Posts from January 2009

January 31st, 2009

Poetry Class!

Our poem today comes from the 16 January issue of the TLS. It’s called “Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers” and it’s by Eric Bliman:

Wounded, he must have crawled out of the surf
to lie between two boulders, blond and smooth
and his lost brothers. Below the bite,
a stain has soaked his flank’s embroidered gold.
I can’t help noticing the seabird-emptied sockets,
the frayed, black eyelids tasseled like anemones,
and his face built for underwater speed
and for that child-like play among his kind, which serves
two purposes: grace, and hunting practice.
After his war with sharks or killer whales had ended
in his suffering, he turned back to face the sea,
that other, older brother he left reluctantly.
Trudging back up the footpath, lost in dazzle,
I pass men and women clad all in neoprene
with boogie-boards tucked beneath their arms
like candy-coated tribal shields. They descend
the last few steps from that airy world above
and emerge into this brilliant afternoon
they’ve set aside for battle.

January 31st, 2009

Branwell!


Our book today is Branwell by Douglas Martin (the author of the weirdly original Outline of My Lover), a historical novel about Patrick Branwell Bronte, the so-called ‘lost Bronte,’ brother to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. It’s an quick, affecting novel, about one of literature’s most poignant losers.

Young Branwell was handsome and raucously imaginative, but yeesh, talk about the deck of life’s cards being stacked against you. Not only was his father a cramped, carping hypochondriac, but all three of his sisters there in the family parsonage at Haworth were prodigiously talented writers – exactly what Branwell always considered himself to be. Indelible masterpieces of English literature were germinated at that parsonage – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, etc. – mainly because the three sisters made the crucial decision to take the incredibly elaborate day-dreaming all four of them had always indulged in and match it with work, with the actual generating of written pages. Branwell never took that step; he seemed always to want the day-dreaming to count alone.

In addition to which he’s about as strong an argument as I know of for the idea that substance-addiction is a medical condition, something that strikes an individual like polio or consumption, rather than a consistently self-destructive choice. I don’t cotton to that idea – what we do is always a choice – but reading the sad tale of Branwell’s life is almost enough to give pause. From his early teens on, he always manages to find a congenial ale-house, and even after he can see as plainly as anybody that it’s piling him under debt and ruining his life, he still doesn’t stop.

Martin’s book is told in a semi-dreamlike staccato present tense, and it’s thickly overhung with a sense of pre-destined tragedy worth of the ancient Greeks:

His conduct, he feels, is marked by a cold debauchery, cutting its way down into his soul. There’s the Lord Nelson to drink at, which stood in a square about a mile or so uphill from the station, beside the church.

He’s chipping away at what he once dreamed of being.

For just these nights, they exchange their lives, from the distance over drink. He likes the places where the rough types and cultivated gentlemen meet. He’s lost there everything familiar, but drink, his constant companion.

Just how far could he push this body.

In July of 1845, Branwell was abruptly dismissed from his position as tutor to young Edmund Robinson. The boy’s father wrote an angry letter firing Branwell, alluding darkly to behavior “bad beyond expression.” Branwell returned home and promptly lost himself in drinking, and speculation has been rife ever since as to what exactly happened. Daphne du Maurier, in her richly atmospheric, thoroughly absorbing 1960 biography of Branwell, treats the matter with her customary psychological delicacy:

If Branwell had been writing love letters to Mrs. Robinson, the husband would not have threatened him with exposure, for to expose Branwell would also expose the lady who received the letters. Did the Robinsons keep silent for the sake of Anne, and to spare Mr. Bronte, having learned something about Branwell which, in his father’s near-blindness and uncertain state of health, might have proved a deathblow? It is possible that, left at Thorp Green with Edmund, and free from the constraining presence of his employer, he had attempted in some way to lead Edmund astray: no other “proceedings … bad beyond expression” would quite seem to warrant “pain of exposure,” and a charge “to break off instantly and forever all communication with every member of the family.”

Martin’s book came out in 2005, so its sensibilities aren’t quite so doubting. Although historians of a more romantic or prudish turn of mind have always stuck to the story that reckless Branwell fell passionately in love with his employer’s wife, Martin’s novel has him setting his sights elsewhere, and even provides a semi-dreaming Anne as witness:

She heard something. Who was outside, there on the landing. Anne would have to go see, her heart beating in her ears.

The shadows of trees thrown over the walls painted in a picture, of limbs, and arms, around a body; a boy, in shadows, only waiting to be uncovered, gain with the wind a bit more stature, to rise up beside what appears to be another body. Two bodies were surely out there together. One of them is not quite as tall as the other.

Limbs only cradle other limbs.

We’ll never know what happened that summer at Thorp Green, and Branwell himself died only a few years later, an utterly broken failure despite having been an equal partner in the unbelievably rich imaginings of his sisters while they were all growing up. Martin’s very good book captures the surrealistic feel of that shared dream-world, and it leaves us wondering what we always wonder about people like Branwell Bronte: what things might he have done, if he’d had control over his own life?

January 30th, 2009

In Memoriam: John Updike

Ever since John Updike succumbed to his horrifically painful and protracted death-struggle (that’s a note to all you tobacco-addicts out there – such an end waits for you too!), summaries and encomiums have been pouring into the public press (next week’s New Yorker will rightfully take the pride of place, but everybody’s doing it). Over at Open Letters, a graceful approach was adopted: letting a segment of the man’s fiction speak for him, speak in his memory.

