Posts from April 2012

April 28th, 2012


Our book today is Richard Hakluyt’s improved, expanded, and totally revised 1598 edition of his enormous masterpiece The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, which we can refer to as The Principal Navigations to keep from running out of room on the Internet. The Principal Navigations is a strange and in many ways unprecedented book – not so much a work of history as a collage of reporting, a vast anthology and dispatch-collection. It’s hundreds and hundreds of pages are filled with navigational information, coastline descriptions, trading tips, and long eyewitness accounts of the great days of Elizabethan sea-dog naval battles, epic voyages, and explorations so filled with new discoveries that even in all this space they crowd each other. Instead of imposing his own narrative on his sources, Hakluyt lets them all speak for themselves – sometimes at length, sometimes briefly, sometimes in jarring discord with each other (or with subsequently verifiable reality) – and then artfully amasses the results. He spent a good deal of his own money to help the Principal Navigations see the light of day, and he expended lots of personal energy as well, travelling all over France and England in the hunt for eyewitness accounts of the burgeoning world of great sea-voyages. In his Preface to that 1598 edition, he allows himself an uncharacteristic veiled complaint or two:

For the bringing of which into this homely and rough-hewn shape, which here thou seest, what restless nights, what painful days, what heat, what cold I have endured; how many long and chargeable journeys I have travelled; how many famous libraries I have searched into; what variety of ancient and modern writers I have perused; what expenses I have not spared; and yet what fair opportunities of private gain, preferment, and ease I have neglected.

But he can’t resist putting a polish on it all:

Howbeit, the honour and benefit of this Commonweal wherein I live and breathe hath made all difficulties seem easy.

Hakluyt was born in the early 1520s to a very prosperous and established Herefordshire family of local grandees (their large Leominster country seat of Eaton Manor boasted clean linen all the year round), and he attended Christ Church, Oxford, with the beautiful young Philip Sidney. Hakluyt got his degree in 1577 and in 1583 – as was expected of younger sons – he took Holy Orders. By that point he’d already published – at his own expense, but eventually to some profit – a work called Divers Voyages touching the discovery of America (he dedicated it to Sidney), and he’d already entered the sometime employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State and resident intelligence master, and been sent on a multi-layered mission to the port at Bristol. He also accompanied Sir Edward Stafford to Paris when Stafford was appointed ambassador to France.

Hakluyt saw everything, noticed everything, recorded as much as he could. He picked up languages like lint, and he had a knack for ingratiating himself; old salts and dangerous sea-dogs willingly talked to him, and he very much valued what they had to say. In 1588 all of England became euphoric upon the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and England’s overseas trading and exploration were expanding every month. The Queen’s fierce professional adventurers were eager to fit out ships and cross the world in search of shortcuts to the Indies or the Orient, in search of new lands where they could plant Elizabeth’s flag, in search of profit in any of the thousand new forms it could take in a New World.

Our humble author wanted to be a part of that great national (and nationalistic) explosion – indeed, he was bumped at the last minute from going on the ill-fated Roanoke voyage – but instead, he kept earning promotions and accruing small livings in the shadow-civil service that was Elizabeth’s Church of England. He took fees for government consulting work, but the main intellectual occupation of his settled life was the expansion and improvement of his Principal Navigations, which kept growing in size and scope, a hustling, bustling collection of that quintessential Elizabethan combination: hard-headed practical knowledge and soaringly whimsical inquiry. On almost every page, modern-day readers will find something picturesque or fascinating, as when an eyewitness to Martin Frobisher’s second Northwest Passage voyage recounts an odd discovery:

On this west shore we found a dead fish floating, which had in his nose a horn straight and torqued, of a length two yards lacking two inches, being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow, into which some of our sailors putting spiders they presently died. I saw not the trial thereof. By the virtue thereof we supposed it to be the sea unicorn.

(Also, penguins everywhere will be insulted to know that more than one such chronicler attributes their flightless status to how fat they are)

Readers will also regularly come across gruesome reminders of the stark human cost of these far-flung voyages. Men are crushed, starved, swept overboard and never seen again, and even the ones who stay on board can suffer horrifying fates, like the men from Thomas Cavendish’s last voyage in the South Atlantic, when the combination of incessant rains and nonexistent hygiene led to agonies even Hakluyt’s hardened interlocutor clearly didn’t want to remember and couldn’t forget:

In this time we freed our ship from water, and after we had rested a little, our men were not able to move; their sinews were stiff, and their flesh dead, and many of them (which is most lamentable to be reported) were so eaten with lice, as that in their flesh, did lie clusters of lice as big as peas, yea and some as big as beans.

Most of the accounts gathered here are more or less completely unaffected, the straight reckoning of what really happened to men and vessels. This quality (it’s amazing Hakluyt thought to step out of the way and just let it speak for itself – to put it mildly, that wasn’t the typical Elizabethan way of doing things) is of course much to be prized by historians, and it’s balanced out every now and again by a conscious prose stylist working a familiar bit, like that studied (and criminally underrated – his own masterpiece isn’t even readily in print these days) and evocative prose stylist, Sir Walter Raleigh, forever dramatizing his voyage to Guyana:

I thought it time lost to linger any longer in that place, especially for that in the fury of Orinoco began daily to threaten us with dangers in our return; for no half day passed but the river began to rage and overflow very fearfully, and the rains came down in terrible showers, and gusts in great abundance: and withal, our men began to cry for want of shift, for no man had place to bestow any other apparel than that which he wore upon his back, and that was thoroughly washed on his body for the most part ten times in one day …

Hakluyt died in 1616, and his Principal Navigations was quarried in subsequent centuries by novelists and the worst kinds of popular historians, everybody intent on snatching some choice tidbits about sea-monsters, vulnerable enemy shipping, and strange new discoveries in distant lands. Neither Hakluyt nor any of those later grave-robbers could possibly have anticipated the infinite navigational miracles so many 21st century people completely take for granted – hand-held phones that allow us to casually take in the view of virtually any spot on the planet. But the modern developed world has sacrificed something for all that accuracy. Wonder? Humility? Driving curiosity? It’s difficult to put a name to it – but Martin Frobisher would have recognized it in an instant and put it to work earning him money, and Richard Hakluyt would have known it too, and how could he not? He was its Homer. Or at the very least, its first Sears & Roebuck catalogue.

