Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Plautus--Amphitryon (c. 186 B.C.)

A brief interlude in the midst of a series of mostly huge books, Amphitryon is the first, and, I am sad to say, because I rather enjoyed this, the only Roman play on the IWE lifetime reading plan. No Seneca, no Terence, and after this, no more Plautus either. Of course there is the expected portion of Greek plays to look forward to, twelve or thirteen of them, so we will be back again to the ancient theater, but I would have welcomed a few more Roman selections, especially as they are not only brief, but appear to have that rare quality of being briefer than one would like them to be. Naturally I could go ahead and just read them anytime I wanted to, but I find from experience that I read better, have more concentration, retention, enthusiasm and so on when I am following some kind of system. As this site bears evidence, I am not averse to tweaking my various systems from time to time to try to generate more of a certain type of book that I want to read more of, though the results of this tweaking usually turns out mixed at best. There are besides a lot of types of books I am trying to increase my exposure to other than Roman plays, plus I have to figure that they are not very prominent or seen as necessary on most mid-20th century become-intelligent-and-cultured-through-reading programs that appeal to me for some reason that I would probably accept as reasonable; so for the present I am going to continue to stay and work with the systems I have.   

Not having read much specifically about the Roman theater in the course of my life, I needed to be reminded, via the notes and introductions in my book, that, like the sculptures of that people, nearly all of their plays were adaptations from Greek originals, though, especially with the comedies, not from the Greek plays that are most famous now, but the later Greek theater of the late 4th and early 3rd centuries B.C., Menander and those people. Almost none of these Greek works survive except in fragments, and the original of Amphitryon was not known at the time my edition was published (1942) and does not seem to have been discovered in the interval since. To recap the plot, Amphitryon was a Theban general (the Roman versions of these plays generally kept the Greek characters and settings) whose wife, Alcmena, while he was away fighting in a war, was visited by Jupiter (they do use the Roman god-names though) who had taken on the form of Amphitryon. Jupiter was accompanied in this adventure by Mercury, who took on the form of Amphitryon's slave and main attendant Sosia to complete the deception and cause more confusion among the real Amphitryon and Sosia when they return home to find everyone believing they had just been there, Alcmena thinking herself freshly ravished by her legal husband, and so on. This is the source of the comedy. Jupiter's rendezvous with Alcmena resulted in the birth of Hercules, along with a twin brother who was the natural and less godlike son of Amphitryon, and who one imagines must have grown up with the inferiority complex to end all inferiority complexes. The episode in which the baby Hercules strangles the two snakes in his cradle, always a crowd pleaser, is also included in the play.  

The translation I read was by a gentleman named Sir Robert Allison in the Modern Library volume of Roman Comedies (containing four plays by Plautus and three by Terence), bound in matte, which was, as they say, a thing with the Modern Library for a while from the 40s through the early 60s, though this is the first of their matte editions I have acquired. The translation appears to date from around 1910. I don't know whether it is supposed to be a good translation or not, but as is often the case, I like the tone that comes across in this older version. It is fresh, hopeful, brisk, vigorous, and reminds the desiccated modern reader that literature, and life itself even, can be intelligent and serious and a source for deep understanding, while also being enjoyable and lively and not dependent for its pleasures on achieving a oneness with contemporary culture and technology. Did I learn anything or come to any insights with regard to the actual content of this play? Can I even say what it is *about* at the most superficial and obvious level? No; no, I can't seem to. The pleasure is all in the associations, of antiquity, of a certain kind of school, of Europe, of fabulous myths, of having command of language, of ideas, of the possession of significant abilities, of everything that the present workaday world of jobs and money and anomie, for me at least, is not. Sadly, that is all I can say about Amphitryon however.  

The Challenge

1. Gillian Flynn--Gone Girl.......................................................................41,153
2. Transcendence (movie)............................................................................1,589
3. Office Space (movie)................................................................................1,578
4. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (movie)...........................................1,059
5. Legend of Hercules (movie)........................................................................856
6. Knocked Up (movie)...................................................................................538
7. Sabotage (movie)........................................................................................286
8. Willow Creek (movie).................................................................................249
9. Human Target (TV show)...........................................................................204
10. Harper's Island (TV show).......................................................................189
11. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (movie)..............................................................157
12. Beauty & the Beast Broadway Soundtrack (record).................................130
13. Googoo Dolls Greatest Hits Volume 1 (record)........................................129
14. Hawthorne: Season 1 (TV show)..............................................................118
15. Malachi Martin--Windswept House...........................................................117
16. Dream For an Insomniac (movie)............................................................110

The movies really took over this one. That said, my magic words did not generate much that was exciting in terms of books. There was maybe one book that failed to qualify for the tournament that I would have been interested in reading, but it had only seven points and none of the libraries had it. 

