Robin Black (BSS #333)

Robin Black is most recently the author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: If he could tell you, he’d have to love you.

Author: Robin Black

Subjects Discussed: Writing ten stories over eight years, rumination time and writing, Black discarding 75% of what she writes, the importance of being surprised while writing, writing while doing the dishes, avoiding explicit metaphor, the scarf in “Tableau Vivant,” how a real-life neighbor’s fence became a fictional neighbor’s fence, feeling exposed through stories vs. the control of memoir, Veterans Day transformed into Resolution Day, perceived strangeness in reality, negotiating the gray area between two extremes, the tension between how people perceive their lives are vs. what their lives really are, the clinical approach to birth and death, being careful about deploying sentiment, observing limitless forms of human behavior and trying to corral it into the neatness of narrative, seeing more gestures and facts about people being more relevant, a character’s relationship with another person’s face, early problems with human gesture, being conscious of the symbolic scheme within a story, sex that isn’t explicitly stated within the stories, the words “sexual encounter,” cybersex, carnal reticence, the defamiliarization of the familiar, a disproportionate focus on the physical act, car crashes and accidents used to galvanize the characters, stories anchored by older women, older women as an increasingly invisible presence in society, the fictional potential in leading an undercover life, explicit communicative disconnect in “Immortalizing John Parker,” characters who resist what the author is trying to get them to do, crutch words from characters, the phrase “So what,” revealing the surname of a character slightly later than expected after the initial introduction, learning from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, first person vs. third person, twos and threes within the stories, avoiding the usual lists of threes, and playing with fairy tale images.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Black: I also wrote a lot of bad stories. I went into writing ten that I thought were decent enough.

Correspondent: How many bad stories?

Black: I think that if you count just the ones I completed, there are probably twenty-five others. And if you count the others that I started, and got anywhere from two to twenty pages into, there are probably another two dozen of those. So a lot. I produce a lot of pages. I like a very low percentage of them.

Correspondent: This is interesting that you do all of your thinking at the keyboard. Because the character relationships in many of these stories are quite intricate and quite connected. Do you figure out these relationships over the course of writing? How does this work exactly? Expand upon the rumination.

Black: Where does it all come from? None of it’s autobiographical. I always have to start there. So I’m not one of these people who thinks, “Wow! This thing that just happened to me would make a great story.” And to the extent that I ever think that, I put that into memoir. So if I write about myself, then I’m really writing about myself. These things are all made up. I said that a lot of it happens at the keyboard. But I should more accurately say that I also do a lot of my writing while I’m doing the dishes. Though my husband may laugh at the idea that I ever do the dishes. While I’m walking. I’m not somebody who thinks that everyone needs a regiment of sitting down and writing. A certain amount of time. Because a lot of my writing happens away. I’ll just be thinking about the people in the stories. Really as though they were friends of mine, and I was trying to figure out just what the heck they would do with their lives. And so it’s a lot of just thinking through human psychology that goes into it.

Correspondent: You mention not wanting to lift from reality. And this is interesting to me. Because I noted that in these stories, you really go out of your way to avoid extremely explicit metaphors, save in two stories. In “Tableau Vivant,” you of course have the scarf. And “If I Loved You” has the fence. I’m wondering if the scarf and the fence came about as a way of knowing the characters. Or a way of moving the characters on the chessboard while you were doing the dishes. What happened here?

Black: The scarf in “Tableau Vivant” is complete invention. The fence is not. We actually have a neighbor who built a fence in our driveway. And in pondering how to write about it — because it was one of those events that struck me as so peculiar. That somebody would just move into a neighborhood and start tromping on their neighbors. It seemed like such an odd character defect, I guess, in a human being. I thought, “Well, I’ll write an essay about it.” What’s it like to have a horrible human being move in next to you. And then I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to write an essay about it. I’ll write a story about it.” But, again, I don’t write about myself. So the only thing in there that’s true is that there was a fence. And the other piece of truth was my impulse in the story to say to this man, “How can you just be this mean to people when you have no idea what the meaning of this is to them?” And there’s actually a funny story about that. When that story was published in the Southern Review — and in the story, the woman whose fence it is, is dying a very sad, terrible death; and when Bret Lott, who was then editing the Review called me up to say they had taken it — I was all excited. And I said — the first words out of my mouth were “Oh, I can’t wait to throw a copy of it over that damn fence.” And there was this terrible pause. And I realized that he was trying to figure out how much of it was true. And I said, “Oh! I’m not dying. There just is a fence.” So often my stories will have tiny real elements among them, and I’ll kind of build a universe around that.

