When he became the New York Times’s chief film critic in 2004, A.O. Scott got one of the world’s great jobs at what was possibly the worst historical moment to have been so anointed. As a credentialed critic of the old, ex cathedra school, Scott is deeply out of step with his times. We live in an age in which opinion has been radically democratized by digital publishing, which means the professional has to shout louder than ever to be heard, a problem for which the Times’s enviable platform is only a partial solution. Institutional authority of all kinds has been on the run for almost 50 years in America, so Scott’s Harvard degree, his polished prose, and his intimidating cultural range -- in an imaginary dinner a deux, this writer does not make it through the appetizer course with him without confronting panicked feelings of inadequacy -- are not just unavailing but likely to create intractable resentment in many of his readers. And because we have become a society hungry to consume but paralytically reluctant to judge, one of the basic motives of the critic, to create taxonomies of value, has become suspect. This, then, is a rather defensive and sometimes irritable book, an act of muffled aggression by a man besieged and yet conscious of occupying a privileged position in the world. The immediate sources of Scott’s anxiety are three: (1) a Twitter attack by Samuel L. Jackson after Scott panned The Avengers; (2) a podcast in which late Times media critic David Carr mocked Scott’s pretentions to authority, to Scott’s obvious irritation; and (3) Scott Rudin’s full-page ad in the Times for Inside Llewyn Davis, consisting solely of a slightly edited version of a message Scott posted, apparently in a condition of dubious sobriety, on his Twitter account. That new media played a role in each of these events is perhaps not coincidental; every writer not grinding out listicles feels at least some ambivalence about digital culture, if only because it threatens to drive the market value of his output to zero. Better Living Through Criticism is a defense of the critic’s work, but it is also, at times, a history of taste, a reflection on digital culture, a spectacle of explication, and above all, a defense of the unenviable condition, in our youth-obsessed society, of being middle-aged -- that is, of having an aesthetic history. The book’s range of discussion sometimes feels like an abundance and at other times like a cheat, as though Scott failed in some measure to decide what book, exactly, he wanted to write -- a restiveness perhaps reflected in its larkish, off-putting title. Scott regards the impact of the Internet on criticism as largely negative, both because the Internet threatens the livelihood of professional critics ("Making a living...can no longer be taken for granted") and because the tendency of digital culture is to erode the distinctions upon which criticism rests ("The relationship between market value and other, less tangible and sometimes antithetical values -- of knowledge, beauty, originality, substance -- seems to be in danger of falling apart, and as a result the basic distinction between professional and amateur threatens to collapse as well."). Scott’s discussion is nuanced and fair, but still I think his account is too pessimistic. Some web-only publications already have supported the careers of excellent critics: Laura Miller of Salon and Slate; Kiese Laymon of Gawker and Guernica and his own blog, Cold Drank; the entire editorial enterprise of the Los Angeles Review of Books. And traditional media have greatly expanded their range through their websites. Tim Parks, for example, has produced a dazzling series of critical essays at NYRBlog, work that is of outstanding intellectual quality but that might not fit comfortably in the Review's print edition. The digital format need not be an impediment to seriousness; the medium is not necessarily the message. I do not take a Pollyanna, “let a thousand flowers bloom” view of these matters; the Internet has had a devastating effect on newspapers, for example, a form of journalism that I am old enough to remember. But its impact on criticism, I suspect, will be mixed. In any event, it is almost certainly too soon to tell. I also think Scott places too much emphasis on the pecuniary aspect of professionalism in criticism, at the expense of other, more important values. For a critic to make a middle-class living from her pen alone is no doubt gratifying, and a benefit to her dependents, but I do not think that it is crucial to the overall enterprise. James Wood and Nancy Franklin make a living as critics, as did Edmund Wilson in his day, but Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler lived off their faculty salaries, without any appreciable loss of vitality. If there is not as much good criticism coming out of the academy as one would like, we can blame Continental theory rather than declining pay. Professionalism is made of sterner stuff, one hopes: a commitment to a certain standard of discourse; thorough knowledge of one's subject; the cultivation of prose style. As a film critic, Scott confronts a medium that is sometimes art but always business. Since movies are very expensive to make, they must be consumer products, conceived, marketed, and exploited as such. A good commercial movie is the product of immense professional skill by the director, the editor, and others, work that is adjacent to art but is not quite art, that lacks a crucial dimension of motivation or purpose. Outstanding craft in the service of meretricious ends creates a complicated problem for the serious-minded critic. We know where Scott stands on this: for him, a critic is someone who stands athwart the publicity steamroller that is The Avengers saying "Stop." Indeed, one of our new duties in an age of relentless, all-pervading, and ever-more-sophisticated marketing is to develop strategies of resistance. This is not exactly the heroic endeavor that Iwo Jima was for our grandparents, but it is what we have available, and good critics give us the hermeneutic tools, the catapults and Molotov cocktails of that resistance. The case Scott makes in Better Living for the critic as counterweight to advertising and publicity is one of the strongest aspects of the book, a reminder of what rushes to fill the void when we lapse into critical lethargy. Scott casts the critic in heroic rather than prosaic terms, as a maker in his own right rather than an appreciator, and beholden finally only to his own taste. His desire to claim for criticism the respect and prestige accorded to artists, without which a critic is merely a kind of particularly unenterprising journalist, is understandable. But I do not think the critical enterprise is robbed of luster by acknowledging that the critic has duties to those responsible for the work under review that might be in tension with his own creative impulses, duties of accuracy and fairness, and more complexly, of good faith. Scott would not gainsay these duties for a moment, I am sure. But about the resolution of these competing drives -- the most basic of which might lie in the desire any critic sometimes feels to turn the occasion of the review toward his own aesthetic or political concerns rather than those of the director or author -- he has chosen to say very little here. That is a shame, because Scott as much as any critic does justice to all constituencies. Scott rarely refers directly to his own work in Better Living, a curious act of self-effacement for which, in my view, the payoff is inadequate. There are any number of interesting practical problems, upon which Scott is almost uniquely qualified to declaim, that go unaddressed. How, for example, does a newspaper critic confronted with writing multiple pieces per week on deadline avoid dullness, either of perception or of prose style? [T]he doling out of consumer advice inevitably drags the act of discrimination into the swamp of relativism. The good enough -- for this week’s paycheck or tomorrow’s edition -- becomes the enemy of the best, and the chances of discerning and communicating the lasting merit of a given book crumble under a mass of discourse. Scott himself seems to have conquered this problem, maintaining a consistently high level of thought and expression while being extraordinarily