Death Comes for the Archbishop (Modern Library #61)

(This is the fortieth entry in The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: From Here to Eternity.)

Most of the largely sexist pigs who came up with the Modern Library canon were ancient men more fond of oinking and logrolling rather than upholding literary standards. (There was only one woman among these judges: to evoke a recent Marc Maron bit, “It was a different time”).

Most of these judges are now dead. Just as the regressive viewpoints they tapped within their 20th century hearts are now mostly pushing up the daisies. (Thank you, #metoo movement!) Oddball Christopher Cerf is the only judge still alive and I invite him to verbal pistols at dawn (or perhaps, more accurately, a feisty reckoning over a cup of morning tea) if he wants to respond to the list’s hideous gender imbalance. The remaining judiciary corpses include Gore Vidal (dead, past his prime in ’98), Daniel J. Boorstin (dead, past his prime in ’98), Shelby Foote (dead, covert Confederacy apologist, we’ll be getting to him in a few years, past his prime in ’98), Vartan Gregorian (dead, but, from all reports, a decent dude), A.S. Byatt (GOAT, literally just died in November, should have pushed back harder against these testosterone-charged fossils, being a Willa Cather fan seems to be her only fault), Edmund Morris (dead, past his prime in ’98 and about to destroy his career with Dutch), John Richardson (dead, past his prime in ’98), Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (dead, past his prime in ’98), and William Styron (dead, perilously close to being done in ’98, but dammit he at least gave us Darkness Visible, which was rightly included on the Modern Library nonfiction list).

Anyway, it says a great deal about the casual misogyny of these then doddering judges that a hopeless and unremarkable square like Willa Cather (the kind of teeming bore that other teeming bores genuflect to) somehow secured a much higher slot than such indisputable virtuosos as Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, and Muriel Spark. It says a great deal that Willa “Cream Corn” Cather — a plodding rustic rube without a soupçon of edge who wrote sentences so loathsome that, only ten minutes after reading an especially awful exemplar, I sprout wings from my back, descend with my fangs upon innocents in Manhattan, and destroy random chevron-studded façades and angelic statuary mounted on art deco skyscrapers hundreds of feet above the streets (if you Google around, you’ll find TikToks out there depicting my frightening transmutation; it is a display that is not for the faint of heart) — is apparently more worthy of commendation than Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Bowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Harper Lee, who were all denied a single spot on the list.

In 1998, did the Modern Library Judges fear what was then called an “outspoken” woman? Did they wish to consign “innovation” solely to men? Were they unsettled by the many waves of feminism? Did they try to argue that an insufferable reactionary goody little two-shoes like Cather was a feminist because she exposed spousal discontent through only the barest minimum amount of effort (see Alexandra in My Ántonia; if you think that’s a “radical” depiction of what women had to go through, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you here in Brooklyn) and because she was a closeted lesbian (even as she was tearing down other women of letters privately and publicly)?

At this point, we’ll probably never know. The likeliest scenario is that Cerf will stay mum and take the problematic history of these internal discussions to the grave. And let’s face the facts: the dude wouldn’t meet me for tea even if I whipped up a fun electro cover of one of his two hundred plus compositions for Sesame Street. (Yo, Chris, I’ve got terabytes of samples on my desktop! If a goofy emo punk version of “Monster in the Mirror” whipped up on my synth over the weekend will get you to cough up about this regrettable state of affairs, then I’ll do it! Seriously, that “wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo” just begs to be rasped out in the manner similar to the late Can singer Damo Suzuki.)

The wondrous Dame Hermione Lee, who remains one of our greatest living literary scholars, has written a solid and truly admirable bio advocating for Cather. And while I appreciated Lee’s volume in much the same way that I will always stump for Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, which reckons with the question on why so many people love Celine Dion, make no mistake: I consider anyone willing to go to the mat for Willa Cather to be some terminally unhip rooster without a shred of literary taste, the kind of unadventurous sod who would invite suicidal thoughts if you got cornered by him at a cocktail party. Lee gets special dispensation from me because she’s awesome — in large part because she wrote an invaluable Edith Wharton book (and I am, of course, crazy about Wharton). In fact, in quoting a passage from One of Ours that described junk, Lee identified a possible class-based literary divide between people like me who detest Cather and certain frou-frou bourgie types who think that she’s the cat’s pajamas (Christian Lander, you were so asleep at the wheel on the Cather front when you ran your excellent satirical blog!):

There is a hint that junk, once it starts ageing into antiques, might be seductive (an American writer with more entropic tendencies, like Nathanael West or Thomas Pynchon, would have loved that cellar) but, more often, junk is just pitiful, like the debris of Claude’s marital house: ‘How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed!’ [OOO, p. 223] When Claude comes to the ‘dump-heap’ of the French battlefields, he has already been living in a civilization (Cather suggests) which has not needed a war to turn itself into rubbish.

You have to love that “Cather suggests” parenthetical that Lee drops into this cogent analysis. (Don’t worry, Hermione! We cool! I have Quincy Jones’s wonderful Sanford and Son theme playing in the back as I write this paragraph!) I guess you could say that I’m one of those readers who is more drawn to authors with “entropic tendencies.” I believe you can find beauty in damned near anything. Including junk. But Cather, despite stumping for the heartland, is more of a rebuking prude who never earned the right to be a snob. She’d rather throw out the junk and align herself with the sanitarium/cornflakes crowd: you know, the alternative medicine quacks sent up decades later in T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. I know you whipper-snappers are keeping up with me in our age of conspiracy theories, rampant cognitive decline, and unfounded character assassination on social media. Or at least I hope you are!

There’s also the question of whether Cather’s “literary sensibilities” can be entirely trusted. Of The Awakening, Cather had the audacity to write, “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.” One might say the same of a hopeless stiff like Cather herself, though she does not possess anything especially exquisite in her early works beyond country bumpkin exclamation marks. She condemned Mark Twain — arguably the greatest wit that American letters has ever produced — as a man of “limited mentality” and “neither a scholar, a reader or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman.”

Yes, I realize that all this was written in the nineteenth century and it is incredibly absurd to pick a fight with somebody who has been dead for nearly eight decades. But I’m telling you. After reading far more Cather than I needed to for this essay, I had actual nightmares about Cather strangling me while laughing in a menacing high-pitched titter. These dreams were so terrifying that I would not even wish them on my worst enemy. And if I have to write about this mediocre and humorless nitwit from Nebraska because she’s on this goddamned Modern Library list, well, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, them’s fighting words.

Let’s take a look at some of the trite and treacly bullshit that Cather was banging out when she rolled out the howitzers against these legends.

From “Paul’s Case”:

The young man was relating how his chief, now cruising in the Mediterranean, kept in touch with all the details of the business, arranging his office hours on his yacht just as though he were home, and “knocking off work enough to keep two stenographers busy.”

Note the redundancies here (“cruising in the Mediterranean” and “arranging his office hours on his yacht”). Even an oft prolix mofo like me recognizes this sentence as interminably long, presumably extended to cash in on the word rate.

Or how about this overwritten nonsense from “The Sculptor’s Funeral”?

The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”

I’m very forgiving of melodrama in fiction, but this is unpardonable corn pudding with an objectively disagreeable sweetness that would be rightly laughed out of any MFA workshop today. The sequence of events here is all wrong. “Drawn from the hearse”? Well, where else would the casket come from? Some giant descending from the heavens? The attempt here to create poignant emotion falls flat with this overwrought dialogue. “My boy” was enough. But we get two in a row, followed by the kind of awful expository dialogue I go out of my way to avoid as a radio dramatist.

And then I read the soul-destroying novels. O Pioneers! was a vicious slog. The Song of the Lark — with its hideous reactionary parochialism and its incessant reliance upon gossip — will have you howling at the ceiling over how stiff and superficial it is. And My Ántonia? You’d honestly be better off spending your time listening to The Knack’s “My Sharona” on repeat for six hours.

Which finally brings us to Death Come for the Archbishop after a lot of throat-clearing. (Look, I’m trying to have fun here. My Cather deep dive was a deeply unpleasant reading experience!)

The common narrative propped up by Cather’s fusty and foolish boosters is that, much like Robert Johnson meeting the Devil, Cather went down to the Southwest (particularly Santa Fe) in the summer of 1925 and came back “reborn” with a renewed “sensitivity” for other cultures. But this, of course, is a lie. And it certainly doesn’t explain why Cather, much like a hopped up Zionist airhead denying Israel’s genocidal complicity, didn’t glom onto the indigenous people who lived in the region, but chose to fixate on the Christian authorities who longed to convert them.

I can see the Cather acolytes arriving at this point in my essay, suggesting that I have deliberately misread Death, which is oh so “sympathetic” to the indigenous people of New Mexico. But at what cost? Depicting Mexicans as noble savages? Emily of It Was Evening All Afternoon arrived at a similar conclusion in 2009. So did Kali Fajardo-Anstine over at LitHub. But why not just go straight to the text to see how docile and obliging the locals are?

When this strange yellow boy played it, there was softness and languor in the wire strings—but there was also a kind of madness; the recklessness, the call of wild countries which all these men had felt and followed in one way or another. Through clouds of cigar smoke, the scout and the soldiers, the Mexican rancheros and the priests, sat silently watching the bent head and crouching shoulders of the banjo player, and his seesawing yellow hand, which sometimes lost all form and became a mere whirl of matter in motion, like a patch of sand-storm.