Categories: Fiction

Adam Thirlwell (BSS #332)

Adam Thirlwell is most recently the author of The Escape.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if a piña colada might serve as literary escape.

Author: Adam Thirlwell

Subjects Discussed: The narrator device in Politics and The Escape, not understanding an early attempt to write a Henry James novel, the S&M of a writer being both eager to please and eager to annoy, Lautréamont and the bifurcation of voice, self-indulgence, the ethical concerns of Politics and The Escape, total selfishness and hurting others in the pursuit of pleasure, Western society and the hedonistic ideal, Goldwagen and Yiddish opera, character names lifted from cultural references, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, defending immaturity from the prism of not being able to tell the difference between the past and the future, Velimir Khlebnikov’s imagery transformed into narrative structure, “plucking” and collage, defining magic in The Delighted States, anticipating what people on television are going to say, the uncommon joys of predictability in pop culture, trying to write a novel that felt like a coda, Gertrude Stein’s idea of methods of the 20th century being used to advance the 19th, attempting to pinpoint the artistic methods of the 21st century, Geoff Dyer, Reality Hunger and appropriation, singularity, Barbara Wright and translation, the difficulties of finding “Beckettian style” in untranslated Beckett, the problems with the chronology of a style, being obsessed with the present moment, the Tea Party, great artists and plagiarism, creative theft, reading a phrase containing “blowjob” before an audience of 500 people, the unanticipated boundaries between private amusement and the public dissemination of literature, degrees of literary intimacy, the 1925 crash as “the Universal Crash,” elegant style and originality, style and unseen neurotic drama, short sentences and rhythm, the evils of passive construction, originality as fluke, unplanned sex scenes, Edmund White, Bohemian as a way of being the “absolute insider,” pithy maxims, blasphemy and belief, the classical equaling the decadent, Lives of the Caesars, Caligula, salacious gossip, and reader motivation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Thirlwell: I think there are similarities between Politics and The Escape in their ethical concerns. In both cases, weirdly, but through different routes. They’re about saying, “Well, what if you were to be totally selfish? Why is it so wrong to not follow your appetites or hurt people? Is it genuinely bad to hurt someone in the pursuit of your own pleasure?” And whereas in Politics, it’s because there are these cute kids who are incapable of hurting someone else, and thus create a nightmare scenario for themselves, which they think iis a kind of utopia, here you get the kind of old guy who is an entirely selfish person. Or seems so. And so I suppose it’s true that I definitely thought that one of the problems for the reader was going to be that what I wanted to do was present this character who would at first seem mildly repellent. This voyeur in a wardrobe staring at two strangers having sex. But by the end of the novel, if it worked, you were going to actually feel both that he did have a coherent moral structure and also is rather likable. And I suppose, yeah, the game of Politics was that they were like words. So all of the exhibitionists who are going to like these people was because there was a sense that this was . Politics was set in a likable world. It was set in a Coetzee, hipsterish world. Whereas this is much more slightly. There are things about Haffner that, I suppose, I myself don’t like. And I wanted to create a character where I wasn’t as sold on the character myself. Though I wanted to create a little machine where you would have to actually change your moral values, or examine your own moral values as a reader.

Correspondent: So this is your worldview. With decades of experience comes decades of a capacity to hurt other people? (laughs)

Thirlwell: (laughs) I’m only thirty-one!

