October 17, 2012

Game 4 of the 2011 National League Division Series was do or die for St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony La Russa. None of his players knew it, but La Russa had made up his mind to retire at the end of the 2011 season. All the Phillies needed was a win and they would take the series 3 games to 1 and La Russa’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy career would be over. The facts say that the Cardinals won that game because of timely hitting and strong relief pitching: “our bullpen came through for us,” as La Russa makes clear in his new book One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season (Morrow $27.99). The Cards went on to beat the Phils in the NLDS, the Brewers in the National League Championship Series, and the Texas Rangers in the World Series, after turning it around with a crushing three-time come-from-behind win in Game 6.

Facts are facts and myths are myths, however, and the mythic version says the Cardinals’ fortunes changed in that key game 4 when a squirrel romped across home plate, so distracting pitcher Roy Oswalt that the Phils manager Charlie Manuel protested to the umpire. When questioned about the incident after the game, La Russa suggested an amorous relationship between the Rally Squirrel, as it was by then already known to Cardinal fans, and Torty, slugger Alan Craig’s pet tortoise (whenever Craig came up to hit, his teammates would shout, “Do it for Torty!”). After Phillie fans threw a stuffed squirrel into the Cardinals’ bull pen, the relief corps made a good luck mascot of it, and were all but unhittable as the Cards proceeded to take the NLCS against the Brewers. During the celebration, the stuffed squirrel was sprayed with beer and champagne.

To say that the Rally Squirrel impacted the Cardinals’ 2011 championship run might sound a bit fanciful, but in the realm of the Net, strange things were happening. A Twitter account was started for the Rally Squirrel on the day it raced across home plate and within two days it had 11,000 followers. By late October the number had more than doubled. Soon the squirrel had its own theme song, its own Topps baseball card, and t-shirts were being sold in the thousands. Three days after the Cardinals won the World Series, St. Louis kids were trick or treating in Rally Squirrel costumes. And if you look closely you can see the Rally Squirrel in mid-romp engraved onto the Cardinals’ World Championship rings.

Can squirrels romp? Google Rally Squirrel on YouTube and see for yourself. This squirrel is an athlete, romping, jumping, as close to flying as grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) can get.

There’s no mention of the Rally Squirrel in La Russa’s book, but don’t let that fool you. What other baseball luminary would attract such a creature but the one who started the Animal Rescue Foundation with his wife, Elaine, in 1991 after a stray cat wandered onto the field. “The cat was threatened with being put down,” La Russa says in One Last Strike, so “Elaine and I found a home for her.”

La Russa is also seriously into music. Among his friends are Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, jazz bassist Christian McBride, and Carlos Santana, who gave the Cardinal skipper a medallion necklace he’d worn during a September 2011 concert La Russa attended. “It had two dragons etched into the surface,” La Russa writes, “and Carlos told me that it would give me good spirit. I wore that thing every day from that point on, through the end of the World Series.”

So here’s this guy, he’s won two World Series titles in five years, he’s conversant with rock and roll, and loves animals (he travels, he admits, with a menagerie), he’s a voracious reader, has a law degree, and manages to keep all those player egos in a fine balance through unthinkably high-pressure situations — why is he so hard to like? Why does he radiate uptightness? Why do his expressions perennially hover somewhere between dour and dire?

It took me, a lifelong Cardinal fan, 15 years to begin to warm to Tony La Russa, and it wasn’t until reading One Last Strike that I really began liking him.

In Hemingway’s Time

In Ernest Hemingway’s story, “The Three Day Blow,” Nick Adams and his pal Bill are drinking Scotch and talking of books, baseball, and thwarted love. When Nick wonders if the Cards will ever win a pennant,” Bill says, “Not in our lifetime,” and Nick says, “Gee, they’d go crazy.”

In 1926, two years after the story appeared in the small press edition of In Our Time, the Cards won not only their first National League pennant but the first of eleven World Championships. You know St. Louis went crazy in 1926, but in 1985 for baseball fans everywhere and especially St. Louis Cardinals fans, Nick’s words were echoed by Cardinal-play-by-play announcer Jack Buck’s cry of “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” when the most unlikely of sluggers, Ozzie Smith, hit the walk-off home run that deflated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs.

Stunning Washington

Though the title, One Last Strike, refers to last year’s dramatics, it works as well for what happened in the elimination game of the 2012 NLDS around 12:30 a.m. October 12, when the Cardinals were down to their last strike twice. The Washington fans were on their feet, ready to explode in a perfect storm of joy; ready to, yes, go crazy. The stadium was roaring, their team a mere strike or pop up or ground out or fly ball away from surviving to play in the League Championship Series.

Cardinal fans meanwhile are about to experience what Nick Adams and Jack Buck were talking about; but they don’t know it yet; they’re waiting for the axe to fall, hopes dashed, elimination looming. If you want to truly experience going crazy, it helps if your team is down to the last strike, your heart’s in the basement, one level above the abyss. As high as the home crowd is, you’re way low, way way down, hanging on to a feather-faint thread of faith. At the same time, the memory of last October’s miracle has you feeling an irrepressible surge of it-could-happen-again-ness.

And then it does. Happen. Again!

In the top of the ninth, two runs behind, post-season miracle worker Carlos Beltran leads off with a double, and here it comes: two quick outs, two masterfully drawn walks, a pair of two-run singles, and it’s all over, and so suddenly that your joy more than overwhelms you, it runs past you, you can’t keep up with it, all you have breath to say is “I don’t believe it!” Because the very thing you’ve been wishing for, urging, willing, aching for with everything you have, has been given to you and to thousands of friends you’ll never know, those multitudes of Cardinal fans in and out of St. Louis you’ve bonded with in this moment, all sharing the same ecstasy, just as you did last October 27 and 28.

La Russa Smiles

I doubt that even Hemingway could have done justice to the sixth game of the 2011 Series, already being touted as one of the most, if not the most, exciting ever played. How then does the manager deal with what’s happening on the field in the late innings of an historic game? Aware of what he’s up against, La Russa titles the chapter, “You Had to See It for Yourself” and prefaces it by describing how he dealt with the disaster-divided World Series of 1989 when he was manager of the Oakland Athletics. In fact he’s making the Loma Prieta earthquake the opening act for David Freese’s two big moments, the first a game saver, the second a game and Series winner, given its impact on the opposition’s morale.

So, welcome to brink of elimination, “potentially the last hope for Cardinals Nation,” Texas having just taken a two-run lead, it’s the existential moment: “One strike left in the season.” At this point, with the game on the line, La Russa inserts a prosaic managerial observation: “I hoped that David would get his front foot set sooner. On the swinging strike he hadn’t.” If you could see his face as he thinks this thought, you would witness Grimness and Glowering writ large, which is why fans familiar with La Russa’s perennially thorny demeanor will appreciate the way he prefaces Freese’s game-saving hit: “David Freese then did what many people don’t think is possible. He made me smile.”

Freese made La Russa smile! Whee! Be still, my heart! The man has just saved the season by lining a triple off the wall. For that he gets a smile? How about a Thomas Wolfian goat cry? Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp? How about “an outburst of profane joy” like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man? How about going crazy?

But La Russa maintains his managerial cool. “When Freese extended his hands and stepped slightly toward the outside corner, setting that front foot,” he continues, letting us know that Freese has done exactly what his manager hoped he would, “he hits a fastball,” the “sound of the contact … so pure” that La Russa first thinks it might be a walk-off home run instead of a game-tying triple.

Finally, after the Cards come unbelieavably back from another two-run deficit, it’s the 11th inning, with Freese leading off. La Russa writes: “I sensed in the ninth inning when we’d tied it that people were going to talk about this game for a long time. When we did it again in the tenth, I knew that people were going to talk about this game forever.” Now comes the coup de grace. As La Russa describes it, Freese “hit a fastball on the inner half and crushed it to straightaway center field onto the grass of the hitters’ backdrop. In situations like that, it’s almost as if the ball has some gravitational pull on you. As it climbs, it lifts you up, body and spirit. The guys at the rail rose up on their feet, craned their necks, and raised their arms above their heads.”

What we see, what we feel, is pure baseball euphoria. Like La Russa and everyone in the dugout, we jump to our feet when Freese connects, knowing it’s gone, it’s over, once again joy outruns us, flying, soaring beyond us, we can’t keep up with it, but when the small white object hits the brilliant greensward of the “hitter’s backdrop” above the center field wall and four or five kids or grown-up kids come tumbling out of the stands after it, we’re out there rolling around with them, kids again, like David, the big kid who grew up in St. Louis, rounding the bases and then charging, dancing a modified horn pipe down the third base line, flinging his cap at his feet as he runs the happy gauntlet of his teammates.

La Russa admits wanting to join the mob jumping and dancing. Instead he hugs Dave Duncan, his longtime pitching coach and confidant, “marveling at the wonder of it all.” And then he smiles. A big smile, a smile to remember.


One Last Strike features an introduction by third-generation Cardinal fan John Grisham, whose first baseball novel, Calico Joe, has just been published. You can see Hemingway in his Nick Adams up-in-Michigan days in “Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time,” which is on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library through October 31.

October 10, 2012

in 1946 in the Village, our feelings about books … went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books, we became them, we took them into ourselves and made them into our histories …. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.

—Anatole Broyard, from Kafka Was the Rage

My copy of Volume 2 of the Norton Anthology of English Literature looks its age. The spine is so faded you have to get close to read the title. The corners are frayed and there’s a tear in the front hinge. Still, it’s held together nicely all these years, even more supple now than it was when it was given to me by the College Department at Norton, my working copy. The genius of The Norton Anthology was its compatibility. Unlike most college texts, you could, as the introduction boasted, read it under a tree. This is the same copy I curled up with, studied, loved, warmed my hands by, in various motels from Mississippi to North Dakota when I was on the road as a college representative talking up a text that was by then already in demand in English departments across the country.