Round of 16

#1 Flynn over #16 Dream For an Insomniac

Following the formula.

#15 Martin over #2 Transcendence
#3 Office Space over #14 Hawthorne

Same here, movies generally get the automatic win over TV shows, unless I have a real animosity towards the movie. 

#13 Googoo Dolls over #4 Final Fantasy VII

Music over violent movies aimed at people with two-digit IQs. 

#12 Beauty & the Beast Broadway Album over #5 Legend of Hercules
#6 Knocked Up over #11 Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

I thought I might enjoy a somewhat contemporary relationship movie over guns and tough guys. There is something wrong with me though.

#7 Sabotage over #10 Harper's Island
#8 Willow Creek over #9 Human Target

Round of 8 

#1 Flynn over #15 Martin

The only two books in the Challenge meet in the second round. The Martin book looks like pure formula, which it did not take long for me to weary of and feel that I never needed go back to. The Flynn book was a phenomenal seller, transcending mere genre almost, and the 41,000+ points in qualifying for the tournament is by far the record in my game (The Da Vinci Code, the previous record holder, had only around 5,000+).
There seems to be an attempt in Flynn to create characters who are in some way relevant to/the creatures of the current zeitgeist, which is why I might have the slightest interest in peeking into it. This now leaves Flynn as the only book remaining in the Challenge and pretty much guaranteed to win...unless one of the remaining competitors turns out to be entitled to an upset somewhere... 

#3 Office Space over #13 Googoo Dolls

Any movie I am vaguely interested in seeing will defeat any musical record. I honor my eliminated records though by playing a song from them as they go:

#6 Knocked Up over #12 Beauty & Beast Broadway

Same here:

#8 Willow Creek over #7 Sabotage

I don't know anything about either of these, but the one sounds like it might be about small town life or a vacation, and the other like there might be a lot of gratuitous gunplay and pointless homicide in it. I kind of down on the latter type of movie at the moment.

Final Four

#1 Flynn over #8 Willow Creek
#3 Office Space over #6 Knocked Up

Office Space sounds like it might be slightly more intelligent than Knocked Up (needless to say, I have not seen either one),


#1 Flynn over # 3 Office Space

Office Space was entitled to no upsets. Flynn rolls to an easy title. I guess I will have to give the book a try. I was going to write here about how I might yet learn something about how to write a book that will sell, that seeing as it is increasingly unlikely that at age 45 and given my completely hopelessness and indifference with regard to computer technology I am ever going to develop the kind of job skills that will allow me to make an upper-middle class salary in the 21st century, writing seems like it might still be my most realistic chance of finding a source of income that is worth the effort needed to obtain it. But I though better of it.  

Perhaps I have been living in the North too long, but she looks pretty cute to me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Theodore Dreiser--An American Tragedy (1925)

The serious modern reader does not have much use for Dreiser. Even people who waste hours every day on social media and other internet writing of dubious quality find his famously plodding style to be beyond endurance. In addition, these say, his books are far longer than they need to be, his characters are unsympathetic and frankly stupid, and he is not subtle enough for refined contemporary sensibilities. That anyone nowadays even bothers to read An American Tragedy, a book whose story, at least, held a fascination for some part of the American artistic and literary imagination for a half-century after its publication, seems to be mainly due to its being ranked #16 on the Modern Library top 100 of the 20th century list, which a fair number of people on the internet are making a project of reading through. A majority of these readers seem to detest the book with exceeding relish, and consider its ranking on this particular list a travesty (though there was one guy who did like Dreiser and reserved his vitriol for Anthony Powell, whose book came in at #43). Personally, I thought An American Tragedy was very, very good, for numerous reasons, some of which hopefully will become apparent as this posting works itself out.

