April 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

We’ll sigh goodbye to all we ever had
Alone where we have walked together…

—from “I’ll Remember April”

If I’ve been compulsively whistling, humming, thinking “I’ll Remember April” lately, it’s not because my mother and my son were born April 20 and 28, or because my father died April 14, or because Duke Ellington was born on April 29, in 1899, or because jazz great Lee Konitz died of the coronavirus on April 15, or even because Shakespeare arrived and departed on April 23. Any month with so Shakespearean a claim to fame is surely worth whistling about.

Kerouac and Konitz

My recent fixation on this great American standard — I mean the music, not the labored lyric — began on the night at Birdland in early October 1951 when Jack Kerouac watched “in amazement” as Lee Konitz took “complete command” of the song Kerouac instinctively puts in the present tense as “I Remember April.” First noted in his journal six years before the publication of On the Road, it’s a characteristic, blissfully contradictory free-association streaming of his Manhattan-based jazz consciousness reimagined in narrative form in Visions of Cody when he follows “the famous alto jazzman down the street” after spotting him in “that bar on the northeast corner of 49th and Sixth Avenue which is in a real old building that nobody ever notices because it forms the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA building.”

Following Kerouac through a wildly free-form meditation on Konitz’s solo in the journal, you go from the player standing “with the alto on his gut, leaning to it slightly like Charlie Parker the Master but more tense and his ideas more white” to “a 12th-century monk, some Buxtehudian scholar of the dank gloomy cathedrals practicing and practicing endlessly in the bosom of the great formal school in which he is not only an apprentice but a startling innovator in the first flush of his wild, undisciplined, crazily creative artistic youth (with admiring old organ monks watching from the background).” After blowing a series of “beautiful, sad, long phrases, in fact long sentences that leave you hanging in wonder,” Konitz “suddenly reveals the solution,” a weirdly dazzling combination of musicianly foresight and hindsight “that at last gives you the complete university education” in the structure of the song, “a beautiful and American structure” that leads inevitably to Kerouac’s realization (as if you didn’t already know) that Konitz “is doing exactly what I’m doing … and here I’ve been worried all along that people wouldn’t understand this new work of mine.” He means of course the work in progress that became On the Roadmore

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The biggest revelation for me was the combination of seriousness and fun that I saw at every rehearsal I witnessed at Kelsey Theatre,” says Princeton University professor Stacy Wolf, author of Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America (Oxford University Press, 2020). “I loved witnessing those emotions sitting together.”

Kelsey is the focus of “Community Theatre,” the fourth chapter of Beyond Broadway. As its title suggests, the book examines productions by organizations throughout the country. Wolf’s research included visits to Worthington High School in Minnesota; the Zilker Summer Theatre in Texas; and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Colorado.

Although Wolf lives fairly close to Kelsey, which is on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, she did not always intend for it to be the focus of the chapter about community theatre. “Originally, I assumed that I would write about a number of different community theatres across the country, and examine how they operate differently,” Wolf says.

That approach would have resembled that of the following chapter, “The Sound of Music at Outdoor Summer Musical Theatres,” which includes the Open Air Theatre in Washington Crossing, Pa., plus outdoor theatres in Austin, Texas, and Marin, Calif.  more

April 22, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Find Your Place at the Library,” the theme for National Library Week, April 19-25, was chosen before the pandemic forced most libraries to temporarily close their doors. The American Library Association’s animated lighthouse logo cleverly puts the in-home alternative “Find the Library at Your Place” simultaneously in play through the flashing of the lighthouse beacon. With each flash of the beam, the silhouette of a sailboat appears headed toward the lighthouse while a library user can be seen in a tiny window near the top of the tower.

That little sailboat flashes me back to third grade and the library activity in which the number of books you read was indicated by the progress of your miniature ship or car or train or fire engine on a large prominently displayed chart. For me the most evocative image in the ALA logo isn’t the lighthouse, it’s the sailboat. Before you’re aware of such things as symbols and metaphors, you’re already playing the game; with each book you finish, the ship with your name on it moves closer to the goal. While the idea may have been to put a competitive charge into reading, what happened in my case was a merging of reading, identity, and motion: the more you read the farther you travel, guided, in effect, by that lighthouse beacon. It was more about going places than finding a place in the library or finishing more books than anyone else.  more

April 15, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I first used the e-word in print to describe the mood during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks when New York had become the “emotional epicenter” of the nation, “America’s city.” So it seemed when passing strangers met your gaze, you connected, as if you were sharing the same loss, and every firehouse had a shrine, firemen were warriors, and cops were heroes.

