TOUTS -- 1997

January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.


January 1997

The most enjoyable of my recent reading was the conclusion of my run through all of Jane Austen's published novels, which I've been rereading in conjunction with the course I taught on Austen and the political novel at the end of the eighteenth century this fall semester. Last month I mentioned Mansfield Park and Emma, and this month I had enormous fun with her last novel, Persuasion--but, as always, what can I possibly need to say about it here? Other than that, if you've not reread her recently, there's no time like the present.

I happened to see the Ang Lee-Emma Thompson movie version of Sense and Sensibility once again over the holidays, as well. It's not a bad movie--in fact, it's a good one--and yet I was surprised, seeing it in such close proximity to the experience of reading the book itself, by just how flat and pale it is compared to the novel. I wonder whether I would feel the same way, seeing it again now, about Persuasion--which I thought not only the most underrated but also far and away the best of the recent spate of Austen-based movies--and which I also continue to find the most moving of Austen's novels. (Well, all right, Pride and Prejudice is right up there, too . . . )


I find myself wondering, every so often, about the ways in which American literature gets taught--or not taught, as the case may be--by a people who seem, on the whole, to find their own literature something of an embarrassment. My father taught American literature and, although I never studied it with him, I've been told that he was pretty good at it. But I wouldn't know. A good boy, I chose, as my form of Oedipal rebellion, to concentrate on English literature, instead. Take that, Dad, I must have thought; or words to that effect. I sometimes think that I've spent much of the rest of my life discovering that he was right, after all.

Just this week, as I write (somewhat belatedly) in early January, I have read two novels by Edward Eggleston. One, The Hoosier School-Master, is readily available. It's an Indiana University Press paperback bearing a 1984 imprint date and an $8.95 pricetag, in a series called--are you ready for this?--"The Library of Indiana Classics." Someone at my very own university is teaching it--a historian, I am sorry to report, rather than anyone who teaches whatever it is we now call "literature."

As I walked through our non-university bookstore, looking at the stacks of spring semester texts in an effort to see whether any of mine had happened to wander in alongside all the rest of them, this one caught my eye. I picked it up "on spec," as it were, and took it home, planning to get to it sometime before I die, and then made the mistake of dipping into it. Alas.

By the time I finished, some hours later--it isn't a very long book!--I was a confirmed Egglestonian. This novel, first published in 1871, starts off as if it were to be the tale of a young man come into a rural Indiana school district around the year 1850 to crack some sense--and, if possible, a bit of eddication, as well--into the thick skulls of the local turkeys, in conflict with whom his culture will best their rustic bestiality. It's a good enough start; but the book proves to be more (and less) than that. On the one hand, it has a strong melodramatic element which you start off thinking you're going to hate and which nonetheless proves to be interesting. On the other, its characters are drawn in such starkly black-and-white terms that you wonder how you can maintain any interest in them whatever. But you do, and the book is interesting for a variety of reasons despite itself.

For one thing, it illuminates, in ways that I found helpful, how a kind of rough-and-ready "muscular Christianity" helped form a significant part of "the national character" early in American history. True enough that Eggleston is reading muscular Christianity back into the quarter-of-a-century-ago past; but it felt to me as if he gets much of the ethos right anyway. For another, the book's constant references to its setting as "the west"--Indiana?--proved a salutary reminder of something I had until now only known at second-hand (from Leslie Fiedler?), that the "old west" had a lot in common with the new.

Most of all, however, The Hoosier School-Master tells an enjoyable story well. I was glad to have read it, glad enough so that, as soon as I finished the book, I toddled back to the Library (not an especially tricky matter, given where my office is) to dig up another of Eggleston's novels. What I found was a novel called The Circuit Rider (1874), and--unlike The Hoosier School-Master--it is not readily available. I read it in a 1913 Scribner's reprint, not in pretty condition--although "library reprint" editions may present you with the text in somewhat less rebarbative physical format than that in which I found it.

Whatever its physical condition, this is a better novel than The Hoosier School-Master (the first, and still the best-known--whatever that means!--of all of Eggleston's works). Like that book, The Circuit Rider also deals with the role of Protestant Christianity in early American life.

How shall I make you understand this book, reader of mine [so Eggleston apostrophizes us at the beginning of chapter 25, "Ann Eliza"], who never knew the influences that surrounded a Methodist of the old sort. Up to this point I have walked by faith; I could not see how the present generation could be made to comprehend the earnestness of their grandfathers. But I have hoped that, none the less, they might dimly perceive the possibility of a religious fervor that was as a fire in the bones.

But now?

You have never been a young Methodist preacher of the olden time. You have never had over you a presiding elder who held your fate in his hands; who, more than that, was the man appointed by the church to be your godly counsellor. In the olden time especially, presiding elders were generally leaders of men, the best and greatest men that the early Methodist ministry afforded; greatest in the qualities most prized in ecclesiastical organization--practical shrewdness, executive force, and a piety of unction and lustre. How shall I make you understand the weight which the words of such a man had when he thought it needful to counsel or admonish a young preacher? (p. 229--I provided another brief excerpt from this novel for the use of a class; it can be found here).

It's probably easy enough to understand something about America and Americans without knowing any of this kind of stuff. And, for a post-Christian American reader--or, as in my case, a non-Christian one--knowing this stuff may seem, in any event, just about as enticing as the thought of jumping into the Schuylkill in January. Well, maybe. But this book taught me a lot about what people thought Christianity had done to and for people on the American frontier and how it was thought to have worked its wonders; and--for me, anyway--that's the sort of thing that makes it easier to get something more than a merely intellectual sense of the significance of evangelical Protestantism to American life. (And after all, in case you haven't noticed, it is, even now, a "post-Christian America" only for some of "us.")

Eggleston's novel concerns two young men on the Ohio frontier before the War of 1812. He takes them both, although by different routes, through sin to conversion. Their conversions lead them into the Methodist ministry and both become circuit riders in various midwestern locations (for instance, Pottawottomie Creek, in "the wilderness of Michigan" [p. 194]--although, in fact, the minister assigned that circuit never reaches it). How their lives interact with those of the people with whom they grew up and with the people they meet in the course of their ministries, and the impact of their ministries upon them, is the burden of Eggleston's novel, although it is also, as he tells us in a preface, "from the first chapter to the last, . . . a love-story" (p. vii). I won't say any more about the book: it too is a thoroughly enjoyable story.

I confess that I found it slightly disconcerting to find in both books, one about 1850s Indiana, the other about 1800s Ohio, the author's prefaces signed and dated from "Brooklyn"; but that borough--then a city--is where Eggleston's own (temporary) ministry took him. I hope he had something like the impact of his characters on the spiritual lives of the real people in his care. No matter, now, of course--except, perhaps, from a point of view able to consider matters from a perspective more sub specie aeternitatis than I can attain. I look forward to reading more Eggleston. And to pondering the apparently superabundant richness of a literary culture that can consign such books as his to the compost heap.


For Christmas--which non-Christians can also celebrate in post-Christian America--my sister gave me a copy of Dava Sobel's bestselling book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time--hey, is that a great eighteenth-century-style title or what? (New York: Walker, 1995, and now available as a Penguin paperback). Like The Hoosier School-Master, this proved to be another book I swallowed whole--it is, however, very short--and I recommend it with just as much pleasure. Its surprising sales suggest that others have agreed with this view, as well.


I had one more experience of the same sort, this with a book I bought as a New Year's present for someone else, then, at home, started to read . . . and discovered (to my surprise, since this is "the sort of book which I don't usually read," or so I thought) that I could not put down. It is a somewhat longer (and far more depressing) book than anything I have yet written about this month, but it is nonetheless one with so many virtues that it, too, needs to be mentioned here.

A bestseller for a long time, the book is now available in paperback. But I happened to bump into a remaindered copy of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (New York: Random House, 1994) in its hardcover edition for $6.00--which is, as I recall, a bit less expensive than its mass-market paperback version. Just in case you don't already know about this book, it is a medical and military story (not fiction) that details various encounters, most of them excruciatingly unpleasant, between people and a virus called ebola. People do not normally emerge from this encounter victorious. Instead, they die, at impressively high rates, and, as an additional lagniappe, quite nastily.

This virus seems to be native to the same region of Africa in which HIV viruses used to live, at least as Preston tells that tale; but in an era when travel conditions are improving for people they are also improving for viruses, and your average ebola seems able to gallivant about quite successfully these days. The heart of Preston's cautionary tale concerns the virus's experiences, together with those of many people who would prefer it not to be there, outside Africa, in a place called Reston. Reston is in Virginia. A suburb of Washington, DC, it is a location in which an outbreak of ebola would prove fairly grim. Preston's book is immensely readable, his tale fascinating, his warnings worth pondering.


The themes Preston deals with have, of course, been dealt with before. I think most warmly of a 1949 novel I read some years ago, Earth Abides, written by a professor of English at Berkeley named George R. Stewart (and still available, the last time I checked, as a mass-market paperback from Fawcett for $4.95). Some forms of ebola succeed in killing 90% of the human beings they invade: an ebola virus loose in Reston might, therefore, have left this country with some twenty-five or so million inhabitants, a number which in all probability might not have sufficed to maintain its infrastructure--particularly since the impact of a pandemic of this sort would not be confined by national borders. In 1949, Stewart knew nothing of ebola; but his novel bases itself on a similar fictional premise. (I suspect that, writing in 1949, his "disease" was a displacement for the atom bomb.) The book contemplates a post-pandemic America where disease has wiped out the vast majority of the population in little more than a couple of weeks; and it asks what happens to "civilization" in this new world. It is a wonderful book, if a bit depressing. (Berkeley's library does not do well. Not at all.)


Stewart's book is not only wonderful, it is also a lot more scientifically plausible--perhaps I mean "less scientifically implausible"?--than P. D. James's unhappy excursion into this genre, The Children of Men, a book I also read this month. (It's a vastly over-praised 1992 publication; I read a 1994 Warner mass-market paperback.) People suddenly become sterile. Whatever will they do? You will be relieved to know that life at Oxford continues, pretty much, on an even keel, or at least it does so as viewed through the eyes--and pretty dull eyes they are, too--of the history don through whom we get this story, a Victorianist who is also the cousin of the person who has ascended to the post of England's dictator "for the duration." No Churchill he, that character is very much part of the problem, not the solution. But what could be the solution, you ask? An end to sterility, of course. And does the novel provide such a solution? you ask. Silly reader.


I read three books recently that relate to my ongoing interest in America and the atom bomb. The first, a genially appalling book, was written by two reporters for the Associated Press, Tad Bartimus and Scott McCartney, Trinity's Children: Living Along America's Nuclear Highway. Originally published in 1991, the book remains available from the University of New Mexico Press (1993), and is (I suppose) what falls these days under the rubric of "investigative journalism." The authors basically take a long hike up I-25, from El Paso to northern Wyoming, looking at what has happened to the lives of people whom work on the bomb and later nuclear industrialization intersected in some way or another. While, on the whole, they are critical of what they see--as they should be--yet they never ask central questions, such as, for one tiny example, what in the name of heaven anyone in power thought he was doing while this world was being created just east of the Rockies. So fearful were we that the Russians would nuke America that we decided, as a preventative, to nuke it ourselves instead. Always paragons of efficiency, we seem to have done a good job.

Peter Goin's Nuclear Landscapes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) is a landscape architect's view of the same issues that Bartimus and McCartney investigate. His book consists mostly of Goin's own photographs--its text is very slight--of exactly the places his title makes you expect. The only surprise, for me, was that one section is set in the Eniwetok Atoll, so it is not all "America." No matter. It is all dismaying. This book is, like Preston's, above, currently being remaindered; my copy cost me $8.00. I recommend it highly.

Debra Greger's Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters (New York: Penguin 1996) also emerges from these same issues, at least in part, but--unlike any of the books already mentioned--Greger's is a book of poems. I picked it up for its first section. Primarily poetry of the landscape and memories of Greger's own youth--she was raised near Hanford by a father who worked at the plutonium producing factory built there during the War by General Groves and the Manhattan Project (and now one of the truly great American ecological disaster sites)--this is pretty powerful stuff. I don't think my warm recommendation of these poems is due only to my sympathy for Greger's subject matter in this one section of her book, but I can't ignore the possibility. Still and all, my recommendation is warm: these are good poems and this is a good book.


Last, and maybe least--but a great deal of mindless fun anyway--is a book I read as a kind of "preparation" for a course I am teaching jointly this spring on popular fictions. Olivia Goldsmith is the author of several books. One of her earlier ones, called The First Wives Club, is the basis of a current movie that a gracious god has so far allowed me to miss. Last year, however, she published a book called The Bestseller (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). My pleasures in this book were so great that I feel it would be churlish in me to fail to mention it here on the mere grounds that it is lousy. "Lousy"? So what. Here is a book that brings together every cliché you ever wanted, and more, about the world of blockbuster publishing. Share the wealth (as I have done, passing the copy I read along to my co-teacher in the course on popular fictions). Read this book. (A consumer advisory follows: Some readers may require rubber diapers while doing so.)



February 1997

"What is all this Indiana stuff?" a Philadelphia Hoosier-in-exile asked me, following last month's encomia on Edward Eggleston and three of his novels, The Hoosier School-Master, The Circuit Rider, and Roxy. "Simply an attempt to bring yourself into the high literature of the midwest? Or are you moving out there?" I guess it's the former. I'm certainly not moving there, despite the undoubted delights of Indiana . . . delights I remember all too well. There, for instance, Bambi and I have actually met. We met in less than ideal circumstances, however, on I-65, two miles south of the I-70 interchange in downtown Indianapolis, at 3:30 P.M. on a nice June afternoon. Bambi had just successfully navigated all of I-65's southbound lanes when I first saw him, leaping gracefully over the median strip into the northbound lanes.

Into me, as it happens, then driving from Bloomington with some friends to see, we had thought, the Indianapolis bookstores, and chugging along at about 70 m.p.h. in the left (high-speed) lane. This was not an encounter that did Bambi any good at all. It also came fairly close to opening up good positions at three major research libraries in New England, northern California, and the Middle Atlantic regions. Close, but no cigar: unlike Bambi, we did not provide dinner for the kindly pickup truck driver who stopped, made sure we were okay, went off the interstate to call for help, and then came back to ask us if we had any plans for Bambi and, if not, would we mind if he (instead of we) turned him into McDeerburgers. We had no such plans and so off they went, one of them happily.

And so, some time later, here I am, able once again to read about Indiana. And I am doing so. Eggleston's books are mostly out of print; but I had noticed that The Hoosier School-Master is available as a Library of Indiana Classics reprint from Indiana University Press. It seemed likely, even to a dim bulb, that other books in that same series might also prove to be fun; and so it has proved indeed.

When I went looking for another such book, I found one in my very own home. Back in Bloomington the day after Bambi's sudden demise, I'd bought a copy of Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles. It had been sitting quietly awaiting someone to open it; and, for me--post-Eggleston--this seemed the right time. Now that I've read it, what can I say about her book that will convince anyone that, as dreadful as it is, it is also wonderful, delightful, and fun? Freckles is the heart-rending story, positively dripping with schmaltz, of a boy abandoned in infancy after his mother apparently took off his hand and then left him to die. Although he knows no love, he does know enough, in mid-adolescence, to flee the Chicago orphanage in which he has been raised. Wandering southeast, he finds salvation as the guardian of a prime lumber preserve in the Limberlost, a forest in northeast Indiana, whose owner takes him on and comes to love him, and where, in addition, he learns to know and love the woods and its inhabitants, to triumph over temptation and evil, to love a good woman, and to win her father's approval (as well as his boss's). Eventually, he even finds out that his past is better than anyone could have hoped.

Much incident, little surprise; a casually eugenicist attitude towards the development of human natures and abilities (of the kind a Renaissance writer might have handled as a variation on the de vera nobilitate topos); covert homoeroticism; intense observation of nature; now old-fashioned views on the usefulness of a forest such as the Limberlost; a fascinating take on motherhood and the nature of familial love: somehow, Stratton-Porter makes the stew work. It's a hell of a story, strongly rooted in its time and place, and--melodrama and sentiment notwithstanding--I loved it.

. . . And therefore I turned right around and read A Girl of the Limberlost, available in the same Indiana University Press reprint series. This novel tells (more or less) the same story as Freckles, except that Freckles (now married to the Swamp Angel, living in Grand Rapids, and vacationing on Mackinac Island) is just another character in this book, which is about Elnora Compton. In the earlier book it was Freckles, now it is Elnora who must find a loving mother. Mrs. Compton is not dead physically; but spiritually she has been dead for years. She blames her daughter for preventing her from rescuing her paragon of a husband on the day he died in a Limberlost swamp as Elnora was being born--literally as she was being born. When Mrs. Compton finally reaches the swamp, all that remains of him to be seen is an air bubble rising to the surface and breaking (the image seems grotesque when you first encounter it, but in fact Stratton-Porter has got it just right). Once again, truth, integrity, and straightforwardness manage to find their upright way. Elnora wins back her mother to love and to life. She finds solace (like Freckles before her) in the natural world of the Limberlost, exploitation of which supplies her economic needs during the years when her mother supplies them not at all. Ultimately, she also helps back to health (spiritual as well as physical, of course) and simultaneously wins the love of a good man, and wins it, moreover, fairly and squarely in a contest with someone else who appears to be of his social class. True nobility is not a matter of external appearances, however. Good breeding tells.

It tells yet again in Stratton-Porter's The Harvester, which I zipped through next (and once again in a Library of Indiana Classics edition). The swamp--the Limberlost that had so dominated Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost--is now sadly diminished but David Langston ("the Harvester" of Stratton-Porter's title) has kept a little of it alive and, in that little, seeks, cultivates, and finds natural drugs with which he assists pharmacists and physicians to fight disease. He is a healer whose power comes, in part from his close observation of nature (a theme throughout Stratton-Porter's novels), and in part, too, from his insistence on the "purity" of his products and on his own "purity." (It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this word in The Harvester.)

The novel opens on the day that David and his dog speak about their future for the next year. The dog tells David that, although he should keep working at his harvesting (rather than seeking new fortunes in "the city"), this is also the year he must seek a woman. David, in an action so uncharacteristic of Stratton-Porter's books that its power is astonishing, is appalled by this news and (I blush to write it) kicks the dog--an action he spends the rest of the book apologizing for (and quite rightly, too). The oracular dog is followed that same night by a dream vision of the woman for whom David must now seek: she walks across the lake and enters his house before disappearing.

It must be pretty clear by now that this is a very strange book . . . and so you may not find it surprising to hear that, just a few months later, as David is manhandling some drug packages onto a train in the nearby town, he sees his dream woman walk off the train that has just arrived from Chicago. Since, however strange, there are indeed no surprises here, I will not spoil any for you by admitting that, yes, he does eventually find and win her, although the pages and incidents that intervene are many. And fascinating.

Porter seems to have sold more than ten million copies of her books. She was apparently a big league bestseller early in the century. I've enjoyed these three and recommend them warmly. I, for one, will read more of her work as I can get to it.


In an Indiana frame of mind, I also read Booth Tarkington's Penrod this month. I confess to having liked it less well than the novels I've now read by both Eggleston and Porter. Tarkington's racism is casually unconscious, simply something he takes utterly for granted. Herman and Verman, the local African-American kids--not that that's what Tarkington calls them--are just a little too cute. The introduction of Maurice Levy--a show-offy kid with too much money and too many things, whose ambition it is to own a "deportment" store--as Penrod's nemesis did not sit well with me. I am, after all, a Levy, not a Penrod. (A Penrod has mentioned to me, however, that, when she read the book as a little girl, Maurice's ethnicity was something she never even noticed. In her neck of the woods, that would have been easy, of course: Maurice wasn't there.) Highly episodic, the book betrays its origins in magazine short stories; it doesn't feel like a novel, nor does it entirely behave like one, either. All this granted, it is nonetheless a very funny book. Despite it, despite myself, I wound up liking it enough to be in the middle of Penrod and Sam as I write these words.

I don't know how I managed never to read Penrod when I was a kid. The world of the book is not like any world I knew as a kid, at least in its externals, and that must have seemed offputting (if I ever looked at the book at all, as I think I did on a couple of occasions). I have the feeling that, while I may have missed something then, I may nonetheless be better able to appreciate the book's virtues--there are virtues here, let me stress, as well as the problems I've also mentioned--now.


Last of all, my exiled Hoosier correspondent sent me to Meredith Nicholson, a writer whose very name I had never heard until my correspondent's note arrived last week. A Hoosier Chronicle appeared in 1912; that is also the edition in which I read it. The Nicholson shelf in my University's library is a long one, and the books on it are thick (this one runs to a bit more than six hundred pages). They are also dusty. This copy appears not to have circulated since 1947. Harry Truman was President; we had not yet gone to war in Korea; and Nicholson--born in 1866--died that year. He has remained quite decidedly dead ever since.

Small college life, small-town journalism, entrepreneurial women, college education for women, Indiana politics, the effects of Yale and William Graham Sumner on the rural Indiana young, and the challenges of the moral life, all occupy Nicholson's attention in this book, which concerns the world in which Sylvia Garrison grows up. Raised by her grandfather, a Civil War veteran and retired astronomy professor, in the world of a small college, and educated at home by him, she is thrown by circumstances, after his death and her graduation from Wellesley, into the milieu of state politics. Through her eyes we watch a Democratic party "boss" and Dan Harwood (the Yale graduate) play out their roles in Indiana's version of "the great game." Although Nicholson's book clearly aligns itself with the progressive movement, its social attitudes are nonetheless a bit retrograde: like Stratton-Porter and like Tarkington, Nicholson has problems with "difference." No matter. I recommend this book unreservedly. And I plan to slither, as time permits, down the shelf of his other books.

Why does it take an accidental encounter with an erudite Hoosier to make his name known to someone who, like me, used to think he had a pretty fair knowledge of authors worth reading?


For a class I've been teaching, I had occasion to read A. D. Melville's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (World's Classics). At the same time, B. P. Reardon's Collected Ancient Greek Novels (Berkeley 1989) provided me with translations of Heliodorus's Ethiopica and Longus's Daphnis and Chloe for the same class.

Ovid needs no recommendation and Melville's translation is generally quite readable. I wish, however, that he hadn't felt it to be his religious obligation (as other Cousins have similarly felt it to be in analogous situations) to impugn the intelligence and taste of American translators of Ovid. American is not his language; give it a rest. Still and all, the momentary dyspepsia of his preface is not characteristic of the translation itself; the book is great fun.

Heliodorus and Longus may be more akin than Ovid is to ancient Gene Stratton-Porters. They are not high, they are low. They are also completely enjoyable. The translations in Reardon's anthology are good, their notes unobtrusive, their introductions short and to the point. And both stories are simply wonderful. Low they may be . . . but, as it happens, we know that writers like Sidney and Cervantes thought they were pretty good, too. Even Mr. Bill, the talking playwright, uses motives that seem to spring from the heads of such romances as these.


Speaking of Mr. Bill, it seems worth noting--even though it is a film and thus not strictly speaking relevant in this context--that his porcine tragedy has been turned into a four-hour or so cinematic extravaganza with a brilliant Claudius (Derek Jacobi), a fine Gertrude (Julie Christie), a wonderful Ophelia (Kate Winslet), and other performances so good as to be worth the price--endurance of an adequate, but in this company noticeably less-than-wonderful, performance in the title role itself--of admission. Hamlet uncut is itself something so unusual to encounter outside a printed text that one is, finally, grateful to have this version of it, warts and all.



March 1997

In January, when I spoke about Indiana writer Edward Eggleston, I remarked that his books gave me a sense of the significance of militant Christianity in American life that little else had previously succeeded in conveying to me. This month, reading for a course on popular fictions I am currently involved in teaching, I read another book which, although not by an American, did exactly the same thing, and (as they say) in spades: John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (which I read in Roger Sharrock's edition for Penguin, 1987, with revisions). I think I have read Bunyan before; at any rate, I can easily recall my old Pocket Book (or was it a Cardinal?) paperback edition, which must have cost between 25 and 35, with its odd eggshell blue and white matte cover (although I haven't seen this book for years and haven't a clue what ever became of it). Moreover, some parts of Bunyan's tale seemed--perhaps not surprisingly--exceptionally familiar.

"Familiar" or not, the whole came as an enormous surprise. It has (obviously) been so long since I encountered any of it, whether the whole or just a part, that I was overwhelmed by the book's striking power. Years ago, I imagine, I'd have thought Pilgrim's Progress yet another book that "needs no recommendation" in a context such as this one. Now, however, my impression is that it is increasingly a book known better at second- than at first-hand. It deserves much more than that.


Some other non-Indiana novels have also occupied me recently. Another that I have been reading for the same popular fictions course for which I read Bunyan--in the translation that Penguin published in 1950--is Don Quixote. Does this book need a tout here? All I feel the need to say about it is that the book--every bit as good as I had recalled it being--proved sheer pleasure.


To my ongoing surprise, my slow progress through the literature of Indiana continued to move ahead. Last month, I mentioned reading--with decidedly mixed reactions--the Library of Indiana Classics reprint of Booth Tarkington's 1914 novel Penrod but finding myself, nonetheless, going ahead with his Penrod and Sam. I've now read that next book in Tarkington's Penrod series (in the 1916 edition published in Garden City, NY, by Doubleday, Page). My reactions remain no less mixed than they were after Penrod.

Like Penrod, Penrod and Sam is redolent throughout of genteel racism and sexism. The sexism is much more virulent in this book than in the earlier one. Its focus, interestingly enough, is Penrod's mother, who rarely rises to the level of a dolt. Although Tarkington's treatment of "little" Maurice Levy struck me as less repellent here than I'd found it in the 1914 book, his condescension to Herman and Verman, the neighboring black children, is rooted in a pretty clearly-implied belief that they are not fundamentally human in the same way as his white characters.

Well, what can I say? Despite these . . . what shall I call them? "difficulties"?--Penrod and Sam is, like Penrod, also extremely funny (if a bit more forced). What to do with such books? I suppose that "forget them" is a possible answer. It is certainly a better answer than the "aw, isn't this too bad?" proferred by the person whom Indiana University Press found to introduce its reprint of Penrod. Gary Cooper shrugs his shoulders winningly. Quaker Grace Kelly shoots some sonofabitch into kingdom come. And then they ride out of town together, the issues that divide them forgotten.

It would be interesting to know more--more than I know, anyway--about the milieu out of which these attitudes emerge, the better, it seems to me, also to understand the strikingly dismaying view of childhood itself that is Tarkington's. His children are monsters: walking exemplars of what it means to be born into a state of "original sin." All right, I suppose; except that Tarkington seems to believe in none of the Protestant theology from which the sense of "original sin" emerges. The tone with which Tarkington discusses even the basic religious pieties of the Schofield family's Sunday church experience, for instance, suggest the disfiguring vacuum at the heart of his world view.

Meanwhile, the book's constantly reiterated casual cruelty to animals; Tarkington's consistent sense that women, African-Americans, and Jews are not "us"; the sheer viciousness and insensitivity with which he--so far as I can tell, uncritically--depicts people, old and young, behaving towards one another (parents to children, children to one another): all these, and more, offer a raking insight into characteristics of a certain kind of American life that, by and large, most of us would really rather not recall. And don't recall, as it happens, at least not without the overlay of a bland nostalgia that covers all complications.

I'm not sure we should recall these characteristics. But I am glad to have their vicarious experience, which I find confusingly educational. I will, I suppose, continue with Tarkington for a while longer. I hope that from this immersion in what I neither understand nor like I may learn something about American cultural life worth my while.


Another Indiana writer whose books I continue to read is Meredith Nicholson, whose Hoosier Chronicle I commented on last month. With thanks again to Indiana University Press's Library of Indiana Classics, I went on to read The House of a Thousand Candles, which Nicholson published in 1905 (rpt. Bloomington 1986).

I wasn't enthusiastic about The House of a Thousand Candles. It is not a bad book: simply enough, it's an entirely enjoyable read. But, by comparison with A Hoosier Chronicle, it's a piece of enjoyable fluff merely. The 1912 Hoosier Chronicle deals with politics, morals, self-knowledge, transformation, and the roles open to women in society. Candles is a mystery and gothic. Set in a huge, unfinished house in Indiana to which an uncle's will peremptorily yanks his nephew as a condition of inheritance, it confronts its protagonist with some nastily villainous antagonists and poses a set of mysterious questions its hero and heroine must answer. For its readers, the book's pleasures result largely from watching the plot unfold around its heroes and suck them, willy nilly, into itself. Fortunately, the heroes are characters to whom we respond with warmth.

The house itself has mysterious passageways, entrances, egresses, underground tunnels--all the sorts of things, and more, that make one wish Catherine Morland had been removed here, rather than to staid old Northanger Abbey. An architectural labyrinth, the house also comes equipped with "the best library in America" of antiquarian architectural books. (Rare books seem to be a more than occasional interest in Nicholson's work, judging, at any rate, by their role in both Candles and A Hoosier Chronicle. In Chronicle, the political boss whose reformation Nicholson relates is a collector of Americana. Through one of his earliest acquisitions, a secret of his past is discovered.) So extraordinary is the house that its position in the title is completely justified: it is practically a character in the book, which might almost be thought of as an "architectural mystery."

