May 23, 2012

Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book.

—New York Evening World

The novel that made Upton Sinclair rich and famous “in a day” was written in a tarpaper shack behind a farm house on the Princeton Ridge. By all rights, The Jungle should have been written in New York or in the urban nightmare of its setting, Chicago, or anywhere but “the hills north of Princeton.” Why there? What brought the young muckraker to our neck of the woods? And where exactly had he written the book?

Last fall I was researching a photo-based piece for Princeton Magazine on the local residences of famous writers. My mission seemed simple enough. The other houses had been easily located and photographed. But Upton Sinclair had apparently resided in a whole slew of mostly vanished tents, cottages, shacks, and farmhouses in at least two different locations between the western edge of Ridgeview Road and Province Line Road.

The rub is, I could have solved the mystery at the outset simply by visiting the offices of a local realtor. No need to study old maps or old issues of the Princeton Recollector, no need to drive all over the Ridge buttonholing residents in my quest, no need to consult former Ridge homeowner John McPhee, who graciously played a wary Watson to my hapless Holmes in The Case of the Disappearing Cottage. Nor was it necessary to join forces with another Ridge resident, the dauntless, ever resourceful Sherri, who played Nancy Drew to my Frank and Joe Hardy in The Adventure of the Chimney in Back.

Of course I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Into the Mystique

As he helped me put the facts of the case in focus, even at one point consulting Sinclair’s autobiography on my behalf, McPhee contended that “an accurate location” of Sinclair’s “early dwellings or sites thereof … would be something close to impossible to achieve. You can’t, of course, just drive up to some place and think ‘that’s probably it.’”

But that’s just what I did one sunny, hazy, mid-November Sunday afternoon.

Anthony Arthur’s biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair (Random House 2006), includes an old photo of the Sinclair house “near the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road.” That’s pretty specific. No mystery there. Even if the house had been demolished or renovated or added to, I could scout the spot, and if the house was there, I could ask the owner’s permission to have a photographer take some pictures of it.

So, down Drake’s Corner toward my goal I go, only it’s a road I’ve never been on before, I know nothing of its ways, its twists and turns, ups and downs. What starts as a paved surface begins to narrow, slip out of definition and direction and sense, as if it might simply disappear, leaving one to drive off the edge of the world. Now it seems little more than a path, no room for oncoming vehicles, nature’s closing in with Blair Witch overtones, the light’s gone strange, as if strained through a filter, everything more intense, more haunting, and yet even as it seems most strange it’s becoming excitingly familiar. A force far more compelling than the possibility of finding the house in the photograph is at work. I’m picking up flashes of southern Indiana, some scary thicket of childhood, Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, the mysterious landscape the schoolbus used to plow through every schoolday morning.

Yes, there’s a frame house of the right vintage at the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road. The owner is doing yard work, I pull over, introduce myself, explain my mission, and am thrilled to hear that his house had belonged to someone named Stout, which is the name of the farmer who had sold it to Sinclair. I send hopeful emails to Sherri and McPhee. The next day I show the owner the photo in the biography, but nothing matches, neither the house nor the lay of the land. So I go on my way, neither sadder nor wiser, but never mind: I’m in a state of benign mystification. It’s all to the good that the previous day’s quest led nowhere because I know there’s no such thing as nowhere in this somewhere. I’m on the other side of the Looking Glass, in the suburbs of Xanadu. Yesterday’s drive has created an enchanted neighborhood around Drake’s Corner, Province Line, the Ridge. References to other names associated with the locale — Cedar Grove and Hanging Rock — make my eyes light up and my heart beat faster. And all to find the work space of a writer I’d never read a word of — no, not even The Jungle. Not until the quest began.

Reading Sinclair 

The Jungle was not the first book Upton Sinclair wrote on Princeton Ridge. If you wonder what made him come here in the first place, the answer is a novel about the War Between the States. In his preface to the revised edition, retitled Theirs Be The Guilt (Twayne 1959), Sinclair explains that the book was written in 1903 and published a year later as Manassas: “Its author was twenty-four, living in two tents in the hills north of Princeton, New Jersey …. I had moved to that hillside woodland in order to have the use of the fine Civil War collection at Princeton University Library. They allowed me to take home a dozen volumes at a time, and I would rent a farmer’s horse and buggy for $1 a trip and drive down from the hills to load up a week’s groceries and an armful of reference books.” He claims to have studied over 200 volumes.

The two tents were pitched on the property behind a farmhouse on Ridgeview Road. According to a New York Times piece from July 21 1985 (“Upton Sinclair’s Princeton Hideaway),” all that then remained were “a few hand-hewn logs” forming “a skeletal frame” and a “chimney … of mortar and stone” under “a canopy of oak and poplar branches.” When my fellow investigator Sherri and I explored the spot in February, all that remained was the base of the chimney and some wooden remnants like railroad ties. The owner had been kind enough to give us a sheaf of material that answered all the essential questions about both Sinclair sites. That there had been two tents, yes, along with one 16’ by 18’ cottage and a “tar paper shack for writing” that in 1905 was moved to a spot behind the farm house Sinclair purchased a mile and a half away on Province Line Road upon his return from the famously productive stockyard adventures in Chicago.

I’ve been to both the Province Line and Ridgeview sites now, and have rushed through both books. Walking around the proximate location of the “black shack” where The Jungle was written, I tried to imagine how it had been. Wife and child in the house with the carpenter’s gothic front porch, Sinclair scribbling his fiendish work in that poorly insulated hut while the winter wind howled like an outraged muse. Apparently, that’s how he wanted it. He’d written the first book in the same flimsy, storm-besieged structure during the previous winter.

It makes sense that Sinclair wanted to endure heavy weather or at least a semblance of exposure to risk and adversity. He needed to write in a wilderness. The worst thing he could imagine was to be trying to work in the same space with his wife and baby. That’s why he pitched the second tent, built the second cabin. He had to be haunted, on the edge, aware of the precipice. Adversity is what The Jungle is all about. You don’t finish that book, you wake up from it, shaking your head, pinching yourself, as from a nightmare. What gets you isn’t simply the hair-raising stuff about the meat-packing plant, the rats, the filth, but the relentless punishment Sinclair lavishes on Jurgis, his Lithuanian Job whose wife is raped and later dies in childbirth and whose only son, a toddler, falls from an elevated sidewalk and drowns in mud. At the plant, where men drown in tubs of lard, a 13-year-old relative is locked in a storage room and eaten by rats. Jurgis is hammered at every turn.

Think about the writer who is conjuring up this nightmare. Did his wife and child shudder when he came back into the house of a night, wild-eyed, after one of his bouts with the demon muse? Here’s a budding socialist who wanted to write, as he boasted to Ernest Poole when he first arrived in Chicago, “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Labor Movement.” Instead he wrote a novel as nightmarish as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, a far greater work.

Imagine this unlikely creation burning like a fire in the windows of the wind-blown shack, seen flaring and fading through the trees on Province Line Road as the author hounds his protagonist through every imaginable circle of urban hell. This is the passionate, anguished, pull-out-all-the-stops narrative Sinclair wraps around his documentary dynamite, an explosion heard round the world (“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach”). “By accident?”

Recalling the eerie, exciting chill I felt that first day driving down Drake’s Corner Road, I wonder if Sinclair’s muse isn’t still haunting those woods. I talked about it that November afternoon with the owner of the house I mistook for Sinclair’s. When I said, “This area feels strange, spooky,” he told me that the people living in the nearby McMansions had said as much.

The Chimney in Back

It was thanks to Sherri’s considerable charm that we were allowed to explore the yard behind the house on Ridgeview Road, which turns out to be not far from the home owned by Sherri and her husband, who, coincidentally enough, has always had “a fascination with The Jungle.

All that remains of the cottage is the base of the chimney, the open hearth that Sinclair, his wife and baby warmed themselves by during the vicious winter of 1903-1904. The author must have been better company when he was working on Manassas, where one striking domestic detail makes an unlikely appearance in the next to last chapter. With the battle raging, bullets flying, Union soldiers are barricaded in the home of a “poor white,” where, “near the fireplace of the little room,” two kittens are playing together: “one would lie on its back and the other would bite it, and they would roll over and over.”

May 16, 2012

In May 1981, Maurice Sendak, who died at the age of 83 on May 8, confided to his journal: “I hate May, everything seems to begin and end in May. May 3 I had my coronary. The dreadful May, 14th anniversary of my coronary. I count myself 14 years old, I was born with my coronary. Death has the features of Mozart’s face and is my waiting friend.”

Sendak began keeping a journal in 1967, when he was in an English hospital recovering from “his” coronary. With such a self-aware man, it couldn’t just be “a” coronary or “the” coronary; it had to be Sendak’s coronary. Picture Max in the Night Kitchen bellowing “It’s my Coronary!” at the moon instead of “Cock-a-doodle-do!” Of course coronary in itself is the word a poet prefers to heart attack, and Sendak was a poet.

If you have ever “been” Sendak, which is how it is to share Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen with your children, you should be sure not to miss the online interviews with Hank Nuwer (1980) and, especially, Bill Moyers (2004). Although there’s an NPR anthology of the Fresh Air conversations on the Web, Sendak becomes more interestingly engaged with Nuwer and Moyers. The most unique — and maybe the last — interview aired this January on Comedy Central and is a minor comic masterpiece in which an under-the-weather-looking Sendak resists and then begins grouchily enjoying Stephen Colbert’s infectious idiocy (one of the highlights is the exchange on Night Kitchen Max’s controversial nudity, Colbert having cut out all images of the lad’s offending member and put them in a cellophane bag). Every time the seemingly grim and grizzled Sendak laughs in spite of himself (at one point he gets high sniffing his marker) is like the moment in Where the Wild Things Are when Max cries, “let the wild rumpus start!”

The Lindbergh Baby

In November 1932, when the radio is “always on” with news of the Lindbergh kidnapping, a sickly four-year-old boy in Brooklyn identifies with the infant. His immigrant parents, who have spoken openly and frequently of the possibility of his dying from one illness or another (“I knew I was mortal from a very early age”), have assured him that that “rich, gentile baby” who lives in “a place called Hope-well” can’t die. This must be the safest, most protected infant in the world and look what happened. “Who could climb up the wall, climb in the room and take the baby out and nobody know? How defenseless could babies be even among the rich?” As Sendak tells Bill Moyers in the PBS interview, the kid in Brooklyn figures that the blond, blue-eyed son of “Captain Marvel” and “the princess of the universe” is a good bet to make it. When the child’s body is found, the impact is life-changing, “I could not bear the thought that that baby was dead. My life hung on that baby being recovered. Because if that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? I mean, it doesn’t make much sense to say it. But, that’s the equation. And when the baby was found dead, I think something really fundamental died in me.”

Almost 50 years later Sendak projects the kidnapping into the goblins’ abduction of the baby in Outside Over There (“That’s what Outside is about, vomiting that up”). Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are among the greatest books for children ever written. Outside Over There is a work of art on another level; to call it a childrens’ book is like calling Moby Dick a sea story. Children who “get” the other two books are usually baffled and disturbed by Outside Over There. What does the title mean, for a start? What would their parents tell them? Just another way of saying the Land of Makebelieve? My wife and I must have read the other two books a hundred times over to our child. We read Outside Over There to him once when it came out and never again. He knew only too well what was “over there.”

Sendak’s Gods

“I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”

—Sendak to Bill Moyers

Asked by Bill Moyers how he calms his demons and finds “a separate peace in a world that’s so full of scary things,” Sendak admits being “anxious about … coming here today,” wondering “Would I be all right?” What gave him the lift he needed? A “little tiny Emily Dickinson … that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong ….I feel better …. Art has always been my salvation.”

When Nuwer asks him if he believes in heroes, he says, “Not many,” and names Mozart, Kleist, and Herman Melville as “the core group.” In Kleist’s plays it’s the “imbalance in Nature” he responds to; in Mozart, it’s “the most quintessential perfect balance.” In Melville he finds “a more comprehensible … readable … lovable Kleist.” Sendak tells Nuwer that if a book is by a philosopher, he’ll “reject it out of hand.” If it’s by Melville, he’ll “buy it.”

While Sendak thinks of Mozart as more than human, a force of nature as large as life itself, he loves Melville both as a god and a benighted mortal, too humanly touching, lost and lonely to be merely “the lodestar of his literary heaven,” as Tony Kushner puts it in The Art of Maurice Sendak 1980 to the Present (Abrams 2003). There are deeply felt references to Melville toward the end of both the Nuwer and Moyer dialogues. Speaking of himself at 76, Sendak quotes Shakespeare (“Ripeness is all”) and Keats on the ecstasy of savoring a peach, but it’s Melville he loves and feels for, even in the context of his own life. “I’ve had my career. I’ve had my success. God willing, it should have happened to Herman Melville who deserved it a great deal more, you know? Imagine him being on Bill Moyers’ show. Nothing good happened to Herman Melville.”

Toward the end of his talk with Nuwer, when the subject comes round to Melville’s “great and ingenious work of art,” Pierre, a controversial edition of which Sendak illustrated in 1995, he’s still venting about Hawthorne’s apparent rejection of Melville’s loving friendship: “I’ll never forgive Hawthorne for Herman…. I’ll take that up with him someday. I’ll never forgive him for having so misunderstood. Mrs. Hawthorne understood better. Her journals have intuitive little things about what this poor man needed from her husband and how incapable her husband was of giving.”

Knowing and Caring

Sendak has admitted having Melville’s Pierre in mind when he composed his own story for the Nutshell Library about a boy whose thoughtless mantra for everything in life is “I don’t care.” Compared to the bellowing, forthright, fearless Max of Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Pierre is a perverse, ambiguous fatalist-in-the-making. For the sake of his young readers (and perhaps their parents), Sendak gave his Pierre a happy ending in which the lion who ate him vomits him up. My guess is that the Sendak who hates May, loves Melville, and never got over the death of the Lindbergh baby would foresee an adulthood for his Pierre nearly as tortured and fatal as that of Melville’s Pierre. Like poor mad little Pip after his near-drowning submergence in Moby Dick, and Melville after the rejection of Moby Dick, the after-the-lion Pierre will never be the same.

Rosenbach Exhibit

“Things of mine, when I’m no longer in this world, I intend to leave in my will that they be auctioned off again,” Sendak tells Nuwer. “I don’t want to leave them to anybody because I had so much fun getting them, I’d like them all dispersed.” In fact, a great many of Sendak’s “things” (a collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books, and ephemera) have found their way to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, a repository for his work since the early 1970s. “From Pen to Publisher: The Life of Three Sendak Picture Books” will be on display until July 15 at the Rosenbach, 2008-2010 Delancey Place. The books are: The Sign on Rosie’s Door(1960), Outside Over There (1981), and Brundibar (2003).

May 2, 2012

When the eldest of Charles Dickens’s ten children, 33-year-old Charley, looked in on him less than a week before the author’s death on June 9, 1870, Dickens was “writing very earnestly” on the last chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Charley took his leave (“I shall be off now”), Dickens paid no attention and continued writing “with the same intensity as before.” Half a lifetime of such moments had conditioned the son to expect at least a few words from his father, but on this occasion, as Charley recalls, he “gave no sign of being aware of my presence. Again, I spoke — louder, perhaps this time — and he raised his head and looked at me long and fixedly. But I soon found that, although his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be looking at me earnestly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, unconscious for the moment of my very existence. He was in dreamland with Edwin Drood and I left him — for the last time.”

