Modernism’s “battle against an obsolete civilization,” encapsulated in the struggle to publish one taboo-shattering masterpiece.
In his sharp, well-written debut, Birmingham (History and Literature/Harvard Univ.) reminds us that the artistic experiments of James Joyce (1882-1941) were part of a larger movement to throw off Victorian social, sexual and political shackles. Indeed, authorities in England, Ireland and America were quite sure that Joyce’s shocking fiction was, like the feminists, anarchists, socialists and other reprobates who presumably read it, an attempt to undermine the moral foundations of Western society. Guilty as charged, replied the diverse group that supported the impoverished Joyce as he struggled to write Ulysses while wandering across Europe during and after World War I, plagued by increasingly grim eye problems (described here in gruesome detail). Ezra Pound advocated for Joyce with his literary contacts on both sides of the Atlantic, and Dora Marsden and Harriet Weaver gave him his first break in the English avant-garde magazine The Egoist. American iconoclasts Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap risked punitive fines and jail terms to publish chapters of Ulysses in The Little Review, adopting a defiant stance that dismayed lawyer John Quinn, who had scant sympathy for radicals but thought Joyce was a genius and that his book must be defended. The clandestine edition of Ulysses published in Paris by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company in 1922 became the identifying badge of cultural insurgents everywhere and the target of confiscation and burnings by censors until Judge John Woolsey’s landmark 1933 decision permitted the novel to be sold in the U.S. and dramatically revised the legal concept of obscenity. Birmingham makes palpable the courage and commitment of the rebels who championed Joyce, but he grants the censors their points of view as well in this absorbing chronicle of a tumultuous time.
Superb cultural history, pulling together many strands of literary, judicial and societal developments into a smoothly woven narrative fabric.
The Great Gatsby floats on a limpid river fed by myriads of autobiographical, cultural and historical tributaries.
Churchwell (American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities/Univ. of East Anglia; The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, 2004, etc.) has written an excellent book on a novel that remains a favorite in English courses in American high schools and colleges. Surprisingly, she even manages to find fresh facts that escaped previous scholars, including one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own published comments about his novel, a book that, as Churchwell notes, neither sold well nor received uniformly favorable reviews. Churchwell weaves together a variety of strands: a summary of the novel (including its earlier drafts), a biographical account of the years Fitzgerald was working on the novel (including the time he and Zelda were living and partying in Great Neck, near the novel’s setting), and an account of a sensational New Jersey murder case in 1922 (the year that Gatsby takes place), an investigation that resulted in arrests and a trial but no convictions. Churchwell also digs deeply into the architecture of the novel—looking, for example, for the relevance of specific details Fitzgerald mentions. She also examined Simon Called Peter, a novel that Nick Carraway picks up early in Gatsby; she read countless New York newspaper and magazine files looking for items in 1922 that may have found their way into the novel (car wrecks, wild parties and the like). She haunted the rich Fitzgerald archives at Princeton and elsewhere and, employing the clarity of hindsight, chides most of the early critics who missed what Fitzgerald was up to. At times, Churchwell attempts Fitzgerald’s lyrical style—one chapter-ending sentence alludes to “the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden”—she’s earned the right to play on his court.
Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.
Crais (History and African Studies/Emory University; co-editor: Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa, 2011, etc.) suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, a condition that leaves him bereft of memories of his youngest years. “I am a contradiction,” he writes. “I am a historian who can’t remember.” This form of amnesia results from early childhood trauma—in the author’s case, his mother’s attempt to drown him in a bathtub when he was 3 after her husband abandoned her and their five children; and her attempted suicide a few years later. These two violent episodes punctuated a devastating youth. Crais lived for years with his alcoholic mother in a roach-infested apartment, hungry and neglected; from time to time, he was shunted among relatives. In his attempt to revive that period, the author decided to apply a historian’s methodology, interviewing his mother and sisters, examining photographs and public records, and visiting old neighborhoods. What he found unnerved him. “The past is a mess,” he writes, “a bloody terrible mess of infinite horror”: mental illness, suicide, alcoholism and poverty. He felt “dirty,” he admits, “not only from prying into the lives of others but by association—too close to a chasm of tragedies from which I want to escape but seem instead to be falling into.” Along with historical research, Crais turned to neuroscience to help him understand his own identity. “Trauma obliterates time,” he writes. “Trauma trips up the elaborate choreography of being….” Sadly Crais’ siblings have become casualties of the family’s history, living “in despair, with broken marriages, depression, abusive relationships, and substance abuse.” Yet the author has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
This memoir of anguish and struggle is a story of remarkable strength and unlikely, inexplicable resilience.