Correspondent: Okay. (laughs) All right.

Thirlwell: No, I have no conclusion. I am interested in hedonism, I think, and why there seems to be two levels of it. On the one hand, it seems that our society — that English/American society, in particular; Western society — is deeply devoted to some ideals of pleasure. But I think there’s a real Puritanical core actually to a lot of the ways in which we still value the couple, the family. There is something that is very much about: that you should be altruistic and you shouldn’t hurt. And in one way, I suppose, I think that’s slightly immature as a moral system. There are going to be conflicts. And where Politics, I think I was interested in showing some kind of self-destruction in that, here you have someone who seems to be outside those moral values. So, no, it’s not like I’m saying, “Everybody should now go out and be horribly unfaithful to everybody.”

Correspondent: It was a bit of a joke, you know.

Thirlwell: But on the other hand. (laughs) It’s maybe not such a terrible thing.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about the names. Goldfaden, of course, is the guy who came up with the first Yiddish opera.

Thirlwell: Yeah.

Correspondent: You have, of course, Haffner. Which is close to Hugh Hefner. And which is in fact mentioned in this book — that particular association. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Benji might, in fact, be construed with Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” of which this book does considerable reproduction. I’m curious why you were interested in using character names that were essentially lifted from popular and cultural references. And also this note at the end of the book, in which you say that you quote all these various people. Digging through it, it seemed to me as if you didn’t so much quote them, as take stories and shift them around. At least, it didn’t feel like this. Either you pulled one on me. I don’t think it was absolutely paraphrased or even remotely paraphrased. So I was curious about why recycling of this nature occurred, both with the names and also with the so-called quotes.

Thirlwell: Wow, that’s huge. On the names, I think names are really odd. Because there’s something, I think, almost Freudian about it. You’re not always aware about why a name feels right to you, I think. And Haffner, I actually chose — I’d always wanted to write an ambivalent character called Haffner. After a boy who bullied me at school, who’s called Haffner.

Correspondent: Named close to Haffner?

Thirlwell: No, he was actually called Haffner. It was his second name. So that was when I was nine. But I also actually rather liked it as a name. And then, it was actually only halfway through writing the book that I thought, “Oh fuck. Everyone is going to think that this is a joke on Hefner.” So that’s why I put the joke in. To defuse it.

Correspondent: Nullify it.

Thirlwell: To nullify that one. Goldfaden was deliberately the Yiddish dramatist. And Benji, it wasn’t so much from Walter Benjamin. Although I’m sure that was at the back of my mind. That wasn’t deliberate. But I’m sure it was there unconsciously. But certainly the idea of the Biblical younger son. And I think that with the names — with the very Jewish names like “Goldfaden” — that was because I was very interested in almost doing a caricature of Jewishness. Or a particular type of East European Jewishness. Of immigrant Jewishness. Because one of the things that this novel is in dialogue with, and what Haffner the character is in dialogue with, is a particular version of Jewishness. So I think the Jewish names, they were there as deliberately East European. There was an air of competition. I mean, the other source of the names that I’d completely forgotten about, but only remembered recently when I saw this film again. To Be or Not to Be. Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. And for some reason, I’d seen it early on when I was writing this book. I mean, just before I started the book. And I had a kind of cast list. Some handout that I’d got. And so a lot of the names were actually from that. Like Tummel — Frau Tummel — is taken from someone who’s like the production manager on To Be or Not to Be. But then the names come from this locus of Central Europe. And it’s true. And I suppose that leads to the quotations. Because there was a way in which I was definitely interested in doing a miniature recapitulation in this book of my entire literary past. I think, slightly to then move away from it. To finish with it. So that hopefully, what I’d then write would be freer or something completely different.

Categories: Fiction

Juan José Campanella & Allison Amend II (BSS #331)

Juan José Campanella is most recently the co-writer and director of The Secret in Their Eyes, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and opens in theaters on April 16, 2010.

Allison Amend is most recently the author of Stations West and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #256.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for Old West secrets in various eyes.

