Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.
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Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan

The weekend just pulled into your driveway. Let’s eeease the seat back, as the man says. Here are some links to help you be as intelligent and dynamic as you can be, however chill things might get between now and Sunday. Call us whenever you want.

  • When he wasn’t curating his open-necked-shirt game, economist Thomas Piketty was writing what sounds like a mind-bending study of wealth stratification in the West since the late 1700s. You should buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century book right now, dear reader, as these two reviews (John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Paul Krugman for the NY Review of Books) advise; but don’t try to use Amazon, because it is sold out there. Harvard UP’s Belknap label is scrambling to print more. Let’s hope their scrappy operation can pull through! In the meantime, ruminate on the fact that a work of academic scholarship that is still in hardcover sold this much this fast (it was released only five weeks ago). You can also download the homie’s Technical Appendix for free if you want to wade into some Excel spreadsheets, wizard-math modeling, deep-cover historical footnotes, and other academic flora.
  • America, meet yourself. Sarah Kendzior has written a cool-eyed but harrowing narrative (“The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”) on the efforts of Midwestern fast-food employees to organize for a living wage. Built almost lyrically around the accounts of individual witnesses, this ethnography of labor will remind you that economic collapses are usually also moral catastrophes. Millionaire stockholders and billionaire capital managers exist thanks to workers who, thanks to millionaires and billionaires, don’t make enough to buy a bus pass. If the United States really were an Enlightenment democracy, if the twenty-first century hadn’t become a grim rewind of the late 1800s, Kendzior wouldn’t have needed to write anything. Her work here is so bracing, I don’t mind that the title’s phrasal adjective is missing a hyphen. (Should be “Minimum-Wage,” unless it’s a very subtle pun. I know, I’m a pedant.) Read SK’s work wherever you can—Al Jazeera America publishes a lot of it—because she’s fantastic. Her Twitter feed is also lively. Oh, and she has a PhD in anthropology. Amazing how those useless degrees turn out to be useful.
  • Welfare for humans, bad! Welfare for corporations, very good! (But keep it quiet.) WalMart is on food stamps, y’all, and the company is just about the only food-stamp recipient who deserves your scorn. Add this to your purple-rage-inducing knowledge that ExxonMobil gets federal subsidies and Apple stashes money in Irish shell companies and et fucking cetera.
  • Science is finally catching up with literature: Research published last October in Science indicates that “literary” reading (basically, immersion in fictional narratives that compel aesthetic and philosophical attention while also entertaining the reader) makes you better at recognizing that other people are autonomous subjects, not merely actors in your personal movie. Humanists have been making this argument for centuries. In a recent essay titled “Why Fiction Does It Better,” Lisa Zunshine (whose scholarship draws on narrative art as well as neuroscience) updates the case. No doubt President Obama will mention this in his UC Irvine commencement address.
  • Working within the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC, Dowell Myers and Joel Pitkin have assembled a fascinating report with a deeply academic title, “The Generational Future of Los Angeles: Projections to 2030 and Comparisons to Recent Decades.” Partial preview: The city’s population is not growing quickly, far fewer immigrants are arriving anymore (contra paleocons like Pat “CULTURE WAR MEXIFORNIA” Buchanan), and we need to spend smarter on our educational infrastructure immediately. Angelenos, I promise the report is quite readable, so read it.
  • More on John Keats, language wonder, in the coming weeks; for now, here is a poom by Emily Dickinson—for my money, the purest practitioner of lyric in English not named Shakespeare. The odd punctuation, syntax, and capitalization is all hers. Snakes in a backyard!

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Linking in the Rain

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.

Monday Education Links: Everybody’s Got Ideas

If you don’t yet have time for the long Auden post below, or if you’ve already finished it, here are links to a couple of fantastic texts. Besides advancing sensible points, they’re models of concise, tart rhetoric. It turns out that having experience as a teacher is the main criterion for making credible claims about education. Yes, plenty of non-teacher input is fine, even helpful, as long as it defers to the training and experience of actual educators. Otherwise you are just kibitzing and need to go away now.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Senchyne braved The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference, and now we have his field report. The takeaway? As we at the Reader have long been pointing out, most of the players with grand plans for leveraging Technology and other very innovative things to “disrupt” or remake (for today’s modern society!) American education have never been teachers. Often they’ve been students at elite institutions, but that’s it. Do these people lecture their dentists on how to numb a gum, or push the mechanic out of the way once their sedan is on the lift? The infuriating, absurd details from Senchyne’s piece are its best attribute. You’ll meet insane charlatans from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, as well as former politicians turned corporate-ed pimps, all of them marching in “a parade of highly polished representatives from government, finance, education administration, The New York Times, nonprofit policy tanks, and private-sector business,” all of them “on stage in various combinations to deliver pitches.” And why, yes, Arne Duncan (Harvard, Class of ’87) was there to rep our privately educated (as usual) President’s terrible ideas about mass education.