When the Norton Anthology’s general editor M.H. Abrams, who turned 100 on July 23, was recently asked by the New York Times (“Built to Last,” August 23) “Why study literature?” his response was “Ha! Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury.” He went on to say that literature “illuminates what you’re doing,” “enables you to live the lives of other people,” “makes you more human,” and “makes life more enjoyable” (not to mention, he might add, contributing to your longevity). Abrams’s younger co-editor Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943) chimed in to the effect that literature enables him to “enter into the life worlds of others … other times, other places, other inner lives.”

Life and Love on the Page

That phrase, life worlds brings to mind two of literature’s most complex and enduring “inner lives,” Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), the 17th-century physician philosopher who wrote Religio Medici, and the inimitable Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who once observed of Browne, “A library was a world to him, every book a living man, absolute flesh and blood.”

Among the many things to love in Coleridge is his penchant for writing thoughts like that one in the margins of books that often did not even belong to him. It’s a thought I quote whenever I get a chance and it serves as the epigraph for my novel, Rosamund’s Vision. Coleridge’s scribblings fill six fat, masterfully documented volumes of Marginalia in the Collected Works of S.T.C. published in the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press, wherein Coleridge, the so-called “damaged archangel” of Norman Fruman’s biography, gives us an intimate blow by blow account as he makes his way through the works of the “crack’d Archangel” Browne (as he’s named in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick).

When Browne writes “I never yet cast a true affection on a woman,” Coleridge can’t resist declaring — all but breathing the words in your ear — that he has loved and still does love “truly, i.e. not in a fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections … one Woman.” Ten pages later, when Browne wishes that humans “might procreate like trees without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition,” Coleridge comes right back at him: “Are there not thoughts, & affections, & Hopes, & a Religion of the Heart, — that lift & sanctify all our bodily Actions where the union of the Bodies is but a language & conversation of united Souls?”

There’s a hint of the thought process behind today’s preferred modes of communication when Coleridge, after, in effect, blogging Browne, presents the intimately annotated volume to his “one Woman,” Sara Hutchinson, the lost love of his life, along with a letter that takes up three pages preceding the title page. It’s after midnight, March 10, 1804, Saturday night, Barnard’s Inn, Holborn, London, when Coleridge begins the letter (“But it is time for me to be in bed”) in a state of playful wonderment after quoting Browne at length (“what Life! what Fancy! — Does the whimsical Knight give us thus a dish of strong green Tea, & call it an opiate?”). With that, he signs off: “I trust, that you are quietly asleep,

And all the Stars hang bright above your Dwelling

Silent as tho’ they watch’d the sleeping Earth!”

Leave it to Coleridge to say good night with two lines from his own poem “Dejection: An Ode,” which he first worked out in a letter to Sara said to be the only other surviving piece of their correspondence.

When you think about it, it’s an outrageous violation of textual dignity, to scribble at length on the pages of a book you’re presenting as a gift to someone you love, using Sir Thomas Browne as a sort of go-between, a messenger bearing a lecture and a love note. Today Coleridge could have done it all online without marring the original. And there’s the rub. What better example of the qualities and capacities and organic essence of actual documents and tangible volumes vs. the web and high tech devices like Kindle? At the same time, aside from my key source, Volume I of Princeton’s Marginalia, I could never have assembled this column, or any others, without the mysterious Archangels of cyberspace.

Book Sale Life

“A living world” — that’s my “fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections” to the Friends of the Library book sale I’ve been helping with for more than 20 years now. The books on display October 12-14 have passed through and been held by many hands. Regardless of genre, books with a past are more than an assortment of bound pages, especially when they have spanned several lifetimes in the hurly burly of the world. A Kindle can give you the message, it’s handy, it can house a world of literature, but qualities such as atmosphere, touch and texture, author signatures and inscriptions, and the glorious illusion of being “in touch” with the author, are simply not available.

In Jackie’s Hands

It happens that we have a pretty good crop of signed/inscribed books at this year’s sale, not counting the one auctioned off at the annual meeting for a sum that shows how much a mere signature can add to the monetary value of a book. Hundreds of first editions of Roger Kahn’s popular profile of the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, are available online for as low as $10. But if you are fortunate enough to have the copy (first edition or no) that Jackie Robinson actually held in his hands and inscribed to a friend, the value soars. Thus this year’s first transaction occurred before the event when a copy of Kahn’s book inscribed by Robinson fetched $950 at the Friends auction.

So Long, D.H. and W.B.

I once owned and cherished a book of William Butler Yeats’s later poems signed by Yeats, bought from Logan Fox at Micawber. Another book that I treasured and also eventually sold was a book of poems signed by D.H. Lawrence. The truth is, there’s only so much you can derive from being able to read and fondle your signed Yeats or your signed Lawrence, thinking “the man who wrote Lapis Lazuli” held this, or the man who wrote Women in Love held this.” When the water heater conks out, or you need a new roof, or the basement floods, it’s so long Yeats and see ya later Lawrence.

Sgt. Randall Jarrell

Unless you’re a big Norman Rockwell or Paul Theroux fan, the most desirable signed book that we have this year is a first edition of poet Randall Jarrell’s third collection, Losses (1948), which is being offered for as much as $780-800 online; the only catch is our copy lacks the dust jacket. Otherwise ours outclasses the competition. Probably dating from 1951-52 when Jarrell (1914-1965) was teaching in the Creative Writing program here and living in T.S. Eliot’s house on 16 Alexander Street, the book is inscribed to a student “from her teacher (Sgt.) Randall Jarrell.” Since most of the poems in the collection (viz. “The Dead Wingman,” “A Camp in the Prussian Forest,” “A Field Hospital”) relate to Jarrell’s years in the Army Air Force as a celestial navigation tower operator, a job title he considered “the most poetic in the Air Force,” he includes his serial number, a unique touch (it seems unlikely that Norman Mailer or James Jones cared to add their dogtag numbers when inscribing copies of The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity). Another, more mysterious number is 7 above 7, in the form of an equation, which is explained in a note posted under the inscription, from a mother to the son she was presenting it to: “Mr. Jarrell was trying to enliven a book signing so he put in his army serial number. He added the 7/7 because I got all seven right on his modern poetry exam identifying poets given a sample of their poetry.”

Besides being known for his war-related poems (“the best poetry in English about the Second World War,” said Robert Lowell), the most famous being the frequently anthologized “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Jarrell was also one of the premier critics of his time. His main work at Princeton includes six lectures on W.H. Auden, the revising of his novel, Pictures from an Institution (based on his adventures as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence), and a number of poems, among them “The Lonely Man” and “Windows,” where a woman is darning and a man is “nodding into the pages of the paper” — “What I have never heard/He will read me; what I have never seen/She will show me.”

Jarrell’s untimely death at 50 (he was hit by a car while walking along a road in North Carolina; suicide was suspected but never confirmed) occasioned a memorial service where his friend from Princeton days John Berryman read “Dream Song 121” (“His wives loved him./He saw in the forest something coming, grim,/but did not change his purpose”). Robert Lowell called him “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”

Literature-oriented browsers at the upcoming Friends book sale, particularly those trooping through the door at Friday’s 10 a.m. $10 preview, might keep an eye out for D.H. Lawrence’s rarely seen small volume, The Ship of Death and Other Poems; the first American edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses; and a first of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, in remarkably fine condition, the gilt title on the spine glittering clear and bright. Too bad we don’t have the dust jacket; copies so clothed are going for $10,000-$18,500 online.

September 26, 2012

Written in the aftermath of Joseph Conrad’s death in 1924, Ernest Hemingway’s tribute in the Transatlantic Review’s Conrad Supplement included this sentence: “If I knew that by grinding Mr. [T.S.] Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return and commence writing, I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”

Hemingway was 25. Two years earlier, in a November 8, 1922 letter to Ezra Pound in response to Pound’s touting of Eliot’s groundbreaking work, The Wasteland, Hemingway suggested that if Eliot “would strangle his sick wife,” sexually assault “the brain specialist” treating her, and “rob the bank” (Eliot was a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank at the time), “he might write an even better poem.” Below this broadside Hemingway added a brisk, cynical disclaimer (“The above is facetious”) that leaves the toxic mixture on simmer.

“A damned good poet and a fair critic,” Hemingway says of Eliot decades later in a July 9, 1950 letter to columnist Harvey Breit. In case you think he’s mellowed, Hemingway is only warming up. In fact he’s in one of his favorite metaphorical modes, pitching “high and inside,” to see if he can “turn a hitter’s cap around.” Next paragraph he’s saying “some of us write and some of us pitch but so far there isn’t any law a man has to go and see the Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot from St. Louis where Yogi Berra comes from.” The free-association reference to the New York Yankees’ catcher is what prompts the reference to Eliot the poet and critic, and then this: “but he can kiss my ass as a man and he never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.”

Today being T.S. Eliot’s 124th birthday, it’s hardly the occasion to be documenting his fellow midwesterner’s epistolary boorishness. But there’s another, more local occasion. Next month Hemingway and his novel, The Sun Also Rises, will be the subject of several events at the Prince
ton Public Library capped by an October 25 talk by Sandra Spanier, co-editor of Volume One of the Cambridge University Press edition of Hemingway’s letters (see story this issue for details).

Play Ball

If Hemingway can use tropes from the National Pastime as a means of measuring character, manhood, and literary ability, why not follow his example? Baseball may also help me demonstrate why my fondness for Hemingway and his work endures, undiminished, in spite of his personal flaws and phobias, and may even explain why I’ve never warmed to Eliot, whose essays and poetry have been among the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

Okay, let’s look at Eliot the player. As a pitcher, he would specialize in offspeed stuff, with a killer curve and a knuckleball so devious and outré that hitters tie themselves in knots trying to follow it. Better yet, let’s make him a position player. Forget that ill-natured crack about his abilities with the bat, I see the deceptively fragile St. Louis Kid as a solid .300 hitter with sneaky power and a Mr. October reputation for performing in the post-season clutch, like the game-tying grand slam he hit in the last of the ninth inning of the 1922 World Series; you knew The Wasteland was out of the park the instant Tom Terrific connected. The Kid’s one big drawback was very big indeed, however; he lacked color. The sports writers did what they could, with their catchy nicknames, but it made no difference. Before, after and during the game, Eliot kept to himself. In the locker room, he was a one-man monastery.

