentioned here), and Andrew Ross on Matthew B. Crawford and Alain de Botton’s new books about work. Click here to be taken to the table of contents, where you can read the issue in full.

A New Literary History of America

Last night I finally spotted Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press) on bookstore shelves. I’ve been curious about the anthology since the dust jacket for Marcus’s last book, The Shape of Things to Come, mentioned he was at work on it. Just how broadly would Marcus and Sollors define “literary history”? Fairly broadly, it turns out. There are scores of interesting commissions among the 220 pairings of author and subject. For a representative sampling, a dozen of the essays are available at the book’s nicely designed standalone website, as is an interview with the editors and a brief video interview with HUP editor Lindsay Waters. Those of us interested in art will be pleased to note an essay by T.J. Clark pegged to November 28, 1950 (the opening date of Jackson Pollock’s fourth solo show at Betty Parsons), one by Anne Wagner on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (perhaps the same piece she published in The Threepenny Review‘s winter 2008 issue), and a contribution from Kara Walker on the election of Barack Obama (which one illustrated panel describes as a “day of collective heart palpitations.”) Every entry, said Marcus in an early 2008 interview, “catch[es] a moment when something changed, something happened, something new occurred about how to speak democratic speech, how to define what it was.”

Dancing in the Dark

Morris Dickstein’s new book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, will be on bookstore shelves in two weeks. I’m looking forward to reading it. Advance publicity is trickling out, including a long interview in Humanities, the journal of the NEH. “There are two rival clichés about the culture of the period,” Dickstein says. “From one angle it’s earnest, socially critical, full of conscience, and its centerpiece was the documentary movement. The critics who gravitate to that perspective are scholars on the left. […] And the fluffy, fizzy side, I noticed, was rife with Depression themes. […] There was a split in Depression culture, but the lines are blurry. The culture was really much more unified than I had first realized. The social crisis went that deep.” As Leon Neyfakh notes in the New York Observer, the book took 29 years to see the light of day: “Dancing in the Dark was originally signed up in 1980…” The Big Money and The Root, websites run by Slate, published excerpts titled “When the American Dream Died” and “Black Girls and Native Sons: How Bigger Was Born,” and the Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed by Dickstein on a related theme in April.

Richard Poirier

The literary critic, essayist, and editor Richard Poirier died last Saturday at age 83. After discovering his writing a few years ago, through a collection titled Trying It Out in America, I became enthralled, eventually reading several of his other books and purchasing a complete set of issues of Raritan, the journal he founded at Rutgers in 1981. The quality and longevity of that publication, which he edited until early this decade, is itself a signal achievement, but Poirier was also a founder of the Library of America. The response to his death has thus far been muted, but today’s New York Times includes an appreciation by Alexander Star, formerly editor of Lingua Franca. Raritan and the LOA “were impressive achievements,” Star writes. “But Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer ‘a fairly direct access to pleasure’ but become ‘on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.’ Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing. This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever.” Click here to read the rest, and here to read two brief excerpts from Poirier’s essays.

Aldo Buzzi

Aldo Buzzi, the delightful Italian essayist, turned ninety-nine yesterday. To mark the occasion, James Marcus, who has translated Buzzi’s writing, has posted an account of his visit to Buzzi’s Milan home nearly two years ago. I came to Buzzi’s writing through the enthusiasm of Patrick Kurp, who has blogged about him several times. (See here, here, and here.) Marcus has also posted his own translations of Buzzi’s shorter pieces. (See here and here.) My first Buzzi book was Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, and I can also recommend A Weakness for Almost Everything. (Incidentally, I wonder whether Buzzi knew Luigi Ghirri, the photographer about whom I wrote earlier this year, for I can now see an affinity in their artistic sensibilities.)

Crooked Timber on George Scialabba

This week the website/community Crooked Timber is holding a symposium on George Scialabba’s new essay collection What Are Intellectuals Good For? (available from Pressed Wafer). Here is the introduction; thus far contributions have come from Michael Berubé, Russell Jacoby, Aaron Swartz, Rich Yeselson, John Holbo, and Scott McLemee (who also profiled Scialabba a few years ago and wrote the introduction to the new volume). Head on over for thousands of words of thoughtful commentary; presumably Scialabba himself will be responding closer to the end of the week.

John McPhee

This afternoon I chose to stay in rather than venture out into the thick, sweltering New York air. Having finished my work for the day, I picked up my copy of The John McPhee Reader and read excerpts from a few of his books—Oranges, A Roomful of Hovings and Other Portraits, and Pieces of the Frame. “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in the New Yorker in 1972 and reprinted in the last of those three titles, is a particular delight. The magazine only makes available an abstract of the essay, but I did manage to find McPhee’s June 1964 Time cover story on the New York World’s Fair. Click here for a little weekend reading.

Jonathan Franzen on the Midwest

An interviewer asks Jonathan Franzen about what regionalism means for his work: “If you ask what the Midwest means to me, it’s that myth of an innocence prolonged and then abruptly lost… And somehow this dynamic seems more like a Midwestern thing than a Lower East Side thing or a South Boston thing. I’m not enough of a social historian to have a good theory of why exactly this is true. I do know that, for a long time, you really were isolated in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, or Webster Groves, Missouri, or Oak Park, Illinois—it really was a long way from the Lower East Side. This is all rapidly changing with our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs, but some of the social and mental habits that grew out of isolation may persist in succeeding generations, leaving vestiges of a ‘Midwestern’ character…” Read more, and other excerpts from the interview, at Blographia Literaria. (Via The Second Pass)

“Nonfiction Writers Are the Ellis Island of Literature”

“Journalism is not given much respect. Journalists themselves, particularly in my generation, didn’t take their jobs very seriously. I take it very seriously. This is a craft. This is an art form. I’m writing stories, just like fiction writers, only I use real names. […] Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can’t quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off.” From an interview with Gay Talese published in the summer issue of the Paris Review. To read a lengthy excerpt, click here.

D.D. Guttenplan, American Radical

Published in the “Book Notes Section” of the Virginia Quarterly Review (summer 2009).

I. F. Stone’s six decades as a gadfly columnist, investigative journalist, and publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly newsletter brought him in contact not only with those possessing power but also those hoping to fundamentally reshape it. This patient recounting of Stone’s career charts two ascensions punctuated by a sharp downturn. First came the meteoric rise from book-obsessed New Jersey boy named Isidor Feinstein to op-ed columnist for the New York Post with easy access to New Dealers throughout FDR’s administration. The second ascent begins approximately with the launch, in late 1953, of his humble four-page newsletter and continues mostly uninterrupted until his death in 1989, when he was celebrated as a paragon of journalistic ethics. In between rests a low period, roughly coterminous with the Truman administration and the rise of Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting and J. Edgar Hoover’s spying, when Stone struggled to find popular support for his work. Guttenplan’s narrative underscores the importance to Stone’s thinking of Popular Front solidarity—a pragmatic left-leaning politics suspicious of factionalist in-fighting. Yet the times Stone lived through, from the left’s dalliance with the Soviet Union in the 1930s to the student-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, were notable for radicalism’s virally proliferating splinter groups and internal tensions. Guttenplan’s deep knowledge of this history can lead to overlong descriptions of minor players and other slow patches, though his writing is never less than clear. What emerges is a fascinating twentieth-century counternarrative that is often told only piecemeal in history textbooks.

NB: Other reviews worth noting include Jackson Lears in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Kazin in Bookforum, Michael Kimmage in the Washington Post, David Oshinsky in Slate, and Adam Kirsch in Tablet Magazine. The longstanding controversy about Stone’s possible collaboration with Soviet spy forces in the 1930s and ’40s has flared up again with the publication of the new book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. Eric Alterman and Guttenplan himself discuss Stone’s “secret history” in The Nation.

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

Midwestern Voices of Dissent

Augmenting the work of scholars of New Left history like Paul Buhle, David S. Brown’s Beyond the Frontier (Chicago) posits a Midwestern voice in American history “distinguished by a typology of progressive thought and politics.” The slim volume links Frederick Jackson Turner (b. 1861), Charles Beard (b. 1874), William Appleman Williams (b. 1921), and Christopher Lasch (b. 1932), who “advanced a century of scholarship sympathetic to populistic politics, critical of America’s swift drift toward empire, and unreconciled to unrestrained capitalism.” Brown, who has also published an intellectual biography of Richard Hofstadter, is an engaging writer, and this book is a good introduction to this strain of history writing. Related reading: an excerpt from the book; an essay on Williams by Brown; a review in the WSJ; and an essay on Williams by Andrew J. Bacevich.

“Odes to Old-fashioned Hard Work”

Matthew B. Crawford’s popular new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, has received ample review attention. I’ve been surprised, though, by much of the criticism of the book, which seems to examine it in a vacuum. Distressingly few reviewers—Francis Fukuyama in the New York Times Book Review among them—have mentioned obvious precedents for the Crawford’s treatise, from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) to Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, which was released only a year ago. Into the breach steps Kelefa Sanneh with a sharp essay in this week’s New Yorker that manages to highlight the severe limitations of Crawford’s book while also including discussion of such relevant figures as Pirsig, Sennett, Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and John Ruskin. (A few other handy links: An excerpt of Shop Class; the New Atlantis essay Shop Class is based on; more info about and an excerpt from The Craftsman; Scott McLemee’s excellent review of The Craftsman.)

“A Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing”

Peter J. Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “University presses need to foment a content revival astride the delivery revolution, one that stimulates our connection to new intellectual trends, encompasses a broader conception of scholarship, and renews our commitment to the scholarly mission of the university. Such a revival in content would return us to our roots; roots revealed in Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, and other classic works. Since our earliest days, our content has been our glory…”

Isaiah Berlin’s Centenary

Yesterday was the centenary of the birth of Isaiah Berlin, the British historian of ideas. To mark the occasion, Henry Hardy, keeper of the Berlin flame, has published in England a second selection of Berlin’s letters, titled Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960. The book has been reviewed by John Gray (who published a biography of Berlin in 1996) in The Literary Review and by John Carey in The Independent. Other publications, including The Economist and The Independent, have noted the centenary with retrospective essays. I was introduced to Berlin several years ago by The Proper Study of Mankind, an anthology of essays that I still take to be the most representative, useful introduction to his writing available from a U.S. publisher, and which I recommend highly.

Marilynne Robinson wins Orange Prize

Earlier this week, Marilyn Robinson won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her latest novel, Home. I am an ardent fan of Robinson’s writing, and the prize occasioned news stories about and interviews with her. Click here for The Guardian‘s full coverage, including an audio interview and an extract from the book. I also admire Robinson’s nonfiction, including her 1998 essay collection The Death of Adam and more recent, as yet uncollected pieces. Click here, for example, to read her review-essay about Richard Dawkins and the “New Athiests” and here for an excerpt of a Harvard Divinity Bulletin essay I posted to this site last September.

Anthony Grafton on anxiety and deception

“When I sat down to write Forgers and Critics, what I wanted to do was think my way through the long tradition of reasoning about the coherence and character of the past, but I ultimately came to a slightly disturbing conclusion: forgery was deeply rooted in this tradition, as deeply rooted as ways of thinking about the past that we might now call historical or philological. After all, that notion of the integrity of an historical epoch—that sense of what is possible and impossible in a given period—is literary as much as it is historical.” Anthony Grafton interviewed about anxiety and deception in the spring issue of Cabinet. His new book (unrelated to this interview) is Worlds Made by Words.

Benjamin Kunkel on internet usage, part two

After discussing the internet in an essay published in n+1 issue 7, novelist Benjamin Kunkel reviews three books on life after the advent of digital networks for N1BR issue 3. “An inability to log off is hardly the most destructive habit you could acquire, but it seems unlikely there is any more widespread compulsion among the professional middle-class and their children than lingering online.” To read the rest, click here.

Defining Good Scholarship

“Q. Why choose peer review?” “I wanted to get at the process of evaluation, at how professors think about quality. I could have looked at tenure review, but decisions in those cases are often influenced by local considerations. Peer-reviewed grants and fellowships provide me a way into national evaluation. And in a moment when there’s a scarcity of resources, and when the proliferation of journals in many fields makes publication less of a mark of excellence, winning a prestigious national grant or fellowship closes controversy. It really does define what’s considered good.” An interview with Michèle Lamont about her new book How Professors Think.

On Reading Aloud, Inaccurately

A recent New York Times editorial by Verlyn Klinkenborg offers “Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud” and suggests that “the way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient. But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language.” As an antidote to professional audio book readers, I suggest artist Paul Chan’s sixteen hours’ worth of amateur recordings of texts by William James, Susan Sontag, Martin Heidegger, Lao Zi, Samuel Beckett, and others.

George Scialabba radio interview

Christopher Lydon of Open Source interviews George Scialabba in conjunction with the publication of the latter’s new essay collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For? The forty-five-minute discussion encompasses WWI-era social critic Randolph Bourne; midcentury intellectuals like George Orwell; contemporary intellectuals and the Iraq War; whether the sciences have taken over from from the humanities in shaping public discourse; the prematureness of postmodernity, and more. Click here to listen, and here to see which books Scialabba suggests critics should keep in their library.

Update, 6/10/09: Mark Oppenheimer, editor of the New Haven Review, reviews What Are Intellectuals Good For? on the website of AGNI. And there’s more at the New Haven Review website. And yet more from NPR’s Fresh Air.

On library sales

“I have been to many library sales since and can vouch for the fact that these duplicates are rarely examined, or their source respected, for out of them have fallen, as out of book fair books, treasures that sometimes surpass even their pages: not just the debris readers normally leave behind to keep their place—paper clips, kitchen matches, rubber bands, foil, curls of hair, bookmarks, bills, sucker sticks, lists, letters of love, postcards, postage stamps, gum wrappers—but photographs and threatening notices, greenbacks, checks and a draft of a telegram to be sent to the Allied High Commissioner asking him to expedite the transport of Werner Heisenberg out of Germany, which fluttered to my floor when I riffled one of Arthur Holly Compton’s books after purchasing it for 50 cents at a Washington University purge.” William H. Gass on libraries in St. Louis Magazine.

Michael Gross, Rogues’ Gallery

Published on Frieze.com, May 8, 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Michael Gross
Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum
New York: Broadway Books, 560 pages. $29.95.

In September 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened ‘The Age of Rembrandt’, an exhibition presenting the museum’s entire collection of Dutch paintings made between 1600 and 1800. Included alongside Rembrandt were such acknowledged masters as Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer (of whose 35 known paintings the museum owns five). But rather than arrange the canvases by date of creation or by genre, the curator somewhat controversially chose to display the paintings in the order in which they entered the museum’s collection. The first gallery featured part of the fabled ‘1871 Purchase’, made the year after the museum’s founding, and subsequent galleries highlighted individual bequests, such as the one made by Benjamin Altman in 1913. Donors’ names, in block letters, hovered high on the wall above many of the works.

gross_rogues_gallery_coverMichael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, published this week by Broadway, follows a similar logic. Rather than pay close attention to the merits of individual exhibitions or examine the public’s perception of the institution, Gross revels in the internecine squabbling among Met directors, board members, curators and New York City officials over the growth, acquisitions and public orientation of the museum. The book, akin to a 500-page Vanity Fair article, is an unabashedly unofficial history – Gross makes much of being denied official access to the museum’s archives and its employees, as Calvin Tomkins enjoyed for his history Merchants and Masterpieces (1970). Nonetheless, in its own way, Rogues’ Gallery is synoptic, ranging from the Met’s early days as ‘a firetrap with shellacked floors and walls covered with red billiard cloth’ to the questions facing the institution today as it adjusts to a new director, Thomas P. Campbell, after being led for 30 years by Philippe de Montebello. It quickly becomes clear that Gross’s large cast of characters is not only squabbling over the institution itself; many are also jockeying for position among New York’s social elite. Indeed, Gross’s last book, 740 Park(2005), which looked inside the eponymous Manhattan co-op building, gives him a very particular take on the goings-on less than a mile away at 1000 Fifth Avenue. He believes we live in ‘a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime’, and, whether a reader feels Gross is animated by reportorial skepticism or something more akin to antipathy, there’s no doubt he’s out to find dirt.

Gross wields considerable journalistic skills in that effort, easily debunking Montebello’s disingenuous (if entirely unexceptional) assertion, reprinted on the book’s dust jacket, that ‘The museum has no secrets’. From the trumped-up war-hero claims and dodgy antiquities excavations of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, appointed the museum’s first director in 1879, to the soap opera–like marital intrigues and inheritance disputations that accompanied many of the greatest donations and gifts of art to the institution in the past half-century, Gross is a meticulous storyteller, and Rogues’ Gallery is an entertaining romp. Each of his six chapters focuses on a different key figure or figures, from Cesnola to J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Robert Moses, Thomas Hoving, and Jane and Annette Engelhard (the latter known today as Annette de la Renta). Within this framework, Gross ranges widely – each chapter includes dozens of players.

Moses, in particular, is an inspired lens through which to view the museum at midcentury. Granted an ex-officio board seat as Commissioner of Parks, the power broker used the city’s annual appropriation of funds to cover the Met’s operating costs as a lever to try, among other efforts, seating a woman on the boys’-club board. Also strong is Gross’s patient reconstruction of the quasi-familial relationship between the elderly Rockefeller and the young medieval curator (and later museum director) James Rorimer. ‘Junior’ and Rorimer spent decades slowly piecing together the land, building and collection that make up The Cloisters, all the while swatting away a pesky (if talented) artist, George Grey Barnard, who owned neighbouring land, was at work on a commission for Junior’s family estate, and was involved in the export of French treasures. Likewise, those who have followed newspaper accounts of the recent disputes over the Met’s antiquities, including the Euphronios krater, will learn something new.

