November 24, 2021

By Stuart Michner

I’m a dark horse
Running on a dark race course…

—George Harrison (1943-2001)

According to Glyn Johns, engineer and producer of the Beatles’ famously fraught Get Back sessions, “If I was ever going to write a book about George, I would print out every lyric he ever wrote, and I guarantee you would find out exactly who he was. Beginning with ‘Don’t Bother Me,’ it’s all there, as plain as plain can be.”

In George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door (Overlook 2015), Graeme Thomson notes that “Don’t Bother Me” was “written out of sheer necessity” at a time when “the insatiable appetite of Beatlemania” was “really beginning to bite.” As someone who “would never be much inclined to float off and write about ‘newspaper taxis’ or ‘Maxwell’s silver hammer,’ “ and who was already “adept at writing about himself,” Harrison was “the first Beatle to write songs about being a Beatle.”

So there he was, at 20, the youngest member of a band dominated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a compositional dynamo producing hit songs with titles like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “Thank You Girl,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “From Me to You.” Laid up with a head cold while the Beatles were playing “a summer season in Bournemouth,” as he recounts in I Me Mine (Chronicle Books 1980, 2002), Harrison gamely sets about writing the first chapter of his own narrative, a subtext in song with a distinct point of view. While “Don’t Bother Me” is plotted around the standard she-left-me-on-my-own plotline, it comes across as a dispatch from the combat zone of Beatlemania by a singer with no interest in holding hands or making nice: “So go away, leave me alone, don’t bother me … don’t come near, just stay away.”  more

November 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

On Veterans Day 2021, I was thinking about my Uncle Bob, who was killed when his B-52 went down in a freak accident in February 1944. I was also dealing with the fact that both my uncle and my maternal grandfather were named for Robert E. Lee. On my uncle’s dog tag, which I keep close at hand, he’s identified as REL Patterson.

Although my paternal ancestors fought for the Union, a conspicuous exception is Gen. Jubal Early, called Lee’s “Bad Old Man” according to various biographers because of his “short temper, insubordination, and use of profanity.” A Potomac River ferry was named for him until June 2020 when it was renamed Historic White’s Ferry. As far as I know, there are still streets named for him in Texas, Florida, and in nine different towns in Virginia, including his birthplace Lynchburg, where there’s a Jubal Early memorial that was restored after being knocked down by “a wayward driver” in 2013.

 more

November 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

What passion cannot music raise and quell!

—John Dryden (1631-1700)

Driving toward the lake listening to Bob Dylan sing “Mother of Muses” (“sing your hearts out, all you women of the chorus / Sing of honor and fame and of glory be”), I’m brainstorming a column on the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale that would feature John Dryden, whose “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” (1687) closes with a Grand Chorus that moves the Spheres:

“So when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour, / The trumpet shall be heard on high, / The dead shall live, the living die, / And music shall untune the sky.”

Dryden and Dylan? A rhyming made in heaven? Stranger things have happened. The Dylan of last year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways would relate to the idea of music powerful enough to raise the dead, bring down the living, and untune the sky. His mother of muses isn’t all sweetness and light. “Unleash your wrath!” he tells her. “Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path.”

Dryden knew about blocked paths. England’s first poet laureate “attained his celebrity at the cost of gossip and scandal and, in the last decade of his life (after the Glorious Revolution and his removal from the laureateship), of suspicion and scorn.” According to the introduction to the Penguin edition of Selected Poems, “He wrote about politics and religion, about trade and empire; he wrote for the theatre and for public occasion; he composed songs, fables, odes and panegyrics, brilliant satire and savage polemic; he translated from many languages and formulated an idiomatic, familiar and fluent prose style,” virtually inventing “the commercial literary career.” And having created a commercial career in music, Dylan might identify with Dryden’s “difficult public life, fashioned from his own unlikely personality — from his privacy, self-doubts, even verbal hesitation (qualities mocked by his enemies)” on his way to becoming “a public figure of literary distinction.”

While you may not immediately associate Dylan with “verbal hesitation” or “self-doubts,” the winner of the 2016 Nobel prize can definitely claim “literary distinction.” In “False Prophet,” he “opened his heart and the world came in,” and surely there’s room for Dryden’s rising, quelling music in there along with Walt Whitman’s “multitudes” and Stephen Crane’s Black Riders (“Black rider, black rider, you’ve been living too hard”). Like Dryden, Dylan’s “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods.” In “Key West,” the most haunting song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, he says “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there / Key West is on the horizon line.”

Last week my subject was Crane, who died at 28 in 1900, and now it’s Dryden, who died at 68 in 1700, both on the  horizon line of  new centuries. more

November 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m as much of a Jerseyman as you will find.

—Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Here’s how Stephen Crane happens. One late October day in the 1980s you’re in the Quadrant, a secondhand bookstore in Easton, Pa. You take down a first edition of Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (Stokes 1900), said to be the last of Crane’s books published in his lifetime. Standing there, you glance at the first story, “The Price of the Harness.” On the second page, you find yourself drawn into a paragraph that begins “The day wore down to the Cuban dusk, in which the shadows are all grim and of ghostly shape,” and that ends “From somewhere in the world came a single rifle-shot.” You jump ahead a few pages to this sentence: “As the infantry moved along the road, some of the battery horses turned at the noise of the trampling feet and surveyed the men with eyes as deep as wells, serene, mournful, generous eyes, lit heart-breakingly with something that was akin to a philosophy, a religion of self-sacrifice — oh, gallant, gallant horses!”