This is where the big guy from Oak Park wins your heart. Injury-prone, yes, but with an eye that was the envy of Joe DiMaggio. A master bunter and a lifetime .330 hitter (as he once described himself), he could hit to all fields and his line-drive home runs cleared the wall straight and true. Best of all, he loved the game, ready to talk about the ins and outs
of it forever, recollecting key plays with such fondness that he made kids all over America want to grab their mitts (or pens, pencils, typewriters) and head for the nearest diamond. Granted, he drank between innings, delighted in high slides (he kept his spikes razor sharp), fought with umpires, opponents and teammates, roared when he won and raged when he lost. Sure, he said hideously offensive things about other players, but you knew that stuff ate him up, made him crazy, until the July morning in 1961 when he could no longer play through his injuries.

Let Us Go Then

T.S. Eliot’s poetry simply turned up one day in the room my parents called the study. Nobody, no parent, no teacher presented Eliot to me and said, “You must read this.” I was a sophomore in high school, where literature was confined to a textbook created by “educators.” It’s possible that my Medievalist father, who had no interest in Eliot beyond his High Church leanings, left the Collected Poems in plain sight for me, the way he used to do when pretending to make Classic Comics appear by magic.

Easily the coziest room in the house, the study had a roll-top desk, a day-bed by the window, and a wall of books. My departure for the new world took place on a grey midwinter afternoon, mist in the air, snow on the ground. Settling back on the daybed’s heaped-up pillows, I started reading. The first two lines instantly took me in, the poet’s spectral hand beckoning me aboard, and so began the reading journey that still continues:

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky….”

In popular music, specifically rock and roll, that’s called a hook, and it’s a great hook, as irresistible as John Lennon’s, “Let me take you down,” from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Was Lennon echoing Eliot? Probably, though he might not have known it, just as the Beatles might not have known that Sgt. Pepper would be compared to The Wasteland.

Getting back to the idea of Eliot the player, if he was on the mound and you were at the plate, the next pitch, where the evening is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table,” is unhittable. You just watch it go by with your mouth hanging open. What was that? Where did he get it? Is it even legal? A literary spitball? And a few lines later, after the “muttering retreats,” “cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants,” he reads your mind about the  impossible line he just pitched you, saying, “do not ask ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”

That second “Let us go” leads you to the stanza that seals your fate. Never mind baseball, it’s witchcraft when the poet waves his wand and turns “the yellow smoke” into a cat rubbing its back and its muzzle “upon the window-panes” and licking “its tongue into the corners of the evening.” The first time you read what the “yellow smoke” does is as close as you ever come to loving Eliot, as it makes “a sudden leap, / And seeing that it was a soft October  night, / Curled once about the houses, and fell asleep.”

Then everything changes and the Harvard scholar looms at the ghostly lectern, no more to be loved than a distant voice serving “visions and revisions” with “toast and tea.” By now the poet is miles away, but still in possession of this normal, baseball-playing, girl-crazy, red-blooded American 15-year-old’s unworthy attention, with lines never to be forgotten (“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall”) and smooth, sensuous imagery (“Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair”) as J. Alfred “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock approaches his fate. At this point the original excitement has faded, and the last lines about growing old and the mermaids singing and the “chambers of the sea” where “human voices wake us, and we drown” make the schoolboy reader edgy and uneasy. Outside the window it’s gone from dusk to night, and he’s thinking of the pretty young mother across the street who’s dying of cancer.

When Less Is More

I just finished reading the last 15 pages of The Sun Also Rises, where Hemingway’s impotent protagonist Jake Barnes (“I got hurt in the war” he tells the prostitute when she puts her hand between his legs) encounters a fate not unlike Prufrock’s. After the drunken fireworks of the fiesta at Pamploma, Jake is very much alone. By all rights, he should be glad to be on his own. He decides to go to San Sebastian because “it would be quiet there.” He takes the train, stops at a hotel he knows, unpacks, has lunch, goes for a swim, all his movements crisply documented in Hemingway’s less-is-more prose. He sees a boy and a girl out on a raft, she’s laughing at the things the boy says, she’s undone the top strap of her bathing suit and is “browning her back.” Jake says nothing about what seeing this does to him but Hemingway makes you feel it, making you care about Jake in his aloneness far more intensely than you ever did for Prufrock, so that when Jake dives deep, “swimming down to the bottom,” it’s as if you’ve followed him into the undercurrent of Hemingway’s art: “I swam with my eyes open and it was green and dark. The raft made a dark shadow.”

Summoned to Madrid by Brett, the woman he loves and who loves him, hopelessly, Jake once again goes about the business of living, relating the incidental details that make you hurt for him, and all without a single nudging word from the author, who vicariously enjoys the big meal and the three bottles of wine at Botin’s while never letting you forget that it’s all death and denial and we know Jake is doomed as he reports how he got from the train to the hotel and how he consoled Brett, who is recovering from a failed romance. The conversation that ends the novel mirrors the one the thwarted lovers had at the book’s beginning, both times in a cab, sitting close to one another, she saying, “We could have such a damned good time together,” he saying, as the car slows suddenly, pressing her against him, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway’s love song comes to an end more desperate than Eliot’s. But it’s the pitcher poet who provides the perfect epitaph, closing out the game, a scoreless tie.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing
to me.

HOMECOMING: Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison will return to Princeton to read from her new novel, “Home,” October 2 at 5:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. “It is an honor to welcome back Toni Morrison,” said Chair of the Council of the Humanities Gideon Rosen.

The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved Toni Morrison, will read from her new novel, Home, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 2, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, at Princeton University. Ms. Morrison is the University’s Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus.

Sponsored jointly by the Center for African American Studies and the Council of the Humanities, the reading is free and open to the public. Tickets are required for admission and can be picked up from the University Ticketing Office at the Frist Campus Center beginning Thursday, Sept. 13, for Princeton University I.D. holders, and Thursday, Sept. 20, for the public. The University Ticketing Office is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. There is a limit of two tickets per person.

“The Center for African American Studies is delighted to have Professor Morrison return to Princeton to read from her new novel. Her work is so important to 20th- and 21st-century literature, and to be able to hear it from the author herself is truly an amazing thing,” said Wallace Best, professor of religion and acting chair of the Center for African American Studies.

Morrison is also the first 2012-13 Belknap Visitor in the Humanities, through the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. Professor Gideon Rosen, the Stuart Professor of Philosophy and the Chair of the Council of the Humanities, is also excited by Morrison’s return to Princeton. “It is an honor to welcome back Toni Morrison. We celebrate her homecoming as well as her new book, aptly titled Home. The Belknap Visitor is our highest honor, and no one is more deserving than Toni Morrison,” he said.

Morrison’s nine major novels, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, and A Mercy have received extensive critical acclaim. She received the National Book Critics Award in 1978 for Song of Solomon and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review chose Beloved as the best work of American fiction published in the last quarter-century. On May 29 this year, Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, which is the highest civilian award in the United States.

Published in May by Knopf, Home is the story of a young African American soldier, returning home from the Korean War to the pre-civil rights South.

Labyrinth Books, of 122 Nassau St. in Princeton, will be on location selling signed copies of Home before and after the reading.


September 19, 2012

I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in ‘em that I can’t disguise…

—Bob Dylan, from Tempest

It was an image for the ages, post-millennium Americana in all its glory at the White House May 29 as President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan. Masked behind dark glasses, the 71-year-old with the shadow mustache and air of tenuously contained vehemence (“You’re like a time-bomb in my heart,” he sings in “Duquesne Whistle”) might have stepped from the pages of a story by Flannery O’Connor. When he was called forth to receive his medal, a cheer went up from the overflow East Room crowd. Dylan did not look happy. Not once did he come near to a smile. He was fidgeting like a prize fighter at the ringing of the bell, the president standing by while a disembodied female voice read the inane citation, something about “a voice in the national conversation.”

Tending to the other honorees, including astronaut-senator John Glenn and Nobel-prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, President Obama had been his usual unflappable self. With Dylan, it was as if he were putting a collar on a pit bull or decorating a land mine. Maybe he’d had a sneak preview of the new album, Tempest, where Dylan growls, “I got dogs could tear you limb from limb,” “I could stone you to death” (“Paid in Blood”); “Ever since the British burned the White House down/There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town” (“The Narrow Way”); “Then she pierced him to the heart and the blood did flow” (“Tin Angel”); or “I can strip you of life/strip you of breath/ship you down/to the house of death” (“The Early Roman Kings”). In “Long and Wasted Years,” where the singer “can’t disguise” the secrets in his eyes, he warns that “the sun can burn your brains right out.”

As he and Obama shook hands, Dylan gave the president’s arm several little pats, as if to say, no harm done, hang in there, you’re all we got.

His Darkest Work?

No doubt it was Dylan’s idea that Columbia Records release Tempest on September 11, 2012, 50 years to the day that his debut LP Bob Dylan came out. A more curious coincidence is that his highly-acclaimed album, Love and Theft, appeared on September 11, 2001. Paranoid bloggers who suspect Dylan has the devil’s unlisted phone number and may even be his emissary contemplate a satanic conspiracy of wonderful dimensions (throw together the operative words and you’ll find at least one blog debating the issue).

There’s no denying, now more than ever, that Dylan trades in ominous nuances and edgy stalemates, the play of shadows and century-spanning vignettes of gutter romance and violence, of which there are, as I’ve already hinted, a remarkable abundance in the new album. Numerous reviewers think Tempest may be his darkest work ever. In the last chapter of  his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, where Dylan’s “little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral, at least in songwriting terms,” he discusses the origins of the tear-your-heart-out dynamic that’s still in force in Tempest. One of the key transformative influences was seeing Brecht on Brecht (with music by Kurt Weill, Brecht’s lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein) at the Theatre de Lys in the Village in early 1962. Dylan was “aroused right away by the raw intensity of the songs,” “songs with tough language… herky jerky — weird visions” sung by “thieves, scavengers or scallywags” who “roared and snarled.” He mentions “grim surroundings, creepy sensations,” and how “every song seemed to have a pistol in its hip pocket, a club or a brickbat.”