That’s certainly more graceful than the more formal notice I myself would have written (we had the same problem when David Foster Wallace died; after hearing my original draft of the death-notice, John Cotter pointed out as gently as he could that it was bad form to use an obituary to get the last word in an ongoing argument with somebody – a sentiment which, however correct, proves categorically that John is not Irish). As some of you may know, I’ve hated Updike’s prose for pretty much as long as it’s been swamping every publication venue from The New Yorker to The Sewanee Weekly Shopper. I’ve always found his fiction mind-bogglingly dull and grindingly self-absorbed (ditto for most of his contemporaries), his poetry very nearly as banal as my own, and his vast array of essays ploddingly quotidian. His speeches were goofy (and not in a good way), his book reviews were timidly turgid – even his single chuckle on “The Simpsons” was, I thought, unconvincing.

So I’ve been looking with a fishy eye on all this praise that’s being heaped on his still-warm corpse (and still-tepid corpus). But in Thursday’s New York Times, there was a one-two punch that finally got to me (actually, there were three punches, but the essay by Lorrie Moore was as inane and idiotic as everything else she’s ever written in her entire life, so it doesn’t count).

The first part was a quarter-page notice Updike’s publisher Knopf took out – a singular tribute, regardless of what I myself think of the man.

And the second was a very brief Op-Ed notice by Verlyn Klinkenborg, in which she writes:

John Updike may well turn out to have been America’s Anthony Trollope. This is high praise. Both wrote dozens of novels – including interlinked sets – and both worked at writing as if if were a kind of cobbling, a sometimes magical job to which they went deliberately each day. What we remember best from both Trollope and Updike is not so much the struggles of individual characters but the social and cultural webs in which their characters are caught.

I admit, that worked on me (not the inharmonious prose, mind you – the construction ‘not so much’ calls for ‘as,’ for instance, and surely ‘those’ would have been better than that concluding ‘their’). For the longest time (despite being, as you can see, a stone-cold super-hottie), felt toward Trollope pretty much exactly as I now feel toward Updike; fifty years ago, I could easily have written the above paragraph of serial damnations about Trollope, and I would have meant it as sincerely as I mean it now about Updike.


But I try to keep my mind open to a gradual re-exmanination of all my literary certainties, and time changed my opinions of Trollope, who I now comfortably rank higher than Dickens as a novelist of Victorian society. And after reading that sentiment by Klinkenborg, I no longer feel quite so rock-solid certain about Updike (rock-solid in my opinions, that is – as you can all see, my abs are entirely rock-solid …). Despite my hard-won experience that the answer is ‘yes,’ I find myself now asking, “Can an output of such enormous length and variety be entirely bad?”

So I’ll make this concession to the ghost of John Updike: I’ll keep an open mind. In ten years, I’ll re-read the Rabbit books, some essays (there’ll be a gorgeously-produced magnum opus collection of them by then, I’m sure), and even some poems, and we’ll see what time has done to my old condemnations.

And in the meantime, I’ll consider our ongoing argument closed. In Memoriam.

January 29th, 2009

Under the Hammer!


Our book today is Under the Hammer by Fiona Watson, a short, very engaging study of King Edward I’s strenuous attempts to conquer Scotland, which lasted from 1286 to 1307. Those attempts eventually got passed on like bad genes to Edward’s disastrous successor Edward II (he of the baroquely hideous death), but Watson’s book is concerned with Edward I alone. It’s not a sociological study of Scottish life in the 13th century, nor is it a treatise on the cause of Scottish independence. This is straight-up military history.

It’s also a good example of a phenomenon I’m sure you’ve all noticed: the weird isotope-life of certain books. You read them, you write in the margins, you finish, and you move on – but with some books, that’s just the beginning of their isotope-life. You find yourself going back to them, rereading them even when there’s no overwhelming literary reason to do so. These books become pleasant little safe-havens on your bookshelves … they aren’t your schoolmasters, and they aren’t your best friends, but their particular isotopes have locked them into being welcoming destinations in your mind.

I’ve always wondered what causes this, and I think it boils down to the combination of non-literary circumstances in your life at the time you first read these books, combined with the actual experience of that first reading. Somehow, those positives get bound up in these specific books – opening them is almost like catching a strong whiff of happy times.

I first read Under the Hammer in the late ’90s shortly after it was published, at a time when the general tenor of my daily life was especially settled and happy. And more specifically, I actually sat down to read the book under conditions I clearly remember as being pretty blissful: I was well-fed, pain-free, stretched out on a comfy futon in an empty apartment on a cool, rainy day, with my best dog curled contentedly on my lap. I had one hand on the dome of his head as he slept, and I turned the pages with the other hand, and the rain kept hitting the window pane, and just as I finished reading, he began waking and stretching and wanting to go for a long, cold, blustery walk out in the elements. It was the perfect 90 minutes, almost suspended in mid-air, and it’s made me smile every time I’ve returned to the book over the intervening years.