The book is $39, too high, but never mind, you’re committed, you have to have it, you’re in a state of happy confusion, and it’s not the gallant horses, it’s the way Crane’s excitement in the writing and your excitement in reading fused in that moment. Before you can say a word about the price, the owner lowers it to $20. Just like that. Like a single rifle-shot somewhere in the world.

The owner tells you that Crane went to Lafayette College, right there in Easton. According to Paul Auster’s biography, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (Holt $35), Lafayette was “a madhouse of violent hazing rituals and masculine mayhem, with constant battles between the sophomore and freshman classes.” A classmate is quoted recalling how a bunch of raucous sophomore “gangsters” broke into Crane’s dorm room one night and were “persuaded to leave” only after he “pointed a loaded revolver at them.” more

October 27, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Feeling blue, in need of a lift, I drive downtown with Abbey Road on the stereo. I’m listening to “Here Comes the Sun,” the song hospitals played to celebrate survivors of the virus and the caregivers who saw them through. In just over three minutes, the Beatles have blitzed the blues. So have various Halloween yardscapes, the usual cobweb-curtained display of skeletons, tombstones, ghosts, witches and ravens, good dark fun, fear dressed up in jack ‘o lantern orange and gold for the kids and the big kids the adults are supposed to be “somewhere deep down inside.”

Halloween has the big kid inside me thinking outlandish thoughts, like a paranormal birthday party for the Born on October 27th Club, featuring a poetry slam with the ghosts of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath; the ghost of Erasmus reading from In Praise of Folly; a lecture on etiquette by the ghost of Emily Post; and a musical remake of Psycho, with the Minister of Silly Walks John Cleese as Norman Bates and the ex-president’s ex Marla Maples as Marion Crane. The problem is the main event, the stabbing in the shower, which surely even Stephen Sondheim couldn’t set to music. There’s only one director who could pull that off, and you’d still have to rewrite the film, put the Slayer in the shower, make Norman a vampire, and have Joss Whedon writing the words and the music, the way he did for “Once More, with Feeling,” the all-singing seventh episode from the sixth season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which is on every list of the best episodes in television history. As far as that goes, Whedon’s Buffy routinely makes similar lists of the greatest television shows ever. more

October 20, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Described as “the gun that almost killed Arthur Rimbaud,” a 7mm six shooter purchased by his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine in July 1873 sold at Christie’s in November 2016 for 435,000 euros, more than seven times the estimate, according to the November 30 Guardian.

So why would an “unknown bidder” pay a small fortune for the gun that almost killed Rimbaud, who was born on October 20, 1854, and died 120 years ago on November 10, 1891? Because we’re talking about a legend, a star, an action hero of literature who gave up poetry for good at the age of 21. As it happened, Verlaine was in a drunken delirium at the time and no more capable of doing away with Rimbaud than he was of helping Bob Dylan write “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (“I been shootin’ in the dark too long … Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s”).

Rimbaud and Rambo

Verlaine’s gun was sold three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. Remember those flags and yard signs showing Trump as a bazooka-wielding Rambo? It’s possible that some super rich supporter bought the gun as a souvenir for the Donald, not that he’d want anything soiled by the hands of a poet. In fact, Rimbaud not only rhymes with Rambo, he was symbolically present at the birth. When David Morrell first conceived the hero of his 1972 novel First Blood, he intended the name of the character to rhyme with the surname of the poet, aware that the title of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell fit with the horrific POW experiences he imagined his Rambo enduring and from which sprang the blockbuster film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone. The OED extends the implicit Rimbaud connection, defining Rambo as a term “commonly used to describe a lone wolf who is reckless, disregards orders, uses violence to solve problems, enters dangerous situations alone, and is exceptionally tough, callous, raw and aggressive.”  more

October 13, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America

—Paul Simon

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon marks his 80th birthday today, Wednesday, October 13. Incredible but true, this is the first time I’ve written about him, unless you count the caption headed “A Hazy Shade of Winter” I wrote for the front page photo of a snow scene on January 26, 2011. Sharing the same page in the same issue is a photo of someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years, Simon’s fellow New Yorker, J.D. Salinger, who died in January 2010. As Holden Caulfield would say, “if you really want to know about it,” I’ve always thought of Simon as a Salinger character, like maybe Holden’s brilliant, long lost song-writing baseball-playing cousin from Queens.

Also incredible but true, the last time I was in the city was in early November 2019, for the J.D. Salinger centenary exhibit at the New York Public Library. And the last time I was in Simon’s New York was the other night listening to “Bleecker Street” and “The Sound of Silence” from Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.

He’s In Your Head

Comparing poetry and popular music, Billy Collins, another New Yorker who grew up in Queens, points out that because “pop songs get into people’s heads as they listen in the car, you don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head and you can sing along. With a poem you have to will yourself to memorize it.”