The number that hit him the hardest was “The Black Freighter” or “Pirate Jenny.” After calling it “a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out,” he writes, “Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin.” He can’t let it go, still fascinated by what it did to him: “It’s a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend, and when she’s done singing, there’s not a word to say. It leaves you breathless.”

Knowing he’s on to something, Dylan tries to find out “what made the song tick, why it was so effective.” What excites him as a songwriter is that “you couldn’t see what the sum total of all the parts were, not unless you stood way back and waited ‘til the end. It was like Picasso painting Guernica.” Inspired by “Pirate Jenny,” he “began fooling around with things,” taking a lurid story out of the Police Gazette and using Brecht’s song “as a prototype…piled lines on, short bursts of lines.” He liked the idea “but the song didn’t come off.” He was “missing something.” He wastes no time revealing what it was.

When Dylan signed his first contract with Columbia, producer John Hammond gave him an acetate of King of the Delta Blues by Robert Johnson. “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up,” Dylan writes. “The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window.” So writes the composer of lines like “Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin” in “The Narrow Way.” When Johnson started singing, he “seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.” Six pages later Dylan brings Rimbaud into the mix (“That was a big deal, too…the bells went off”), which “went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul” and “the Pirate Jenny framework.” Woody Guthrie’s “hopped up union meeting sermons” are also mentioned, but Dylan’s debt to his mentor is so intimate and respectful that it seems dispassionate by comparison. At this point, five pages from the end of Chronicles, Dylan sets the stage: “I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up.”

The Course of a Lyric

So here he is at 71, with a new album that is undeniably “heavy loaded,” with an event at its center he knew he wanted to write a song about back when he was 20, before he ever made a record. “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in,” he writes in the first chapter of Chronicles. “What was swinging, topical, and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking.”

In the 45 verses of the title song on Tempest, with its Shakespearean resonance, Dylan is still channeling his early allies, Picasso and Guernica, Rimbaud (“The Drunken Boat”), Robert Johnson (“short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story”), and Brecht’s “Black Freighter” while using the Carter Family’s “The Titanic” as his prototype. “I was just fooling with that one night,” he says in an interview with Mikhail Gilmore in the latest Rolling Stone. “I liked that melody — I liked it a lot. ‘Maybe I’m gonna appropriate this melody.’ But where would I go with it?” While he borrows most of the first verse of the Carters’ version and makes good use of the dreaming watchman from the second verse, Dylan’s moon rises not on the ocean but “Out on the Western town.”

Time to set aside the road map and the rule book. If Bob Dylan wants to put the town where it has no business being, like in the middle of the North Atlantic, or vice-versa, that’s his prerogative. “A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he says in the Rolling Stone interview. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” The next 16 verses of “Tempest” are generally true to the historical reality, chandeliers swaying, orchestra playing, smokestack leaning sideways, ship going under, but (with one exception) you won’t find the passengers Dylan mentions on the actual Titanic, although “Leo” and “his sketchbook” (the actor Leonardo diCaprio) were in the James Cameron film. But what about this character Wellington, who was sleeping when “his bed began to slide”? Now he’s strapping on “both his pistols” (“How long could he hold out?”), so it’s that Wellington, and Dylan has cut from April 14, 1912 to the War of 1812. No sooner do you encounter someone who was actually on board (“The rich man Mr. Astor/kissed his darling wife”), then you hear that “Calvin, Blake and Wilson gambled in the dark,” and the Titanic is becoming Desolation Row, with (it seems) John Calvin, William Blake, and (could it be?) Woodrow Wilson joining Wellington and “Davey the brothel keeper” who “came out and dismissed his girls.” Typical of the violence flaring throughout the album, you have brothers on board fighting and slaughtering each other “in a deadly dance.”

Wherever and however Dylan chooses to take it, the ballad’s 45 verses offer the main course in Tempest’s feast of imagery, and 14 minutes on his Titanic is better than 194 on James Cameron’s recently re-released billion-dollar 3-D blockbuster.

“It’s All Good”

Dylan’s band is, as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie used to say of one another, “the other half of his heartbeat”: Donnie Herron (steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin); David Hidalgo (guitar, accordion, violin); guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, drummer George G. Receli,  and Tony Garnier’s bass, which at times suggests a lovelorn ghost. The 45 seconds of sunshine leading into “Duquesne Whistle” (co-written with Robert Hunter and released as the album’s single with an accompanying music video) is some of the most sweetly seductive music in all Dylan, and when the drum and bass come pounding in bigtime after the light, melodic spell created by the opening, you feel like the guy in Nash Edgerton’s rough and tumble Chaplin-meets-Tarantino video who can’t help dancing as he playfully stalks the beautiful girl. Look for John Lennon’s face 13 seconds into the video, a subtle acknowledgment of the way he and the Beatles haunt the album, which ends with “Roll On John,” a strong, unsparing elegy for Lennon, who also haunts “Soon After Midnight,” with its subtle echo of the Beatles song “This Boy.”

As for the rest, as Dylan sings on Together Through Life, “It’s all good,” especially “Long and Wasted Years,” the circular motion of life’s wheel of fortune in its gyring guitar; “Scarlet Town” with its sinister “Ain’t Talkin’” ambience; and “Narrow Way,” which swings fiendishly under a killer lyric.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan rightly expresses righteous indignation on the issue of his unacknowledged borrowings. In Desolation Row, there’s room for Wellington and Whittier, Blake and Bo Diddley, and even the city of Vienna, which provided the cover art. The detail shown is from  “The Moldau,” one of the four statues in the “Pallas Athena” fountain in front of the Austrian parliament. As I’ve indicated, Dylan has vividly expressed his debt to Brecht, who wrote “The Song of Moldau,” which has a line, claims a blogger from Vienna, that can be translated, “the times they are a changin.”

Last time I checked, the Princeton Record Exchange had restocked discounted copies of Tempest, both regular and deluxe editions.

September 12, 2012

Beatles publicist Derek Taylor (1932-1997) begins his preface to Volume 1 of The Beatles Anthology (1994) by contrasting his “rose-colored” view of the group’s worldwide impact — “the Twentieth Century’s greatest romance” — to John Lennon’s typically hard-nosed, “We were just a band who made it very very big.”

Had he been alive in May 2003 and June 2004, Taylor would have witnessed a massive validation of that great romance in the delirious crowds thronging Red Square (est. 100,000) and St. Petersburg’s Palace Square (est. 50,000), waving their arms and dancing and smiling and cheering in ecstasy as the embodiment of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, sang “Hey Jude” (with the crowd joining in) and closed the show with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” belting out the line, “And Moscow girls make me sing and shout” to the delight of countless singing shouting Moscow girls.

Now consider what was going on in the world when the Beatles made their first recordings 50 years ago this month, keeping in mind the Moscow and St. Petersburg multitudes and especially those among them who had come to cherish the musicians, the music, and even the words, in a language not their own, by taking their chances with records smuggled in from the West. On Tuesday, September 11, 1962, when the Beatles were in the studio recording “Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me,” the Soviet Union was warning the U.S. that an attack on Soviet ships carrying supplies to Cuba would mean war, Soviet missiles fitted with nuclear warheads having arrived in Cuba on September 8. A month later, after U.S. spy planes obtained photographic evidence of the building of Soviet missile sites, the battle lines were drawn and the world was closer to nuclear war than at any time before or since. The day the crisis was resolved, October 28, a rock group from Liverpool virtually unknown outside the British Isles was making its first major stage appearance at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre, on a bill topped by Little Richard.

9/11/62 vs. 9/11/01

Most people, me definitely included, are susceptible to the significance and power of dates. During the almost nine years I’ve been writing these columns, the day of the month or the year has as often as not given me a subject, a motive, or an inspiration. So here I am balancing on either end of a manichean seesaw two Tuesdays that happened to fall on the eleventh day of September. On the tables of history September 11, 2001 will weigh as heavily as December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963. According to the depth and weight and dissemination of immeasurable forces like joy and love, truth and light, the group that began life unspectacularly in London 50 years ago, September 11, 1962, “gave more cheer,” as Derek Taylor put it, “than almost anyone else this century.”

The four rockers from Liverpool did a great deal more for the world than cheering it up, regularly testing the limits in EMI’s Abbey Road studio while creating wonders over the next eight years that no one in 1962 could have imagined. On September 11 they recorded their first single, “Love Me Do,” which failed to get beyond 17 on the British charts. Toward the end of the session, they tried out a Roy-Orbison-inspired song by John Lennon that producer George Martin felt “badly needed pepping up.” The next time they returned to the studio, more than two months later, they increased the tempo, tightened the vocals, and after 18 takes produced their breakthrough song, “Please, Please Me.” At the end of the session, Martin told them “You’ve just made your first number one.” It was the first of 15 number ones, in fact.

“Free as a Bird” 

Sitting in a Montreal hotel room, picture window curtains parted for a bright-lights night view packed with skyscrapers after the 400-mile drive to the Miracle of the North, I’m putting Volume One of The Beatles Anthology on the disc player, which is mine, all mine, now that my son is asleep. For a golden anniversary column, my plan is to go back to the earliest record, the primal disc cut in 1958 in the living room of a Victorian house on Kensington Avenue in Liverpool. “In Spite Of All the Danger” is a song Paul co-wrote with George Harrison two years before the Quarrymen became the Beatles. The unlikely title, with its hint of dark fate lurking, is the first example of the group’s knack for “being in mystery.”

