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

September 4, 2019

“Tales of Genji III,” 1998, color woodcut, 119.4 x 106.7 cm. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York. For more information, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu. The exhibit is free to the public and will be up through October 20, 2019.

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m on my own, to be thoroughly me without limits and anything is possible…
—Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Something resembling Helen Frankenthaler’s credo is on my mind every time I begin a column. Now it’s Labor Day weekend, art and work, the charisma of old books, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” a trip to Hay-on-Wye, and the Frankenthaler exhibition, which will be at the Princeton University Art Museum  through October 20.

The exhibit takes its theme from literary critic William Empson’s landmark study, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a title Frankenthaler borrowed for the large painting on view near the entrance to the gallery. According to curators Mitra Abbaspour and Calvin Brown, the show illustrates “the central principle of Empson’s text: that close reading, like close looking, can yield deep relationships with an abstract composition.”

Given the no-limits, anything-is-possible nature of this column, my idea of “close looking” is expressed in the second stanza of Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” where, “with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/We see into the life of things.” more

August 28, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

A brave man and a brave poet.
— Bob Dylan

In Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur, Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears as Lorenzo Monsanto (his real-life middle name), “with his husky shoulders, big blue eyes, twinkling rosy skin, that perpetual smile of his that earned him the name Smiler in college,” a smile “you often wondered ‘Is it real?’ until you realized if Monsanto should ever stop using that smile how could the world go on anyway — It was that kind of smile too inseparable from him to be believably allowed to disappear.”

Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti is still here, still smiling the world on its way his way anyway in Little Boy, a 179-page song of myself/ourself/itself/everyself published March 24 on his 100th birthday (the “Little Boy” is Ferlinghetti as a child). How big is this underwhelmingly titled tour de force? Singer songwriter Tom Waits says, “When I first came out to San Francisco and heard the name Ferlinghetti, I thought it must be a large geographic area. Turns out it is.”

Abandon all hope ye who enter the realm of Ferlinghetti if you’re “half in love with easeful” semicolons and periods. After the first 16 or so pages, the machinery of punctuation is all but dispensed with “like a used-up booster rocket” in the words of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who calls Little Boy “the last wild, motor-mouth, book-length riff of this poet’s generation … a hip word-flood,” not “a stream” but “a “torrent of consciousness.” In the author’s own words, he’s speaking with the “inexpressible ecstatic at once coherent and incoherent sighing or babbling the voice of all of us heard and unheard loud and soft.”

Prominent among the literary forces at play here is Molly Bloom’s “yes-I-will-yes” soliloquy in the closing chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Other writers cited and sampled in passing range from Twain to Whitman, Eliot to Keats to Yeats, as Ferlinghetti performs a death-and-old-age-be-damned variation on the famous endless scroll of his old friend Kerouac’s On the Road. more

August 21, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.
— Joni  Mitchell, from “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell never actually got to Woodstock, but she found her way there in the stardust of her song. According to Mike Greenblatt’s 50th Anniversary Woodstock: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Krause 2019), she missed the festival because of a scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. After watching televised news reports from the scene and listening to various musicians talk about it on the radio, she began writing the words and music that became the festival’s anthem. Of all the versions of “Woodstock” on record, the one that best expresses her yearning to be there is by Mathews Southern Comfort featuring steel-guitarist Gordon Huntley. Along with the plaintive singing of Ian Mathews, it’s Huntley’s playing that comes closest to conveying the blissfully unreal reality of longing to be somewhere without actually being there.

“We’re all still at Woodstock,” said Richie Havens, who opened the musical festivities on Friday, August 15, 1969. He was still there when he spoke those words 15 years later in 1984, and although he died on April 22, 2013, he’s still there now, so are we, and so are the couples whose lives together began there. A piece by Paul Kennedy in Greenblatt’s book relates how Kathy and Butch Dukes keep getting asked, “How can you be so liberal?” In the “amused voice” of a woman accustomed to that question, Kathy says, “I tell them, ‘Come on, we met at Woodstock.’”