To begin with the obvious, this is yet another great American book from the 1920s, which I am pretty sure is my favorite decade ever for American literature, and one that ranks at or near the top in most of the other areas I care about as well. Many commentators note that it came out the same year as The Great Gatsby, a factoid that I find interesting and mildly exciting but not significant in terms of connection, though I suppose both take a great interest in the privileges of the overclass, Dreiser more from the viewpoint of how cruel and unjust it all is, Fitzgerald from that of how to make oneself such a person (in case you were wondering who won the Pulitzer Prize that year, it was Edna Ferber for So Big. There is actually an Edna Ferber book on my list, but not that one). Dreiser was part of the older generation by 1925, his other book that has remained famous down to our day, Sister Carrie, having been published in 1900, and having spent close to a decade working on Tragedy, in terms of style and literary sensibility, it is decidedly a throwback to the pre-World War I era, and my sense in reading the book and trying to place it in time was that it felt more like the world of 1915 than the world of the 1920s as evoked by Fitzgerald and other of the younger writers and popular media of the time. On the other hand, I was impressed by how evolved and similar to our own police procedures and the practices and organization of the legal system seemed to be even by that early date. Or perhaps it is simply that earlier authors did not bother to depict these systems in such extensive and matter of fact detail, so that their literary incarnations did not give a wholly accurate picture of how they really operated. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I do not usually find much interest in movies and books about lawyers and court cases but, as with much of this book, I found the long section dedicated to the trial and the myriad lawyers and district attorneys and judges to be extremely vivid and absorbing. I also realize that I do not have a great sense of exactly when things like cars and the road system, the tourism industry, telephones, all of which play large roles in this book, for the better off people anyway--the identifiably poor, still the overwhelming majority of the population at this time, do not as yet have these things--developed to the point that they are used and experience in something very like their contemporary forms, which they are in this book. Indeed, a good deal of the interest in the story is that while it very much belongs to an older America, it is an America whose institutions and habits are already in many respects surprisingly recognizable. 

The badness of Dreiser's style has been remarked upon so often by literary people and teachers that it has the effect at this point almost of a disclaimer, that the critic or speaker bringing up the subject of this author feels compelled to assure his audience he is only too well aware of. Perhaps in my old age I am losing my ability to be discriminating in these matters, but I found this wretchedness of the prose to be overstated. Yes, once in a while I would run into an awkward mess of a sentence, and think, yes, this is the sort of thing everybody must be referring to, but this did not happen very often, and on a page by page basis I hardly found the style to be a hindrance, and indeed, as mentioned earlier, it has actually been a long time since I found myself so absorbed in a book of this length and type, which could hardly have been the case if the writing were as unskillful as everyone seems to think it is.

One oddity about this book that I do not recall ever happening with me before was that, especially at the beginning, I had a hard time getting used to the weirdness of the names that most of the characters had. The weirdness did not consist in their being absurd as in Dickens or Thomas Pynchon books, but in there being so many names that were fairly normal for young and active people at the time but that no one currently alive seems to have, like Clyde, Hortense, Titus, Orville, and the like. It was strange for a while, and then this wore off. 

The extensive description of how Clyde and Roberta, neither of whom was in the broad sense wildly successful socially, came to be drawn to one another, their particular loneliness, the inevitability of nature taking its course in this particular instance at least, was one of the best parts of the book, very convincing and real, much more so than the interest that Sondra Finchley supposedly develops for Clyde later on in the story, as well as his general acceptance by the smart society in which she moves, in neither of which instances there being any evidence of his having done or uttered anything that would have earned him that esteem.  

The character of Gilbert Griffiths should have appeared more often in the story, even though I winced and shriveled in terror myself every time he came on the scene, even though he was a fictional character in a story set a hundred years ago. This probably indicates that he was a well-drawn character in the sense of hitting a nerve, however, and it would have done me good to have had to endure more of him. He is obviously representative of a type of person with whom I have never learned how to cope, the completely vicious and disdainful rich guy who is visibly disgusted at the sight of you and pissed off that you presume the right to occupy the same physical space with him unless employed in a servile position.  

It is always my aim to go as light as possible on quotations/excerpts, but there were a few that hit so close to home for me that I had to include them.

The second chapter of the whole book, an introduction to Clyde, the famously weak, foolish, pleasure-loving and easily overwhelmed main character, is basically a description of me even now, and certainly as a youth: 

"For Clyde was as vain as he was poor. He was one of those interesting individuals who looked upon himself as a thing apart--never quite wholly and indissolubly merged with the family of which he was a member...he was never quite formulate any policy in regard to himself, and then only in a rather fumbling and tentative way...What a wretched thing it was to be born poor and not to have any one to do anything for you and not to be able to do so very much for yourself!"

Moving on to Book Two, and Clyde's momentary insight while working as a bellboy at the Union League Club in Chicago--a haunt of the 'mentally and socially worldly elect'--that control over one's sensualism was the key to rising in the world:

"Here also, a fact which impressed and even startled his sense of curiosity and awe, even--there was no faintest trace of that sex element which had characterized most of the phases of life...he had thus far contacted...Probably one could not attain to or retain one's place in so remarkable a world as this unless one were indifferent to sex, a disgraceful passion, of say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement."

