April 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m not missing Opening Day. No use pretending this into an April Fools move by Joe Torre and the owners. So I tell myself. No need to feed on field of dreams fantasies. I can live without the misery of blown saves, lost leads, delusional winning streaks, walk-off home runs, magnificent catches, bench-clearing brawls, heartache, and hype. I could care less how the sign-stealing narrative plays out for the disgraced Houston Astros. It’s actually healthy when you think of it. No more high blood pressure moments second-guessing managers Tony LaRussa or the two Mikes, Matheney, and Schildt.

True, for a while I had to overcome my habitual itchy-trigger-finger visits to the St. Louis website on mlb.com for rebroadcasts of Classic Cardinals Moments like the titanic home run by Albert Pujols that stunned the then-National League Astros and super fans George and Barbara Bush in the 2005 NLCS playoffs or the Mother of All Walk-Off heroics of David Freese in the 2011 World Series.

So here I am with a shelter-in-place mindset looking out the living room window at the backyard bird feeders while pondering potential subjects ranging from comic books to comfort food, desert island narratives to the National Pastime.

Thanks to the determined nocturnal activities of a certain raccoon, the bird feeders have to be taken in every night and returned to their respective branches early every morning by my wife, still in her robe and slippers, a bird feeder in either hand. In our domestic comic book, Little Lulu has evolved from the Little Red Hen into the Bird Lady of Princeton Ridge.  more

March 25, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Meanwhile, here we are, with America hanging from a cliff that looms larger every day” — so ended a “Cliffhangers and Character” column about escaping into films and series television thrillers like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Babylon Berlin.

That was in August 2018.

At the time, after binge-watching the first two seasons of Netflix’s sensational German import about Berlin in its racy late-twenties, pre-Third-Reich heyday, I called it one of the best shows of the year. Now, when the whole world seems to be hanging from a cliff, my wife and I have just survived the recently released third season of Babylon Berlin. “Released?” — imagine a maddened bull charging out of the gate of the Weimar past. Grab it by the horns and off you go. As with the first two seasons, your bond with the show, your ballast, is a charismatic couple: the damaged, unrelenting Bogart-in-a-Trilby-hat police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the spunky, savvy, charmingly undaunted Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), plus stunning visuals, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and cliffhangers to die for, but nothing equals riding the bull of season three in the pandemic present.

“It is a bit of a mess,” my shaken wife said as the season finale clawed, shrieked, howled, knifed, bled, drugged, and cross-dressed itself to a close. Only something this outrageously improbable and fascinatingly visual could hold its own in times like these. As New York Magazine’s “Vulture” Kathryn VanArendonk says, “it’s the kind of show you get to the end of, and then desperately need to talk about with every single person you see for the next week.” Not much chance of that these days, at least not in person. But here we are. more

March 18, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

It makes surreal, unhappy, pandemic sense, that after last week’s preview of the long-awaited five-day Bryn Mawr Wellesley book event at the Princeton Day School gym that ended after less than two days, I find myself writing a book review about a once-in-a lifetime art event that closed a week after it opened. The e-mail invitation from the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) offering “great art” as “a source of solace” came with an implicit now or never alert. The fact that a “number of steps” had been taken to assure the public’s safety left little doubt about the endgame possibility. The promise of “a touch-free museum experience,” and the proviso to keep our social distance, no handshakes, no hugging, along with the assurance that “new disinfection protocols are in place” seemed clinically antithetical to the spirit of the show.

At the same time, there was an irresistible attraction in the element of risk, the idea of an embattled and unprecedented showing of Cézannes, two galleries of “infinite riches” by the “wonder, wonder painter,” as Ernest Hemingway once called him. And there was the paradoxical upside, that because of the threat of the virus, there were no crowds bustling between you and the work of a painter who once told a friend, “One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!”  more

March 11, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Reading the opening paragraph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four you don’t need a 7 percent solution of anything, be it cocaine, morphine, or the adrenaline of anticipation, to appreciate the twin themes of addiction and deduction at the heart of the impending Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. Along with a first chapter titled “The Science of Deduction,” you’ve got the simultaneously calming and compelling bedside manner of Sir Arthur’s prose, as he slows you down with phrasing that puts the everyday world on pause for “some little time.” And anyone addicted to the rare book mystique has felt something like the “mental exaltation” so “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind” that Holmes cites in defense of his habit when Watson warns of the “pathological and morbid process” of a drug that may “leave a permanent weakness.”