“But I was a student for a really long time! I know what it takes to teach well.” One hears this on the reg, sometimes candidly, more often as the implicit supposition behind whatever someone is burbling about teacher pay, grading standards, a class being “irrelevant,” or what have you. As Sarah Blaine emphasizes on her blog parentingthecore, this is horseshit. Teaching is an extremely complex, difficult, taxing job at any school level, and most people could never hack it; she herself eventually “copped out” (her words) and became a lawyer, and this led her to conclude something that the Schools for Tomorrow brigade would do well to confront:

The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.

All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.

All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window.

You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed. [. . .]

You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.

The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize.

Blaine taught at a rural high school, but most of what she says applies to college teaching, trust me.

She is not claiming that teaching is a mystical calling that some people are just “born” knowing how to do. Few actual teachers think that way, even if that is how it works in movies. Blaine calls teaching “a profession” because, as with policework or medicine or chemical engineering, “only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert.” She’s right. I am already an effective teacher (no big deal, folks) but I am nowhere close to the educator I could be if I manage to stay in the game another few decades. I learn constantly from more experienced colleagues and from my time in the classroom with my students, most of whom are good kids that, if they are willing to work, deserve to get more from college than debt you cannot even discharge in bankruptcy.

This is why decent academic programs try to cultivate a stable core of faculty, where teachers learn explicitly and implicitly, directly and indirectly, in the short run and over the years, from one another.

And thus we have yet another reason why the adjunctification of the professoriate is a goddamn rolling disaster.

Presidential Links

We have Austrian guests staying with us right now, and when they asked me about the meaning of Presidents’ Day, I realized that I’d never thought about how bizarre it actually is. At least Washington’s Birthday had a kind of mythical ring to it. But Presidents’ Day now means we’re just celebrating the zenith of our awful bought-and-paid-for political system. Might as well call it Ivy League Worship Day. Still, in honor of the fact that many of you are freed from the shackles of work today (sorry, Adam Ted Jacobson), here is some reading material to make your time off more embiggening.

  • Ryan was rightly appalled to hear that I was reading something on Politico the other day. But the chance to read bits of Richard Nixon’s love letters was simply too compelling. I often find myself embarrassed that the lone president the Los Angeles area has given the country is the most reviled one in history. And he’s rightly hated, as the “Southern strategy” his campaigns employed is a big part of the reason our politics are still so racially divided. His letters make him seem pathetic and insecure at times, which makes sense given the paranoia he displayed while in office. But like all people, Nixon contained multitudes, and one of the Nixons buried within him was a maudlin romantic who was obsessed with his wife, Pat. So on this Presidents’ Day, give old Tricky Dick a new reading. It won’t change your opinion of him as a president, but it’s a good reminder that what we know of our leaders even now is incredibly limited.
  • Don’t look now, but us writing teachers have some competition. Not really, but I am sure Anya Kamenetz (with whom I had a slightly heated debate on Twitter a couple weeks back) would love to find a way to replace us with “Hemingway.” No, not the writer, but an app that analyzes prose for “boldness and clarity.” The app is obviously kind of a joke, as some of Hemingway’s best prose  (Ian Crouch’s New Yorker piece uses an excerpt from “The End of Something”) is deemed not bold or clear enough. Still, this is the kind of thing that Silicon Valley “education experts” would no doubt love to see replace actual classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. It doesn’t matter that the app has no way of analyzing the content of one’s prose or the logic of one’s assertions. It gives us analytics that can be crunched and quantified!
  • Speaking of The New Yorker, I’m not telling anyone reading this site something they don’t already know when I say that James Wood is one of the best contemporary literary critics. His prose is lucid and his references are always appropriate. He is exactly the kind of public intellectual Nicholas Kristof is right to say we need more of these days. Kristof writes: “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.” While Kristof’s take isn’t original (like most Times op-eds, this one casts something folks have been saying for years as a new and profound insight), it is worth repeating: academic prose is mostly awful, the subjects many academics study are unimportant and narrow to the point of comedy, and the tenure system doesn’t reward people for doing work that real people (not other academics) enjoy. James Wood is an exception to this unfortunate rule, and his latest essay in the London Review of Books is a good example of what all academics in the humanities should be trying to do. Woods is a better prose stylist than most novelists, so I don’t expect professors to match him on that front, but his unabashed love of storytelling (as opposed to politics, -isms, and theory) makes his work something that “regular” people can engage with. If we want to have any kind of real reading culture (of, hell, even a smart digital media culture) going forward, we need academics to work for the masses, not for each other.