Quoting Charley’s account in his massive biography, Dickens (HarperCollins 1990), Peter Ackroyd finds it “disturbing” that the father was “still so immersed in his words and images that he could not even see his own son standing in front of him,” and no less disturbing that in Charley’s last moment with his father “he was ignored by him in favor of the creatures of his imagination.”

Ackroyd doesn’t acknowledge the obvious, however, which is the outward resemblance between the trance immersing the writer at work and the opium dreamland inhabited by the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, John Jasper. It’s in that tranced state that Jasper embarks on the opium “journey” that leads, again and again, to the murder of his beloved Ned, that is, his nephew, Edwin Drood (“I did it millions and billions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast expanses of time, that when it was really done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon”). Beloved though he may be, Ned is in danger because the being Jasper desires beyond all reason is Edwin’s fiance, “the pretty, childish” orphan, Miss Rosa Bud.

An End-Game Awareness

Charley caught his father in the middle of a creative transport, in another world where the word of choice is “Unintelligible” and the preferred substance is opium. To see Dickens in that state was like seeing Coleridge in the moment he was roused from the laudanum dream that spawned his poem, “Kubla Khan,” another great, unfinished work.

Dickens was not just in “dreamland with Drood” when Charley came to say goodbye, he was deeply absorbed in one of the most extraordinary, richly accomplished chapters he would ever write, and not merely because it happened to be his last. With its explicit reference back to the Chapter I (“The Dawn”), Chapter XXIII of Edwin Drood (“The Dawn Again”) is marked by an end-game awareness that Dickens has reached the turning point of a narrative he feels he will not live to complete. Three days before the stroke that killed him, he admitted as much, according to his daughter Katey (“he spoke as though his life was over and there was nothing left”). Far from surrendering, Dickens is consolidating his intentions, as if he could make a half-finished work seem complete in itself, a self-contained enigma that would do sufficient justice to his original intentions for the novel.


The fact that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was left unfinished has led to a cottage industry of guessing games, reimaginings, and rewritings based on clues scattered by the author himself. The most credible evidence drawn from Dickens or the sources closest to him, however, has the opium-addled choirmaster John Jasper strangling his nephew and disposing of the body in quicklime. Contrary to the endings of both the 1935 Universal film and last month’s BBC dramatization, Dickens did not intend for Jasper to fall to his death from the belltower of Cloisterham Cathedral. He expressed his notion of Jasper’s fate to his close friend and biographer, John Forster; there would be a “review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell.” Compared to the melodramatic deaths of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist or Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, the novel preceding Drood, Jasper’s end would be subtle, complex, and probably redemptive, something closer to the fate of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or of Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. 

Speaking of Dostoevsky, when he visited the London office of Dickens’s journal, All The Year Round, in 1862, Dickens told him that “the good simple people in his novels” were “what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself),” and that there were “two people in him,” one “who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”


If there’s a password to the cloistered heart of Edwin Drood, one that Sherlock Holmes would pounce on were he and Watson on the case (too bad Conan Doyle never thought to send the great sleuth to Cloisterham), it’s the word unintelligible, which is uttered twice and with marked emphasis by Jasper in the novel’s opium-shrouded opening, opium being a potent enemy of the intelligible.

The first paragraph of Edwin Drood has Jasper confusing a bed-post in an East End opium den with the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral. Coming out of the drugged reverie, he’s like a surrogate of the author “whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together,” or like Hyde morphing back into Jeckyll. Lying on the “sordid bed” with him are a Chinaman and a Lascar, two other clients of the “haggard woman” who is “blowing at a kind of pipe to kindle it.” As Jasper gazes down at the woman who will ultimately help unmask him, he smugly wonders “what visions can she have” and “turns her face toward him” for a better look (the positions will be dramatically reversed in the book’s last chapter) before bending down “to listen to her mutterings.” What he hears makes no sense (“Unintelligible!” he exclaims), but given what happens next, he might have stuck his head into the crater of an active volcano: “As he watches the spasmodic shoots and darts that break out of her face and limbs, like fitful lightning out of a dark sky, some contagion in them seizes upon him.” The choirmaster is so shaken that he has to sit down in a chair, “holding tight, until he has got the better of this unclean spirit of imitation.”

In case the reader doubts that Jasper is capable of murder while under the influence, Dickens has him, still in the grip of the “unclean spirit,” assault both the men he’d been sharing the “ink-bottle pipe” with; when the Chinaman “resists, gasps, and protests,” Jasper asks, “What do you say?” and answers himself, after a “watchful pause,” again with that word: “Unintelligible!” In the fog suggested by that word, one may commit murder without perceiving the reality of the act.

“The Dawn Again”

Dickens gives the “haggard woman” no proper name, nor does he include her on the list of characters preceding the first chapter, which makes sense: why list Jasper’s vengeful opium genie, as if she were a “real person”? She does have a nickname, Princess Puffer, supplied by “Deputy,” a stone-throwing imp whose real name is known to none but the ”mysterious white-haired man” identified on the same list as Dick Datchery.

The only way to do justice to the last chapter — Dicken’s masterful swan song — would be to reprint the scene between the old woman and Jasper in full. By the time the choirmaster revisits the miserable room where the novel began, Edwin Drood has disappeared and is presumed dead. Thus this exchange:

‘Who was they as died, deary?’

‘A relative.’

‘Died of what, lovey?’

‘Probably, Death.’

‘We are short to-night!’ cries the woman, with a propitiatory laugh. ‘Short and snappish we are! But we’re out of sorts for want of a smoke. We’ve got the all-overs, haven’t us, deary? But this is the place to cure ’em in; this is the place where the all-overs is smoked off.’ “

Sensing Jasper has something significant to hide, the old woman teases him with endearments like “deary,” “lovey” “poppet” (and even at one point “chuckey”) “lays her hand upon his chest, and moves him slightly to and fro, as a cat might stimulate a half-slain mouse.” Repeating “her cat-like action she slightly stirs his body again, and listens; stirs again, and listens; whispers to it, and listens. Finding it past all rousing for the time, she slowly gets upon her feet, with an air of disappointment, and flicks the face with the back of her hand in turning from it.”

Is there any doubt which of the two Charles Dickens is in charge of this scene?

Dickens and Datchery

There is almost as much speculation among readers and critics about Dick Datchery’s identity as there is about whether Drood is dead or alive. Datchery’s white-maned disguise is just the sort Sherlock Holmes would use, which makes sense, since one theory is that Datchery is the detective who will solve the mystery, with some help from the opium woman who has stalked Jasper all the way from London to Cloisterham.

In the novel’s closing pages, which are dominated by Datchery, he hails the imp nicknamed Deputy, “ ‘Halloa, Winks!’ At which the imp says, “ ‘don’t yer go a-making my name public. I never means to plead to no name, mind yer.’ “ At this point, it’s as if Dickens has, in effect, entered his own novel in the guise of Datchery, for the only other person who knows the imp by name is the author who created him and put “Winks” in parentheses in the list of characters preceding the first chapter.

Dickens also bestows on Dick Datchery an elaborate analogy unlike any other figure or fancy in the novel. It’s as if he had called up the spirits of Homer and Milton for the occasion of his last hurrah:

“John Jasper’s lamp is kindled, and his lighthouse is shining when Mr. Datchery returns alone towards it. As mariners on a dangerous voyage, approaching an iron-bound coast, may look along the beams of the warning light to the haven lying beyond it that may never be reached, so Mr. Datchery’s wistful gaze is directed to this beacon, and beyond.”

Is that Dickens himself gazing wistfully toward the beacon “and beyond” of the ending he knows he will never write (and yet triumphantly does)? I’d like to think so.

I used the Chiltern Library edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (John Lehman 1950), which I bought for $2 at this year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley book sale. The first installment, with the cover shown here, was issued in April 1870; the last in September 1870. I found the Dostoevsky anecdote in Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens (2011)

April 11, 2012

He offered the cosmos as an adventure rather than a scheme. He did not explain evil, far less explain it away: he enjoyed defying it …. He may be said to have serenaded heaven with a guitar, and even, so to speak, tried to climb there with a rope ladder.

—G.K. Chesterton

One click of the iMac mouse and into the YouTube universe we go, Robert Browning’s voice coming through, at first faint and sketchy over the noise made by the Edison cylinder, like the sound of a horse at full gallop as the poet springs “to the saddle …. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three …”

It’s April 7, 1889, and the first recording ever made of a poet reading from his work is barely underway when Browning forgets his lines. “I’m terribly sorry,” he cries in mid-gallop, “but I cannot remember me own verses!” It’s as if he were slyly playing out the eccentric, self-conflicted dynamic of one of his dramatic monologues as, undaunted, he lifts his voice in a transatlantic salute to the wizard of Menlo Park, for this “astonishing moment by your wonderful invention,” a moment he says he will remember all his life (he had less than a year to live). Still riding full-tilt above the galloping background noise, he shouts his name for the ages — “Robert Browning!” — before bellowing three times at the top of his lungs, “HIP-HIP HOORAY!” as he gallops off with a last brazen farewell roar of wordless exultation. This is Browning writ large, the heart’s-core essence of the energy that runs like an electric charge through his poetry.

On the afternoon of December 12, 1890, after a group at Edison’s Menlo Park lab marked the first anniversary of Robert Browning’s death by listening to the white wax cylinder, someone noted that this was the first time that any voice had been heard from “beyond the grave.”

Browning’s 200th

It was only after listening to another voice from the grave that I found the Edison cylinder of Browning and, with the wind of his farewell roar at my back, came upon Allan Massie’s March 31 story in the Daily Telegraph, which ends by rightly declaring that Browning’s bicentenary “should be celebrated with loud, cheerful, and sometimes discordant music.”

April was the key. Among poets, you could say that T.S. Eliot staked a claim to the “cruellest month,” but if any poet has April in his vest pocket, close to his heart, it’s the man who wrote, “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.” It wasn’t Browning’s “Home-Thoughts from Abroad,” however, that led me to my subject. It was a song with the same title sung by a British singer songwriter named Clifford T. Ward, who composed it in the form of a letter to his wife, with a reference to Browning in its opening line and a hint of the poet’s conversational manner in the phrasing. If you want to see this very special artist, you can find him on YouTube, as I did, alive and well, singing his “Home-Thoughts” beautifully, as he sang all his songs, even after multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1984, when he was 40; he died on December 18, 2001, singing and writing to the end (it’s said that he “crawled on all fours” to his home-based studio to make his last album).

How Strange It Seems

The Browning poem most in accord with my recent encounters and discoveries in the online “cosmos” (“an adventure rather than a scheme”) is “Memorabilia,” which begins, “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,/And did he stop and speak to you.” In his note to the poem, Browning recalls an encounter in a London bookshop when a stranger spoke of something that Shelley had once said to him. “Suddenly,” Browning writes, “the stranger paused, and burst into laughter as he observed me staring at him with blanched face …. I still vividly remember how strangely the presence of a man who had seen and spoken with Shelley affected me.”

When the first stanza ends (“How strange it seems and new!”), it’s Browning himself speaking, not Andrea del Sarto or Rabbi Ben Ezra or Fra Lippo Lippi, or any of the other personae this poet assumes in his signature dramatic monologues. How mind-boggingly strange and new it seems, then, to discover Robert Browning’s handsome face, as I did today, side by side with the face of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on the Washington Times website, wherein columnist Tim Kern, having plucked Browning’s “Less is more” out of the virtual universe, attempts to build an economic argument around it in the cause of “More is more.” Kern does admit that the Laffer Curve is one practical application of the “less is more” principle; the problem is that he quotes from the wrong poem, “My Last Duchess,” when the line in question is actually to be found in “Andrea del Sarto.”

In fact, a brave new old world of Browning is out there, not only online but in so-called everyday life. Take a poem like “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” No one needs to know what it’s all about to cop a line and run with it. When I was raving about God and Shakespeare under somewhat extraordinary circumstances (a large dose of mescaline in a laboratory setting), the scientist in charge, one of the few great men I ever knew, whispered “What I aspired to be,/And was not, comforts me,” in my ear. I had no idea where those words came from at the time, but the message was on the money and I never forgot it. Whether you read Browning or Keats, Tolstoy or Melville, you’re aspiring to share in greatness and the comfort you find in the sharing is worth the effort.

Brett Does Browning

Think how many couples over the past century and a half have shared and been inspired by the story of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whether as an audience to dramatizations of their courtship and romance or as readers in their voluminous correspondence. Just as Browning became Ben Ezra, so actors on the stage and in film have become Browning, the shining knight who rescued the captive invalid, saving the life of a poet whose reputation at the time was larger than his own. Theirs, the most renowned of all real-life literary romances, was first portrayed in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Besier’s 1931 play, a triumph for Katherine Cornell (Brian Aherne played Browning). M-G-M released it in 1934 with Frederic March and Norma Shearer in the leads; Bill “Geordie” Travers and Jennifer Jones starred in the 1957 CinemaScope version.

The best and most elusive version of the story is the BBC production from 1982, which apparently can be seen only in YouTube installments. In a January 2008 column celebrating Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, I suggested that his talent up to then had been wasted in unworthy roles. Among the most significant exceptions, it turns out, was his Browning, which is as exemplary and almost as energetic as his Holmes. Brett’s rapport with Jane Lapotaire’s Elizabeth makes their scenes together a pleasure to watch even in the washed-out print posted online. Brett’s alertness, the way he pounces on and passionately elucidates every nuance of his beloved’s response to him, her self-deluding acceptance of her lot, her unhealthy devotion to her father, and her fear of Browning’s physicality and indefatigable devotion to her recalls the genius that will animate Brett’s performance as Holmes three years later. What he learned from playing Browning clearly proved useful when he took on the role of his life as Conan Doyle’s moody master sleuth.

Like Holmes, Browning was a master of disguises. One of Jeremy Brett’s best moments is when Robert admits to Elizabeth that if he wrote about himself rather than disappearing into roles, the result would be dreadful. After Elizabeth hands him his famously obscure work, Sordello, and asks him to explain a particular passage, he scans it, ponders it by the fireplace, and admits, as the real-life Browning once said, that when he wrote it “only God and I knew what it meant, and now — alas — only God does.”

How He Lives On

How does he live? Let me count the ways.

Even though the above echoing of one of the most quoted sonnets this side of Shakespeare was written by Browning’s Elizabeth, he owns the emotional rights; it was written for him. And, as I’ve been suggesting, he doesn’t need any help from Edison’s “wonderful invention” to speak to us from beyond the grave. Like his American literary cousins, Emerson and Thoreau, he dispenses high-energy mood-enhancers. He courts the ailing Elizabeth Barrett in us, and when we’re in need of being roused out of our particular prisons, he cheers us on. But you can’t always be sure that he’s speaking for himself. In “Pippa Passes: A Drama,” he can make one of his most oft-repeated pronouncements (“God’s in his heaven;/all’s right with the world”) and end the same work by suggesting that we’re “God’s puppets, best and worst.”