Kathy was 21 and Butch was 19 when they found themselves “center stage and up the hill, right in the middle of the biggest concert in history.” Introduced by a mutual friend who soon left, they stayed where they were, “surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, talking, listening to music, and, like all couples on a first date, getting to know each other. ‘We didn’t budge,’ Kathy says. ‘Once you sat down, there wasn’t anywhere to go.’”

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August 14, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
—The Rolling Stones

After last week’s news of Toni Morrison’s death, I put aside plans for a column on Woodstock and went to the Princeton Public Library looking for one of her novels, preferably Beloved, which I’d never read. My better-late-than-never mission was delusional because there was no way I could do right by a novel of that magnitude in a matter of days, and in any case, the shelves had been cleared of her fiction, no surprise given the PU Professor Emerita’s literary stature and the town’s pride in a former resident. Aside from audio books, the only work of hers available was The Origin of Others (Harvard Univ. Press 2017), which draws on the six Norton Lectures the Nobel laureate delivered at Harvard in spring 2016. That this little book was still there reinforces my semi-superstitious belief that I can always count on the library to give me what I need even when it’s not what I think I want.

What I needed, among other things, was a way to make sense of my inability to literally get into Morrison’s best-known and most acclaimed novel. My problem was that the opening of Beloved seemed to be a contradiction in terms. The first paragraph simply didn’t open for me. I couldn’t get in the door. I know I should have made more of an effort, but all I saw was an enigmatic number: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” What follows — about a grandmother named Baby Suggs suspended “between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, who couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it” — left me in the dark. If I’d read farther, I’d have learned that 124 was the street number for what was, in effect, a haunted house. But I didn’t read farther.

I was reminded of my experience with the opening of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury when I first ran headlong into it as a college sophomore: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.” What flag? Who was hitting what? Who was Luster? Of course once I learned that I was seeing with the eyes of a deaf mute at a golf course, I was at least through the door and into a world so many-leveled and many-voiced that for the first time in my life I started rereading a novel the same day I finished it.  more

August 7, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s so fine, it’s sunshine, it’s the word love….
—John Lennon, from “The Word”

When I began writing this column on Thursday, August 1, an hour into Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, I’d been reading Philip Hoare’s celebration of Moby-Dick in the online July 30 Guardian, where he says he “fell in love with Melville” as much as “he had fallen in love with whales.” With the combination of love and Melville in mind, I had my subject. Two days later, the mass shooting in El Paso followed by Sunday’s in Dayton put hate in the headlines. The news cycle’s massive dissemination of love’s opposite only underscores the enduring power and significance of one of the most casually abused, glorified and degraded verbs in the language. Even so, it remains remarkably durable. John Lennon and the Beatles made an anthem of it in “All You Need Is Love” after paying tribute to it in “The Word.” When Lennon sings, “Everywhere I go I hear it said, in the good and the bad books, that I have read,” I’m thinking of what Melville said after finishing Moby-Dick: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” more

July 31, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Before I put my moviegoer cards on the table, I should say upfront how much I enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I found more to like and even love in it than in anything I’ve ever seen by the director of that iconic cinematic sugar rush, Pulp Fiction (1994). If you asked me my favorite moments in the films of Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch (not to mention, not yet, Sergio Leone), I could go on for an hour and still have more to say. With Tarantino, it usually comes down to the moment when John Travolta and a barefoot Uma Thurman do the Twist in a nightclub dance contest, Thurman’s character having just told Travolta’s character that his gangster boss, her boyfriend, killed a man for massaging her feet. After that, the sugar began losing its kick and I had second thoughts about every single blood-bright bravura scene. But there was no denying the excitement of a new thing under the Hollywood sun. The mere fact that there was so much to talk and argue and bitch about was an accomplishment in itself.

