Monday, July 6, 2015

July Update

A List--Thomas Hardy, A Laodicean 125/481
B List--Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy 411/874
C List--Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling 244/428

A good trio of books--I am finding Dreiser especially to be unexpectedly absorbing--though not delivering great variety in terms of genre, year of publication, fame/status solidly established in the old Anglo-American tradition. At least I have one woman author, and her book, while old and celebrated, is a departure from the kinds of books I normally read, though not in a politically challenging sort of way. The Yearling in fact takes place in the old, now almost unimaginable America where rural people truly lived pretty much on their own, with scant contact with government institutions and laws, including schools. Even I thought it was slow-going at first, and I still think it would be difficult for any young person without an unusually well-developed discipline for reading long books to make it beyond the first couple of chapters, but the story gathers a accumulative weight as it moves forward, though perhaps this is characteristic of all successful books that are primarily concerned with the natural (or the purely spiritual) over the human world.

I will do a long write-up about the Dreiser book here when I finish it, which will probably be around the time the next update is due.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Addenda to the Edward Bok Post

I forgot to mention the episode of the egret feathers, which I found to be darkly humorous. The feather of the egret for the adornment of ladies' hats was fashionable at the time, and Bok took up as one of his crusades an expos-e of the pointless cruelty involved in obtaining these feathers in the hope of shaming his readers to abandon this fashion. However, when Bok went to the hat manufacturers a month after the appearance of his article in the magazine to see how much orders had declined he was 'dumbfounded' to discover they had increased fourfold, his middle class readership in the provinces not having realized until then the 'desirability of the aigrette as the hallmark and wealth of fashion.'

The book itself was a very handsome edition printed, with great illustrations, in 2000, from the Lakeside Press as part of an annual series that began in 1903 and continues, with the addition of one book a year, down to the present. Most of the books are autobiographies with relevance to American history, and are mostly titles and authors I have never heard of, the exception being a number of writings by presidents. Sample titles include The Southwestern Expedition of Zebulon M. Pike (1925), The Border and the Buffalo by John R. Cook (1938), My Experiences in the West by John S. Collins (1970), Fighting the Flying Circus by Capt. Edward V. Rickenbacker (1997), and And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight by Floyd Gibbons (2014). I bought my Bok book for $20 at a used book, supposedly the largest in New Hampshire, about twenty miles from where I live. They have a whole wall of these Lakeside Press books, it must be close to the full set. It does not look as if many of them have been sold. I had been keeping tabs on the Bok book for a long time, more than ten years at least. I could have gotten a copy of the same volume on Amazon for $3 but sentimentality and the excuse to go out to the store overcame my love even of a bargain.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Edward Bok--The Americanization of Edward Bok (1921)

Another early Pulitzer Prize winner, this time in the category of Biography/Autobiography. This is the kind of book I enjoyed a great deal as a teenager, and then got away from for twenty-five years while I was striving to be admitted into the ranks of the truly intelligent and knowledgeable, in literary matters anyway. But eventually, as I have indicated elsewhere, finding this aim to increasingly hopeless and myself becoming ever more anomic and detached from life, I thought that perhaps returning to some of the kind of reading I had liked in my youth might help me to feel more engaged again. Predictably, it has not been able to effect much change in my relations with the greater social world, but I have found much daily pleasure in most of these books, in particular the numerous American titles from 1865-1945 period that have inevitably begun to fall somewhat into obscurity.

Edward Bok was a native of Holland whose impoverished family moved to Brooklyn in 1870 when he was seven years old. From this humble origin the extraordinarily enterprising young immigrant rose from selling ice water on trolley-cars, to lemonade, to contributing reports of birthday parties to newspapers, to doing stenography for Western Union and earning the attention and trust of legendary Wall Street tycoon Jay Gould (of whom Bok seems to been slightly wary, however, enough to turn him off pursuing a career on Wall Street, in which one must assume he would have made at least as great a success financially as he made in publishing), to founding his own newspaper, to inventing the modern theater program, and the newspaper syndicate, and coming up with the idea of printing biographical information on the back of collectible picture-cards found in cigarette packages, to a position in the advertising department at Scribner's to, at age 26, being named editor of The Ladies' Home Journal, in which position he would remain from 1889 to 1919, during much of which time the magazine seems to have had the largest circulation of any periodical in the country, featured the work of many famous and outstanding writers as well as contributions from numerous current and former presidents, most of whom were good friends with Bok, was at the forefront of journalistic innovation and the influence of mass taste (which I must say I often like in this time period). He had also played a prominent leadership role during the American participation in World War I, both through the magazine and by virtue of his involvement in various committees contributing to the direction of the war effort, especially the Y.M.C.A's National War Work Council. So at the time that his autobiography appeared he was a prominent figure in American society.

While never acclaimed as a literary masterpiece, even by me, this was a highly interesting and entertaining book, mainly for its anecdotes about the many famous people of the time whom Bok knew, most of whose names remain known to us but whose personalities have never been vivid, as well as its depiction of an older America that bears an almost unsettling resemblance to the present in many ways, with its teeming immigrant population, ferocious competition and hyper-capitalism at the top, Wall Street mega-tycoons, a rowdy and not always responsible media environment. On the other hand in contrast to our time the tone of the book is almost unfailingly enthusiastic and optimistic about America's political and cultural leadership, its unique qualities, and its prospects going forward (there is one 12 page chapter near the end titled "Where America Fell Short With Me"). It does not have very much in the way of satisfaction to offer current progressives, which is why it will probably remain a work relegated to those interested in the ethos of its particular time and place, though there are a couple of things I thought possibly redeeming in it that I will expand on below. Rather than spend a month or two to hammer this into a coherent essay, I am just going to make (hopefully) brief comments on certain topics in the book that I found of interest.