Sunday Links: Land of Little Rain

Driving up to Santa Barbara the other day, I was stunned by how dry everything was. The hills cutting through Calabasas weren’t just brown, they were radiantly brown. It was as if they were screaming. I’m not sure if their screams were taunts (“we’ll be bringing you some fire real soon, you bet”) or pleas, but this drought we’ve been experiencing here is unnerving. While the rest of the country has been dealing with polar vortices and abominable snowmen, California is just drying up. It’s a less obvious and romantic way to go, but it’s happening nonetheless.

But we’re soldiering on here at TGR, bringing you prose straight from the land of little rain. So for your no-football Sunday pleasure (relax, it will be back next week, and hey, there’s always the NBA), we present the following:

  • Slate‘s “Photo Blog” is one of their better regular features, and the current offering is particularly good. David Galjaard’s series of photos of Soviet-era Albanian bunkers is an important reminder that while the Iron Curtain might have fallen a couple decades ago, the terror it brought to the people and the land is still influencing events on a global and local level. I am currently reading Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, his impressionistic study of Soviet crimes, and the death and torment it details is so vast and sadistic that it begins to blur. These Albanian bunkers though are decaying physical monuments to tyranny, a word used too often in American politics to describe minor squabbles about 2% variations in marginal tax rates. Koba knew tyranny, folks. Neither Barack Obama nor Paul Ryan are it.
  • And, right on cue, here’s a great example of defining tyranny down: an Atlantic piece called “The Tyranny of the College Major.” I’m pretty sure the author, Humboldt State philosophy professor J.W. Powell, didn’t write the headline, so I’ll give him a pass, but come on, Atlantic. That faux pas aside, the article is a pitch for basically inverting higher ed: instead of having a common major and a grab bag of GEs, a school would have a common “Great Books” style core, and then students would undertake 3 minor-load fields of study. I find this idea appealing, but it’s a pipe dream for all of the reasons Powell lays out in the piece. Still, I am all for making college harder and less obviously utilitarian. Maybe then big businesses would stop using universities as free (free to them, that is) job training, and our economy could be a place where folks who don’t want to go to college but who are still totally fit for white-collar work aren’t doomed.
  • I have been writing some film criticism lately, so I was pleased to stumble across (or Twitter across?) this short Richard Brody post on The New Yorker‘s website about the role of the film critic now that more information about more films is readily available to anyone with Internet access (so most people who’d want to read film criticism). I particularly like the following observation: “The rise of independent filmmaking has given rise to its own downside: the writer-director, in that order. Many of the worst independent films are marked by the sense that the filmmakers, who wrote their own scripts, became directors largely to protect their scripts and to transmit their content to the screen as purely as possible. In classic Hollywood, it was the producer who kept directors bound to scripts, and the great Hollywood directors were always those who—regardless of what the credits say—had a great deal of input in the scripts and even changed them on the set, in spite of possible resistance from producers. In the decadent form of independent filmmaking, such constraints are self-imposed.”
  • Sarah Kendzior, whom Ryan has written about before, is a fantastic writer. I don’t always agree with her, and I get the impression that her politics are more radical than my own, but her latest post for Chronicle Vitae is spot on. The role of academic publishing in the higher ed labor market is not talked about enough, especially in light of the fact that it seems to exist solely to prop up the tenure system at this point. Most academics aren’t making money off of their UP monographs, and they usually end up getting read by maybe a dozen people. Meanwhile, activities like blogging, creative writing, popular press publishing, and journalism often don’t count towards tenure and promotions. Higher ed needs to undergo a lot of pretty fundamental transformations in relation to how it allocates money, but another major change that needs to happen is within departments themselves: they need to encourage their faculty to think of themselves as teachers first, as public writers second, and as academic researchers (a very distant) third. Crazy, I know. This kind of thinking is probably why I’m not on the tenure track. Frankly, I’m happy not to be.

Cowley’s Return

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.

Must Be Dylan

I’m sure this isn’t new to any of you, but I think it’s worth revisiting the weirdness of Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa” song and video this holiday season. A few days ago, Slate claimed that there hasn’t been a good original Christmas song in 19 years. The article even references Dylan’s 2009 album Christmas in the Heart, yet fails to acknowledge the brilliance of this creepy gem. So, if your morning is leanin’ (or even if it’s a little dusty), this should help fix that.