For Holmesian book sleuths who know their stuff without relying on smartphones or scanners, the quest for printed gold requires the deduction of clues in the form of those deceptively trivial details that can make thousands of dollars worth of difference in value. For the first issue of the first edition of The Sign of Four (not its occasional variant The Sign of The Four), the broken numeral “138” on the contents page appears as “13,” and the misprint “w shed” for “wished” is found on page 56, line 16. A copy with those flaws goes for as much as $8500, and might fetch thousands more without the bookseller’s minutely detailed admission of evidence such as “neat repairs at spine ends and corners; corners and board edges slightly bumped; hinges repaired; endpapers blistered in places,” areas of “slight discoloration” on the covers, “gilt a little dulled, especially on spine.” And of course it’s necessary to disclose additional and more exotic clues  (move that magnifying glass closer, Holmes), namely the two “faint red stains on the slightly chipped and curled edge of the contents page.” more

February 26, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Where are our black players?” That’s the question August “Gussie” Busch, the beer-baron owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, asked his manager and coaching staff one day in the 1950s, according to David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Ballantine 1995). “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play? … Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” Not only was Busch well aware that Budweiser sold more beer to the black community than any other brewery in the country, he’d heard rumors of an integrate-or-else boycott.

At this point I was about to resort to that old crutch, “the rest is history,” except it’s not that simple, it never is. When I first wrote about October 1964 in October 2014, I had no knowledge of the provocative historical evidence that would be revealed to me in February 2020. My focus was on the merging of African American history with baseball history in Halberstam’s account of how the Cardinals eventually “came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time.”  By spring training 1964, a racially balanced team was being put together and harmoniously integrated. Busch’s solution to the issue of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, was to have a wealthy friend buy a motel and rent space in an adjoining one, so that the players and their families could stay together. As Halberstam writes, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Fifty years later in a St. Louis suburb, a white cop shot an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown. Even as the Redbirds were on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story dominated the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Busch Stadium until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, gathered outside the home of “Cardinal Nation” during the National League Division Series. The result was a shouting match that tainted the racially enlightened narrative of 1964 and the generally accepted notion that St. Louis fans were the most savvy, civil, and respectful in baseball.

Writing six years ago, I wondered how many fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a Cardinals cap on the lid of his coffin. Various news stories pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Redbird regalia, and there were undoubtedly fans among the Ferguson cops who showed up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as devoted to the emblem of the two redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown. more

February 12, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

On the same Wednesday afternoon that Republican Senator Mitt Romney explained his historic vote to convict the president of “an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor,” the news of the death of screen legend Kirk Douglas at 103 gave first responders like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens the opportunity to headline Romney’s act with the title of the star’s favorite film, Lonely Are the Brave. But what the senator from Utah accomplished in his eight minutes demands a term more measured, restrained, and nuanced than bravery. He had to simultaneously master himself and the moment when he said that as a senator-juror, he swore to “exercise impartial justice,” that he is “profoundly religious,” that his faith is at the heart of who he is,  that he takes “an oath before God as enormously consequential,” and that the task of judging the leader of his own party, would be “the most difficult decision” he has ever faced.

Simply applying the lonely/brave dynamic to suggest what made Kirk Douglas so powerful an actor is equally inadequate. In fact, one way to appreciate the force of understatement employed by the senator is to contrast it to the extremes suggested by an actor “made for Dostoevsky,” as David Thomson puts it in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, where Douglas (born Issur Danielovich Demsky)  is “the manic-depressive among Hollywood stars, … bearing down on plot, dialogue, and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia.”

As the driven, at once code-bound and emotionally unbound detective Jim McLeod in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), Douglas rages at a crooked doctor — “I ought to fall on you like the sword of God” — rhetoric that would seem disproportionate to the occasion from any actor this side of Charlton Heston. Every move Douglas makes, everything he says when he’s at the top of his game, is like a demonstration of writer Flannery O’Connor’s rationale for the extremes in her art: “For the almost blind you draw large and startling figures, to the hard of hearing you shout.”

As Thomson points out, Douglas is “at other times on the verge of ridiculing his own outrageousness.” But in films like Detective Story, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), and above all, as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), “his sometimes facile intensity is marvelously harnessed to the subject of the film and the sense of tragedy is perfectly judged.”  more

February 5, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The first time I wrote about Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One (2004), I called it “one of the most quotable books you’ll ever read.” That was after observing, “Typically, Dylan plays fast and loose with his own title. If this book is a chronicle, so is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.”