Which isn’t to say weird nostalgia is all Watson’s book has going for it! This is a fast-paced and determinedly level-headed factual account of a brief epoch in history that’s all too often swathed in glowingly distorted romanticism: the evil old English king, coveting a free land of brave men, resisted to their dying breaths by heroic figures like William Wallace and Robert Bruce. Referring to Edward I, one critic witheringly commented on “the pantomime grotesque of the monarch in the recent anachronistic, lazy, and cynical celluloid depiction of the career William Wallace, Braveheart.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Edward I was a fierce and rapacious man, yes, as were all the Plantagenets. He was also masterful, as quite a few Plantagenets were. But in her companionable book, Watson is much more interested in clearly telling the story of one kingdom making two decades of war on another. That warfare arose, ostensibly, because the throne of Scotland suddenly fell empty and the Scots sued Edward to sort out the rival claimants. Watson wades bravely into the legal niceties and not-so-niceties:

The difference between arbitration and judgement was crucial. The former, which implied, nay, demanded, neutrality on the part of the arbitrator, also required the participation of only two candidates. Judgement, on the other hand, carried with it certain rights, the most important of which was possession of the kingdom in order to execute the judgement on behalf of the successful candidate – a point which Edward seems to have grasped long before the Scots. [Historian A.A.M.] Duncan has built up a very strong case to suggest not only that the king was the first to intimate that this was a question of judgement, rather than arbitration, but also that h inspired the emergence from the woodwork of the ‘motley group’ which now put in a claim for the throne. There were fourteen candidates in total, including Edward himself, based, as the Scots apparently thought, on his position as judge requiring to have authority to execute judgement on behalf of the other claimants, a necessary legal evil. The order of events taking place between 3 and 12 June is absolutely crucial to our understanding of how Edward emerged both with sasine (legal possession) of the kingdom and as overlord of Scotland; the fact that the king required his notary, John of Caen, to rewrite that order in his Great Roll after the conquest of 1296 is evidence in itself that the way it had actually happened had not been particularly to his liking.

What Watson is perhaps too kind to say outright in that passage (one can legitimately suspect kindness on her part – she dedicates her book not only to her mum and dad but to her two cats) is a sentiment Edward himself voiced among confidants on more than one occasion: if the Scots were just too stupid to manage their own kingdom, it was his moral duty to take it from them. After all (as Queen Elizabeth would still be learning two hundred years later), a quick treaty with Scotland puts France right on England’s doorstep.

Maybe Watson’s kindness is another part of why I keep coming back to this book, while longer and more weighty biographies of Edward I, William Wallace, and the Bruce all sit neglected on my shelves. Throughout her book she manages always to be fair and even-handed toward all her participants, and she’s unobtrusively wonderful at reading historical realities between the often scanty lines:

On balance, therefore, Edward and his mighty military machine had certainly made considerable progress in the process of reconquest [in 1301]; equally, the Scots, in military terms, had been forced into a largely reactive position, though there were moments when guerrilla tactics seemed to regain the initiative. However, a thorough examination of all aspects of the military machine reveals considerable weaknesses for which the king’s impotent fury at the frustration of his plans is evidence in itself.

Edward was often frustrated during the long years when he was trying to conquer Scotland; he was perennially short of money, and even English victories in some glorious battles (especially those not-infrequent occasions when the archers on both sides were too drunk to make much of an impression and the cold, sleety hours were decided by hand-to-hand combat) couldn’t induce men to stay on unpaid. Watson consistently updates us on the unsung heroics of the men who were Edward’s sheriffs and under-sheriffs throughout this period, men whose job it was to put a friendly (well, friendly enough) face on the myriad new rules the English brought with them in every wave of invasion. Without these administrators (as we’d now call them), a tough job would have been even tougher for Edward, and it’s sweet of Watson to keep them in mind.

But then, I think the whole book is sweet. I can honestly recommend it to anybody wanting to know the truth behind Braveheart and other such pieces of nonsense, but I’m not kidding myself: despite its merits, you’ll never like this book as much as I do – your isotopes will be different, of course.

January 28th, 2009

Geographica: Liechtenstein!


Geographica turns today to the February 1981 issue of National Geographic, and we turn to that issue because a number of people read my recent posting on Danielle Steel’s book H.R.H. and emailed me (too shy for the comments field, apparently!) wondering if that book’s principal setting, the tiny German kingdom of Lichtenstein, is a real place. It of course is (although the spelling of its name wanders, as German spellings sometimes do), although a person could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, since it’s been a tried-and-true pick for a foreign-sounding location that sounds fictitious.


But no, Liechtenstein is real enough. It’s minuscule (forty times smaller than Rhode Island!)(although not, as that might make you think, the smallest such pocket-kingdom in the world – it’s fairly roomy compared to some of the others), and it’s benignly corrupt (it’s tax-laws are so lax that you can set up a holding company there even if you show up at the Registry carrying burlap sacks with dollar-signs drawn on them), nestled comfortably under the greater corruption of Switzerland and possessing no currency or army of its own.

Liechtenstein is a rich little country, therefore – its postage stamps are prized by collectors all over the world, it’s skiing and mountain sports are destination-spots for the international jet-setting crowd, and its hereditary monarchy sits on a personal treasure-trove brimming with priceless works of art. It’s perfectly fitting that a writer as possessed by surface-levels as Danielle Steel would pick Liechtenstein for the fairy-tale setting to one of her books: nestling comfortably in one of the little country’s hotel rooms while an Alpine blizzard rages outside, it actually seems like a fairy tale place.

But even as far back as 1981, Robert Booth’s National Geographic article – and, more menacingly, John Launois’ photographs – make it clear that Liechtenstein isn’t perfect. As in so many other places in this worried old world of ours, evil can creep into even the most idyllic of settings – it moves on soft feet, evil does … soft feet, and very, very short legs.


Liechtenstein, even beautiful Liechtenstein, has not been immune. We must pray for this tiny country.

January 26th, 2009

The Modern Library!