For an art-world audience, Gross is most fascinating when he keeps within the museum’s orbit. When he floats out into the realm of high-society gossip, anonymously quoting the former lovers or neighbours of his protagonists, one’s interest wanes – yet it seems this is precisely when Gross himself becomes most intrigued by his material. The story picks up noticeably once he is able to gab with still-living subjects (or with those willing to dish about them). Hoving, who was director of the museum from 1967 to 1977 and who has published his own memoir, Making the Mummies Dance (1994), is an inveterate talker and one of Gross’s obvious favorites. (Montebello, who is Hoving’s temperamental opposite and who denied Gross the access he wanted, is treated distinctly uncharitably.) One result of these authorial preferences are the long stretches in the second half of the book in which well-known but marginal-to-the-story figures like Kirk Douglas and Katharine Hepburn make cameos, or others in which the reader encounters passages such as this: ‘Late in 1954, Leigh got a Mexican divorce from her husband, the son of the gossip columnist Suzy, and immediately married Portago. It didn’t last, in large part because he was still married to Carroll, so after he got Leigh pregnant, he hightailed it to Paris and reconciled with his first (and legally only) wife.’ While I haven’t included full names, sentences like these are somewhat bewildering even in context.

The larger tension underlying the myriad instances of backbiting and legal wrangling recounted in Rogues’ Gallery is between institutional elitism and democratic impulses. Should the Met emphasize conservative values, upholding aesthetic and institutional tradition even in the face of charges of exclusivity? Or should the doors be thrown open to the masses and the collection admit relatively new (and as yet unconsecrated) artworks by living artists? One virtue of Tomkins’s earlier book, largely missing from Gross’s study, is the extent to which the museum’s late-19th-century founders were vexed by this very question, and the emphasis they thus placed on the museum’s educational mission. After reading Rogues’ Gallery, it’s fair to think that, thanks to the efforts of Francis Henry Taylor, director of the museum from 1940 to 1955, and Hoving, the museum will never return to the insulated stance of its earliest decades. The difficulty, of course, is preventing the slide into exhibitions of Star Wars memorabilia. Montebello reconciled populist tendencies with scholarly standards, honouring obligations to both the art-world community and the public. While Gross’s chronicle of competing egos and the millions of dollars they control doesn’t capture the essence of the institution’s public value, it nonetheless renders vivid just how difficult it must be to maintain that balance.

Daniel Mendelsohn on Susan Sontag

“I want to emphasize that my point is not to correct Sontag politically; nor do I want to denigrate the significant positive effects of Sontag’s political arguments and activities. Everyone, after all, is self-interpreting and self-inventing–writers and artists more than most. Sontag was a true cosmopolitan, and that is an achievement not only of morality but also of imagination. But cosmopolitanism, too, is a set of choices, and Sontag’s choices in this realm so strikingly resemble her choices in the realm of literature and culture that one must wonder whether for her being itself was not, in Peguy’s famous formulation, “elsewhere.” At a certain point you have to ask why there was this unquenchable need to comfort, this limitless sympathy, for Bosnians, but not for lesbians.” From a brilliant essay published in the New Republic.

Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and Michael Wolf, The Transparent City

Published in Print, April 2009.

The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Danny Lyon
New York: Powerhouse, 160 pages. $50.

The Transparent City
Michael Wolf
New York: Aperture, 112 pages. $60.

In late 1966, after years spent drifting across the United States and documenting civil rights protesters, outlaws, and motorcyclists, the photographer Danny Lyon returned home to New York and settled in a loft downtown.

Surrounded by condemned buildings and not yet eager for more human subjects, Lyon set out to document the broad swaths of downtown being razed for two major infrastructure projects: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side and the World Trade Center on the West Side. The resulting photographs, reprinted here from a 1969 volume, are solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings standing sentinel; the men responsible for bringing those structures down; and, in interior scenes, the marvelous accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. The nearly empty street scenes, in particular, recall Charles Marville’s documentation of condemned quarters in 1850s Paris (before Baron Haussmann forever altered that city) or Richard Nickel’s 1960s photographs of Louis Sullivan–designed buildings in Chicago. Lyon’s images resonate anew at a moment (after the attacks of September 11) when New York is once again attempting to resuscitate its downtown environs.

If downtown New York seems to be at the end of its tether in Lyon’s photographs, the spectacular views of todays’ Chicgao Loop captured by Michael Wolf depict a city in robust health. What predominates is the sense of activity: Thousands of miniature dramas of work and leisure play out behind steel-and-glass facades. From his perches on rooftops and in tall parking structures, Wolf’s telephoto lens tucks hints of these lives into the vertiginous, nearly disorienting compositions that admit neither sky nor ground. Best may be a nighttime scene in which a man with a telephoto lens “shoots back” from a giant flat-screen TV.

William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream

To counterbalance the effects of reading several books about the political economy of Gilded Age America, my bedtime companion last week was William Maxwell’s essay collection The Outermost Dream. First released in 1989, the collection gathers book reviews largely published in the New Yorker, where Maxwell served as fiction editor for forty years. Maxwell was, of course, himself an accomplished novelist and short-story writer (two volumes collecting this work were published last year by the Library of America). But the strongest impression I gathered from The Outermost Dream is one of an editor’s sensibility: ego suppression and attention to the delicate arrangement of material. Written with sympathy for and out of curiosity about his subjects—he avoided writing about fiction, choosing instead to discuss memoirs, correspondence, diaries, and biographies—Maxwell’s essays judiciously arrange for the reader the salient, character-summarizing facts of remarkable lives. They don’t skimp on qualitative judgment, especially when the work under consideration is a biography. But Maxwell’s powers of distillation and his ability to communicate his enthusiasm subliminally, as it were, are remarkable.

It turns out that I couldn’t entirely leave behind the second half of the nineteenth century: My favorite piece in The Outermost Dream is the first, a review of Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer and first published in 1940. (Maxwell’s review, I believe, dates from the early ’60s, when the diary was reprinted.) Reverend Francis Kilvert, previously unknown to me, was a rural curate who worked and traveled, during the 1860s and ’70s, in villages dotting the rural marshes along the border of England and Wales. His diary was published fifty years after his death, and near the outset of the review Maxwell devises a wonderful mechanism for communicating to readers the “lost” world Kilvert inhabited: collapsing reflections and impressions recorded across multiple years into a plausible “week” in Kilvert’s life. Here is how this section of Maxwell’s review begins:

Kilvert boarded comfortably with a Mrs. Chaloner, whose house was directly across the road from the village pub, and his life in Clyro went by in, roughly speaking, this fashion:

On Sunday he preached, when and where he was needed—at Clyro Church in the morning, at this or that nearby village chapel in the afternoon. He paid sick calls on elderly parishioners and read to them from the Bible. He dined rather often at the vicarage. And he seldom had time on Sunday to write in his diary.

On Monday he went to the school, where, as he taught the children reading, he was struck by the appearance of Gypsy Lizzie (“the dark soft curls parting back from the pure white transparent brow, the exquisite little mouth and pearly tiny teeth, the pure straight delicate features, the long dark fringes and white eyelids that droop over and curtain her eyes when they are cast down or bent upon her book”). In the afternoon he drove, with Mr. and Mrs. Venables, to the Hardwick Bazaar for the Home Missions. Or, the weather being particularly beautiful and there being no invitations, he walked to Broad Meadow to see old David Price, who was in bed and weaker than when he saw him last, and poor Captain Brown, who was “lying on a sofa covered up with a rug and suffering a good deal. But he was very bright and lively and grew animated and indignant in discussing the wrongs of the Navy, the misdoings of the present Government . . . .”

Having introduced the technique, Maxwell pushes it a little further, switching rapidly from season to season and year to year:

On Saturday (now it is February) he goes out early into the dim, dark morning. The air is warm, sweet, and fragrant. There is a promise of rain, and the garden trees are all in a charm with the singing of birds. An iron east wind; bitter, piercing cold (it is now a different February). He walks to Hay and buys galoshes, calls at the Castle, and while he is there, the four Miss Llanthomases come in. He hears of Mary Bevans misadventures in going to the Hereford Hunt Ball…

Here Maxwell deftly imparts the sense of routine that structures most lives, imparts odd details about Kilvert (the peculiarly attentive description of the young girl), and gives us a sense, through the extended quotations, of how Kilvert wrote about his own life. Most of the essays in this collection do their work as imperceptibly as this one. In addition to the essay on Kilvert, I especially recommend the ones on Isak Dinesen, Andrei Amalrik, Louise Bogan, E. B. and Katharine S. White, and Colette.

Ted Solotaroff

Last summer I pulled Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community: Selected Essays, 1967–2007 from the shelves of free galleys at the office where I then worked. I was intrigued by the title, and was encouraged by the blurbs from Ian McEwan and Richard Stern, both of whom I have read and enjoyed. I had also been primed by my discovery, thanks to scattered blog posts, of Wilfred Sheed’s writing; in Solotaroff, I hoped to encounter another smart, sympathetic, now underappreciated critic active during the 1960s and ‘70s, decades often celebrated today as a high-water mark for (American) literary fiction. Solotaroff’s preface boded well: “As with people,” he writes, “I find that I have more to say about writers than I admire than about those I don’t. This does not preclude registering judgments that spring from a lessening of interest or esteem, for the point of reviewing an author is to deliver the experience of reading him or her, and to be less than candid is to weaken the conviction that has otherwise come to praise.” Sensible words that betrayed the sensibility—urbane and generous; not nearly as funny or pyrotechnic a writer as Sheed, but never dry—I would find throughout the collection, whether Solotaroff was discussing Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Saul Bellow, Alfred Camus, or A.B. Yehoshua. I began dipping into it regularly, and, with more than a month before school inflected the direction of my attention, I picked up an earlier collection, A Few Good Voices in My Head, at a used bookstore in Chicago. It, too, rewarded attention.

During the first week of August, I finally read “The Literary Community,” the lecture-turned-essay that gave the newer book its title. It was initially delivered in 1996 on the occasion of the Whiting Writers’ Awards ceremony. At one point a slightly melancholic tone entered into Solotaroff’s address:

As a New York literary editor and reviewer and occasional writing teacher, I was in touch for most of the past forty years with the literary community and its resources and problems, but I understand better now what it is and how it works for a writer because in recent years I’ve been living the life of an isolated and increasingly obscure member of it. About five years ago I left my place in the limelight and the Buzz, such as my portion was, and went off to live in a little town near Hampton Bays, Long Island: the working man’s Hampton, where culture begins at the little local library and ends at Blockbuster Video. Though I had anticipated and hoped for the solitude it conferred, I was surprised and dismayed to find out how soon the phone stopped ringing. The silence in my new study was matched by an even stranger silence in my head: not the silence of peace and contemplation, but the silence of inertness. I had taken my mind away from publishing and was crestfallen to find that, without its relationships and routines jogging my brain cell, not much was going on in there, except, now and then, a pounding cognitive dissonance.

At that point, having enjoyed so much of Solotaroff’s writing, I resolved to write him a letter expressing my appreciation for his work. I scanned the New York Times website to see if he was still alive, and to see learn what, if anything, I could about his recent pursuits. No obituary, and not much information, either. I inserted the task of writing to Solotaroff somewhere midway down my to-do list. I was very immediately shocked and a bit crestfallen to discover, just a few days later, an obituary of him in the paper. He had died at age eighty, of complications from pneumonia. I hadn’t known him, of course, but at the very moment he passed away his was one of the “few good voices in my head.” In “The Literary Community,” Solotaroff went on to say:

I had retired from publishing mainly to write a memoir, the story of my family and myself. Along with the time and solitude that early retirement confers, I felt I needed precisely the absence of the Buzz, which would be at best distracting and at worst destructive to my task. For I knew what the buzzers wanted, having so recently been one myself. I particularly knew what they wanted from an author like myself: they wanted to know all about what it was like to work at Commentary when Norman Podhoretz was changing his mind back in the ‘60s; or about editing Book Week by myself during the five month strike of the World Journal Tribune; or about the experiences of starting and maintaining New American Review, preferably with the lowdown on working with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Susan Sontag et al; or about my relationships with the New York Jewish intellectuals and the counterculture renegades; or about my adventures in trade publishing with both the Helen Wolffs and the Richard Snyders.

This did indeed sound interesting, and now The Nation has brought into print an excerpt of precisely that memoir, which Solotaroff had apparently been working on at the time of his death. The first part of “Adventures in Editing,” which covers his time with The Normans (Podhoretz and Mailer); his experience learning how to write for general-interest audiences in the office of his Commentary colleague Sherry Abel; and his interactions with Philip Rahv, among others, appears in the February 9 issue. It is characterized by the same sharply drawn portraits, self-deprecation, and crystal-clear prose as are the review-essays collected in The Literary Community, A Few Good Voices in My Head, and The Red Hot Vacuum. A second part of the article will appear in next week’s issue. For additional reading, here are links to the Times obit, an appreciation by Max Apple published in the Forward, and a blog post by James Wolcott.

George Steiner on scholarship, in a new collection of his essays

New Directions has published George Steiner at the New Yorker, a collection of fifty-three of his essays written for the magazine between the years 1967 and 1997. Here is an part of the introduction to Steiner’s review of the correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem:

It may well be that scholarship of the very first order is as rare as great art or poetry. Some of the gifts and qualities it exacts are obvious: exceeding concentration, a capacious but minutely precise memory, finesse and a sort of pious skepticism in the handling of evidence and sources, clarity of presentation. Other requisites are scarcer and more difficult to define. The truly great scholar has a truffle hound’s nose for the hidden but key document, for the concatenation of apparently disparate circumstances. He glimpses the purloined letter where others stare at wallpaper. Like a dowser, he senses the significant deeps underneath the long-trodden surface. He detects the flaw in the crystal, the false not in the archive, the covert pressure of that which has been falsified or gagged. He adheres obstinately to what Blake called “the holiness of the minute particular” but unfolds from it the application, the generalizing inference, that can alter the whole landscape of our historical, literary, and social perceptions.

But even these talents and their infrequent combination do not determine what is crucial to preeminent scholarship. No less than the master translator or actor or performer of music, the truly great scholar becomes as one with his material, however abstruse, however recondite. He melts the strength of his own personality and technical virtuosity into the historical epoch, the literary or philosophic text, the sociological fabric that he is analyzing and presenting to us. In turn, that fabric, that set of primary sources, will take on something of its interpreter’s voice and style. It will become his writing without ceasing to be itself. There is now an ancient China that is Joseph Needham’s, a Hellenistic civilization that speaks in the accents of the late Arnaldo Momigliano, a mapping of grammars which will for a long time to come carry the imprint of Roman Jakobson. Yet in each case the alchemy reinstates the strength of the material.

It is perhaps needless to say that Steiner has long been recognized for scholarship of precisely this sort; if nothing else, the figures he cites at the end of this passage indicate the breadth of his erudition. And it is interesting for me to see, in this 1990 essay, Steiner’s mention of Needham. Last year, in another book published by New Directions, My Unwritten Books, Steiner wrote at length of his unfulfilled desire to write a book-length study of the great Sinologist. Anyway, although I’ve only read the essays on Benjamin and Sholem, Anton Webern, Guy Davenport, Simone Weil, and a riveting thirty-five-page analysis of Anthony Blunt’s double life, I can recommend George Steiner at the New Yorker wholeheartedly. No doubt owners of The Complete New Yorker already have this material in their possession, but the inexpensive and lightweight New Directions paperback makes the essays far easier to carry around and read.

Interview: James Calvin Davis

James Calvin Davis is associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. He is the author of The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008). After spending much of my autumn researching Roger Williams, and having benefitted both from Davis’s one-volume selection of Williams’s writing and his own interpretation of the Puritan dissident’s life and work, I contacted Davis to request an interview. This conversation was conducted by e-mail during January 2009; the links you’ll find in the questions and answers were inserted by me and are not to be seen as endorsements by Davis. More on Williams can be found in this December 29, 2008, TSWTT post. –BJS

* * *

In the last fifty years, historians and theologians have done much to situate Roger Williams in his seventeenth-century context and to tease out the details of his religious thinking. Recently, scholars have made great efforts to incorporate his concept of freedom of conscience into histories of the first amendment. Yet you look at Williams through the lens of morality. Can you speak about how this aspect of Williams’s thought (and life, if applicable) first appealed to you?

I first became interested in Roger Williams as a graduate student in ethics. While doing graduate studies, I developed an interest in Puritanism, and the ways in which Puritan figures and the Puritan culture helped shaped the moral and political culture of the United States, beyond the stereotypes of Puritan prudishness and theocratic control. My studies led me to Williams, and the more I read of Williams, the more I was convinced of his relevance to contemporary ethics, especially (at first) a prominent question in contemporary religious ethics, the relationship between religion and morality. Do we need religion in order to maintain a public morality? Can Christians in particular make a contribution to a vision for public morality without either appearing to endorse theocracy or appealing to a universalistic basis for morality? These kinds of questions brought me back again and again to Williams, and the more I read of him, the more fascinating a figure I was convinced he was, and the more relevant I was convinced his worldview was to our “modern” questions of public ethics. Eventually I decided to write my dissertation on him.

It has been twenty years since the last significant publication of Roger Williams’s writing, Glenn W. LaFantasie’s edition of his letters. Aside from the long time since that publication and the scant number of copies of earlier editions of his writing, what prompted you to prepare a one-volume, modernized edition of Williams’s texts?