Fifteen years ago, I’d only begun to appreciate how much Dylan’s book had to offer, how often I’d turn to it, as I’ve been doing again in the wake of the “51 to 49 Blown-Impeachment Blues.” That was after the no-witnesses vote on Black Friday, January 31, when the line that came to mind was “when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through,” from the first verse of “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” on Highway 61 Revisited.

When the deal goes down and your fancy turns hopefully to thoughts of spring training and baseball, you find yourself casting the Senate Republicans as the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. Then you think about the high-tech sign-stealing of the Houston Astros in the first “fall classic” of Trump’s reign. Then comes Sunday’s Super Bowl. If you’re a hardcore St. Louis Cardinal fan, the news of a Kansas City championship in 2020 only brings back the pain of losing the 1985 series to the Kansas City Royals, an outcome forever flawed by the most infamous blown call in pre-instant-replay baseball history. And what if the call was blown deliberately? Imagine 51 Republican senators embodied in one umpire. more

January 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

If you take the long view, this week begins with the birth of Mozart on January 27, 1756 and ends with the birth of Schubert on January 31, 1797.

If you’re looking for something more passionately immediately here and now, something to give you the energy to break through a writing slump to the other side of the impeachment trial and the mind-numbing miasma of talking heads (on or off pikes), you turn to a song John Lennon composed and recorded in record time 50 years ago, January 27, 1970. At first it’s fun to give yourself up to outrageous fantasies, like blasting Lennon’s relentless, in-your-face message at full bi-partisan volume from a dozen speakers located above the head of the chief justice: “Instant Karma’s gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head, better get yourself together, pretty soon you’re gonna be dead…. Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

What makes the song surpass any of Lennon’s more famous anthems is the inspirational chorus, “We all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun.” Good luck imagining both sides of the Senate chamber of horrors rising en masse singing “We all shine on.” Try picturing Adam Schiff gazing prayerfully over Mitch McConnell’s stone wall singing acapella “Imagine a brotherhood of man” or “Give Peace a Chance.” Speaking for myself, to stand with a group of people at an antiwar protest singing “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance,’” is too much like Oliver Twist in the poor house food line mewling, “Please, sir, can we have another nice warm bowl of peace and understanding, sir, please.”  more

January 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Only connect…
— E.M. Forster (1879-1970)

In the “only connect” spirit of my approach to these weekly columns, this being the first day of an election year when the stakes are historically high, I’m launching my retrospective sampling of the 2010s with a September 21, 2011, piece on Ginger Rogers (“Pick Yourself Up for a White House Screening”) headed with a quote from then-President Obama’s Inaugural Address: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Given the liberties already taken (did I mention that the same column has Ginger Rogers quoting Dickens?), the stage is set for a 21st-century update of the familiar Depression era scenario wherein someone in distress walks into a movie theater looking for a respite from reality and walks out an hour and a half later ready to face the challenges and fight the good fight:

“In 1936, the year Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing across the screens of the nation in Swing Time, the unemployment rate was 16.9 percent. In 2011, when the country is once again struggling economically, the rate’s 9.1, and if anyone is in need of a respite, it’s our beleaguered president. So let’s imagine that after exhausting himself trying to get us out of the hole we’re in, the commander in chief sets about lifting his own morale with a White House showing of Swing Time. At first, he’s yawning, having been awake half the night trying to devise a way to dance his jobs bill around a ‘loyal opposition’ as ruthless as the crippled banker Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s still yawning even as Fred Astaire does pratfalls pretending to be a hapless neophyte dancer goofing a lesson from the pretty dancing teacher played by Ginger. But as soon as she starts singing, the prez comes to attention. She’s telling him to pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. It’s his Inauguration Day pep talk, same words, same idea. How cool is that! All this time he’d thought the line had come to him out of nowhere, and here’s plucky Ginger delivering the same message back when FDR was dealing with the same issues.” more

December 25, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

“I can’t stop thinking of all the things that I should’ve said that
I never said ….”

I could quote that line from Kate Bush’s song, “This Woman’s Work,” at the top of every column, with a small but necessary change in the title. Until I checked online just now I didn’t know Kate had written it expressly for the climactic moment of the 1988 film She’s Having a Baby, where the woman in question is played by Elizabeth McGovern, known now to millions of Downton Abbey fans as Lady Crawley.