The Simon songs playing most often in my head over the years along with “Sounds of Silence” have been “Dangling Conversation,” “Homeward Bound,” “59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “The Boxer,” and “America,” along with lines like “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” from “Mrs. Robinson,” the song heard ‘round the nation on the soundtrack of The Graduate (1966). more

October 6, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Charlie Kaufman’s film I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) and Iain Reid’s debut novel of the same name (2016) share the same first-person point of view, the same opening sentences, the same time sequence of settings and events, ending in a haunted high school in the middle of nowhere with a blizzard raging outside. What happens or appears to happen there is the difference between filmgoers focused on questions of meaning (“the ending of Ending Things explained”) and readers responding to the “ferocious little book’s … visionary, harrowing final pages” and a “psychological torment so impenetrable it’s impossible to escape.”

A “Molecular” Woman

I saw the film on Netflix almost six weeks ago, as I was starting a column on Camus and Afghanistan. I was so impressed by Jessie Buckley’s performance that I wanted to write about it immediately. I even tried to find room in the philosophy of the absurd for a concept in which a film’s most sympathetic character, the one who carries it, lights it up, gives it mind, heart, and soul, exists only in the imagination of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), who may be the younger self of an elderly, terminally depressed high school janitor.

In a Sept. 17, 2020 IndieWire interview, Buckley says “Just before I went to do the audition, I got a note from Charlie that said, ‘This woman is molecular.’ I didn’t know what that meant! I was awful at chemistry, but I kind of loved that note. It could be anything to you. It kind of meant there was nothing solid, it was something that moved and broke apart and joined other atoms.” Referring to the screenplay, she describes the way it “transcended and shifted and moved from when I read it to when I was playing it, to afterwards when I watched it.” Explaining why she read Reid’s novel prior to the audition: “I take in everything. I’m like somebody who puts too much chili on my food when I cook, because I just think, ‘Just whack it all in.’ I take all the bits and I try and throw away all the bits as well, once we get to shoot.” more

September 29, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Prez won’t play a tune if he doesn’t know the lyric — the entire lyric.

    —Bobby Scott, from “The House in the Heart”

What are your charms for? What are my arms for? Use your imagination …

    —from “Just You, Just Me”

With the baseball playoffs looming and the St. Louis Cardinals riding a record-breaking winning streak, I’m in the car listening to Lester Young make love to “Just You, Just Me,” recorded in New York in December 1943, the year the Cards won the pennant and lost the World Series to the Yankees. Driving down the hill from the Kingston Post Office, I’m wondering what position Prez would play on a jazz all-star team, and by the time I get to River Road, I know he’d have to be the pitcher, telling a different story with each throw, deceptively smooth and dreamy, Ali-style, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Sure enough, in his biography Lester Leaps In (2003), Douglas Daniels reports that while playing ball “with Basie’s Bad Boys,” Lester “wouldn’t think of letting anyone pitch but himself.” Known for a “backspinning” curve that made the batters hit grounders, “Prez could do anything,” according to his bandmate, altoist Earle Warren.

A Giants Fan

Looking for jazz as the city-to-city link in a New York Times story on the 2015 Mets/Royals World Series, sports reporter David Waldstein points out that Young made his name in Kansas City’s nightclub district “before migrating to New York, where he became not only a jazz giant but also a fan of the New York Giants baseball club.” He also played on Count Basie’s team “as a pitcher with nimble fingers.” But not so nimble the time he was shaving, getting ready for a gig at Birdland while listening intently to the radio as the Giants faced the Dodgers in the deciding game of the 1951 National League playoff. When Bobby Thomson won the pennant for New York with the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” Young was so excited that he cut himself “badly enough that he had some difficulty playing that night.” more

September 22, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I don’t want to create responsible shows with lawyers in them. I want to invade people’s dreams.

—Joss Whedon

No doubt about it, Joss Whedon’s extraordinary series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) suffers from Laughable Title Syndrome. Even now, all these years later when it’s become a pop culture fact of life, I hesitate to tell someone how much I’m enjoying the show. Even now, I’m asking myself “How did I get into this?” But I said the same thing after binging on Friday Night Lights and Battlestar Galactica. It all goes back to Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, where Joss Whedon’s Buffy has its own chapter among the 12 series that “changed TV drama forever.”

“Never Camp”

Sepinwall immediately differentiates the WB series from the 1992 feature film, which was “too camp,” according to Whedon’s colleague David Greenwalt: “Joss does a lot of things. He does funny, he does serious, he does break your heart, but it’s never camp.”

Worse yet, the victim of the camping was Whedon himself, since the film was a travesty of his own screenplay, his creation, his Buffy. Television critic Emily Nussbaum describes what he went through in her piece “Must-See Metaphysics” (New York Times Magazine September 22, 2002). Watching his vision of “populist feminism” turned into “a schlocky comedy,” he “sat in the theater, crying. ‘I really thought I’d never work again … It was that devastating.’ “ Yet he was able to resurrect Buffy on television, “restoring the show’s powerful central metaphor: adolescence is hell, and any girl who makes it through is a superhero.”