April 25th, 2012


Our book today is Herman Melville’s 1849 novel Redburn, which he wrote at lightning-speed for a paying contract – a description that sounds so odd in connection with Melville that modern ears at first might not credit it. To the extent that’s true, it’s true because we tend to think of Melville’s writing career in reverse, letting the weird, otherworldly, decidedly non-commercial epic undertakings of his long final creative phase cast their shadows back over the stuff he wrote when he was an up-and-coming young maverick of an author, or an established literary man. In a way, this is understandable: after all, if an author goes to the bother of being both weird enough and powerful enough to write something like Moby-Dick, he’s likely to be judged by that work forever, even if he doesn’t want to be (many of you are familiar with my parallel rant about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). But it’s still a shame, especially since there’ve been quite a few readers over the last century who’ve thought “well, if I’m going to read just one Melville book, I’ll make it the Big One and forget about the small fry!” – and so the plain-and-simple novels Melville wrote get forgotten by the legendary Common Reader.

It’s entirely possible that Melville himself might have been OK with having his two most blatantly commercial works – Redburn and White JacketĀ  – forgotten by the reading posterity. They were his forlorn and, one senses, largely uncomprehending grabs at recapturing the runaway sales of his earlier books and really making a go of the whole working-novelist thing, in this case by taking a chunk of his own youthful sea-voyages and once again transforming fact into fiction. The book tells the story of the first sea voyage of Melville’s young main character, Wellingborough Redburn, and it attempts – with only limited and very elephantine efficiency – to infuse that story with some light-hearted and fast-paced adventure, all the frivolous stuff Melville himself famously scorned as “nothing but cakes & ale.” Melville was hoping not only to pick up the old scent of his earlier books but to latch onto the same comet that made Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast a runaway bestseller.

It didn’t work – nothing runaway here. It probably couldn’t have worked, since the author’s heart wasn’t in it. True, we get standard apostrophes like: “Yes! Yes! give me this glorious ocean life, the salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire!” – but just listen to the sheer involuntary begrudging tone underneath what’s supposed to be Redburn’s giddy launch into the great watery unknown:

As the steamer carried us further and further down the bay, we passed ships lying at anchor, with men gazing at us and waving their hats; and small boats with ladies in them waving their handkerchiefs; and passed the green shore of Staten Island, and caught sight of so many beautiful cottages all overrun with vines, and planted on the beautiful fresh mossy hill-sides; oh! then I would have given any thing if instead of sailing out of the bay, we were only coming into it; if we had crossed the ocean and returned, gone over and come back; and my heart leaped up in my like something alive when I thought of really entering that bay at the end of the voyage.

The character can tell us that a “wild bubbling bursting was at my heart, as if a hidden spring had just gushed out there; and my blood ran tingling along my frame, like mountain brooks in spring freshets,” but the narrative of Redburn almost never seems to rise to that level of exultation. Instead, one of the main amusements the book affords comes from just exactly the Melville-hindsight reflex already noted: what presentiments are there in these pages of the towering strangeness that was already percolating in our author? And such presentiments are everywhere, of course – most famously at the book’s end, when a much older Redburn learns the fate of his flamboyant former shipmate Harry Bolton: killed on a whaling vessel, crushed to death between the whale and the ship! Or the more subtle variety, as when our young hero thinks back on the peaceful village life he left behind:

And then, I thought of lying down at the bottom of the sea, stark alone, with the great waves rolling over me, and no one in the wide world knowing that I was there. And I thought how much better and sweeter it must be, to be buried under the pleasant hedge that bounded the sunny south side of our village grave-yard, where every Sunday I had used to walk after church in the afternoon; and I almost wished I was there now; yes, dead and buried in that church-yard.

That “stark alone” is pure Melville genius at its best, and that off-kilter parallel – Redburn isn’t daydreaming of being back at home, he’s daydreaming of being dead back at home – is pure Melville strangeness at its best. You encounter these things while slogging through a book like Redburn, and they keep you coming back, even when there are plenty of much better novels from Victorian America quietly clamoring for your time.


April 18th, 2012

Comics! AvX and an ‘ah’ Moment!

Marvel’s latest crossover-crazy brou-ha-ha, “Avengers V.S. X-Men,” continues this week where it left off last time: the X-Men are holed up on their island off the coast of California, harboring a young woman named Hope, who’s very likely the focus of the vast and destructive Phoenix force that’s rapidly approaching Earth. The Avengers have come to take the girl into their own protective custody until they can figure out what to do about the situation, but the X-Men – led by eye-blasting mutant Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) refuse to give her up. Leading to the inevitable: a Marvel super-team fight!

This one is written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Romita Jr., and this latest issue is basically one big brawl. And reading the issue is about as entertaining as watching one big unscripted chaotic melodramatic brawl: not much. Aaron provides some enjoyably sharp narrative – this is by far the most adult-sounding superteam-fight-event Marvel’s ever produced – but he’s clearly taken not even five minutes to choreograph exactly what would happen if two well-populated super-teams squared off on a beach. The Red Hulk and Colossus start pounding on each other, but they seem far removed from everybody else; the Thing and Luke Cage fight the Sub-Mariner underwater and seem to be holding their own despite the fact that Namor can breathe in that environment and they can’t; Magneto and Emma Frost are fighting Iron Man one minute and Doctor Strange the next; Cyclops gets his face plastered by Captain America’s shield because he apparently likes firing his eye-beams at it instead of, say, using them to pulverize one of Cap’s feet and take him out of the fight, and then suddenly both teams are hurriedly converging on the X-Men compound to check on Hope, for all the world as if they hadn’t just been beating the stuffing out of each other.

