Heart of Darkness (Modern Library #67)

(This is the thirty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Main Street.)

Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.

Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.

It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.

Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.

But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.

First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)

Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.

And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?

Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.

And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.

Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.

Next Up: W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage!

Main Street (Modern Library #68)

(This is the thirty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The House of Mirth.)

Evelyn Waugh, Erskine Caldwell, Iris Murdoch, Nathanael West, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, James Joyce, Rebecca West. They — and so many other writers — were far nimbler in their shellacking of institutional norms than Sinclair Lewis ever was. Yet it was Lewis who won the Nobel Prize. And they didn’t. Why? Likely because the Nobel Prize Committee had it in for Edith Wharton and the Norwegian cultural oligarchs may have secretly believed they were correcting a “wrong.” Just nine years before, Lewis quietly seethed after the Pulitzer Prize Board changed its mind and awarded the Fiction Prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence instead of Main Street. It was an appropriate correction. Not only is The Age of Innocence a far superior novel to Main Street, but this was also the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to a woman. And Edith Wharton could write Sinclair Lewis’s wino ass under the table. (Meet me in a coffeehouse and I will argue this point for hours! I am Team Wharton all the way!) We also know from Hermione Lee’s biography that Wharton, who was tremendously gracious and got along with nearly everyone, became disappointed in Lewis after he revealed himself for the self-serving drunk he truly was. She wrote to Gaillard Lapseley that Lewis was “utterly unperceiving, & frankly interested only in the sale of Arrowsmith! What a queer product — for he really is an artist, though he is so unaware of it.”

Wharton was being kind. Sheldon N. Grebstein suggested that Lewis’s clear disinterest in style is one of the reasons why he is not more widely read today. And even Grebstein, who was in the tank for Lewis, pointed out that the Minnesota bard was not exactly your goto guy when it came to unpacking the complexities of human behavior. (Main Street, in particular, fails on this front. More anon.) But Grebstein also held up this absence of eclat as a virtue, for Lewis’s primordial approach liberated him to explore chance and contrivance. And when his id was hitting the right targets, he could be just as efficiently brutal as any twentieth century writer. (Lewis’s line in Elmer Gantry about the preacher flunking Greek, but winning a ten dollar prize for “Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt” is a genuinely funny one.) Perhaps this is one big reason why Gore Vidal declared Lewis a romantic.

But ultimately Sinclair Lewis’s visceral qualities are often vitiated by his limited understanding of human behavior. Jealousy is one of the cornerstones to the Sinclair Lewis formula. Martin Arrowsmith hates the starry-eyed men who fawn over his wife, as well as the success of his associates. In his 1930 Nobel lecture, Lewis was to invoke jealousy as one salient reason for American literature being poorly regarded in Europe. In his biography Rebel from Main Street, Richard R. Lingeman makes a persuasive case that Lewis’s late-life romantic relationship with Marcella Powers was cemented in jealousy. It’s certainly true that jealousy can take you far in life. Sure, you may end up looking and behaving like Emperor Palpatine near the end of your days. And you probably won’t have a sense of humor. And countless people will secretly hate you even after you achieve a modicum of fame and renown. But, by Jove, you tripled down on your reach and you got somewhere! And in Lewis’s case, it landed him a Nobel and a slot on the Modern Library list.

Lewis’s canonical “importance” has been greatly inflated because Lewis cloaked his privilege in Midwestern roots. Even those who were enlisted to stump for Lewis in his prime did so with great reluctance. (In 1961, Mark Schorer wrote a Lewis biography for the money and dreaded every minute of it.)

To my mind, Lewis’s strongest novels are Babbit, Elmer Gantry, and the underrated It Can’t Happen Here. All three of these books document the peculiarly American dangers of obsession and conformity. Read this triptych today and you feel that Lewis was writing from a place of great urgency. Read his other work and you will find slipshod prose (Lewis was an alcoholic and it has been suggested by a few scholars that he wrote most of Arrowsmith completely blotto), rambling and often incoherent narratives (particularly in his later work), and wildly inconsistent quality. To write well, Lewis needed beastly instinct and emotional angst. And when he didn’t have that, he floundered along with bloat and bitterness.

Sadly, Main Street is the only Lewis volume represented on the Modern Library list. And the unfortunate truth is that this is a vastly overesteemed, doughty, and ponderous volume — not entirely without merit — that will surely fade from public memory by the middle of the 21st century. Its attempts at Minnesota vernacular feel belabored rather than felt. (“W a’n’t it in 1979?” “Why no ‘twa’n’t.” Yeah, whole pages like that.) Yes, Carol Kennincott does try to bring culture and progressive values to a town steeped in bland vanilla values. But her calls for revolution are unpersuasive:

We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We sha’n’t get it. So we sh’n’t ever be content —

Frankly I’ve heard more convincing platitudes from some “mic check” kid at a protest

Granted, Lewis is very good at showing how the town of Gopher Prairie subsumes Carol’s identity and erodes her standards. These uneducated Caucasian hicks — the great grandparents to today’s right-wing morons who rapturously pay attention to Tucker Carlson and other hate merchants with a bafflingly big draw when not donning their red hats and fascist paraphernalia and claiming to be victimized by critical race theory even as they espouse racism — truly believe that they are remarkable (Mrs. Ole Jenson’s “thoughts” on Shakespeare are the apotheosis of incuriosity and are truly more pitiful than a poorly sourced Wikipedia entry) and that they are “just as good as anybody in Minneapolis.” Midway through the novel, Carol and her husband actually make a trip to Minneapolis (the only place to see happening new plays and buy fashionable new threads) and we see just how residing so long in a backwards town has altered her:

She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year an a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennincott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennincott’s arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?

As someone who spent half his life slowly migrating his way from the colorless doldrums of the California Central Valley to the thrilling possibilities of New York City, Carol’s uncertainty and anxieties truly resonated with me. When Lewis juxtaposes Carol against the relentless judgment of Gopher Prairie, Main Street is good. Carol can’t even have a quiet moment of joy to herself without inciting the judgmental scrutiny of being a doctor’s wife. She can’t be anonymous. Her every move is written up with illiterate relish in the local newspaper. (These days, the libeling and shaming and speculation can now be found on the great hellscape of social media, where your residency in a big city or a small town no longer matters to the twisted hateful losers who condemn you for living a fun and interesting life clearly beyond their talent and initiative.)

Yet despite Lewis’s attempts to show how Carol is victimized for being a woman, the sad irony is that Carol is less of a character and more of an object. We really don’t have a strong sense of what attracts Carol to her husband Will other than his neck. (Look, I’m not going to kink-shame. But seriously? One of the interesting eccentricities about Main Street is its relentless neck imagery, applied equally to humans and horses. When Lewis preposterously described how Carol is attracted to “the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples,” I laughed so hard on the subway that two otherwise indifferent New Yorkers shot me disapproving glances. Even accounting for the unconsummated lust that Carol is acting out in this late section of the novel, it’s abundantly clear that Lewis didn’t really understand what women are attracted to.) We are told at the start of one chapter about how Carol suddenly loves her husband Will — this mediocre scumbag who won’t even give her enough money to buy groceries — but why? Then when Carol pops out a baby, we are told that “she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Sinclair, buddy, put the bottle down and give us more than these superficial details!

I didn’t outright hate Main Street, but I was greatly disappointed by it. After a hundred pages of this, all the potshots at Gopher Prairie locals feel like Lewis shooting monkeys in a barrel. Sinclair Lewis either lacked the desire or the talent to portray small town people as anything other than caricatures. But three years ago, the town of Sauk Centre erected a statue to the man. And in the immediate wake of the book’s publications, many rural Minnesotans proudly called themselves “Main Streeters.” Either they missed the point of the book or, more likely, they never bothered to read it.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness!

The House of Mirth (Modern Library #69)

(This is the thirty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Alexandria Quartet.)

“But brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate.” — The House of Mirth

Our universe has become more hopelessly transactional. Vile narcissists with limitless greed and an absence of smarts and empathy have taken over the landscape with their blunt bullhorns. At every socioeconomic level, you will find a plurality of mercenaries who will push any bright and promising head beneath the waterline with ruthless cruelty. Perhaps I’m finally understanding, at an embarrassingly late age, just how commonplace such self-serving treachery is in our world. But what’s the alternative? Cynicism? At times, I have a sense of humor that is darker than the nightscape above the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, but no thanks. I’ve always been a cautious optimist with a healthy handle on reality, but I still detest this state of affairs. I will still speak out vociferously against it and fight the business-as-usual cowards who uphold this great sham known as the status quo at any personal cost. I stump for the outliers and the misfits. The people who have authentic and vital voices. I don’t care who they are or where they come from. I will stick up for the gas station attendants and the baristas. I will listen to their full stories rather than judge them from a fleeting glance or a superficial and supercilious position. I despise bullies and opportunists. I believe in affording everyone basic dignity. I believe that everyone has it within them to grow and to learn and that inquisitive efforts should never be mocked, especially when genuine curiosity is now in such short supply. Reprobates who use their positions of power to denigrate the marginalized and the underprivileged are scumbags who need to be fought and, if necessary, destroyed.

So you can probably imagine how much The House of Mirth means to me. It is one of the best books on the Modern Library list and it should have been ranked much higher. This is my favorite Edith Wharton novel, although The Custom of the Country is a close second. Just this year, I have purchased four copies of this book for friends, urging them to read it with every ounce of exuberance I can summon. And you need to read it too, if you haven’t already. This book is vivacious and brilliant and funny and utterly heartbreaking. I rooted for Lily Bart. I wept for her. Even when I knew her fate. She did not deserve her downfall. She is one of the great tragic heroines in all of literature, right up there with Emma Bovary, Dido, Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Bertha Mason, and Francesca da Rimini. Much like Muriel Spark’s masterpiece The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you can read this novel multiple times and always discover a new angle. That the rules of the game haven’t changed all that much in the one hundred and seventeen years since this classic was published is a great testament to Wharton’s sagacious and prescient genius. And if you finish this novel and you’re not in the “ride or die” wagon for Edith Wharton, then I’m sorry, but you simply have no literary taste.

Should Lily Bart be blamed for her fate? Conservatives (and privileged neoliberals) will likely condemn her for her apparent financial irresponsibility, but the peer pressure from her rich friends to gamble away vast sums she doesn’t have at bridge will be deeply felt by anyone who can recall the youthful horrors of trying to fit in. (In fact, I’d say the only contemporary writer today who could be an Edith Wharton in the making is the ferociously talented Adelle Waldman, whose excellent novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, mined similar territory. MacArthur people, are you listening? Award her a fellowship already! We really need to get her writing more books so we can find out!) And Wharton is exquisite in communicating to us precisely why Lily is so susceptible to social pressure from these higher-ups and hangers-on:

Her naturally good temper had been disciplined by years of enforced compliance, since she had almost always had to attain her ends by the circuitous path of other people’s; and, being naturally inclined to face unpleasant facts as soon as they presented themselves, she was not sorry to hear an impartial statement of what her folly was likely to cost, the more so as her own thoughts were still insisting on the other side of the case.

More than a century later, with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision and the Democrats’ failure to revive the Equal Rights Amendment serving as disheartening signs that a Handmaid’s Tale future could be in store for us, women are still pressured to be “good” and compliant. And while women have a lot more freedom today than they did in 1905, patriarchal conformity upheld through peer pressure has ensured that a lot of women silently endure such internal and external conflict.

Lily is lucky to have true friends like Carry Fisher (initially described as a “professional sponge” and “a mental habit corresponding to the physical titillations of the cigarette or the cock-tail,” but she turns out to be a hell of a lot more than this) and Gerty Farish (an indefatigable charity worker who doesn’t easily buy into any of the false charges eventually leveled towards Lily) when she eventually slips, but the affluent allure of the Trenors and their circle amaurotizes (and thus amortizes and possibly amouritizes?) her to the deadly puppetry of the Trenors and, most diabolically, the repellent and calculating bedhopper Bertha Dorset, whose doctors, we are informed, forbid “her from exposing herself to the crude air of the morning.” (Such a beautifully compact way of foreshadowing Bertha’s vampiric nature!)

Wharton was a master of gentle ambiguity nestling just beneath the surface of narrative clarity. The first time you read Mirth, you don’t buy Simon Rosedale’s mercy near the end. With his “small stock-taking eyes,” he’s little more than a bean-counting arriviste and his despicable tabulating also applies to people. (When Rosedale says, “I can’t help making love to you” to Lily near the end of the book, he’s basically every vulpine loser hitting a singles bar at 3 AM, scoping out the remaining women who haven’t gone home with anyone.) But the second time you read Mirth, you’re not so sure. Rosedale says, “The wonder to me is that you’ve waited so long to get square with that woman.” Can Rosedale be forgiven for simply being socially clueless? Is he a product of the system? And does his gesture actually mean anything? I’ll leave it to the capable writers of Jezebel and The Cut to argue the culpability of mediocre men.

Mirth‘s vast cast of characters tend to glom onto the split-second flourish of a socialite’s physical gesture to fuel gossip and umbrage. Consider the way that Mrs. Peniston is described as “the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast.” But Wharton’s meticulous study of mercenary manipulators is far from vapid. She hoped to show that “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers…can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why The House of Mirth is so authentically devastating is because Wharton was undergoing a great deal of stress as she wrote it. Her husband Teddy had just experienced a nervous breakdown and his erratic behavior was worse than ever. Her fiction was in demand and was being published everywhere, but her social calendar was spiraling out of control. Scribner’s editor Edward Burligname needed a serialized novel at the last minute after another writer had dropped out. And amazingly, Wharton produced this masterpiece in ten monthly installments, with Mirth appearing in publication before Wharton had even finished it (although the tale had gestated in her notebooks for at least five years under the working title “A Moment’s Ornament,” taken from a Wordsworth poem).

Scribner’s knew that it had a big hit on its hands and promptly placed sensationalist ads on the cover — packaging that Wharton objected to — when The House of Mirth hit bookstores in October 1905. The publicity forces also talked up Wharton’s social movements and, while Wharton was happy to have her novel read, she feared that her work would be seen as nothing more than a juicy gossipfest.

She need not have worried. The book was fiercely debated in various letters sections, with many wondering if Wharton was accurately portraying the leisure class or mercilessly skewering them for her own gain. And the robust discussion lent greater credibility to Mirth‘s considerable literary merits.

In her excellent Wharton biography, Hermione Lee has suggested that The House of Mirth can be defined by the presence of books within the book: largely decorative and untouched by few outside Lawrence Selden, the young lawyer who toys with Lily Bart’s need to land a husband. But Mirth can also be epitomized by the actors recruited to entertain the wealthy at Bellomont:

Indeed, so skillfully had the personality of the actors been subdued to the scenes they figured in that even the least imaginative of the audience must have felt a thrill of contrast when the curtain suddenly parted on a picture which was simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart.

If all the world’s a stage, why then are we still susceptible to objectifying people? It’s actually quite astonishing how effortless it is to transpose the cruelty of class trappings to the casual character assassination that now passes for “truth” on social media. (As Wai-Chee Dimock has observed, Lily Bart spends most of the novel marketing herself, attempting to appeal to the highest bidder. This is not unlike the behavior of a comely Instagram influencer or, if we want to take Gus Trenor’s sinister insinuation on its face, an OnlyFans model willing to say or do almost anything to extract money.)

Many disgusting creatures in high places fancy themselves Lily Barts — even as they stab with the fierce sociopathic duplicity of Bertha Dorset. (On literary Twitter, there can be no better contemporary parallel to Bertha than the monstrous bully and largely mediocre writer Jennifer Weiner, whose relentless attacks on other writers are quietly circulated among those in the know and whose odious demands for “literary respect” were smartly captured by The New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead in 2014.) They jockey for precarious perches to cleave to their careers while piling onto the week’s “main character” with gossip and lies. An otherwise innocent figure’s glaring mistake is used to perpetuate further prevarications and even those in the know, like Rosedale, will not lift a finger to salvage their own shaky ascent into a perceived predominance. Indeed, as someone who has been the target of multiple smear campaigns, I can report that a literary man of modest renown — a figure who once maintained a blog inspired by Wharton — treated me, when I was homeless, with the same false solicitude that Rosedale tenders to Lily Bart in the final crushing pages of The House of Mirth. He strung me along with phony plaudits about my writing talent and he offered me the sham promise of a prominent magazine gig that I would have killed to land at the time. He was not unlike Rosedale. Indeed, like all of Wharton’s socialites, he inevitably deemed me invisible — likely with a cognizant irony. It is doubtful that I will ever forgive this motherfucker for tinkering with my dignity and my then shaky self-respect to delude himself into thinking that he was a “kind and decent man.”

So Lily Bart’s awful and needless plunge into the abyss resonates deeply and painfully with me. Today I am tremendously grateful to be gainfully employed, doing what I love, tackling new creative mediums, and to be very much alive. That there are so many “influencers” who hold this book up without comprehending or practicing its emotionally instructive lessons about the need for empathy says everything about the vicious myopia of the contemporary literary world, which now thrives on stubbing out noisemakers and ruining outliers. They cancel anyone with an even remotely disagreeable opinion and they murder anyone who stands in their way of their self-serving and meretriciously earned “success.” Cutthroat capitalism and opprobrious opportunism at its finest! Edith Wharton had her finger on the pulse of 1905 life. And sadly 2022 life.

Next Up: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street!

Florence Nightingale (Modern Library Nonfiction #74)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Great War and Modern Memory.)

Of the four illustrious figures cannonaded in Eminent Victorians, Florence Nightingale somehow evaded the relentless reports of Lytton Strachey’s hard-hitting flintlocks. Strachey, of course, was constitutionally incapable of entirely refraining from his bloodthirsty barbs, yet even he could not find it within himself to stick his dirk into “the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succor the afflicted.” Despite this rare backpedaling from an acerbic male tyrant, Nightingale was belittled, demeaned, and vitiated for many decades by do-nothings who lacked her brash initiative and who were dispossessed of the ability to match her bold moves and her indefatigable logistical acumen, which were likely fueled by undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar, I am inclined to stick up for my fellow aggrieved weirdos. We bipolar types can be quite difficult, but you can’t gainsay our superpowers. A relentlessly productive drive, a magnetism and a magnanimity that bubbles up at our high points, an overwhelming need to help and empathize with others, and a crushing paralysis during depressive spells that often has us fighting the urge to stay in bed. And yet we get up every day anyway, evincing an energy and an eccentric worldview that others sometimes perceive as magical, but that our enemies cherrypick for lulz and fodder — the basis for unfounded character assassin campaigns, if not permanent exile. Hell hath no greater fury than that of aimless and inexplicably heralded mediocrities puffed up on their own prestige and press.

But regular people who aren’t driven by the resentful lilts of petty careerism do get us. And during her life, they got Florence Nightingale. She was flooded with marriage proposals, all of which she rebuffed and not always gently. She was celebrated with great reverence by otherwise foulmouthed soldiers. Yet she also suffered the slings and arrows of bitter schemers who resented her for doing what they could not: obtaining fresh shirts and socks and trays and tables and clocks and soap and any number of now vital items that one can find ubiquitously in any ward, but that were largely invisible in 19th century hospitals and medical military theatres. She had the foresight to study the statistics and the fortitude to work eighteen hour days practicing and demanding reform. And whatever one can say about Nightingale’s mental state, it is nigh impossible to strike at Florence Nightingale without coming across as some hot take vagabond cynically cleaving to some bloodless Weltanschauung that swiftly reveals the superficial mercenary mask of a boorish bargain hunter.

Florence Nightingale nobly and selflessly turned her back from the purse strings of privilege, hearing voices caracoling within her head that urged her to do more. While she was not the only nurse who believed in going to the front lines to improve conditions (the greatly overlooked Mary Seacole, recently portrayed by the wildly gifted and underrated Tina Fabrique in a play, also went to Crimea), it is now pretty much beyond question that she revolutionized nursing and military medicine through her uncommon will and a duty to others in which she sacrificed her own needs (and caused a few early suitors to suffer broken hearts). That she was able to do all this while battling her own demons is a testament to her redoubtable strength. That her allies returned to her, determined to see the best in her even after she was vituperative and difficult, is a tribute to one of humanity’s noblest qualities: putting your ego aside for the greater good.

A century before PowerPoint turned 90% of all meetings into meaningless displays of vacuous egotism, Florence Nightingale was quite possibly the first person to use colorful graphical data at great financial expense (see above — it’s beautiful, ain’t it?) to persuade complacent men in power to care for overlooked underlings wounded in war and dying of septic complications in overcrowded and unhygienic hospitals. She was savvy and charismatic enough to win the advocacy of Lord Sidney Herbert, who, despite being a Conservative MP, had the generosity and the foresight to understand the urgent need for Nightingale’s call for revolution. Herbert secured funds. The two became close confidants. Yet poor Herbert suffered a significant erosion in his health and died at the age of fifty because he could not keep up with Nightingale’s demands.

I suspect that men in power resented such noble sacrifices, which could account for why Nightingale was often portrayed as a freak and a deranged outlier in the years immediately following her death. But biographer Cecil Woodham-Smith saw a different and far more complex woman than the haters. Her terrific and mesmerizing and well-researched 1950 biography on Nightingale greatly helped to turn the tide against one of the most astonishing and inspiring women that medicine has ever known. And Woodham-Smith did so not through preordained hagiography, but by taking the time to carefully and properly sift through her papers (and even a well-preserved lock of her bright chestnut hair, still as robust and as lambent as the lamp Nightingale carried in the dark more than a century later). There is a vital lesson here for today’s social media castigators, especially the testosterone-charged troglodytes who casually smear women, that they will likely ignore.

Next Up: Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce!

The Alexandria Quartet (Modern Library #70)

(This is the thirty-first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A High Wind in Jamaica.)

In a previous life, when talent and bonhomie mattered more than sad resentful ciphers dedicating their wasteful energies to demolishing rivals on social media, I had the great privilege to interview authors. I once made a northeastern trek by train to talk with a literary titan — a formidable essayist, a first-rate fiction writer, and a mischievous wit with a bright high voice who is still blessedly alive and who remains quite undersung today. After I pressed the square STOP button on my bulky black recording unit, we got to gabbing for two more hours off-tape — an act of generosity that stunned my companion and me. The author surprised us by confessing that she had played the then-in-vogue Angry Birds and we discussed the literary classics that young people read (or, more frequently, neglect). She was very likely picking our unweaned and less wiser brains in that pre-Trumpian epoch when, even then, declining erudition was a growing pestilence, as it wasn’t all too often that she had the company of young strangers at her long refectory table, which was punctuated by a plate of store-bought cookies that no one touched. The first name that this author mentioned was Lawrence Durrell.

“Does anyone even read him anymore?” she asked.

Neither my companion nor I had read a single word of this almighty author at the time. As I was to learn only in the last few months, I missed the teenage ritual of diving into Durrell by about five to ten years. Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. These were the four volumes read by an impressionable generation just before me. My older literary friends describe soaking up Durrell’s words with wide and voracious eyes around seventeen — just before they joined the less exclusive liturgical practice of tossing their tasseled caps into the heavens preceding the uncertain foray into higher education and the newfound duty of negotiating injurious capitalism (clearly not redeemable by taxation these days, contrary to sentiments expressed by the novelist Pursewarden in Mountolive).

Now that I have finally read the mighty quartet — with its gorgeous sentences, its exotic vernacular (which caused even a rhapsodic word nut and undefeated Wordle regular like me to make repeat trips to the dictionary), its bold meditations on “modern love” (a term of art regrettably coarsened by the New York Times‘s often vapid essays and an even more vacuous television offshoot) and intertextuality (most notably, Balthazar‘s Interlineal), its vast tapestry of unreliable narrators and colorful characters (many marked by disease and disfigurement and, most tellingly, the absence of eyes; the number of one-eyed characters throughout the Quartet greatly overshadows the sum of spastic dancers you’ll find in any Brooklyn nightclub on a Saturday night), and the hypnotic and baleful city at the center of all these proceedings — I am frankly kicking myself for not getting around to it much earlier. My reading experience was a true coup de foudre.

This tetralogy is clearly one of the 20th century’s greatest literary achievements. I suspect, as I crest closer to the age of fifty and reckon with surprising strains of unsummoned maturity that have often bemused me, that this was the last possible moment of my life in which I could have supped upon Durrell with an eager appetite. There are only a handful of living writers whose command of the written word beckons you to slow down and imbibe the text ever so delicately — much like a pied crested cuckoo leisurely supping on drops of rain water. Of Alexandria itself, we learn of warm winds that strike against the cheek as “soft as the brush of a fox” from an enchanting near-phantom city “whose pearly skies are broken in spring only by the white stalks of the minarets and the flocks of pigeons turning in clouds of silver and amethyst; whose veridian and black marble habour-water reflects the snouts of foreign men-of-war turning through their slow arcs.” Even if one is blind and cannot see the Nile’s adjacent estuary, there is eldritch life within the “gloomy subterranean library with its pools of shadow and light,” where “fingers [move] like ants across the perforated surfaces of books engraved for them by a machine.”

Shallow word-wasters have abseiled down the other side of once robust parapets with evermore ubiquity these days, emboldened by the narcotic allure of likes and follows rather than the purer and more rewarding journey set by the instinctive tempo of their distinct voices. But Durrell (whose name rhymes with “squirrel” and not the inexact “laurel,” as I have unknowingly mispronounced for decades) is very much on the level. Given the astronomical prices of his non-Alexandria volumes online — despite a well-received four season television series on the Durrell family in recent years and an enthusiastic nonprofit society sustaining a cheery and active Twitter presence — it appears likely that Lawrence Durrell is fated to be forgotten. All writers, of course, have their time and eventually fade into the sunset. Very few of today’s readers speak of Naipaul, Ford Maddox Ford, John Dos Passos, or even Anthony Burgess anymore. For some of these plodding stampeders now collecting well-earned dust in used bookstores from here to Gehenna, there is sturdy raison that only a handful of graying hangers-on will dispute. (Besides, what kind of giddy and obsessive bastard reckons with ancient canons when one is regularly unsettled by the cannonades of apocalyptic headlines and the high probability of a third world war? An increasingly shrinking number these days, easily a hundredfold more minuscule than the combined tally of all who still collect vinyl and Beanie Babies.) But in Durrell’s case, this feels like a notable criminal oversight. Particularly since crossing the four book Rubicon was, not so long ago, a vital rite for any stripling with unquenchable curiosity.

