Reading roundup

Paul Mariani — The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens

To pass from Hart Crane to this vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity is like going from a brothel to a storage closet. Paul Mariani, Crane’s biographer, surely knew he had accepted the hardest commission of his career. The “life of Wallace Stevens” is the life of his poetry. Few surprises emerge. There’s this one, an incident in his college years: “in a restaurant on Harvard Square he announced to everyone that he was going to rape a waitress.” But Mariani is an expert street cleaner: “In any event he was ready to forget all that and move on.” For thirty years Stevens worked with inexorable self-discipline, never leaving his abode in the surety claims department without clearing his desk. After a rather feverish courtship of Elsie Viola Kachel, he realized she was a bore and never dealt with her again. If she was a bore, he was a boor after a couple of the dry martinis he loved to drink at the Canoe Club. Their daughter Holly, later executrix of his estate, married in Stevens’ charming phrase “a Polack” to get out of the house (it took a divorce to reconcile them). Except for a couple of jaunts to Cuba he stayed in the United States. He maintained a voluminous correspondence with global admirers; his letters deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Keats’ or Virginia Woolf’s journals. Only pedants still wonder how this Hoover Republican wrote the twentieth century’s quietest, strangest, and often saddest poetry, composed on his two-mile walks to the Hartford. As the life turned greyer those familiar tercets and infinitive phrases attained a suppleness that ranked with Emily Dickinson’s mastery of the dash, Marianne Moore’s ductile polysyllabics, and Wordsworth’s blank verse. The life ebbed, absorbed into the poetry. He spent his final years writing unofficial elegies like this:

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion…

Randall E. Woods — Prisoners of Hope

Relieved that scholars have shucked off the reflexive suspicion of the Great Society, in part because it was twinned with Vietnam, this author of an LBJ biography is one of the better informed analyses of the extraordinary legislative energy demonstrated by the Eighty-Ninth Congress. Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts we know (Nick Kotz’s redoubtable 2005 Judgment Days covered the latter); less well understood are congressional commitments to clean water, conservation, the testing of medicines for safety, refurbished libraries and public squares, fair housing, and arts funding. Turning John F. Kennedy into a martyr helped: the tax cut that JFK proposed and LBJ passed paid for the Great Society (Republicans since 1980 by contrast want tax and social services cuts). Thanks to Ronald Reagan and liberal fealty to the Kennedys that has at last started to wane, the impact of the Economic Opportunity Act, through which millions of Americans could take literacy courses and vocational training, has been undersold. LBJ, Woods writes, disliked the dole; whenever possible, he chose options that put citizens to work or gave them the tools with which to return to work — what Woods calls Johnson’s preference for “political and educational empowerment of the poor and disadvantaged so that they could better compete.” Johnson’s was a conception of rights as positive not negative; he was as reluctant to sever helping the poor from civil rights as he was severing his prodigious charm from his malice. Woods devotes a chapter to how early twentieth century Progressivism reinforced Jim Crow in the South and separatism in the North; and how the early New Deal, assuming that the foundations of American capitalism and its relation to labor remained unassailable, gave citizens some measure of economic security and stopped there. During the nadir of the Vietnam War and white backlash, LBJ’s legacy was secure: “Fiscal year 1969 ended with a $3.2 billion surplus and with most of the Great Society programs intact.” Through cynicism and indifference, the Nixon administration built on those achievements.

Kingsley Amis – Stanley and His Women

I can see the day when I’ll have no Kingsley Amis left to read. This 1984 novel triggered controversy because of the swinish things that the title character and his confreres say about women and the mentally ill. Combine this fact with Amis’ Thatcherism (as much an exercise in sensual imagination) and the success of 1986’s Booker Prize winner The Old Devils and it’s easy to understand why Stanley and His Women suffers from malign neglect. It’s no worse than One Fat Englishman or Difficulty With Girls — those late novels depicting sextagerian men and women luxuriating in smoke-filled pubs; the malice has a tranquilizing effect. Readers who giggle at the following excerpt are advised to roll up their skinny jeans and wade in:

I remember Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians — if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

Imagine Kingsley slapping his knee as he followed this gnarled conceit to its gruesome end.

Anthony Trollope – The Prime Minister

In which Plantagenet Palliser becomes prime minister and forms a coalition government without a platform, to the frustration of wife Lady Glencora. Meanwhile a young cad of Portuguese and possibly Jewish descent named Ferdinand Lopez casts an appraiser’s eye on Emily Wharton, daughter of a sour and miserly lawyer. The two threads intersect when Lopez stands for a seat in Parliament and loses. At a formidable seven hundred pages, The Prime Minister makes for breathless reading; I finished it in five days. But I understand why Henry James demurred on the novelist’s ultimate worth. Although the reader never doubts Lopez is a scoundrel, Trollope won’t plumb his shallows. Emily remains a stock figure of tremulous femininity, infatuated by father, cowed by husband. As for the politics, every time the novel looks like it’s going to offer trenchant insights into the vacuity of ambition, it cuts away. Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn fused the private and public spheres with fewer seams.

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