October 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the five-word Molotov cocktail Donald Trump threw at the news media shortly after taking office, I’ve been rereading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

The last time I read Ibsen was out loud with a friend many years ago on a student tour of Europe. The other reader was an aspiring actress from Erie, Pa., recently the site of one of Trump’s red-meat rallies. I can’t recall how Sally and I each happened to have a copy of the plays. Perhaps we bought them in Oslo to keep us sane in the immediate aftermath of our tour leader’s psychotic meltdown and subsequent incarceration. One aspect of his mania was the notion that he was leading a company of actors, musicians and writers he called the Golden Bear, after the name of the tour.  more

October 10, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Early morning, early October, my wife and I are walking along the Delaware near Lambertville, the roar of the rapids so loud there’s no talking until we’re past the sound, heading south toward Washington’s Crossing. Downriver near Pennsbury Manor my paternal ancestors John and Sarah were indentured servants on William Penn’s estate, having come to America with him from England in 1682 on the good ship Welcome.

I’m mindful of my roots these days after unloading boxes of family photos, clippings, genealogies, old letters, and journals like my mother’s from the time she and my father took a cruise up the St. Lawrence to visit Barnhart’s Island, the home of her maternal ancestors. Just before she died, my mother, who grew up in river towns like St. Joseph, on the Missouri, and Smithville, on the Little Platte, told me, “Go down to the river.” My scholar father’s last words were “What’s on the agenda for today?” It would be hard to find two sentences more expressive of the differences between my parents and their families.  more

October 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Trying to remember the last time I spent all day glued to the TV, the best I can do is September 11, 2001. Last Thursday my attention was focused on a 51-year-old stranger who was tenuously holding her own under the glare of the national spotlight. As she spoke shyly but unsparingly about the most traumatic moment of her life, I found myself pulling for her as if she were an old friend.

When the first half of the Senate hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was adjourned, I searched online for the song I’d been thinking of during the cross-examination’s most stressful moments. All it took was typing in “Dear Christine,” by Klaatu, a Canadian group named after the traveler from another world in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Love songs like this one live and breathe with feeling and make you instantly emotional, particularly if you’ve just spent a supremely intense period of time empathizing with a woman named Christine.

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September 26, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

“Dr. Ford has said that they were stumbling drunk at the time that this occurred …. That has to be part of any relevant questioning.”
—Senator Richard J. Durbin, quoted in the New York Times

With the dark side of high school drinking dominating the national conversation these days, what was meant to be a column marking the shared birthdays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) has taken an unexpected turn.

Romancing under the influence is practically a genre in itself in the Great American Songbook, from loving hyperbole (“You go to my head like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew”) to barfly camaraderie (“We’re drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode … so make it one for my baby and one more for the road”).

Jump ahead a few decades and it’s Ray Davies’s “Sunny Afternoon” where the rich slob’s girlfriend has run off with his car and “gone back to her ma and pa telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty.” In the mid-70s the Kinks were singing “Oh demon alcohol,” with Davies lugubriously lamenting how booze “messed up his life when he beat up his wife” while reciting the booze hound’s litany: “barley wine, pink gin, port, pernod or tequila, rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks.”  more

September 19, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s never very pleasant in the morning to open The New York Times

—W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Auden was speaking in the fall of 1972, a year before he died in Vienna on September 28, 1973. One source of unpleasantness at that moment in history was Richard Nixon, who was into the before-the-fall fall of his second term. In mid-September 2018 opening the Times is like the first jarring swallow of a cup of gruesomely strong coffee you can’t stop drinking. Every morning you feel small stirrings of hope that the taste will mellow down to something closer to the Obama latte flavor you fondly like to think it used to have. Every morning it’s the same ordeal, with just a hint of the the addictive richness of false hope before the super-caffeinated reality hits you.  more

September 12, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

We are stardust

We are golden

And we have to get ourselves

Back to the garden

I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan. She never moved me the way Kate Bush does when she becomes the spirit of Cathy singing outside Heathcliff’s window in “Wuthering Heights” or the spirit of Emily Brontë herself in all her untapped wildness when she makes albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. But those lines from Mitchell’s “Woodstock” not only capture the best spirit of the Sixties, they speak to the here and now of Princeton in September 2018, where we have a Garden to get back to, and on Hollywood Nights it’s not just a refuge from the breaking-news madness of our time, it’s an escape route to the days when a B-movie gangster became Humphrey Bogart. My wife and I took our time getting to the Garden to see Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), one of the lesser known Bogarts. But Bogart is Bogart, the house was packed, and we were lucky to find seats together. more

