I am well aware of the fact that much of the rest of the country is laughing at Los Angeles right now. “Oh, poor babies can’t deal with a wittle wain?” Laugh all you want. We accept your derision as the price we pay for living so well 350 days a year. But seriously, this rain IS NUTS. Last night, lightning struck just down the street from my house, and downtown got more rain yesterday afternoon than it had in the previous year. LA is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with this kind thing, which (as Ryan pointed out) John McPhee, Mike Davis, and Carey McWilliams have discussed in some of the classic works of Los Angeles naturalism (and LA naturalism is always at least 50% anthropology). So you could read those this weekend as you wait out the storm, or you could read some of the following;
- Edward Mendelson, the editor of W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems, has written a terrific essay in the New York Review of Books about Auden’s private acts of charity. The following anecdote is my favorite: “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” Auden’s personal kindnesses were just that, personal. Mendelson argues that, “[b]y refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it…On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.” This is a provocative thesis, but it makes intuitive sense. Auden was a liberal, but one with a sense of humor. And with a sense of humor comes a sense of the tragic ways every man fails to do what he should. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t judge obviously bad actors (from Stalin down to a casually racist relative), just that in holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue we fail to scrutinize not only our own actions, but even our own potential to do evil. Auden sounds like he was, in most respects, a pretty decent dude. But one could probably make a similar case for the pre-presidential George W. Bush (not Dick Cheney, never Dick Cheney). And we all know how that turned out, right?
- I guess this is a NYRB-themed post, because we’re sticking with that publication, but getting in the Way-Back Machine and heading to 1979. Just read this opening paragraph from Joan Didion’s “Letter from Manhattan,” an essay about Woody Allen (yes, yes, I know, I am not supposed to mention his name): “Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.” I’m always trying (and probably failing) to explain to my students why introductions matter. Perhaps I should just show them this and ask if it makes them want to keep reading. Anyone who says “no” gets an F.
- To bring things back to Los Angeles for a few minutes, please read this excellent Nicholas Miriello essay from the Los Angeles Review of Books that engages with the following topics: Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Frasier, Spike Jonze’s Her, and Netflix binge-watching. It’s as if he has some sort of NSA file on me…
- Finally, speaking of Her and the evil we are all capable of, I will once again shamelessly plug work I have recently had published in other outlets. It’s Oscars weekend, so we’ll frame this like an acceptance speech: “First, I’d like to thank Southern Spaces for publishing an essay I wrote on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I’d also like to thank Religion Dispatches for running a piece I wrote about Her. Finally, I’d like you all to support the Hawai’i Pacific Review, without which my poem, ‘Two by Two,’ would have remained but a dream.” (Cue the strings, his head is twice its normal size!)
Stay dry, kids.
No rambling original ruminations on literature tonight, only some great links with competent commentary. Stay safe this weekend. Read too much.
- From the LA Review of Books, a concise, perceptive review of the latest volume of Hemingway’s letters. Published by Cambridge University Press, this is Volume 2 (of a projected sixteen!), and according to Joshua Kotin it is beautiful even though it doesn’t “fundamentally alter our understanding of Hemingway or his art or modernism or American literature[.]” These missives “complement, rather than revise, the mythologies cultivated and analyzed by countless artifacts — novels, memoirs, films, biographies, and, of course, Hemingway’s own writing,” he argues, concluding that while “the letters are wonderful; they are not crucial.” My favorite part of the review is the end, where Kotin speculates on the possibility of a database containing all the networks of responses between cultural potentates from the Modernist era, a “complete letters of modern art.”
- Historian Jill Lepore once again graces The New Yorker. This time she writes about Roger Ailes (Fox News’ begetter), William Randolph Hearst (the early-twentieth-century jingoist publishing magnate), and American tastes in news. The piece will introduce you to the fantastically named Cora Baggerly Older (Hearst’s official biographer) and her husband Fremont Older. Fremont Older!
- Do hubcaps serve a purpose? No, they do not. So does my beloved forest-green 1995 Camry need to stop flowing with the mysterious black wheels? No, it does not. Thanks as always, Car Talk, for the clarity: you should have won some Pulitzers.
