TRYING IT OUT IN AMERICA by Richard Poirier

TRYING IT OUT IN AMERICA

Literary and Other Performances
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Essays on the American canon’s rich difficulties, from the founder of the Raritan Quarterly. Sparked off by biographies, critical studies, and new editions, Poirier (The Renewal of Literature, 1987, etc.) discourses sharply and incisively on topics from his speciality period of the late 19th century to the novelists Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. In defense of American literature’s richness, he has no patience with otherwise respectable biographers of Frank O’Hara and Walt Whitman who collect day-to-day minutiae but hesitate to address the literary work, or with the dubious reconstruction of a “restored” version of Melville’s Pierre by noted scholar Hershel Parker. On the biographic side, Poirier’s dogged pursuit of the literary tracks that T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman tried to cover in respect to their personal lives and poetic debts is refreshingly questioning, without any attempt to de-pedestal these authors. Poirier’s all-American distrust of cant and intellectual arrogance is at its most scathing in taking apart Baudrillard’s theoretically constructed version of this country, redolent with “European intellectual imperialism,” and in chastising Martin Amis’s sloppy Fleet Street journalistic forays to the US to confirm his worst expectations and clichés. The two pieces outside the literary field, on George Balanchine’s choreographic career and on Bette Midler’s tongue-in-cheek 1975 revue, show the limits of Poirier’s academic training in discussing high and low culture in spite of his down-to-earth sensibilities. While his analysis of Balanchine’s ballets underscores the Russian-born choreographer’s unambivalent absorption of the American spirit and ordinary American culture into his classical background, Poirier’s discussion of Midler’s occasionally campy popular-song repertoire risks tendentiousness in its comparisons with Eliot’s Waste Land pastiches or Burroughs’s cut-up technique, to which Midler would probably just wink. Skeptical, tough writing from the homeroom of old-school criticism.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-27941-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999