September 5, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The image of Emily Brontë on the cover of Robert Barnard’s contribution to The British Library Writers’ Lives series is a retouched detail from the portrait of the three Brontë sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, painted by their brother Branwell. Two years ago at the Morgan Library’s Charlotte Brontë bicentennial, I stood in front of the original painting (circa 1834), with its folds, creases, and marks of wear. The contrast between the spectral Emily I saw then and this radiant girl is eerie. There’s color in the cheeks and brow and lips and the light of thought in the eyes. What had seemed a neutral expression now appears appealingly impertinent. It’s incredible to think this fresh-faced human being aglow with attitude was born 200 years ago, July 30, 1818, and died at 30 in 1848, a year after the publication of her only novel, which came into the world with its author concealed behind the pen name Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights has been synonymous with mystery ever since.

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August 29, 2018

There’s too much in my head for this horn— Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

By Stuart Mitchner

And there’s too much in my head for this column.

One of the pleasures of writing a piece every week is being able to put fresh-in-the-moment impressions in play even if they don’t always mesh with the subject. Like when the pennant race is heating up and the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly come back from the dead with a new manager, an injection of young talent, and the magical properties of their hottest hitter’s homemade salsa. Being attached to a team is like being lashed to a runaway train; full speed ahead one day, off the rails the next. I was so blitzed by the too-muchness of last week’s after-midnight sweep of the Dodgers in L.A. that I almost forgot we were coming out on Charlie Parker’s birthday. more

August 22, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner 

The guest list for this week was set for Debussy and Dorothy Parker until the news of Aretha Franklin’s death. The upside of an open-ended column is that there’s seemingly room at the last minute even for someone of Aretha’s magnitude. It’s like a variation on the who-would-you-invite-to-a-dinner-party question people get asked every week in the New York Times Book Review. At this one, you can be sure the piano would get a work-out and the music would be amazing, but what would they talk about? One obvious thing the Queen of Soul and the Dark Lady of the Algonquin Round Table have in common is that both received lavish front-page Times obituaries, with last Friday’s edition running an inventory of Franklin’s “essential songs” not unlike the June 8, 1967 issue’s extensive sampler of Dorothy Parker’s “rapier wit.” more

August 15, 2018

You know, I’m a New York guy — Sonny Rollins, in People Magazine

By Stuart Mitchner

New York City, Christmas week 1948, St. James Theatre: Ray Bolger is performing “Once In Love With Amy” and life will never be the same for the ten-year-old in the balcony. He’s in the heart of the holiday city, suspended above a bright new world of sight and sound, captivated, taken out of himself, “in heaven,” watching a living man, in person, here and now, singing and dancing while a live band plays, and there’s nothing to do but laugh in sheer delight when the man on stage does a drunken gambit singing “You might be quite the fickle-hearted ro-ver, so carefree and bold, who loves a girl and later — “ hiccup “ — thinks it over, and justquits cold!” When the chorus comes round again — “Once you’re kissed by Amy, tear up the list, it’s Amy!” — Bolger stops singing to go cavorting around the stage in an ecstasy, so full of the song that singing isn’t enough, he’s catapaulted by the music, waving his arms, leaping about, calling on the audience to share the joy until the whole theatre is singing along, “Once in love with Amy! Always in love with Amy!” more

August 8, 2018

How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s primal stuff, the fear of falling, the horror of being suspended in space, left hanging, the vicarious sensation of feeling the fall the way the Duke of Gloucester does as he falls without falling from the “dread summit … the crown ‘o the cliff” in Act 4, scene 6 of King Lear.

Edgar simulates the experience for his blind father, combining force of will with Shakespeare’s language the way a film director manipulates a submissive viewer, taking advantage of that age-old perceptual Open Sesame “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Flash forward four and a half centuries and vast audiences are willingly giving themselves up to the cliffhanger dynamic of series television bequeathed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who crafted classic manifestations of that primal fear, most famously in Vertigo (1958), which opens with Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart ‘32 hanging from a San Francisco rooftop and ends as the mystery woman played by Kim Novak falls to her death from the San Juan Bautista bell tower.  more

August 1, 2018

They still represent the twentieth century’s greatest romance. — Derek Taylor, introducing The Beatles Anthology 3.