A strong argument can be made that Cather was a white supremacist, particularly given her treatment of non-white characters in her odious final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which features hideous Black caricatures in the form of Bluebell and Lizzie. In an October 14, 1940 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher available at the online Willa Cather Archive (I am greatly indebted to Hermione Lee for her endnote), Cather wrote:

I loved especially playing with the darkey speech, which was deep down in my mind exactly like phonograph records. I could remember exactly what they said and the quality of the voice. Just wait till our wise young reviewers, such as Clifton and Louis, sadly call attention to the inconsistency in Till’s and Nancy’s speech,- never knowing that all well trained house servants spoke two languages: one with white people and one with their fellow negroes.

I hope this blatant racism and this boorish boasting helps you to understand why I have felt morally obliged to ratchet up the rage.

When Cather was at work on Death, a Cleveland Press reporter asked her what it was about. She replied, “America works on my mind like light on a photographic plate.” Jesus Christ, could you be any more pretentious? (Hermione Lee informs us that Cather, when making a trip to a writer’s colony as Death squeaked out of her precious mind, was “not remembered for her conviviality.” Which is a gentle way of telling us that Cather was completely fucking insufferable.)

To give Willa the Imperialist Prig some credit, I will say that Death Comes for the Archbishop is slightly better than the early turgid works, although that’s a bit like saying that the Limburger with the least amount of mold that you pick up from the charcuterie plate — you know, that stinky piece you nibble at out of politeness at a party simply because the poor host is blind and she had no idea that she was paring pieces from ancient heads that had been sitting in the fridge since the Clinton Administration — is the bomb.

Death opens with three cardinals and a bishop “talking business” about establishing a new vicarite in New Mexico, which Cather with full colonialist glee tells us is “a part of America recently annexed to the United States.” Bishop Ferrand, the missionary who headed out to the Old West, is ancient and weather-beaten and describes the desolate and fissure-ridden landscape for which these vaguely sinister religious mobsters hope to open up a franchise.

Jean Marie Latour, a thirty-five-year-old naif from Lake Ontario, is enlisted to be the point man converting all the Mexcians and the indigenous people who live in the region. And after these men of the cloth scoff over Latour’s intelligence (or lack thereof), Cather cuts to 1851, where Latour is on his way to Santa Fe. Cather does a decent job describing the limitless “uniform red hills” that Latour takes in on his journey. And there is a modicum of grit in this early chapter that, while a far cry from the satisfying description of Cormac McCarthy at his best, I largely enjoyed.

Unfortunately, after this promising start, my interest waned significantly when Latour began whining about not packing enough water for his journey and losing all of his possessions other than his books. It’s safe that Latour is a far cry from Chaucer’s many priests, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, or even Father John from M*A*S*H. He reveals himself quite rapidly to be an insufferable little shit and I started feeling sorry for Father Joseph Vaillant, Latour’s boyhood friend who accompanies him on the journey to Santa Fe. On the other hand, if you’re friends with a pompous windbag like Latour, then you probably deserve your shared misfortune.

As Father Latour is taken in by some locals, he finds a strange peace in the “bareness and simplicity” of the settlement. He quickly occupies space in a quietly domineering way and listens to the “simple” life stories of these people. I couldn’t help but wonder why a religious man like Latour was so ungrateful, but then I remembered how Cather herself hadn’t exactly been gracious to the many writers who tried to help her. Maybe the fact that Death can be read as a critique of religious imperialism is largely an accident.

Latour starts bragging about how great Americans are. You know, those white people who swooped in and destroyed the Mexican churches and stripped these good people of their religion? Those colonial assholes? They’re great, aren’t they? And, of course, Cather, by way of close narration through Latour, cannot feel any empathy for such debasement.

At this point, I began to loathe Latour with all my heart because of his cluelessness and his insensitivity. And I very much hoped that Cather would deliver on the promise of her title well before I was halfway through the book. Latour is very particular about a meal, telling some indigent to serve him a portion without chili because, as a Frenchman, he does “not like high seasoning.”

Not long after this, Latour is setting up his vicarite. And, of course, it’s Vaillant who is assigned to do all the cooking so that Latour can write endless letters in French. The bishop then takes the opportunity to bitch about the soup. Some friend this motherfucker is.

And even though condemning white privilege with this setup is easier than shooting monkeys in a barrel, I’ll give Cather some points for acknowledging hardscrabble reality:

The wiry little priest whose life was to be a succession of mountain ranges, pathless deserts, yawning canyons and swollen rivers, who was to carry the Cross into territories yet unknown and unnamed, who would wear down mules and horses and scouts and stage-drivers, tonight looked apprehensively at his superior and repeated, “No more , Jean. That is far enough.”

I suppose that Cather defenders will defend her belittling of Mexicans by pointing out how Vaillant is described as ugly. Maybe they’ll point to the way that Vaillant and Latour save an old Mexican slave named Sada. But their “help” involves this woman “obeying” the Padre and being ordered to go to church and pray. Sada really doesn’t have any agency other than wanting to return to her religion. And this, quite frankly, is nothing less than an insulting scene of religious tyranny and white privilege. As for the sinister murderer Buck Scales, it says quite a bit about Cather’s dormant xenophobia that his evil is defined equally in terms of interracial marriage: “All white men knew him for a dog and a degenerate—but to Mexican girls, marriage with an American meant coming up in the world. She had married him six years ago, and had been living with him ever since in that wretched house on the Mora trail.”

If you thought Jeanine Cummins was bad, try taking Willa Cather out for a spin. There’s no way I can defend Willa Cather and her repugnant insouciance in 2024. Her prose simply isn’t good enough for me to align myself with Hermione Lee. And I am pleased as punch that I will never have to read this mean and hideous writer ever again.

Next Up: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer!

From Here to Eternity (Modern Library #62)

(This is the thirty-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 Wapshot Chronicle.)

American history has always been a series of tranquil and joyful moments just before some terrible spill of the cosmic wheelbarrow. The ebb and flow of American life, as it has been and as it always will be, can be perceived as a recurring nightmare: of life, love, felicity, and possibility cast asunder in an unsettling uproar claiming some permanent end to innocence. The hanging chads and butterfly ballots ushering in a presidential monster, only to be eclipsed (and even normalized) sixteen years later by an even greater beast, a lusus naturae even more unhinged and more unsettling. The planes hitting the towers. A pandemic wiping out more than one million Americans. And, of course, the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor and stirred America from its slumber, shoving us into the Second World War.

In our rush to wrap our shivering minds in the warm blanket of nostalgia, as we recall epochs that were seemingly safer and stabler, we often forget that living did not stop and progress was not halted by the deafening clamor of sinister cornets warbling from left field. The best artists have always understood that each deep stab of history’s merciless dirk is answered by reflection and repose, of the battered and bruised emerging triumphantly from these setbacks with resilience and rejuvenation.

We were never like that. We were always like that. The push and pull continues unabated by the “winners” snorting with sow-soaked hubris at the top of the media food chain, with scant regard given to the unsettling totality.

Enter James Jones in 1951, whose massive masterpieces From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are little remembered by anyone under fifty today.

I may very well be the last person under fifty to have signed on for the full James Jones experience. Not even the perspicacious film critic Glenn Kenny finished the Jones doorstopper that he named his thoughtful blog after, but I did.

* * *

From Here to Eternity is a peacetime novel bolstered by a trinity of misfits: a former boxer who grew up poor and who invites trouble named Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (or Prew), a total maniac from Brooklyn who works in the kitchen named Private Angelo Maggio (in other words, a violent and unhinged toxic man who would be immediately canceled, if not arrested on sight, in 2024), and Sergeant Milt Warden, who is having an affair with Karen Holmes, naturally the wife of Captain Dana Holmes, who is the man in charge of G Company. Ther’s also Mess Sergeant Maylon Stark, who, while a minor character in Eternity, I mention here because Jones would take the names and temperaments of these men and reuse them for The Thin Red Line and Whistle, the next two books in his World War II trilogy. So in The Thin Red Line (another Jones masterpiece), Prewitt becomes Witt, Stark changes into Storm, Warden transmutes into Welsh. Then Whistle comes along and Witt is Winch, Prew is Prell, and Stark is Strange. It’s a clever move by Jones to show the interchangeability of certain personality types within the military-industrial complex. Thirty years before Richard Gere famously wailed “I got nowhere else to go!” in An Officer and a Gentleman, Jones understood the painful truth about rudderless men flocking to the military more than anyone.

Mention From Here to Eternity to anyone today and they will probably remember (that is, if they do remember) the famous love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. But as undeniably romantic as this cinematic moment is, I would say that “Re-Enlistment Blues” probably captures the spirit of the book better than the waves sweeping across gorgeous Hollywood actors (and, hey, I’m not going to deny that Lancaster and Kerr are both incredibly sexy in that scene). I’ve taken the liberty of covering the song, if only to remind the world that it was Jones who wrote the lyrics (since fewer people read these days, why not set the record straight on TikTok?):

You see, Jones rightly perceived the military as an all-encompassing instrument designed to turn fuckups into soldiers through often brutal regimentation. (One can see the full unforgiving horrors against the more libertine and free-thinking men on display in the novel’s brutal chapters in the stockade.) In a December 8, 1939 letter to his brother Jeff, Jones wrote, “I, who am better bred than any of these moronic sergeants, am ordered around by them as if I were a robot, constrained to do their bidding. But I can see their point of view. Nine out of every ten men in this army have no more brains than a three year old. The only way they can learn the manual and the drill commands is by constant repetition. It is pounded into their skulls until it is enveloped by the subconscious mind. The tenth man cannot be excepted. He must be treated the same as the others, even if in time he becomes like them.” A little less than four decades later, Jones would hold to this unsettling truth in his compelling memoir, WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering: “Men who had been raised to believe, however erroneously, in a certain modicum of individual free-thinking were being taught by loud, fat, devoted sergeants to live as numbers, by the numbers. Clothes that did not fit, when they could see clothes on the shelves that did fit…Being laughed at, insulted, upbraided, held up to ridicule, and fed like pigs at a trough with absolutely no recourse or rights to uphold their treasured individuality before any parent, lover, teacher or tribune. Harassed to rise at five in the morning, harassed to be in bed by nine-thirty at night.”