The Bok Family. The book has been sold and praised over the years primarily as being the true story of an impoverished clever immigrant boy who worked like a dog to become a big success in America (Bok died in 1930 with an estimated worth of over 14 million dollars). It is true that the family was very poor during Bok's childhood; his father had been ruined by bad investments in the Netherlands and was never able to attain even a middle class living after moving the family to America. However, his extended family in Holland was quite distinguished. One of his grandfathers had sat on the Dutch Supreme Court, and among his uncles there were numerous commissioners, civil servants, clergymen, and the like, nearly all of the men being university-educated. Bok was not exactly the scion of endless generations of peasants, as the general description of the book might sway one to believe. The family has continued to be prominent and successful in the United States down to our own time. Bok's grandson Derek Bok was the president of Harvard University from 1971-1991, and again briefly in 2006 on an interim basis (Bok himself had to leave school for good at age thirteen). Though I have been familiar with the names of both Edward and Derek Bok since the 1980s I had not made the connection of their being related until it was noted in my book. There is a another branch of the family based in Maine that includes a grandson (of Edward) who is a prominent folk singer, and a great grandson who is an artist of some renown. With the exception of Edward Bok's father, there are obviously very strong genes influencing general intellect and a propensity for accomplishment in worldly affairs running through this family. These are the people I see, or the influence of whose presence I detect anyway, on the increasingly rare occasions when I visit one of the really pleasant, long-established old places in New England, and wonder, why doesn't every dumpy old town, or more of them anyway, make itself like this? Why can't they? Why can't I?

Bok on Success. There are a number of damning observations about the laziness and lack of drive most people display, such that Bok never perceived there to be much competition for all of the achievements and honors he attained. This was to me the most pertinent:

"Eventually, then, Bok learned that the path that led to success was wide open: the competition was negligible. There was no jostling. In fact, travel on it was just a trifle lonely."

I have the sense that most people who have achieved success almost exclusively as a result of their relentless work ethic have a similar view of the world's affairs. It has been the interest of many successful societies to inculcate this virtue in all of their younger people, but even where this ethos permeates the air and dictates activity to a large degree there are clearly a small number of people whose hearts are in their working far more than they are in that of the rest of the group. It is not merely the exercising of a habit but the actualization of the will in such individuals, and has the effect almost of being a talent in itself.

"Smoking was not permitted in the Scribner offices, and, of course, Mark Twain was always smoking."

Among the things this book is known for is Bok's relentless name-dropping of famous people of the time, but I found his vignettes interesting, as I did not have much of a sense of what many of these people were like on a personal basis at all. We have a tendency in our age to be suspicious of anyone who was able to achieve popularity in such debased and wicked times as the past was, and to assume that they were openly morally repugnant at best and God only knows how evil secretly. Bok relates his youthful meetings and interactions with these old American celebrities as almost uniformly positive experiences, however. Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B Hayes were almost unbelievably unburdened by other business and considerate in their meetings with the teenaged Bok. Oliver Wendell Holmes and especially Longfellow were equally accommodating towards the boy when he sought them out in Boston (It was a more relaxed age. Longfellow, probably the most famous poet in the country at the time, was able to respond to his daily haul of five fan letters while chatting with Bok over lunch. As an adult, Bok became, according to himself, close friends both of Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling (and by extension Kipling's father, who was an artist and an interesting man in his own right), all of these being depicted as lively and generous hearted people. The famous Americans in general were at that time more accessible and less haughty than their counterparts would be today. Bok had more trouble ingratiating his way into this level of company when he went to Europe. Attempting to coax Lewis Carroll to come out of retirement and write some stories for his magazine, Bok had a very pleasant tea and walking tour of Oxford with the Professor Charles Dodgson, who however, refused to acknowledge the existence of Lewis Carroll and affected not to recognize the game. Florence Nightingale would not see him at all, and his attempt to enlist some popular French authors to produce stories for The Ladies' Home Journal resulted in his getting screamed at by Jules Vernes and the younger Alexandre Dumas, author of Camille, about American publishers' bad habit at that time of printing and selling their books without obtaining permission, paying royalties, and so on.

Another friend of Bok's was the poet Eugene Field ("Wee Willie Winkie"). Field was into unbelievably elaborate practical jokes. For example, asking Bok to travel to New Orleans to introduce him at a dinner where he was to receive some honor, only of course the dinner did not exist (Bok actually did his research on this one and did not fall for the joke). There was another episode where Bok was visiting Field at his house in Chicago on a Sunday and Field claimed he had nothing to eat in the house and that he had dismissed his servants for the evening, leaving Bok and another guest to go roaming all over Chicago for four hours or so in search of food. When they returned to Field's house, the poet and his other guests were in the middle of an elaborate multi-course field and having a good laugh at Bok's expense. I don't know if people could take quite this level of pranking anymore, in good humor.

New York Provincialism. When Bok took the Ladies' Home Journal job, he had to relocate from New York, where he had lived from age 7 to 26, to Philadelphia, which is where the Curtis publishing company, which owned the Journal as well as the Saturday Evening Post and some other magazines, was headquartered in those days. His friends and associates in New York were against the move: " cap the climax, they each argued in turn, he would be buried in Philadelphia, New York was the center, etc, etc...Bok now consulted his business associates, and, to a man, they discouraged the step, but almost invariably upon the argument that it was suicidal to leave New York. He had now a glimpse of the truth that there is no man so provincially narrow as the untravelled New Yorker who believes in his heart that the sun rises in the East River and sets in the North (Hudson) River." Bok continues: "He (speaking of himself; the book is written in the third person) had had experience enough to realize that a man could not be buried in any city, provided he had the ability to stand out from his fellow men. It all depended on whether the cream was there: it was up to the man."

Bok does not write a lot about his social life in Philadelphia, unfortunately, since there are not many well known books that get into this. The Curtis Building, which housed the corporation, built in 1910 when Bok was at the peak of his career, is still there, at the corner of sixth and Walnut Street. I must have walked by it dozens of times without realizing what it was. Indeed, I have almost certainly been there, as my grandparents took me to see an exhibit on Norman Rockwell around 1982 in what they called 'the old Saturday Evening Post building',  which undoubtedly is this building where Bok worked. I remember going to the exhibit, but I recall nothing about the building from that day. The old Curtis estate on Church Road in Cheltenham Township, now a park, arboretum and so on, is literally down the road from where I grew up (the street I lived on connected with Church Road. I must have been there, though I don't have any memory of it, and I certainly never had any sense of who Curtis was (Cyrus H.K. Curtis, the publishing magnate). Bok lived in Merion, which is a suburb at the other end of the city. There was an Edward Bok High School (public) in South Philadelphia, which I see was closed after the 2013 school year. I don't think the school had an especially good reputation at any point in my lifetime, though pictures on the internet reveal it to have been a beautiful art deco (1938) building. The names of Bok and Curtis, which once thundered across the entire land, will thus continue to fade further in the memory of the Philadelphians who follow them, if they can be brought to feel any kinship of place with them at all.