Lennon’s Last Song

Among the couples who aspired to be Robert and Elizabeth were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Brownings gave them a romantic theme for their last album, the posthumous (for John, speaking of voices from the grave) Milk & Honey (1985), which carried John’s song “Grow Old With Me” (with its adapting of the first two lines of “Rabbi Ben Ezra”) and Yoko’s “Let Me Count the Ways,” taken from E.B.B.’s most famous sonnet. The couple envisioned “Grow Old With Me” as a song comparable to Lennon’s “Imagine” (a New Year’s Eve standard in his adopted home, New York City), one that would be chosen for special occasions, namely marriage ceremonies. Evidence online suggests that this is what has happened. While John’s “Grow Old With Me” may be in better shape than Browning’s Edison cylinder travesty of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” the clearest, loveliest version is sung by Princeton’s own Mary Chapin Carpenter.

March 28, 2012

Based on my experience last week, the best things to be found at used book sales like Bryn Mawr-Wellesley are the ones that you didn’t know you wanted and, in this case, that you didn’t know existed.

What I was looking for when I walked into the sturm und drang of the Thursday preview was something with a story or a cover quaint and curious enough to write about and reproduce on this page. What I found was a new paperback edition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and a like-new copy of Debussy On Music, both of which will be of use for future columns on Sinclair and Debussy, whose 150th birthday falls on August 22.

The closest thing to a “want” that I found at the preview was a volume from 1908 with a handsomely embellished Art Nouveau style cover titled The Poetic Old World: A Little Book for Tourists, which I abandoned on the cookbook table when the surprise announcement was made that Collectors Corner, the domain of rarities, was “open to everyone.” I naively assumed that my find (edited by one Lucy H. Humphrey) was safe tucked between Beard on Pasta and a trashed copy of The Joy of Cooking. When I got to Collectors Corner, a dealer was walking out with a big box in his arms and a big smile on his face. Five minutes later, after finding nothing in the CC, I went back to the cook book table and The Poetic Old World was gone. After rummaging around in the vicinity, I gave up. I felt only mild regret, not having had time to fully appreciate the gem I had so thoughtlessly thrown to the winds.

I left the vaunted preview with nothing visually enticing enough to show off here, except perhaps the third edition of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, with its tan buckram cover (the big red “T” set in a little gilt window). It always feels good to find anything early by Stephen Crane and it would have given me an excuse to write about a man who, if American literature were baseball, would be the catcher on my personal all-star team. A best-seller in its day, the Red Badge isn’t particularly rare in later editions, even ones from 1896, although most book people who can see beyond their scanners would have shelled out more than the $2 I paid for it.

“Tarry at the Taft” 

What a difference a day makes. On Thursday afternoon, the first day of the regular free-admission sale, I immediately found six books I’d have gladly snatched up the day before, if they’d been there. One of the realities of the Bryn Mawr event is that dealers and book lovers gorging themselves on the first day often leave a few crumbs behind, most likely because the condition is just a bit off or the price a bit too high. With my small stack of dealer rejects in one arm, I went downstairs to the main room and found Lucy H. Humphrey’s The Poetic Old World among the neglected masses on the poetry table.

I was still smiling when I walked over to the literary classics table and found this year’s treasure, my heart’s desire, which had been picked up, stashed, pondered over, and tossed back into the Bryn Mawr book stream for some dutiful volunteer to fish out and return to its rightful place early that morning, and now there it was, waiting for me. Reader, how often do you see a small professionally bound hard cover copy of A Tragedy By the Sea and Other Stories by Honoré de Balzac with a decorated Deco cover featuring a raised image of the Taft Hotel and the words “Compliments of the HOTEL TAFT New York” imprinted in the lower right-hand corner? Open it and on the inside cover you see a simulated Ex Libris book plate with a space for the name of the guest (“This Book Belongs To”) under another image of the hotel (“Adjoining the Roxy Theatre”). Think about it: 70-plus years ago, a big New York hotel a stone’s throw from Times Square published Balzac’s stories under its own imprint (“Tarry at the Taft”) while alerting its guests to the fact that it adjoined, was connected to, in touch with (avoisiner in French) one of the city’s foremost movie palaces, which could be entered directly from the hotel according to an online website about the Taft.

So why this rush of mindless joy? Only because the book fates who gave me this gift obviously knew how I felt about New York and big New York hotels, thirties movies and the Roxy, not to mention Balzac. What really got me was the idea that the management of a major Manhattan hostelry during the Great Depression would go to such quixotically thoughtful lengths for their guests. Would you believe that Tarry at the Taft also published The Picture of Dorian Gray? And Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue? And at least half a dozen others, including Alice in Wonderland? Wilde, Poe, Balzac, and Alice! I mean, what sort of guests, aside from me, did they have in mind?

Imagine you’re coming to the city for the first time, a young writer in the 1930s, thinking to splurge by spending your first night at a great Times Square hotel, and you walk into your room and find this little orange book waiting for you on the bedside table. And outside maybe it’s windy and raining and the radiator’s knocking like a demented spirit, so you crawl under the covers, open the book, and lose yourself in Balzac’s Paris, which is to say, in Balzac’s mind, heart, and soul, and he’s writing about the great surgeon Despleins (in Balzac, as Swinburne observed, everyone is a genius), “this perpetual observer of human chemistry” who possesses “the knowledge of the elements in fusion, of the causes of life, of life before life, of what from its preparations it will be before it is” — okay, so it’s a clumsy translation, not to worry, life goes on.

The first paragraph is three pages long, no break, and every now and then you can hear the soundtrack from the movie at the Roxy (sounds like Henry Fonda taming the lynch mob in Young Mr. Lincoln), it’s not a smooth ride, you soar and sink, the unnamed translator staggering about as if in drunken awe as Balzac dissects the surgeon’s atheism, “recognizing in man a cerebral center, a nervous center, and an aerosanguineous center … convinced during the last two or three days of his life that the sense of hearing was not absolutely necessary for hearing, nor the sense of sight absolutely necessary for seeing, and that the solar plexus could replace them beyond suspicion of any change.”

Finally coming up for air, brought to attention by the horns honking down below on the passage au Commerce (except you’re no longer in Paris, it’s a line of Yellow Cabs on 50th Street), you begin to realize where you are. Only then does it hit you: that three-page-long Balzacian cadenza came with the room, compliments of a hotel that not only serves its guests but contains its own publishing venture, or so I like to think. So where did they get that weird translation? Nathaniel West worked in more than one Manhattan hotel during the Depression. Maybe he sent some down-and-out editor pal who’d lost his job to sell the idea of an in-house reprint line to the manager of the Taft, who then hired a needy writer (a Woody Allen type) to translate Balzac’s stories rather than pay some publisher for the right to use the existing translations of Clara Bell or Ellen Marriage. I can just see it: the hotel manager banging on Woody’s door — ”Get a move on, kid! We go to press in a month!”

Lucy and Henry

The dozen or so books I found at the big sale reflect two different states of mind. The first bunch came from the chaos of the preview; the second, better group from the relative calm of the following afternoon. The Poetic Old World bridges both days, since I found it, lost it, and found it again. I couldn’t learn much about Lucy Humphrey online beyond the fact that this was the sort of pocket-(or purse-) sized volume of “famous poems associated with historic and classic localities” that she herself had “longed for” when traveling in Europe. She compiled a sequel, The Poetic New World, that appeared in 1910. Otherwise she seems to have been known primarily for her translations, an art I became all too aware of while reading the Taft version of Balzac.

Who better to bring down the curtain on translations, finding and losing, and the old world, than Henry James? The 1889 edition of Guy de Maupassant tales called The Odd Number, a book I found on the first day, has an introduction by the Master, who begins to the effect that it is “embarrassing to speak of the writers of one country to the readers of another,” for “One should never go out of one’s way to differ, and translation, interpretation, the business of adjusting to another medium, are a going out of one’s way. Silence is the best disapproval, and to take people up, with an earnest grip, only to put them down, is to add to the vain gesticulation of the human scene.”

I bought 12 books altogether, two were $3, the rest were $2. Two of the $2 books have covers I’d show off here if we had room: from 1902, The Dragon of Wantley by Owen Wister (the third edition), nicely illustrated by John Stewardsom, and from 1889, The Bon Gautier Ballads, with illustrations by Doyle, Leech, and Crowquill. I was also glad to find the 1950 edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I hope to read in connection with the Dickens bicentennial.

March 14, 2012

The cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified.

—Albert Einstein (3-14-79 — 4-18-55)

A major component of Albert Einstein’s enduring appeal is his self-deprecating sense of humor, of which there are numerous examples in Denis Brian’s The Unexpected Einstein: The Real Man Behind the Icon (Wiley 2005). One such instance, provided by Princeton University photographer Alan Richards, occurred when an 18-month-old boy introduced to the unkempt genius “took one look and burst into a screaming fit.” Einstein’s response was to “smile approvingly” as “he patted the youngster on top of his head and crooned, ‘You’re the first person in years who has told me what you really think of me.’”

Would Einstein be amused by the community celebration called Pi-Day that descended on Princeton the weekend before his actual birthday? My guess is that if he were still around, he’d either hide out in the Institute woods or maybe hunker down in his dinghy in the middle of Lake Carnegie.

Einstein and Washington

On the subject of personality cults, Einstein found it “unfair, and even in bad taste,” to select a few individuals “for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them.” The “one great consoling thought,” however, was that “in an age which is commonly denounced as materialistic,” such cults make “heroes of men whose ambitions lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere.” Certain of Einstein’s colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study would have been among the heroes he had in mind. While he might be mildly appalled at the Pi-Day shenanigans, imagine what Einstein would think of the recent campaign against the Institute by Battlefield Society partisans, a battle they are apparently determined to carry into the courts now that the Planning Board has unanimously approved the Institute’s housing plan.

At the symbolic heart of Princeton, the harmony between the spheres of Battle and Institute remains undisturbed. On one end of the drive in front of Borough Hall is the Princeton Battle Monument, dedicated in 1922, the year after Einstein made Princeton his residence. Atop the massive sculpture of embattled forms, George Washington stares toward downtown Princeton. In his line of sight at the other end of the drive, a bronze bust of Albert Einstein mounted on a granite pedestal seems to be gazing in the same direction. Between these two Princeton heroes, J. Seward Johnson’s bronze Everyman sits on a bench reading The New York Times. The continuum flowing through the three works of art reflects what Einstein said when he was visited by physicist Max Born’s wife, Heidi, during a serious illness. “I feel so much part of every living thing,” Einstein told her, “that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends.”

Face of Light

The smiling bare-chested captain of his fate shown on the cover of The -Unexpected Einstein is obviously meant to counter the image of the sockless, shabby-sweatered old sage shambling through the streets of Princeton with his head in the stars, the same beloved caricature impersonated by Walter Matthau in the film IQ and by numerous local look-alikes during the Pi-Day revels. In the chapter of Brian’s book titled “What was Einstein Like Face to Face?” the formidable reality is recounted by the editor of The American Scholar, Hiram Haydn: “There was light coming out of his face — that light grew there, as hairs do on the faces of men. It seemed to me that this was not a man in the ordinary sense, that the face belonged to another, different species. And then he smiled at me. This act constituted the most religious experience of my life.”

According to Brian, the cover photograph was taken on Saranac Lake, August 1, 1945, by the husband of the Soviet spy Einstein was having an affair with and may be the only photograph of him smiling “as an adult among the hundreds, if not thousands, of photos taken of him.” Brian notes that Einstein “looks like a man in love — with the photographer’s wife, in fact — and without a care in the world.”

Five days later he would be dealing with the biggest “care” of his life and he would not be smiling.

Ball of Fire

The Princeton Public Library will ring down the curtain on Einstein’s birthday party with a showing of Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941) tonight, Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room. It’s a terrific movie, with Barbara Stanwyck as the fiery life force blazing through an Ivy Tower monastery occupied by a committee of unworldly, puppydog-cute scholars, including a dithery Gary Cooper; it’s also a classic example of Hollywood’s benighted notion of the “intellectual and moral sphere” Einstein was talking about.

What of Einstein himself then? Is there any director or writer in the world who could put us inside his head in the wunderjahre of 1905? John Stachel, the first editor of the Einstein Papers (Princeton University Press), does his best in his essay, “How Did Einstein Discover Relativity?” — but only after admitting at the outset the impossibility of encompassing “those elements of the creative process that Einstein referred to as ‘the irrational, the inconsistent, the droll, even the insane, which nature, inexhaustibly operative, implants into the individual, seemingly for her own amusement’ (my italics) since ‘these things are singled out only in the crucible of one’s own mind.’”

The Idea of Einstein

Probably the best option is to explore the idea of Einstein, as if it were an absolute like art or war or faith or science. In the spirit of the Pi-Day celebration, I’ll offer two of my personal favorite improvisations on the idea of Einstein, both of which make me smile, move me, and fill me with admiration for the performers, Randy Newman, the composer of “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Einstein in America” and Theresa Russell in her inspired depiction of Marilyn Monroe demonstrating the Theory of Relativity for Einstein in Nicholas Roeg’s film Insignificance (1985).

Introduced on his 1976 album Little Criminals, Newman’s song, one of his masterpieces, begins with a formal fanfare over a slow march that has overtones of a trumpet voluntary:

The world of science is my game

And Albert Einstein is my name

I was born in Germany

And I’m happy to be

Here in the land of the brave and the free.

Newman sings the lyric with his characteristic mixture of sarcasm and sentiment, his voice almost plaintive when he intones “Albert Einstein” before returning to his relaxed just-a-guy-at-the-piano style for the last two lines, which he sings twice. The next verse brims with still more of Newman’s easygoing art, a feelingly told four-line story that does more for my sense of Einstein than a dozen biographies:

In the year of nineteen five

Merely trying to survive

Took my knapsack in my hand

Caught a train for Switzerland.

There’s an emotional diminuendo in the singing of the last line that suggests a journey as casual as it is momentous, leading to the chorus with its playful but potent borrowing from “America the Beautiful” (“America America, God shed his grace on Thee”). As Freud steps in for Einstein — a pretty neat turn, two 20th century giants in a two and a half minute song (he does it again with Karl Marx in “The World Isn’t Fair”) — Newman sings what may be the most memorable five lines he ever wrote:

Americans dream of gypsies, I have found

And gypsy knives and gypsy thighs

That pound and pound and pound and pound

And African appendages that almost reach the ground

And little boys playing baseball in the rain

However much it may or may not relate to Einstein and his theory, that verse enacts a masterly piece of cadenced relativity as Newman weaves Einstein and Freud and fantasy into a sexual drumbeat prompting an outrageous image of obsessive racism. And before you have time to laugh, you’re emotionally disarmed by a one-line evocation of a heartland boyhood that may put a lump in your throat if you grew up in America, especially if you played baseball in the rain. The concluding chorus seems flippant by comparison, with “America, America” stepping “out into the light,” the “best dream man has ever dreamed /And may all your Christmases be white.” With that sarcastic close and its race-charged “white,” Einstein, Freud, and Irving Berlin have definitely made way for Newman.

Sexing up Relativity

Theresa Russell’s charming demonstration of Relativity in action can be viewed on YouTube if you don’t have time to go to the library to pick up the Criterion DVD of Insignificance. Played with understated warmth by Michael Emil, Einstein is wearing a sweatshirt with a Princeton University “P” on it while Russell is in full gorgeous bloom in the iconic white dress from the skirt-up-around-her-ears street scene in The Seven Year Itch. When the barefoot “Professor” tells the “Actress” what she wants to hear (that he really believes she really understands his theory), she swoops down on him, face to face and breathlessly whispers, pitch-perfect Marilyn, “Swear to God?” Among her props are two toy trains, a toy car, two flashlights (one each for her and the bemused genius), a balloon, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov that she joyfully flings across the room on the way to proving “the first thing you have to know about relativity,” and a copy of Jane Eyre, which she drops on the floor (“it doesn’t fly, it just drops relative to the train”), because “whether anyone conducts an experiment on a moving train or in the laboratories at Princeton, the results will always be the same.”

