I’ve always been a reader, but for me, never was there a year so devoted to books as this one!
Having taken up the helm at the National Book Foundation, much of the year was devoted to reading as many of the longlist, finalist, and winning titles for the National Book Awards . But despite that effort, it’s impossible not to sneak off and do some personal reading too.
In a year with some fairly fraught politics, Jane Mayer’s excellent Dark Money was a beautifully reported book on the many-year efforts of the Koch Brothers (and friends) to empower the radical right and to change American Politics. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted was also a stunner and took a deep look at what housing instability in America looks like (and why). I also spent some time in a book club reading presidential biographies, starting with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. (I highly recommend this exercise, given the state of the American presidency.) Jesmyn Ward’s compilation of essays on race, The Fire This Time, was a gift. Less explicitly political, Ruth Franklin’s exceptional biography of Shirley Jackson was a highlight of my year. And I re-read a lot of James Baldwin this year, because I needed it.
On the fiction side, I dug Nell Zink’s Nicotine, the amazing Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Greg Jackson’s Prodigals (seriously, the story “Wagner in the Desert” is a tiny miracle), and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun.
The true sparkler of my year, however, was C.E. Morgan’s epic The Sport of Kings, which everyone thinks is about horse racing, when it’s really about everything: love, race, legacy, family, justice, poverty, and American inequality. On top of that, it’s one of the most gorgeous books I’ve read in many years. When I finished the book, I immediately called a friend and said “this book is precisely why I do the work I do.”
As the year ends, old habits kick in, and I’m wading through old favorites. My (mostly) annual rereading of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is as disconcerting and comforting as ever, with beautiful Lily Bart still giving it her best (and worst) shot and losing every time. I always get a little sad this time of year, and poetry is just the thing for that, Rita Dove, Richard Siken, C.D. Wright, Nick Flynn always do the trick.
In the end, there was so much I didn’t get to. I’ll be traveling quite a lot next year and the hope is that I’ll have more time to bang through all that I missed in 2017. Especially the giant stack of books from independent presses and books written by friends sitting on my nightstand. And more essays.
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Last week my husband and I were having breakfast with our seven-month-old baby, sticking bits of fruit into her mouth and prattling inane words of love. For a couple of months now the baby has been smiling big, open-mouthed smiles that show her two teeth and animate her entire body; her feet kick and her chubby hands wave and the recipient feels the smile like the warmth of a cheerful little sun on a minor planet. “Pretty baby,” my husband said to her that morning, when she beamed thus at him. “What a pretty little girl.”
There is a common evocation of beauty during the very new newborn period. Babies emerge as slightly mottled fruits that have been sitting in their syrup too long. But if you are very lucky and the things happen that are supposed to happen, they unfurl and dry off and fill out and within a few days or weeks they’ve become those velvet-skinned, bright-eyed beings in the first and most tender season of human beauty.
I never recoiled, in that first season, to hear the nice people on the bus say “beautiful baby,” to us in reverent tones. It’s a thanksgiving for safe passage, a prayer for all new defenseless things. In any case, the adjective is usually invoked without its invoker seeing much more than a scalloped ear or a tiny scrumpled face. And even if the baby alarms you with its rawness, “beautiful baby” is really the only thing to say. The new mother doesn’t need to hear “Nice prune,” or “You must have squeezed ‘er good coming out.”
But after a few months have passed, when the word “newborn” must be set aside with the tiny hats and receiving blankets and impossibly small onesies, faint suggestions of the adult visage emerge. Friendly strangers and the baby’s own parents and relatives eagerly fixate upon recognizable features. And if you have a girl, the specter of beauty, or the looking-for-it, begins to hover.
Girl babies grow and the observations about their looks are freely traded — comments about eyes and future heartbreaking. At a certain point a more furtive category of looking makes itself felt. When Cal Stephanides, the hero/ine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex recalls his dark-eyed, aquiline-nosed loveliness as a young girl, it is not the beauty that is remembered so much as the world’s response to it:
I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open — on the bus, in the pharmacy — and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation.
When Callie enters adolescence — before her male secondary sexual characteristics manifest — she undergoes a subtle transformation that likewise transforms her way of being in the world:
To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally ‘satyrical’ entered my expression.
Like most brilliant novels, Middlesex manages to describe a very particular set of circumstances — the sex misidentification and eventual transformation of Callie to Cal Stephanides — in a way that highlights their universality. When Callie describes her turn to the Dionysian, she is contrasting her elfin looks with those of the “normal” girls growing breasts all around her. But the feeling she described is familiar to me from girlhood — that feeling of change from being a beautiful baby, petted and cooed over, into something crooked and frizzed and untoward, requiring braces and other, more secret interventions.