Yet this candlelit extravaganza never really carries conviction as an Indiana house. In fact, the Indiana setting of The House of a Thousand Candles seems almost entirely irrelevant to the story's progress. This is not at all true of A Hoosier Chronicle, making one wonder why that "genuinely" Indiana novel did not make it into the Indiana University Press hit parade of "Indiana Classics." I suppose Nicholson wants his readers to think that his setting is relevant. The characters may all come from elsewhere but they find themselves--in both senses--in Indiana; and the central lovers eventually settle there, in the title house.

Well, all right. But I'd have been just as convinced by their story had they met, adventured, and then settled down, in Lexington, Kentucky, Peoria, Illinois, or Marblehead, Mass.


I went on to read Nicholson's The Port of Missing Men, a 1907 novel published in that year by Bobbs-Merrill (remember when Indianapolis boasted a real publishing house?) This is a book closer in seriousness--or lack of seriousness--to The House of a Thousand Candles than it is to A Hoosier Chronicle, but the book is more peculiar than either of them. For starters, it's a spy novel. Alas, Nicholson is no John Le Carré or Alan Furst. He's certainly no Joseph Conrad (just to stay in the world of his contemporaries). The villains are as uncomplicatedly evil, stupid, and physically inept as the heroes are good, intelligent, and manly. Even the heroine has certain manly virtues, you may be unsurprised to hear. The book's hero has a Big Secret. Readers familiar with Basic Plots 1A through, oh, about 2D, will guess it by about page 12, if they're slow. The central love story yields all the suspense of watching snowballs dropped in pots of boiling water; it just takes a little longer to dissolve.

Still and all, I read it. And can't complain too much. This is the tale of how Austro-Hungarian political intrigues resolve themselves on American ground. "The port of missing men," the scene of the novel's main action, is a Civil War battleground in the Virginia mountains. Nearly forty-five years after the end of the Civil War, the author can yield due honor to both Blue and Grey but, in the "night battle" of his own novel, he allows for no shadings at all. One side is evil. The other is good. As the scene shifts from Geneva to Washington to Virginia, and the novel's action and issues come to a head, the reader begins to realize that this novel is not only an "action-packed yarn" but also a view of the process of Americanization. Nicholson is writing a paean to what "America" means, vis-à-vis the old, polluted, and fetid world of European politics. Reading The Port of Missing Men gave me a vivid perception of what, a decade and a half later, immersion in European pollution might mean to some Americans.

From this general period, however, if you want a really good "spy novel" but don't fancy encountering, say, Conrad's The Secret Agent, you'll get everything Nicholson has to offer and a great deal more, as well, from Erskine Childers. A non-Indianan and rabidly anti-German British patriot (and eventual World War I soldier), his Riddle of the Sands is as good a read as ever. What is more, his life story will make fans of the IRA of all of us. The Brits may have shot Childers (in Dublin, after the War), but both Oxford and Penguin have editions of The Riddle still in print.


The next-to-last of the Nicholsons I read of late was, as it happens, the best of all of them--and I liked A Hoosier Chronicle a lot. Still, his 1903 novel, The Main Chance, is even better. Set in "Clarkson"--a Missouri River town, and one, therefore, located in the "new west," rather than Indiana or any other region of the "old west"--the book contemplates one John Saxton, failed Wyoming rancher, as he tries to untangle the mess left by a slew of eastern investments gone wrong in the wake of the Panic of '97.

The job is a bail-out: his old Harvard classmates have taken pity on Saxton, following the collapse of his ranching dreams, and the sinecure they provide for him is supposed to take him out of their way while giving him "something to do." But Saxton takes the bit and does do something with the job. From the day of his arrival in Clarkson, we watch his interactions with a number of other people. Some are more or less his age, notably a lawyer with whom he becomes friendly, one Warrick Rarridan, Rarridan's girlfriend, Evelyn Porter, and, more distantly, a person named James Wheaton who works for Evelyn's father at the local bank. We also watch his work with their elders, the men and women who established Clarkson.

A book about business and morality, as well as a love story with melodramatic elements, this novel is deceptively old-fashioned. (Why should it not be? Its ethos comes right out of Bunyan . . . unless, and I doubt this, its author was considering some of the same themes that Max Weber and R. H. Tawney were also to be contemplating earlier in this century.) But its force and conviction remove it far from the world of fluff elaborated in both The House of a Thousand Candles and The Port of Missing Men. This is a book that makes clear why Nicholson was once thought worth notice. It's worth finding and taking a look at.


The same cannot be said of the very last of the Nicholson novels I got to, The Poet (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914). With colored illustrations and "designs" by W. A. Dwiggins, the production values imposed upon this book proclaim its author's significance and his publisher's confidence in his work; and I would suppose The Poet even has some interest as a collectible. Unfortunately, the book is otherwise of historical interest only.

In this novel, Nicholson purveys high anxiety about the stability of family life and a sentimental view (equally suffused with anxiety) of the power of Art when it intervenes in affairs of the World. Its depictions of women and artists both have a touch about them that begs for a historian's cynical attention. The five-year-old Marjorie--The Poet's sight of whom standing dejectedly at a children's party, in the wake of her parents' separation, starts the whole shebang off, more or less--is a bit less engaging: in fact, when ums opens its cute little mouf and speaks, this ums wanted to barf. The Poet--can you believe that the character has no other name?--who is the novel's central character is not quite as engaging even as Marjorie.

It might be nice to know what Nicholson thought he was doing here. Alas, I was not able to muster quite enough curiosity to care.


. . . And so much, once again, for Indiana and its writers. Another book I recently read was an altogether different--and not just because it is a "non-Indiana"--kind of book, namely, Daniel Javitch's Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of Orlando Furioso (Princeton University Press, 1991). Too few scholarly books are this intelligent, this well written, and this provocative.

Javitch places his central question--why do some books get canonized?--in a context so well historicized that his point of view--they don't get canonized for reasons intrinsic to their obvious merits but rather because they satisfy certain external culturally-defined needs--is illuminated by his specific rather than by a generalized and hypothetical context. The very specific basis of his discussion is Lodovico Ariosto's immense Orlando Furioso. Javitch's discussion illuminates not only issues of canonicity but also the poem itself.

For me, it is equally important that he illuminates--as if those other two accomplishments were not enough!--important aspects of publishing history, including the part that intelligent publishing plays in making a book fit for its market (or for many markets), getting it to its public (or its many publics) in a manner that realizes (or promotes?) the book's importance.

His book is therefore, in just about every conceivable respect, of immense significance for people interested in how we come to read whatever it is we come to read: a question, obviously, of some interest to me. I wrote a sketchy summary--too long to reproduce here--of Javitch's book for the popular fictions course I'm involved in teaching this spring. It is available here for anyone with interest and patience.


Chad Oliver's The Winds of Time (1957) has recently been reprinted in Three in Time, an anthology of three science-fiction novels on time-travel themes. (The other two are Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun and Poul Anderson's There Will Be Time.) Published by White Wolf (Clarkston, GA, [n.d.]--presumably 1997?; the firm appears to specialize in science fiction and fantasy), the book is volume 1 in the White Wolf Rediscovery Series ($15.00).

I've always liked Oliver. Shadows in the Sun is one of my favorite fifties s-f novels, and The Shore of Another Sea is nearly as good. Oliver himself was a professional (academic) anthropologist; the "science" of his s-f novels depends on anthropological knowledge, a point I admired then (and still admire now) about them. (Science fiction is not the province only of engineers and physicists.) I'd missed The Winds of Time during the fifties, so my encounter with it in this anthology was my first; and the novel proves to be no exception to Oliver's other works, with a strong rootedness in its writer's anthropological training.

Even so, it's a book that cannot be mistaken for anything other than a "fifties" novel (s-f or not). Anxiety is its overwhelming mood. Husband and wife are mismatched; she wants wants wants. He tries his damnedest to give give give her what she wants. No matter: really, it's never enough for her. It certainly doesn't satisfy him, and, finally, what he wants is out out out. Nothing about his world or his life quite makes sense to the physician who is Oliver's hero. Over everything hangs the threat of The Bomb and The End. Only in fishing trips high in the Rockies can he feel that he gets away from it all, if just briefly. There, trout fishing in a lake high above the timber line, he meets the book's dei ex machina--literally "ex machina"--as they emerge from a cave into which he has beaten a retreat during an unexpected hailstorm.

The book has little to do with time travel; it is the anthologists's conceit, not it's author's, that this is its topic. Oliver views "time travel" as possible only as a one-way trip into the future (via a kind of suspended animation). The folks who emerge from the cave have been sleeping in it for some fifteen thousand years. That is, they have been there ever since their spaceship crashed on earth at a time when, according to the knowledge Oliver had available to him in the mid-fifties, men were just beginning to come to North America from Asia. They've chosen to sleep in order to await development of a human technology able to provide for their return to their own planet. That planet has sent them on a mission to search the universe for other human beings who have solved the problem of self-destruction to which every other planet with a human population their planet knows about has succumbed. Unfortunately, they've not only reached Earth and its indigenous humans far too early in this population's history, but also they have estimated the pace of future Earth-human developments wrong by about five hundred years: mid-fifties technology turns out, when they arrive, not to be up to interstellar travel. However (as we know), it is up to mass (atom and hydrogen bomb) destruction. Two questions confront the now-awakened sleepers: first, are they about to witness at first-hand the self-immolation of yet another human race? and, second, can they somehow manage to escape the technological restrictions of a race able to blow itself up but not able to reach Mars, let alone another part of the galaxy, so as to enable themselves to get "home"?

It's not the best of Oliver's books by a long shot. No matter. It's still fun, and just chock full of things about the fifties that one is pleased to recall, if only for their (thank you, Mistah Kurtz) horror.


The second time-travel work the White Wolf anthology reprints is Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun. Originally published in 1970, it is a powerful (and quite literally fascist) novel.

Tucker is a writer whose earlier works include The Long Loud Silence (1952), a depiction of a post-nuclear holocaust America, and Wild Talent (1954), a telepathy novel. I have long enjoyed them--perhaps even for more years than I knew and enjoyed Oliver's books. In fact, I recently reread The Long Loud Silence because of my interest in treatments of nuclear issues in mid-century American writing. The Year of the Quiet Sun has the same power and energy the earlier books exhibit. But it is the product, not of the early fifties, but instead of the late sixties--years which, it would seem, sent Tucker 'round the bend.

At an experimental facility located on a military post outside Joliet, Illinois, scientists and engineers have developed and are testing equipment for time travel. The year is 1978 (eight years in the future, when Tucker published the book). The first manned tests take three time travellers to November of 1980 (the President, who has succeeded to office on the death of his predecessor, wants to know whether he will win re-election). They next travel, separately, to 1999, 2000, and an uncertain year that may be ca. 2030. What they discover is dispiriting.

That bugaboo of Cold War America, a "weak Administration," has allowed the country to go to hell in a wicker basket. War in Asia (ongoing since 1954) has sapped the nation's strength and its manhood. Chicago is a radioactive memory. Worst of all--and anyone who remembers the U.S. "civil rights" scene from 1964 through 1968 can understand what Tucker was thinking about here: race riots must have scared him to death--America's black population has erupted in a civil war directed against its white population. (No American of Asian extraction appears in the book at all. Asians appear only through references to the Chinese enemy that American troops fight.) Population levels have declined drastically. There seem to be neither central nor local governments. Tucker may even be describing climatic effects that suggest "nuclear winter"--it's a cold July when Brian Chaney reaches what seems to be 2030--but I am not certain that the "nuclear winter" hypothesis would have been available for his use at the time this book was written.

Tucker does not think of himself as "racist," I would bet, for a reason that I am not entirely sure I should spoil, since he thinks you're going to find it a surprise. (I didn't. Robert A. Heinlein used a similar trick in one of his juveniles, Tunnel in the Sky, and similarly thought it absolved him of any guilt for the deep-seated racism at the core of several of his other works. Charles Willeford uses it in one of his mysteries, as well, although I rather think Willeford uses it to depict and not to reflect racism.) Whatever Tucker may think, I thought this a profoundly racist book. In addition, the pessimism it expresses through its yearnings for a "strong Administration" (Tucker cheerfully recalls "that actor fellow" in one political conversation) is itself redolent, for me, of the call for the leader on a white horse which I am just not inclined to hear with pleasure.

The book is nonetheless just as powerful as anything else Tucker ever wrote, and one I am glad to have read. Once.


The third of the novels in the White Wolf trilogy is Poul Anderson's 1972 There Will Be Time. It too hates the sixties and looks ahead to short- and medium-range futures that are perfectly horrible. Like Tucker, Anderson is in full conservative reaction to the rigors of the era through which he has been dragged, kicking and screaming. Unlike Tucker, however, he is only conservative and declines into neither paranoia nor fascism (although this is only a relative plus, all things considered).

There Will Be Time is, nonetheless, probably the best of these three novels, compulsively readable, and a damned good story; and its view of the far distant human future--as opposed to the short- and medium range futures it depticts more specifically--when the errors of the past (that is, of us) have been laid aside, is golden. Against the emphatic backdrop of the book's present and near futures, however, it is also somewhat pie-in-the-sky and thus not entirely convincing.

What finally struck me, as I read this third of the fifties and sixties time-travel novels gathered together here, is that all three share a surprisingly elegaic quality. These are writers whose books, for whatever different reasons, echo the words of a character in a play by a well-known English writer who, at one point, remarks, "We have seen the best of our times." What a cringing and pessimistic kind of science-fiction is implicit in such a view! And what an entrée to the American 1950s!


The Winter 1997 issue of The American Scholar (66:1) includes two articles I read with interest--and considerable distaste. The first is Jeremy Bernstein's "The Merely Very Good" (pp. 31-39), which leaves J. Robert Oppenheimer in P. A. M. Dirac's dust and Stephen Spender in Auden's. One wonders why. An essay such as this one seems to do little other than to hold up for egregious praise the journal's parting editor's grotesque sense that "we" must have "standards"; that "we" must compare, contrast, and criticize in order to rank. "I think continually of those who were truly great," Spender writes, in a poem of quite remarkable authority that deals, perhaps more humanely, with some of the issues to which Bernstein (beneath the glowing sun of Joseph Epstein) phototropically responds. Has Bernstein done anything quite so low as to read Spender?

Even more distressing is William Youngren's essay "Haggin" (pp. 63-93), which is disfigured by its self-exculpatory whine combined with unconsciously self-damning content, neither relevant to the topic Youngren alleges he is writing about. Youngren writes in ostensible praise of B[ernard] H. Haggin. Although in his later years Haggin wrote for such journals as the Hudson and Yale reviews, his name may no longer ring any bells for many people; now, he is simply a largely-forgotten music writer. At the time Youngren wants to recall, however, he was noted for his unhappy efforts to adopt the New Criticism, particularly its authoritarian and ex cathedra modes of discourse, to music criticism, together with his equally unhappy hero worship of Arturo Toscanini, In his day, he did influence--and almost certainly not for the better--mid-century musical life in New York.

Youngren's essay displays its author's beautifully autumnal foliage by dropping name after name--among them the name of my very own dissertation director--in such a way that his "we" is made to constitute a select group of people all of whom know that those whose names are dropped were graduate students in English literature at Harvard University in the years just after World War II and through the early fifties. Who else would care about these names, otherwise almost completely unknown apart from the world of various literary specialists?

Youngren's effort to resurrect Haggin seems related, curiously, to the same Epsteinian agenda that drives Bernstein's essay: the resurrection of "standards," to which Haggin's ex cathedra mode of discourse, like that of the now defunct New Critics, was much given. Haggin claimed to say nothing but what the evidence of his own ears could justify: free, in other words, of distracting theoretical considerations, he could simply tell you what was there that was worth/not worth (pick one) attending to. Right. I believe that. It's just that I know no one else who does. Neither does Youngren or Epstein (or Bernstein, either). Unlike me, however, they think they do.

There's more--and worse--to say about this essay, even if one avoids (as, a momentary good Christian, I will) the easy shots at what, like Bernstein, Youngren has to say about himself, apparently without embarrassment. Still and all, that a person writing about music and music criticism could speak of Haggin and Toscanini as if Joseph Horowitz's long, contentious (tendentious?), idiosyncratic, brilliant, aggravating, and devastating book about Toscanini had never been written is little short of amazing (Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music [New York: Knopf, 1987; now available from California as a paperback]). It is an omission that does not inspire that willing suspension of disbelief on which criticism such as that for which Epstein's American Scholar once stood seems to rely.

Might it be already apparent that Horowitz's Understanding Toscanini is a book that I recommend unreservedly? (Well, it is a little long; and it is a little tendentious . . . So, as Steven Orgel once remarked in a different connection, nobody's perfect.) Even if Understanding Toscanini does nothing else, its report on the marketing of music and "taste" will do wonders for those who, like Epstein, Bernstein, and Youngren (where, oh where, are Martin, Barton, and Fish when you want them?) still hold resolutely fast to the old belief that there are "standards" that "we" who know them must promulgate. But it does a lot else, as well; and it also explains--or, at any rate, does so if you're a New Yorker and concert-goer of my fifties-plus age--a great deal about what you have been spending years unlearning about music.



April 1997

The Philadelphian, Richard Powell's 1956 novel (Scribner's), is not difficult to find outside libraries, but that is probably the best place to look for it. It's worth looking for if, like me, you are interested in other literary regionalisms in addition to (or should I have said "instead of"?) Indiana's (which has occupied me, on and off, since the beginning of this year). It's a lovely book, and one, now, that is--without good reason--much unread.

The Philadelphian is the story of Anthony Judson Lawrence, Philadelphia lawyer and husband of one Grace Shippen. In part, the entire novel reminds one of a story told about Bostonians and their odd little ways by Cleveland Amory in The Proper Bostonians (New York: Dutton, 1947, and often reprinted in paperback). Tall or otherwise, Amory's tale recalls a midwestern firm of something-or-others who, prior to hiring a young man from Boston, write to their correspondents in his home city to ask for references. The letter arrives; the young man is duly hired. Some time later, on a business trip east, the midwestern boss meets the person from Boston who had written the reference. The Bostonian asks if the young man had been hired. Told that he had been, the Bostonian then adds that he hopes his reference proved useful in that decision. A short, embarrassed silence follows, and then the midwesterner replies, yes, more or less . . . but, really, we had not been planning to use him for breeding purposes.

Roughly the first third of Powell's Philadelphia novel provides Arthur Judson Lawrence with the sort of genealogical background that, Amory suggested, is characteristically Bostonian. The book makes indistinguishable--at least to this outsider to both places--the differences between the two cities (crucial to sociologist Digby Baltzell and also important, it happens, to Powell, although, fascinatingly, he precisely reverses Baltzell's reading of how the two cities differ). The novel begins by joining Tony's great-grandmother, Margaret O'Donnell, en route, in steerage, to Philadelphia in 1857. We follow her sudden rise and fall in service to Mrs. Logan Clayton. We continue with Margaret's daughter Mary as she sets out to find someone appropriate for herself in Philadelphia and winds up with Harry Judson, old Philadelphian and classics master at Franklin Academy. We move to Tony's mother, the only child of that union, Grace, as she finds herself marrying William DeWitt Lawrence, the only son of a millionaire's widow. And then we concentrate on Tony for the second two-thirds of the book.

The novel has several lovely moments, some of which simply epitomize "Philadelphia":

[Tony's] mother had a new Model A Ford . . . [and they] took one weekend trip to Washington, D.C., which was where they had moved the national government after Philadelphia had started it going properly between 1790 and 1800. A lot of people from all over the country were taking history trips that summer [1929, before the Crash]. Some of them certainly didn't know much about Philadelphia.

Like the woman who came up to them outside the Capitol in Washington and said, "Hello, folks. I'm from Ohio. I see by your license you folks are from Pennsylvania."

Anthony said quickly, before his grandmother or mother could reply, "Oh no, we're from Philadelphia."

The woman looked puzzled and said, "They haven't moved it from Pennsylvania, have they?"

His mother and grandmother laughed politely, so the woman wouldn't feel badly about being ignorant, because of course Philadelphia was in Pennsylvania, but you weren't from Pennsylvania, you were from Philadelphia. He guessed maybe out in Ohio there were no important places to be from, so you had to be from Ohio (p. 160).

Otherwise, however, The Philadelphian is a conventional 1950s "realistic" novel of manners, more or less in the mode of James Gould Cozzens's now-damned-beyond-redemption By Love Possessed (which appeared one year later, in 1957) or John O'Hara's somewhat more acerbic books--"Pennsylvanian," not "Philadelphian," to adopt the distinction that Powell makes young Tony use. But it is also something more than that: a "political" novel, if one may use that term for so quiet a book. It has many virtues, not the least of which is the detail with which it traces the disciplining and fashioning of the kind of person Tony turns out to be. That process serves finally to explain why its genealogical approach is necessary for Powell's theme to be fully worked out.

Others of its virtues may be less conscious. I happened to be speaking with an old Philadelphian--in both senses: of old and distinguished family; and, although still in business, just around the corner from entering his nonagenarian nonage--while I was reading the book. He knew it, of course (although he has probably not read it since 1956), and in fact remembered the book well enough to get the joke when I remarked that, before reading Powell myself, I had not realized how many Irish had slipped into his lineage via the back door. Powell's Philadelphia is an anti-Baltzell Philadelphia avant la lettre: his "Philadelphia" is Baltzell's "Boston," which, in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York: Free Press, 1979), functions as Philadelphia's anti-type, the exemplar of what Philadelphia could have become had it only (in Baltzell's view) developed a politically responsible upper class that did not shut itself off in insulated isolation from newcomers knocking on their doors for admission to elite status. Tony Lawrence is that politically responsible upper class, with a hefty dose of Irish in his background, made Philadelphian. Baltzell would have liked him. A city that now imports its Mayor from New York City's Upper West Side might have liked him and his clones, too.

Despite this fundamental difference between them, Powell's and Baltzell's imaginary cities do merge in other ways, some of which Baltzell, at least, might not have liked. There are a limited number of peoples in Powell's Philadelphia. Of course, we find upper-, middle-, and lower-class whites of Anglo origins. Then there are the (leavening) Irish. Last, and least, are Italians, although (thank the Lord!) we only need to meet one of them. I recall one reference to Quakers; there may be another. Mind you, no one in the book actually is anything quite so low, but, on at least that one occasion, someone recalls that there was, once, something Quakerish about the place. Jews? Count 'em, folks: none, nada, zip, zero--and this in the city that had, till the beginning of this century, the largest Jewish population in North America. African-Americans? In this major locus of free African-American urban life and, then, an important disembarkation point on the Underground Railroad, they also are non-existent. One wonders, from the perspective of the 1990s--and of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, for that matter--what could possibly be the nature of the place that Tony Lawrence imagines, when he imagines what it is he wants to govern.

1956! It was another country; they did do things differently there. Powell's novel is an extraordinarily pleasant way to recall some of the features of that now long-lost terrain.


One of the novels to which Powell's is in some sense a "reply" is the much earlier Llanfear Pattern by Francis Biddle. Biddle was not a novelist only; he would later serve as Franklin Roosevelt's Attorney-General and as one of the judges at Nuremberg. The Llanfear Pattern (New York: Scribner's, 1927) is a difficult book to like, although not so hard to admire. It is basically a simple story. Carl Llanfear is the character who, in Biddle's novel, plays what was, in Powell's, Arthur Judson Lawrence's role, the lawyer who must respond to the pressures of his Philadelphia upbringing and milieu. Lawrence is molded by Philadelphia into the man turned political savior with whom Powell's novel ends. Llanfear's experiences end differently. You might expect that result in the book by a writer whose view of Philadelphia looks like this:

The filthy streets, the disorder and monotony, the sour ugliness were but the outer shell which the spirit within had built. Pittsburgh might be dirty, New York cruel, Chicago blatant; yet behind their sprawling vitality burned or flickered the flame of an aspiration. You could blow on it, and watch it flare to achievement. It didn't so much matter than Philadelphia had no art, no criticism, no newspaper that had wit or influence, put up with a shabby opera and stale plays; but it did matter that her people accepted the second-rate, and lived in the tenuous dream of a moderately thin past, or the lazy acceptance of an over-padded present, without gaiety and without earnestness, mechanical, content, indifferent (p. 252).
By the time a reader reaches the novel's final words--"'Coming,' he called, and walked to the house, to join his wife and dress for dinner" (p. 326)--Francis Biddle's song of rage and anger has long since palled, for the book's outcomes are all too obvious; all that kept me going was the force of the rage itself.

John Lukacs--who quotes the same passage from this novel that I have quoted above in his wonderfully impressionistic book about Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981)--calls Biddle a "hanging judge" at Nuremberg (p. 261, n. 2). This reader of his novel, knowing nothing else about Francis Biddle, suspects that Lukacs's may be an accurate term for him. Written almost two decades before those trials got underway, The Llanfear Pattern is the work of a man who neither forgot nor forgave anyone for anything.


Another Philadelphia novel, by another Biddle, is Livingston Biddle, Jr.'s Main Line: A Philadelphia Novel (New York: Julian Messner, 1950). It has good moments. Paul Brent's March 1946 train ride from 30th Street Station to his home in Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs after his release from the Army and return from combat in North Africa and Italy, the scene with which the novel opens, is one of them. Here Biddle mingles well Brent's eagerness with the sense of diminished expectations and disappointing reality to which he has come home. There are other such moments in Biddle's book.

But there are too few of them, and Biddle's characters seem, far too frequently, either terminally constipated or merely stupid. No doubt Biddle's depiction of their problems represents an intentional critique of the constricting nature of Philadelphia society--and, one might add, a Philadelphia writer named "Biddle" ought to be in a position to know whereof he speaks when it comes to such a topic. No matter: however authentic it may be in experienced "fact," as fiction Biddle's city portrait doesn't consistently compel assent.

In contrast to The Philadelphian and its sweep through Philadelphia history from 1857 through 1956, or even to the span of time it takes Francis Biddle to tame Carl Llanfear, this Biddle looks narrowly at Philadelphia during a tiny slice of time, running from that March 1946 train ride through June of 1948 and the birth in Bryn Mawr Hospital of Paul's first child. With so narrow a focus, Livingston Biddle sees a good deal close up. The plot turns on Paul's discovery, almost as soon as he returns from the war, that he is in love with Cassandra Emerson, the wife of his best friend, Randy. Society disapproves. Characters cringe but bravely forge ahead anyway. A divorce, a marriage, and a child all follow in due, if perhaps a tad rapid and confusing, course. Really. Even an avid reader might blush if forced to confess that he finished the book anyway.

But it is interesting. After Paul and Sandra decide that they must be together, but before Randy is willing to allow the divorce that will permit them to marry, they live together in sin. Evidently this was something of a shockeroo in 1950, and other characters respond with predictable badness. Nonetheless, what interested me in their situation--and typical of the things that interest me in this book--was that, from the little apartment ("almost in the slums") to which the happy couple repairs, Paul Brent emerges five days a week for his job as a newspaperman at the Bulletin. What, I kept wondering, was ol' Sandy doing? It took me a while--longer than it should have, I admit it--to twig: she was staying in the apartment. Reading cookbooks. And getting ready not just to cook but also and more generally to practice domesticity on a middle- rather than an effete upper-class scale, viz.: herself, without, as we might say, domestics to assist her pursuit of domesticity.

Sandra's first husband, moreover, is revealed to be an effete specimen himself, a revelation symbolically encapsulated (watch out for this one: it's a toughie as literary symbols go) in his inability to make her pregnant. Years of marriage--punctuated, it is true, by Randy's absence when he, like Paul, was employed abroad by the government--have produced nothing by way of young Emersons. But after mere weeks with Paul Brent (a real man) Sandy turns up gravid. Randy's problem turns out to derive from his mother, an overbearing exemplar of Philip Wylie's Momism at work; his sister (who had been in love with Paul Brent before the war and expected to marry him on his return) is also victimized by this monster mom. A moment of triumph towards the end of the novel comes when Randy's father finally contradicts his wife and sets out to rescue, not Randy--it is too late--but his sister, pining away, usually in pickled form, for the lost Paul and for the children that she will now never have. (In this novel, women find their identity through providing their husbands with children.)

These matters don't exactly constitute "literary" interest, of course. On the other hand, voyeurism has its charms. If Powell's 1956 Philadelphia is, in 1997, "another country," Biddle's 1950 Philadelphia is positively Mars. It's a weird and wonderful place to visit. Elaine Tyler May could have used his novel when she wrote her grand study of the postwar re-imprisonment of American women, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988), a truly brilliant--and, for the mordant, desperately funny--work of historical reconstruction that tried to explain Mars of the '40s and '50s for Americans of the 1980s.

Biddle's Mars is, by the way, quite specifically Mars à la mode de Baltzell:

Joe Vane was discussing Philadelphia politics. "The trouble is, Johnny, very few people give a good goddam. The old families, the ones who helped build up this metropolis--where do most of them live now? Out on the Main Line, or in Chestnut Hill or some nice cozy suburbs. Sure, the men work in the city, but they've lost touch with it, with what goes on inside. And by and large they don't care--that it's overrun with graft, that the streets are dirty, that the water tastes like last year's garbage--or even that the pigeons have cirrhosis of the liver, or whatever the hell the medical profession claims they spread around.

". . . I'm not against the Main Line when it comes to individuals. We still have civic-minded citizens who live outside the city limits, but the number's dwindling. Hell, this city ought to be an example--look at your history. Look at your history and then at the slums around Independence Hall. What's happened? Apathy--five star general apathy.

