Scurrilous Behavior in the Penny Press!

We’ve had a typically tumultuous year with the Penny Press in 2011, as you might expect. After all, the world of periodicals and the world of blogging share in common a certain element of headlong momentum that dissipates during the gestation of boring old books. In the world of deadline prose, outrageous positions aren’t properly vetted, half-baked contentions are floated, and tempers flare! It will come as no surprise that I treasure this element of the enterprise – the pitch and tumble of cut, thrust, and parry is exhilarating. And if I loved it back in the old days when an irritating line in a magazine article would send me rushing home to my manual typewriter in order to bang out a testy rejoinder and put it in the mail, imagine how much I prefer today’s Internet world of instantaneous commentary … what a miracle the blogosphere would have seemed to me, back in the 1970s!

It’s particularly fitting that the year of In the Penny Press should conclude with my two favorite periodicals – and that I should have bones to pick with both of them! Up first is my literary Bible, the venerable TLS, the double Christmas issue, in which Michael Dirda turns in an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens under the heading of a review of Hitchens’ last anthology, Arguably. Dirda’s biggest weakness as a critic is that he’s easily impressed, so a piece on Arguably was bound to be gushing. But now that Hitchens is dead, the spigots are opened wide. Dirda hails the late author for his wit and stylistic brilliance (but summons excerpts that display neither) and eventually just subsides into admiration:

After a while, one just shrugs and accepts the fact: Hitchens possessed a kind of Whitmanian prodigality and these essays are, ultimately, instalments in a long-sustained Song of Myself. The man was simply sui generis, and he wouldn’t have been the writer we admired, envied, argued with, sometimes loathe and often feared, had he suddenly adopted the unruffled equipoise of a kindly British John Updike, amiably pointing out the virtues of everything he read.

Maybe you just shrug and accept that fact, Michael, but some of us aren’t quite so easily exhausted. Hitchens was hardly sui generis – book critics (even ones as opinionated and sometimes eloquent as Hitchens) abound… hell, you yourself are one! And it bears pointing out that your own breadth of coverage is not a bit narrower than Hitchens – just a good deal more temperate. Also worth pointing out: the word is ‘Whitmanesque.’ And also: Updike may have been amiable (bit of the pot calling the kettle black there, by the way), but he pointed out just as much that he didn’t like as that he did, even late in his life.

And speaking of sui generis: in the same issue, the great A. N. Wilson opens a review of the new P.G. Wodehouse biography by disparaging every other author of Wodehouse’s generation. It’s an opening gambit so audacious as to be daffy: “J. B. Priestly, Angela Thirkell, Warwick Deeping, Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wilson writes, “It is hard to think of anyone reading them now, except for curiosity value.” Leaving aside the fact that if today’s readers aren’t familiar with the divine Angela Thirkell it’s their own loss, there’s the chief sputter here: Dorothy Sayers? Forgotten except as a curiosity?

But while the reader is still gasping from that opening, the really audacious part of the review hovers into view: when talking about Wodehouse’s confinement by the Nazis in Tost in Upper Silesia after the conquest of France, Wilson takes the apologetic view that poor Plummie just didn’t understand why those horribly boring Nazis wanted him to broadcast funny little sketches of internment camp life on their radio networks. According to Wilson (echoing the line taken for sixty years by lovers of Wodehouse everywhere – I’m definitely one of those fans, although I’ve never taken this line), Wodehouse made the broadcasts to reassure his many American fans that he was OK, that they were “an enormous and tragic misunderstanding.” Wilson flatly rejects the possibility that Wodehouse made the broadcasts as payment for his release from Yost, and he calls them ‘harmless.’ I’m not sure all the people who had to continue in Nazi internment camps because they weren’t P. G. Wodehouse would agree, and if Wilson thinks somebody as clear-eyed as Wodehouse could really be so Gussie Fink-Nottle oblivious, he’s swallowed rather more propaganda than is good for him.