Einstein’s Dance

Another gem from the “What Was Einstein Like Face to Face?” chapter in The Unexpected Einstein is offered by onetime Princeton resident, Ashley Montagu. Recalling his first visit to 112 Mercer Street, he pictures Einstein gliding toward him from the far end of a long corridor “in a sort of un-deliberate dance. It was enchanting, as if Einstein were walking on air. It was maybe the way someone else might whistle as they moved. He danced. He seemed somehow to be expressing his love of music as he moved.”

February 15, 2012

Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (University of California Press $34.95) has an abundance of memorable moments, some shocking, some joyful, some sad, some funny. The ninety-one-year-old jazz legend had help pulling it all together from his wife of 22 years, Gwen Terry, who not only saw him through this project but stood by him during a perfect storm of medical challenges that intruded on but never fully thwarted his busy life as a performer, teacher, and goodwill ambassador.

Out of Nowhere

I shared a moment with Clark Terry nine years ago. It began with a telephone call. I was writing a piece about a November 1950 recording session by the Count Basie small group on which Clark played trumpet. After finding “C Terry” in the Englewood N.J. phone book, I had to work up the nerve to dial the number, being, after all, a stranger calling out of nowhere about a three-minute performance he’d been part of more than 50 years before. Half-expecting to encounter an answering machine or a protective spouse, I was startled when the man himself answered the phone. At first he sounded tired and groggy, having just returned, he told me, from L.A, where he’d played a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He perked up when he heard that the focus of my article was the song “Little White Lies” and the solo played by the brilliant tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who was born this week, February 13, 1921, and died an ugly, drug-related death in May 1955. Gray’s widow, Dorothy, had called me from California after reading “Song of the Thin Man,” a piece I’d written for the Village Voice. My enthusiasm for her husband’s playing with Basie had prompted her to suggest that I talk with Clark. “They were very close in those days,” she said. “He was best man at our wedding.”

“A Beautiful Time”

Holding the phone to the speaker, I played Clark both takes of “Little White Lies” while for the first time in half a century, he listened to his performance as the sweet-talking liar while Wardell played, with naked feeling, the heartsick victim. When he asked to hear the music over again, it was as if Wardell had come back to life again long enough to formally introduce us.

I mailed Clark my CD of the “Little White Lies” session along with a note and some questions, and with true jazz-life timing, he called me at 2:30 in the morning and talked well past three about “the beautiful time” he and Wardell Gray had with the Basie small group, the road trips, sharing a room in Philadelphia, the food (“Beans smeans!”), baseball and haircuts and the secret language they shared, esoteric phrases like “Put the cuffs on him, Sam!” borrowed from some show they’d seen. After Clark left Basie to join Duke Ellington, they kept in touch, corresponding “religiously” until drugs came between them. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard he was using. He was such a conscientious person. And when I read about his death in the paper, I jumped up and screamed. I couldn’t believe it, you know. I really loved him.”

“It Broke My Heart”

For reasons most likely having to do with space and name recognition, Wardell Gray receives only a passing mention in Clark Terry’s memoir. But he’s there, between the lines, when reference is made to the “camaraderie” of the Basie group, and if you’ve heard Clark lament what happened on that May night in Las Vegas, you know that his old friend’s death haunts the chapter where for the first time in the book he directly confronts the plague of drugs. “It was an overdose,” he told me during that late-night call. They “thought he was dead so they put him in a car, drove into the desert and dumped him out but he wasn’t dead yet. It was the rocks in the desert that broke his neck. Dorothy showed me the death certificate.” The pained disbelief was still in his voice five decades later. “I couldn’t understand it. He had everything going for him.”

In the chapter focused on the issue of drugs, Clark recalls the time, “around 1953,” when he was on his way to a restaurant in the Times Square area and saw “this bulk lying in the gutter on Broadway. I walked closer and looked and discovered that it was a person. I rolled him over with my foot and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Miles Davis!”

Thinking back to that stunning moment, Clark surely flashed on the fate of Wardell Gray. With Miles, who would survive to have a spectacular career, Clark could at least do something about it, so he helped him up, took him into a restaurant, bought him some breakfast, walked him back to his own hotel, and put him to bed before going out for a couple of hours. When he came back, the door to the room was open, Miles was gone, and so were Clark’s clothes, trumpet, and radio.

Clark’s coda to that scene: “So many of the cats were on dope. It broke my heart, but there was nothing I could do.”

In fact, Clark Terry went on to do a great deal, setting an example by abstaining, even when users tried to force it on him, and by helping enrich the future of jazz through teaching and working with generations of young musicians.

Words and Music

One of the core lessons Clark Terry teaches his students is the importance of translating the lyric of a song (like “Little White Lies”) into “the language of jazz” (his italics), “how to bend a note, slur it, ghost it,” how to say “I love you” to “a lovely lady.” As a writer, he turns the lesson around, finding ways to translate the Terry sound into English. What enlivens his writing is the element Gary Giddins has singled out in his playing, his “personality,” that distinctive “comic esprit” — “every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.”

Clark’s personality shines forth throughout the book, but most vividly during his early years on the road. After describing Ida Cox, whose voice “could have knocked a fly off the back wall,” Clark sketches another performer in her troupe, “a peg-legged guy” whose skin color was “coffee with a dash of cream” and whose “slicked back conk was so oily that a flea would have broken his neck trying to land.” Clark nicknamed him “A Track and a Dot,” because “when he’d walked in the snow he’d made a footstep and a hole.”

Clark had names for just about everyone. Tall, thin Wardell was “Bones” and his stylish wife, Dorothy, was “Vogue.” His nicknaming skills get mightily exercised in one of the numerous early road life anecdotes, where he and his bandmates endure a 750-mile ride in the back of a truck full of monkeys he names “Twitchy,” “Chatty,” “Snags,” “No-Tail,” “Old Man Mose,” “Lips,” “Bubble Eyes,” “Ribs,” and “the Warden” (who “fought a lot”). The monkeys “became tolerable after a few hours and it seemed like they didn’t want to be bothered with us any more than we wanted to be bothered with them. So the trip wasn’t too bad, other than the smell and the noise. But we did have to turn our back and sneak bites from the food.”

Food also provides material for several Terryesque zingers. To describe rapport with a buddy, he writes, “We hit it off like biscuits and molasses.” Playing a gig in the rain, many pages and years later: “We were all as wet as biscuits in the river.” Clark’s “repertoire was getting fatter than a liver-fed cat.” Some product placement from early days with a band: “We were dressed sharper than Gillette razors.” Having never finished high school, he was daunted by teaching a clinic at a real college: “I felt like a young mouse on a cat farm.”

One of Clark’s most curious similes — “I felt like a small dot on a huge manuscript” — comes when he abandons Basie for Ellington, his guilt compounded by a not so little white lie he had to tell in order to make the move. When he runs into Basie years later: “Seeing the smile on his face and knowing that I’d lied to him made me feel as small as a cork in the ocean.”

Among the book’s strongest chapters are those covering his years with Ellington. Describing the way Duke handled his musicians (“all these very different attitudes and egotudes”), Clark writes, “He knew exactly how to use each man’s sound to create the most amazing voicings. The sounds of trains, whistles, birds, footsteps, climaxes, cries. Rhythms that vibrated the floor. Harmonies with ebbs and flows that almost lifted me right out of my chair.” Clark imagines the eyes of the audience “glued to us like we were the fountain of life. The music was so powerful and electric, if I’d had a big plug I could have stuck it in the air and lit up the whole world.”

Lighting Up YouTube

You can see Clark Terry lighting up YouTube’s vision of jazz heaven, whether he’s making love to the trumpet or the flugelhorn, or creating his own foxy language with “Mumbles,” the ultimate in word jazz, on the Tonight Show, or in what may be his earliest filmed appearance, the Snader transcript of the Basie small group’s “Bass Conversation.” In the parallel universe of YouTube, Clark is forever 30 and Wardell is 29, they’re always on the bandstand, moving shoulder to shoulder, swaying, jiving to the beat laid down by the Basie rhythm section, the Count mugging outrageously at the piano, steady Freddie Greene strumming, Jimmy Lewis “playing the hell out of the bass” (as Clark would put it), smiling Gus Johnson dealing with the drums. After clarinetist Buddy DeFranco takes the first solo, it’s Wardell’s turn, quoting “Swinging On a Star” before cutting loose, one on one with Jimmy Lewis. But it’s Clark who delivers the show stopper, making his trumpet talk, sassing the Count and then riding out in style as the ensemble kicks in and all is as it should be in the best of all possible worlds.

February 8, 2012

Dickens_dreamHis genius plays like a warm light on the characteristic aspects of homely England. No man ever loved England more; and the proof of it remains in picture after picture of her plain, old-fashioned life — in wayside inns and cottages, in little dwellings hidden amid the City’s vastness and tumult, in queer musty shops, in booths and caravans. Finding comfort or jollity, he enjoys it beyond measure, he rubs his hands, he sparkles, he makes us laugh with him from the very heart.

—George Gissing on Charles Dickens

The first night of my first trip to England, Ethel and Bertie, the suburban London couple I was staying with, took me to the pub described in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841). They had treated my father to the same outing ten years earlier during the summer he’d spent in their guest room. When I left after a week of cheerful and caring English hospitality, they gave me a copy of Barnaby Rudge inscribed “In memory of a happy evening spent at the Dickens Maypole, King’s Head, Chigwell.” Ethel and Bertie’s parting gift to my father was a family treasure — a letter with the Gad’s Hill letterhead in Dickens’s hand, written not long before he died.

In a 1939 essay that aided the 20th century revival of Dickens’s literary reputation, Edmund Wilson blamed the lack of “serious attention” from British biographers, scholars, or critics on the fact that Dickens “has become for the English middle class so much one of the articles of their creed — a familiar joke, a favourite dish, a Christmas ritual — that it is difficult for British pundits to see in him the great artist and social critic that he was.”

Although Dickens meant more to Ethel and Bertie than “a familiar joke,” our trip to the Dickens Maypole fits with the “favorite dish” and “Christmas ritual” stereotype Wilson has in mind. But when I think of the way they opened their home to me and my father, it’s clear that Ethel and Bertie were themselves Dickensian, in the best sense of that hugely inclusive term. They were just the sort of warm, caring, pure-of-heart people who would have given refuge and nourishment to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist or Little Nell and her grandfather.

A Dickensian Hero

Wilson sees the “typical Dickens expert” circa 1939 as an “old duffer” primarily interested “in proving that Mr. Pickwick stopped at a certain inn or slept in a certain bed.” After chiding the Oxbridge literati and the Bloomsbury set for their haughty neglect of “the greatest English writer of his time,” Wilson singles out George Gissing (1857-1903), “whose prefaces and whose book … are not only the best thing on Dickens in English, but stand out as one of the few really first-rate pieces of literary criticism produced by an Englishman of the end of the century.”

A Dickensian hero in his own right, Gissing was born above his father’s chemist’s shop and had a brilliant career as a scholarship student at Owen College, Manchester, until he fell in love with Nell, a prostitute he’d rescued and attempted to reform, spending what little money he had to keep her off the streets. Caught stealing from fellow students, he was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled. After doing a month’s hard labor in prison, he spent a year in the U.S., taught school, wrote poems idealizing Nell, and published his first fiction in a Chicago paper. On his return to England, he married Nell and wrote Workers in the Dawn (1880) while struggling to care for his ailing alcoholic wife, who would be back on the streets five years after the marriage, and out of his life until he had to identify her body five years and six novels later.

By the time Gissing published Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898), he’d written 18 novels, including major works such as The Nether World (1889) and New Grub Street (1891) and, along with Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, was among the most highly regarded British novelists of the late 19th century. Coming to his study of Dickens as an enlightened admirer who had “lived the life” while proving himself an expert practitioner of the same craft, Gissing balances a novelist’s insights with the uninhibited attitude of a reader who attacks the defects no less forthrightly than he celebrates the highlights.

Getting Personal 

Gissing’s fraught personal history with Nell may explain why his remarks on Dickens’s fallen or embattled women can at times take on a distinctly personal intensity. In the chapter titled “Women and Children,” Gissing appears to be drawn by the dynamic of his own experience to the issue of “English censorship” and the fact that showing the “actual course of things in a story of lawless (nay, or of lawful) love is utterly forbidden” while “a novelist may indulge in ghastly bloodshed to any extent of which his stomach is capable.” The example he offers is of Dickens himself performing scenes from his own work “on a public platform,” where he “recites with terrible power the murder of a prostitute by a burglar [in Oliver Twist] yet no voice is raised in protest. Gore is perfectly decent; but the secrets of an impassioned heart are too shameful to come before us even in a whisper.”

You can almost feel the negative charge flowing from Dickens to Gissing when he says, “On this account I do not think it worth while to speak of Nancy [the murdered prostitute], or of other lost creatures appearing in Dickens.” For the ex-husband who sacrificed his education and more than ten years of his life to one of those “lost creatures,” the response is an outraged citing of a passage from Little Dorrit where “a woman of the town” accosts Amy Dorrit “and her idiot friend Maggy” as they are “wandering about the streets at night.” Suddenly Gissing is right there, in your face as surely as if he were sitting across from you in a pub telling you “read, I beg, that passage” and “wonder that the same man who penned this shocking rubbish could have written in the same volume pages of a truthfulness beyond all eulogy.”

Contemporary readers accustomed to novels like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will find nothing shocking in the 14th chapter of Book I of Little Dorrit. And while it may cause an occasional awkward silence in my imaginary pub table dialogue with Gissing, his spontaneous, sometimes indecorous attitude is among the qualities that make him such an appealing and effective champion of Dickens. In fact, he’s doing it again on the same page, badmouthing Dora, David Copperfield’s lavishly idealized, ever-attentive wife: “Take Dora seriously,” he tells you, “and at once you are compelled to ask by what right an author demands your sympathy for such a brainless, nerveless, profitless simpleton.” Before you have time to say a word or two in Dora’s or Dickens’s defense, Gissing leans closer, his eyes shining as he completes another shocking rubbish-to-unparalleled truthfulness couplet, “Enter into the spirit of the chapter, and you are held by one of the sweetest dreams of humour and tenderness ever translated into language.”

Gissing’s approach is a critical version of tough love. When Dickens gets out of line, he holds him to account but through it all you know that he would agree with Edmund Wilson that Dickens was “incomparably the greatest English writer of his time” and the creator of “the largest and most varied world.”

For my long-ago hosts Ethel and Bertie, Dickens was as much a part of their homeland as high tea and a night at the King’s Head, but their notion of his greatness was closer to Gissing’s: “He lived to take his place in a society of wealth, culture, and refinement, but his heart was always with the people, with the humble-minded and those of low estate,” where “he had found the material for his genius to work upon,” as “the perfect mouthpiece of English homeliness.”