". . . A lot of what's wrong with this fair city of ours lies in the word society." (p. 205)

. . . and so on. No Tony Lawrences here! The trouble with this moment is that nothing in earlier portions of Biddle's novel has built to it and nothing emerges from it later on: Paul, Sandra, Randy, and the rest of his characters exhibit, in their self-absorbed sexual dances, precisely the point that Paul's Bulletin colleague Joe Vane makes here about the Main Line crowd. Philadelphia is the last thing they think about. When they do think about it, it is without much interest or affection. They work there. They don't live there.

When all is said and done, the world Biddle creates is so different from the Philadelphia I am slowly coming to know that, despite his book's many problems, I enjoyed my visit.


Meanwhile, back in Indiana . . .

This month, I was able to read yet another of the books in Indiana University Press's Library of Indiana Classics series, Gene Stratton-Porter's Laddie: A True Blue Story (1913; rpt. Bloomington, 1988). This is the story of a boy and his love, Pamela Pryor ("the Princess"), told from the (occasionally consistent) point of view of the youngest of Laddie's siblings, Little Sister. Pamela's parents have a problem: unspeakable troubles shadow their lives, preventing them from relating, as if they were ordinary human beings, to the people they have settled among, far from their English home. Thus they make it very difficult for Laddie and Pam to meet, let alone to court. Little Sister has a problem, as the unwanted last child of many in a home that, before her arrival, had celebrated its freedom from the thrall in which little ones place their parents. Little Sister and Laddie team up to effect the salvation of one and all.

None of this may sound like the stuff of a book you want to read. Sentimental? Yup. Too bad. Great story. Warm characters. Good plot. (Well, maybe too tidy an ending.) All I can say is that, once again, I found Stratton-Porter compulsively readable and fun. Loved it, to be blunt.


Your response to one moment in Marissa Piesman's Survival Instincts (New York: Delacorte Press, 1997) indicates, I am tempted to suspect, the chances of whether you will enjoy this entertainment as much as I did:

So not only had The New Yorker hired Ellen Simon to write for them, they had given her a research budget [, Nina Fischman, Piesman's heroine, realized]. The most manipulative and self-promoting girl at Bronx Science was writing for The New Yorker. William Shawn would have thrown Ellen out of his office in thirty seconds. But Nina could see how Tina Brown might think she was a real find (p. 68).
Uh-huh. That sort of sums up Ellen, one of the less attractive characters--mind you, the choices are legion--in this nice and witty book. It also sort of sums up Tina Brown. A novel that can do this sort of nifty skewering of the deserving need-to-be-skewered, and do it as a mere aside, will provide the appreciative reader with no small amount of sheer fun.

If you've missed the earlier books in Piesman's Nina Fischman "mystery" series--"mystery" because, if you think these are mysteries, someone will successfully sell you a very good bridge very soon--this is as good as any of them to start with. But the rest are pretty enjoyable, too. In their paperback incarnations (for reasons reflective of the tendency of today's bookstore employees to move their lips if asked to read anything as complex as a cereal box), they tend to be located in the mystery section of a superstore near you.

("Superstore" . . . now there's a word in need of deconstruction.)


For a class I'm teaching, I had occasion to read Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time, an 1855 novel (reprinted by Rutgers in its American Women Writers Series, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1986--and also available from Penguin). Yet another sentimental novel, Ruth Hall concerns a woman who, after the death of her husband, learns to support herself by entering the world of journalism. Ultimately, she will come to write books and her popularity as a writer will be great--as was true of Fern herself: there is a strongly autobiographical current in this book. The satire with which Fern portrays Ruth's enemies (including her brother, modelled on Fern's own brother, Nathaniel P. Willis) is harsh and amusing. The depiction of the world of nineteenth-century American journalism is utterly fascinating (and not dissimilar to the view Balzac paints of Parisian journalism in his earlier novel, Les illusions perdues). The book, in short, has much to recommend it, and I do. Warmly.


I felt just as warmly about The Sorrows of Young Werther, which I read in Victor Lange's translation (from the Princeton University Press series of Goethe's Collected Works, volume 11, 1995). A book I last read some twenty or so years ago, Werther is a novel I remembered only vaguely, so I was surprised to see how much fun I found it. Even more surprisingly, it reminded me of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Camus's The Stranger in a number of ways. If, like me, you have not read this book in a while, it will be one you, too, find provocative. And well worth the brief time it requires.


Another book I read for class was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. I read this great novel in the amazingly badly proofread Penguin edition (1983), which--despite its decent introduction by Anne Douglas--I won't assign as a text ever again, although I will teach Uncle Tom again. But the proofreading was not the only aspect of the book that amazed me, for the book itself is simply remarkable from beginning to end.

Some months ago, I mentioned reading Jane Smiley's comparison of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, to the perhaps surprising disadvantage of the latter. Is it too much to say that I think, now, that Smiley was right? Probably--for, after all, I haven't reread Huck in many years. But Stowe's book is so much of a joy to read that Smiley and I may at least be in the same ballpark in the way we think about it. Prejudice, mere prejudice, kept me from reading Uncle Tom for far too many years. It is a great monument to American literature, and specifically to a kind of moral and--dare one say this?--Christian literary strain in American life to which we would do well to pay renewed attention. I tried to make this point a few months ago when I wrote about the virtues of Edward Eggleston (who, though he started me off reading Indiana books, and is indeed a very good neglected writer, is nonetheless not at all as good or as important a writer as Stowe). Reading Stowe makes me feel the rightness of that point even more strongly than I did when I first made it--but her book is good beyond any such "points" at all: it is, simply, a book too wonderful to neglect (as I did for too long) or to postpone rereading if you haven't reread it for a while. Stowe tells a great story with characters positively Dickensian in their vitality. It was a book that had a profoundly physical effect on me: it made me feel better to read it and to have read it. I am still basking in its glow.


Reading Stowe sent me headlong into Edmund Wilson's 1962 book about Civil War literature, Patriotic Gore (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962; again available in a paperback reprint from W. W. Norton, 1994). As good a book of literary criticism as any I've read in a long while, it deserves some consideration in its own right, not just as a work of criticism or a guide to additional reading. With all the appurtenances of scholarship it is not "scholarship": in 1962 terms, it lacks a necessary disinterestedness, being instead Wilson's sublimated but passionate response (or so I have found it) to the militaristic and rhetorical environment of the Cold War. I love it. Beautifully conceived and written, Wilson's book makes his enthusiasms contagious. He has sent me to the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, which looks to be, at first dip, just as lovely as Wilson suggests it will be (a Library of America edition of Grant [1990] is the edition I have begun reading). Sherman's Memoirs (also in a 1990 Library of America edition) are sitting next to Grant. And other books that Wilson mentions also seem extremely enticing.

Oh, joy! The pile is beginning to build . . .


A friend who reads poetry (thank goodness for such friends!) spoke highly of Henry Taylor's new book, Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which I later picked up in a $9.95 paperback. My first reaction was that this is a volume of conventionally academic poems; but I found, as I read through the book, that its virtues were, if slow to grow on me, not less real for all that. A momentary encounter on an airplane leads, in "Flying Over Peoria," to this conclusion:

Translations--for instance, "The Sounds," by Vasily Kazantsev, and "Recruits," by Moshe Dur--introduced me to poets I had not previously known. And then there is a short poem such as "Within a Stone's Throw of Greatness":Not every poem works, at least, not for me. Some are too "academic"--too calculatedly "felt"--for my taste. But Taylor's poems are worth a look-see. Some will work for you as they worked for me.



May 1997

One enormous book dominated my recent reading, and not a recent one (although it is very readily available): Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Gone With the Wind. Am I the only fifty-plus American male who had never read this book? I doubt it. If you're another--or anyone else, for that matter, who's managed to miss it--you've got a protracted treat in store for yourself. Gone With the Wind is not an easy book to like. For that matter, its author is far from easy to like, either. That doesn't, finally, much matter. A great novel as well as a big one, it deserves every last bit of the time it demands. I recommend it warmly. And I find myself chagrined as I do so.

Year in and year out I break my elbows patting myself on the back for successfully unlearning the lumber with which a youth misspent in the study of something called Literature filled what passes for my mind. Then I bump into a book like this one, a sort of reality test that reminds me that I have unlearned--and, what is worse, learned--nothing at all. Well, maybe not quite nothing: it was, after all, a book that I chose for a jointly-taught class on popular fictions this semester, figuring (correctly) that, if it were assigned, I'd have to climb this particular mountain along with the students. In truth, however, I expected it to be no more than a really big hill, a book that would help draw the course to its close as, together, we trampled upon its low summit, in an aura of self-congratulatory and easy contempt. "O tempora, o mores: just look what happens to popular literature in our degenerate times." Something like that.

Bigotry must be its own reward: I for one certainly detest having to change my mind about anything. Alas, I have had to change my mind about Gone With the Wind. I could easily pigeonhole it, unread, as romantic drivel that drives literary soap opera to new depths and manages to present a view of the South which no one in his or her right mind could find anything other than historically inaccurate and racist to boot. Reading the book unhappily presented me with a differing perception of it, one that required either that--a literary Talleyrand (or, worse, Irving Kristol)--I regurgitate it whole or, instead, that I think about it. Quite unhappily, I chose the latter course (needing, after all, something to say about it with students). Romantic? Historically inaccurate? Racist? Well, yes. But much more complicated than any of those labels indicates, and, finally, much richer, as well.

Scarlett's is simply an astonishing characterization. I have long wondered about the heroine of Conrad Richter's Ohio trilogy (The Trees, The Fields, The Town), trying to guess what literary or cultural precedents he might have had for writing about so strong-willed and dominant a female character at a time (generally, the 1940s) when imagination should have been, I'd have thought, far more constipated than to admit such a possibility. Obviously, my bafflement was at least partly the result of knowing Scarlett only through Vivien Leigh's insipid reduction, not Mitchell's far more vibrant depiction. (And partly, too, the result of believing historians while forgetting that, although they can tell us, perhaps, about generalities, they must lose sight of individual exceptions.) Not only Scarlett but also Rhett Butler, Melanie Wilkes, Ashley, Mammy, and the rest of them have--once the book has been read--a resonance, a life in the imagination, that seems unlikely to fade.

Gone With the Wind fits Randall Jarrell's definition of the novel as a long work in prose with a flaw. Here there are, as befits the book's gargantuan size, many flaws. Its tone splits in two, I think, making the Civil War and the Reconstruction sections (1, 2, and 3 vs. 4 and 5) sometimes seem as if they are parts of different books. Mitchell's attitudes towards the South and its agrarian civilization, the North and its capitalistic and money culture, the War, and the proper relationships between men and women and blacks and whites, are difficult to assess, but, as we assess them, they are also difficult to like. Nonetheless, so much in the book contradicts, or appears to contradict, so much else in it, that any definitive stance is as hard to reach for the book's readers as it was for its author.

Not impossible, mind you; just hard. The book, for instance, is racist to the core. Yet Mitchell's racism, typically American in this respect, is so deeply inbred that she does not recognize how racist her own attitudes are (and would bridle at any such description of herself). That her black characters are never portrayed as sufficient in themselves but are granted their fictional existences only insofar as they can relate to the worlds of their white masters seems, clearly, only in the natural order of things for this writer. Thus, just so long as these characters relate in the proper ways to the white ones, they are wholly admirable, the creation of a writer who likes black folks (unlike Yankees, who like the idea of black people but cannot actually abide them in the flesh). But it takes little for Mitchell to evict her "darkies" from this state of fictional grace. They might, for instance, want to vote. In Mitchell's era, of course, almost no southern African-Americans could do any such thing. Among the crimes that Reconstruction was still paying for, a major one was its extension of the franchise to people for whom Mitchell's imagery is most frequently drawn from the animal world.

Whatever else she may be, Scarlett herself, as anyone who has read the book knows, is no paragon of anything other than an intense desire for self-satisfaction and security at all costs. She may be a flawed moral compass to the world of the book, but she is also a supremely independent and successful one. By and large, Rhett is no better--although he is, after all, one tiny jot and tittle better, inasmuch as he is less self-deluded, than Scarlett. But perhaps the differences between them are less even than this judgment implies: if she is deluded about Ashley, after all, Rhett is deluded about her.

Its ending--some students complained that it left matters unresolved--seems to me, precisely because it is unresolved, one of the best things about the book. But one could go on piling up strengths and weaknesses forever. The simple truth is that Mitchell's long novel poses the problem of a book that is so disagreeable in almost every way--attitudinally, in terms of the nature of the problems it describes and the varied resolutions it proposes; and in terms, too, of the often loathesome nature of the characters it presents--that one simply cannot like it or admire it in good conscience. And does anyway. I think that's a problem worth thinking about, and I can only urge the book that raises it to your awed attention. It has certainly got mine.


For the same course, and for another I am teaching simultaneously, I reread John Grisham's 1996 The Runaway Jury in its new paperback incarnation (New York: Island Books, 1997). It remains a book that seems to be quite handily in the tradition of the "problem of England" novel prevalent in the nineteenth century and characteristically Grisham's turf. Here the "problem" is the cigarette industry. Anyone who rereads the book, as I have just done, about a year after its appearance, is rereading it in a world where Liggett, R. J. Reynolds, and other major tobacco companies are beginning to settle health-related suits and duck for financial cover. One may be forgiven for wondering whether the book merely reflected, or perhaps led, broad public concerns with this issue. It is, in any case, still a fun read. I confess to the guilty pleasure of having liked it just as much this time as I did last. (My constant reader, if any, will by this point know that my taste is nonexistent.)

I was amazed, however, by the largely negative response to the book of my students, who feel that this book is simply too low for them. I am reminded, by their high-minded and qualitatively thoughtful responses, of the long-lived effects of my own Literary Education and the lumber with which (as I remarked earlier) it filled my head. Does no one ever remember to tell the young that reading can be fun? and, maybe, that in the fun is where everything else that we value about reading and literature begins? I fear that English teachers have a lot to repent themselves of.


Robert Kotlowitz is retired television executive and not very well-known novelist whose books I have admired for years. (I am particularly fond of The Boardwalk [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977].) This spring, he published a book that I swallowed whole, but it is not a novel. Before Their Time (New York: Knopf, 1997) is a memoir, short, grim, and self-effacing, even as it asserts the self's long ago participation in an action now itself effaced, deleted from memory. That action concerns someone called Pfc. Robert Kotlowitz (Army of the United States, third platoon, Company C, 104th regiment, Yankee Division), who was long ago a soldier at war in Alsace.

Kotlowitz's platoon took part in the Yankee Division's first introduction to combat. Having reached Europe some months after the Normandy landings, the Division replaced Patton's depleted Fourth Armored Division, stalled after outrunning its supply lines while racing across France en route to Germany. A few days later, in an assault on a hillside at Bézange-la-petite (also known as Moncourt Woods), this platoon and those additional people who joined in the assault were all but wiped out. Three people only survived, and two of them were wounded. One was unwounded: Kotlowitz.

The official Yankee Division history, for which I was a presumed source, barely mentions Bézange-la-petite, glossing over the episode in a way that makes it impossible to disover what actually happened or whether, in fact, anything happened at all. It's both empty and evasive. . . . Of course, the careless loss of almost an entire platoon--and more--is not necessarily what divisional histories are designed to commemorate. The inflated smell of distant glory is more their style. . . .

The same is true of the official U.S. Army History of World War II. The volume called The Lorraine Campaign . . . manages to give the impression that the war in Alsace-Lorraine was fought by an agglomeration of trucks, half-tracks, tanks, and humanoids in uniform, who may have resembled real men, in a physical sense, but who pretty much went through the motions of fighting without having to carry the burden of either names of authentic faces.

The 104th regimental history does it better . . . [but even here Kotlowitz finds] in a reflective passage about Bézange that "compared to the activities of the Western Front as a whole, these actions were insignificant--a minor engagement on a nameless [sic] hill somewhere in France. . . ."

As the regiment's "initial combat encounters," this history goes on, "they . . . were all-important," for the first shock of battle brings "the realization that combat means closing with the enemy and that closing with the enemy meant, for some, death" (pp. 188-190). "Perhaps that's acknowledgement enough for the third platoon," Kotlowitz continues. But it obviously isn't. This book is the result.

The book begins with the eighteen year-old Kotlowitz plucked out of a pre-med program at Johns Hopkins, removed from his Baltimore family, and packed off to Fort Benning for basic training. It ends with Kotlowitz in New Jersey, seeing Bern Keaton, his friend and sometime pup tent-mate from the moment both were assigned to the Yankee Division. Although they had occasionally been in touch over the years--Keaton, a great reader, called Kotlowitz now and again when another book appeared--they had not seen one another since Keaton, shot through the foot in the action at Bézanges, was evacuated to England. Fifty-one years later, their wives both dead of lung cancer, with children and grandchildren, the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day prods them to get together at last. They both know that time for doing so is running out. From this action, neither of them will get away merely wounded or untouched.

After a long day of talking with Keaton, Kotlowitz meets the Keaton children and grandchildren, "all of whom," he remarks, "turned out to have more than enough lightning Gaelic wit to spare. . . . Nonetheless, brilliant as they were, they were almost totally unaware of what their grandfather had survived, or how--exactly like my own two sons. Or even of the possibility that they themselves had escaped with their own lives through his survival, exactly like my two sons had through mine" (pp. 192-194). No one who reads this short--and beautiful--book, as much about memory as it is about war, will remain unaware of what Kotlowitz and his contemporaries endured, and of the sheer and utter waste that killed so many of them "before their time."

Not since William Wharton's wonderful--and very nearly unendurable--A Midnight Clear have I read a war novel or memoir so unmistakeably about children. It's an observation that, when it finally comes, doesn't make this an easy book to endure, either.


The English writer Philip Kerr has written a number of quite interesting "mysteries" (although I am not entirely sure if this is really the right word for his books). Among them are March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem, all available from Penguin (originally separately and now as an omnibus volume called Berlin Noir) and all about a p.i. whose beat is Berlin. Berlin, that is, at the end of the 1930s. Not a really good time to be in the p.i. business in Berlin, you might think; and you would be right. In A Philosophical Investigation--the best of his books I have read--Kerr involves us with a murder, a cop (she lives in London), and Wittgenstein, all during the early years of the century. The century, that is, that looms directly before us. On the whole, the present does not seem to be Kerr's métier (although perhaps I would feel differently about this point had I read Dead Meat and The Grid, two of his novels written since these four which, as yet, I have missed).

His newest novel, Esau (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996; New York: Henry Holt, 1997), I have read, however. Set more or less in the present, it seems, like those other books, at once more about the distant past--the past of John Darnton's Neanderthal and Adam Popescu's Almost Human, books I discussed briefly in April 1996--and about the future--a time when India and Pakistan are busily waving nukes at one another. Esau is built around mountain climbing, Shangri-La, paleontologists investigating what seems to be a contemporary ramapithecine, and CIA operatives trying to recover a downed spy satellite in the Himalayas, all this while nuclear war threatens. It seems far too packed. A lot of its good ideas are not especially comfortable with one another, and there are, finally, too damned many of them for it to be believable. Moreover, Kerr's characters are also, alas, not especially believable, in a much too conventionally too-noble or a too-evil kind of way.

Too bad. I liked it anyway. It's a fun read. The ramapithecines (of course they show up) are nice, if a smidge smelly. Their coprophagy is not nice. The CIA is also not nice. And peace breaks out. The book's mountains may be my favorite characters: this novel makes you feel chilly reading it. Sounds like perfect summer reading to me (although, in the chilly spring evenings when I read it, a different choice of book might have been smarter).


Meanwhile, back in Indiana . . . Yes, I have read some more Indiana books recently. One was Gene Stratton-Porter's The Keeper of the Bees. Posthumously published in 1925--the author had been killed in a Los Angeles automobile accident in December of 1924--the book is again available from Indiana's Library of Indiana Classics (1991). Its hero is Jamie MacFarlane, a World War I veteran. The book opens as Jamie, after two years in a California veterans' hospital where he has failed to recuperate from shrapnel wounds in his chest, accidentally overhears physicians consigning him to a facility for tuberculosis and other incurable patients. They are, in short, consigning him to death. Jamie "escapes" from his hospital, seeking to die on his own terms, not the government's. (A deep strain of anti-government sentiment pervades the book.) He eventually finds himself taking care of an apiary overlooking the Pacific. There he finds himself slowly and surprisingly brought back to health by the purity and cleanliness of his surroundings and his food--old friends, as Stratton-Porter's themes go--and the love of a good woman.

Alas, before he realizes that he is going to regain his health and fall in love, Jamie finds himself married, widowed, and a parent, all for no other cause than the wish that he can do a woman in trouble some good before he himself dies. His motives and actions are noble, despite their suddenness and extremity. Stratton-Porter's strictures, not only on the government but also on diet, on Americanization (and race), and on sexual morality for young women in these degenerate postwar times, all add to the book's interest, but it is, like others of her novels, first and foremost a warm and engaging story. I liked it.


Indiana writer Edward Eggleston had three brothers. I bumbled into a recent reprint of a book by one of them, George Cary Eggleston, who, Indianan by birth, moved to Virginia when young and stayed to fight with the CSA against the Union. Years later, he became a magazine editor (like his brother Edward) in New York and wrote a series of essays about his experiences for William Dean Howells's Atlantic Monthly. Published in 1874 and 1875, they were later collected, supplemented, and published (in several editions) as A Rebel's Recollections. Now, edited, and with a useful introduction by Gaines M. Foster, the book is available as a paperback (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996, a reprint of a 1959 Indiana University Press edition). It is a very enjoyable read.

Eggleston romanticizes some things about the old South and the Confederacy and is quite clearly comfortable with slavery. His attitudes, however, are actually somewhat more complicated than those two by themselves would seem to suggest. His book reminded me of the complexity of response which Gone With the Wind requires. In addition, geniality shines through Eggleston's pages, and real irony: these perhap compensate for the less engaging attitudes he also displays. A book cannot be entirely unenjoyable whose author, discussing the CSA's supply department and its work at Bull Run, writes:

[It] was no ordinary incompetence which governed this department of our service in all its ramifications. The breadth and comprehensiveness of that incompetence were its distinguishing characteristics. In failing to furnish anything to transport, it neutralized its failure to furnish transportation, and the army that fought at Bull Run would have been as well off anywhere else as there, during the next ten days. (p. 76)
Short and sweet, this is not a book that requires either an interest in Indiana writers or a devotion to The Lost Cause to ensnare a reader.


Following hard on the heels of the Philadelphia novels I wrote about last month--by Richard Powell, Francis Biddle, and Livingstone Biddle, Jr.--I recently read another, this one by Arthur R. G. Solmssen and called Rittenhouse Square (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968). Lawyers seem to live at the heart of Philadelphia novels--based, at any rate, on those of them I've now read--and this one is no exception. Solmssen's hero is a lawyer named Benjamin Butler. (Is there any significance to that choice of name? Another person who bore it--adorned, in his case, by the sobriquet "Beast"--was the military governor of New Orleans following the end of the Civil War. His overall historical reputation is not entirely savory.) The novel follows precisely the model of Richard Powell's The Philadelphian, which preceded it by twelve years. Rittenhouse Square, like The Philadelphian, opens with a lawyer about to make up his mind about his future, flashes back for the bulk of the book to show us how he reached the point at which the book opened, and ends with his decision. But this is a different Philadelphia from Powell's--or from Frances Biddle's or Livingstone Biddle's, too. Right off the bat, it is a Philadelphia with Jews, African-Americans, race riots, and racist patrician lawyers. Some of the latter are even crooks.

This book is just as conventional as it sounds; yet it managed to hold my attention utterly, perhaps by virtue of being so unlike the other Philadelphia books I have recently read. I think it may really be unlike them, too, in using Philadelphia simply as a locus. The author knows the town well. But his book is about, not Philadelphia, but lawyers. Had he wanted to write about lawyers in Chicago or Pittsburgh, Solmssen might have needed more research to flesh out the "feel" for place that this book exhibits. But he could have told essentially the same story.

I like midcentury American novels of manners, of which--like Powell's--this novel is one. They give their readers the strong feeling of realism, just like midcentury American plays do, while actually inhabiting, or so it has always seemed to me, some sort of fairyland where such tales seem real until you start to think about them. . . . Ben is a nice young man: Sammy Glick without the ethnic baggage. In order to make his way up the ladder, he is prepared always to do the right thing. And, by god, he does.


Joseph Kanon's Los Alamos is a "mystery" set at Los Alamos during the days leading up to the Manhattan Project's Trinity test (New York: Broadway Books, 1997, $24.00). A Project security officer has been found dead in a Santa Fé park, his pants pulled down around his legs. Apparently he has been killed during a homosexual encounter outside a bar. Despite the obviousness of the situation, Michael Connolly, a security officer reporting directly to Groves and Oppenheimer, is assigned to investigate, and--needless to say--appearances prove to be deceiving. Connolly slowly realizes that he is looking not at a simple event with an explanation easy to arrive at but at something involving the Army's distaste for anything smacking of unorthodox sexuality, espionage, conflicting loyalties, the horrors of contemporary Europe, and relations among people all of whom are increasingly on edge with one another and themselves as the War comes to an end and the Trinity test looms closer and closer. He himself falls quickly into a relationship with the wife of one of the Project scientists, who is off in the Jornada del Muerto preparing for the test.

No writer would set a mystery in this milieu, I think, without having bigger fish to fry, and Kanon is no exception: this novel may be a mystery, but it is a lot of other things, as well. Most of them are, as it happens, well done. The murder victim, Karl Bruner, is, like many of the scientists he tries to secure, a German-Jewish refugee. First imprisoned by the Nazis as a Communist, released and sent to the Soviet Union, and imprisoned again, his teeth have been removed--one by one, as long as he has any--until he tells his Soviet captors all. (The plot hinges on Bruner's role as murdered security agent, so I might as well admit that the likelihood of accused Communist Jewish security officers at Los Alamos strikes me as just a wee bit thin.) The twentieth century has not been kind to Karl Bruner (and by the time the book opens he is merely one more dead Jew). Fordham University graduate Connolly is a highly interesting investigator to watch at work. Emma, with whom he has an affair, is a complex creation. Even Oppenheimer, who has a small role, seems convincingly depicted. Harder still, the novel's treatment of its investigators and its spies is not at all as simplistic as one might have expected. If Kanon's characters are well drawn, the author also manages to concern his reader with the issues that concern them, and to do so, it seemed to me, without in any way trivializing them--no small accomplishment.

Towards the book's end, Connolly, closing in on his killer/spy, has a conversation with a man who is--or who may be--trying to pick him up at an exhibition opening, or who is--or who may be--making an assignation with him for the completion of an espionage assignment. He can't tell which.

. . . what had Chalmers really meant? He went over the conversation in his mind. Was it possible--almost a comic thought--that the language of espionage was no different from that of a pickup, all the words that meant something else, verbal sex, the invitation not really offered till it was accepted? (p. 359)
John Hollander's Cupcake might have enjoyed such a thought; so, too, William H. Epstein (whose thoroughly brilliant and enormously instructive essay, "Counter-Intelligence: Cold-War Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies," ELH, 57:1 [Spring 1990], 63-99, I happened to read--for completely different reasons--more or less at the same time I read Kanon's novel). I liked this book and recommend it warmly.


I literally happened upon a book of poetry by someone named Harriet Levin. The Christmas Show (published in the Barnard New Women Poets Series with an introduction by Eavan Boland [Boston: Beacon, 1997]), turns out, I later learned, to have been written by someone who teaches across the street from Penn, at Drexel, but I'd never met or heard of her. I picked up the book to take a glance at it, read the title poem, and bought it: it is a harrowing but beautiful book.

. . . Imagine
how a small child

standing on a pier
would point to a fire
someone's lit in an oildrum
on the deck of [a?] ship

docked beneath him,
and, endlessly curious, would begin
to lean over right there.
It's at that moment the fire looks

so beautiful, you think it is the origin
of joy, the brightness
(O flickering world!)
that consumes us.

(from "Violative," pp. 24-26)
Relationships between men and women, parents and children, innocence and experience: all get gimlet-eyed treatment in this short book of poems, its language as precise as a razor.



June 1997

I've read quite a bit this month that seemed more or less worth commenting on, which makes this, alas, a somewhat longish Tout. Apologies . . . although since no one has to read this stuff, what am I apologizing for? and to whom? Oh, well. Brace: here goes.


The 1996 death of Worcester, Massachusetts-born Irish novelist and short story writer Mary Lavin stopped the voice of one of my favorite writers. Many years ago I was put on to her work by an Irish-American writer, Elizabeth Cullinan. As I remember, I had not, at the time, even heard her name: my mistake. Lavin's stories repay every bit of the attention they require. Because she spent much of a substantial lifetime writing them, they are a coin that no reader will quickly spend.

The occasion to mention her here is a memorial essay, "Mary Lavin (1912-1996): A Tribute." Written by Julie Anne Stevens, it appears in a recent issue of the Irish Journal of Feminist Studies, 1:2 (Winter 1996), 25-34. If you do not know Lavin's works, then, of course, bag the essay, find her books, and start reading. If you do know Lavin, however, Stevens has produced a good introduction to how a scholar might want to think about some of the issues her stories and novels raise. I found her essay just the wee-est bit chilly--by which, perhaps, I mean merely that it is "professional." Cullinan made Lavin seem like a person, not like a "writer." But Stevens is useful and suggestive, and her essay certainly makes clear that one might well want to do some serious rereading of Lavin in the near future.