I was motivated to prepare the collection during my graduate studies. The more I read of Williams, the more I thought others ought to as well. His continuing relevance to questions of public morality, church and state, and civility in politics seemed obvious to me, but few scholars as late as the 1990s were appealing directly to Williams because his writings were so inaccessible. Another result of this inaccessibility was that people were misunderstanding Williams, specifically missing the central importance of religion to his liberal worldview. (Incidentally, this misinterpretation still occurs; Martha Nussbaum’s work laudably resurrects Williams for a wide audience, but she insists on minimizing the impact of his Puritan religion on his views, interpreting him instead as a pre-Jefferson Jeffersonian.) I became convinced that returning Williams to a prominent place in our intellectual heritage, and getting students and scholars to read his works, required a readable edition. I hope this collection does just that.

Near the end of your introduction to On Religious Liberty, you describe Williams’s experience as a kind of “moral anthropology” that allowed him to devise an “internal argument” for the cause of religious liberty. Will you elaborate on the idea of his “moral anthropology” a little bit?

What I mean by that is that Williams offers a theological understanding of human morality, including claims about the universality of conscience and the reliability of natural moral capabilities, that allows him to argue that public morality doesn’t require government defense of religion. This is an approach that’s likely to be much more persuasive to traditional Christians (and perhaps other religious persons) than appeals to Enlightenment assumptions about the alleged private nature of religion and the preference of reason over religion. So in that way his approach allows him to make an “internal argument” to his co-religionists (then and perhaps today) for why they should support religious liberty and find alliance with secular devotees of the “separation of church and state.”

You mention in an answer above the popular (and recurrent) misinterpretation of Williams as a kind of Jeffersonian founding father born a century early. While some have suggested that, through Locke, those who conceived our country’s first amendment may have been influenced by Williams, that is not the same thing as saying they embodied his intellectual spirit—which turned precisely on the centrality of theology to his thought. Who, since Williams’s own day, embodies for you the intertwined concern for religious principles and liberal political values? I suspect you may say eighteenth-century Baptists, given the mention of them in conjunction with your discussion of Locke in the introduction to the new volume, but please feel free to pick a few figures from disparate eras.

Well, you’re right that I think the main lineage of Williams’s perspective on religious liberty is religious, and most obviously represented by the Baptists. Although the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes seems to forget the preference for “separation of church and state” advocated by their intellectual heir, historically Baptists in America have been instrumental in arguing for religious freedom, encouraging popular support for religious freedom, and demonstrating that the institutional separation of church and state can be very, very good for religious communities as well as the larger society (their prominence on the American religious scene is the best evidence). But it’s not just the Baptists who represent this theological legacy. Williams was a Puritan Calvinist, and the Calvinist tradition in the United States (e.g., Presbyterians and Congregationalists) continue his commitment to religious liberty. Furthermore, one can make the argument that Williams’s commitment to religious liberty has transformed Roman Catholicism’s perspective on the issue. Once quite hostile to the idea of true religious liberty, the Catholic Church did an about-face on the subject in the 1960s during Vatican II. The principal influence on the Church regarding this issue was an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, whose theological arguments show the clear influence of, among other thinkers, Roger Williams. These days even political philosophers are rediscovering Williams, most notably Martha Nussbaum, whose recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality puts Williams front and center in this American tradition (though, as I said in an earlier answer, I don’t think she gets his theological indebtedness quite right). So although his influence is indirect, Williams’s effect on religious and philosophical commitments to religious liberty—in the US and more globally—is undeniable.

Which other books or essays on Williams have you found particularly helpful, either as a good introduction for readers new to him or as particularly revelatory even for those who may be familiar recent scholarly work?

Anything Edwin S. Gaustad has written on Williams is a must-read. Specifically, I’d recommend his most recent book published by Oxford in 2005, entitled (imaginatively enough) Roger Williams. He has such a readable style; that small book makes a great introduction to Williams and his importance. In addition, I warmly recommend Timothy Hall’s book Separating Church and State, in which he introduces the reader to Williams’s thought and its importance to the legal tradition of religious liberty. Hall’s book influenced me greatly.

Lastly, would you care to describe in any detail the book on “religion and the debate over moral values” that you are working on?

The book is called Good Faith Reasons: Religion and America’s Perennial Battle over Moral Values. This book, written for a general audience, is a call for clarity in the seemingly endless debates over moral values and the role of religion in those public debates. Looking at the history of religious involvement in public moral debates in this country, I argue that there is nothing wrong and a lot right with religious people wanting to contribute to American moral culture from a religious point of view. At the same time, a healthy debate over moral values has to acknowledge explicitly that there are a lot of different ways to prioritize which moral values are most important, and which values issues are most important. So in the end, the book is a call to secular liberals to be more open to religious contributions to public moral debate, and a call to religious conservatives to be open to the probability that they’re not the only ones in those debates with some kind of commitment to moral values.

Melville and the Shakers

I’ve never read a biography of Herman Melville, so I guess it’s understandable that I didn’t know he moved in 1850 to Pittsfield, MA. (He wrote Moby-Dick there, at Arrowhead, his home, which is now a National Registered Historic Landmark.) Today a short piece in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg—a wonderful writer, in my opinion; I subscribe to an RSS feed that notifies me whenever he publishes in the paper—opens this way:

When the thermometer bottoms out, I remember, again, that winter isn’t a season, it’s a place. Just over the hill is the 19th century, and somewhere beyond the river lies the 18th. Why winter should seem so much more continuous with the past than summer does is never clear to me. But this morning it’s 3 degrees, and I can hear Melville, a few miles north of where I am, writing to his sister: “The weather here has been as cold as ever. Other than the weather I know not what to write about from Pittsfield.”

In October, 2007, my girlfriend and I drove up Route 9 from Bard College and, without intending to, ended up across the border in Pittsfield, where we found Hancock Shaker Village and spent a delightful afternoon. A quick Internet search told me that Melville did something similar, although he visited the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, NY:

Melville usually wrote in the mornings and took his family for carriage rides in the late afternoon, after a midday meal. Among their favorite outings were visits to the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon. […] Unlike Charles Dickens, who found the Shakers “grim” and quipped that their women were so ugly he could understand why their men were celibate, Melville was charmed by their simple handcrafted inventions, their singing, their dancing, and their nondoctrinal practice of religion. Eager to learn more about their unusual beliefs and practices, he bought a copy of A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or the United Society of Believers, Commonly Called Shakers (1848).

That excerpt is from Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s biography of the writer. Melville apparently attended their religious services. Note to self: Find a copy of Melville’s journals and see what he himself said about these encounters.

UPDATE, 1/26: Thanks to Greg Allen, of Greg.org, for pointing me to Hawthorne’s account of a summertime visit to a Shaker community in the company of Melville, included in the book Twenty Days with Julia & Little Bunny by Papa.

Hocquet Caritat

Consider this post a bookmark (“book mark”?) meant to spur my own further library research.

Early in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1987), he comments briefly on a figure previously unknown to me, Hocquet Caritat. Bender writes, “If there was any one indispensible institution in the intellectual life of New York in the 1790s, it was the bookshop tended by the French immigrant Hocquet Caritat. His bookshop brought European learning to New York; he imported the Enlightenment. His contribution to ‘the literary life of New York,’ Gilbert Chinard has rightly observed, ‘can hardly be overemphasized.’”

This is the New York of the Friendly Club, a coterie of budding intellectuals and businessmen spearheaded by Elihu Hubbard Smith. (Bryan Waterman’s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature is on my nightstand’s to-read pile.) Smith died at twenty-seven, in 1798, and the club dissipated; Bender notes that in 1801 “Caritat tried to re-create the group … when he established a ‘Literary Assembly’ in the reading room he organized at the City Hall in association with his bookshop.” Although it never really got off the ground, it is notable that in 1803 Caritat also invited women to participate in this assembly’s activities.

According to Thomas Augst and Kenneth E. Carpenter’s Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States, by 1800, “Caritat had a library of over 3,000 volumes and a stock of books for sale or rent of over 30,000 volumes. His 1804 catalogue included almost 2,000 novels.” It was located, according to George Gates Raddin, at 93 Pearl Street, near Old-Slip, and then later moved to No. 1 City Hotel, Broadway (on the block immediately above Trinity Church). Raddin seems to be the definitive scholar of Caritat; his 1953 book The New York of Hocquet Caritat and His Associates, 1797–1817, sometimes referred to as Hocquet Caritat and the Early New York Literary Scene, seems to be the most influential single volume on the subject.

A bookseller, librarian, publisher (of Charles Brockden Brown among others), and friend to autodidacts in early New York—definitely someone to learn more about.

“The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”

So says short story writer Gary Lutz, whose address to the students of Columbia University’s writing program, delivered last September, has been reprinted in the January issue of The Believer. Thankfully it is one of the texts reproduced in full online. (Link via The Dizzies.) Here is an excerpt:

I can’t remember reading anything with much comprehension until eighth grade, when, studying for a science test for once, I decided to try making my way quietly through the chapter from start to finish—it was a chapter about magnets—and found myself forced to form the sounds of the words in my head as I read. Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, but the words fizzed and popped and tinkled and bonged. I was reading so slowly that in many a word I heard the scrunch and flump of the consonants and the peal of the vowels. Granted, I wasn’t retaining much of anything, but almost every word now struck me as a provocative hullabaloo. This was my first real lesson about language—this inkling that a word is a solid, something firm and palpable. It was news to me that a word is matter, that it exists in tactual materiality, that it has a cubic bulk. Only on the page is it flat and undensified. In the mouth and in the mind it is three-dimensional, and there are parts that shoot out from it or sink into its syntactic surround.

Hints of Lutz’s unique style (somewhat muffled at this point in the lecture), as well as evidence of what he is discussing, appear in this passage. I would have great difficulty were I try to try imitating Lutz’s granular, volumetric sentences. In fact, I have no desire to try. But every now and again I feel a craving for them, and so I turn to one of his story collections (Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive) or to Christine Schutt’s A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, which I find rewarding in similar ways—a thought I was grateful to find confirmed by Lutz’s own comments on her work, later in the lecture. (Others, for all I know, might bristle at the comparison.) Lutz continues:

It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.

He then tries “to explain what it is that such sentences all seem to have in common and how in fact they might well have been written,” and the effort is, to me, worth reading in full. He performs a very particular form of close reading that may very well follow you into whatever book or magazine you subsequently read. Also of interest: Three years ago The Believer published an interview with Lutz, which is not online in full but is nonetheless to be found here.

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds., State By State

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on November 19, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds.
State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
New York: Ecco, 608 pages. $29.95.

State by State re-creates, in condensed form, the American Guide series, a collection of 48 books published between 1938 and 1941 as part of the Federal Writers Project. Some of the greatest writers of the era—Saul Bellow in Illinois, Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Eudora Welty, who took photographs in Mississippi—contributed to those classic guide books, which contained maps, essays on history and culture, automobile tour guides, and portfolios of photographs. In recent years, scholarly work at the Library of Congress has unearthed evidence of just how many literary luminaries participated as editors, writers, interviewers and photographers in this New Deal effort. State by State editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, who are on the staffs of The Paris Review and McSweeney’s, respectively, have likewise gathered a star-studded list of state chroniclers. Practicality, however, is set aside; whereas the earlier books were published by each state and intended for tourists’ use, State By State is a decidedly personal literary endeavor.

Much of the writing is affecting: Novelist Benjamin Kunkel’s evocation of his parents’ participation in the back-to-the-land movement, and of the land itself in Colorado, is superb, as is short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s tale of her immigrant parents’ experiences in Kingston, R.I. While Kunkel, Lahiri and many of their fellow contributors mine personal experience for their contributions, others elucidate little-known aspects of a state’s history, as does Anthony Doerr in describing the travails—inhospitable conditions, disease, an 1879 battle with the U.S. Army—of the Tukudeka tribe in Idaho.

Platitudes inevitably creep in. Residents of both Maine and Michigan, as described by Heidi Julavits and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, espouse a gruff, independent-minded live-and-let-live philosophy, and Ali’s Michigan has rabid sports fanatics in common with John Hodgman’s Bay Staters. But inspired choices—chef Anthony Bourdain on New Jersey, musician Carrie Brownstein on Washington, filmmaker Alexander Payne on Nebraska—make up for the smattering of clichés and the occasional dud entry, among them William T. Vollman’s largely sour assessment of contemporary California (“Who believes in the ‘California dream’ anymore?” he asks) and Jonathan Franzen’s supremely ill-conceived imaginary interview with the state of New York and “her” handlers. While the strong emphasis on folkways, landscape and history so present in the earlier series is largely missing from this volume, at its best it elicits a desire to return to the original books and to learn more about our unwieldy, dynamic, variegated land and its people.

Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination

In late September I posted to the site a review of Daniel Vickers’s book Farmers and Fishermen that I had written for a class. Here is the review I wrote of Robert H. Abzug’s 1994 book Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (Oxford University Press).

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper <i>The Liberator</i>, April 23, 1831

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper

Robert H. Abzug’s engaging study of nineteenth-century reform-movement figures, including those who agitated for temperance, abolitionism, and women’s rights, argues that their aims can only be understood in the context of their religious thinking. Readers must “try to comprehend the sacred significance they bestowed upon … worldly arenas” (viii). Abzug, professor of history and at the time of this publication director of the American Studies program at the University of Texas, offers roughly chronological, loosely linked portraits of some of the era’s increasingly fervent and frequently popular reformers, from the late-eighteenth-century physician Benjamin Rush through abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison to women’s-rights pioneers Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Though Abzug’s approach sometimes leaves readers short on cultural and social context, and tends to barely sketch in the movements’ later developments, the book’s thumbnail spiritual-intellectual biographies convincingly place cosmological thinking at the heart of his protagonists’ zeal.

Abzug correctly characterizes the first half of the nineteenth century as a period of profound instability, during which time American citizens grappled with the definition of the country itself, the practical application of the separation of church and state, and the shift to a commercial-industrial economy. “Reform sects arose largely in New England,” Abzug notes, “a region particularly hard hit by each of these historical forces” (5). New England’s tight weave of social, political, and religious order not only helped provide a religious underpinning for the reformers’ secular causes, it would also be the locus of resistance to the changes that these figures advocated. In recasting sacred communal identity and covenantal theology to suit their own purposes, Abzug’s “religious virtuosos” threatened the cosmic underpinning of two centuries of New England life. The ensuing friction between tradition and innovation across the northeast propels Abzug’s stories.

Yet the father figure of these religious-minded secular reformers lived not in New England but in Philadelphia. Dr. Benjamin Rush drew upon late-eighteenth-century intellectual currents, including Republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and millennial Christianity, to devise a “remarkable program for social and personal change: abolition, temperance, elimination of the death penalty, human treatment of criminals and the insane, [and] educational reform” (12). These revolutionary goals, presented to the public mostly through pamphlets during the Revolutionary era, were rooted in the same “framework of American identity and Godly judgment” (16) that would likewise ground those who inherited his reform spirit. Rush, like his successors, sought a ritual life that would bring all Christians together, a task that necessitated a “cosmic vision outside of individual sects” (19); the idea of America itself became Rush’s sustaining “church,” and the ideal against which all claims to millennial truth were to be judged. The “radiant strands of [Rush’s] Christian Republican vision” (27), however, would not survive the turmoil of the 1790s; his legacy was the application of the language of the jeremiad to a post-Revolutionary America that endorsed pluralism and religious toleration.
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Sydney Smith’s “recipe for combating low spirits”

Sydney SmithAfter publishing the post below, I pulled out The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited and with an introduction by W.H. Auden. In his introduction, Auden offers this: “Physically, [Smith] was swarthy, sturdy tending to stoutness and suffering in later life from gout. Mentally, like so many funny  men, he had to struggle constantly against melancholia: he found it difficult to get up in the morning, he could not bear dimly lit rooms—’Better,’ he wrote, ‘to eat dry bread by the splendour of gas than to dine on wild beef with wax-candles’—and music in a minor key upset him. Writing to a friend who was similarly afflicted, he gave his own recipe for combating low spirits.”

1. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

2. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

3. Be as busy as you can.

4. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you, and of those acquaintances who amuse you.

5. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

6. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling and emotion, not ending in active benevolence.

7. Keep good blazing fires.

8. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

Auden glosses the compendium drolly: “This illustrates well enough both the virtues of his mind and its limitations.” I can vouch for suggestions two, three, and seven; when I’m down, I actually tend to avoid friends, and much prefer scalding hot shower-baths to ones that give me a slight chill.

Raritan, Volume I, Number I

“Writing, depending as it does on those enabling assumptions by which ideas are produced and understood at a particular cultural moment, is also, for the kind of critical intelligence discussed and at work in these pages, an act of resistance to those assumptions.” So suggests Richard Poirier, founding editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review, in that magazine’s inaugural editorial, published in the Summer 1981 issue. He continues:

What we can best know about an idea of an event cannot, in this view, be gotten from a Chicago syntopicon but only from a critical, sceptical inquiry designed to uncover the conditions within which they are given birth and achieve recognition. A case in point, as Thomas Edwards suggests, is the production of a species of event called “popular culture” and its reception, under that rubric, by certain people to whom event of high culture apparently offer a distinctly different order of experience. On this and many other subjects we plan to run a variety of pieces ranging from theoretical essays to review-articles of specific works, authors, and performers. Raritan will not, as a rule, print stories or poems, though when it seems appropriate we’ll make a few exceptions, and though most contributions will be solicited, anything sent in will be considered.

Poirier’s debut issue featured the following articles: Leo Bersani, “Representation and Its Discontents”; Harold Bloom, “Agon: Revisionism and Critical Personality”; Jay Cantor, “On Stanley Cavell”; Denis Donoghue, “Leavis and Eliot”; Thomas R. Edwards, “Popular Culture and Intellectual Pastoral”; and Poirier’s own “Writing Off the Self.” I mention this now because, as the blurry cameraphone photograph above indicates, I now own a nearly complete set of the magazine’s hundred-odd issues. The magazine is holding a special back-issue sale, and as a belated birthday present I bought one copy of every issue that could be found in its offices, as well as inaugurated a subscription. Happy will be my bedtime reading for months to come.