To be fair to Aaron, brawls like this one are almost impossible to pull off (and this one would have been impossible, if the plotters behind the whole mini-series hadn’t contrived to have some of the Avengers’ most powerful members – including Thor – conveniently off-world when this rumble happens), so this one is probably done as effectively as possible. It’s less easy to be fair to fan-favorite artist Romita Jr in this case, since his artwork here is almost exclusively lazy, full of repetitive, lateral views (and some odd problems with scale), in many cases saved from being outright boring only by Laura Martin’s coloring job, which is once again superb.

Fortunately, fans of superhero comics art get a real treat elsewhere in this week’s offerings! The latest issue of Brian Michael Bendis’ “Avengers” title features a boring cover by Daniel Acuna, but the inside artwork is by none other than comics legend Walt Simonson, and although his ability to draw team-oriented action hasn’t improved any over the decades, fans won’t care about such details – like me, they’ll be looking for one thing only, and in a glorious full-page-and-then-some panel, they get it: the mighty Thor, drawn by the artist who gave readers the definitive run of the character’s own book! The moment is worth it, especially for nostalgic fans who might have missed a Thor who actually smiles, as Simonson’s Thor habitually does. The issue itself is fairly rote take-down-the-bad-guys stuff, but just seeing Simonson’s hopeful, square-jawed rendition of Thor was a classic ‘ah’ moment.

April 16th, 2012

The Chronicles of Froissart!

Our book today is most commonly translated into English as the Chronicles of the great fourteenth century historian Jean Froissart, who was born (somewhere in the 1330s) in Valenciennes, a French-speaking Netherlander town in what was then the independent kingdom of Hainault. He was that familiar writerly pattern, an unusually clever son of unimaginative but well-off suburban parents, and the wide world beckoned. At first, Froissart’s timing was impeccable – in his twenties, good-looking, exceptionally smart, memorably articulate, ambitious without being grating: he was able to make himself known at court, and since 1361 saw the dawn of peace between England and France, a person could travel around without necessarily risking getting killed (bandits still haunted every forest road, but that’s what armed guards were for).

Froissart travelled to England, perhaps on a low-level embassy from John of Hainault (uncle to the Count) or perhaps on his own speculative dime – in either case, he was soon attached to the household of that most famous Hainaulter of all, the short, boisterous, utterly wonderful Philippa, who became the queen of King Edward III of England. Froissart began his service to the Queen in the fairly conventional manner of churning out pages and pages of gawd-awful verse, but the whole time he was doing that, he was talking and especially listening to everybody around him, including all the veterans of England’s late wars with France (and not just English veterans – any number of French veterans were hanging around London in the 1360s, hoping – or not – to be ransomed back home). He quickly conceived that there was an epic story to be told here, and since he had the essential knack of making friends, he set himself the task of telling that story. He travelled all over England, ventured into Scotland and Wales, ransacked every royal or ecclesiastical archive he could get his hands on, and began amassing the materials he’d need to write the Chronicles, all with the royal blessing (since the pure of heart are seldom afraid of history’s verdicts).

He was travelling on the Continent in 1369 when the news reached him in Brussels that Queen Philippa was dead. The news broke his heart, of course (that was its universal effect), and it also changed his plans: instead of returning to England, he began hunting up wealthy patrons closer to home – and he began writing his Chronicles. He took advantage of earlier written accounts (as well as all those first-hand testimonies) and used his own abundant literary talents to bring everything vividly to life, including those events that long pre-dated his arrival in England, like the epic sea-battle King Edward fought against the Spaniards in 1350 at Winchelsea:

On that day, I was told by some who were with him, he was in a lighter mood than he’d ever been seen before. He told his minstrels to strike up a dancing tune which Sir John Chandos, who was standing beside him, had recently brought back from Germany. Out of sheer excited happiness, he made Sir John sing with the minstrels, to his own vast amusement. At the same time, he kept glancing up at the look-out he’d posted to watch for the Spaniards. While the King was enjoying all this fun (and his knights were enjoying seeing him enjoy himself), the look-out shouted, “Ship, ahoy! And she looks like a Spaniard!”

His book has something of the sweep of panorama, but its most charming and memorable segments almost all on a smaller scale. More than one critic over the centuries has compared Froissart’s abilities in this vein to those of his contemporary Chaucer, and the comparison is apt; Froissart the chronicler tried his best to verify events and square accounts, but Froissart the dramatist breaks loose of the annal-form whenever possible in order to shed some human light on his proceedings – as when he describes one little moment during John of Gaunt’s frustrated 1373 expedition to France:

The English struck camp and moved off in the direction of Soissons, always staying near both rivers and fertile farmlands. As they went, they were continually flanked by some four hundred lances led by the Lord of Clisson, the Lord of Laval, the Viscount of Rohan and others. Sometimes they rode so near each other that they could easily have fought if they’d wanted to, and often they talked to one another. For example, Sir Henry Percy, one of the most gallant of the English knights, was once riding across country with his men, and Sir Guillaume des Bordes and Sir Jean de Bueil were riding with theirs, each keeping to his own path. Sir Henry, who was on a white charger, said to Sir Aimery of Namur (the son of the Count), who was alongside him on the left, “It’s a fine day for hawking! Why don’t you go for a kill, since you’re used to flying?” “Yes,” said Sir Aimery, dancing his horse a little out of line, “it’s true – a good day for hawking. If it were up to me, we’d certainly go a-hawking on some nearby prey.” “I think you would, Aimery,” replied Sir Henry. “Just persuade your men to take off – there’s good game to be had!” In this bantering mood, Sir Henry Percy rode for some time alongside the French, talking to that splendid young soldier, Aimery the Bastard of Namur. The two sides could have come to it many times if they’d wished, but instead they rode forward with perfect discipline.