Elizabeth Cullinan, the writer just mentioned from whom I first heard about Mary Lavin, is also someone whose work, not well known, should be. Primarily a short story writer, most often for The New Yorker (back when it was a "magazine for people who read"), Cullinan has also written a novel or two. I would recommend starting with her first novel, House of Gold (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), a book that is, in part, about the world's most monstrous Jewish mother. Mrs. Portnoy could have taken lessons. Mind you, a mother whose ambitions for her sons is that they become Jesuits is not exactly your "average" Jewish mother--but, hey! you can't have everything. House of Gold is a simply astonishing feat. If you like it, you have more of Cullinan still ahead of you.


One additional New York Irish writer always comes to mind when I think of Elizabeth Cullinan, even though he was, in fact, a very different kind of writer than she. He also had the bad taste to die, still a young man, within minutes, so to speak, of publishing what I think is his best book (this is "the luck of the Irish"?). It is a book so good that nothing other than the admonition to run out and read it, if you haven't already done so, will do. Sissy Sullivan is a cop's widow. She has pension problems. She does not plan to take them sitting down. The NYPD is about to hear from her. And that is the burden of Joe Flaherty's Tin Wife (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), one of my very favorite New York novels.


Some time ago, I wrote here about a then new book by a Port Huron alumnus, urban organizer, poet, novelist, Berkeley sociologist (as he was then; he's at NYU now), and media critic, Todd Gitlin. There Gitlin argued that the left should take a less divisive approach to the issues underlying the culture wars and related matters of multiculturalism, issues that had upset those American propagandists and professional agitators who specialize in discomfiting the academy and its more or less left-leaning pillars. The divisiveness he criticized was created, he suggested, not entirely by those who assault the academy but also by those who, from within it, practice a rhetoric and a political style that, rooted in identity politics, alienates those whom it confronts and demonizes.

That book, flawed but useful, was worth paying attention to, even if one did not altogether agree with Gitlin's position. Now, in an essay on "The Anti-Political Populism of Cultural Studies" that appears in Dissent, 44:2 (Spring 1997), 77-82, Gitlin re-engages the culture wars. Again he attacks those within the academy for the ways in which they attempt to realize their political goals. Concerned specifically with the practitioners of cultural studies, he argues that they have essentially abdicated the political arena to the canaille while remaining under the illusion that, in preaching to their students and their colleagues, they are practicing politics. Not so, Gitlin says: they need to speak to those people who are outside the academy, to be willing to do the mundane and quotidian tasks that create the mechanisms of political action, and--perhaps coincidentally?--to recall that not all cultural activities are equal.

This is not a position likely to impress those who have been brought up (in a tradition deriving largely from Gramsci) to think of themselves as "cultural workers"; nor is Gitlin entirely free of either an unhappy tendency to blame the victim or a nostalgic glance backwards at a now somewhat less than entirely tenable sense of a culture rooted in "standards." Once again, I find myself disliking the work . . . while feeling uncomfortably that it deserves attention and thought. I was particularly struck by Gitlin's conclusion, with which I am in more sympathy ("sympathy" is not the same thing as "agreement") than I am with much else about this essay:

The voice of a younger Gitlin is heard in those words. Yet one also wonders what the younger Gitlin would have made of the argument this Gitlin makes.


The same issue of Dissent that prints Gitlin's essay includes two others I also thought worth reading, even if one could not swallow them whole. Morris Dickstein, in "The New York Intellectuals" (pp. 83-86), speaks nostalgically to the same issues that Gitlin also evokes. Dickstein briefly recreates the "model" created by his New York intellectuals, essentially his teachers at Columbia in the good old days: Trilling, Dupee, Chase, Hofstadter, Bell, Schapiro, Mills (that is, the boyis). Their model showed us "how to connect intelligence with politics, how to see a work of art in its social framework, while respecting its autonomy and complexity" (p. 86).

Sounds terrific. What ever happened to something that wonderful? God, but it's a degenerate world out there.

The other essay is by Marshall Berman, whose 1982 All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (rpt. New York: Penguin, 1988) remains one of my favorite books on modernism and postmodernism. "Picasso Surviving" (pp. 87-91) speaks directly to my own feelings when I visited "Picasso and Portraiture," the Picasso exhibition on show last year at New York's Museum of Modern Art and Berman's primary subject, and also earlier that year when, in Paris late in the winter of 1996, I visited the Musée Picasso, even more stunningly revelatory for me. In both places, an artist who had become somewhat overdone was--for me, at any rate--renewed and refreshed: his vitality and importance became clear to me as they had not been since I was very young.

But Berman also speaks about some other recent treatments of Picasso in which the argument--based largely on his relationships with women--"that Picasso was a Bastard turns out to be the point" (p. 90). Berman does not entirely dispute this view. He complicates it, however, in a way that serves perhaps to ameliorate it. In neither sense is his essay always easy to take. This is another piece that is short, to the point, and provoking. Does one have to agree in order also to learn from and like?

As it happens, I managed last month to see "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906," this year's blockbuster Picasso exhibition, on view at Washington's National Gallery of Art (where it was on exhibition through July 27) and heading after that to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (where it will open on September 10, 1997 and close on January 4, 1998; the address above will take you to the Boston website, the NGA's apparently no longer in existence). This is another exhibition that makes it possible to reevaluate Picasso, and I loved it. In Washington or in Boston, I will see it again.

It was also the first exhibition I have been to--the first anything, for that matter--at which I suddenly felt, viscerally, that the twentieth century is now a matter for history. It's time, as someone remarked to a friend some weeks ago, that we start teaching literature courses that deal with the end of the twentieth century. Yes, he replied, taking her in a sense she had not intended: it is dead, isn't it?

I'm not sure about "dead." But it sure is over.


Much more obviously over--but still fun to read about!--is the long period of earth's history during which dinosaurs roamed. I've just finished a book about an early dinosaur (rather a small one, in fact) called coelophysis, who stands more or less ancestrally at the late Triassic base of what would go on to become, throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, the line of many of the larger dinosaurs whom we know and love.

Edwin H. Colbert, the book's author, was for forty years a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History; he also taught geology at Columbia. He retired in 1968, moving on to the Museum of Northern Arizona. Columbia published The Little Dinosaurs of Ghost Ranch in 1995. It is a lovely book. Concentrating as it does on one ancestral species, it may seem a bit specialized or narrowly focused. While it is indeed both those things, it is also a wonderful introduction to the ways in which paleontological fieldwork, thought, and science are carried out, written by a person who has seen and contributed enormously to a surprisingly hefty amount of the discipline's two hundred or so year-old history. In part because Colbert can contextualize his own subject so well, the book never seems too contained. This is no suffocating work written by a specialist for other specialists. It is educational in the best sense. Its author insistently indicates the human processes and dimensions of paleontological work while also opening his subject out to a world of larger controvery, and thus he makes his subject just as interesting and vital for the reader as it is for him.

Two great English-language writers whose work is known to me--the English novelist Anthony Powell and the American novelist Mildred Walker--were born in 1905. So was the paleontologist Edwin Colbert. The number of writers of any kind born in that year and still alive, let alone still producing, is not large (the third volume of Powell's Journals is just out from Heinemann, and I await my copy eagerly). Colbert is a paleontologist, not a "great writer." But he writes well enough, thank you very much, for the fascinating stories he has to tell. In that sense, he keeps good company. More to the point, his book will give you good company.


Colbert's book looks at an animal that comes from the early period of the dinosaurs. I also recently read a new book about the end of that era, one that discusses the discovery of the iridium anomaly at the K-T boundary and its implications. The "K-T boundary" is the stratum that demarcates the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Paleocene--that is, the end of the dinosaur era and the beginnings of the age of mammals: ultimately, us. Walter Alvarez wrote the book, called--dreadfully: how could he let them do this to his book?--T. rex and the Crater of Doom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997). I felt, as I considered buying this book in a Bryn Mawr store, the spirit of Indiana Jones standing beside me. It said to me, "Don't buy this book." I did anyway, and--it turns out--am glad I did.

Alvarez is one of the discoverers of the anomaly. (He is also the son of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez, whose nuclear background enabled him to work with Walter on the interpretation of the anomaly. I read Luis W.'s own autobiography some time ago; it, too, is an interesting book [Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist, New York: Basic, 1987].) A geologist, Walter Alvarez eventually proposed that the iridium anomaly provides evidence of the impact of an extraterrestrial comet or meteor on the earth, a catastrophic intersection of two celestial bodies that produced a kind of "nuclear winter." During that cold spell, the majority of dinosaurs and many other animals and plants--about half of the known phyla and perhaps as many as ninety per cent of the species in existence at the end of the Cretaceous--went extinct.

The book deals with the ways in which this proposal was developed, received, contested, and defended. It ends with the discovery, about a decade later--a discovery that Alvarez regards as conclusive in this matter, although careful readers will try to recall that the larger jury has not yet returned a verdict--of an impact crater, now largely submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, of the right size and date. As a kind of epilogue, Alvarez reminds us of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which struck Jupiter in July of 1994, indicating that such cosmic intersections as the Alvarez team hypothesized for Earth sixty-five million years ago continue to happen even now.

Alvarez's bigger point is that geologists must integrate into the uniformitarianism they so long and successfully adopted, as a counter to creationist mythologies, a recognition that catastrophes, too, cannot be ignored in considering long stretches of earth's history. But the story Walter Alvarez tells will interest even readers who couldn't care less about such arguments. Like Colbert, Alvarez is not a great writer. No matter. He is a major participant in one of the great geological discoveries and controversies of our time. It is a genuine pleasure to have the story told now in his own voice. Like Colbert's book, Alvarez's, too, illuminates both what it is that scientists do and how they think. It is thus a great gift to people like me curious about both.


Obasan is the first novel by the Canadian writer Joy Kogawa (Toronto 1981, Boston 1982). Simply stunning, it is also excruciatingly painful to read. Kogawa's book recounts the dismemberment of the lives of ordinary Canadians. But the word "ordinary" obscures the issue, for her characters, Canadians of Japanese (and hence "extraordinary") origin, were, like America's Japanese citizens, forcibly removed from their homes and businesses and sent into internal exile, first in concentration camps, then in environments both harsh and unfriendly, following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and other British and American colonial sites in Asia. Unlike Japanese citizens in the U.S., moreover, once the War was over Canada's were not permitted to return to their old homes or towns. Familes, exiled once already, were exiled a second time and, in the course of this process, broken up even more completely than they had been broken up the first time around.

This unpleasant tale is told from the perspective of Megumi Naomi Nakane, originally from Vancouver and now a primary school teacher in Alberta. Her perspective is not unified. Not only is her resistance to learning (or relearning) the past of her own family, and of herself, a major complication of her point of view, but also the reader is made to see events both as Nomi saw them as a child, dimly and fearfully, and as she comes to understand them anew as a woman in her later thirties, still severely scarred (and scared) by her experiences and her losses. Her father died of tuberculosis (essentially untreated) shortly after the War's end. Her mother had gone to Japan in September of 1941 to tend an ailing relative. Still there when, after December 7, Japan's attacks sent Canada to war in the Pacific as well as in Europe, she could not return home. In 1945, in order to assist another relative who had just had a baby, she guessed right and left Tokyo before the March 9 raids, but guessed wrong simultaneously, since the relative lived in Nagasaki . . . and she was still in that city on August 9th. Severely injured by the atomic bomb explosion that day, she could not bring herself to return her severely scarred body to Canada, nor would she permit her Canadian relatives to let her children know what had happened to her. As a result, Nomi and her brother Steven were raised by their aunt ("Obasan") and uncle. His death precipitates the novel's action.

A reader will easily see how schematically Kogawa's novel works and, perhaps, criticize it for that problem (as well as for some others). But her patient accretion of minute, mundane details of racism, persecution, and governmental turpitude and pusillanimity, and her "set piece" conclusion, in which the reader finally learns something of what it was like to be, not over the bomb ("our" normal perspective) but under it, give the book a power that cannot be overlooked. Obasan is well worth reading and savoring.


I read Itsuka, the sequel to Obasan, in an edition published in Toronto by Viking in 1992. This book--its title is the Japanese word for "someday"--takes Nomi from the death of her Obasan in 1972 through the 1988 Parliamentary passage of an act of redress by the Canadian government for wartime acts against its own citizens of Japanese ancestry. We watch as the icejam in which Nomi has protectively immersed herself since childhood begins slowly to thaw. Her own healing parallels that of the Japanese Canadian community and, more important, of the larger Canadian community of which her small group is a part. This book seems slightly less "digested" than the first, its events even more schematic, even more didactic. I found it immensely moving nonetheless, a book that surmounts its own flaws magnificently.

Just as a sidelight, one of the things that has interested me in many of the Indiana writers I've been reading recently is how they integrate their various brands of Christianity with the fictional worlds they create. Kogawa's fictional world is similarly one that is thoroughly imbued with a Christian perspective. This perspective makes it, for me, even more exotic than its rootedness in a Japanese-Canadian ethnicity. The desire of some of the nisei and sansei she writes about to disappear as "Japanese" is a motif familiar from other immigrant writer traditions. The presence of the Church in the lives she represents was, by contrast, completely unexpected. In addition, not only the Christian but also the intensely and involved political element in her work makes it seem very different indeed from a novel about the same themes one imagines an American writer producing. I called Kogawa's books "schematic"; but it occurs to me that this initial reaction may reflect not a "literary" response to Kogawa's novels but rather an American's reaction to a non-American politics. Canada may be close. But it's different.


Another book about prejudices in action has just climbed onto the Times bestseller list as I write (May 25), which (in one sense) does not surprise me. It is Pete Hamill's Snow in August (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), the story of eleven year-old Michael Devlin, who lives with his widowed mother in a working-class Irish neighborhood in 1947 Brooklyn. (His father was killed in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.) At the tail end of a December blizzard, Michael has earned some money shovelling snow. Thus he is enjoying himself in a candy store when Frankie McCarthy, neighborhood tough, beats the candy store owner and neighborhood kike, Mr. G., into a pulp, leaving him in a coma from which the novel never has him emerge.

Michael shortly becomes the shabbos goy at a decaying neighborhood synagogue. Its rabbi, Judah Hirsch, is a refugee from Prague whose wife died during the Holocaust.

[Michael] turned to go and then saw the picture of the woman again.

"Is her name Judith?"

"No." The rabbi paused, "Leah. Her name is Leah." He stared at the framed photograph for a long time. "My wife."

"She's very beautiful."

"Yes," said Rabbi Hirsch. "But she's dead."

"I'm sorry, Rabbi," the boy said.

"Is hard for a boy to understand, death."

"My father's dead too," Michael said. "He was killed in the war."

The rabbi turned away from his wife's photograph.

"Excuse," he said. "I am a fool. I think I am the only person with someone dead."

"It's okay, Rabbi," Michael said.

"No. Death is not okay for someone so young. At least I, I . . . " He couldn't find the words. "I am very sorry." (p. 68)

The two become friends. Michael helps Hirsch with his English, Hirsch teaches Michael Yiddish, and they share the excitement of the new baseball season, for baseball has become one of the Rabbi's routes into "America." But both Michael and Hirsch run into difficulties with neighborhood antisemitism. The backdrop of Brooklyn during a period when not only antisemitism but also another kind of racism affects the entire borough--for this is the season when Jackie Robinson is first called up by the Dodgers--is well drawn.

Nonetheless, the book suffers, for its first 290 pages, from a treacly sentimentalism that blunts the force of its depiction of a neighborhood ruled by its own worst products, Frankie McCarthy their symbol. ("McCarthy" seems, for Hamill, a name usable here because more tarnished by Tailgunner Joe than redeemed by Clean Gene.) For its last thirty-five pages, however, Hamill's book pulls a stunt that recalls D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel. Thomas similarly drew a portrait (the massacre at Babi Yar) so vile that the only escape his imagination could offer its reader was a retreat into fantasy. With far less power, Hamill does the same thing, bringing the Golem into Brooklyn--no, I'm not making this up!--to fight Frankie McCarthy and his gang.

"Why now?" Hirsch asks himself, "Why not then?" If the fictional assumption of the novel--that Hirsch, like the Rabbi Loew, has the power to make the Golem--is at all believable, then this is the question on which even the book's fantasy founders: "I was not pure enough. . . . I did not believe enough. Maybe, God I did not love enough" (p. 322). 'Scuse me? This is the explanation for the death of Leah . . . and six million other Jews . . . and six million other victims of the camps . . . and for all the dead of the European war, including Michael's father?

What could one possibly say about this crap that would be as bad as it deserves? In the context of a "realistic" novel, it turns out that Hamill's Jews possess great magical powers. I'm excited by this prospect; I certainly hope some great secrets come to me. Soon. But if this is philosemitism, then I don't like my would-be friends much better than my would-be enemies. Moreover, the secret powers that Jews seem to possess don't actually save them from anything serious. (Well, okay, Frankie McCarthy is "serious"; but he sure isn't large-scale.) Always the victim, they can't actually use their powers to save themselves from Hitler, and it's their own timorous fault: they lack purity, belief, and sufficient love of God. So, the novel seems to say, "Take Hitler, you schmucks: you deserved him."

This stuff is drivel, meretricious drivel. In Kogawa's books, wronged peoples analyze their political and social milieu and act to change it. In Hamill's, facing personal rather than grand scale problems, they resort to magic--and it works!

Wow. Gimme dat ol' time religion.


Alan Isler wrote well about Sir Philip Sidney when he was teaching at Queens College-CUNY. Many years ago, when I worked on Sidney myself, I had to read him--and enjoyed him, odd though that may seem. Now retired from teaching and living in London (he was born in England), Isler has taken up fiction. His second novel, Kraven Images (Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works, 1996), was the first I read. (I read it in the London reprint [Vintage, 1997], but the book is now available in an American paperback edition from Penguin, 1996, $11.95.) Deeply acerbic and deeply funny, it concerns what I might as well go ahead and call an "academic pricaro," one Nicholas Kraven. (In defining this literary type for myself, I think of more or less similar characters in novels by, for instance, Alan Lelchuk and Howard Jacobson.)

Nicko teaches Shakespeare at Mosholu College, a mythical school located not far, presumably, from where I grew up (just west of the north end of Mosholu Parkway and down the hill from St. Patrick's Home for the Aged--where, once a year, if you were lucky, you got to see Spelly show up to say hello to what he would not have called the alter ca-cas). Mosholu sounds a bit like Lehman College (in my day, it was--one word--"Hunteruptown"), another branch, like Queens, of CUNY. Nicholas is neither a nice man nor a model academic. Somewhat priapic, and a believer in equal opportunity in this respect at least, he has lost whatever touch he originally might have had with the academic life. In addition he finds himself increasingly out of sympathy with the revolting young of 1974, when this tale is set.

Isler depicts the spring and summer of that year, a short span of time during which things begin to turn very sour indeed for Nicko. How sour we come to realize only slowly. Early on, Isler's book seems merely funny--wildly funny, to be sure--as, for instance, when an elderly student, Mr. Feibelman, explains to Nicko the evidentiary basis for his epiphanic realization that the historical Merlin was a Jew:

'Right there in the Apologia Gryllus records an actual incantation of this Myrddin, a powerful spell he says the meshugana always muttered over the sacramental wine. . . . Here, this is how it begins.' He thrust . . . [a piece of paper] at Kraven: BOREASQUE TAURUS ADONAIS. 'Nu, what you think of that?'

'Nothing at all.'

'You kidding me, perfesser? Okay, okay. Here.' He scribbled on the second half [of the sheet]. 'It ends like this' . . . : BOREAS PYRRHI HOC OPHINIUM. 'Well, now what d'you say?'

'You've lost me, Feibelman.'

Feibelman's face registered his amazement. 'But there it is, in front of your nose, the Hebrew blessing over wine! Baruch atta adonai, and so on.' (pp. 22-23)

This is all pretty funny; but a book that starts out as a satirical view of the excesses of the academy, during a period of its relatively recent history that Kraven surely and Isler apparently disliked, turns out to have other fish to fry. Kraven himself becomes the object of the novel's attention, and of his own. Not a "normative" voice in this satiric world at all, Nicko is very much under scrutiny. In one sense, a reader can watch the novel veer off course as Isler turns his attention from the general fire to a particular frying pan.

Structurally, this shift may be The Flaw that novels are supposed to have. It didn't matter much as far as I was concerned. I thought Kraven Images was a howlingly funny book--and thought so despite the fact that, having taught in the CUNY system myself at the time during which this novel is set, I don't sympathize with Kraven's view of the 1970s academy.


I went backwards in Isler's novelistic career from Nicholas Kraven to Otto Korner (né Körner), the character who provides the central point of view in Isler's first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue (Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works, 1994; this book too is now available from Penguin, 1995, $9.95). The Prince of West End Avenue is so breathtakingly wonderful that it seems almost to need no word other than a "run, don't walk, get a copy, and read it." I liked Kraven Images a lot. This is an even better book.

An eighty-three year-old resident of the Emma Lazarus, a retirement home for the elderly located on West End Avenue, Mr. Korner is involved in the production, by the Emma Lazarus Old Vic, of Hamlet. Unfortunately, several of the directors and actors interrupt the planning and rehearsals by requiring removal to the spot, just south of Mineola, where many Emma Lazarus alumni take up "permanent subterranean residence." Other problems also arise. An actress, for example, objects to references to Christian burial. She convinces the director to implement some slight alterations of Billy Bard's words:

"It was felt," said Lipschitz, licking his lips, "that all these references to 'Christian burial' might offend some people. After all, many members of our audience are orthodox, not to say fanatic. How does it look? So we thought, what difference we get rid of a few words, make substitutions."

"Well, what is my line now?"

"Simple. You say, 'Is she to be buried in Mineola?' This same word you substitute in the other places."

"Wonderful!" says Hamburger. "Brilliant! Mineola, as everyone knows, is just south of Elsinore."

"That's what you want me to say? 'Is she to be buried in Mineola?'"

"Perfect. You got it. A little more emphasis on the she, but otherwise, perfect." (p. 41)

If this were all Isler's novel gave us, it would be enough. The teacher who ever teaches Shakespeare and does not read this book is going to be a duller teacher for its omission. Life at the Emma Lazarus is far more comic, far more easily libidinous, and, it seems, finally far richer, than the life Isler depicted in Nicholas Kraven's world.

But it is not only these things. Isler's epigraph quotes Polonius on the varieties of mixed genres to which theater is open. He knows exactly what he is doing and mixes genres here himself, far more controlledly than in his second novel. Thus, while preparations for Hamlet are under way, Mr. Korner is also seeking a letter stolen from his room and written to him before the War--not the Second but the First World War--when, a precocious poet, his first (and last) book of poems attracted the notice of one Rainer Maria Rilke. This search pushes Mr. Korner to reflections on a life that he knows must soon be coming to its end. That life has taken him from Berlin to Henry Carr-like sightings of Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara in wartime Zurich, to a failed love affair there, to marriage and a child back in Berlin, to the camps, to the shores of Palestine where the British intercept his refugee boat, to Cyprus, to New York, to the New York Public Library, to a second marriage, and, at last, to the Emma Lazarus, Mineola and permanence in sight.

Otto Korner's is, in short, an echt twentieth-century life.

. . . the Magda Damrosch who broke my heart in Zurich all those years ago . . . went up in smoke at Auschwitz in 1943. For this appalling piece of information I am indebted to Egon Selinger, who wrote from Tel Aviv in 1952, finding me heaven knows how. He was looking for other survivors. Not believing myself to be a survivor . . . , I never replied. (p. 9)
"Not believing myself to be a survivor," says eighty-three year-old Mr. Korner; and even at the early point in the novel at which we read them these are terrible words.
The problem as I came to see it in the camps [he tells us much later] was not the terror or the physical deprivation or the pain or even the utter lack of hope, the gray misery of squatting in filth for weeks and months and years while the mad dance of death went on all around. The problem was how in such circumstances to retain the merest shred of human dignity. (p. 225)
Survival, dignity: these are the things that Alan Isler's gorgeous novel is about. Run, don't walk, get a copy, and read it.


I recently read Henri-Jean Martin's The French Book: Religion, Absolutism, and Readership, 1585-1715, trans. Paul Saenger and Nadine Saenger, Johns Hopkins Symposia in Comparative History, 22 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) for a formal review that will appear in Rare Book and Manuscript Librarianship. I approached the book (which barely reaches one hundred pages of text) skeptically. It looks very much as if it will prove to be "A Child's Garden of Martin"--that is, a sort of Reader's Digest-style condensed version of Martin's earlier (and magisterial) studies in this field. I was, however, surprised to find myself thinking, after I'd finished reading it, that there is, after all, much to be said for the power and suggestiveness of the short form. To my surprise, therefore, I recommend this book with great warmth to anyone, even those who are not specialists in seventeenth-century France and early modern book history, interested in the ways in which book history issues are intertwined with just about every other issue that might conceivably excite an intellectual or social historian.


George W. S. Trow first published Within the Context of No Context as an article in The New Yorker. It then became a very short book in 1981. Now reissued, it has a new thirty-seven page introduction, "Collapsing Dominant" (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, $11.00 paperback). Despite the addition, Within the Context of No Context remains very short. It is also extremely angry.

Trow wants to understand, first, what happened to the members of his class in his generation, people who grew up in places like Cos Cob, Connecticut, and Bedford, New York, and attended Phillips Exeter and (it would seem) an unnamed Ivy not Yale: that is, upper-middleclass WASPS, during the span of years that is, essentially, my span, too (Trow is a year younger than I). In this respect, the book plays variations on some of the themes also explored, although from rather different perspectives, in Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny. Trow's was a generation with entitlements and expectations. Not many of them were fulfilled.

But Trow's book is also, second, an enraged exploration of what he regards as one of the causes of that unfulfilled destiny: a cultural (or, rather, an anti-cultural) force that shifted the grounds of American society from beneath the feet of the expectant suburban gentry. His evil genius is television and its attendant culture of celebrity: an anti-historical anti-culture that robs events of meaning by eviscerating them of their context and people of their meaning by eviscerating them of their dignity. It has, in addition, made meaningful political action increasingly difficult by virtue of its elimination of the middle distance, that space, as Trow describes it, that lies between the (increasingly infantilized) individual and the huge, anaesthetized, two hundred million-strong mass.

One does not often get to read a writer, these days, so uncompromisingly reactionary. A book that longs for old-fashioned, now impossible standards, and that also lives in hope of the demise of that television culture it abhors, Trow's brief book reminded me, perhaps oddly--okay, I admit it: perhaps very oddly--not of the Theodor W. Adorno or Guy Debord to whose books blurbs on the back of the paperback advert, but rather of the voice--stopped suddenly one day at Auschwitz by a bullet in the neck--of Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen.

Reck-Malleczewen was a Prussian aristocrat so conservative that he literally could not understand why the Nazis would actually harm Jews. Grovelling headwaiters, he thought the Nazis, speaking of Herr Hitler himself ("a headwaiter waiting for his tip") in his wonderful Diary of a Man in Despair. No one likes Jews, of course: everyone knows that. But why do anything quite so low as to harm them? Don't like them, don't go to their stores. But why throw rocks through their store windows? He actually wrote this question in his diary in the days following Kristallnacht. I remember reading much of this book years ago during a flight to New Orleans. The person sitting in the same row as I asked as we disembarked what I had been reading that made me laugh so much that the seat shook--and, when I told her, looked at me as if I were a monster. (The book, incidentally, was published in New York in 1970 by Macmillan; Paul Rubens was the translator.)

Trow is by no means as out of touch with the gruesome reality that surrounds him as was Reck-Malleczewen. He knows very well indeed that his class and its standards have croaked, that his generation has failed to keep its head above the wave. He even thinks he knows why. He just can't stand it. And he is so damned smart that he is worth reading on these topics, whether you buy his conservative analysis or not.

I will add here that when, on the morning after I wrote this passage, I heard the intellectuals' darlings on NPR tell their listeners, as if these were "news" stories, first, about something called Roseanne, and then about the "repositioning" (Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) of Diet Coke ("You are what you drink"), I myself became even more inclined to buy into Trow's attitudes than I had been in the slightly cooler atmosphere of the mercifully NPR-less night before. This overlong and overwrought sentence refers to the Morning Edition broadcast of May 20. "You could" (quoting the immortal "You know, me, Al") "look it up"--in case you think I am making this garbage up. Trust me. I couldn't.

And one further addition I simply can not resist: Trow's book provided an occasion for the newspaper for people who move their lips when they read--which some of us remember printing entire government documents or public policy addresses, or even whole books by people like Winston Churchill! (this, to sure, in the days before its punchification)--Trow's book allowed this newspaper inadvertently (?) to indicate its concern for those of its readers who may be unable to get the point even when their lips are in motion. Reporting on several of Manhattan's independent bookstores in its issue of May 30, Anne Roiphe, Times-reporter-for-a-day and writing here about Posman's (a shop at 1 University Place on Washington Square), mentioned the "large demand" earlier in May for Trow's book. She then carefully explained to her readers that Within the Context of No Context "is not an academic book but requires a fascination with language and a patience with cultural ideas" (p. C16).

Oh.

So much for Times readers. What can one say, after one has said, "Uh, duh?"


A different kind of "Philadelphia novel" than others I have been reading for the past few months is the one I recently finished by Ann Rinaldi. It was not only highly recommended but also loaned to me by one of my students. Finishing Becca: A Story About Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold, a historical novel about Philadelphia during the Revolution, is intended for "young adult" readers. I liked it.

