Snark, the Early Days

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a piece (subscribers only) by Christopher Benfey on the work of Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, who was among the first well-known and well-respected female literary critics in the country. Not respected enough, Benfey argues. He gets a few jabs in toward writers who tried to present Fuller as a weak flower suffering her father’s abuses because he made her read Virgil as a child (something a lot of smarty-pants boys were compelled to do); and he zings Susan Cheever‘s book on New England intellectuals, American Bloomsbury, for openly speculating about a romance between Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Cheever’s lively and well-written book, which fans fires where few have found smoke, is perhaps best treated as a historical novel,” he writes.

If that seems a little snarky, Benfey is just calling up some of the same spirit that Fuller brought to her book reviewing, particularly for Horace Greeley‘s New York Tribune. He writes:

Fuller’s book reviews have never received the attention they deserve. Amid the chaos and contention of American publishing . . . Fuller was able to identify the most vigorous and promising writers of her time: Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Frederick Douglass, and Melville. . . . She was reading their books at an early stage in their careers, and did not live long enough to read Hawthorne’s novels or to find the promise of Typee—in which she relished the savage irony directed at missionaries in Hawaii and the South Seas—fulfilled in Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

About those missionaries—Fuller’s review of Typee for the Tribune in 1846 tries to rattle the high-minded women who sponsor missionary work in the hopes of taming the savages:

[I]t would be well if the sewing societies, now engaged in providing funds for such enterprises would read the particulars, they will find in this book…and make inquiries in consequence, before going on with their efforts. Generally, the sewing societies of the country villages will find this the very book they wish to have read while assembled at their work. Othello’s hairbreadth ‘scapes were nothing to those by this hero in the descent of the cataracts, and many a Desdemona might seriously incline her ear to the descriptions of the lovely Fay-a-way.

Not exactly Dorothy Parker, but as a skewering of old-fashioned sensibilities, I imagine it did the job.

Shock to the System

Paul Auster, whose Man in the Dark was one of my favorite novels of last year (it’s now in paperback), is featured in a new documentary titled Act of God, about people who were struck by lightning. That’s familiar territory for Auster; in his 2002 nonfiction collection, The Red Notebook, he wrote about an incident in summer camp when he was 14 where the boy standing next to him was struck dead. Acts of God director Jennifer Baichwal tells the CBC that the writer played a critical role in the theme of the documentary, because “his whole body of work is preoccupied with coincidence and meaning and chance.” (Apparently Michael Ondaatje tipped her off.)

Indeed, as he told the New York Times in 2006, the incident inspired his obsession with chance incidents:

“Hundreds of things made me feel that way,” he said, “but probably the pivotal moment was when I was 14 and at summer camp” in upstate New York.

“We went out on a hike and we got caught in an electrical storm.” He and another boy found themselves crawling underneath a barbed-wire fence when a lightning bolt struck, electrocuting the boy instantly.

“My head,” Mr. Auster, now 58, recalled, “was inches from his feet.”

He expands on that soberly in the trailer to the film:

The Gass Doctrine

Spectacle, the A&E Web site of Columbia University’s student newspaper, has Q&A with novelist and essayist William Gass (h/t Books, Inq.), who discusses his teaching career, the intersection of prose and music, the shifts in meanings of words over time, and couple of issues that made noise among the media (or at least litbloggers) in the past year. Discussing the Horace Engdahl incident, Gass is willing to concede that Americans are closed-minded, but that they don’t have the market cornered when it comes to being provincial:

Significant American writers rushed to support, extol, and copy the Latin American boom. But Latin Americans weren’t Europeans, who are the provincial ones here. We read Calvino, Kis, Sebald… etc. French and other language departments went goofy over deconstruction, and made its import unwisely popular. I founded and directed the International Writers Center at Washington University for a decade. Incidentally, Robbe Grillet was on our faculty. Philip Roth did wonderful things to support Polish etc. writers, and tackled Israeli issues in one of his greatest books. Perhaps it is Europe who is insular.

He has a similarly sly take on book reviewing in the United States:

There is no state of literary criticism in America. I think this is a very wholesome condition. Deconstruction and all its dreadful bloodsucking “isms” are now reduced to squalling helplessness. There are fine critics who have various individual takes on things who regularly write for NYRB, Bookforum, NYTimes, Washington Post, Atlantic, Harper’s, and so on, whom one may read agree or disagree and enjoy. As civilized persons are supposed to.