The subject of that September 7, 2011 column was Portraits: 9/11/01 (Times Books/Holt 2002), the journalistic landmark that New York Times executive editor Howell Raines introduced by way of Walt Whitman’s claim that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Looking at the faces and reading “the 1,910 stories it took 143 reporters to research and write,” I was reminded of the “Human and Heroic New York” chapter in Whitman’s Specimen Days in America (1881), where “after three weeks walking the streets,” he observes “ endless humanity in all its phases,” and finds “the brief total of the impressions, the human qualities … comforting, even heroic beyond statement.” For Whitman, the “daily contact and rapport” with the city’s “myriad people” provides “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”

Whether or not New York remains the “epicenter” of the pandemic, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: Stories (St. Martin’s Press 2015) makes a “most effective” over-the-counter remedy. In contrast to the thumbnail sketches and snapshots of specifically documented individuals in Portraits, the people in Stanton’s book appear to us in the quick of the moment without names, or biographical specifics, and few clues about who they are beyond the photographer’s gift for matching uniquely expressive faces and backdrops with the choicest, most expressive comments gleaned from each encounter. more

April 8, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ll be writing in depth about Federico Fellini (1920-1993) later in this, his centenary year, but there’s no way not to mention the director of La Strada when Italy has been at the epicenter of the pandemic, with locked-down neighbors on rooftops, balconies, or leaning from open windows expressing solidarity by singing, strumming, clanging, and making their own free-form fear-and-death-defiant music. No wonder, since song is at the heart of the land, and the language, simple as a tune heard on the street, elegant as an opera; whether it’s poetry on the page or on the canvas, just say the names, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Puccini and Pavaratti, Venezia and Firenze. You can hear it in the air, or see it shining in the eyes of the wonderstruck waif Gelsomina in La Strada, the film that shaped my imagination of the place a year before I arrived in person.

That was the summer when Dominic Modugno’s song “Volare” was the “virus” infecting all Europe. No need to know the Italian lyrics to sing the chorus, “Vo-lare,” as if your heart was soaring, then joy-sounds, oh-ho, then “Can-tare,” Italian for singing, drawn out to the last measure of musical devotion, then more happy, happy Oh-oh-oh-oh-ho’s, then, “Nel blue di pinto di blu” (the formal title), which is about the blue sky you’re flying into on the wings of the song that seemed to come out of nowhere, an infusion of pure melody, musical nitrous oxide that has you laughing with the sheer exhilaration of singing it.  more

April 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m not missing Opening Day. No use pretending this into an April Fools move by Joe Torre and the owners. So I tell myself. No need to feed on field of dreams fantasies. I can live without the misery of blown saves, lost leads, delusional winning streaks, walk-off home runs, magnificent catches, bench-clearing brawls, heartache, and hype. I could care less how the sign-stealing narrative plays out for the disgraced Houston Astros. It’s actually healthy when you think of it. No more high blood pressure moments second-guessing managers Tony LaRussa or the two Mikes, Matheney, and Schildt.

True, for a while I had to overcome my habitual itchy-trigger-finger visits to the St. Louis website on mlb.com for rebroadcasts of Classic Cardinals Moments like the titanic home run by Albert Pujols that stunned the then-National League Astros and super fans George and Barbara Bush in the 2005 NLCS playoffs or the Mother of All Walk-Off heroics of David Freese in the 2011 World Series.

So here I am with a shelter-in-place mindset looking out the living room window at the backyard bird feeders while pondering potential subjects ranging from comic books to comfort food, desert island narratives to the National Pastime.

Thanks to the determined nocturnal activities of a certain raccoon, the bird feeders have to be taken in every night and returned to their respective branches early every morning by my wife, still in her robe and slippers, a bird feeder in either hand. In our domestic comic book, Little Lulu has evolved from the Little Red Hen into the Bird Lady of Princeton Ridge.  more

March 25, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Meanwhile, here we are, with America hanging from a cliff that looms larger every day” — so ended a “Cliffhangers and Character” column about escaping into films and series television thrillers like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Babylon Berlin.

That was in August 2018.

At the time, after binge-watching the first two seasons of Netflix’s sensational German import about Berlin in its racy late-twenties, pre-Third-Reich heyday, I called it one of the best shows of the year. Now, when the whole world seems to be hanging from a cliff, my wife and I have just survived the recently released third season of Babylon Berlin. “Released?” — imagine a maddened bull charging out of the gate of the Weimar past. Grab it by the horns and off you go. As with the first two seasons, your bond with the show, your ballast, is a charismatic couple: the damaged, unrelenting Bogart-in-a-Trilby-hat police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the spunky, savvy, charmingly undaunted Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), plus stunning visuals, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and cliffhangers to die for, but nothing equals riding the bull of season three in the pandemic present.