prolific. He has brought the 2,000-word essay-review nearly to the point of perfection; only a few critics have ever done it so well, and none to my knowledge that had to do it three times a week. He also regularly contributes long think pieces on film, books, and other matters cultural. But how? I am aware here of committing a basic sin of reviewing, which is to ask for some wholly different book than the one the author chose to write. In the course of Scott's career, which I have followed with interest, I have developed expectations about what he might do at book length, expectations that I am now holding against him. That is not entirely fair (though it is a risk attendant to being the “A” student that Scott perennially has been). For myself alone, then, Better Living is to some extent a story of missed opportunities. Part of the interest, but also part of the difficulty, of Better Living is that Scott never quite settles into a consistent tone. He seems to feel that his subject is one that cannot be attacked directly, so he tries a variety of strategies, careful exegesis combined with personal observation and witty dialogues. Given that he is a highbrow (a former PhD candidate in literature) in a middlebrow medium (newspapers) writing about a creative form (the movies) that frequently has the lowest of aspirations, a mix of registers in his prose is perhaps to be expected. But one also senses some basic, unresolved ambivalence, a tension created by the confrontation between a scholarly temperament and a world of hot takes -- indeed, that tension is, in a sense, the motive for the book. The author of Better Living seems like a man torn between a personal culture that says sublimate, sublimate, sublimate and a national culture that rewards acting out. What to do with all that ego? Scott is a fine and scrupulous writer of prose. His exegetical skills are formidable. His culture is broad. He can give you a breezy account of European art history across four centuries; he can also tell you how the movie business works right now. He effortlessly parses T.S. Eliot and Immanuel Kant and Ratatouille. At times, though, one feels the conflict between the Scott who wants to make a grand gesture of self-assertion and the one who, after Eliot, seeks in art an escape from personality. Better Living wants to be a defense of traditional critical values, but tradition, as Scott well knows, has a rather bad name these days, and he is too canny, too much the common room politician, to get caught defending the arrière-garde. I would have been more gratified by a fuller-throated defense of the elitist view, not because that is the only defensible position, but because I would have felt that I was hearing what the most inward A.O. Scott truly believes. Instead one feels that a Prufrockian scrim of prudence and deference and good manners has been inserted between the writer and his audience. This is not to say that Scott should seek a more informal or democratic style; indeed, the casual, demotic voice to which he occasionally succumbs seems to me his least successful. And Scott is not, after all, Prufrock; he does dare, several times a week, often to great effect. But I would like to see him dare even more greatly. The great works of cultural criticism that he admires -- White Collar; The Culture of Narcissism; On Native Grounds; Love and Death in the American Novel -- are all touched by grandiosity. Scott has the resources to achieve something at that level. But he might have to risk a confrontation with his Times audience to do it.
Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old -- a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea -- to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style. Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism. 1. She Is a Cautionary Tale Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both. 2. She Was Right About The New Yorker -- Before She Was Wrong Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?” Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today -- a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age? 3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse -- to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books. In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s: [T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false. “Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons -- for whom Adler also has no great regard -- was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity. The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives -- which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials -- is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure. “Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally -- and this has served her well and at times not so well -- her capacity for indignation. Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold -- if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway? One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great. 4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly: There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots...Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor. Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now. I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission -- some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it. And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf -- and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove. This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda -- that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended: Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment -- the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant. 5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard -- qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose. 6. Her Work Was Made to Last Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times's handling of the Jayson Blair affair: [T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon -- a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform. In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them. “After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.
1. In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism -- by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike -- that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match. Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics. Here is Scott in a recent Times essay: Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad -- something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us...Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth. This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent. Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little "pushed," in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support. My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead. 2. The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made: For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium. Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of '88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten -- so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form. There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism -- the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it -- the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon. On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought. Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay "Masscult and Midpoint" finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards. 3. American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example. Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China -- a sort of dramatist of state repression -- but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone. A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to "take on" the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it. The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer's mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. "An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence" is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; "a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union" is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual's destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy. However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to "tell the truth" about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family's life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both. I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough? Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: "Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like." Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness. Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right -- and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel -- Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago -- is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war -- which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always -- but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace. 4. If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale -- national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate -- then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be "scaled up:" a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen's earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen's politics than whether Franzen's attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate. Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as "a masterpiece of American fiction;" B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader's Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it "a monument to insignificance." Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author's politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern -- chacun â son gout, after all -- but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem. Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom's Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel -- only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates. Amy Waldman's The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks. The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman's model was clearly Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe's call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author. Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose. 5. Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author's meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel's purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect. In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do. Taken more broadly, however, Scott's recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic's equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. "Doing better" might start with demanding art that demands more of us. Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa
1. It may seem counterintuitive to claim that a writer as abundantly praised and rewarded as Joshua Ferris has been misunderstood and even ill-served by reviewers. Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came To The End (2007), was immediately heralded in the New Yorker (“A masterwork of pitch and tone”), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and by the graded-on-a-curve standards applied to literary fiction, was a rousing commercial success. His two subsequent novels, The Unnamed (2010) and To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (2014), have also received mostly positive reviews (To Rise Again is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize) and have sold well. He has been interviewed and handsomely photographed at the website of the luxury retailer, Mr. Porter, by Interview, and by Vanity Fair. He is not yet 40 years old. Even amid the laurels, however, there has been a degree of interpretive failure, a misunderstanding of the kind of writer Ferris is and of the large scale of his ambition. Ferris set out from the UC-Irvine MFA program (whose other alumni include Richard Ford and Michael Chabon) in 2003 with at least three major advantages over most young writers on the make. First, and most obviously, he has very unusual linguistic ability, a quality necessary but generally not sufficient to distinction; he is a gifted literary “athlete.” Second, while others dither, Ferris seems to have a strong conviction in the potency of the novel as a genre, one capable of accommodating both the largest philosophical concerns and close, the-way-we-live-now observation under the same roof; possessing that conviction, Ferris by all accounts works very hard at his writing. Finally, Ferris has a strong sense of his subject matter, or rather, several interrelated matters: the very large place of business in American life; the role of technology, particularly in its more pernicious effects; and the social isolation and loss of a sense of the commonweal that have been among the byproducts of our digital abundance. He is not the only name-brand writer working this patch of ground; Don DeLillo is an obvious forebear, as Ferris has noted in interviews, but Ferris is less wised-up than DeLillo, more willing to risk sentimentality. For DeLillo, there is no escape from the prison-house of modern life; Ferris is still trying all the doors. Ferris makes a strong demand upon his readers, but that demand is not principally syntactic. He is not a particularly ambitious prose stylist, though he is a very precise and controlled one. He is not generally given to lyricism or otherwise heightened language. He abjures “fine writing” in the usual sense, merging his syntax entirely with his narrative aims. He is therefore not particularly quotable, but he does cultivate a certain strangeness, a tendency to wrong foot the reader through the sudden introduction of a grotesque or perverse element. Like Jonathan Franzen, he has a strong prescriptivist streak about which it does not occur to him to be embarrassed. He uses humor to leaven what gradually emerges as a rather severe Emersonian message about the state of the American soul in the consumer age. He really does want you to put away your iPhone—no kidding. 2. The lives of office workers seem to lend themselves more easily to comedy than to drama, perhaps because so little is at stake. Ferris starts with the comedy in his first novel, Then We Came To The End, set in a mid-sized Chicago advertising agency that is rapidly circling the drain. The agency’s employees are slowly driven to the brink of madness by serial rounds of layoffs. Confronted with the possibility that they will be ejected from the middle class, they become selfish and scheming, almost feral in their desire to cling to an office identity that they probably never consciously sought but that they now suspect they would suffer hideously without. Ferris wrings his laughs from his cubicle-dwellers’ fear of their bosses and their livid hatred of one another. Ferris's advertising "creatives" are funny and pathetic because of their helplessness, not in the sense of their being victims but rather of their being unable to escape themselves. Moment by moment, they confess their pettiness and self-regard. How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into our new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds. There seemed to be only one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place. Comedy is the first dominant note, but comedy's pressure on personality creates fissures through which notes of stasis and despair soon begin to appear. An older worker dies, leaving behind in his colleagues vaguely valedictory feelings but little in the way of specific recollections. One terminated employee continues to sneak into the office to work on his resume. Another unravels spectacularly, seeming to threaten violence against those who remain. This latter character serves roughly the same narrative function as John Givings in Revolutionary Road (a novel Ferris admires), the madman who is also a purveyor of uncomfortable truths about the way the others live. The news is not good. It would not be quite accurate to say that Ferris belongs, with Vonnegut or Heller, to the black comedy genre. In those writers, the comic and the tragic sensibilities have fused into a single characteristic tone. This may be why Vonnegut and Heller wear on some readers; they play the same chord over and over, albeit with