WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:
Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.
Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.
Last week New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera blogged about his efforts to find a great novel about business written in the past 25 years. That didn’t work out very well for him—hey, who’s the joker who recommended William Gaddis‘ JR?—but he did prompt a lively discussion about great nonfiction books about business.
On that front, I raised my hand to suggest Steven Bach‘s Final Cut, still the most fun I’ve had reading a book largely involving dollar signs. But I remain stuck on the fiction thing. About five years back I worked on project for Business 2.0 about the most important books about business; Biz 2 is dead now, and the full article is gone to wherever Time Inc. mothballs such things, but a list is here. Yeah, we were probably reaching by putting Moby-Dick in the “leadership” category, but there’s some good stuff in there: Gary Krist‘s Extravagance, Don DeLillo‘s Cosmopolis, Saul Bellow‘s Seize the Day. I’m not sure why Richard Powers‘ Gain didn’t make the cut, because I’m certain I suggested it—it’s one of my favorite novels of the past 25 years, period. (Granted, it’s about the rise of a pharmaceutical giant that’s responsible for the lead character’s cancer, which isn’t the sort of thing a national business mag would want to promote. My editors weren’t big on my suggestion of The Road to Wigan Pier.) Any others? I’m thinking of novels that explore the big churning wheels of American business; Mark Sarvas has already collected a nice list of novels that explore office life.
Myron Magnet‘s essay on Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, is largely intended to bolster the case post-Giuliani crime reforms in New York—the piece appears in City Journal, published the conservative Manhattan Institute. Setting politics aside, though, the piece works well as a glimpse into how Bellow provoked arguments about class, race, and city life:
The novel’s personification of all that crime is a tall, powerfully built thief whom Sammler sees several times working the Riverside Drive bus, a dandified black man sporting a camel’s-hair coat, homburg, and Dior sunglasses. Sammler, slightly taller, can watch him over the heads of the other standees as he skillfully snaps open the handbags and methodically empties the purses of his unaware victims. One day, shielded from the other passengers by his broad, well-tailored back, the thief robs a weak old man with red-lidded eyes of “sea-mucus blue,” cowering in the bus’s back corner, his “false teeth dropping from his upper gums” in his terror. The thief pulls open the man’s jacket with its ragged lining, takes out his plastic wallet, and methodically rifles through the contents, pocketing the money and the Social Security check, while dropping the family photos like so much trash. Then, in a gesture of ironic contempt, he jerks the knot of the old man’s tie “approximately, but only approximately, into place.”