With Tarantino’s latest still fresh in mind, I have no second thoughts worth mentioning about the interplay between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a fading TV cowboy, and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his charismatic stuntman double, driver, man Friday, and drinking buddy. I enjoyed watching the two speeding around LA in Dalton’s white Caddy, and the way Tarantino caught the nighttime, neon-branded, Sunset Strip spirit of the time and place. While DiCaprio gives an Oscar-worthy performance, Pitt supplies old-fashioned star power with his warmly earthy, good-humored alternative to the dour heroes played by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. He’s a joy to watch at all times, whether he’s smilingly destroying an insufferably arrogant Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), going through the elaborate routine of feeding his pit bull Brandy, or fixing the television aerial on the roof of Rick’s Cielo Drive home, which just happens to be located in the immediate vicinity of the crime-scene-to-be inhabited “in real life” by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. more

July 24, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

During the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, Ross and Matt, waved a magic wand and gave us a once-in-a-lifetime character in Eleven, the fugitive child with telekinetic powers played by Millie Bobby Brown.

In Stranger Things 3, the Duffers have conjured up a white rabbit surprise in the form of a romantic comedy that blends screwball fun and creature feature clout. No need to worry about spoiler alerts and such because when the dust clears what makes the ride worth taking has less to do with why or how or who gets slimed, who dies and who doesn’t, than with the old boy-girl, man-woman, person-person scenario that’s been delighting audiences ever since Shakespeare dreamed up the star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hollywood paired Katherine Hepburn’s scatterbrained Susan with Cary Grant’s hapless paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, where romance turns on the search for a lost dinosaur bone, a dog named George, and a leopard named Baby. The best thing about the spectacular doings of the Mindflayer in Stranger Things 3 is the challenge it offers the various amusingly human couples fighting, arguing, laughing and loving their way through life-and-death situations. When it comes down to choosing between human beings and special effects, it’s the human moments you hold close. Twenty-two years this side of Titanic, what stays with you, the sinking of a luxury liner or the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose?  more

July 17, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
—William Wordsworth

The younger you are, the closer you are to the moon, whether it’s dangling in a mobile above the crib, or the funny-faced thing the cow jumped over, or the serene presence just outside the bedroom window you’re saying goodnight to as you serenade your drowsy two-year-old with the little book by Margaret Wise Brown. In the story made at once wondrous and intimate by Clement Hurd’s images, the moon is there with you, in the “great green room,” as close and as real as the teddy bears and the kittens and the telephone. I’m also thinking of the moonlight immediacy captured some 220 years ago by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner grabbed his notebook to jot down this entry about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down & hurt himself — I caught him up crying & screaming — & ran out of doors with him. — The Moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; — & his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!”  more

July 10, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The performers in Friday morning’s backyard circus are identified in the Audubon guide as Common Grackles, “a very familiar species on suburban lawns, striding about with deliberate steps,” searching for insects, nesting “in small colonies,” and perching “in adjacent treetops to sing their creaking, grating songs.” What held me and had me smiling, however, was the visual music they were making as they gathered, one by one, on the long limb of a hemlock tree until six of them were sitting in a row, the limb rocking under them, as if they were sharing the fun. It may be a common sight for this common species, but I never saw it before and I doubt that I ever will again.

To go from watching birds riding a limb to reading Proust, who was born on July 10, 1871, is easier said than done, considering that each of the three volumes of the 1981 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past tops a thousand pages. With five days to deadline, all I can do is pack my knapsack with possibilities (birds, summertime, the seaside, the moon landing, the primal joy of victorious athletes) and prepare for the voyage by reading around in the edition of Proust’s Letters edited and translated by Minna Curtis. My guide is the 20-year-old English girl I encountered there. Proust’s biographer George D. Painter says it was “the beautiful Marie Nordlinger” who led Proust “near to the heart of the labyrinth.” Short and slender, “with delicate Pre-Raphaelite hands, dark eyes, full lips, and a look of warm sincerity and intelligence,” the talented young painter/sculptor from Manchester was “a godsend” in Proust’s struggle to translate John Ruskin into French. A note in my 1949 edition of the Letters says that she “not only initiated him into the English texts but supplied him with endless information and assistance” and was “the only woman younger than himself, highly intellectual and of his own social background with whom he ever seems to have carried on a friendship.”  more

July 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons.
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

The term “Kafkaesque” has been loosely applied to a wide range of human situations, as often as not by people who have never read a word of Kafka and know nothing about the doings and undoings of K. in The Castle or Joseph K. in The Trial. The word came to mind again when I read about the “strange,” “off-the-wall,” “dysfunctional” history of the New York Mets in Friday’s New York Times (“Just Embrace It: Mets’ Eccentricity Is Worthy of Veneration”). But once I got past the instinctive associations prompted by those adjectives, I found nothing convincingly Kafkaesque in the incidents Victor Mather  cites. As he admits, the Mets don’t own the rights to eccentricity; after all, quirky, odd-ball behavior is one of the the National Pastime’s enduring charms.