Bok's House (unfortunately named Swastika, by his good pal Rudyard Kipling, with whom the symbol was also associated) in Merion.

One of Bok's many crusades during his years of editorship was the general improvement in the architecture of the average American house, which led to, among other things, the once-famous Ladies' Home Journal houses, which were built from plans developed by well-known architects and sold by the magazine. I have had on several occasions in my life had a house pointed out to me as being one of these catalog houses, though this did not make a great impression on me at these times. My point is, however, I have always liked houses and other buildings put up in this time period, so if Bok really had the influence in this area that he claims for himself (and the average pre-1890 American house as hideous as he claims it to have been), I have to give him some credit for good work there.

Bok and Modern Social Justice. I usually try to account for this with these old white guys now, especially if they have fallen somewhat into obscurity, lest I unwittingly appear in liking them too much to be condoning some especially atrocious attitude that even I would find unacceptable. Bok essentially ignores the question of race entirely, at least in this book, with the exception of one sentence recounting a discussion he had with Theodore Roosevelt in which he insinuated that he considered Roosevelt's arguments about the impending peril of (white) race-suicide to be important and merit thinking about. So he appears at the very least guilty of pro-white racialism and paranoia, as well as completely not seeing or acknowledging the existence of people of color in his work. He took up numerous crusades in his magazine over the years, against patent medicines, the aforementioned architecture, against French fashion, in favor of prophylactics, and many others, but things like lynching and other extreme racist practices seem not to have gripped his attention. He did not offer any unfortunate opinions or suffer any slips with regard to Jews as were not uncommon at this time either. A few persons with Jewish-sounding names, usually connected with the publishing industry, found  their way into the narrative, though on the whole the modern reader is struck by how comparatively few Jews there were in the upper reaches of this world in the early 1900s, and what a different dynamic the American literary scene had as a result. The nature of that dynamic strikes me as something like this, that as the standards of literary importance, excellence, intellectualism, humor, taste/acceptability have increasingly been set and driven in this country over the last century by Jewish writers, critics and professors, something of the energy and originality which people like Mark Twain or Jack London or Ring Lardner or Theodore Roosevelt brought to the national culture in the first years of the 1900s appears, if not to have died, to have been somewhat stifled; the type of formally untutored, but in its own way still formidable spirit I am thinking of here being neither as prominent nor as seemingly widespread throughout the culture as it was formally, the development of this particular type of character not being well-served by the kinds of institutions and educational systems we have currently. Then of course the decline of the old brahmin wasp establishment is well-documented, and the Roman Catholic community and tradition as one of the major forces in American cultural life seems to have imploded entirely, certainly in the arts and universities. I would like to see some of that vitality re-emerge and re-assert itself, not at the expense of Jews or what might be called Jewish intellectual culture, but because I believe it contains qualities which, directed appropriately, will improve the life of the nation. It also might inspire a few more people to feel excitement about the possibilities of their own lives, to allow themselves to feel they can aspire to something higher than a bland, careful, inoffensive uselessness. Needless to say, this theory is in its infancy, but clearly the dynamic of the 1910s and 1920s in terms of individual personality and projection of force is noticeably different, particularly for gentile whites, than what it is now.

Bok had a lot more to say about women, some of it inevitably not up to our standards of respectfulness, but not completely reprehensible. He was in favor of women's suffrage for example, though he expressed reservations that in the mass they were not knowledgeable enough, presumably compared to men, to wield the vote with the sacred responsibility that the immigrant Bok considered as one's civic duty, and devoted much space in the magazine to addressing this problem. I was struck by the number of professional women who contributed to the magazine over the years, and Bok's attitude regarding them. The popular image that I have absorbed anyway is that women's voices were completely silenced and their talents completely suppressed until the tiny progressive steps that have occurred in our own time, but Bok at least employed, and sought out, many women writers whom he regarded as superior, as well as women doctors, fashion designers, leaders of the temperance and suffragette movements, and so on. There was even some controversy when he assumed the editorship of the magazine that a man should be editing the Ladies' Home Journal, which indicates that the idea that a woman was capable of being and even properly should be the editor of a major mass market publication was not something completely alien to a part of the American public even in 1889. I know there are other issues--I don't know what Bok paid his women writers for example compared to what he was paying Rudyard Kipling and his stable of ex-presidents, and the overwhelming majority of women obviously were expected to devote themselves to domestic duties--but on the whole the presence of and level of respect given to professional women was more than I would have anticipated in this time. I was also reading about the muckraker movement recently and was surprised at how prominent women were in that as well.  

There are multiple chapters devoted to Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Bok was good friends (Bok also was on good personal terms at various times in his life with presidents or former presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison & Cleveland). Among Roosevelt's influences recorded in these chapters Bok notes that one of the President's arguments which "made a deep impression on him was that no man had a right to devote his life to the making of money."

As noted earlier, when the United States entered World War I Bok was named to and interacted with a lot of committees. Something that interested me at least, he let drop that when he went to Washington in January of 1917, the authorities he consulted with informed him that the country entering the war had been a practical certainty for some time, and the Government was pretty much waiting for the most opportune moment to make it official. I should have known this was true, but I guess I had some idea that the American leadership at that time really wanted to avoid getting into the war if it had been possible, but either that was not the case or they determined that it was not really possible. Being a middle-aged man in a position of leadership, Bok's account of that dreadful, death-drenched period was a little more chipper and jingoistic than we are used to (His close friend and co-generationist Kipling endured a loss of prestige due to a similar apparent obtuseness of tone on the subject of the calamity that most men who fought in the war experienced it as). He was not all terrible. He appears to have been genuinely sobered by seeing first hand some of the obliterated cities and blasted landscapes, as well as abandoned trenches full of "German" bodies--I am guessing that he was either not shown, or would have considered it inappropriate to his readership to describe a similar display of corpses on the allied side--but his insistence on promoting the saccharine caricature of the grinning, high-spirited, simple-minded, game for anything American doughboy is almost offensive even to me. However I try to keep in mind that Bok, an important and successful man in the life of his time, viewed the war in terms of being an unavoidable fact of life that he bore, in his various organizational roles, no small amount of personal responsibility for winning. That was his task, not to engage in a lot of hand-wringing about its inanity, or that of the various national governments, especially one's own, or what the possible purpose of the entire catastrophe could be. He respected American institutions, and believed that working tirelessly to strengthen them if they appeared to be functioning in a lackluster manner was the productive way to address problems, and not adopt the stances of nihilism and negativity.                  