In advance of reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel

I eagerly await the moment when I can sit down to read Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Home. In the meantime, the media blitz surrounding it is in full swing. Ruth Franklin, writing in the October 8 issue of The New Republic, discusses the absence of God from contemporary American fiction, places Robinson in relation to this lack, and then offers useful context for understanding this book:

All this is to say that Marilynne Robinson stands virtually alone. Staring with Housekeeping—an uncanny little novel, published in 1981, that quietly established itself as a cult classic—Robinson has devoted her entire career to the investigation of the spiritual life. Or I should say “spiritual living,” because her books wrestle with the question of what it means to confront the world as a religious person, a person who is committed to the tenets of Christianity—which Robinson summed up, in an essay published a few years ago in The American Scholar, as “grace, generosity, and liberality”—while at the same time participating as fully as possible in daily human existence. “What I might call personal holiness,” she remarks, “is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another.”

In Housekeeping, perhaps because Robinson did not dare directly to broach such an unfashionable subject in her first novel, such perceptions are largely kept beneath the surface, emerging in the symbols and the subtexts of this extraordinarily rich work about two abandoned children under the care of a loving but deeply unconventional aunt. Twenty-three years went by before her second novel appeared. Then came Gilead, the life story of a Congregationalist preacher named John Ames, told in a diary-style letter composed over a period of weeks and intended for his young son to read as an adult. At the start of the book, Ames, who became a father late in life—he is seventy-six years old—has been recently diagnosed with angina pectoris, and reports that “a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things.” As Ames reminisces about his father and grandfather and contemplates the path his life took, the novel’s true story gradually emerges from his meandering thoughts: the transgressions of Jack Boughton, the son of his closet friend, and Ames’s inability to forgive them.

In a profile in The New York Times Magazine, Robinson remarked that she had been trying to write a different novel, “a darkly comedic story of a woman ‘abraded’ by her experience of the world.” One day she tried writing a poem in the voice of the elderly preacher who was a minor character in the book, and out of this Gilead rapidly emerged. Now, four years later—the blink of an eye, in Robinsonian time—we have Home, which must be some form of that previous novel.

Much has been made of Robinson’s religiosity, the biblical cadence of her prose, and her attempts to “perceive the holy.” Although many online commentators discussed her review, in 2006, of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, fewer have noted “Credo,” an essay she published in the spring 2008 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, which I take to be the most recent explicit iteration of her view of Christian religion. (A subscription to the publication is available for free; I called the magazine’s office when I heard Robinson’s essay was to be published there, and received not only the spring issue but also the autumn issue.) Robinson’s essay is long and consistently rewarding, but I’ll excerpt only one notable passage:

I have read that certain physicists, grappling with what is apparently the anomalous weakness of the force of gravity, have posited the existence of another universe, whose influence is felt by ours. Earth’s gravity, they say, could be a consequence, a sort of shadow effect, of that other reality. Such a notion might never be accessible to any sort of test, but I think it serves very well as metaphor. Anomalies in our thinking might simply mean that we have no conception of what is in play, what other university of intentions, presence, passion, and grace liberates our limbs, lightens our burdens, softens our fall, permits a weightiness that is not entrapment. The physicists remind us every day that anomaly is very much to be respected, and that knowledge proceeds by conceding the existence of reality beyond our knowledge—“dark energy” being one striking recent example. I feel that reverence requires a somewhat greater humility relative to the nature and the will of God. So I explore along the lines of imagination, memory, intuition, learning what I can by the means that are given to me.

As I have said, I am not of the school of thought that finds adherence to doctrine synonymous with firmness of faith. On the contrary, I believe that faith in God is a liberation of thought, because thought is an ongoing instruction in things that pertain to God. To test this belief is my fictional practice, the basis for the style and substance of my two novels and the motive behind my nonfiction. This might seem to some people to be paradoxical, a religious believe in intellectual openness. This would seem like a contradiction in the minds of religion’s detractors and also, apparently, in the minds of a significant number of its adherents. I think of Wallace Stevens’s “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” I think of Theodore Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go.” Calvin called the universe a school in which we are to be instructed. This feels deeply right to me. And I think of Paul’s saying, “It is for freedom that Christ made us free.”

It is obvious that Robinson comes by her language not only from a deep understanding of Christian literature, but also from the faith that underpins her interest in it. In recent years I have found myself increasingly attracted to what might be called the literary qualities of religious discourse, in particular Christian writing. (This may account for some part of my interest in early American history.) Yet I was not raised in a particularly religious household, and my fascination has not yet been accompanied by spiritual yearning. I have wondered at some length whether the language that appeals to me could be available to me as a writer. Late last year, reading the poet Christian Wiman’s book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, I came across this passage in his “Notes on Poetry and Religion”:

I think it is a grave mistake for a writer to rely on the language of a religion in which he himself does not believe. You can sense the staleness and futility of an art that seeks energy in gestures and language that are, in the artist’s life, inert. It feels like a failure of imagination, a shortcut to a transcendence that he either doesn’t really buy, or has not earned in his work. Of course, exactly what constitutes “belief” for a person is a difficult question. One man’s anguished atheism may get him closer to God than another man’s mild piety. There is more genuine religious feeling in Philip Larkin’s godless despair and terror than there is anywhere in late Wordsworth.

With this in mind, I asked Robinson after a reading last April whether she felt that unbelievers can make full use of religious language. Somewhat to my surprise, she disagreed with Wiman’s initial assertion quoted above. I hope someday to read further thoughts from her on this topic, whether in an interview or in her own writing.

In the meantime, some additional reading related to HomeThe Paris Review has interviewed Robinson for its “Art of Fiction” series, and made the transcript available online; Bryan Appleyard recently profiled Robinson for The Times of London, calling her “the world’s best writer of prose”; the critic James Wood reviewed Home in The New Yorker; the critic A.O. Scott reviewed the novel for the New York Times Book Review; and the New York Times has also made available online the book’s first chapter.

“For many reasons a man writes much better than he lives”

Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler no. 14, titled “On the Life of an Author vs. His Writing,” notes:

It has long been the custom of the oriental monarchs to hide themselves in gardens and palaces, to avoid the conversation of mankind, and to be known to their subjects only by their edicts. The same policy is no less necessary to him that writes, than to him that governs; for men would not more patiently submit to be taught, than commanded, by one known to have the same follies and weaknesses with themselves. A sudden intruder into the closet of an author would perhaps feel equal indignation with the officer, who having long solicited admission into the presence of Sardanapalus, saw him not consulting upon laws, enquiring into grievances, or modelling armies, but employed in feminine amusements, and directing the ladies in their work.

“It is not difficult to conceive, however, that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives.”

Although the connection is somewhat indirect, I was reminded of this passage when reading a newly published essay by the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick. “Writers, Visible and Invisible” is adapted from her acceptance speech at the 2008 PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award. (She also won the PEN/Malamud prize for short fiction; see this notice published in The Guardian.) In the essay, printed by Standpoint, a new magazine, she writes:

And here at last is the crux: writers are hidden beings. You have never met one – or, if you should ever believe you are seeing a writer, or having an argument with a writer, or listening to a talk by a writer, then you can be sure it is all a mistake.

 And, later:

…we had better recall that celebrated Jamesian credo, a declaration of private panic mixed with prayerful intuition, which so many writers secretly keep tacked over their desks: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” The statement ends, memorably: “The rest is the madness of art.”

The madness of art? Maybe so. But more likely it is the logic of invisibility. James has it backwards. It’s not the social personality who is the ghost; it is the writer with shoulders bent over paper, the hazy simulacrum whom we will never personally know, the wraith who hides out in the dark while her palpable effigy walks abroad, talking and circulating and sometimes even flirting. Sightings of these ghost writers are rare and few and unreliable, but there is extant a small accumulation of paranormal glimpses which can guide us, at least a little, to a proper taxonomy. For instance: this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When illicitly spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralysed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence. And that apologetically obsequious, self-effacing, breathlessly diffident and deprecatory creature turns out, when in the trancelike grip of nocturnal ardour, to be a fiery furnace of unopposable authority and galloping certainty. Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

Of course Ozick looks back to to James. The essay is as well turned as is the rest of her work, and well worth reading.

From Guy Davenport’s “Findings”

“What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.

“Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.”

Collected in The Geography of the Imagination.

Interview: Robert Pogue Harrison

Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on Artforum.com on July 25, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Several years ago, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.

In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.

This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.

In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.

The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.

Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on June 4, 2008.

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
New York: The Library of America. 1,160 pages. $40.00.

The reality of climate change is now beyond doubt in the scientific community. We also now know that it will take more than technological innovation to stave off its potentially devastating environmental consequences. As academic and laboratory squabbles about our planet’s ills begin to fade, the arduous task of correcting past and current negligence becomes, to a significant degree, an effort of rhetoric. Environmentalism today is in large part a campaign for the world’s hearts and minds, which makes the present a useful time to think deeply about the literature that addresses these concerns. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, a 1,000-page anthology, represents a Herculean effort on the part of author and activist Bill McKibben, its editor, to bring together the texts most relevant to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. It is matchless in its heft, generous in scope (included are Sierra Club founder John Muir and Marvin Gaye), and, with a detailed chronology in its back matter, serviceable in its depth.

Environmental writing today stretches from detailed meditations on particular places, such as those written by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, to assessments, by writers active in the environmental justice movement, of the social and economic inequalities that cause environmental burdens to be distributed unequally (think of Erin Brockovich’s lawsuits). The bulk of McKibben’s anthology leans marginally closer to the wonder-of-nature end of this spectrum, and likewise skews toward the present. But nearly all of the writers we associate with the movement, from the middle of the 19th century to the present, appear here, including Henry David Thoreau, Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and Michael Pollan. So do a handful of unexpected figures, from P. T. Barnum to Philip K. Dick to R. Crumb. A library that included this volume and Thomas J. Lyon’s utilitarian 2001 book This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing would offer fragments from or information about many of the books important to mainstream discourse on the topic.

The environmental writer and transcendentalism scholar Lawrence Buell, who is not included in McKibben’s volume, has discussed the split in environmental writing mentioned above, between rapturous sighs and demands for equity, in sequential terms: the former is a “first wave” concerned solely with the natural world, and the latter a “second wave” that acknowledges the interdependence of natural and built environments. By choosing Thoreau as his starting point, McKibben may be subtly acknowledging this second-wave criticism, despite the shortage of it in his anthology’s table of contents, for not only was the Concord resident a naturalist and keen observer of his surroundings, he was also an ardent abolitionist, a tax resister and a development critic. Thoreau was one of the first in America to understand that environmental concerns are political concerns.

The writer Rebecca Solnit, whose brief essay closes McKibben’s volume, is an inheritor of both Throeauvian traditions, and she suggests that compartmentalizing him, as many contemporary thinkers do, “is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought.”

“Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused,” she writes, “have undermined the connections for all of us.” In thinking of what a future rhetoric of environmentalism might sound like, Buell and Solnit’s words seem like a guiding light. Such writing would be persuasive but not hectoring, reach the ears of politicians and poets, and comprise ecologies and economies. Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics,” in the May 2008 Harper’s, is exemplary in this regard. That the public has been slow to recognize what confronts us is confirmed by the fact that Berry’s essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” originally included in a 1981 essay collection and reprinted in American Earth, shares the same kernel of insight as his most recent work: “The true remedy for mistakes is to keep from making them. It is not in the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but in a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint and care.”

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

I’ve just finished Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which I enjoyed reading. It is an account of freethought from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom to present-day battles between those supporting and fighting the teaching of evolution. The book’s tone remains fairly measured throughout, and her gallery of “infidels”—Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman, Roger Nash Baldwin, Madalyn Murray O’Hair—provides a welcome counterpoint to the figures that usually crop up in histories of American thought. Ingersoll in particular comes across as a winning figure, and Jacoby includes the eulogy he delivered at Walt Whitman’s funeral, on March 30, 1892, as an appendix. From that oration:

He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.

That last word brings to mind Michael Robertson’s new book, Worshipping Walt: Whitman’s Disciples (Princeton), which I have not yet seen, but which various reviews have made sound appealing (see brief commentaries in the New Yorker and the New York Observer).

Shotaro Yasuoka, The Glass Slipper and Other Stories

Published in the Village Voice on May 13, 2008. To read the review in context, click here.

The Glass Slipper and Other Stories
Shotaro Yasuoka
Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press. 140 pages. $22.95 (hardcover).

Success greeted the Japanese author Shotaro Yasuoka, now nearly 90, immediately upon the publication of the short stories that make up The Glass Slipper and Other Stories. With frugal, occasionally lyrical prose (translated by Royall Tyler), these works, from the early 1950s, prize emotional and psychological depth over narrative propulsion, and feature hapless, illness-prone, passive narrators. “Like someone who’s just fallen asleep,” muses one, “I was drawn along through the empty city as if by an irresistible force.”

The city is Tokyo, emptied out by the ravages of World War II, and Yasuoka’s misfits glide through it in search of a decent job or some other sense of direction. Many have college degrees, but even they seem indivisible from the school-age protagonist of “Homework,” the longest and most elusive tale included here. Today, readers might suspect that these anxiety-ridden twenty- and thirtysomethings are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Half a century ago, though, they roamed freely and fumbled through relationships with dainty, equally sensitive girls, as in the gorgeous title story. They also frequently deceive one another, like the strutting gang of dandy provocateurs in “The King’s Ears,” or writhe in impotent frustration beneath the chain-like bonds of family, like the son who falls “into a sort of weary resignation about being stuck” with his eccentric, self-sabotaging father in “The Sword Dance.” Building upon the foundation laid by figures like novelist Yasunari Kawabata and filmmaker Yasujiru Ozu, Yasuoka has created a sturdy framework for these unsparing, deft character studies.

David Samuels, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on April 30, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart
David Samuels
New York: The New Press. 400 pages. $26.95 (hardcover).

David Samuels belongs to an increasingly rare species: journalists who can parachute into an unfamiliar corner of America, establish their bearings quickly and extract a compelling narrative at once universally recognizable and resonant with idiosyncratic particularities. Not only is the species endangered; if you follow media trend pieces, so is its habitat. The number of magazines willing to support writers, especially younger writers, who embark on odysseys in which days’ or weeks’ worth of experiences are chiseled into 10,000 to 15,000 illuminating words seems to decrease monthly. Samuels has benefited from writing for the best of those that remain—Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine—and his new essay collection, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, is a patchwork composition that yields surprising insights into American existence. It is a testament to the particular pleasures and value of long-format narrative journalism.

Samuels notes that “the free-floating weirdness of American life will always escape any attempts to make us seem like a normal country rather than a furious human-wave assault on the farthest shores of reality.” The first pieces in the book, a fair but unsparing examination of Woodstock ’99, an account of the antiglobalization activist community in Eugene, Ore., and a portrait of the radical antiabortion activist Jim Kopp, depict people seemingly untethered to social convention, drifting toward violence on clouds of disaffection. This may be because “coherent narratives, the stories that tell us who we are and where we are going, are getting harder and harder to find,” as Samuels observes in a personal essay. What is left behind are “a few hundred million loopy, chattering, disconnected I’s.”

Other pieces step back from individuals to offer more sweeping panoramas. The best in the collection, “Bringing Down the House,” begins as a portrait of the Loizeaux family, proprietors of the country’s largest demolition company. It quickly takes a left turn when Doug Loizeaux invites Samuels to “help out” with the demolition of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, which is being razed to make way for the behemoth Venetian Las Vegas. From observing the meticulous preparations necessary to ensure the safe demolition of the tower, Samuels reaps broader wisdom: “The historic passage from the faded glories of the Sands to Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian is a powerful testimony to the American belief in starting over; in lucky numbers, charms, and stars; and in our expansive capacity for self delusion; and to the more general national transition from the smoke-filled back rooms where Las Vegas was born to the hazy methadone smog of movies and television.”

Not every essay in the collection is as masterful. Shorter, admiring profiles (of rapper Prince Paul and left-handed pitcher Bill “The Spaceman” Lee) and personal ruminations are not as strong, and describing music and visual art doesn’t come to Samuels as naturally as does setting a scene or capturing a personality. Several of the pieces are amended to include additional material. In “Buried Suns,” a strong essay about below-ground nuclear testing in Nevada, Samuels muses on his encounter with Michael Jackson and his experience at the Guggenheim’s branch in Las Vegas. That it’s a footnote not included in the original makes one appreciate editors who rein in their writers’ flights of fancy.

But Samuels’s rolling prose and his eye for telling detail more than make up for the book’s occasional misfires. His synoptic overview of Super Bowl XL in Detroit is ostensibly a portrait of the pre-game entertainer, Stevie Wonder, “a playful, gigantic black baby who has absorbed all terrestrial sounds and language in a single gulp.” Samuels hops from the NFL’s all-glass command center high above the field to the press briefing room at a nearby hotel to the tunnel through which Wonder and a 6,000-square-foot musical stage, along with the players and 2,000 teenagers, emerge onto the field. Something much larger emerges too. He meets Smokey Robinson’s guitarist and songwriter, Marvin Tarplin, notes “Black Monday” and the demolition of the Motown Records headquarters, and captures the “free-floating weirdness” of a multimillion-dollar corporate juggernaut landing in this city and taking off again so quickly.

The New Press has simultaneously published The Runner ($22.95, 192 pp.), Samuels’ account, based on his New Yorker essay, of a thief named James Hogue who reimagines himself as an autodidact ranch hand, gains admission to Princeton and is subsequently exposed as the Ivy League’s most infamous impostor.