When From Here to Eternity dropped in 1951, few novelists — with the possible exception of Richard Aldington’s bracingly sardonic Death of a Hero — had dared to betray this unspoken memorandum of understanding. That the truth arrived in fiction six years after the surrender of Japan suggests that it was meant to be confronted, though not in expedient fashion. Three years before, Norman Mailer had merely presented the loneliness and dehumanization of his soldiers. But Jones was prepared to go much further than this, tackling military life with all of its blunt involutions. And it is testament to Jones’s great talent as a writer that Angelo Maggio — the anarchic id at the center of this massive novel — remains an inexplicably poignant figure, a character who charmed Frank Sinatra and, according to his biographer James Kaplan, caused Ol’ Blue Eyes to brood at night speaking his lines from the book and insisting that only he could play the part. (The role salvaged Sinatra’s then flailing career. Sinatra would go onto win an Academy Award for his performance in the 1953 movie. Indeed, it can be plausibly concluded that Sinatra would never have been Sinatra without James Jones. Without Maggio, Sinatra would have ended up as a forgotten crooner, some footnote in 20th century history.)

* * *

In stitching all these threads together, Jones was hindered by Scribner’s legal team, which demanded a low-salt version of the authentic soldier dialogue. Only a few years before, Norman Mailer had caved to the censors to get The Naked and the Dead published, using “fug” in lieu of a now commonplace word that one hears frequently from the mouths of enthusiastic teenagers (and causing Dorothy Parker to say, upon being introduced to Mailer, “So you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”).

But Jones saw the revision as a creative challenge. In his poignant memoir, James Jones: A Friendship, Willie Morris (who was so tight with Jones that he finished writing the final installment of the World War II trilogy, Whistler, after Jones’s death) got the inside skinny from editor Burroughs Mitchell on how Jones approached this:

It was very hard work; Jim’s ear was so exact that you couldn’t easily remove a word from the dialogue or substitute for it. But he kept doggedly at it, and eventually he began to treat the job as a puzzle, a game, and was delighted with himself when he found solutions. It was characteristic of him, then and afterward, that when an editorial decision was made, a look of anguish would come over his face, he would get up and pace, and finally he’d either accept or say, “I just can’t change that,” looking even more anguished. Finally I reported to Mr. Scribner that we had cut all the fucks we could cut, although not the lawyers’ full quota, and Mr. Scribner cheerfully accepted the situation. That was certainly part of reason why, when Charles Scribner died suddenly, Jim insisted on going to the funeral. He said he knew that Mr. Scribner had been worried about Eternity — but he had gone ahead and published it.

In our present age of sensitivity readers and books being banned or unpublished for spurious reasons, righteous career-destroying ideologues are no less wild-eyed or humorless than their right-wing, anti-art, anti-Critical Race Theory, and casually transphobic counterparts — the kind of regressive dipsticks who wrongly complain about how Russell T. Davies’s new stories for Doctor Who are “too woke” because of pronoun recognition, Davies equipping the TARDIS with a wheelchair ramp (and proudly introducing Ruth Madeley as a disabled UNIT adviser), and the marvelous inclusion of nonbinary characters. But make no mistake: tyranny against expression is not confined to any political affiliation. It is difficult to fathom any modern day corporate publisher who would possess the stones to stick with an author’s artistic vision in the way that Charles Scribner did. (Only four decades after the publication of From Here to Eternity, a gutless vulgarian by the name of Richard E. Snyder, head of Simon & Schuster (which would gobble up the Scribner imprint in 1993), would kibosh the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, before it was picked up by Vintage, where it would become a huge success (and be reinvented by the inventive Mary Harron as an unforgettable film adaptation mocking toxic masculinity, much as Ariel Levy and John Turturro recently adapted Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre for the stage in similar fashion). Thankfully, Snyder had the decency to drop dead of heart failure last June after living a long and spineless life lining the coffers of his corporate overlords by publishing “inoffensive” tomes.)

Jones wandered into the writing world a bit too late to get the full Maxwell Perkins treatment (he famously demanded to see Perkins in person as a young writer; Perkins received him and encouraged him, but passed away before he could devote his editorial energies to the entirety of Eternity), but he did have timing on his side, with the valves of permissible dialogue being slowly loosened in the early 1950s, culminating in the opprobrium that Grace Metalious would receive five years later for Peyton Place.

The uncensored version of From Here to Eternity was published by The Dial Press a few years back and, having read both the original and the uncensored versions, I would say that the latter is far superior. There are small differences, such as Maggio allowing a man to go down on him to land some extra cash:

“Oh, sall right. I admit its nothing like a woman. But its something. Besides, old Hal treats me swell. He’s always good for a touch when I’m broke. Five bucks. Ten bucks. Comes in handy the middle of the month.”

But these restored scenes really tell you about the quiet desperation of soldiers. They wait for payday. They augment their meager pay with card games in the latrine. They spend ridiculous amounts of money on sex workers. And they do this because, well, there is nothing else for them. In her incredibly underrated book Stiffed, Susan Faludi documented this problem in the 1990s from a variety of vantage points and concluded that the repugnant patriarchal cues and the way that American culture is conveniently superficial about anxieties that scar lives is equally applicable to men as well as women. And we cannot even begin to solve the underlying problems unless we are honest about all this. As journalists now lose their jobs and sites like The Messenger close their doors and kill their content without notice, it’s incumbent upon us to find the ballsy artists like Jones and stick up for them even when their honest sentiments are offensive or make us uncomfortable. More than five decades after its publication, From Here to Eternity still makes a valiant case for the need to tell and publish the truth.

Next Up: Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop!

The Wapshot Chronicle (Modern Library #63)

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

Despite focusing almost exclusively on the upper and middle classes in his fiction, John Cheever was that rare New Yorker regular whose short stories never came across as off-puttingly imperious, superficially urbane, or especially pretentious (although he did don a mannered Mid-Atlantic accent for his television appearances; his 1981 appearance with John Updike on The Dick Cavett Show is highly recommended). But to be fair to Cheever, this Quincy native was also good for a number of gentle tales featuring small-town types trying to live out their grandiose dreams in the big city, as seen in “O City of Broken Dreams” and “Clancy in the Tower of Babel.”) One gets the sense from Cheever’s stories and his diaries that, for all of his hard drinking and his tormented sexuality, the man genuinely loved people and marveled over bizarre jewels mined from the commons. His writing voice led many to call him “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” although that appellation doesn’t do full justice to Cheever’s stratospheric talent or surprising range.

This emphasis on pedigree has caused many contemporary readers to align Cheever — much to the understandable chagrin of The Millions‘s Adam O’Fallon Price — with the equally great Raymond Carver, whose penetrating portraits of blue-color realism showed a similar talent for exhuming the irresistible madness buried within the quotidian. (Carver’s baker in “A Small, Good Thing” — with the surreal quality of his incessant phone calls to a grieving couple — could be a Cheever character. And indeed, Cheever and Carver were drinking buddies.) But Cheever worked a slightly less verisimilitudinous room that, even with its quasi-fantastical wainscotting, proved just as truthful as Carver’s grit. Cheever’s finest stories — “The Enormous Radio,” “Torch Song” (one of my personal favorites), and “The Swimmer” — nimbly corral the motley flocks of common anxieties into quietly surrealistic pastures situated somewhere between speculative fiction and magical realism. But Cheever’s bold storytelling strokes (a radio that airs the conversations of neighbors, people who age or who never age in strange ways) never seem to come across as overly conceptual or call attention to themselves because his characters are so vivid in their behavior. (“I wish you wouldn’t leave apple cores in the ashtrays,” says one of the overheard people in “The Enormous Radio,” “I hate the smell.” As a former smoker who practiced significant pulmonary zest while slowly killing himself, I’ve never seen anyone do this — not even the chain-inhaling slobs I shivered outside with in my dorm room days.) It’s an emphatic lesson that seems to have eluded priapic spec-fic hacks like David Brin, Orson Scott Card, and John Scalzi, who are more interested in bloviating and showing how “clever” they are rather than practicing the art of writing fiction, much less humility, in any notable manner (and, in Card’s case, a monotonously homophobic one).

Buoyed by his elegant and subtly expansive prose, Cheever somehow inoculated himself against being typed — especially after the success of The Wapshot Chronicle, the masterpiece on the Modern Library list which beckons this essay and the novel that got me so passionate about Cheever again that I reread the full oeuvre, delaying yet another installment and once again hedging the unknown number of days I have left in my life against the completion of this insanely ambitious project. Bullet Park is a laudable though not entirely successful effort to break out of the zany New England métier. But Falconer? That novel is a fucking knockout that truly shows just how much range Cheever had. He captured the speech and mannerisms of prisoners in a way completely beyond the abilities of Updike or, for that matter, many of the smug and privileged novelists you see on BlueSky boasting daily about how “woke” they are, even as they can be observed in real life nervously crossing the street whenever they see a Black person approaching them. Decades before Alan Hollinghurst, Cheever had this knack for describing the seedier pastimes of sexuality as if this was the most beautiful thing in the world. But he also rightfully earned respect from the mainstream literary establishment at a time in which writers wrangling with anything even remotely high-concept were often pushed needlessly and ignominiously into the dodgy shadows of the pulp markets.