It all starts with an unnamed Irishman (whose name is revealed to be Darley a few books later) in exile on an island with a child, recalling his passionate affair with a woman named Justine.  Justine is married to a distinguished Copt diplomat named Nessim.  Before that, Justine had been married to a tyrannical French national and that life has been captured in a book called Moeurs written by some guy named Jacob Arnauti. Intertexuality and the struggle to make sense of ineffable feelings through words (or even the words from another committed and capricious chronicler) is very much a Durrell motif.  Darley has abandoned a devoted and far too patient dancer named Melissa for the sake of this seemingly distinguished affair.  There is also a mysterious painter named Clea, who smartly tells Darley, “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people.”

But what if the “love” that Darley feels has not been reciprocated in the way that he has believed? Durrell’s second volume, Balthazar, calls into question all the events of the first volume, with Balthazar himself (a mystical Jewish doctor who is involved with the Cabal) arriving by sea with an annotated version of Darley’s manuscript.  The third volume, Mountolive, not only expands these angsty escapades to the vaster canvas of surprising espionage developments that often crackle with the griping momentum of a John le Carre novel, but reveals the tableau from the third-person vantage point of the titular diplomat, where we not only learn that Nessim has an unhinged brother named Narouz, but that Mountolive himself is mad about their mother, Leila. Finally, in Clea, we return back to the narrator Darley, five years after the Rashomon-like events of the first three volumes. The Second World War now unsettles the city. And the characters we have been rapturously following are still trying to make sense of the events that have happened, but what living now encompasses. Which is not all that removed from today’s practice of doomscrolling, dodging new variants, and submitting one’s deltoid for yet anther booster shot. As Darley himself puts it:

I am hunting for metaphors which mighty convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of something so profoundly at peace with itself, at one with itself.  Words are the mirrors of our discontents merely; they contain all the huge unhatched eggs of the world’s sorrows.

Amazingly, Durrell wrote Clea in four weeks.

It may seem from my description that Durrell was merely a relentless brooder, but he was often quite witty with his pen. Biographies from Ian MacNiven and Gordon Bowker both depict Durrell’s obsession with the great P.G. Wodehouse.  And Durrell fueled these comic energies in humorous stories about a diplomat named Antrobus.  While the tableau of Scobie cross-dressing as Dolly Varten in Balthazar possesses the dowdy feel of an entry in the Carry On film franchise, Sir Louis’s eccentricities in Mountolive could almost be interposed to an Evelyn Waugh novel:

Within the last year, and on the eve of retirement, the Ambassador had begun to drink rather too heavily — though never quite reaching the borders of incoherence. In the same period a new and somewhat surprising tic had developed. Enlivened by one cocktail too many he had formed the habit of uttering a low continuous humming noise at receptions which had earned him a rather questionable notoriety. But he himself had been unaware of this habit, and indeed at first indignantly denied its existence. He found to his surprise that he was in the habit of humming, over and over again, in basso profundo, a passage from the Dead March in Saul. It summed up, appropriately enough, a lifetime of acute boredom spent in the company of friendless officials and empty dignitaries.

One reason why Durrell’s voice is so distinct on the page — and why it has been so inimitable since (only Malcolm Bradbury and Roger Angell have attempted Durrell parodies, with unsustainable and ineffectual results) — is because he needed a fellow outlier (specifically, Henry Miller) and a commitment to impropriety and originality to get there. Indeed, as Durrell himself observed in a January 12, 1972 appearance at UCLA, his febrile dilettantism was his lodestar:

But it seems that every writer need a kind of placental relationship with another writer to approve of him and to help him. To reassure him. And it seems very curious how they come up in doubles in such very dissimilar people. I’m very frequently asked, “How could a writer like you admire Miller? And what on earth could he see in you?” The second question is difficult, I know. But a friendship is not qualified by the actual material one produces. And in our case, what we had in common was an unprofessional attitude to literature. In other words, neither of us were really interested in literature. Nor was Anais Nin. We were interested in other things. That is to say that we were not professional litterateurs. And we didn’t think professionally about writing. Writing, for us, was a kind of windscreen wiper which might help us to look ourselves in the eye a little more clearly. To liberate ourselves or to realize ourselves. In other words, our occupation was not literary, but philosophic really.

The journalist Peter Pomerantsev has suggested that Durrell only appeals to “the ‘cross-patriates,’ the hyphenated.” And he may very well be right. As a writer, audio producer, journalist, theatre producer, radio dramatist, sound designer, performer, voiceover man, TikTok microinfluencer (this still puzzles me),  and (just weeks ago) soundtrack composer, it’s becoming increasingly harder these days to find people who aren’t so singular and unadventurous in their passions and interests. As Cormac McCarthy has said, “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t. Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.” Those of us who find joie de vivre in living as widely and as fulsomely as we can are increasingly becoming exiles like Darley.

It’s also difficult to fathom the lion’s share of today’s emerging writers being driven by the same impetus. One’s individuality is now drowned out by the unceasing firth of social media’s brackish tide, its morass of groupthink. The urge to please, to install one’s self as some influential pinnacle who plays it safe, is diametrically opposed to the noble pairing of future artists who can provide mutual succor, possibly shaking the very foundations of an increasingly stodgy medium that rewards uninventive bougie hokum and shameless mimesis. Inimical idiocrats with such stultifying surnames as Athitakis, Ulin, Kellogg, Kachka, Kreizman, Miller, Grady, Romano, Freeman, and Schaub regularly stump for what Durrell identified (through his novelist character Pursehaven) as “the ancient tinned salad of the subsidised novel.” All of them, unlike Durrell, will scarcely be recalled by anyone fifteen years after they pass. They will live out their dull and unadventurous lives and take out their parasitic resentiment on true originals with pablumatic “hot takes” that are largely mercantile and self-serving. Having abdicated their sense of humor sometime in their thirties or forties, and expressing little more than a perfunctory interest in other things, these egregious weasels continue to wage war on any dazzling lights casting a lambent heat upon their cold and cozy conformity. And contemporary literature is lesser for it.

So it becomes increasingly urgent these days to not tuck true talents like Durrell into the granules of forgotten history. Literary achievement is consummated by puckish punks who stand against the boring norms, by young writers who pay close attention to the dazzling output of all the eclectic outliers who presaged them and who summon the instinctive effrontery to pick a crucial and principled fight in the mystifying battles against misfits.

Next Up: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth!

The Great War and Modern Memory (Modern Library Nonfiction #75)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The City in History.)

The men went to war. Their psyches were scarred and sotted by the sights and sounds of death and dreary dissolution — all doled out at a hellish and unprecedented new normal. Machine guns, mustard gas, the ear-piercing shrieks of shrapnel and shells, rats gnawing on nearby corpses. The lush fields of France anfracted into a dark flat wasteland.

The war was only supposed to last a few months, but it went on for more than four years. Twenty-two million lost their lives in the First World War. Many millions more — the ones who were lucky to live — were shattered by the experience. Their bodies were bent and their souls were broken. As Richard Aldington observed in his bleak comic novel, Death of a Hero, the trauma that the soldiers carried home became all too common, unworthy of commiseration and often received with scorn.

But, despite the scars and notwithstanding the cruel homeland rebuke, these men somehow sustained a culture during hard-won moments when they weren’t fighting in the trenches and when they weren’t watching their close friends mowed down by the newer and deadlier weapons. Their noble commitment, their fervent faith in some lambent hope plucked from the maws of a mottled landscape, forever changed the way we saw, heard, and expressed ourselves. As Paul Fussell nimbly argues in The Great War and Modern Memory, we are indebted to these soldiers in ways that most people today cannot appreciate.

* * *

While The Great War and Modern Memory doesn’t contain the intoxicating sweep and ambition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough in identifying the underlying rituals that have come to define the manner in which we reckon with disruptive and often inexplicable quagmires, it is nevertheless a remarkable volume, one quite essential in charting the trajectory of how humans expressed themselves through poetry, letters, fiction, and even postwar mediums. I first read this book in my early twenties — many years before I would stumble onto sound design as a method of communicating feelings often untranslatable through words — and, even then, I was startled by how Fussell identified early phonographic recordings as a liminal theatre sprinkled with sounds of attack. This was evidenced not only in the hit novelty records scooped up by supercilious aristocrats comfortably ensconced in cushy sacrosanct parlors without a care in the world, but further immortalized in such unlikely texts as Anthony Burgess’s underrated dystopian novel, The Wanting Seed.

There are so many bones baked into the silt of the Somme that human remains were still being exhumed in Fussell’s day. Forensic experts have continued to make efforts to identify skulls in more recent years. But beyond all these history-shattering casualties, there were also significantly influential linguistic precedents derived from these disfiguring events. The “us vs. them” vernacular that was to become a regular feature of all subsequent wars began with the Great War’s “we” and the xenophobia that was swiftly ascribed to the other side through epithets like “Boche,” as well as the cartoonish pastiches that no soldier in history has been immune from assigning to a mortal enemy. Germans were depicted as giants, memorialized in Robert Graves’s “David and Goliath.” Blunden’s Undertones of War described German barbed wire with “more barbs in it and foreign-looking.” Whether John Crowe Ransom explicitly derived his notion of the other from Blunden, as Fussell imputes, is anyone’s guess. But Fussell’s confidence and deep dive into phrases and terms of art is strangely persuasive. He has, unlike any other scholar since, made a vigorous and spellbinding examination of how language pertaining to division and the unshakeable sense that the war would go on forever influenced the Modernists (and even the postmodernists) as they rolled out their comparatively more peaceful masterpieces to the literary front lines in the 1920s.

Contrary to the cliches, life on the front wasn’t just about poetry and gardening. There was the unappetizing perdition of stale biscuits and Maconochie stew, a hideous tinned concoction (which at least one YouTuber has attempted to recreate!) involving bully beef that reminded the men of meals tendered to dogs. There were startlingly brave figures like Siegfried Sassoon, who not only took a bold stance against the war, but evoked the sordid memories of the trenches and a forgotten England in his Sherston trilogy (which dropped just as autofiction practiced by the likes of Dorothy Richardson and Proust was being quietly celebrated and, in turn, inspired Pat Barker to write her terrific Regeneration trilogy). The stertorous gunfire on the front was so loud that, as Fussell helpfully notes, even Pynchon was compelled to memorialize the idea of shells being heard hundreds of miles away in Gravity’s Rainbow. There was even a series of Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields that made the rounds after the Treaty of Versailles. Fussell repeatedly points to maps as shaky palimpsests staggered with thick wavy lines and often wry notations, but the lack of tangible geography had to spill over somewhere. Poetry was fated to account for the ambiguity.

Fussell makes a strong case for a tectonic shift in expression being practiced even before the war began. Indeed, the war gave E.M. Forster’s famous “Only connect” sentiment some completely unanticipated momentum as the landed gentry attempted to reckon with the period between the two world wars. If the Great War had not happened, what would be the trajectory of literature? Fussell doesn’t mention Rebecca West’s 1918 novel, The Return of the Soldier, but this was one of the first Great War novels to explicitly deal with shellshock and one can read this book today as a fascinating glimpse into a period between frivolous prewar innocence and the stark and gravid sentences that were to come with Eliot, Hemingway, Woolf, and Fitzgerald. Fussell suggests that the young Evelyn Waugh was emboldened in his poetic and often brutal satire by much of the lingering language that the war had extracted from the patina of once regular summer comforts. The charred scenery on the front lines caused soldiers and servicemen to look upward into the possibilities contained within the sky — itself a predominant fixation within Ruskin’s Modern Painters — and not only did Waugh mimic this in the opening pages of his later novel, Officers and Gentlemen, but one cannot read John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” without being acutely aware of the “sunset glow” or the sky serving as an anchor for the poppies blowing beneath the crosses or the singing larks still “bravely singing” amidst the destruction.

It’s possible that Fussell may not have arrived at his perspicacious observations had he not gone through wartime and its preceding ablutions himself. In his memoir Doing Battle, Fussell notes that he could not have unpacked Wilfred Owen’s veiled sensuality had he not been smitten himself with the looks of boys in his adolescent years. He also writes of identifying strongly with Robert Graves’s sentiment that one could not easily be alone in the thronged throes of battle. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell sought to unpack irony and poetic elegy as it became increasingly expressed during the First World War. He claimed his study to be “an act of implicit autobiography” and “a refraction of current events.” In Fussell’s case, he had sickened of the Vietnam War’s overuse of “body count” and perceived perspicacious parallels between Owen’s “Insensibility,” a poem which suggests that expressing “sufferings” is simply not enough to understand real loss. One must have palpable experience of warfare’s devastation in order to reckon properly with it.

And perhaps The Great War and Modern Memory is more serious than Fussell’s “stunt books” (Class, which The Atlantic‘s Sandra Tsing Loh rightfully described as a “snide, martini-dry American classic,” and Bad) because Fussell could not find it within himself to betray his own personal connection to war.

Even so, Jay Winter, Daniel Swift, and Dan Todman have rightfully censured Fussell for leaving out or even demeaning the contributions of working stiffs. Make no mistake: Paul Fussell is an elitist snob and more than a bit of a sneering egomaniac. To cite but one of countless examples, Fussell overreaches and reveals his true colors when he suggests that all letters home from the soldiers adhered to what he calls “British Phelgm” (“The trick here is to affect to be entirely unflappable; one speaks as if the war were entirely normal and matter-of-fact.”). War censors certainly created a creative smorgasbord of workaround phrases, but, as someone who has reviewed World War I letters for research, this is an unequivocal load of bollocks — as a cursory plunge into the National Archives swiftly reveals. Fussell is much better tracking idioms like “in the pink” and using his mighty forensic chops to expose undeniable lexical influence.

As our present world moves ever closer to a potential third world war — with Ukraine standing in for a “trouble in the Balkans” — The Great War and Modern Memory reminds us that all the trauma on our shoulders — whether endured by soldiers or civilians — is destined to spill somewhere. We may not have five centuries of democracy and peace to give us the cuckoo clock that Orson Welles famously snarked up in The Third Man, but there are certainly plenty of unknown Michelangelos and da Vincis waiting in the wings to make sense of the ordeals of 2022 life. History, to paraphrase Stephen Dedalus’s famous sentiment, is a nightmare from which all of us are trying to awake.

Next Up: Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale!

A High Wind in Jamaica (Modern Library #71)

(This is the thirtieth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A House for Mr. Biswas.)

Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is the wild and bracing corrective to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (forthcoming at ML #41) that I never knew I needed. Truth be told, the two books I am least looking forward to revisiting during the course of this ridiculously ambitious and time-consuming project are J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye (forthcoming at ML #64) and Lord. Both novels meshed with me when I was an impressionable high school kid who didn’t know any better, but I have assiduously avoided rereading both volumes as an adult — much in the way that you hang down your wiser and more mature head over some of the dodgier cartoons you advocated as a child. (For the record, in my adulthood, I still abide by The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, the decades-long catalog of Warner Brothers cartoons, and — if you get me on the right day — Robotech and Star Blazers.)

Thankfully, I had no such qualms with High Wind; in large part because, unlike Golding, Hughes isn’t so obsessed with plugging in values — the novel as a Sudoku puzzle? — to uphold his Great AllegoryTM (and thus literary posterity). The older you get as a reader, the more you welcome the fresh shock of the visceral: those exotic and sometimes unsettling voices you may not encounter in the real world.

Hughes was twenty-five years ahead of Golding when it came to writing a novel about children losing their civilized patina as they travel deeper into the wild and aberrant vales of anarchism (in this case, by dint of a ragtag gang of pirates). But his exquisite command of atmosphere shows that he was arguably more subtler than Golding, permitting the transformation of his children to become something of a shock in part due to the great care he took with his prose. High Wind was one of only four novels that Hughes wrote. (And aside from High Wind, I especially recommend In Hazard.) He was more of a playwright, a poet, and a journalist than a fiction writer — in large part because the lapidary approach he took with his sentences significantly slowed him down. But despite his bradykinetic progress, High Wind proved to be such a literary sensation that it turned Hughes into a notable figure saddled with controversy, literary renown, and even a modestly burgeoning financial cushion.

The novel’s setup involves the Bas-Thornton children, who flirt with feral wonders in the Jamaican wild when not relishing their privileged comforts at a plantation named Ferndale. A storm devastates their idyllic paradise. And as they sail back home to England, the children are scooped up by pirates.

When the pirates do board the ill-fated Clorinda (complete with Captain Narpole sleeping through the whole imbroglio, saving face later with a devastatingly bleak letter of lies), Hughes is crisply fastidious about describing these interlopers against type:

With this second boatload came both the captain and the mate. The former was a clumsy great fellow, with a sad, silly face. He was bulky; yet so ill-proportioned one got no impression of power. He was modestly dressed in a drab shore-going suit: he was newly shaven, and his sparse was pomaded so that it lay in a few dark ribbons across his baldish head-top. But all this shore-decency of appearance only accentuated his big splodgy brown hands, stained and scarred and corned with his calling. Moreover, instead of boots he wore a pair of gigantic heel-less slippers in the Moorish manner, which he must have sliced with a knife out of some pair of dead sea-boots. Even his great spreading feet could hardly keep them on, so that he was obliged to walk at the slowest of shuffles, flop-flop along the deck. He stooped, as if always afraid of banging his head on something, and carried the backs of his hands forward, like an orangutan.

Much as Knut Hamsun seemed to anticipate the hardboiled existential feel of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain in 1890 (thank you also, late and great translator Sverre Lyngstad!), so too does Hughes depict the professional working-class criminal just before the gaudily garbed grunt became a staple of noir. These pirates do make a perfunctory effort to look presentable (the captain — later revealed to be a Danish German-speaking ruffian named Jonsen — has gone to the trouble of shaving and pomading what is left of his hair), but they are also makeshift in their sartorial choices. Hughes’s beautiful choice of “dead sea-boots” suggests something vitiated and unholy at work here. (Indeed, one of the buyers who unloads the booty is a vicar, described as “less well shaved than he would have been in England.” Later, a warped nativity play is performed to entertain the pirates. Even later, the song “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is evoked in creepy fashion.) And Jonsen’s desperate attempt to keep his fancy bespoke slippers on — coupled with the telltale pocks of his aloof hands, which resemble a spastic animal — is just one of many examples of the dry exacting comedy that Hughes doles out gently throughout this deranged adventure tale. There’s also a mysterious first-person narrator serving almost as a cosmic god offering mordant asides. Indeed, the standoff between Marpole and these thugs reminded me of the “civilized” exchange between Barry and the highwayman in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. (In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick also had a sardonic narrator in the form of Michael Hordern’s arch commentary, which also dished up bone-dry asides on how we are all barely disguised animals beneath the human sheen. Was Kubrick familiar with Hughes? We may never know, although it is worth noting that a young Martin Amis did appear as one of the kids in the 1965 film adaptation of Hughes’s novel.)

Yet the look of these pirates is enough to ignite a modest crush within Margaret, one of the children, who marvels at their beauty. In an age in which television shows like Euphoria and high school cinematic classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are heralded for using transgressive behavior to depict teens as “adults” (one can likewise see this approach nimbly executed in Megan Abbott’s more recent novels, which have used this storytelling device by framing kids through the subcultures of ballet, cheerleading, and hockey), it’s impossible to overstate the big risk that Hughes took here in 1929. During the hurricane that plagues Jamaica, Hughes also foreshadows how living in a state of nature can inevitably subsume anyone — even a child — by having a domesticated pet named Tabby ruthlessly chased by wildcats.

You will, alas, have to contend with the novel’s appalling and off-putting racism (“there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favorite cat,” writes Hughes when both die after a hurricane and there is a cruel treatment of a monkey on the high seas, which suggests an unsettling metaphor). But the sheer weirdness that forms the backbone of this sweeping story swiftly atones for these hoary and horrendous “cultural values.”

High Wind is also the first recorded instance of the Hangman’s Blood, a cocktail later favored by Anthony Burgess. Seventeen years ago, I persuaded a bartender in the Upper Haight to make me this famous libation. It was, I am sad to report, quite ghastly. I never tried it again. Hughes himself also understood what a hideous mix it was, describing it as possessing “the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so, once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.”

Subconsciously, too, every one recognizes they are animals — why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis?

The children adapt to their new life much like many of today’s bored kids stare into the vacuity of their digital screens for constant stimulation. When one of their number dies, Hughes eerily notes how quickly accustomed they become to an empty bed. When Jonsen withholds the “three Sovereign Rules of Life” on the basis of their youth, Edward replies, “Why not? When shall I be old enough?” Indeed, reading High Wind in 2022 is rather eldritch, particularly in the shock of recognizing such everyday behavior among children today. Hughes does not shy away from how boredom can turn kids unruly and mischievous quite fast. Margaret speaks “with an eagerness that even exceeded the necessities of politeness in its falsity.” When the first mate attempts to inveigle the kids by mentioning a famous pirate named Rector of Roseau, the children quickly see through the superficiality of the apocryphal origin story, puncturing the first mate’s plot holes faster than the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. And the children strike back, with Hughes even describing a corporeal awakening among Emily.

I certainly don’t want to spoil how the kids transform. But it is subtly disconcerting, with a clever nod to the Flying Dutchman. We are left to wonder whether this particular group of kids was fated to turn out this way, even if the pirates had never kidnapped them, or if feral circumstances shaped their transmutation. Hughes, to his credit, lets the reader off the hook somewhat with this aside, pointing to how children are regularly underestimated:

Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realize that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances nil.

Given how problem children have been a pain in the ass for so many parents over the years, it’s rather surprising that it took so long for literature to point this out. Hughes’s immaculately written masterpiece — complete with its alligators and earthquakes as odd forms of fierce incitement and its wry asides about our assumptions about children — was one of the first major works of fiction to interrogate this discomfiting truth. And, even today, A High Wind in Jamaica is a bold and welcome reminder that kids are not to be underestimated. In an epoch in which moronic milquetoasts ban Maus from classrooms for the most arbitrarily intransigent concerns (just read the meeting minutes), High Wind — complete with its chilling final sentence — is a swift kick in the ass to the cowardly and unadventurous sensibilities that prevent us from being honest about what anyone is capable of becoming and how so many of these disturbing possibilities hide in plain sight.

Next Up: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet!

A House for Mr. Biswas (Modern Library #72)

(This is the twenty-ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Day of the Locust.)

I have to be honest. V.S. Naipaul’s literary work is so abominably heartless that I would be greatly tempted to fire bottlerockets all night from my Brooklyn rooftop while wearing nothing more than a male monokini if his scabrous worldview and his pointless head games were permanently erased from the canon. He is surely the most overrated writer of the 20th century.

I’ve delivered variations of these sentiments over the phone to amused literary friends, who, when they weren’t laughing their asses off over my five minute anti-Naipaul soliloquies, were good enough to urge me to forgo the semi-scholarly format of this ridiculous years-long project and simply speak from the heart. I shall do my best to be as thoughtful as I can about my Naipaul bellicosity, which is, alas, the only way to move forward with this project. I can tell you this much. Not even Finnegans Wake, which took me five years to read and eventually write about, made me feel as frustrated as I was with A House for Mr. Biswas. Even the books on the list that I haven’t cared for all that much (The Old Wives’ Tale, the wildly overrated Ragtime, the failings of Kim) still contained something essential or interesting. You could see why a bunch of old white dudes decided to canonize the books even if they seemed to be speaking a hoary language — even accounting for the folkways and mores of 1998. But A House for Mr. Biswas was a joyless chore during the two times I read it. It is a reactionary monument to imperialistic ugliness that isn’t so much a thoughtful examination of colonialism as it is an author catching mice in a glue trap and watching them squirm their way into a slow and painful death instead of putting them out of their misery with a hammer.

In his life and his work, Naipaul was a sadistic bully, a narcissistic tyrant, and a mean-spirited man who used his powers to punch down. The only quality that distinguishes Naipaul from Donald Trump is his descriptive acumen and his honed prose. There is a moment in A House for Mr. Biswas in which Naipaul has a mother snap off branches from a hibiscus bush to discipline her child and it represents that brilliant exactitude. But that’s pretty much it. There isn’t a single Nobel laureate who basks in repugnancy like this simply because he can. Knut Hamsun was a terrible person (who later turned Nazi), but his masterpiece Hunger actually made you feel something about the down-and-out impoverished wretch at the center of the novel. The late great Toni Morrison, inexplicably omitted from the Modern Library canon, used ugly imagery to reveal the deep humanity within victims of racism and oppression. But what does Naipaul offer other than pointless cruelty? James Wood offered the hamfisted theory that Naipaul adopted the dual role of the colonizer and the colonized to adopt “a cool, summary omniscience that he uses to provoke our rebellious compassion.” But I personally could not feel any compassion for Biswas, in large part because I was constantly aware of the manipulative way that Naipaul had rigged the game. Naipaul, in other words, is an old school bully lulling and gaslighting the reader into a phony empathy. Having no empathy to offer, Naipaul leaves such overanalytical and generous critics as Wood to mine the gelid prose and do the work that Naipaul himself couldn’t be bothered to do. That Naipaul was able to play this game of three-card monte on so many says a great deal about how the literary establishment has a knack for propping up bona-fide sociopaths. Even progressive-minded naifs like Teju Cole stumped for this novel, claiming House to be “a masterwork of realism,” but largely on the basis of its itemized lists and of the way that the book encumbers the reader with its turgid pace. Both Wood and Cole acknowledge that it falls upon the reader to provide the munificence that Naipaul himself cannot. But they refuse to acknowledge that the faults of House‘s thin characterizations very much fall on Naipaul’s shoulders. If a writer isn’t committed to depicting the human, then why even bother praising the writer?