Maybe my favorite paragraph in the entire book, a summation of the successful Griffithses' social theories, though I probably find the overly explicit contempt and hauteur towards the lower rungs of society that are expressed in them too comforting for them to be an accurate picture. There must necessarily be a sharper sting to be that:

"As both saw it, there had to be higher and higher social orders to which the lower social classes could aspire. One had to have castes. One was foolishly interfering with and disrupting necessary and unavoidable social standards when one tried to unduly favor any one...It was necessary when dealing with the classes and intelligences below one, commercially or financially, to handle them according to the standards to which they were accustomed. And the best of these standards were those which held these lower individuals to a clear realization of how difficult it was to come by money..."

More descriptions of me, now in the person of the doomed Roberta's hapless father:

"...they were excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion. Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog."

The psychological impact on Clyde of finally getting some sexual release is nothing we haven't read or seen a thousand times, but Dreiser's description of it came off to me at least as humorous, which is a rare effect in him:

"'Behold, I am no longer the inexperienced, neglected simpleton of but a few weeks ago, but an individual of import now--someone who knows something about life.'"

"This college chatter relating to Cornell and shared by Harriet, Cranston and others, Clyde could not understand. He had scarcely heard of the various colleges with which this group was all too familiar." I thought this almost total ignorance of colleges--later on in this section he recalls having vaguely heard of three during his youth in the midwest, the state universities of Kansas and Missouri, and the University of Chicago, and wonders whether he should claim to have attended one of these if anyone asks him about it--was kind of fascinating, since the psychological idea of College, especially if one is of a sensitive disposition with the kinds of social longings that usually accompanies that state, has so thoroughly penetrated the common experience of anyone who consumes even the middling-intelligent mass media. College-themed movies, for example, have been quite popular going all the way back to the silent era, when less than 5% of the U.S. population would ever have been enrolled on any college campus.   

The thoughts of Clyde's uncle upon receiving the news of his arrest: 

"The wretchedness of such a mind as that--the ungoverned and carnal desires."

The only reason my teachers (and I always say my teachers because they are the socially highest people who had to bother to evaluate me in any kind of depth) never said this about me was that by our era mental deficiency of this sort had come to be regarded more as a consequence of a lack of innate general intelligence than a lack of proper moral and behavioral upbringing. 

One of the most devastating passages of the book, noted by several other commentators on the internet, is the one in which Clyde's lawyer is introduced (that in itself was also good by the way: "For Belknap was inclined to carry himself with an air which all were inclined to respect. He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position...he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason [ed--the district attorney and prosecutor in the case] had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding..." etc) and it is revealed that in his youth he had once played with a girl for a time whom he had no intention of doing the right thing by, and had found himself in a situation similar to that Clyde had been in. However, in his case, "...laying the matter before his father, by whom he was advised to take a vacation, during which time the services of the family doctor were engaged with the result that for a thousand dollars and expenses necessary to house the pregnant girl in Utica, the father had finally extricated his son..." Clyde had most pointedly not been able, due to his lack both of savvy & funds, to find any doctor willing to "help" him in his distress.

I have some troubling gauging exactly how much sympathy Dreiser expects his ideal reader to feel for Clyde. At times I think probably more than most contemporary readers, trained in the mores of our time, will be capable of giving him--he is even kind of a hard sell for me, and I am temperamentally and intellectually practically his twin. But the ludicrously blatant injustice and hypocrisy that is seemingly endemic to American society, and that of at least all Western countries for that matter, is still effectively impressed upon the reader in spite of the questionable appeal of his main character.   

"Mental and moral cowardice...had affected his 'perhaps too pliable and sensual and impractical and dreamy mind'". This is from Clyde's lawyer during the closing statements. Now just me, but probably a sizable mass of the modern male population could be described in such terms if anyone cared enough to bother calling them out.

Last excerpt, from the prison, the point of view of the priest who attends to Clyde. This pretty much sums up my mental and moral state when I was in college, and should have been devoting care to learning and study: 

"In those dark days...he was little more than a compound of selfishness and unhallowed desire and fornication against the evil of which Paul had thundered."

I got to read much of this on my porch, which, being old-fashioned and evocative of the period from roughly 1895-1945, is a great place to get into the spirit of books from the America of that time, as I also found last summer with Ah Wilderness!. Due to the climate, the porch is however only really usable from May to around October 20. Most years I put the sweaters on and try to tough it out until Halloween, but by the last week of October it is inevitably quite chilly and the leaves are long gone, and once it rains and puts a three day cold wet on everything, I have to put my chairs away and pack it in for the winter. But it was 93 degrees today and that sad moment is still a couple of months off. There won't be any more old American books coming up before that happens though.