Spoken like a true survivor of academia’s PC wars of the 90s. Those not interested in re-engaging in those oft-fought arguments—I admit I’m a little tired of them myself—can simply admire photos of Gass’ 20,000-volume library.

Links: The Names

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Here’s Don DeLillo, winner of the 2009 Common Wealth Award, along with three fellow winners who, unlike him, don’t seem to mind smiling: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kevin Spacey, and Buzz Aldrin.

Growing up bookish in Chicago meant, at least for me, that Nelson Algren was all but unavoidable, but apparently that’s not true in the rest of the country, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which includes comments from DeLillo and Russell Banks. Just wait until everybody gets a load of Stuart Dybek.

The Great Gatsby: the ballet.

Alice Walker‘s papers are now available at Emory University. The university’s Web site includes a slideshow of some of the more interesting holdings, including the invoice of Walker’s purchase of a headstone for Zora Neale Hurston‘s tomb.

Andrew Seal has what I’m hoping will be the last word on the Walter Benn Michaels foofaraw. I’m grateful that somebody’s willing to marshal the intellectual rigor to dismantle Michaels’ bloviations, and get in a few good zingers too. (“To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset.”) Seal also points to video of the New York Public Library event that inspired all the chatter.

Literary agent Eric Simonoff, whose roster includes Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many other heavy hitters, discusses his recent jump to the William Morris Agency in Crain’s New York Business. He points to the recent six-figure sale of Danielle Trussoni‘s debut novel, Angelology, to Viking as proof that the publishing industry isn’t completely off the rails: “It was viewed as a test case, to see if we can still fall in love with a book and pay lots of money,” he says. “The answer is yes. There are still enough publishers, and few enough great books, that we can.

Annals of Nabokov

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov‘s birth, an occasion that inspired the New Republic to open up its sizable vaults an showcase a handful of reviews that Nabokov wrote for the magazine, as well as a raft of critical assessments of his work. I was struck by his list of requirements in his 1941 piece, “The Art of Translation.” The bar’s set high:

First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

The critical pieces, for their part, are largely expressions of enthusiasm. For a literary culture that was apparently hurting for a new Faulkner or Hemingway in the late 50s and early 60s, Nabokov was the chosen successor; note the opening of John Updike‘s 1964 piece, in which he dismisses Norman Mailer and James Jones as “homegrown cabbages loyally mistaken for roses.” Writing on Pale Fire in 1962, Mary McCarthy enthused that it was “one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.” Conrad Brenner in 1958 was given to even broader proclamations, writing that Nabokov “will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize [true in both cases], yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner’s burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic.”

Nabokov, on the evidence, didn’t seem to be anxious for divine intervention to handle all of this acclaim—he simply kept writing, when he wasn’t chasing butterflies. And he clearly kept his sense of humor. In 1999 Jed Perl noted Nabokov’s semi-famous, semi-serious 1972 recipe for boiling eggs (aka “Eggs a la Nabocoque”), displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library:

“Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!),” he begins. A few lines later, the two eggs have slipped “soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan. If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium at an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away.”

War Stories

A couple of weeks back the Virginian-Pilot interviewed Tim O’Brien about his books, more specifically his novels and stories about Vietnam. Even more specifically, he discussed the role that truth-bending plays in any narrative about war. He explains, for instance, why he chose to have a narrator in 1990’s The Things They Carried named Tim O’Brien:

I’ve intentionally used my own name (as a character) and tried to blur the line a little more. To get my readers to think about what’s true or what’s not, why does it matter to me, and to think about can a story be literally true but emotionally false, or vice versa. Truth is a fluid and volatile thing. Truths about our country that were believed 150 years ago have evolved, and they evolve every day. With our sense of what’s true about ourselves and our country, we learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know yesterday.

I’ve had this idea on the brain lately, between finishing up David Simon‘s HBO miniseries on the Iraq invasion, Generation Kill, and reading Mark Danner‘s latest dispatch on the Red Cross report on torture in the New York Review of Books. One’s a fiction and one’s fact, but both get at how slippery the truth becomes in a war zone, and perhaps more important, how arbitrarily human lives become valued in a war; they shift radically depending on the conditions of the moment.