The review is still intensely interesting, of course – Wilson is incapable of being boring on any subject (one might even call him sui generis) – and the rest of the issue is equally so. There’s yet another fascinating review of the new Steve Jobs biography, and there’s a long and engrossing piece by Frederic Raphael on Josephus, plus the Christmas Quiz, which proved a bit easier this year than last (although this year’s revealed my rather shocking lack of readiness when it comes to Finnish)

Of course the second periodical in question today would have to be National Geographic, that endless hall of wonders, that greatest of all magazines. This issue’s cover article is about twins, which might have snagged my main interest under normal circumstances (two of my siblings are twins), but it turns out there’s another theme running through this issue – a decidedly less savory one. The first note is struck in the Letters column, when Troy Carlson of Houston, Texas writes:

 The author’s description of Amundsen’s tactic of eating his own sledge dogs while en route to the South Pole as “troubling” reeks of bias. Everything about Amundsen’s use of dogs was prudent and wise. He first ate dogs that were struggling to keep up or that had already died. Scott’s expedition refused to kill and eat dogs. They were starving when they died 11 miles from One Ton Depot. We should celebrate Amundsen for completing one of the great feats in exploration while suffering no loss of human life instead of viewing his tactics in the light of the 21st-century devotion to our pets (read dogs) and dietary taboos.

Something reeks here, most certainly. What the letter-writer fails to see is that while Amundsen was guilty of murdering his sled dogs, he was even more bitterly guilty of self-serving hypocrisy. He was the first to correct others when they referred to his expedition’s dogs as pack animals and horsepower. Like poor dumb Scott who exhausts the letter-writer’s patience, Amundsen was fond of calling his sled-dogs teammates, fully equal expedition members. That hypocrisy was laid bare when his expedition ran into hardship, and our letter-writer shares it: through a reek of bias, he makes it OK for Amundsen to kill and eat these loyal beings who’d given more effort to securing his immortality than anybody – but unthinkable that Amundsen should kill and eat the struggling human members of his team, several of whom were in far worse shape than even the worst dog. Unlike Scott, in Amundsen’s case everything came down to who had a working knowledge of how to pull a trigger – very heroic.

At least, readers might console themselves, such attitudes have now been relegated to the Victorian past. Until such readers reached the article in this issue about Denmark’s Sirius dog patrol. The piece is written by Michael Finkel and has several gorgeous photos by Fritz Hoffmann, and it’s about a two-man patrol taking a team of sled-dogs on operations along the northern coast of Greenland up above the Arctic Circle. I myself have travelled in northern Greenland (both along the coast where this patrol goes and further north and west, in endless reaches far, far from the haunts of man), and I can attest that unlike Boston, the area there gets cold – fifty below zero is common, and the dark of winter is absolute. It’s some of the most beautiful, inhospitable acreage on Earth, and Finkel’s article follows two patrolmen and their team of dogs as they grapple with it (frostbite is a real concern – as are polar bears! I can vouch for the fact that they don’t in any way require sunlight to hunt). The patrolmen are extremely solicitous of their dogs, naturally – fuel freezes solid at these kinds of temperatures, after all, and polar bears can easily sneak up on puny human senses, so the dogs more than earn their keep. Until, that is, they don’t:

Rasmus knew that Armstrong was nearing the end of his career. There’s no room at the Sirius base for retired dogs. And the dogs – as much wolf as pet – cannot be adopted. They must be euthanized, an act the patrollers do themselves with a pistol. Both Rasmus and Jesper say it’s the most difficult part of the job.

[That's Armstrong in the upper right, in case you'd like to pay your respects]

This is disingenuous, to put it mildly. “As much wolf as pet”? One of Hoffmann’s photos shows a crew member sitting on the floor of a very cramped plane cabin surrounded by sled dogs; the caption says he’s there as ‘alpha dog’ in order to maintain order – which gives the lie to the patrol’s hypocrisy. There’s only one two-legged creature on Earth who could sit in the middle of a wolf-pack and ‘maintain order’ – and that patrolman isn’t him. So these dogs are, in fact, at least somewhat amenable to human company – the ones who’ve served and struggled and saved their human companions’ lives for ten years could certainly be given a friendlier retirement package than a bullet between the eyes. I guess I should be grateful the Sirius patrol doesn’t cook and eat the retirees afterward.

But as with the TLS, so too here: the issue is fantastic even despite the scurrilous behavior it describes! Reading these two periodicals together brought back an entire year’s worth of memories of all the magazines, journals, and newspapers I’ve read since last winter (when there was cold and snow – there’s a warm tropical rain falling as I type these words tonight in Boston). It’s been, as always, an amazing variety, and who knows what 2012 will bring?

 

 

1 Comment to Scurrilous Behavior in the Penny Press!

  1. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    December 28, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Dorothy Sayers no more than a curiosity? Sputter, sputter …

    I’m only just discovering Angela Thirkell, thanks to my sister, who gave me two (Wild Strawberries and What Did It Mean?) for Christmas. Who knew there was another whole set of Barsetshire novels? (Well, who besides you…)

  1. By on December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm

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