There are hardly any modern-era English translations of Froissart’s Chronicles, alas, and the few we have often as not manage to strangle the jingling, nimble cadence of his prose (that above excerpt is by yours truly, only because every existing English version I could find had taken worldly raillery and made it dull). And to add insult to injury, most of the English-language editions ever made of the Chronicles abridge the hell out of the work, essentially leaving in the battles and the jousting and cutting everything else. The original Froissart is broadly discursive, enormously enjoyable, and as thick as a cinder block – maybe some enterprising publisher will craft a gorgeous, limited-edition unabridged hardcover one of these days. I’d buy a copy.


April 15th, 2012

Letters from an American Farmer!

Our book today is Letters from an American Farmer, that odd and utterly engaging 1782 classic written by J. Hector St. John, who was born Michel-Guillaume-Jean (heh – the French!) de Crevecoeur at Caen in 1735, first saw North America in 1755 while serving (as a cartographer) in a French regiment in the St. Lawrence Valley. After selling his commission, he began years of epic wandering from Nova Scotia to Virginia and maybe even Bermuda, working as a surveyor and building on his small stake of ready money. In 1769 he married and at age 34 settled down on a picturesque working farm he called Pine Hill. There he lived the ‘natural’ life that would so captivate the Romantics just being born – indeed, his own writings would help to do the captivating. He and his wife and children were happy at Pine Hill, and the place prospered under his care, and there he would likely have grown old and died in peace if not for the American Revolution, which ensnared him despite his best efforts to keep out of it. In 1778 he finally decided that such efforts were ultimately useless, and he and his eldest son left Pine Hill for New York, determined to scout out a safe way for the whole family to return to France and claim his paternal inheritance. Crevecoeur travelled with the manuscripts of his great books, Letters From an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, and when he was captured and imprisoned as a spy in New York, he (and the rest of us) very nearly lost those books.

He managed to get released from his New York prison, and after many more hardships (including the de rigueur shipwreck), he made it home to Caen, from which he eventually went to Paris and became the toast of the town, the famous “Farmer” who could tell hair-raising stories of wild America (and answer increasingly pointed questions about the revolution being fought there). Passage after passage in Letters from an American Farmer virtually revel in that sense of natural splendor and tension:

I must tell you that there is something in the proximity of the woods which is very singular. It is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the forest; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains. I will candidly tell you all my thoughts, but you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons. By living in or near the woods, their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood. The deer often come to eat their grain, the wolves to destroy their sheep, the bears to kill their hogs, the foxes to catch their poultry. This surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill some; and thus by defending their property, they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress; once hunters, farewell the plough.

Through the influence of his friends, he returned to New York in 1783 as an official crown representative of France, and in America the horrifying news awaited him that his wife was dead, his beloved Pine Hill was burned, and his children were scattered. A kindly Bostonian had rescued the children, and it was in Boston that Crevecoeur was re-united with them at last. He returned to France in 1790 just in time to have a second country explode underneath him: he retired to the countryside in order to avoid the worst excesses of the French Revolution, and there he continued puttering and writing and revising until his death in 1813; he lived long enough to see his Letters and Sketches become enormously popular all throughout Europe, in large part due to their extremely engaging vividness, as when he describes the extremes of weather on the gorgeous island of Nantucket (the long Nantucket section of his book has mystified historians for centuries – except for the historians who’ve actually visited the island):

In summer this climate is extremely pleasant; they are not exposed to the scorching sun of the continent, the heats being tempered by the sea breezes, with which they are perpetually refreshed. In the winter, however, they pay severely for those advantages; it is extremely cold, the north-west win, the tyrant of this country, after having escaped from our mountains and forests, free from all impediment in its short passage, blows with redoubled force and renders this island bleak and uncomfortable. On the other hand, the goodness of their houses, the social hospitality of their firesides, and their good cheer make them ample amends for the severity of the season.

And although Crevecoeur’s writings are often sifted by later analysts for their social and political content, one of their strongest attractions has always been this heightened awareness of the vast natural dimensions of the New World, as when he describes the onset of a massive snowstorm:

At last, imperceptible atoms make their appearance; they are few and descend slowly, a sure prognostic of a great snow. Little or no wind is as yet felt. By degrees the number as well as the size of these white particles is increased; they descend in larger flakes; a distant wind is heard; the noise swells and seems to advance; the new element at last appears and overspreads everything. In a little time the heavy clouds seem to approach nearer the earth and discharge a winged flood, driving along towards the south-west, howling at every door, roaring in every chimney, whispering with asperous sound through the naked limbs of the trees; these are the shrill notes which mark the weight of the storm. Still the storm increases as the night approaches, and its great obscurity greatly adds to the solemnity of the scene.

The Letters from an American Farmer and the Sketches initially had a lukewarm reception in the country of their origins (de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America would effectively overshadow it, although owing almost everything to it), but its slow drift into the curriculum has helped to fix that. Certainly everybody in the United States should read this stirring snapshot of their nation in its infancy. Hell, maybe even some Nova Scotians would profit by it.








April 15th, 2012

Hatchets and Ratchets in the Penny Press!

There were annoying things to wade through in the Penny Press this week, but I knew ahead of time what a glowing prize awaited me at the end, so I waded with a smile on my face!