As a St. Louis Cardinal fan, I paid special notice to the fact that “trouble started early” when the newborn 1962 Mets suffered the first of their 120 losses in St. Louis. There’s something closer to Kafkaesque, however, in the no-man’s-land of extra inning games that seem to go on forever. In a previous article, I quoted Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina’s father telling Yadi’s brother and fellow catcher Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last “forever” if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.” As it happens, the game between the Mets and the Cardinals on September 11, 1974, lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes; it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning. These days baseball’s infinitely fluid rules permit such marathons to be suspended, never to be made up, which leaves a confusion of possibilities both Kafka and Yogi Berra would have appreciated: apparently “it’s never over until it’s never over.”  more

June 26, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Reviewers are upset with Martin Scorsese for violating documentary integrity in his just-released film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which is streaming on Netflix and on view in “select theaters.” Some notices even bill themselves as guides to “all the fake stuff Scorsese put in his new Bob Dylan movie.”

Figuring out “what’s true and what’s staged” seems beside the point when the main reason to see the film is the music, the ambiance, and above all the chance to witness Dylan unleashed. You’re right there in the line of fire, recoiling from the force of the words violinist Scarlet Rivera sees as “staccato bullets” even as she’s creating a conflagration of her own, never taking her eyes off him, zoning in on every line he shoots, every move, fiddling while Dylan burns. He’s too close for comfort, daubed in reverse-Minstrel-show white-face; you feel shaken, thrilled, chilled, with code words for American aggression coming crazily to mind, “Shock and Awe” for the bombing of Baghdad, and, yes, “Rolling Thunder” for the bombing of Vietnam.

Seeing the rapport between the violinist and the singer, the way Rivera reads Dylan as she plays, you understand why she’d say “I was with a living genius, on the level of a Shakespeare of our time” in an earlier film (Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, 2006). That was a decade before Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. more

June 19, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

While the St. Louis Blues were on the way to their first Stanley Cup with Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” as their victory anthem, I was celebrating the centenary of Nat King Cole (1919-1965) with submersive listenings to the 4-CD set, Cool Cole: The King Cole Trio Story. My message for the Blues’ crosstown brothers the St. Louis Cardinals was delivered by repeated playings of Cole’s hit from 75 years ago, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” I’d convinced myself that the song deserved some credit for the April surge that lifted the Redbirds from the depths to the best record in baseball. Alas, true to the song’s built-in warning, “Cool down, papa, don’t you blow your top,” the Cards cooled way down and blew it, losing every series they played in the unmerry month of May. Nat gave me a message for that, too, in “Lost April,” which played in my mind with a slight change in the lyric, “I thought a single win could lead to heaven, but the month had numbered days, and winning couldn’t last.” In the actual lyric, it’s “kiss” for “win” and “love” that couldn’t last, but the way Nat sings it, there’s more to life than winning and losing, the healing has begun, and life goes sadly smiling on.

As a devoted follower of the National Pastime who once lost his voice cheering for his team, Cole knew the bumpy road from high to low, the symbiotic relationship of baseball and the blues. He loved all sports, and having played W.C. Handy in the 1958 biopic The St. Louis Blues, he’d have undoubtedly been delighted when the NHL expansion team from St. Louis was named for Handy’s most famous composition. more

June 12, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Anne Frank was born 90 years ago today. When she turned 13 on June 12, 1942, she was given a diary. A week later, after a long entry about her birthday and her friends and before she and her family began life in the “secret annex,” she imagines “that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”

Writing about the schoolgirl’s musings in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (2009), Francine Prose meditates on the fact that “the most widely read and enduring masterpiece about that brutal era [1942-1945] was written by a girl between the ages of 13 and 15.”