Bok Tower in Florida, Site of Gardens built by Bok, and his Burial

The Challenge

1. Andrew Solomon--Far From the Tree: Parents, Children & the Search For Identity.......630
2. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings--The Yearling.............................................................................207
3. All That Heaven Allows (movie)..........................................................................................126
4. Wendy Ruderman & Barbara Laker--Busted: A Tale of Corruption & Betrayal in the City of
    Brotherly Love......................................................................................................................111
5. Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking....................................................................37
6. Lloyd Lofthouse--Crazy is Normal: a Classroom Expose.....................................................27
7. Leslie Barringer--Gerfalcon.....................................................................................................7
8. Anne Stibbs Kerr--Crossword Lists & Crossword Solver.......................................................6
9. Leland Stone--They Shall Not Sleep.........................................................................................3
10. Scott Joplin--"Maple Leaf Rag"..............................................................................................1
11. E. Alexander Powell--Where the Strange Trails Go Down (1921)........................................0
12. Ezra Pound--If This Be Treason (1948)..................................................................................0
13. The Organic Directory (1971)................................................................................................0
14. Long Island Sound: Prospects For the Urban Sea (2013).....................................................0

(For seeding purposes, ties are broken by the date of publication)

Not a great tournament this time, though not an atrocious one either. We could not even fill the whole field this, allowing the top two seeds byes into the Elite 8.

Round of 16

Top 2 seeds receive byes

#3 All That Heaven Allows over #14 Long Island Sound

A movie that is supposed to be pretty good over a book that is essentially unavailable & sounds boring.

#4 Laker & Ruderman over #13 Organic Directory

Plus the intriguiging bonus of being a Philadelphia book.

#12 Pound over #5 Meta Given

#11 Powell over #6 Lofthouse

Surprising, the Lofthouse book is not available in a single New Hampshire library, while there is one copy of Powell at the University of New Hampshire.

#10 Joplin over #7 Barringer

A rare song getting into the competition (and a good one), beats a book that is completely unavailable.

#9 Stone over #8 Kerr

The Stone book is from 1944, and there are copies of it in 3 libraries, including the State Library in Concord, where I have an account.

Elite 8

#1 Solomon over #12 Pound

Because this work of Pound's seems to be a rarity.

#2 Rawlings over #11 Powell

#3 All That Heaven Allows over #11 Joplin

The toughest call of this round. The nature of the competition makes it hard for a song to win if I have any interest in its opponent. But there is no reason not to listen to it on its way out:

#4 Laker/Ruderman over #9 Stone

The greater ubiquity and shorter length of the Philadelphia book overwhelm the antiquated Stone. And for the first time in the history of the Challenge, the top 4 seeds advance to the Final Four.

Final Four

#1 Solomon over #4 Laker/Ruderman

A close call. I kind of decided the winner on an impulse in a matter of seconds due to a hunch I had about which book had truly the smarter readers, and I feel obligated to stick to it.

#2 Rawlings over #3 All That Heaven Allows


#2 Rawlings over #1 Solomon 

The Rawlings book has some status as a classic, and somehow it has never made it onto any of my other lists. It has a reputation as a children's book, and it is in content, though it won the Pulitzer Prize* in 1939 and it is written in a way that I think most children would find rough going nowadays--slow-paced, long descriptive passages of nature, pretty long in general (400 pages). So we'll see how that goes.

*Related to the earlier point about the regard in which women authors were held, in this country anyway, it should be noted that during the 1920s 5 of the 9 Pulitzer Prizes for fiction went to women, and 6 of 10 in the 30s. Again, I was surprised by this, given that the award has a certain amount of prestige, and probably more in the 1930s than now. These numbers dropped to 1 of 9 in the 40s, 0 of 8 in the dark days of the 50s (actually no women were awarded the prize from between 1942 and 1961), 3 of 9 in the 60s, and 2 of 8 in 70s before rising to a fairly consistent 4 of 10 in the decades since then. I have a theory that part of this evident decline in the perception of the quality and importance of women authors is a direct result of the emigration to this country of the many brilliant and formidable continental European intellectuals and musicians and writers fleeing totalitarianism during the 1930s and 40s, who came to dominate, certainly in spirit, many important colleges and universities, including my own, and heavily influenced the tone of most highbrow criticism and other writing during this era, emphasizing the far greater depth and seriousness of the (heavily male-dominated and oriented) continental European tradition while dismissing American (and even much of British) culture, seemingly more female-friendly on the surface, as wholly trivial and juvenile. This theory of course is not fully worked through yet...

Friday, June 5, 2015

June Reading Update

The sixth falling on a Saturday this month gave me some concern that I would not be able to get the update posted on the appointed day, so I am doing it in the wee hours of the preceding day/night.

A List: Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov--737/940. About 2 weeks to go on this
B List: Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok 346/439. Write-up on the site in a week or two.
C List: None Currently

I may write something soon about Karamazov on the parent blog. Otherwise, I have no good anecdotes to relate, I am tired. We'll see how the summer unfolds

Friday, May 22, 2015

Henry James--The American (1877)

Henry James makes his first appearance on the IWE list, which however only includes three or four of his books, and none of the longer, more difficult later ones. I have read numerous Henry James books--I think eleven--for my other list, including this one and the three notoriously dense and subtle ones that formed the capstone of his career and are now widely considered to be his masterpieces. The American, an early work, probably his first that is considered important, which I have recorded as reading previously in March, 2002, and The Turn of the Screw I remember as being the two I liked best. Of the three later books, The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors I cannot say I was ever really able to get into to the extent that the books mean anything to mean. The Golden Bowl, which I read last of these three and a couple of years after the others, I was able to hang in with much better, though I still was not able to come away with a sense of why all of these fine nuances and minutely shades of meaning among this particular set of characters were supposed to matter as much as they presumably did. For the man, especially if he is a man of the quivering lipped, concave chested race of readers, who aspires to be admitted into the ranks of people who know anything about literature and whose mere acts of reading and thinking contribute to its ongoing vitality like those who prune and water do for a garden, understanding what Henry James is about and taking a proper adult joy in it is, if not mandatory, one of the surer ways to access the inner rooms of this intellectual fraternity. Here is my own history with the Master, with a brief observation on each book, by which my progress towards the state of Henry James connoiseurship can be measured:

Turn of the Screw--also read around 2002, liked the story, seemed more vivid, thoughts and impressions of characters more pertinent than in some of the other books.