I’m many years away from my first reading of Going After Cacciato, so I don’t recall just how much soldiers’ pride and insecurity played into the lies that get told about war. But it certainly has a prominent place in a more recent, unfortunately neglected nonfiction book: Tracy Kidder‘s My Detachment, his 2005 memoir about his experiences during Vietnam (and his failed attempts to write a novel about it). I suspect that part of the reason why the book didn’t get much heat was because there’s not a lot of action in it; it doesn’t allow the reader to fall into the shoot-’em-up fantasies about war that even Generation Kill indulges in every so often. (Kidder didn’t see combat. He was what infantrymen called a REMF—“rear echelon motherfucker.”) But what it does get into is how those fantasies start, and how frustrating it is to be in a war zone and not get to participate in any actual fighting. Kidder writes of the letters, full of evasions about how much he was doing, he sent back home. “For months I’d been trying to convince myself, by convincing everyone back home, that in the crucible of war I’d made that great transition,” he writes. Later, he writes a letter to his increasingly distant girlfriend, acting out his aggression and piling on the b.s., closing:

“I have nothing to lose. I really lost my virginity over here. I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored by gun and my clothes and my face. I never cried so hard over you. But, not unlike you, I am becoming a whore of a different sort. I like it. I LIKE it. You filthy, rotten bitch. One letter from you at any one time would have done so much for me. You fucking bitch.”

Kidder at least had the good sense not to send the letter.

Q&A With David A. Taylor, Soul of a People

David A. Taylor‘s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America is an excellent study of the personalities behind the Federal Writers’ Project, which attracted a host of writers to work on guidebooks, oral histories, and folklore collections during the Depression. Some of the participants later became very well-known—among those who worked for the FWP in some capacity were Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Jim Thompson, John Cheever, and Richard Wright—but as the book makes clear, doing government work left many of the writers feeling conflicted, and the project was consistently under scrutiny by Congress for potentially harboring Communists, a hint of the McCarthy hearings that would come years later.

Taylor, who’s also a fine fiction writer, is working on a documentary related to the WPA book; the American Library Association is sponsoring a related project for libraries around the country as well. For more on the book, see Taylor’s Web site and the lengthy interview he recently conducted with George Mason University’s Art Taylor for his Art & Literature blog.

If you’re in D.C., David A. Taylor will speak about the book on Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. at the Library of Congress. He answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.

The book concentrates on a handful of states where FWP projects pulled in some well-known writers—John Cheever contributed to the New York WPA guide, Zora Neale Hurston to Florida’s, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright to Illinois’. Were there any less-well-known states (or writers) that you wish you had more time and space to spotlight?

It’s true that the stories of the later-famous writers form the book’s core but most of the characters are intriguing lesser-knowns: Anzia Yezierska, a 1920s screenwriter and “Cinderella of the Tenements” who captured the weirdness of the FWP experience in New York; Rudolph Umland, the hobo editor of the Nebraska WPA guide; Lyle Saxon, the New Orleans novelist who lived and breathed the city for the WPA while he drank himself to death; and Hilda Polacheck, who documented Chicago history in personal stories, including survivors of the Great Fire of 1871. Polacheck, like some of the others, left a memoir and I interviewed her daughter Dena. With others I wasn’t so lucky and the trail went cold.

I liked finding people who never expected to be writers or great writers most of us never heard of. Juanita Brooks found her inner investigative reporter on the FWP, and through old-timers uncovered the Mountain Meadows Massacre of the 1860s. Jon Krakauer called her 1950 book about it “an extraordinary work of history” that shaped every other book about the Mormons in 1800s Utah, including his own Under the Banner of Heaven. There are tantalizing loose ends to her story and others, like Eluard Luchell McDaniel, a black hobo writer and partisan in the Spanish Civil War. And Meridel Le Sueur in Minnesota: The Girl is a noir novel centered on a woman caught up in a bank heist. She pieced it together from stories of women she interviewed. It’s The Wire in 1930s St. Paul.

The WPA guides have a reputation for being hit-and-miss when it comes to readability. Cheever, somewhat famously, described his work for the WPA as “twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.” As you were researching the book, what struck you about the quality of the writing? Were there any particular gems that you discovered?