Rinaldi's subject is the Edward Shippen household seen from the perspective of a young maid, Becca Syng, during the period when Edward's daughter Peggy is involved, first with John Andre, and, later, with Benedict Arnold--not a particularly salubrious crew, and one that sorely tries Becca, whose background is not Loyalist but Rebel. Some of Rinaldi's themes mesh quite interestingly with those of a very different sort of book I am in the middle of reading (Alan Taylor's book about William Cooper)--but, whatever may be said about her historical accuracy, the book is at once an enjoyable story about Becca's coming of age and a depiction of a genuine monster in Peggy Shippen (a believable monster, as it happens).

Whatever the age of its intended audience, it is a book I enjoyed and one I would unhesitatingly give a junior high school or high school reader. It is available in paperback as a Gulliver Book in Harcourt Brace's American Colonies Series (San Diego, 1994, $4.95).


By this point, I suppose, doing so may represent mere stubbornness, but Indiana's literary siren call is one I continue to heed. My most recent venture into the wilds of Indiana fiction took me to a historical novel, Alice of Old Vincennes, written by Maurice Thompson. Although this book is now available in Indiana University Press's Library of Indiana Classics, I read the edition first published in Indianapolis by Bowen-Merrill in 1900, with illustrations by F. C. Yohn.

Thompson's tale, set in the years 1778 and 1779, relates the coming of the American Revolution to the frontier French town of Vincennes, on the banks of the Wabash, and taken from British military hands by the two hundred or so men of George Rogers Clark's "army," marching one hundred and seventy miles east from St. Louis in order to do so. This tale is intrinsically interesting in and of itself. In addition, as its novelistic core, Thompson also gives his reader the love story of Alice Roussillon, née Tarleton, an orphan of English and Protestant background raised in Vincennes by one of its leading citizens, and Lieutenant Fitzhugh Beverly of Virginia. The love story is a frame within which Thompson weaves his patriotic themes. Making Indiana a place in which rebellion flamed as hotly as ever it did in the original thirteen colonies, he presents the frontier actions of Clark's army as an act eventually to ensure American imperial sway from sea to shining sea. Alice of Old Vincennes is a fascinating book in its nationalism.

It is also fascinating for its racism. Thompson does not like Native Americans at all: "if Alice had been asked to tell just how she felt toward the Indian she had labored so hard to save, she would promptly have said, 'I loathe him as I do a toad!'" (p. 48). This same Indian will save Alice and her beloved Beverly later in the novel; for his pains, however, he will reap the novelistic reward, within a matter of very few pages, of being scalped, an end for which Thompson's authorial voice suggests not the slightest of pangs. Thompson has one more slight problem with his Vincennes setting. He really doesn't like Frogs or Roman Catholics very much, either (one reason that Alice is not really a Roussillon but is instead a Tarleton). Even if it had no other virtues, Alice would serve as a short course in stereotypes of and epithets for all those folks for whom Thompson's tolerance is not long.

In fact, his book proves unpleasant in a surprisingly large number of ways. Even its prose is rather more rhetorically ornate than modern tastes tend to appreciate, one more aspect of Thompson's book that does not help it much. Yet even after all these factors are taken into account, I confess that I read Alice of Old Vincennes all the way through with real interest--even though my interests may not have been exactly the sort for which the author might have hoped. It's a pretty peculiar performance, but I'm not sorry to have encountered it.


Another midwestern novel--but northern Minnesota this time, not Indiana--I've only belatedly found is Jon Hassler's Staggerford (1977; I read the 1986 Ballantine reprint). This novel covers a week in the life of a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Staggerford, a small town somewhere between Duluth and Fargo. A plot summary would spoil the book, and no excerpt could sufficiently indicate its author's mastery of tone: desert-dry humor, quiet concern for his characters and their lives, respect for their interests and their foibles, even when they are at their worst. For a number of years--too few, as it happens--I taught a course together with a person who comes from the Dakotas and lives in Minneapolis. Were he a writer of novels, this is the sort of novel he would have written. It's a book I picked up by accident. I'd just picked up--and put back down--a new novel by the author when I bumbled into this paperback. I picked it up, too--and then figured, more or less, "Why not?" (Since I hadn't actually expected to do anything quite so ridiculous as to read it, for I was in the middle of something else, there is surely an answer to that normally rhetorical question.) Staggerford is terrific, the interruption was worth it, and you might like this book, too.


Another midwestern writer with a new book--this book one that I did not put back down when I found it in the bookstore--is, nowadays, an alter ca-ca, a neoconservative kvetch, and a leading representative of an idea of "culture" for which I don't care. It therefore pains me to admit that I inhaled Saul Bellow's latest little book, a completely captivating love story called The Actual (New York: Viking, 1997), with great pleasure. Everything about it. And recommend it highly.

Goddammit to hell, I detest opinions that are contradicted by facts.


If I were to recommend a memoir about a Massachusetts ethnic kind of guy who lives with a bunch of dogs, some falcons, and an older WASP woman in western New Mexico where the two of them enjoy hunting and cockfights and where she eventually dies, you'd probably think less of my taste than you already do. But anyone who has read this far probably no longer cares . . . so let me tell you about Stephen Bodio's Querencia (Livingston, Montana: Clark City Press, 1990), a book with all the virtues already enumerated--and then some!

I really can't and won't apologize for this tout: Bodio's book is gorgeous. It is as stunning an evocation of a western place--Magdalena, New Mexico, and its environs in west-central New Mexico--as John Graves's magnificent Goodbye to a River (New York: Knopf, 1960)--the Brazos and north central Texas, Richard Shelton's beautiful Going Back to Bisbee (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992)--Bisbee and southeastern Arizona, and Reyner Banham's astonishing Scenes in America Deserta (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith/Gibbs M. Smith, 1982)--the Sonora Desert: three books so utterly wonderful that they need no recommendation from me at all. In part because Bodio's sense of New Mexico begins in Socorro (Magdalena is twenty-six miles to the "right" of Socorro [p. 4--he's got you coming into Socorro from the north]), it even recalled for me a very different book--a novel, not a memoir--by the now much neglected midcentury American writer, Conrad Richter. Tacey Cromwell (New York: Knopf, 1942) concerns a whore with a heart of gold. Richter's tale begins in Kansas, wends its way through Socorro, and winds up in Bisbee. It's well worth reading, too, although for different reasons than Graves, Shelton, Banham--or Bodio.

Somehow or other, Querencia must have provoked a review that got it onto my want list around the time it was published. But I failed to recall what it was about and so, when I looked for it, I looked for it in fiction, thus almost insuring that I would never locate it. "Almost": but I did finally find a used copy early in May, placed in the fiction section of the store where I acquired it. The bookseller must not have looked at the book any more closely than I had looked at the review. I read it almost immediately; and it was not an easy book to put down. Memoir, love story, a study of place and of lives rooted in place: so much of Querencia begs for quotation that I think it safest not even to begin to quote any of it. It needs instead to be read whole. And it deserves to be.



July 1997

I know why I bought Paul Shepheard's new book, The Cultivated Wilderness: or, What is Landscape?, a book published in the spring of 1997 by MIT Press as part of its Graham Foundation/MIT Press Series in Contemporary Architectural Discourse (a paperback [$12.50] appeared simultaneously with the hardbound edition). Because its last chapter discusses the western front--that is, Flanders, the major western battleground of the First World War--and I have been thinking about devising a course on the literature of war and, in English, at any rate, the literature of World War I cannot be passed over in silence in such a course, the book seemed like a natural for me. I did wait a month before actually buying it. But when I looked at it the second time, I could not say no yet again.

What I don't know is why I picked up the book to look at in the first place. Unlike a friend who plays flypaper in a world where architecture books act as flies, landscape and architecture are not subjects I read in very often. I must have picked it up purely by accident. If so, it was a very lucky one.

Shepheard's book is among the most exciting I have read in a very long time--even though I still don't quite know what it is. Is it what, as a university press publication, one might suppose it to be, a work of "scholarship"? is it instead, as, having read it, I now almost think, a very nearly poetic meditation on the interactions between human beings and their environment? I can say neither with certainty.

What it is, "certainly," is a set of essays that consider, among other things, what "wilderness" might mean to the human beings who interact with, live in, or stamp their presence over it; the seven wonders of the ancient world; the human presence in Antactica; Scotland; Flevoland and the Dutch polders; the relationship between London and its surroundings; and--in its last chapter--the western front. Each essay is characterized first and foremost by the author's idiosyncratic and playful voice. He writes like a cranky and opinionated human being speaking to other human beings, not like an academic ghost-in-the-book-as-machine addressing some equally dessicated conception of an academic reader. The essays are shot through with conversations (invented? recorded?), little dramas, vignettes, and a basketful of other irrelevancies--although they never turn out to be as irrelevant as you suppose. Each is also characterized by flashes of insight that strike you like lightbulbs going off at unpredictable intervals, page after page.

Many years ago, an English professor named Robert Stevick wrote an essay attempting to define the "form" of a genre called "the anatomy." It had, back then, recently been made "famous" all over again by a Canadian name of Frye. Stevick's examples, as I recall, included not only melancholick Burton, more or less obviously, but also Swift's Tale of a Tub, Tristram Shandy, Sartor Resartus, Moby Dick, A la recherche du temps perdus, and Ulysses. At an MLA meeting in the late 1970s, I proposed that Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time would be better understood in reference to this genre than if it were read (as it usually is) against the standards of realistic fiction; I still believe this argument is worth making in a more formal way than I did then, as an aside in a different argument, or here, as an assertion. Whatever else it may be, Shepheard's Cultivated Wilderness is the most recent major contribution to the anatomy genre I have come across. I also think it is simply brilliant.

My pleasure in the book sent me looking, the day I finished it, for Shepheard's first book, What is Architecture? An Essay on Landscapes, Buildings, and Machines (MIT Press, 1994; paperback $9.95). I took me twenty-four hours to find a copy, which proved a bit frustrating. When I finally got my mitts on it, this earlier book also won me over.

Art is everywhere [Shepheard writes]. As life has become detached from the wilderness, the human world is everywhere. I see music as a throbbing accompaniment to every moment of contemporary life, a sort of continuous current of emotion, that incorporates what poetry used to be. I see drama as a hugely expanded art that includes films and novels, which even has a new name, literature, and sucks in clothes and manners to itself as well. Architecture? Would we not all agree that architecture is much more than tombs and palaces and temples now? (p. 36)
Do "we" all agree? Well, maybe yes . . . and maybe no. Page after page is filled with stuff that gets the ol' mental juices going, exciting agreement, provoking argument and disagreement, and inciting the reader to thought. If there is more to ask of a book, I am not sure what it is.


Irons in the Fire, a new collection of essays by John McPhee, has just been published by Farrar (1997). All appeared originally in The New Yorker. I am not sure they read as well here as they did there. I felt a certain tiredness and self-indulgence in these pieces, particularly the last one, about Plymouth Rock, where one never quite gets the feeling that McPhee has any idea at all of why he is telling his readers the stuff he tells us. These qualities do not sort well with my memories of earlier McPhee. Nor, except for the title essay (it deals with the branding of horses in Nevada), did the essays gathered here stay with me very long after I'd finished the book. Still and all, they were fun enough . . . and weak McPhee remains better than a lot of other journalism.


For several months, I have been slowly reading through Gene Stratton-Porter's novels as part of what has proven to be an ongoing Indianan fit; this month, I read three of them. Michael O'Halloran is a 1915 Stratton-Porter novel now republished in the Library of Indiana Classics by Indiana University Press (1997). As has turned out to be true for me with virtually all of her novels, I found it very nearly irresistible.

Michael O'Halloran retails the Horatio Alger-like tale of a plucky newsboy. After the death of his hardworking mother, he succeeds through grit, hard work, and square dealing not only in rescuing himself from the slum streets of "Multiopolis," a large city in Indiana, but also in caring for a spine-damaged orphan who falls into his way after her grandmother's alcohol-induced demise. The family within whose warm and capacious bosom Michael and Peaches are ensconced by the book's end is perfectly Dickensian. Indeed, the book reminds one of what Dickens might have looked like if, first, he had produced an even more sentimental line of goods than was his ordinary wont, and, second, he had been not merely conservative but positively reactionary. Stratton-Porter must have known her Dickens well. The eventual survival of Peaches (in contrast to the demise of Little Eva), to say nothing of Peaches's physical resuscitation, is one measure of the relation, as well as the difference, between these writers. Stratton-Porter is not all that much more bigoted than the creator of Shylock, by the way, a point that adds yet another attraction (as it were) to her work.

In its attitude towards business and square dealing, towards immigrants, towards institutional as opposed to personal assistance of the needy masses, and towards a boatload of additional social issues that Stratton-Porter looks at unblinkingly, Michael O'Halloran might almost serve in the later 1990s as a text for modern compassionate Republicans. (Forgive, if you can, my use of that canting phrase.) If there were any reason at all to imagine that Indiana Republicans can read, someone might almost have thought that the recent Vice Presidential representative of the species, characterized, you will recall, by an intelligence of very nearly human dimensions, had studied this book quite seriously when he was young. Certainly, his social attitudes--to the degree that they might be called "social" or "attitudes" and thus made comprehensible--could easily have been molded in the crucible of the Stratton-Porter furnace.

One odd note. Indiana continues to behave most curiously, for a university press, with this series. The present volume, like all too many of its companions, contains no indication of its original 1915 date of publication; nor does any imprint date indicate that this volume is a 1997 reprint; nor do I find any information about the edition it reprints. Earlier volumes in the series have on occasion apparently worked not from "true" first editions but from Grosset and Dunlap reprints instead. I suppose I ought to applaud the imagination that has led Indiana to make these books widely available once again, with or without such bibliographical care. This volume, less than $15 in paperback, compares quite favorably with the $200 or so one might have to pay for a first edition. Nonetheless, I might have thought these Stratton-Porter reprints a venture with somewhat higher motives than palliation of local literary chauvinists and sociopolitical troglodytes had Indiana shown any effort to suggest something even remotely resembling a critical approach to the issue of reprinting such materials. I don't find a single sign.

I read A Daughter of the Land in the original 1918 Doubleday, Page edition. This gorgeous book is the tale of a woman for whom nothing works right after she tries to take charge of her own life after living too long in a family where to be a woman is to be nothing. You expect a feminist tract? Well, you get one. Its peculiar brand of feminism, in combination with its other social attitudes, will, however, surprise you in all sorts of ways. I devoured the book, which lasted the length of a flight from Philadelphia to Ontario, California. You will, too.

I also read Stratton-Porter's 1907 At the Foot of the Rainbow. I read the 1907 Grosset and Dunlap edition (which I take to be a reprint of the Outing Publishing Company edition of the same year, although I have not yet had a chance to look up the details in BAL). For all of the author's conservatism, this is a pretty weird little book. Two men--Jimmy Malone and Dannie Macnoun--are in love with the same woman. One sent the other to her to speak for him; he is refused, and his spokesman marries her in his stead. So, when we meet her, she is Mary Malone. Dannie nonetheless hangs around . . . for the next fifteen years. Hmmmm.

Jimmy and Mary have three children during this period; each is stillborn. Something is rotten at the core of their relationship. That Jimmy is an alcoholic bum is another strong hint of problems here. A crisis occurs for all three in this fifteenth year. It provides the burden of Stratton-Porter's book. I won't spoil it for those who can't guess the tale's outcome.

Had Stratton-Porter sat down to read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men before writing this novel, she could not have come up with a clearer example of what the concept of "homosocial discourse" might mean. What, one wonders, is this example doing here? The author, one remembers, is not even a man. Similarly homosocial and homoerotic themes abound in her works, incidentally. She frequently depicts a peculiarly strong bonding between men in her novels, and even does so in, for instance, Freckles. This is an author who, as I read more and more of her, becomes curiouser and curioser.


James Lee Burke has written several interesting mysteries set in Louisiana's bayou country. Their central character is one Dave Robicheaux, a former member of the NOPD, an alcoholic who now attends AA meetings, a widower now re-married, an adoptive father, and, in later books, an officer of the New Iberia sherrif's department. The older books in Burke's Robicheaux series were characterized both by considerable violence and a cynical, not to say nasty, political outlook that considered with gimlet eyes the impact on American national and community life of what Mr. Eisenhower once called "the military-industrial complex." Those earlier novels, together with a few by other authors, long ago suggested to me that the American political novel is not dead at all but rather thriving, albeit in sub-literary genres like the mystery and the thriller that no one bothers to take seriously. It thrives there, one supposes, precisely because such political attitudes are safe to express in genres that no one takes seriously.

It had been a while since I'd last read a Burke, and so when the chance arose recently I picked up Burke's Burning Angel (New York: Hyperion, 1995) with anticipatory please. But despite its local color and its cynicism, always attractive, this is not, I am unhappy to report, one of Burke's better novels in the Robicheaux series. Its plot--part "lifestyles of the rich and shameless"; part the wages of industrialized rapaciousness visited upon a once-beautiful landscape; part Faulknerian past sins repaid in the present, race at their root--is far too intricate. Perhaps as a result, too many loose ends dangle when the book reaches its conclusion. Most troublesome, at least for me, Burke reaches the same point of desperation that Pete Hamill evidently reached in Snow in August. He therefore resorts to the same supernatural deus ex machina to get out of it. A man recently shot several times in the back but now risen from the dead proves able to act as a guardian angel to several people in need of help, both in person and over the phone. No explanation is offered.

Perhaps Burke intends, in the mode of the soap opera, to bring this character back in a later novel, with a naturalistic explanation of how come he's still alive. In this novel, alas, it simply doesn't work--and I finished the book feeling cheated.

Cheat or not, Burning Angel prompted me to catch up with Dave Robicheaux's other recent doings--and the books read well when you're travelling, which, what with one thing and another, I spent large chunks of June doing. So I tried again with Dixie City Jam (1994; rpt. New York: Hyperion, 1995). Here we find some notably unsavory types trying to raise a Nazi submarine sunk during the War off the Louisiana coast. Several of the unsavories seem to be homegrown neo-Nazis; but Burke's political point of view goes all skewey as the novel works towards its close and once again I felt vaguely dissatisfied by the time I reached the novel's all-too-predictably energetic end.

Cadillac Jukebox is the most recent Robicheaux (New York: Hyperion, 1996). I read it mostly while sitting on a bed in Chicago. The bed did not bounce with my excitement. In the book, I discovered, with neither much surprise nor interest, terrible people do terrible things. They are really bad (both the people and the things). I could hardly have cared less.

This author is writing a lot too much and a lot too fast. I hope the money is worth it.


Just as unhappily, I have to say the same about Thomas Perry's newest Jane Whitefield novel, The Shadow Woman (New York: Random House, 1997). I've had nice things to say about several of Perry's earlier books, although I've also noticed a real falling off as he has produced faster and faster. This is the third of the Jane Whitefield novels he has produced, stockpiled, as I recall, with Random House for years to come. While Jane's character continues to grow and Perry's writing is generally brisk and effective, the plot is simply unchanging. Jane's work keeps following her home to threaten her (and, here, to threaten her new husband, as well) on what should be the safety of her own turf. This is too much of a muchness. "Make it," as someone once said, "new."


Last month, I mentioned Jon Hassler's Staggerford. This month, I want to mention his next novel, Simon's Night (1979; rpt. New York: Ballantine, 1986), also a wonderful book. Seventy-six year-old Simon Shea fears that he is losing his memory. He has come painfully close to burning down his house, located in the country near Rookery College in central Minnesota, from which he has been retired as an English professor for about ten years. In revulsion against this mishap, he has checked himself into a home for the aged in "a nothing town" some distance from Rookery. Here he gets to listen to the bullying woman who runs the home as her means of earning a living. He also listens to a retired farmer named Hatch, who recalls every drought he has ever lived through, and an Indian named Smalleye, who comments repeatedly on his own desire to shoot a goose, which he had done every year about this time (fall) until he was removed to the home for the aged. One of the women residents persistently recalls, in language that strains towards decorum without ever actually achieving it, her past sex life, in hopes that she will successfully entice Simon to partake of its present.

During this dark night of Simon's soul a young doctor enters his life when, as a new resident of the home, Simon must go to her for a physical exam. She comes quickly to feel that Simon has made a mistake in this renunciation of his solitary existence (his wife had left him about forty years before). The novel is a series of incidents that combine to suggest to Simon that she might be right.

I felt that the Hassler hand lay a wee bit heavily on the Joycean ending of the book. Into the drought of seventy-six falls rain, not snow--and thus we find spiritual rebirth, not "The Dead," in case you need these deep symbols explained to you. But that's my only real criticism of a book otherwise so lovely as to beggar description.


Stephen Jay Gould has recently published a long essay in two parts--"Darwinian Fundamentalism," "Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism"--in The New York Review of Books, 44:10 and 11 for June 12 and June 26, 1997 (34-37; 47-52). I read the two parts in Corona del Mar, California, and Houlton, Maine, and--fascinated as I was by both--nonetheless found myself feeling quite peculiar about the venue of this long response to criticism of Gould and Eldridge's supplement to natural selection in the theory of punctuated equilibrium. I don't expect discourse on such issues to take place in a general and public rather than a specialized forum; yet the more I think about it, the surer I become that I am wrong. I am no scientist but I am interested in these issues, as well as by the ways in which scientists think and argue. Other people must feel the same way. So why shouldn't such discourse--such arguments--take place in public view? Gould writes well--so well that, for a non-scientist like me, he is astonishingly convincing just because he is so lucid. In fact, however, I think he may be convincing not only because he writes so well but also because he has a capacious imagination and curiosity, and his critics do not. Or, to put it another way, he may be convincing because he is right. In any event, the essay is exciting in both of its parts, and well worth your attention.


Gregory S. Jay recently published a book with Cornell University Press called American Literature and the Culture Wars (Ithaca, NY, 1997, simultaneously issued in hard- and paper covers). Jay is concerned in large measure with the ways in which American literature and American studies need to expand their range to do justice to the theoretical and cultural revolutions of the last quarter of a century. Far more sympathetic to the changes that these revolutions reflect and promote than writers like, say, Todd Gitlin, Jay can be read--as I did--with almost unmitigated pleasure from beginning to end. His book will (or should!) have special resonance for people who teach literature now and again, as well as for those who simply read the stuff. He has tried to make his book comprehensible to an audience that is non-professional about issues that matter to Lit. Crit. types; on the whole, he has succeeded admirably. This is another book worth reading to get juices flowing.


A friend who knows very well that I never read books like the one about to be recommended here nonetheless badgered me so effectively that I finally succumbed and read John Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (New York: Villard, 1997). He was right. The book tells me much more than I ever wanted to know about life above 24,000 feet. So what? I have already forgotten that stuff about it and remember instead only the endurance and the folly that Krakauer commemorates so well in this book about getting up Mount Everest--and, worse, coming back down--and, worse still, failing to make it back down. Now a Big League bestseller, the book tells a horrific story very well indeed. I was glad to have read it.

It is also a book that fairly begs to be "deconstructed." What are the author's feelings about the events and the people he describes? his motives in telling the tale he tells? Can we tell? Can he? Krakauer's own text quotes the relatives of some of those who died on Everest in May of 1996. At their mildest, their letters accuse him of self-interest in the tale he tells. Such inclusions do not, it turns out, so positively shade the integrity of the author who includes them as to prevent a reader from wondering whether there might be more to such accusations than first meets the eye.

Readers may agree or ignore this point; but the book itself will, I suspect, provoke little disagreement. It is simply terrific.


I have yet to read a recent book by Redmond O'Hanlon that deals (as, in a sense, Krakauer's does, too) with travel (No Mercy, New York: Knopf, 1997). Its reviews were good enough to send me to look first at an earlier--and cheaper!--book of O'Hanlon's, Into the Heart of Borneo (1984; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1987, $12.00 in paper). No praise could possibly be adequate to the variegated strengths of a book that starts right out by telling you that "The training area of 22 SAS near Hereford is the best place on earth from which to begin a journey upriver into the heart of the jungle" (p. 2) and which shortly thereafter presents the narrator, on his first evening in Borneo, bedded down for the night in a hotel room in the town of Kuching, being visited, somewhat surprisingly, by his old Oxford tutor, John Jones ("He put his knuckles on the mattress and leaned forward. 'Yes, Redmond,' he said, in his intense way, giving each word its full share of time in his mouth, 'but what have you ever done in life?'"--p. 13). Things only get better. Or worse. It's hard to tell the difference, and (if you're at all like me) you won't want to bother. This book is shriekingly, laugh-out-loud funny. Find a copy and read it. Soon.



August 1997

I spent much of July traveling, teaching two weeks in Virginia and then doing a bit of touring in the region around the capitol of the Old Confederacy, Richmond, with a side trip to Norfolk. One result of these travels is the brevity of this August "tout." If that's a problem.


With great enthusiasm, I picked up the Dalkey Archive reissue of W. M. Spackman's Complete Fiction just as soon as I saw it (Normal, IL, 1997, $16.95 in paperback). I first encountered Spackman in 1978 when Knopf published An Armful of Warm Girl, a book whose voice--the voice of a Philadelphia Main Line man in full bray (as, I think, one early reviewer said of it)--is among the most remarkable American writing coups of the postwar era, right up there with Philip Roth (another writer whose control of voice is also extraordinary, although Roth controls a very different register of voices indeed!) I own that book, as well as the three later ones that Spackman published with Knopf (A Presence with Secrets, 1980; A Difference of Design, 1983; and A Little Decorum, for Once, 1985); they're not why I needed this volume. But Spackman also wrote an early book, Heyday, published by Ballantine in 1953, which has never been reprinted; and, after Spackman died in 1990, a novel that Knopf had already announced in one or more of its lists of books forthcoming was allowed to go unpublished. Both are here, or so I take it (along with two short pieces, "Dialogue at the End of a Pursuit" and "Declarations of Intent"; neither Twenty-five Years of It, a book of poems published in Perros-Guirec, France, in a limited edition in 1967, nor On the Decay of Humanism [Rutgers 1967], a book of essays, is included here, since neither is a work of fiction, but they deserve reprinting, as well).

I no longer have the Knopf lists in which the announcements of what was to be Spackman's last novel appeared, but As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning . . . seems to be that book. The volume begins with Heyday. Or so I thought. It has been some twenty years or so since I first read Heyday but, when I started in on it here, it seemed to me that something was not quite right. I looked then at the "Afterword" by Steven Moore, the volume's editor, and learned that my memory had not gone to seed: this is a different Heyday, much revised from the 1953 novel I had remembered. I decided that I ought to be able to find--and then, after a web search, did find--a copy of the 1953 version (the book was published originally by Ballantine in what was then an "experimental" simultaneous hardcover and mass-market paperback editions). Pandora's Books (Neche, ND) had a copy of the paperback. I have yet to find a hardcover copy, or either the poems or the essays, but I'm looking.

Spackman is a wonderfully odd writer not easy to describe. His subject is the upper classes, his prose style mannered, his concision something I admire (from afar!). Moore's concluding essay about him is worth reading. But the books themselves are simply terrific. Having them here together (even if it's only a revised Heyday) is a real pleasure.

Obviously, I have problems with Moore's decision to print the revision, especially since it too was left in a state of some disruption by the author's last illness and death while still under way. I can remember hearing Borges complaining to a university audience many years ago about literary scholars who don't mind if, when he takes the last page from the typewriter and re-reads his story, Borges has second thoughts, goes back to his typescript, and makes changes, but who wax indignant if Borges does the same thing not when the story is fresh from the typewriter but twenty years later. "It's still my story," Borges said; and of course he's right. Partly. By that time, however, it has become his readers's story, too. When you like it one way, you might not like it another. I haven't yet recovered from my shock enough to read the "new" Heyday; no doubt, I will, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, if you've not bumped into W. M. Spackman (1905-1990--what is my thing about writers born in that year?), here is a volume that makes it possible for you to do so quite handily. He is an encounter worth having.


Over what has become a surprisingly long span of years, a learned colleague and I have argued about privately-printed books: he likes them, I don't. Neither of us collects them (we're both librarians and we can't afford them--one point about them on which we both agree); both of us own some anyway (they come your way if you're in the way); but he thinks they're a free space that encourages typographical and design innovation, and I think they're toys for the rich that have remarkably little to do with the book world that exists for people who read books. Their leisure-class audience dispirits me; the fact that they draw attention to themselves as objects, not as books, seems to me a perversion of what books are for.

So much for past opinions. I'm throwing in the towel, conceding not defeat--I'd never have convinced my colleague anyway--but, worse, error and lack of imagination. A book that has been out for several years, sitting not only on bookstore shelves but also on my own shelves since I bought it in 1993, the year Princeton published it, is something I finally got around to reading this summer; it's a mind-changer. Written by that bête noir of bibliographers, Jerome McGann, the book is called Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. In it, McGann argues that the typographic and design processes by which a book draws attention to itself as an object are in fact precisely what make privately-printed books so attractive to certain kinds of modernist writers. Showing me how these books make their physical appearances function for literary ends, he salvages (for me, anyway) an entire form of publication. Lucid both about a tough issue and about a lot of writers who are not always ones I'd read (among them, e.g., William Morris, Ezra Pound, Laura Riding Jackson, and Jack Spicer), this is an educational book in the best sense of that word. Read it and see.