Unfair to say ‘wading’ was involved in reading the wonderfully-written Vanity Fair piece by Michael Joseph Gross on Internet piracy, privacy, and a whole cluster of similar topics that will involve all of us at some point in the very near future. Gross’ article was just the smooth, intelligent read I’ve come to expect from this writer, although annoyances did manage to surface around the edges of his subject, like when one of his sources was talking about encryption security for popular websites:

Even so, the most influential Web sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, balked at adapting to the new reality they’d helped bring into existence. No communications on any of those sites were fully encrypted yet. Without mockery [former hacker Jeff] Moss recites their arguments in a plain tone, strained only by mild weariness: “It’s too expensive. We never designed it to be all encrypted. And, you know the Net is not a private place anyway. It’s not really our problem.” His response, in the same tone, is that, since these corporations built their empires by encouraging everybody to share everything, they have a responsibility to provide security.

Needless to say (or maybe it isn’t), that last line is mighty annoying – and a good, quick indicator of some of the worst ways the Internet has changed society, blurring the line between professional obligation and personal responsibility with the end goal in mind of absolving idiots of the consequences of their own behavior. If a young couple in White Plains is scraping by with two jobs, living in their four-room apartment and never having any more than $300 in the bank, and they take it into their heads to believe some bank’s promises that they can, after all, afford a house … if that young couple, knowing their own finances to the last penny and, presumably, knowing the difference between daydreams and reality, decides to take on the mortgage for that house anyway, that young couple deserves everything that happens to them. They don’t deserve a federally-funded bailout; they don’t deserve immunity from prosecution when they have to abandon that mortgage, and they most certainly don’t deserve victim-status on the evening news.

Likewise the last line of that quote. Those enormous Internet sites that ‘encourage’ people to share everything about themselves have absolutely zero responsibility to provide encrypted security for the people who decide to do just that, and it’s a sign of our infantilizing times that anybody would thing otherwise. I know dozens of young people who post every single thing they do and think on Facebook in real-time as they do it and think it; the concept of privacy seems literally inconceivable to them. Which is fine, I guess, and may be the world they’re choosing to live in – but if you make that choice, you can’t then cry foul if it backfires. If you jump into a big river, you can’t blame it if you end up drowning.

So I guess it could be said that I have nobody but myself to blame that I intentionally jumped into Lewis Lapham’s cover essay in the new Harper’s on the dangers of Americans forgetting their history. I knew going in that Lapham can be a windbag of the first order, and I knew going in that such a subject – how kids these days just don’t know nothing, and how egghead academics aren’t helping matters – was guaranteed to bring out the worst in this writer. But I read “Ignorance of Things Past” anyway, so I guess I deserve the frustration that comes from reading Colonel Blimp nonsense like this:

Not being a scholar affiliated with a tenure track, I don’t much care whether the mise en scene is Athens in the fourth century B.C., Paris in the 1740s, or Moscow in the winter of 1905. I look for an understanding of the human predicament, to discover or re-discover how it is with man, who he is and how it is between him and other men. To consult the record in books both ancient and modern is to come across every vice, virtue, motive, behavior, obsession, consequence, joy, and sorrow to be met with on the roads across the frontiers of the millennia. What survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality.

No use pointing out the shrieking irony of such a passage (and the piece is one big crazy-quilt of such passages), I suppose – how the relentless New Age-y abstracting of history into moralizing sermons like this one about ‘the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality’ (or whatever) is exactly why so many Americans know nothing about history, how the knee-jerk equating of detailed knowledge with tenure-track academia is absolutely lethal to the study of anything (and, despite Lapham’s probable protestations, is the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum), how claiming you care about history too much to be concerned with the actual facts of history is pretty much fatuous beyond belief … etc. No, no use pointing out any of that – I just hiked up my waders and made it to the opposite shore, to the two glories of the week’s Penny Press … in, of all places, The Atlantic, which I’d only just recently anathematized here at Stevereads (although there was a curious and brilliant piece in that Harper’s – “Byzantium” by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, something I’ll want to re-read a few times before I’m even 100 % certain I understand everything the author was trying to do).

And the added irony? I don’t agree with either of the pieces I so loved and am so praising! First up was the great B. R. Myers reviewing not only Chad Harbach’s much-praised debut novel The Art of Fielding but also diagnosing the very culture of the current book-world that feels compelled to position one or two ‘it’ novels every season for compulsory consumption by party-going literary hipster elite. Myers rightly scorns that self-appointed elite, and it’s certainly a pleasure to watch him scorn some of its past honorees. And he’s right that The Art of Fielding was positioned as just such a book last year (and he’s right that “aren’t we great?” article about it in Vanity Fair didn’t help things any). And it’s great to listen to him fulminate, since virtually nobody does it better:

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only ay to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.

The only thing he’s wrong about is The Art of Fielding itself! He’s so incensed by the machinery surrounding the novel (although he kindly exempts Harbach himself from having much of a hand in that machinery) that it tends to burr his sensitivity to the gigantic merits of the novel at the center of that machinery. He’s certainly wrong to equate it with a self-regarding pile of dredge like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And he might even be wrong in his implication that all book-reviewers are name-dropping lemmings incapable of finding even an ‘it’ novel genuinely good, or genuinely great. Some of the people who praised The Art of Fielding so much last year wouldn’t be caught dead at a cocktail party, after all.

The opposite problem cropped up in the issue’s other powerhouse offering: Clive James wrote a gorgeous, rambunctious piece lauding the living daylights out of Dwight Macdonald, not only for the new reprint of Masscult and Midcult but for every bloomin’ word he wrote:

A supreme author of critically gifted prose, Macdonald at his dazzling best was just as open: anything produced by anyone, he would examine for its true quality. That’s what a cultural critic must do, and there are no shortcuts through theory. But deep down he knew that, or he would never have bothered to coin a phrase. Back again because they never really went away, Dwight Macdonald’s essays are a reminder that while very little critical prose is poetic, great critical prose always is: you want to say it aloud, because it fills the mouth as it fills the mind.