It’s typical of the pleasures and challenges of what I do every week that a Kate Bush song from the late 1980s leads to Downton Abbey. Given the freedom of a weekly writing assignment chosen by no one but yourself, you’re going to be tempted, intrigued, and distracted by more options than you have time or space for; thus the notion of having more to say than you have room for, given the realities of a more or less 1800-word limit and a Tuesday afternoon deadline. Last week at the hour of decision, there was nothing to do but to take a short cut and rethink the format as an open letter to the reader, saying, in effect, “time to go now, see you next week.” more

December 18, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Stopped in at the Gallery of the Adelphi Theatre, Strand — horribly hot & crowded — good piece though — in bed by ten o’clock.” That’s from the journal Herman Melville kept in November 1849, the year before he embarked on Moby Dick (1851).

“At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in your life.” In case you really want to know, that’s from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher on the Rye (1951), the chapter where Holden Caulfield takes Sally to the theatre.

I’m quoting from Melville and Salinger because this may be my last chance in 2019 to observe their respective bicentennial and  centennial years, but mainly because I’ve been thinking about why I chose to watch Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour-long epic The Irishman at home on Netflix rather than seeing it with my wife at Princeton’s Garden Theatre, where Ethan Hawke has been known to show up onscreen to remind patrons to turn off their phones and refrain from talking. The fact that movie houses everywhere need to screen these reminders indicates why some people prefer to watch at home rather than deal with various potential distractions and irritants of sharing the experience with less than thoughtful fellow moviegoers. You never know when someone behind you has a cough that won’t stop or a laugh that breaks the sound barrier.

Then there’s always the possibility that some proud parents will bring their four-year-old along rather than trust the precious creature to a babysitter. I speak from experience, not as the parent but as the creature who allegedly yelled “Don’t go up there again, you silly man!” when Joe E. Brown kept climbing a ladder to court a fair maiden (possibly Martha Raye) who kept dropping flower pots on his head. Joe E. Brown is best known today as Osgood Fielding III, the smitten suitor in Some Like It Hot who unhesitatingly says “Nobody’s perfect!” to Jack Lemmon’s Daphne when Jack rips off his wig and shouts “I’m a man!” The communal roar of laughter greeting that iconic closing line is a reminder of the pleasure of sharing sheer unmitigated amusement with a theatre full of people who at that moment are on the same wavelength whatever their political party or social status. The sound of uninhibited response to a public performance echoes through the ages from Shakespeare’s Globe to New York movie audiences delighting in the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night in the summer of 1964 when I was in the habit of taking Beatle-resistant friends to the show for the fun of watching their euphoric responses. more

December 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Making room for Monday’s New York Times in the chaos of my work space are Berlioz the Bear, a slender storybook for children written and illustrated by Jan Brett, alongside a copy of The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, who was born on December 11, in 1803 and died on March 8, 1869, making this his sesquicentenary year.

Late the night before, I’d left the Memoirs open to a paragraph in which the famously tempestuous French composer is expounding on a caricature of himself as “a colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle.” Thus the presence of the Times on my desk, folded open to a photograph of Sesame Street’s Big Bird reading a storybook resembling Berlioz the Bear to a couple of kids. While it’s unfortunate that the cheery image accompanies an obituary for the “whole-body puppeteer” Caroll Spinney, it’s not often lately that page one of the Times has roused something sunnier than a grimace or a groan.

Besides the fun of imagining Berlioz embodied in a double-bass-playing bear who would be at home on Sesame Street, the coincidence encourages a closer look at the passage where even as he seems to be taking issue with Heinrich Heine’s hyperbolic portrayal of his music, Berlioz obviously enjoys repeating the poet’s vision of its “fabulous empires of preternatural depravity, and many a cloud-capped impossible wonder,” and the way “its magical strains conjure up Babylon, the hanging gardens of Semiramis,” and “the marvels of Nineveh.”

But what actually bothers Berlioz is Heine’s claim that his music has “little melody” and “no real simplicity whatever.” After receiving a profoundy apologetic letter from the poet praising his oratorio L’Enfance du Christ as “a masterpiece of simplicity” with “the most exquisite blooms of melody,” Berlioz scolds Heine for behaving “like a critic” and making “a categorical statement about an artist when you only know part of his work.”  more

December 4, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Call me Mickey Mouse … It was  fun when you called me Mickey Mouse.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Crack-Up

First things first, I would never throw Mickey Mouse under the bus. Although I regret my failure to write about last year’s 90th anniversary of Mickey’s debut in the 1928 cartoon, Steamboat Willie, I’m using the occasion as an excuse for replaying the catchiest number at the top of the impeachment hearings hit parade. 