The title remained — and still remains — an issue. But, as Whedon said in the same article, “if I’d made Buffy the Lesbian Separatist, a series of lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to the party, and it would be boring — the idea of changing culture is important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium.’’ more

September 15, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It was a madhouse. Everybody was running, women were screaming. All of this pollution coming out of the debris; it was like snow falling out of the sky.

—Sonny Rollins

I didn’t know how to release myself from him, and … I had some backlash, you know, on a personal level.

—Michael K. Williams on playing Omar

My idea of “shock and awe” has nothing to do with the label the Bush administration attached to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, wherein “awe” was supposed to suggest disarray, panic, confusion, and terror. “Awe” is what I feel watching Michael K. Williams’s astonishing performance as Omar in The Wire. And it’s what I’ve felt in the presence of the Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins, another native New Yorker who, like Williams, was hit hard by 9/11. With Rollins at his most wondrous, there’s no end to awe, it’s like his definition of music as “an open sky.” And 20 years on the other side of 9/11, the giant is still standing, having marked his 91st birthday on September 7, the day after the death at 54 of Michael K. Williams.

Toxic Snow

TV reports of New Yorkers being evacuated in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks referred to “an elderly black man carrying a saxophone case.” According to @jazztimes, “Sonny Rollins had been home in his Manhattan apartment, six blocks north of the World Trade Center, when the attacks occurred. From the street, he watched the second tower go down.” The next day the National Guard evacuated him from his apartment, where he’d been living for almost 30 years.

Interviewed on September 11, 2019, Rollins commented, “When that second plane hit, it was like snowfall coming down. And that snow, of course, was just toxic stuff. Anyway, I gulped some of it down. We were waiting until the next day to be evacuated, so I picked up my horn to play. I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach. I said, ‘Oh, wow, no practicing today.’ … So yeah, it’s been conjectured that that’s part of what happened to me.” He’s referring to the pulmonary fibrosis that ended his playing days in 2012. As he put it in an NPR interview, “I had to go through quite a period of adjustment after I realized that I couldn’t blow my horn anymore.”  more

September 8, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back…

—Carole King, from “Goin Back”

Looking ahead to Thursday, Princeton’s first day of the new school year, I’ve been going back to school, way way back to my first, McCalla Elementary, which was named for Bloomington Indiana’s first female school superintendent and was an easy two-block walk from home. Otherwise, all my schooling, K-12, took place in the same building, with one notable exception (ninth grade in New York City). The country school where I spent grades four through six is a lesser exception since getting there involved a long school bus ride through hills and valleys and woods to a two-room red-brick schoolhouse called Poplar Grove. That humble building still stands and so does the two-story Classical Revival structure that housed McCalla, which is currently used by the Indiana University School of Fine Arts for sculpture classes.

Lost and Found

After a too-hasty online search, I actually began to fear that the university had demolished the Art Deco building I’d entered as a kindergartner and left as a graduating senior. I was aware that the interior had been gutted long ago because I have a small, neatly cut and polished chunk of the wooden banister with a small plaque attached: University School 1937-1964. On the opening page of my senior yearbook there’s a two-page photograph of U-School’s Indiana limestone facade next to which a “lamentful” sophomore friend has drawn a ballpoint arrow and the words, “Stu, if you’re smart, boy, you’ll stay the hell out of here.”

And so I did for decades, until a classmate and I wandered inside on a June day in 1989. As soon as I walked down the hallway where my locker had been, I realized that I’d been there before in my dreams. I don’t mean nightmares, just dreams of the sort that take you down long, strange, vaguely familiar hallways and stairways and landings, while you try to fulfill enigmatic missions at the urging of various ghostly teachers whose names you’ve forgotten or would prefer not to remember. In these dreams I sometimes end up on the ground floor outside the boy’s locker room, the scene of an ugly, real-life fistfight between a senior class officer and a tough country kid. The class officer was getting the worst of it, his nose bleeding all over his powder blue cashmere sweater. Here were two societal extremes, the elite city kid and the country boy who was never invited to parties of the in-crowd, even if he happened to be a hero on the field.

My friend and I were in there no longer than the time it took to hear the spooky quavering of our voices echoing in the hallway. We’d been kidding around, like old times, and the sounds we were making came back at us like something on the soundtrack of a low-grade horror movie.  more

September 1, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A smile relieves a heart that grieves.

—from “Waiting On a Friend”

It’s July 1981, I’m walking down St. Mark’s Place in the East Village when I see Mick Jagger standing in the doorway of Number 96 and pretty soon here comes Keith Richards smoking and smiling his way through the sidewalk crowd. After a clumsy hug, the two head for St. Mark’s Bar & Grill on First Avenue, where Ron Wood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts are waiting, everything’s cool, it’s time to play, and for some curious reason, no one knows the Rolling Stones are in the house and about to deliver a free performance. The way the video for “Waiting On a Friend” spins it, these five guys are only neighborhood musicians. The folks at the bar take no notice and could care less that the character looning about as if he were Mick Jagger really is Mick Jagger.