brilliant variations. In Ferris, by contrast, the comic and the tragic are competing motifs, locked in internecine conflict. Sometimes they negotiate an uneasy peace, and coexist rancorously for a few pages like Balkan neighbors. But that peace is not an equilibrium, and in Ferris, the tragic finally triumphs. Then We Came is partly a triumph of technique. It is an extraordinarily disciplined piece of fiction for a writer so young. The creation of any novel involves the construction of limits, experiential, expressive, and syntactic; a novelist seeks islands of refuge within the vast sea of experience. In his first novel, Ferris dwells upon a very small island indeed. The principal limitation he imposes on himself is the use of the first person plural, which he departs from only in a crucial middle section (which Ferris has called "the heart of the novel") rendered from the point of view of a woman facing breast cancer surgery alone, rifling through her inner resources like a burglar. What she finds there is: not much. The use of "we" creates a fascinating tension in a novel whose principal theme seems to be the trap of corporate identity. Work relationships for Ferris have a certain urgency, but they are not real. We know they are not real because they do not survive an employee's departure from the business; it is therefore the corporation that has decided they should end. Ferris is very much concerned with how we come to have a self, or sadly fail to do so, and his conception of the self is finally rather traditional. In his work, the near at hand and the authentic rarely coincide. Being a person rather than a nexus of consumer messages is hard work, and there is risk involved, and probably a good deal of reading. Digital culture is one of his subjects, but Ferris is analog all the way. 3. The lukewarm reception afforded Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, may one day be regarded with puzzlement. Like Sandy Bates, the alienated filmmaker in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories whose fans love his "early, funny" movies best, Ferris made the unforgivable error of setting up expectations with Then We Came that he then declined to fulfill in his subsequent work. The Unnamed asks a great deal of its readers—asks them, in effect, to suffer alongside its central character, Tim Farnsworth—and some critics seemed to find such a demand impertinent coming from a writer whom they thought of as acidly comic, a Ricky Gervais of the printed word. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that despite the basic comic mode of Then We Came, Ferris is a very self-serious young novelist. That novel’s dark subtext was not well apprehended even by reviewers who raved about the book, and this partial interpretive failure as to Ferris's first novel created the conditions for a more comprehensive failure as to his second. Tim Farnsworth is a hard-charging Manhattan corporate litigator, a handsome, overworked middle-aged man whose identity is tied to the profession at which he excels and that he seems to find almost embarrassingly gratifying. He is happily married, and he wishes to be a good husband and father using what little of his time his legal practice leaves him. And then one day, carried by an impulse he neither understands nor can control, he walks out of his office, leaving behind an important client. He is a case for the medical journals, the victim of an idiopathic illness, which is to say one that puzzles even the most expensive specialists. He is fitted for a helmet intended to isolate his neurological disturbance (it does not). His illness abates and then recurs, and each time the compulsion is more ungovernable. He loses his law practice, and then his home; he becomes a vagabond with an American Express card, walking for days until he falls into fathomless sleep, frequently dirty, sometimes incoherent, making a hobo’s tour of America. His wife, Jane, keeps the phone under her pillow, drives the Mercedes through the night to retrieve him when he calls, exhorts him to carry on. Gradually he is driven from the family of man almost entirely; he loses his fingers to frostbite, his sanity to the shock of his circumstances. Finally, he seems to give up entirely. His wife and daughter are left to go on without him. More than this cannot be said, except that they are eventually reunited, albeit only briefly. Tim and Jane Farnsworth continue to cling to each other long past the point when reason, not to mention the intensity of their suffering, should have pulled them apart. They have the kind of us-against-the-world marriage that all of us want but almost no one actually has. This in spite of the fact that Jane is generally quite clear-eyed about her husband, even in health, and realistic about what his progressive illness means for their chances of recapturing the charmed life they once knew. Was she up for this? She lay in bed under the covers, her breath visible in the slant moonlight. Really up for it? The long matrimonial haul was accomplished in cycles. One cycle of bad breath, one cycle of renewed desire, a third cycle of breakdown and small avoidances, still another of plays and dinners that spurred a conversation between them late at night that reminded her of their like minds and the pleasure they took in each other’s talk. And then back to hating him for not taking out the garbage on Wednesday. That was the struggle. Sickness and death, caretaking, the martyrdom of matrimony—that was fluff stuff. When the vows kick in, you don’t even blink. You just do. She had to be up for it. Jane Farnsworth seems at first to be a type, someone we might see coming out of Lincoln Center in a gown, the lady of a certain age, who knows how to wear jewelry: the elegant wife of one of the princes of Manhattan’s corporate and professional world. In some ways, Jane plays to type. When Tim loses his partnership, Jane gets her real estate license and starts selling co-ops: the expected career for an expensively educated woman without meaningful work experience. And she goes through a period of drinking too much white wine, which is even the expected brand of alcoholism for her socioeconomic status. But Jane is both smarter and less complacent than one might expect, and she turns out to have unexpected inner resources. She keeps alive a memory of her life with Tim that has nothing to do with the gown or the Mercedes. It turns out that in addition to expounding the aridities of professional life, The Unnamed is also, improbably, a love story. The Unnamed is daring in its reliance on a book-length metaphor, that of Tim Farnsworth’s unexplained illness, that must be left somewhat indeterminate. The readily available interpretation is that Tim’s walking compulsion has a spiritual rather than physical etiology. Like the female executive in Then We Came, he is outwardly successful but inwardly incomplete. In the service of his law career, he has forsaken his irreducible human complexity and come to think of himself only as a warrior. By thus betraying his own nature, he has become a stranger to his family and to some degree to himself. And finally his spirit has rebelled, asserting itself through the body because that is the only strategy it has left. This account is too neat in many respects, but there does not seem to be much question that we are meant to connect Tim’s motor compulsion to a suppressed inner turmoil. But Tim’s suffering is also something of a mystery, a Job-like afflicting of a man who has been to some extent absent from his own life but who remains basically decent. The novel invites us to project our own anxieties onto the story of his fall, a strategy not without risk. It is difficult to say exactly why this approach succeeds—why it does not seem like an abdication of a novelist’s creative duty to know everything about his characters. Ferris must have contemplated saying more, and one can imagine discarded drafts that make his intended meaning more plain. In this and in other respects, The Unnamed invokes Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the Wall Street law clerk of an earlier era whose sudden, unexplained refusal to perform his job after many years of loyal service to his employer haunted that employer and has unsettled readers for a century and a half. It happens