While Cheevermania thankfully remains somewhat alive in the 2020s — with both Mary Gaitskill and Emma Cline stumping for him at the last New Yorker festival — note how Vulture reporter Brandon Sanchez emphasizes the short stories while shutting out the novels. Even my fellow Cheever booster O’Fallon Price, who rightly points to the “binary choice between dull routine and utter chaos” frequently explored in Cheever’s fiction, offers nothing more than an oblique reference to Bullet Park in his Cheever essay. None of these people seem to have heeded the wisdom of the late great critic John Leonard, who demanded that we express love and generosity to a sui generis talent (just as he did in his review of Cheever’s final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, which is still very solid Cheever, particularly the ice skating and supermarket scenes).

The Wapshot Chronicle is utterly breathtaking, often very funny, and poignant. Less seasoned readers have dismissed Wapshot as the work of a “master short story writer teaching himself how to write a novel” and, while they are not wrong on this point, I think this is a significant underestimation of what Cheever has accomplished here. Wapshot deserves to be held high with the same adulation reserved for his short stories. For one thing, Wapshot is also the first Book of the Month Club selection with the word “fuck” in it. This “transgression,” which must have scandalized pearl-clutching moralists of the lowest order, surely gives Cheever a small amount of punk rock streetcred.

Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely grey hair.

That silly advice comes from retired sea captain, endearing crank, and old patriarch Leander Wapshot. Stylistically speaking, Leander’s fascinating clippy patois is what stands out on the first reading. But there’s also a shrewd piss-take on Booth Tarkington‘s device of an omniscient storyteller who makes his presence known with picayune details of family lines and furtive glimpses into certain subcultures:

It is the perhaps in the size of things that we are most often disappointed and it may be because the mind itself is such a huge and labyrinthine chamber that the Pantheon and the Acropolis turn out to be smaller than we had expected.

Wapshot was not the first time that Cheever used this trick. His 1955 story “Just One More Time” does this as well. But with Wapshot, the almost satirical formality serves to create an epic structure for the eccentric Wapshot family to run wild. (And in the case of Leander’s two sons, Moses and Coverly, they literally flock to many corners of the nation — particularly Coverly after he becomes a Taper and is sent to far-off regions: the military base, in Cheever’s hands, is sent up gloriously and Cheever would continue with this in The Wapshot Scandal by satirizing the McCarthy trials.) Much like the fantastical concepts in his stories anchored strange behavior, so too does the Tarkingtonesque narrator frame the family adventures.

I also loved the marvelously quirky Cousin Honora, who controls the family pursestrings and who has a highly unusual method of paying for her bus fare:

Honora doesn’t put a dime into the fare box like the rest of the passengers. As she says, she can’t be bothered. She sends the transportation company a check for twenty dollars each Christmas. They’ve written her, telephoned her and sent representatives to her house, but they’ve gotten nowhere.

My only minor quibble about Wapshot — and this is a point that a certain misogynistic predator who was forced to bail from the publishing world lacked the acumen to consider — is how Melissa, the woman who marries Moses, is short-changed by Cheever. It’s clear that she is not happy in the marriage. Cheever, to his credit, would make a noble stab to atone for this in The Wapshot Scandal by having her run off with a 19-year-old grocery boy named Emile. But even in the sequel, I felt that Cheever didn’t quite flesh out this character. It’s not that Cheever couldn’t write women (see Honora, for one) or didn’t understand what it was like to be trapped in a thankless marriage. (Julia Weed in “The Country Husband” is a far better portrayal of this problem than Melissa.) But sometimes the best pilot can’t always stick the landing. And I’m not about to pull one of those Zoomer hissy fits and cancel Cheever simply because he fumbled an important issue. Especially because there’s so much to admire about Wapshot: its wit, its heart, the way that it embraces certain strains of Southern literature only to abandon this tone once Moses and Coverly go off and live their lives, its beautiful depiction of naivety at every age, and the hilarious tally of weird accidental deaths. I also feel obliged to point to Steven Wandler’s interesting essay in which he argues that the two Wapshot novels are similar while presenting contradictory views of the world. Another literary Ed — one who has greater cachet than this irksome Brooklynite — has made a savvy argument that much of this stemmed from the contradictions of Cheever’s life. And aren’t contradictions exactly the reason why we reread great novels?

Next Up: James Jones’s From Here to Eternity!

James Joyce (Modern Library Nonfiction #73)

(This is the twenty-seventh 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: Florence Nightingale.)

“Mr. Joyce, first of all, is a little bourgeois Irishman of provincial tastes who has spent a lifetime on the continent of Europe in a completely fruitless attempt to overcome the Jesuit bigotry, prejudice, and narrowness of his childhood training. Mr. Joyce began his literary career as a fifth-rate poet, from there proceeded to become a seventh-rate short-story writer, graduated from his mastery in this field into a ninth-rate dramatist, from this developed into a thirteenth-rate practitioner of literary Mumbo-Jumboism which is now held in high esteem by the Cultured Few and I believe is now engaged in the concoction of a piece of twenty-seventh-rate incoherency, as if the possibilities in this field had not already been exhausted by the master’s preceding opus.” — Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock

James Joyce was probably the greatest writer of the 20th century, although opinions vary. (Many of today’s young whipper-snappers sound astonishingly similar to a dead-inside academic like Thomas Wolfe’s Mr. Malone when dispensing their rectal-tight rectitude and uncomprehending pooh-poohs on social media.) But as a wildly ambitious literary athlete nearing fifty (353 books read so far this year, with a little more than a week left), I cannot think of any other writer whom I have returned to with such regularity and gusto. Even the dreaded “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Ulysses, which caused at least six hundred grad students to faint from fatigue in the last year (and a good dozen young scholars to permanently lose their minds), demands that you peruse it anew to appreciate its multitudinous parodies.

Only a handful of living writers can summon a similar obsession in me through the power of their words. But even when these hypergraphic bards descend from the Mount with their thick portentous volumes, they are hopelessly outmatched by the Dublin bard’s mighty polyglot yardstick. (Certainly Anthony Burgess spent his prolific literary career forever lost in Joyce’s formidable fug and forever resented the fact that his best known work, A Clockwork Orange, with its captivating NADSAT, caught on, perhaps because it represented some attempt to mimic Joyce’s word-soaked playfulness.)

When I visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove Point not long before the pandemic, it was the closest thing that an atheist like me has ever had to a religious experience. It had never occurred to me — a relentlessly abused white trash kid who fought off bullies (and still has to do so in his forties) when not filling his voracious noggin with too many books, a reader from the age of two, an accidental provocateur who still manages to piss off PhDs and varying mediocre literary types whenever I quote long passages from memory culled from books they claim to have read but have somehow forgotten — that I would ever have the divine privilege of standing at the very location where “Telemachus” begins. My first walk alongside the Mississippi River last summer in deference to another literary hero of mine was close, but Joyce was the clear winner when it came to summoning such heartfelt psychogeographical wonder. As I sauntered along the swerve of shore to bend of Scotsman’s Bay back to the Dublin train, I trembled with tears of joy, feeling great shudders push me into a state of awe that I did not know was writhing within me. I simply could not believe it. I had already been impressed by the social code of the great Irish people, who would always give you at least five minutes of banter and who were never shy in expressing their opinions and who immediately unlocked the key to further appreciating “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” through their innate conversational finesse. But was I actually standing in the same room in which Samuel Trench (the basis for Haines) had shot at an imaginary panther that had plagued him in his sleep? And was that truly Joyce’s guitar? The good people who run this landmark were incredibly kind to this wildly voluble and incredibly excited Brooklynite. I flooded their robust Irish souls with endless questions and an irrepressible giddiness. A kind woman, who did her best to suppress laughter over my ostentatious literary exuberance, remarked that they had not seen such a visitor display such bountiful passion in months.

But I am and always will be a Joyce stan. I own five Joyce T-shirts, including an artsy one in which the opening words of Finnegans Wake are arranged in a pattern matching one of Joyce’s most iconic photographs. Before I deleted all of my TikTok accounts, my handles were various riffs on Joyce’s most difficult volume. There has rarely been a week in which I have not thought about Ulysses or “The Dead” or, on a whim or in need of a dependable method to restore my soul, picked up my well-thumbed copy of Finnegans Wake and recited pages and laughed my head off. When I went through the roughest patches of my life nine years ago, it was James Joyce who helped save me. I reread Ulysses while living in a homeless shelter. And had I not had that vital volume on me to renew my fortitude and passion, it is quite likely that I would be dead in a ditch somewhere and that the words I am presently writing would not exist.

So I’m obviously already in the tank for Joyce and deeply grateful to him. He has proven more reliable and loyal to me than my toxic sociopathic family. These moments I have chronicled would be enough. But Richard Ellmann hath made my cup runneth over. He somehow achieved the unthinkable, writing what is probably the best literary biography of all time. Other biographers have combed through archives and badgered aging sources, hoping to stitch their tawdry bits with dubious “scholarship.” Small wonder that Joyce himself referred to these highfalutin ransackers, who have more in common with TMZ reporters than academics, as “biografiends.”

