August 15, 2018

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

By Stuart Mitchner

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

August 8, 2018

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

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

August 1, 2018

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

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

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

July 25, 2018

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

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

July 18, 2018

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

By Stuart Mitchner

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

July 11, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

July 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

June 27, 2018

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

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

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Wonder Book

By Stuart Mitchner

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

June 20, 2018

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

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

June 13, 2018

I had this dream America.

Ray Davies, from “The Great Highway”

By Stuart Mitchner

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

June 6, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

May 30, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 23, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 16, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 9, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

May 2, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

April 25, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Ray Davies was envisioning the nightmare of Trumplandia 25 years ago in the last Kinks album Phobia and as far back as 1969 in lyrics like “I’m King Kong, got a hydrogen bomb … and so much money I can buy anybody who gets in my hair.” Then there’s “Powerman,” who’s “got money on his side … everybody else is just a sucker to him.”

In the Kinks rock musical Preservation (1974) a villain called Flash who “ruled with a fist … purchased all the land … plowed up fields and cut down trees,” doing it all “for a pot of gold and property speculation.” Besides songs like “Demolition” (“We’ll build a row of identical boxes and sell them all off at treble the profits”), you have “Flash’s Confession,” where Ray sings, “Been a cheat, been a crook, never gave … always took … crushed people to acquire anything that I desired. Been deceitful and a liar, now I’m facing Hell Fire.”

“Every time there’s a Trump,” Davies told the New Statesman in April 2017, “people say, ‘Revise Preservation.’” A month later he told The Guardian: “I’ve bumped into him a few times and it was all right. Like bumping into a bloke in a bar …. You get all the rhetoric when they’re trying to get into power, but as soon as they get the key to the front door, the pressure is on. He’s trying to run the country … and he only knows one way to get what he wants: total power.” more

April 18, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The sound is already in us and that sound is based on the heartbeat. — Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

six-month-old male tuxedo cat is gazing out the window, mesmerized by a frenzy of birdsong, like a dawn chorus at dusk. He’s poised, tensed, all at once frustrated, excited, delighted by the sounds he can’t see. Since the birds are nesting in the hedge outside, the hedge seems to be singing, and so attentive is the cat in his search for the source of the song, it’s as if he’s finally, actually seeing it. He’s on his hind legs now, primed to pounce, except he’s a house cat, he’s never been in the wild, he’s hunting the sound not the birds, it’s all new to him, and the quick, shrill piping little cries he’s emitting are more like mimicry than mewing. He’s calling to the invisible birds and they’re calling back. more

April 11, 2018

Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world— Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968

By Stuart Mitchner

In the speech he delivered the night before the day he died, Martin Luther King imagined taking a “mental flight” across the Red Sea “through the wilderness on toward the promised land” to Greece and Mount Olympus, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, then to Wittenberg and Martin Luther, to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and to the 20th century, “the bankruptcy of the nation,” and Memphis, Tennessee. more

April 4, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

If the seismic impact of the deaths of film stars could be measured, Jeanne Moreau’s might have scored a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale last August. Not so the death last week of Stéphane Audran, at least not in this country, where she is best known as the title character in Babette’s Feast (1987). Her stature in France was such that her passing was announced by the culture minister. Moreau’s was announced by President Macron.  more

March 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

So you begin with the death of Virginia Woolf, on this day, March 28, 1941. Moved by the courage and compassion of her farewell message to her husband, you read her first novel, The Voyage Out, in which her alter ego, Rachel Vinrace, dies at 24 after finding herself in life and music, falling in love, becoming engaged, and moving you, again, because you’ve come to care for her as if she were a real person.

Then, with another world and another time still impinging on your own reality, you join the thousands on Hinds Plaza last Saturday afternoon, staring at the crystal-clear summer-blue sky, occasionally sensing subtle intimations of menace when the barking of dogs coincides with angry shouts aimed at one speaker who admitted to being a gun owner. Meanwhile, no doubt like others in the crowd, you’re acutely aware that only a few days earlier a gun-wielding man was shot dead just around the corner at Panera Bread after a half-day standoff.  more

March 21, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

To do justice to the music of Bach, you should “listen, play, love, revere, and keep your trap shut.” This in-your-face edict from Albert Einstein was scrawled in the margin of a letter, according to John Eliot Gardiner’s biography Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf 2013). Curious to see the German equivalent of “Keep your trap shut,” I checked online and came up with “Halte deine Falle geschlossen,” which seemed unlikely (too wordy) compared to “Halt die Klappe!” or “Halt den Schnabel!”

What ultimately matters is that March 21 is Bach’s birthday and rather than obeying Einstein, I’m plunging ahead in respect of the birthday equation, Einsten 3-14/Bach 3-21. more

March 14, 2018

Imagination is more important than knowledge — it encircles the whole world.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

—Hamlet (1601–∞)

By Stuart Mitchner

If you were to measure their relative value in light of Einstein’s statement, Shakespeare would have the advantage because the works of his imagination can be apprehended while Einstein’s require a knowledge of mathematics and physics most people don’t possess. Unfair and illogical though it may be, the wonders of Shakespeare’s language supercede the relatively impenetrable wonders of Einstein’s theory. more

March 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In one film the lovers are a mute cleaning woman and an aquatic creature in a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore; in the other, they’re a young, socially retarded quality control inspector and an aging financial director at a slaughterhouse in Budapest. In the first, the lovers communicate by sign language; in the second they dream the same dreams. Which plot is the more improbable? Put another way, which requires a more willing suspension of disbelief? That a lonely mute cleaning woman finds love with a humanoid amphibian god who glows in the dark or that an autistic meat inspector finds it with a man who has a withered arm?  more

February 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House $17) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Anchor $16.95), both available now in paperback, appeared on either side of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” that took place on November 8, 2016.

Instead of using “catastrophe” or “debacle” for the election, I’m borrowing Saunders’ term for the lightning-flash-and-crack explosion that catapults souls not-yet-dead from the Buddhist limbo of the bardo to their fate in the afterlife.  more