Tag Archives: Books

Art and ardor: ‘Little Women’

Film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel reflect their decades. An air of making-do with genteel poverty suffuses George Cukor’s 1933 Depression-era version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March. The air of a proficient radio show melodrama characterizes the credible 1949 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation glows as if the four sisters stoked a fire in their hearts. Not for Greta Gerwig gentility or stoicism. In the writer-director’s telling, the March sisters rush pell-mell through rooms and across each other’s sentences; the camera and editing can hardly keep up. It took a half hour to adjust to its rhythms before this Little Women charmed the hell out of me. It makes you work, like a worthwhile relationship. Continue reading

On impeachment, moderation, and whiteness

Inspired by Brenda Wineapple’s fine recent study of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Alex Pareene intertwines the similarities between Johnson and Trump’s voting bases, the political establishment’s fetish for moderation, and having the moral clarity to recognize what is at stake by leaving Trump in office for the sake of keeping his attention long enough to sign legislation.

I’ve written often about the snow job that teachers did on us high schoolers when we got to Reconstruction. Presented as a well-intentioned mangling that ushered in the so-called Gilded Age, Reconstruction was taught as if textbook writers had toiled at the bottom of the ocean to avoid dealing with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts passed a century after the Civil War ended; if they endorsed those attempts to redress a hundred years of spilled blood, then a good faith argument required them to credit the Radical Republicans of 1866 and 1867 for wrenching leadership away from the racist demagogue in the White House whom Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to woo War Democrats, had placed on the ticket a few years earlier.

Pareene:

The Radicals were right about nearly everything, and the moderates—who made a big show of caution and deference to the Constitution and generous accommodation to the office of the president—were plainly wrong. The ones who didn’t even have skin in the game but who wanted representation for those who did were correct to be fanatical in their pursuit of a more perfect country—and, more important, they were right about the baleful and regressive consequences of moderation in the face of extremist and reactionary unreason.

And any actually reasonable observer of American politics over the last several decades would have to conclude that it isn’t the diversity of one party that has led to gridlock. Rather, it’s been the brittle, homogeneous outlook of a conservative party that increasingly counts on a base that is overwhelmingly white and male—but, of course, anyone posing as a moderate interlocutor of good faith can blame their extremism on the diversity of the other side. “Radical liberals made me more racist” is, alas, not a remotely novel claim in American politics. Wineapple writes how, after Johnson angrily declared that “this is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men,” The Chicago Times—a reasonable Republican paper of the time—wrote: “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” In other words: The Radical Republicans made him do it.

We’ve heard variations on the last sentence from our Trump-loving relatives: if liberals didn’t push bathroom bills, paper straws, panic over rising seas, and an equitable health care system, I wouldn’t have voted for the racist!

In the last week we’ve heard testimony from career diplomats that in another era would have flipped a couple of querulous Republicans and instead will remind Americans which party cares about the Constitution. I waffled too on the political merits of impeachment; I’m no legislator. If Pareene is chiding Democratic leadership for abjuring its constitutional duties until early October, he’s not wrong, which makes the timing of this essay unusual.

‘It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell’

Long neglected, Léonie Adams wrote a chiseled verse that, published at modernism’s peak, hearkened to a Pre-Raphaelite splendor. Her friend Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” bore a heavy debt to Adams’ “The Bell Tower,” posted below.

I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower,
The voice also, builded at secret cost,
In temple of precious tissue. Not silent then
Forever – casting silence in your hour.

There marble boys are leant from the light throat,
Thick locks that hang with dew and eyes dewlashed,
Dazzled with morning, angels of the wind,
With ear a-point to the enchanted note.

And these at length shall tip the hanging bell,
And first the sound must gather in deep bronze,
Till, rarer than ice, purer than a bubble of gold,
It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell.

Happy November.

Where the Sontag Falls: A reconsideration

I was one of those readers attracted to Susan Sontag not long after she published her widely reviled squib about the 9-11 attacks. Men in their twenties often perform their steeliness, thus the implacability of her denouncement of sentimental responses made me wonder where Sontag had been in my life. Bully for me — you get Sontag in your twenties or you don’t at all. Continue reading

Harold Bloom — RIP

From Sam Tanenhaus’ review of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence:

The revelation came in Bloom’s “misreadings” — the linkages he found. He made the reader see how John Ashbery really had emerged from Wallace Stevens, just as Stevens had from Whitman; that Browning harbored the ghost of Shelley; that Tennyson issued from Keats. The point was not that “father” and “son” sounded alike. Much of the time they didn’t. The affinities occurred outside the familiar realm of echoes and allusions, of intended references.