The Wings of the Dove--August, 1995. I don't think I made heads or tails of it at the time.

The Ambassadors--August, 1996. My understanding did not improve much during that year.

The Bostonians--April, 2002. An earlier (1886) book, more readable, New England setting, I don't remember being blown away by it, but it wasn't bad. Learned about the term "Boston marriage". Also on the IWE list.

The Golden Bowl--May, 2002 (there was a question on the GRE literature exam, the source of my "A" list, for which the five answer choices were all Henry James novels. I got to this question obviously in 2002). See above.

The Portrait of a Lady--September, 1998. The early James masterpiece. Made no impression on me.

What Maisie Knew--June, 2002. I found a note I made on this, dated June 8, 2002:

"James is an extreme (though comparatively lucid) specimen of the cerebral, super-precise author. We can see that truly nothing makes its way onto the page without its *entire* purpose, mode of expression, point of view, etc., diligently thought out and accounted for. The question with me is always, how accurate--how naturalistic, in the end, are these characters, who are rather unlike anyone else in the whole of literature, though the technique and the philosophy behind it are very sound, logical, and even (at times) exquisite."

Nothing much stands out in my memory with regard to Maisie, other than that it was a characteristic Henry James novel of the late middle period, the sort of book (a lesser known but still considered good work by a celebrated author) that I often feel an exaggerated affection for while I am reading it, even if I recall very little of it in after years.

So I guess I have only read eight Henry James books, not the eleven I claimed earlier. And none in the last thirteen years. It really does not seem that long. At this rate I guess I'll be dead before I know it.

I do wonder sometimes with Henry James whether I would be able to tell that he was good if all of the most firmly situated experts did not constantly assure the world that he was. I think I might if I was handed one of his more conventional efforts, but there is some doubt there.

As noted above, I counted The American as one of my two favorite Henry James novels during this earlier period, so I was not unhappy to take it up again. The Marquis de Bellegarde and his mother are two of the my favorite characters in literature, at least as far as being memorably drawn goes. They inform my idea of one extreme that aristocratic hauteur can reach. Valentin is more of a recognizable type, I suppose, but it is a lively depiction. For the others, it is well-established that in Henry James the ruling idea of a book is paramount, and that the role of the characters is to serve the idea. He was happy here in that the idea represented by the two most severe of the Bellegardes was so strongly impressed upon him as a living force that it could be embodied in two characters. Madame de Cintre and Newman are less convincing. Claire is supposed to be the most enchanting and exquisitely refined woman that can be imagined, though other than her conversation's being impenetrably correct and controlled at all times, she does not display a lot of personal agency or give much indication of having anything resembling passion for anything in her life. As to Newman it seems decidedly unlikely that a man who had amassed a colossal fortune in mineral extraction and railroads and other industries by the age of 35 would suddenly develop a Henry James-like interest in getting away from all of that money-making and lounging around Paris for a couple of years trying to ingratiate himself with a cloistered and decayed family clinging to its ancient nobility that at the time in which the book was set has no recognized rank or political authority in the eyes of the French state. But as noted, these kinds of incongruities are sometimes the price of admission to the undoubtedly unique world of Henry James.

I wanted to run a few of my favorite quotations from the book, most concerning my main man the Marquis Urbain de Bellegarde:

"He was 'distinguished' to the tips of his polished nails, and there was not a movement of his fine perpendicular person that was not noble and majestic. Newman had never yet been confronted with such an incarnation of the art of taking oneself seriously..."

There were at least two other occasions in the book where someone--I believe all of the persons thus described were Bellegardes--possessed a quality to the tips of his fingernails.

"His manners seemed to indicate a fine nervous dread that something disagreeable might happen if the atmosphere were not purified by allusions of a thoroughly superior cast."

"If he has never committed murder, he has at least turned his back and looked the other way while someone else was committing it."

"His tranquil unsuspectingness of the relativity of his own place in the social scale was probably irritating to M. de Bellegarde..."

"'We all know what Mozart is,' said the marquis; 'our impressions don't date from this evening. Mozart is youth, freshness, brilliancy, facility--a little too great facility, perhaps. But the execution is here and there deplorably rough.'"

This next one describes the follies of some highly sophisticated and intelligent Parisians who find themselves forced to settle down in a rustic inn in a nondescript Swiss village for a couple of days:

"At last the bishop's nephew came in with a toilet in which an ingenious attempt at harmony with the peculiar situation was visible, and with a gravity tempered by a decent deference to the best breakfast that the Croix Helvetique had ever set forth. Valentin's servant...had been lending a light Parisian hand in the kitchen. The two Frenchmen did their best to prove that if circumstances might overshadow, they could not really obscure the national talent for conversation..."

"Monsieur de Bellegarde appeared to have nothing more to suggest; but he continued to stand there, rigid and elegant, as a man who believed that his mere personal presence had an argumentative value."

Newman's vulgar American friend, Mr Tristram, on Paris:

"You know it's really the only place for a white man to live."

While we are still waiting for our first French book on the IWE list, this is the first one that is at least nominally set in Paris, though the peculiar flavor of Henry James's Paris is a bit of a departure from the way I usually experience that city, both through art and in actual life. Still, as I am undertaking this entire list as something of a farewell tour of all my youthful ideas and aspirations, perhaps ultimately even to life itself as I once imagined it, anytime the list brings us to Paris as the primary setting of a book, it is a momentous occasion.