that I worked with Ferris's wife, Elizabeth Kennedy, at the Manhattan law firm that Ferris drew upon to create Tim Farnsworth's professional world. (I admired Kennedy’s talent as a lawyer, but we were not friends, and I do not know Ferris. Kennedy has since left the law and published a novel of her own.) This gives me no special insight into Ferris's work, since "Troyer, Barr" is not the Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP where Kennedy and I worked, not the serious professional enterprise that takes up expensive commercial office space in New York and London, but a place of the writer's imagination (even if a few stock Cravath anecdotes have been borrowed and repurposed). But my acquaintance with Troyer, Barr's storied antecedent did cause me to think about the way writers metabolize experience and render it heightened, refined, and purposive on the page in the way that life rarely is. Ferris invokes the world of a white shoe Manhattan law firm in a relatively small number of decisive strokes, the way Daumier did the Paris bar, swiftly but indelibly, with tolerance enough but without sentiment. Another writer might have given us several knowing paragraphs on the Janus-faced relations between the partners; on the process by which students are selected from the top law schools to join the firm; or on the provenance of the art hanging on the walls, or the woods and lacquers used in the bespoke conference room tables on the top floors. Ferris surely knows all about these things. But he also knows something more, something better. He inhabits his fictional firm rather than describing it from the outside. He knows what a novelist knows. 4. Ferris’s most recent novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, is like The Unnamed in that it layers over a recognizable social setting a small but pervasive strangeness, disturbing the settled life of a man who has achieved (if that is the right word) a privileged and complacent life. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Manhattan dentist with a good practice and no family. He is an overachiever, a grind, a man of little social instinct and almost as little feeling. He finds himself at first annoyed, and then more and more disturbed, by a curious phenomenon: someone has created a website that purports to belong to his dental practice. This website is conventional in form, but it begins to feature cabalistic writings that, after an increasingly fevered investigation, O’Rourke finally connects to a shadowy religious movement. The movement’s representatives claim that O’Rourke is one of them—that he can trace his roots to an ancient people called the Ulms, who conceive of themselves as uniquely chosen to fulfill a Biblical destiny. O’Rourke is drawn deeper into their network, meeting a prominent and charismatic hedge fund manager who is also among the elect. O’Rourke never quite relinquishes his skepticism of the Ulms, but his equilibrium is definitely disturbed and in some way he finds himself awakened. In the end, however, the Ulms disappear much the way that they came, and O’Rourke is thrown back on himself. As in The Unnamed, the metaphysical mystery remains unsolved. Initially, To Rise Again seems burdened by a weakness of voice, surprising in that Ferris's prior novels showed such extraordinary command of voice, indeed were built in large part on that single virtuosic ability. But the muffled quality of the narration in the first 100 pages of To Rise Again turns out to be not a technical failure but a strategic choice. Each Ferris novel is characterized by a doubled sense of arrival or becoming; we know that Ferris must resolve his plot, but there is also a secondary mystery, that of how he will write his way out of some technical quandary to which, Houdini-like, he has voluntarily submitted. In Then We Came To The End, it was his much-remarked use of the first person plural; in The Unnamed, it was giving Tim Farnsworth an illness that had to be specific and devastating in its effects but remain vague in its etiology, and to make of this vagueness a strength, an interpretive enlargement, rather than something that wears away the reader's affection. In making the narrator of To Rise Again unredeemably dull, Ferris sets up a different problem: how to write a compelling novel about a man who is not compelling even to himself. In Paul O'Rourke, Ferris deliberately gives us a man worn smooth by convention—a man who is no one in particular. Of course, in life many of us are no one in particular, are merely a collection of second hand attitudes and weakly motivated affections. But in fiction it is the convention to emphasize what is most telling and authentic in character, which is largely what makes the characters in a novel paradoxically so much more vivid than the people we encounter in life. It is tempting to say that O’Rourke is depressed, but it is more accurate to say that he is soul-sick in a way that clinical psychology does not have a term for – and this seems to be Ferris’s project as a writer, to develop that vocabulary and also, perhaps, to gesture toward a cure. It might also be said that Paul O'Rourke is an empty vessel by narrative necessity and that the story of To Rise Again is that of his being filled, briefly, by a species of alluring, Scientology-like cabalistic nonsense, only to find himself empty again at the end when the illusion fades. Such a fate can only befall a protagonist who begins in a condition of spiritual emptiness. It so happens that Joshua Ferris has diagnosed this condition in many of his fellow Americans, which is what gives his work much of its motivation and its urgency. To Rise Again also displays Ferris’ cultivated hostility to digital culture, about which he has commented publicly and which is real enough. It would be a mistake, however, to over-read this element of his critique of contemporary culture and to turn him into a McLuhan figure. Technology in Ferris is a telling symptom, even a kind of signature trait, but it is not the disease itself. Facebook may provide an at-hand means of escaping our broader ethical responsibilities, but the urge to escape is not new. For Ferris, the most humane act is listening, and this is the thing his characters are most tellingly unable to do. Because they are unable to listen, to attend to others, they cannot know them; because they cannot know the people around them, they are essentially alone; and being, despite their inability to listen, basically social creatures, they suffer in their isolation. But their suffering is not Mark Zuckerberg’s responsibility, and in any event he does not care. 5. Ferris inhabits the genre of the novel as few writers do, even very good ones. It is always tempting, perhaps especially for the ambitious novelist, to resort to devices that seem to deliver the message more efficiently: the embedded essay; the set piece character introduction; extended exposition. Ferris diligently resists all of these temptations, preferring to work almost constantly at the intersection of character and narrative, with dialogue and action thus doubly motivated. Another way to say this is that Ferris believes absolutely in the plasticity of the novel, its unique work as a genre. He is not looking for a way out. Like Wallace and Franzen, Ferris is rooted in the Midwest, and he dwells rhetorically within the culture of the American middle even as he satirizes it. At the same time, the virtues he seems prepared to endorse are not those of our blighted contemporaneity but older, possibly even mythological American virtues: self-reliance, the dignity of work (of the proper sort), the authenticity of unmediated experience. He pointedly rejects religion, but he sometimes talks like a preacher, and his prophecy is dark. For Ferris, our culture is full of traps and lures; what is sold to us with the cant of spontaneity and free expression is gradually revealed to be ersatz and despair-inducing, just a way of separating us from our money. Our desire for belonging is ruthlessly exploited; our wanting makes us vulnerable, and our love makes us weak. Ferris is often a very funny writer, but the paradox of his work is that if you laugh too long, you may miss the fact that the joke of our cultural moment is on us all. Resistance is imperative. If Ferris’s art has lacked