Can we pause and give a cheer or two for the Modern Library? My continuing ad hoc look at noteworthy book series certainly has to include a loving nod to Modern Library with its distinctive colophon of the running torch-bearer – this series has been around since 1917 (born, according to legend, as a kind of publishing answer to Britain’s Everyman line, which featured woefully few American authors), and although the physical dimensions and look of its editions has varied over the decades, the mission has remained the same: publishing great books in attractive editions for reasonable prices.

For most general readers – the ones who’ve been paying even occasional, desultory interest to such things, that is – the history of those various Modern Library editions falls into four vague eras, each tied to a signature incarnation. The first era was small: the books were produced as little hand-sized hardcovers, in specific competition with Everyman, whose handy hardcovers had revolutionized the very nature of publishing (not to mention putting great lists of classic books within the reach of a huge potential reading public).


The second era was blue: the so-called ‘giants’ that Modern Library started bringing out shortly after its launch – these were physically bigger books and fatter as well: War and Peace, Moby-Dick, a whopping great volume with the poetry of Keats and Shelley, etc. The boards of their covers were often a deep blue in color, and the quality of their paper in many of the runs was poor enough to invite quick discoloration – but still, you could get all of Plutarch’s Lives or Les Miserables or the novels of Jane Austen, for around $1! This was the Modern Library philosophy at the time, in competition with the likes of Penguin and Everyman: great literature cheap.


The third era was beige: for a brief interval around the 1970s, Modern Library editions started coming out in a uniform style: brown boards on the covers, and plain beige paper dust jackets. I knew lots of people in the industry at the time who deplored this new look, but I loved it; what could say “the literature is what’s important, not the packaging” more directly and clearly than the book equivalent of school uniforms? This was the era where I originally stocked up on Modern Library editions (most of which have now dispersed to the four corners of the multiverse, without my intent or recall): Arthur Waley’s Tale of Genji, Plutarch, the great philosophers, and their three-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. These books were great: solidly put together and pleasingly plump in the hand. They were an unprepossessing joy to own, which makes it all the more mysterious why I currently own so few … but that’s one of the ongoing enigmas of a constantly-changing personal library, I guess …


The fourth and current era is, ironically, beautiful. The bulk of Modern Library’s output these days are paperbacks, not hardcovers, and somewhere along the line, somebody smart took the line aside and said, “Look, the original mission, producing great literature cheap? It won’t work anymore – everything is more expensive, and it’s virtually impossible anymore to marry quality with economy.”

Whoever that person was, he was right – and so Modern Library not only took the opposite direction, it embraced the opposite direction: their books are now priced normally for trade paperbacks (picking the Modern Library edition no longer guarantees you the lowest price), but they are very of the the prettiest editions available, and that’s not as contemptible as it sounds. These editions are marked by often excellent scholarship, and of course the works themselves are still immortal classics – but the books as physical objects are now the opposite of those beige-jacketed hardcovers from thirty years ago: they’re very attractive-looking volumes, the type of things that give a little burst of pleasure every time you take one down from the shelf.

Probably this will be the last era for Modern Library – and for all other lines of ‘great books’ coming from publishers. After all, materials are only going to get more expensive, and readers who can even attempt to read these mighty, difficult, incredibly rewarding works are only going to dwindle in number, educational standards being what they are. I hope I’m wrong – I hope the future of the physical book has many eras, each more interesting than the last. But if publishing like this really is doomed, at least Modern Library – which brought so much great literature to so many people – is going out on a high note.

January 24th, 2009

John Singer Sargent, the Later Portraits!


Our book today is John Singer Sargent , The Later Portraits, the third volume in Yale University Press’ ongoing series of the artist’s complete paintings. It was written by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, with the indefatigable assistance of a cadre of incredibly hard-working research assistants, and its main focus is the early part of the 20th century, 1909-1925, when Sargent was moving away from the high society portraits that had made his fortune and reputation. He made this move, he said, for two reasons: first, he was starting to feel he’d exhausted the potential of the genre, and second, he thought his talents in that genre were diminishing as time went by.

It should be admitted promptly that he was right on both counts. For the genre of society portraiture in general, no better metaphor could be found than the inventory of studio props catalogued at the beginning of this volume: a handful of decorative chairs, a couple of tapestries, some evocative tabletop odds and ends, some marble plinths … the list and photos barely fill two pages. There’s only so many ways even the most clever artist can arrange and re-arrange these things – and likewise there are only so many things you can do with a formal portrait before you’ve done them all and start doing them all again, and then again and again. Even for an unimaginative sort (and Sargent, no matter how it might make his detractors howl, was deeply, almost argumentatively unimaginative), it must perforce grow wearying.

And the second point is also true: Sargent wasn’t doing his best work in the genre anymore. Doing society paintings well requires one quality above all others – conviction. And you can really only have conviction when you’re an eager outsider, trying to paint your way in. Once you become a member of society on your own, once you’re as well known – or better known – as half your sitters, the fact that they are your sitters fails to excite fascination or envy. And if you’re not feeling those things, you don’t have much chance of making others feel those things, which is the whole point of society portraiture (although members of society – then or now – would likewise howl that this isn’t why they do it at all).