And before long, the eyes are back. If you are Callie, switched over to Cal, they come from a predatory subculture that looks for runaway waifs in highway truck stops. If you are a young woman, your new, marginally adult female body becomes public property, free for comment by men and other women alike. Lest you think I’m in the middle of an extended humblebrag about my own looks, recall The Blind Assassin, wherein Margaret Atwood’s wizened narrator identifies the appeal of very young women, whether they are celebrated as beauties or not: “The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can’t be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it’s a freshness, a plumpness of the cells, that’s unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate.”
In this conception of beauty, we might see parallels to the reverence for the newborn — the instinctive and uncheckable response of humanity to its own most new and unsullied, and then its most fertile, members. You might say that there’s a purity to this response, the way that there’s a purity, at the most basic level, to youth. But as Atwood’s narrator goes on to point out, there is the essential beauty of youth, and then there is the ideal of beauty that interferes with a woman’s view of herself: “None of them was satisfied with it, however; already they were making attempts to alter themselves into some impossible, imaginary mould, plucking and pencilling away at their faces. I didn’t blame them, having done the same once myself.”
In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine’s Scarry’s short, poetic refutation of the “political critique of beauty” — and the title inspiration for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty— Scarry states that “the moment of perceiving something beautiful confers on the perceiver the gift of life.” Her “something,” in this formulation, can be a person, or not a person: “faces, flowers, bird-songs, men, horses, pots, and poems.” Human beauty is merely one “site” of beauty; it has, in Scarry’s reckoning, “site-specific” attributes that cause us to keep it separate from pots and bird-songs, and in doing so wander into ontological errors about beauty. These errors, Scarry argues, make people want to expel beauty — that is, the acknowledgment and discussion of beauty — from our classrooms and lecture halls.
It was this current against which On Beauty and Being Just was penned. A major beef of the anti-beauty brigade, says Scarry, is the “gaze” (as in “the male gaze”) — the idea that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” Scarry argues that it is a mistake to take this negative, “site-specific” byproduct of human beauty and apply it to the entirety of the humanities, or to “a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back of the first time.” According to Scarry, the rejoicing in the beauty of our little baby is motivated by the same benevolent and generative impulse that causes people to “get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they have never even heard of” — a net positive.
Scarry’s book is a work of philosophy, a discipline in which I am not at home, and she writes in theorems, which are likewise alien. It is also not addressing itself to the problems of female subjugation, but to the role of aesthetics in scholarship. In one sense I found On Beauty and Being Just to be a sort of refreshing bath for the mind; it sluiced away the noise and arterial plaque of the day-to-day and affirmed, for example, my love of books or paintings. But I’m a woman, and not a pot or a bird-song, and as such I have a special relationship to those “site-specific” problems of human beauty, the pursuit of which makes Atwood’s cellularly plump sprites whittle away at themselves. Site-specific things are on my mind right now, more than university debates between desconstructivists and positivists. People who have grievances dislike for their grievances to be disappeared by thought-exercises, even highly successful and elegantly composed ones.
And in my site-specificity, I can rejoice in the beauty of the kelp, but fear the implications of human beauty. Beauty obligates, either in its presence — wherein it is the obligation of the beautiful one to be looked-upon, and to retain her beauty — or in its absence, in which case it must be perpetually sought. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s penniless mother reminds her daughter of this obligation:
Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved.
In Scarry’s section on the effect of the “gaze,” she argues, rather speciously, that the gazer is as affected by the gazing as the gazee: “It is odd that contemporary accounts…place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at.” After all, she points out, Plato sees a beautiful boy and “shudders and shivers.” Dante Alighieri, laying eyes on Beatrice, feels his “senses go into a huddle.”
And those things do sound hard, but I doubt that two drunken 20-something men ever crabwalked over to 14-year-old Dante and his buddy on the metro and argued freely over which one was “the hot one.” I doubt one of Plato’s male friends told him when he was 15 that “some of the boys in school think you’re really ugly, but some of them think you’re really hot.” When Dante was in college and unhappy and padded with Keystone light and cheeseburgers, it’s unlikely that a male visitor to his room looked at his prom photo and marveled at how hot he “used to be.” Plato didn’t try Zumba and Body Jam and Cardio Kickboxing and Barre Method and Dailey Method and Cardiobarre, or give up beer for months before his wedding. Dante never sorrowed over the absence of his thigh gap, or purchased Groupons for laser hair removal and teeth whitening.
To conflate human beauty with rape is to make the same error as conflating rape with sex; rape is about power and ownership and rage. But all of these things are knotted together in a way that makes it difficult to disentangle the skeins. The artist Eric Gill wrote that “the beautiful thing is that which, being seen, pleases, and it is man that is pleased.” You know what else Eric Gill did? Molested two of his daughters. You know who else “shivered and shook” from the effects of his gazing? Humbert fucking Humbert.