As I read through these books I am making a collection of all of them, trying to get older hardback copies from the 1930-1970 era if I don't have them already. I am not looking for anything rare or unique. I like the Modern Library and other popular sets, for example, and any copy I generally find attractive will do. For The American however I decided to stick with the circa 2000 Penguin paperback edition I bought when I read it back 2002, as I had felt at the time it was a good reading edition, the notes were aimed at someone who was around my basic level of education and so on. It also contains the original 1877 text of the book; James evidently re-wrote a substantial amount of it thirty years afterwards and some editions of the book have that version of it, though the consensus seems to be that the 1877 version is the better one, and as the 1907 version presumably incorporates more of the opaque later James style, I am sure it is the one I would prefer in any event. This sort of thing, of there being two or more versions of a famous book, occurs more often then I had realized. The edition of Brideshead Revisited that I read a few years back for example I realize now was actually the 'corrected' 1959 version heavily re-written by Waugh, though I think the original 1945 publication is the one that most people are thinking of when they praise. It is something I have learned to be on the lookout for.

Henry James at age 17?

Off-topic, and I don't want to go to much into it at this time because I want to finish this post, but I read something the other day where another novelist-critic, someone who could I suppose be considered a literary insider in some segment of the literary world that still possesses an identifiable enclosure, opined that The Canon was dead, dead, dead, that it would be impossible to define one from the mass of words that is being published nowadays and so on in that vein. I never use the term 'Canon' myself as this was never used at my school--they believed in Great Books, but the number of unassailable Great Books was really very small, limited to around ten or fifteen maximum even from the greatest centuries, only a minority of which were works of imaginative literature, of which a minority of these were prose fiction. I suppose it is possible that the Great Books in this sense are dead, though I have the confidence at least that if a genuine one does turn up, and passes one full time through the generational cycle--usually around eighty years--we should be able to recognize it at such. The Canon as I understand it is has a little bit broader membership and sort of includes everyone who has a claim to importance over some stretch of literary history. Similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame, it has an inner ring of the Real Greats (Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Dante, Tolstoy, etc) whose membership is not merely a given, but without whom the entire enterprise would be pointless, but there are also contentious arguments at the fringes about whether certain people really belong in or not (Highpockets Kelly, Dave Bancroft, Alice Walker, Norman Mailer). Henry James is solidly in the Canon, though (unlike his brother) seemingly not an inner ring Great Book, in baseball terms about the Three Finger Brown or Eddie Matthews level, a clearly superior and even unique player who amassed impressive statistics over a period of years in a highly relevant environment. Anyway, while there is a class of the most advanced writers and readers who pooh-pooh the idea of the Canon, and has been far as I can tell for most of literary history (I am reminded of Susan Sontag's constant referencing of writers that even the assiduous middle class reader of literary reviews would never have heard of as obviously the best and most important in the world), the lower tiers of the scholarly and reading public will for the foreseeable future I am pretty sure require something of the kind to take form, and thus certain books or writings from our era will by some consensus attain to canon-like status.    

The Challenge

I am disappointed that Henry James gave us such an incredibly weak challenge. Ten movies made the field. The movies are supposed to be like the teams from lower level leagues that are mainly in the tournament to allow the books to advance. In the pre-tournament era we were only getting two or three movies per Challenge, now the last two have been movie heavy. I am leaving them in for now because the score required to qualify for this tournament is 34, and books with fewer than 34 reviews are generally not readily available or well-known anyway, and of the books which turned up for this challenge, the only one that piqued my interest at all was a food memoir that had only three reviews and was not available at a single library in my entire state. So I had to accept a complete dud of a tournament.

1. Dan Brown--The Da Vinci Code..........................5,486
2. Godzilla (2014 movie)..........................................3,764
3. Melancholia (movie)................................................867
4. Robin Hood (2010 movie)........................................865
5. Out of the Furnace (movie)......................................672
6. Diana Gabaldon--Lord John & the Private Matter...385
7. Rebel Without a Cause (movie)................................357
8. Sklya Madi--Too Consumed (Book 2)......................206
9. A Late Quartet (movie).............................................195
10. Summer Stock (movie)............................................153
11. Scent of Green Papaya (movie)..............................140
12. Patricia D'Eddy--A Shift in the Water.....................116
13. Skyla Madi--Forever Consumed (Book 3)..............112
14. Game of Death (recent movie)..................................38
15. Suzanne Wright--Consumed: Deep in Your Veins....36
16. Liz & Dick (movie)....................................................34

1st Round

#16 Liz & Dick over #1 Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code had finished first in one of the pre-tournament challenges, and I read a little bit of it, thinking that as it was so popular there must be something to it. In truth though it is really, like so many of these genre books that sell zillions of copies, stupefyingly boring. The characters are all ridiculously wealthy people at the top of their fields who have degrees from the best universities, clothes from the most elite tailors, world class private art collections, and yet they are incapable of expressing a thought or response to life that possesses any interest or spark of ingenuity.

I have decided not to make any rules around banning past winners from being eligible for future challenges. The only books that are ineligible for the challenge are those on the IWE list. 

#15 Suzanne Wright over #2 Godzilla

Book over movie.

#3 Melancholia over #14 Game of Death

The pseudo-art movie over the high explosive modern action film

#13 Skyla Madi over #4 Robin Hood

#12 Patricia Eddy over #5 Out of the Furnace

#6 Diana Gabaldon over #11 Scent of Green Papaya

I am giving the books a wide path here.

#10 Summer Stock over #7 Rebel Without a Cause

Summer Stock is a few years older, and I have never seen it.

#8 Skyla Madi over #9 A Late Quartet

Elite 8

#3 Melancholia over #16 Liz & Dick

The pseudo-art movie over a TV biopic I have no desire to see.

#6 Gabaldon over #15 Wright

Gabaldon basically wins because her book exists in public libraries, and Wright's does not.

#8 Madi over #13 Madi

In the battle of two books from the same series I give the precedent to the one first in order (as well as the higher seed).

#12 Eddy over #10 Summer Stock

Final Four

#12 Eddy over #3 Melancholia

#6 Gabaldon over #8 Madi

Gabaldon is the only book left in the field that exists in libraries near me.