- Pacific Standard on the continuing water horror in West Virginia. Turns out that allowing your state regulatory infrastructure to decay is a very bad idea. Read about this right now if you haven’t already done so. America gets her coal from often-incompetent companies that poison Appalachia, one of America’s treasures, and too many Appalachians, especially rich dumbasses with ties to those companies, keep helping. I grew up in a VA/West VA border town called Covington, deep in enormous tracts of National Forest land, and I knew some ghastly water there. The town sits on the Jackson River, which feeds Virginia’s freshwater mainline, the James River; and the Westvaco (now MeadWestvaco) paper mill sits on Covington. As the Commonwealth of Virginia officially puts it, “There is a two mile segment, from the water treatment plant in Covington to City Park in Covington[,] that is legally navigable, but is not recommended for recreation due to heavy industry.” When I lived there in the 1990s, the mill—most people just called it “the mill”—was Covington’s biggest employer, even though it was (and still is) shrinking its workforce, thanks to progressive automation and the willingness of other nations to host paper-pulp facilities that produce incredible amounts of toxic waste. The size of the plant is staggering: as a teenager I would drive up the wide street on the bluffs across from its holding ponds and light towers, and pretend I was sneaking past the Death Star. Above Covington is some of the sweetest fly fishing in the eastern United States. Below the mill, the oily river smells like frog guts. Maybe things have gotten better since I left for college. But probably not, given Virginia’s light-regulation ethos and the fact that the Bush administration had a decade to hollow out the EPA. Please leave a comment if you have some news.
- Just look at this Miller Lite TV spot from the mid-1990s. In case you miss the subtitle at the beginning, that silver-haired gentleman is Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, a satyr (according to Wikipedia he “was known for studying his playbook by the light of a nightclub jukebox and for his affinity for female fans”) who quarterbacked the Raiders to a Super Bowl win in 1977, and the guy in the comfy shirt is Dan Fouts, the most successful bearded quarterback in NFL history. (He wasn’t all that successful.) A suburban eatery? Bottled swill? Well-compensated passive-aggressive male companionship? Off-camera lady voice? Floppy shirt collars? This one has it all.
- Amy Clampitt is a solid poet. Not enough people read her work. Here is a link to one of her poems, “Vacant Lot With Pokeweed.” Go there. It is brief and will make your weekend better, I promise.
I don’t read Bookforum very often. I should really remedy this, especially if their articles are all as good as Doubleday editor Gerald’s Howard’s essay about The Long Voyage, the new collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters edited by Hans Bak. Cowley, like Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Perkins, and Harold Ober, was a man who shaped the early- to mid-2oth century American literary scene even when he wasn’t in America. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he helped shape this scene precisely because he got out of America for a little while. Howard writes:
Gertrude Stein gave the American writers who flocked to Paris in the ’20s their indelible tag, “the Lost Generation,” but it was Malcolm Cowley who first gave his cohort its enduring narrative of rebellious escape from, and chastened return to, America in Exile’s Return (1934), a memoir and generational “collective novel” that beat Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to the punch by three decades. We take the near-mythic saga and achievements of this generation for granted today, but as Cowley writes in his elegiac retrospective chronicle and portrait gallery, A Second Flowering, his memoir was “howled down by older reviewers [who] ridiculed the notion that the men of the 1920s had special characteristics and that their adventures in Paris were a story worth telling.”
Had writing his literary memoirs been Cowley’s sole accomplishment, his letters would be worth reading. But Cowley did much more than write criticism and biography, including editing The New Republic, though this part of his career was tainted by his failure to side with the Trotskyites against the Stalinists in the battle for the future of Marxism. His most important contribution though was championing authors who might otherwise have remained obscure, Faulkner and Kerouac chief among these. It isn’t overstating the case to say that without Malcolm Cowley, William Faulkner wouldn’t have won the 1949 Nobel Prize. And without this award, Faulkner might have been forced to spend the rest of his life tinkering on Hollywood scripts to scrape together enough money to put out a novel here and there that would shortly go out of print. Cowley’s 1946 Portable Faulkner is one of the ten most important books of American fiction because it uses an author’s own works to make a case for his greatness. That’s the power of good editing, and even Faulkner himself was shocked by Cowley’s achievement.