Marilynne Robinson, then and now

The contributors to Reading Room, the New York Times blog dedicated to discussing books in depth, are currently focusing their energies upon Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping. Click here for the moderator’s introductory post.

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Robinson at DePaul University in Chicago. She read two essays, one of which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. I typed up a portion of my notes and e-mailed them to Patrick Kurp, of the blog Anecdotal Evidence, and he excerpted them online in this post:

Underpinning the first paper she delivered was her assertion that nothing is as complex as the human mind, and that various deterministic theories (Freud, economic rationalism, selfish-gene theory, etc.) do harm to this fact. She doesn’t understand “why human beings are so persistent in their attack on what is most distinctive about them.”
She then asserted that “if you do not believe in thought you cannot believe in faith” and, in a swipe at Christopher Hitchens and his ilk, that “those who attack faith devalue thought.” Later on in the essay, she praised Calvin’s assertion that “an encounter with the other is always an encounter with God,” said that she tries to live by that understanding, and stressed that reverence is the proper way of relating to the “shining garment of reality” in which God reveals himself constantly.

Lastly, an excerpt of Robinson’s 2007 commencement-day speech at Amherst has been published in the current issue of Harper’s. The full text of the speech, titled “Waiting to Be Remembered,” is available online at Amherst magazine.

Lindsay Waters’s “call for slow writing”

In an article published three weeks ago at Inside Higher Ed, Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, discusses the relationship between books and essays in humanistic scholarship, and makes a claim for the latter:

Books are the standard now, and for me to ask you to think that the future will feature the renaissance of journals and the replacement of the book by the essay might seem crazy. (You should know that it does not seem crazy to many of the leading university press publishers.) My suggestion is not crazy; it’s utopian. We don’t live in that world I am asking you to imagine, the world in which essays are the norm, but if we were to imagine that world could exist even for a second, how might seeing things that way cause us to change what we are doing?

We need to slow down, and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s “Abecedarium Culturae” or Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalog from Montaigne’s “De l’amitie” onwards. Some of the most important books are collections of essays, sometimes assembled with no pretence to forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. One could give many examples.

There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should.

The rest of the essay is worth a look, as is Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, a spirited little pamphlet Waters published a few years ago with Prickly Paradigm Press.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night and City of Words

Published in Bookforum, April-May 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

The Library At Night
Alberto Manguel
New Haven: Yale University Press. 384 pages. $30.

The City of Words
Alberto Manguel
Toronto: House of Anansi. 248 pages. $16.

The prolific anthologist and writer Alberto Manguel has become, since the publication in 1996 of A History of Reading, one of the foremost gentleman scholars of books and the act of consuming them. In 2000, he wrote Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate, which narrates the stories told by an idiosyncratic selection of artworks and images, and he followed that in 2004 with A Reading Diary, which chronicles his experience rereading twelve favorite books in a year. Now, in The Library at Night, Manguel meditates on repositories of books, his thoughts provoked by the construction, next to his home in a small French village, of a freestanding building to harbor the vast, multilingual collection he has acquired over his lifetime of devotion to the written word. Manguel arranged his library in accordance with his reading habits, which prioritize the serendipity afforded by browsing. The Library at Night is organized similarly and is better if approached the same way: dipped into rather than read straight through.

The book contains fifteen essays that posit the library “as myth,” “as shape,” “as island,” and the like. Manguel has assembled thumbnail biographies, entertaining anecdotes, close readings, and photographic documentation into a kind of commonplace book stitched together by his amiable prose. “During the day, the library is a realm of order,” he observes. “The library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.” The Library at Night is itself a joyful muddle.

“Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose,” he writes at the outset. And yet humankind continues to hoard what knowledge it can in an attempt to order that universe. This patchwork account records the author’s “astonishment” at such an enterprise. The book’s index, ranging from Abd al-Rahman, Aeschylus, and Anna Akhmatova to Èmile Zola, Stefan Zweig, and Juan de Zumá‡rraga (who was “responsible for creating the first printing press in the New World, and for destroying most of the vast literature of the Aztec Empire”), betrays Manguel’s wide reading.

He skips across history and geography while sympathetically relating innumerable stories. There is the Fihrist, an annotated catalogue of Arabic literature compiled by Ibn al-Nadim beginning in the year 987, and the idiosyncratic collection amassed by German art historian Aby Warburg in an attempt to discover “how our oldest symbols are renewed at different ages.” Glossed, too, are the eight books in the “children’s library” at the concentration camp in Birkenau, the epistolary tug-of-war between Michelangelo and Pope Clement VII over the design of the Laurentian Library in Florence, and the library washed ashore with Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s novel.

The haphazard, albeit frequently illuminating, correspondences Manguel finds in this great mass of anecdotal evidence, akin to the visual “convergences” posited by Lawrence Weschler in his 2006 book Everything That Rises, have a centrifugal force: They incite in the reader a desire to move beyond the confines of The Library at Night to the source material of what Manguel has brought between these two covers. Attempting to find a narrative line through the text, however, proves frustrating. This is perhaps inevitable given the capaciousness of Manguel’s topic and his reasonable desire to avoid monolithic generalizations. In the end, he’s willing to say that libraries grant readers “a glimpse, however secret or distant, into the minds of other human beings.” “For the cosmopolitan reader, a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders.”

These ideas about the power of literature are proferred more cogently and concisely in The City of Words, a transcript of Manguel’s 2007 CBC Massey Lectures, delivered in Canada last November. Devoted to understanding the rise of intolerance, about which Manguel confesses to be bewildered, these talks excavate the lessons that classic stories (ancient and recent) can impart about how to be together. Particularly strong are his examination of Don Quixote, and of the sociocultural context in which Cervantes wrote the novel, and his analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh (which strikes a chord with the chapter on the library “as shadow” in The Library at Night). “Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by means of which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve.”

Human caprice, Manguel notes in The Library at Night in his persuasive chapter on the library “as chance,” has as much to do with what is preserved as does any effort of will. “Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival . . . and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library.” In the year 336, a monk had a vision of his Lord and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls of a cave. Over the course of a millennium, chance turned this cave and others nearby into repositories of religious manuscripts and paraphernalia; nearly a millennium after that, chance led to the rediscovery of the site, now known as the Mogao Caves. What do such storehouses of memory grant us? Both The City of Words and The Library at Night come to the same conclusion: “consolation for suffering and words to name our experience.” In a 2006 interview, Manguel averred, “I wouldn’t define myself as a writer. I would define myself as a reader.” The Library at Night, taken incrementally rather than all at once, communicates the joy and the solace of being yourself a reader.

“Photographic Testimonies”

Published as “Photographic Testimonies” in Print, February 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Inside North Korea
Mark Edward Harris
San Francisco: Chronicle, 192 pp., $35

Welcome to Pyongyang
Charlie Crane
London: Chris Boot, 144 pp., $35

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
Edited by Leora Kahn; photographs by Lynsey Addario, Colin Finlay, Kadir van Lohuizen, and Ron Haviv
Brooklyn: Powerhouse, 136 pp., $45

Pictures Without Borders
Steve Horn
Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis, 133 pp., $30

Since the American Civil War, photography has played a central role in crafting narratives about conflicts and disasters, whether domestic or international, natural or man-made. As photographic technology has changed, so has our shrewdness in interpreting these documents, allowing for a seemingly limitless range of interactions among photographers, subjects, photographs, and viewers. To browse a stack of photo books containing images of repressively choreographed social life, famine, and war—in this instance, in North Korea, the Darfur region of western Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, respectively—is to travel down myriad avenues of interpretation. Each book and every page requires a complicated recalibration of expectation and response.

Two recent books, Inside North Korea and Welcome to Pyongyang, offer tightly circumscribed glimpses of life inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the nation is officially known). Both books contain introductory texts—the first by the owner of a tour-package company that specializes in travel to North Korea, the second by a University of Chicago historian—that acknowledge the limitations placed upon the photographers, an admission borne out in the images themselves. It is these texts (and the photo captions) that distinguish the books from one another. Nicholas Bonner’s introduction to Welcome is written in the voice of a man who wants to continue doing business with the regime that has allowed him to produce the book, and its captions come from North Korean tour guides. Bruce Cumings’s foreword and the anonymous captions that accompany Inside are comparatively neutral and candid.

The photographs themselves are all but interchangeable: long, symmetrical gazes down wide, nearly empty avenues; upward-sweeping views of oversize monuments; and mostly full-length formal portraits of model citizens in uniforms and traditional dress. Charlie Crane’s photographs in Welcome are more formal, reproduced at a higher quality, and feature a greater number of building interiors. The photos by Mark Edward Harris, as the broader geographic scope of his book title indicates, range across more of the country—and also benefit from views of North Korea taken from across the border with China (to the north) and South Korea (across the Korean Demilitarized Zone).

In both cases, the “inside” to which Harris’s title refers is strikingly quite literal: The photographs were taken inside North Korea, yet in almost no way do they document the interior lives of North Koreans. There is no visible rapport between the photographers and their human subjects; one must look closely in order to see around the cheerful façade—so buoyantly replicated in Welcome—erected by Kim Jong-Il’s phalanx of minders and statistics-spewing guides.

By contrast, unremitting pain characterizes the pictures in Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, edited by Leora Kahn for the nonprofit organization Proof: Media for Social Justice. The volume presents the work of eight acclaimed photojournalists and the beseeching testimony of aid agency workers, noted writers, and a handful of celebrities; proceeds from its sales will be donated to Amnesty International and the Genocide Intervention Network. If the chilly formalism of the North Korea pictures testifies to the Dear Leader’s control over his population and his country’s visitors, the presence of so many emaciated, fly-ridden bodies mere inches from the camera lenses indicates that whatever order once held in this arid African plateau has now irredeemably collapsed. Yet the photographic depiction of even the most lawless, unprecedented situation adheres to decades-old visual convention: a regular alternation of somber black-and-white and vividly colored pictures; a preponderance of children and the elderly; stark outlines of malnourished, brittle bodies graphically contrasted with sand and dirt; and long lines of displaced people stretching into the distance.

As Susan Sontag noted in the 2002 New Yorker article that formed the basis for her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock.” Indeed, each photograph in this volume presents fresh indignities, whether of those suffering under Janjaweed attacks or of those whose minds have been so warped as to perpetrate this mass extinction of ethnic rebel groups. But, Sontag continued, such photographs “don’t help us much to understand.” This perhaps explains the instructional tone of the included texts—the piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof contains bullet points—which function as funnels for the outrage sure to rise in one’s chest while browsing these images. (Looking more closely, one finds small outrages about the book itself: For example, while denouncing in its pages the fact that China sells military aircraft, grenades, guns, and ammunition to those perpetrating this atrocity, the back cover notes that the volume was printed and bound in that country.) One question recurred while looking over this volume: Can photographers—perhaps in conjunction with book or editorial designers—portray a profound humanitarian crisis in such a way as to convey its specificity, and in so doing induce in viewers not passive horror but inspiration for specific action? Can such images do away with their written explication?

In Pictures Without Borders, photographer Steve Horn’s book about Bosnia, Horn unintentionally reveals one method of visual narration that makes superfluous such textual appendages: before-and-after documentation. In 1970, Horn traveled throughout what was then called Yugoslavia, documenting life in small cities and out in the countryside. The black-and-white photographs, originally undertaken as an art project, are the most formally varied and therefore the most visually engaging among all those surveyed here. Twenty-five years later, after seeing the place names of the sites he visited in news accounts of the Bosnian War, Horn decided to return to the region and reconnect, if possible, with the subjects of his earlier photographs. Needless to say—the book was published, after all—he does, and Pictures Without Borders is chock-full of Horn’s diary entries and testimonies of those he met a second time. The text is as sentimental as one would imagine, and, though one is glad for everyone involved, it detracts from the nonverbal message about the ravages of time—on a place, its buildings, and its people—that the camera delivers.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on January 30, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

My Unwritten Books
George Steiner
New York: New Directions, 192 pages. $23.95.

“Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love,” wrote George Steiner at the outset of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, his first book. Nearly 50 years after that study’s publication, and nearly a quarter century after the release of A George Steiner Reader, the eminent literary critic and philologist carries on his interrogations into the uses, both practical and exalted, of language. In recent years a shadow of wistfulness has descended upon the ardor that has run through the many books he has written since that conspicuous opening salvo. In 2003 he published Lessons of the Masters, an analysis of the personal encounter between mentor and protégé that took in not only Socrates and Plato and Jesus and his disciples but also college football coach Knute Rockne. Its valedictory tone likewise underpins his latest, and perhaps most disparate, essay collection, My Unwritten Books.

As its title suggests, each of this book’s seven chapters chronicles a full-length study that the author, now nearing 80, would have liked to have undertaken but for various reasons could not: critical biographies of the recently deceased sinologist Joseph Needham and the 14th century mathematician and astrologer Cecco d’Ascoli; examinations of lovemaking and language, what it means to be Jewish, and the evolving relationship of man to animals; the definition of a core curriculum suitable for the 21st century; and an explanation of his own politics. At the conclusion of each essay’s argument, Steiner offers an apologia for its concision. Yet, as Theodore Dalrymple recently noted, “there is more intellect in the distillation than in the accumulation of facts,” and Steiner makes good use of his vast erudition. For those able to parse his occasionally dense, always verbose style—in which a brief parenthetical aside can send you scrambling to the library—there is much to be gained from these incomplete, seemingly personal excursions.

Steiner’s description of Needham’s prose, in which “astringent technicalities alternate with horizontal vistas,” applies equally well to his own writing, and his account of a scholar obsessed with an encyclopedic multivolume masterwork, Science and Civilization in China, could pass as camouflaged self-portraiture. Midway through the essay, Steiner takes a detour from the biographical tracking of Needham’s exploits to fruitfully compare SCC, as the tome is known, to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Freed from the strictures of scholarly accountability that attend to full-length books, Steiner veers from his course repeatedly: His profile of d’Ascoli unfolds into a meditation upon teaching, enviousness, and supersession, and his essay on man and animals includes touching reminiscences of the four dogs his family has owned. It also leads to more questions than answers. Though Steiner is comfortable drawing upon his storehouse of knowledge to make broad generalizations, in this book he frequently undercuts his certitudes by following them with equally broad questions. “What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?”

As befits the author of the essay collection Language and Silence and the study After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, language is the bedrock upon which such meditations are constructed. Steiner makes broad claims for its power. “Owing to language(s), we can defy or attenuate the monochrome of predestined mortality,” he notes in the essay on sexuality. But he is also aware of its ultimate finitude: “To seek to circumscribe the spaces and diversities of love is to seek to index the ocean.” And, later: “Words end in words. Pictures are pictures. There can be no passwords to the beyond.”

These are the realizations of a humanist who has profited from a lifetime of literary studies. In “School Terms,” his response to the litany of requests beseeching him to compare education systems in America, England and Europe, Steiner counter-intuitively suggests a curriculum in mathematics, music, architecture and the life sciences -“taught, whenever possible, historically”—as central to a definition of literacy suitable for today’s political and social debates. But as this volume abundantly demonstrates, we would benefit equally well from attending to the texts and traditions that have sustained Steiner’s own career. One of this book’s virtues is the arguments it provokes from the reader. But the final essay, “Begging the Question,” claiming his politics as “those of privacy and intellectual obsession,” is suffused with a plangent mournfulness that temporarily silences such running commentary. “I am haunted, to the point of panic, by the fragility of reason,” Steiner writes. By the time you finish this book, it is obvious that Steiner remains a beacon of humane rationalism. While each of these topics might not cry out for the lengthy treatment he had once planned, readers will be grateful Steiner has addressed them here.

J. M. Coetzee: A brief comment and several reviews

(Photograph by Tony Cenicola for the New York Times)

I have just completed the last book I will read this year: J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Each review of the book has of course discussed its three-stream or three-band structure. The first stream, at the top of the page, presents a series of brief, sharp essays by a character only minimally different in biographical detail from Coetzee himself; they reflect on politics, ethics, and many other aspects of contemporary life. Beneath that, separated by a thin black line, is an interior monologue created by that character during the essays’ composition. Beneath another black line that begins twenty-five pages in, the reader encounters the thoughts of Anya, a young woman the Coetzee doppelgänger hires to type the essays printed at the top of the page. Several reviewers have noted that readers can choose whether to read the three streams simultaneously or consecutively. But, having read them simultaneously, the extreme control Coetzee exerts over this potentially unwieldy configuration gives reading them simultaneously a richness that I cannot imagine would come forth if read the other way.

At the outset of the novel, Coetzee and the book’s designer have arranged the text such that no sentence runs from one page to the next, thus giving the reader a natural pause with which to skip down to the next stream; only after forty-two pages does a sentence run across the gutter, causing one to read ahead with one narrative and then circle back to catch up on the next. By this point, all three streams have been introduced and the reader is relatively comfortable with how the pages are divided. Only then does Coetzee begin to push and pull the structure. Roughly halfway through the novel, the streams begin diverging fairly sharply in pace and tone, giving the story as a whole a fascinating kind of elasticity; on page 107, the third stream—recording dialogue between Anya and her boyfriend, Alan—not only fits with what came before it on page 106, but might also be seen to offer a comment on the stream just above it. Later still, Coetzee presses further, introducing a temporal malleability in which the streams no longer march in lock step, but lag behind and pass each other like runners in a race. The three tales remain bound together in the reader’s mind, and feeling the tension this generates offers a pleasure that conventionally structured novels, in which one can easily discern flashbacks and the like, rarely convey.

There is much to be said about the book, but aside from this comment on structure I leave it to professionals. Here are links to reviews by James Wood in the New Yorker, Judith Shulevitz in Slate, Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books, and Kathryn Harrison in the New York Times Book Review.