For the Spainards, Mr. Biswas knew, had surrendered the island one hundred years before, and their descendants had disappeared; yet they left a memory of reckless valour, and this memory had passed to people who came from another continent and didn’t know what a Spainard was, people who, in their huts of mud and grass where time and distance were obliterated, still frightened their children with the name of Alexander, of whose greatness they knew nothing.

I don’t gainsay Naipaul’s command at the sentence level, such as the measured passage above. At times, Naipaul comes across as the holistic sage reminding us that all of our lives are mired in historical cycles in which we often forget the final festoons of the previous arc. But grifters often talk in cant that suggest a larger tapestry. If you speak in ways that suggest larger cosmic contours, many people are going to assume that there’s something more to your tale than a mean monodimensional character who treats his family badly and who spends most of the goddamned novel writhing in anger and resentment simply because he never has the guts to make a real decision. I suspect Naipaul has bamboozled so many otherwise cogent minds because this kind of pedestrian toxic masculinity, especially in an older book, can be easily excused as a “sign of the times.” But even with Wuthering Heights‘s Heathcliff, named by Bustle‘s Charlotte Ahlin as the “most toxic male character in all of literature,” we can still understand why he forces his son Linton to marry. Heathcliff grows nastier as the novel continues. But he’s still tormented by Catherine’s ghost and the dregs of being bullied and locked in an attic. Mr. Biswas, by contrast, loses his father Raghu early on in the book after Mr. Biswas, entrusted to take care of a neighbor’s calf, falls into a stream and drowns. Mr. Biswas hides beneath his bed in shame. Raghu dives in for the missing calf and his own son. Raghu dies. Emily Bronte had the smarts to connect Heathcliff’s psychology to the past, which makes him more than merely a “toxic male character.” We want to understand why he behaves as he does. But, with Naipaul, the drowning incident is rarely referenced again in the novel. So Mr. Biswas is a man flung into misfortunes in the present without really acknowledging his past. Does this make him as much of a dope as any other ostensible cipher living out a failed life on a former Spanish colony? Apparently.

But there’s something much seedier at work here. As I pointed out with A Bend in the River, Naipual’s bad faith portrayal of low-caste types has always felt supererogatory. He isn’t taking potshots in an interesting or bona-fide punk rock way that challenges the audience. He revels in filth and ugliness and he chooses targets who are just too easy to flambee. You may recall my love for Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, which featured some wild and outlandish depictions of degeneracy, but Caldwell used his broad caricatures to implicate his audience for their generalizations about the poor. It’s clear to me that Naipaul doesn’t have any such grand game afoot here, other than reveling in his hideous hubris. He’s happy to see his inventions rot. The man lived to hurl unpleasant observations about unpleasant people, both in his life and in his fiction. And I say this as a huge fan of unlikable characters. Naipaul’s ensemble isn’t terribly interesting or dimensional. For all my complaints about Evelyn Waugh, at least that reactionary clown was committed to some kind of beauty. A throwback beauty that came from a repressed Catholicism, but a beauty nonetheless. What do we get with Naipaul? Hari “humming from some hymn book in his cheerless way.”

While I commend Naiapul’s prose powers (his description of a box imprinted with the circles of condensed milk cans and his evocation of gods for the Tulsi house are two of many examples of what make him a commendable stylist), I really don’t see why Mr. Biswas deserves such an expansive volume. He is mean, arrogant, cowardly, and an altogether predictable specimen of 20th century masculinity. He possesses no empathy for the people who surround him, looking at his future wife Shama not with compassion as she is berated by a customer, but “as a child.” He expresses flights of wild behavior that might be characterized as bipolar. He throws fits, feels as if he is entitled to a job. Even in describing Mr. Biswas in the way I am here, I fear that I am making him more interesting he deserves to be portrayed. Naipaul doesn’t give us a real reason for Mr. Biswaa’s ego or his cruelty — despite the fact that we are constantly surrounded by his family, which include in-laws who are too numerous to track without notes. He would prefer to wallow in ugliness — both in the ramshackle aesthetic of rural Trinidad and the boorish behavior of his many side characters. There are unlikable characters and villains in literature who deserve our attention because we want to know how they came to be who they are. But with Mr. Biswas, I never felt any strong pull to know him any further. Mr. Biswas is an unremarkable reader, a mediocre sign-painter, and a ham-fisted writer who never has anything especially interesting to say, but always has an especially monstrous act to mete out to anyone in his surrounding orbit.

So I’m quite happy to be rid of Naipaul. I will never read him again. There are people who still swear by Naipaul. Robert McCrum once declared Naipaul to be “the greatest living writer of English prose.” But what’s the point of picking up the pen when you don’t have a pulse?

Next Up: Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica!

The Day of the Locust (Modern Library #73)

(This is the twenty-eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Farewell to Arms.)

December 22, 1940 may be literature’s answer to July 4, 1826, the day in which John Adams rasped his last words on his deathbed. “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” he gasped, not knowing that Jefferson himself had passed away only five hours before. One hundred and fourteen years later, two towering literary titans, far more obscure in their time than Adams and Jefferson had been in theirs, met their end at a needlessly early age. On December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed inside a ground-floor apartment not far from the Sunset Strip at the age of 44. The alcohol had finally caught up with him. He believed himself a failure. He would never know that his tragically brief life and his coruscating work would be rediscovered only a handful of years later — not long after 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed to World War II servicemen. The next day, about two hundred miles southwest of Fitzgerald’s home, Nathanael West and his wife Eileen McKenney (whose sprightly spirit would be immortalized by her sister Ruth in a series of light but amusing New Yorker pieces later turned into a wildly successful stage show called My Sister Eileen) would be killed instantly in a car collision on their way back from Mexico. West was, by all reports, a notoriously awful driver and he was even younger than Fitzgerald. Just thirty-seven.

Both men had turned to screenwriting to stay afloat during the Great Depression. Both men had much to say about the traps and illusions of American life. But it would take longer for West to be reassessed and appreciated — in large part because he was arguably fiercer than Fitz with his fiction. He had his finger firmly on the troubling pulse of feral American life and he wasn’t afraid to use it with the other nine at his typewriter. In a short essay called “Some Notes on Violence,” West pointed to the idiomatic violence that had permeated every corner of printed media: “We did not start with the ideas of printing tales of violence. We now believe that we would be doing violence by suppressing them.” His razor-sharp satire featured philandering dwarves, skewered the hideous contradictions of gaudy Hollywood spectacle, and, in just one of many enthralling flashes of his grimly hilarious invention, depicted a dead horse serving as au courant decor at the bottom of a swimming pool. (In an age in which urine-drinking is prescribed as a COVID remedy and reality star Stephanie Matto makes $200,000 selling her farts in a jar, one wonders why the present fictional landscape doesn’t reflect our scabrous realities and why 85% of today’s gatekeepers are so hostile to such a necessary dialogue between fiction and life. But then this is the same universe in which Hanya Yanagihara’s excellent, quite readable, and wildly ambitious new novel, To Paradise, is framed by The New York Times in belittingly racist and sexist terms, assuaging an increasingly unadventurous bourgeois readership: “Can an Asian American woman write a great American novel?” (Well, of course, she can. Why even summon the rhetoric?))

West’s high point as a novelist was arguably The Day of the Locust — just as compact as Gatsby in its length and sentences, but more wryly surreal than ethereal. And he had a genius for fusing this talent with a theatrically visceral and often bleakly comic strain revealing the FOMO and desperate collective belonging at any vicious cost that one sees prominently among numerous Instagram influencers today. Consider this scene at a funeral:

He knew their kind. While not torch-bearers themselves, they would run behind the fire and do a great deal of the shouting. They had come to see Harry buried, hoping for a dramatic incident of some sort, hoping at least for one of the mourners to be led weeping hysterically from the chapel. It seemed to Tod that they stared back at him with an expression of vicious, acrid boredom that trembled on the edge of violence.

This is followed not long after by an old woman who shows up with “a face pulled out of shape by badly-fitting store teeth” whispering to “a man sucking on the handle of a home-made walking stick.” This close attention to background characters making do with either the remaining scraps they could cobble together or the insufficient products on sale at a store obviously sprang from the Great Depression and West’s own experience working at a hotel, where he undoubtedly observed a motley array of eccentrics and strange outliers. (Jay Martin’s excellent biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life, covers quite a bit of these hotel days and reveals West to be an impeccable bullshit artist in his life, wheeling deals to help other writers land rooms and constantly reinventing the details of his life to negotiate a failing capitalist system.) But West’s panoramic description also feels unsettlingly close to our present time, in which inflation, the supply chain, and an inept framework increasingly leaving Americans out in the cold produces the same plausible character types. And in another eerie parallel to the present, The Day of the Locust also includes a dismal romantic rival named Homer Simpson. The only song Homer knows is the national anthem

The novel follows Tod Hackett, an artist who has moved to Hollywood to find inspiration for what he hopes will be his masterwork painting, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” (I casually wondered if Rage Against the Machine’s album The Battle of Los Angeles took titular inspiration from West. But sadly no interviewer appears to have asked Zack de la Rocha and company this.) He swoons for Faye Greener after seeing her in the hall at a dismal complex called San Berdoo. But Faye can “only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her.” Tod harbors disturbingly intense and violent fantasies towards Faye. Is Tod mentally unbalanced? Or is this the inevitable byproduct of trying to find inspiration in a landscape of contradictions? West smartly leaves these questions open for the reader to infer.

One reads this masterpiece in 2022 greatly saddened by the possibilities of what West could have become. Would he have floundered like Erskine Caldwell or soured into a bitter reactionary like Evelyn Waugh? I don’t think he would have. West was committed to grim playful truth right out of the gate — as his scatologically driven first work, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, made abundantly clear. It says quite a lot about the bleak tenor of the prewar Depression period that so many wild and dark comic novelists flourished. Much as one reads the fiction published just before World War I and marvels at the flowing frankness that just preceded Hemingway permanently altering the English language with his declarative sentences, so too does one approach Tobacco Road, Scoop, and The Day of the Locust with a sense of what might have been in literature if the Second World War had never happened. One then turns to our present pandemic age and wonders why most of today’s contemporary fiction writers remain so spineless, so dully vanilla and offensively weak-kneed and uninventive, so hostile to serving up appropriate pushback against our present devil’s bargain of late-stage capitalism and all of its concomitant horrors.

West would have been canceled quite swiftly if he were starting out today. Joe Woodward’s biography of Nathanael West, Alive Inside the Wreck, points to a fascinating review from Ben Abramson that appeared in Reading and Collecting in which he suggested that West’s books should be reviewed two or three years after publication so that they could be reviewed on “merits” rather than “merchandise.” Indeed, it is the mercantile thrust of vapid careerist “critics” on social media these days — the type epitomized by so many mediocre Twitter addicts who wouldn’t know, appreciate or stump for bona-fide punk rock even if they traveled back in time and became desecrated by excrement while standing in the front row of a GG Allin show — that motivates their own sham criteria and their head-in-the-sand approach to our societal ills. But eighty-three years after The Day of the Locust‘s publication — well past Abramson’s prescription for proper consideration — The Day of the Locust says more about the eternal and seemingly unfixable ailments of American life than most of today’s writers can summon over the course of a career. Despite being cut down in his prime, Nathanael West still survives.

Next Up: V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas!

The City in History (Modern Library Nonfiction #76)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Battle Cry of Freedom.)

I’ve been a city man all my life. Certainly all of my adult life. At the age of twenty, I escaped from the dour doldrums of suburban Sacramento — the kind of hideous Flintstones-style recurring backdrop that seems to encourage broken dreams, angry tears, and rampant abuse behind model home replica doors — for the bright foggy beauty and the joyful pastels of San Francisco.

That gorgeous place from the not so distant past — with the co-op movie theatres playing weirdass indie flicks you couldn’t find on video or teevee, the cafes pattering with political idealism and the streets rattling with the chatty pugnacious jingle of strange conceptual punks, the crumbling encyclopedic bookstores and the boldly strange dive bars of the Tenderloin, and the wonderful mariachi players serenading Valencia Street taquerias for a quick buck, a Mexicoke, and a smile — was exactly the urban realm I needed at the time. Only real souls committed to an increasingly rarefied inclusiveness like Michelle Tea and William T. Vollmann knew how to capture these meat-and-potatoes freak-friendly details in their novels. What I didn’t know, as San Francisco became an unaffordable playground invaded by elitist and not especially perspicacious techbro affluents, was that this coastal metropolis was no longer a place for weirdos like me. I was outpriced and outmatched, like so many who bolted to Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. It was an all-too-common tale of gentrification and migration, of a city permanently regurgitating its most promising inhabitants and falling victim to an influx of wealth that forever altered its essence. Like any foolish romantic, I fell in love with someone who was absolutely wrong for me and became seduced by the Brooklyn brownstones, the skyscrapers spiring along the rivers, and the giddy pace of a megacity demanding all of its inhabitants to make something of themselves. I’ve been in New York City now for fourteen years — most of my thirties and all of my forties. I hope to continue to live here. But like anything in life, it’s largely the luck of the draw, hoping that the law of averages will work out in your favor. Especially in this age of mass unemployment and pandemic uncertainties and anybody who doesn’t make more than $200,000 a year left in the cold and declared the enemy.

I mention these bona-fides in advance of my thoughts on the great Lewis Mumford to give you a sense of why his amazing book, The City in History, took me much longer to read than I anticipated. The problem with an encyclopedic smartypants like Mumford is that he’ll drop a casual reference that is supremely interesting if you are even remotely curious. One paragraph will send you down an Internet rabbit hole. The next thing you know, you’ve just spent hours of your life trying to find any information on the ancient Greek artisans who hustled their goods in the agora and why slavery was simply accepted as a part of city life for centuries. An email correspondent, learning that I was taking a deep dive into Mumford, urged me to plunge into the four volumes kick-started by Technics and Civilization. And I have to say, given the many months I spent not so much reading The City in History but taking in the many references orbiting its scholarship, I will probably have to wait until perhaps my seventies — should I live that long — for such an enormous undertaking. I could easily see myself as an old bachelor on a beach — filling in crossword puzzles, tendering stories about my misspent youth to any sympathetic ear, respectfully flirting with any lingering divorcé with the decency to not see me as invisible, and carrying along the four Mumford volumes with me (along with whatever will then pass for a tablet to look up all the references) in a satchel.

This is my roundabout way of saying that Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is a wonderfully robust and often grumbly tome from a dude who spent most of his years considering how cities thrive through technological and architectural development. One of the book’s charms is seeing Mumford gradually becoming more pissed off as he gets closer to the modern age. It’s almost as if he resents what the city transformed into in the twentieth century. For example, in a weird aside, Mumford complains about the increased number of windows in residential buildings after the seventeenth century, bemoaning the lack of privacy with a touch of principle rarely remembered by people who grew up with nothing but the Internet’s exhibitionistic cadences. He also has a healthy aversion to the “often disruptive and self-defeating” nature of constant growth. It is, after all, possible for a city or a small town to develop too much. Once cities ditched their walls, there were no longer any physical boundaries to how far any teeming area could spread while arguably become lesser the further it rolled along. (See, for example, the anarchic sprawl of Texas today. Everyone from the likes of the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix to James Howard Kuntsler has spoken, in varying degrees of horror, about this endless expansion.) On this point, Mumford pushes back against the myth of the medieval town as a place of static boredom. He points to religious edifices somehow transforming these clusters where, for the first time in history, “the majority of the inhabitants of a city were free men.” Even when mercantile centers dried up as trade died, Mumfurod points to the limitless evolution of the countryside. Feudalism subsided for a stabler and more available food supply and new forms of home-spun industry that made many of these smaller villages special. Textile industries flourished in northern Italy and not only resulted in innovations such as the spinning wheel, but some healthy revolutionary pushback against tyrants — such as the weavers rebelling against the ruling elite in 1370-1371. In short, Mumford argues that a reasonably confined city was capable of nearly anything.

But what of the modern metropolis? The cities that called to people like me as a young man? Mumford’s view was that the enormity of a place like Paris or Rome or London or New York City wasn’t merely the result of technological progress. As he argues:

…the metropolitan phase became universal only when the technical means of congestion had become adequate — and their use profitable to those who manufactured or employed them. The modern metropolis is, rather, an outstanding example of a peculiar cultural lag within the realm of technics itself: namely, the continuation by highly advanced technical means of the obsolete forms and ends of a socially retarded civilization.

Well, that doesn’t sound too nice. So the punks who I jammed with in Mission District warrens and the scrappy filmmakers piecing together stories and the bizarre theatre we were putting on while eating ramen and Red Vines were cultural atavists? Gee, thanks, Lewis! Would Mumford apply this same disparaging tone to the CBGB punk crowd and artists who flourished in the East Village and arguably altered the trajectory of popular music? Or, for that matter, the 1990s hip-hop artists who flourished in Bed-Stuy and Compton? This is where Mumford and I part ways. Who are any of us to dictate what constitutes cultural lag? In my experience, obsolete forms tend to square dance with current mediums and that’s usually how the beat rolls on. Small wonder that Jane Jacobs and Mumford would get involved in a philosophical brawl that lasted a good four decades.

It’s frustrating that, for all the right criticism Mumford offers, he can be a bit of a dowdy square. He’s so good at showing us how the office building, as we still know it today, initiated in Florence thanks to Giorgio Vasari. It turns out that this amazing Italian Renaissance man wasn’t just committed to corridors. He designed an interior with an open-floor loggia — those reception areas that can now be found in every damned bureaucratic entity. We now have someone to blame for them! Mumford offers us little details — such as the tendency of early cities to repave streets over the layers of trash that had been thrown over the past twenty years. This resulted in developments such as doorways increasingly becoming lower — often submerged beneath the grade entirely — as history carried on. There are very useful asides in Mumford’s book on the history of multistory buildings. We learn how Roman baths and gymnasiums did make efforts to accommodate the rabble, despite the rampant exploitation of humans. Calvino was only scratching the surface. As long as cities have been around, humans have created new structures and new innovations. For all we know, the Coronavirus pandemic could very well lead to some urban advancement that humankind had hitherto never considered.

Because of all this, I can’t square Mumford’s elitism with the beautiful idealism that he lays down here:

The final mission of the city is to further man’s cautious participation in the cosmic and the historic process. Through its own complex and enduring structure, the city vastly augments man’s ability to interpret these processes and take an active, formative part in them, so that every phase of the drama it stages shall have, to the highest degree possible, the illumination of consciousness, the stamp of purpose, the color of love. That magnification of all the dimensions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, technological mastery, and, above, all, dramatic representation, has been the supreme office of the city in history. And it remains the chief reason for the city’s continued existence.

Who determines the active and formative development of the city? Do we leave it to anarchy? Do we acknowledge the numerous forces duking it out over who determines the topography? I can certainly get behind Mumford railing against mercantilism. But who establishes the ideal? One of the most underrated volumes contending with such a struggle between social community and the kind of “high-minded” conservative finger-wagging that Mumford too often espouses is Samuel R. Delany’s excellent book, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a brilliant portrait of the undeniable “color of love” practiced in the Times Square adult movie theatres through the mid-1990s — until Mayor Giuliani declared war on what he deemed unseemly. In a sidebar, Delany, buttressing Jane Jacobs, observes that the problem here is that this sort of idealism assumes two conditions: (1) that cities are fundamentally repugnant places and that we must therefore hide the poor and the underprivileged and (2) the city is defined by the big and the monumental.

The sheer amount of suffering undergone by the impoverished is something that Mumford, to his credit, does broach — particularly the unsanitary conditions that those in London and New York lived in as these cities expanded. (For more on the working stiffs and those who struggled, especially in New York, I highly recommend Luc Sante’s excellent book Low Life.) But while Mumford is willing to go all in on the question of bigness, he’s a little too detached and diffident on the issue of how the have nots contribute to urban growth, although he does note how “the proletariat had their unpremeditated revenge” on the haves as New York increasingly crammed people like sardines into airless cloisters. And, as such, I found myself pulling out my Jane Jacobs books, rereading passages, and saying, with my best Mortal Kombat announcer voice, “Finish him!”

But maybe I’m being a little too hard on Mumford. The guy wasn’t a fan of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s great rush for suburban development, with this funny aside: “one must ask how much he left for the early twentieth-century architect to invent.” Mumford had it in for Le Corbusier and his tower-centric approach to urban planning (which is perhaps best observed in Chandigarh, India — a place where Le Corbusier was given free reign), but he was also a huge fan of Ebeneezer Howard and his “Garden City” movement, whereby Howard suggested that some combination of city and country represented the best living conditions. Even if you side with Jane Jacobs, as I do, on the whole Garden City question, believing that there can be some real beauty in staggering and urban density, you can’t help but smile at his prickliness:

For the successor of the paleotechnic town has created instruments and conditions potentially far more lethal than those which wiped out so many lives in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, through a concentration of toxic gases, or that which in December 1952 killed in one week an estimated five thousand extra of London’s inhabitants.

Oh, Mumford! With endearingly bleak observations like this, why couldn’t you be more on the side of the people?

Next Up: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory!

Battle Cry of Freedom (Modern Library Nonfiction #77)

(This is the twenty-third entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Why We Can’t Wait.)

In his 1966 essay “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin — never a man to mince words or to refrain from expressing searing clarity — declared that white Americans were incapable of facing the deep wounds suppurating in the national fabric because of their refusal to acknowledge their complicity in abusive history. Pointing to the repugnant privilege that, even today, hinders many white people from altering their lives, their attitudes, and the baleful bigotry summoned by their nascent advantages, much less their relationships to people of color, Baldwin noted:

For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Fifty-four years after Baldwin, America now finds itself enmired within its most seminal (and long delayed) civil rights movement in decades, awakened from its somnambulistic malaise through the neck-stomping snap of systemic racism casually and ignobly practiced by crooked cops who are afforded impunity rather than significant consequences. The institution of slavery has been replaced by the indignities of racial profiling, income disparity, wanton brutality, constant belittlement, and a crass cabal of Karens who are more than eager to rat out people of color so that they can scarf down their soy milk lattes and avocado toast, rarely deviating from the hideous cues that a culture — one that prioritizes discrimination first and equality last — rewards with all the perfunctory mechanics of a slot machine jackpot.

Thus, one must approach James McPherson’s mighty and incredibly impressive Civil War volume with mindfulness and assiduity. It is not, as Baldwin says, a book that can merely be read — even though it is something of a miracle that McPherson has packed as much detail and as many considerations as he has within more than 900 pages. McPherson’s volume is an invaluable start for anyone hoping to move beyond mere reading, to significantly considering the palpable legacy of how the hideous shadow of white supremacy and belittlement still plagues us in the present. Why does the Confederate flag still fly? Why do imperialist statues — especially monuments that celebrate a failed and racist breakaway coalition of upstart states rightly starved and humiliated and destroyed by Grant and Sherman — still stand? Battle Cry of Freedom beckons us to pay careful attention to the unjust and bestial influences that erupted before the war and that flickered afterwards. It is thankfully not just a compilation of battle summaries — although it does do much to mark the moments in which the North was on the run and geography and weather and lack of supplies often stood in its way. The book pays welcome scrutiny to the underlying environment that inspired the South to secede and required a newly inaugurated Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers a little more than a month after he had been sworn in as President and just after the South Carolina militia had attacked Fort Sumter.

* * *

It was technological innovation in the 1840s and the 1850s — the new machines putting out watches and furniture and bolts and damn near anything into the market at a rapid clip previously unseen — that helped sow the seeds of labor unrest. To use the new tools, a worker had to go to a factory rather than operating out of his home. To turn the most profit possible and sustain his venal wealth, the aspiring robber baron had to exploit the worker at subhuman wages. The South was more willing to enslave people. A barbaric racist of that era ranting in a saloon could, much like one of Trump’s acolytes today, point to the dip in the agricultural labor force from 1800 to 1860. In the North, 70% of labor was in agriculture, but this fell to 40%. But in the South, the rate remained steady at 80%. But this, of course, was an artificial win built on the backs of Black lives.

You had increasing territory in the West annexed to the United States and, with this, vivacious crusaders who were feeling bolder about their causes. David Wilmot, a freshman Congressional Representative, saw the Mexican War as an opportunity to lay down a proviso on August 8, 1846. “[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory” were the words that Wilmot added to an appropriations bill amendment. Like any politician, Wilmot was interested in settling scores. The Wilmot Proviso was as much the result of long pent-up frustration among a cluster of Northern Democrats who cared more about holding onto power than pushing forward abolition. The proviso kept being reintroduced and the Democratic Party of the time — much of it composed of racists from the South — began to splinter.

Northern Democrats shifted their support from the Wilmot Proviso to an idea known as popular sovereignity, which placed the decision on whether to sustain or abolish slavery into the hands of settlers moving into the new territories. But Wilmot’s more universal abolition approach still had the enthusiastic support of northern Whigs. The Whigs, for those who may not recall, were essentially middle-class conservatives living it large. They represented the alternative to Democrats before the Republican Party was created in 1854. The Whigs emerged from the ashes of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 — which you may recall me getting into when I was tackling Herbert Croly a few years ago. Yes, Andrew Jackson was responsible for (a) destroying the national bank, thus creating an economically volatile environment and (b) creating enough fury for Henry Clay and company to form an anti-Jackson opposition party. What’s most interesting here is that opposing Jackson also meant opposing one of his pet causes: slavery. And, mind you, these were pro-business conservatives who wanted to live the good life. This is a bit like day trading bros dolled up in Brooks Brothers suits suddenly announcing that they want universal healthcare. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but sometimes a searing laser directed at an enemy who has jilted you in the boudoir creates an entirely unexpected bloc.

Many of the “liberals” of that era, especially in the South, were very much in favor of keeping slavery going. (This historical fact has regrettably caused many Republicans to chirp “Party of Lincoln!” in an attempt to excuse the more fascistic and racist overtures that these same smug burghers wallow in today.) Much like Black Lives Matter today and the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years ago, a significant plurality of the Whigs, who resented the fact that their slave-owning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor refused to take a position on the Wilmot Proviso, were able to create a broad coalition at the Free Soil convention of 1848. Slavery then became one of the 1848 presidential election’s major issues.