Born February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870. Shown here, Dickens’s Dream is a watercolor by Robert William Buss (1804-1875), who began it after Dickens’s death but did not live to finish it. An edition of George Gissing’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study was published last year by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. The Princeton Public Library’s Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary celebration concludes tonight, Wednesday, February 8, with a 7 p.m. showing of George Cukor’s 1935 film David Copperfield in the Community Room.

Note: I’ve just been informed that Grayswood Press has published a 3-volume edition of the complete works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens  ( There are also several online e-versions of Gissing’s writings on Dickens.

January 25, 2012

Wordsworth & his exquisite Sister are with me …. Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive …. Her information various — her eyes watchful in minutest observations of nature — and her taste a perfect electrometer — it bends, protrudes, and draws in at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
from a letter, July 1797

It’s late at night, the wind is blowing, and for the first time in too many years, I’m reading Virginia Woolf, who was born on January 25, 1882. In a piece about Dorothy Wordsworth, who died on January 25, 1855, Woolf is writing so lucidly and thoughtfully, in prose so nuanced and true, you feel that you’re there, in the moment, in the room, the sentences glowing like the embers of a fire you’re warming your hands by:

“For did not Coleridge come walking over the hills and tap at the cottage door late at night — did she not carry a letter from Coleridge hidden safe in her bosom?”

In that paraphrasing of passages in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal from the winter of 1801-1802, Woolf could be quoting from a child’s storybook of England where the author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes walking over the hills of night to tap at the door of Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister.” She’s waiting, “tormented by feelings which almost mastered her, still she must control, still she must repress, or she would … cease to see,” for she knows that only “if one subdued oneself, and resigned one’s private agitations” would one be rewarded. It’s as if Virginia has been reading over Dorothy’s shoulder before becoming her, sitting in her place, pen in hand, arranging the journal as I’m arranging her commentary.

An Uncommon Reader

Reading The Common Reader and The Death of the Moth in handsome online texts provided by the University of Adelaide Library in Australia, I came to Virginia Woolf’s Dorothy Wordsworth fresh from the passionate intensity of her Mary Wollstonecraft and “the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life,” she who was “at once so resolute and so dreamy, so sensual and so intelligent, and beautiful into the bargain.” When a certain unworthy lover attempted to escape her “quickness, her penetration, her uncompromising idealism,” Wollstonecraft followed him with letters, “torturing him with their sincerity and their insight.” Fishing “for minnows,” Woolf writes, “he had hooked a dolphin.”

Woolf’s responsiveness to Dorothy Wordsworth is less passionate, but no less eloquent and intimate. Comparing the two women, she writes that Dorothy “never railed against the cloven hoof of despotism” and “never confused her own soul with the sky” but “ruthlessly subordinated” herself “to the trees and the grass.” Otherwise she would be letting her own ego get in the way of the object she was observing, “would be calling the moon ‘the Queen of the Night’” and “talking of ‘dawn’s orient beams’” while “soaring into reveries and rhapsodies and forgetting to find the exact phrase for the ripple of moonlight upon the lake.” In other words, she would be bound by poetical conventions like those sometimes observed by Coleridge and her brother William, with his “metrical arrangement” of “the real language of men.”

Woolf and Coleridge

Meanwhile in “The Man at the Gate” (from The Death of the Moth), “the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge” inspires Virginia Woolf to transcend the brilliant, gossipy portraiture of contemporary observers like Thomas DeQuincey, whose image of S.T.C. “standing in a gateway” offers her an opening. After quoting DeQuincey’s description (“his eyes were large and soft in their expression” etc), she points out that by the time DeQuincey met Coleridge, in 1807, “the Kendal black drop” (as medicinal opium was called) “had robbed [Coleridge] of his will” but had “left his mind unfettered,” and so “as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate, his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned” (DeQuincey’s among them of course). Woolf then proposes Coleridge as the “immortal character” a “great novelist” such as Charles Dickens might have created.

Using examples of passages from Coleridge’s letters that Dickens might have incorporated in the portraying of such a character, including one she identifies as “the very voice … of Micawber himself,” Woolf takes full command of the analogy, becoming great herself in respect of her subject’s greatness:

“But there is a difference. For this Micawber knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.”

Woolf ends the paragraph by imagining “the Dickens Coleridge” and “the Henry James Coleridge perpetually [tearing] him asunder,” as one “sends out surreptitiously” to the chemist “for another bottle of opium” while “the other analyses the motives that have led to this hypocrisy into an infinity of fine shreds.”

How They Looked

On first meeting Dorothy Wordsworth in 1897, when she was 27, Coleridge wrote of her to a friend: “a woman indeed! — in mind & heart.” DeQuincey sketches an intriguing picture of Dorothy at 30 (except for a silhouette, the only image we have is a dull, dowdy portrait painted when she was 62), beginning with a phrase from her brother’s poem “Beggars”: “‘Her face was of Egyptian brown’; rarely in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gipsy tan.” Her eyes “were wild and startling. and hurried in their motion” and “some subtle fire of impassioned intellect burned within.” Wordsworth himself writes of “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes.” Coleridge was more straightforward: “her person is such that, if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary — if you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty.”

In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008), Francis Wilson compares the bond between Dorothy and her beloved William to the fictional one between Catherine and Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. While it’s easy to see flashes of Dorothy’s wildness in the moor-roaming Catherine, it’s a stretch to picture the waspish William in the same dark glass as Heathcliffe. Remove him from the radiant aura of his most inspired poetry and his sister’s adoration, and you find someone with an ego as big as the Lake District (when skating on a pond, it’s said that he liked to spell his own name in the ice). And try imagining a Heathcliffe small enough to fit into Thomas DeQuincey’s picture of Wordsworth, “upon the whole, not a well-made man … pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs,” not that there was an “absolute deformity about them,” for they had been “serviceable legs beyond the average,” having “traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles.”

While Dorothy’s references to her brother are almost always loving, if not adoring, she seems never to really see him the way she (after subduing her “private agitations”) sees a landscape. She regards Coleridge, however, as clearly and honestly as she perceives objects in nature: “At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes” with his “wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair,” but he is “a wonderful man” whose “conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit.” As natural and devoted as Dorothy’s sisterly love for William may have been, her feeling for Coleridge sometimes overwhelms her, breaking through, spiritedly and spontaneously, as it does in a journal entry from November 1801: “C. had a sweet day for his ride. Every sight and every sound reminded me of him dear, dear fellow, of his many talks to us, by day and by night, of all dear things. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping — nervous blubbering says William.” Contrast this glimpse of William’s callousness (which Dorothy instantly rebuts: “It is not so”) to her appreciation of the opposite qualities in Coleridge, “so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful.”

Lake Country Mystique

When Van Morrison sings, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge smokin up in Kendal by the Lakeside” in “Summertime in England,” he’s playing on the mystique embodied by, as Coleridge phrased it, “three persons and one soul” wandering the hills and valleys and cliffs of Devon and the fells of the Lake Country between 1798 and 1808. While Morrison throws Bristol and Avalon, Blake and T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Lady Gregory, and Mahalia Jackson into the mix, there’s no room in his rock and roll vision of Avalon for the Bloomsbury set. Even so, it’s easier to see a “gipsy-tan” Virgina Woolf hiking the Lake District with Dorothy than it is to picture Wordsworth sharing a joint or even a taste of the “Kendal black drop” with Coleridge.

Her Departure

Surely Virginia Woolf must at some point have registered the fact that January 25, the month and day of her birth, coincided with the month and day of Dorothy Wordsworth’s death. A picturesque version of Virginia’s own death, on March 28, 1941, can be seen in The Hours (2002) as Nicole Kidman walks resolutely into the River Ouse. There’s something closer to Dorothy Wordsworth’s subdued “seeing” in the account of Virginia’s last walk in Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (Oxford 1996) by Panthea Reid, who lives in Princeton:

“… Virginia walked across the bowling green unobserved. She passed along the fence by two elm trees and let herself out at the top gate. With huge black rooks cawing in the tall trees above, Virginia set out toward the river valley. She walked across the meadows, buffeted by the wind from the sea, until she reached the River Ouse, put stones in her pocket, left her walking stick on the bank, walked into the water, and sank into a tidal current, hoping to find ‘rest on the floor of the sea.’”

January 18, 2012

The crimes of Bernard Madoff have occupied journalist Diana Henriques since the details of his stunning, $65 billion Ponzi scheme began to unfold in December 2008. Ms. Henriques, a senior financial reporter for The New York Times and the only journalist to have interviewed Madoff in prison since his incarceration, has written a book about the scandal, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, published by Henry Holt and Company.

Ms. Henriques’s fascination with the now-legendary character continues. As guest speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon at the Princeton Marriott on January 5, she expressed amazement at the way that Mr. Madoff, a quiet loner, was able to gain people’s trust and carry out decades of deception.

“We don’t know exactly when he stepped over the line and began to cheat,” she said, adding that her research leads her to believe it had definitely started by about 1987. “Regardless,” she added, “Madoff put his own distinctive stamp on what is an age-old crime: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Mr. Madoff conducted what is considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. In March 2009, he pleaded guilty to 11 federal felonies and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors, from individuals to large, charitable foundations. Clients, located across the globe, ranged from friends and relatives of Mr. Madoff to foundations started by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and author Elie Wiesel.

Ms. Henriques, whose local connections include stints at The Lawrence Ledger and The Trenton Times, credits Mr. Madoff’s troubled upbringing in Queens, N.Y. to his criminal behavior. “His father’s serial business failures put the family in a precarious financial state,” she said, leading to his “nearly pathological inability to meet failure.” As early as 1962, when faced with the choice of admitting failure at one of his ventures, he lied.

“Even then, he found it easier to lie,” Ms. Henriques said. “When I first interviewed him in prison, he refused to even admit he had failed at his Ponzi scheme. He simply got tired of the constant tap dance he had to do to raise fresh cash, and he quit. He let it collapse.”

For several years before the 2008 scandal, Ms. Henriques knew Mr. Madoff as the head of a small firm that was often open past the market’s 4 p.m. closing time, making him a frequent source for late-breaking information. Never, in those days, would she have imagined him as a criminal mastermind, able to convince people to entrust him with their life savings.

“He was a quiet, soft-spoken loner who hated parties,” she said. “Unlike the classic Ponzi schemer, he treated you like you were the smartest person in the room. Instead of trying to impress you that he was a Wall Street wizard, he seemed impressed by you. It was a remarkable form of emotional jiu-jitsu. People were blinded by his quiet magnetism and laid-back confidence. He could win your trust, and that is the sine qua non of Ponzi schemers.”

While other Ponzi scheme masterminds exploited investors’ greed, Mr. Madoff exploited their fear. What people fear most, Ms. Henriques said, are the risks of an increasingly complex market that they don’t understand. “Consistency, safety, and security — that’s what he promised,” Ms. Henriques said. “Americans baffled by the market placed their trust in people like Madoff.”

By the time Ms. Henriques made her second visit to Mr. Madoff in prison, his son Mark, unable to withstand the constant implications that he and his brother were involved in the scheme, had committed suicide. “On the first visit, I could sense only self-deception and denial,” she said. “But on the second visit, I saw a shattered man, almost unrecognizable from the man I had met earlier. There is no doubt he feels remorse, but just how much, I don’t know.”

Ms. Henriques concluded her talk by speaking of lessons that can be learned from the Madoff scandal. “All of us need a crash course in the care and handling of the wizards in our lives,” she said, “before we encounter the next Bernie Madoff.” As an example, she mentioned former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, who resigned last November from his position as chief executive officer of the MF Global securities firm amid an investigation into money that disappeared from client accounts as the company sank into bankruptcy. “Warnings were dismissed, because, well, Corzine was special,” she said. “He was a Wall Street wizard and seemed confident, until things blew up.”

Exceptions were made for Mr. Madoff despite many inconsistencies in his business practices because he, too, seemed like such a wizard. If more people had shared their doubts with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the outcome might have been different.

“We’ve got to figure out how to navigate in a world that runs on trust,” Ms. Henriques said. “The magic spell that keeps us safe from wizards is humility. I have a growing sense of certainty that we still haven’t learned our Madoff lesson. I just hope The Wizard of Lies can change that, one lesson at a time.”

Continuing toward February 7, which would be Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, this second in a series of bicentenary meditations with an English accent appears on the birthday of Archie Leach (1904-1986), the creator of Cary Grant, and A.A. Milne (1882-1956), the creator of Winnie the Pooh. With apologies to Pooh, who was, after all, only a fictional character, the subject will be the real person who became, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”

That Cary Grant was real I can offer eyewitness proof, for my wife saw him once, her all-time favorite movie star, on a street corner in 1972 in his hometown, Bristol, where the picture shown here was taken, probably that same year. Though she was in shock, my wife did not faint, but she did stare in spite of having grown up in Hollywood, where children are taught not to stare, even if they find themselves sharing the same elevator with Audrey Hepburn.

In explaining why Cary Grant was the “the best,” David Thomson locates “the essence of his quality” in the ability to be “attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him, but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.”

Cary Grant hints at the same idea, if inadvertently, in the opening of the three-part magazine autobiography he titled “Archie Leach,” writing that he “first saw the light of day — or rather the dark of night” at around 1 a.m. “on a cold January morning.” True to the traditional Dickensian beginning, the house was humble, lacked “modern heating conveniences,” and “kept only one step ahead of freezing by means of small coal fires in small bedroom fireplaces.”

Archie Leach grew up in an area of Bristol called Montpelier, lived in a rowhouse on Picton Street, went to a nearby school, played goalkeeper on the football team, shivered in the damp cold English winters, hung his stockings on the mantel at Christmas, collected stamps, ran errands for his mother, took piano lessons, suffered a siege of puppy love for the butcher’s daughter, and wore his first pair of long trousers (white flannels made by his mother) to a church bazaar. The “high point” of his week was to escape parental supervision every Saturday at the local cinema watching and no doubt learning from favorites like Charles Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain, and Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy star. As he grew older, he went with his mother to the Clare Street Cinema, “where one could take tea while watching the films,” but he preferred to go with his father to a larger cinema called the Metropole that “smelled of raincoats and galoshes.” His father would stop at a tobacconist’s shop and buy his favorite pipe tobacco, and at the next shop some apples, “an occasional small bag of white round peppermints,” or, if Archie was good, a bar of chocolate. Father and son shared a special fondness for a weekly serial called The Clutching Hand.

In case that sounds too ordinary for a Dickens novel, the plot thickens plenty when nine-year-old Archie comes home from school one day to find his mother has disappeared. No warning, no believable explanation. After a while it became clear that she  was not coming back, ever. Archie’s father, who told him she was on a “long holiday,” had placed her in a “care facility.” It would be 20 years before Archie saw her again. By then he had become Cary Grant.

While Dickens might well have conceived a minor music hall troubadour named Archie Leach searching for his lost mother on the byways of life, surely no novelist prophet on the planet could imagine Archie Leach coming to the U.S. at 16, playing the vaudeville circuit for 10 years as an acrobat, stilt-walker, juggler, and mime, signing a Paramount contract as “Cary Grant” and launching a moving picture career that led to worldwide renown as the paragon of Hollywood sophistication, the embodiment of “class.” And who could imagine that a stilt-walker from Bristol would be named named second only to Humphrey Bogart among “The 50 Greatest Male Stars of All Time” in 1999 by The American Film Institute and first among “The 50 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time” by Premiere magazine in 2005. Even so, he never won a Best Actor Oscar, unless you count the honorary one he was given in 1970.

A Wartime Gesture

One of the two films for which Grant did receive an Oscar nomination, None But the Lonely Heart (1944), was made, as James Agee points out in his Nation review, “under unusually unexpected auspices,” in that “its star, Cary Grant, asked that it be made, and plays its far from Cary Grantish hero so attentively and sympathetically” that Agee “all but overlooked the fact that he is not well constituted for the role.” There’s a poignant irony in such an assessment, since this was the one film (with the exception of his breakthrough role as a Cockney con artist in Sylvia Scarlett) where Cary Grant came consciously closest to playing Archie Leach; it was also his way of identifying with his homeland and mother during the devastating series of bombing raids that ravaged Bristol between 1940 and 1944. The film also evoked his star-crossed relationship with his mother, who communicated with him by cablegram during the war. Based on a Richard Llewellyn novel, the story is about a cockney drifter who comes home to his beleaguered family and ailing mother, and most of the details and the London East End setting were based on Grant’s recollections of his Bristol youth as poured forth in hours of conversation with his chosen director and script writer (and lifelong close friend), Clifford Odets.

According to Graham McCann’s Cary Grant: A Class Apart (Columbia 1996), Grant “gave careful instructions to the set designers, ensuring that the dimensions and décor matched those of the sitting-rooms and bedrooms he had once inhabited in Bristol.” His choice of a left-wing playwright like Odets to both write and direct was a gamble for the apolitical Grant; that, and the proletarian setting, led to the inevitable suspicions about communistic propaganda (in 1953 Grant publicly condemned McCarthyism).

None But the Lonely Heart was the last and least profitable of a wartime group of films that included some of Cary Grant’s darkest, strongest, most personal roles. The series began in 1941 with George Stevens’s Penny Serenade, his first Oscar nomination, for a deeply felt, “good to the point of surprise” performance; the surprised reviewer was Otis Ferguson, who is reacting to the dark/light Grant dynamic, “not only that easy swing and hint of the devil,” but the expression of “faith and passion.” Next was Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where the subtle ambiguity of Grant’s persona is brilliantly and definitively exploited, a combination that is also vividly at work in Grants’s virile, exciting performance as a suspected murderer and anarchist in 1942’s The Talk of the Town (another exemplary George Stevens film). Then there’s the charismatic, tough-talking, draft-dodging gangster in H.C. Potter’s Mr. Lucky (1944), where real-life implications come into play when Grant jumps all over the love interest (Laraine Day) for taking umbrage at his avoidance of military service: “Listen this isn’t my war! I had my war: crawling out of the gutter — the hard way. I won that war!” As McCann points out regarding another outburst, there’s a good deal more Archie Leach than Cary Grant in the references to being “awful poor” with “what-for to eat.”

The Blitz

None But the Lonely Heart reflects a wartime state of mind in addition to giving Grant a way of reaching out to his embattled Bristol. On November 24 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the city for six hours, killing 207 people and leaving 1,400 homeless; two weeks later when the city center was pounded, 256 people died; a month later, on the night of January 3, 1941, while Grant was filming Penny Serenade, another raid took 149 lives and destroyed still more of the most historic part of the city he grew up in. The next and most demoralizing attack, on the night of March 16, 1941, which roughly coincided with the filming of Suspicion, killed 257, devastating the neighborhood where he went to school, experienced first love, and saw his first movies. The Mass Observation Unit noted that “People are getting worn out with the continual bombardment …. The irregular, sporadic, sudden switching of heavy raids here has a strongly disturbing effect.”

But the bombs kept coming, with another major attack, “the Good Friday raid” on April 11, as “wave after wave of bombs dropped incendiary devices and high explosives.” The total death toll for attacks was 1299, with 1303 seriously injured, and 81,830 houses destroyed. While Cary Grant was presumably spared the details of the devastation of Archie Leach’s Bristol, he was not spared the knowledge that his aunt and uncle and two cousins were among the dead.

You don’t need to read much about Cary Grant to know that for all the wit, comic style, and charm that brighten and energize films like Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, George Cukor’s Holiday and Philadelphia Story, and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, he would have found it unconscionable to be living a life of glamour, wealth and ease in La La Land (Aldous Huxley called L.A. “the city of dreadful joy”) while his home city was a blazing inferno. He tried to find a way to get over there to see his mother and do his part (she told him she was “a fire watcher” but wished she “could do more”), his numerous applications for a passport (he didn’t become an American citizen until June 26, 1942) and requests for permission to go abroad on an entertainment tour were denied. He had to settle for touring various camps and bases around the U.S.

Class, Classy, Classic

“Class” is as loaded a word in England as “race” is in the U.S.A. Besides showing the impact World War I had on the class system, Downton Abbey, like Cary Grant, has class. Script, actors, sets, cinematography, all exemplify the positive implications of the word for which “style” is a close relative. Graham McCann played on the nuances of “class” when he subtitled his biography A Class Apart. In his prologue, he sums up his subject, “Socially, he was a glorious enigma, eliding every pat classification. Artistically, he was, in his own particular field, without peers,” and “a master of the ‘high definition performance’ Kenneth Tynan defined as “the hypnotic saving grace of high and low art alike.” You can find both extremes in Cary Grant and Archie Leach, Charlie Chaplin and his tramp, and Charles Dickens and his England.

The 1972 photograph shows 68-year-old Cary Grant on a hotel balcony in Bristol. He is pointing to the 148-year-old Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge. Grant’s birthday is being celebrated by Turner Classic Movies today, January 18, with the showing of seven of his films. Grant’s autobiography “Archie Leach” first appeared in three issues of The Ladies Home Journal, February, March, April 1963. You can read it on the Ultimate Cary Grant pages ( On YouTube there are a number of sensitively made memorial montages showing both the light and dark sides of the ultimate Class Act. And if you want a glimpse of the neighborhood he grew up in, google earth can set you right down in front of No. 21 Picton Street in Bristol, which remains, in spite of the blitz, one of the most beautiful cities in the British Isles.

January 11, 2012

“Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” —from P.J. Harvey’s song “England”

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake"

The new year belongs to England, or so it seems after a week listening to and living in P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake (Vagrant 2011) and watching a DVD of the first season of BBC’s savage, shamelessly gripping detective series Luther. As if those two brilliant broadsides weren’t enough, 2012 is also the Charles Dickens bicentenary. Since the “man who invented Christmas” also had a lot to do with the invention of England, the coming year presents an opportunity to explore one’s inner anglophile and/or anglophobe. If you’ve ever lived for an extended period in the place Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Our Old Home,” you’ve probably known both extremes.

Winner of the Mercury Prize as the best album of 2011 and the Guardian’s choice for Album of the Year, Polly Jean Harvey’s latest record should not be approached as either an indictment of her homeland or an anti-war polemic. Let England Shake is a work of art for the ages. At the moment I can’t remember the last time an album this side of Mozart or Charlie Parker has encouraged me to think in those terms. Well aware of the kneejerk reaction of certain benighted critics (the only one so far is Robert Christgau, who calls it, incredibly, “a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs”), Harvey has made it clear in various interviews how careful she was not to let the album become preachy or overtly political. While she’s admitted that her intentions could be called “political,” she uses the term only in the broadest sense, as in “how people relate to one another.”

Harvey’s lyrics can be as unsparing as the dark twists and turns of the action in Luther: England’s “weighted down with silent dead,” its “dancing days are done,” and “by the shores/heavy stones are falling.” In “The Last Living Rose,” Harvey sings:

Let me walk through the stinking alleys

To the music of drunken beatings

Past the Thames river glistening

Like gold hastily sold

For nothing … nothing

In “This Glorious Land,” the answer to her question, “What is the fruit of our glorious land?” is “deformed children” and “orphaned children.”

Charles Dickens might not be quite so harsh, but he would know where she’s coming from, having created characters like Fagin and Bill Sikes and, in Bleak House, a man so freighted with the stuff of sin that he simply exploded, leaving a toxic miasma in his wake. In Neil Cross’s fascinating Luther, mentally deformed Londoners kidnap, torture, and murder women and children and occasionally men, and England’s favorite couple, Alice and Luther, a pretty psychopath and a troubled black genius chief of detectives, take their romance to another level, discussing Paradise Lost in a church while a statue of Milton listens in.

And now we have the return of Downton Abbey, English life upstairs and downstairs during the Great War, featuring another star-crossed couple, Matthew and Mary. In Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey sings of war and death and pain with a ferocity that puts the token battle scenes in Downton Abbey to shame. While the themes and movements coming together in the concluding episode of Luther will have your heart in your throat, Harvey’s “All and Everyone” is a far more sophisticated and accomplished piece of emotional enchantment, driven, even diabolic, in its relentless pattern of pressure and release, crescendo and diminuendo, pounding out its message of death “everywhere, in the air.” Death isn’t confined to the battlefield, it’s as the title says “all and everyone.” The way the song is paced, moving in grim, stirring surges, creates an intensity that is both harrowing and beautiful. But then every song in this album is rich with beauty, no matter how grim the lyric or how dirge-like the sax/trombone/drumbeat of doom created by Harvey, who plays saxophone as well as autoharp, and is accompanied by John Parish, Mick Harvey (no relation), and John Marc Butty.

“The Dark Places,” another devastating lament (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), is as raw and pure as a cry of anguish. There’s nothing of mere message in Let England Shake. Like the title, the music simply moves in on you, grabs you, holds you, and, yes, shakes you.

“The world we live in” was Harvey’s answer when she was asked by an interviewer what inspired the album. These 12 songs ultimately celebrate life, music, nature, love, poetry, and the creative spirit. At the same time, considering that war and waste, greed and madness, sickness and death, are all worthy, challenging subjects for an artist with Harvey’s gifts, she embraces them, takes them on, makes a mission of them. When the album came out last February, she told an interviewer on Radio 4 that she’d started wondering “where the officially appointed war songwriter was. You’ve got your war artists, like Steve McQueen, and your war photographers. I fantasized that I had been appointed this official songwriter.” When her thoughts were brought to the attention of Roger Tolson at the Imperial War Museum, he was ready to explore the possibility that Harvey might actually visit the war zone in Afghanistan, submitting her name to the museum’s committee for discussion.

Clearly Harvey had a great deal more than England, the Great War, and the Gallipoli debacle on her mind during the two years she was gathering material for this album. She told New Musical Express that what most interested her were the “cycles of conflict across many eras” from World War I “right up to Iraq and Afghanistan” and “long after we’ve come and gone.” Part of her lengthy preparation involved reading blogs from Afghani women and Iraqis, “to hear what people are actually saying now.” Another key influence was Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, a photography exhibit by Seamus Murphy, whose videos accompany each of the album’s 12 songs. Since the lyrics are not always completely audible, Murphy begins most of his videos with someone speaking words from the song (my favorite is the auto mechanic reciting “Bitter Branches” as he works on an engine).

Harvey’s England

Harvey considers her conflicted view of England, “the push and pull you feel with your native land,” as a universal reality, something she hopes people from other countries will understand and sympathize with when they hear Let England Shake. In the title track, which is sung over the xylophone riff from the old pop novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a play on the Gallipoli theme, Harvey creates a realm of sound that rises like a rainbow over a lyric “weighted down with the silent dead.” The words and music run free, turning heavy death into a fountain to “splash about, swim back and forth, and laugh out loud” in.

From the first song on, Harvey gives herself up to the “cruel nature” of her theme, which the wind says “has won again” in “On Battleship Hill.” The first time you hear “England,” where she sings beyond singing in a transport of pure sound, it’s hard to listen to, a dissonant wailing that blends stridently with a sample of “Kassem Miro” by Said el Kurdi. As the song progresses, she seems to be letting it have its way with her, as if the song were singing her. The effect is searing, like the sound of an embattled spirit crying to be heard.

Other Englands

“England” is as scary a love song as you’ll ever hear, but a love song is what it profoundly is, “Undaunted, never failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” Compared to Harvey’s England, Kate Bush’s love song for her homeland in “Lionheart” is an idyll. When Bush sings the line “You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames — That old river poet that never, ever ends,” she wants love of England to make your heart ache, not to pierce it. While Polly’s war and death England tears her up, Kate dives into her lyrical war (“Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge”) where “the air raid shelters are blooming clover,” and, typically, kiss-me Kate sings, “Give me one kiss in apple-blossom./Give me one wish, and I’d be wassailing/In the orchard, my English rose.”

The “drunken beatings” in P.J. Harvey’s “Last Living Rose” that suggest the land of Luther take a gentler turn (“the sky move, the ocean shimmer, the hedge shake”) at the end. But the music recalls a line from an older song, Sinéad O’Connor’s “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”

Then there’s Ray Davies’s England in Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of The British Empire, but that’s something for another column, in the year of Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday.

If Ray is the UK’s rock and roll poet laureate, P.J. Harvey in Let England Shake performs in that realm where issues of custom, culture, time and place give way to the power of art. I can imagine her singing for England’s poets and writers, composers and painters, Turner and Whistler, Dickens and Wilde, Britten and Elgar, Rupert Brooke and Kipling, Chaplin and Shaw, among many others, dating back to Blake and Milton, shadowy figures in the balcony of the church in Harvey’s Dorset hometown of Bridport, where the album was recorded, watching the woman holding the autoharp to her chest and singing “I live and die through England.”

January 10, 2012

A CHEF’S MEMOIR: Jim Weaver, the executive chef/owner of Princeton’s Tre Piani Restaurant, has just published “Locavore Adventures” (Rivergate Books $22.95), a memoir about growing a sustainable food culture that also features 40 recipes.

Jim Weaver, the executive chef/owner of Princeton’s Tre Piani Restaurant, has written a book. Locavore Adventures (Rivergate Books $22.95) is a memoir about growing a sustainable food culture and a guide to “slowing down, savoring locally grown food, and celebrating life.”

Mr. Weaver is also the founder of the Central New Jersey Chapter of the “Slow Food” International Movement. The Slow Food Movement started in Italy a decade ago and is committed to preserving “endangered foods,” as well as small farms and unique food production methods. Slow Food enthusiasts argue that the contemporary obsession with fast, processed foods has destroyed people’s ability to taste, savor and understand the origins of food.

In Locavore Adventures, Mr. Weaver shares the story of how he came to solve this problem — building a local slow food culture that is ecologically responsible and also yields delicious results. He tells of his odyssey founding the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food, connecting local farmers, food producers, and chefs with the public to forge communities that value the region’s unique bounty. There are more than 40 recipes throughout the book, from Hot Smoked Brook Trout with Asparagus Puree and Pickled Cippollini Onions to Zuppa di Mozzarella.

“The Slow Food mission is aggressive,” according to Mr. Weaver. “We are active in many areas of food education, taste education, public awareness and promotion. We promote the dining table as a place of pleasure and conviviality. We promote diversity in food products and have helped many farmers find niche markets for products that supermarkets do not want to deal with because of looks, price, or perishability, such as heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and rare breeds of animals.”

Slow Food has also started an “Ark of Taste” to preserve “endangered foods” and food production methods from extinction. “If you want to taste true American history, try a genuine Delaware Bay Oyster,” says the chef who spearheaded the effort to preserve the Delaware Bay Oyster from extinction, which is threatened due to over-cultivation and environmental deterioration. He nominated and succeeded in getting the Delaware Bay Oyster inducted into the United States Slow Food Ark of Taste.