anything it has only been a sense of scale. To date he has been a kind of “domestic” novelist, albeit an especially compelling one. Of course, the domestic novel can sometimes throw into relief the very largest human questions, and there is no doubt that Ferris regards these as his proper quarry, or that certain of them—including what it might mean to have a soul, and whether the concept of the soul can have any meaning in the absence of God—have always lay beneath the sometimes antic surface of his narratives. Ferris has deliberately chosen to work within a small frame, which highlights his gifts of linguistic discipline and narrative economy but threatens now to constrain his vision. A sprawling, socially ambitious book, even a putative failure, written in a new register or multiple registers, might be the best possible next move for him. To risk sentimentality, or imprecision or vagueness of expression—to reach for slightly more than he can grasp—may be anathema to the author of so austere and unyielding a novel as The Unnamed. But the rewards, whether harvested now or later as the result of some fuller maturity, could be immense. A writer of Ferris’s talent and conviction appears only rarely. That the fullest realization of that talent be achieved matters greatly, insofar as the American novel matters at all.
1. John Updike surely had the most enviable career in postwar American letters. He was published early, in the place where he most sought acceptance, and his talent was recognized, remarked, and encouraged at every stage. He seems never to have labored outside his writerly vocation, and almost everything he ever wrote found a home. Self-doubt seems rarely to have visited him. As a writer of prose, his efficiency and durability over more than five decades were almost disconcerting. He was likewise at ease in the social world, despite a mild stammer. He negotiated the transition from rural Pennsylvania to Harvard with little strain, and from there the Lampoon, The New Yorker, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, vaulting almost carelessly from honor to roseate honor. For a man who jealously guarded his selfhood, he was to a surprising extent an institutional man, one who spent half a century associated with a single magazine (The New Yorker) and, after a false start, a single publisher (Knopf). Tall, attractive, affably wolfish, he also negotiated his way into the beds of many women, and reported back to us on what he found there, the sexual revolution in situ. He was divorced, suffered hostile reviews, endured bouts of psoriasis. But for the most part, John Updike’s life was an embarrassment of riches, as his genial but also slightly smirky public manner attested. Miraculously, the lapidary Updike style seemed to arrive fully formed, as evidenced in his much-anthologized New Yorker piece about Ted Williams's final game at Fenway Park, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," published when Updike was 28-years-old: the effortless phrase making ("a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark"); the revelation of beauty nested within the ordinary; the final flourish that enacts the very phenomenon it describes ("So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit."). Like Williams, Updike was something of a remote god, if a largely benevolent one. He would not pretend to find writing, or his own passage through life, arduous. In an interview given shortly before he died, he observed of the fin de siécle salon painter John Singer Sargent (like Updike -- and Williams -- a prodigy), "We're drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do, and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort. We don't really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look easy." These observations are shadowed by our knowledge of Updike’s relationship with his own readers, the sense that some final measure of love was withheld on both sides. 2. Updike died in 2009, and the public man of interviews and graduation speeches still seems to wait just offstage. This creates a problem of critical distance that is especially acute for Adam Begley, to whom Updike was also vivid in a more personal way, as a family friend. A second generation Harvard man, the son of the Wall Street lawyer-turned-novelist Louis Begley (like Updike, Harvard ’54), Begley knows the social and cultural terrain of Updike's adult life well, and he renders Updike’s years at Harvard and The New Yorker of the Shawn period with authority. Begley also reconstructs the physical, familial, and psychological terrain of Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood with subtlety and care, drawing connections between the writer’s family life and earliest aspirations without succumbing to a reductive determinism. Begley provides a clear and sympathetic portrait of Updike’s mother, the dominating presence of his early life and herself an aspiring writer, and he persuasively identifies the pivotal moment when Updike, as a Harvard freshman, began the gentle but decisive separation from her that allowed him to move unfettered toward adulthood. Begley knows that ultimately -- as John O’Hara (born Pottsville, Penn., 1905 -- and a special Updike favorite) put it -- an artist is his own fault. The biographer who renders a persuasive portrait of the artist’s evolution to age thirty does a good deal — perhaps most of what needs to be done. But Updike loses energy in its second half, as questions both critical and biographical are raised that Begley seems reluctant to take on. Remarkably, he says far too little about Updike’s prose style, assuring us only that it is brilliant. This is a crucial omission. Updike’s style is one of the most singular in postwar American fiction, an instrument both powerful and subtle, and the experience of reading Updike is defined by the contours of that style. If you are going to make major claims for Updike as a writer, as Begley wishes to do, you must show how Updike’s style and his cosmology correspond, and you must give an account of the effects that style produces. Begley has been writing literary journalism for two decades, much of it of high quality. Surely one of the advantages of having a critic of his range do this job rather than a professional biographer would be that the critic is likely to be sensitive to questions of form and possess the vocabulary to talk about them. Begley had the resources and, one would think, the mandate to attempt a significant exploration. His reticence is puzzling, and it has to be counted as a missed opportunity. There was always a countercurrent of negative critical feeling about Updike, beginning with Orville Prescott’s scolding February 1963 review of The Centaur in The New York Times (“it contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary”) and gathering momentum in recent years as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and James Wood all published lengthy repudiations. Franzen and Wallace’s criticisms might be written off in part as Bloomian filial agon, but Wood’s sustained attack is a more serious blight on Updike’s reputation, both because Wood is so skilled a critic and because what he values most in fiction -- a strong visual sense, figurative vigor, a complex philosophical substructure -- are things Updike is generally thought to provide in abundance. Begley largely sidesteps Wood’s increasingly pointed demurrals, perhaps in the name of letting the work speak for itself. It is true that in the long run the best of Updike’s work -- the Rabbit novels, In the Beauty of the Lillies, The Collected Stories -- will survive, or not, largely without regard to the current critical debate. Still, Begley does not serve Updike or his readers well by wishing that debate away. Updike was a prolific and talented reviewer and essayist, but his conception of the critic’s work is a modest one; he believed that critical work, his own not excepted, was necessarily for lesser stakes than the work of the artist himself. Begley seems to share his subject’s view that critics, like children, are to be seen but not heard. In his March 2009 review of Cheever, Blake Bailey’s celebrated biography of a writer Updike greatly admired and whose thematic concerns he shared, Begley expresses admiration for Bailey’s research (“impeccable and