In Battle Cry, McPherson nimbly points to how all of these developments led to a great deal of political unrest that made the Civil War inevitable. Prominent Republican William H. Seward (later Lincoln’s Secretary of State) came out swinging against slavery, claiming that compromise on the issue was impossible. “You cannot roll back the tide of social progress,” he said. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (authored by Stephen Douglas) repealed the Missouri Compromise, which in turn led to “Bleeding Kansas” — a series of armed and violent struggles over the legality of slavery that carried on for the next seven years. (Curiously, McPheron downplays Daniel Webster’s 1850 turncoat “Seventh of March” speech, which signaled Webster’s willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and forever altered his base and political career.) And while all this was happening, cotton prices in the South were rising and a dying faction of Southern unionists led the Southern states to increasingly consider secession. The maps of 1860 reveal the inescapable problem:

* * *

The Whigs were crumbling. Enter Lincoln, speaking eloquently on a Peroria stage on October 16, 1854, and representing the future of the newly minted Republican Party:

When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Enter the Know Nothings, a third party filling a niche left by the eroding Whigs and the increasingly splintered Democratic Party. The Know Nothings were arguably the Proud Boys of their time. They ushered in a wave of nationalism and xenophobia that was thoughtfully considered by the Smithsonian‘s Lorraine Boissoneault. What killed the Know Nothings was their failure to take a stand on slavery. You couldn’t afford to stay silent on the issue when the likes of Dred Scott and John Brown were in the newspapers. The Know Nothings further scattered political difference to the winds, giving Lincoln the opportunity to unite numerous strands under the new Republican Party and win the Presidency during the 1860 election, despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states.

With Lincoln’s win, seven slave states seceded from the union. And the beginnings of the Confederacy began. Historians have been arguing for years over the precise reasons for this disunion. If you’re a bit of a wonk like me, I highly recommend this 2011 panel in which three historians offer entirely different takeaways. McPherson, to his credit, allows the events to unfold and refrains from too much editorializing. Although throughout the book, McPherson does speak from the perspective of the Union.

* * *

As I noted when I tackled John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, one of my failings as an all-encompassing dilettante resides with military history, which I find about as pleasurable to read as sprawling myself naked, sans hat or suntan lotion, upon some burning metal bed on a Brooklyn rooftop during a hot August afternoon — watching tar congeal over my epidermis until I transform into some ugly onyx crust while various spectators, saddled with boredom and the need to make a quick buck, film me with their phones and later email me demands to pay up in Bitcoin, lest my mindless frolicking be publicly uploaded to the Internet and distributed to every pornographic website from here to Helsinki.

That’s definitely laying it on thicker than you need to hear. But it is essential that you understand just how much military history rankles me.

Anyway, despite my great reluctance to don a tricorne of any sort, McPherson’s descriptions of battles (along with the accompanying illustrations) did somehow jolt me out of my aversion and make me care. Little details — such as P.G.T. Beauregard designing a new Confederate battle flag after troops could not distinguish between the Confederate “stars and bars” banner from the Union flag in the fog of battle — helped to clarify the specific innovations brought about by the Civil War. It also had never occurred to me how much the history of ironclad vessels began with the Civil War, thanks in part to the eccentric marine engineer John Ericsson, who designed the famed USS Monitor, designed as a counterpoint to the formidable Confederate vessel Virginia, which had been created to hit the Union blockade at Ronoake Island. What was especially amazing about Ericsson’s ship was that it was built and launched rapidly — without testing. After two hours of fighting, the Monitor finally breached the Virginia‘s hull with a 175-pound shot, operating with barely functioning engines. For whatever reason, McPherson’s vivid description of this sea battle reminded me of the Mutara Nebula battle at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But even for all of McPherson’s synthesizing legerdemain, the one serious thing I have to ding him on is his failure to describe the horrors of slavery in any form. Even William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich devoted significant passages to depicting what was happening in the Holocaust death camps. Despite my high regard for McPherson’s ability to find just the right events to highlight in the Civil War timeline, and his brilliantly subtle way of depicting the shifting fortunes of the North and the South, can one really accept a volume about the Civil War without a description of slavery? McPherson devotes more time to covering Andersonville’s brutal statistics (prisoner mortality was 29% and so forth) before closing his paragraph with this sentence:

The treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of.

But what of the treatment of Black people? Why does this not merit so much as a paragraph? McPherson is so good at details — such as emphasizing the fact that Grant’s pleas to have all prisoners exchanged — white and Black — in the cartel actually came a year after negotiations had stopped. He’s good enough to show us how southern historians have perceived events (often questionably). Why then would he shy away from the conditions of slavery?

The other major flaw: Why would McPherson skim over the Battle of Gettysburg in just under twenty pages? This was, after all, the decisive battle of the war. McPherson seems to devote more time, for example, on the Confederate raids in 1862. And while all this is useful to understanding the War, it’s still inexplicable to me.

But these are significant nitpicks for a book that was published in 1988 and that is otherwise a masterpiece. Still, I’m not the only one out here kvetching about this problem. The time has come for a new historian — ideally someone who isn’t a white male — to step up to the challenge and outdo both Ken Burns and James McPherson (and Shelby Foote, who I’ll be getting to when we hit MLNF #15 in perhaps a decade or so) and fully convey the evils and brutality of slavery and why this war both altered American life and exacerbated the problems we are still facing today.

Next Up: Lewis Mumford’s The City in History!

Why We Can’t Wait (Modern Library Nonfiction #78)

(This is the twenty-second entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.)

It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.

The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”

There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)

And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:

How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?

Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.

King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.

As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.

King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.

* * *

King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)

* * *

Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)

Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.

The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.

If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”

Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.

But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”

It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.

Next Up: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Modern Library Nonfiction #79)

(This is the twenty-first entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Studies in Iconology.)

One of many blistering tangerines contained within Mark Twain’s juicy three volume Autobiography involves his observations on Theodore Roosevelt: “We have never had a President before who was destitute of self-respect and of respect for his high office; we have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no President before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully, and missed his mission of compulsion of circumstances over which he had no control.”

He could just as easily have been discussing the current doddering charlatan now forcing many otherwise respectable citizens into recuperative nights of heavy drinking and fussy hookups with a bespoke apocalyptic theme, but Twain’s sentiments do say quite a good deal about the cyclical American affinity for peculiar outsiders who resonate with a populist base. As I write these words, Bernie Sanders has just decided to enter the 2020 Presidential race, raising nearly $6 million in 24 hours and angering those who perceive his call for robust social democracy to be unrealistic, along with truth-telling comedians who are “sick of old white dudes.” Should Sanders run as an independent, the 2020 presidential race could very well be a replay of Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party run in 1912.

Character ultimately distinguishes a Chauncey Gardner couch potato from an outlier who makes tangible waves. And it is nearly impossible to argue that Teddy Roosevelt, while bombastic in his prose, often ridiculous in his obsessions, and pretty damn nuts when it came to the Rough Riders business in Cuba, did not possess it. Edmund Morris’s incredibly compelling biography, while subtly acknowledging Teddy’s often feral and contradictory impulses, suggests that Roosevelt was not only the man that America wanted and perhaps needed, but reminds us that Roosevelt also had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Had not Vice President Garret Hobart dropped dead because of a bum ticker on November 21, 1899, and had not a sour New York Republican boss named Tom Platt been so eager to run Teddy out of Albany, there is a good chance that Roosevelt might have ended up as a serviceable two-term Governor of New York, perhaps a brasher form of Nelson Rockefeller or an Eliot Spitzer who knew how to control his zipper. Had not a Russian anarchist plugged President McKinnley two times in the chest at the Temple of Music, it is quite possible that Roosevelt’s innovative trust busting and his work on food safety and national parks, to say nothing of his crazed obsession with military might and giving the United States a new role as international police force, would have been delayed altogether.

What Roosevelt had, aside from remarkable luck, was a relentless energy which often exhausts the 21st century reader nearly as much as it fatigued those surrounding Teddy’s orbit. Here is a daily timetable of Teddy’s activities when he was running for Vice President, which Morris quotes late in the book:

7:00 A.M. Breakfast 
7:30 A.M. A speech
8:00 A.M. Reading a historical work
9:00 A.M. A speech
10:00 A.M.  Dictating letters
11:00 A.M. Discussing Montana mines
11:30 A.M. A speech
12:00 Reading an ornithological work
12:30 P.M. A speech
1:00 P.M. Lunch
1:30 P.M. A speech
2:30 P.M. Reading Sir Walter Scott
3:00 P.M. Answering telegrams
3:45 P.M. A speech
4:00 P.M. Meeting the press
4:30 P.M. Reading
5:00 P.M. A speech
6:00 P.M. Reading
7:00 P.M. Supper
8-10 P.M. Speaking
11:00 P.M. Reading alone in his car
12:00 To bed

That Roosevelt was able to do so much in an epoch before instant messages, social media, vast armies of personal assistants, and Outlook reminders says a great deal about how he ascended so rapidly to great heights. He could dictate an entire book in three months, while also spending his days climbing mountains and riding dozens of miles on horseback (much to the chagrin of his exhausted colts). Morris suggests that much of this energy was forged from the asthma he suffered as a child. Standing initially in the shadow of his younger brother Elliott (whose later mental collapse he callously attempted to cover up to preserve his reputation), Teddy spent nearly his entire life doing, perhaps sharing Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field” in the wholesale denial of his limitations:

In between rows and rides, Theodore would burn off his excess energy by running at speed through the woods, boxing and wrestling with Elliott, hiking, hunting, and swimming. His diary constantly exults in physical achievement, and never betrays fear that he might be overtaxing his strength. When forced to record an attack of cholera morbus in early August, he precedes it with the phrase, “Funnily enough….”

Morris is thankfully sparing about whether such superhuman energy (which some psychological experts have suggested to be the result of undiagnosed bipolar disorder) constitutes genius, only reserving the word for Roosevelt in relation to his incredible knack for maintaining relations with the press — seen most prominently in his fulsome campaign speeches and the way that he courted journalistic reformer Jacob Riis during his days as New York Police Commissioner and invited Riis to accompany him on his nighttime sweeps through various beats, where Roosevelt micromanaged slumbering cops and any other layabout he could find. The more fascinating question is how such an exuberant young autodidact, a voracious reader with preternatural recall eagerly conducting dissections around the house when not running and rowing his way with ailing lungs, came to become involved in American politics.

Some of this had to do with his hypergraphia, his need to inhabit the world, his indefatigable drive to do everything and anything. Some of it had to do with deciding to attend Columbia Law School so he could forge a professional career with his new wife Alice Hathaway Lee, who had quite the appetite for social functions (and whose inner life, sadly, is only superficially examined in Morris’s book). But much of it had to do with Roosevelt regularly attending Morton Hall, the Republican headquarters for his local district. Despite being heckled for his unusual threads and side-whiskers, Roosevelt kept showing up until he was accepted as a member. The Roosevelt family disapproved. Teddy reacted in anger. And from moment forward, Morris writes, Roosevelt desired political power for the rest of his life. Part of this had to do with the need for family revenge. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. suffered a swift decline in health (and quickly died) after Roscoe Conklin and New York State Republicans set out to ruin him over a customs collector position.

These early seeds of payback and uncompromising individualism grew Roosevelt into a fiery oleander who garnered a rep as a fierce and feisty New York State Assemblyman: the volcanic fuel source that was to sustain him until mortality and dowdiness sadly caught up with him during the First World War. But Roosevelt, like Lyndon B. Johnson later with the Civil Rights Act (documented in an incredibly gripping chapter in Robert A. Caro’s Master of the Senate), did have a masterful way of persuading people to side with him, often through his energy and speeches rather than creepy lapel-grabbing. As New York Police Commissioner, Roosevelt upheld the unpopular blue laws and, for a time, managed to get both the grumbling bibulous public and the irascible tavern keepers on his side. Still, Roosevelt’s pugnacity and tenacity were probably more indicative of the manner in which he fought his battles. He took advantage of any political opportunity — such as making vital decisions while serving as Acting Secretary of the Navy without consulting his superior John Davis Long. But he did have a sense of honor, seen in his refusal to take out his enemy Andrew D. Parker when given a scandalous lead during a bitter battle in New York City (the episode was helpfully documented by Riis) and, as New York State Assemblyman, voting with Democrats on March 7, 1883 to veto the Five-Cent Bill when it was discovered to be unconstitutional by then Governor Grover Cleveland. Perhaps his often impulsive instincts, punctuated by an ability to consider the consequences of any action as it was being carried out, is what made him, at times, a remarkable leader. Morris documents one episode during Roosevelt’s stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in which he was trying to build up an American navy and swiftly snapped up a Brazilian vessel without a letter. When the contract was drafted for the ship, dealer Charles R. Flint noted, “It was one of the most concise and at the same time one of the cleverest contracts I have ever seen.”

Morris is to be praised for writing about such a rambunctious figure with class, care, and panache. Seriously, this dude doesn’t get enough props for busting out all the biographical stops. If you want to know more about Theodore Roosevelt, Morris’s trilogy is definitely the one you should read. Even so, there are a few moments in this biography in which Morris veers modestly into extremes that strain his otherwise eloquent fairness. He quotes from “a modern historian” who asks, “Who in office was more radical in 1899?” One zips to the endnotes, only to find that the “historian” in question was none other than the partisan John Allen Gable, who was once considered to be the foremost authority on Teddy Roosevelt. Morris also observes that “ninety-nine percent of the millions of words he thus poured out are sterile, banal, and so droningly repetitive as to defeat the most dedicated researcher,” and while one opens a bountiful heart to the historian prepared to sift through the collected works of a possible madman, the juicy bits that Morris quotes are entertaining and compelling. Also, to be fair, a man driven to dictate a book-length historical biography in a month is going to have some litters in the bunch.

But these are extremely modest complaints for an otherwise magnificent biography. Edmund Morris writes with a nimble focus. His research is detailed, rigorous, and always on point, and he has a clear enthusiasm for his subject. Much of Morris’s fall from grace has to do with the regrettable volume, Dutch, in which Morris abandoned his exacting acumen and inserted a version of himself in a biography of Reagan. This feckless boundary-pushing even extended into the endnotes, in which one Morris inserted references to imaginary people. He completely overlooked vital periods in Reagan’s life and political career, such as the Robert Bork episode. Given the $3 million advance and the unfettered access that Morris had to Reagan, there was little excuse for this. Yet despite returning valiantly to Roosevelt in two subsequent volumes (without the weirdass fictitious asides), Morris has been given the Wittgenstein treatment (“That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”) by his peers and his colleagues. And I don’t understand why. Morris, much like Kristen Roupenian quite recently, seems to have been needlessly punished for being successful and not living up to a ridiculous set of expectations. But The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which rightfully earned the Pulitzer Prize, makes the case on its own merits that Morris is worthy of our time, our consideration, and our forgiveness and that the great Theodore Roosevelt himself is still a worthwhile figure for contemporary study.

Next Up: Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait!

A Farewell to Arms (Modern Library #74)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Scoop.)

You likely know the basics: An American goes to Italy and enlists as a “tenente.” He drives a battlefield ambulance just before his nation enters World War I. He gets wounded. He meets a nurse at a hospital. He falls in love. He feels free as he recovers. He feels trapped as he returns to the front. He gets disillusioned. He flees. He finds her again. Bad things happen. But A Farewell to Arms is so much more than this. It is a heartbreaking love story. It is a remarkably subtle indictment of war. It shows how people bury their romantic longings behind duty and how there’s a greater bravery in fulfilling what you owe to your heart. It argues for life and love. Its final paragraph is devastating. It zooms along with masterly prose that is buried with treasure. It is one of the greatest novels of the early 20th century. This statement is not hyperbole.

It is now quite fashionable to bash Hemingway rather than praise him, as the flip Paul Levy recently did in his oh so hip and not very bright “hot take”: “The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure.” Well, sure it is. I’ve read it all three times at different periods in my life and I don’t think any honest reader would deny that. When I was an obnoxious punk in my twenties, I resisted Hem big time, feeling that he could not teach me to be a man in the way that James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald had, yet I somehow held onto his books, sensing that I could be colossally wrong. (I was.) Even today, I have to acknowledge that To Have and Have Not is an embarrassment. The Garden of Eden is an interesting but unconsummated train wreck. For Whom the Bell Tolls has its moments, but the Old English verbs and the lack of subtlety can be risible. I’ve never quite been able to leap into The Old Man and the Sea, but that says more about me than Hem. The upshot is that there are quite a few clunkers in Hem’s collected works and some of the Nick Adams tales ain’t all that, but one could make this claim about any author. In the end, when you have a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms that never grows tedious no matter how many times you reread it, who in the hell cares about the misses? There’s no profit in calculating a shallow statement when the crown jewels shine bright in your face.

The other way that people ding Hem these days is by singling out his macho posturing or peering at his pages through the prism of unbridled masculine hubris. The naysayers dismiss Lady Brett Astley in The Sun Also Rises as an archetype without recognizing her enigma or the way she aptly epitomized the Lost Generation. They don’t acknowledge how Hem had to prostrate himself before Beryl Markham in a letter to Maxwell Perkins and that he did get on (for a time) with Martha Gellhorn, who neither suffered fools nor caved to condescension.

Yet there is certainly something to Hemingway’s women problem, especially as seen in the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In June 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hem a letter and observed how, in his early work, “you were really listening to women — here you’re only listening to yourself, to your own mind beating out facily a sort of sense that isn’t really interesting.” (Hemingway’s reply: “Kiss my ass.”)

Scott’s warning remains a very shrewd assessment on what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Hemingway. I’d argue that one of the best ways to ken Hem is to recognize that he was a wildly accomplished giant when he placed his own ego last and that any transgressions that today’s readers detect only emerged when Hem became overly absorbed in his own self. And on this point, one can find a strange sympathy for the man, thanks in part to Andrew Farah’s recent biography, Hemingway’s Brain, which points to Ernest’s many head injuries (which included nine concussions) and concludes that he suffered from CTE, the brain disease seen in professional football players after too many years of violent tackles. This theory, which takes into account the decline of Hemingway’s handwriting in his latter years, would also offer an explanation for the wildly disparate writing quality and thus invalidates Mr. Levy’s foolish pronouncement.

* * *

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

A Farewell to Arms thankfully places us shortly after the rising sun of Hem’s career and, like its predecessor, the book contains razor-sharp prose, keen observations (ranging from Umberto Notani’s infamous The Black Pig, trains packed with soldiers, and the repugnant wartime indignity of a hopped up tyrant fiercely questioning a man who is fated to be shot), and a beautiful epitomization of the famous “iceberg theory” that Hemingway posited in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Much has been spilled over Hemingway’s declarative sentences, which are beautifully honed in this masterpiece. (Hem wrote 47 versions of the ending.) But I’d like to single out “was,” the most frequently used word in this novel. On a surface level, “was” is the most expedient way to hurl us into Frederic’s world: a simple verb of action and hard deets, but one that likewise deflects interior thought. It’s easy to dis Hem as a man’s man summing up life and the earth and the grit and all else that makes us want to ape him even though there can be only one, but the key to seeing the beauty of “was” is knowing that this book is all about pursuing a lost and deeply moving romantic vision, one kept carefully hidden from the beginning. Style advances the perspective and keeps us curious and lets us in and “was” is the way Hem gets us there.

Hemingway uses language with extraordinary command to clue us in on the distinct possibility that this story is in some sense a dream — indeed, a dream involving death based on what Hem was never able to make with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while holed up in a ward. There’s the makeshift hospital office, with its “many marble busts on painted wooden pillars,” which is further compared to a cemetery. In the novel’s first part, there are very few adverbs — save “winefully” early on and “evidently” and “directly” in the same sentence as guns rupture Frederic’s existence. The first rare simile (“seeing it all ahead like moves in a chess game”) occurs when Frederic first tries to kiss Catherine and is greeted with a slap (which Catherine apologizes for). This is a far cry indeed from what The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra recently claimed, without citing a single example, as “flowery and overwritten.” A Farewell to Arms basks in the same beautiful realm between the real and the ethereal that The Great Gatsby does, albeit in a different landscape altogether, but it offers enough ambiguity to speculate about the characters while encouraging numerous rereads.

Language also carries the deep resonances of what people mean to each other. Catherine cannot stand a triple-wounded vet named Ettore and repeats “dreadful” twice and “bore” four times when she vents to Frederic. The words “She won’t die” are also repeated in one harrowing paragraph near the end. (Indeed, if you see a word or a phrase repeated in Hemingway’s fiction, there’s a good chance that something bad will happen.) Shortly after Frederic is moved to the freshly built hospital in Milan (itself a marvelous metaphor for the fresh start of Frederic’s blossoming love for Catherine), he takes to Dr. Valentini, who speaks in a series of short sentences over the course of a paragraph (a small sample: “A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl.”) and who Frederic later calls “grand.” The syntax, chopped and sheared and housed within manageable units, represents a telegraph from the human heart like no other.

Frederic acknowledges that he lies to Catherine when he tells her that she’s the first woman he’s loved. Now it’s tempting to roll your eyes over the “I’ll be a good girl” business that often comes from Catherine, but it’s also a safe bet to speculate that Frederic is likewise lying about what Catherine has actually told him, much as Hem himself has fudged the full extent of his “affair” with Agnes von Kurowsky through fiction. (“Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has,” wrote von Kurowsky in her diary on August 25, 1918. “He is a dear boy & so cute about it.”)

An enduring romance is often built on a pack of lies. We often fail to recognize the full totality of who a lover was until we are well outside of the relationship. As for friendship, I’d like to argue that Miss Gage is a fascinating side character who stands up for this. She’s someone who ribs Frederic about not fully understanding what friendship is. Later, when Frederic returns to the front lines, Rinaldi tells him, “I don’t want to be your friend. I am your friend.” And if Frederic can’t recognize friendship, does he really know how to read the room when Cupid shows up with a puckish smile? Hem’s subtle acknowledgment of these basic truths allows us to trust and become invested in Frederic’s voice. And I’d like to think that even Hem’s opponents could get behind such idyllic imagery as Frederic and Catherine “putting thoughts in the other one’s head while we were in different rooms” or agreeing to sneak off to Switzerland together or even the funny “winter sport” business with customs. These are endearing and beautiful romantic moments that certainly show that Hem is far more than a repugnant hulk.

Love is a high stakes game, but it’s always a game worth playing. If you beat the odds, the payout is incalculable. Small wonder that the happy couple ends up throwing their lire into a rigged horse race. Indeed, Frederic’s early days with Catherine are a game like bridge where “you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes.” For all of Frederic’s apparent confidence in not knowing the stakes, he does not reveal his name for a while — on its first mention, Frederic only partially spills his name as he is drinking. He is also more taken with the allure of being alone — as seen later in a Donnean nod when he says that “[w]hat made [Ireland] pretty was that it sounded like Island.” His loneliness is further cemented when Miss Ferguson says that Catherine cannot see him.

Is this the loneliness of war? We learn later that Frederic came to Rome to be an architect, although this is likely a lie, given that it is repeated a second time to a customs officer. But it does suggest that Frederic cannot build his own life without another. Perhaps this is the solitude that comes from the relentless pursuit of manly vigor (boxing, bullfighting, hunting) that Hemingway was to explore throughout his life? There is one clue late in the book when Hemingway writes, “The war seemed as far away as the football game of someone else’s college,” and another midway through when Frederic wonders if major league baseball will be shut down if America entered the war. (Fun fact: There was indeed a World War I deadline put into place, but the two leagues squeezed in numerous doubleheaders to ensure that the season could play out.) If the First World War arose in part because humanity was involved in a vicious game, then Hemingway seems to be suggesting that further games rooted in play and peace must be promulgated to restore the human condition. Frederic cynically quips to the 94-year-old Count Greffi, “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” But if being careful is the true measure of existence, why then do we celebrate valor that often emerges from reckless circumstances? Indeed, Hemingway sends up the very nature of heroism up when Frederic wakes up in the hospital and is greeted by Rinaldi, who presses him to confess the specific act he committed to earn his medal. “No,” replies Frederic. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

In an age where razor blade ads are urging us to question what manhood should represent, there’s something to be said about studying what’s contained within masculinity’s ostensible ur-texts and with how careful men are in saying nothing but everything. A Farewell to Arms is a far more sophisticated and deeply beautiful novel when you start examining its sentences and questioning its motivations. Caught in a mire between love and war, Frederic opts for the laconic rather than the prolix. And in doing so, he tells us far more about what it means to love and lose than most authors can convey in a lifetime.

Next Up: Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust!

Studies in Iconology (Modern Library Nonfiction #80)

(This is the twentieth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Face of Battle.)

Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (pictured above) is one of my favorite paintings of the 16th century, in large part because its unquestionable beauty is matched by its bountiful and alluring enigma. We see two versions of love at opposing ends of a fountain — one nearly naked without apology, but still partially clad in a windswept dark salmon pink robe and holding an urn of smoke as she languorously (and rebelliously?) leans on the edge of a fountain; meanwhile the other Love sits in a flowing white gown on the other end, decidedly more dignified, with concealed legs that are somehow stronger and more illustrious than her counterpart, and disguising a bowl that, much like the Kiss Me Deadly box or the Pulp Fiction suitcase, could contain anything.

We know that the Two Loves are meant to coexist because Titian is sly enough to imbue his masterpiece with a sartorial yin-yang. Profane Love matches Sacred with a coiled white cloth twisting around her waist and slipping down her left leg, while Sacred has been tinctured by Profane’s pink with the flowing sleeve on her right arm and the small slipper on her left foot. Meanwhile, Cupid serves as an oblivious and possibly mercenary middleman, his arm and his eyes deeply immersed in the water and seemingly unconcerned with the Two Loves. We see that the backdrops behind both Loves are promisingly bucolic, with happy rabbits suggesting prolific promiscuity and studly horsemen riding their steeds with forelegs in the air, undoubtedly presaging the stertorous activity to commence sometime around the third date.