Cowley is also responsible for On the Road getting published by Viking in 1957. It’s fashionable among some academics and writers to dismiss Kerouac (Capote famously called him a “typist”), but On the Road might very well be another of the ten most significant works of American fiction because it’s so threatening to middle-class domesticity. It reminds us (warns us?) that there are always people living on the fringes of American respectability who are just as smart and a hell of a lot more interesting than those living the lives they’ve been told they should. It provokes righteous indignation in older readers because it’s simultaneously naive and true: we have choices when it comes to how we lead our lives, and ultimately our regret-fueled misery is of our own making because we care too much about what other people think. It’s this disdain for respectability that connects Faulkner and Kerouac, making Cowley’s attraction to both writers less unlikely than it might at first seem.
So if you have an erudite wo/man of letters on your Christmas shopping list, you could do much worse than to buy s/h(e)im an 850-page volume of letters written by a man who changed American literary history for the better.
For most people, not reading is just about the easiest thing in the world to do. But if you’re someone who visits this site, you aren’t one of these people. We try to give you good writing, whether ours or written by others, to feed the need. So once again, here are some pieces we think are worth reading with your Sunday morning coffee (or whenever you get around to it).
- This Newsweek (yeah, I didn’t know it still existed either) profile of the writer William T. Vollmann reveals that the FBI kept (and possibly still keeps) tabs on him and suspected that he might have been the Unabomber. I must confess to never having read an entire Vollmann book, but the excerpts I have read are outstanding. I never would have thought of him as a contender for the Nobel, but given his politics production, the suggestion actually makes sense.
- Two of the most interesting pieces I’ve read on the Richie Incognito affair couldn’t come from more different sources: Grantland and The National Review. Brian Phillips takes on the contrived (and frankly offensive) warrior culture of football in his Grantland article, writing: “Because this — this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground. Every writer who’s spreading this around, directly or by implication; every player who’s reaction-bragging about his own phenomenal hardness; every pundit in a square suit who’s braying about the unwritten code of the locker room — every one of these guys should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.” I tend to agree with this sentiment, but Daniel Foster offers another take over at NRO: “Phillips affectingly writes of America as a ‘nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue’ — the National Football League — ‘where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race.’ But he says that like it’s a bad thing. On the contrary, this compartmentalization and channeling of destructive impulses into less harmful endeavors — recognized in Freud’s concept of sublimation and William James’s ‘moral equivalent of war’ — is the hallmark of a civilized people. Every institutional order needs it. The Amish need their Rumspringa, Europe needs Amsterdam, and a nation of gentle accountants needs the National Football League.” Like I said, I agree with Phillips that the less we tolerate meathead culture the better, but I don’t think Foster is wrong to suggest that if we want that, we might need to accept the end of football.
- I probably don’t need to tell you how awesome the Paris Review is, but it bears repeating: The Paris Review is awesome. Check out this interview with Nabokov and try to tell me otherwise.
- Helen Vendler’s review of Linda Leavell’s new biography/study of the works of Marianne Moore will get your excited to read the works of one of America’s least obviously weird and radical poets.
- And finally, if you have not checked out my friend Drew’s multi-platform project Artbound, this video and article will give you a sense of the kinds of fascinating stories you are missing out on.
As a blog person, I do my best to profit secondarily from brilliant friends. Rachel Monroe is one of these, and, lucky for you, she just wrote a cool piece about a cool book about American violence (et cetera) for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Stop looking out the windows! Stop checking Instagram! Go read!
Esquire is gross. We’ve covered that. Not many texts are more ephemeral than book reviews in Esquire, except maybe reviews in Esquire of recent books by Tom Wolfe; the neo-Social Realist ones. And yet although nothing Tom Wolfe, Esquire, or the General Reader does matters, Benjamin Alsup’s compact but weirdly patient, vicious disposal of Wolfe’s Back to Blood (yeesh, the title) is worth your bytes and clicks. A fundamental thrust:
[. . .] There are no characters in Back to Blood, only caricatures, cartoonish stereotypes that are little more than reflections of their sociocultural contexts. The Cuban cop who loves his pastelitos. The preppy reporter with all the right credentials. The Hialeah honey with a heart of gold and a pussy like a papaya. In Back to Blood, Wolfe comes across as a white guy explaining brown people to a room full of white guys. Sure, he burns pages giving his readers access to these characters’ interiors, but once he’s given you the sociological stats (age, gender, race, occupation) there’s really no need for it. Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could’ve guessed from the jump.
We want your weekend to prosper. We don’t want you wasting time with shitty art. So believe us when we say this, y’all: If it ever comes down to white urban writers, you are better off (you are fantastically well-off) with David Simon or Richard Price (or Tom Wolfe from before 1980).