I took this to the beach as well, though I can never get much reading done on the beach in my current situation. My wife thought it looked pretentious but this is actually quite wrong if you know the book, it is an excellent book for the beach, the length and pace of the episodes, combined with the relative ease of following the language and story make it rather ideal almost.  
There have been at least two major film versions of the book, the most famous being the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, in which the basic story was updated to the then present time and the names of the characters changed. I saw this a few years ago and wrote about it on the parent blog. It is a very well-done movie and over the years since seeing it images and other things about it often come back to me, much more so than with other movies, which doubtless says something about what a powerful impression the story makes on certain people, though as an adaptation of the book the casting is not great. Elizabeth Taylor I guess is the least problematic of the three main characters, because Sondra in the book is kind of cipher for Clyde to project his desires onto, and Elizabeth Taylor at this point in her career did not emote or give off very much personality on screen, which I suppose gave her an elusive quality. Montgomery Clift was not very good in this role--I would have said until recently that he was never very good in any role, but I liked him in The Search--as Clyde, who as a character strikes me as about the least amenable to a 50s Method interpretation as can be imagined. He is a passive guy who is overwhelmed by what is presented in the book as an infantile, embarrassing, and even unmanly romantic interest in girls and wealth and leisure that he has done nothing to merit. That said, his full energies are misdirected with a kind of intensity on these subjects of his interest, which Clift--who was also of course famously gay--does not succeed in conveying. Shelley Winters as the Roberta character was even worse. Roberta as depicted in the book was rather sweet, but with a straightforward intelligence and moral depth that I recognize in some of the real dyed-in-the-wool Yankee girls and women I know even today. Partly no doubt her character was written that way for the movie, but Shelley Winters played her as a bitter harpy more interested in ruining Clyde's life out of spite and dragging him down into a life of domestic hell than trying to make him happy, which was not what the Roberta in the book was like at all (though that may have been the 1950s interpretation of what she was like). There was also a 1931 adaptation directed by Josef Von Sternberg, who is a well-regarded director of the silent and early sound era, which I had never heard of, though I notice the entire movie has been put up on Youtube. I haven't had time to watch yet, though it looks like the kind of thing that I will like.     

Scene from the 1931 movie. The episode where the identical boat from the murder scene was brought into the courtroom and Clyde was made to get into it must have captured the imagination of the visual artists of the time. It is depicted in one of the illustrations in the edition I saw referenced below.

I got an old Modern Library edition of the book, since I like to collect those anyway (it was one of the 'giants'). It came with a simple but elegant dust jacket, black with the title in bright red capital letters. I was in used book store a couple of weeks ago when I was in Maine and there was essentially an identical, though non-Modern Library edition from the 40s or early 50s there, the same number of pages and all, but with illustrations, which I kind of wish I had bought now, because I liked the illustrations, which were pen and ink drawings, straightforward depictions of the episodes in the book, but they had some whimsy about them and evoked the period. And the drawings of Clyde in his prison cell and garb and with his head shaved at the end I actually found quite startling and powerful, because that was the one part of the book I had pictured in my mind entirely differently from what the illustrations were. I cannot find any examples of these illustrations online, or I would put one up.

To go back to the Modern Library top 100 list that I referred to earlier, I do not attach a lot of reference to the particular order or even the particular books that happened to make the list, but I think it is interesting that they put it out, especially in light of American Tragedy's being #16 on it. The committee that made the list has been endlessly called out for being too old, too male, and too white, but looking at the composition of the list the 'old' is what really stands out--the books chosen are heavily skewed towards the types of things that would have been considered good literature by a generally well-educated person in 1950. The post-modern geniuses, who are the whitest and malest writers of them all--Pynchon, Gass/Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, et al, didn't even make the list. All that said, and for all my enjoyment of the book, I am not sure I believe American Tragedy was the 16th best English language novel of the 20th century. Top 100 I would not consider controversial, and I am even comfortable with the idea of its being top 50, on my personal list maybe even top 30, at least that I have read. One thing I think worth noting is that Invisible Man (Ellison's, not H. G. Wells's) was #19 on the list, yet if you tried to go into any kind of self-consciously literary crowd today that I am aware of and argue that Dreiser's was the better book, your intellect and literary acumen, and probably your character would be shredded into morsels and you be would contemptuously and unceremoniously dismissed from that particularly company henceforward. Even the old white guys on the committee would probably explain away Dreiser's higher ranking by claiming they had inexplicably forgotten about Ellison. While I experienced American Tragedy as a more successfully and thoroughly accomplished and complete work than I did Invisible Man, I do believe this must be due to some flaw in me, that I really am missing the vital thing in Invisible Man that elevates it to that rank occupied by only the very highest books. Other people, vital, mentally potent people have felt, have sensed it, so I don't believe my impression can be the correct one. In fact I know it cannot be.    