But back to my baby. It’s currently my job, along with her father, to mediate the world for her until she’s old enough to do it herself. So I’m, obviously, her gravest liability, the one most likely to do damage by loading her up with a bunch of my own baggage. And she is a lovely little baby, with big blue eyes, eyes with no bearing on her father’s brown or my own brindled orbs. I exhort her father not to call her pretty, but I look at her and find myself knocking wood, saying mashallah to ward off the evil eye in a way that is in itself a recognition of beauty.
But I want her never to feel that she is with all of womanity on a ladder that equates beauty with worth. I want her never to join the oppressors by talking casually about her friends’ looks, or to instinctively perform a half-predatory, half-defensive assessment of every other woman within a 100-yard radius. And yet I want her to appreciate the many modes of human beauty — not only the boobs and butts and legs of Garry Winogrand’s deceptively titled Women are Beautiful, but the unexpected lines of an eyebrow or a hand. I want her to feel unencumbered by anyone’s opinion of her beauty or lack thereof. And yet I also want her to feel beautiful, to wear whatever she wants, to luxuriate in a sense that her chosen mate finds her irresistible, to never fear a dressing room or bathing suit or florescent light.
And I want somehow for all this to be accomplished without conferring those heavy, killing, Lily Bart obligations.
So that morning at breakfast, I panicked and chastised my husband for an innocent remark, one that people will make again and again about my baby, as they will do about any woman’s baby. And then I fumbled around in my psyche and pulled out something worn and démodé — highly problematic, in its way, but functional and attractive, like an ivory crochet hook or a whalebone stay. I looked at my seven-month-old and spoke into her uncomprehending face that almost-true thing that people have only ever said to women: “Pretty is as pretty does.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Publishing a book feels a little like a birthday. It lasts for longer than a day, but it’s wonderful and exciting and weird like a birthday is. (Am I the only one who spends her entire birthday thinking, Today is my birthday! Today? Today! Birthday? Birthday!). This year was just that for me, wonderful, exciting, and weird, especially the summer, when it seemed all I did was travel, talk to strangers about my book, and sleep in hotel rooms (which always made me think of “Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams: “– And the immaculate white bed.”)
Before my summer publication madness, before I did my reading in airplanes and various Panera locations and cheesy hotel bars, I had one particular experience with a book that filled my soul with fizz and made me feel alive in that way that only reading a great book can. I was at Ucross, the beautiful writing retreat in Wyoming, and between writing and weeping about writing, I sank into a green marshmallow-of-a-couch and began The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
Edith Wharton! Edith Wharton! Edith! Wharton!
I read and liked The Age of Innocence years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the love I would feel for this novel. Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart, simultaneously oblivious and wise, is one of the most compelling and complicated characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I pity and admire the way Miss Bart wields the power of her own beauty: she exploits her own magnetism, and it’s her own magnetism, or her confidence in that magnetism, that ruins her. Lily just wants to be free to live a grand, unfettered life, but she is a single woman in late 19th-century New York and her opportunities are limited (credit wendy here). She’s also a self-absorbed and entitled bitch. God, I love her. I also love Wharton’s assured and wise prose:
Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation to her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. But even had the two been in closer contact, it was impossible to think of Mrs. Peniston’s mind as offering shelter or comprehension to such misery as Lily’s. As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.
See what I mean? Say it with me now: Edith! Wharton!
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The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
Not quite a month before my 13th birthday, my father gave me a gift, a mass-market paperback edition of The Universal Encyclopedia of Mathematics. The 715-page book, which cost him one dollar and 50 cents, is, the cover proclaims, “The only reference book of its kind ever published.” (For my actual birthday, he gave me Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, with an inscription in Latin.)
He bought me the encyclopedia, I see now, to encourage me: while he was a cardiologist who worked calculus problems to relax, I had a perplexing, to him at least, inability to do any better than a C in any arithmetic course I took. His idea was that giving me a book with entries on “perspective transformation” and the formula for figuring the surface of an elliptical paraboloid would help me learn to divide fractions.
Clearly filled with hope for his floundering son, he wrote an inscription on the flyleaf: “For Joe. Toward an ∞ of knowledge. Dad.”
My father, who died in 1984 at 60, did not live long enough to see the Internet as it is today, our connection, if not to his wish for infinite knowledge, then at least to something in the same area code as infinite information, and so, to bring the world in, he filled our house with reference books — The Encyclopedia Britannica, Compton’s Encyclopedia (for his younger children), Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization, the Concise Dictionary of American History and so many others whose titles I can no longer recall, bookcases of them in the family room and in his den.