Through stylistic understatement and perfect tonal pitch, this memoir somehow achieves its outlandish ambitions.
In lesser hands, a narrative steeped in obsessions with Moby-Dick and surfing and skateboarding would strain to make connections, especially when it’s also a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage memoir by a 30-something author who has trouble letting go of or committing to anything while recognizing that he should have grown up long ago. An avid skateboarder in Colorado with a graduate degree that lets him teach creative writing at the university level, Hocking (co-editor: Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, 2004) gave it all up, along with a fulfilling romantic relationship, to move to New York for…what? He took a job delivering food and another reading manuscripts for rejection. He worked on a novel that was “basically going nowhere.” Incongruously enough, he discovered surfing, which offered a natural progression from his passion for skateboarding: “Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon?” Thus New York allowed Hocking to develop a passion for surfing, which shared an ocean with his longtime obsession with Melville (whose paths through the city he retraced) and what appears to be an obsession with himself and with romance, coupled with an ambivalence toward commitment—to anything. “You know, you talk about loving everyone all the time like you’re some sort of enlightened being,” said the girlfriend over whom his obsession deepened after they split. “But the only reason you love anyone is to make yourself feel better.” Therapy, 12-step programs, a nervous breakdown, spiritual crisis and renewal, friends, career and geographical change, and some life-threatening experiences helped transform the author and deepen his appreciation of Moby-Dick.
In a book that’s likely far richer than the novel he shelved, Hocking ultimately transcends “the dark Ahab force.”
A dazzling collection of essays on the human condition.
In her nonfiction debut, the winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Jamison (The Gin Closet, 2010) presents 11 essays that probe pain alongside analyses of its literal and literary trappings. Whether tackling societal woes such as strip mining, drug wars, disease and wrongful imprisonment, or slippery abstract constructs including metaphor, sentimentality, confession and “gendered woundedness,” Jamison masterfully explores her incisive understanding of the modern condition. The author’s self-conscious obsession with subjectivity and openness to the jarringly unfamiliar become significant themes. In the title essay, for example, the author uses her job as a medical actor—tasked with pretending to be a patient afflicted with a predetermined illness in the service of measuring medical students’ diagnostic skills and bedside manners—as a springboard for examining the meaning of empathy and her relation to it. “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel,” she writes. “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s uncanny ease in crossing boundaries between the philosophical and the personal enables her both to isolate an interiority of feeling and capture it in accessible metaphorical turns of phrase: “Melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet.” Throughout, Jamison exhibits at once a journalist’s courage to bear witness to acts and conditions that test human limits—incarceration, laboring in a silver mine, ultramarathoning, the loss of a child, devastating heartbreak, suffering from an unacknowledged illness—and a poet’s skepticism at her own motives for doing so. It is this level of scrutiny that lends these provocative explorations both earthy authenticity and moving urgency.
A fierce, razor-sharp, heartwarming nonfiction debut.
The tormented life of a celebrated American playwright.