But one cannot lay such a mildewed wreath at Ellmann’s feet. There are very few details in Ellmann’s book that do not relate directly to the work. We learn just how invaluable Stanislaus Joyce was to his brother. Stanislaus — an adept peacemaker who documented his fractious fraternal relationship in his own book, My Brother’s Keeper — is liberally excerpted. If Stanislaus hadn’t pushed back hard on the alleged “Russian” feel of Joyce’s great short story “Counterparts,” would we have had “The Dead”? (“The Dead” was written three years after the other fourteen tales contained in Dubliners.) To cite just one of many Ellmann’s cogent connections between Joyce’s life and work, we learn that Edy Boardman — Gertie McDowell’s friend in the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses — represented faithful recreations of neighbors that the Joyce family knew on North Richmond Street and that “the boy that had the bicycle always riding up and down in front of her window” was, in fact, a callout to one Eddie Boardman, who had the first pneumatic-tired bike in the hood. Joyce’s crazed jealousy towards any man whom he suspected had designs on Nora Barnacle — with his insecure interrogations of Nora by letter and in person — are duly chronicled. The boy that Nora had dated before Joyce came along was Sonny Bodkin (who died tragically young of tuberculosis) and she was initially attracted to Joyce because of their close physical resemblance. And while Joyce was forward-thinking when it came to presenting Jewish life in Dublin (and arguably creating one of the most fully realized Jewish heroes in literature with Leopold Bloom), his regressive masculinity could not stand the notion that his great love’s heart had stirred long before he came along. And yet, even with his nasty and unfair and unreasonable accusations, he was able to find a way to broach this in fiction with Gretta Conroy recalling her dead lover Michael Furrey in “The Dead.” It is often the darkest personal moments that fuel the best of fiction.

And let’s talk about that ugly side of Joyce. The great Dublin exile was also an unapologetic leech, a shrewd manipulator, and a master of dodging creditors. He fantasized about pimping his wife Nora out to other men while also being naive enough to believe Vincent Cosgrave’s claim that Cosgrave was sleeping with Nora before him in the fateful summer of 1904, nearly sabotaging his relationship with a series of angsty transcontinental missives. For better or worse, Joyce refused to see the full extent of his poor daughter Lucia’s troubles. He treated many who helped him very poorly. And, of course, he despised explaining his work. He wanted to keep the scholars busy for centuries. And he succeeded. Here we are still discussing him, still mesmerized by him. Even when his life and work are often infuriating.

If there is any weakness to Ellmann’s formidable scholarship, it is with the women who were vital to Joyce’s life. Ellmann was so focused on finding precise parallels between Joyce’s life and work — but usually only including Jim and his brother Stanislaus at the center — that he often portrays these invaluable lieutenants in superficial terms — that is, if he even mentions them at all. Let us not forget that Joyce was a man terrified of dogs, violence, and thunderstorms. The women in his life empathized with the effete qualities of this indisputable genius and provided financial and scholarly resources for Joyce to continue his work, even when they found Finnegans Wake baffling and not to their taste. Perhaps most criminally, there is no mention in Ellmann’s book of Myrsine Moschos (who was Lucia Joyce’s lover at one point), the dutiful woman who toiled at the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Company and spent long days in the dank chambers of Parisian libraries, sifting through decaying volumes that often crumbled to dust in search of obscure words and other arcane lexical associations that Joyce included in Finnegans Wake. Moschos often returned from these scholarly journeys so exhausted that Sylvia Beach — arguably the greatest bookseller in all of human history and the woman who took significant risks to get Ulysses published — had stern words for Joyce about Moschos’s health.

In 2011, Gordon Bowker published a biography — something of a quixotic project, given the long imposing shadow cast by Ellmann — that was more inclusive of Nora Barnacle, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Shaw Weaver. But I do recommend Brenda Maddox’s Nora, Carol Loeb Schloss’s Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (with significant reservations), and Noel Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation as volumes that fill in these significant gaps that Ellmann, in his efforts to portray Joyce as his own master, often failed to address. (Even Jo Davidson, the sculptor who was instrumental in making the New York theatrical run of Joyce’s play Exiles happen, is merely afforded a footnote by Ellmann.)

Can one literary biography be the all-encompassing volume that captures a life? Even one that was as complicated as Joyce’s? Perhaps not. But Ellmann has certainly come closest. Now that Joyce’s famously hostile grandson Stephen has passed away and the copyright for much of Joyce’s work has at long last been released into the public domain, it’s possible that another biographer will be better situated to come closer to revealing the Joyce mystique without being strangled by the bitter hands of some unremarkable apple twice removed from the great tree. But I doubt that any future scholar will match Ellmann. For all of his modest limitations, he was the right man at the right time to capture a seminal literary life in perspicacious and tremendously helpful form.

(Next Up: Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels!)

The Catcher in the Rye (Modern Library #64)

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

Like many semi-literate members of my generation, I first read The Catcher in the Rye at the age of fifteen, following the ethereal rites and cadences of older kids turned on by the same seductive anthem to nonconformity. At that angsty teenage time in my life, Holden Caulfield appealed to my rebellious and anti-authoritarian streak. This reaction, in and of itself, is not especially unusual. Salinger has continued to be assigned to high school English curricula in large part because you can inveigle kids into reading by making the titles forbidden. (Witness how Art Spiegelman’s Maus became a surprise bestseller last year after some boneheaded martinets banned the evocative Holocaust graphic novel from Tenneessee school libraries.)

I am now in my late forties and I still remain as iconoclastic and as boundary-pushing (though a tad less loutish) as I was when I was a mere stripling, although I’d like to think that my temperament has been made more palatable by my greater commitment to pragmatism. In that intervening time I avoided rereading Catcher until last year, dreading the disagreeable revisitation when this classic at long last emerged on this insanely ambitious project like some former crush at the twenty year high school reunion inviting you to a hotel room after spilling the tatters of her doomed marriage. You instinctively know that you’re better off chatting up some comely and perspicacious stranger at the hotel bar, someone without a loose thread dangling from a varsity sweater in mothballs. Because who you were when you knew nothing is quite different from the middle-aged person you are now who knows slightly more than nothing. There’s enough cognizance in the tank to suggest that a freeform hookup consummated long after your adolescent lust has shriveled up is a very bad idea. Particularly one in which you aid and abet nuptial dissolution by your own selfish spasms.

And while I will stand by most of Salinger’s Nine Stories and, in particular, the far more interesting thoughts of the precocious Glass family (I’m even willing to stump a bit for the problematic “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which is far more interesting in its uncompromising stance than anything gurgling from Holden Caulfield’s mouth), I can no longer hold up The Catcher in the Rye as great literature — not that it was ever really my goto choice. (James Baldwin, James M. Cain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller (yeah, I know) proved far more formative to me in my younger days than Salinger ever could.)

I find Holden Caulfield to be an insufferable and entitled monster, a budding sociopath who can only find joy in snow and his younger sister Phoebe when he’s not breaking windows and getting into dust-ups and treating everyone around him (particularly the poor girls who have the misfortune of dating him) like shit, which could explain in part why John Hinckley, Jr. took to Salinger like a box jellyfish flocking to corral shortly before trying to gun down the Evil Gipper. Upon rereading Catcher last month to take assiduous notes, I was astonished by my hate-read glee and how loudly I cheered during the moment when the pimp/elevator operator Maurice storms into Holden’s room at the Edmont Hotel, trying to collect an additional five dollars from this monied and mottled brat. Given Holden’s precious olfactory sense (even while smoking?) and the way he sneers at everyone around him, the detestable little bastard had it coming.

Holden is not even a proper punk because he cares about nobody other than himself. I felt sorry for the poor taxi drivers who had to contend with Holden’s facile riddle about where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter. His ties to his family only exist as pretexts to defend his braggadocio and his dubious victimhood, which Salinger feels the need to cram down our throats with Holden’s dead brother Allie. His ethos, if it can be called that, revolves around relentless narcissism and feigned sybaritism. What does it say that I found myself wanting to spend more time with Alex in A Clockwork Orange rather than this infernal sixteen-year-old misanthrope with his hideously obnoxious “I really did,” “phony,” “goddamn,” and “crumby” (to say nothing of Salinger’s annoying tendency to italicize the first syllable of a word, a stylistic practice that has fortunately not been picked up by his fiction-writing sycophants). At least Alex was committed to classical music and “the heighth of fashion” (the word “heighth” appears three times in Catcher and one can’t help but ponder how much the novel may have influenced Anthony Burgess) when he wasn’t busy raping and murdering ten-year-olds. What does Holden Caulfield even stand for? His Weltanschauung is little more than a collection of easy shots at obvious targets. My views on Holden Caulfield are quite similar to film critic Glenn Kenny railing against Ferris Bueller. But unlike Kenny, I actually like Ferris Bueller! In fact, I’d argue that the difference between John Hughes and Salinger is that Hughes loved his characters. Whereas Salinger didn’t really find that type of auctorial love until he wrote about the Glass family. (Joyce Maynard informs us that he protected the Glasses like jeweled treasure.) And if David Shields and Shane Salerno’s quirky and engaging Salinger bio is anything to go by, Holden Caulfield represented Salinger himself far more than any of his other characters. (Salinger insisted that he was the only person who could play Holden in any dramatic adaptation.) Given how broken Salinger was after battling in the Hürtgen Forest and witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust death camps, an argument could be made that Catcher represents more of an artistic exercise in self-loathing rather than a free-wheeling celebration of anarchic adolescence.