So this is an odd volume, gorgeously reproducing piece after piece of what the artist himself often referred to as not his best work. If you turn the pages quickly, allowing only flash upon flash of images, you quickly start to feel a certain angry tenor of boredom: who are all these well-dressed, arrogant-looking useless social ornaments? Who, in the 1920s, would be hidebound and condescending enough to commission a full-length oil painting of themselves, when photography was even then enjoying its first golden age? If you turn the pages quickly, all you see is one self-satisfied smirk after another, one bored, contemptuous face after another looking back at you, secure in a way nobody is secure anymore, secure in a way you suspect nobody was then either, which only adds to the anger, since it makes this parade not only patronizing but self-consciously fake.

It’s natural to feel this irritation. These are mostly British portraits – with a handful of Americans thrown in – and if you turn the pages quickly, easy retorts begin springing to mind: that the world these people knew is gone, that the Second World War and the hundred tawdry progresses of the 20th century swept it away, that it was top-heavy and etiolated with decadence and unearned privilege even while Sargent was taking its likeness. Etc. Swells, the mind retorts. Conceited, arrogant, useless old grandees.

But if you slow down and actually look at the pictures, outrage quiets down and an involuntary interest starts percolating – that’s Sargent’s genius, even in decline. Yes, he consciously emulates Gainsborough and Reynolds by gilding a world, wrapping it in splendor. But then he takes a tiny half-step ahead of his illustrious predecessors by limning everything in just the faintest suggestion of melancholy – not just the glorious sunset of a world, but the softest presentiments of twilight as well. It’s an uncanny trick, and when he does it right, the personalities of his sitters stand out so clearly in the gathering dusk that the modern-day viewer stops feeling aggravated by all the surface toadying going on and starts almost involuntarily asking, “Who were these people?”

Once you ask that, Sargent’s got you. With lots of other portrait painters, you ask that question dutifully, because you want to know who’s at the center of all this fuss. But with Sargent, you ask it because you’ve paused just long enough to see individuals looking back at you from the canvas. At the height of his power and fame, Sargent was often characterized as a cruel painter, somebody who would very consciously lay open his subjects’ innermost flaws and contradictions. But he was always more than that – he was always more Holbein than Durer. He decks many of his subjects in anachronistic dress and ornament, has them recline in manners more fitting to Van Dyck than the Edwardian era, and in doing that he seems to idealize everything in view – which makes the telling idiosyncrasies, when they invariably appear, all the more startling (Sargent was fond of defining a portrait as “a picture of somebody in which something is not quite right with the mouth”). But the gesture that stops these idiosyncrasies from being cruel is that they, too, are gently idealized. “I’d rather look like a Sargent,” one London matron remarked, “than Helen of bloody Troy.”

That matron’s sentiments would have been enthusiastically echoed by Lady Margaret Spicer, the daughter of the twelfth Earl of Westmoreland, whom Sargent painted early in the period covered by this volume. It’s a fine work, done in a vaguely neo-Classical setting and costume, and it’s filled with subtleties that defeat the casual glance – you have to look at it to see it. Lady Margaret‘s stance is a perfect mixture of rigid and casual, and the effect Sargent works into the creamy folds of her drapery (and the gently shimmering color of her olive shoulder sash) is so simple and yet so suggestive that it could only have been done by a bored master. Likewise Lady Margaret’s face, in which the hint of her natural good humor peaks out from a very purposefully blasé façade (and notice Sargent faithfully captures the uneven glance of her eyes – idiosyncratic, but not cruel).

Or what about revered and beloved Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, whose colleagues took up a collection to pay Sargent for his portrait? William James lent his studio on the Riverway, and porters brought over the “President’s Chair” for Lowell to occupy, and Sargent fretfully suggested his subject wear his “official gown” … and the end result is wonderful, so much more than any of those various ingredients. The slightly exaggerated shadows on the right side of Lowell’s face serve to highlight the brightness of his puckish character – the man looks ready to speak, and the attentive viewer can already intuit something playful and perceptive in what will be said. The light Sargent has captured in Lowell’s eyes is something only portraiture can do – in a photograph, it would only be a reflection.

Despite being comparatively late in his portrait-painting career, these pictures can still be deeply conventional. Sargent’s tastes were moving toward the more impressionistic (his final painting of Isabella Steward Gardner is virtually a séance of bright white drapery), but he still knew exactly what high society expected of a ‘vintage Sargent,’ and this book is full of brightly-rendered ladies of all ages, usually sitting or standing in elegant, affected disregard. These are gorgeous pictures, but even a glance shows them also to be lucrative commissions, and there’s an unavoidable sameness about many of them. But the exceptions show how much was going on under the surface – and this book has many exceptions, like the glowing, winsome portrait of young Lili Coats with the bright red sash around her negligible waist. She looks every bit the ingénue (one critic caustically remarked on the new stage on Sargent’s career, as a “painter of debutantes”), but still the painter managed to work into the posture, the face, some hint of the woman she would become. Twenty years after this portrait was painted, she became a very formidable Duchess of Wellington – and you can see a hint of it here.

And there’s the magnificent portrait of the tenth Earl of Wemyss and March, still a lively, forceful personality even when this picture was made, when Lord Wemyss had to be in his late eighties. As he often does in these late portraits, Sargent chooses heavy, dark draperies for his subject, the better to illuminate their remarkable faces in what more than one critic likened to a burst of sunlight. Sargent in this period is growing more and more fascinated with the uses and manipulations of light – and he grew fussy about it, usually refusing to paint sitters anywhere but in his own carefully-arranged studio.