Coincidentally, when I read books I often make notations in the margin, and I was surprised to discover that the spread depicted above, in a photograph that accompanied Harrison’s review, was one I marked as being particularly important (I placed an asterisk next to the second stream). Did an editor purposefully choose a potentially important spread to reveal, or is this mere coincidence?

UPDATE, 01/01: Richard Eder reviews the novel in today’s New York Times. He picks up on another aspect of the interplay between the streams that I neglected to mention: As Anya becomes more fully embodied as a character, C.’s short essays dwindle in power (and length, as if he were losing his ability to concentrate).

And from here on, the pages divide: the top third, C.’s philosophical opinions; the middle third, his account of Anya, as well as his feelings; the bottom third, her account of C., as well as hers. Gradually the last two parts grow more vivid, while the opinions grow dustier. Anya expands into her reality; C. deflates, magnificently, into his.

UPDATE, 01/02: The Village Voice publishes a review of the novel by Allen Barra.

UPDATE, 01/04: Art Winslow reviews the book in the Los Angeles Times.

UPDATE, 01/07: Adam Begley reviews the novel in the New York Observer.

UPDATE, 01/10: Amelia Atlas reviews the book for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History

Published in the Metro Times (Detroit) on December 5, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History
Alice T. Friedman
Yale, March 2007, 242 pages, paperback

When this book was originally published in 1998, Alice T. Friedman’s recourse to letters, memoirs, and newspaper and magazine accounts charted relatively new territory for an architectural historian. The portraits of six modernist houses, interwoven with profiles of the creators and their clients, still make for engaging material. (A stray reference to the late Philip Johnson living at his Glass House “to this day” bears evidence that the text has not been updated for this paperback edition.) Friedman’s revisionist narrative aims to show how the confluence of feminist thinking and the utopian social aims of modernist architecture caused a radical rethinking of domesticity. It’s a fascinating thesis that holds interest beyond the case studies presented in this volume.

At her best, as in chapters featuring Truus Schröder and Constance Perkins, the actively engaged clients of Gerrit Rietveld and Richard Neutra, respectively, Friedman gives ample evidence of the congenial tugs of war that led to the creation of masterpieces and documents the satisfaction each woman got from living in her home. But in other chapters, Friedman strains to cast these women in a favorable light: Aline Barnsdall, in particular, comes across as someone too lost in mystical ideas about open-air theater to ever see the ambitious arts complex-cum-residence she commissioned from Frank Lloyd Wright come to fruition. Vanna Venturi, mother of architect Robert Venturi and client for his second completed building, and Gabrielle de Monzie, one of three clients for Le Corbusier’s Les Terrasses in suburban Paris, seem like nonentities in the design phase of their homes.

Friedman’s most ambitious chapter discusses Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House/Guest House, perhaps the two greatest icons of modernist residential architecture. It explores in depth the souring of Mies’ relationship with Edith Farnsworth (due to cost overruns and her realization of the glass box’s minimalist severity), and then pans out to briefly discuss the era’s prevailing sexual mores and debates about privacy. Friedman contrasts the Farnsworth House with one of Johnson’s twin buildings that bears formal resemblance but functions quite differently as a residence.

Despite a somewhat didactic tone that makes for annoying repetitions, this book supports its claim that women decisively shaped modernist domestic architecture, leaving the reader clamoring for others to extend the analysis of this subject.

F. Scott Fitzgerald interview

I share a birthday with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on this day in 1896. He happens to be among my favorite writers—I have read The Great Gatsby four times and This Side of Paradise twice (so far), and keep The Crack-Up at hand for regular browsing. Last week The Guardian published an excerpt of the author’s interview with Michel Mok, conducted on his fortieth birthday, September 24, 1936.

“A writer like me,” he said, “must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothingcan- happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.

“Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.”

Morris Dickstein includes an essay on Fitzgerald, titled “The Authority of Failure,” in his book A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World. In it he describes the interview quoted above:

Into this picture [a time when Fitzgerald was publishing poignantly self-searching articles about his failure to take care of his talent] came a reporter for the New York Post, perhaps not so different from the Murdoch-driven paper it is today, a reporter with the ominous name of Michel Mok, to interview Scott for his fortieth birthday. There was a scent of blood in the water. Fitzgerald was under a nurse’s care at an inn in Asheville, North Carolina, but he was still drinking, and the reporter described in wretched detail how he kept popping up for a thimbleful of gin from the makeshift bar, how his face twitched and hands shook as he described his life and made the usual drunkard’s rationalizations.

The front page of the Post the next day told the whole story: “The Other Side of Paradise / F. Scott Fitzgerald, 40 / Engulfed in Despair / Broken in Health He Spends Birthday Re- / gretting That He Has Lost Faith in His Star.” What had been eloquent if not wholly frank in Fitzgerald’s own articles became pathetic in the tabloid version. Time picked up the story and gave it much wider currency. The effect on Fitzgerald was catastrophic. He thought he was ruined and took an overdose of morphine, but luckily vomited it up. He felt his credibility as a writer and a serious man was gone. The Post interview was perhaps the lowest point he reached in the decade, but it fixed his image as a washed-up, self-pitying writer, a miserable caretaker of his talent, the relic of a distant and unlamented era. (Even a decade later, when reviewers like Lionel Trilling wrote about The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his late friend’s articles and letters, they would still point to the effects of the Post story on Fitzgerald’s waning reputation.)

In a limited sense this image endures even today.

I agree with Dickstein that Fitzgerald’s late writings are beautifully haunted by his “crack-up,” and likewise hold up his 1932 essay “My Lost City” as an “emblem for this last phase of Fitzgerald’s work.” Its passage describing Fitzgerald’s first ascent to the top of the then newly built Empire State Building is one of my favorites from his entire corpus:

Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

Dickstein digs deep into this passage, but I’ll let it stand. This will be today’s only post.

Three glances back

Three recent long-format essays have cast retrospective glances at aspects of literary and intellectual life as it was lived twenty to twenty-five years ago. I first came across Joseph Epstein’s “‘The Literary Life’ at 25,” which revisits the article Epstein wrote for the inaugural issue of The New Criterion. Near the beginning of the piece, Epstein notes:

My earlier essay, reread today, does not seem to me wrong so much as it seems a touch quaint. No mention is made in it, for example, of computers, let alone all they have brought forth in the way of benefits and distractions in connection with the literary life. Instead I wrote at some length about the university seeming to be taking over literature, offering jobs to writers who could not have survived on their writing alone, making so-called creative writing programs fashionable, valuing writers according to their multicultural credentials quite as much as their qualities as pure literary artists. This has all now become pretty much status quo.

He then savages academic literary criticism, literary politics (“it is a small but genuine national disgrace … that Hilton Kramer was never awarded a Pulitzer Prize”), the New York Intellectuals, Susan Sontag, European writers, English novelists, American intellectual journalism, playwrights, poetry (“the Darfur of twenty-first century literature”), male American novelists, and more. One can tell by the parenthetical excerpts included in that last sentence that Epstein, with his rhetorical excess, now paints the target on his own chest; as such, the essay is entertaining if not edifying.

The second article, Scott McLemee’s reconsideration of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, appears in the current issue of Bookforum. It is an altogether more measured analysis of the earlier work’s place in contemporary letters, and ends on an oddly hopeful note: Perhaps the masses of untenured intellectuals who are “not very well integrated into the [academic] system,” might change the tenor of public discourse.

The third, which revisits Harold Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, was published in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Here is an excerpt:

“The Closing of the American Mind” hit the scene at a time when universities were embroiled in the so-called canon wars, in which traditionalists in favor of centering the curriculum on classic works of literature faced off against multiculturalists who wanted to include more works by women and members of minorities. [ … ]

Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation. However polarizing Bloom may have been, many of the issues he raised still resonate—especially when it comes to the place of the humanities on campus and in the culture.

Donadio then offers quotes from a number of prominent humanities professors, including Louis Menand, Mark Lilla, Tony Judt, Elaine Showalter, and others. All three articles make for engaging reading, for different reasons. If three examples mark a trend, what do these reassessments say about our moment?

On (re)discovering writers

The Observer has published another literary list, this time asking fifty notable writers to name “brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine.” Owing perhaps in part to differences in reading habits on either side of the pond, not only are many of the books new to me, but several of the writers as well. The novelist Elizabeth Taylor garners three nods: from Jane Rogers for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, from Charlotte Mendelson for Angel, and from Jenny Diski for Blaming. (Perhaps her books are neglected in part because it is difficult to search for her on the Internet, that great digital spade exhuming neglected writing; she’s number two of the four Elizabeth Taylors registered by Wikipedia.) James Lasdun selected The Short Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which also popped up recently at New York Times Book Review senior editor Dwight Garner’s blog, Paper Cuts. Here is what Lasdun has to say about the collection:

The improbably named Breece D’J Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952, published some stories in the Atlantic, then shot himself at the age of 26 for reasons no one has been able to fathom. His dozen-odd stories were published posthumously in the States to great acclaim, then more or less sank from view. Cape published them here under the title Trilobites—nobody paid much attention. A small following of mostly southern and Appalachian writers has kept his name alive, but I think he deserves a place in the pantheon of great short-story writers. The best half-dozen or so of his brooding, beautifully constructed tales of life in the mountains and mining towns of West Virginia combine the terse economy of Hemingway with the dense eloquence of Faulkner and can be more touching than either. ‘Hollow’, about a young miner financially and emotionally at the end of his rope, is about the most powerful piece of short American fiction I know.

What are your recent discoveries? Similar lists—and by similar I mean British—have in the past led me to writers like Penelope Fitzgerald and Sybille Bedford. I enjoyed books by both, in particular Bedford’s memoir Quicksands and her travel book about Mexico, published both as The Sudden View and, later, A Visit to Don Otavio. More recently, a back-page NYTBR essay by the critic Morris Dickstein led me to John Williams’s Stoner, recently reissued by New York Review Books. I devoured it in twenty-four hours, unable to put it down despite its seemingly slow-burn plot: A farmer’s son enters the University of Missouri at the turn of the twentieth century, discovers and falls in love with the power of literature, and then settles into a stagnant career as a low-level English professor. The small rewards Stoner reaps from his work, frigid marriage, and seemingly dreary life, and the dignity they grant him, are beautifully rendered. Here are two passages. In the first, Stoner muses generally on love; in the latter, he looks back at particulars, thinking of the professor who introduced him to subject of his calling, his wife, and the woman with whom he had a brief but intense affair:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.


…Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love.

But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him—how many years ago?—by Arthur Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simple: Look! I am alive.

My list of writers to discover seems endless. Recently, Patrick Kurp has introduced me to the names Evan S. Connell, Wright Morris, and Paul West; a friend in Los Angeles, who reviewed a new translation of Robert Walser’s The Assistant, recommended I begin with Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten or his Selected Stories; my girlfriend is heroically attempting to redress my ignorance about Canadian literature, to move me beyond Alice Munro. The horizon forever recedes, but I would never wish to meet it.


“It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Matias Faldbakken

Essay for the book Matias Faldbakken: Not Made Visible (JRP Ringier, 2007).

You can draw a zigzag line across history and the arts, highlighting negation as a force of change by connecting, for example, Martin Luther to Bartleby the Scrivener to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing to Lee Lozano to the World Social Forum. Negation is normally considered the act of denial or the absence of something extant or positive. But another sentiment seems truer to me: Negation is a positive force. It is a tool, a resource to be exploited, and a way to strategically counterbalance the status quo. No can be a nuanced term: The refusal to work under given conditions implies the desire and need to change or replace them, a process that can take myriad forms. Matias Faldbakken has written, “If Eskimos have two hundred ways of saying ‘snow,’ I want a million ways to say ‘no.'” Negation is a quicksilver agent, difficult to identify, harder yet to pin down. Opposition is never stark. Here are thumbnail sketches of three ways to say “no,” as outlined or embodied by Maurice Blanchot, Joseph A. Schumpeter, and Henry David Thoreau, an admittedly idiosyncratic pantheon. Only 999,997 to go . . .

* * *

“Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt. It confirms itself as it disparages itself.” From this premise, outlined near the beginning of his essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” the French writer Maurice Blanchot swerved toward definitions of literature and of the writer—and hence of art and of the artist—that in their embodiment of paradox, they forward a radical affirmation: Everything is possible immediately. The writer must “destroy language in its present form and create it in another form, denying books as he forms a book out of what other books are not,” Blanchot stated. This negation is a license to freedom: The freedom to imagine worlds that do not exist and to make everything within them instantly available.

This opportunity is itself hounded by ambiguity; by allowing himself the freedom to depict the unrealizable, the writer limits his ability to create the conditions for his emancipation. He “ruins action, not because he deals with what is unreal but because he makes all of reality available to us.” Yet his writing is “the world, grasped and realized in its entirety by the global negation of all individual realities contained in it, therefore, at its highest level, it re-creates the lucidity-in-lack-of-control and the openness of total revolution. Every boundary dissolves. The French critic and novelist Julien Gracq touched on this in his Reading Writing, where he extolled the prose of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and François-René de Chateaubriand for their “exquisitely negative values; in the various ways [their work] thwarts expectation at every moment, in the largely open register of its breakdowns.”

Unexpectedly, it is Damien Hirst, with his book title I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, that gives voice to this freedom intrinsic to art. Extract Hirst’s monomaniacal ego from the statement—assume the art object is speaking for itself&8212;and one has a prescription for effective and affecting art. Operating everywhere and nowhere, relatable both to the masses and to the individual, with immediacy and foresight, an artwork has the power not only to negate but also to supersede current conditions. It hovers above us, suffused with all of our contradictory urges and desires.

* * *

Joseph Schumpeter, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theorists of capitalism, coined a term that remains with us today: creative destruction. It is “the essential fact about capitalism,” in the economist’s words. “It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” In essence, this concept suggests that nothing is permanent: Everything—every business and business practice, in Schumpeter’s case—will be negated in time by insurrectionary forces. Fusing two essentially opposite terms, the term expresses capitalism’s dependence on “innovation, human drama, and sheer havoc,” as Schumpeter biographer Thomas K. McCraw phrased it. Today, as globalization seems to lock capitalism into place as the central, inalienable fact of contemporary life for an ever-growing number of peoples, the instability cited can be understood as a seam or loophole. It is a manner by which one—or, more likely, a group—may introduce broader, more structural changes to a highly regimented system.

I cling to the belief that art—indeed, art informed by modernist principles—can act as an agent for this kind of “massive change” (to use the designer Bruce Mau’s term). The commensurability of “creative destruction” and the modernist dictum “make it new” remains striking. Both terms create a temporal continuum and both prioritize that which is at that continuum’s leading edge. Whereas the innovation intrinsic to capitalism is ethically and morally neutral—if one imagines it solely as a process, and does not consider intention or its societal effects—modernism in the arts was (and remains) conditioned by teleological thinking: The movement has an endpoint, a goal. As the twentieth century taught us in so many ways, any guiding intelligence, when deployed at so large a scale, is likely to be, at best, benign in its coerciveness and, at worst, malevolent and ultimately catastrophic.

This is not to advocate for mindless transformation for its own sake, nor for passivity in the face of that which one hopes to change. But creative destruction gives a measure of hope in the face of despair. Now more than ever, art production is inextricably bound up with the machinations of capitalism, and urban wealth—ostensibly the primary endower of artists—is in fact displacing them. Given this, some comfort comes from the knowledge that resistance to the status quo will be abetted by impermanence, one of the status quo’s essential qualities.

* * *

“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, who by all accounts—including his own, in his numerous journals—was a rather misunderstood social figure. Today he might be disdained as a loner, but as the late poet William Bronk related in his essay collection The Brother in Elysium: By following the dictates of his own conscience Thoreau was accepted by his neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, if misunderstood “for the little differences and a certain strangeness that they felt between them and him.” Bronk, who spent most of his life in small-town, upstate New York, was sympathetic to the great Transcendentalist and was able to appreciate what Thoreau gave us—a searching, often lyrical account of himself and his immediate environment as both were affected by the rapidly changing society, all in exchange for his abandonment of most social conventions of the time.

Thoreau’s predilection for silence, his eschewal of idle chatter, and his avoidance of large gatherings of men stemmed from a peculiar (to contemporary sensibility) definition of friendship: It is not, as Bronk phrased it, a “mutual assistance league,” but rather an appeal to our best estimation of each other. One solicits neighbors for assistance and one turns to friends for sustenance that is deeper and that requires nothing more than insistence on the integrity of each partner’s individual nature, “specific for each other beyond any power of word or deed to change,” in Bronk’s words. Indeed, as Thoreau himself put it, “It is not words which I wish to hear or to utter but relations that I seek to stand in.”

These relations are a far cry from, for example, relational aesthetics, in which fleeting connections among culturally and economically homogenous groups are celebrated (often uncritically) as heralding a new social paradigm. Indeed, words (and certainly workshops) are not necessary to Thoreau’s conception of friendship—fellow feeling suffices. What would it mean to “opt out,” on his terms, today? While risking the disapprobation of colleagues—or worse yet, their indifference—there remains much to be gained by turning away from such thin relations. By turning inward, at a moment when so much artistic production is unavoidably linked with its social manipulation, one could stopper the slow diffusion of one’s creative faculties, thus making viable a kind of self-understanding that may otherwise never be achieved. Many artists, however, in choosing such self-reliance, will discover that the “new value” they acquire by doing so is of limited interest. But after time, some will be rewarded for their efforts and, more importantly, their creative output will enrich the lives of those that follow. (No one may know this better than Bronk, whose essay on Thoreau, written in the mid-1940s, was not deemed publishable until 1980.)