#6 Gabaldon over #12 Eddy

An embarrassingly easy championship for Gabaldon.

I have adhered to protocol and at least taken Lord John and the Private Matter out of the library. Set in 1757 London, the action opens with Lord John, hidden from view, observing a syphilis sore on the penis of the man to whom his cousin is betrothed. It soon becomes apparent that Lord John is highly familiar with eighteenth-century London's pulsating gay scene. Also his mother throws a dinner party at which Samuel Johnson is a guest and Lord John and his gay friends sneer at the Doctor as a tiresome, blustering buffoon. Hopefully we will get a better winner next time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Reading Update

Time to check in with the readership, loyal or otherwise.

A List: Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 326/940.
B List: Henry James, The American, 344/449.
C List: David O. Stewart, American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America, 182/317.

The A-list is the one I read at work. I was on vacation for a week at the end of April, which accounts for the slow progress on Dostoevsky.

The Burr book is not completely devoid of value insofar as I was not familiar with most of the information in it. However as a narrative work it is not very dynamic or interesting, and such information in it as would have sufficed to give any general reader a decent idea of what happened could have been condensed into a fifteen or twenty page article to this point. To cite one example of what I mean here, at the beginning of the book there are around seven pages listing the names and brief descriptions of the major persons who figure as characters in the narrative. The note on Burr's daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, includes the assertion that "Burr exactingly supervised Theodosia's education, even after her marriage, and she has been called the best-educated American woman of her generation." It would have been interesting if the author had gone into this more deeply, as besides being worthwhile to know what being the best-educated woman of one's generation consists of, it would doubtless be edifying and instructive to observe how this education manifested itself in the day to day life and social interaction of its possessor. It would have helped as well to flesh out and bring the reader into some intimacy with the character of Burr himself, which remains rather remote as the book moves along. Perhaps something of this is still to come, though so far we have had only had a couple of very short paragraphs during the introductory sketching of Burr's character and position in the first chapter of the book, which noted that Burr believed women were the equal of men in intellectual talent and that Theodosia, according to the memoir of a traveling young Englishman "...speaks French and Italian with facility, is perfectly conversant with the writers of the Augustan age, and not unacquainted with the language of the Father of Poetry [i.e., Greek]". But there has been no further elaboration or incorporation of any of these elements into the book.

Picture Gallery 

Edward G Robinson as Smerdyakov, 1927


Friday, April 17, 2015

Fielding--Amelia (1752)

I was looking forward to this one, which I had not read before. I have read Tom Jones and Joe Andrews, many years ago now (as well as his absurd play Tom Thumb), and I anticipated that Amelia must be Fielding's Idiot, the third book, in order of fame, of a great writer, inferior to the other two only by the measurement of grandeur or scope with regard to theme, while otherwise, all of the author's great qualities would be on display in barely diminished form. Given this level of expectation, it is probably inevitable that my predominant response to the book was disappointment. I generally enjoyed it well enough, and I was able to get into a good daily rhythm and routine in my reading, but still, the drop-off in excellence in Amelia from the other Fielding novels looms over every aspect of the experience of reading it.

I knew nothing about this book beforehand, apart from the blurb in the IWE, which says it is 'remarkably readable, fitting the 20th-century taste better than nearly any other novel of its century'. No doubt the taste of the general American reading public is much altered from what it was in the mid 1960s, but I don't think this was an accurate assessment even then, with regard to readability. Due to the skill for plotting which Fielding displayed in full in Tom Jones, as well as the general tendency in older novelists to take more time in setting up their stories before putting them in full motion than modern readers would tolerate, I kept thinking that this is what was taking place, first in the long section in the prison, then during the long section in the lodgings in London, and even with about 100 pages to go when Booth's debt and poverty attains its last extremity, I thought there were enough balls arranged in the air, so to speak, to produce a wild and spectacular finish. But it never quite took off. Also the book is devoid of great, or even especially interesting, characters. Fielding himself is still interesting as the narrator, and shows a few flashes of the humor that is one of the glories of his other books when he is writing in an expository manner, but none of the characters in Amelia are funny at all. Indeed, the characters are all either petty, weak-willed, mean-spirited if not vicious, coarse or insipid, without any compensatory endearing qualities. Because of this, similar to Richardson and other 18th century novelists, and distinctly unlike Fielding's more celebrated works, the book seems airless, and lacking in atmosphere. The rooms and houses and even bodies the characters occupy are not vivid, a scene over a bottle of wine or an encounter on a street will have no sense of expanse beyond the space in which the characters are interacting, as if the room or street they are in is either a blank space or made of lifeless cardboard.

One thing that especially bothered me in this book was the way in Dr Harrison--who is supposed, I guess, to be the main moral hero of the story--endlessly rallied and ridiculed Mrs Atkinson, whose father had taught her what was by our standards a considerable amount of Latin and Greek, about her learning every time he saw her, making sure, once he had found the limits of her knowledge (which was beyond, say, the memorization of most of the Aeneid) to barrage her with quotations he could be certain she would not be familiar with. This was all because she was a woman, and for a woman to pretend to classical knowledge was offensive to him, and, evidently, to Fielding. I am certainly not much of a strident crusader against all of the traditional offenses perpetrated against excluded groups and animals and who knows what else by powerful European descended males, but I did find this annoying. What's the harm in knowing a little Latin, or anything else. I guess it was the pretension to equal status in this area with the doctor, which could not be tolerated.

This book was rarely published in mass market editions in the 20th century. The picture above indicates that there was a Penguin edition in the late 90s/early 2000s, but there don't seem to be many copies of it in circulation. My own edition is a 1968 Everyman printing, in two volumes, unnecessarily, I think (the two volumes, which run around 300 pages each).

While I was criticizing the book quite a book, I still had a good deal of fun reading it and thinking about it, which fun I am having with all these old IWE books. Also I like to be thorough, or at least feel thorough, and now I can tell myself that I have gone deeper in my familiarity into Fielding, and into the 18th century English novel generally, and I get a certain amount of satisfaction out of that too.