Fifty years ago today the Beatles completed the recording of “Hey Jude” at Trident Studios in St. Anne’s Court off Wardour Street.

I first heard “the Sistine Chapel of Rock and Roll” while driving a ‘62 Chevy Corvair along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge well before the record’s official August 26th release. I’d been about to turn off the radio because the reception was breaking up (no wonder, if you believe Ralph Nader, who declared the Corvair one of the “most dangerous cars in history”) when out of a storm of static comes “Hey Jude” loud and clear, as if by magic, no build-up, no hype, no DJ preamble, just Paul McCartney calling me to attention, for in the shock of the moment, it sounded like “Hey you!” I swerved to the right, parking at a crazy angle in a no-parking zone, listening and listening and listening, three, four, five, six, seven minutes, but who’s counting when McCartney’s riffing in an ecstasy over a 40 piece orchestra and a chorus of thousands right there in my poor defamed Corvair. more

July 25, 2018

Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us. — Harold Bloom

For relief from the post-Helsinki reality of July 2018, a time of chronic stress leading to sleepless nights and a condition that for lack of a better word could be called trumpache, I recommend 600 mgs of Shakespeare at bedtime. Love’s Labor’s Lost has done wonders for me; no more ringing in the ears from the blowhard echo of the Montana Trump rally where the Philistine-in-Chief heaped scorn on “a thousand points of light,” his predecessor George H.W. Bush’s ghostwritten metaphor for public service, possibly the only piece of poetry ever associated with the 41st president.  more

July 18, 2018

Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic! —Walt Whitman, April 1889

By Stuart Mitchner

The Good Grey Poet was speaking to his Boswell, Horace L. Traubel, whose notes of conversations between 1888 and Whitman’s death in 1892 were eventually published in the multi-volume series, With Walt Whitman in Camden. Walt went on to call baseball “America’s game.” It has “the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere — belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” more

July 11, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The recent media-driven erosion of the warm and fuzzy even saintly image of Princeton’s most famous resident has me thinking how differently we’d feel about Einstein if his public persona was as remote, as unknowable, as alien to most of us as the anatomy of his brain. What if there had been no beloved humanitarian to serve as a foil for stories like “Einstein the Anti-Racist? Not in His Travel Diaries” in the June 14 New York Times?  more

July 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years after signing the Declaration of Independence, two future American presidents made a pilgrimage to the one-time “mother country” Nathaniel Hawthorne called “our old home.” Their goal was Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. When they got there, Thomas Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it,” while John Adams “cut a relic from a chair claimed to have belonged to Shakespeare himself.” The witness was Abigail Adams, quoted in James Shapiro’s collection, Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2013). The two founding fathers eventually become political enemies, then friends once more before sharing their last day on earth, July 4, 1826. Not knowing Jefferson had died five hours before him at Monticello, Adams’s last words were “Jefferson still survives.” more

June 27, 2018

JONAH HISTORICALLY REGARDED (DOME): Frank Stella (1936 —), hand colored etching, aquatint, relief, engraving, screenprint and stencil on paper, 186.69 cm x 134.62 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Tyler Graphics Ltd. 1974-2001 Collection, given in honor of Frank Stella, 2003.44.300 /©2017 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork.

On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study-window.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Wonder Book

By Stuart Mitchner

In a December 1850 letter to a friend penned while he was “shaping” the book that became Moby Dick, Melville writes, “I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney.” more

June 20, 2018

In Michael Robertson’s coda to The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy (Princeton Univ, Press 2018), he stresses the necessity of “utopian dreaming” at a time when “nakedly racist and nativist rhetoric” is “permeating political discourse” and “powerful political optimism is in short supply.”