I've done a bit of catching up with periodicals this summer. While traveling in Virginia, in Shenandoah National Park, I bumped into an issue of US News & World Report with a cover story by Michael Satchell on "Parks in peril" (July 21, 1997, pp. 22-28). For the past several years, the National Park Service has been the only government agency I can name that has done anything for me that I really wanted done. This year alone, I have visited Death Valley, Joshua Tree, the Everglades, and Shenandoah (and I have, moreover, encountered Rangers in each place who were helpful, friendly, courteous, and cheerful), so I suppose I should not be surprised that in the Era of the Newt the NPS should be underfunded (expose that toad to bright sunlight and it would be in deep trouble very quickly). In any event, for those who care about such things, this was an article worth reading.


I also read a very different essay, in a very different venue, by Wayne Wiegand. "'Jew Attack': The Story Behind Melvil Dewey's Resignation as New York State Librarian in 1905" appeared in the September 1995 issue of American Jewish History (83:3, 359-379). It is simply delicious. True, it told me nothing about Dewey I would not already have expected. Anyone who has read, for example, Dee Garrison's gruesomely hilarious Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920 (New York: Macmillan Information, 1979), a study of the "feminization" of American librarianship under Dewey's aegis (women work for less, he astutely realized), will have been well prepared for everything Wiegand says about Dewey's other admirable traits. Still and all, the essay is a real treat. I finished it rather wishing that I could dig up some of Wiegand's characters to congratulate them on a good job well done.


Perhaps because of my interest in the Manhattan Project, a subject about which I teach a literature course every so often, I was quite excited to find Margot Norris's essay, "Dividing the Indivisible: The Fissured Story of the Manhattan Project," in a recent issue of Cultural Critique (no. 35 [Winter 1996-97], pp. 5-38). It was an essay that excited me as much by the time I'd reached its end as it had in prospect, except that I was irritated to see that Norris had said in print one of the things I had wanted to say too, but before I got to say it. She is concerned with the ways in which the history of the Manhattan Project has become a story, and a story constructed in a very deliberate way to have a very specific meaning. That "story" is not "history"--in fact, it works by turning part of the story to use as if it were the whole of the story--but this behavior, taking the part for the whole, has important consequences of its own. Norris's is an unusually valuable essay, one that I will have my own students read when I teach this course again (as I will do this fall). If the topic is of any interest to you, too, you'll find that Norris has written a very smart essay well worth the reading.


The Summer 1997 issue of The American Scholar contained several essays I read with one or another degree of interest.

John Keegan, best known for The Face of Battle and a number of later books about the experiences of men at war, has an essay here about cemetaries for the British Commonwealth's war dead, "There's Rosemary for Remembrance" (pp. 335-348). This is an essay it would be difficult to overpraise. I started it because of its title--memory is a topic I have written about elsewhere--as well as because I have liked most other of Keegan's books as I've read them. The essay is surprisingly lovely, surprisingly moving. A number of recent books examine the forays into public memory that war memorials represent in a number of cultures, including the United States. Keegan's essay seems simpler than these, perhaps because the author's point of view is a lot less ambiguous than the points of view of others I've read in this area, but it is nonetheless enormously evocative. I enjoyed it; I think others would, as well.

The same issue contains a lovely essay honoring the memory of her teacher by sociologist Renée C. Fox. "Talcott Parsons, My Teacher" (pp. 395-410) is a tribute to a person noted as a theoretician of sociology but portrayed here almost solely in his role as a teacher: I found it quite informative. I remember the pleasure my father took from praise he received from students many years after they had been in his classes. Parsons would have been tickled pink by this one.

Joseph Horowitz has a very brief essay about "Schubert at 200" (pp. 419-422) and, while I enjoyed it, I find myself quite unclear about its intended audience. Is it directed at people who don't already listen to Schubert's music? Or at people like me who do, but who know little about the person who was Schubert and (under the influence of a visceral New Criticism, imbibed so early that, even though abandoned with respect to literature, it has been retained in other areas of cultural experience) don't even think they should learn something about him? Okay, okay. I looked today at two new biographies about Franz and will, I hope, choose one of them soon . . .

Dana Gioia has an essay about "The Berg" (pp. 431-436), that is, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library. I am, again, unclear about the audience for such an essay but, as a long-time fan of NYPL generally and the Berg specifically, I enjoyed Gioia's introduction to a major resource for students and scholars. The essay reminded me not only of the Berg's astonishing holdings but also of the marvelous way in which it was formed. Moreover, in its attention to the ways in which Jews took up leadership roles in cultural philanthropies in midcentury America, the piece formed an especially amusing pendant to Wiegand's essay on Dewey, which I had recently read. Librarianship and issues that relate to it turn up--here and in Wiegand's article--in the damnedest places!

John Lukacs, a professor at nearby (to me) Chestnut Hill College who also teaches a course on World War II now and again at Penn, has an essay in this issue on "Fear and Hatred" (pp. 437-441). It tries to do much too much in too little space, drawing distinctions (much too assertively) between the characteristics of totalitarians of the left (fear) and of the right (hatred), and then going on to explore some of the manifestations in current political life of these two primal emotions. His editor has permitted Lukacs to go into print here with some quite outlandish gender-based distinctions that are an embarrassment without relief. Despite this brief but utter lapse--and Lukacs's failure to marshall any evidence at all for his larger case--the essay is nonetheless something I found worth reading. It has the courage to try, however foolishly in so abbreviated a context, to raise basic questions. On general principles, I think this is always a good idea, even if I don't agree with the results.


My July tours to the Old Confederacy and its capitol, Richmond, took me, among other places, to Jefferson Davis's "White House," to his grave in Hollywood Cemetary, Richmond, to the Museum of the Confederacy, and to a plantation on the James River (Sherwood Forest, where lived one John Tyler, once a President of the United States--he was the "Too" in "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too"--who later chose treason and died while in a state of rebellion; his remains sit atop a hill in Hollywood Cemetary overlooking the fall line of the James, rather closer to those of James Monroe than this "Yankee" thought appropriate, but well away from, and far above, those of Davis). Is it as a result of these various visits--or perhaps instead a belated response to my reading of Patriotic Gore--that I thought I might finally begin Shelby Foote's very heavy history of the Civil War? Who knows? In any event, I've now done so.

The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (volume 1, originally published in 1958 and in print in both hard and paper covers) is a huge tub of a book--but, at 810 text pages, it is the shortest of the three volumes. Foote (that nice ol' fella from the Ken Burns teevee series) turns out to be more than a bit of a southern chauvinist. Yet the man can write, a reader can correct for his biases, and I therefore find myself not only pushing onward but also recommending to anyone who doesn't already have a life that Foote's Civil War will certainly keep you well occupied even without one for a good long time.

I'd never read any of Foote's novels. With some curiosity, then, I picked up Shiloh: A Novel (1952; now available in a Vintage paperback dated 1991), after I'd passed the point in the history where that battle is described. The only other book about a Civil War battle I have ever read, also a novel, is Robert Penn Warren's extremely peculiar Wilderness. Foote's book may or may not be "better" but it is not at all "peculiar" in the same way that Warren's is. Foote served in Europe in artillery; he knows something of the confusion of combat, a feeling that comes through well in the novel--or perhaps I am only describing an illusion of "authenticity" that the novel conveys very effectively. Nonetheless, "authentic" or not, I felt curiously uninterested, by and large, in the lives (and occasional deaths) that Foote's book retails. Much more interesting, to me, was the way in which, having read the Shiloh section of his history, I could see how much of the novel served not only as preparation for the history but was also absorbed piecemeal into it. Unlike the history, incidentally, which goes on forever, Shiloh: A Novel is taut and tight. It's an easy read and a worthwhile one.


My Indiana correspondent asked me some time ago if I were planning to look at all at George Ade. Since, if I'd ever heard of Ade before that question, I certainly did not know that he was an Indianan, my answer was "No"; but I happened to bumble into a few books by Ade in one or another of the Virginia bookstores I wandered in and out of on my travels, and one of them, Fables in Slang (1899; rpt. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone, 1901), I've now read.

These sketches are literal fables, moral taglines at their end and all. Satiric views of small-town types or small personalities, they seem to point to larger forms that writers like Sherwood Anderson (Ohio) and Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota) would later develop and eventually make seem like the norm for midwestern writers. But Ade's sketches have a flavor all their own. They are, quite distinctly, not trying hard to be Anderson or Lewis avant la lettre and failing in that effort. They are Ade--and I rather liked him.

Fables in Slang is a book of tiny sketches. I read a sketch or two at a time over about two weeks, since I suspected that, read as if they constituted a novel (or even a book of short stories), they would have become quite cloying. Read in pieces, however, they worked. I have some additional Ades to work through and I look forward to them. Indiana seems to be a place I'm not quite done with yet.

Who'd have believed it?



September 1997

Somewhat to my surprise, I recently found myself reading Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser, a novel originally published in Zurich in 1995. I read it in Carol Brown Janeway's English translation, The Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1997, $21.00). Despite the promptings of relatives and friends more open to exciting new experiences than I am, I don't read a lot of postwar German fiction; "close to none" would be a fairly accurate assessment. Schlink's is not one of those books likely to do an overwhelmingly successful job of weaning me from my prejudices . . . despite being very good indeed.

In Schlink's novel, a fifteen-year-old boy--the story is narrated by his much older voice--stumbles into an intense sexual relationship with a thirty-four-year-old woman who lives not too far from his Berlin apartment. It is the mid-1950s. Some time later, she disappears, leaving him vaguely uncertain about how he has betrayed her.

Eight years later, the boy, now a law student, attends, for a law school class, a trial of minor Holocaust offenders in a nearby town. Among the several women in the dock is his very own former love; but the two do not speak. Years before he had known her, it turns out, she had been a guard at one of the smaller camps associated with Auschwitz. She was also part of a group that, marching several hundred women west when the eastern front began to collapse, put them inside a church for the night, barring its doors against their unwonted egress--and left those doors locked even after allied bombing during the night set the church afire. All but two of the women, a mother and her daughter, died. The trial has been prompted by a book about their experiences written by one of the survivors.

Her fellow former guards depict the narrator's former lover as both leader of their group and the one among them most responsible for the death of the prisoners. The portrait they draw depends on something the narrator realizes is not true. He cannot bring himself to speak up about it, however, and, at trial's end, all but she receive short sentences. She is sentenced to life, and off she goes.

Eighteen years later she receives clemency. Her warden contacts the narrator, who has been the prisoner's only correspondent, when her release begins to seem imminent. A few days before the release, the narrator (now a legal historian, divorced, and the father of a young woman in boarding school) visits his former lover (now a woman of about sixty) to prepare her for the apartment and job he has arranged for her. They have not spoken since he was a teenager, although she had known he was in attendance at her trial and, since then, in fact, throughout her imprisonment, he has sent her tapes of books he has read aloud for her. He had read aloud to her while they were lovers. As he learned at the trial, inmates had also read to her when she was a guard, before they were returned to Auschwitz for extermination.

Guilt--for both action and inaction--responsibility, compassion, and memory are all at issue here. Schlink does not gloss over the past. But he wants his reader to come to sympathize with Hanna Schmitz, a complicated woman who has struggled to survive, to get on with her life, and even to atone in some way for what, as a younger person, she had done. This is more, perhaps, than one can say for Wolfgang Petersen, who simply wants us to cheer in the movie theater when his heroic and, of course, apolitical U-boat crew ("Nazis? Us?") successfully sink a British naval vessel (Das Böot).

I didn't cheer in the movie theater. I wasn't dismayed by Hanna's sentence. I was dismayed that her sentence wasn't shared by the other women with whom she had "served."

The only voice in this novel I could recognize as speaking for me was that of the daughter--one of the two survivors--whom the narrator visits in New York. "That woman was truly brutal . . . did you ever get over the fact that you were only fifteen when she. . . . Did you ever feel, when you had contact with her . . . , that she knew what she had done to you?" (p. 213).

That voice is in the novel, however: thank you, Herr Schlink.

And, while I do not like them, the questions Schlink asks are real enough. What does one do with, how does one think about, the mere cogs--the dopes--who get caught up in the machinery of evil? Particularly if they are, say, one's parents, whom one loves? or one's lover, of (more or less) one's parents's generation, whom one also loves? Particularly if what they have "done to you" has, in fact, been very nearly fatal? An acquaintance who is also an alumnus of the Wehrmacht's eastern front campaigns, now a (retired) American academic (he fled here to escape what he regarded as the disastrous effects of the '68 on German universities), has referred to the generation immediately after his own as a "ruined" generation. His perspective is obviously quite considerably more conservative than mine; but Schlink makes fairly vivid what he meant.

The Reader is a disturbing book, and a good one--although, disconcertingly enough, it reminded me much more of John Grisham's The Chamber (his death-penalty novel) than its author, if he has ever heard of Grisham, might be happy to hear. But the operative word here is "reminded": Schlink's is, finally, a much better book than Grisham's. On balance, I am glad I read it, and glad, too, to recommend it, to anyone, that is, not especially eager, at the moment, for a fun read.


I found Alain Finkielkraut's book about the Klaus Barbie trial a lot easier to like than I found Schlink's novel. Remembering in Vain: The Klaus Barbie Trial and Crimes Against Humanity is the English translation (by Roxanne Lapidus, with Sima Godfrey, published by Columbia University Press, 1992) of a French original that appeared as a book in 1989.

Finkielkraut is angry about the ways in which the Barbie trial confused and conflated different issues: first, treatment of members of the Resistance, people, that is, who chose to act and to fight and for whom punishment and death were thus avoidable consequences (had they, that is, chosen not to act and to fight, punishment and death could have been avoided), vs. treatment, second, of Jews, who had chosen nothing but were guilty by virtue of birth and could therefore avoid no consequences through either action or choice. How these issues affect the notion of "crimes against humanity" is Finkielkraut's burden.

That notion, of "crimes against humanity," has been in the air this year once again (although not in such a way that most Americans have had to notice it). War crimes trials are planned or under way for actions that took place in the former Yugoslavia and also in several African nations. How the confusion and conflation of different kinds of crimes is the result not only of deliberate obfuscation but also of a loss of historical memory is the other burden of Finkielkraut's book, which looks, inter alia, at Faurisson and other Holocaust deniers. It is an angry book, and a brilliant one.


The Imaginary Jew is another of Finkielkraut's books now available in English. Translated by Kevin O'Neill and David Suchoff, the book--originally published in France in 1980--appeared from the University of Nebraska Press in 1994. It has been reissued by Nebraska as a paperback this year. This was the first of Finkielkraut's books I read, and I loved it.

One could describe the book in terms that make it sound almost comic. It begins autobiographically and never loses its close touch with the personal. Here am I [one might paraphrase Finkielkraut], a froggy version of Mrs. Portnoy's little boy, born in Paris in 1949 and raised as a bright kid to attend the right schools. Sometime around the '68, your average École Normale Superieure student, I find myself on the streets, protesting with all my friends. One of our protests concerns the denial of a visa that would have permitted the return to France of student (but German) Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "We are all German Jews!" my friends and I say as we protest. And then I think, Huh? Wait a minute. I'm a German Jew. You're frogs. And then I think some more.

It's the "more" that isn't simply comic. What does it mean to "be"--or to claim to be--Jewish, when you don't know a thing about Judaism? What do you know about being Jewish if, for you, there is not only no danger in being Jewish but even an implicit right to lay claim to a mantle of "moral authority" as result of being Jewish? If your father, an Auschwitz alumnus, and mother, who spent the war in hiding and occasionally in prison, have protected you by never telling you about their experiences? If they have never tried to evoke for you the now dead world of eastern European Jewry, and if you cannot go around their silence to experience that world for yourself, since Hitler did succeed quite handily in exterminating Mitteleuropa's Jewry? And exterminated, with it, the once incredibly varied options for "being" Jewish, now reduced to a stark two--(1) being religious, (2) supporting Israel--neither of which is particularly attractive, at least for some people.

This book, like Finkielkraut's book about the Barbie trial, is a long meditation on the relationship between memory and identity, memory and culture. These are topics about which I find myself deeply concerned and about which I have written. I found it simply gorgeous.


For relief, I read three New York books--"mysteries"? "thrillers"?--by Carol O'Connell. I'd not heard of her till I heard her in an NPR interview that appalled me. The interviewer never allowed the soft-spoken author to finish a single answer to any of the really stupid questions she asked. I felt so sorry for O'Connell, after listening to this travesty in the car on the way home from work one fine August afternoon, that I picked up the first three books in her Mallory series--Mallory's Oracle (1994; rpt. New York: Jove, 1995); The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (which I read in its London: Hutchinson, 1995 edition under the title The Man Who Lied to Women); and Killing Critics (1996; rpt. New York: Jove, 1997)--and whizzed through them.

Well, they're okay, but not much more than that. O'Connell is not a writer who understands (or even likes) New York, nor does she provide her reader with the illusion of understanding cop culture. In addition, she evades by only the merest of hair's-breadths the sense that (like Andrew Vachss) she has peopled her fictional universe with a bucketful of grotesques, refugees from a (rejected!) Flannery O'Connor novel.

Kathy Mallory, her heroine, is an NYPD detective sergeant. Her adoptive father, Louis Markowitz, was a detective lieutenant in the same unit she now works in. Their careers overlapped, but he was shot to death just before the first of the novels opens. How she solves that killing is the tale that book tells. Mallory is a sociopath and computer whiz. This may be the only genuinely funny connection that O'Connell, otherwise singularly unhumorous, makes in the three books I've read.

I suppose that, because the books "progress"--"building character" is what I think we're to imagine them doing--one probably needs to start with Mallory's Oracle, where Kathy Mallory's past begins to become apparent. The evocation of more and more of her past is a sub-theme of all three novels. But if you're going to read just one, which may be more than anyone needs to read, Killing Critics--they're art critics, not literary critics: too bad--is the one I'd recommend.

O'Connell's strengths are on view here, particularly a reasonably intricate plot that emerges from a nifty murder at a gallery exhibition opening, itself evocative of a quite gruesome double murder many years ago on which Louis Markowitz had worked, and a fairly convincing set of art-world insider characters. The latter are marred only by the co-existence of too many grotesques alongside the convincing ones. That the old murders and the new seem likely to be linked, and how this link is sought, as well as whether or not it is ever found, all make the book a good puzzle.

But equally on view are O'Connell's weaknesses. First, the grotesques: for a book of this sort, I would have found credibility in the characters more intrinsic to the entertainment value of the tale than the author seems to find it. Second, Mallory's computer whizziness is a sort of modern deus ex machina, a technique, that is, that allows O'Connell to bypass the procedures that make police procedurals work. Third, the book's ending was the weakness that finally stopped me from going on to her newest book, Stone Angel, the publication of which prompted the ghastly NPR interviewer to mug O'Connell on the air. Feeling herself (or so I imagine) constricted by her New York and NYPD setting, O'Connell wigs out and tosses it all away at the end of Killing Critics, including every other character she has built up, along with Mallory, in the previous three novels. This seemed like a genuinely stupid move to me. The way in which it was done also seemed completely unbelievable.

The books did keep me going, however, so perhaps they have a little more than mere relief to offer. But they do have at least that.


Last month, I mentioned reading Shelby Foote. My reading in the Civil War continued this month, largely because, over Labor Day weekend, I was scheduled to participate--and did, despite a doozy of a cold--in the 1997 Penn Reading Project for freshmen, for which I needed not only to read but also, perhaps, to know at least a little bit about the context of, Gary Wills's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992; an undated Touchstone paperback is available).

Wills dedicates his book to Great Expectations, a bookshop in Evanston, Illinois, that I happen to know. He is right to do so. I eventually wound up liking his book, despite initial reservations, but it does seem highly derivative. Essentially, Wills argues that, at Gettysburg, Lincoln's short speech recenters the Declaration of Independence at the heart of American political life, as the "ideal" of which the Constitution is only an imperfect "realization." More important, the "all men" of whose equality the Declaration speaks movingly--and incorrectly--in its opening is, says Wills, expanded by Lincoln to include, as originally it did not, all men, black as well as white.

Generally, it seems to me, Wills's book is trying to move American political discourse away from the un-ideological slant of the "end of ideology" era by reminding us that real issues were at stake in the ways people thought--and think!--about such "abstractions" as the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. I think he is right; I wish he had been more open about such motives.

I was, on the whole, pleased by the book, even if I felt that Wills turns "Lincoln" into a character too akin to Washington marble for me quite to believe. I was surprised and astonished by how indifferent to it my students seemed to be, by how utterly negligible what they know of American history is. It ain't, as they say, my field. But if I were an American historian, I would be hoppin'.

Wills reprints Edward Everett's speech at Gettysburg--the speech to which Lincoln's "Address" is always contrasted. Its inclusion was, for me, one of the unexpected high points of the book. I read Everett with excitement and devotion. It was like reading a master. Every mistake he makes I make. Jeepers.


Another Pulitzer Prize-winning book I read--as part of my own self-assigned "background reading" for the same project--was Michael Shaara's 1974 novel, The Killer Angels. How I managed to miss this book both when it appeared and ever since--here's a true confession: it is a book I had, literally, no memory of having ever heard of till I began reading for this topic--I cannot imagine.

Shaara's novel details the three-day battle of Gettysburg. It resembles, in this sense, Shelby Foote's battle novel Shiloh. I mentioned in discussing Shiloh that I was not all that engaged by Foote's imaginary characters. I was, to the contrary, enthralled by Shaara's historical ones. Longstreet and Chamberlain are only the two I liked most. The rest of the characters, and the novel itself, are simply wonders.

Most people won't have missed it the way I did. But if you happen to be one who did, this is the moment to rectify your mistake. Mass market and trade paperback editions exist, and the book also remains available in hard covers.


I also read a few books written by Civil War historian James M. McPherson. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (a 1991 book available in an Oxford paperback from 1992) is the book to which Wills seems especially indebted; its points, delivered less repeatedly than Wills delivers his (although the book, a collection of mostly previously-published essays, is repetitive enough), are often points on which Wills silently expands. (As I recall, he notices the book only once, to disagree with it, and, as it happens, he does so at a moment where I think McPherson likely to be correct and Wills to have misunderstood what he was saying anyway.)

I went on to read What They Fought For, 1861-1865, originally presented as The Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History at LSU and published by that University's Press in 1994 (Doubleday Anchor made a paperback available in 1995). Here McPherson, far more explicitly than in the earlier book, looks at the ideological motives that animated soldiers, bluebellies and graybacks alike. I thought this was a wonderful book: short, pithy, and written by a historian with an eye for the apt quotation, it was surprisingly moving while also making an important point.

The longer work of which the 1994 What They Fought For was (so to speak) an excerpt appeared earlier this year: For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Perhaps I read this longer and fuller version too hard upon the heels of the earlier book but, alongside that book, it feels flaccid. Much of the material is the same, but the additional material feels like "padding" to me. But maybe that's because I found the ideological arguments--concentrated in the lectures, more spread out here--to be the heart of what interested me about the book, and the rest of it didn't grab my attention. McPherson is a good writer, easy to read, and he certainly has a topic worth a grown-up's attention.


Meanwhile, back in Indiana . . .

Until I read Charles Major's 1901 children's book, The Bears of Blue River, last month, this was another book I had not known. A Kenyon College sophomore, raised in Philadelphia and Vermont, told me that this was one of his favorite books when he was growing up. I can see why, even if I hadn't know it until I ran into it in The Library of Indiana Classics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

Set on the Indiana frontier in the 1820s, the book concerns a small boy who lives with his family--parents, a younger brother, and a baby--in a tiny community. We watch him learn to hunt and track, see his excitement when he gets his first gun and begins to kill animals, and--once, as I recall--shoot at, and perhaps kill, an Indian. None of this is particularly fashionable stuff nowadays; nor is the demarcation it supports between what boys do and what girls do. In addition, the book is episodic and does not conclude so much as simply stop. So I guess this is another book I shouldn't have enjoyed as much as I did.


Booth Tarkington's Cherry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1903) is a very pretty little book to read and handle. Otherwise, alas, it is very nearly a ridiculous tale (do I believe I read a book whose heroine is called "the fair one"?), characterized, as too much else of Tarkington is, by a racism simply assumed, not questioned, and by a really troublesome attitude towards women and their intelligence. The book is saved (for me, anyway) from being an utter waste of time by its play with anti-Puritan and anti-Victorian attitudes, and by the curious ways in which it depicts "manliness" vs. "studiousness." Still and all, this is not the sort of book that one not already committed to Tarkington or to Indiana would want to embark on casually.


I only got to some of the articles in the Spring 1997 issue of the American Scholar after having read (and, last month, written about) some of those in the later, Summer issue. But two essays in the Spring issue deserve a word or two here. John Watkins memorializes Karl Popper quite usefully (66:2, 205-219). Popper is not someone whose human qualities come through readily; I found Watkins good at reminding me that Popper was once human. In an essay of an altogether different kind, Jeremy Bernstein writes about "The Meeting of John Donne and Johannes Kepler" (66:2, 175-195). "Heaven's Net," as the essay's main title reads, is not an imaginative discussion of a meeting that might have occurred. It deals with a meeting that did occur. I found it fascinating.


Susan Rubin Suleiman's Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, happened to be on a shelf near Finkielkraut's book on Barbie mentioned above, and so, for no better reason than that, I read it, too. It is published in the same series as The Imaginary Jew, Nebraska's Texts and Contexts series (volume 18, it appeared in 1997).

It's a pretty simple book. Suleiman, who teaches French at Harvard, was born in Budapest in 1939, and, with her parents, survived both the Holocaust and the war. When she was 10, her parents looked at the Russians moving into town to stay, decided once was enough for that sort of stuff, and vamoosed. Thus she wound up in Chicago, later becoming a student at Barnard, and, eventually, an American academic, once married, with two children. Her father died not long after their arrival, forty-nine years old; her mother lived long enough, however, to know that in 1984 Suleiman returned to Budapest, her two sons (then 14 and 7) in tow. The book begins with a recollection of growing up in Budapest, and then a section on her 1984 visit; its heart, however, is the diary she kept while in Budapest again, this time as a visiting fellow at an international academic institute, in 1993. A brief coda records a 1994 visit, by which time Budapest has become a home which Suleiman no longer needs to flee and can truly remember.

Nothing much happens here. The stuff of academic life--seminars, conferences, flights to and from this meeting and that, papers, movies, theater--occupies the bulk of the book; and, when it is not that, the book is either suffused with recollections of times past or gives us a bunch of eastern European intellectuals (the "Martians," as the Hungarians at Los Alamos called themselves) discussing the travails of being Jewish in eastern Europe.

And everything happens here: the book is about memory, about leaving behind people and places and coming back to them, about trying to remember--or, if necessary, to learn--who one was the better to understand who one became. Memory, the theme with which Finkielkraut is so concerned, is also Suleiman's theme. Her book is not quite so "urgent" (is that the right word?) as his--I read it right through, as I read Finkielkraut right through, but didn't feel quite so compelled to do so as I had felt reading him. It is every bit as provocative, as allusive, and as thought-provoking. It is also simply beautiful.



October 1997

There are colds . . . and then there are colds. Bad colds make noses and lungs congested and throats raw, hurt ribs hurt through violent coughing, and encourage eyes to become teary and bleary. Eyes made sufficiently bleary leave one unable even to read. Good colds may do almost all of the above--but, if they leave eyes alone, that exception alone, at least by my definition, makes them "good" colds.

I had a good cold over the Labor Day weekend (and for a week past that). As I result, bundled up and sitting in a big chair at home instead of at work, I got through several books, many of them pretty good, for which I might otherwise not have had time. So many of these books were, in fact, more than "pretty good" that I am not sure where to begin.

Remembering, however, the beginning of my somewhat ambivalent tout last month for Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, with its reference to the relatively few contemporary German novels I read, I simply have to begin this month with a partially corrective reference to another such example of a kind of book--that kind of book--I do not normally read. This 1992 book--is it a novel? a memoir? or an altogether different genre the name of which I do not know?--is called, in German, Die Ausgewanderten. Written by W[infried] G[eorg] Sebald, it was published last year in English translation by poet Michael Hulse as The Emigrants (New York: New Directions). It has reappeared this fall as a paperback ($10.95, still published by New Directions). I bumped into it a bookstore I frequent and, for no special reason, looked at it. By the next day, it was home and completely read. I have since seen some reviews of it--André Aciman's in Commentary, Cynthia Ozick's in The New Republic--and am not surprised by the enthusiasm it elicited from them and a few other readers, including a colleague at Penn whose interest in German literature is far greater than my own. It is a book about which I feel no ambivalence at all.

The Emigrants consists of four memoirs. In the first, the narrator encounters a physician living in Norwich when he and his companion take a flat in the large house that the physician and his wife own. The physician, born in Lithuania, wound up in England because his parents didn't quite grasp that the sea voyage they began in the Baltic had not exactly reached its intended terminus when their boat went up a river to dock at a large English-speaking city. Their principles were, perhaps, correct, but this particular city lacked, for example, a Statue of Liberty in its harbor. A successful immigrant, despite his somewhat unexpected address, the child won scholarships to grammar school (Merchant Taylors) and eventually became a medical doctor. He even married an Englishwoman. She turned out, unhappily, to be displeased by Dr. Henry Selwyn's origins, learning only after their marriage that he was once named Hersch Seweryn, and their marriage is not a happy one. The narrator and his companion eventually get their own home in Norwich but keep in touch with the physician. Some years pass. Eventually, they learn that he has taken his own life.