He made an exception for the bewitching Duchess of Portland, packing up his show and taking it to one of her estates, where he stayed for a month in 1902, doing innumerable pencil sketches and even going so far as to destroy a nearly-finished canvas, declaring it had no life in it (although some of this can be chalked up to a wayward strain of perfectionism that sometimes reared up in Sargent, there was also exceptional food to be had at the Duchess’ estate …). The end result certainly brims with life; the Duchess looks every bit as beautiful and slightly hunted as she did in the flesh, and here once again Sargent has managed to get the maximum effect out of a minimum of ornament, the stark whites and reds coming together in the mildly flushed tones of the Duchess’ face.

This period produced some of Sargent’s best-known portraits: Lord Ribblesdale in full hunting regalia (and full lordly disdain), Henry James doing his best to look sultry, Theodore Roosevelt doing his best to look statesmanlike, a fetching Nancy Astor doing her best not to look like the bought-and-paid-for bargaining chip she was; the smile-inducing group portrait of the fourth Earl of Gosford’s three daughters, etc. But there’s impatience lurking in even the best of these pictures. Sargent had lost whatever passion for this kind of work he once felt, and he was worried the lack was beginning to show. The next Yale volume features work that is starting to look very different indeed, and that, too, adds a tint of melancholy to this volume. The decades covered in this book represent that last flourishing of formal portrait-painting done while it was still a more-or-less acceptable indulgence. It’s still done, by the wealthy – but now, unlike then, they’re only laughed at for the vanity of it. So Sargent really was capturing a vanishing world – theirs, and his own as well.




January 17th, 2009

Admiral Number One!

Our book today is a rabble-rousing little thing called Admiral Number One by Charles H. Miller, and its subject is Esek Hopkins, Rhode Island sea captain and first admiral of the fledgling Colonial Navy. Esek was the younger brother of Stephen Hopkins, a delegate to the Continental Congress and a true and worthy patriot. Which just goes to show you how much variety there can be in brothers, because the early years of the American Revolution have few worse scoundrels in them than Esek Hopkins. It’s almost surreal, finding a little book like this one whose sole intent is to praise the man.

Charles H. Miller is, as he tells us many times, a descendant of the Hopkins “clan,” and he admits his brief biographical sketch isn’t all that objective. He sets out to prove that Esek Hopkins was a great hero of the Revolution, unfairly criticized in his own day by profit-minded “men of the city” and unfairly neglected by posterity. Miller even manages to find a statue of his hero, to adorn the front cover of his book.

Families are entitled to write partisan histories, and Esek Hopkins will likely remain an obscure figure no matter what anybody writes. Even John Paul Jones, who served under him, would have been reduced to a footnote if his entire Naval career had consisted of sitting on his hands in Narragansett Bay day after day, completely blockaded by the gigantic British fleet. But it wasn’t just circumstances that contrived to bury the name of Esek Hopkins. The man’s own cowardice, coarseness, stupidity, cupidity, and incompetence factor in too. Miller makes no claims to be a formal historian (his calling Samuel Adams “John Adams’ brother” would have scuttled such claims in any case), but he’s looked at enough Hopkins family documents so that you’d think he’d have skipped writing Admiral Number One in the first place, but no.

Esek Hopkins was born in 1718 in Rhode Island, the fifth son of a large hardscrabble family that could scarcely clothe and feed him, let alone school him, with the result that he was borderline illiterate his entire life. He grew up tall and dopey-looking, with a bovine expression that could pass for handsome if the lighting were poor enough. At age 20, he signed as a deckhand on one of the many slaving vessels running out of Newport, and because he brought to this enterprise both a Rhode Islander’s natural affinity for seafaring and a Hopkins’ natural indifference to human suffering, he was able to rise quickly – deckhand, officer, master … and eventually owner, of a bouncy little sloop he renamed Desire, after his new bride Desire Burroughs, daughter of a very prosperous Newport family. She brought him a thumping great dowry – and a baby, born miraculously soon after the wedding feast.


Prosperity followed, as Miller writes:

As early as 1741, Esek Hopkins had been given a letter of marque by the Rhode Island Assembly, authorizing him to “subdue, seize and take any men-of-war or other vessels belonging to the King of Spain, wherever they be found.” As captain of the privateer sloop Wentworth, of ninety tons burden, he evidently made the most of his opportunities, for within the next six years he gathered enough worldly goods, original owners not mentioned, to come ashore and settle down to a mercantile existence.

While it’s true that a letter of marque, when held by a ship like the Wentworth, was a virtual license to print money, it can’t make a stupid man smart; Esek Hopkins did indeed ‘come ashore’ and tried his hand at farming – and immediately failed. And quickly found himself needing money again. Miller’s remarkably breezy tone when describing the very first way of recouping his losses that occurred to Hopkins is pretty damning:

Inexperience with husbandry prompted Esek to seek the seafaring life once more. Another incentive was the impetus given to the slave trade, since the African coast had been largely freed from the threat of French privateers, who up until then had driven almost all colonial vessels away from that area. Tobacco and rum were popular in the African coast, and so trade began to flourish once more, goods one way and slaves the other.

Iniquitous, even at the time, but it didn’t bother Esek Hopkins: he had money to make. And make it he did, rebuilding his family finances and buying a large estate outside of Providence (run by experts, this time). And he’d have settled there and lived the life of a typical back-country squire, except for the American Revolution, and the fact that Esek’s older brother Stephen was always in the mood for some open-air nepotism. So 1775 came around, and Congress was prompted to name Esek Commander in Chief of the fledgling colonial navy – at the start consisting of his flagship the Alfred (commanded by that thoroughgoing dolt, Dudley Saltonstall), Columbus, the Andrew Doria, the brig Cabot (commanded by Esek’s son), the Providence, and three smaller craft, the Wasp, the Fly, and the Hornet. All together, about 150 guns parceled out among seven extremely seaworthy craft – with only two problems: 1) at almost no time did any of these vessels have full or near-full complements of competent men, and 2) their opponent was the British Navy, which had ten times their firepower, ten times their vessels, and ten times their experience.

