THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN LITERARY ANECDOTES by Donald Hall

THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN LITERARY ANECDOTES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Hall's cheerfully unpretentious preface warns us that ""this book is frivolous, perhaps related to literary study as People is related to current events""; furthermore, ""in the matter of accuracy, I have been careful to be unscrupulous. . ."" It comes as a sad surprise, then, to find that this gracefully annotated Anthology of literary gossip--re 140 writers from Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)--is in fact oddly tame, stiff, and stuffy. True, the early, least familiar material offers some engaging curiosities: an excerpt from the diary of Virginia's William Byrd, 1674-1744 (""Endeavoured to pick up a woman, but could not, thank God""); a glimpse into Thomas Jefferson's library; Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne going ice-skating. But the bulk of the book covers the last 100 years--with lots of well-known stories, often presented here in their least sprightly versions. (For instance, Malcolm Goldstein's leaden bio is the sole source of George S. Kaafman lore.) Other drawbacks: Hall's predictable emphasis on poets; a bewilderingly large selection (only Scott Fitzgerald's is bigger) of Abe Lincoln stories, most of them non-literary; and some material--e.g., the suicides of Hart Crane and Plath--which seems cheapened by the ""anecdote"" treatment. Still, some of the writers borrowed from are bright and stylish: Edmund Wilson, Ben Hecht (on Sherwood Anderson's outrageousness), Lillian Hellman (on Hammett), Hugh Kenner (on T.S. Eliot); Hall himself is amusing on the Frost ego; there's George Plimpton on Marianne Moore's tea party with Muhammad Ali (the longest single story in the book). And, perhaps most crucially, the anthology will be indexed both by the writers involved and by topics--which means that, even if this book makes for strangely unrewarding browsing, it will be eminently useful to speechmakers and others in need of a quick, specific literary anecdote.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press