This East Village street-life fantasy began with last week’s news of the death of drummer Charlie Watts. Making the rounds of obits, remembrances, and videos, I learned it was thanks to Watts that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins agreed to play on “Waiting On a Friend” and two other songs on the Tattoo You LP. “My love for Sonny goes a long way back,” Watts says in an “American Legends” article in the January 23, 2010 Guardian. “I first saw him in 1964 at the original Birdland club on 52nd Street, playing with a trio. To sit there and watch Sonny Rollins, my God! In those days he did this fantastic thing: he used to start playing in the dressing room with no band, then walk out and go around the stage, using the room to bounce the sound off. It was amazing. I’d never seen anyone do that.”

Neither had I when I saw Rollins two blocks up St. Mark’s Place at the Five Spot. That night he started playing in the kitchen, warming up amid the rattle of glassware, plates, and cutlery. When the giant with the mohawk haircut pushed through the swinging door, he had a garland of bells around his neck jingling and tinkling as he strolled among the tables lifting and dipping his tenor sax like a divining rod.  more

August 25, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

But the point is to live.

—Albert Camus (1913-1960)

So ends “An Absurd Reasoning,” the four-part essay Albert Camus begins by declaring, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In his penultimate paragraph, Camus suggests, after 45 pages, that “it’s no longer even a question of judging the existential leap,” which “resumes its place amid the age-old fresco of human attitudes.” That leap “is still absurd,” for even “as it thinks it resolves the paradox, it reinstates it intact. On this score, everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.”

Camus in Islam Qala

On July 9, 2021, a month before the Afghan government fell, the BBC reported the Taliban’s capture of the “key border town” of Islam Qala. Government officials acknowledge “the loss of one of the biggest trade gateways into Iran, generating an estimated $20 million in monthly revenue for the government.”

“Trade gateway” sounds deceptively grand. From what can be seen of Islam Qala in videos of the Taliban takeover, it’s as desolate now as it was when I spent four days stranded there in the late sixties. I was one of a group of Americans “indefinitely detained” on the edge of the 18-mile stretch of no-man’s-land between the Afghan and Iranian borders. It’s more than likely that the rifle-bearing young soldiers guarding the border and keeping a wary eye on us were the future grandfathers of the soldiers trained by or fighting “side by side” with the post-9/11 U.S. Forces.

We were hoping to catch a ride into Iran on one of the numerous west-bound oil tankers, but when we asked customs officers in a building like the one shown in the BBC video, we were told that a “Muslim holiday” had shut everything down; no one would tell us when it would be over. They had confiscated our passports and we were under house arrest, although a “kinder, gentler” phrase would be protective custody. For food and drink we depended on the whims of a shifting crew of uniformed customs office functionaries. We were the only occupants of the ground floor of a one-story building across the highway from the customs headquarters. It was a big open room covered by a faded carpet, no beds, no chairs, no tables, just us and our packs and sleeping bags. I had nothing to read but Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom in a Penguin paperback that had passed through many hands before it landed in mine, and it’s possible that I’ve read the total desolation of Islam Qala into my memory of that space, along with the similarly bleak landscapes described in Camus’s stories. The time would come when waiting without hope made reading Camus in and of itself an act of existential desperation.  more

August 18, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home

—from Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

According to producers Ronald Moore and David Eick, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) is for people who hate space operas. I’ve never been a fan of the genre, but call it what you will, there’s something to be said for an epic  production that weaves one of its central mysteries around Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Although BSG ended its celebrated run in 2009, the series is no less timely today, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looming, the pandemic (both the human and Cylon races are stalked by viruses), the 1/6 insurrection, and an environment under siege.

Referring to “Watchtower,” Moore says, “It’s something that lives in the collective unconscious of the show, it’s a musical theme that repeats itself. It crops up in unexpected places, and people hear it, or pluck it out of the ether. It’s sort of a connection of the divine and the mortal — music is something that people literally catch out of the air…. Here is a song that transcends many different aeons and cultures  … and was reinvented by one Mr. Bob Dylan.”

As it happens, Moore’s series is a reimagining of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica created by Glenn Larson. The original show, as described by Alan Sepinwall in his book The Revolution Was Televised (2012), “told the story of an Earth-like colonial civilization that suffers a devastating attack from a race of warrior robots called Cylons. The handful of survivors board a ragtag fleet of spaceships, led by the last military vessel standing, the Galactica.” Sepinwall goes on to quote Moore’s criticism of the original series, which was how “this great dark idea became this silly show.” Moore remembers “a haunting moment in the original pilot where we see the crew of Galactica reacting to the news of the death of billions during the Cylon attacks — and then how that emotion is quickly undercut by a trip to a resort planet” where its “roguish” fighter pilot Starbuck (reinvented as a roguish female in Moore’s Galactica) “can gamble and cavort with beautiful women.”

ABC canceled the series after one season. A quarter of a century later, the reimagined Battlestar was only nine weeks away from filming when September 11 changed everything, and, in Sepinwall’s words, “this escapist sci-fi adventure began to feel uncomfortably real.” The eventual result was “the unlikeliest, but best, millennial TV show inspired by 9/11.” Thus its appearance in Sepinwall’s book along with The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, 24, and Friday Night Lights, among the 12 landmark series “that changed TV drama forever.” more

August 4, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Celebrating Louis Armstrong’s 120th birthday a week before August 4, 2021, I get in the car, put “West End Blues” on the stereo, and drive downtown to the library. For the first time in a locked-down year and a half, I’m returning to my favorite source with a mission. And as usual, I find what I’m looking for, driving off with three biographies: Terry Teachout’s Pops (2009), Ricki Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World (2011), and Thomas Brothers’s Master of Modernism (2014).