The Challenge

1. Richard Atkinson--Guns at Last Light: War in Western Europe 1944-1945........................1,475
2. Merlin (TV show-2008)............................................................................................................321
3. Walter Moseley--Rose Gold......................................................................................................243
4. Before I Go to Sleep (movie).....................................................................................................223
5. Phantom of the Opera (1925-movie).........................................................................................212
6. Away From Her (movie)............................................................................................................195
7. Love and Other Disasters (movie).............................................................................................147
8. Kit Rocha--Beyond Jealousy......................................................................................................133
9. Cromwell (1970 movie)..............................................................................................................126
10. Mission Impossible (TV show)...................................................................................................95
11. Ain't Them Bodies Saints (movie)...............................................................................................66
12. The Plainsman (movie)...............................................................................................................54
13. Amelia C. Gormley--Strain.........................................................................................................53
14. Eileen Welsome--Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War...50
15. David O. Stewart--American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America..........46
16. Anna Belfrage--Revenge and Retribution...................................................................................43

This challenge is unusual in that it is so heavy on movies and television. Most of the time in this format two or three movies would come up at most. If it becomes a trend though I will have to tweak the system yet again. 43 reviews to qualify for the tournament is a pretty low bar though, so I don't suspect a lot of high quality books were among those that missed the cut this time.

Round of 16

#1 Atkinson over #16 Belfrage (93-67)

Atkinson prevails here by virtue of being by all evidence a serious book, while the Belfrage is the 6th volume of a popular series about time traveling that I do not feel up to trying at this time. While I might also be inclined not to want to read another 877 page history of World War II in Europe, the Atkinson book is the third volume in a trilogy of which the first was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. So it has some credibility.

#15 Stewart over # 2 Merlin (98-86)

In this tournament even more than usual, books have a strong priority over movies and television shows.

#3 Moseley over #14 Welsome (68-61)

I have actually read the Welsome book. It was not terrible, for a book about plutonium anyway, though I found the parts about the geniuses and their university and government careers and researches more interesting than the parts where decent but considerably less brilliant people were abused in the name of science. That at least is what I remember about it. I don't feel the need to read it again.

#13 Gormley over #4 Before I Go to Sleep (59-50)

Going to stick with the formula favoring books over movies except in exceptional cases where I really want the book out of the tournament, and don't want the movie out.

#12 Plainsman over #5 Phantom of the Opera (83-79)

At least here you have two old classics going at it. The 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera is already on my main movies-to-see list, which is the only reason why I am going to eliminate it here.

#6 Away From Her over #11 Ain't Them Bodies Saints (73-70)

These movies feel to me like similar kind of generic modern middlebrow Hollywood fare. One is from 2006 and the other from 2013, so I went with the older one.

#7 Love and Other Disasters over #10 Mission Impossible (69-63)

Movie over a television series, when I am presented with no other compelling reason.

#8 Rocha over #9 Cromwell (51-49)

The Rocha looks like some kind of romance novel for the biker crowd. If Cromwell were the only movie in the tournament I might have advanced it. But given the dearth of book vs book matchups in the first round I wanted to get the tournament into that mode going forward.

Round of 8

#15 Stewart over #1 Atkinson (96-92)

Stewart wins mainly by virtue of being 400 pages shorter. That is all I am going on during the tournament phase, which I have to do quickly largely influenced by my perception of the kind of book something is.

#13 Gormley over #3 Moseley (75-74)

Since the tournament has no suspense if there are never to be allowed any upsets, I have created a rule that if a single title shows up more than once during the selection of the field it is entitled to an upset in a matchup it would have lost however many times over one it came up. Unfortunately it happens here. I was kind of hoping that Moseley would win in this field. But it was not meant to be.

My impression of Moseley is that he is a genre writer, though one who gets a little more respect from real literary writers and critics than most such writers. I have read some what I take to be standard genre books as a result of this challenge, and also because some rabble rousers have been exhorting guys like me to read more of this type of literature, but after a few forays into that corner of the writing world, I want my author to have some cred with legitimate literati before I read another book of that class. Moseley is also black, though I have the impression that this is not exclusively why he is somewhat more promoted to the more literary-oriented reader than other crime writers. If you remember in the last tournament, I decided that a book in translation would get some extra consideration because my record of reading modern translated books is so abysmal. I have been wondering is I should give extra points in this to authors of color, women, people who are extremely non-traditionally heterosexual, and so on, though I have decided to hold off on that for now. This was brought on in part because there was something in the last month that was circulating on the internet about people who had pledged not to read any books by white male authors for a year, the rationale being in most instances, I am sure in all sincerity, that the readers were concerned about all of the exciting books by other types of people that they were at risk of missing, a risk that apparently does not apply if you give up reading white guys for a year. I joke about this more than I should, I guess, and there are certainly many fine books out there that one could argue should be better known (maybe even there are a few by white guys themselves, logically impossible as that sounds upon first consideration). In truth though I think that your legitimate big time literary readers are eager enough for any really outstanding book, or advance in the field, that anything seriously will at least find an audience among these readers, if not the mass public. Some people act at least as if they really believe that there are all of these neglected literary masterpieces out there, the equal of anything in the traditional canon, that people have ignored because racism, sexism, and the like, and I don't think it is likely that that would be the case. That would be the cultural equivalent of another renaissance, though I suppose some people think that we are living through another time like that. If we are, I think the challenge to literature is coming more from the dominance of technology and statistical data in everyday life rather than from non-traditional and unsuspected literary productions.

#12 Plainsman over #6 Away From Her (101-76)

First movie to make the Final Four. An easy victory for The Plainsman

#7 Love And Other Disasters over #8 Rocha. (57-55)

Second movie to make the Final Four. It was entitled to an upset also, and gets the opportunity here, though the Rocha book would have been an almost equally shaky contender. An awful elite 8 game.

Final Four

#15 Stewart over #7 Love and Other Disasters (81-68)

Love was not entitled to a second upset. Cruise control for Stewart.

#13 Gormley over #12 Plainsman (64-58)

Lousy shooting by the Plainsman.


#15 Stewart over #13 Gormley (79-64)

Gormley does not get a second upset either, and Stewart, with Moseley knocked out, rolls to an easy championship. I guess I will be reading about Aaron Burr at night for the next month or so.

David O. Stewart, the author of this book, is a longtime Washington D.C. lawyer, and not an academic. I don't know how much credibility non-academically credentialed historians have nowadays. But the book won, and I am going to read it.