This is not only the last of the series of books with "American" in the title, but it is the last literary work featured in the supplement of Volume 1 of the encyclopedia. As I began doing this list in September 2013 we see it has taken slightly less than two years to read through the books (and plays, etc--20 in all, I think) featured in the first volume. Given that there are twenty volumes altogether, I am looking at needing 38 or 39 years to get through this entire project, which will take me to when I am 81 or 82 years old. That will be pushing it, to say the least. I assume that once my children get somewhat older I will be able to pick up the pace a little, but at the same time it is my impression that Volume 1 had an above average number of very short books to get through, and a below average number of long books, American Tragedy being about the only one approaching monster status. But as we proceed to the later volumes, there starts to be massive book after massive book after massive book, and most of them long forgotten too. It is not that I won't enjoy reading them, I am just worried that I am going to die before I can finish the list.

The Challenge

This one was heavily taken over by movies. However, as only eleven reviews were required to qualify for the tournament any of the books edged out would have been pretty obscure and difficult to find anyway.

1. Side Effects (movie).........................................................................746
2. The Butterfly Effect (movie).............................................................614
3. The Lazarus Effect (movie)..............................................................490
4. Miss Congeniality 2 (movie)............................................................207
5. Year One (movie).............................................................................197
6. The Athena Effect--Derrolyn Anderson............................................120
7. Showboat (movie--1936)..................................................................113
8. Brandon Flowers--The Desired Effect (record)................................105
9. The Impatient Lord--Michelle M. Pillow...........................................92
10. I Think I am in Friend Love With You--Yumi Sakugawa.................45
11. Lost Ancient Technology of Peru & Bolivia--Brien Foerster...........38
12. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves--P. G. Wodehouse.......................................32
13. Exit Speed (movie)............................................................................22
14. The Right Side of Wrong--Reavis C.Wortham..................................19
15. The Shiva Syndrome--Alan Joshua...................................................19
16. Employees' Entrance (movie)...........................................................11
17. Up Ghost River--Metatawabin & Shimo..........................................11

Play-in round

#17 Metatawabin over #16 Employees' Entrance

Sweet 16

#17 Metatawabin over #1 Side Effects
#15 Joshua over #2 Butterfly Effect
#14 Wortham over #3 Lazarus Effect
#4 Miss Congeniality 2 over #13 Exit Speed

I have less interest in generic guns and explosions movies than I do in generic/bad romantic comedy sequels.

#12 Wodehouse over #5 Year One
#11 Foerster over #6 Anderson

The Anderson books appears to belong to a genre aimed at the lower end of the reading public

#10 Sakugawa over #7 Showboat
#9 Pillow over #8 Flowers

Given that so few records qualify for the tournaments (hardly anyone reviews even well-known records anymore), I feel like I should play a sample from it.

Elite 8

#17 Metatawabin over #4 Miss Congeniality 2
#15 Joshua over #9 Pillow

Pulp take on eastern religion gets the edge over another book about lords having their way with girls who only thought they were boring and nice when they were stuck surrounded by boring and nice men.

#10 Sakugawa over #14 Wortham

The Sakugawa book is of the moment I guess, foreign, not about white people, and part of a trend considered important enough to translate and intrude upon a publishing world that is famously not any of those things.

#12 Wodehouse over #11 Foerster

It seems like Wodehouse kind of has to win here, though I feel shaky about him. He is a celebrated name, though right in the vein of what I read too much of already. The Foerster book did not really excite me too much, however, and it was not available in any libraries anyway, making the point moot.

Final Four

#17 Metatawabin over #10 Sakuwaga

Metatawabin has coasted into the Final Four by beating up on movies. He is a Native American, or First Nations person as the expression is in Canada, and his book is a memoir of the terrible and presumably deliberate and racially motivated abuses that were inflicted on him as a boy in the 1960s in what I presume to be a school administered by the Canadian government. The book has not received much attention in the United States, but the (white) Canadian intelligentsia has lapped it right up, and it was a finalist for "The Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction", though how big of a deal that is I don't know. In any case it sounds like exactly the kind of book that half of the serious people would agree I definitely need to read more of (the other half would argue that I need to read more in the direction of economics, serious history and political theory, and any reasonable science as I might be capable of following). So it gets the slight nod over the intriguingly equally non-white and foreign (not to mention less grim-sounding) but ultimately too juvenile Sakugawa.

#12 Wodehouse over #15 Joshua

This was a more comfortable win for Wodehouse. I am distrustful of books about eastern philosophy marketed in a genre format.