exhaustive”) and his assessment of Cheever’s writing (“judicious and nuanced”), but he regrets that Bailey gave the more sordid aspects of Cheever’s life -- his alcoholism, his sexual confusion, and his self-loathing -- such fulsome treatment. Begley’s judgment here seems to have as much to do with manners as with literature; he seems to feel not only that knowing the facts of Cheever’s erotic life does not help us understand Cheever’s work, but that to discuss them is somehow bad form. But Bailey, unlike Begley, is an immodest critic, one who has sought to create works of expressive power and to achieve himself the status of a literary artist. The two views are finally irreconcilable. It is true that a literary biographer must maintain some ultimate measure of respect for his subject, if only because the work compels it even if the life does not. A biography that dwelled too long on Updike's marital infidelities, his weaker books, his occasional prickliness would risk both missing the point of the life entirely and burying the work beneath that life’s contingencies. James Atlas’s unaccountably hostile Bellow, an exemplar of the adversarial school of biography, sometimes does just that (though there is much in Bellow that is good, and Atlas deals with Bellow’s own vivid style at length). But in order to undermine the stronger possible criticisms of Updike, you must at least appear to have given them a fair hearing. Begley pulls his punches too often as to both the writer and his critics, with the unintended effect of draining some measure of interest from the subject. He has achieved a remarkable negative feat; Updike is so discreet and equable that after 500 pages it leaves the world, in terms of Updike’s reputation, just as it found it. 3. Despite his loving attention to quotidian detail of a specifically American character, John Updike is a quintessentially cool writer. Through his technical mastery, he always wished to move the reader just a bit more than he had been moved himself. Like Ted Williams, he sought self-sufficiency even as he sought public acknowledgement. Like his wayward but ennobled hero Rabbit Angstrom, Updike stands for the irreducible, irrepressible self, that kernel of being that may be bartered only at enormous spiritual cost. Like Sargent and Williams, Updike has been made to suffer for his self-sufficiency. What will become of his posthumous reputation, whether he will have a community of readers at all in fifty years, or in twenty-five, still feels very much like an open question. Several lovely encomia followed his death: Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker ("one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American since Henry James to get himself fully expressed"); Julian Barnes in The Guardian ("the Rabbit quartet was the best American novel of the postwar period"); Ian McEwan in the New York Review ("American letters ... is a leveled plain.") Despite these prominent champions, Updike is deeply unfashionable just now. This cultural moment, with its peaking anxieties about gender and privilege, does not belong to him. Adam Begley seems to have hoped to contribute to an Updike revival, but his curiously diffident biography preaches only to the choir.
Willa Cather did not want her letters published, ever. She could not have been clearer or more emphatic on this point. There is, then, a respectable argument that Selected Letters should not be in the world, inasmuch as its publication does violence to the wishes of the very author whose legacy this book’s editors purport to serve. I am inclined to disagree with that argument, but I find it impossible to state the affirmative case for posthumous publication of letters and unfinished texts in terms I would care to defend. The facts of each case are so stubbornly different. To the publication of Fitzgerald's The Love of the Last Tycoon one is inclined to say "Yes;" to the publication of Hemingway's True at First Light one is inclined to say "No." Critical scruples are likely beside the point, in any event. Where there is a market for publication, publication will eventually occur; that is the inexorable commercial logic. One simply wishes it to be done well rather than ill. The Willa Cather Trust is unusual among such bodies in that its decisions regarding the disposition of Cather's remnants are made with substantial scholarly input. Here the trustees chose their editors well. Janis Stout is the author of perhaps the best conventional Cather biography (Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World), and Andrew Jewell is the keeper of the substantial Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Stout and Jewell undertook a considerable task of selection, and they seem to have been content to let the letters that survived their winnowing process stand largely on their own. Perhaps they could have done more to place the letters in relief against Cather's contemporaneous work and the signal events of her life. But they could also have done more harm, through either persistent intrusion or stubborn over-reading of the letters. Their understated approach mitigates any insult to Cather's privacy done by the choice to publish. This volume comes 18 years after Joan Acocella's lacerating New Yorker essay, "Cather and the Academy" (later published in book form as Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism, which resolved certain conflicts within Cather studies the same way the atomic bomb ended World War II: by destroying one side's ability to fight. Acocella, herself a feminist and critic of strong conviction, took on the feminist and queer critics in the Cather field, accusing them of shrillness, tone deafness, and ultimately bad faith. These charges stuck, and subsequent readings of Cather have returned to core principles of literary criticism -- which is to say they have returned to the texts. Cather was one of nature's miracles, possessed from an early age of an unaccountable conviction that she was meant for something. Yes, she was female, and she lived in Nebraska. The world of letters was a long way away in every sense. Cather could not have been unaware of these facts. But as Acocella puts it, Cather simply opened the door to artistic freedom and walked through it. Seeing that there was a door was Cather's first and greatest feat of imagination. For several centuries of women that had preceded her, there had only been a brick wall, extending in either direction as far as the eye could see. But at the same time that Virginia Woolf labored heroically to give expression to a female artist's entitlement, Cather simply assumed it. Another striking thing about Cather as a social being is how little anxiety she appears to have had about status and class, even while rising vertiginously from rural obscurity to warm correspondences with H.L. Mencken, Alfred Knopf, and Sinclair Lewis. She wrote to these "great men" (and some great women, too; Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, was a frequent correspondent) without anxiety, in her own voice, without wheedling or special pleading, displaying an intelligent ease, and her correspondents replied in kind. One is tempted to say that as a woman from Red Cloud, Nebraska, she was so much an outsider as to be free of the more complex and intractable concerns about status from which another young writer, at least mildly acquainted with the "literary" world, might have suffered. But Red Cloud, like any other place, had its hierarchy of name, wealth, and manners, and Cather's early correspondence demonstrates that she was both attuned to it and respectful of it. Cather was a radical, but she remained a bourgeois radical, keeping the good manners with which she was brought up. The form and meaning of Cather's radicalism have been a source of scholarly debate, even discomfort. In style she was avant-garde, but her relation to American modernism was complex and at times even fraught. She claimed enormous personal freedom for herself, and in her writing she depicted the achievement of that freedom for women artists and what it cost them. But her cotton shirtwaist pressed against no barricades. For Cather, freedom was fundamentally an individual rather than a collective project. This stance has been unsatisfactory to some contemporary critics who