In the Phillipe Halsman photo on the cover of Pops, Armstrong stands facing forward, his trumpet tucked under one arm; he’s wearing a red bow tie, and he’s not smiling. If anything, he looks to be on the verge of tears, as if a lifetime of emotion were welling up inside him. The photograph was taken in 1966, when LIFE put him on the cover. Teachout calls it “the climax of his eminence.” Inside is a 14-page interview in which he says, “I don’t sigh for nothing. Sixty years is a long time and there ain’t going to be no more cats in the game that long.” He died 50 years ago, July 6, 1971.

Armstrong in the Sixties

When I get home, the first book I open is Pops, which begins with an epigraph from Brancusi: “Don’t look for obscure formulas, nor for le mystère. It is pure joy I’m giving you.”

“Pure joy” is something I instinctively associate with the music of the Beatles. In the sixties, I had no interest in Armstrong songs like “What a Wonderful World,” which I listened to just now on YouTube; it’s a version for cynics with a warm and fuzzy introduction from Louis addressed to “all you young folks asking how about all the walls, and the hunger, and pollution, how ‘wonderful’ is that?” And he tells them, “It ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” When he sings of “trees of green” and “skies of blue” in his Times Square-on-New-Year’s-Eve voice, I’m smiling; when he gets to “the bright blessed day,” and friends shaking hands and saying “How do you do” when they’re really saying “I love you,” I’m thinking of the mob storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the Delta variant, and the massive cloud rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  more

July 28, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Here in the summer of 2021, when misinformation pollutes the Net and truth is a shadow of its former, undernourished self, I’m reading “The Art of Little Ruses” in Billy Wilder On Assignment (Princeton Univ. Press 24.95), a collection of Wilder’s salty, spirited writings from 1925-1930, edited by Noah Isenberg and spiritedly delivered into English by Shelley Frisch.

Writing in the May 1, 1927, Berliner Börsen Courier, the not-quite-21-year-old Wilder admits that as much as he appreciates and honors “the so-called truth,” he “can easily imagine that in two or three decades lies will be regarded as an indispensable and hence utterly unobjectionable implement in our daily lives.” So why not teach “the art of lying” as “a mandatory school subject, accessible to everyone and anyone,” making it “no longer the privilege of the few who have a natural predisposition in this arena” but  “the consummate moral and social justification of this hitherto maligned resource.”

Cynicism Rules

The cat-who-swallowed-the-canary wise guy on the cover of On Assignment already looks the part of the multiple-Oscar-winning Hollywood director Andrew Sarris deemed “too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” If anything, based on the features and opinion pieces in this lively book, he believed in his own cynicism 40 years before Sarris downgraded him to the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

Labeling A Foreign Affair (1948) and One, Two, Three (1961) Wilder’s “irresponsible Berlin films” (“a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right”), Sarris singles out the “penchant for gross caricature” he says “marred” classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959). When he pompously concludes that Wilder “is hardly likely to make a coherent film on the human condition,” I can almost hear Berlin Billie saying, and Hollywood Billy chiming in, “When was the last time coherence had anything to do with the human condition?” more

July 21, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Ernest Hemingway began The Sun Also Rises (1926) on his 26th birthday, July 21, 1925. “Everybody my age had written a novel,” he told the Paris Review’s George Plimpton, “and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.” He finished the first draft exactly six weeks later in Paris.

I came back to Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” novel by way of John McPhee’s April 19, 2021 piece in the New Yorker (“Tabula Rasa: Volume Two”). Referring to a passage in which the protagonist Jake Barnes and his pal Bill Gorton are walking “across a meadow and through rising woods and across high open fields and down to a stream,” McPhee, who turned 90 on March 8, observes how “each successive sentence, in stairstep form, contains something of its predecessor and something new — repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing, like fracture zones on the bed of the ocean. It is not unaffective. It is lyrical.” Years later when he was teaching his Princeton course in creative non-fiction, McPhee assigned the passage to writing students, “asking if they could see a way to shorten it without damaging the repetition.”

Don’t Touch a Word

Reading the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises for the first time in decades, I was surprised to find evidence of the “elephantine facetiousness” Scott Fitzgerald pointed out in the ten-page-long handwritten letter he sent to Hemingway in the spring of 1926. I was 16 when I first read the book, although “read” isn’t the word for it. I drank it down like an underage drinker on a binge.

Three years later I opened A Farewell to Arms (1929) to one of the most celebrated examples of Hemingway’s “repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing” don’t- touch-a-word-of-it prose topography:  more

July 14, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It all comes down to the map shown on this page. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked. I’d say it was love at first sight, no, that’s too easy, but what else can you call it when your first view of a book is an inviting gateway that rouses something deep inside you, something truly special, something at the heart of who you are and how you see the world? All the better when the book is about a perilous journey undertaken by the one figure in American history who loomed above the miasma of fact sheets and data-to-be-memorized.