This was by far the most controversial and ultimately unsatisfying championship match the Challenge has yet produced. I determined, based on literary reputation, availability, length, age, and a few other factors, that Wodehouse was the nominal winner. However, as Metawatabin's book had turned up twice during the qualifying process he was entitled to one upset during the tournament, and as he had not had that upset yet, it was tentatively awarded to him in this final round. However, his book had not made it into any of the libraries in my network, and as it is a relatively new book there were no very cheap used copies to be found and I did not feel like spending $15 or so to read it I fudged my rules and ended up reading the Wodehouse instead. Mass outrage ensued (in my imagination). Even I know that I need to read more books about non-European people's sufferings under direct white domination, and less outdated piffle about a fantasy English ruling class whose way of life is deader than my palate when presented with a morsel of food containing actual flavor. But I needed to read some book to satisfy the demands of my system and the Wodehouse happened to be the most convenient to hand. But I read it with a heavy, guilty heart and in a most languid fashion.

Metatawatabin is not amused by my excuses, though he expected little better from me. 

Wodehouse got the last laugh, as was usually the case with him. 

Stiff Upper Lip is the second Jeeves book I have read, and while occasionally amusing and comfortable (but isn't too much comfort in one's reading the greatest of literary evils?), I have yet to grasp what is the cause of the almost insane devotion these books have among their generally very highly sophisticated and well-read legions of fans. This particular one was rather late in the series, being published in 1963 when the author was 82 years old, and the formula feels a little canned and stale to me. Certainly there was nothing in it that would cause me to think I had stumbled upon a high point of 20th century English literature.

This qualifies as cheesecake for me--I can easily block out the children.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Author List Volume VIII

Elizabeth von Armin (Mary, Countess Russell) (1886-1941) Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) Born: Kirribilli Point, Australia. (family's holiday home) Buried: St Margaret's Churchyard, Tyler's Green, Penn, Buckinghamshire, England.

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) Born: Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, 25 Tinakori Road, Thorndon, New Zealand. Buried: Cemetery, Avon, Ile-de-France, France.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) Born: Ravenscroft, Trellech, Monmouthshire, Wales. Buried: Ashes scattered over Welsh mountains. Memorial, Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England. College: Trinity (Cambridge)

Jane Austen (1775-1817) Emma (1816) Born: Steventon, Hampshire, England.  Buried: Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire, England. Chawton, Alton, Hampshire, England. Jane Austen Centre, 40 Gay Street, Bath, Somerset, England.

John Keats (1795-1821) Endymion (1818) Born: 85 Moorgate, London, England (*****9-4-96*****) Buried: Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****2-28-01*****) Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London, England. Keats-Shelley House, Piazza di Spagna 26, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****2-28-01*****)

Endymion: Mt Latmos, Turkey

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) Enoch Arden (1864) Born: Somersby House, Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England (*****9-3-96*****) Farringford, Bedbury Lane, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, England. College: Trinity (Cambridge)

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) The Enormous Room (1922) Born: 104 Irving Street, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Buried: Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) Erewhon (1872) Born: Rectory, Langar, Nottinghamshire, England. Buried: Woking Crematorium, Woking, Surrey, England. College: St John's (Cambridge)

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) Essays of Elia (1824) Born: Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, City, London, England. Buried: All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton, Enfield, London, England. Charles Lamb Pub & Kitchen, 16 Elia Street, Islington (?), London, England. Lamb & Flag, 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden, London, England.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Emerson's Essays (First Series 1841;Second Series 1844) Born: 27 Summer Street, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts (*****8-25-07?*****). Buried: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson House, 28 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Emerson Study, Concord Museum, Concord, Middlesex, The Old Manse, 269 Monument Street, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) Essay on Man (1732-4) Born: Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, England (*****6/99 or 01*****) Buried: Church of St Mary the Virgin, Twickenham, London, England.  Alexander Pope Hotel, Cross Deep, Twickenham, London, England.

Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) Born: Lydiard House, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, England. Buried: St Mary's Churchyard, Battersea, London, England.

George Moore (1852-1933) Esther Waters (1894) Born: Moore Hall, Carra, Mayo, Ireland. Buried: Castle Island (Lough Carra), Mayo, Ireland. College: Royal College of Art (London)\

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Born: Museum-Estate of P.I. Tchaikovsky, Votkinsk, Udmurt Rep, Russia. Buried: Tikhvin Cemetery, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St Petersburg, Russia. Tchaikovsky House-Museum, ul Chaykovskogo 48, Klin, Moscow obl, Russia. College: St Petersburg Conservatory.

John Lyly (1554-1606) Euphues (1578-9) Born: Canterbury, Kent, England. Buried: St Bartholomew the Less, City, London, England. College: Magdalen (Oxford)

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) Evelina (1778) Born: 84 High Street, King's Lynn, Norfolk, England. Buried: Churchyard, St Swithin's, Bath, Somerset, England.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) The Faerie Queen (1590 & '96) Born: East Smithfield, London, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Pembroke (Cambridge).

