June 20, 2018

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

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

June 13, 2018

I had this dream America.

Ray Davies, from “The Great Highway”

By Stuart Mitchner

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

June 6, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

May 30, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 23, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 16, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

May 9, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

May 2, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

April 25, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

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

April 18, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

April 11, 2018

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

By Stuart Mitchner

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

April 4, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

March 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

March 21, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

March 14, 2018

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

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

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

—Hamlet (1601–∞)

By Stuart Mitchner

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

March 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

February 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

February 14, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The phrase “labor of love” has been haunting me ever since I saw Anne Elliott’s drawings of her husband, Peter Gruen, who died in August. I’ve been an admirer of my former Town Topics colleague’s work for almost 15 years. Last week admiration gave way to awe. You know when you’re in the presence of what Henry James, among others, calls “the real thing.” The gallery attitude — you stop, you look, you move on, you go home, you think of other things — no longer pertains. Not this time, not when you’ve witnessed what happens when love and art become one. more

February 7, 2018

Atmosphere is radiance, glamour, warmth, mystery. It is what gives beauty a soul and makes it alive. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Stuart Mitchner

As the current news cycle has made clear, Dreamers is a word to be reckoned with, creating instant sympathy for the cause it represents. That’s why the State of the Union speechwriters made a feeble attempt to undermine the cause by having the president say “Dreamers are Americans, too” when it’s generally understood that the true heroes of the narrative of the American dream are the immigrants who came to this country looking for a new life.

There’s an echo of that narrative in the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby when F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” and of “the enchanted moment” when “man held his breath in the presence of this continent … face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” The narrator then thinks of “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him. somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”  more

January 31, 2018

Man is like a ball, the plaything of Chance and Passion. —Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

God, how I hate it when somebody yells “Good luck!” at me when I’m leaving somewhere. It’s depressing. — J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

By Stuart Mitchner

Schubert, whose remarks about “Chance and Passion” are from a journal he kept at 19, was born on the last day of January in Vienna. Salinger, who was born on the first day of January in New York City, is speaking in the voice of his creation Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which came out in 1951. When his collection Nine Stories was published in 1953, Salinger prefaced it with a Zen Koan: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” more

January 24, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner 

According to Susan Cheever’s biography of E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), his working title for The Enormous Room (Liveright 1922) was The Great War Seen from the Windows of Nowhere. Planning to write about World War I on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice year, I’ve been reading both book and biography along with Princeton University faculty member Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Collected Poems (Graywolf, paper, $18). Although a collection of contemporary poetry may seem an unlikely match, I found a window to the Great War in Stewart’s “Kingfisher Carol,” which comes with a prefatory note explaining that “the seven days following the shortest day of the year” is when “the halcyon, or kingfisher, builds her nest on the water and that in spite of the violent weather prevalent at this time, the gods grant a respite from all storms while she hatches and rears her young.” more

January 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In his 1915-1936 prime, Charlie Chaplin, who died 40 years ago this past Christmas, wasn’t just the most celebrated film personality of his time, he was an international icon. With his derby, his mustache, his baggy pants, and his cane, the Tramp became a secular deity; the sainted spirit of laughter; comedy and humanity incarnate. He was also exposed to a tabloid-driven version of the Hollywood dynamic of sex and power that surfaced last fall with the Harvey Weinstein revelations.  more

January 10, 2018

What shocks the virtuous Philosopher delights the chameleon poet. — John Keats

By Stuart Mitchner

Richard Starkey and Paul Muldoon have a rendezvous with the Queen. Some time in the new year, the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr will be knighted by Elizabeth II and the Princeton professor will receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Her Majesty to dub the Beatle “Sir Ringo,” a pairing of extremes that would surely delight the chameleon poet being honored for his “restless, playful brilliance.”  more

January 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

At the dawn of a new year in American popular culture it’s time to remember the losses of 2017 and pay tribute to the gains of 1917. Major deaths in the world of rock were legends Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, along with Tom Petty, Greg Allman, John Wetton, among others, and in the grey area between rock and jazz, Allan Holdsworth and Larry Coryell. Jazz losses included pianist Horace Parlan, bop vocalist Jon Hendricks of the premiere word-jazz group, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and Buddy Greco who began his jazz, pop, and country career at 16 playing piano, singing, arranging, and touring the world with the Benny Goodman band. The jazz world also lost columnist and social critic Nat Hentoff, who wrote for Down Beat and the Village Voice, and was listening to Billie Holiday when he died. more

December 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Some years before Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became as cherished a Christmas tradition as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, film-buff friends of mine smirked when I dared to suggest that it was a great movie. Admittedly, it beggared belief that anyone could be as noble as James Stewart’s good banker George Bailey or as evil as Lionel Barrymore’s bad banker Mr. Potter. What really made the cynics sneer was that the whole enterprise depended on a tipsy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who offers homilies like “Each man’s life touches so many other lives” as he gives a suicidal George Bailey a tour of Pottersville, the mean-spirited, lawless nightmare his town Bedford Falls would have become had he never existed. more