Walking around Princeton after reading The Last Utopians, I saw intimations of utopia everywhere and I was wide awake. It’s like music, a subtle, infectious refrain; wherever you go you hear the utopian melody. Take a perfect day in June on Nassau Street (utopia defined online is “a state in which everything is perfect”): you’ve been browsing in one of the best bookstores in the country, you’re carrying a yellow Princeton Record Exchange bag brimming with great music, and you’ve just passed Dohm Alley with its visionary evocations of Blake, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Turn the corner and you come to the rustic parklet in front of Small World, a cozy nook with tree-stump tables.  more

June 13, 2018

I had this dream America.

Ray Davies, from “The Great Highway”

By Stuart Mitchner

The fate of this week’s column was decided when I saw a boyhood hero on the obituary page of Friday’s New York Times. The AP photo under the charismatic words St. Louis Cardinal Star shows Red Schoendienst leapfrogging over a baserunner and firing the ball in the direction of the greatest Cardinal of them all, his roommate and close friend Stan Musial.  more

June 6, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

As soon as news of the Normandy invasion reached the office of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the games scheduled for June 6, 1944 were cancelled. According to mlb.com, such a thing had happened only once before, on the day President Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923. Go figure: this is the man who until recently was considered by many to be the worst American president. And did you know that future Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was a Seaman Second class in a rocket boat stationed off the coast of Normandy on D-Day providing fire support for the invasion? Interviewed by Keith Olbermann on June 6, 2004, Yogi recalled, “Well, being a young guy [he had just turned 19], I thought it was like the Fourth of July, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.’ And I was looking out and my officer said, ‘you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’” more

May 30, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

One of the photos of Philip Roth (1933-2018) published with last week’s New York Times obituary was taken at Princeton in 1964. He’s leaning on a table, his head propped on one hand. Dressed in a suit and tie, he’s looking less like a writer-in-residence than a weary ballplayer, Hank Greenberg all dressed up in civvies after a grueling game. The check-out desk and display case in the background suggest that the photo was taken at Firestone Library. Roth is 31, in the last year of his two-year teaching stint at the University.

According to Sylvia Tumin, this was around the time Roth was “breaking up with Maggie,” his first wife, with whom he had been living in a small ranch house that used to occupy the corner of Mountain Avenue and Bayard Lane. Writing in response to my August 20, 2008 column “The Diamond as Big as America: A Whirlwind Tour of Philip Roth,” Sylvia informed me that during his time at Princeton Roth had been a close friend of her husband, sociologist Melvin Tumin, the inspiration for the protagonist of The Human Stain (2000). more

May 23, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Stretching across two pages of the November 1963 issue of Esquire Magazine is a title flamboyantly geared to catch the reader’s eye: “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy-Kolored (THPHHHHHH!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …)”

Left in the dust in the far right corner in relatively tiny letters is the author’s name, Thomas K. Wolfe, soon to become Tom Wolfe. When he died last week at 88, the words most often used by obituary writers scrambling to describe Wolfe’s pop-flavored prose style were “pyrotechnical” or “pyrotechnics.” Variations included “technicolor, wildly punctuated” in the New York Times, where Dwight Garner’s tribute highlighted the “bursts of asterisks, the scattering of exclamation points and ellipses, the syncopated distribution of repeated phrases and capitalized words.” The Washington Post weighed in by rightly drawing attention to “all that onomatopoeia.” more

May 16, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s too soon to write at length about A Village in France (Un village français) a television series available on Hulu that at this writing, after five outstanding seasons, belongs in the company of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones.

When a series is this unique and engaging, powerful and true, it renews your interest in the nation that for two intense weeks has been at the center of your viewing life. You want to know more about the German occupation and the Resistance. You want to go back to films like Grand Illusion and Army of Shadows, directors such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville, writers like Albert Camus and composers like Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago, March 25, 1918, the last year of the Great War.  more

May 9, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

London burning. London blitzed. London embattled by the elements. It’s a subject that inspires bravura prose. Like the London at the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, where there’s so much mud in the streets it is “as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” This is a city where the smoke from chimney-pots makes “a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” more

May 2, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Looking ahead to this weekend’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale, I’m finally reading the copy of Barnaby Rudge that was given to me by a British couple who inscribed it in memory of the evening we spent at the King’s Head (Dickens’s Maypole), the novel’s primary setting. If I hesitate to use “Dickensian” to describe this memorably thoughtful, kind, and caring couple, it’s because my understanding of the term conflicts with online definitions that stipulate “poor social conditions” and “comically repulsive characters.”  more