The second memoir opens with another suicide, that of a long-retired schoolteacher, Paul Bereyter. The narrator had once been Bereyter's pupil, after he had moved, while in the third grade, with his family from a village to the town in whose school Bereyter then taught. Now many years later, Bereyter walks to a railroad track, awaits a train, and places his neck on the track when one conveniently appears. Bereyter had started out as a schoolteacher--a schoolteacher passionate about teaching young people--in the 1930s. Within about a month of beginning his career, however, he had--as a mischling with one Jewish grandparent--run afoul of the Nuremberg laws and been removed from his job. After some years in France, he had returned to Germany and (what else?) joined the Wehrmacht for the next six years, seeing a good deal of Europe in the process. The Viennese woman whom he had loved in the mid-thirties is recalled last boarding a train in the early 1940s, not as a tourist but as a shipment.

To go on and summarize even briefly the third and fourth of these memoirs might be useful. I would rather get out of the book's way; these summaries give less than nothing of its feel, its taste, its texture. I must mention the ways in which Sebald plays with chronology through all four sections of his book. He pits a more or less idyllic pre-World War I era against the 1933-1945 period of German and German-Jewish history, and looks at both from the perspective of a postwar, and essentially Judenrein, German present which his narrator, like Sebald himself, appears to have left for England. Like the dozens of old photographs that dot the pages of this book, the now-vanished Jews of central Europe--grey and opaquely mysterious--are an absent presence, a dead that, vampire-like(?), will not only not completely die but that sometimes seem to return, seem even to speak. Their absence, the vagaries (as well as the persistence) of memory, and the constancy during all of its periods of this century's magnificent legacy of exile, death, and destruction: these are among Sebald's themes.

No summary can do the ways in which he treats these themes and the people through which he gives them spectral life anything that even begins to resemble justice. This is a brilliant book.


A very different kind of book, but one I also enjoyed enormously, is Stephen Jay Gould's Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (New York: Harmony, 1997). Gould appears to take his impetus from widespread anticipation of the upcoming shift from 1999 to 2000, a chronometrical change that affects a world dominated by a Christian calendar in exciting ways because of our culture's addiction to powers of ten. (I write this Tout in the days just following a perhaps less exciting chronomentrical shift, to the year 5758, as measured by a decidedly pre-Christian calendar.)

In this book, Gould ranges engagingly over such questions as whether the upcoming millennium will begin on New Year's Eve 2000 or New Year's Eve 2001; what sorts of issues millennialism and its close relation apocalypticism arise from and raise; and the ways in which certain people can make instantaneous calculations that turn dates into days of the week. Gould discusses such fascinating questions as when human time will end, which, as Archbishop Ussher knew, we can calculate--given certain assumptions, of course--if only we know when time began, the matter on which he concentrated his Biblical and related research. Ussher's answer was October 4, 4004 B.C., at noon; and, as Gould points out, the nature of his answer depends on a considerable amount of genuine scholarly effort marred only by the assumptions he made that we no longer share.

This last point leads to one of the funniest passages in Gould's book. Gould notes that, with only minor mathematical tinkering with some generally accepted dates here and there, the world is scheduled to end this October (that is, this month). Since Gould's book is not to be "officially" published until November (although I got my copy in a bookstore in September), Gould writes, a reader who encounters the book after October is proving, yet again, the major flaw by which end-of-the-world theories are burdened: viz., it doesn't. Or, more properly, hasn't yet.

Date-to-day calculations and calculators, however, are what really grab Gould's attention, more, even, than the question of millennialism itself. He has written previously about an acquaintance of his who, despite severe mental difficulties, has developed, consciously and laboriously, this particular talent. The same acquaintance shows up here. I found Gould's discussion of this talent/affliction more than merely engaging; I was moved--and, to be blunt, stunned--by this part of Gould's book in ways I had not expected even while in the midst of reading it.

I have sixteen of Gould's books on my shelves. (I'm missing one that I know about, Illuminations.) Despite his production of this rather considerable ouevre--which omits his scholarly articles and monographs--no one, so far as I know, has treated Gould as if he were a writer worth paying attention to from a literary point of view (whatever that might mean nowadays). I think this is a serious oversight. Questioning the Millennium works the way literature works. It does so with startling beauty.

I might add that it also tells you almost everything you will ever want to know about the upcoming turn of the millennium. Since, in my case, what I wanted to know about that turn was "nothing," that I read the book at all is probably indicative of the fact that I've liked Gould as a writer long before this book convinced me that he must be treated as if he were one.


The University of Georgia Press published this year a novel called Menachem's Seed by Stanford University chemist Carl Djerassi. I'd read the two previous books in what, in the preface to this one, Djerassi calls "a projected tetralogy in the genre of 'science-in-fiction,' which by my definition requires that everything I specify does or could exist" (p. ix). I'd enjoyed both Cantor's Dilemma (New York: Doubleday, 1989, and later a 1991 Penguin paperback) and The Bourbaki Gambit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994, and then a 1996 Penguin paperback) enormously; I liked this one, too--and maybe even a bit more.

Cantor's Dilemma deals, in part, with ethics in scientific work, The Bourbaki Gambit with the "superannuation" of scientists and the ways in which they work together, collaboratively, and apart. Both novels depict a system that favors competition, rather than cooperation, for "the glittering prizes" that various scientific fields bestow. Both deal with some of the obstacles that women experience in trying to become scientists. Menachem's Seed continues Djerassi's investigation of the ways in which scientific labor continues to include women out, and also deals with two different areas in which competition and cooperation are more than merely intellectual issues.

One is the area of human reproduction. Not only does it take at least two to tango, it may also, in some instances, take many more than two. In studying infertility, contraception, and overall population and demographic trends, small armies of researchers and the governments, institutions, and foundations that support and house them need to cooperate as well as to compete. Djerassi portrays such matters through the point of view of Melanie Laidlaw, research chemist turned foundation executive at a foundation whose sole focus is human reproductive and contraceptive matters.

The other is the area of war and peace, specifically nuclear weapons and arms controls, viewed here in part through Melanie Laidlaw's participation in Pugwash-like conferences at which such issues are discussed, and in part through the point of view of Djerassi's other major character, the infertile nuclear engineer, now Vice President of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Menachem Dvir, with whom the widowed Melanie has what is not quite "an affair." The period in which the novel is set--the late 1970s through shortly after Israel's 1981 air raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor--is one in which these issues are of intense concern. They involve the survival of "the Zionist entity" (as Israel is called by one of the characters in the novel). Because the Cold War is also still in full sway, the Israeli-Arab conflict plays out against a background in which the United States and the Soviet Union confront one another, and one another's nuclear arsenals, with capacities for destruction that dwarf anything the Israelis and Arabs might conceivably do to one another.

For Dvir, neither Israel's survival nor nuclear weapons are abstract issues. For Laidlaw, human reproduction is not an abstract issue either. Widowed young, she is anxious to have a child nonetheless. When her luck--could it be worse?--throws her in the way of an infertile Israeli who is also married, she finds the issues even less abstract. The novel makes its readers care about all these issues and all these people. I thought it was a joy from beginning to end.


The nuclear issues that Djerassi makes so important in Menachem's Seed interest me more than casually. I am teaching a course this fall on fictions that involve the Manhattan Project, and, for that course, read a number of books worth mentioning here. John Hersey's Hiroshima is, of course, the American classic in this genre. Available in several different editions, it needs neither my praise nor my criticisms. It remains worth reading, even if at the same time one must add that it remains worth reading with some skepticism.

Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain (published in New York and Tokyo in a Kodansha paperback) is a novel about the experience of being under the bomb in Hiroshima. Much of it is based on--in fact, reproduces--the diary of a person who was there, as Ibuse himself was not. The novel also includes "diaries" that Ibuse imagined into being. The story of a girl shunned by the marriage market after the war has ended because she is a hibakusha, a bomb-damaged person, and who, it turns out, does indeed fall ill of radiation sickness long after the events of August 6th, 1945, Ibuse's basic plot has been used by numerous other writers. Ibuse's version is nonetheless quite powerful. I would not be teaching the book if I could not also recommend it highly. I do.

I also teach--and recommend--the three (very different) works included in a Princeton University Press paperback edited by Richard Minear, Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. All three of the writers whom Minear translates, unlike Ibuse, were themselves under the bomb on August 6th. Their tone is very different from Ibuse's, their books far more difficult to read than his--"difficult" because they are so enraged, so shrill, and so detailed that it is not easy for a reader to keep on going with them without becoming disheartened. (I should therefore quickly add that I think it is worthwhile doing so even if it isn't easy.) My students felt that these books offered little more than what they had already got from reading Hersey and Ibuse. I disagree strongly. The rage, the shrillness, the detail: these are missing from Ibuse and Hersey. So is much sense that political as well as moral issues were involved in the bombing. These three books deal with these matters. They are worth the struggle to read.

Although I was not teaching it this fall, I also read Makota Oda's H: A Hiroshimas Novel--also published as The Bomb and as Hiroshima. Now a Kodansha paperback, this novel connects the Japanese experience at Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) to issues of racism and totalitarianism everywhere. Set for most of its first one hundred and sixty or so pages not in Japan but in the American southwest, it parallels the experiences of a number of Americans (of Native American, African-American, Japanese-American, and Anglo backgrounds, some civilians, some soldiers) and those of a much smaller number of Japanese, including a Japanese-American stranded for the duration of the war in Hiroshima, and some American P.O.W.s who are in Hiroshima when the bomb is dropped. After that first section, Oda segues into more recent times--the Vietnam War--but draws hallucinatory parallels between his "modern" and his "older" characters and the issues they must face. At the novel's end, everyone is dead.

This is a harsh as well as a most unconventionally-structured novel. Here, a reader's difficulty is due not to the tone or the detail, but rather to the experimental nature of Oda's fiction and the broad canvas upon which his story is drawn. Once again, I think the difficulties are repaid by what the novel offers.

John Whittier Treat's 1995 study of Japanese nuclear literature has been a real help to me as I have taught this class for the second time. It had not yet appeared the first time I taught the class, and having it ready to hand this time around has been a godsend. Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb was published in 1995 by the University of Chicago Press. It is now available as a paperback. Treat helps a reader to make sense of a book like Oda's even while offering considerable additional assistance with books that, like Ibuse's, seem far easier to understand. He puts them into context, writes intelligently about their interrelationships, and has written a truly useful work of scholarship.

The most recent of the books my students and I have read so far is a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called The Physicists (in paperback from Grove/Atlantic). If you don't already know this play--I have had my copy of it since the mid-1960s--all I really have to say about it is run, don't walk.

Equally briefly, I will mention that my students began the course by reading Jeremy Bernstein's tale of how he became a physicist, The Life It Brings (now out of print but originally published in 1987 and reprinted by Penguin the next year). Elegantly modest, the book is enjoyable from beginning to end, even as we wince for its writer who portrays himself making mistake after mistake after mistake and--repeatedly--being embarrassed by them.

By way of contrast, I also asked my students to look at sections of Terry Caesar's Conspiring With Forms: Life in Academic Texts, a book published by the University of Georgia Press in 1992 about being an English professor. Caesar is remorseless in just about every way you can imagine, at least within the confines of a book that is from some points of view filled with remorse. It is well worth reading.

Last, and far from least, I asked my students to read several sections of Paul Fussell's Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, a 1988 book now unavailable in several editions (out of print in its 1988 Summit edition, it is out of stock in its 1990 Ballantine paperback reprint). Fussell offers what some have thought the monstrous view that the bomb was not such a bad thing to use after all, since it prevented young Americans (and young and old Japanese) from dying in huge numbers during an American invasion of the Japanese home islands. Among them would have been, he is certain, Lieutenant Paul Fussell, then employed by the Army of the United States. Fussell, no monster, is far brighter and infinitely more subtle than most of his readers. (Wartime also received less than brilliant treatment at the hands of many of its initial reviewers.) His point is rather more complicated than their caricature of it. These chapters of his book are thus (I think) much more depressing than its critics seem able to suppose. The rest of the book offers a great deal of pleasure, too.


For reasons that passeth understanding, I had never read Madame de Lafayette's 1678 novel The Princess of Clèves until this month, when I read the book in a 1961 translation by Walter J. Cobb (rpt. New York: Signet, 1989). I had bumped into a copy while looking for something else, decided that the moment had come, read it for no reason other than fun . . . and loved it. A keenly-observed social milieu, characters who feel overwhelming passion and display nobility and integrity, and who ultimately choose renunciation of what matters most to them: who could ask for anything more?

ADDENDUM, 20 December 1997: Professor Ellen Moody today wrote a note to C18-L that I cannot resist quoting here:

    " . . . my query . . . [i]s sort of silly, but I'm curious. Does Madame de Clèves have a first name? I am rereading this novel and it suddenly strikes me that although I have learnt Monsieur de Nemours' first name (Jacques), I am almost to the end and I've not got a clue what is Madame the Princess's first name. Did I miss it?

    "If she is not given a first name, this would testify to the intensity of the book's social perspective. No one has any need to call her by her first name. Not even her mother. A man dies for love of her and he has yet to call her by her first name. (Unless of course I missed it.) This is not that uncommon during the 17th and 18th century. Off-hand I can think of a couple of characters very quickly whose first names we never learn: Mr and Mrs Bennet. Then there's Colonel Brandon (who was named Christopher in the movie). No one ever addresses Miss Milner by her first name.

    "This sort of thing only happens in certain kinds of 20th century novels & stories. A. S. Byatt has a ghost story and another highly autobiograpical story where we never learn the narrator's name. I believe Henry James never tells us the name of his neurotic governess (again a ghost story). And then there's the second Mrs. de Winter whose name is lovely, long, and hard to spell, but is not told. These omissions create a specific kind of ambiguity and psychological characterization of the unnamed personage and her relationship to others, which was probably not meant in the 17th through 18th century."

Interesting suggestion.


I also read a wonderfully funny and brutal 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop, now published in the United States for the first time by Houghton Mifflin (a 1997 Mariner paperback). This is a moral fable for our times, the tale of how to destroy yourself by succeeding beyond the expectations or desires of your neighbors, and it is thus a fascinating political as well as social document. Since its setting is a bookshop, I was predisposed to like it; but it is even better than I had dared to hope.

ADDENDUM, 9 March 1998: I had originally gone on from that sentence to write that "I would therefore do nothing but heap praise upon its American publisher for making it at [last] available here . . . had they done anything so simple as to proofread the damned thing. Instead, they dropped an indeterminate number of lines of type from a crucial episode in the book. . . . " I went on to criticize the indifference I found in a Houghton Mifflin staff member's reply to my e-mail inquiry about the lacuna. Then, on December 16, 1997, I added that "A friend outside London, after reading this sorrowful plaint, sent me a copy of a UK edition (Flamingo, a HarperCollins paperback imprint, dated 1989)" which showed that "the American publisher has reprinted the uncorrected sheets of the English edition, which--on its page 74--omits the same words at the same point as the Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin paperback." More words of opprobrium follow, directed now at Houghton Mifflin, HarperCollins, and Duckworth (the original publisher).

Alas, retractions rather than more spleen seem to be in order. Christopher Carduff, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, writes today:

    A friend read your "Touts" review of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop (December [i.e., October] 1997) and forwarded it to me. As the editor of the book, I was pleased by your praise of this wonderful novel, and pained at your accusations that Houghton Mifflin does not adequately proofread its books.

    You seem to think that "an indeterminate number of lines of type" were dropped at pages 74/75 of our Mariner edition, no doubt where Christine exclaims, when Mrs Gamart rudely raids the bookshop's lending library, "Do they were hers she wasn't allowed to do that." Before going to press with our edition, I asked the author about this phrase, and she said, Yes, that's what she meant to write. You see, Christine is flustered here, and she is speaking not English, but Suffolk. "Do they were hers" is the local idiom, and Penelope Fitzgerald has preserved it here, knowing it sounds strange to most English ears and even stranger to American ones. We urged Mrs. Fitzgerald to make a change here for reasons of clarity, but at her own request, the phrase stayed.

    You are right to observe that Houghton Mifflin offset its edition of The Bookshop from the British Flamingo sheets. If, however, you rigorously compare the Mariner edition of The Bookshop to the British Flamingo edition of the same, you will find that Houghton Mifflin not only read the book before we published it but also took the trouble to make some 40 corrections in the text. Most of our "patches" are quite obvious to eye, and appear in somewhat lighter, better defined type throughout.

Quite clearly, my Suffolk is wanting.

This word from Houghton Mifflin is welcome, if chastening; would that the firm's initial response had been so informative. I must confess that doubts about the way in which Fitzgerald was being published in this country by Houghton Mifflin had put me off acquiring or reading the other books by her that Mariner has issued; I will now look again at what's out there.

A note such as Mr. Carduff's does leave me wondering how bad the market for books really is, if the remarks of some web-wielding bozo are deemed to have enough power to warrant such an informative response as (finally) this one.


Many years have passed since, in 1948, Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948 et seq.). I found a hardcover copy a year or so ago, and read it while I was sick--having (must I blush to admit this?) never previously read it at all. I am much more acutely conscious than I was when I first began to read Hofstadter's other books in the 1960s of how his thought moves in a direction that would later come to characterize many of the folks now called neoconservatives; much of the book, in short, I disagree with. But while it is isn't worth anyone's while to disagree with Irving Kristol, it remains, I think, very much worth disagreeing with Hofstadter. The book is enjoyable, too. The man could write.


James Salter's The Hunters, originally published in 1956--not too long after the Truce ending hostilities had been signed at Panmunjon--concerns jet fighter pilots in Korea. It has now been reissued, revised by the author (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1997). I liked the book, although it has plenty of the problems one might associate with a writer's early efforts at fiction. Salter would grow up to become a much better writer than he is here, even though in this incarnation the book, as noted, has undergone some revision.

The Korean War has attracted far less attention, in fiction, poetry, or memoirs, than Vietnam, which is perhaps a matter for some surprise. The active engagement of American combat forces was far briefer than that required by Vietnam, to be sure--but the number of American dead is about the same, some indication of the nature of the fighting that took place on the Korean peninsula. Salter's novel is a worthwhile contribution to the small literature that this war has evoked, although, in view of the nature of the combat it describes, it will surprise no one that the Korean landscape itself remains something of a mystery thousands of feet below the level of the novel's action.

More important, however, most of the action is internal to the pilot upon whose experiences the book focuses; Salter's might almost be the first war novel I have ever read where the field of combat could be said, with only slight hyperbole, to be the protagonist's navel. Having made this crack, I should therefore add that I liked the book anyway, and maybe even because of this eventually endearing peculiarity. Salter, himself a veteran combat pilot in Korea, knows very well what he is describing. Presumably this knowledge extends not only to the nature of aerial combat for jet fighter planes and their pilots but also to the attitudes and feelings of those pilots. The book has its flaws. Lack of readability is not one of them, nor is lack of interest another.


The adventures of a Brown undergraduate at Harvard's graduate school, where early in the 1970s his hero studies English literature and love, not necessarily in that order, is the subject of Thomas Mallon's extremely funny 1988 novel Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction. Ticknor & Fields (the modern, New York, incarnation of a publisher of that name) published the book; you should find a library's copy somewhere and read it. This book is funny enough so that some readers may want to wear rubber diapers while reading it.


Somehow, I missed getting to any Indiana books this month, reading instead some books by a man from south of the border, down Kentucky way. James Lane Allen's 1894 A Kentucky Cardinal came to hand in a lovely illustrated edition published by Harper in 1897. I so much enjoyed this surprisingly moving, though slight, love story that I went right out and read Aftermath, its 1895 sequel--even though I had only a genuinely ugly 1967 edition (edited by William K. Bottorff in the Masterworks of Literature Series, published in New Haven, Connecticut, by College and University Press) in which to read it. Bottorff also reprints some additional essays and stories (as well as A Kentucky Cardinal), and these, too, are fun. If you can still find his edition, it's probably worth taking a gander at, although Allen is also the kind of writer any large-ish library near you is likely to have. Allen is someone who takes his Kentucky setting very seriously indeed; and he evokes it well. He is a writer who obviously read his Thoreau with considerable attentiveness.


So warmly did I feel about Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels when I wrote about that book last month that, when I found a paperback reprint of his 1981 medical thriller, The Herald (now published as a Pocket Books paperback under the 1994 title The Noah Conspiracy), I read it immediately. It didn't change my opinion of The Killer Angels.



November 1997

Last month, I worked through a fairly long novel--seven hundred and thirty pages in English; over nine hundred in the Dutch from which it has been translated--called The Discovery of Heaven (De Ontdekking van de Hemel). Harry Mulisch is its author, Paul Vincent the translator. Viking published the book in the United States (New York 1996; the Dutch original was published in Amsterdam in 1992, and a Penguin paperback appeared in my local bookstore the day after I finished the hardcover).

"Worked"--as in "worked through a fairly long novel," above--is not really le mot juste to describe how I read this enormous novel. The truth is that I devoured Mulisch's book: even though it is nothing to race through; even though it is so long that "racing" would have been out of the question in any event (my schedule is such that it took me about eight days [i.e., evenings], including a large chunk of one weekend, to finish); and even though, as I think about how to describe it, I worry that merely retailing its "plot" would suggest that, by liking any such thing, I had finally taken leave of my senses completely. Indeed, thinking too much about its plot is probably what caused one of the innumerable run of dullards whom the newspaper of record uses for its weekly book review section to give the book a tepid review, one that, by its length, suggested a degree of grudging respect but which, by its overall tone, indicated quite sufficiently that the novel had flown by outside (and, I think, far above) the simple reviewer's somewhat constipated intellectual range.

A DIGRESSION: I had planned to write next month about a book I've just read this week, but the lateness of this November Tout--I am writing it near the end of the month, rather than at its beginning, on the thirty-fourth anniversary of the sudden demise of Mr. Seymour Hersh's favorite recent American President [34 years ago! I was 21]--means that I have today seen a "Books in Brief" mention in that same newspaper of record's November 23rd book review section of Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter. Just published in the United States by Viking, The Underpainter was published originally in Canada by McClelland and Stewart. The reviewer seems utterly without a clue about how to read the book. She doesn't even know what it is about. She wonders if it is an "indictment of chilly modernism" in the visual arts; she doesn't seem to have noticed that it is not only a book about an artist but also a war novel. Her ineptitude allows her nothing but wishy-washiness; even writing in brief and in a newspaper noted for its agile appropriation of the ex cathedra voice, she lacks confidence in her own judgment (quite rightly) and comes to no clearly-articulated conclusion about the book that will help the newspaper's literarily challenged readers to decide whether it is one on which their precious dollop of attention might be spent. Her incompetence, however, carries its own message: no attention need be paid a book to which such a dope has been assigned the chore of review. As a species of cultural incompetence residing at the top of the food chain, the newspaper of record is, of course--and has long been--without peer. As it declines into colorful neoconservatism and reaction, fueled by such local geniuses as A. M. Rosenthal and Richard Bernstein, one might have thought it would strive at least for the illusion of intelligence. No such luck. I will say more about The Underpainter next month; meanwhile, take these remarks as early indicators of praise to come. Urquhart's brilliant book is worth a detour.

I picked up The Discovery of Heaven because its dust-jacket indicated that it dealt with themes--including cosmological investigation (one of the two principals whose friendship the book relates is an astronomer)--that I thought would be interesting. That surmise turned out to be perfectly true, but the book's themes are at once far vaster, more complicated, more social, and--in some respects--more loony than that. The novel opens, for example, in a place that most novelists tend to shy away from, and for good reason. In fact, I don't think I have read a novel whose opening so surprised me since, more than thirty-five years ago, I first read Charles Williams's All Hallows' Eve, where the reader needs about three pages to grasp an especially crucial, and essentially completely unbelievable, point about the situation of the character whose point of view is at the center of the novel. Mulisch's opening pages, the "hinge" on which the actions that follow move, are very nearly as offputting.

But Williams's novel was worth reading, and Mulisch's, I have to confess, seems to me much more than that, when all is said and done. The simple truth is that I thought this a book that--like W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants, about which I wrote last month--renews my belief that we live in an age when truly wonderful novels continue to get written. I still don't want to speak about its plot, lest I spoil the peculiarly jarring frisson which its opening, and the book's plot itself, combine to create; but even so this is one of those wonderful novels.

ANOTHER DIGRESSION: Ill-humored to the end, even while dishing out great praise, I must add that Viking's proofreading of this book is simply execrable. It would be pointless to add up the number of typos, large and small, that I found as I read through this novel's great length. In truly anal-compulsive fashion, I checked my hardback against the paperback reissue and found, to my annoyance, that only one of the errors I had caught had been corrected (and I am not a professional proofreader).

Does no one in American publishing any longer possess even the tiniest modicum of professional pride? This cannot have been a book for which Viking would have predicted large sales; the firm deserves credit for publishing it at all. But if it deserved publication, as it surely did, and also deserved republication as a paperback, then might it not also have deserved the decent minimum of attention that any publication merits? Knowing no Dutch, I was able to correct some of the (obvious) substantive errors myself from comparison of the English against the Dutch text; other errors were simply self-evident typos that no one had noticed. C'mon. Publishers who cannot respect their own products cannot then pretend to be surprised when their products fail to elicit enthusiasm. Or sales.


I went on to read two more of Harry Mulisch's novels available in English. The Assault was published in New York by Pantheon (1985, translated by Claire Nicolas White; the novel was originally published as De Aanslag in Amsterdam in 1982). It is the best-known of Mulisch's books outside Holland (perhaps because a movie exists [Addendum, November 25: I have now see the movie, as I had not when this passage was first written; it is a very good film indeed.]). Short and powerful, The Assault is a book about what one might (in a mordant mood) call a gift that goes on giving: the deaths, by execution, of a small boy's parents and older brother one night during the last months of the German occupation of Holland.

A collaborationist police chief is shot to death by resistance fighters outside a row of four homes in Haarlem. The little boy, his parents, and brother all happen to live in the one of those homes outside of which the police chief's body is found by German military personnel shortly after the shots are heard. Their annoyance rises above petty distinctions between civilians and the military, and thus the parents and older brother find themselves despatched from the world of the living somewhat more swiftly than they might otherwise have expected. The rest of the book moves episodically from the 1940s through the 1980s, ending during an anti-nuclear weaponry demonstration in Amsterdam when the little boy, now a middle-aged divorced father and physician, meets unexpectedly one of his neighbors from the row of four houses and learns why it was his house outside of which the dead police chief's corpse was found.

There is almost nothing that is pleasant about this book. It is nonetheless an astonishingly powerful and moving novel, and I recommend it with great warmth. I found it just as exciting as The Discovery of Heaven and, because of its length, far more accessible. (I might add that I recall no typos in the Pantheon paperback I read.)


The third of the novels by Harry Mulisch that I was able to read in English, Last Call, was also published by Viking (New York 1989; it is, like The Discovery of Heaven, disfigured by far too many typos). Adrienne Dixon was the translator for a U.K. publisher in 1987; the book was originally published as Hoogste Tijd in Amsterdam in 1985.

Last Call is a very different kind of book from the other two Mulisch books I've read, although it too deals with some of the same themes found in those books--most especially the costs of collaboration with the Nazis (Mulisch's own mother was Jewish, his "Aryan" father a collaborator, which may explain a bit of why such themes resonate for him). The protagonist is an ancient two-bit actor whose success, always slender anyway, had evaporated completely after the War, when his work as an actor in wartime Germany proved not to have been forgotten by an ungrateful Dutch public. Now, in the early 1980s, and in his own old age, he has been asked to star in a new play written for a marginal Amsterdam theater about a turn-of-the-century Dutch actor whose farewell performance in Shakespeare's The Tempest is in rehearsal and whose life and love relationships are in upheaval. This is a book in which satire and comedy dominate. Some of it left me laughing aloud (and anyone who ever teaches Shakespeare should surely read this book!). But it is also a story that retains many of the darker edges that characterize The Assault and the complexities of The Discovery of Heaven.

It is, in short, not only the third book but also the third wonderful book by Harry Mulisch I read last month. Now that I know about him, I look forward to finding the few others of his works that were, once upon a time, available in English. Meanwhile, I am agape with the sheer pleasure and joy I have taken from what I have found so far.


A friend recommended three novels to me dealing with Jewish themes. Two of them I was able to read last month.

The first I got to was a book by first-time novelist and radiologist Aryeh Lev Stollman. It must be the first book I have ever read set in the Jewish community of Windsor, Ontario. (I have a student who comes from that community; he knows of no other such book himself. He thinks that Stollman's father may have been the rabbi of his own synagogue or in charge of the yeshiva he attended.) The Far Euphrates (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997) is about a little boy growing up the son of a rabbi in Windsor. The boy's parents come from Toronto and Montreal; their best friends are the synagogue's European-born cantor and his Canadian wife. The cantor has a mysterious sister who works across the river in Grosse Pointe where she is the head of Henry Ford's household (does this mean, the little boy wonders, that she too is "rich"?). At some point, she comes into conflict, real or imagined, with Ford's new wife, and leaves for a different position in Florida. Eventually, years go by, and she dies.

These details give little of the flavor and none of the point of Stollman's story, and without destroying the shock of the book I cannot say very much more about it. The little boy eventually learns that the cantor and his wife, who are childless, are so because of a problem he himself is too young fully to understand: the reader, however, understands instantly that the cantor, one of Dr. Mengele's surviving Jewish guinea pigs, is no longer able to reproduce as a result of Dr. Mengele's tender ministrations.

The book is, in fact, a story of survival and endurance, and its power comes through juxtaposing the slow growth of the little boy's understanding against the more rapid growth of understanding that the reader gains from Stollman's tale. This is not a happy book. It is a very good one.