Let the last words come from Bronk: “In silence [man] prepares for speech; in solitude for society. And so in like manner, the truest society always approaches nearer to solitude, and the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.” Furthermore, “Silence is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threatens to conceal. Yet all actuality is to be referred to it and valued accordingly as it includes or suggests it. Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the waves of silence to break against.”

Robert B. MacKay, America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera

Published in Print, January/February 2007.

The Cirkut camera, introduced just after the turn of the 20th century, charted—by means of a patented spring-arm rotation technology with a 360-degree range—the development of American society for the better part of 40 years. Military units, graduating classes, church groups, presidential inaugurations, car dealerships, rock quarries, and shipwrecks were documented by the panoramic prints, dubbed “yardlongs,” that the camera produced. This lavish volume, compiled by the preservationist Robert B. MacKay, is itself a yardlong, filled with more than 100 reproductions—many printed on foldout pages—scanned from original prints, which were themselves created directly from negatives and exquisitely detailed.

In his brief introduction, MacKay focuses on the development of the camera’s technology and how it was subsequently used, hazarding few observations about the broader cultural context into which it was inserted. This leaves the assembled images open to a wide range of interpretation. The smiling masses (or dour ones, like a 1924 Ku Klux Klan “Drill Team and Band”), pinned to lengthy scrolls of film with impressive particularity, remain anonymous examples of a society undergoing rapid urbanization, industrialization, and a dizzy ascent into scalelessness by every measurable index.

Alternately, the proud crowds speak to the cohesiveness of group identities—evidence of a country gathering steam as it glides into what would be dubbed “the American century.” These still pictures, cinematic in scope, were initially made around the time that filmed images were first screened to awed spectators. That panoramic picture-taking has become a quaint hobby while Hollywood proliferates endlessly lends these black-and-white documents a melancholy air that undercuts the triumph inherent in their wondrousness.

Gopnik on Proust’s letters

Last Tuesday I listened to the New Yorker critics Joan Acocella and Alex Ross discuss criticism; last night I listened to the New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik discuss Marcel Proust’s letters. This took place at NYU’s Maison Francaise, and marked the republication, earlier this year, of The Letters of Marcel Proust, selected and translated by Mina Curtiss and introduced by Gopnik. Two actors read three-to-five-letter selections of missives in rough chronological order, displaying the novelist’s development from late-nineteenth-century aesthete and social butterfly to daring, “morally sound” commentator, a “caterpillar slowly working his way inch by inch across society and Western consciousness.” Gopnik’s lip curled upward, conspiratorially, at some of the rhetorical excesses and “almost sycophantic” flattery Proust bestowed upon those he beseeched.

Several of Gopnik’s comments stood out, though I’m sure some are variations on what he has written for the book’s introduction, which I have not read. He suggested that we read writers’ letters for either love of their writing or out of fascination at the author’s winningness, placing Henry James in the former category (“I sometimes prefer his letters, which say ‘yes’ to perception and ‘no’ to tedious plots, to his late novels”) and Proust and Chekhov in the latter. He claimed that it was around 1907–08 that a “sharp conviction emerges” from the dandyish flattery of the earlier letters. He noted how courageous Proust’s position that “the only people who defend the French language are those who attack it,” expressed in a letter written around that time, must have been in that era, as it still holds a charge now.

Gopnik was, of course, asked when he first came to Proust, and expounded at length on reading Moncrieff’s translation—his favorite, “a masterpiece of English writing” and “the perfect balance between languages that draw from Shakespeare (English) and Racine (French)”—with his girlfriend (now his wife) in the summer of 1977. He also mentioned a “Talk of the Town” piece by John Updike about reading Proust in New York in the 1950s, which I came home to pull from the Complete New Yorker DVD archive but could not find. Nor could I find it by scanning the indices to Hugging the Shore and More Matter. Instead I offer, below the jump, one of Gopnik’s own “Talk” pieces, from the issue of September 17, 1990, that compares Proust’s house in Illiers to his co-op on Broome Street.

My favorite comment from the letters read last night: “I’m too lazy to write about things that bore me.” If only I had the fortune—or the will—to abide by that.

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“Criticism and the Arts” panel (a longish report)

Given past experience with panel discussions, and common assumptions one brings to them, I didn’t have the highest hopes for one titled “Criticism and the Arts,” held last night at Hunter College. It featured Joan Acocella (of the New Yorker, Greil Marcus (author, most recently, of The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, Alex Ross (of the New Yorker and the weblog and forthcoming book The Rest Is Noise), and Mark Stevens (of New York magazine), four eminent critics one must respect no matter one’s opinion of their opinions. Thankfully, the panel was moderated adroitly by Wendy Lesser (of the Threepenny Review), and the brisk pace—two questions from Lesser to all four panelists; two more questions thrown open to them generally; three or four questions from the audience—engaged until the end, when it was “time for wine and fizzy water, so you’ll feel this is more of a conversation than an opportunity for us to talk at you.”

I found it somewhat surprising that I generally agreed with what all four critics said, though whether that surprise is rooted in disappointment that I’m affected by the same factors that influence their work (and no longer am independent firebrand, however self-styled) or pride that I can claim similar methodological concerns remains to be determined. Acocella came off as the seen-it-all chronicler (an aside: I’ve been particularly taken with her recent writing on books, notably this introduction to Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity; Ross the obsessive stylist and last-ditch proselytizer for an increasingly marginalized art form; Marcus the storyteller who sneaks autobiography into each ruminative, “mystical” association; and Stevens the skeptic—both about the use of an institutional “we” and attendant overidentification with one’s platform and an art market seemingly out of control. There were few insights about criticism in the abstract, but plenty about these writers’ practice.

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The Uncertain States of America Reader

(Detail view of cover of mock-up made by designers)

As I publish this entry the Serpentine Gallery is celebrating the opening of “Uncertain States of America,” curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. As I mentioned in a parenthetical aside in this entry in June, I was asked by the three of them as well as Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones to edit an anthology of recent writing about contemporary art, politics, and the current cultural climate in the United States. The first of two editions of that volume, called The Uncertain States of America Reader, is being released tonight to coincide with the exhibition. (A second, expanded version will be published later this autumn by Sternberg Press.) This edition contains seventeen texts, is designed (by my friends Stuart and David of Dexter Sinister) to feel like an academic reader, and can be obtained now at the Serpentine Gallery, soon at the Walther König bookshop, and, a little bit later, in a few other locations around Europe for an intentionally low price—£6, I think. (The Sternberg Press version will be more widely distributed.)

Quickly realizing the scope of the project after I was initially invited to undertake it, I asked Noah Horowitz, who was hired by the Serpentine as an exhibition organizer and is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, to coedit the anthology with me. Here is a brief excerpt from our coauthored introduction, which is available in full at BrianSholis.com:

In recent years, many have noted the fashionableness of art that addresses its broader social context. The translation of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics into English in 2002 and the ongoing debate about this set of essays is one prominent example of this tendency. Others pertain to the intensification of discussion about the Internet’s (virtual) social power and the agency of extra-gallery/museum practices, the latter of which inspired “The Interventionists,” an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and presented at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2004. What has perhaps changed since the re-election later that autumn of George W. Bush is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. One could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Europeans now ensconced in American institutions), as evidence of this trend.

This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as cause for “grave concern.” We do not attempt to authoritatively engage these concerns here, but we do think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere. [ . . . ] At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States now, and it occasions some inspired debate.

(Table of contents of mock-up made by designers)

This edition of the book reprints the following texts:

“From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” by Andrea Fraser

“Eric Buell, Art Mover” in John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, eds., Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs

“Boundary Issues: The Art World Under the Sign of Globalism” by Pamela M. Lee

“Itinerant Artists” by Miwon Kwon (excerpt from One Place After Another)

“Tent Community: On Art Fair Art” by Jack Bankowsky

“American Mutt Barks in the Yard” by David Barringer (excerpt)

“Was ist Los?” by Seth Price

“When Procedures Become Market Tools,” Johanna Burton and Isabelle Graw in conversation

“New Live Queer Art” by Matt Wolf

“Renigged” by Hamza Walker

“Sublime Humility” by Paul Chan

“When Thought Becomes Crime” by the Critical Art Ensemble

“Startling and Effective: Writing Art and Politics After 9/11″ by Alan Gilbert

“The State, Spectacle, and September 11″ by Retort (excerpt from Afflicted Powers)

“Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib” by Dora Apel

“Notes from New York” by Molly Nesbit

Trisha Donnelly, 2006

Also from our introduction: “The present volume is not a ‘portrait of the exhibition’s artists in text’ (an early, and mightily optimistic, vision). Nor is it a top-down survey of all that is novel and noteworthy in today’s art world. Cognisant of this exhibition’s ambitious modus operandi, to represent ‘a “new” vision in American contemporary art,’ we realize, of course, that some may view this publication as nothing but such a list, a currency-enhancing invocation of already-prevalent curatorial/critical interests. And we understand that such a publication indelibly sanctifies its content, that it operates as a value filter or, as Isabelle Graw observes in these pages, a ‘“sound bite” in order to underline claims for art historical importance or theoretical erudition’. Yet it is our underlying hope that this Reader belies such a roll-call of erudite endorsements, and that its contents engage audiences in unanticipated and fundamentally informative manners.”

So, I hope that if your travels take you to London or wherever else this volume may be sold, you’ll consider looking it over and purchasing a copy. I’ll be sure to post a notice when the expanded version is available later this autumn.

UPDATE, 9/12: Adrian Searle reviews the exhibition in the Guardian:

The overall tenor is sophisticated, charmless, disaffected and at times deliberately damaged. The collision of artists and works is also often incomprehensible. The pile-up of stuff might be, in part, collaborative, but the effect is merely wearying, a sub-Kippenberger-ish turn-off. [ . . . ] But does any of this tell us very much about America? To coincide with the exhibition, the Serpentine is publishing The Uncertain States of America Reader, a number of recent essays on art theory, the art market, 9/11, Abu Ghraib and the war on terror.

But the book has more heft than most of the art in the show. In the end there’s too much here that is silly, opaque and, to be honest, immature. How seriously should we take Uncertain States of America?

Well, at least he says something nice about the book, if you consider “heft” a good quality in a reader. Phew.

Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

After the difficulty I faced finding this book, I finally found a copy of The Emperor’s Children at Strand Books last week, and devoured it over the weekend. It skewers the pretensions of people who are young, overeducated, and trapped in the Manhattan media echo chamber, yet I couldn’t help but have sympathy for its rather odious characters. Many of the descriptions of New York are evocative as well. Here’s an observation made by a character named Danielle from the rooftop of her building on Sixth Ave. in the West Village:

Murray gestured away toward the Hudson. Following his arm, Danielle was struck again by the glory of the city around them, its glittering stalagmites and arterial avenues, strung with the beaded headlights of the ever-starting, ever-stopping traffic. Even the dark patches, the flat rooftops of the brick and brownstone buildings to the immediate south and west, or the hollow she knew to be a playground by day—even these ellipses were vital to the pattern. Farther downtown, a cluster of skyscrapers rose, alight, into the night, stold mercantile reassurance in the mad whimsy of the city.

And here’s an interior monologue by a twenty-year-old who has just arrived in the city. It’s an amplified version of what I suspect many of us felt upon arrival here, when it is so easy to ascribe symbolism to every small detail and then extrapolate outrageous, seemingly life-altering meaning from each:

Were he independent, he thought, he would scan the Village Voice classifieds, and craigslist, and find a flat to share with persons unknown. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it: his life felt unreal already, his very flesh a tenuous thing, grounded here and now only by the Thwaites, by the small, growing, strangely delicious degree to which he was known. He couldn’t help but imagine himself disintegrating, falling away atom by atom into a million infinitesimal pieces, were he to allow himself to drift out the door into the cvast unknowing unknownness of New York City. The sensation was new to him—the way his claustrophobia in the subway had been new to him, and akin, although diametrically opposed, to that experience. In both cases, it was about feeling self-less, an Alice in Wonderland feeling, an appalling, thrilling, unsustainable feeling, a hollowing out. And just as he’d realized taht he needed to remain above-ground, he’d realized, too, that he needed to claim an apartment to which he had some logical, some traceable connection. Something that would keep him from drowning, or vanishing, or killing himself there.

The book is full of small things worth savoring, like how the run up to “ever-starting, ever-stopping traffic” in the first quote mimics what it describes, or the very subtle nod to l’affair James Frey in the second. Like all of the reviews I linked to here, I recommend the book.

UPDATE, 9/6: Despite my earlier concerns, an article by Motoko Rich in today’s New York Times asserts that sales of Messud’s book are much higher than expected:

Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s editor in chief, said that with the novel’s broad cast of characters and emotional realism, Ms. Messud had produced “a bigger book than anything she’s ever written.”

Knopf has gone back to press four times, and there are 56,500 copies in print. Booksellers have given strong support. “We ordered this book at a level to potentially break onto the best-seller list,” said Tom Dwyer, category director for trade books at Borders Group. Last week “The Emperor’s Children” hit No. 2 on Amazon.com’s Top 100 list.

James Salter, Last Night

On the plane yesterday I read James Salter’s Last Night, a slim collection of stories in which each tale would seem too brief were it not for the author’s aptitude for compression. More than any other fiction I’ve read in the past few years, the stories possess a quality I identify as “adult”—the light in these stories is amber, refracted through the bottom of a highball glass—despite the fact that Salter’s philandering protagonists expect, like children, to slip the yoke of consequence. They never do, and it’s to Salter’s credit that each denouement carries its own emotional weight.

Joyce Carol Oates, in an appreciation of Salter (NYRB subscriber–only link) written on the occasion of the publication in 2005 of Last Night, introduces his short fiction this way:

Dusk and Last Night are appropriate titles for Salter’s slender collections of stories, which unfold with dreamlike fluidity in an atmosphere of shadows and indistinct forms, like watercolors in a dark palette. As Salter’s novels are comprised of exquisite set pieces, often self-contained, so his short stories suggest novellas or novels compressed into a few pages. Both Dusk and Last Night, the new collection, contain memorable stories, yet a number of others (“Am Strande von Tanger,” “The Cinema,” “Lost Sons,” “Via Negativa,” “The Destruction of the Goetheanum,” from Dusk; “Comet,” “Eyes of the Stars,” “Platinum,” “Arlington,” from Last Night) move so swiftly and disjointedly as to arouse expectation in the way of trailers for intriguing films that turn out to be the films themselves, abruptly truncated. It’s as if the writer’s imagination has leapt ahead of his capacity for, or interest in, the work of expression; an impatience with formal storytelling and chronological development . . .

Next time you’re in a bookstore, pick this collection up and spend ten minutes reading one of the stories. I recommend “Such Fun,” “Arlington,” and “Last Night”.

Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone

Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone (FSG) is a beautifully written small book, surely a disappointment to those wishing to revisit the expansiveness of The Corrections, but undeniably winning for readers willing to be buoyed along by fluid, never-preening prose and the small insights, sadly often unusable, one gains about one’s past. Its six interlinked essays, two previously published in the New Yorker, are threaded through with references to the author’s mother—strict and emotional in his childhood, graceful and stoic in the slow arc of her dying—and one can’t help but think of The Afterlife, Donald Antrim’s recently published, equally pristine survey of more troubled family relations. Franzen’s crosscuts, such as those between family reminiscence and discussion of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz in “Two Ponies,” are effortless, a collage that allows in just enough of the world beyond his family without popping its seams. Even as his boyish awkwardness, usually around girls, turns into fecklessness, usually around women, and the repercussions of his eccentricities pile up, one can’t help but savor Franzen’s mellifluous voice and acknowledge that this is more than mere stopgap before his next novel.

More info: Publisher’s Weekly review; author page at the Complete Review; a report from a reading in the Columbia Spectator.

UPDATE, 8/21: Lev Grossman turns in a long(ish) profile of Franzen for Time.

UPDATE, 8/30: Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the book in the New York Times, isn’t as willing to suspend her dislike of the subject matter as I was.

UPDATE, 8/31: Emily Gordon at Emdashes weighs in on Kakutani’s review: “Does Michiko Kakutani have trouble with despair? Specifically, understanding what it might be like to be caught in it? Her self-congratulatory review . . . would seem to suggest that this is so, which would be an unfortunate deficiency in a critic of literature.”

UPDATE, 9/5: James Marcus published a review in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Book Review, and links to it (with a brief preface) from his blog, House of Mirth.

UPDATE, 9/6: Today, a ringing endorsement from New York Observer books editor Adam Begley. The lede:

I’m not sure I can tell you the difference between a “personal history” and a memoir, but Jonathan Franzen’s contribution to the genre is so expertly shaped and composed, so genuinely, organically thought-provoking, that I wish I could yank it off the shelf where it will inevitably sit with the autobiographical writing of other hip authors perhaps too young to be writing autobiography (Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, etc.), and toss it into the bleak anonymity of some loosely defined territory like “General Nonfiction.” The only problem is that the six essays in The Discomfort Zone, though they tackle topics as various as Charles Schulz, Franz Kafka and bird watching, are frankly autobiographical. Together they add up to an account, often artfully indirect, of Jonathan Franzen’s protracted coming-of-age—a period that overlaps, in part, with his development as a novelist. Though it never actually mentions either his first two novels or The Corrections (2001), The Discomfort Zone doubles as a map of the route Mr. Franzen traveled to get to the point where he could write his wonderful third novel. So this is, willy-nilly, a writer’s personal history.

UPDATE, 9/9: Here’s Theo Schell-Lambert’s review in the Village Voice.