The way I see it, The Catcher in the Rye is more of a myth than a literary achievement. The vainglorious rush to throw a risibly wide net of influence from Catcher — simply on the basis of the novel selling 65 million copies over the years — is best epitomized by a surprisingly myopic assessment from Louis Menand on the occasion of Catcher‘s fiftieth anniversary. Menand cited Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as “Catcher in the Rye rewrites.” Never mind that — even accounting for his Salingerphilia — Eggers’s book was a memoir mining from lived experience rather than a novel. (Did Eggers deliberately live out his twenties like Caulfield? For all of his ignoble public image management, I greatly doubt it.) In 2010, writing on the occasion of Salinger’s passing, McInerney confessed that he had been “baffled” by the comparisons, pointing out that he not read Salinger for years while working on his debut novel.

Now some of you, knowing how outspoken and take-no-prisoners I can be with my little essays, probably came here for a salacious hit piece. Maybe you’re gleefully steeping your fingers awaiting a knee-jerk drive-by on the long dead Jerome David (or Jerry, as his closest pals called him). But I don’t want to write that. I am just one hardcore reader trying to be honest here. And nothing that I say will diminish Catcher‘s immense popularity. Its stature and its legacy are safely preserved. Additionally, the highfalutin thuggery of clickbait doesn’t interest me. It’s far too easy to write. As it so happens, I actually like Saligner’s writing. In my reread of Salinger’s oeuvre, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “Franny” (which anticipates the dangers of toxic masculinity by decades), and “Seymour: An Introduction” spoke to me far more in my middle-aged years than ever before.

No, I’m more interested in interrogating why I despised the novel so much as a grownass man. Where did things go wrong between Holden and me over the last thirty years? I certainly don’t feel this way about such troublemakers as Huck Finn, Ignatius J. Reilly, Bart Simpson, Calvin and Hobbes, Peeves, A Fan’s Notes‘s Fred, Sam Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner, or Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead — many of whom were arguably more plagued than Holden Caulfield. I cannot gainsay that Catcher remains very well-loved (my girlfriend’s teenage daughter speaks highly of it) and that there was a time (sort of) when it spoke to me. If I were a hopelessly moronic and hubris-riddled hack like Dan Kois — who recently learned his lesson the hard way — then I’d probably cleave cheaply to this enmity and arrogantly take my lumps without learning a goddamned thing. The truth of the matter is that I wish I could love Holden Caulfield more. Because much of Salinger’s other work is amazing.

I think it is Salinger the person who I cannot stand. His grooming and victimization of Joyce Maynard, Jean Miller, and many others. His savvy manipulation of New Yorker editor William Shawn (just as private and as isolated as Saligner). The strange contradiction of his reclusiveness and his exhibitionism. Saligner outed people and details when he was alive and wrote letters and unpublished essays to control the narrative (particularly in relation to Tom Wolfe’s notorious hit piece on The New Yorker) rather than allowing the world to pass him by. The gruff meanness to “intruders” and the lack of grace or humility about his success. Small wonder that the likes of Alfred Kazin and John Updike started lobbing rocks at him when it came to the Glass family. Salinger’s biographers will tell you that this was a case of envious competitors using their gatekeeping advantages to keep Jerry in place. But I think it had more to do with the more toxic qualities behind the talent that they innately detected but could not quite pinpoint until Catcher had become a classic. (Even an endearing oddball like Ron Rosenbaum, no stranger to Salinger enthusiasm, confessed that he suffered from “Saligner fatigue,” even as he wrongly impugned anyone (including Shields and Salerno) from reading Catcher as a symbiosis between author and fictional creation.) Kazin rightly points out that Holden Caulfield is “cute” only because we expect boys of his age to be “consciously appealing and consciously clever.” Updike notes how Salinger’s post-Catcher work has the author “never rest[ing] from circling his creations, patting them fondly. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given.”

So if you’re in the “Salinger’s Glass family stories are better” camp like me, you have no problem with an author who was willing to steer the reader a little harder to get to a more Zen-like artistic place. If you’re in the “Catcher is better” camp, I would contend that you are more willing to be captivated by Holden’s “cute” and “loving” charms without considering the problematic scaffolding that props all this up.

But for the Catcher stans, consider how much more pointed and playful Buddy Glass’s nonconformist missives are in “Seymour — An Introduction”:

In this entre-nous spirit, then, old confidant, before we join the others, the grounded everywhere, including, I’m sure, the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette filters for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should or shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up) Kilroy, Christ, and Shakespeare all stopped…

And so on. This beautiful rant from Salinger — which rhythmically evokes Goethe’s idea of “the whole, the good, and the beautiful” sans one syllable — is as punk rock as it gets and has greater crags to cling to than any of Holden Caulfield’s cheap and tedious nihilism:

Grand. There’s a word I hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.

Or:

God, I hate that. I don’t see why the hell they can’t talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

Or:

It isn’t important, I know, but I hate it when somebody has cheap suitcases. It sounds terrible to say it, but I can even get to hate somebody, just looking at them, if they have cheap suitcases with them.

At times, Holden’s complaints about the world read like a very rich and incredibly elitist standup comic who isn’t very funny — someone as detestable as Bill Maher.

We know that Salinger worked very hard on Catcher, impressively writing the bones of Catcher in the World War II battlefields, sending these early stories off to New York (some getting published), and, years later, holing up in the New Yorker office and other hermetic Manhattan foxholes for a year to polish and perfect Catcher. Catcher can certainly be commended as the work of an artist baring himself completely in ways that — much like Kerouac — were unprecedented at the time, only for Salinger to bury all these truths behind ambiguities that feel a little too on-the-nose, such as Mr. Antolini patting Holden on the head (awkward drunken tenderness or molestation?). But it’s also a study in a tormented man running away from his demons (i.e., Holden refusing to grow up) rather than confronting them head-on such as he did so well with the trauma of World War II veterans in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

And that, to my mind, is the great tragedy of Salinger. Here was this master of the short story and the novella who wanted to grow beyond what he was best known for and become an even greater artist. But he was curtailed from publishing anything beyond “Hapford” by a reproachful and imperious literati who ultimately wanted more of the same. He beguiled readers with a beatific looking glass that, upon closer study, reveals more than a few fissures. And when he tried to reinvent himself, it was much too late.

Next Up: John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle!

A Clockwork Orange (Modern Library #65)

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

It’s become quite fashionable to bash the ridiculously prolific and mock pompous Mancunian with the combover. Never mind that anyone with a remote familiarity for how theatre comes together recognizes that Anthony Burgess perfected a magnetic if abrasive persona, frequently appearing on television with the likes of Dick Cavett when he wasn’t banging out his daily 1,000 words and, over the course of his life, appearing in every magazine known to humankind. (There’s a great joke in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in which Nick Guest sees his article placed behind Burgess.) Burgess was a ferocious polymath who claimed to pick up languages in weeks and even devised the prehistoric patois for Quest for Fire. He was a composer and a provocateur who was sensible enough to find an instinctive way to piss off everyone: an old school virtue that is increasingly at odds with our age and that has the unintended consequence of stifling truths we need to talk about. He was the type of British writer who was catnip to a budding young California punk like me. Much like the equally neglected filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, he combined erudite anarchism with a gentle and often curiously lugubrious propriety. (I don’t think it’s an accident that Malcolm McDowell was both an Anderson staple and starred in Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange.) One doesn’t see too many artists like this anymore on either side of the Pond.

It would be tempting to suggest that Anthony Burgess’s wildly pugnacious, spectacularly bitter, and inarguably pathetic biographer Roger Lewis had something to do with this state of affairs, though that would be ascribing too much credit to this spiteful little worm, the living embodiment of what Joyce called a “biografiend.” (Lewis’s book, incidentally, is the worst and nastiest literary biography I have ever read. This is not a recommendation. It isn’t even enjoyable as a hate read.) Speaking ill of Burgess has become something of an unspoken duty among literary nerds ever since the erstwhile John Wilson bit the big one in 1993. When I interviewed Will Self in 2007 and mentioned Burgess, Self’s eyes lit up with the blood-curdling rancor of Van Helsing spotting Dracula and he called Burgess a “monster” with deep solemnity. Another literary writer, a MacArthur fellow, told me off the record that he detested Burgess with all of his heart. Even the mild-mannered blokes behind the terrific podcast Backlisted have gently condemned Burgess from time to time.

But I’ve always taken a shine to Burgess — in large part because I have always been deeply fond of arcane words, larger-than-life personalities who rub anyone owning more than three pair of pants the wrong way, and iconoclastic ambition within artists. Earthly Powers and the Enderby books, in particular, are great literary achievements, though their bloom has been dulled by the fact that mid-to-late career Burgess worked in a peculiarly learned comedic mode. You could argue, and many have, that Burgess was operating in the great shadow of Joyce, whom he greatly revered. Burgess wrote two entertaining (though somewhat lightweight) books on the great Irish genius: Joysprick and Re Joyce. And I suspect that this literary alignment has allowed me to forgive his more venomously obnoxious moments, which include insulting Graham Greene, accepting a Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year Award from a feminist press, and causing a cockalorum like Roger Lewis to waste many forlorn years of his go-nowhere life detesting him. (Fortunately, the more even-keeled Andrew Biswell has graced us with The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. And there are two volumes that Burgess himself wrote: Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time, both of which are hilarious collections of grandiose lies delivered with Burgess’s trademark self-importance.)

