January 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

December 18, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

December 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

 

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November 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

Better Than Marvelous

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

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

November 13, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

November 6, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

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

October 30, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

October 23, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

October 16, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

October 2, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

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

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

September 25, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

September 18, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

September 11, 2019

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

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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