My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was not particularly memorable. A few days later when my father took me to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., I was moved, fascinated, and remain haunted to this day by the photographs of the gallows and the hooded bodies of the four conspirators executed on July 7, 1865. As you read Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020), the real-life equivalent of Chekhov’s metaphorical gun is always waiting in the wings, the gun you know will be fired in the last act by an actor who played the crookback king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of the numerous plays Lincoln could quote by heart.

Thanks to the map, I was drawn into Widmer’s book before I read a word. There’s a hint of a board game quest in the way the colorful lay-out puts Lincoln’s Odyssey in play, from Springfield to the goal of Washington and inauguration, a route twisted in tangents because of assassination conspiracies brewing in Baltimore, thus Poe’s raven perched on the letter B.

And thanks to my search for an online image of the map, I landed on the April 2020 CUNY Book Beat website and a quote by Ted Widmer that communicates an enthusiasm that can be felt throughout the narrative: “It’s the story of thirteen days in the life of Lincoln. He’s been elected president, the South is seceding, Washington is falling apart and somehow out of all of this chaos he’s got to get on a train, go two thousand miles, meet millions of Americans and try to avoid an assassination attempt. . . .  It’s not just to save the North, it’s to save the entire country, the United States of America, the most successful democracy on earth . . . It felt to me like something out of Greek mythology or any of the old epics from a lot of different civilizations where someone has to fight against terrible odds, almost as if the gods are against him to get to his destination to fulfill his quest. It felt bigger than a story out of American history to me.” more

July 7, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

I finished Ted Widmer’s Lincoln On the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020) on the verge of America’s 245th Independence Day and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 217th birthday.

I was enroute to an unqualified appreciation of Widmer’s book when he brought Nathaniel Hawthorne on board his roundabout journey to Lincoln’s inauguration (1,904 miles, 18 different railway lines, at least 100 speeches, and thousands of handshakes). Hawthorne enters the narrative by way of three quotations in the first 105 pages. Discussing the South’s refusal to accept the reality of Lincoln’s election — for “many Southerners ‘Lincoln was not only unlikable, he was unthinkable.’ ” — Widmer introduces the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) as “a specialist in fantasy” whose “creative powers simply shut down when he tried to imagine a Lincoln presidency.” Reading that comment with the train-in-motion metaphor in mind was like hitting a rough stretch of poorly maintained track — a giant of American literature was being cast as a genre writer, a mere “specialist.” The rough stretch continued with the thirdhand patchwork paraphrase from Carl Sandburg in James R. Mellon’s The Face of Lincoln (1980): “It was the‘strangest’ thing, Hawthorne wrote, and a true measure of the ‘jumble’ of the times, that Lincoln, ‘out of so many millions,’ had prevailed. He was ‘unlooked for,’ ‘unselected by any intelligible process,’ and ‘unknown’ even to ‘those who chose him.’ How could such a nonentity [Widmer’s term] have found a way to ‘fling his lank personality into the chair of state?’ ” While I didn’t doubt that Hawthorne would have been astonished by Lincoln’s election, I found it hard to believe that his “creative powers” could be shut down by a “nonentity.”

Hawthorne’s next appearance came with a turn of the page to a section headed “Secessia,” after a term he would eventually apply to the Confederate States — in Widmer’s words, “as good a name as any for a place that often seemed to be a state of mind as much as a working government.” At this point it’s worth mentioning that Widmer’s stated source was Hawthorne’s long, controversial article in the July 1862 Atlantic, “Chiefly About War Matters,” which includes an in-person view of Lincoln so irreverent (“the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable”) that the article was published anonymously, “By a Peaceable Man,” and even then partially censored by the editors.  more

June 30, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Friday Night Lights is that it is painfully, breathtakingly realistic and yet also exists as some sort of platonic ideal of what human beings can be ….

  —Will Leitch, introducing A Friday Night Lights Companion

When Peter Berg pitched Friday Night Lights to NBC executives in 2006, he accentuated the negative: “I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him …. And he’s going to break his neck in the first game. We’re going to create this iconic American hero, and we’re going to demolish him.”

Berg is quoted in “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose” (a variation on the Dillon, Texas Panthers’ pregame mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”), an oral history compiled by Robert Mays on grantland.com and posted July 28, 2011. Mays describes the series as the “story of a high school football coach from Dillon, whose improbable victories mirrored those of the critically beloved — but disastrously rated — show itself. In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights (FNL) emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of our Country seemed most in doubt.”

That was “our Country” a decade ago.  more

June 23, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!

—from Juneteenth

Unable to find a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth (Modern Library 1999) on short notice, I’ve been reading an excerpt reprinted in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (Modern Library 2001), edited by Robert O’Meally. According to O’Meally’s note, the piece in question (“Keep to the Rhythm”) was first published in 1969 as “Juneteenth,” a section from “Ellison’s forthcoming novel.” Given the fact that the novel didn’t actually “come forth” until 1999, five years after the author’s death and 47 years after the publication of Invisible Man, one of the great 20th century American novels, this has to be among the most famously delayed follow-ups in American literature, along with the still-unpublished Glass family saga J.D. Salinger was working on for the last 40 years of his life.