Hopkins took his little fleet to the Bahamas, to Fort Nassau on New Providence, ostensibly to capture a large store of British powder and armaments reported to be there. Instead of firing a warning shot and running in his men, Esek issued a proclamation declaring he meant nobody any harm, that he had no hostile intentions provided his designs weren’t hindered, etc. Then the next day, he ran in his men – who found the island fortifications deserted and the island governor sitting in an empty office. In the 20th century, there would have been a paper-shredder off in one corner, surrounded by confetti. The brand-new American marines, upon their very first amphibious landing, found some of the rumored armaments but none of the rumored powder, and here Miller innocently reports:

The previous evening Governor Montford Brown had observed a fleet approaching, grew suspicious and ordered a sloop to rush 150 casks of powder from Nassau to a secret hiding place. This, in a measure, dashed Hopkins’s hopes for a rich booty in powder, so essential for American resistance.

It’s true that the powder in question was essential for American resistance – the problem is, it was even more essential for Esek Hopkins’ private fortune. Governor Brown, whose family was well-known to Hopkins from his slaving days almost twenty years earlier, had found the perfect “secret hiding place” for all that valuable powder: a safe harbor at nearby St. Augustine and eventually the hold of a sloop owned by the man who now had his ships’ guns trained on Brown’s peaceful little island. Miller gives no hint of this, probably because he didn’t bother to dig deep enough to find it out – and besides, he’s got bigger problems in defending his hero.

On his return voyage from shaking down Fort Nassau, Esek and his squadron were in the sea lanes off the tip of Block Island when they encountered the British warship Glasgow (commanded by Tyringham Howe) on the high seas. A sharp exchange of gunfire ensued. The Cabot was mauled, but the Columbus (under Abraham Whipple) gave better than she got, and even the Alfred got in a few shots (unfortunately, under the direction of the dolt Saltonstall, some of these few shots found their way into some of Hopkins’ ships). Captain Howe spotted the Andrew Doria coming up and decided to make a break for Newport Harbor, which was a perfectly sensible – though no doubt galling – decision.

And Admiral Number One, Esek Hopkins, made the equally galling – though in no way sensible – decision not to pursue. He claimed to Congress (and, just in case they wanted a version with correct spelling and grammar, he made Paul Jones write a corroborating claim) that he had ever so many problems: the sea was choppy, the ships were damaged, the men were tipsy, and the first response he got – from Massachusetts’ own ersatz privateering booby John Hancock – was “Great job!”

Needless to say, further inquiries followed. Pretty much from the moment he let the Glasgow slip away, Hopkins was never out of legal trouble. Public favor turned against him, the complaints he’d always generated among his subordinates (he was a first-rate swearing man, and a brutal taskmaster, in addition to being a sloppy, forgetful, inconsistent moron) were given more and more public hearings, gentlemen (including gentlemen of the cloth) came forward to testify that his coarse and abrupt manner was actually hurting the cause of American independence.

Esek took refuge from all this hubbub in the most natural of ways, as Miller reports:

The time had been too long since Esek had seen his home. There he would be among his own kin, freed from a host of carping critics and poison tongues. A fortnight of utter peace in the bosom of his family, in an understanding atmosphere, might help to drown the flood of bitterness in his heart.

(Leaving aside the question of how a flood can be drowned – and why that would be a good thing, even if it were possible – there’s an obvious though bitter thought that naturally arises from sentiments like the above, i.e. how many hundreds of black men Hopkins removed forever from that utter peace in the bosom of their families, how many hundreds of such men – of such families – he had crammed into airless holds belowdecks and given one bucket of green water to serve all their thirsts for the next five weeks’ voyage. Hopkins was as inept at slaving as he was at everything else; the mortality rates on his ships sometimes reached into the 90s).

But such peace was not to last – Hopkins was in and out of civil and naval courts for the rest of his life. Eventually, Admiral Number One was cashiered out of the service and ended up a wizened, bitter old man, constantly carping like a cricket about how much wrong had been done to him. About this last bit, Miller is in complete, enthusiastic agreement. The final paragraph of his book is almost funny in its innocent paranoia:

A thorough search of available records and sifting of what evidence is at hand disclosed the names of the “honorable gentlemen” who had engineered the conspiracy that hastened his suspension from the American Navy. But lest we be sued for libel or defamation of character by their descendants, we name no names!

But you can rest assured, it wasn’t just some small, shadowy cabal of “honorable gentlemen” who quickly saw through – and subsequently brought down – this hopeless charlatan. John Paul Jones had nothing good to say about his former commander, most members of Congress realized pretty quickly that they’d picked the wrong man for Number One, and every privateer and more-or-less honest merchantman Hopkins ever dealt with ended up with a poor opinion of him (and a strong urge to count the silverware whenever he left the room). Boston importer (and sometime blockade-runner) Solomon Davis once pronounced about him, “He has the shape, the face, and the general thieving habits of a raccoon, but none of that animal’s intelligence.”