UPDATE, 9/29: A review by Marjorie Kehe from the Christian Science Monitor

William St. Clair on “the political economy of reading”

William St. Clair, in an essay printed in the May 12 Times Literary Supplement, attempts to reorient our understanding of the relationship between printed matter and its readers’ “mentalities.” The essay, a condensed version of the John Coffin Memorial Lecture in the History of the Book, is not available online in its TLS form, but the original can be found in PDF form here. A few excerpts:

Literary and intellectual histories, two of the disciplines that have traditionally attempted to retrieve mentalities, have mainly been written in accordance with the “parade of authors” convention. The writings of the past are presented as a march past of great names, described from a commentator’s box set high above the column. In literature, we see Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson. . . . In philosophy Hume is followed by Adam Smith, Rousseau, or whichever names the writer wishes. According to the parade convention, those texts which have later been judged to be the best of their age, or the most innovative in a wide sense, are believed to catch the essence, or some of the essence, of the historical situation from which they came. It is a convention centred on newly written works that, for the most part, denies an active role to readers. Another convention that has come in more recently, I call the “parliament of texts.” This presents the writings of a particular historical period as debating and negotiating with one another in a kind of open parliament, with all the members participating and listening. Thus, when news of the French Revolution reached England, there was an outpouring of books and pamphlets that discussed its implications, and took the debate from questions of immediate policy to philosophical concerns about the nature of human society, the role of the State, the justifications for political, social and gender hierarchies, and much else.

Under both of these conventions, the historian chooses the texts that march in the parade or sit in the parliament. . . . However, as ways of understanding how mentalities may have been formed by the reading of books, neitehr approach is complete or satisfactory. For one thing, any study of the consequences of reading in the past ought to consider those books that were actually read, not a more recent selection.

And then:

A political economy of reading can begin with the economic aspect of political economy. The “history of the book” is, among much else, the history of an industry, one which has parallels with, for example, pharmaceuticals and information technology, in which intellectual property is central. . . .

Over the whole print era, the links, both general and particular, between texts, books, reading and wider consequences appear to be secure. For example, the persistence of rural, religious, pre-Enlightenment constructions of Englishness into the industrialized urban world, the emergence of a distinctively working-class sceptical urban reformist culture, and the persistence of believe in astrology and other ancient supernatural systems, despite the efforts of Church and State—in all these cases, the overlap is with books and readers, not with authors and texts. . . . If I am right, and it is accepted that reading can be shown to have shaped mentalities, then the implications are immense. For, having disconnected outcomes from traditional text- and author-centred approaches, we have connected them to other ways of understanding complexity.

Because there is such a precedent for this type of inquiry—the work of Adam Smith, for example, as mentioned in the description of the full lecture given on the page linked above—St. Clair’s ideas seem natural, as if they should have already been in the air. And yet I don’t think I’ve come across, in a publication aimed at a more-or-less general readership, an essay that uses these methods to consider histories of publishing and reading. I can’t vouch fully for the original lecture, as I’ve only read the TLS-edited extract, but the latter is fascinating, so the former may well be worth a look, especially among those litbloggers who read this site.

Rochelle Gurstein, “Mourning in America”

Leon Wieseltier has lately commissioned several articles that seem destined to be talked about, among them James Wood’s May 1 New Republic cover story, “What Harold Bloom Can Teach God,” and Rochelle Gurstein’s “Mourning in America,” a review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Donald Hall’s The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon published in the same issue.

Gurstein’s essay begins straightforwardly enough, noting that “at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices,” and goes on to discuss C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, the thread that stitches together her discussion of the two newer books. She notes that the “scarcity of memoirs of grief raises the possibility that even in our society of manic self-exposure, there still remains a taboo surrounding deaths that are not caused by natural disasters or human violence, the kinds of hideous things we routinely see in photographs in the media.” There is truth to this, and a wide body of literature discussing the same topic. What is interesting to me is that Gurstein finds significant flaws in the approaches both contemporary authors took to their accounts (which “could not be more different”), and her criticisms seem to leave little room for writers of death-focused memoirs working today.

After noting that the “static quality of Didion’s matter-of-fact style serves her well in capturing the tedium of the hospital routine,” Gurstein goes on to say:

[Didion observes] her every move from the outside . . . . This same spectatorial habit of mind is at work when Didion reports that the night her husband died she appeared so completely self-possessed that a social worker described her to the attending doctor as “a pretty cool customer” . . . . There is a difference between the distance that provides understanding and the distance that yields irony and an effect of superiority.

Didion’s minimal style runs into difficulty when it approaches anything having to do with the interior dimensions of things.

Hall’s book, in which “every detail is heartbreakingly immediate and particular,” nonetheless “all too easily becomes overly familiar, even intrustive,” raising “vexing questions about which kinds of things can be disclosed in public and which should remain unsaid.”

The question of what can appear in public is even more pressing when it comes to descriptions of physical suffering and death . . . . There can be no doubt that these poems [in Without, Hall’s 1998 collection] testify to the depth and the tenderness of the couple’s love for each other; but their very delicacy raises the question of whether anyone should be privy to such intimate moments. How, one wonders, can such intimate moments maintain their character if outsiders are looking over their shoulders? [ . . . ] I suspect that even the heartbreaking beauty of Hall’s rendering of the moment of his wife’s death . . . does not in the end save it from the charge of invading Jane Kenyon’s privacy and his own.

Apart from the absurdity of charging a writer invading his own privacy, how does Gurstein reconcile this assertion with what seems like disappointment that this mini-genre’s landscape is so sparsely populated? If the writer’s response should not be clinical, self-aware, synoptic, and it should also not be intimate, precise, unsparing, what should it be?

While Gurstein is generous to Without, and especially to its titular poem, she is less so toward The Best Day the Worst Day, and so it seems that the answer is A Grief Observed. The “aesthetic amplitude” featured in Hall’s poems matches the “spiritual reach” of Lewis’s meditation. But must a prose writer working today rely on religion (or some other external bulwark)? I should hope not.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

At the train station in Malmö, Sweden, I picked up the Virago paperback edition of Gilead, Marilyn Robinson’s “demanding, grave, and lucid” 2004 novel. (It was published by FSG in the US.) There was a twenty-three-year gap between this book and Housekeeping, her 1981 debut, and, as many commentators have noted, it was worth the wait. The novel won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was reviewed favorably at the New York Times (where it was one of the paper’s ten best books of the year), the Village Voice, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, New York, Slate, the London Review of Books, The Guardian, and elsewhere. This is one case where I think you can believe the hype.

Neither book’s narrative recommends itself to me, yet the deliberative tone Robinson strikes perfectly counters her more lyrical passages, and I found myself connecting emotionally to the main characters of each. To use a phrase borrowed from Ann Patchett, a former student at Iowa who reviewed the newer novel for the New York Observer, Robinson’s characters “luxuriate in time,” living the reflective lives we wish we could enjoy. Thankfully, an added benefit of Gilead, little remarked upon by the book’s many reviewers, is that its form—a letter written by the dying, seventy-six-year-old Reverend John Ames to his young son—invites repeated readings; once you’ve finished the book and know the relationships between its eight or ten main characters, the one-to-three-page, diarylike entries are perfect for savoring individually.

After completing Gilead, I sought further commentary from Robinson, and found a lot on the internet. Beyond her brief faculty profile at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there are a number of interviews, including one at The Atlantic, one at the LA Weekly, and one at Powells.com. There are also audio interviews from two NPR programs (one, two).

Gary Lutz interview

(Until May 1, most of the content posted to this site will comprise links to other essays, stories, blogs, and news items. I am facing down several deadlines that will likely keep me from posting original content.)

The writer Gary Lutz came up in a phone conversation I had with a friend on Friday afternoon. I have never read Gary Lutz’s short stories, nor have I read much writing by Ben Marcus, the author to whom I speculatively linked him. When Lutz’s collection Stories in the Worst Way was published, I read a sharply critical review of the book, filed his name away, and didn’t seek out other commentary. Then, in February, The Believer published an interview with him that reversed my earlier impression. I am now in search of a copy of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, which contains a piece by Lutz and was edited, coincidentally, by Marcus. (Marcus also blurbs Stories in the Worst Way, saying: “Gary Lutz is a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention. He is not just an original literary artist, but maybe the only one to so strenuously reject the training wheels limiting American narrative practice. What results are stories nearly too good to read: crushingly sad, odd, and awe-inspring.”)

The Believer interview (not all posted online) offers an endearing portrait of the self-deprecating artist. Here are a few quotes:

BLVR: When you manipulate words like this, is it a technical process? Are you using many reference materials? Or is it mostly intuitive?

GL: I think that a lot of what I seem to be doing when I try to get from one end of a sentence to the other—a crossing that can take hours, days, weeks—is introducing words to each other that in ordinary circumstance would never meet . . . because I have some other hunch that they belong together, even though anyone else might write them off as entirely incompatible. I guess I work my way through a sentence by instigating these relationships—a perverse sort of matchmacking, apparently—and then to keep the words from getting too cozy, I might reach for an uncstomary preposition that plunges the sentence into some queasy depths. The whole undertaking seems to be alrgely intuitive and probably unnatural.

[ . . . ]

BLVR: Your acceptance of ambiguity seems more on the experimental side, while your interest in grammar seems more traditional. Would you ever call yourself a traditionalist?

GL: I think it helps somehow if prose that on the surface might seem vivid in its disrupture or overthrowal of the conventional is ultimately discovered to be pure grammatical fussbudgetry underneath. (A friend tells me I’m a Victorian at heart.) I probably would not have had a long-enduring, even morbid fascination with prescriptive grammar and punctuation if I weren’t convinced that exactitude in such matters was a lost cause.

[ . . . ]

GL: . . . A few years ago, trying to recover from a traumatic breakup, I made a study of hyphenation patterns in the New Yorker magazine back when William Shawn was in charge. I made the hyphen my lifeline, and I put my trust in William Shawn and his grammar genius, Eleanor Gould Packard. . . . I eventually fell in love with somebody else and slept deeply for a while.

Two more, unhooked from the questions that prompted them:

As for fiction versus poetry, the border between the two seems less secure than ever. A lot of writing passes back and forth without anyone summoning the authorities. Some people have told me that what I write is poetry, that it could be laid out as such. But I am a sucker for the old notions of poetry and would never think of my paragraphic jitter in that light. Besides, regarding my stuff as prose is a much more cost-efficient use of paper. The reader gets a full page.

[ . . . ]

Another way of looking at this, maybe, is that the motions of even the most centrifugally active mind or heart have a circumference, and the writer of a story s hould probably respect or even celebrate the fixity of the circumference. But within those limits, anything should be welcome to clamor on behalf of itself or rise to an occasion or veer off into ultimately pertinent digression.

Elsewhere online, Lutz has reviewed the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, for Slate; been interviewed by The Stranger; and has been appreciated, by Lawrence La Riviere White, on TheValve.org.

Kevin Kopelson, Neatness Counts

In this slim, enjoyable book, cultural theorist and literary critic Kevin Kopelson uses the writer’s desk as an airstrip from which to lift off into flights of stirring exegesis. The five linked essays, on poet Elizabeth Bishop, novelist Marcel Proust, critic Roland Barthes, playwright Tom Stoppard, and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, use the orderliness (or lack thereof) of the writer’s desk as an lens through which to view the writers’ literary production. They are marked by an erudition that allows Kopelson to flit effortlessly from primary text to journal to correspondence to contemporary criticism—in one paragraph, he segues from Walter Benjamin (who could easily have been the subject of an additional essay) to Banana Yoshimoto. Although at times Kopelson is too caught up in his own critical reverie—especially in the essays on Barthes and Stoppard—the writing is always felicitous. The book is highly recommended.

Links: Kopelson’s page at the University of Iowa, where he teaches; the book’s page at the University of Minnesota Press; an excerpt from the introduction and another from chapter four.

Museum, Inc.

I came across a copy of Paul Werner’s Museum, Inc.: Inside the Global Art World (Prickly Paradigm Press) just a few days after reading Todd Gibson’s blog post about the pamphlet. It’s a short book, digestible in one read, but it should be significantly shorter: After removing the unnecessary sexual metaphors and other adolescent locutions; the inappropriate references to Hitler and the Nazis; the bad puns (perhaps Werner’s greatest, and most frequent, offense); the factual errors (however small); and the side-swipes at individual artists and, oddly, teachers, one is left with a fairly smart, fairly jaded, 4,000-or-so-word magazine article about Thomas Krens’s tenure at the Guggenheim and contemporary museum economics. Werner, a lecturer at the Guggenheim for nine years, states his thesis most concisely at the end of chapter three: “In the traditional art museum today the people are allowed to be spectators; in the Guggenheim Museum they may on occasion be spectators of who they are; in no case, either in art, or politics, or museum-going, are they ever allowed to be participants.” Werner advocates “lifting the veil” from museum machinations in the name of creating a richer experience for visitors, a task he gave himself toward the end of his tenure on Fifth Avenue, incorporating “art criticism” into his group tours. I can only hope that his criticism, such as it is, was not delivered with as much smugness and flippancy as this book. A pamphlet should possess a quiet strength, persuading by the coruscating force of its logic. Every flash of insight Museum, Inc. presents is undercut by rhetorical overkill, often in the very same paragraph. It doesn’t help matters that Werner neglects to offer any alternative, however vague, to the situation he is denouncing so vociferously. I cannot recommend reading it.

(Allow me to present a sample of lines to be found within this book’s seventy-six pages: “I never metanarrative I didn’t like”; “While the League of Disgruntled Directors was busy castigating the hookers for its own repressed desires, Krens was standing on the corner in rouge and butt rider”; “Catalogs are what shrinks might call a transitional snobject”; “Remember, dahling, it is better to look free-marketous than to be free-marketous”; “Been there, been done by that.”)

Carl Andre, Cuts and Donald Judd, Complete Writings

Published as “Paint by Letters” in the New York Press, June 29 – July 5, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

CUTS: Texts 1959-2004
Carl Andre (ed. James Meyer)
MIT Press, $45, 352 pages

Donald Judd
Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, $55, 240 pages

“Criticism is pretty much after the fact,” wrote Donald Judd in 1962. “Frank Stella’s paintings are one of the recent facts.” Some time later, Carl Andre wrote, “THEORY IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE / PROPHECY RESHAPES EXPERIENCE / SMITHSON IS A PROPHET.”

This is not simply advocacy work on behalf of friends. In the 60s, as art historian James Meyer points out in the introduction to a newly published collection of Andre’s writings, artists increasingly picked up the pen—to contextualize their work and to refute the claims of an ever-growing cadre of professional critics, whether overly literary or dryly theoretical. They often wrote, paradoxically, to insist on the primacy of the art viewing experience. Foremost among these artist-writers was Judd, who, along with Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, published regularly in monthly art magazines. Andre, though less visible to the public, was no less active as a writer: he frequently contributed to exhibition catalogs, and has created over the last 45 years a vast corpus of taped and written interviews, correspondence, and, above all, poetry.

Meyer has picked his way nimbly across Andre’s “heap of language” (to borrow a phrase from Smithson), producing a handy volume that nestles texts from different decades together, and is arranged, like an encyclopedia, by subject. This emphasizes the consistency (detractors would call it repetition or limitation) of Andre’s concerns. Meyer notes that, “Andre disavowed being a prose writer…he wrote only as much as was needed,” and, “aspire[d] to the epigrammatic.”

Indeed, the prose entries, which range in length from one sentence to several pages, are distinct for their (poetic) compression. His sentences are short and emphatic, often missing the words that serve as connective tissue in more mellifluous writing: in a letter to Sol LeWitt dated 1970, Andre more or less does away with periods altogether, stringing together a series of ideas about the artist’s position in capitalist society with dashes serving as pauses for breath. His style occasionally borders on the harangue—as when he takes shots at Conceptual and performance art—but the refreshing directness of his voice and his occasional (if unintentional) humor mitigate any annoyance.

But it is Andre’s poetry—along with the prose selections offering his thoughts on poetry—that is the highlight of this book. Much of what is included has never before been published. Meyer devotes half of his introduction to this work, highlighting Andre’s emphasis on the particular (the word) over the whole (the sentence), an exegesis that also indirectly illuminates Andre’s sculpture. Both practices—poem-making and object-making—are materialist, in the sense that Andre’s ultimate fidelity to copper, zinc, words, wood, and steel is an attempt to negate all meaning and symbolism; to treat “matter as matter.” His refusal to solder together steel plates or bind words together into sentences is a celebration of what is already there, albeit with the caveat that each of these things is man-made. “I try to discover my visions in the conditions of the world,” he writes. This is best exemplified by the sheets reproduced from Andre’s longhand or typewritten originals. They present either a singular, essential arrangement—with Green (1960), you can’t imagine the words laid out in any other manner—or show Andre cycling methodically through permutations, as in Sol LeWitt (2000).

Judd’s prose shares Andre’s concision—a Carveresque minimalism from two minimalists who disavowed the term as applied to their art—but his collected writings make for a very different book. The majority of this volume is given over to his monthly reviews and previews for Arts magazine, written between 1959 and 1965. These pieces are often declamatory and occasionally hectoring or dismissive, but always worth reading. There is no better written record of contemporary art shown in New York galleries during this period, a fact that makes this collection invaluable even before considering the relationship of these texts to Judd’s art, which is arguably the most important body of sculpture created in the second half of the twentieth century. The book has been out of print for years, and while $55 is too expensive for a paperback with black-and-white reproductions, I’ve seen 1975 first edition copies for sale online for as much as $1,000, so the press is to be commended for bringing these valuable texts back into circulation.

These days it can be argued that market intelligence—the consensus of dealers, curators, and collectors—has supplanted the critical intelligence epitomized by Judd and Andre’s written work, and by the efflorescence of written discourse four decades ago. The near concurrent publication of these two volumes offers a challenge to artists, and critics, working now to rejuvenate that great cultural conversation.