“It is a bit of a mess,” my shaken wife said as the season finale clawed, shrieked, howled, knifed, bled, drugged, and cross-dressed itself to a close. Only something this outrageously improbable and fascinatingly visual could hold its own in times like these. As New York Magazine’s “Vulture” Kathryn VanArendonk says, “it’s the kind of show you get to the end of, and then desperately need to talk about with every single person you see for the next week.” Not much chance of that these days, at least not in person. But here we are. more

March 18, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

It makes surreal, unhappy, pandemic sense, that after last week’s preview of the long-awaited five-day Bryn Mawr Wellesley book event at the Princeton Day School gym that ended after less than two days, I find myself writing a book review about a once-in-a lifetime art event that closed a week after it opened. The e-mail invitation from the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) offering “great art” as “a source of solace” came with an implicit now or never alert. The fact that a “number of steps” had been taken to assure the public’s safety left little doubt about the endgame possibility. The promise of “a touch-free museum experience,” and the proviso to keep our social distance, no handshakes, no hugging, along with the assurance that “new disinfection protocols are in place” seemed clinically antithetical to the spirit of the show.

At the same time, there was an irresistible attraction in the element of risk, the idea of an embattled and unprecedented showing of Cézannes, two galleries of “infinite riches” by the “wonder, wonder painter,” as Ernest Hemingway once called him. And there was the paradoxical upside, that because of the threat of the virus, there were no crowds bustling between you and the work of a painter who once told a friend, “One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!”  more

March 11, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Reading the opening paragraph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four you don’t need a 7 percent solution of anything, be it cocaine, morphine, or the adrenaline of anticipation, to appreciate the twin themes of addiction and deduction at the heart of the impending Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. Along with a first chapter titled “The Science of Deduction,” you’ve got the simultaneously calming and compelling bedside manner of Sir Arthur’s prose, as he slows you down with phrasing that puts the everyday world on pause for “some little time.” And anyone addicted to the rare book mystique has felt something like the “mental exaltation” so “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind” that Holmes cites in defense of his habit when Watson warns of the “pathological and morbid process” of a drug that may “leave a permanent weakness.”

For Holmesian book sleuths who know their stuff without relying on smartphones or scanners, the quest for printed gold requires the deduction of clues in the form of those deceptively trivial details that can make thousands of dollars worth of difference in value. For the first issue of the first edition of The Sign of Four (not its occasional variant The Sign of The Four), the broken numeral “138” on the contents page appears as “13,” and the misprint “w shed” for “wished” is found on page 56, line 16. A copy with those flaws goes for as much as $8500, and might fetch thousands more without the bookseller’s minutely detailed admission of evidence such as “neat repairs at spine ends and corners; corners and board edges slightly bumped; hinges repaired; endpapers blistered in places,” areas of “slight discoloration” on the covers, “gilt a little dulled, especially on spine.” And of course it’s necessary to disclose additional and more exotic clues  (move that magnifying glass closer, Holmes), namely the two “faint red stains on the slightly chipped and curled edge of the contents page.” more

February 26, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Where are our black players?” That’s the question August “Gussie” Busch, the beer-baron owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, asked his manager and coaching staff one day in the 1950s, according to David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Ballantine 1995). “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play? … Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” Not only was Busch well aware that Budweiser sold more beer to the black community than any other brewery in the country, he’d heard rumors of an integrate-or-else boycott.

At this point I was about to resort to that old crutch, “the rest is history,” except it’s not that simple, it never is. When I first wrote about October 1964 in October 2014, I had no knowledge of the provocative historical evidence that would be revealed to me in February 2020. My focus was on the merging of African American history with baseball history in Halberstam’s account of how the Cardinals eventually “came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time.”  By spring training 1964, a racially balanced team was being put together and harmoniously integrated. Busch’s solution to the issue of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, was to have a wealthy friend buy a motel and rent space in an adjoining one, so that the players and their families could stay together. As Halberstam writes, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Fifty years later in a St. Louis suburb, a white cop shot an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown. Even as the Redbirds were on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story dominated the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Busch Stadium until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, gathered outside the home of “Cardinal Nation” during the National League Division Series. The result was a shouting match that tainted the racially enlightened narrative of 1964 and the generally accepted notion that St. Louis fans were the most savvy, civil, and respectful in baseball.