At least, in Charles H. Miller, member of the “clan,” he has one diehard fan. Everybody should have one, I guess.

January 16th, 2009

Poetry Class!

This time by Franz Wright, taken from the latest issue of the New Yorker (as, somewhere out there, John Cotter no doubt heaves a heavy sigh …):

LEARNING TO READ

If I had to look up every fifth of sixth word,
so what. I looked them up.
I had nowhere important to be.

My father was unavailable, and my mother
looked like she was about to break,
and not into blossom, every time I spoke.

My favorite was the Iliad. True,
I had trouble pronouncing the names,
but when was I going to pronounce them, and

to whom?
My stepfather maybe?
Number one, he could barely speak English;

two, he had sufficient intent
to smirk and knock me down
without any prompting from me.

Loneliness, boredom and terror
my motivation
fiercely fuelled.

I get down on my knees and thank God for them.

Du Fu, the Psalms, Whitman, Rilke.
Life has taught me
to understand books.

January 16th, 2009

Screeds and Hayseeds in the Penny Press!


The February issue of Esquire has that by now iconic Obama image on its cover, and more enjoyably, it has another crackerjack piece by Scott Raab, this one titled “Someday We’ll All Look Back on This and Laugh,” about the hyperkinetic financial analyst Jim Cramer.

The best thing about Raab’s magazine pieces how hyperkinetic they are – he’s one of only a handful of prolific periodical writers who remembers he’s telling stories … stories that have, or are supposed to have, a dramatic arc and impetus all their own, independent of their respective subjects. Way, way too many magazine pieces – even good ones, even ones I’ve praised here over the years – tend to overlook this first duty of any narrative, but Raab always remembers.

This particular piece, being about a guy who predicts market trends so he can advise people in how to invest their money, has, therefore, absolutely nothing to recommend it to my attention – nothing except the most important thing of all: a good writer can make anything interesting.

Raab is given some jealously-guarded time with Cramer (our writer is, as always, at his withering best when writing about the various PR flunkies doing the guarding), and Raab does a scrupulous job of profiling the man, but even so, the article left me with one impression clearer than all the others: Jim Cramer is insane. Not business bro-speak ‘insane’ (meaning ‘intensely competitive’ or ‘wildly energetic’), but actually, clinically insane. I’ve never understood the allure of gambling, so financial investing has always been a walled-off mystery to me … but even so, I finished the piece wondering how anybody could be dumb enough to take Cramer’s advice on anything. If Raab’s portrait is accurate, the guy free-associates self-aggrandizing thought-tidbits all day long, and what’s worse: he never stops to think, about anything, ever. Who’d want to talk with such a person, let alone seek investment advice from him?


At one point in the piece, Raab buys a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929 and is properly awestruck:

So I buy and read the Galbraith book and almost wish I hadn’t. It’s all in there — every freaking thing that’s going on right in front of my eyes, from the death plunge of overleveraged brokerage juggernauts to the assurances by the leaders of government and business that we’ve turned the corner and aren’t really speeding our way to the poorhouse. The final paragraph — first published in 1955 — about how ignorance, self-interest, and complacency may someday, as in those years of fiscal carnage, enable a new group of free-market purists “who know that things are going quite wrong to say that things are fundamentally sound,” spooks me bad enough that I start to stockpile daily ATM withdrawals from our credit-union savings account just in case.

(of course I urge all of you to buy and read all of Galbraith’s books … future generations will, so why shouldn’t you?)

I was smiling and nodding through the entire piece, delighted once again to have my Esquire purchase price validated by this one essay … nodding and smiling, that is, until I got to this:

The main lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union is packed so full that when the Mad Money crew tries to bring in some of the overflow crowd — dozens of sad sacks in a nearby room watching a TV monitor — the IMU manager orders them back out again. And even as the city-britches CNBCers protest — heaven forbid an empty span of bleachers finds its way into a TV shot — the overflows dutifully shuffle off, back to their exile, still smiling.

Ah, Iowa. Folks hereabouts play strictly by the rules — except, of course, for the athletic department. I know this because I used to live here. And work here. For seven years — seven years that felt like seven hundred. This lounge, with eleven hundred full-throated Cramericans roaring, jumping to their feet on cue, pumping their black-and-gold pom-poms, glowing with love, pride, joy, and sheer relief that somebody has come, even for one day, to relieve the soulless boredom of living in Iowa City …

And suddenly a Star Trek-style wormhole opened up, and I found myself once again in that old, familiar position: agreeing to disagree with Scott Raab. Because of course he wasn’t the only person living and working in Iowa City for seven years way back when, and some of us found it anything but ‘soulless boredom.’ How many times did I sit in that same IMU lounge, across a table from some earnest, well-muscled undergrad, urging him to read Herodotus or Tanizaki or Frank Conroy (and perhaps going to the bookstore next door and buying him copies)? And sadness, too, isn’t boredom: I was sitting writing in a nearly-empty IMU lounge one morning idly half-listening to the big TV when Challenger was lost – the few of us sitting there just looked at each other, not knowing what to do or say.

And there were snowstorms, and indescribably beautiful high summer days, and road trips to tiny towns and to Chicago, and there were endless, rambling conversations, and there was the velvet air at sundown, scented by the richest soil on Earth … there was the sloppy-oblivious Daily Iowan, and there were good friends. So it wasn’t all ‘soulless boredom.’

But that’s just nit-picking! Raab’s piece is fantastic – you should go to Esquire.com and read it in all its feisty, judging glory.