There’s a collection of gems from the WPA guides collected in a book called Remembering America. Archie Hobson, the editor of that book, did a great service. His selection highlights local stories from all the guides—many funny as hell—that show the idiosyncrasy of what happened in a bar or when two or three people came together. The humor, often dark, struck me. Among the individual WPA guides, the Oklahoma guide still has the imprint of Jim Thompson’s noir sensibility (even though he left before the guide was done, his folklore essay and some of the tours still stand out). More than the style, for me, are the weird surprises of history—like the fact that Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel prize winner, was living in Illinois for several years while his son studied agriculture there. Then you have some ringers, like Kenneth Rexroth’s hiking notes for the Sierras in the California guide, and Aldo Leopold’s essay on conservation in the Wisconsin guide, years before he wrote Sand County Almanac.

You mention a few cases where WPA leadership edited provocative statements out of guides. (For instance, Idaho guide editor Vardis Fisher’s comments about a former Idaho governor were removed from a draft of the book.) Was there any consistency to what kind of material was cut? How much of it reflected concern about Congressional opposition to the FWP?

Nationally there was a huge reservoir of public fear, and Congress responded by watching for any hint of dissidence. When the first House Un-American Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy’s predecessor and role model) was bearing down on the FWP in 1938 and ‘39, the FWP chief felt the pressure and had a few internal censors weed out political red flags—especially communist and socialist leanings. Labor history was a powder keg, and discontent, so they could draw the censors’ pen. But there was so much coming in, the censors weren’t consistent.

Headquarters also struck out some things in an effort to give a consistent and ‘objective’ tone to the whole guidebook series. So Rexroth’s rant against California timber barons—which interestingly bleeds into a sort of Eastern-flavored portrayal of earth and water—didn’t make it into the California guide. I was happy to find his typescript manuscripts, and publish selections in the book.

One of the most compelling personalities in the book is Hurston, who did a tremendous amount of research on Florida folklore, occasionally putting herself in harm’s way to do it. You note that she had written a book for the FWP called “The Florida Negro,” but it wasn’t published. What happened?

Besides the overt censorship, there was, as Stetson Kennedy notes, the implicit censorship of local mores—including Jim Crow segregation in the South, hanging over the guide editors. The Florida WPA guide did challenge that with accounts of lynching and unfair employment practices—cheek to jowl in a book about Florida tourist spots!—but still there were projects planned that never saw the light of day. In the case of The Florida Negro, it was a combination of that and the kind of mundane editorial merry-go-round that a script might experience in Hollywood—no greenlighting, a U-turn to rewrite, etc. Sterling Brown, the remarkable poet and professor at Howard University who oversaw black studies in the FWP, planned a whole series—and some like The Virginia Negro did get published as amazing glimpses of black history. Hurston took over The Florida Negro when a version had been drafted, and she reworked it. When she left for a teaching job in North Carolina, it sort of died. A decade ago, The Florida Negro was finally published by the University Press of Mississippi, and essays Hurston wrote for it appeared in Pam Bordelon’s Go Gator! And Muddy the Water. There’s still a lot of Zora’s genius coming to light. A few years ago a musical version of Polk County, her play about life in the turpentine camps she uncovered for the FWP, was staged here in D.C. and won a Helen Hayes award for best new musical. Hurston would have loved that.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the WPA guides of late, perhaps as a function of the material becoming available online through the Library of Congress—last year there are books like America Eats! and State by State, which both pay tribute to the FWP’s efforts, and now your project. What do you think people are searching for by revisiting the guides?

I think part of it is actually a continuation of the flowering of local stories that started with the FWP and unfolded in the decades afterward, like Studs Terkel’s oral histories, which just kept bubbling out. Then others took up the idea with permutations like StoryCorps. A lot of writers came across the WPA guides in used bookstores and found in them authentic voices and experiences. Even where the writing is musty, the guides can be exotic because of the time that’s passed. Some have a Ghost World quality that fits with an aesthetic popular now too. For me it was a shock of recognizing a tone and voice that I didn’t expect to find. Many FWP writers wanted to get beyond industrial and commercial treatments of life. They wanted to scratch beneath the surface and see what made people tick and where the pressure points were. I think we’re seeing that again.