I’d forgotten that the album devoted to Beatle history begins with a “new” song, “Free As a Bird,” born in 1977 in New York when John made the demo and completed in 1994 when Paul wrote and sang a brilliant bridge (one of the glories of Beatles music are the middle eights). Meanwhile George was moved to perhaps the most spiritual, passionate playing of his life, Ringo having set things in motion with a thunderclap. In the ten years since the break-up, fans all over the world had been wishing and hoping the group of groups would get back together; the invitation from Russia might have done the trick, had John and George lived that long. The haunting “Free As a Bird” video reminds me of the golden period between A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the White Album (1968) when everything the Beatles touched seemed to fall magically into place. The dreamlike imagery of the video, viewed as by a bird in flight, offers a dark tour, touching, gloomy, whimsical, and portentous, with John’s voice wailing from beyond the grave and the emergency imagery of police lines and wreckage recalling “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper (“He blew his mind out in a car”) which in turn evokes the Paul-is-dead phenomenon that had everyone looking for ominous messages in the closing seconds of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I am the Walrus” with its sampling from Act Four of King Lear, Oswald (Shakespeare’s or Lee Harvey’s, take your pick) moaning, “untimely death.”


Paul McCartney turned 70 on June 18 of this year. Wherever he plays, and he’s still at it, he is the Beatles, as he was in Red Square, and in New York in the aftermath of September 11, closing the October 20, 2001 benefit concert he organized for the first responders to September 11, the New York police and fire departments and their families, as well as for the families of those lost in the attacks, and those working in the recovery effort. The star-studded show ended with McCartney singing “Freedom,” which he’d composed for the occasion. “Yesterday” the last song of the Beatles medley, however, had the most visible emotional impact on the audience.

Paul’s “Yesterday” was a major breakthrough in the Beatles romance, charming and converting adults who had been staring with nagging, reluctant, uneasy fascination at the object of the ludicrous “moptop” phenomenon they never imagined they could ever take seriously. I was in the living room with an English family, a middle-aged couple and their neighbors who had been gently teasing me about my fondness for the Beatles. We were watching Paul sing “Yesterday” on the telly. When the song was over, the adults in the room were, literally, speechless, until one said, in a choked voice, “Well, that was quite nice, wasn’t it?”

Watching the faces of the thousands in Red Square as Paul sang his signature song, I thought of the faces of the people at the 9/11 benefit who took the lyrics and the sad melody personally. In Moscow where many in the crowd were singing along in a language they did not know, their eyes were shining not with sorrow but with love. Well, except for Vladimir Putin, who did at least look pleasant. Which is saying something.

Finally, there was the moment in Pula, on the Adriatic coast in Yugoslavia, a country where the people seemed cold and unfriendly, even hostile, at least to a bearded American hitchhiker still coming down to earth after a year in India. Late one night I heard voices in the street, looked out the window and saw a group of boys and girls about my age singing as they walked, serenading anyone who chose to listen. A bit drunkenly perhaps but beautifully, romantically, they were singing “Yesterday.”

In addition to the program notes for The Beatles Anthology, I used Mark Lewisohn’s  The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and William J. Dowlding’s Beatlesongs. “Being in mystery” comes from a letter by John Keats in which he spins the theory of Negative Capability.

As for Paul McCartney, he will begin his next tour in St. Louis this November. And the French government just awarded the embodiment of the Beatles the Legion of Honor. Cue the Marseillaise opening from “All You Need is Love.”

September 5, 2012

The most hysterical high-profile response to the literary timebomb called Lolita came, predictably, from the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, whose August 18, 1958 tirade (“dull, dull, dull” “repulsive,” “disgusting,” “fatuous,” “tiresome”) ends by suggesting that Humbert Humbert’s “ravaged brain belongs to the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, not to novelists.”

Four years later, the Stanley Kubrick film made from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel received a relatively polite, if no less clueless, response from film critic Bosley Crowther, Prescott’s colleague at the Times during the same mid-forties to mid-sixties time period. Crowther had to show some respect since by 1962 Lolita was on its way to achieving its current somewhat inflated literary stature (ranked No. 4 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels while a poll of 125 writers ranked it No. 1 in the Top Ten Works of the 20th Century, No. 4 in the Top Ten Books of All Time). What most likely prevented the sort of moralistic venting that eventually cost Crowther his job (following his 1967 hissy fit over Bonnie and Clyde) was the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) production code, which forced Kubrick to dilute the story’s eroticism by turning Nabokov’s word-drunk pedophile Humbert Humbert into a brooding academic played by James Mason. More important, Lolita was transformed from a 12-year-old child into a blonde beauty (15-year-old Sue Lyon) likely to awaken lustful urges in any red-blooded male on the planet, including brooding academics and a certain 57-year-old New York Times film critic who admits that Kubrick’s Lolita “looks to be a good 17 years old” and is “possessed of a striking figure,” which makes the “passion of the hero … more normal and understandable.”

The N-Word

When Crowther brings “normal” into the conversation, he’s using a word with which both Nabokov and Kubrick have a love-hate relationship. In Nabokov’s prose universe the n-word is synonymous with the post-war American nightmare in which Humbert Humbert is fated to live, lust, love, murder, and die. For Kubrick, “normal” becomes the foil for a black comedy of banal interiors and situations (with one magnificent exception) not so much taken from Nabokov’s novel as inspired by it; “normal” is also the nature of the approved behavioral objective forced upon the director by the MPAA. Which means no under-the-radar sex on the sofa leading to “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known” and no drugging of the monster’s prey when her mother is conveniently dead and Humbert finally has the child in his clutches.

The not so secret weapon Kubrick uses to liberate the film from normalcy is Peter Sellers, whose performance as the one-man-theatre-of-the-absurd Clare Quilty explodes conventional expectations and creates chaos in what would be an otherwise conventional arrangement of set pieces featuring pseudo-American interiors in a film that was shot in England. It’s when Sellers is improvising in the Nabokovian mode that you get reactions like  Pauline Kael’s “it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh.”

Missing the Point

Crowther’s inability to comprehend what Sellers and Nabokov and Kubrick are up to becomes most apparent when he refers to the film’s “strange confusions of thought and mood” and faults Kubrick for “scenes in which Mr. Sellers does various comical impersonations as the sneaky villain who dogs Mr. Mason’s trail.” The late Andrew Sarris had the same issues, dismissing Sellers in a July 5, 1962 Village Voice review as “an accurate mimic without physical presence or discernible personality” and, suggesting that Kubrick was not “in tune with Nabokov’s delirious approach to his subject.” In fact, it’s Sellers performance as the mercurial Quilty that sustains the harmony between Kubrick’s cinema and Nabokov’s prose.

Besides perceiving the film’s capacity to amuse and amaze, Pauline Kael calls Lolita “the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick.” In Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, Sturges also seasons the comedy with romance, but in neither instance does he accomplish what Kubrick does when he brings together what Kael calls “black slapstick” with a love story. Crowther at least shows a fumbling awareness of this feat when he refers to the “hauntingly poignant hospital scene,” the film’s “rare power,” and the “garbled, but often moving push toward an off-beat communication.”

What he means by “moving” is Humbert’s profound love for Lolita, a development Nabokov intended, except that in the novel it’s not revealed until the end when Humbert, finding that his nymphet has become a bespectacled, slovenly, pregnant housewife, tearfully pleads with her to come away with him, and when she refuses, gives her and her deaf young husband all his money. In the film the reality of Humbert’s love for Lolita becomes clear early on because, as Kubrick has pointed out in several interviews, unrelenting pressure from the MPAA required the removal of anything that could be perceived as overtly perverse or depraved in Humbert. According to Vincent Lobrutto’s biography Stanley Kubrick, what Kubrick and producer James Harris wanted from Nelson Riddle’s lush score was “a straightforward romantic sound” rather than “any form of dissonance” that “might disparage Humbert” and his love “in the audience’s eyes.”

More important than the music in bringing off this difficult black comedy-romance dynamic is the power of James Mason’s sympathetic performance, arguably the finest of his long career. Because of the MPAA strictures, it’s not with Lo but with her mother Charlotte Haze, memorably played by Shelly Winters, that Mason is allowed to become the darkly and diabolically Humbertian character who bursts into satanic laughter after reading his “landlady’s” ludicrous letter proposing marriage, who seriously contemplates murdering her, and who, when fate does the job for him, luxuriates in the bathtub drinking Scotch immediately afterward.

Beginning at the End

The most obvious example of what Pauline Kael means by “you gasp as you laugh” is the bravura opening scene, a movie in itself set in the party-shattered shambles of Clare Quilty’s elaborately cluttered and chaotic labyrinth of statuary, kitsch and bric-a-brac, with here and there amid the chaos a bust of Shakespeare, a harp, a piano, a ping-pong table. Though Nabokov ultimately had mixed feelings about the film, he told Alvin Toffler in a Playboy interview from 1964 that “the killing of Quilty is a masterpiece.” While working on the screenplay, of which only a fraction was used (Kubrick wisely mined the novel itself), he came to appreciate what the director was up against. For one thing, it was Nabokov who realized that the film had to begin at the end of the story.

Projected in Nabokov’s screenplay as “a silent shadowy sequence which should last not more than one minute,” the murder of Quilty becomes a painfully funny ten-minute-long nightmare in which the straight man kills the clown, who “jigs and ambles” to the end. It begins when Humbert asks, “Are you Quilty?” At which Sellers wraps himself in a sheet as if it were a toga and says he’s Spartacus, a sly reference to Kubrick’s previous picture.

Then, as Mason stands grimly behind the ping-pong table, ready to commit a literary crime of passion (he’s written a poem to explain his motive, the abduction and debauching of Lolita), Quilty shuffles and sashays over to the table in his toga and suggests they have a game of Roman ping-pong “like two civilized senators.” At this point, as Quilty begins the game with a serve (“Roman ping!”) that the appalled Humbert does not return (“You’re supposed to say ‘Roman pong!’”), the audience is giddy. When Humbert asks Quilty if he wants die standing or sitting, Sellers dons a pair of boxing gloves: “I wanna die like a champion!” He’s still clowning even as the first shot hits the glove. Finally showing signs of panic, he flounces over to the piano and begins playing Chopin’s Grand Polonaise (“Nice sort of opening, that. We could dream up some lyrics maybe”). At this point, the audience is, as they say, in hysterics.

A minute later Quilty, still bantering, will be shot dead behind a Gainsborough. So you laugh and catch your breath. Or gasp. A man is being murdered and you’re laughing.