While it’s not strictly a reference set, he enshrined the Great Books of the Western World on shelves in our family room and offered rewards of a dollar if I could recite, from memory, passages he assigned me, and if I succeeded, he sometimes had me do it to for the guests when he and my mother entertained, a nine- or 10-year-old me in pajamas standing in a room of adults who were drinking highballs as I stumbled through “Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .”
A devout Roman Catholic, when he decided to buy the books in the early 1960s, he wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for permission because certain of the works were on the Church’s Index Liborum Prohibitum — a list of writings the Church felt threatened the faith and morals of those who read them. A monsignor from the Archdiocesan office responded that my father could buy them but that he should read them with care. For a long while, he kept the letter folded in thirds and tucked into one of the volumes but, when I went to look for it after he left the books to me when he died, opening every volume, holding them upside down and shaking each one, the letter was no longer there.
Almost three decades after his death, I remember my father as shy and uncomfortable socially. Perhaps a decade before he died, my mother showed me a group photograph of him and perhaps 18 or 20 other doctors, my father in the back row, half his face obscured by the head of one of the men in front of him. She was using the photograph to tell me something about how my father was as a person, that he was always standing in a back row, hiding from a camera, metaphorically if not actually, not wanting anyone to notice him.
Given that, I’m not surprised that I can never remember having a heart-to-heart talk with him about anything. I don’t think he ever asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, don’t think he ever asked about any of the girls I went out with nor talked to me about what colleges I wanted to attend. I chose the colleges, filled out the applications, left them on his desk and then found them on the kitchen table, a check for the application fee paper clipped to each of them.
I also don’t recall him being openly affectionate with my mother or any of my seven siblings. More than once, when my mother was going somewhere with my father, she came downstairs in a dress, perfumed and wearing pearls, and said to me, “Tell me I look nice,” because my father seemed never to tell her so. This trait was, in fact, the point of a story she told me often about my father’s father, a severe German immigrant who came to America early in the 20th century when he was 13. In the story, my grandparents are having dinner and my grandmother says to him, “You never tell me you like my cooking.”
“I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?” my grandfather responds.
Whenever my mother told the story, she paused when she came to the end of it then repeated: “I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?”
When I got older, I realized the story was actually about my own father, that my mother could never say directly that he was not warm, could not complain openly to me that he did not compliment her, and so she told the story about my grandfather over and over, letting it hang in the air until I might understand its meaning.
It’s possible, I suspect, to read these accounts of my father and think him cold and even unkind: he couldn’t tell his wife she looked attractive, he was aloof for his children, disconnected (I wanted Rubber Soul for my birthday and he gave me a Latin dictionary); he embarrassed his oldest son by using him to perform parlor tricks dressed in stretch pajamas: Look at the little boy trying to recite Shakespeare! How cute!
But part of maturing is coming to the point at which you can see your parents as not just your mother and your father but as human beings, imperfect, who just happened to be the people who raised you.
I could, therefore, explain my father’s reticence to express affection by his own father’s resistance to it.
I could talk about how one of the choices my father made for the direction of his life — to pursue college — disappointed his father who had no patience for the life of the mind, despite the fact that my father eventually became a doctor. My grandfather, who worked in a sewing machine factory until he retired, thought a man should work with his hands and clearly favored his other son, my uncle, who worked in an automobile plant and who could fix things — do carpentry, repair a television set. That my uncle, who had no children, was more affluent than my father, the doctor with eight children whom he sent to prep schools and college, seemed to my grandfather evidence that he was correct: books and college were a waste of time.
Given that, is it any wonder that my father was so shy about overt expressions of affection?
And so if he could not directly invite me to connect with him, he could find more oblique ways to bring the two of us together: he could give me reference books as gifts, bribe me to open the books he collected.
In his own way, he was opening a door for me to a world he loved and saying, “I can’t show you my self but I can show you this.”
And so I became a collector of reference books, filling shelves with them in my own home the way my father did in ours when I was growing up. I became a forager in them often for no purpose except to see what was there.
Paging, as I did just now, through Patrick Robertson’s Robertson’s Book of Firsts, published last year, I learn that the first life insurance policy was written in 1583, and would pay out £383 and change, as long as the insured died within a year. When he died 11 months later, the “underwriters sought to evade payment by the dubious argument that he had not died within ‘the full twelve months,’ arguing that a month was only 28 days and therefore the insured had died beyond twelve months’ time. The court found for the beneficiary, saying, “[The] month is to be accounted according to the Kalendar.”
Browsing in The Baseball Necrology by Bill Lee, I learn that there was once a player named Bad News Galloway who appeared for one season in the major leagues and then worked as a bedding inspector during World War II, that Mox McQuery, who lasted for five seasons in the majors during the 19th century, died when he was shot in the line of duty while he was a policeman, and that Kite Thomas, who was a major league outfielder for two seasons, operated a tavern in Kansas in the 1950s that “was said to dispense more beer than any other tavern in Kansas.”