Sacred’s backdrop involves a castle situated on higher ground, whereas Profane’s is a wider valley with a village, a tableau that gives one more freedom to roam. The equine motif carries further on Sacred’s side with a horse prancing from Sacred to Profane in the marble etching just in front of the fountain, while Profane’s side features equally ripe rapacity, a near Fifty Shades of Grey moment where a muscled Adonis lusts over a plump bottom, hopefully with consensual limits and safewords agreed upon in advance. Titian’s telling takeaway is that you have to accept both the sublime and the salacious when you’re in love: the noble respect and vibrant valor that you unfurl upon your better half with such gestures as smoothing a strand of hair from the face along with the ribald hunger for someone who is simultaneously desirable and who could very well inspire you to stock up on entirely unanticipated items that produce rather pleasurable vibrations.

There are few works of art that are so dedicated to such a dichotomous depiction of something we all long for. And Titian’s painting endures five centuries later because this Italian master was so committed to minute details that, rather incredibly, remain quite universal about the human condition.

But what the hell does it all mean? We can peer into the canvas for hours, becoming intoxicated by Titian’s fascinating ambiguities. But might there be more helpful semiotics to better grasp what’s going on? Until I read Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology, I truly had no clue that Titian had been influenced by Bembo’s Asolani or that the Two Loves were a riff on Cesare Ripa’s notion of Eternal Bliss and Transient Bliss, which was one of many efforts by the Neoplatonic movement to wrestle with a human state that occupied two modes of shared existence. Panofsky also helpfully points out that Cupid’s stirring of the fountain water was a representation of love as “a principle of cosmic ‘mixture,’ act[ing] as an intermediary between heaven and earth” and that the fountain can also be looked upon as a revived sarcophagus, meaning that we are also looking at life and love springing from a coffin. And this history added an additional context for me to expand my own quasi-smartypants, recklessly dilletantish, and exuberantly instinctive appreciation of Titian. In investigating iconology, I recalled my 2016 journey into The Golden Bough (ML NF #90), in which Frazer helpfully pointed to the symbolic commonality of myths and rituals throughout multiple cultures and across human history, and, as I examined how various symbolic figures morphed over time, I became quite obsessed with Father Time’s many likenesses (quite usefully unpacked by Waggish‘s David Auerbach).

Any art history student inevitably brushes up against the wise and influential yet somewhat convoluted views of Erwin Panofsky. Depending upon the degree to which the prof resembles Joseph Mengele in his teaching style, there is usually a pedagogical hazing in which the student is presented with “iconology” and “iconography.” The student winces at both words, nearly similar in look and sound, and wonders if the distinction might be better understood after several bong hits and unwise dives into late night snacks, followed by desperate texts to fellow young scholars that usually culminate in more debauchery which strays from understanding the text. Well, I’m going to do my best to explicate the difference right now.

The best way to nail down what iconography entails is to think of a painting purely in terms of its visuals and what each of these elements means. Some obvious examples of iconography in action is the considerable classroom time devoted to interpreting the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby or the endless possibilities contained within the Mona Lisa‘s smile. It is, in short, being that vociferous museum enthusiast pointing at bowls and halos buried in oil and doing his best to impress with his alternately entertaining and infuriating interpretations. All this is, of course, fair game. But Panofsky is calling for us to think bigger and do better.

Enter iconology, which is more specifically concerned with the context of this symbolism and the precise technical circumstances and historical influences that created it. Let me illustrate the differences between iconography and iconology using Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek.

Here are the details everyone knows about Kirk. He is married to his ship. He is a swashbuckling adventurer who gets into numerous fights and is frequently seen in a torn shirt. He is also a nomadic philanderer, known to swipe right and hookup with nearly every alien he encounters. (In the episode “Wink of an Eye,” there is a moment that somehow avoided the censors in which Kirk was seen putting on his boots while Deela brushes her hair.) This is the iconography of Kirk that everyone recognizes.

But when we begin to examine the origins of these underlying iconographic qualities, we begin to see that there is a great deal more than a role popularized by William Shatner through booming vocal delivery, spastic gestures, and an unusual Canadian hubris. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he perceived Captain Kirk as “Horatio Hornblower in Space.” We know that C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower novels, was inspired by Admiral Lord Nelson and a number of heroic British authors who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. According to Bryan Perrett’s The Real Hornblower, Forester read three volumes of The Naval Chronicle over and over. But Forester eventually hit upon a trope that he identified as the Man Alone — a solitary individual who relies exclusively on his own resources to solve problems and who carries out his swashbuckling, but who is wedded to this predicament.

Perhaps because the free love movement of the 1960s made the expression of sexuality more open, Captain Kirk was both a Man Alone and a prolific philanderer. But Kirk was fundamentally married to his ship, the Enterprise. In an essay collected in Star Trek as Myth, John Shelton Lawrence ties this all into a classic American monomyth, suggesting that Kirk also represented

…sexual renunciation, a norm that reflects some distinctly religious aversions to intimacy. The protagonist in some mythical sagas must renounce previous sexual ties for the sake of their trials. They must avoid entanglements and temptations that inevitably arise from satyrs, sirens, or Loreleis in the course of their travels…The protagonist may encounter sexual temptation symbolizing ‘that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell,’ as Campbell points out. Yet the ‘ultimate adventure’ is the ‘mystical marriage…of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess” of knowledge.

All of a sudden, Captain Kirk has become a lot more interesting! And moments such as Kirk eating the apple in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan suddenly make more sense beyond the belabored Project Genesis metaphor. We now see how Roddenberry’s idea of a nomad philanderer and Forester’s notion of the Man Alone actually takes us to a common theme of marriage with the Queen Goddess of the World. One could very well dive into the Kirk/Hornblower archetype at length. But thanks to iconology, we now have enough information here to launch a thoughtful discussion — ideally with each of the participants offering vivacious impersonations of William Shatner — with the assembled brainiacs discussing why the “ultimate adventure” continues to crop up in various cultures and how Star Trek itself was a prominent popularizer of this idea.

Now that we know what iconology is, we can use it — much as Panofsky does in Studies in Iconology — to understand why Piero di Cosimo was wilder and more imaginative than many of his peers. (And for more on this neglected painter, who was so original that he even inspired a poem from Auden, I recommend Peter Schjeldahl’s 2015 New Yorker essay.) Panofsky points out how Piero’s The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos (pictured above) differs in the way that it portrays the Hylas myth, whereby Hylas went down to the river Ascunius to fetch some water and was ensnared by the naiads who fell in love with his beauty. (I’ve juxtaposed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs with Piero so that you can see the differences. For my money, Piero edges out Waterhouse’s blunter version of the tale. But I also chose the Waterhouse painting to protest the Manchester Art Gallery’s passive-aggressive censorship from last year. You can click on the above image to see a larger version of both paintings.) For one thing, Piero’s painting features no vase or vessel. There is also no water or river. The naiads are not seductive charmers at all, but more in the Mean Girls camp. And Hylas himself is quite helpless. (The naiad patting Hylas on the head is almost condescending, which adds a macabre wit to this landlocked riff.) Piero is almost the #metoo version of Hylas to Waterhouse’s more straightforward patriarchal approach. And it’s largely because not only did Piero have a beautifully warped imagination, but he was relying, like many Renaissance painters, upon post-classical commentaries rather than the direct source of the myths themselves. And we are able to see how a slight shift in an artist’s inspiration can produce a sui generis work of art.

Panofsky is on less firm footing when he attempts to apply iconology to sculptures and architecture. His attempts to ramrod Michelangelo into the Neoplatonic school were unpersuasive to me. In analyzing the rough outlines of a monkey just behind two of Michelangelo’s Slaves (the “dying” and the “rebellious” ones) in the Louvre, Panofsky rather simplistically ropes the two slaves into a subhuman class and then attempts to suggest that Ficino’s concept of the Lower Soul — which is a quite sophisticated concept — represents the interpretive smoking gun. This demonstrates the double-edged sword of iconology. It may provide you a highly specific framework for which to reconsider a great work of art, but it can be just as clumsily mistaken for the absolute truth as any lumbering ideology.

Then again, unless you’re an insufferable narcissist who needs to be constantly reminded how “right” you are, it’s never any fun to discuss art and ideas with people who you completely agree with. Panofsky’s impact on art analysis reminds us that iconology is one method of identifying the nitty-gritty and arguing about it profusely and jocularly for hours, if not decades or centuries.

Next Up: Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt!

Scoop (Modern Library #75)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.

Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.

So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.

Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”

This is pitch-perfect Waugh. Sadly, the wanton laziness of journalists and willful opportunism of newspaper publishers remain very applicable eighty-one years after Scoop‘s publication. In 2015, a Hardin County newspaper misreported that the local sheriff had said that “those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.” And this was before The New York Times became an apologist outlet for Nazis (the original title of that linked article was “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door”) and didn’t even bother to fact-check an infamous climate change denial article from Bret Stephens published on April 28, 2017.

So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.

The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.

In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.

Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”

Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.

We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.

But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.

Next Up: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms!

The Face of Battle (Modern Library Nonfiction #81)

(This is the twentieth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Strange Death of Liberal England.)

Thy fanes, thy temples to the surface bow,
Commingling slowly with heroic earth,
Broke by the share of every rustic plough:
So perish monuments of mortal birth,
So perish all in turn, save well-recorded worth;

— Lord Byron, Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage

I must confess from the outset that the study of armed human conflict, with its near Spartan fixation on tactics and statistics, has long filled me with malaise. It is among the least sexiest subjects that a polymath of any type can devote her attentions to, akin to cracking open a thick, limb-crushing tax code volume written in a way that obliterates all joy and finding a deranged pleasure within this mind-numbingly dull amalgam of numbers and turgid prose. As Margaret Atwood once quipped in a poem, the military historian says, “I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.” And when the song remains the same, why would anyone other than a ketamine fiend dance to it?

I’ve long pictured the military historian as some aging jingoistic white male whose idea of a good time involves blasting John Philip Sousa from a set of speakers that should be devoted to happening hip-hop: a lonely and humorless parasite who moves cast-iron figures across a threadbare map in some dusty basement, possibly talking to himself in a gruff tone that uncannily mimics Rod Steiger’s inebriated cadences. He seems overly enamored of the dry details of ordnance, mirthless arrows, and terrain circles. Perhaps he fritters away his time in some homebuilt shack far off the main artery of Interstate 76, ready to reproduce well-studied holes with his Smith & Wesson should any nagging progressive come to take away his tattered Confederate flag or any other paleolithic memorabilia that rattles his martial disposition. But let’s say that such a man is committed to peace. Then you’re left with his soporific drone as he dodders on about some long dead general’s left flank attack in the most unpalatable ramble imaginable. He prioritizes a detached tabulative breakdown over the more palpable and poignant truths that motivates men. He doesn’t seem to care about how a soldier experiences trauma or summons bravery in impossible conditions, or how these battles permanently alter nations and lives. The military historian is, in Napoleonic short, a buzz killer despite his buzz cut. Indeed, military history is so embarrassing to read and advocate that, only a few weeks ago, I was forced to hide what I was reading when a woman started flirting with me at a bar. (I sheepishly avoided revealing the title to her for fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, she persisted. And upon seeing The Face of Battle, the woman in question rightfully headed for the hills, even after I offered to buy her a drink.)

There are quite a few military history books on the Modern Library list. So I’m more or less fucked. It is not that war itself does not interest me. Human beings have been fighting each other since the beginning of time and only a soulless anti-intellectual fool resolutely committed to the vulgar act of amusing himself to death would fail to feel anything pertaining to this flaw in the human makeup. The podcaster Dan Carlin, who specializes in military history, is one of the few people who I can listen to in this medium for many hours and remain completely enthralled. But that is only because Carlin is incredibly skilled at showing how the paradigm shifts of war influence our everyday lives. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was a remarkable film that hurled its audience into the dizzying depths of war, but this is merely a vicarious sensory experience. I can get behind Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (ML NF #75) because of that book’s cogent observations on how war influenced literary culture. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (ML NF #84) remains a journalistic masterpiece that I very much admire — in large part because of its razor-sharp commitment to human psychology, which in turn allows us to understand the miasmic madness of making tactical decisions (see that book’s incredible “Battle of Ap Bac” chapter). But I’d hesitate to categorize either of these two brilliant volumes within the exacting genre of unadulterated military history. I’ve always had the sense that there’s an underlying bellicosity, if not an outright advocacy of warfare, with books that are exclusively dolled up in camo.

So upon reading The Face of Battle, it was something of a relief to see that John Keegan was up front from the get-go about what military history fails to do, and why accounts of battles are so problematic. He begins the book saying that he has never seen or been in a battle. And this is a hell of a way to open up a book that professes to give us the lowdown on what war is all about. It is a genuinely humble statement from someone who has made a career out of being an expert. He openly points to military history’s major weakness: “the failure to demonstrate connection between thought and action.” “What of feeling?” I thought as I read this sentence. According to Keegan, historians need to keep their emotions on a leash. And the technical example he cites — the British Official History of the First World War — is an uninspiring passage indeed. So what is the historian to do? Quote from the letters of soldiers. But then Keegan writes, “The almost universal illiteracy, however, of the common soldier of any country before the nineteenth makes it a technique difficult to employ.” Ugh. Keegan!

From Ilya Berkovich’s Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old-Regime Europe:

Considering the social origins of most eighteenth-century soldiers, one might think that literate soldiers were uncommon. However, literacy among the lower classes in old-regime Europe was becoming less exceptional. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the labouring poor in Britain were literate. Between 1600 and 1790, the portion of French bridegrooms singing their parish records doubled to about half of the total male population. Interestingly, the corresponding figures in northern and eastern frontier regions, which provided most French recruits, were much higher, with some areas coming close to universal literacy. Literacy rates in the Holy Roman Empire fluctuated widely, yet it is telling that over 40 per cent of the day labourers in mid-century Coblenz were able to sign their names. In rural East Prussia, one of the poorest regions in Germany, comparable figures were reached in 1800, although this was still a fourfold increase compared to only half-a-century before….

And so on. Fascinating possibilities for scholarship! It seems to me that someone here did not want to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.

You see the problems I was having with this book. On one hand, Keegan wants to rail against the limitations of military history (and he should! you go, girl!). On the other hand, he upholds the very rigid ideas that stand against the execution of military history in a satisfying, fact-based, and reasonably emotional way that allows voluble chowderheads like me an entry point.

But that’s not the main focus of this book. Keegan settles upon three separate events — the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and the first day of battle on the Somme (July 1, 1916) — to seek comparisons, commonalities, and various parallels that we might use to understand military mechanics. He is duly reportorial in each instance, but overly fond of taxonomy rather than tangibility. Still, there are moments when Keegan’s bureaucratic obsessiveness are actually interesting — such as his examination of British archers and infantry running up against French cavalry during Agincourt. After all, if a horse is charging its way into a man, either the horse is going to run away, men are going to be knocked down, or there’s going to be a “ripple effect” causing open pockets on each side of the horse. So it’s actually quite extraordinary to consider how the French got their asses kicked with such a clear advantage. Well, the British did this with stakes, which impaled the horses. And the threat of this obstacle caused the French to retreat with their backs to the British, resulting in archers lobbing arrows into their vertebrae.

Keegan informs us that “the force of unavoidable circumstances” sealed the fate of the French and allowed Henry V to win at Agincourt. When Keegan gets to Waterloo, we see a similar approach adopted by Napoleon near the end. Large crowds of French infantry rushed towards the British line, landing within mere yards. The two armies exchanged fire and the French, at a loss of what to do, turned around and fled. This was not an altogether smart strategy, given the depleting reserves that Napoleon had at his disposal. But it does eloquently demonstrate that battles tend to crumble once one side has entered an unavoidable choice. The rush of men on both sides at the Somme in 1916, of course, in the trenches not only escalated this to an unprecedented scale of atrocity, but essentially laid down the flagstones for the 20th century’s practice of mutually assured destruction.

These are vital ideas to understand. Still, I’m not going to lie. Keegan was, in many ways, dull and soporific — even for a patient reader like me. I learned more about Henry V’s campaign by reading Juliet Barker’s excellent volume Agincourt, which not only unpacked the incredible logistics of invading northwestern France with engrossing aplomb but also juxtaposed this campaign against history and many vital realities about 15th century life. And a deep dive into various World War I volumes (I especially recommend Richard Aldington’s surprisingly ribald novel, Death of a Hero) unveiled a lot of unanticipated sonic transcriptions that inspired me to draft an audio drama script that I hope to produce in a few years. Keegan is certainly helpful in a dry intellectual manner — the equivalent of being served a dull dish of desiccated biscuits when you haven’t eaten anything for days; I mean, there’s a certain point in which you’ll gorge on anything — but he’s not the man who inspired me about battle. Hell, when one of the most boring and pretentious New Yorker contributors of all time espouses Keegan’s “matchlessly vivid pen,” you know there’s a reason to hide beneath your blanket. Keegan is undoubtedly on this list because nobody before him had quite unpacked war from the bottom-up approach rather than the general’s top-down viewpoint. But like most military historians, he didn’t have enough of a heart for my tastes. There’s a way to present a detailed fact-driven truth without being such a detached fussbucket about it. And we shall explore and exuberantly praise such virtuosic historians in future Modern Library installments!

Next Up: Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology!

The Strange Death of Liberal England (Modern Library Nonfiction #82)

(This is the nineteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Vermeer.)

It was a picnic-perfect summer in 1914. The rich flaunted their wealth with all the subtlety of rats leaping onto a pristine wedding dress. The newspapers steered their coverage away from serious events to pursue lurid items about sports and celebrity gossip. A comic double act by the name of Collins & Harlan recorded an absurd ditty called “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” which Thomas Pynchon was to describe fifty years later as “the nadir of all American expression.” Few human souls twirling their canes and parasols in these conditions of unbridled frivolity could have anticipated that an archduke’s assassination in late June would plunge Europe into a gruesome war that would leave twenty million dead, permanently altering notions of honor, bloodshed, and noblesse oblige.

But even a few years before the July Crisis, there were strong signs in England that something was amiss. Politicians demonstrated a cataclysmic failure to read or address the natural trajectory of human progress. Women justly demanded the right to vote and were very willing to starve themselves in prison and burn down many buildings for it. Workers fought violently for fair wages, often locked into stalemates with greedy mining companies. They were intoxicated by a new militant brand of syndicalism from France then popularized by Georges Sorel. The atmosphere was one of increasing upheaval and escalated incoherence, even among the most noble-minded revolutionaries. The influx of gold from Africa inspired both lavish spending and an inflated currency. The liberals in power were supposed to stand up for the working stiffs who couldn’t quite meet the rising prices for boots and food and clothes with their take home pay. And much like today’s Democratic Party in the States, these tepid Parliamentary wafflers past their Fabian prime revealed a commitment to ineptitude over nuts-and-bolts pragmatism. They allowed the Tories to play them like rubes losing easy games of three-card monte. Amidst such madness, England became a place of oblivious tension not dissimilar to the nonstop nonsense that currently plagues both sides of the Atlantic. With the middle and upper classes keeping their heads in the clouds and their spirits saturated in moonbeam dreams and a bubble gum aura, is it any wonder that people were willing to incite war and violence for the most impulsive reasons?

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England examines this crazed period between 1910 and 1914 with an exacting and quite entertaining poetic eye. Dangerfield, an erudite journalist who parlayed his zingy word-slinging into a teaching career, is somewhat neglected today, but his remarkable knack for knowing when to suggest and when to stick with the facts is worthy of careful study, a summation of the beautifully mordant touch he brought as a historian. He describes, for example, the “dismal, rattling sound” of Liberalism refusing to adjust to the times, and eloquently sends up the out-of-touch movement in a manner that might also apply to today’s neoliberals, who stubbornly refuse to consider the lives and needs of the working class even as they profess to know what’s best for them:

[I]t was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could be the matter? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behaviour as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden.

Dangerfield knew when to let other people hang themselves by their own words. The infamous Margot Asquith, the starry-eyed socialite married to the Prime Minister who led England into World War I, is quoted at length from her letters to Robert Smillie, the brave union organizer who fought on behalf of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Asquith, so fundamentally clueless about diplomacy, could not understand why meeting Smillie might be a bad idea given the tense negotiations.

I did feel that Dangerfield was unduly harsh on Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the key organizers behind the suffragette movement. His wry fixation upon Pankhurst’s indomitable commitment — what he styles “the fantastic Eden of militant exaltation” — to starvation and brutality from the police, all in the brave and honorable fight for women, may very well be a product of the 1930s boys’ club mentality, but it seems slightly cheap given how otherwise astute Dangerfield is in heightening just the right personality flaws among other key figures of the time. The Pankhurst family was certainly eccentric, but surely they were deserving of more than just cheap quips, such as the volley Dangerfield lobs as Christabel announces the Pankhurst withdrawal from the WSPU (“She made this long-expected remark quite casually — she might almost have been talking to the little Pomeranian dog which she was nursing.”).

Still, Dangerfield was the master of the interregnum history. His later volume, The Era of Good Feelings, examined the period between Jefferson and Jackson and is almost as good as The Strange Death. One reads the book and sees the model for Christopher Hitchens’s biting erudite style. (The book was a favorite of Hitch’s and frequently cited in his essays.)

But it is clear that Dangerfield’s heart and his mischievous vivacity resided with his homeland rather than the nation he emigrated to later in life. In all of his work, especially the material dwelling on the United Kingdom, Dangerfield knew precisely what years to hit, the pivotal moments that encapsulated specific actions that triggered political movements. As he chronicles the repercussions of the June 14, 1911 strike in Southampton, he is careful to remark upon how “it is impossible not to be surprised at the little physical violence that was done — only a few men killed, in Wales in 1912, and two or three in Dublin in 1913; in England itself not a death. Is this the effect of revolutionary methods, and, if so, do the methods deserve the word?” He then carries on speculating about the pros and cons of peaceful revolution and ties this into the “spiritual death and rebirth” of English character. And we see that Dangerfield isn’t just a smartypants funnyman, but a subtle philosopher who leaves human possibilities open to the reader. He is a welcome reminder that seeing the real doesn’t necessarily emerge when you lock eyes on an alluring Twitch stream or a hypnotic Instagram feed. It comes when you take the time to step away, to focus on the events that are truly important, and to ruminate upon the incredible progress that human beings still remain quite capable of making.

Next Up: John Keegan’s The Face of Battle!

Vermeer (Modern Library Nonfiction #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Bright Shining Lie.)

Johannes Vermeer was the Steph Curry of 17th century painters: a dazzling mack daddy who spent lengthy periods of his choppy forty-three year life layering lapis lazuli and ultramarine and madder lake onto some of the most beautiful paintings ever created in human history. To ask how he perfected the glowing pour of his domestic scenes through painstaking brush strokes is to court trouble. Did he do so through mirrors and lenses? Does the Hockney-Falco theory have any real bearing on appreciating his work? Vermeer famously left no record of how he achieved his elegant handwrought touch, which has left many to become obsessed with the question, even taking the trouble (as Tim Jennison, subject of the controversial Penn and Teller documentary, did) to learn Dutch, which is a maddening language by all reasonable standards.

The great mystery of how this genius mastered light purely by eye and through no apparent line work, all two centuries before the camera’s invention, has been taken up by such feverishly committed investigators as Philip Steadman, an architect who meticulously measured Vermeer’s interiors and constructed a one-sixth scale model of his room to uphold the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. For now, our attentions are with Lawrence Gowing, a self-taught art historian whose Vermeer obsession resulted in a highly useful and slyly passionate book, a short but smart volume bizarrely downplayed in The New York Times‘s Gowing obituary, but a title that the Modern Library judges were at least munificent enough to rank above the likes of Robert Caro eight years after Gowing kicked the proverbial bucket of paint.

Gowing frames Vermeer’s achievements by observing that this painter, unlike his 17th century Dutch peers Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen, eschewed line and overt modelling work. Vermeer’s purity as an artist emerged with his curious pursuit of diffuse light at all costs. He remained quite impartial about how light spilled into his scenes. As Gowing notes, even a detail such as The Lacemaker‘s cushion tassels (pictured left) “have an enticing and baffling bluntness of focus.” In an age when anyone can instantly snap a picture to memorialize how light drifts into a room, this revolutionary approach cannot be understated, especially because Vermeer was confident enough in his aesthetic to push against the mercantile herd even as he served as head of the Guild of Saint Luke. In the seventeenth century, painters wanted to be noticed. They were, after all, artists with constantly grumbling bellies. So they tended to emphasize particular objects, even if it meant exaggerating the look, in an attempt to stand out. They might approach a patron and say, “Ha ha! I am Hendrik Van de Berg, the greatest painter of Maastricht! I have fifty thousand followers on…well, just imagine a world, preposterous as this may sound, in which short text messages determine your stature among peers and, yup, that would be me! Art King of Maastricht! Anyway, that nifty apple in the far right corner may look a little unnatural, but, dude, I think we can both agree that it really pops! And it will look good in your study while your starving servant polishes your boots and dreams of something to eat! Oh, I know you can’t pay your servants and that you are, in fact, fond of flogging them. But I am an artist and surely you can pay me! I’ll even throw in a complimentary whipping if you buy my work! Think of it as a patron reward!” Vermeer, by contrast, willfully blurred the apple. Vermeer’s peers in his hometown of Delift understood what he was doing, but the cost of being an artist was, alas, premature death due to exasperated financial stress.

Gowing’s gushing critical distinctions are a welcome reminder that it’s sometimes more important to know why art stands out rather than how it is created. The “No haters” crowd, fed on the soothing alfalfa sprouts of director’s commentaries and lengthy pop culture oral histories, would rather view Vermeer as a magician or a technical wizard than an artist. If Vermeer did use a camera obscura, he was certainly not the only Dutch painter doing so at the time. Gowing emphasizes that Vermeer’s style went above and beyond merely accumulating details. What should concern us is why he was so committed to the optical. What counts is Vermeer’s commitment to the visual experience: commonplace scenes that are somehow both radiant and persuasive depictions of reality. Gowing helpfully points out that any Vermeer investigation of life was never direct. The paintings were often established at an oblique angle. He singles out Vermeer’s “inhuman fineness of temper,” a tranquility that is quite extraordinary given that Vermeer was working with ten kids running around and the financial turmoil he had to endure.