Anyway, since the person you “throw under the bus” apparently has to be a political crony or supporter you suddenly want nothing to do with, as in, “I hardly know the man,” I have colorful evidence of my lifelong acquaintance with Walt Disney’s ageless creation right here on the desk in a torn and tattered copy of Mickey Mouse in “The Mystery of the Double-Cross Ranch” from 1950, alongside another old friend, my falling-apart New Directions paperback of The Crack-Up, a collection of Fitzgerald’s writings edited by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson.

 

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November 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

To screen out the screeching of the train wheels, I’d pull out my CD player and plug in earphones, to listen to the only music that I could tolerate during these years: Beethoven’s late quartets.
—Elaine Pagels, from Why Religion?

For all the time I spend consulting, exploring, exploiting the oracles of the internet, as often as not I find what I’m looking for, in material form, among the oracles shelved at the Princeton Public Library.

Sometimes the oracle offers more than I counted on, as happened recently when I opened a copy of Why Religion? A Personal Story (Ecco 2018) to the passage where Elaine Pagels recalls the aftermath of her six-year-old son’s death, a time “when professions of faith in God sounded only like unintelligible noise, heard from the bottom of the sea.” Looking through the window of the train bound from Penn Station to Princeton, where she had accepted a teaching position at the University, she sees “lots dense with weeds and paper, cans, tricycles left in the rain, plastic wading pools,” and “swing sets, some with ropes dangling loosely, the seats down.” The imagery of backyards haunted by the playthings of absent children frames the questions that follow: “Why did this happen? Why to this child? Why to any child, any person?”

It’s at this point that the author looks to Beethoven’s late quartets, her preferred remedy for discord in “body and mind … separate islands of feeling, sharp with pain, interspersed with patches where feeling had numbed, wholly blocked. … Since my arteries felt tangled and separate, in danger of disintegrating, I felt that only the strands of that music could help weave them together again, perhaps could bring, for moments, a semblance of integration and order.”

Standing book in hand on the library’s second floor study area, reading and rereading that raw, visceral account of the healing power of music, I decided to take the book home, already sensing the theme it was leading me to, as if the title had changed from Why Religion? to Why Beethoven? or, more to the point, Why Music? The oracle had given me an answer I needed but didn’t know I was looking for. Isn’t this what books and libraries are all about?  more

November 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

God has sent his creatures into the world with arms long enough to reach anywhere if they could be put to the trouble of extending them.
—Thomas Chatterton 1752-1770

It seems that the long arms of Wordsworth’s “marvelous boy” have reached into the second decade of the 21st century. While I’ve been unable to learn whether the saying attributed to Chatterton was of his own making or simply, as one source says, “one of his favorite maxims,” the very idea that the authorship is in question accords with his legend. If he seems an unlikely time traveler, he has a claim on this particular day, having been born in the city of Bristol on November  20, 1752. It’s also hard to imagine a figure from the past more relevant to the hoax-and-witch-hunt chaos of this fake-news-conspiracy-theory-tainted age than the 15-year-old who invented a 15th-century poetry-writing priest named Thomas Rowley, fabricating Rowley’s Middle English manuscripts artfully enough to convince certain literary authorities that his forgeries were authentic.

Better Than Marvelous

Any thought of devoting an entire column to Chatterton came to an abrupt end last Friday. The marvelous boy was no match for the marvelous woman who, in the words of the New York Times, had been “Plunged Into the War Zone of U.S. Politics.”

Not that I would have called Marie Yovanovitch “marvelous,” a word I seldom use. She was better than that, better than the infectious superlative William Wordsworth and Cole Porter put into the transcendental conversation. Was she beautiful? strong? quietly compelling? She was better. She was sympathetic. The beauty was in her bearing, her poise, her integrity, the way she made her case, told her story, weathered the patronizing tone of interrogators doing their polite best to avoid taking her seriously.  more

November 13, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

When I was very young, I read poems incessantly because I was lonely and somehow must have believed they could become people for me.
—Harold Bloom (1930-2019), from Possessed by Memory

Strange and yet unexpectedly gratifying, to open the Times one mid-October morning, ready to read the day’s news at arm’s length, or else to sling the paper angrily aside, only to hesitate, startled by the image of Harold Bloom’s all-the-sorrow-and-wonder-of-the-ages face on the front page with the fact of his death at 89. Even so, Bloom’s presence at the top of the news lends it a touch of literary grace, bringing his “people” Hamlet and Falstaff into the fire and fury of the present. In May of this year Bloom told an interviewer, “I teach Shakespeare as scripture,” his bible being The Invention of the Human (1998), in which he envisions the “pervasive presence” of Shakespeare “here, there, and everywhere at once,” as of “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” He grounds his devotion in Falstaff: Give Me Life (2017): “The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever….Disreputable and joyous, he speaks to a world that goes from violence to violence.”