The second of my friend's recommendations is also a Holocaust novel. Cheryl Pearl Sucher's The Rescue of Memory (New York: Scribner, 1997) is told from the point of view of a child of survivors, and it is at least in significant part rooted--as one imagines Stollman's book may be, as well--in the autobiographical. The narrator's in-progress film and her upcoming marriage both are interrupted, although not stopped, by the death in Israel of her Tante. Despite the great distance between her Tante's kibbutz and New York, her Tante had become the narrator's surrogate mother in the wake of her real mother's (her Tante's sister's) illness and early death. Now her Tante's death brings back to mind the horrors the narrator has vicariously experienced, including her father's loss of a family (wife, children) whom she knows only as legends; her mother's and her Tante's experiences during the Holocaust; and other losses she has learned about only more recently, including her Tante's lost love. At this time, the ghost-ridden world of her own childhood also comes into sharp focus.

Like Stollman's, this too is a book about endurance, about coping, about what is in effect the price that some surviviors and their families had to pay for making a conscious and deliberate decision to live. I found it difficult to read . . . and ultimately well worth reading.


Last month I wrote about Carl Djerassi's Menachem's Seed. This month I caught up with his Marx, Deceased (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), a novel about a writer who wants to read his own obituaries and so arranges his own "death." Really, what he wants to read are not his own obituaries but literary critics writing about his work in some distant future in order to see if it lasted--and thus the premise of this cute but slight work is flawed from the get-go. It is engaging enough, but Djerassi has less understanding of the literary than he has of the scientific people among whom he works. I enjoyed the book, but it is not by any means up to the standards of Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit, or Menachem's Seed.


Charles Major's Uncle Tom Andy Bill brought me back to Indiana this month. The book was originally published in 1908; it became part of The Library of Indiana Classics in 1993, and is available in paperback from that series, published by Indiana University Press. The book has a plot, but it is a mere melodramatic coathanger from which Major dangles a slew of short stories for children about frontier life in Indiana, filled with bears and Injuns. In these respects it is just like Major's earlier book, The Bears of Blue River, to which it is in any case a kind of sequel. It is just as enjoyable as that book, too.


Last month my students and I read, among other things, Heinar Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: a play freely adapted on the basis of the documents, translated by Ruth Speirs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968) from In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (Frankfurt-am-Main 1964). I've read this play a number of times and it bears, of course, a more than passing resemblance to the Oppenheimer hearing transcript. Kipphardt succeeds in bringing life to this material without sacrificing its complexity (complexity manifested, for instance, in such questions as: in this cast of admirables, whom are "we" supposed to "root" for?). If you don't already know it, the play is worth looking out for.


Some months ago, I wrote about two novels by Alan Isler; this last month, I got around to a recently-published volume of his short stories (four of them) called The Bacon Fancier (New York: Viking, 1997). These stories trace the vagaries of Jewish life over a number of centuries and vary to a degree in interest; but in fact I liked them all. The opium-besotted Coleridge, interrupted in medias res by a person from Porlock, turns out--for example--to be interrupted by a Jewish person from Porlock, originally from Italy, now a maker of musical instruments who lives with a Christian woman to whom he is not married in that English equivalent of Yechupitzville (East Overshoe). The story is not simply about this "literary encounter"; that is a mere side-incident in a tale about something else. Themes of marginality and exile are worked and re-worked, and if they are, by now, slightly cliched with reference to diaspora Jewry, Isler nonetheless treats them well. I found this book fun; you will, too.


Next semester, I will teach a course on the comedies and history plays of Billy Bard. As part of my slow preparation for that class, I reread for the first time since I was an undergraduate a very old book by Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard called The Elizabethan World Picture. The book remains available in paperback but I read the 1944 Macmillan (New York) edition in the copy given me some years ago by the optimist who first tried to teach me Shakespeare.

I was attracted to such a rereading by discussion on several academic bulletin boards during the preceding month or so of the continuing utility of such views of the sixteenth-century literary background as the ordered view Tillyard promotes. Rereading his book, I was unsurprised to see how much I have since abandoned--some of it consciously, some unconsciously--of the approach to Renaissance literature in which I was raised. If for no other reason, I found the experience salutary.

It was also salutary to see how much the book reflected its origin in the midst of World War II. There is, for instance, something almost pathetic about its references to American scholarship vs. its not quite complete--but almost--profession of indifference (via lack of references) to what the Brits had then been publishing. (Tillyard taught at Cambridge.) Some day, someone will study this book as a cultural object in its own right. Done well enough, that study should make for fascinating reading.

I am now almost through C. S. Lewis's two-decades-later but related book, The Discarded Image, rereading the copy I bought during my first year of graduate school when the book was published and which I read immediately (Cambridge 1964). The Discarded Image is better written and more cantankerous than Tillyard's comparably simplistic book--but it is also, at least in places, simply odious, as Tillyard is not. Who, for instance, gave Lewis the right to pronounce--as the pompous little twerp does pronounce (p. 113)--on what is "best" in Judaism? At what yeshiva was little Jack a yeshiva bucher so that he could, grown up, tell the difference? (If there is a difference. I don't like this sort of nonsense any better from Bibi's minyans than I do from this self-anointed ambassador for the Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Well-written or odious finally doesn't matter much. Like Tillyard's earlier book, The Discarded Image is fatally flawed by its assumption that people believed their own fairy tales. Hooey. Even Jack Lewis didn't believe--and certainly didn't behave as if he believed, while bonking older women or American Jewish left-wing poets--his own fairy tales; presumably, that's why he told so many of them. This book is one of his taller ones. It is made worse by its neglect of other (e.g., classical) traditions that needed attention in Lewis's self-defined context but would not have fit the book's hard-ridden thesis.



December 1997

Originally written in English, then translated into German for its first appearance in print as "the tragic history of the German footnote"--not a title that sings to me, I must confess--and now available in a published (and revised) English-language edition (from Harvard University Press, 1997, $22.95), Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History is a book hard to praise highly enough. Well-written, funny (despite the apparent implications of its German title), informative, and thoughtful, it is also a thoroughgoing joy to read from beginning to end.

The Library of Congress catalogers who provided its meager subject headings thought The Footnote a book about footnotes, suggesting that they read its title, saw a bright light go off over their own overworked heads, and got no further. It is a book about footnotes, of course. Perhaps you had thought that topic unimportant, but Grafton will quickly disabuse you of this delusion. In addition, however, his book is also about the nature and history of the historical enterprise, the ways in which professionals parade their credentials in order to claim their professionalism, and how a discipline becomes just that: a "discipline." These are also important topics--far more obviously important than the footnote--and Grafton treats them very well indeed. The sheer tentativeness of the kind of knowledge and certainty that the footnote, or documentation in general, brings to historical discourse is a large part of his burden in this book. But footnotes themselves garner a great deal of loving attention in their own right, and by the time you are in the middle of the book, if not before, you have no more doubt than Grafton has that such attention is richly deserved.

As I read it, I kept anticipating the pleasures I would receive when, writing this paean of praise about Grafton's book, I would be able to quote one delicious passage, from its text or its footnotes, after another. Instead, I have finally decided that this is a book its own readers can and should relish on their own as they read it. I know few scholarly books that fairly beg to be read aloud to one's significant--or merely innocently nearby--others. This one hasn't a prayer of evading such an outcome, and it damned well shouldn't. Grafton has written a marvelous book. It is one well worth running to find.

Had I not already given it to myself, I would beg a copy for Christmas. By New Year's Day I'd be wondering (if I didn't already know it) what else this guy has written . . . and having a great deal of fun finding out.


Another historian whose work I admire greatly is Natalie Zemon Davis. A friend pointed me at her retrospective Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1997, "A Life of Learning," easily available online (American Council of Learned Socieities, Occasional Paper no. 39). Here Davis tries to recapture the feelings and tell something of the story of what it was like to grow from a relatively sheltered Detroit girlhood into one of the great historians of our time. If I said that her essay manages to convince its reader of the excitement and interest that that process provoked, as well as its importance, I would still have failed to convey how exciting and interesting the essay itself is. Or how moving. Alighting on an old friend's name in the text, presented in a supporting role--and shouting aloud with pleasure as I did so (a person nearby immediately guessed the name I must just have met)--I was reminded yet again of the links in the chain of American scholarly women who have supported one another's work (and persons) over the past century and more; the person named, Rosalie L. Colie, herself wrote a moving essay about a predecessor, Marjorie Hope Nicholson (but died before she could write such an essay about herself). Davis has always been a master of short forms; this lovely essay is no exception. The source of many different pleasures, it's just a click and a "PRINT" command away. What are you waiting for?


Reading Peter Medawar's Memoir of a Thinking Radish: An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) explained to me why Medawar attracted public awareness not only, and perhaps not even especially, for his 1960 Nobel Prize in medicine (his work was in the field of immunology) but also for scientific writing. He produced a number of "popularizations" in the best sense of the word--haute vulgarisation. Stephen Jay Gould has written a foreword to The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science, a recent (1996) paperback anthology from Oxford of Medawar's miscellaneous writings that includes his devastating--and hilarious--review ("[the romans are mine]") of Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomonenon of Man; Gould rightly views Medawar as one of his predecessors in this difficult genre. I've been looking at his books for a number of years, thinking "not now; later." "Later" finally arrived. This book proved a pleasure. (It's now available in paperback.)

The Memoir retails a lot of stories, first, about a boy growing up in Rio de Janeiro where, the son of a Lebanese immigrant to England and an English mother, Medawar was born. It moves on to England, where Medawar became a student at variously incompetent boarding schools, an ordinarily appalling public school (Marlborough), and Magdalen College, Oxford. He has a lovely comment on the impact of one of Oxford's better-known bookshops on intellectual life in that university town, and goes on to discuss the nature of bookshops generally in a way I found delightful. His depiction of one of my own favorite dotty dons, C. S. Lewis, is also engaging. Despite less than wonderful preparation (Medawar loathed Marlborough and the entirety, so it seems, of the social world implicit in the English public school generally), he nonetheless quickly found himself working--and, it would seem, at a fairly high level--at biological research and moving about in the English university and research community with some ease.

In this book, he speaks about the nature of his work, the nature of his collaborations, and the ways in which English university and research institute life are organized and run. These are all matters that this American reader found both exotic and familiar. He is personal about the familial world of his childhood, but far more reserved about the familial world he himself went on to create with his wife. He also speaks about what happens to superannuated biologists when, after they have had a stroke or two, they nonetheless muster the internal resources to keep on working. These parts of his books are quite moving and impressive, almost as much for what they omit saying about the grit with which Medawar must have persisted in his work as for what they say about that persistence.

This is a book I came to late: lots of people before me have recommended it warmly. Perhaps, on chilly balance, it is too anecdotal, too reserved, to rank with the very best scientific autobiographies. No matter. They were right anyway.


My armchair Indiana travels returned me last month to Meredith Nicholson when I read The Little Brown Jug at Kildare (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1908). Hoo-boy! This is not a book, I am sorry to say, that ranks with Nicholson's brighter moments, some of which I remarked on earlier this year. In fact, it is so dreadful that the only fun I could reap from the agony of reading it--I did, I am sorry to admit, read it all--came from trying to guess what in God's name the author thought he was doing in telling this ghastly and stupid story.

Two friends--a very rich man at loose ends and his chum, a professor of maritime law at the University of Virginia--separate at a southern train station. Almost immediately, they find themselves in Raleigh and Columbia involved (unbeknownst to each other) as advisors to two young women, mortal enemies, whose fathers, the governors of North and South Carolina, have just been reported as having engaged in a major contretemps at a meeting in New Orleans, largely over the unresolved matter of a crook who operates in an area on the border of both states. In the wake of their public disagreement, moreover, each governor has disappeared. Their daughters thereupon simply assume the role of governor of their states, and, with the assistance of our two heroes, eventually wind up doing something more or less like declaring war on each other's state as a side effect of their efforts to make up for what each perceives as her own father's pusillanimity in not having dealt with the crook till now.

One does not want to rehash too much of the rest of this story (not an attractive prospect in any event) lest one spoil it for the reader--will there be any?--who follows me down this deceptively literary path. What I finally think--perhaps incorrectly--Nicholson imagined the novel's point to be is its consideration of two issues agitating contemporary thought. It shows, first, Nicholson's disinclination to approve of temperance (what's in "the little brown jug at Kildare" is open to some question during the course of this book), and second--and perhaps relatedly--his vivification of the ridiculousness of extending the suffrage to women. As the two governors' girls amply demonstrate in the course of the novel, women are completely unfit to exercise it. What Nicholson has failed to notice--if my guess about one of his intentions is at all close--is that our two male heroes are not more enchanting exemplars of the ability of that half of the population to endure exposure to the political process than his women are of the ability of their half.

The supply of stupid pills available to the characters in this book seems endless. So did the book.


Every so often I find myself reading what I've called elsewhere "paleontological novels," and now Mark Canter has submitted yet another entry in what is actually a highly specialized generic sub-category, viz.: the fin-de-siècle Neanderthal kind. Previous entrants in this unsurprisingly restricted (and often quite lousy, although entertaining) field, so far as I am aware of them, include John Darnton, Adam Popescu, and Philip Kerr. Strictly speaking, some predecessors to Neanderthals people these pages; but I take their generic functions in books of this kind to be entirely similar to those of H. neandertalis himself.

Canter's Ember from the Sun concerns Ember, a Neanderthal woman born from the astonishingly preserved fertile embryo discovered near Denali (Mt. McKinley) by a Mad Scientist--he is also an Inuit, as it happens--visiting his chilly Alaska home on a research trip. He arranges for her to be carried to term by a surrogate mother, also a Native American ("Indian," not Inuit), and she is raised as if she were a Native American herself by her mother and her mother's husband, who cannot find it in their hearts to surrender her to the Mad Scientist, as originally anticipated, after her birth. But Ember is a bit odd. When all is said and done, after all, she is a Neanderthal woman--and they don't show up every ol' day in and around Seattle. Her skin color is golden. She needs extensive therapy in order to speak properly: H. neandertalis, it appears, is a wee bit defective around the vocal chords. And she has certain Remarkable Mental Powers.

Alas, the sharp bite of prejudice--the redskins amongst whom Ember is raised are not fond, it seems, of goldskins; and her speech defect comes in for a deal of ribbing from the children in her tribe, as well--does not make for an unmitigatedly happy childhood. In addition, Ember's Remarkable Mental Powers seem to require her to take on a position in her tribe that she wishes she did not have to take on since, from dreams, she knows she also has an additional burden, viz.: finding and saving other Neanderthals (her real mother's family and friends) who also have mysteriously survived into the late twentieth century (but where? and how?).

Enter an Environmentally Unsound Corporation, bent not only on destroying Native American Ways (à la mode Inuit) but also on spoliation of the environment with which the Inuit had previously lived in Natural Harmony. When its workers discover a cave filled with perfectly preserved Neanderthal bodies by the truckload, the officers of this Unsound Company think it a Quick Pathway to Riches to blow them the hell up because mining--yuck: mining--will bring greater monetary returns. Right.

Well, I read it anyway. What can I say after I've said "I'm sorry"? Wanna hear how it all turns out? Hey, do you even need to be told?


The third of the books my friend recommended to me last month--the other two were by Aryeh Lev Stollman and Cheryl Pearl Sucher--I got to this month. It is Allegra Goodman's The Family Markowitz (I read it in the 1997 Washington Square Press paperback reprint of the 1996 Farrar original). Goodman's book is a slice-of-Jewish-life novel . . . served up as slices. Its parts read like New Yorker stories, from back when there was such an animal; in fact, some chapters actually appeared as short stories there.

More or less in the vein--now much modernized, of course--of Arthur Kober's wonderful (and almost completely forgotten) trilogy, Thunder Over the Bronx (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935), My Dear Bella (New York: Random House, 1941), and Bella, Bella Kissed a Fella (New York: Random House, 1951), all the book is missing are the Syd Hoff illustrations that decorated (so absolutely rightly!) Kober's books. On the other hand, Hoff's lower-middle-class, undershirt-sporting zhlubs would suit neither the newer and even more upscale New Yorker of Ms. Tina nor the world that Goodman presents the Markowitzes as inhabiting, which Bella's family would have regarded as the world of the yekkes.

Unfortunately, the book's parts are better by far than its whole. As short stories, I would imagine, the chapters work, if not in any way that is the slightest bit memorable. As a book, however, they resemble nothing so much as a Manhattan coffee shop lunch. There's nothing objectionable, it's all served up very professionally, and now and again there's even a good bit or two; but, if you never find the same coffee shop again, your life will nonetheless retain the even keel on which it had travelled up till that meal. Everything goes down well, true. But it also disappears forever just as smoothly, leaving nary a trace behind.

Curiously enough, while the same general criticism could be levelled at Kober's books--neither well-integrated "novels" but really, like Goodman, a concatenation of episodes; and even farther than The Family Markowitz from anything anyone would ever dream of calling "literachoor"--they do linger in memory. If I were going to be recommending "slice-a-life" Jewish ethnic fictions, I'd urge readers to find a copy of one of Kober's books instead of Goodman's Family Markowitz. He's much more fun than she is, perhaps because he's less conflicted than she about the value inherent in mere entertainment and, therefore, a lot less pretentious.


Rather a different kettle of novelistic fish is the new book, Night Train, by Martin Amis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997). "I am a police," the book begins, in the voice of Detective Mike Hoolihan that the book's reader will soon find both unmistakable and unforgettable. (In comparison with the voices of Amis's characters--okay: it's an unfair comparison, I admit it--the ethnicized voices of the Markowitzes, voices that Goodman has made so "typical" that they end up lacking the merest modicum of distinctiveness, fade into very nearly instant literary oblivion.) "I am a police, and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also. What I am setting out here is an account of the worst case I have ever handled" (p. 1).

This is an ugly book. It is about suicide, squalor, and the slice of life that "a police" gets paid to look at, to look after, for the rest of us. It depicts a world too tawdry to endure, people who are too flawed to give one any reason to go on living among them.

Amis sets his dispiriting tale in an unnamed American city. The novel details the investigation of a police officer's daughter's death. An apparent suicide, but really a murder--her father, after all, knows a murder when he sees one, doesn't he?--she was someone whom Mike had known for years, for Mike had worked under the command of the dead girl's father and, while recovering from an alcoholic breakdown, had lived in the same house as the victim, cared for by her father and mother, watched over, in some measure, by the young girl herself. It is her father who charges Mike Hoolihan to find the murderer; the book offers up the results of this investigation. When all is said and done, these results offer few surprises. One wishes they had offered more, not because the lack of surprise is "boring" in any way, or wanting in interest, but rather because it is so horrifying.

I take that horror to be Amis's point. The novel brings it off brilliantly. Stylistically Night Train is a tour de force. Its moral vision is gimlet-eyed, unblinking, unblinkered. Its characters--not abstracted versions of "cops"--have individuality, quirks, peculiarities, unpleasantnesses, difficulties. Their difficulties--some of them the difficulties inherent merely in being human--are difficulties often shared, in the world they all travel in together, by the perps and their victims, as well. In another short novel, one now many years old, Conrad creates a character who sails up a river into a distant heart of darkness. Amis doesn't need characters who travel that far from places familiar to him and to us; close to home--hell: at home--Mike Hoolihan finds scraps of a world on which she can read, as we read alongside her, about "the horror, the horror." As Conrad transmogrified the form of an adventure story into something altogether different, so, too, has Amis taken the police procedural and turned it into something rich and strange.

Unpleasant? Yes. Too bad. Read it anyway. Amis may have squandered his popularity with Britain's literary elite through his unseemly interest in getting paid what he temerariously thought himself to be worth. Ms. Byatt, representing a slew of outraged bystanders, may have been offended by his abhorrent display of bad breeding. Night Train suggests not that Amis's effort was unwarranted but rather that it is impossible. No amount of money will pay the author of Night Train what he is worth. This is a magnificent book.

Will Self interviewed Amis in the October 1995 issue of The Mississippi Review; see also (if you can see it: it has been idiotically formatted for the web) the interview with Amis by Alexander Laurence and Kathleen McGee, "No More Illusions: Martin Amis is Getting Old and Wants to Talk About It", from alt-x. My high opinion of the book is not shared by Luc Sante, writing in the 21 January 1998 Slate.


A memoir by Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, appeared to some acclaim in 1994 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), and I had not only noticed it at the time but also found a copy that I stuck on a shelf. Some books one reads immediately. Others wait, more or less patiently. Medawar bided his time; Grealy hers. I finally got around to reading her book this last month, some days before I got around (for other reasons) to reading his.

I'd been speaking with a young woman who had just told me that she wanted to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon when she grows up. A more or less conventionally beautiful young woman, she completely surprised me when she answered my stupid question--basically, how can someone your age know that that is the specialty you want to enter?--by pushing aside her hair and showing me the half of her own face which had been repaired (mostly repaired) by reconstructive plastic surgery. Well, that explained that. I immediately recommended Grealy's book to her. I'd not yet read it myself but knew enough about its subject to know she'd find it interesting. The very next day, I got a note saying she'd read it straight through. It seemed time to take it off my own shelf, since it had clearly impressed someone I now knew; and so I did. I too raced through it.

Before reaching adolescence, Grealy had been diagnosed with a cancer that required removal of much of one side of her lower jaw. Lucky to survive at all (Grealy did not learn the horrifying mortality rates associated with her specific form of cancer until adulthood), the girl did not feel lucky when, around the now absent bone, the rest of her face collapsed. Decades of surgery would turn out to be required before the damaged--literally "damaged"--face that surgery had left her was once again made "normal."

Grealy endured all this as a little girl, and throughout her adolescence, high school, college, and the bulk of her twenties. These are not the best of times (as if any other times might be imagined for such problems that one might, even momentarily, consider calling "good") in which to have an appearance, a self-image, that others find threatening or dismaying. Her sense of self became bound up in the ways that others saw her: she was her face. Her Autobiography is a gorgeous rendering of how she ceased to be entirely trapped by such a self-definition. It is a moving book, and I am glad both to have had it stockpiled and ready and, now, to recommend it to you.


Released only a few weeks ago, Starship Troopers is apparently making waves both at the box office and in the minds of Movie Moralists who oppose its violence. Dare I confess that not only did I go to see it but also, please forgive me, I loved it? Don't get me wrong: it's a stinker. No doubt about it. It plays with fascism. Its violence is mindless. Its politics almost make Newt's look palatable. Its actors could have been replaced by sticks. (The very best of them were computer simulations, a status to which the human actors unsuccessfully aspired.) No matter. I found it a great deal of fun. I've known the novel since I was a kid and, whatever Heinlein's (or the movie's) politics, I like the book too much to carp greatly about this movie version of it. For me, both book and movie exist in a realm beyond criticism. It may therefore not surprise anyone to hear that I went back, right after the movie, to reread the book version of Starship Troopers for the umpteenth time (in the 1987 Ace Book reprint of this 1957 Cold War-era science-fiction novel). It's better than the movie by far (mind you, many things are better than this movie: being better than it is is not a difficult feat). Heinlein has attracted only one serious reader with whose work I am familiar; like me, that reader has no taste at all for Heinlein's politics but reads him anyway. He is the leftist literary critic H. Bruce Franklin, whose study of Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction was published by Oxford University Press in 1980. Heinlein may or may not be "good." I wouldn't know. What I do know is that he is fun.


A consortium of young female academics calling itself D. J. H. Jones produced a nifty little book several years ago entitled Murder at the MLA (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994 [c1993]). With such characters as the young littérateur whose thesis concerns Keats's laundry bills, Murder at the MLA seemed a decent-enough send-up of the literary academy: good, funny, nasty (but impersonally so), and right at home in every aspect of its chosen milieu.

This year, "Jones" has published Murder in the New Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press). Alas, it is a crashing bore. "Jones" has moved her central character out of her academic milieu--alas: that is the milieu author(s) and character clearly know best--and placed her instead in a new age environment in Santa Fé. The book's mode is satirical but, if the consortial satirists who are its author are familiar with what happened to English satire during the eighteenth-century apotheosis of that genre, no sign of their awareness comes through this tendentious account of it.

If you already know and liked Murder at the MLA, then perhaps Murder in the New Age will not appall you. If you don't already know the earlier book, however, you should find and read it before having any thoughts about this newer book.


In November, mentioning Jane Urquhart's recent novel, The Underpainter (New York: Viking, 1997, reprinting the edition originally published by McClelland & Stewart in Toronto earlier this year), I spoke not about its virtues but rather about the incompetencies displayed by reviewers for a certain "newspaper of record" in failing to understand what this book is about. Since then, TLS, reviewing the same book, has also demonstrated a literary sensibility that seems to my eye unable to keep pace with the virtues of Urquhart's novel.

The Underpainter is told in retrospect by an American painter born in 1894 and now in his mid-seventies. Raised in Rochester and educated in New York City (under the tutelage of Robert Henri; one of his friends is another Henri pupil, Rockwell Kent), he had spent summers as a young man on the north shore of Lake Ontario. There he befriended a person more or less his own age who works in (and later runs) his parents's china shop and practices the "minor" (decorative) art of painting on china. He watches as his friend falls--apparently fruitlessly--in love with a young woman. Later, in despair over her departure, and confronted almost simultaneously by the start of World War I, the friend enters the Canadian military. He leaves almost immediately for the western front, where he hopes to die. He is wounded, as it turns out, but nonetheless manages to survive the war and return to Canada. The painter will eventually rediscover him, running his china shop, painting on china, and living with a woman who had also served in the War as a Canadian army nurse. One of few Canadian women shell-shock victims, she had been returned to Canada after the Armistice and placed in a nearby asylum from which the painter's friend, so he understands, rescued her.

His own art studies had continued during the war. As an artist, he finds himself attracted (like Rockwell Kent) to "northern" light. (His style will evolve over the years; when we meet him, in his seventies and back in Rochester, he has become a minimalist painter.) He begins to spend his summers painting, not on the north shore of Lake Ontario, but on the much more northern shore of Lake Superior. His model is a young woman, a waitress in a failing resort there, who becomes not only his model but also his mistress. The arrangement works for fifteen years. The painter is not equipped to understand, let alone to undertake, the difficult work of an emotionally committed love. Eventually--and traumatically--he leaves both his mistress and his Lake Superior paintings behind. The work of this retrospective novel is to show us the relationship between that decision, a terrible crisis in his understanding of his friend's life and loves, to which he blunderingly and ignorantly contributes, and his sense of himself and his life's work as an artist.

All of this must sound like melodrama, I imagine, and I also suppose that both the Times and the TLS reviewers were put off by it. I was not, and thought about the book in very different ways from the ways they seem to have experienced it. It is, to begin with, a World War I book. Easy for Americans to forget the impact on the vast unknown refrigerator to our north of World War I; not so easy for them, for they found it a crushing blow, and yet at the same time a "nation-building" experience. (I found this aspect of Urquhart's book almost unbearably painful. How many more years must go by before that War in which our century began becomes simply a part of the dead past? It hasn't done so yet.) It is also a book about art, about (in part) its varied demands and the artist's incapacities to live up to those demands, and about the costs artists pay for their ability to work as they work, whatever demands they may think they are meeting or refusing as they do so. That it is also a book about love may be equally obvious, by now: the interrelationships between the ways in which the characters meet, pay, and refuse love's demands and the ways in which they do the same with art and with friendship is another of the book's themes.

I found this book breathtakingly beautiful as well as painful. Neither the Times not the TLS review convinced me to alter this view or even to admit that I might be wrong.


I went on to read Urquhart's first novel, The Whirlpool, in the edition published in the United States by David Godine (Boston 1990; the Canadian edition was published in 1986). This is a good novel too, and had I not already read the more recent one I might have been completely bowled over by it. As it is, I merely recommend it warmly.

The book has an opening that is astonishingly funny: the dying Browning toddling his bod' through Venice while irritatingly unable to shake the inner voice that recalls one of his youthful enthusiasms and recites verbatim (for his inner ear alone) huge chunks of Shelley's poetry--this even though, in Browning's maturity, Shelley's had become something he knew to be a bad influence and one he had shaken off. Or so he had thought. The book then switches to its main burden, the convoluted tale of some pretty odd ducks in Niagara Falls late in the nineteenth century. One is a poet sent south (to Niagara Falls) for his health. He finds himself obsessed by a poetry-reading woman, herself married to a military officer and historian who keeps expecting the damned American army to return across the Niagara River at any minute. Meanwhile, he is busily collecting materials for and rewriting (this time correctly) the history of a battle that took place in Niagara Falls during the War of 1812 and was misrepresented as an American victory. A widowed undertaker and her very strange little boy complete the picture. This proves to be a very creepy crowd indeed; as you might expect, they do some pretty creepy things.

As a depiction of late nineteenth-century provincial life, I can imagine little that would be more convincing--or more eerie. Framed as these folks and their stories are by Browning dying in Venice--the book ends by returning to him there, on his deathbed--the novel's incidents come to seem almost as if they were provincial vignettes drawn from dramatic monologues never quite written for this level of society or place but nonetheless playing thmselves out in the dying poet's brain.

The Whirlpool is not an easy book. By contrast The Underpainter is, if I may put it this way, a lot more immediately rewarding--even if read in the shallow manner of a newspaper-of-record reviewer. But The Whirlpool is also a powerful and a compelling read, and I thought it well worth the attention I tried to give it. Jane Urquhart has written some additional books--poetry as well as novels and short stories--and I will look for them with pleasure.



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