Gowing is also very good at only drawing upon Vermeer’s biography when it is pertinent. Vermeer’s detachment and his slow output certainly hinges upon disappointments and setbacks he contended with during the last years of his life. Still, one only needs to look at Vermeer’s paintings to feel their somewhat passive but stirring view of humanity. Gowing distinguishes Vermeer from other painters by observing that “with the passivity characteristic of his thought, he accepted this part of his nature as the basis of the expressive content of his style.” Somehow Vermeer could inject his view on humanity purely through style. And somehow in this stylistic transformation, what seems passive is actually carefully rendered depth. Despite confining his paintings to two rooms, Gowing finds enough common qualities within these limitations for us to get a sense of what Vermeer was up to:

In only three of the twenty-six interiors that we have is the space between painter and sitter at all uninterrupted. In five of the others passage is considerably encumbered, in eight more the heavy objects interposed amount to something like a barrier and in the remaining ten they are veritable fortifications. It is hard to think that this preference tells us nothing about the painter’s nature. In it the whole of his dilemma is conveyed.

The book’s second part is more akin to descriptive liner notes for a must have box set and doesn’t quite match the first part’s perspicacity. But Gowing does provide several useful antecedents (such as Jan Van Bronkhorst’s The Procuress) that allow us to track Vermeer’s development as an artist. Again, because Vermeer didn’t leave much behind on his life or methods, it has been left for us to speculate on how he cultivated his exquisite style. But Gowing is too sharp a critic to be seduced by gossip and thankfully confines his findings to other paintings, showing us several paths leading us to Utrecht Caravaggism and trompe l’oeil.

I must warn you, however, that Gowing’s Vermeer, despite its ostensibly breezy length, will likely have you losing many hours studying Vermeer. What Gowing could not have foreseen is that his ruminations would be even more vital in a climate where some otherwise smart people believe that an ire-inducing and ill-considered think piece cobbled together in an hour constitutes serious thought.

Next Up: George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Modern Library #76)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Finnegans Wake.)

We are two days away from the great Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday. Yet, despite New Directions’s valiant reissue of her remarkable work only a few years ago (along with a quiet event planned on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, which stands incommensurately like a shaking child in the vast shadow of Edinburgh’s impressive celebratory blowout), we are no closer to literary people universally singing her praises on this side of the Atlantic than we are in stopping men from wearing black socks to bed. And that’s a shame. Because Muriel Spark was truly one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was a bold and an economical stylist who packed far more attentive detail and character speculation into one paragraph than most contemporary writers wrangle into a chapter, and she did so with high style, grace, and ferocious wit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most enduring and popular novel (and, through a magical twist of fate, the next volume in the Modern Library Reading Challenge), certainly sees Spark’s great gifts on full display, but it is also a book that demands constant and even obsessive study.

I have read Brodie four times within the last two years. It is very possible I will read it four more times within the next two. I am inclined to press this richly entertaining book, no more than a hundred pages, into the hands of anyone who purports to take literature seriously, but who has somehow ignored Spark to hold up some bland offering from one of those “Most Anticipated” lists published at The Millions that nobody will remember or quote from in a decade.

Brodie is both a portrait of an exuberant teacher determined to educate a carefully selected group of girls so that they may be better equipped when “in their prime” and an incredible tableau of 1930s Edinburgh, such as the “wind-swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” Miss Brodie may or may not be a tyrant. (She is fond of Mussolini and Italian culture.) One can read the book anew and come away with an entirely different opinion of the title character. The novel tantalizes us with flash-forwards (which can also be found in many of Spark’s later novels, such as The Driver’s Seat and Territorial Rights, which are also well worth your time) revealing the fates of the schoolgirls in adult life, leaving us with impressions of how formative life and education influences unknowingly in later years. One reads little snippets of the six girls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage from the present and the future– Rose “pulling threads from the girdle of her gym tunic” in class or Jenny not experiencing any sexual awe “until suddenly one day when she was nearly forty, an actress of moderate reputation married to a theatrical manager” — and asks how much Miss Brodie is responsible for corrupting fate, with Spark slyly implicating us as we become more curious.

Muriel Spark wrote this masterpiece in less than a month. This is especially amazing because, much like the magnetic properties contained within the glowing amber necklace Miss Brodie wears when off-screen romance inspires a new step in her exacting stride, this short novel reads as if an exquisite jeweler had painstakingly ensured that not a single element could ever fall out of alignment. And Spark sculpts many glistening carats along the way: the fictitious letters that two girls write after imagining Miss Spark’s love life, the creepy, one-armed artist Teddy Lloyd who also teaches at the school and disguises his true pedophilc nature through the sham panacea of Catholicism and family life, and the lingering question of which schoolgirl betrays Miss Brodie and causes her to lose her job. The novel presents us with many hints and details that hide in plain sight, but that all contribute to an atmosphere in which the girls end up coming up with explanations (often fictitious and sometimes apostate) for what is both seen and not seen. Miss Brodie’s careful lessons, which include a field trip into a rougher part of Edingburgh and often involve knowing the roots of words to better understand them, are perhaps being applied in dangerous ways. And in an age where people judge people who they haven’t met based on what they think they know from a social media profile, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains potent and necessary reading.

Spark’s lecture “The Desegregation of Art,” delivered before a crowd of New York literati on May 26, 1970, offers useful insights into the ambitious gauntlet she felt obliged to throw down as an artist and gives us a sense of what is very much at stake in Brodie. She firmly believed that literature existed to infiltrate and fertilize the mind and denounced any fiction that stood in the way of this lofty artistic goal. If that meant tossing out socially conscious art that was not “achieving its end or illuminating our lives any more,” then this was the price to pay for better art that reflected the depths and thorny hurdles of life. She insisted that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” and believed that addressing wrongs emerged not so much from instant outrage, but through “a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.” Much as Spark detested being a victim in her life, she believed that art reveling in victimhood turned readers into oppressors.

So we are left with Brodie as a remarkable volume that fertilizes our minds even as it challenges our own interpretations. Spark’s honorable ridicule in Brodie may very well lie with the way she shrewdly sends up how people are perceived for their failings based on superficial shorthand. And this extends even to the hypnotic allure of Miss Brodie’s own teaching. At one point, Miss Brodie observes that “John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five” and that the teacher herself learned from this lesson. Mill is a particularly funny choice, given that this philosopher was known for utilitarianism and that we are seemingly experiencing a short “utilitarian” novel when we read Brodie. But, of course, we aren’t. For one wants to reread it yet again.

The intrepid literary adventurer plunging forward on a bold bender for real-life inspiration is often viewed with contempt by any practitioner transforming bits of his life into analeptic artistic truth withstanding the test of time. The adventurer shakily balances the author’s complete works like vertiginous trays stacked tall enough to scrape plaster flakes off the ceiling as the letters and the collected marginalia and the autobiographical tidbits are swirled into a overflowing flute by a jittery finger serving as a makeshift cocktail straw. If not written off as a slightly smarter TMZ reporter who has somehow retained the ability to read despite being barraged daily by Harvey Levin’s soul-destroying smile, such an apparent gossipmonger, even if she is cogent enough to know that fictional characters rarely spring from a singular source, is still tarnished as that rakish yenta who reads fiction for the wrong reasons.

As I have ventured further into this years-long Modern Library project, I’ve come around to the daring idea that, for certain sui generis authors (and Muriel Spark is certainly one of them), one may indeed find deeper appreciation in the way they forge art from the people surrounding them. It isn’t so much the schema of who matches up with whom that should concern us, but rather the fascinating way in which characters defy an easily identifiable origin, turning into a form of fictionalized life that feels just as real on the page as any spellbinding life experience. There is a fundamental difference between the novelist who runs out of raw biographical material mid-career, her limited inventive faculties and inherent disconnection with humanity dishearteningly revealed with mediocre and unconvincing and blandly repetitive offerings in late career (see, for example, the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, surely one of the great living literary embarrassments in the early 21st century), and the novelist who seizes the reins of an indefatigable spirit that runs quite giddily to the very end.

For someone like Muriel Spark, who was fiercely protective of her privacy and her public image, this is not necessarily a slam-dunk proposition even when many of the real life details match up. The formidable literary biographer Martin Stannard secured Spark’s reluctant blessing to get his hands dirty on details occluded in Spark’s remarkably opaque autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Stannard, like many before him, pegged Christina Kay, the schoolteacher who taught Spark at the age of twelve, as the predominant inspiration for “the real Miss Jean Brodie.” Both Kay and Brodie insisted that their girls were the “crème de la crème.” Miss Kay also took Spark and her fellow students on great cultural adventures into Edinburgh. Both were keen on Italy and shared a rather clueless interest in Mussolini. (As late as 1979, Spark would insist that Miss Brodie was not a fascist and that Brodie’s admiration for Il Duce had more to do with Benito’s powerful masculinity, as it was perceived in 1930, which leads one to ponder the 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Some weaknesses in human perception regrettably endure, despite the best history lessons.)

But much as the great Iris Murdoch regularly transcended reality to achieve jaw-droppingly marvelous art, which she defined as that which “invigorates without consoling,” one finds a similarly spellbinding spirit within Spark’s equally incredible novels. Once you read The Girls of Slender Means, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, or A Far Cry from Kensington, if you have even the faintest desire of wanting to know how art works, you may find yourself obsessing over just how she was able to put so much into her novels. Ian Rankin, writer of the rightfully well-regarded Rebus novels, found himself precisely in this very position, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over and over again over the course of thirty years and always finding new details, even wondering if the titular character was the hero or the villain. (Some of Rankin’s work on Spark when he was pursuing a Ph.D is available online behind a paywall.)

And if you read Brodie, you may very well join us on this pleasantly fanatical quest. We are told at the end, with one of the characters hiding from the truth of how her life has been altered, “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” And that seemingly innocent notion, in Spark’s nimble hands, is the white whale that turns any reader into Ahab.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!

A Bright Shining Lie (Modern Library Nonfiction #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: West with the Night.)

Young scrappy soldiers came to walk the villages and the jungles and the ricepaddies from all hopeful parts of America, itching to step into boots that matched the size and the bravery of their heroic fathers. They hungered to prove their manhood and their patriotism even as their spirits dwindled and their moral core dissipated as it became common knowledge that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. They came home in dishonor and disgrace, losers who had sacrificed their bodies and minds and souls in the name of failed American exceptionalism, and they were left to rot by their government and sometimes by their fellow citizens.

Much as the shellshocked men in World War I returned to their native soil facing similar indifference to their trauma and their pain, as memorably chronicled in Richard Aldington’s brutally mordant novel Death of a Hero, the men who served in Vietnam learned that the best years of their lives had been little more than a cruel joke, even when they defended napalm-soaking sorties that burned vast horrifying holes into villages and hospitals and fields and homes and schools that happened to be situated near a hopped up Huey often manned by a pilot who was losing his mind. Their collective shellshock was as commonplace as heartbreak and many dozen times more devastating. The Vietnam vets, who were all very brave and worthy of the same valor afforded the Greatest Generation (but never received their due), suffered PTSD and traumatic injuries and severe psychological damage. Every day of their lives after the war was a new battle against painful inner turmoil that spread to their families and their friends and their loved ones, stretching well beyond the poisoned polyester of the flapping American flag itself. It seemed that nobody wanted to hear their stories, much less any news about the one million civilians and Viet Cong soldiers who were slaughtered above the 17th parallel or the estimated 741,000 who died below it or the 312,000 people who died by direct order of various governments or the 273,000 Cambodians and the 62,000 Laotians.

They all died, and none of them needed to, because the conflict had escalated through the foggy hubris of war and the dogged jingoism of three U.S. Presidents and the exacting Pentagon number crunchers who believed they could will their analytical acumen into a guaranteed victory even when the truth was fudged and altered and far too frequently ignored and contemned. For all the Pentagon’s professed understanding, the imperious powers that be could not comprehend that the massive influx of American supplies would be plundered and reused by resourceful Viet Cong soldiers with a very long memory of history who learned how to take out Bell UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers from the ground. They carried out the strategic hamlet program without providing basic needs to the very villagers who were supposed to be their allies. Most disastrously, the American interventionists severely underestimated the damage that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was doing to South Vietnamese loyalty, culminating in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which persecuted religion in a manner shockingly similar to ongoing present-day American indignities against Muslims.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people died in the Vietnam War. That’s close to the entire population of Chicago or the total population of Jamaica. It is the entire population of Nebraska. It is the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Alaska. It is the combined population of Iceland, Fiji, and Cyprus. It is a staggering and heartbreaking sum by any stretch of the imagination that should cause any human being to stop in his tracks and ponder how so much bloodshed could happen. Those who would blithely dismiss the study of all this as a priapic man’s game to keep close tabs on some completely insignificant item of celebrity gossip usually cannot comprehend the full scale of such unfathomable devastation and our duty to closely examine history so that such a bewildering bloodbath never happens again. And yet, even with the strong reception of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, the Vietnam War remains one of those subjects that Americans do not want to talk about, even when it epitomizes the toxic mix of Yankee Doodle Vanity, bureaucratic shortsightedness, savage masculinity, unchecked hypocrisy, credibility gaps, imperialist dishonesty, and cartoonish escalation of resources — all pernicious checkboxes that still mark American policy today.

We wouldn’t know of this American complicity without the invaluable work of reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were raw and young and brash and sometimes foolhardy in their dispatches. It was undoubtedly their dogged free-wheeling approach, a fierce pursuit of journalistic truth that is unthinkable to such useless and unfathomably gullible New York Times company men like Richard Fausset and Peter Baker today, which caused Americans to ask questions of the war and that eventually led Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers (which Sheehan himself would later acquire for the New York Times in 1971). The quest for understanding, especially in the conflict’s early years, proved just as intoxicating to these sleep-deprived and overworked journos as it did to the soldiers who kept coming back for further tours of duty. All wondered why common sense had been so rashly and cheaply capitulated.

Sheehan and Halberstam followed in the footsteps of such famous war reporters as Francois Sully, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, and Horst Faas. (William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and vivacious account of this period, although not without its minor liberties. A 1988 Neil Sheehan profile that Prochnau wrote for The Washington Post, offering some useful carryover material for his book, is also available online.) The two men arrived in Vietnam separately in 1962. They had both attended Harvard, but had arrived at the hallowed university through altogether different routes. Sheehan came from a working-class Irish background and lucked out with a scholarship. By the time Sheehan arrived in Saigon, he was a reformed alcoholic and a tortured man who had learned the fine art of carving extra hours out of any day, a talent he had honed while running a dairy farm as a kid. Sheehan worked for the penny-pinching UPI wire service and, much as a contemporary journalist is expected to write, shoot and cut video, and preserve his crisp telegenic form if he wishes to hold onto his job, he was often responsible for logistics extending well beyond the writing and transmission of copy.

Halberstam was a tall and lanky man from a middle-class Jewish background, but decidedly brasher than Sheehan. His trenchant reporting of civil rights struggles in the South attracted the notice of The New York Times‘s James Reston. Halberstam was a formidable if slipshod workhorse, banging out thousands of words per day that often had to be shoehorned into coherent shape by the exasperated Times team. But Halberstam’s reporting in the Congo was strong and gallant enough to land him in Saigon.

Sheehan and Halberstam would become friends and roommates, working very long days and often falling asleep at their typewriters. They chased any source that led them to demystify the war, but they were both seduced by a man named John Paul Vann, who became the subject of Sheehan’s journalistic masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie. Halberstam would write two books from his Vietnam experience: The Making of a Quagmire, a short and useful 1965 volume that faded into obscurity within a decade, and The Best and the Brightest, a juicy and detailed top-down account of bureaucratic blunder that Stephen Bannon even pushed onto every member of the Trump transition team in February 2017 (as reported by the New York Times‘s Marc Tracy). But Neil Sheehan, who carried on with a quieter and more methodical approach than Halberstam’s gigantic and flagrant “us vs. them” style, rightly decided that more time and considerable rumination and careful reporting was the way in. He wisely believed that John Vann was the key to understanding American involvement and the mentality behind it. The book would consume sixteen years of Sheehan’s life. And for all the anguish that Sheehan suffered through that long and painful period, we are incredibly lucky to have it.

John Vann was a wildly energetic colonel from Norfolk, Virginia who could survive on four hours of sleep and sometimes none at all. He had built a military career on the “Vann luck.” He would willfully fly aircraft through a suicidal fusillade of fire and drive down dangerous roads that were known to be mined and patrolled by the Viet Cong. He would miraculously survive. Like Robert McNamara, he was very certain of how to win the war. But unlike McNamara, Vann did not rely on problematic data, but rather the know-how of knowing people and the pragmatic logistics that he picked up from his experience in the battlefield, often talking with and distributing candy to the South Vietnamese citizens suffering under the Diem regime. It was through such gestures that Vann avoided a few attempts on his life. Vann was savvy enough to court the trust and admiration of reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam pining for a few dependable truth bombs, to the point where the reporters pooled in their resources to buy him an engraved cigarette box when Vann left Vietnam the first time. But Vann would find a way back a few years later as an Agency for International Development official. He portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog whose candid bluster had prevented him from advancing to general, whose near twenty years of service and bravery and experience had simply not been heeded. But the truth of his checkered life, carefully concealed from many who knew him, told the real story.

Sheehan is both sensitive and meticulous in telling Vann’s take. We cannot help but admire Vann’s dogged work ethic and charisma in the book’s first section, as we see Vann attempting to bring the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army known to recklessly attack insurgents under Diem) together with the then comparatively diminutive American presence in an attempt to win the war. Vann hoped to train the ARVN to better fight against the guerillas, but faced indifference from Huỳnh Văn Cao, an AVRN colonel to whom Vann was appointed an adviser. Cao often liked to don the bluster of a general. We see Vann being kind to the common soldiers, whether peasants or seasoned regulars, but we also see Vann as an egomaniac willing to overstep his rank to get results. One of Vann’s guides to negotiating the tricky turmoil of Vietnam was a 1958 novel called The Ugly American, which depicted American diplomats in a fictitious nation named Sarkhan that proved incredibly arrogant towards the culture, customs, and language of the people. The book would inspire Kennedy so much that he had sent copies of the book to every American Senator. (The Peace Corps would later become a Kennedy campaign talking point turned into a reality.) Vann would take an altogether different lesson from the book in attempting to turn Cao to his side by appealing to his ego and by flattering him. But in practice, Vann’s benign puppeteering as military command could result in disaster, such as a July 20, 1962 battle in the lower delta, in which Cao resisted Vann’s efforts to load helicopters with a second reserve to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from escaping by flatly declining the request. Such stalling allowed the Viet Cong more opportunities to pluck American ordnance, transforming .50 caliber machine guns into antiaircraft weapons through tireless ingenuity.

This communicative combativeness between the Americans and the ARVN would reach its nadir with the Battle of Ab Pac, which is one of the most gripping sections of Sheehan’s book. Vann would watch helplessly from a L-19 Bird Dog surveiling the battlefield as the AVRN delayed sending troops, not knowing that the Viet Cong had intercepted radio transmissions using stolen American equipment. This allowed the Viet Cong to strike hard and accurately against task forces that were effectively separated and caught adrift, leaving them open to attack. The American Hueys disregarded Vann’s orders and were hit by the Viet Cong. Vann, whose domineering tone could be off-putting, was unable to send M-113 carriers across the canals to save the remaining soldiers and reinforce the territory. Vann, increasingly desperate and flustered by the ARVN’s recalcitrance in advancing, approached Captain Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN man holding up support who said that he refused to take Americans, and ordered Robert Bays to “shoot that rotten, cowardly son of a bitch right now and move out.” The battle became the Viet Cong’s first major victory.

By presenting the facts in this manner, Sheehan leaves us with many lingering questions. Was Vann a somewhat more informed version of American interventionist arrogance? Was American might, in Vann’s obdurate form, needed to atone for serious deficiencies from Diem and the ARVN? Even if the ARVN had permitted the Americans to have more of a commanding hand, would not the Viet Cong have eventually secured a victory comparable to Ab Pac? Even at this stage in the book, Vann remains strangely heroic and we can sympathize with his frustration. But in allowing us to vicaroiusly identify with Vann, Sheehan slyly implicates the reader in the desire to win by any means necessary.

And then Sheehan does something rather amazing in his portrait of Vann. In a section entitled “Taking on the System,” he broadens the scope to the soldiers and the command contending with Vann’s aggressiveness (while likewise exposing the hubris of civilian leadership under McNamara, along with the bomb-happy pacification strategy of Victor Krulak and the foolhardy optimism of MACV commander Paul Harkins). And we begin to see that the Vietnam quagmire, like any intense battle for victory and power, was absolutely influenced by strong and truculent personalities, which young reporters like Halberstam and Sheehan were rightfully challenging. Unable to get the top dogs to understand through meetings and communiques, Vann began to weaponize the press against Harkin’s reality distortion field — this as the Diem regime’s increasing persecution of the Buddhists revealed the vast fissures cracking into South Vietnamese unity. Sheehan begins to insert both Halberstam and himself more into the narrative. With Vann now retired from the Army, we are rightly left to wonder if he was indeed as indispensable as many believed him to be.

But then Sheehan backtracks to Vann’s past. And we begin to see that he had been living a lie. He pulled himself from an impoverished Virginian upbringing, where he was an illegitimate child raised by a wanton alcoholic mother, and married a respectable woman named Mary Jane. But while stationed as an Army officer, he cultivated a taste for underage girls and hushed up both his numerous affairs and the allegations, even persuading Mary Jane to lie for him during a court-martial for statutory rape and adultery while also training himself to pass a lie detector test. While stationed in Vietnam the second time, Vann could not control his sexual appetite. He carried on numerous affairs, devoting his attentions quite ardently with two mistresses who were half his age, one of whom had his child, and keeping the two women largely in the dark about each other for a sustained period. His predatory behavior presents itself as a bigger lie more unsettling than the Harkin-style prevarications that resulted in needless deaths.

In the end, the “Vann luck” could not hold out. His death in 1972, at least as portrayed by Sheehan, is almost anticlimactic: the result of a helicopter crashing into a series of trees. As Vietnam changed and the American presence grew with unmitigated enormity, Vann’s apparent know-how could not penetrate as an AID commander, even though Sheehan depicts Vann having many adventures.

A Bright Shining Lie isn’t just an epic history of Vietnam. It also reveals the type of conflicted and deeply flawed American personality that has traditionally been allowed to rise to the top, influencing key American decisions, for better or worse. I read the book twice in the last year and, particularly in relation to Vann’s obstinacy and his abuse of women, I could not help but see Donald Trump as a more cartoonish version of Vann’s gruff and adamantine bluster. But the present landscape, as I write these words near the end of 2017, a year that has carried on with an endless concatenation of prominent names revealed as creeps and abusers of power, is now shifting to one where a masculine, wanton, and ultimatum-oriented approach to command is no longer being tolerated. And yet, even after war has devastated a nation through such a temperament, it is possible for those who are ravaged by violence to be forgiving. In 1989, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for two profiles published in The New Yorker (these are collected in the volume After the War Was Over). In his trip to North Vietnam, Sheehan is baffled by the farmers and the villagers showing no bad blood to Americans:

I encountered this lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North and kept asking for an explanation. The first offered was that the Vietnamese had never regarded the entire American people as their enemy. The American government — “the imperialists” — had been the enemy; other Americans, particularly the antiwar protesters, had been on the Vietnamese side. This did not seem explanation enough for people like the farmer on the road to Lang Son. He had suffered dearly at the hands of Americans who had not been an abstract “imperialist” entity. One afternoon in a village near Haiphong, when Susan and I were with Tran Le Tien, our other guide-interpreter, we were received with kindness by a family who lost a son in the South. On the way back home onto Hanoi I said to Tien that thee had to be more to this attitude than good Americans versus bad Americans. “It’s the wars with China,” Tien said. I decided he was right.

In other words, the enemy in war is the one that has most recently caused the greatest devastation. While the North Vietnamese’s forgiving character is quite remarkable in light of the casualties, perhaps it’s also incumbent upon all nations to be on the lookout for the character flaws in failed men who lead us into failed wars so that nothing like this ever has to happen again. Men do not have all the answers they often claim to possess, even when they look great on paper.

Next Up: Lawrence Gowing’s Vermeer!

Finnegans Wake (Modern Library #77)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Kim.)

It has been five years since I last tendered any heartfelt words about 20th century fiction for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. An infernal yet magnificent Irish genius is to blame for the delay. Five years is frankly too damned long, especially if I hope to complete this massive and somewhat insane project before I croak my own answer to Joyce’s “Does nobody understand?” Frank Delaney’s recent passing has made me keenly cognizant that being a wallflower is not an option when any of us could fall off the wall. (The poor man never got to finish Re: Joyce, his wonderful podcast on Ulysses.) So here we go.