Guests: Juan José Campanella and Allison Amend

Subjects Discussed: Devising a stadium shot that’s a hybrid between Touch of Evil and Black Sunday, stitching shots together through CGI, using Massive Software, contending with how details change between 1974 and 2010, expressive focal lengths, lava lamps that isn’t replaced over decades, hippie actors who are ideal to play authoritarian judges, piles and piles of paper, the myth of the paperless office, creating a train station through CGI, the steps you need to take to ensure that fake walls aren’t seen by daytime courthouse workers, sports statistics, working with novelist Eduardo Sacheri, why novelists are especially suited to screenplay collaboration, philosophical questions about one man having a singular passion, the best way to look for someone who has disappeared, Campanella’s non-cinematic passions, the tormented eight year creative process of turning a story into a novel, how one does the “find an agent dance,” true sex vs. sexy sex, the role of women in early patriarchal America, questions of “commercial appeal,” prejudice against women in the publishing industry, the Stephen Crane principle of writing about what you don’t experience, anonymous peer reviews of novels at university presses, believability and research, Pullman cars, getting accustomed to thinking about a world without present technology, requirements it takes to be a train enthusiast, Stations West‘s early version as a “Forrest Gump novel,” Harvey House restaurants, internal rhyme, Zima, overwriting, pesky adjectives and adverbs, comparative measurements, eugenics and multiculturalism, Lamarckian descriptions and the American melting pot, Pinckney Benedict, historical precedent with character names, mythical bureaucratic forms, delving too much into census records, getting accurate historical dialogue, talking a ton, the strategy of removed narrators, The Jews of Oklahoma, violence and death, unexpected deaths in history and narrative, train accidents, the glee of killing animals in fiction, and the role of the misunderstood in history.

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The wonderful marvelous stadium shot that’s in the middle of this movie — it’s a hybrid of Black Sunday and Touch of Evil.

Campanella: Yes, exactly.

Correspondent: The question. I mean, obviously, I would love to ask you how you did this. But I’m also really curious how you got all these people in the stadium. I mean, I don’t know what your budgetary scenario was.

Campanella: Well, the budget was very low. As you know, it’s a national Argentine movie. So we don’t have millions of dollars to do it. And we did it with the help of a few buttons and chips and stuff.

Correspondent: Aha! The wonderful CGI.

Campanella: Some of it is CGI. Some of it is real. You never know what is what. Because we interspersed it. So it wouldn’t look like a PlayStation game. But also, you know, most of the work was done not in populating the stadium, but in stitching the shots together. To make it look like one continuous take and to make you feel like we were throwing you from a helicopter into the bleachers, and then chasing the guy together with our heroes.

Correspondent: So the actual crowd. How many extras was that?

Campanella: About 300.

Correspondent: And you just basically composited over and over again.

Campanella: Well, no, it’s more involved with that. Because for the regular composition shot — we call it compleción in Spanish — you need to have the camera locked. And the camera’s moving here all the time. It’s a handheld shot with a lot of crazy movement. We’re actually in an avalanche of people at one point. Trying to keep ourselves standing. So no, no, you cannot do the compleción trick. No, it involves the Massive software. It’s called Massive. It was developed for Lord of the Rings. It’s a very involved work. It’s a very crafty work. That’s another thing. People think that if you get the software, you can do it. And it’s not like that. This is the same thing as if I give you a brush and oil paint, and you paint the Mona Lisa. It’s not like that. You need real artists to pull it off.

Correspondent: Got it. It’s not just a bunch of monkey typing Shakespeare. A million monkeys.

Campanella: (laughs) Exactly.

* * *

Correspondent: You clearly did not settle into the Old West or can foods or run a store.

Amend: No.

Correspondent: At least not to my knowledge.

Amend: I did work at a hot dog stand once.

Correspondent: I’m curious how much invention went into this and how much you were concerned about getting verisimilitude with this. The 80 year epoch that you explore.

Amend: I was originally not particularly concerned with either of those things. I had to do a lot of research just to know even what I was dealing with. And then I went randomly to hear E.L. Doctorow speak. The king of setting books in historical settings. And he said, “Oh, you don’t do research. Just make it up. You’ve seen enough TV and watched enough movies. You’ll probably get it right. And if not, someone will tell you.” Which is easy for him to say. Because he has seven paid research assistants. But that was really liberating. And I thought, “You know, I have seen enough old Westerns. And I’ve been to Oklahoma. I’ll just write the book.” And the truth is that there’s no plot twist that hinges on an invention that hadn’t been invented yet. Everything is changeable.

And for a while there in the middle, I was working with the University of Oklahoma Press. And they had it read by a historian of Oklahoma, who tore the book to shreds. He’s like, “Well, I couldn’t get past Page 5. Because the author says the landscape is very arid. And that part of Oklahoma is actually very lush.” Therefore this book can’t be considered as a legitimate work. And I said, “Okay, cross out ‘arid.’ Insert the word ‘lush.'” It doesn’t change the character development.

Correspondent: Who is this guy?

Amend: He was anonymous. Because he was a peer reviewer. Which is part of the problem with university presses.

Correspondent: I noticed that there was a reference to him in the acknowledgments.

Amend: Yes. That’s actually not him. That was a very wonderful editor who subsequently died of stomach cancer. Which is very sad. But the reviewer in question was known as “Mr. Grouchy Pants.” And I do not know who he is. And if he’s hearing this interview, I changed “arid” to “lush.” Most easy.

Correspondent: Did he set up an anonymous email account? Did he telephone you?

Amend: Oh no. It was like a five page report that he sent to the editor, who then forwarded it to me.

Correspondent: With mysterious initials at the end?

Amend: Yeah, I know.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s how they do things over there.

Amend: Yeah. Well, you know, it was a university press. So the procedure there is that everything goes through a peer review. Which makes a lot of sense if you’re publishing a textbook or a piece of scholarship. Less sense…

Correspondent: (laughs) …if you’re publishing a novel.

Amend: If you’re publishing fiction.

Correspondent: Wow.

Amend: Yeah. But they could not seem to get beyond that step.

Correspondent: This is probably the craziest editing process that you’ve gone through, I would guess.

Amend: Oh. For sure. Although my path through the publishing world has been non-traditional. Let’s put it that way.

Correspondent: I mean, I can’t even imagine working with an editor who’s speaking behind — like Charlie’s Angels or something.

Amend: Yeah, it really was. Like a box on the wall.

Correspondent: Behind the red door.

Categories: Fiction, Film

Julie Klausner (BSS #330)

Julie Klausner is most recently the author of I Don’t Care About Your Band

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging dubious-minded vegans.

Author: Julie Klausner

Subjects Discussed: Terms for imposing snow, submitting a story to the New York Times‘s “Modern Love” section, the rejected “Modern Love” column, writing a book without any specific disciplinary pattern, crossing off bad dates from a to-do list, traveling to meet a man in order to write about it, people contacting the writer after being written about, Kevin Sampsell, people who leave passive-aggressive notes on Facebook walls, relationship miscarriages, the Muppets, the Kermit/Miss Piggy relationship as bromance, Mia Farrow starving herself on YouTube, human archetypes within vaudeville, Charles Grodin, having a crush on John Laroquette, decaying men, boyish hunks propped up as romantic men, the problems with youth culture, men who catalog their musical tastes vs. Klausner’s taxonomy of male types, negotiating life with behavioral cues, ridiculing people after being hurt, identifying guilt and regret, Klausner’s “first real boyfriend” and being asked to “turn down the glamor,” gender relations in comedy, chick lit, Jennifer Weiner, Sex and the City, women portrayed as “shallow shoe hookers,” being the odd one out in a male-dominated workplace, Pam vs. Dawn from The Office, The Comeback, the failure by comedy writers to give female characters enough humor and assertion, sex with crazy people, rational palpitations of the ventricles, the male body being “funny like a monkey is funny,” and women who love scrotums.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I actually wanted to ask you of your keen interest in the Muppets.