Chef Weaver works with many state and local organizations to sponsor events highlighting local foods. He was also a featured speaker at the 2004 NJ Vegetable Grower’s Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, to help market Jersey fresh produce. He recently served on the board of directors for the New Jersey Restaurant Association and is affiliated with countless professional organizations and charity events.
According to Josh Viertel, president, Slow Food USA, ”We are working to build a different world — one where food and farming are sources of health and well being for all people and the planet; one where food can be good, clean and fair. Jim Weaver sees that that different world is already partially built. Through telling that story, he paints a picture of what is possible.”


January 9, 2012

SALINGER BIOGRAPHER: Kenneth Slawenski, author of “J.D. Salinger: A Life” and creator of the Salinger website Dead Caulfields, will be talking and answering questions about Salinger in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, January 10 at 7 p.m.

Kenneth Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life and creator of the Salinger website Dead Caulfields, will speak and sign copies of his book on Tuesday, January 10 at 7 p.m. at Princeton Public Library. His appearance in the library’s Community Room will largely be a question and answer session, and attendees will be welcome to share their insights.

Mr. Slawennski will also be speaking to Princeton High School students in the PHS Performing Arts Center earlier that same day, January 10 at 1:30 p.m.

The Princeton event will mark the official launch of the paperback edition of J.D. Salinger: A Life, which appeared in hardcover a year after Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, at the age of 91. Mr. Slawenski’s biography of the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye was a Book of the Month Club selection. The English edition was reviewed by Peter Ackroyd, who found the book “well-written, energetic and magnificently researched.” A review in The Spectator pointed out the “love and zest” with which Mr. Slawenski “sets about his task.”

In citing the biography’s focus on the impact of Salinger’s combat experience in World War II, the Town Topics review (Jan. 26 2011) quoted a passage describing Salinger’s state of mind on completing The Catcher in the Rye in the autumn of 1950:

“Holden Caulfield, and the pages that contained him, had been the author’s constant companion for most of his adult years. Those pages were so precious to Salinger that he carried them on his person throughout the war. In 1944 he confessed … that he needed them with him for support and inspiration. Pages of The Catcher in the Rye had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless solders in countless places, and been carried through the death camps of Nazi Germany.”

Mr. Slawenski’s website currently features birthday celebrations of The Catcher in the Rye’s 60th and Franny and Zooey’s 50th. The site offers everything from a timeline and photos, to a comprehensive inventory of Salinger’s unpublished fiction.

All Princeton Public Library programs are free and open to the public. If programs require registration, preference is given to library cardholders. The physically challenged should contact the library at (609) 924-9529 48 hoursbefore any program with questions about special accommodations.

The library is in the Sands Library Building at 65 Witherspoon St. in Princeton Borough. Parking is available on neighboring streets and in the borough-operated Spring Street Garage, which is adjacent to the library. For more information about library programs and services, call (609) 924-9529 or visit


December 21, 2011

The best picture I ever made in my life.
—Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t like any holiday movies.
—various people

I walked into a silent movie at a loud and lively holiday party the other night. It wasn’t like what happens when Buster Keaton walks out of the audience right into the screen to save a damsel in distress in Sherlock Jr. Buster wanted to be in the picture. Not me. I’d just hung up my coat and was on my way into a new downtown office space I’d never been in before and straight ahead of me filling an entire wall was an enormous image of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile the people at the party were talking, drinking, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, and nobody seemed to be aware that looming on the wall behind them a larger-than-life George Bailey was having words with a monstrously enlarged version of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter, and no wonder, since you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s odd, but when you turn off the soundtrack, it drains the meaning from the film, cuts it loose, so that it becomes another element, a sort of fluid filmic wallpaper where it no longer really matters that Mr. Potter is evil and George Bailey is good, or that the good man is so deep in despair that he’s about to kill himself, all because of some missing moneyDVD rev. Without sound, without the ballast of an audience’s attention to it, even if you know the movie by heart, as I know this one, it turns into a ghostly dream from 1946 floating meaninglessly around in the background of real-life party circa 2011.

Sorry, I forgot, this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas column about films of the season where good conquers or simply ignores evil, Scrooge is transformed, George Bailey is saved by an angel in need of wings, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” and Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak, the feuding employees of Matuschek & Company known in real life as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, discover true love on Christmas Eve.

This week’s Town Talk question elicited the usual answers, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the happy exception being the person who simply said, “I don’t like holiday movies.” The truth is, most of the best films from any period in the past 100 years have not been conceived of or even promoted as holiday movies. The whole notion suggests warm and fuzzy, bright and sane films to feel good about. So what are the movies getting serious play in the December 20 New York Times? The David Fincher-Rooney Mara version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and that September 11 Christmas Carol, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A City Lights Ending

If you put the climactic moment of recognition from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) on the wall at a Christmas party, the meaning might remain intact even if the sound were off. Except of course that you’d be missing two of the most appealing voices ever to come out of Hollywood. Margaret Sullavan’s is rare enough to justify all by itself the advent of motion picture sound (“strange, fey, mysterious,” in the words of another rare star, Louise Brooks “like a voice singing in the snow”). In the denouement of this Budapest fairy tale, Sullavan’s stunned expression behind one word (“You?”) says it all. Jimmy Stewart has finally gently revealed that the person she’s fallen in love with through the eloquent anonymous letters he’s been writing her (with some help from Victor Hugo) is he, Kralik, the quarrelsome fellow worker she’s insulted (he’s bow-legged, has a “hand-bag” instead of a heart, “a suitcase instead of a soul,” and “an intellect like a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work”). It’s not as overwhelming a moment as the one it somewhat resembles, the shattering ending of Chaplin’s City Lights when the flower girl realizes that the silly little tramp (“You?”) is the rich handsome savior who paid for the operation that restored her sight. When Sullavan makes the adjustment from misery to doubt to luminous joy, it’s as if the bow-legged jerk has turned into a handsome prince and who else but Ernst Lubitsch would end a romance with the handsome prince hiking up his trousers to show that he’s not bow-legged?

Behind the Scenes

The back story to The Shop Around the Corner is worth telling. For one thing, Margaret Sullavan was by all accounts the love of Jimmy Stewart’s life (even his wife, Gloria, has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with Sullavan “and she with him”). A year ago, I described a scene between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) in which Stewart’s passionately delivered speech about “the tiny engine” in a blade of grass shows “a true American idol coming into his own.” In fact, it was Margaret Sullavan who, more than any other person, helped Stewart develop his unique style as an actor. Only two years earlier, he’d been going nowhere in minor roles at M-G-M. According to Lawrence J. Quirk’s 1986 biography Margaret Sullavan Child of Fate, when she was a top star at Universal, she insisted on having Stewart play the lead opposite her in Next Time We Love (1936), and when he struggled under the direction of Edward H. Griffith, who complained that the gangly young actor was “wet behind the ears” and “going to make a mess of things,” Sullavan spent the evenings “coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech,” the very qualities that were destined to be central to his appeal. Later, Griffith himself was among those who gave Sullavan credit for making Stewart a star.

You can see Next Time We Love in all its disappointing entirety on YouTube. Like so many films from the period, it begins charmingly enough with Margaret Sullavan as a college girl who goes to “junior proms with little boys from Princeton.” She and Stewart are at Penn Station, where she’s returning to school  via a 1936 version of Jersey Transit (“Princeton Junction” the third stop called out) until a goodbye embrace with Stewart convinces them to get married instead; she’s a budding actress, he’s a foreign correspondent whose job will put a fatal strain on their marriage. The love scenes, which are mostly centered on close-ups of her face, reveal the real-life emotional bond between the two actors.

Sullavan and Stewart co-starred again two years after Next Time We Love in Shopworn Angel, but it’s not until The Shop Around the Corner that they share a film as true equals, both major stars. Only ten years before, Stewart had been a sophomore at Princeton and Sullavan was working at the Harvard Coop.


I’ve seen neither The Shop Around the Corner’s 1949 turn-of-the-century musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime, with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, nor Nora Ephron’s 1998 version, You’ve Got Mail, which takes the medium of communication from snail mail to email and moves the story to the Upper West Side with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I can’t say that I’ve avoided either film out of any particular devotion to the original, but after a YouTube tour of each of the concluding recognition scenes, I think my instincts were right. The 1949 version of the last scene follows the script almost word for word and move for move, but Van Johnson’s charm is a long, long way from Jimmy Stewart’s. When she’s singing, Judy Garland can light up the dimmest of movies, but she has no song to sing in the last scene and even if she had, it couldn’t have given the moment the magic it has in The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, Garland’s signature song is used to provide some emotional heft to the conclusion of You’ve Got Mail, with Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack to help Meg Ryan suffer the touching revelation as Tom Hanks approaches amid the flowers of Riverside Park with his dog, Brinkley.

A Bergman Holiday

Imagine a Woody Allen scene where for an upbeat holiday date, he takes a warm-and-fuzzy type girl to an Ingmar Bergman double feature of The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. The idea started me wondering what the great European directors have done with the holiday. Fellini for Christmas? Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol? Can you think of a French Christmas movie this side of Desplechin’s not very joyous Christmas Tale? How about Germany? Christmas with Pabst and Murnau? A Fassbinder noel? Herzog for the holidays?

Strangely enough, that gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman has made not one but two great holiday films, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander, which I just revisited on YouTube. As fine a Christmas scene as you’ll ever see begins with a gift exchanged between the grandparents followed by a kiss with a newly wed glow to it. Then, when they open the window and the sounds of the street come in, the grandmother peers out smiling at the children cavorting in the snow, and says, “Here comes my family.” True, things do get very bleakly Bergman before his autobiographical epic comes to a close, a possibility introduced in the title sequence, which is set to some of the most beautiful and funereal music ever written (the second movement of Schumann’s piano quintet in E flat major), life and death and love, as Alexander wanders through empty rooms that will soon be filled with festive life, calling the names of family members who are no longer there.

December 14, 2011

On Conan DoyleMy father was easy to shop for at this time of year. “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes” was the Christmas mantra. As December came around, some publisher always had a book to offer, although nothing could top William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter. Any time I want to commune with my taciturn father, who died in 1986, all I have to do is browse in either volume, looking for his pencilled notes. Another way of getting in touch with him is to take out the bound typescript of his dissertation, an editing of the first three books (“which treat of Incorporeal Substances”) from the medieval encyclopedia that I cannot, to this day, pronounce without a hitch (De Proprietatibus Rerum), every word of it typed by my mother on a Royal portable.

My father’s scholarly fondness for Sherlock Holmes is not atypical. Michael Dirda, for one, pursued medieval studies, among other subjects, as a graduate student at Cornell before becoming a book critic for the Washington Post, a bibliophile, and a member of The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). That society of true believers spearheads the complex Sherlock Holmes subculture described in Dirda’s contribution to Princeton’s Writers On Writers series, On Conan Doyle: The Whole Art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press $19.95). In the realm of the BSI, fiction is truth and truth fiction, and if this playfully serious merging of reality and make-believe resembles a child’s game for adults, what else would you expect of a group named for the street urchins Holmes enlisted at a shilling a day in his quest for clues?

Salinger and Sir Arthur

There are moments in Dirda’s account of the inner workings of the Irregulars when the tone verges on becoming too “clubby,” as in his reference to the “absolutely wonderful time” he had at his first BSI weekend (an evening “for fraternal refreshment and for harmony”), where he felt “connected to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.” While language like “literary bonhomie” rouses my inner Holden Caulfield, the fact is that Holden’s creator, the late great enemy of all things phoney, J.D. Salinger, had a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes.

Consider Conan Doyle’s place on the daunting list of books for summer reading at Camp Haworth that five-year-old Seymour Glass requests of his librarian, “the incomparable Miss Overman,” in Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. After requesting that he be sent the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and Proust “in their entirety,” among many others, Seymour asks for “the complete works, quite in full, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the exception of any books that are not utterly concerned with Sherlock Holmes.” (By the way, Dirda celebrates some of the books Seymour takes exception to.) At this point in the prodigious letter Seymour recalls how, while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” The essence of Seymour’s revelation is not only what “Hapworth 16, 1924” is all about, it’s what Dirda and groups like the Baker Street Irregulars are all about; it’s the difference between admiration and adoration. Says Seymour: “As I darted through the water, it became crystal clear that it is far from an established fact that I am even demonstrably fond of the great Goethe, in my heart, while my love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via his contributions, is an absolute certainty!”

The equally buoyant enthusiasm at the heart of Michael Dirda’s appeal as a writer demonstrably in love with reading is underscored by the quotes on the back cover of his book, one of which declares that Dirda’s “life’s work” is to “declare his adoration for some literary gem” (“On Conan Doyle traces the arc of one such love affair”) while another uses the word “love” three times to explain why Dirda makes you feel “as if you’ve been inaugurated into a secret society of people who love what can be done with words.”

Living the Book

Although “love” may be the word of choice, it’s not really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers adore, it’s the act of reading itself, the moment of complete submission as you settle into the motion of the narrative and can feel the creaking of the horse-drawn coach, taste the fog, or, the ultimate reward, when you actually for the first time in your life experience the names, Charing Cross Station, Victoria, Marylebone Road, and Baker Street, and all those places you’ve known in the company of Holmes and Watson. It’s as if until that moment London had been a wonderful fantasy, something in a storybook co-authored by Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. In James Joyce’s Dublin, another fictional character with a devoted following in the real world, Leopold Bloom, guided me on the night walk I described in a June 16 Bloomsday column last year. Whether it’s London or Dublin or Balzac’s Paris, the authors of the books you love seem to hover watchfully over the cities you’re exploring.

In Person

Imagine for a moment what Sherlock Holmes could do online. Out of all the scholar geniuses of fiction, he’s the one easiest to imagine conceiving the internet, or at least dreaming it up during a cocaine high. In fact, we can all scan the internet the way Holmes scanned the agony columns in The Times. Search for clues in this Byzantine universe and, if you like, you can spend ten and a half minutes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his dog. You don’t need a seance. Forget the ectoplasmic mist. Here he is in the flesh, for real, looking and sounding at age 68 pretty much as you’d expect Dr, Watson would. It’s clear that he dotes on his dog — a sprightly, happy, loving little terrier he calls “good old boy” as he walks toward us with a book in his hand. The year is 1927 and the author is being filmed for Fox Movietone News. After setting down his book and putting his hat on top of it, Conan Doyle explains his conception of Sherlock Holmes and celebrates the veracity of his psychic explorations. His voice is pleasant and throaty, with that Scots burr, becoming most assertive on the subject of the spirit world: “I am not talking about what I believe. I am not talking about what I think. I am talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing.”

So saying, Conan Doyle expresses the determined act of sympathetic imagination that gives an almost spiritual force to groups like The Baker Street Irregulars. But that’s not all. When he utters his last words to us, about all the people his psychic views have comforted — “how they have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand” — I find myself having a Sherlock Holmes moment. The guise of the aging writer begins to dissolve around another, most unlikely image but one that makes sense and can be captured with a few taps on the keyboard, yes, here he is, Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, disciple of Babaji, teacher of Shri Yukteswar, who was Parmahansa Yogananda’s guru. As I foresaw, there is a definite resemblance between the avuncular, white-mustached Scotsman petting his dog and the bare-chested, dhoti-clad, white-mustached sadhu who revived the science of Kriya Yoga while marrying, raising a family, and working as an accountant for the Military Engineering Department of the British Indian government. How did I get from Sir Arthur to Shri Mahasaya? Elementary, my dear Watson!