What I have wondered during this Joyce-populated reading period is whether one should even attempt to match Jimmy Jimmy Jo Jo Bop’s unquestionable erudition, for this is the kooky bodkin he has wielded before readers. A Wake expert once told me that fencing with this book is comparable to being diagnosed with a disease. A good friend, as deeply moved by Ulysses as I am, told me that he never bothered with Finnegans Wake. I asked why. He said that he refused to play James Joyce’s game. I replied, “Yes, but in the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, you are missing out on some marvelous puns and portmanteaus and the limitless richness of an obscurant dreamscape!” But I do see my pal’s point. Where Ulysses provides us with an invitational beauty to be treasured and reconsidered at nearly any time in life, Finnegans Wake is the loutish intoxicating charmer for the young, the book declaring itself the cleverest in the room, the novel above all novels that says, “Well, if you really love literature…”

In attempting to come to terms with the Wake, I certainly don’t wish to align myself with such execrable anti-intellectual oafs like Dan Kois, who see the joyful act of great art mesmerizing a daredevil reader as something akin to eating cultural vegetables. I have enjoyed longass offerings from Marugerite Young, Samuel R. Delany, Laurence Sterne, Umberto Eco, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Mark Z. Danielewski (see The Familiar, the fifth of its twenty-seven volumes will be released in October), and William T. Vollmann, but none of this could prepare me for the Wake. Finnegans Wake is worth the cerebral sweat if you are willing to sign up for the gym package, which involves knowing a little German, Gaelic, and French, familiarizing yourself with Vedic commentary, reading up on Giambattista Vico and Irish history, and doing your best to encourage and resist the urge to plunge further. It is certainly difficult to argue against the Wake‘s enchanting use of language. But if cleverness — even from a bedazzling and often sprightly brainiac such as the Wake — involves adjusting one’s mind and heart entirely to that of the author, there is unquestionably a form of literary tyranny involved. On the other hand, the Wake, unlike any other book I have ever read, does test the limits of what we’re willing to know and how you can live with not knowing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that reading the Wake aloud and letting much of the esoterica wash over you is the best way to approach it and to love it. The only sane option is to accept that you will never know all the answers, that Joyce is smarter than you, and to enjoy the experience.

The book left me baffled, delighted, and often drove me mad. I am not sure that I want to read it again, although who’s kidding whom? I probably will. Finnegans Wake often felt like some bright and charming friend with benefits who texts you at 2AM, asking if you’re down to hook up, only to make you its bottom and leaving you cooking breakfast the next morning as your sexy lover basks in languor in your bed, singing pitch-perfect melodic ballads and cracking the smartest jokes in German. You sometimes wonder if you’re receiving any pleasure in a consummation that was supposed to be fun and spontaneous. Did I catch a case of the ten thunderclap words sprinkled throughout the book (Adam Harvey has kindly made YouTube videos on how to pronounce these) or merely the clap? These carnal metaphors on a book that essentially builds a dreamy narrative from an episode of sexual humiliation are no accident. Like Tinder, Finnegans Wake is a young man’s game. I would recommend attempting it before the age of forty, when there is still the time and the hunger to unravel the arcane wisecracking. Perhaps my mistake was reading this book on both sides of forty, with one foot steeped in bountiful possibility and the other more aware of mortality and the grave. My earlier plunges were largely felicitous. My subsequent belly flops were coated with the minor sting of missing out on something vital in the real world. And given the choice between staying home with the Wake or having a fun night out, it was a fairly easy decision. Many unreportable evenings later, I still believe I made the right choice. But how could any sensible reader not be wowed and enamored by Joyce’s uncompromising commitment to a difficult aesthetic?

All told, I worked my way through this intoxicating and frustrating melange in its full inimitable entirety twice, returning to the beginning of the Earwicker saga and then rereading other bits out of sequence, such as the mirthful and genuinely pleasurable showdown between Shaun and Shem in Book I, Chapter 7, which is among my favorite parts of the book. I can certainly follow the primary points of this “commodious vicus of recirculation,” even if the music of words usually triumphs over narrative coherence, which is often sandbagged altogether by later events such as Shaun’s ever-shifting identity. While I have largely enjoyed my journey, there were several points in which I cursed out Joyce for leading me down another rabbit hole. (The Dubliners’ low-key musical version of “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly? My weeks-long obsession with the Wellington Monument near the south of Dublin’s Phoenix Park? My futile attempts to learn Gaelic on Duolingo? My concern with ellipses and a surprising preoccupation for how reels of film turned upon encountering “the lazily eye of his lupis” and the diagram above? My efforts to reconcile Butt and Taff with Mutt and Jute and follow the batty Irish-American connections — extending to a few visiting American characters and the dual Dublin in Laurens County, Georgia, which Joyce cites?) It has left me to ponder in all this time if Finnegans Wake and its “futurist onehorse balletbattle pictures” were entirely worth understanding. It has left me feeling very sorry indeed for Joyce’s very patient benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver. The phrase “tough sledding” is an understatement.

Still, you can’t help but sympathize with a man who, buttressed by the wealth and the literary notoriety that came after Ulysses, saw his “Work in Progress” (early selections of the Wake published in journals) abandoned by many of his prominent supporters as he was going blind. Stanislaus Joyce had already become suspicious of Ulysses‘s famously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” chapter and proceeded to condemn his brother further for the bits of the Wake that had appeared in the transatlantic review and would later tell Jim to his face that his “book of the night” was impenetrable. His benefactor Harriet Shaw Weaver went along with Joyce’s new direction for a while, with Joyce providing her with a pre-Campbell skeleton key on January 27, 1925, but later that year, some printers refused to set the type for these new excerpts. And two years later, Weaver would condemn the “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” that Joyce had wrought. Ezra Pound, the putative paragon of poetic innovation, turned on Joyce, badmouthing this “circumambient peripherization.” H.G. Wells called it a dead end. (Did Rebecca West put a burr in Herbert’s ear?) In the face of declining love, Joyce’s remaining admirers published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, featuring the likes of Samuel Beckett, Frank Budgen, and William Carlos Williams defending Joyce’s new direction. Beckett would write:

Here form is content, content is form. You complaint that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself….When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep….When the sense is dancing, the words dance.

It was believed that Joyce himself wrote one of the two letters of protest featured in this small volume. Certainly the voice in the letter is unmistakably recognizable:

You must not stink I am attempting to ridicul (de sac! )you or to be smart, but I am so disturd by my inhumility to onthorstand most of the impsolocations constrained in your work…

Joyce wanted to have it both ways. He both longed for recognition and was contemptuous of anyone who didn’t recognize his genius. The remarkably vanilla-minded Arnold Bennett, a troublesome gnat who I wrote about earlier and who only boorish bores like Philip Hensher now have wet dreams about, redoubled the troubling conventionalism that he had expressed for Ulysses and continued to attack Joyce in the press, which inspired Joyce to send him up as Jute.

In reading the Wake, I have often wondered if I have understood anything at all, but I cannot abide by D.H. Lawrence’s characterization of Joyce as “too terribly would-be and done-on purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.” For Joyce does not bore me. He merely maddens me with his demands on my time. I ken the puns in many tongues and can divine much of the history blurring into alluring verbs. Joyce’s wildly arrogant but nonetheless remarkable goal was to keep the professors arguing over enigmas and riddles for centuries. And with the Internet, he has succeeded. Finnegans Wiki is a vital companion when you first start reading and hope to know everything, until you realize that you never will. What is more important here is to feel the book, to take in its miasmic rushes and quell the urge to order mimosas when your noggin explodes from too much “folkenfather of familyans.”

In my early days of reading the Wake, I kept up a Tumblr on my notes. I filled up a five subject notebook with crazed and often indecipherable notes. And then I realized that to carry on like this was futile. It would be akin to resolving every unsolved mystery about life. The Wake contains almost as many tributaries.

Finnegans Wake is not a book to be read. It is a book to be lived, ideally with fellow travelers. So if you have a very rich and active life, there’s no getting around the need to make time for it. Fortunately, it has inspired any number of marvelous online offerings. The incredible project, Waywords and Meansigns, has performed three different musical versions of the Wake. Listening to these interpretations helped lift my spirits when I wondered if I should give up entirely (the bluesy interpretation of the pearlagraph episode near the beginning of Book II came at a time when I was about to throw my book into the wall for the seventh time). I attended a meeting of The Finnegans Wake Society of New York, which not only led me to this invaluable annotative resource, but allowed me to understand that even the smartest and most literary people imaginable could not entirely make head or tail of Joyce and that any and all interpretive suggestions were fair game.

If Joyce wrote Ulysses for people to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick after the apocalypse, then Finnegans Wake was written to reconstruct the whole of human existence, albeit a region teetering somewhere between reality and dreams. There are crazed Russian generals and discordance and recursiveness and twins and families and lust and religion and bawdiness and drinking and blasphemy, but, much like Molly Bloom’s beautifully baring “Penelope” monologue, the Wake ends with the singular motive voice of a woman:

First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny. Home! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. For all the bold and bad and bleary they are blamed, the seahags. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din.

And then we read “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” and feel and fall some more, and turn back to the beginning to finish the aborted sentence. And every time we run through the loop, there is laughter, marvel, something we missed, something that aggravates us, and something that makes the rest of literature feel irrelevant.

Next Up: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!

West with the Night (Modern Library Nonfiction #85)

(This is the sixteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: This Boy’s Life.)

She remains a bold and inspiring figure, a galvanizing tonic shimmering into the empty glass of a bleak political clime. She was bright and uncompromising and had piercingly beautiful eyes. She was a stratospheric human spire who stood tall and tough and resolute above a patriarchal sargasso. Three decades after her death, she really should be better known. Her name is Beryl Markham and this extraordinary woman has occupied my time and attentions for many months. She has even haunted my dreams. Forget merely persisting, which implies a life where one settles for the weaker hand. Beryl Markham existed, plowing through nearly every challenge presented to her with an exquisite equipoise as coolly resilient as the Black Lives Matter activist fearlessly approaching thuggish cops in a fluttering dress. I have now read her memoir West with the Night three times. There is a pretty good chance I will pore through its poetic commitment to fate and feats again before the year is up. If you are seeking ways to be braver, West with the Night is your guidebook.

She grew up in Kenya, became an expert horse trainer, and befriended the hunters of her adopted nation, where she smoothly communed with dangerous animals. For Markham, the wilderness was something to be welcomed rather than dreaded. Her natural panorama provided “silences that can speak” that were pregnant with natural wonder even while being sliced up by the cutting whirl of a propeller blade. But Markham believed in being present well before mindfulness became a widely adopted panacea. She cultivated a resilient and uncanny prescience as her instinct galvanized her to live with beasts and brethren of all types. It was a presence mastered through constant motion. “Never turn your back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead,” wrote Markham when considering how to leave a place where one has lived and loved. This sentiment may no longer be possible in an era where one’s every word and move is monitored, exhumed by the easily outraged and the unadventurous for even the faintest malfeasance, but it is still worth holding close to one’s heart.

In her adult life, Markham carried on many scandalous affairs with prominent men (including Denys Finch Hatton, who Markham wooed away from Karen Blixen, the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (to be chronicled in MLNF #58)) and fell almost by accident into a life commanding planes, often scouting landscapes from above for safari hunts. Yet Markham saw the butcherous brio for game as an act of impudence, even as she viewed elephant hunting as no “more brutal than ninety per cent of all other human activities.” This may seem a pessimistic observation, although Markham’s memoir doesn’t feel sour because it always considers the world holistically. At one point, Markham writes, “Nothing is more common than birth: a million creatures are born in the time it takes to turn this page, and another million die.” And this grander vantage point, which would certainly be arrived at by someone who viewed the earth so frequently from the sky, somehow renders Markham’s more brusque views as pragmatic. She preferred the company of men to women, perhaps because her own mother abandoned her at a very young age. Yet I suspect that this fierce lifelong grudge was likely aligned with Markham’s drive to succeed with a carefully honed and almost effortlessly superhuman strength.

Markham endured pain and fear and discomfort without complaint, even when she was attacked by a lion, and somehow remained casual about her vivacious life, even after she became the first person to fly solo without a radio in a buckling plane across the Atlantic from east to west, where she soldiered on through brutal winds and reputational jeers from those who believed she could not make the journey. But she did. Because her habitually adventurous temperament, which always recognized the importance of pushing forward with your gut, would not stop her. And if all this were not enough, Markham wrote a masterpiece so powerful that even the macho egotist Ernest Hemingway was forced to prostrate himself to editor Maxwell Perkins in a letter: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” (Alas, this did not stop Hemingway from undermining her in the same paragraph as “a high-grade bitch” and “very unpleasant” with his typically sexist belittlement, a passage conveniently elided from most citations. Still, there’s something immensely satisfying in knowing that the bloated and overly imitated impostor, who plundered Martha Gellhorn’s column inches in Collier’s because he couldn’t handle his own wife being a far superior journalist, could get knocked off his peg by a woman who simply lived.)

In considering the human relationship to animals, Markham writes, “You cannot discredit truth merely because legend has grown out of it.” She details the beauty of elephants going out of their way to hide their dead, dragging corpses well outside the gaze of ape-descended midgets and other predators. And there is something about Markham’s majestic perspective that causes one to reject popular legends, creating alternative stories about the earth that are rooted in the more reliable soil of intuitive and compassionate experience. For Markham, imagination arrived through adventure rather than dreams. She declares that she “seldom dreamed a dream worth dreaming again, or at least none worth recording,” yet the fatigue of flying does cause her to perceive a rock as “a crumpled plane or a mass of twisted metal.”

Yet this considerable literary accomplishment (to say nothing of Markham’s significant aviation achievements) has been sullied by allegations of plagiarism. It was a scandal that caused even The Rumpus‘s Megan Mayhew Bergman to lose faith in Markham’s bravery. Raoul Schumacher, Markham’s third husband, was an alcoholic and a largely mediocre ghost writer who, much like Derek Stanford to Muriel Spark, could not seem to countenance that his life and work would never measure up to the woman he was with. Fragile male ego is a most curious phenomenon that one often finds when plunging into the lives of great women: not only are these women attracted to dissolute losers who usually fail to produce any noteworthy work of their own, but these men attempt to make up for their failings by installing or inventing themselves as collaborators, later claiming to be the indispensable muse or the true author all along, which is advantageously announced only after a great woman has secured her success. Biographers and critics who write about these incidents years later often accept the male stories (one rarely encounters this in reverse), even when the details contain the distinct whiff of a football field mired in bullshit.

I was not satisfied with the superficial acceptance of these rumors by Wikipedia, Robert O’Brien, and Michiko Kakutani. So I took it upon myself to read two Markham biographies (Mary S. Lovell’s Straight on Till Morning and Errol Trzebinski’s The Lives of Beryl Markham), where I hoped that the sourcing would offer a more reliable explanation.

I discovered that Trzebinski was largely conjectural, distressingly close to the infamous Kitty Kelley with her scabrous insinuations (accusations of illiteracy, suggestions that Markham could not pronounce words), and that Lovell was by far the more doggedly reliable and diligent source. Trzebinski also waited until many of the players were dead before publishing her biography, which is rather convenient timing, given that she relies heavily on conversations she had with them for sources.

The problem with Schumacher’s claim is that one can’t easily resolve the issue by going to a handwritten manuscript. West with the Night‘s manuscript was typed, dictated to Schumacher by Markham (see the above photo). The only photograph I have found (from the Lovell biography) shows Markham offering clear handwritten edits. So there is little physical evidence to suggest that Schumacher was the secret pilot. We have only his word for it and that of the friends he told, who include Scott O’Dell. Trzebinski, who is the main promulgator of these rumors, is slipshod with her sources, relying only upon a nebulous “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” cluster (with references to “int. the late Scott O’Dell/James Fox, New York, April 1987” and “15/5/87” — presumably the same material drawn upon for James Fox’s “The Beryl Markham Mystery,” which appeared in the March 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, as well as a Scott O’Dell letter that was also published in the magazine) that fails to cite anything specific and relies on hearsay. When one factors in an incredulous story that Trzebinski spread about her own son’s death that the capable detectives at Scotland Yard were unable to corroborate, along with Trzebinski’s insistence on camera in the 1986 documentary World Without Walls that only a woman could have written West with the Night, one gets the sense that Trzebinski is the more unreliable and gossipy biographer. And Lovell offers definitive evidence which cast aspersions on Tzrebinski’s notion that Markham was something of a starry-eyed cipher:

But this proof of editing by Raoul, which some see as evidence that Beryl might not have been the sole author of the book, surely proved only that he acted as editor. Indeed his editing may have been responsible for the minor errors such as the title arap appearing as Arab. Together with the Americanization of Beryl’s Anglicized spelling, such changes could well have been standard editorial conversions (by either Raoul or Lee Barker – Houghton Mifflin’s commissioning editor) for a work aimed primarily at an American readership.

The incorrect spelling of Swahili words has an obvious explanation. In all cases they were written as Beryl pronounced them. She had learned the language as a child from her African friends but had probably never given much thought to the spelling. Neither Raoul nor anyone at Houghton Mifflin would have known either way.

In his letter to Vanity Fair, and in two subsequent telephone conversations with me, Scott O’Dell claimed that after he introduced Beryl and Raoul “they disappeared and surfaced four months later,” when Raoul told him that Beryl had written a memoir and asked what they should do with it. This is at odds with the surviving correspondence and other archived material which proves that the book was in production from early 1941 to January 1942, and that almost from the start Beryl was in contact with Lee Barker of Houghton Mifflin.

When Raoul told his friend that it was he who had written the book, could the explanation not be that he was embittered by his own inability to write without Beryl’s inspiration? That he exaggerated his editorial assistance into authorship to cover his own lack of words as a writer?

From the series of letters between Beryl and Houghton Mifflin, it is clear that Beryl had sent regular batches of work to the publishers before Raoul came into the picture. As explained earlier, Dr. Warren Austin lived in the Bahamas from 1942 to 1944, was physician to HRH the Duke of Windsor and became friends with Major Gray Phillips. Subsequently Dr. Austin lived for a while with Beryl and Raoul whilst he was looking for a house in Santa Barbara. The two often discussed their mutual connections in Raoul’s presence. Dr. Austin is certain that Raoul had never visited the Bahamas, reasoning that it would certainly have been mentioned during these conversations if he had. This speaks for itself. If Raoul was not even present when such a significant quantity of work was produced, then that part – at the very least – must have been written by Beryl.

Lovell’s supportive claims have not gone without challenge. James Fox claimed in The Spectator that he had seen “photostated documents, from the trunk since apparently removed as ‘souvenirs’ and thus not available to Lovell, which show that Schumacher took part in the earliest planning of the contents and the draft outline for the publisher and show whole passages written by Schumacher in handwriting.” But even he is forced to walk the ball back and claim that this “proves nothing in terms of authorship.” Since Fox is so fixated on “seeing” evidence rather than producing it, he may as well declare that he visited Alaska and could see Russia from his AirBnB or that he once observed giant six-legged wombats flying from the deliquescent soup he had for supper. If this is the “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” that Trzebinski relied upon, then the plagiarism charge is poor scholarship and poor journalism indeed.

So I think it’s safe for us to accept Markham’s authorship unless something provable and concrete appears and still justifiably admire a woman who caused Hemingway to stop in his tracks, a woman who outmatched him in insight and words, a woman – who like many incredible women – was belittled by a sloppy, gossip-peddling, and opportunistic biographer looking to make name for herself (and the puff piece hack who enabled her) rather than providing us with the genuine and deserved insight on a truly remarkable figure of the 20th century.

Next Up: Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie!

A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!

Six Easy Pieces (Modern Library Nonfiction #88)

(This is the thirteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)

mlnf88Richard Feynman, exuberant Nobel laureate and formidable quantum mechanics man, may have been energetic in his lectures and innovatively performative in the classroom, but I’m not sure he was quite the great teacher that many have pegged him to be. James Gleick’s biography Genius informs us that students dropped out of his high-octane, info-rich undergraduate physics classes at a remarkable rate, replaced by Caltech faculty members and grad students who took to the Queens-born superstar much like baryons make up the visible matter of the universe. The extent to which Feynman was aware of this cosmic shift has been disputed by his chroniclers, but it is important to be aware of this shortcoming, especially if you’re bold enough to dive into the famed three volume Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are all thankfully available online. Six Easy Pieces represents an abridged version of Feynman’s full pedagogical oeuvre. And even though the many YouTube videos of Feynman reveal an undeniably magnetic and indefatigably passionate man of science who must have been an incredible dynamo to experience in person, one wonders whether barraging a hot room of young nervous twentysomethings with hastily delivered information is the right way to popularize science, much less inspire a formidable army of physicists.

Watch even a few minutes of Feynman firing on all his robust cylinders and it becomes glaringly apparent how difficult it is to contend with Feynman’s teaching legacy in book form. One wonders why the Modern Library nonfiction judges, who were keen to unknowingly bombard this devoted reader with such massive multivolume works as The Golden Bough, Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, and Principia Mathematica, didn’t give this spot to the full three volume Lectures. Did they view Feynman’s complete lesson plan as failed?

Judging from the sextet that I sampled in this deceptively slim volume, I would say that, while Feynman was undeniably brilliant, he was, like many geniuses, someone who often got lost within his own metaphors. While his analogy of two corks floating in a pool of water, with one cork jiggling in place to create motion in the pool that causes indirect motion for the other cork, is a tremendously useful method of conveying the “unseen” waves of the electromagnetic field (one that galvanized me to do the same in a saucepan after I had finished two bottles of wine over a week and a half), he is not nearly on-the-nose with his other analogies. The weakest lesson in the book, “Conservation on Energy,” trots out what seems to be a reliably populist metaphor with a child named “Dennis the Menace” playing with 28 blocks, somehow always ending up with 28 of these at the end of the day. Because Feynman wants to illustrate conservational constants, he shoehorns another element to the narrative whereby Dennis’s mother is, for no apparent reason, not allowed to open up the toy box revealing the number of blocks and thus must calculate how many blocks reside within. The mother has conveniently weighed the box at some unspecified time in advance back when it contained all 28 blocks.

This is bad teaching, in large part because it is bad storytelling that makes no sense. I became less interested in conservation of energy, with Feynman’s convoluted parallel clearly becoming more trouble than it was worth, and more interested in knowing why the mother was so fixated on remembering the number of blocks. Was she truly so starved for activity in her life that she spent all day at work avoiding all the juicy water cooler gossip about co-workers, much less kvetching about the boss, so that she might scheme a plan to at long last show her son that she would always know the weight of a single block? When Dennis showed resistance to opening the toy box, why didn’t the mother stand her ground and tell him to buzz off and stream an episode of Project Mc²?

Yet for all these defects in method, there is an indisputable poetic beauty in the way in which Feynman reminds us that we live in a vast world composed of limitless particles, a world in which we still aren’t aware of all the rules and in which even the particles contained within solids remain “fixed” in motion. Our universe is always moving, even when we can’t see it or completely comprehend it. Feynman is quick to observe throughout his lessons that “The test of all knowledge is experiment,” which again points to my theory that Feynman’s teachings, often accentuated by experiment, were probably better experienced than read. Nevertheless, even in book form, it is truly awe-inspiring to understand that we can still not accurately predict the precise mass, form, and force of all the cascading droplets from a mighty river once it hits the precipice of a waterfall. Such mysteries capture our imagination and, when Feynman is committed to encouraging our inventiveness through open and clear-eyed examples from our world, he is very much on point. Thanks in part to Feynman reminding me just how little we silly humans now know, I began to feel my heart open more for Tycho Brahe, that poor Dane who spent many years of his life refining Copernicus’s details and determining the elliptical patterns of planetary orbits. Brahe worked out his calculations entirely without a telescope, which allowed Johannes Kepler to sift through his invaluable measurements and forge laws that all contemporary astronomers now rely on to determine where a planet might be in the sky on any given night of the year. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle hasn’t even been around a century and it’s nothing less than astounding to consider how our great grandparents had a completely different understanding of atoms and motion in their early lifetime than we do today.

Feynman did have me wanting to know more about the origins of many scientific discoveries, causing me to contemplate how each and every dawning realization altered human existence (an inevitable buildup for Thomas Kuhn and paradigms, which I will take up in ML Nonfiction #69). But unlike such contemporary scientists as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Guth, or Brian Greene, Feynman did not especially inspire me to plunge broadly into my own experiments or make any further attempts to grapple with physics-based complexities. This may very well be more my failing than Feynman’s, but there shall be many more stabs at science as we carry on with this massive reading endeavor!

Next Up: G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology!

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

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.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

The Golden Bough (Modern Library Nonfiction #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Shadow and Act.)

mlnf90It is somewhat difficult to obtain a decent print edition of the Third Edition of The Golden Bough without getting fleeced by some squirrely operator working out of a shady storage unit in the middle of nowhere. For nobody seems to read the whole enchilada anymore. This is hardly surprising in an age, abundantly cemented last week, when most people are more inclined to celebrate regressive stupidity, melting their minds in any self-immolating pastime rather than opening a book. But I was able to find an affordable edition with the help of a British antiquarian. I had no idea what I was in for, but some initial research suggested very strongly that I should not settle for the abridged edition that is much easier to acquire. Certainly the sheer time-sucking insanity of the Modern Library Reading Challenge, one of the many dependable bastions I have left in a bleak epoch, demands that I go the distance on all entries, even if it means becoming ensnared by a particular title for several weeks, often answering texts from pals checking in on me with fun little snippets from Estonian folklore quebraditaing somewhere within a “Fine. How are you?” Such is the life of a book-loving eccentric with a ridiculous self-imposed mandate that involves refusing to let terrible setbacks get in the way of happy rumination. We find hope and courage and new ideas and fierce fortitude in remembering that not a single authoritarian entity or pernicious individual can ever crush the possibilities contained within our minds, our hearts, and our souls.

The thirteen volume set landed at my feet with a promising thud after a month-long voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, where it occupied my reading time for many months and proceeded to change my life. I realize that such a claim may sound trite in light of the devastating and life-altering results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but, if there’s anything we can learn from Stefan Zweig’s suicide, we must never forget the importance of patience, of working long and hard to fight and endure while steering humanity’s promising galleon back on the right course even as we look to culture’s power to sustain our spirits in the darkest times.1

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough proved so galvanizing that I began to marvel more at trees and desired to spend more time beneath their magnificent branches. I began picking up the junk that other New Yorkers had so thoughtlessly deposited under their glorious leafy crowns. I began naming some of the trees I liked, saying “Hello, Balder!” (styled after the Norse god) to a beloved maple near the southwestern edge of Central Park. I started paying closer attention to the modest superstitious rituals that most of us take for granted, wanting to know why we feared black cats crossing our path (it started in the 1560s and originated with the idea that black cats were witches who had transformed their corporeal state) or worried ourselves into years of bad luck from walking under a ladder (it goes back to the Egyptians, who believed that walking under any pyramid would attenuate its mystical power). And, of course, I began to wonder if other superstitious rituals, such as voting for a vicious sociopathic demagogue to make a nation “great” again, originated from similar irrational fears. Despite being a secular humanist, I was stunned to discover that I had modest pagan proclivities and started to ask friends to engage in rather goofball offshoots of established rites in a somewhat libertine manner, much of which is unreportable. And if you think such a reaction is idiosyncratic (and it is), consider the strange takeaway that D.H. Lawrence memorialized in a December 8, 1915 letter:

I have been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy. Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty — that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness, which depends on the eye as its source or connector. There is the blood-consciousness, with the sexual connection, holding the same relation as the eye, in seeing, holds to the mental consciousness. One lives, knows, and has one’s being in blood, without any references to nerves and brain. This is one half of life, belonging to the darkness. And the tragedy of this our life, and of your life, is that the mental and nerve consciousness exerts a tyranny over the blood-consciousness, and that your will has gone completely over to the mental consciousness, and is engaged with the destruction of your blood-being or blood-consciousness, the final liberating of the one, which is only death in result.