Klausner: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, I was very interested in this. You have a great affinity for Miss Piggy.

Klausner: Yes.

Correspondent: But you have a problem with the Miss Piggy-Kermit wedding — particularly the line, “What better way could anything end. Hand in hand with a friend.” You insist that this represents Kermit’s preference for guys, or going out with the guys, instead of having a commitment.

Klausner: Sort of. Or that he, in other words, how he feels about her deep in his heart is almost like how he feels about Fozzy.

Correspondent: Yeah, but…

Klausner: That she’s a friend of his more than anything else. And that she’s not special, I guess.

Correspondent: But you’ve developed an entire theory about your life based off of this. And this caused me some confusion.

Klausner: It’s normal, right?

Correspondent: Well, well, I mean, I want to just poke holes in this.

Klausner: Sure. Poke away.

Correspondent: First of all, you have Miss Piggy voiced in a high-pitched tenor by Frank Oz.

Klausner: Frank Oz. The great, the great Frank Oz.

Correspondent: Yes. And Kermit the Frog by Jim Henson.

Klausner: M’hmm. Rest in peace.

Correspondent: Depending upon how obsessive a Muppets fan you talk to, it’s kind of a bromance thing more than a romance thing.

Klausner: Interesting. Interesting.

Correspondent: So therefore your whole childhood theory may very well be….

Klausner: About a man in drag.

Correspondent: …despoiled by what was going on underneath the Muppets.

Klausner: That’s interesting. So let me ask you this. Do you think of Miss Piggy as a man in drag? Or do you think of her as a lady?

Correspondent: I think of her as a wonderfully poly-gender, polysexual queen.

Klausner: That’s a beautiful answer!

Correspondent: But I’m just wondering if this had occurred to you. Because you’ve seen The Muppet Movie so many times.

Klausner: Oh my god. I love the Muppets. And I’m a huge fan of the Muppets. And my interpretation of the relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy is — I mean, it’s obviously cheeky. I’m not going to go around and be like, “Children shouldn’t watch this filth! It’s going to give them bad ideas!” But I remember identifying with their relationship as being very — it resembled a lot of the dating experiences that I had. Which is that I was always chasing this sort of skinny guy that was more interested in his friends and his projects and his band or his show than me. And it’s interesting this way to think of Miss Piggy as a drag queen. As Frank Oz. Because drag queens are sort of hyperfeminine in that glamorous jewelry and perfume. And fabulous performers. And all of it.

Correspondent: I’ve seen that karate chop deployed in the Castro.

Klausner: I’m sure you have. And you know what? I don’t even know where the target was. But it was probably well deserved.

Categories: People

Nell Irvin Painter (BSS #329)

Nell Irvin Painter is most recently the author of The History of White People.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in David Coverdale’s noxious imperialism.

Author: Nell Irvin Painter

Subjects Discussed: Dred Scott, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Buck vs. Bell, Plessy vs. Ferguson, William Z. Ripley, racist intellectuals vs. racist legal decisions, Irish poverty and Emerson’s concern with the “Saxon seed,” Jacques Barzun, Ashley Montagu‘s notion of race as “the witchcraft of our time,” efforts in the late 1930s to declare that “race does not exist,” UNESCO, the cephalic index, race and the Human Genome, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Ruth Benedict’s insistence on subdivisions of the Caucasian race, how visual diagrams turned racist junk science into mainstream influence, immigrants as victims of racist taxonomic systems, efforts by Corey Sparks and Richard Jantz to disprove Franz Boas, Winckelmann’s white aesthetic, Samuel Stanhope Smith and cultural relativism, Gustave de Beaumont’s parallels between the poor Celtic Irish and African-Americans, John Beddoe, Ripley’s The Races of Europe, tracking down racist tomes for research, Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts on race omitted from Democracy in America, the lack of elitist interest into slavery during the early 19th century, cultural relativism, Painter’s own sketches inspired from Pliny’s Natural History, Il Proletario and the Wobblies as examples of David Walker’s charges against the abuse of black Americans being reused in a positive way, the influence of polemics, Harvard’s influence on scholarly responsibility, prostate cancer screenings, Emerson’s English Traits, Henry Ford, picking and choosing values, Ralph Ellison, and Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Correspondent: You are careful to write, “Harvard’s importance in eugenics does not imply some nefarious scheme or even a mean-spirited ambiance. Rather, Harvard’s import in this story attests to the scholarly respectability of eugenic ideas at the time.”