That’s not normal. But this was not the time for the n-word.

Kubrick’s Lolita was being made during the Kennedy inauguration and the building of the Berlin wall. It hit American movie screens the summer before the Cuban missile crisis. The nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War would send Kubrick and Sellers into the endgame black comedy of Dr. Strangelove. Meanwhile the Beatles and Stones were tuning up. Here come the sixties.

Lolita will be shown on TCM on September 21 at 5:15 p.m. The DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

—Stuart Mitchner

August 29, 2012

I consider life to be a continuous series of improvisations. —Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)

There’s too much in my head for this horn.

—Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

I am looking at a 12-inch Verve LP, Now’s the Time, the Genius of Charlie Parker #3, which is in the same dismal shape it was when the girl I married four years later unceremoniously presented it to me in San Francisco on my 24th birthday. “Bobby Petersen, the guy who gave it to me, stole it,” she said.

Not much of a birthday present, you may be thinking. In all fairness, the girl, who was 18 and in her first year at Berkeley, hardly knew me at the time. Strips of army-green friction tape had been clumsily applied to the entire top and bottom seams of the cover and another shorter piece was holding the spine together. Charlie Parker’s face, what you can see of it, has a cloudy, glazed-over look, though the original spotlight blue has sustained a certain luminosity in spite of the wear and tear. The vinyl is scuffed and scratched, but it plays fine, and the music is coming, after all, from a performer of such impenetrable charisma that the disc’s very flaws, its crackles and hisses, have an archival validity. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus tells Mr. Deasy history is “a shout in the street.” Now’s the Time says history is “a record with surface noise.”

By now I’ve sold or traded almost all my jazz vinyl, and I’ve got a CD of this album, so why am I hanging on to stolen merchandise in laughably bad shape with the name of the guy it was probably stolen from (“Wade November 1958”) written in blue ink on the upper right of the back cover? Just because it was my future wife’s first ever gift to me? Am I that sentimental?

You bet I am. But even more, I’m looking for ways to tie together a column about two legends of American music, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose 92nd birthday is today, and guitarist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead whose 70th fell on August first.

The Petersen Connection

Early in his five-hour-long Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner and Charles Reich on January 20, 1972, Jerry Garcia recalls first getting together with Dead-bassist-to-be Phil Lesh and “this other guy named Bobby Petersen, who is like an old-time wine-drinkin’ convict post criminal scene, a great guy.” Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life puts Petersen, along with Lesh and Garcia “and about two hundred other people,” at “a giant party dubbed the Groovy Conclave” that began on November 18, 1961, and went on for three days at a rambling Palo Alto “party house” known as the Chateau.

Meanwhile Petersen’s pal Phil Lesh had enrolled in the music department at Berkeley, where in addition to working as a volunteer engineer at KPFA, he helped the girl-who-gave-me-Now’s the Time with her homework for a physics class taught by Edward “Dr. Strangelove” Teller. Petersen most likely still had the record when he was hanging out with Garcia and Lesh and the Dead’s eventual music publisher Alan Trist. In Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, Trist recalls smoking grass with Petersen, Lesh, and Garcia, among others, at his house in Palo Alto (“my parents were away”), which happened to be in back of Ken Kesey’s cabin: “We got very stoned because we were young people whose systems were quite open. And we designed this fantasy of how we would like to be, where we would like to take all this beat stuff.” It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that during the designing of this fantasy, or during “the giant party” in November, my destined-to-be-24th-birthday copy of Now’s the Time was playing, either in the back or foreground, for this was the period, before Dylan and the Beatles, when the music of choice for stoned “young people” with “open systems” was jazz, along with blues, bluegrass, and folk, and the player  of the hour and the era was Charlie Parker.

Years later, in his introduction to Alleys of the Heart: The Collected Poems of Robert M. Petersen (published in 1988, a year after Petersen’s death at 51), Alan Trist mentions the lyrics Petersen wrote for the Grateful Dead (“New Potato Caboose,” “Unbroken Chain,” “Pride of Cucamonga”) and describes the poet as “one true voice of a generation” who hopped the freights, played jazz saxophone, served time, “practiced freedom” and “bridged the beat scene of San Francisco to the rock era, like his sometime companion Neal Cassady.” In “Fern Rock,” one of the longest poems in Alleys of the Heart, Petersen describes Jerry Garcia “bending the frames of / reality … reaching into that system / pulling out dream after dream.”

The Vinyl Connection

Such then is the provenance of my well-traveled birthday gift of Bobby Petersen’s stolen copy of Now’s the Time, which I’ve just been listening to in its original state, scuffs and scratches and taped-up sleeve notwithstanding, and after the first three tracks, I had to run up here to the “keyboard” — which I put quotes around because the only keyboard worth serious mention after listening to this record is Hank Jones’s, a subtle, solid, and ebulliently inventive complement to the brazen brilliance of Charlie Parker, superbly driven in turn by Max Roach’s drumming and Teddy Kotick’s bass.

One of the virtues of returning to the primal vinyl after a long absence (our only turntable has been my son’s domain for 15 years) is the sheer size and depth of the sound compared to that of a compact disc. When you listen to a record like this one, you’re closer not only to the music and the moment of its making, but to all the previous playings, from the first needle-in-the-groove moment in 1958 when “Wade,” the guy who wrote his name on the back, set the jazz genie free. Close your eyes, open your imagination, and you may hear, as on an extended voice mail playback, the various exclamations of delight and fanciful stoned dialogues of previous listeners at those Palo Alto parties Wade may have been attending when my wife’s long-ago friend Bobby P. ripped him off.

Or maybe Petersen lied about stealing the album in order to impress the impressionable Berkeley freshman he was generously introducing to Charlie Parker. As for the sorry condition of the thing, inside and out, the defects, like I said, are part of the historical profile, as are Bill Simon’s lengthy liner notes on the back of the worn and faded sleeve additionally marred by grease spots and the yellowish imprint left by years of sweaty-handed handling, not to mention an informational defect that has Al Haig and Percy Heath playing piano and bass on the first six tracks, from December 30, 1952 (they play on the last six, from the July 30, 1953 session). As for the surface noise, it’s only there for Bird to blow through when Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” explodes from the speakers, followed by two numbers named for children, the first, “Laird Baird,” a sassy and playful blues for Parker’s son Laird and the second, for his stepdaughter Kim, what else but “Kim,” a flight of fairytale fancy on the changes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

The Kern Connection

While several Jerome Kern standards were in Parker’s repertoire, notably “All the Things You Are” (reborn as “Bird of Paradise”), the composer’s association with Jerry Garcia began at birth when his father, a clarinetist and saxophonist who admired Kern, named him Jerome John Garcia. Students of Garcia’s improvisations with and without the Dead might be able to find instances where he quotes some melodic fragment of his namesake’s music, but the most obvious recognition of the connection comes in a recording of Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” on the soundtrack album for Wayne Wang’s film Smoke, released two months before Garcia’s August 9, 1995 death. In retrospect, the video, which can be seen on YouTube, becomes a playful, quirky swan song, with a seated, Buddha-benign Garcia performing while a sexy earth angel in the form of Ashley Judd looks on, making love to the moment. Smiling just about all the way, Garcia appears in fine fettle, his playing bell-clear, as he performs an atypically lively version of one of the great ballad melodies of American popular music. In the last image, as the smoke fades, Jerome John Garcia sits all alone in the rear of the deserted night club.

The Connection Connection

Unfortunately, the most obvious parallel between Charlie Parker and Jerry Garcia is in the Faustian role hard drugs played in each man’s life. There’s the familiar quote from a doctor who upon examining Parker said that at the age of 33 he had the body of a man twice that age. Something similar was said of Garcia at 53.

Since it would take more listening than I have time for, and a lot more thought and knowledge, I won’t presume to make comparisons between these two masters, beyond wishing for a front row seat at the concert in music heaven where Bird sits in with the Dead, joining Garcia in mid-flight during a performance of “Dark Star” like the one on Live/Dead where you know he’s venturing into regions not unlike the “realms of gold” Charlie Parker traveled in.

Reading the guitar.com and Rolling Stone interviews with Garcia, I found a number of places where he said things that might have been said by or about Charlie Parker, for instance, “I consider life to be a continuous series of improvisations …. Because being high, each note, you know, is like a whole universe. And each silence. And … all of a sudden we find a certain kind of feeling or a certain kind of rhythm and the whole place is like a sea and it goes boom…boom …boom, it’s like magic and … you discover that another kind of sound will like create a whole other, you know ….”

He didn’t finish the sentence, and no need. All the better, in fact. Let it be “a whole other —.” Not that he was ever at a loss for words. Speaking of another musician, Garcia once said that “nobody has come up to the state that he was playing at — that whole fullness of expression, the combination of having incredible speed and giving every note a specific personality.” He was referring to Django Reinhardt, but he could have been talking about Charlie Parker — and Jerry Garcia.

August 22, 2012

Music is a dream from which the veils have been drawn! It’s not even the expression of a feeling — it is the feeling itself. —Claude Debussy (1862-1918), from a letter

On a spring morning in 1884 a classroom window at the Paris Conservatoire is open to the racket of horse-drawn omnibuses on the cobblestones of the rue du FaubourgPoissonnière. At the piano sits a “dishevelled” 21-year-old student, “his shock of tousled hair constantly shaking,” as he produces “chromatic groanings in imitation of the buses … all the notes of the diatonic scale heard at once in fantastic arrangements; shimmering sequences of arpeggios contrasted with trills played by both hands on three notes simultaneously.” The performance continues until a supervisor hearing the “strange noises ringing through the corridors” puts a stop to it, branding the pianist “a dangerous ‘fanatic’ “ and ordering the “spellbound” students “to be off.”

In his rich two-volume biography, Debussy: His Life and Mind (Macmillan 1962), Edward Lockspeiser presents this “picturesque episode,” recalled after Debussy’s death by a fellow student, as an example of the way “all sounds must strike at some poetry” in “the mind of a musician.”