When I finished Frazer’s final volume, I certainly wasn’t prepared to suggest that any part of my consciousness was tyrannizing the others because of some eternal human connection to myths and rites enacted to answer and make sense of the presently inexplicable. But Lawrence did have a point about the way humans are naturally drawn to unusual ceremonies and celebrations that go well beyond Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wearing the same shoes on game days, with the impulse often defying any steely rationalism we may use to make sense of our inherently animalistic nature, which any glance at a newspaper reveals to be quite frighteningly present.

goldenboughset

More importantly, The Golden Bough changed everything I thought I knew about storytelling and myth. It forced me to see commonalities within many cultures. To cite one of Frazer’s countless comparative examples, consider the way that humans have approached the bear hunt. After the Kamtchatkans had killed a bear and eaten its flesh, the host of the subsequent dinner party would bring the bear’s head before the assembled guests, wrap it in grass, and then conduct a panel of sorts where the host, serving as a moderator only slightly less ballistic than Bill O’Reilly, would ask the bear if he had been well-treated. Much like many wingnut “journalists” irresponsibly publishing claims in Slate today without robust evidence (and failing to tender corrections when pwned), the Kamctchatkan host would blame the Russians. The American Indians likewise implored the dead bear not to be angry for being hunted and would hang the bear’s head on a post, painting it red and blue rather than donning it with vegetation. They also addressed it, much in the manner that dog owners chat with their uncomprehending pets when nobody’s around. The Assiniboins also held feasts after a hunt and also mounted the bear’s head, shrouding it in strips of scarlet cloth, and respected the bear so much that they offered the head a pipe to smoke, not unlike the poor dog who sits outside Mets games with a pipe in his mouth. And looking beyond Frazer, one finds in Alanson Skinner’s Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux a similar bear’s head ceremony that involved sharing a pipe before the participants took a bite from the bear’s flesh and, with the old Finnish custom of karhunpeijaiset, a bear’s head mounted upon a young tree, venerated and addressed as a relative or the son of a god. And according to the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Arsenyev (and I found this bit by sifting through James H. Grayson’s Myths and Legends from Korea), the Udegey people of the Russian Far East also had a bear ceremony and believed, “To throw the head away is a great sin….The cooked bear’s head is wrapped in its own skin with its fur outwards and tied up with a thin rope,” with a communal ceremony quite similar to the Finns.

I could go on (and indeed Frazer often rambles for pages), but there’s an undeniable awe in learning that something so specific about bears (head mounted, party organized, head covered, bear respected), much less anything else, arose independently in so many different parts of the world. It proves very conclusively, and perhaps this is especially essential for us to understand as we reconcile a vast and seemingly incurable national division, that humans share more in common with each other than we’re willing to confess and that the seemingly unique rituals that we believe define “us” are quite likely shared many times over in other parts of the nation, much less the world.

The reason it took me so long to read The Golden Bough was not because of its many thousand pages (aside from some sloggish parts in the Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild volumes, the books are surprisingly readable2), but because my imagination would become so captivated by some tale of trees esteemed above human life or a crazed orgiastic release (see Saturnalia) that I would lose many hours in the library seeing how much of this was still practiced. It has been more than a century since Frazer published the Third Edition, but his remarkable observations about shared rituals still invite us to dream and believe and to perceive that, Frazer’s regrettable references to “savages” and “primitives” notwithstanding, we are not so different from each other.

Frazer’s explanation for these common qualities — epitomized by the famous J.M.W. Turner painting (pictured above) sharing the same name title as Frazer’s capacious opus — rests in the sylvan lake of Nemi and an ancient tale in which a priest-king defended a singular tree. The priest-king, who was an incarnation of a god wedded to the world, could only be overpowered by a fight to the death and, if he was slain, he would be replaced by his victor, with the cycle perpetuating ad infinitum. Frazer believed that nearly every story in human history could be traced back to this unifying myth, with most of the tales triggered by our imagination arising out of what he called “sympathetic magic,” whereby humans often imitate what they cannot understand. So if this meant building effigies or participating in elaborate and often unusual rituals that explain why the sun scorched the crops to an unsustainable crisp in the last harvest or helped more animals to multiply for grand feasts next season, magical thinking provided both the bond and the panacea well before Robert B. Thomas came up with the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

There are two components to sympathetic magic: the first is Contagion, or physical contact, which involved a transfer of “essence” by physical contact (among other things, this would account for why humans have been especially careful about bear’s heads, as described above); the second was Similarity, whereby “the magicians infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

One of The Golden Bough‘s most fascinating volumes, The Scapegoat, reveals how a human belief in “essence” may be the root of our most irrational fears. Contagion often led to humans trying to transfer their disease and miseries to other people, if not reinforcing their own biases about people or groups that they disliked. I am indebted to the terrific podcast Imaginary Worlds for steering me to the work of Carol Nemeroff, whose psychological considerations of Frazer’s findings are are especially constructive in understanding disgust. Nemeroff and her colleagues conducted a series of studies in which they placed a sterilized dead roach in a glass of juice and asked subjects to eat fudge that resembled dog feces. The natural reactions (recoiling at the roach and the shit-shaped fudge) showed that sympathetic magic is still very much a mainstay of our culture.

Indeed, sympathetic magic drives most of our cherished rituals today. In one of his most controversial (but nevertheless true) observations, Frazer observes in Adonis Attis Osiris that, although the Gospels never cited a hard date for Jesus Christ’s birthday bash, Christians have adhered to their churchgoing rituals with the same practiced regularity one sees in fundamentalist homophobics holding up cardboard signs that misquote the Bible to reinforce their hate. The original celebration date of Christ’s alleged birth was January 6th. But because heathens celebrated the birthday of the Sun on December 25th, and this was often a draw for the Christians because the heathens were more fun, the Church agreed to set December 25th as the official day. If Christmas did not exist, it would be necessary for humankind to invent it. For such useful observations, The Golden Bough is incredibly handy to have in one’s library, if only to remind us that most of our beliefs, the recurring rituals we are expected to adhere to, are predicated upon some ancient explanation that we failed to shake from the Magic 8-Ball of our daily existence. So Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t need to stand for the national anthem. While this conformist rite is admittedly improved from the Nazi-like Bellamy salute, standing for The Star-Spangled Banner is little more than a quaint superstition that one is pressured to participate in to “belong.”

Frazer’s scholarship, while impressive, is sometimes inexact in the effort to find a Theory of Everything. Midway through putting together the Third Edition, Frazer was challenged by Dr. Edward Westermarck, who pointed out that fire festivals did not originate from fire reinforcing the sun’s light and heat, but rather a need to celebrate purification. Frazer did correct his views in Balder the Beautiful, but it does leave one contemplating whether sympathetic magic served as Frazer’s knee-jerk goto point in his noble quest to reconcile several folkloric strands.

Still, one cannot disavow the conclusion that much of our behavior is not only similarly ceremonial across cultures, which would indeed suggest a common source. Frazer managed one last volume, the Aftermath, in 1937, just four years before his death. While this volume is little more than a collection of B-sides, it does have leave one wondering what Frazer would have made of Nuremburg rallies or even our current default mode of walking like zombies in the streets, heads down, eyes bulging at the prospect of another chapter in a Snapchat story. The gods and the sympathetic magic may be a tad more secular these days, but we still remain seduced. Myths and stories and rituals are as old as the Chauvet Cave paintings. One cannot imagine being human without them.

Next Up: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek!

Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.3

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:

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Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

The Power Broker (Modern Library Nonfiction #92)

(This is the ninth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The American Political Tradition.)

mlnf92Sunset Park is a cozy part of Brooklyn trilling with children making midday escapes from big brick schools, with a few old factories that wail great threnodies whenever the moon winks a ditty about displaced residents on a cloudy night. There are robust workers and tight-knit families and bahn mi bistros and bustling bakeries from which one can savor the tantalizing nectar of glorious Spanish gossip squeezing into the streets. If you are tipsy after too many pints at the Irish pubs lining the southwestern fringe, there are 24 hour donut shops serving as makeshift diners, with loquacious jacks cooking up chorizo hash for any hungry ghost in a fix.

This is the region, along with East New York and Flatlands and Bensonhurst, where Brooklyn’s true soul still shines. It remains insulated from the Williamsburg hipsters oblivious to the high rise monstrosities now being hoisted near the East River or the yuppies who cleave to Park Slope’s gluten-free stroller war zone like children keeping to the shallow end of the pool. But the motley banter rivals the bright babble bubbling five miles east in Ditmas Park and even the chatty ripples that percolate just two miles south in Bay Ridge. In Sunset Park, you can pluck the city’s most enormous plantains from bold bodega bins bulging with promise, talk to the last honest bartender at Brooklyn’s best bowling alley, or walk beneath a Buddhist temple for some of the finest vegetarian Chinese grub in the region. It is a place of repose. It is a place of fun. It is a place to live.

Yet as great and as welcoming and as improbably enduring as this part of Brooklyn is, it could have been bigger. And for a long time, it was. Until Robert Moses came along.

There are many grim tales contained within Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker — an alarmingly large and exquisitely gripping and undeniably great and insanely obsessive masterpiece of journalism documenting the most ruthless urban planner that New York, and possibly America, has ever known. If you love New York City even one tenth as much as I do, you will find many reasons to shout obscenities out your window after reading about what Robert Moses did to this mighty metropolis. It was Moses who killed off the free aquarium, open to all, that once stood in Battery Park. It was Moses who pitted reliable mass transit lines serving regular Janes and Joes against highways designed solely for those who had the shekels to buy and upkeep a car. It was Moses who believed African-Americans to be “dirty” and who, in building Riverside Park, stiffed the Harlem section of playgrounds (seventeen in the West Side; one in Harlem) and football fields (five to one). Moses was so casually racist that most of the parks he built, the parks that secured his popularity, served white middle-class New Yorkers. But working-class families needed these parks more and were often reduced to opening a fire hydrant in the streets and playing in the gutter during a hot summer.

Not a single person in power will ever change the Manhattan skyline in the irreversible way that Moses did. Robert Moses had massive ambition, savvy savagery, limitless arrogance and energy, improbably large coffers that he willed together through a bridge bond ploy, a panache for grabbing and holding onto power, and a sick talent for persuading some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century to sign crooked agreements and/or get steamrolled into deals that screwed them over in quite profound ways.

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For me, one of the acts that sums Moses up is the way in which he ripped out a major part of Sunset Park’s soul by erecting the Gowanus Expressway above Third Avenue. This is a toxic concrete barrier that still remains as cold and as gray and as unwelcoming as the bleakest rainstorm in December. To this very day, you can still hear the Belt Parkway’s thundering traffic as far away as Sixth Avenue. During a recent walk along Third Avenue on a somewhat chilly afternoon, I surveyed Moses’s handiwork and was nearly mowed down by a minivan barreling out of Costco, its back bulging with wasteful mass-produced goods, as a mad staccato honk pierced my ears with a motive that felt vaguely murderous.

Robert Moses wanted to make New York a city for automobiles, even though he never learned how to drive. And in some of the neighborhoods where his blots against natural urban life remain, his dogged legacy against regular people still persists.

gowanusparkway

(Source: The Gowanus Improvement: November 1, 1941 / The Triborough Bridge Authority)

Sunset Park’s residents had begged Moses to build the expressway over Second Avenue. This was closer to the water and the industrial din and might have preserved the many small businesses and happy homes that once punctuated Third Avenue’s happy line. But Moses, citing the recently opened subway that now serves the D, N, and R underneath Fourth Avenue and the available support beams from the soon-to-be-demolished El, was determined to raise a freeway on Third Avenue that he claimed was much cheaper, even though the engineers who weren’t on Moses’s payroll had observed that one mere mile of freeway looping back to the shore wouldn’t substantially reduce the cost. But Moses had fought barons before and had made a few curving compromises while constructing the Northern State Parkway. Armed with the power of eminent domain and a formidable administrative power in which bulldozers and blockades could be summoned against opponents almost as fast as a modern day Seamless delivery, Moses was not about to see his vision vitiated. And if that meant calling the good parts of Sunset Park a “slum,” which it wasn’t, or spouting off any number of lies or threats to destroy perfectly respectable working class neighborhoods, then he’d do it.

As documented by Caro, the Gowanus stretched a raised subway line’s harmless Venetian-blind shadow into a dirty expanse that was nearly two and a half times as wide, wider than a football field and twice as onyx. The traffic lights were so swiftly timed that one had to be a running back to sprint beneath the smog-choking blackness to the other side of the street. The condensation from the steel pillars created such a relentless dripping that it transformed this once sunny thoroughfare into a dirt-clogged river Styx for cars. The cost was seven movie theaters, dozens of restaurants, endless mom and pop stores, butcher shops that raffled Christmas turkeys, and tidy affordable apartments — all shuttered. Moses did not plan for the increased industrial traffic that sprinkled into Sunset Park’s streets, just as he hadn’t for his many other freeways and bridges. Garbage and rats accumulated in the surrounding lots. There was violence and drugs and gang wars. The traffic tightened and slowed to a crawl, demanding more roads, more buildings to gut, more more neighborhoods to disrupt for the worse.

robertmosesgraphicnovel

Who was this man? And why was he so determined to assert his will? He fancied himself New York’s answer to Georges-Eugène Haussmann (even reusing a doughnut-shaped building for the 1964 World’s Fair that the Parisian planner himself had put together in 1867), yet didn’t begin to earn a dime for his tyranny until his forties. (He lived off his family’s money and secured early planning jobs by declining a salary.) He thought himself a poet (not an especially good one), but if he had any potential prose style, it turned sour and hard and technocratic by the time he hit Oxford and received his doctorate at Columbia. He worked seemingly every hour of the day and took endless walks, memorizing the precise points where he would later build big parks and tennis courts. And he loved to swim, taking broad strokes well beyond the shores in his sixties and seventies with an endurance and strength that crushed men who were two decades younger. Small wonder that Moses gave the city so many public pools.

After I finished reading The Power Broker, I wanted to know more. I found myself plunging into the collected works of Jane Jacobs (Jacobs’s successful battle to save Washington Square Park was left out by Caro due to the enormity of The Power Broker‘s original manuscript), as well as Anthony Flint’s excellent volume Wrestling with Moses (documenting the battles between Moses and Jacobs), an extremely useful volume edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson called Robert Moses and the Modern City that may be the best overview of every Moses project (and attempts, not entirely successfully, to refute some of Caro’s claims), as well as a wonderful graphic novel from Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City) which I recommend for anyone who doesn’t have enough time to read Caro’s 1,200 page biography written in very small print (although you really should read it).

I wanted to know how a man like Moses could operate so long without too many challenging him. His behavior often resembled a spoiled infant braying for his binky. When faced by an authority figure, Moses would often threaten to resign from a position until he got his way. Moses used this tactic so frequently that Mayor La Guardia once sent him a note reading, “Enclosed are your last five or six resignations; I’m starting a new file,” followed by city corporation counsel Paul Windels creating a pad of forms reading “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as _______ effective __________,” which further infuriated Moses.

The answer, of course, was through money and influence that Moses had raised through a bridge bond scheme floated through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with Moses as Chairman:

Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance. So although the safety of the banks’ money was already amply assured by Triborough’s current earnings (so great that each year the Authority collected far more money than it spent), by the irrevocable covenants guaranteeing that tolls could never be removed without the bondholders’ consent, and by Triborough’s monopoly, also irrevocable, that guaranteed them that if any future intracity water crossing were built, they would share in its tolls, too, Moses provided them with additional assurances. He maintained huge cash reserves — “Fantastic,” says Jackson Phillips, director of municipal research for Dun and Bradstreet; “the last time I looked they had ten years’ interest on reserve” — and when he floated the Verrazano bonds he agreed to lay aside — in addition to the existing reserves! — 15 percent ($45,000,000) of the cash he received for the new bond issue, and not touch it until the bridge was open and operating five years later. Purchasers of the Verrazano bonds could be all but certain that they could collect their interest every year even if the bridge never collected a single toll. Small wonder that Phillips says, “Triborough’s are just about the best bonds there are.” Wall Streeters may believe that “any investment is a bet,” but Robert Moses was certainly running the safest game in town.

In other words, Moses pulled off one of the most sinister financial games in New York history. The Triborough Authority could not only collect tolls on its bridges and capitalize on these receipts by issuing revenue bonds, which would in turn generate considerable income for Moses to fund his many public works projects, but it was capable of spending more money than the City of New York. Which meant that the city often had to come crawling back to Moses. And if the city or the state wanted to audit the Triborough Authority, this operation was so incredibly complicated that it would require at least fifty accountants working full-time for a year in order to comprehend it. Government did not have this kind of money to place safeguards against Moses. Moreover, it needed Moses’s financial assistance in order to provide for the commonweal.

It wasn’t until 1968, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay put an end to these remarkable shenanigans by siphoning tolls into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The bondholders might have sued over this. It was, after all, unconstitutional to uproot existing contractual obligations. But Rockefeller’s brother David happened to be the head of Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase was the largest TBTA bondholder. In a glaring case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the Triborough Authority as puppet organization for Moses was finished. Moses was forced to abandon his role. And the man’s political hold on New York was effectively finished after four decades of relentless building and endless resignation threats.

It seemed a fitting end for a man who had maintained such a stranglehold over such a large area. Six years later, Robert Caro’s biography appeared. Moses wrote a 23 page response shortly after the book’s publication. Caro’s rebuttal was five paragraphs, concluding with this one:

It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven years of research, including 522 separate interviews.

Next Up: Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act!

The American Political Tradition (Modern Library Nonfiction #93)

(This is the eighth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Contours of American History.)

mlnf93Before he became famous for delineating “the paranoid style in American politics” and honing every principled bone against the feverish anti-intellectualism one now sees embodied in everything from long-standing philistine Dan Kois decrying “eating his cultural vegetables” to lunatic presidential candidate Ted Cruz declaring gluten-free meals as a politically correct “social experiment,” historian Richard Hofstadter spent four years on a fiercely independent book that would go on to sell close to a million copies. The American Political Tradition was a Plutarchian overview of illustrious American figures ranging from vivacious abolitionist Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson as closeted conservative. It was aimed at winning over a high-minded American public. Like William Appleman Williams, Hofstadter was very much following in Charles Beard’s footsteps, although this historian hoped to march to his own interpretive drum. Reacting to the toxic McCarthyism at the time, Hofstadter’s cautious defense of old school American liberalism, with the reluctant bulwark hoisted as he poked holes into the foibles of celebrated icons, saddled him with the label of “consensus historian.” With each subsequent volume (most notably The Age of Reform), Hofstadter drifted further away from anything close to a scorching critique of our Founders as hardliners enforcing their economic interests to a more vociferous denouncement of agrarian Populists and numbnuts standing in the way of erudite democratic promise. Yet even as he turned more conservative in later years, Hofstadter insisted that his “assertion of consensus history in 1948 had its sources in the Marxism of the 1930s.”

Such adamantine labels really aren’t fair to Hofstadter’s achievements in The American Political Tradition. The book is by no means perfect, but its Leatherman Wave-like dissection of American history unfolds with some sharp and handy blades. While Hofstadter is strangely reluctant to out Andrew Jackson as a demagogue (“He became a favorite of the people, and might easily come to believe that the people chose well.”) and far too pardonable towards John C. Calhoun, a rigid bloviator with a harsh voice who was one of slavery’s biggest cheerleaders and whose absolutist stance against tariffs under the guise of moderatism would later inspire the South to consider secession as a legitimate nuclear option3, Hofstadter at his best slices with a necessary critical force into many hallowed patriarchs. For it is the sum of their variegated and contradictory parts that has caused some to view the American trajectory in Manichean terms.

One of the book’s standout chapters is Hofstadter’s shrewd analysis of Lincoln as an exceptionally formidable man who dialed down his egalitarian ardor to zero the meter for his shrewd and very rapid political rise. In just four years, Lincoln advanced from an obscure attorney in Illinois to a prominent party leader in that same state’s House of Representatives. But Hofstadter cogently argues that Lincoln was far from the outspoken abolitionist who would later lay down some very strong words against those who would deny other people freedom. Lincoln not only kept his enemies closer than his friends, but he was exceptionally careful with his rhetoric, even though one eye-popping 1836 declaration proposed extending suffrage to women.2 Much as Franklin D. Roosevelt was very savvy about letting his political opponents make the first move before he acted, Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence’s very text as ammunition and inspiration for his justification for abolition, which come much later — Lincoln’s first public condemnation of slavery arrived when Lincoln was forty-five — than Lincoln’s many admirers are often willing to admit.

Hofstadter points out that Lincoln’s seeming contradiction between revolutionary politics and pragmatic interpretation of the law was not especially peculiar, but part of a nuts-and-bolts perpetuation of an ongoing political tradition, one that can be seen with Lincoln’s hard maneuvering with the 1851 conditional loan he issued to his stepbrother John D. Johnson. Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech was masterful rhetoric urging national reconciliation of the slavery issue, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to out himself as an abolitionist. Hofstadter points out that in 1858, seemingly Honest Abe spoke in two entirely different manners about racial equality in Chicago and in Charleston (see the second paragraph of his first speech). Yet these observations not only illustrate Lincoln’s political genius, but invite parallels to Lyndon Johnson’s brilliant and equally contradictory engineering in passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act (perhaps best chronicled in a gripping 100 page section of Robert A. Caro’s excellent Master of the Senate). The American political tradition, which Hofstadter identifies as a continuity with capitalist democratic principles, is seen today with Hillary Clinton struggling against a young population hungry for progressive change unlikely to happen overnight, despite Bernie Sanders’s valiant plans and the immediate need to rectify corporate America’s viselike hold on the very democratic principles that have sustained this nation for more than two hundred years.

Yet this is the same tradition that has given us long years without a stabilizing central bank, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Credit Mobilier scandal, robber barons, and Hoover’s unshakable faith that “prosperity was just around the corner,” among many other disgraces. Hofstadter is thankfully not above condemning lasseiz-faire absolutism, such as Grover Cleveland’s unrealistic assumption that “things must work out smoothly without government action, or the whole system, coherent enough in theory, would fall from the weakness of its premises” or the free silver campaign that buttressed the bombastic William Jennings Bryan into an improbable presidential candidate. On Bryan, Hofstadter describes his intellectual acumen as “a boy who never left home” and one can see some of Bryan’s regrettable legacy in the red-faced fulminations of a certain overgrown boy who currently pledges to make America great again. A careless and clumsy figure like Bryan was the very antithesis of Lincoln. Bryan failed to see difficult political tasks through to their necessary end. He would adopt principles that he once decried. His well-meaning efforts amounted to practically nothing. Think of Bryan as Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard to Lincoln’s Joe Girard. Hofstadter suggests that “steadfast and self-confident intelligence,” perhaps more important than courage and sincerity, was the very quality that Bryan and this nation so desperately needed. Yet in writing about Teddy Roosevelt and pointing to the frequency of “manly” and “masterful” in his prose, Hofstadter imputes that these “more perfect” personal qualities for the political tradition “easily became transformed into the imperial impulse.”

This is, at times, a very grumpy book. One almost bemoans the missed opportunity to enlist the late Andy Rooney to read aloud the audio version. But it is not without its optimism. Hofstadter places most of his faith in abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips. But even after defending Phillips from numerous historical condemnations and pointing to Phillips’s “higher level of intellectual self-awareness,” Hofstadter sees the agitator as merely “the counterweight to sloth and indifference.” But Hofstadter, at this young stage of his career, isn’t quite willing to write off agitators. He does point to why Phillips was a necessary and influential force providing equilibrium:

But when a social crisis or revolutionary period at last matures, the sharp distinctions that govern the logical and doctrinaire mind of the agitator become at one with the realities, and he appears overnight to the people as a plausible and forceful thinker. The man who has maintained that all history is the history of class struggles and has appeared so wide of the mark in times of class collaboration may become a powerful leader when society is seething with unresolved class conflict; the man who has been valiantly demanding the abolition of slavery for thirty years may become a vital figure when emancipation makes its appearance as a burning issue of practical politics. Such was the experience of Wendell Phillips: although he never held office, he became one of the most influential Americans during the few years after the fall of Fort Sumter.

thealternativefactorThe question of whether you believe Hofstadter to be a consensus historian or not may depend on how much you believe that he viewed the American political tradition much like two Lazaruses forever duking it out for existence in the old Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor.” He certainly sees a nation of political pragmatists and obdurate agitators caught in an eternal dead lock, which is not too far from the progressive historians who styled their interpretations on class conflict. But his fine eye for ferreting out the Burkean undertow within Woodrow Wilson’s putative liberalism or exposing how Hoover’s faith in unregulated business had him quivering with disbelief after Black Thursday suggests a historian who is interested in countering ideological bromides. Perhaps if Hofstadter had stretched some of his chapters across a massive book, his reputation as a consensus historian wouldn’t have been the subject of so many heated arguments among political wonks.

Fortunately, the next Modern Library essay in this series will investigate how one man fluctuated his politics to serve his own ends and reshaped a major metropolis through the iron will of his personality. That very long and very great book may be the key that turns the consensus lock. It will certainly tell us a lot more about political power.

Next Up: Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker!