I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.
Imagine that Mark Twain had taken four volumes and 3,307 pages to get to the turning point in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck and Jim get lost in the fog at Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers meet. Imagine that at the end of that fourth volume, you still didn’t know whether their raft had drifted east along the Ohio River toward the free states or been carried southward down the Mississippi River and into the heart of American darkness. Now, imagine that those 3,307 pages, despite some slow bits, contained some of the most riveting reading of your life, and that you knew — knew in your bones — that Huck and Jim were headed south, and you lived in quiet dread that Mark Twain, now quite elderly, would die before he could finish the tale.
That would put you roughly in the position of a devoted reader of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, The Passage of Power, arrives this week, just in time for Father’s Day. The Passage of Power ends in the summer of 1964, seven months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but before Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, before most of the legislation that created The Great Society, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam and eventually destroyed the Johnson Presidency. In other words, the four volumes now in print, which have already earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, along with virtually every other prize offered for books of history, merely form the prologue to the great American political tragedy that is the Johnson Presidency.
But what a prologue. These books are epically, at times even comically, overlong, and yet they are also, quite literally, epic in ambition and achievement. Caro is clearly trying to write the epic poem of The American Century, with tall, jug-eared, foul-mouthed LBJ as his flawed tragic hero. It is hard to believe that Caro will finish the last four and a half years of Johnson’s presidency in a single volume, as he has said he will, and I dread the hours it will take me to read the 1,500 pages or so I imagine it will take him to cover the subject, but I also fear that the American world I came of age in will never fully make sense to me unless Caro, now 76, lives long enough to finish his Life of Johnson.
The unifying theme of the Johnson biography, and of The Power Broker, Caro’s equally overlong, and equally brilliant biography of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, is political power and its uses. In the prologue to The Passage of Power, Caro writes:
[A]lthough the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary… But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.
As the curtain rises on this volume, Johnson is poised to trick himself out of the prize around which he has built his entire career. As the 1950s came to a close, Johnson was, as a ruthlessly effective majority leader of the U.S. Senate, arguably the second most powerful man in America, but after waiting too long to declare his candidacy for president in 1960, Johnson was outflanked by JFK and ended up as vice president. Johnson’s tenure in the Kennedy White House was made all the more humiliating by the fact that Kennedy’s aides, including his younger brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, despised him, mercilessly ridiculing the Texas-born LBJ as “Rufus Cornpone” and keeping him out of meetings where the real political decisions were being made.
This section of The Passage of Power, funny as it sometimes can be in depicting Johnson trying to toady his way into Kennedy’s esteem, is slack and wayward. Whenever things get slow in Johnson’s life, Caro has the unfortunate habit of changing the subject, offering potted histories of the other people and institutions around his central character. While the long digressions into the Kennedy family and the roots of the blood feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy in this volume are vastly more engrossing than the ponderous hundred-page history of the U.S. Senate that clogs the absurdly overstuffed third volume, Master of the Senate, these sideshows still feel like throat-clearing, especially compared to the second half of the book that begins with crack of the rifle that fells President Kennedy in Dallas.
Each of the four volumes has its set piece, a dramatic moment that Caro uses to turn the usually dry topic of history into a riveting page-turner, and here that set piece is Thanksgiving Week of 1963, which began with the Kennedy assassination. November 22, 1963, is surely the most exhaustively examined day in all of American history, and yet Caro manages to make it seem new by telling the story of the assassination from the point of view of the man it most directly affected, Vice President Johnson.
In the months leading up to the assassination, Caro reminds us, Johnson was increasingly worried that Kennedy might drop him from the ticket in 1964, and, on the very morning Kennedy landed in Dallas, editors at Life magazine met to discuss their investigation of Johnson aide Bobby Baker’s peddling of political favors, which was quickly morphing into an investigation of Johnson’s questionable financial dealings. Had Lee Harvey Oswald missed, it is altogether possible that the Baker scandal, along with Johnson’s dwindling political influence, could have pushed Kennedy to pick a new vice president, rendering Johnson little more than a colorful footnote to history.
But Oswald, and whoever else may or may not have been crouching in the Grassy Knoll, had deadly aim, and, in that instant, provided the hinge that separated the first half of the American Century from its darker, less glorious second half. For nearly an hour after the first shots rang out, as rumors swirled of a possible Soviet-led coup d’etat, Johnson was held out of sight in a small cubicle in Parkland Hospital where doctors were trying to revive the fallen president, until Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell walked in, his face stricken, and said, “He’s gone,” two words that transformed Johnson from a political has-been into the leader of the free world.
Caro considers the next seven months, from the hectic Thanksgiving Week transition, in which a cool, calm President Johnson managed a flawless transition of power while the nation mourned, to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which put an end to a century of legalized segregation, as Johnson’s “finest moment…a moment not only masterful, but, in its way, heroic.” The LBJ the reader has come to know in the previous 3,000 pages is a schemer and a bully, who lives for crushing those less powerful than himself, abusing his staff, publicly humiliating fellow politicians and government officials, and always carving up the spoils, political and financial, for his own benefit. “Yet for a period of time,” Caro writes, “a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements [of his personality] in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself.”
Sadly, it was to be a short-lived victory. “Power reveals,” Caro argues, and in The Passage of Power, he demonstrates precisely what this means. One comes away thinking that for a man like Johnson, with his exquisite antenna for the finest gradations of power, the chaotic post-assassination White House was a perfect atmosphere for his particular talents. On November 21, 1963, LBJ was still “Rufus Cornpone,” a big, funny-looking caricature of a Beltway pol, largely unknown to the average American, corrupt to the core, and fast slipping from power. Seven months later, he had passed a landmark civil rights bill, which Caro convincingly argues went far beyond anything Kennedy could have achieved, and was cruising toward one of the most lopsided presidential victories in history.
Johnson accomplished this by shielding himself behind the country’s almost mystical sense of the promise of the fallen president, leveraging his very powerlessness as a usurper to the throne into absolute power. Once he won the presidency in his own right in 1964, his ego returned, and all his great achievements for the poor and powerless of this country — Medicare, voting rights, Head Start — were undone by his unquenchable thirst for power and his ham-fisted approach to the war in Vietnam.
Robert Caro, one senses, has a bit of an ego on him, too, and it is a shame for those of us who love his books that he has not found an editor able to stand up to him after the near perfection of the first two volumes of this series. Master of the Senate is too long by at least a third, and this new volume, though less egregiously long-winded, nevertheless could do with a judicious edit. But while I might be able to imagine cutting hundreds of pages from these books, I cannot think of another living historian who could have written any of the pages that remain. As we learn from studying Lyndon Johnson, we have to take our geniuses as they are, warts and all.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Sitting down to reflect on Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, I realized that there are many ways to approach a book, and a review, and that in this particular case, circumstances have handed me one. Dovey was a classmate of mine in college and when I saw that she’d published a book, I went out to get it with a combination of curiosity and jealousy, excited that a peer had written a novel and interested to see what provocations, over something of a shared span of time, had moved her to write.The book is set in an anonymous country, in the immediate aftermath of a military coup, through which the President and his closest associates have been taken captive in the presidential summer retreat by a man known only as the Commander, a strutting cryptic figure who has usurped their power. In design, Blood Kin recalls Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the two sharing a cloistered, claustrophobic setting which frees the characters temporarily from the violence that prompted their situation, and yet which threatens, inevitably, to destroy it. There is also a common attention to the ancillary trades which attend power. Bel Canto spun around the sublime talent of soprano Roxanne Coss. Blood Kin directs its attention to more mundane, but no less potent roles, the President’s barber, his portraitist, and his chef, the three of whom trade off first-person control of the narrative.It’s a promising set-up, which makes it all the more disappointing that over the course of 180 pages, it does not really go anywhere. The premise, and the small points of action which occur in turn, are used mainly as jumping off points from which the characters recall moments from the past, their own idiosyncrasies, former lovers, and remaindered sensations of childhood. Early in the book the barber escapes for a late night tryst with the Commander’s wife, an episode that might be filled with tension and sensuality, but which deflates under the weight of the barber’s long recollection of how he came into the trade and came to serve the president. A scant portion of the chapter is devoted to the actual present-tense unrolling of events, which makes what action there is feel almost beside the point.The problem is not that the digressions are poorly written or awkwardly conceived. In fact, they are often quite imaginative and authentic, standing solidly on their own as the peculiar ways in which a life might have been lived. When the portraitist recalls a scene from his youth, of a child building sand animals on the beach using an empty dishwashing detergent bottle, it rings true as one of those unexplainable things which stick in memory after so much else has been forgotten. And Dovey’s digressions about each tradesman at work are knowing and confident. She describes the thick patina of paint which has accrued on the portraitist’s palette, the glancing touch by which the barber infuses physical pleasure into his haircuts, and the experienced way the chef stalks prone abalones, sneaking up on them with a rolling pin so as to kill them by surprise, before they can stiffen in fright.One challenge of the first novel, I imagine, is getting free from all the thoughts, images, and experiences you as a writer have collected prior to beginning to write. Blood Kin never begins to feel autobiographical, but it does at times feel like a repository of the many little set-pieces and conceits that must have occurred to Dovey throughout her life, prior to the specific conception of this story. While the component parts are good, they don’t build together, so that by the end of the book, our understanding of the characters compares with the advancement of the plot; they both lie more or less in the same place we began.
Eileen Myles meets Rihanna, and Grindr meets Muse in Tommy Pico’s debut book-length poem, IRL. The poem speaks through the voice of Teebs, a character who shares Pico’s nickname and similarly resides in Brooklyn after growing up on the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. Teebs both yearns for and is haunted by Muse, an otherworldly abstraction and object of desire, as he navigates the simultaneously desirous and oppressive, simultaneously digital and material world (read an excerpt here).
In April 2014, Pico published Absent Mindr, the first poetry chapbook available as an app for smart phones and tablets (read interviews with . It is no surprise that his first full-length publication also experiments in incorporating new technologies of communication with reading practices. As the title immediately invokes, IRL situates itself in the intersection of the poetic and the often-belittled text-speak. The poem is peppered with the language of cyberspace and other forms of shorthand that have taken on a history and meaning of their own. The language showcases both the richness and cutting irony of text-speak that often manifest at the same time. Not only does Pico incorporate text-speak into the poetry, but the language of texting becomes poetry — beautiful and rich within its own right.
The content of the poem grapples with the at times angering, at times guilt-inducing layers of desire, trauma, and bytes of data that comprise contemporary life and that refuse compartmentalization. Teebs navigates his position as a single, queer, indigenous poet in America living within a world that demands an ordering of those words despite a simultaneous experience and singular body. This world is just as populated with the overlapping of text messages, Grindr messages, Instagram DM’s as it is with the daily violent effects of colonization, racism, homophobia in the Hamptons, on the Rez, in Brooklyn, all alongside a textually-mediated awareness of broader global crises.
Artist Jenny Holzer’s famous truism claimed “All Things Are Delicately Interconnected.” Indeed, Pico’s poem explores the intensity, unavoidability, and depth of interconnection yet complicates a vision of delicacy, an ease of the connection. IRL in its winding, non-linear narrative and associative language enacts just how interconnected each aspect of Teebs’s life is, as is ours, and perhaps increasingly so through new forms of communication and exchange. But this interconnectivity is simultaneous yet fraught with tensions, pain, and even humor.
IRL denies the reader the luxury of easily parsed-out moments, memories, violences, and even words — nothing exists entirely singularly. Teebs feels anxious about responding to an intrusive DM on Instagram, a stream of intrusive comments on his queer body just trying to walk to the train, an intrusive colonizing narrative that violently erases Kumeyaay language and history, and an intrusive guilt about feeling subsumed by these intrusions while simultaneously conflicts in Syria and conflicts back on the rez echo through social media in ways that bring these issues both closer than ever and serve as a guilt-inducing reminder of Teeb’s distance.
Just as Teebs exists as the sum of his experiences, identities, interactions, and social media accounts, the words within Pico’s short lines mirror how Teebs occupies and moves around these spaces, their ever-muddling borders and boundaries. The playful language constructs simultaneously humorous punchlines and serious meditations on how the moral, emotional, and social spaces we occupy break open and into each other. The poem asks, “Was it Sontag /or Sonic the Hedgehog / who said just dash dodge/ weave faster than you/ can think” Indeed, in this poem there is no either/or dichotomy, only the multiple and often conflicting layers that comprise the whole. And who doesn’t both chuckle at the pun and ache at the truth of language broken apart and multivalent in a line such as “We are reaching clima- / te change” or “Money is not a- / mused”? The digitized, the pop culture, the intimate, the political, and the literary all bleed together, revealing the connective tissue of language that often is as confusing as it is humorous. It is there that the genius of Pico’s puns and language-play live and reveal their cultural, etymological, and aural associations. Pico showcases the associativity of language to create the landscape of the poem, which soars when exploring the connective tissue of thought and experience. And he isn’t afraid to throw a joke or (admittedly cheesy) pun into the mix — a rare treasure in poetry.
But Pico’s writing reminds us: there are limitations. We travel through the poem one word, one line at a time, we follow Teebs’ line of thought that — just like us — can move from thought to thought but can’t quite think two thoughts concurrently. The line of thought is like the line of poetry — it bleeds into what came before and what came next but it simply cannot contain everything at one. The man at the bar discusses the controversy over articles on Patricia Lockwood’s writing yet neglects to discuss an article on the crisis in Syria. How does one heal from the impact of ongoing colonial violences on indigenous people, of queer-bashing street harassment, of an unresponsive Muse, when all the while online there’s a buildup of notifications about what has happened with Kim Kardashian, with the Tea Party, for the lost Nigerian schoolgirls, in Ferguson. These moments within the poem speak to a truth about the accompanying anxiety, pain, and even guilt of our limitations within a certain time and space. But within this, Teebs speaks a glimmer of hope — the potential of poetry and perhaps even enacted within the poem:
I like to keep trying new
ways of being staked,
which gives me context
to yr outlet, the Internet.
We know wanting to die
isn’t the coup in Thailand
and Muse isn’t Syria,
or ebola, or Craq / de Chevalier.
At my best
I have the luxury
of speaking for my-
self. I becomes
It is the medium of the “I” that reveals to us the patchwork world of the 98 pages of IRL. The “I” embraces and interrogates the complexities of what it means to live in real life in the 21st century. There is simply so much packed into this poem, while the poem maintains an energy, power, and velocity that carries the reader through to the end. The poem offers a politically sincere and sincerely political meditation on desire, oppression, language, history, and technology without one-note cynicism or kitsch.
Last month, Ed Simon discussed which works might be considered American Epic Poetry. Pico’s debut is America’s epic poem-text message that scrutinizes America, poetry, and digital culture. Tommy Pico’s IRL is an intimate and powerful commingling of the personal and the political and isn’t afraid to crack a joke; it is the intimately epic poem we need.