In The Ghost Writer (1976), Philip Roth calls Anne Frank “a marvelous young writer,” comparing her to “some impassioned little sister of Kafka’s.” C.K. Williams says “I thought of you at that age, Little Sister” in his poem “A Day for Anne Frank,” which begins with children running back and forth in a filthy alley, “the girls’ screams suspended behind them with their hair … their feet pounding wildly on the pavement.”

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May 29, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Meantime, in Washington, among the great persons and their entourage, a mixture of awful consternation, uncertainty, rage, shame, helplessness, and stupefying disappointment,” with “the worst not only imminent, but already here.”

When he wrote those words, Walt Whitman, born 200 years ago Friday, was not casting a prophetic glance toward Memorial Day 2019, he was responding to the calamitous aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run on July 22, 1861, Union forces having “exploded in a panic and fled from the field.” Writing in Specimen Days in America (1881), Whitman describes defeated troops pouring into the city over the Long Bridge — ”a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.” The sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue are jammed with “lookers-on” as “swarms of dirt-cover’d return’d soldiers (will they never end?) move by; but nothing said, no comments.” Half the lookers-on are confederate sympathizers “of the most venomous kind—they say nothing; but the devil snickers in their faces.” There is “loud and undisguised” talk around Washington “for yielding out and out, and substituting the southern rule, and Lincoln promptly abdicating and departing.” If the Rebel officers and forces “had immediately follow’d, and by a bold Napoleonic movement had enter’d Washington the first day (or even the second), they could have had things their own way, and a powerful faction north to back them.” It was a “bitter, bitter hour — perhaps proud America will never again know such an hour. She must pack and fly — no time to spare. Those white palaces — the dome-crown’d capitol there on the hill, so stately over the trees — shall they be left — or destroy’d first?”

With America facing “a bitter, bitter hour” amid presidential stonewalling and the targeting of the free press, it’s worth recalling  Whitman’s tribute to “the great New York papers” whose headlines “rang out over the land with the loudest, most reverberating ring of clearest bugles, full of encouragement, hope, inspiration, unfaltering defiance,” especially “those magnificent editorials! they never flagg’d for a fortnight…. They came in good time, for they were needed.” more

May 22, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,”  said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones. You could say the same thing about a good song. Consider how media coverage of last week’s passing of singer Doris Day (1922-2009) coincided with the online frenzy provoked by the ending of the popular HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The answer to all the arguments about what should and should not have happened in episode six can be found in Day’s biggest hit, “Qué Será, Sera” (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” the song that drives the fate of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about an assassination plot and a kidnapping. Meanwhile, a hit song from the 1970s, 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” shadows the fate of Game of Thrones, both in the pilot episode and the controversial denouement. 

The title of another Doris Day hit, “Secret Love,” describes what’s revealed to Bran Stark after he climbs the castle tower at King’s Landing and sees Jaime Lannister and his twin sister Cersei having sex. Caught in the act, Jaime pushes the boy off the ledge, treating the move lightly, even giving it a punchline, “The things I do for love.” For viewers who remember the 10cc song, it’s as good as a wink and a nudge across the centuries, like Hamlet quoting “A Hard Day’s Night” on the walls of Elsinore, or Milton’s Satan singing a line from “Satisfaction.” Besides crippling Bran and paving the way for the three-eyed raven who alone knows “what will be, will be” in Westeros, Jaime has pronounced his own fate, the sentence he hears again as he stands before the prophet in the final season. “The things I do for love” sends him back to his sister and his doom. As for everyone fighting over the ending of Game of Thrones, remember Bran warned you, “it is written,” a foregone conclusion, so let’s listen to the song and “Agree to disagree but disagree to part/When after all it’s just a compromise of/The things we do for love.” more

May 15, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The massive crossbow that felled a dragon in the final season of Game of Thrones was meant as “an homage to Leonardo da Vinci,” the show’s weapon designer told IndieWire. The “outer shape” of the scorpion has the “exact same look” as Leonardo’s drawings.