The same classroom observer, Maurice Emmanuel, was taking notes on a later occasion, during a conversation between the then-28-year-old Debussy and his former teacher, Ernest Guiraud. Debussy having just played a series of intervals on the piano, Guiraud asks “What’s that?” Debussy replies, “Incomplete chords, floating …. One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances.” To which Guiraud responds, “I am not saying what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Says Debussy, “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

“Mystery in Art”

Drawn to that concept of composition, of music as a fluid infinitely malleable element and pleasure as the law, Debussy would surely have appreciated knowing that in a future time his work would be moving through the world at large giving comfort and joy and evoking wonderment and awe in intimate situations and unlikely environments far from the formal boundaries of the salon or concert hall, transmitted in forms undreamed of in his day, with plugged-in listeners walking, driving a car, flying across oceans and continents at 30,000 feet, or in the solitude of home, recumbent with headset in the dead of night, able to leave and return “by any door” with the push of a button, living, breathing, thinking music.

Debussy might be appalled at the idea of someone doing menial chores (the dinner dishes, in my case) while master pianist Aldo Ciccolini, born August 15, 1925, seven years after the composer’s death, is playing L’Isle Joyeuse, a work for piano composed in 1904. But this is Debussy, who could hear music in the sound of wheels on pavement while creating chromatic equivalents. Myself, I think he’d be tolerant of such mundane miracles, if not amazed and delighted, based on what evidence we have — the scene in the classroom, the conversation with Guiraud, and other statements, notably the one inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner, “the greatest creator of mystery in art.” Revert from the translation to Debussy’s actual words (“le plus grand créateur de mystère qui soit en art”) and it’s easier to see that he’s describing himself, his dream, his mission, which is how it often is when artists, whatever the medium, use works they admire to express the terms of their own aesthetic.

Admitted, “mystery” is a notoriously open term, but serviceable enough to express strange and wonderful transmissions such as the one from the young English poet who died in 1821, his name “writ in water,” the verse message reaching Debussy two months before his own death, sent by a friend who suggested the line, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” was “implicitly dedicated” to a composer who once defined music as “the silence between the notes.”

Joy in Jersey

I mentioned L’Isle Joyeuse, which refers to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where in July 1904 Debussy “eloped” with Emma Bardac (both being already married at the time), who would become his second wife and the mother of his only child. The composition for piano finds its way to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, where it’s recorded in November 1991 by Ciccolini, one of the 16 pieces I’ve been listening to in August 2012 while the water’s running in the sink as I scrub and scour into the depths of a skillet that begins looking like one of Turner’s storms at sea as Debussy’s joyous Jersey idyll bursts forth from the Bose Wave sounding in the chiming trilling flux of demonically intense invention not unlike the “fantastic arrangements” and “shimmering sequences” that Debussy’s fellow student remembers hearing long long ago in the classroom. Next morning, already feeling worn out, not looking forward to a dreary errand, I get into my trusty four-wheeled stereo, put on the same CD (Piano Works, Vol. V) to a surefire energy source, Tarantelle styrienne (later simplified to Danse), some of the most exhilarating piano music ever written, and I’m revived in an instant, riding high, and what was a chore has become a mission.

Something Amusingly Else

Of course Debussy has much more to offer than morning euphoria and instant energy. Take one of the best-known and most-played of his compositions, Clair de lune, which begins in a state of tender hesitant beauty, builds to an emotional summit, and goes down like a sunset. It’s one thing to hear Ciccolini play it, and something amusingly else to see Spencer Tracy at the keyboard in Without Love, one of the lesser-known movies he made with Katherine Hepburn. If it had been Hepburn swooning elegantly over the keys, no big deal, but that’s Spencer Tracy tucking in the belt of his bath robe as he sits down to play. No ceremony, no airs, the most unceremonious of actors is making beautiful music as Hepburn listens transfixed on the stairs, in her bathrobe, about to dissolve into an amorous mist, just as my own mother did whenever my undemonstrative father played the same music.

The Anglophile

Debussy may not have spoken the language but, as Lockspeiser makes clear, he was thoroughly immersed in the culture of the British Isles, though it should be mentioned that Debussy was very much under the influence of France’s favorite American, Edgar Allan Poe, to the point of planning but never finishing operas based on The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher. (In November 2009 Opéra Français de New York presented the enhanced remains.) Besides enjoying idylls in Jersey and Eastbourne with Emma Bardac, whom he married in 1908, Debussy hired an English governess for his daughter and was a steadfast admirer of English art (Turner, Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham), poetry (Keats, Shelley, Swinburne), literature (J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, and above all Shakespeare). The original role of Mélisande in his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, belonged to Mary Garden, a Scottish soprano with a voice he had “secretly imagined — full of a sinking tenderness” who sang “with such artistry” as he “would never have believed possible.” Perhaps the most whimsical indication of the extent of his devotion to things English is in Volume Two of the Preludes, the one titled Hommage to S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. [Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club]. He also composed preludes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Pan.

“Ever Higher”

“Anywhere out of the world” was Debussy’s half-facetious response to one of the questions (“Where would you most like to live?”) on a printed questionnaire from February 1889 included as an appendix in the first volume of Lockspeiser’s biography. Among Debussy’s more earthly enjoyments: reading “while smoking complex cigars” (les tabacs compliqués), the color violet; Russian cooking; and coffee. His favorite fictional hero and heroine were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Rosalind. His idea of happiness: “to love,” his motto “Ever higher.”

Twice married, Debussy had numerous affairs. Green-eyed Gabrielle Dupont, who can be seen in all her statuesque glory among the photographs in Lockspeiser’s book, attempted suicide when their ten-year relationship ended, and his first wife shot herself on the Place du Concorde after a letter from Debussy telling her that the marriage was over (she survived). That’s the composer’s 11-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (Chouchou), sharing a picnic on the grass with her straw-hatted father in the photograph on the cover of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1988 recording of the Preludes. You can imagine something of the father-daughter relationship if you to go to “Debussy plays Debussy” on YouTube and listen as Debussy plays “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk,” from the Childrens Corner suite he wrote for Chouchou, whose smiles, he told a friend, “helped him overcome periods of black depression.” In a letter home, he writes of how sad he is “not to hear your songs and your laughter and all that noise which sometimes makes you an unbearable little person.” Before going into surgery in 1915, he tells his wife that she and Chouchou “are the only two beings who should prevent me from disappearing altogether.”

The Last Word

For Lockspeiser, Debussy’s child provides the most reliable eyewitness account of his death from cancer on March 25, 1918, as German artillery bombarded Paris. In a letter to her half-brother, she writes, “When I went back into the room Papa was sleeping and breathing regularly but in short breaths. He went on sleeping in this way until ten o’clock in the evening, and at this time, sweetly, angelically, he went to sleep for ever.” At the funeral, Chouchou did her best not to cry, for her distraught mother’s sake. “I saw him for the last time in that horrible box …. As I almost fell over I couldn’t kiss him.”

Chouchou herself had less than a year to live. Her death, during the diphteria epidemic, was thought to be due to an erroneous diagnosis.

Edward Lockspeiser’s biography was an invaluable resource that would not have been available but for the Princeton Public Library, which also had the Claudio Abbado Wiener Philarmonic recording of Pelléas et Mélisande, a hypnotic experience when listened to with headphones between midnight and three in the morning. I also consulted Debussy On Music, which I found at last year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. 

August 15, 2012

If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be “Rio Bravo.”

—Robin Wood in
Howard Hawks (1968)

“One of the most purely pleasurable films ever made,” says Dave Kehr of Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo in a recent New York Times round-up of metropolitan area film fare. Kehr is absolutely right, though some may find the choice of words problematic. How does one find pure pleasure in a picture that begins with a drunk groveling for money in a spittoon and goes on from there to a beating that causes the mindless murder of the man who intervened? Then there’s the lethal mayhem that results when the jailed killer’s wealthy brother hires a small army to liberate him. The joys of Rio Bravo, however, have less to do with gunfire and violent death than with the enlightened direction of Howard Hawks and the embattled camaraderie of a group of unlikely heroes led by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance.

Whatever the genre — western, gangster, film noir, newspaper, war, musical, screwball, or romantic comedy — pictures directed by Hawks belong at or near the top of the list, and if anything demonstrates the massive insult to cinematic intelligence that is the American Film Institute’s ranking of the 100 Best Films, it’s the fact that Bringing Up Baby is the only work by Hawks that made the list (and barely, at that). Worse yet, High Noon (1952) is ranked 27th while its hands-down superior, Rio Bravo, the picture that one of the most intelligent and literate writers on film, the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), put at the top of his death-bed list of great films, didn’t even crack the almighty 100.

The Anti-High Noon

John Wayne once called High Noon “the most un-American thing” he’d ever seen. While he’s referring to the fact that it was written by Carl Foreman, a black-listed ex-communist, and produced by Stanley Kramer, a liberal, Wayne also shares Hawks’s thought: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife.”

Hawks is talking about characters played by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The idea of an “un-American movie” with a steady, stalwart American icon running around in it like a “chicken with his head cut off” is ridiculous, as Hawks would no doubt agree, if he’d had a chance to reword what he was saying. For Robin Wood, High Noon is “the archetypal ‘Oscar’ film,” the product of three men (director Fred Zinneman, writer Carl Foreman, and producer Stanley Kramer) “whose work has been characterized by those Good Intentions with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. Mental intentions [Wood’s italics], not emotional or intuitive intentions: intentions of the conscious, willing mind, not of the whole man.” According to Wood, the emotional and intuitive wholeness that High Noon lacks is what makes Rio Bravo superior “as a record of lived and felt experience.”

The Moment

“In films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments,” James Stewart told an audience at the British Film Theatre in 1972. “Not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments.”

Rio Bravo is full of choice moments like the ones in which Angie Dickinson’s card sharp, Feathers, sexually disarms John Wayne, the seemingly implacable “tower-of-strength” she affectionately, half-teasingly calls John T. And there are fractured moments as swift and subtle as the range of looks — compassionate, disappointed, proud — the sheriff gives the recovering-alcoholic Dude (movingly played by Dean Martin) as he falters, begins to find only to lose himself, and finally shows signs of pulling himself together.