What’s most curious about A Clockwork Orange is how Burgess himself disowned it — even as he wrote introductions, made television appearances, and even quietly adapted into a musical. Throughout his life, Burgess felt he had “a sort of authorial duty to it.” Burgess resented not being known for his other works, but, given how regularly he stumped for M/F, a literary puzzle that has not held up very well, one suspects that Burgess himself was not his best critic. (Indeed, in April 1963, Burgess reviewed his own novel, Inside Mister Enderby, which was originally published under the name Joseph Kell. He gave a bad review to one of his most enjoyable books and lost his position at the Yorkshire Post over this mischief.)

A Clockwork Orange doesn’t fit tidily next to the humorous name-dropping flaunt of Earthly Powers‘s Kenneth Toomey or even the satirical dystopia of The Wanting Seed, in which heterosexuality is taboo in an effort to curb the global population rate. It is something else entirely: a pre-Riddley Walker exercise in invented slang (known as NADSAT) that is smoothly discernible (likely because Burgess was, by all reports, an excellent teacher), an examination of free will and moral agency, and an often disturbing portrait of Alex, a fifteen-year-old thug who casually kills, rapes, and/or assaults the homeless, some poor bastard who regularly checks out crystallography books from the local library branch, and ten-year-old girls. To this very day, there are many who find Kubrick’s largely faithful film adaptation disturbing, but the novel is probably more unsettling — in large part because we have to imagine all the violence, which is framed within the context of a decadent “modern age” that, much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is set “somewhere in the 20th century.”

Kubrick needed Malcolm MacDowell’s charm to carry the picture. But Burgess kept you reading by way of the hypnotic slang. But even an adult character like Deltoid, who punctuates his speech with endless yeses, reads as if it was specifically written for Aubrey Morris, who is brilliantly hilarious in Kubrick’s film. One doesn’t need a glossary to divine that “veck” is man or that “slooshy” is to listen or that “gulliver” is head because Burgess’s context is grammatically precise. And while anyone tackling the likes of Russell Hoban or Finnegans Wake is likely to throw these two masterpieces against the wall at some point, the sense of discovery in A Clockwork Orange (to say nothing of the modest length) makes the reading experience far more pleasurable — even when one is also contending with a monstrously violent protagonist who sharpens his savage instincts with drugged milk and leads three droogs to rip up public seats and assault and pillage anyone in sight. Burgess’s argot has the added benefit of bolstering the modest weaknesses of the novel. If A Clockwork Orange had been written in traditional English, then some of the more pat observations about self-serving government officials (in this case, the Minister of the Interior or the Inferior and his accomplice Dr. Brodsky, who, justifying the Ludovico technique that makes Alex recoil against violence, says, “We are concerned only with cutting down crime”) and the choice to be violent may not have landed as well. But even a reader drawn to Burgess’s lexical allure needs a breather from time to time. And Burgess seems to intuitively know when to break up the flow with his adult characters. So when the writer F. Alexander — who shares Alex’s name, though as a surname, suggesting how ubiquitous a thirst for violence is — tells Alex, “But the essential intention is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man,” Burgess is better able to sell this because of the contrast with the main language.

And while one might quibble over why there isn’t a single character in this book other than the prison chaplain who doesn’t seek some form of revenge, Burgess, writing in 1962, is remarkably prescient on what awaits the world. Of the swastika, Alex describes it as “a Nazi flag with that like crooked cross that all malchicks at school love to draw.” And while such an idea was horrifyingly unthinkable less than two decades after the end of the second world war, recent headlines demonstrate that Burgess is merely “reporting” from the future. The rundown apartment block where Alex lives with his “P and M” could pass for a contemporary housing development in a rundown part of town: it is defaced with graffiti and has an elevator that doesn’t work. Just five years before the Beatles televised “All You Need is Love” in front of a worldwide television audience, Burgess depicts “worldcasts,” “meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everybody in the world that wanted to, that being mostly the middle-aged middle-class lewdies.” In 2023, these “worldcasts” immediately remind anyone of today’s relentless live streaming. What would Burgess have made of Twitter or TikTok?

Burgess also anticipated certain Dirty Harry criminological attitudes that, as evidenced by the merciless trolls I fend off daily on TikTok, are still quite popular with today’s reactionaries. Forgiveness? Hell no! A prisoner must still be vilified after he has “done his time.” And even when he is “cured” through conditioning, he’s still suspect. Or, as Dr. Brodsky, the head of the Ludovico Technique, puts it:

What a change is here, gentlemen, from the wretched hoodlum the State committed to unprofitable punishment some two years ago, unchanged after two years. Unchanged, do I say? Not quite. Prison taught him the false smile, the rubbed hands of hypocrisy, the fawning greased obsequious leer. Other vices it taught him, as well as confirming him in those he had long practised before. But, gentleman, enough of words. Actions speak louder than. Action now. Observe, all.

Later, the lodger Joe observes of Alex, “He’s weeping now, but that’s his craft and artfulness.” Throughout all this, Alex paints himself as a victim. Bereft of his criminal tyranny, and the ability to act upon it, he is “a victim of the modern age,” reduced to suicidal ideation.

Of course, we must remember that this novel is being told exclusively from Alex’s first-person perspective and is thus unreliable. While we can plausibly believe that Alex murdered the cat-happy baboochka, which sends him to prison — given how frequently he reflects on it — can we fully believe that the drinks that Alex and his droogs bought for the Duke of New York regulars from the “pretty polly” they stole were received with the great cheer he describes? Did he really pick up two ten-year-olds from the Melodia? Were the scientists truly that callous? We can’t know for sure. And these ambiguities create a fascinating tension that roils just as loudly as the NADSAT. And this is decades before cyberpunk. On the other hand, Alex does tell us that “this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?” (Emphasis in original.) Perhaps this is another way that Alex justifies his criminal behavior after the fact. But he does have a point about how happiness is usually accepted in our world without exegesis.

The most repeated phrase in A Clockwork Orange is “the heighth of fashion.” And that is no accident. Much like a child with a case of the giggles putting on grown-up clothes in a fitting room, Alex yearns to be a man and actually does possess some manners, such as beating the shit out of his fellow droog Dim when he is rude to a singer. If Burgess seriously believed that all people are naturally violent, then how often are our true instincts hiding beneath that civilized veneer? It’s no wonder why this novel appealed to Kubrick so much. Alex is as fond of classical music as he is of violence, longing for “a big feast of it before getting my passport stamped, my brothers, at sleep’s frontier.” And this contrast still feels disconcerting in the 21st century.

One other great detail about A Clockwork Orange that rarely gets commented upon is how the street names reference authors. There’s “Kingsley Avenue,” named after Amis, “Wilsonway,” named after Burgess’s real name, Boothby Avenue, Priestly Place, and so forth. (Roger Lewis has jumped off from this to suggest Clockwork is a sinister codex.. In one of many signs of his decidedly unbalanced scholarship, Roger Lewis puts forth the dodgy conspiracy theory that Burgess collaborated with a CIA officer named Howard Roman to secretly reveal mind control experiments conducted by the government. Lewis’s “source” — an apparent spook he met on a public bench who may have just been some lonely dude who wanted to talk to someone — claims that “the capitalized lines on page twenty-nine of A Clockwork Orange give the HQ location of the pschotronic warfare technology.” I suppose that, if you stare at any great novel long enough, you’ll create your own Pizzagate.)

Burgess also has a great deal of fun inventing fictitious composers and bands. The teenyboppers at the Melodia listen to Johnny Zhivago. (And indeed the New Wave band Heaven 17 took its name from Burgess.) Alex doesn’t just listen to “Ludwig Van.” He’s also a fan of Friedrich Gitterfenster’s opera Das Bettzeug. (And I’m sorry. But if you don’t snicker at least a little over the name “Gitterfenster,” then you have no soul.) Or how about Otto Skadelig? “Skadelig” is “harmful” in Norwegian. All this madcap invention gives A Clockwork Orange an incongruously urbane feel despite all the invented Cockney-Russian slang.

These fecund imaginative details transform A Clockwork Orange into one of the rare old novels that has aged far better that Burgess could have ever predicted (and to his great regret). Much like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (published in 1890!), you can read A Clockwork Orange at any point in history and still feel as if it was written in the last decade. That’s not an easy trick for any author to pull off. And, if he did indeed write this in three weeks, it’s one very big reason why Anthony Burgess deserves a lot more respect for his literary achievements.

Next Up: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye!

Of Human Bondage (Modern Library #66)

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

William Somerset Maugham was a largely gloomy man who just wanted to be loved. And because Maugaham was constitutionally incapable of behaving in the manner of Sally Field accepting her Oscar (and was frequently self-deprecatory), he often wasn’t. It certainly did not help that he was closeted, emo as fuck, fiercely protective of his private life, tight-lipped about his inexorable agony, and reported by many of his acquaintances and admirers as emotionally detached (although he did commit many quiet acts of generosity, including building up a library at The King’s School in Canterbury, where the ashes of Ashenden’s creator were eventually scattered). He frequently quipped that he stood in the first row of second-rate writers, almost to steel himself against the effusive and well-deserved reception he received for his considerable literary accomplishments. The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and The Painted Veil remain remarkably vivacious and salacious for their time and are still eminently readable today.