Bloom’s theory, he explains in his new book, was the offshoot of his own reading habits, principally his freakish capacity for memorization. He discovered it in childhood, and it never left him. In the early 1960s, he “memorized at first hearing” W. S. Merwin’s “Departure’s Girl-Friend,” a poem of some 40 lines, after Merwin gave a reading at Yale. And even now “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.”

When I met Harold Bloom at a Miami Book Fair event in 2000. during which he promoted How To Read and Why, I asked him to inscribe his favorite verse from his favorite poem in my copy of The Western Canon. I expected a Wallace Stevens excerpt, and he did not disappoint. The bulbous eyeballs, as ponderous as a turtle’s, oozed shut; the head rolled backwards; and the Great Man sort of exhaled the final line from “Sunday Morning:” “Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Disappointed by its predictability, I quoted my favorite (“The fire burns as the novel taught it how”), buried in “The Novel,” one of his least recognized poems. His head shook as if at a grad student who will not accept the final answer proffered him. Later, thirty minutes into his lecture, he left the crowd spellbound with a recitation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” — from memory. A performance in the classic sense: Bloom’s stentorian bullfrog tones hurling the lines at us (I HAVE BECOME A NAME FOR ALWAYS ROAMING WITH A HUNGRY HEART!). At its conclusion no one dared applaud; our clothes were soaked.

In graduate school, I learned from professors to regard Bloom as a sort of Falstaff of lit crit, which, of course, would have tickled him. Too late. They disliked his facility; he had made a show of Reading Everything. He wrote, or, like a seventeenth-century Flemish painter, used apprentices to write expansive prefaces for his Modern Critical Interpretations series on Austen, James, Conrad, Roth, et al, even for his enemies. A Yale man to his bones, he scorned the uncluttered but jargon-infested minds of his colleagues. A proselytizer who reveled in camp (he called me “dear”) and argued for the centrality of Melville, Lionel Johnson, and Hart Crane’s queerness in their strongest work, Bloom loved trolling the students in what he naggingly called the School of Resentment, a portmanteau for writer and scholars who dared to write in explicit terms about their gender, race, and sexuality. He preached the virtues of promiscuous, happy reading — of experimenting for the purpose of developing what he called interiority — but recoiled at any hint of a tract which demanded special pleading. To meet Bloom’s Freud-indebted theory about anxiety of influence was to transcend the personal; great writers like Spenser, Milton, Austen, James, and Woolf, Shakespeare above all, finished an incomprehensible confidence game whereby their iambics and prose rhythms osmosized lusts and ambitions.

Call it a not so clever reapplication of the New Criticism that Bloom professed to dismiss. Or call it a kind of conservative originalism: the poetry is what I say it is. Asserting oneself as the I AM distinguishes the great artist from what he called “period pieces,” the unforgiving category into which he cast Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, George Orwell, and Sylvia Plath (he valued Shelley over the other Romantics). As he aged he conceived ever more novel ways of shitting on Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker; he went so far as to call the Rich-edited 1996 volume of The Best American Poetry  “of a badness not to be believed.” The critic who in the same introduction referred to himself as a “lifelong aesthete” was credibly accused by Naomi Wolf of sexual harassment. A mind that wrestled with the complex ironies in Thomas Mann’s fiction could not imagine artistry that fashioned an essential text out what he called grievance. Nor could he, I suppose, handle grievance in life. 

At the library last weekend I recognized the pull he still exerted over me when I pulled The Anatomy of Influence (2002) from the shelf to read what he’d written about the late W.S. Merwin, whose poetry I was slow to appreciate. As usual he prized the stanzas in which Merwin flexed his he-man muscles and crushed the ancestors who threatened his aesthetic realization. But I often agreed with his excerpts, and I didn’t disagree now. Harold Bloom loved James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, but too often he wheezed like another Allan Bloom. Those hardcover essay collections,  with the cover sketches of the novelists and poets that intimidated me in high school and college, will remain on shelves so long as libraries exist; but the young care not about performing their ablutions before stumbling over something called transcendence, not when they can read “The Mask of Anarchy,” Three Guineas, and The Color Purple for the pleasure they instill and the righteousness they inspire. Sighing heavily against changes for which his capacious erudition didn’t train him, Bloom was an Old Testament prophet rather than a critic, an Ozymandias whose mighty works may crumble into desert dust.