would prefer to make of her a martyr-activist. Cather’s letters of 1922 shed light on a difficult episode in her career, which came with the publication of her World War I novel, One of Ours, in which a Nebraska farm boy dies in the fields of France feeling that he has given his life “for an idea.” Cather's rare anxiety about what she had written is confirmed here in a letter to H.L. Mencken, whose opinion she knew would be pivotal to the book's reception. The novel, she told Mencken, was one young man's story, and only that, and should not be read as standing for the experience of an entire generation that went to the trenches. Cather well knew that the prevailing narrative of the war among writers who saw action at the front was otherwise. Mencken, Hemingway, and others savaged One of Ours as the work of a genteel lady novelist, and the book remains one of Cather's least admired, defended only for its early scenes set in her familiar Nebraska. From the beginning Cather conceived of her artistic project as that of recording the history of a vanishing way of life, a life that once gone would be gone forever. She set herself up very early as a spiritual archivist of sorts, and her work is full of omens of decline and obsolescence. Even a spiritually resolute novel like Death Comes For The Archbishop is suffused with sadness for something lost. Yet Cather is the least sentimental of artists. One of her most striking scenes comes in My Antonia when a hobo commits suicide by throwing himself into a grain thresher. The thresher, a potent symbol of the coming machine society, makes of the hobo what the values of that society would do to the Bohemian farmers of Cather's youth. If the crucial inflection point of modernity for the next generation of writers was the war, for Cather that point came somewhat earlier, as the farmer's relation to the land was changed by mechanization and commercialization in the 1890s. Reading these letters is satisfying in that they tend to confirm our basic sense of Cather as an artist and a consciousness. The "Aunt Willie" of later years is the same woman who wrote O Pioneers! and The Professor's House. An integrated and abundantly healthy personality is at hand. This is not say, of course, that Cather lived an entirely happy life. The end for her was lonely, as it is for most people. She perhaps felt that she had received somewhat less than her due, as most of us feel at one time or another. But she had her life, as many of us never do, and against considerable odds. Cather was not a modest woman. She knew very well what she was and saw no reason to dissemble. But she was also content to let her work speak for itself. This is another sense in which she speaks to us across a large cultural divide. She preceded the age of publicity, and the idea that the personal is political would have seemed to her both foolish and naïve. She died a New Yorker and a devotee of the Metropolitan Opera, but her values were always those of yeomanry, of Red Cloud. Like well-made furniture, her novels strengthen with age, taking on the character of their absent maker. Her reputation is not the largest in American letters, but at this moment it appears to be one of the sturdiest.
From its modern origins in eighteenth-century London, the sport of boxing has generally engaged the working class, titillated the upper class, and horrified the bien pensant middle class. Movements have arisen at regular intervals to regulate it, to reform it, even to ban it. To its critics, it is as persistent and as worrisome a social phenomenon as prostitution; and indeed, being a very direct way for poor young men to make use of their bodies, it is a kind of masculine cognate for the female sex trade. The more sympathetic view is that boxing is ugly but necessary. Great boxers, like the great courtesans, have in their physical blatancy been recognized as providing a kind of hygienic service, a reminder of our fleshly origins, to modern societies otherwise clotted with hypocrisy and cant. Boxing stands apart from other sports. As boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas is fond of observing, one plays baseball, basketball, and even football, but one does not "play" boxing. The fight game appeals simultaneously to our hunger for authenticity and our tendency to mythologize. When it comes to boxing, the boys'-story tropes of conventional sportswriting will not serve; to capture what is at stake in the ring, we need reference to the more vital discourses of art. It is the boxer in his symbolic role within Anglo-American culture that engages Kasia Boddy, lecturer in English at University College, London and author of Boxing: A Cultural History, an encyclopedic account of the shifting use that painters, poets, novelists, and filmmakers have made of fighters through the years. In both its syntax and its emphasis on situating fighters within shifting notions of race, class, and gender ("Drawing variously on aesthetic, entrepreneurial, religious and therapeutic discourses, the aims and ambitions of late sixties and early seventies black cultural nationalism were constantly being debated and reformulated"), Boxing: A Cultural History, is markedly the work of a contemporary academic. It is also, by contrast, the work of a cultural critic able to range easily across periods and genres, with a kind of lightness not usually associated with contemporary departments of English. Boddy's ability to command a broad range of reference is most evident in her essay on the period 1880-1920, a time in which the center of gravity in boxing shifted from London to New York, the audience grew dramatically, and the first concerted efforts were made to regulate the sport -- in effect to make it more wholesome. While the literature of this period is full of boxing allusions, it was perhaps the new American painting that best captured the lewdness and violence of the sport. George Bellows, John French Sloan and others sought to bring a new immediacy and vitality to the depiction of the sprawling, unruly spectacle of urban life, and they turned to boxing to represent its striving, its conflict, and its seething violence. Thomas Eakins invoked the nobler side of the warrior aesthetic, exploring the vogue of amateur boxing among the gentlemanly class, whereas Bellows captured the brutality of the sport in its professional form and the degree to which these same gentlemen, top-hatted and with ladies in tow, were willing to countenance exploitation in the service of their own entertainment. Boddy's treatment of boxing post-World War II emphasizes its link to the emerging consciousness of black Americans, culminating in Muhammad Ali's association with the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement more broadly. The great black boxers of this period, from Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Robinson to Ali, carried immense symbolic freight: The difference between a history of boxing and a history of the cultural representation of boxing becomes apparent if we consider the part played in each by Sugar Ray Robinson. While Sugar Ray is revered by many as the all-time best 'pound-for-pound' fighter, he never became a cultural symbol in the way that [Jack] Johnson, [Jack] Dempsey, Louis, or Ali did ... [He] is a kind of interregnum figure in the history of culturally and politically significant boxers, between Louis (whom he idolized) and Ali (who idolized him). This is Boddy at her most authoritative. Indeed, she is at her best when she "lets her hands go", as fight people would say, using her analytical gifts freely to suggest patterns and connections among what might seem remote representations. If her book has a weakness, it is one inherent to its encyclopedic ambitions. While she references dozens of works within each period, amply illustrating the range of symbolic uses to which the fight game has been put, she does not risk making the kinds of choices - lingering over fuller or more exemplary treatments, setting others aside - that would allow her to place her materials in high relief. Making such choices always risks tendentiousness, but failing to choose risks a flattening of effect. Would that Boddy had been more willing to impose. She has, however, done the necessary spade work for more adventuresome interpretive works to follow.