Maugham’s ardent commitment to the “fuck my life” bit, which one often sees today with glum cube slaves over forty, is best evinced by how difficult it is to find a photograph of Maugham smiling. This man hated himself so much that it’s safe to say that he probably would not have been the right man to ask for a selfie. Maugham’s knack for misery is seen in the themes and the grim humor that often punctuate his lurid fiction: the fixation on death and depression, the sense that all love affairs are fated to suffer an abominable heartbreaking end (often with a protagonist too steeped in butterfingers myopia to recognize what’s right in front of him), and a heartless world that is permanently at odds with the joys of human existence. I don’t think it’s an accident that Bill Murray decided on Maugham as his source material when he attempted to turn to dramatic acting in the mid-1980s. Numerous biographers have made noble attempts to ascertain why Maugham was so hopelessly dolorous, but even with “newly discovered papers,” Maugham’s pitch-black penumbra has stubbornly summoned more enigmatic angles. Despite his affluence, he lived quite modestly and, perhaps due to the publicity of his theatrical work, he perfected the art of suffering in plain sight. Given that he made it all the way to the age of 91, one wonders just what it was that kept this tortured depressive living. His storytelling is often so spellbinding that you just want to give the poor man a hug.

But Maugham was also one of the most successful writers of the early twentieth century. With fame came the relentless hail of stonecold critics who refused to budge from their gilded dogpens and throw Willie a bone. Despite his position on the Modern Library list, Maugham has been unfairly neglected in the 21st century. He is not taught, not stocked in most bookstores, and certainly not mentioned by the bratty hordes who are too busy dropping their knickers over such blinking babies as Colleen Hoover and R.F. Kuang. In 1908, Maugham had four wildly successful plays running simultaneously in London. And by the middle of the 20th century, Maugham was so wealthy, such a seemingly permanent mainstream pasha, that even the iconoclastic Simon Raven singled him out as a member of the protected class to be caviled with. And there was Edmund Wilson’s notorious drive-by on Maugham in the New Yorker (contained in Classics and Commercials): “He is for our day, I suppose, what Bulwer-Lytton was for Dickens’s: a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing.”

Well, I care very much about writing. And while I will concede that Maugham sometimes resorted to pat imagery, melodrama, and telltale tropes (“If only you knew how heartily I despise myself for loving you!” is one cringey line from Of Human Bondage), he could summon striking imagery when he wanted to. In Of Human Bondage, Maugahm beautifully evokes the hope limning the world’s roughness: “The delicate iridescence of the London air gave the softness of a pastel to the gray stone of the buildings; and in the wharfs and storehouses there was the severity of grace of a Japanese print.” Maugham compares a bottle of Chianti with “a slim fair Circassian guarded by four corpulent eunuchs.” And while such imagery probably did not occur frequently enough for a stodgy stooge like Wilson, Maugham’s fixation on surfaces is also vital to what Of Human Bondage is about: namely, the power of imagination and perception to alter one’s life for the better and to make something of one’s existence even when the chips are down.

In condemning Maugham, Wilson had only read two of Maugham’s novels: Then and Now, a truly mediocre historical novel which even we Maugham stans have to discount, and East is West, which even Wilson had to confess was “quite entertaining.” So why the adamantine hate? Why didn’t Wilson bother to tackle Of Human Bondage, which confidently debunks many of Wilson’s beefs with a writer who generations of readers have rightly loved?) I suspect that Wilson’s reckless irresponsibility here as a critic had more to do with the fact that he was an alcoholic who burned through four wives and who made it his lifelong mission to asphyxiate joy whenever he saw it. (And it’s worth pointing out that Wilson is much uglier and somehow more tormented than Maugham is in photographs, resembling nothing less than the living answer to Harold Skimpole: a rage-filled parasite with a permanent scowl.) Moreover, Wilson’s casus belli seems more motivated by Maugham’s dodgy stances on three of Wilson’s literary heroes: Henry James (whom I also despise), James Joyce (whom I am a perfervid acolyte of), and Yeats (yeah, okay, but I prefer Blake and Berryman). Which essentially makes Edmund Wilson’s position no different from those Comic-Con dweebs duking it out on Twitter (sorry, but I can’t will myself to call it X). Wilson engaged with the man and his views, not the work. His criticism is thus nullified.

Even so, I feel an aching need to defend Of Human Bondage against the likes of Wilson and his hamfisted acolytes — that is, if any of them are even still alive. This brilliant novel is far more than a picaresque Bildungsroman, although Dickens is mentioned multiple times and there are many colorful characters that are clearly inspired by Henri Murger’s Scenes of Bohemian Life, which is also name-checked by Maugham. It is, in short, a novel that adeptly portrays the behavioral patterns established in early life and reckoned with in the next two decades. (To cite one of many repetitive phrases throughout Of Human Bondage, the words “I don’t mind” factor in heavily among Philip’s romances.) Yes, Maugham’s grasp of working-class vernacular is not the greatest, confined largely to elided aitches in the manner of Shaw. But who cares? None of Maugham’s modest failings detract from the feel of the novel or the book’s quirky philosophical asides, which include the claim that suicide is better framed through the loss of money rather than the loss of love. Of Human Bondage is a book for the people. That it still remains remarkably absorbing more than a century after its publication and that its subtle lessons about life are still applicable in the 21st century should count for something.

It’s also a mistake to read this massive novel as transposable autobiography, which Wilson was content to do with Dickens in The Wound and the Bow: “If one approaches his first novel, Pickwick Papers, with these facts of Dickens’ biography in mind, one is struck by certain features of the book which one may not have noticed before.” Of Human Bondage‘s hero, Philip Carey, who we follow from the age of eight (after his parents die and he is adopted by his penurious and religious uncle) to early middle age, has a club foot. Maugham had a lifelong stutter. But the panoramic canvases that Maugham paints of London, Paris, and Heidelberg (to say nothing of Philip’s oppressive early life under his vicar uncle’s thumb, the art world, the medical world, and even the down-and-out Athelnys who show up near the book’s end) clearly tells us that there is something larger and more worldly at stake here.

And while Ruth Franklin suggested thirteen years ago that the doomed affair between Philip and Mildred is what makes this novel “original,” I think Mildred — as enthrallingly malicious as she is — is one of the least interesting aspects of this book, particularly when you consider Maugham’s vast scope. All of us meet a Mildred along the way. All of us make the mistake of rejecting people who are good for us — as Philip does with Norah Nesbitt, a woman estranged from her husband and saddled with a kid who is impressively writing penny dreadfuls to support her family and who, even when listening to Philip, is seen knitting so as not to waste a precious moment. All of us, like Philip, meet certain types over the course of our amorous journey. While my 21st century progressive spirit quibbles with Maugham’s portraits of accomplished women as spinsters, Maugham is nevertheless accurate when it comes to Miss Wilkinson (his first love, ten years older than Philip and treated abominably by the tormented young man) and Norah fill in the hole of his absent mother. (Over the course of the novel, Philip sadly loses the photographs and trinkets that are left of his mother, thus having little more than faint memories mimicked by the women he gets involved with in adulthood.) What counts is how we react to all this and how we become nimbler in this tricky business called living.

Of Human Bondage takes its title from the third section of Spinoza’s Ethics. And for the Wilson-friendly snobs who would decry Maugham’s lifting, claiming this to be as graceless as the way old Star Trek episodes were named after Shakespeare lines, this is hardly a casual reference. Rather interestingly, Philip comes to resent and reject religion over the course of the book. And anyone familiar with Spinoza knows that the famous philosopher was careful to establish the existence of God in the first part of Ethics. (Which causes, uh, issues for a staunch atheist and Spinoza fan like yours truly. But I’ve always found ways to look for spiritual sublimity outside of fictitious deities.) So the rejection of religion is, in some sense, a rejection of life. And one of the great thrills of reading Of Human Bondage is watching Philip gradually come to terms with negotiating existence. There is also a concern for Goethe’s notion of living resolutely in “the whole, the good, and the beautiful” — as mentioned by Hayward, the young man who Philip meets in Germany and who proceeds to make cameo appearances throughout the novel. But Maugham is equally suspect of philosophy when he has Cronshaw, a friend of Philip’s, who has this to say about life’s mysteries:

Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.

Philip does indeed get his hands on a Persian carpet and hopes that, one day, the carpet will yield the mighty answer. But the carpet is destroyed during a particularly crushing moment. Much like Douglas Adams summoning the number 42 as the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so too is the carpet something of a Macguffin. At a certain point, one has to live instinctively rather than relentlessly ponder what life means. And when Philip loses the carpet (along with most of his fortune due to a foolish investment decision), it is only then when Philip begins to find true happiness, with Maugham telegraphing this hard by concluding Chapter CVI with the one sentence paragraph, “Philip was happy.”

And while Of Human Bondage‘s ending may feel a little too tidy, we do get a sense that Philip has thrown off the shackles that marred his efforts to grow as he bounced around many nations and all sorts of people. We have followed his adventures through the first half of his life. And in the end, he has conquered Spinoza’s “lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects” through the strange hope and humility that often comes with middle age. That Philip has done so after considerable misfortune is a testament to the happiness that poor Maugham himself tried so unsuccessfully to chase throughout his life. But then fiction is very often a prayer sent out into the universe, often entailing what the writer himself cannot possibly find in his life. At one point in the novel when Philip faces significant despair, the young man finds a sense of awe and within El Greco’s View of Toledo. El Greco’s raw colors are not easily found in the everyday, but the painting gives Philip the impetus he needs to find something close to heaven in humility. So too do we in revisiting this enormous and scrappy classic. Philip’s character transformation allows us to forgive him of his terrible treatment of the women who gently entered his life. And, in so doing, this novel allows us to forgive ourselves for our own inevitable transgressions.

Next Up: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange!

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!