On another October morning a week earlier, same kitchen setting, same hour, same newspaper, the heavy weather of a world going “from violence to violence” gives way for the death of drummer Ginger Baker at 80. While Bloom’s passing recalled the quiet, thoughtful moments I sought him out as a teacher between covers, the news about Baker made me smile remembering the night in March 1968 when I saw a man whose his hair appeared to be on fire driving a set of drums like a team of wild horses, so deep in the “torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion,” that if someone with prophetic knowledge had assured me that the demon flailing away as if each moment might be his last would not only live through the night but for another 51 years, I’d have thought they were mad.  more

November 6, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
—J.D. Salinger, from The Catcher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is how a column about last week’s World Series, Walter Johnson, Buster Keaton, and old Baron von Humboldt has landed like a well-hit, wind-blown foul ball smack on top of the typewritten manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye displayed in the New York Public Library’s J.D. Salinger centennial exhibition, which is free, if you want to know the truth, and will be on view through January 19, 2020.   

In the first place, Salinger is the only American writer you could pair with Shoeless Joe Jackson, roll the dice online, and score a winning answer, and in the second place, you’d need to read his story “The Laughing Man” about a group of kids from P.S. 165 on 109th Street called the Comanches and a “shy, gentle young man” called the Chief, who had once been “cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants’ baseball team.” According to a financial arrangement with the parents, the Chief would pick up the boys outside school in a “reconverted commercial bus” and drive them over to Central Park to play soccer or football, or, in this case, baseball. Afterward, the Chief would treat them to a running story (“it tended to sprawl all over the place”) about the adventures of the Laughing Man, “who had been kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits.”

The plot of the story proper turns with the arrival in the Chief’s life of a peerlessly beautiful Wellesley girl who insists on playing center field with a catcher’s mitt but is welcomed for her prowress as a hitter and speed on the bases (“She seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there”). The hideously deformed anti-hero of the Chief’s story, his head having been twisted “several turns to the right” in a carpenter’s vise by his kidnappers, is so terrifying to behold that he wears a gossamer mask made out of poppy petals (“he reeked of opium”).

Given the setting of the centennial exhibit, you should know that on rainy afternoons, in addition to his duties as a driver, father-figure, storyteller, and coach, the Chief takes the Comanches to the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with probably an occasional trip south to the big Beaux Arts building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street where, as the exhibit commentary notes, Salinger spent many hours and “retained a lifelong affection for the Rose Main Reading Room.” more

October 30, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”

Three years ago, Ben Lerner published The Hatred of Poetry (Penguin Random House 2016), claiming that “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is.” Billy Collins took a more nuanced approach in his 2007 collection, The Trouble with Poetry. Two years into this quid pro quo presidency, however, the quasi quid pro quo to hatred and trouble would seem to be Why Poetry? (Ecco paperback 2018) by Matthew Zapruder, who read at Princeton’s Lewis Center October 4.

I found out about Lerner’s book in a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Alissa Quart making a case for why Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is wise to have a poet on her team. Noting that “poetry readership is generally up,” Quart cites a National Endowment for the Arts survey showing that almost 12 percent of American adults read poetry in 2017, up from under 7 percent in 2012.

Love it or hate it or who-cares, poetry abounds this month, beginning with the birth of Wallace Stevens (October 2) and ending with the arrival of John Keats (October 31). Along with Ezra Pound, whose birthday is today, October 30, and whose name was once synonymous with the hatred of poetry, there’s Arthur Rimbaud (October 20), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21), John Berryman (October 25), and Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath (October 27).  more

October 23, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

With the World Series in the air and Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s biography of legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman on my bedside table, I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball and basketball this week.

The Open Sesame to Zachter’s book, however, was Holzman’s wife Selma, “a girl from Brooklyn without any pretenses,” who was also “loving, kind, thoughtful, generous, genuine, funny, and interesting,” could “see through phonies, and didn’t suffer fools.” While Holzman “tended to be guarded in what he said publicly, Selma spoke her mind.” Zachter rounds out the chapter starring the coach’s wife of 55 years (“The Best Thing I Ever Did In My Life”) with some anecdotes too lengthy to be quoted here, unless you count the one about how whenever she “learned one of her husband’s Knicks players had a cold, she prepared homemade chicken soup for him.”