After watching the vengeful Mother of Dragons lay waste to King’s Landing on Mother’s Day, I knew it would be a challenge to launch a column about the man who died 500 years ago this month, May 2, 1519, without at least mentioning that apocalyptic spectacle, however absurdly out of proportion it is next to the pop song based on Leonardo’s most famous creation. Surely the fire and fury of HBO’s sensational series is a better fit with the 21st century than the legend that Nat King Cole’s manager strenuously advised him not to record “this off-beat thing about an old painting.”

When “Mona Lisa” was released in May of 1950, it went to the top of the charts, was number one for eight straight weeks, and dominated the hit parade for the rest of the year. The plaintive hymn to “the lady with the mystic smile” was heard over radios and on jukeboxes in bars and diners around the country.

While the banal fate of Leonardo’s masterpiece may conjure up the old “turning over in his grave” trope, evidence that he accepted art’s susceptibility to the lesser realities can be found in Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). The final words in Leonardo’s hand appear on “what may be the last page of his notebooks,” where after drawing four right triangles and fitting rectangles into each and making note of what he’s trying to accomplish, he abruptly “breaks off” to explain why he’s putting down his pen: “Perché la minestra si fredda.” 

Isaacson reimagines the event, “our last scene of him working”: Leonardo’s cook is in the kitchen, other members of the household are already at the table while “he is still stabbing away at geometry problems that have not yet yielded the world very much but have given him a profound appreciation of the patterns of nature. Now, however, the soup is getting cold.” more

May 8, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

“No two persons ever read the same book.”
—Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

This observation by the eminent American man of letters and Princeton graduate (Class of 1916) Edmund Wilson, born May 8, 1895, in Red Bank, N.J., also applies to my recent return at an advanced age to a Hardy Boys adventure I first read as a ten-year-old. While the fourth grader who devoured a ghostwritten mystery may or may not be the same person who comes to it after a lifetime of “serious reading,” I like to think the adult reader’s DNA was already there, hidden in the consciousness of the ten-year-old with nothing under his belt but five years of Classic Comics, Freddy the Pig, Captain Marvel, Donald Duck, and Little Lulu.

A Title to Reckon With

My excuse for going back to A Figure in Hiding (1937) is Friday’s Friends of the Library Book Sale, which features rare first editions of two later volumes in the Hardy Boys series, The Short Wave Mystery (1945) and The Secret of Skull Mountain (1949). Compared to those standard boy’s mystery titles, the one I found instantly mesmerizing the day I saw it on the shelves of a gloomy Fourth Avenue bookshop sounds more like Henry James (think “The Figure in the Carpet”) than Franklin W. Dixon. A Figure in Hiding lends itself to any medium. It could refer to the title figure in the 1949 film The Third Man, which will be shown at New York’s Film Forum next week, or it could caption the moment Harry Lime, the man of mystery played by Orson Welles, is seen hiding in a dark Viennese doorway; it’s no less expressive of the presence of the unseen and unseeable in the work of painters from DaVinci to Picasso and of the veiled meanings tricked out by poets dating back to and beyond the ambiguous figure conspiracy theorists suspect of lurking behind Shakespeare. Or how about the undiscovered second assassin in Dallas, or Watergate’s figure in hiding, Deep Throat? And don’t forget special counsel Robert Mueller, the figure the enemies of justice hope to keep in hiding as they attempt to bury evidence of Russian interference and presidential obstruction.  more

May 1, 2019

When a friend, reading his manuscript, asked what a certain word meant, Fitzgerald said, “Damn if I know, but doesn’t it fit in there just beautifully?”
—Andrew Turnbull, from Scott Fitzgerald (1962)

By Stuart Mitchner

The most notorious of the May Day uprisings that shocked New York and other American cities 100 years ago today erupted in Cleveland Ohio, where a march by the Socialist Party sparked riots resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. In the chronicles of 20th century American literature, however, the dateline May 1, 1919 belongs to “May Day,” a long story by Scott Fitzgerald that first appeared in The Smart Set in July 1920 and was reprinted in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).