From The Best Books of Our Time 1901-1925, published in 1928 by Asa Don Dickinson, “Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania,” I learn that, according to a meticulous study he devised to analyze critical responses to what was then contemporary literature, the most highly regarded book of the first quarter of the 20th century was Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, which had “25 endorsements” by critics and was therefore, according to Dickinson’s system, superior to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (23 endorsements), Willa Cather’s My Antonia (18) or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (13).
On the surface, this may all seem trivial, but I contend it’s not — is any time that brings us knowledge ever really wasted?
Without meaning to look for it, for example, I know something about the trend of insurance companies contesting the claims of their customers, something specific about the economics of major league baseball players before the current era of six- to eight-figure annual salaries, something about the way taste in literature changes over a period of decades.
See, I hear my father saying. Exactly.
Sometimes, browsing in junk shops and antique malls, I buy reference books that make little sense for me to own — a 75-year-old one-volume encyclopedia, a half-century old book on baton twirling, a dog-eared guide for collecting baseball players’ autographs. Yet, as ridiculous a purchase as they might seem, they open up the world for me as much as did the books on my father’s shelves or the newer books on my own shelves, but in different ways.
Everybody’s Complete Encyclopedia, which the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wis., issued in 1937, for example, freezes the world for me in a manner a more contemporary reference work doesn’t; it gives me a world in which Pearl Harbor can be dismissed with a sentence, describing it as “an inlet not far from Honolulu, Hawaii, with pearl fisheries and a U.S. naval base,” and gives me the Ardennes in even fewer words, as only a sentence fragment, “Range of hills in France and Belgium extending into Luxembourg.” It gives me a world that had no notion of the meaning those places would carry less than a decade later.
The 1962 Who’s Who in Baton Twirling, which contains 500-plus pages of photographs and brief resumes of baton twirlers from around the United States, and a supplement on the Baton Twirling Hall of Fame, illuminates a subculture I hadn’t known was as large as it was, showing me something of the center of the lives of roughly 1,500 people from half a century ago. In one entry, I learn that Marla Miller of Columbia City, Ind., was once featured twirling fire batons at a district competition and that Hall of Fame member Paul Olin had traveled over 7,000 miles to teach twirling at summer camps across the Midwest and South.
As much as that allows me a glimpse at a subculture, the reason I bought the book was that it once belonged to one of the people who has an entry in it, Paula Rondeau of Florida. A half a century ago, the then 10-year-old Rondeau (who started twirling when she was five, had won tournaments in Florida and Virginia and performed on television during the 1961 Junior Miss America Pageant) scrawled her name and address in the front of the book in a careful cursive.
In somewhat the same way, the 1939 Allegheny (Pennsylvania) High School Yearbook opens another flap on the world for me: it was owned at one time by Ellen (Elsie) Tuomela, whom the yearbook describes as “sweet and shy” with “hopes to be a secretary” and who had “a unique hobby . . . working crossword puzzles.” If Elsie is alive still, she would around 90 but her yearbook — with the entries about her and her classmates and the editor’s sad recollection that the construction of a new school building that year meant the loss of “the balcony, long a lovers’ meeting place” –connects me to the teenager Elsie was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, makes the lives of all teenagers then more vivid to me than any general discussion of the youth of America in the 1930s ever could.
As for the slightly water-logged, dog-eared copy of the 1986 edition of Sports Americana Baseball Address List, a guide published for autograph seekers for which I paid 50 cents two weeks ago at a junk shop I passed on a Sunday afternoon: the information in it is, I assume, worthless. How many of the men whose names and addresses are listed are still living where they were more than a quarter century ago? What drew me to it were the almost obsessive annotations by the anonymous person who owned it before it ended up in a pile of books in a battered orange crate on a shelf with old VHS movies and mismatched glassware: whose autographs he had, who was dead or “too old or ill to sign,” and whom he classed as an “SOB,” presumably because they refused his request for a signature. The introduction to the book boasts that 10,000 current and former players were included and the previous owner had a note for well more than half of them. For me, the book reveals a fellow human being who gave himself passionately to something.
I’m certain that when my father extended perhaps the only sort of invitation he could to me, into the world as it lay out before him, and me, in reference books, he was not thinking of baton twirlers, high school seniors from 73 years ago, or autograph collectors, but my interest in them is connected to that same impulse he woke in me when I was roughly the same age as Paula Rondeau when she was ordering the copy of the Who’s Who with her name and photograph in it — the impulse to be curious about the world outside the room where I’m paging through the slightly mildewed book that bears a photograph of her in a costume, standing beside three of her trophies.