Admittedly, my chicken-soup soft spot for Holzman’s wife is due to my fondness for her namesake from Queens, who shared the same qualities along with an ability to make the culinary equivalent of a three-point shot from mid-court every time she cooked a meal. Our friend Selma, our son’s godmother, died ten years ago September, a year after Selma Holzman. more

October 16, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Her eye as a writer is both darting and then fixed. Nothing escapes her.
—Colm Tóibín on Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

Several times a day I look out the living room window to see the activity around the bird feeders. It’s become a ritual, even when the only sign of bird life is the slight swaying of the Edwardian feeder. This morning I was seeing the finches and woodpeckers darting to and from that ornate object through someone else’s eyes, having just finished Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude,” a long story drawn from her childhood in New Zealand. At Labyrinth Books later the same day I bought The Garden Party and Other Stories (Ecco 2016) where Colm Tóibín’s preface, with its reference to Mansfield’s “eye as a writer,” underscores what happened at the window.

In a letter from May 1921, a year and a half before she died of TB and related illnesses, Mansfield observes that the writers “we read as we read Shakespeare are part of our daily lives,” that it doesn’t seem at all strange to be thinking about Othello at breakfast or to be wondering about poetry in the bath: “It’s all part of a whole. Just as that vineyard below me is the vineyard of the song of Solomon — and that beautiful sound as the men hoe between the vines is almost part of my body — goes on in me. I shall never be the same as I was before I heard it, just as I’ll never be the same as I was before I read the death of Cleopatra. One has willingly given oneself to all these things — one is the result of them all.”

I didn’t need the marginal exclamation points in my mother’s copies of Mansfield’s journals and letters to know how passionately she’d have identified with that passage. Besides Ann’s copycat habit of using “shall” in her own letters, and the sense of writerly companionship she found in her New Zealand soulmate, she’d “been there.” Not only did she feel what Mansfield felt when she said the sound of men hoeing in a vineyard was almost part of her body, she’d have expressed it in the same terms and probably taken it to rhapsodic extremes. I knew from experience. I’d grown up in the same house with someone who took Chekhov to bed with her every night, along with her namesake Anna Karenina, and the expurgated American paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And if she wasn’t reading, she was typing madly away in her tiny study next to my father’s much larger one, inspired by Mansfield’s example, the journal her bedside bible. more

October 9, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The first and only time I heard John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” was on the car radio the night he was killed and the news was still raw. I had to turn the radio off after he sang the line, “Before you cross the street, take my hand: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” What happened to me, what caught me by the throat, was realizing that at the same time John had been seeing a son through his first five years of life, so had I.

Fifteen years later, Ben is standing beside me at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island singing “Autumn Almanac” along with the composer, Ray Davies, and three thousand Kinks fans of all ages, including numerous other fathers and sons, mothers, sisters, and brothers. The entry in my journal for August 1, 1995, begins,”Tonight was like a fantasy come true, almost as good as seeing the Beatles playing live, up close.”

Actually, it was better, because only in your wildest dreams are you going to see and hear John, Paul, George, and Ringo up close, unless of course you were on the rooftop of 3 Saville Row when the Beatles gave what would be their last public performance, January 30, 1969. And even that wouldn’t equal the one-on-one excitement of sharing a song you love with the man who wrote it.  more

October 2, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Poetry does not only mean verse; in a way it means painting, it means the theatre and all the rest of it.
—Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), from a 1935 letter

Poetry landed in our mailbox this week spelled out in big capital letters on the cover of a midwinter 2019 fashion catalogue offering “a relaxed and understated collection” that combines “the beauty of natural fabrics with sculptural silhouettes and elegant design details.”

Among the dozens of catalogues that follow my wife through the seasons, this one always gets my attention because, if nothing else, it acknowledges the powerful appeal of poetry as a phenomenon “that does not only mean verse.” Although what Stevens intends by “all the rest of it” may not include the images in  a fashion catalogue, there’s no denying the prevalence of colors and patterns in his work, nor the abstracted expressions on the faces of models who seem to be listening to something interesting that they don’t quite understand, which makes sense if the something is, well, why not poetry? And given the elegantly understated apparel they’re presenting, why not take the notion to the limit and imagine that the photographer putting them through their paces has someone offstage reading passages from the poet who was born on this date 140 years ago?