Writing six years ago, I wondered how many fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a Cardinals cap on the lid of his coffin. Various news stories pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Redbird regalia, and there were undoubtedly fans among the Ferguson cops who showed up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as devoted to the emblem of the two redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown. more

February 12, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

On the same Wednesday afternoon that Republican Senator Mitt Romney explained his historic vote to convict the president of “an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor,” the news of the death of screen legend Kirk Douglas at 103 gave first responders like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens the opportunity to headline Romney’s act with the title of the star’s favorite film, Lonely Are the Brave. But what the senator from Utah accomplished in his eight minutes demands a term more measured, restrained, and nuanced than bravery. He had to simultaneously master himself and the moment when he said that as a senator-juror, he swore to “exercise impartial justice,” that he is “profoundly religious,” that his faith is at the heart of who he is,  that he takes “an oath before God as enormously consequential,” and that the task of judging the leader of his own party, would be “the most difficult decision” he has ever faced.

Simply applying the lonely/brave dynamic to suggest what made Kirk Douglas so powerful an actor is equally inadequate. In fact, one way to appreciate the force of understatement employed by the senator is to contrast it to the extremes suggested by an actor “made for Dostoevsky,” as David Thomson puts it in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, where Douglas (born Issur Danielovich Demsky)  is “the manic-depressive among Hollywood stars, … bearing down on plot, dialogue, and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia.”

As the driven, at once code-bound and emotionally unbound detective Jim McLeod in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), Douglas rages at a crooked doctor — “I ought to fall on you like the sword of God” — rhetoric that would seem disproportionate to the occasion from any actor this side of Charlton Heston. Every move Douglas makes, everything he says when he’s at the top of his game, is like a demonstration of writer Flannery O’Connor’s rationale for the extremes in her art: “For the almost blind you draw large and startling figures, to the hard of hearing you shout.”

As Thomson points out, Douglas is “at other times on the verge of ridiculing his own outrageousness.” But in films like Detective Story, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), and above all, as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), “his sometimes facile intensity is marvelously harnessed to the subject of the film and the sense of tragedy is perfectly judged.”  more

February 5, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The first time I wrote about Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One (2004), I called it “one of the most quotable books you’ll ever read.” That was after observing, “Typically, Dylan plays fast and loose with his own title. If this book is a chronicle, so is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.”

Fifteen years ago, I’d only begun to appreciate how much Dylan’s book had to offer, how often I’d turn to it, as I’ve been doing again in the wake of the “51 to 49 Blown-Impeachment Blues.” That was after the no-witnesses vote on Black Friday, January 31, when the line that came to mind was “when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through,” from the first verse of “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” on Highway 61 Revisited.

When the deal goes down and your fancy turns hopefully to thoughts of spring training and baseball, you find yourself casting the Senate Republicans as the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. Then you think about the high-tech sign-stealing of the Houston Astros in the first “fall classic” of Trump’s reign. Then comes Sunday’s Super Bowl. If you’re a hardcore St. Louis Cardinal fan, the news of a Kansas City championship in 2020 only brings back the pain of losing the 1985 series to the Kansas City Royals, an outcome forever flawed by the most infamous blown call in pre-instant-replay baseball history. And what if the call was blown deliberately? Imagine 51 Republican senators embodied in one umpire. more

January 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

If you take the long view, this week begins with the birth of Mozart on January 27, 1756 and ends with the birth of Schubert on January 31, 1797.

If you’re looking for something more passionately immediately here and now, something to give you the energy to break through a writing slump to the other side of the impeachment trial and the mind-numbing miasma of talking heads (on or off pikes), you turn to a song John Lennon composed and recorded in record time 50 years ago, January 27, 1970. At first it’s fun to give yourself up to outrageous fantasies, like blasting Lennon’s relentless, in-your-face message at full bi-partisan volume from a dozen speakers located above the head of the chief justice: “Instant Karma’s gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head, better get yourself together, pretty soon you’re gonna be dead…. Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

What makes the song surpass any of Lennon’s more famous anthems is the inspirational chorus, “We all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun.” Good luck imagining both sides of the Senate chamber of horrors rising en masse singing “We all shine on.” Try picturing Adam Schiff gazing prayerfully over Mitch McConnell’s stone wall singing acapella “Imagine a brotherhood of man” or “Give Peace a Chance.” Speaking for myself, to stand with a group of people at an antiwar protest singing “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance,’” is too much like Oliver Twist in the poor house food line mewling, “Please, sir, can we have another nice warm bowl of peace and understanding, sir, please.”  more

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.

 

 more

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