Not long after my father died, I found a package he’d received but never opened: the 1984 Britannica Book of the Year, part of the series of annuals the publishers offered to him as someone who had once bought a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and which he ordered each year, lining them chronologically on the shelves beneath the encyclopedia. (He also just as faithfully ordered the annual supplement to the Great Books, The Great Ideas Today.) In the last months of his life, weakened by congestive heart failure and diabetes, on most days he only had strength enough to move the few feet from his bed to a chair in his room and then, later, with the help of a day nurse, back to his bed. But at some point in those months — did he know how many he had left? — he’d marked a box on a reply card, written a check, mailed it off, then waited for the world to come back to him in 766 pages.
If he’d lived long enough to open the package, he could have flipped through those pages and read that health care costs in the U.S. for the previous year were more than 340 percent what they were in 1967, the year after he gave me the mathematics encyclopedia and Latin dictionary. He could have read that Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings was “one of the major literary events of the year,” but that critical response ranged from “uncertain, almost embarrassed enthusiasm to exasperated boredom.” He could have learned that a 29-year-old mathematician had made a discovery that “was the first major step in more than a century in the struggle to verify Pierre de Fermat’s” famous claim, scribbled in the margin of a book, that he had discovered a “truly marvelous [algebraic] proof.” (And my father could have winced realizing that the mathematician was younger than his son who still had difficulty dividing fractions.)
When my mother gave me the set of Britannica and the Great Books after he died, she said, “I don’t care what you do with the encyclopedias, but please don’t get rid of the Great Books. Your father went through so much to get them.”
By then, the encyclopedia, published during Richard Nixon’s first term of office, was dated and while I kept it for a long while, when I moved six years ago, I donated it to Goodwill. However, I held onto the 1984 Book of the Year, the volume my father had never read, had never opened, and it sits on a shelf with the Latin dictionary and the Encyclopedia of Mathematics that he gave me with such hope when I was a boy.
Image courtesy of the author.
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.
I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.
In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”
But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”
In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.
The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:
. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever
she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard
had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow
an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.
This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”
She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.
As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.
I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”
In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.
It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”
Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
A few weeks ago I ventured into the English Faculty Library at the University of Oxford to borrow a work of fiction. A friend had recommended the novel Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis, and for a variety of reasons the only library from which I could borrow one of the University’s fifteen copies was the English Faculty. (All but two of the copies were owned by college libraries – none my own, and colleges do not lend to non-members – or by libraries that do not permit borrowing to anyone. The second circulation copy was out.) Although my subject is History and Politics, the English Faculty does permit non-members to borrow from its collection, but with some rather curious reservations.
When I presented the volume to be checked-out, the librarian examined my card (which discloses my subject), pursed her lips, pressed her palms protectively over Martin’s image on the dust jacket, and clearly made herself ready to say something that she regarded as unpleasant:
Librarian: “Are you reading this book just for pleasure?”
Me: “Well, I suppose, not entirely…”
Librarian: “Because you know some people may be studying this for a course or an exam.”
Me: “Well, um, even in the summer?”
Librarian: “Oh, perhaps not, but we really don’t like to lend just for pleasure reading. That’s not what these books are for.”
To be fair, my responses were even less coherent than what this paraphrase suggests, which may be why the librarian did not offer much compelling justification for her reluctance to share the work of the younger Amis. (No doubt Martin’s father, Sir Kingsley Amis, descended from solid Wodehousian stock, would have pipped me to the riposte, but despite my meagre performance I was permitted, in the end, to borrow the book.) For one thing, surely no English student, when deprived of a sought-after volume, would find any consolation in the knowledge that their degree was being sacrificed at the altar of a D.Phil. dissertation, rather than merely for my pleasure. It might be said that if non-English students were prevented from borrowing, the chances of any volume being available would increase, but this ignores both the curious tendency for all students to equate borrowing books with reading books (thus drawing perverse and prolonged comfort from the mere presence in their bedroom of the volumes on the reading list), and the academic equivalent of a mutually-assured destruction, the threat that other faculties will impose reciprocal bans on non-members and thereby obliterate each and every Dreaming Spire.
It is no small irony that the work at issue was by Martin Amis, one of the University’s most precocious children. Amis read English at Exeter College in the late 1960s and took a “Congratulatory First,” a title bestowed by examiners at an undergraduate’s viva (oral defence, now defunct), telling the student how much they enjoyed reading his examination scripts. Amis is renowned for his command of, and appreciation for, the English language, which he deploys to dark and hysterical effect in The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and the aforementioned Money. While it is difficult to imagine Amis himself taking anything like a diminutive view of reading just for pleasure, there remains much to be said in defence of other readers, who react more moderately to a thoughtful turn of phrase, or for whom Milton may do just as well as a glass of warm milk before bedtime – in short, The Millions of us who read just for pleasure – and why these might not be so readily turned away from the circulation desk.