Promised and Delayed

Last week Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday, a long-time-coming recognition of the occasion already celebrated as Jubilee Day or Black Independence Day two and a half years before the Texas liberation of June 19, 1865. As poet Kevin Young points out in a guest essay (“Our Freedom Is America’s Freedom”) in Sunday’s New York Times, Juneteenth and other emancipation holidays commemorate “both the promise of freedom and its delay.” In Young’s words, “The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.”

Young’s piece begins by citing the music of Frankie Beverly and Maze as “one of the things Black people have enjoyed that white folks don’t know about.” Follow the Times’ YouTube link and you find that the group’s song “Before I Let Go” has had 36,926,680 views, compared to 44,104 views of 52-year-old Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) in a 1966 documentary reading the Juneteenth sermon from his work in progress. more

June 16, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Begin the day at a simple gravestone in the Princeton cemetery, SYLVIA BEACH 1887-1962. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to Sylvia Beach Way, the lane that runs behind the Sands library building, one of Princeton’s most popular dropping-off, picking-up spots. Across town is Library Place, where Sylvia and her family lived before she moved to Paris and opened Shakespeare and Company in 1920; in her eponymous memoir, she wonders if the name of the street influenced her choice of a career in the book business. Her father Sylvester Beach (Princeton Class of 1876) was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, where, according to Sylvia’s friend Annis Stockton, the horses of Washington’s staff had once munched their oats in the pews, a tidbit the author of Ulysses would have appreciated.

A Funny Little Publisher

When James Joyce despaired of ever finding a place for Ulysses, which had been preemptively banned in the English-speaking countries, Sylvia Beach asked him if he would let Shakespeare and Company “have the honor” of bringing his book out. He accepted the offer “immediately and joyfully.” Describing the moment, Beach admits thinking it “rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher.” As Joyce’s wish was to have the first copy off the press on his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, she promised to make that happen. When the printer, who was located 300-plus kilometers from Paris, said that it couldn’t be done, she insisted otherwise. Came the day, she received a telegram telling her to meet the 7 a.m. express from Dijon, which she did, her heart “going like the locomotive” as the train “came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone – me.” Soon she was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing the author “Copy No. 1 of Ulysses.” more

June 9, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

…. and they rode up smiling Prospect Avenue, through the gay crowd, to have tea at Cottage.

—from This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

I’m walking up Prospect Avenue. On my right is the apartment building at 120 where Dream Songs poet John Berryman was fixated on Don Giovanni in the summer of 1947. Up the street on the other side is the Cottage Club, the site of the spring 1920 honeymoon revels of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, during which Zelda “turned cartwheels down Prospect,” according to Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull. Thinking of all the characters, poets and players, outsiders and insiders who have walked and dreamed and cartwheeled up and down that illustrious thoroughfare, including T.S. Eliot, I’m having “such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands.”

“Paradise” and the Garden

I went to Prospect Avenue last week for a first-hand look at the three Victorian houses slated for demolition as part of the University’s vision of the street that the petitioners of Save Prospect Now (SPN) are hard put to understand. As  much as I sympathize with SPN’s resistance to the plan, I’m taking advantage of the occasion to write a belated centenary celebration of Scott Fitzgerald’s prose poem to Princeton, This Side of Paradise, and Princeton’s Garden Theatre, both of which made their debut in 1920, the novel in May, the theatre in September. The first film I saw at the Garden some 50 years later was a revival of MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932). It’s been even longer since I read This Side of Paradise. I have to handle my copy with care; the pages of the 35-cent Dell paperback are yellowed and flaking, and no wonder; it’s copyrighted 1948, in the name of Zelda Fitzgerald, who died that year in a fire at Highland hospital in Asheville, N.C. more

June 2, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Not Kafka again!” says my wife when I mention my plans for this week’s column. It’s true. I find his presence everywhere, most recently haunting an article in the front section of Friday’s New York Times about the reopening of The Vessel, “the labyrinth of staircases at Hudson Yards that closed four months ago after several people killed themselves there.” Related Companies, the developer, “had put measures in place to reduce the risk of suicides” among visitors to the “150-foot spiraling sculpture,” with its “154 interconnecting flights of stairs and 80 landings.”

No need to reference Kafka in the article, he’s there. He can also be read into baseball (K the symbol for a strikeout), and the current conspiracy-theory twilight zone of American politics. The first place I look when I need close-up one-on-one Kafka, however, is in my copy of Diaries 1914-1923, edited by his friend Max Brod. Say you’re reading around in the summer of 1917, you’ve been trying to find words for the sound the Brood X cicadas are making in the summer of 2021, and you land on a single line set apart from the surrounding entries:

“The alarm trumpets of the void.”

Does it come close to the surreal magnitude of a sound so monstrously impending that you seem to be seeing what you’re hearing? Close enough I think. In German, it’s Die alarmtrumpeten der Leere. The translator of this edition of Diaries is listed as Martin Greenberg, “with the assistance of Hannah Arendt.” Where does the line come from? It might be a fragment from a work in progress such as “In the Penal Colony” or “The Great Wall of China.” Whoever, however, wherever, all I know is Kafka pitched another K, a nasty slider that just caught the outside corner of the strike zone. more