This is just as awkward as disagreeing with Myers! I’ve avoided jumping on the Macdonald bandwagon this time around specifically because I’ve always thought his prose was overrated (I read this reprint just recently, and I still think so), and here’s one of my favorite living critics singing hymns of that very praise!

Still, even such unwanted deviations aren’t enough to dim the pleasure of finding two such pieces back to back in a periodical I’d only just recently dismissed as all but intellectually irrelevant (“what the fuck?“) – it was a very pleasant surprise, in light of which I’m prepared to take the high road and forgive both Myers and James. This time.


April 13th, 2012

The Confessions of St. Augustine!

Our book today is that perennial source of wonder, the Confessions of Saint Augustine, which was probably written sometime around A.D. 400, by which point Augustine was the renowned and widely-travelled bishop of Hippo, author of many bestsellers, scourge of heresies like Aryanism, Donatism, Pelagianism, and even Manichaeism, to which he’d given nearly ten years of his life when he was a younger man.

The Confessions is largely taken up with his account of that younger man – his thoughts, his passions, his conflicts. Augustine was born on 13 November A.D. 354 in a town about fifty miles from Hippo. His father Patricius was a pagan until almost the bitter end, and his mother Monica (later canonized by the Catholic Church) was a dutiful Christian who worried about the soul of her wastrel boy. In 370 a wealthy citizen of his home town gave Augustine the funds to go to Carthage for advanced studies, and there the young man found an abyss of corruption and worldly temptation. He stayed for over a decade, first learning and then teaching, taking a woman as his lover and having a child with her, falling in with the Manichaean sect and becoming an inspiring instructor of rhetoric. His was a very systematizing mind (as is made abundantly, frighteningly clear in his greatest work, The City of God, one of the mightiest and strangest non-fiction works ever written by a single author), and Manichaeism didn’t hold up well to his scrutiny – indeed, in the aimless years he so movingly describes, you get the strong sense that his faith would end up in the service of whichever belief-system was the first to satisfy his mind.

Famously, that belief-system was Roman Catholicism, and he was baptized into the faith in 387 by Saint Ambrose himself, thereafter becoming a famous and indefatigable pillar of the Church. That renown, that status is important to keep in mind when reading the Confessions; it gives extra appeal to the thorough and candid humility of the work, and it helps to explain the sheer charm glows from these pages and has made this book so popular and beloved for 1600 years.

“By its form it challenges the slight difficulty that it appears to be telling God what God knew already,” one critic wrote of it. “But that is the difficulty which every prayer also challenges. To those we love, are we not fond of telling many things about ourselves which they know already?” And this is just what St. Augustine does throughout the book: he talks with his God, gamely revealing all his weaknesses to He who must know them all. The whole thing is a conversation between friends – it’s the most winningly human work to come out of the ancient world (and touching – the part where Augustine relates the death of his mother will move the first-time reader to tears; George Hamlin Fitch rightly said, “”In all of literature there is nothing finer than the old churchman’s tender memorial to his dear mother”).

It’s foremost the self-portrait of a man who couldn’t stop himself from being omnivorously curious about everything. The “old churchman” in these pages could easily have been a modern-day scientist (or, God help us, psychiatrist), if the discipline had existed in his day:

The power of the memory is prodigious, my God. It is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths? And yet it is a faculty of my soul. Although it is part of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it which it does not itself contain? Is it somewhere outside itself and not within it? How, then, can it be part of it, if it is not contained in it?

That’s the translation done for Penguin Classics by a scholar using the pseudonym “R. S. Pine-Coffin,” who opted against the high-invocation tone St. Augustine uses in the book; other translators – most successfully Edward Pusey in 1952 – decide instead to let the whole thing roll over the reader in its magnificent but perhaps off-putting glory: “Great is this force of memory, excessive great, O my God; a large and boundless chamber! who ever sounded the bottom thereof? yet is this a power of mine, and belongs unto my nature, nor do I myself comprehend all that I am.”

No matter whose translation (like, in this case, the extremely good and very popular one done in 1963 by Rex Warner), the impression is the same – here is a fully modern mind, multiply engaged, self-reflective, and hungry for answers rather than hand-me-down dogma:

I am lost in wonder when I consider this problem. It bewilders me. Yet men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves. They do not marvel at the thought that while I have been mentioning all these things, I have not been looking at them with my eyes, and that I could not even speak of mountains or waves, rivers or stars, which are things that I have seen, or the ocean, which I know only on the evidence of others, unless I could see them in my mind’s eye, in my memory, and with the same vast spaces between them that would be there if I were looking at them in the world outside myself.

Ultimately, the Confessions is a story of salvation (as so many friendship-narratives are), and that happy ending is its evergreen appeal. The writer is a man who knows he’s avoided some of the worst mistakes that could have ensnared his life – when he reaches the point where he’s finally telling us his story, he’s not only a happy man but a relieved one, and that’s always cool like water to read. “As I became more unhappy, so you drew closer to me,” he reminds his God.



April 11th, 2012

Comics! The 22-year Witch!

Marvel Comics is fresh from the conclusion to its “Childrens Crusade” mini-series in which the mutant former Avenger Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, regains her memory after the traumatic events of another mini-series “The House of M,” in which she used her reality-altering ‘hex’ power to virtually eradicate her fellow mutants from the world. At one point in “Childrens Crusade” a character sarcastically asks what the X-Men and the Avengers are supposed to do with the revived and repentant Scarlet Witch – she proved more deadly to the good guys than any super-villain in their history, and now she just says she’s sorry and what? Rejoins a team to fight bank robbers on the weekends? The question is left hanging at the end of “Childrens Crusade,” which makes Marvel’s decision this week to offer its latest graphic novel, Darker Than Scarlet, downright odd.