At the same time I was reading Money, I was (and still am) working through the collected works of Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, in preparation for an interview in late September. While more recently remembered for his eloquent, sharp, and (at the time) lonely criticism of the Bush Administration after September 11, 2001 (collected in Theater of War, Gag Rule, and Pretensions to Empire), Lapham’s earlier writing considered the existence of an American aristocracy (what he calls an “equestrian class”), and the enervating effects of a culture worshipful of money. Lapham published Money and Class in America in 1988, which could be described as a non-fictional explanation of the world Amis depicts in Money, which was published in 1984, and over half of which takes place in New York City, where Lapham also resides. While John Self, the protagonist in Money, is certainly not a member of Lapham’s equestrian class, it is not difficult to imagine Lapham nodding grimly as he reads of Self’s destructive attempts to ape his betters:
I have money but I can’t control it: Fielding keeps supplying me with more. Money, I think, is uncontrollable. Even those of us who have it, we can’t control it. Life gets poor-mouthed all the time, yet you seldom hear an unkind word about money. Money, now this has to be some good shit.
Or, perhaps not, and instead we should feel, after reading Amis, that:
The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.
This is how a former professor of English at the University of Oxford described the work of Amis and other of his British contemporaries (including Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie) in a newspaper article published the very same week that I was wondering whether to include a question about Amis in my interview with Lapham. While it is tempting to view with awe and wonder such a web of meaning and connection, spinning-up as if from nowhere as the literary stars align, in fact the effect is nothing more banal than seeing a new friend all around town: before being introduced, you just didn’t think to notice.
Those who are at all familiar with Lapham’s prose will appreciate this point especially, recalling his preference for historical, cultural, and literary allusion. Lapham’s essays are a study in the art of the “almost tell,” meaning that his arguments are presented less as Polaroid truths and more as symphonic orations, including the presumption that the audience will withhold any applause until the end of the last movement, and its final judgment until after a good night’s rest and perhaps mulling over the reviews in the next day’s newspaper. The first chapter of Money and Class in America is entitled “The Gilded Cage,” which is the phrase used by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth to describe the circumstances of New York’s social elite at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lapham elaborates the allusion, intimating that:
The House of Mirth addresses itself to what in 1905 was an irrelevantly small circle of people entranced by their reflections in a tradesman’s mirror. In the seventy-odd years since Wharton published the novel the small circle has become considerably larger, and the corollary deformations of character show up in all ranks of American society, among all kinds of people caught up in the perpetual buying of their self-esteem.
The literary reference at once illuminates Lapham’s point with the full range of Wharton’s sensibility and refined description, or at the very least the reader is directed to a source of further understanding – provided she remembers to tell the librarian that her visit to Wharton’s Upper East Side drawing rooms is for business, not pleasure.
The specific terms in which the librarian formulated her anxiety – “…some people may be reading this for a course or an exam…” – bespeak something of the insecurity that perpetually darkens the horizon outside the offices of every English faculty, especially during the rainy season otherwise known as the humanities department budgetary review. The appeal is made to a higher purpose – “That’s not what these books are for” – and the hope is that despite having paid our admission to the theme park we will continue to respect the height requirements on the literary roller-coaster, not to mention its place amongst the park’s founding attractions. The irony is that by protecting the importance of the enterprise with the threat of restricted access and the real pain of condescension, the operators put at risk both a life-sustaining custom, and the continued existence of the very thing that they purport to discover:
But I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for “amusement,” or “purely for pleasure” that may have the greatest, and least suspected influence upon us… Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely. (T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” 1934)
There are other passages from Eliot that bear directly on this subject. In the same essay, Eliot rejects what must be the librarian’s view of the aim of wider reading (“an accumulation of knowledge, or what sometimes is meant by the term ‘a well-stocked mind'”) in favour of what Lionel Trilling might have recognized as The Liberal Imagination, that “very different views of life, cohabiting in our minds, affect each other, and our own personality asserts itself and gives each a place in some arrangement peculiar to ourself.” But to belabour the point with too much critical quotation risks begging the question, and confessing the very thing we are suggesting should be irrelevant, or at least beside the point.
The final explanation for the use of the diminishing modifier “just for pleasure” is lost somewhere in the fog surrounding that overwrought and spectacularly hackneyed phrase “work-life balance.” The circumstances may be less clear when one is studying Plato, John Rawls, or J.R.R. Tolkien, compared to a difficult translation of Greek or Latin, an econometric proof, or an equation in particle physics, but there is only so much time one can or should devote to even academic work. Not only does the law of diminishing returns extend beyond discounted cash flow analyses and the building of brand collages, but like a Blackberry or a conference call, under no circumstances should any of these appear during family dinners, cocktail parties, or on the bedside table.
The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections – legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.
Even, just for pleasure.