Painter: And that could be said about Princeton or Yale or any of the other lofty institutions.

Correspondent: But it is curious to me. I mean, if we recognize today [Robert] Yerkes and [William] Ripley’s stuff as “junk science” essentially, why at the time were these ideas so respected? Why did some of these people get tenured at Harvard?

Painter: Indeed.

Correspondent: I mean, it couldn’t have just been Harvard’s prestige. It had to be something else, I suppose.

Painter: Well, we’re talking about what was considered good science at the time. That was the knowledge that our culture needed at the time. And, after all, Ripley consulted all sorts of authorities. European authorities, American authorities, and so forth. So he had a really big bibliography and he followed the rules.

Correspondent: If someone attempted something along those lines today, I guess the Internet would kill it, I suppose.

Painter: Not necessarily. If it were something that we all agreed upon. Like, for instance, we’re seeing in the medical field right now. Recently, I read a report in the New York Times by a doctor saying there’s just too many prostrate cancer screenings. But a year or so ago, that was considered good science to have everybody screened. So things change.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Emerson, who you really take to task in this book. You devote a whole chapter to English Traits.

Painter: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters.

Correspondent: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters. But English Traits seems to be the one key text with which the…

Painter: It is the key text for this reason.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I just wanted to ask you about this. You note later in the book that Henry Ford was an admirer of English Traits.

Painter: Yes.

Correspondent: But in the book that you cited from — because I was really curious about this – Neil Baldwin’s Henry Ford and the Jews. Baldwin notes that it was Emerson’s essay, “Compensation,” that Ford favored above all else. And he even handed that out as as gifts. And that essay doesn’t contain any reference to race. You also state that Theodore Roosevelt echoes the phrase “hideous brutality” in English Traits. But in English Traits, Emerson uses the word “hideous” only once, in reference to the injustice of pauperism. And granted, there are issues with pauperism related to the Saxon seed, which we had mentioned earlier. But I just want to ask. Because I don’t disagree with you that Emerson’s views on the Irish, his drawing upon Robert Knox — these are problematic.

Painter: Yeah. I’m not saying that Emerson is a bad man. But I’m saying that Emerson, because of his importance in American culture, by focusing on these themes and presenting them, orchestrating them in his impeccable prose, made it acceptable. So it’s not that I’m castigating Emerson. I’m trying to place him in an intellectual theme.

Correspondent: But in the case of Henry Ford drawing more upon “Compensation,” say, than English Traits, that’s where I was — my question mark went up.

Painter: But we’re doing Henry Ford — what? Sixty, seventy years after Emerson.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, the other thing too is picking and choosing one’s values from Emerson. Like Ralph Ellison, for example. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Painter: Right.

Correspondent: And actually took a lot from the transcendentalists.

Painter: Oh, there’s a lot of Emerson. Emerson’s an extraordinary figure. And one who his contemporaries said embodies the whole of American learning. And to a certain extent, he did.

Correspondent: But going back to the question or relativism. Can he be let off the hook somewhat simply because he was, in part, an abolitionist? Maybe he didn’t go all the way, but…

Painter: No. We’re talking about different things.

Correspondent: Hmmm.

Painter: We’re talking about different things. Because he had one set of views, this doesn’t change what we think about another set of views. You can still respect Emerson for his central role in the American Renaissance and still know about his Saxonism.

Categories: Ideas