In Paradise Lost (Belknap Press 2017), the most recent of numerous biographies, historian David S. Brown suggests that although Fitzgerald “always considered himself politically on the left and self-identified as a ‘Socialist’ in Who’s Who in America,” his “critque of capitalism” grew out of “a primarily conservative impulse.” For an example, Brown cites an observation by one of Fitzgerald’s first biographers, Andrew Turnbull: “Fitzgerald’s political thought, like all his thought, was emotional and impulsive, general ideas being for him little more than a backdrop to his fiction.”

An All-Night Binge

Turnbull’s biography locates the impetus behind “May Day” not so much in the attack on a Socialist newspaper as in Fitzgerald’s all-night binge with a fellow Princetonian following a Yale fraternity dance at Delmonico’s. Fitzgerald’s wild night began in Child’s Restaurant on 59th and Broadway, where “the dance crowd was sobering up,” but not Fitzgerald, who sat off by himself  “mixing hash, poached eggs, and catsup” in his companion’s derby before approaching various Yale men with hostile designs on their fried eggs or shredded wheat. “Soon food was being thrown and Fitzgerald was kicked out,” though he tried to “sneak back in on hands and knees each time the restaurant door opened.” more

April 24, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Let’s say you’re a publicist crafting a blurb for a book that scored a million dollar advance only to be greeted with negative reviews, including one that gives you a workable sentence: “Although this is an overwritten, derivative, deeply flawed travesty of reality, the deluded author seems to think it’s the great political novel the world has been waiting for.” Cut the first part, capitalize the “t” and you’ve got “[T]he great political novel the world has been waiting for.” You can get away with this trick as long as you cover your tracks with that handy little bracket around the “T,” thus transforming a total trashing into a cause for celebration. And in the unlikely event of a lawsuit, one small, well-placed punctuation mark has given the publisher legal cover.

Last month the attorney general of the United States employed an almost identical act of typographical subterfuge to sabotage a crucial sentence in the Executive Summary of Volume 1 of the Mueller report. All he had to do was cut the first part: “Athough the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” By deep-sixing the incriminating reference to Russia’s perceptions and the Campaign’s expectations with that sly “[T]” for a “t” sleight of hand, Willliam Barr gave the hungry media a bogus, anodyne headline: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in election interference activities.” Having found no punctuation mark with which to mask the damning “no exoneration” conclusion, the AG simply dismissed the obstruction of justice issue, setting the stage for a “total exoneration” celebration. Break out the champagne!  more

April 17, 2019

…the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with black holes furiously consuming everything around them.
—Dennis Overbye, New York Times, April 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The black hole has become Dennis Overbye’s muse. He holds it to the light like a diamond flashing metaphors and analogies. Thanks to Overbye, the grim morning ritual of the New York Times became a joyous reading experience last Thursday. For a glorious half hour, his word-drunk response to the phenomenon consumed the gloom of the Trump-driven news cycle and put the universe back in balance.

The day began with a cat, a sixteen-year-old black and white female who expects me to sit on the chaise by the window with her every morning and read to her from whatever book is handy, W.S. Merwin’s poetry, Green Eggs and Ham, King Lear, she doesn’t care, she’s not picky as long as I read quietly and her stomach gets rubbed, gently, gently, at the same time. On the morning in question, the book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and as fate would have it, I was reading the first paragraph under the heading “On the Afterworldly.” Which is how I went from Nietzsche’s view of the world as “the work of a suffering and tortured god” to the Times’ front page photograph of “a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it”; from the Overman’s “colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity” to the  Overbye’s “smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.” Says Zarathustra: “Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you —  colored smoke this seemed to me before creative eyes …. Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself.”

A few minutes later it’s drunken joy for the sufferer of the news of the day to read of “Monster runaway stars,” “the behemoth of nothingness,” “the doughnut of doom,” and “the unknown forces that reign at the center, where theoretically, the density approaches infinity and smoke pours from nature’s computer.”

Thus spoke Overbye, and on the facing page of the Times a feast of subheads: “A black hole is a hungry beast,” “Black holes can sing,” “Black holes are stellar tombstones,” “‘A black hole has no hair,’” “A black hole is not forever.” more