(Image: Lecture Hall, image from sprochello’s photostream)
Some books are so a part of one it seems a folly to write even a paltry 700 words on their virtues. The Age of Innocence, which in my personal pantheon outshines Catcher in the Rye as the consoling novel for angsty and literate youth, confirmed my adolescent suspicion that people spoke and lived in codes. Immured in boarding school, that life was dictated by iron and mostly disagreeable statutes was patently obvious to teenaged me. But The Age of Innocence went beyond these; it spoke to the rules within rules–the ways that people prevent one another (especially girls, it seemed) from doing what they like, and the cowardice that stops people from going against the grain.
I don’t know if Edith Wharton intended this book to be read at as an epoch-spanning indictment of society’s bloodless crimes, or if she really thought that the immutable canon of the 1870s was finished and gone. One introduction I have seen instructs us to read The Age of Innocence less as a protest novel and more as a biting satire and a send-up of the gilded age. To be sure, it is a deeply sardonic novel; but if Wharton intended only to be a period satirist, she’s made a fool out of me.
Wharton’s novel and its more dramatic precursor, The House of Mirth, knew with what my jangled adolescent nerves suspected; Wharton wrote the things that people know but won’t say. Affirmed by these novels and fancying myself an Ellen (or even, horribly, a Lily Bart), I went about doing as I thought I pleased, garnering disapprobation. My messy room and demerits and cigarette smoking obscured (from myself, at least) my inner Newland, the realities my own coded speech and behavior and dress, the cruelties I served up to others. In the grand scheme of things, mine was rather a charmed adolescence. Perhaps I rankled against against society, against school’s constraints. But like Newland, I hardly wanted to leave.
When it was written, The Age of Innocence was about the olden days, the creaking conventions of which had long since been left by the wayside. The specifics would have been easily recognized by 1920s readers; some of them escape me today. Of Ellen Olenska’s estranged husband, it is said:
A half-paralysed white sneering fellow–rather handsome head, but eyes with a lot of lashes. Well, I’ll tell you the sort: when he wasn’t with women he was collecting china. Paying any price for both, I understand.
Oh, snap? But while the novel serves as an exquisite period piece filled with details of costume and decor (not for nothing is Wharton’s book with Ogden Codman Jr. The Decoration of Houses still in print today), it is timeless in its representation of the difference between inside and outside. Social conventions are discarded or exchanged; what remains is the chill a person feels when he or she understands that she has committed some transgression against the herd. The currents of social disapproval run deep, swift, and cold.
This is not a state of affairs peculiar to the upper crust; every crust has rules, a code. Sex is a particularly sticky wicket, even in our current, infinitely enlightened times. Were Ellen Olenska on Jersey Shore, she would be the pasty, sober blonde in a ruffled one-piece. In high school, she’s the one whose hand the boys won’t hold. Maybe she said some things on MySpace that rubbed everyone the wrong way. First this awesome guy Newland defended her when everyone was being whack, but in the end he couldn’t handle the drama (and he just wanted to do it with her anyway).
It’s all the same! The only difference is that in some crusts epithets like “slut” are freely employed and punches thrown, rather than everyone quietly declining a dinner party invitation.
Fortunately, getting older significantly reduces (one hopes) the paranoia that accompanies everyone’s adolescence. I no longer kick ineffectually at society’s traces while living in terror of a social misstep. Perhaps I’ve become a complicit member of the herd, but my nerves no longer jangle. Still, though, I read this novel (and The House of Mirth) as the work of someone who was deeply sensitive to the effects of collective mores on individual happiness, and to society’s censure of otherness. And this expressed with razor insight, with wry humor, with delicious irony, in elegant prose. What a book this is.
Marshall N. Klimasewiski has two books, both published by W. W. Norton. The Cottagers, a novel, came out in 2006, and Tyrants, short stories, will be published in February. He teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.I had the pleasure of hanging out with some ambitious and vivacious books in 2007 that I thought were splendid – All Aunt Hagar’s Children, The Looming Tower, The House of Mirth – but I’d rather talk about a relatively shy, delicate creature that crawled into my brain and has been quietly expanding there ever since. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl is set at the end of World War II in a village (not quaint, not kooky, not grotesque either) in Wales where a German P. O. W. camp is hastily constructed and filled. For me, it was one of those thoroughly engrossing, exquisite “small” novels which vividly render an isolated environment and a small cast and yet are somehow constantly aware of the massive and, in this case, terrible history past the reach of the pub and the flock. It’s a book that feels best read under a small circle of lamplight in a dark room, and it knows it: “confinement” is a word important to it, and both a ship in a bottle and a slate tunnel are featured beautifully. I do love a novel that takes full advantage of the intimacy of the art form, and how unlikely that such a book could so powerfully address the value and wages of nationalism.More from A Year in Reading 2007