Bliss Perry (1860-1954) Born: Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts. Buried: Eventually Cemetery, Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts College: Williams

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) Born: Hayes Barton Manor, Hayes Lane, East Rudleigh, Devonshire, England. Buried: St Margaret's Church, Westminster, London, England. North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh's Cell, Tower of London, City, London, England. Walter Raleigh Hotel, Youghal, Cork, Ireland. College: Oriel (Oxford)

King Arthur: Born: Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall, England. Buried: Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset, England. King Arthur's Hall, Tintagel, Cornwall, England. King Arthur's Labyrinth, Corris, Wales.

Ernest Hemingway (1898-1961) A Farewell to Arms (1929) Born:Hemingway Birthplace Home, 339 N. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (*****5-6-03*****) Buried: Ketchum Cemetery, Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida. Hemingway Museum, 200 N Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (*****5-6-03*****) Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, 1021 West Cherry Street, Piggott, Arkansas. Finca la Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.

August Strindberg (1849-1912) The Father (1887) Born: Stockholm, Sweden. Buried: Norra Begravningsplatsen, Stockholm, Sweden. Strindberg Museum, Drottninggatan 85, Stockholm, Sweden. Strindbergmuseum Saxen, Saxen 7, Saxen, Austria. Hotell August Strindberg, Tegnergatan 38, Stockholm, Sweden. College: Uppsala.

Ed Streeter (1891-1976) Father of the Bride (1949) Born: Buffalo, Erie, New York. Buried: Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, Erie, New York. College: Harvard.

There is a surprising paucity of biographical information about Ed Streeter on the web, to the extent that it is not immediately evident to the lazy researcher whether he was born in Buffalo or New York City. As a social note, Ed Streeter's great grand-daughter recently graced the New York Times Wedding Pages, her picture being attractive enough to me to pique my interest in her story before I realized her literary lineage. She is keeping up the Ivy League tradition in the family (Dartmouth; Edward Streeter was Harvard Class of 1914). I noted as well that she was in medical school, which I took to be also in keeping with the family tradition, as I had had the notion that Ed Streeter had been a doctor as well; however I was mistaken, he was a banker (and the young Sarah Streeter's father appears to have been in the financial line as well. I liked that all of the wedding guests received a copy of great-grandfather's famous (but not overly familiar) book.

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) Fathers and Sons (1862) Born: State Turgenev Museum, Ul. Turgeneva 11, Orel, Oryol Obl, Russia. Buried: Volkoff Cemetery, St Petersburg, Russia. Musee Tourgueniev, 16 Rue Ivan Tourgueniev, Bougival, Ile-de-France, France. Museum, Spasskoye-Lutovivino, Oryol Obl, Russia. Turgenev Museum, Ul. Ostozhenka 37, Moscow, Russia. College: Humboldt U. of Berlin; St Petersburg State U.

Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) Born: Moscow, Russia. Buried: Novedevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia. College: St Petersburg State U.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Faust (1808) Born: Goethe-Haus, 23 Grosser Hirschgraben, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. Buried: Historical Cemetery, Weimar, Germany. Goethe Museum, Schloss Jagerhof, Jacobistrasse 2, Dusseldorf, Germany. Goethes Wohnhaus, Frauenplan 1, Weimar, Germany. College: Leipzig.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) Doctor Faustus (1588) Born: St George's Street, Canterbury, Kent, England. Buried: St Nicholas Churchyard, Deptford, London, England. College: Corpus Christi (Cambridge)

Helen of Troy: Born: Sparta, Greece. Troy, Turkey

Ossian (200s) Fingal Born: Glencoe, Highlands, Scotland. Buried: Ossian's Grave, Sma' Glen, Perth & Kinross, Scotland. Ossian's Hall, Dunkeld, Perth & Kinross, Scotland.

James MacPherson (1736-1796) Fingal (1762) Born: Ruthven, Inverness-shire, Scotland. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Aberdeen.

Fingal Buried: Killin, Perthshire, Scotland. Fingal's Cave, Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) Born: Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site, 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, Huntington Station, Suffolk, New York. Buried: Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman House, 30 Mickle Boulevard, Camden, New Jersey.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

August Update

A List: Hardy, A Laodicean--445/481

B List: In between books currently.

C List: Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves--31/330

Almost done A Laodicean. I still retain some interest in it, though the plot/character development stall considerably in the second half of the book. Then again, it is minor Hardy for a reason.

How the Wodehouse got on here I have some misgivings about, which I will explain in more detail when my next long article appears.

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...