When The Glass Menagerie debuted on Broadway in 1945, the opening-night audience erupted in thunderous applause. After 24 curtain calls, shouts of “Author, Author!” brought a “startled, bewildered, terrified, and excited” Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) to the stage. At 34, after a decade of failed productions, he had achieved the success for which he had been desperately striving. Arthur Miller called the play “a revolution” in theater; Carson McCullers saw in it the beginning of “a renaissance.” But praise could never quash the demons that haunted Williams throughout his life. In this majestic biography, former longtime New Yorker drama critic Lahr (Honky-Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, 2005, etc.) delineates the fears, paranoia and wrenching self-doubt that Williams transformed into his art. “I have lived intimately with the outcast and derelict and the desperate,” Williams said. “I have tried to make a record of their lives because my own has fitted me to do so.” In stories, poems and such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams drew upon his stultifying childhood; his anguish over his sister’s mental illness; and his promiscuity and failed love affairs. Addicted to alcohol and a pharmacopeia of narcotics, Williams at one point sought help from a psychoanalyst; however, when the treatment forbade him to write, he fled. His self-worth, Lahr concludes, “was bound up entirely in his work” and consequently in how directors, actors and especially critics responded to what he produced. Feeling “bullied and intimidated” by others’ expectations, he projected onto them (director Elia Kazan, most notably, or his long-suffering agent Audrey Wood) “his own moral failure and turned it into a kind of legend of betrayal.” Lahr knows his subject intimately and portrays him with cleareyed compassion. Drawing on vast archival sources and unpublished manuscripts, as well as interviews, memoirs and theater history, he fashions a sweeping, riveting narrative.
There is only one word for this biography: superb.
A New Yorker writer examines the arc of her life in the reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
This subgenre—examining personal history through the echoes of a singular work of art—can be riddled with land mines. When it works well—e.g., Alan Light’s The Holy and the Broken (2012)—the results can be marvelous. Obviously fleshed out from her New Yorker article “Middlemarch and Me,” Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, 2007) could have simply written a dense biography of Mary Ann Evans, who would go on to write some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era under her pen name. In fact, Mead was wise not to omit herself from this story, as her feelings about the great work and its themes of women’s roles, relationships and self-delusion are far more insightful than a barrage of facts would have been. Mead discovered the book at 17, a critical time when the character of Dorothea Brooke, the aspirational protagonist forced to subjugate her dreams, truly spoke to her. In some ways, it’s easy to see how Mead’s life has paralleled these fictional characters she so admires, even as she repeats some of the same mistakes. It’s difficult not to admire the sense of wonder that she continues to find in the pages of a novel more than a century old. “It demands that we enter into the perspective of other struggling, erring humans—and recognize that we, too, will sometimes be struggling, and may sometimes be erring, even when we are at our most arrogant and confident,” Mead writes. “And this is why every time I go back to the novel I feel that—while I might live a century without knowing as much as just a handful of its pages suggest—I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting.”
A rare and remarkable fusion of techniques that draws two women together across time and space.
An artist investigates how we make meaning from words on a page.
In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. “Words are effective not because of what they carry in them,” writes the author, “but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words ‘contain’ meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning….” Writers “tell us stories, and they also tell us how to read these stories,” he writes. “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much.” Copiously illustrated with maps, doodles, works of art, plates from illustrated books, cartoons, book jackets, facsimiles of texts, photographs, botanical drawings and a few publicity shots of movie stars, the book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. “Authors are curators of experience,” writes Mendelsund. “Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers…readers’ brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort.” In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief. “The Part & The Whole” presents lucidly the basic concepts of metaphor, with succinct definitions of metonymy and synecdoche. Throughout the book, Mendelsund draws on various writers, from Wittgenstein to Woolf, Tolstoy to Twain, Melville to Calvino, to support his assertion that “Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world.”
Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading.