Not odd from a business point of view, of course – after all, the Avengers are Marvel’s #1 hot property at the moment, with a hugely-hyped new movie set to open early next month … it makes sense that Marvel would keep up a very high Avengers visibility in the comic shops every week until that opening weekend.

But from a creative point of view, it’s an odd decision to remind Marvel readers just how often – how comically regularly, really – writers have used the easy device of the Scarlet Witch going crazy. In David Michelinie’s Wundagore Mountain storyline, she’s possessed by the supernatural being Ch’thon and attacks her teammates; in “House of M” she’s pushed over the edge by the apparent loss of her two children and attacks her teammates; and in between those two stories is this one from 1990’s “West Coast Avengers,” written and drawn by fan-favorite John Byrne, in which a distraught Scarlet Witch (who’s recently been brainwashed by a mutant-worshipping cult, to top things off) becomes outright malevolent and attacks her teammates. She’s encouraged by her father Magneto, long-time supervillain arch-nemesis of the X-Men, but for most of Byrne’s story, he’s actually restraining her blood-lust and calming her down. For her own sake, she gets a new hairdo, a new costume, some new lipstick, and a whole new interpretation of her powers. It’s a very common maneuver for Byrne – he did the same thing with Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, and of course he helped to do the same thing to Marvel Girl in the X-Men’s most popular story.

In order to do it here, he has to lay the groundwork for the Scarlet Witch to become something close to all-powerful. In the past, her mutant ‘hex’ power was basically the ability to point her hands and cause micro-bursts of random happenings – bad guys’ guns misfired, walls collapsed, that sort of thing. At one point in this “Avengers West Coast” arc, the Avengers’ resident scientist has her concentrate on a pristine titanium rod in order to document precisely what happens when her ‘hex’ shatters it, and the subsequent computer play-back seems to show that not only did her hex shatter the rod but it re-wove reality so that the rod was never pristine, so that it was in fact full of fractures to be exploited. The implications are staggering, even though we’re told “but that’s impossible! we know your powers don’t work that way!” It’s all classic Byrne: throw a monkey-wrench into some title’s continuity, deny that’s what you did, then move on to some other title. And despite all protestations to the contrary, some vague idea has remained in place that the Scarlet Witch’s powers distort the very nature of reality itself.

Marvel’s calling it the prelude to “House of M,” but that ignores the long-box of issues that came in between, the many ‘normal’ adventures the Scarlet Witch shared with the Avengers under the direction of many other Marvel writers. And it dramatically underscores the anticlimax of “Childrens Crusade,” where after yet more mucking around with reality, the Scarlet Witch is left … just fine, mentally balanced, decked out in her old costume, and ready to get back to super-heroing at Avengers Mansion. It leaves the door wide open to repeat the same old device the next time a writer (my money’s on Byrne) wants to do something big and very, very unoriginal.

But in the meantime, these are fun issues being reprinted! So there’s that.

April 11th, 2012

Ink Chorus: Samuel Taylor Coleridge!

As with so many figures from our Ink Chorus, so definitely with Coleridge: we remember for some other art someone who was also a great critic. It’s partly natural: after all, most critics want it that way. They’re more aware than anybody of the tawdry nature of the job – pitiless deadlines, ham-handed editors, glancing, distracted readers, and a honking, tail-wagging, endless procession of unworthy subjects … paintings that should have remained in dark closets, plays that should have avoided the stage, and especially books, a torrent of books that should never have been written. The work is hammered out to a prescribed word-count, the invoices are duly filed, the money takes the scenic route from Timbuktu, and then something else comes along. In Coleridge’s time – the decades immediately on either side of the turn of the 19th century – newspaper and periodicals were in full swing commenting on the explosion of printed matter before a growing reading public; the editors of those periodicals paid, and Coleridge in the 1790s was almost always in desperate need of money (in 1798 he received an annuity from the Wedgwood family that gave him some relief from constant pay-chasing, and there are many stories handed down in that family of the man’s burbling, unending, infinitely enjoyable talk). He wrote on anything that came to hand, often taking pen-names (a custom of critics in that benighted era), always working out what criticism was to him.

Coleridge was a fierce auto-didact, a rapid-fire devourer of books and a true omnivore. Throughout his life, in any small town where he found himself, he would proceed to eat the local library from one end to the other, often without even pausing between genres, and all of that incredibly various matter swirled into the strong currents of his reader’s mind as he tried (for his entire life, through deadlines and failed relationships and one of literary history’s most famous drug addictions) to systematize it all somehow. Coleridge could never do anything without reflexively trying to determine its ultimate essence, and literary criticism was no exception.

This drive was often battered by the aforementioned deadlines and drug addiction, but it was inextricably bound up with his nature, and it’s thus no surprise that when all that reading and striving finally burst forth in its own magnum opus, the resulting book was deeply, richly autobiographical. The book appeared in 1817 – it was the Biographia Literaria, which renowned Coleridge scholar W. Jackson Bate ranks as “certainly one of the half-dozen most seminal works in the entire history of criticism” and which another member of our Ink Chorus, the mighty Arthur Symons, referred to as one of the most annoying books in the English language, and one of the greatest works of criticism ever written. It’s at times a wildly refractory and digressive mess, but it thrums and pops with dense, sportive brilliance on almost every page, and it not only set the standard for almost all the critical masterworks to follow, but it also created a great deal of the language in which those masterworks would be written or even conceived. It’s a truism repeated for lots of people, but it’s nonetheless true for Coleridge: if he’d written nothing else but the Biographia Literaria, he’d still be assured of immortality.