When I open my eyes and return to reality, Sir Arthur puts on his hat, picks up his book, bids us goodbye, and softly tells the dog to “come on,” as he goes back into the house.

In the Margin: Yes

My reclusive father’s copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes occupied the place of honor in his study. Reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in his copy of the second volume just now, I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the only “Yes” my father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. This is someone whose highest compliment was “That’s fine,” and whose marginalia consists primarily of technical signals such as “false lead” or “plant” or “hint” for passages pertaining to the solution of a case. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of what he loved about these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, and his scouring of the papers. That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, or what Henry James would call “the real thing.”


Michael Dirda will be in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m. On December 15, also at 7 p.m. in the Community Room, there will be a showing of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

December 8, 2011

William Makepeace ThackerayA big, fierce, weeping, hungry man, not a strong one.

— Thomas Carlyle,
in a letter to Emerson

Carlyle was attempting to describe William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose bicentenary has received little notice while the celebratory drums are already beating for Dickens 2012. The shelves of the Princeton Public Library are teeming with Dickens while Thackeray is represented by two paperback copies of Vanity Fair (1848) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp on the cover, one battered, yellowed Penguin paperback of The History of Pendennis (1850), and a two-volume Everyman edition of The Virginians (1859); one copy of The Rose and the Ring (1855) is available in the children’s collection. As for biographical or critical works, I had to order Ann Monsarrat’s An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man (Dodd, Mead 1980) through interlibrary loan.

By now we should have had a BBC dramatization of the triumphs and travails of the author of one of the world’s great novels and the creator of one of literature’s great characters, Becky Sharp. Why don’t we know him better? Why isn’t he regularly taught and quoted? Surely his face deserves to hang in the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks cafe life pantheon next to Dickens and George Eliot, who thought him “on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.”

Thackeray’s first biographer was his colleague Anthony Trollope, who clearly shared George Eliot’s opinion of a writer who, in Trollope’s words, “sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s” and who “dissects with a knife and also with a needle.” Contemplating Dickens, on the other hand, Trollope found “the sale of his books … so great as almost to induce a belief that Pickwicks and Oliver Twists are consumed in families like legs of mutton.” While Dickens was “a literary hero bound to be worshipped by all literary grades of men, down to the ‘devils’ of the printing-office,” Thackeray, “the older man [by a year], was still doubting, still hesitating, still struggling.”

Thackeray and Brontë

Writing under the cover of her pen name Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray, giving him the lion’s share of a long, lavish preface, “a man whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears,” who “comes before the great ones of society” speaking “truth” with “a power … prophet-like,” the “satirist of Vanity Fair” hurling “the Greek fire of his sarcasm.” She “sees in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised.” After dismissing the commentaries comparing him to Fielding” (“he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture”), she writes: “His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.”

Best to step back from that one. Give it space. No wonder Brontë was let down when she met the eagle in person. Instead of the prophet’s “Greek fire” and “sheet-lightning,” she found “an unwilling idol.” According to a witness in Monsarrat’s biography, “The more intense she became, the more mundane were his responses.” Still recuperating from a near-fatal illness, Thackeray saw “the trembling little frame, the great honest eyes” of “a little austere Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives and morals.” Brontë was looking for the man possessed of the audacity to conceive the heroine of Vanity Fair, whose first act is to toss the gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of a coach at the feet of a Dickensian caricature of sentimental goodheartedness. In the words of the same observer of the Brontë-Thackeray conversation, Thackeray, “with characteristic contrarity of nature … insisted on discussing his books very much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a salary.” Brontë was looking for a man with a mission while Thackeray, “with many wicked jests refused to recognize the mission.”

Had the big man (he was 6’4) assumed the Promethean dimensions of his “serious genius,” however, Brontë might have faulted him for arrogance, which seems to have been the case on another occasion, described by the same witness, when she treated him to a face-to-a-face litany of his shortcomings, against which he defended himself, as she puts it, “like a great Turk and heathen — that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself.”

You don’t have to read far in any account of Thackeray’s life before you once again wonder why Andrew Davies or some other BBC mainstay hasn’t written it up for a miniseries. The Brontë episode alone would make for fascinating theater, as would young William’s embattled school days, his adventures in Paris, and the poignance of his marriage to a woman who descended into madness after bearing their third child. (The coincidental resemblance of Thackeray’s doomed marriage to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre led to spurious gossip about a Bronte-Thackeray affair.)

Thackeray’s Doubts

In his preface to Pendennis (1850), the novel that followed Vanity Fair, Thackeray celebrated Brontë’s “vulture,” Henry Fielding: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our art. Many ladies have remonstrated and subscribers left me because, in the course of the story [Pendennis having appeared first in monthly parts] I described a young man resisting and affected by temptation.” The curious thing about Thackeray’s preface is that it anticipates opposition at the outset, alerting the reader, “I tell you how a man really does act, — as did Fielding with Tom Jones, — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not.”

If Dickens was everyman’s idea of the forthcoming, ever-agreeable novelist, Thackeray would seem to have been a more demanding alternative, if not strictly speaking an anti-novelist. Trollope’s biography begins by discussing Thackeray’s indeterminate relation to his work and his audience: “He doubted the appreciation of the world; he doubted his fitness for turning his intellect to valuable account; he doubted his physical capacity, — dreading his own lack of industry; he doubted his luck; he doubted the continual absence of some of those misfortunes on which the works of literary men are shipwrecked. Though he was aware of his own power, he always, to the last, was afraid that his own deficiencies should be too strong against him.”

Like Becky Sharp, Pendennis is an anti-hero, but without Becky’s wicked allure. As Trollope observes, he is “weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy,” and Pendennis, along with Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-59), among others, has been ignored both by contemporary readers and the producers of programs like Masterpiece Theatre. Meanwhile adaptations of Vanity Fair have been staged numerous times in London and New York over the years (we may yet see Bad Becky, the musical), filmed seven times since 1911, most recently in 2004 when Mira Nair directed a heavily Indian flavored version starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky. The 1935 version, titled Becky Sharp and starring Miriam Hopkins, was the first Hollywood film shot in technicolor. The BBC has produced various miniseries, beginning in 1956 (with Joyce Redman as Becky) 1967, 1987, and 1998. In 1975 Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the adventures of another anti-hero, a sort of male Becky Sharp, and one of Kubrick’s most admired films.

Neither the 1998 nor the 2004 versions of Vanity Fair, which I watched this past week, explore the source as satisfactorily as numerous recent adaptations of Dickens, Austen, and Trollope, not to mention the BBC presentations of works by lesser authors like Mrs. Gaskell and Laura Riding. One day perhaps some digital magician will follow Thackeray’s lead by making an animated film based on his witty illustrations, which would at least produce something closer in scale and spirit to the puppet show cited in the Vanity Fair’s closing sentence, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A Game of Authors

Speaking of children, I first encountered William Makepeace Thackeray while playing the card game called Authors. My early fondness for him had little to do with the stern image of his face on the cards. It was his name. Of all the three-part names of authors the rules said had to be pronounced in full when you were asking for cards from your opponent’s hand — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott — none felt as nice to say as William Makepeace Thackeray, who was, all the better, the author of what I felt to be the most intriguing and thus coveted card in the deck. Besides having a title I found fascinating in itself without really having any idea why, the Vanity Fair card sported the oddest image. Most of the small title illustrations in the upper left hand corner of the cards made sense — a knight on horseback for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder for A Christmas Carol — but what was the point of the Vanity Fair card’s image of a woman and three air-borne books? Was she dropping them? Recoiling from them? Or had they just fallen upon her out of nowhere?

My parents never explained the “flying books” to my satisfaction, though they must have known the famous opening chapter of Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp unceremoniously disposes of the kindly meant gift of Johnson’s Dictionary. But why three books? You have to give the creators of the game credit. The extra books put a special spin on what was a defining moment for the character, and gave a touch of residual mystery to the stern looking author in the granny glasses — “a stout, healthful broad-shouldered specimen of a man,” according to someone present at one of Thackeray’s wildly successful American readings, “with cropped greyish hair and bluish grey eyes, peering very strongly through a pair of spectacles that have a very satiric focus.”

December 1, 2011

DVD Review: "Homicide"I have never been a fan of cop shows. At the time Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were first aired on network television (NBC and ABC, respectively), I was busy watching Turner Classic Movies, which was launched in April 1994. I doubt that anyone back then could have convinced me to tune in to a couple of shows about detectives doing their job on the mean streets of Baltimore and New York. So why go back there now? Because those two programs were the antecedents of two of television’s greatest accomplishments, David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood.

In Princeton this past September to deliver the Belknap lecture, David Simon, the dominant creative force behind The Wire, described his transition from journalism to television, a medium for which he’d had little respect (“It was a paycheck”). Even though he was writing for a highly acclaimed program based on his own book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), he felt constricted by the sponsor-mandated reality of network television. Then, in Simon’s words, “Something happened. Suddenly television changed.” The “something” was HBO and the emerging reality of pay-for-view cable channels. The “economic model” that had prevailed from the medium’s inception was transformed. No longer was everything subsidized by advertising. No longer was the programming “what they wrapped around the ads to keep you watching the ads.” No longer did a writer have to think of the objective in terms of devising “a teaser followed by four or five acts,” depending on whether the commercials came at 14 or 12 minute intervals.

Liberating the Writer

In his Princeton talk, which eventually addressed the larger issues suggested by the title (“The End of the American Century and What’s In It For You?”), Simon imagined the producers at HBO saying “What if we let the writers loose?” That, along with a relative indifference to the show’s audience share — “It’s a cute little number,” said Simon’s boss at HBO in reference to The Wire’s modest Sunday night rating — represented “a Magna Carta for writing on TV.” Simon was thrilled to find that he could say things about the war on Baltimore’s underclass he’d been unable to say as a journalist covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun.

The equivalent moment for David Milch came when HBO turned him loose on the muddy paths and alleys of Deadwood. He’d already been testing the limits of profanity, sex, and violence on NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which he created with Stephen Bochco. In a 2005 interview on Salon, Milch compares the limitations endemic to network television to those imposed on Hollywood by the sanitizing dictates of the production code: “You can spend your time … moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures.” Milch’s way of doing this was to incorporate the conflict between authority and free will, repression and creative force into the program by developing characters who are struggling against adversaries comparable to the censors and the sponsors. In NYPD Blue, which was challenged by the American Family Association for its infusions of “soft-core porn,” Milch “tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law,” an idea he takes to the limit in Deadwood, where the Gem saloon’s foul-mouthed evil genius Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is “indissolubly associated” with sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a “murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself.”DVD Review: "NYPD Blue"

Fans of Deadwood will see a potent preview of Al Swearengen in NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who also has qualities in common with Seth Bullock regarding the use of law enforcement as a way to control his own inner violence. Like McShane’s cut-throat rogue Swearengen, Franz’s Sipowicz is the life-force driving the show. He’s explosive, funny, repellent, impossible, lovable, and immensely human, and he shares Swearengen’s mastery of colorful invective. In the Salon interview, after proclaiming Swearengen a “lineal” descendent of Sipowicz, Milch offers an aside on his inventively profane art: “You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines.”

There are no giants like Sipowicz or Swearengen in Homicide or The Wire unless you count Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay stick-up man I compared to a psychopathic Robin Hood in my September 10, 2010 column on The Wire and its main character “an African American immensity called Baltimore.” It should be noted that an early version of Omar appears in the one episode Simon contributed to NYPD Blue (“Hollie and the Blowfish), where the gay title character, like Omar, holds up drug dealers, cooperates with the police, and wins their respect.

Quirky Relationships

Watching Homicide, with its divertingly varied ensemble of characters, you can see the prototype for the Baltimore police unit and municipal administration that will be more elaborately and provocatively developed in The Wire. The rapport or lack of it characterizing the different teams the unit is divided into is one of the most appealing aspects of Homicide, at least in the first three seasons, which are all that I’ve seen so far. Midway through the third season, the glow began to fade a bit after NBC’s concern about the ratings (the sort of thing Simon looks unfondly back on from the promised land of HBO) led the network to begin demanding action and sensation at the expense of character. Up to that point, the show had sustained a nice balance between the quirky relationships and the morbid, violent world the detectives work in without indulging in any of the strained sit-com clowning that sometimes mars Hill Street Blues, the landmark series that Milch began writing for in 1982.

Although Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio, and Barry Levinson are generally credited with sharing the primary creative responsibility for Homicide, Fontana suggests in the audio commentary for the show’s first episode that “by the end of six years, we had pretty much sucked every comma and question mark out of the book.” In fact, Simon, who didn’t actually begin writing for the program until Season Four, found a disconnect between the real detectives in his book and the television counterparts, with their tendency to discuss moral, emotional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual issues in relation to their work, something the detectives Simon wrote about had never done.

Among the great saving graces of Homicide are its humanity and sense of humor, which come to life in the interplay between characters like the appealingly eccentric and relentlessly irritating John Munch (Richard Belzer) and the partner he calls “big man” (Stanley Bolander as played by Ned Beatty). Melissa Leo’s detective Kay Howard, with her lovely smile and charming movements (she elevates swaggering to a fine feminine art) is especially memorable (she surfaces 16 years later as a middle-aged lawyer in Simon’s Treme, another HBO wonder), and no less memorable is Andre Braugher as the show’s most complex and troubled character, Frank Pembleton.

As his Princeton talk suggests, Simon’s commitment to the depiction of the lives of poor blacks in Baltimore’s inner city was such that such that when HBO “set him loose,” he could create a program like The Wire, which actually thrives by taking itself seriously, although the intensity is offset by the quality that works so well in Homicide: the interplay between the detectives.

Theme Music

A key component of the addictive pleasure we’ve been finding in NYPD Blue is Mike Post’s Emmy-winning theme music, which sweeps you into the excitement of the show with rock em sock em kettle drum dynamics behind the imagery of the elevated train pounding right at you, the swift sharp flashes of city scenes, then the human theme, a sudden, tender, beautifully timed interlude as the main characters are introduced, the music slowing, expressing something quiet, poignant, and subtly emotional, before the drums and city imagery come pounding back again and drive you headlong down the track to the big NYPD shield. The way we actually look forward to this credit sequence, which may have influenced the “woke up this morning, got myself a gun” Tony-at-the-steering-wheel dynamics of the opening credits for The Sopranos, has me thinking about the way theme music became the emotional signature of the radio and television shows that were like old friends whose company you looked forward to every week, the media equivalent of comfort food.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the viewing experience I’ve been describing was made possible by the absence of commercials. DVDs offer you a semblance of what you pay for on cable — in this case, decades after the fact. Between the Princeton Public Library, Netflix, and streaming online, no one needs to endure those “commercial interruptions” and the related constraints David Simon and David Milch had to put up with in the days before cable TV “turned the writers loose.”

If you want to read an in-depth study of these shows, I recommend Jason P. Vest’s The Wire, Deadwood, Homicide, and NYPD Blue: Violence is Power (Greenwood 2011); it can be sampled at length online. David Simon’s Sept. 20 Belknap lecture can also be viewed online. David Milch’s Salon interview is from March 5, 2005, and if you want to see him truly and fascinatingly holding forth, up close and personal, check out the MIT World interview (