In this gracefully written and deeply informed book, Nicolson (The Gentry: Stories of the English, 2011, etc.), a fellow of Britain’s Society of Antiquaries, excavates the origins of Homer’s magisterial epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Arguing against the “current orthodoxy” that both books emerged from the eighth century B.C., the author contends that Homer evokes a much earlier period: Bronze Age Eurasia, around 2000 B.C., when seminomadic warriors of the northern steppes confronted the more sophisticated culture of the eastern Mediterranean. In the north, vicious gangs marauded, while in the south, sailing ships replaced paddled canoes, enabling men to travel farther and faster, infusing the culture with new ideas and goods. “This newly energized world,” writes Nicolson, “is the meeting of cultures that Homer records.” Nicolson sees the Iliad as retrospective, “a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and of the past,” while the Odyssey, “for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offers of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given….” Drawing upon archaeological discoveries and teasing out etymological threads, Nicolson finds in Homer’s work “myths of the origin of Greek consciousness” that the West has inherited. He resists the idea that Homer promotes “the sense that justice resides in personal revenge.” Instead, Homer poses transcendent questions: “[W]hat matters more, the individual or the community, the city or the hero? What is life, something of everlasting value or a transient and hopeless irrelevance?” In a universe inhabited by capricious gods, writes Nicolson, Homer offers readers “his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia….”
Nicolson’s spirited exploration illuminates our own indelible past.
Stewart (The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong, 2009, etc.) delivers a penetrating history of an American Revolution not yet finished and a stirring reassertion of the power of ideas unbound by the shackles of superstition.
Meticulously annotated and informed by imposing erudition, the book is a lively chronicle of the years leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, especially noteworthy for detailing the unsung contributions (in word and deed) of such revolutionary figures as Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. It is also an admirably lucid survey of radical philosophical thought on the nature of man and the cosmos, a guiding principle grounded in reason and transmitted from Epicurus via the poet Lucretius, further developed by the great philosophical minds of the 17th century and embraced by the Founding Fathers. Stewart's capacity to render undiluted the complex deliberations of these thinkers glows on the page, notwithstanding the occasional Mobius strip of esoterica. The author locates these ideas in the heterodox, deist origins of the Republic, with a focus on corporeal reality, not spiritual mysteries. In doing so, he reveals the true and enduring significance of the American experiment: not merely as a revolt against an imperial monarch, but against the global reach and oppressive artifice of supernatural religion. Stewart gives the simplistic “common religious consciousness” and much presumed wisdom a fair hearing, then demolishes them utterly, though not dismissing what is useful in faith. By closely analyzing the writings of Jefferson, Young, Franklin, Paine et al., he quashes the delusion that America was established as a “Christian” nation.
In affording a fresh perspective on the difficult but exhilarating birth of this country, Stewart shows that the often superficially misunderstood words of the Declaration of Independence are even more profound than they appear.
A significant reappraisal of a cultural icon and crucial booster of modern artists, especially African-American artists.
Reading British journalist and historian White’s account of the extraordinary life of Chicago-born critic, novelist and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), one is struck by how he toiled over many decades under a very fortunate star. He had not only the good luck to be in the right place at the right time—New York City during the Jazz Age—but also the prescience to grasp the significance of this modernist iconoclasm for American culture. As a Chicago novice newspaperman relocated to New York, Van Vechten cut his journalistic teeth on music criticism—e.g., covering Richard Strauss’ seminal Salome (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play) at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. In 1909, notes White, he intuited Isadora Duncan’s barefoot ballet as an “exuberant manifestation of a new type of art” without knowing anything about dance. From the exotic, unconventional Mabel Dodge, Van Vechten learned how to “bolster one’s own profile by championing the work of others”—e.g., their shared discovery of Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten published a series of “heretical” books throughout the 1920s about music and arts criticism, elevating the lowbrow or vulgar (ragtime, jazz, African-American art) and teaching the American public how to reappraise it. His novels were wildly popular, scandalous and largely forgotten; all the while, he had access to the rich gay bohemian underground, and he embarked in the 1930s on a fresh career as a portrait photographer just at the moment that photojournalism took off in America. In orderly chapters, White tackles this complicated, multifaceted, tremendously fascinating and contradictory subject: a married gay man, an alcoholic and always a “catalyst for outrage and argument.”
A vigorous, fully fleshed biography of an important contributor to American culture.