No surprise either that this most friendly of men would reserve some rare vituperation for those critics who use their pulpits to grind axes against personal enemies under the guise of dispassion:

Every censure, every sarcasm respecting a publication which the critic, with the criticised work before him, can make good, is the critic’s right. The writer is authorised to reply, but not to complain. Neither can anyone prescribe to the critic, how soft or how hard; how friendly, or how bitter; shall be the phrases which he is to select for the expression of such reprehension or ridicule. The critic must know, what effect it is his object to produce; and with a view to this effect must he weigh his words. But as soon as the critic betrays, that he knows more of his author, than the author’s publications could have told him; as soon as from htis more intimate knowledge, elsewhere obtained, he avails himself of the slightest trait against the author; his censure instantly becomes personal injury, his sarcasms personal insults. He ceases to be a CRITIC, and takes on him the most contemptible character to which a rational creature can be degraded, that of a gossip, backbiter, and pasquillant…

Coleridge’s critical legacy extended beyond the Biographia Literaria, of course – his essays on Shakespeare, for instance, are deservedly famous even today for their clarity and calm power. But it’s really in this one strange, headlong, indispensable book that he poured out his lifetime of reading-summations and questions and hard-won certainties. It’s the foundation stone of the entire discipline in the modern era in English; every serious reader – and especially every critic! – should consult it on how to think about what they do.

At one point Coleridge writes: “To have lived in vain must be a painful thought to any man, and especially so to him who has made literature his profession.” He feared his whole life that he was himself one such person, living in vain, a burden and imposition to the people he loved. He wouldn’t have known quite how to react to the fact that his name still lives today, nearly two centuries after his death. And yet, you can’t get four pages into the TLS or the New York Review of Books without encountering the philosophies, the dialectics, even the language that he bequeathed to those centuries. We have many titans to mention in these earliest years of our Ink Chorus, but none are bigger than this sometimes-poet.

April 11th, 2012

A Glimpse of Heaven in the Penny Press!

The quick instinct is to ignore the covers of pre-Easter Time and Newsweek, serving up, as they tend to do at this time of year, the blandest, most insultingly reductive ‘religious’ stories because, I guess, they figure the country’s all geared up to read about religion after the holy Easter egg hunt. Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek squib urging readers to ‘forget the Church … follow Jesus’ is nonsense, but at least it’s smartly written nonsense. But what can any intellectually self-respecting reader expect from “Rethinking Heaven,” the Time cover article by talentless amateur historian Jon Meacham? If Sullivan’s piece is nonsense, surely talk of Heaven – in a secular magazine whose readership is almost entirely located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and defines Heaven exclusively in terms of real estate – is downright childish?

It almost goes without saying that the many parts of the article devoted to Meacham’s windy ruminations about the hereafter won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on – but it turns out the non-Meacham parts of the piece are fairly interesting (I’m guessing a good deal of this is due to the fact that although the article was written by Meacham, it was ‘reported’ by the super-smart and indefatigable Elizabeth Dias). Pastor John Blanchard has a great quote: “Heaven isn’t just a place you go – heaven is how you live your life,” for instance, and although you then have to face many bleak paragraphs introduced by Meacham writing “In earliest Christianity, the understanding of life after death …” (given our preceptor, such lines would strike fear into far stouter hears than mine), they’re rewarded with more great lines, like the one from the great theological writer and gadfly N. T. Wright: “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension to our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like.”

This is good, interesting stuff – and certainly soothingly non-confrontational to people who don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind. One of those people is scientist/charlatan Stephen Hawking, who’s quoted here too: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

He’s clearly meant to be speaking for the minority, although all the articles various quotes from various sources about how Heaven is really here already, a hidden, added aspect of earthly life, point to a secularization of the concept that might be far more advanced than religious people suspect – indeed, some of the believers quoted in the article spout non-denominational views that would have gotten them defrocked, imprisoned, or killed only a few centuries ago.

Those of us who don’t believe in any kind of afterlife (those of us who, in this very, very isolated case, actually find ourselves in the unprecedented position of agreeing with Stephen Hawking) can take some comfort in all this talk about Heaven being another way of naming the way you live your life. It’s a far more attractive concept than harps and pearly gates, and it makes a very tempting sense: surely a great, comforting conception of Heaven is that it’s just lots more of the best things in our lives right now – more of the things we treasure even when they annoy us sometimes.

For that conception, we need look no further than the cover of that Time issue – not the excellent black-and-white photography by Rodney Smith but the subject of that photography, the snappily-dressed (and slanderously uncredited) model, in this case the extremely talented young Broadway actor and dancer Reed Kelly. Here’s a young man who works constantly both to hone his talents and to hawk them, who laughs easily and enjoys himself vigorously in the company of friends, and who’s justifiably overjoyed at being on the cover of Time – a young man with beliefs, passions, devoted friends and family, a goofy sense of humor, and some eager hopes for the future. Surely that’s one very enticing view of Heaven? The vibrantly engaged living of our own lives and pursuing of our own potentials? The taking of joy with friends and cronies, the fun little bursts like being on the cover of Time or reaching 6000 ‘likes’ on Facebook or watching your hobby YouTube channel blossom into a ratings hit? The never missing opportunities to wring as much enjoyment and stimulation and learning and fun out of life as possible, until you can’t do it anymore and you have a second or two to look back and smile a bit at all the enjoyable, worthy stuff you did in the time you had?

No doubt some of this article’s quoted divines – not to mention St. Augustine – would pale in angry horror at the idea of a Heaven that looks backward at a lived life rather than forward to an eternal afterlife, but to readers for whom rest is anathema, it might not sound so bad.

In any case, it’s a pretty cover.