Consider, for example, the barefoot brunette modeling a pair of dark blue silk satin pajamas who seems to be smiling in spite of herself, as if a particular line had caught her by surprise. She might be responding to “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” with its “white night-gowns” of which “None are green,/Or purple with green rings,/Or green with yellow rings,/Or yellow with blue rings.” And what starts her smiling could be the sudden unlikely appearance of “baboons and periwinkles” and the “old sailor” who “catches tigers/In red weather.” Or maybe it’s the woman in “Sunday Morning,” with her “Complacencies of the peignor,” “oranges in a sunny chair,/And the green freedom of a cockatoo.”

What has me smiling at the moment, however, is the thought of Elsie, the poet’s wife, who sat for the sculptor whose bronze bust of her won the competition for the new Mercury dime minted in 1916. There’s a sort of a sight rhyme in the fact that when Bing Crosby was singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the model for the goddess on the dime in circulation at the time was married to a poet whose day job was evaluating insurance claims. more

September 25, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands…
—T.S. Eliot, from “Preludes”

I meant to be writing about the Beatles’ farewell album Abbey Road, which saw the light 50 years ago tomorrow, September 26. No chore that, far from it, but this is the last week of the regular baseball season, and when I should be thinking about London, all that comes to mind is that St. Louis — where T.S. Eliot was born on September 26, 1888 — is the home of the Cardinals, who clinched a spot in the playoffs Sunday and are looking to win the Central Division after sweeping a crucial four game series from the Cubs at Chicago, something that last happened in 1921.

It’s safe to say that St. Louis is not the city Tom Eliot was imagining when he wrote “Preludes.” But a poem suggesting that a street is capable of understanding a vision of itself tells me, hey, why worry about limits? Since Beatles and baseball are two of the best things in my life, there’s no reason why they can’t share the same column.  more

September 18, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The Wednesday after the Tuesday from Hell I’m in the Community Room at the old library setting up what will be the last Friends Book Sale before the move to a temporary location in the Princeton Shopping Center. Like most people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I’m still trying to deal with yesterday’s nightmare. So it’s good to have the distraction of a tiring, totally absorbing task. Although volunteers helped in the moving and unloading of donations, ultimately it’s up to me to get everything ready for the Friday morning opening, and I still have at least a hundred boxes to unpack and price. By the time I arrange stand-up signs on the tables for History, Religion, Biography, Science, and Literature, I’m getting punchy, thinking these aren’t books, they’re the broken pieces of western civilization I’m putting in place, one man’s deranged response to what happened yesterday in lower Manhattan against a pure blue sky, a perfect morning, absolute clarity, then out of nowhere absolute apocalyptic carnage.

Gazing out over the vista of tables piled high with books not yet arranged in rows, I see the towering stacks as buildings, or so it seems in the hour of supreme, up-after-my-bedtime mindlessness. Acutely aware of the relevance of the titles to Tuesday’s madness, I begin the first row of Literature with the Modern Library editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Balzac’s Lost Illusions. I’m wondering which would cast the longest shadow in a skyline made of classics, a tower of Balzac or a tower of Tolstoy? On any other day, measured in terms of sheer quantity, it would be the many-storied work of the author of the Human Comedy soaring skyward above all others, but War and Peace is the novel I’ve been absorbed by for months, finally, thankfully, for the first time since I was 20 and unable to love it as much as Anna Karenina. What I’m especially grateful for is knowing that on the night before the catastrophe I was reading and rereading Tolstoy’s account of young Petya Rostov’s enchanted final hours. It was something to cherish forever, to have felt the euphoria all readers should know at least once in their lives, to have spent that night of all nights under Tolstoy’s spell.

Now, after a day of non-stop beyond-belief television, I can’t stop seeing terrified New Yorkers in flight from the monstrous mass of debris risen in Satanic splendor from the smoking ruin, headed full-force up Broadway, as if the mad genius terrorists had designs on midtown, even Central Park. That’s when it dawns on me that the Balzac and Tolstoy buildings should be equal in height, like the Twin Towers.     more

September 11, 2019

I am English, and my Englishness is my very vision.
—D.H. Lawrence, in a letter from October 1915

By Stuart Mitchner

Earlier the same year, in another letter to another friend, Lawrence wrote, “I know that I am the English nation — that I am the European race.”

You may be thinking, how outrageous, that a mere mortal could ever presume to make such a statement. But then this is no ordinary mortal. The website for “Important Events on This Day, September 11,” begins, inevitably, with a 10-line paragraph about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; after an inventory of other  events, including a 1973 military coup in Chile and a 1941 speech  by Charles Lindbergh accusing “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration of trying to draw America into World War II,” the site concludes with “D.H. Lawrence, born Sept. 11, 1885,” followed by a biographical notice almost twice as long as the entry on the American apocalypse. more