There is one moment, one sequence, that particularly illuminates “the lived and felt experience” Wood refers to when comparing the virtues of Rio Bravo with the limitations of High Noon. It also happens to be the sequence most often cited by people like those responsible for the AFI list as evidence that Rio Bravo is unworthy of serious consideration. When the news got round that the terminally ill Robin Wood ranked Hawk’s western at the top of his final Top Ten, the reaction was disbelieving and scornful. A typically sloppy reaction (from a film blog called hollywood-elsewhere) begins, “What is that? You’re about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin’ movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin?” A similarly patronizing if somewhat less klutzy response comes from Wood’s hometown newspaper, the Toronto Star, two months after his death in December 2009: “John Wayne plays a small-town sheriff who rounds up a drunk (Martin), a punk kid (Nelson), and a raspy codger (Brennan) to battle bad guys who are threatening his town …. Pop stars Martin and Nelson crooned together on the sappy ditty, ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me.’”

The “sappy ditty” and the way it simply, nicely happens is the point at which I bonded with Rio Bravo. People with a biased or limited view of what “art” is supposed to be instantly write off the singing scene as a crass attempt to exploit two pop stars whose presence is intended to bolster the box office: Dino, the forever sloshed Las Vegas Rat Pack crooner, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Ricky, America’s favorite kid brother and 1959’s latest Teen Idol.

For a start, no one “croons” in this scene. Martin’s Dude is on his back smoking a cigarette, his hat brim down over his eyes, when he starts to quietly sing, and as he does, it’s as if he’s making the song up, feeling it, as he goes along. Nelson, as a young gunfighter called Colorado, warms to the song and the singing with a smile from the heart, strums his guitar, and at a nod from Dude takes the next chorus while Stumpy, the “screech-voiced Walter Brennan” plays the harmonica and Wayne looks on, a tin cup of coffee in his hand, smiling, simply enjoying the harmonious spontaneity of the moment, like a stand-in for the audience, or that part of it not predisposed to dismiss the scene as Hollywood hype.

In fact, Hollywood is exactly what’s happening, and the rousing song that follows (“Get Along Home Cindy”) brings everything closer to the terms of Wood’s claim that Rio Bravo “justifies the existence of Hollywood” because “The whole of Hawks is immediately behind it, and the whole tradition of the western, and behind that is Hollywood itself.” Three generations of performers covering a span of 30 years in the saga of American popular culture are coming together in, to use Wood’s words, “a bond of fellow-feeling through the shared experience of the music.”

And what makes the moment, this shared sense of the world in a fine balance, all the more precious is the presence of the killer in the adjoining cell waiting for the invading force of his brother’s hired guns to set him free and destroy his jailers and anyone else who gets in the way. For the duration of the song, this family of men is sheltered from the dead zone of the outside world in the timeless confines of a Hawks continuum of other moments, like aglow-with-love Lauren Bacall singing “How Little We Know” to Bogart in To Have and Have Not, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to an appreciative leopard; or Humphrey Bogart having the time of his life posing as a nerdy bibliophile in The Big Sleep. For Wood, this four-minute scene in Rio Bravo “is perhaps the best expression in Hawks’s work of the spontaneous-intuitive sympathy which he makes so important as the basis of human relations.”

Other Moments

Admitted, there are times early on when Rio Bravo seems slow and stagey and you’re tempted to urge the actors to get on with it. And Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the effusive Mexican hotelier is borderline (no pun intended) embarrassing. And Ricky is (just as well) no Brando or even Steve McQueen. And yes, Walter Brennan may grate on the nerves, but he too has a life in the larger culture, not only as Grandpa Amos McCoy in the sitcom, The Real McCoys, but as Bogart’s alcoholic sidekick in To Have and Have Not. Then there’s the mannered, edgily charming performance of Angie Dickinson, whose moves occasionally suggest the quirky body language of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall 15 years down the road.

There is much much more to be said about Rio Bravo, though the most articulate and intelligent discussion I know of is in Robin Wood’s 1968 book, and the most succinct is in Garry Giddins’s collection of reviews, Warning Shadows, which ends with Dude and Stumpy  “strolling into the fantasy world of incandescent Hollywood, where everyone ends up content and whole.”

August 8, 2012

As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.

—Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

The first sentence of Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964-2006 (Doubleday 2006) appears disarmingly contrary to the obituaries presenting him as an elegant elitist who made his mark less as a novelist (he wrote 25) and essayist (some 20 collections) than as a caustic, combative public intellectual. The New York Times suggests he was “at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed.” In England, the Guardian obituary, written by Vidal’s executor Jay Parini, describes “a controversialist and politician manqué … celebrated both for his caustic wit and his mandarin’s poise.”

While there’s no denying Gore Vidal was thought of — and thought of himself — in those terms, the fact is that he chose to begin what, at this writing, has proven to be his swan song by declaring that the only thing he “really liked to do was go to the movies.” On July 31 — where else but in Hollywood? — he reached the door marked Exit.

As anyone who has read Vidal or seen him on television over the years surely knows, “the only thing” claim is disingenuous. He obviously “really liked” being in the limelight among the luminaries he’s sharing photos with in Point to Point Navigation, in a previous volume of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995), and in Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009), a book of 360 photographs. He also “really liked,” at least intermittently, reading, writing, politics, travel, and feeling at home in the world, whether living longterm in the Hollywood Hills, in his villa La Rondinaia in Ravello, or Edgewater on the Hudson in Barrytown, or in, among other locales, Rome, Paris, Bangkok, London, or Washington, D.C., which is where he grew up, bonding with the cinema in the various theaters fondly remembered in Chapter Four of Point to Point Navigation.

The use of a commonplace crutch word like “really” underscores Vidal’s primal enthusiasm for movies. As he’s quick to add, “Sex and Art took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen.” While he admits to being “a compulsive reader from the age of six,” he goes on to say that he was “so besotted with movies” that one Saturday he saw five “in a day.” Several pages farther on in Point to Point Navigation, the patrician intellectual of the obituaries confesses, “what I really wanted to be was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney, and to play Puck, as he had done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

A Letter from Edgewater

The Gore Vidal I knew best, in a manner of speaking, is the author of the early novels. Not yet famous, not yet a television presence or sophisticated media player, this is Vidal before the historical novels that began with Julian in 1964, Vidal before Myra Breckenridge in 1968, Vidal before he locked horns with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley.

“I have started your book,” the handwritten four-page note with the Edgewater letterhead begins, “which looks remarkably — I might even say enviably — well-written considering its author’s age (a patronizing note I like to strike now that I am safely past that business).”

I was 20 and thought of Vidal as another, older “young writer” who had published his first novel at 21. He was a few weeks short of his 34th birthday when I sent him a copy of my aptly titled first novel, Let Me Be Awake. Until I discovered eight of his books in a bookstore rental library that was going out of business, I didn’t know anything about him beyond the fact that he’d written a hit play called Visit To a Small Planet. The unlikely discovery of these novels I’d never heard of, all in their original dustjackets, gave them a certain charisma. Since they were only 25 cents each, I bought all eight.

“I mean, of course,” the letter continues, referring to my still-wet-behind-the-ears novel of a midwestern innocent emotionally shipwrecked in the Evil East, “it is most well-written and, as far as I’ve got, has that flow, that sense of the thing held whole in a fine consciousness which is literature.”

I’ve added italics to indicate the impact that this elegant, Jamesian sentence had on someone who was only beginning to figure out the difference between a metaphor and a simile. I should have thought, “Is he kidding?” I should have been wondering just how far he’d actually “got” in a narrative that didn’t really lift off until the protagonist went to New York. “I have started … as far as I’ve got …” Like maybe as far as page two? But who was I to question such eloquence? Reading on, I found that, as I’d anticipated, he was pleased to hear my “kind words” about his early novels. “I can only marvel that you found them! There are times when I think I dreamed them all — since all are out of print except for occasional paperback reprints — I am now the subject of obscure master theses on the novel of the 40s, or what went wrong?” He then assured me, “I have not given up prose — I just went into the trade (i.e. drama) for a few years to make money.”

The letter ends with a facetious coda, a Gore Vidal moment true to the urbane wit described in the obituaries: “I hope you will order your life better; one way — perhaps the only honorable way — is to marry money.”

Sexual Orientation

Having read Vidal’s groundbreaking 1948 best-seller The City and the Pillar shortly before receiving his letter, I knew something of the author’s sexual orientation. I did not know, however, that at the time of the writing, he was already nine years into his 53-year relationship with Howard Auster, who, because he couldn’t land a job on Madison Avenue with a Jewish last name, took Vidal’s advice, changed Auster to Austen, and joined the Mad Men. I should also mention here that Vidal’s sensitive account of the illness and death of his longtime partner in Point to Point Navigation is another facet of his character at odds with the “cool and detached” obituary stereotype.

On the subject of The City and the Pillar, Vidal claims in his memoir that “the most powerful reviewer of the day,” the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, was so repelled by the mere idea of a novel portraying “a love affair between two ‘normal’ male athletes” that he not only refused to review it, but imposed a personal embargo: he would “never again read —  much less review” anything by Gore Vidal.

While The City and the Pillar reads like the work of a writer who had yet to find the voice he found four years later in his seventh novel, The Judgment of Paris, it remains the book of Vidal’s that made the strongest impression on me, if only because, in its unaffected, straightforward, sometimes plodding way, it opened my eyes to my own clueless perception of “gays” (a term Vidal despised).

It Got Ugly 

As much as I’ve enjoyed Gore Vidal’s essays and reviews over the years, I’ve read very little of his middle and late-period fiction. I found it hard to get into the spirit of literary tour de forces like Myra Breckenridge (1968), and his series of novels recreating American history never attracted me. The writer who had my attention was his arch rival (and at times mortal enemy) Norman Mailer, who was able impose his own style of novelistic excitement on real-life events such as the Democratic conventions of 1960 and 1968. While Vidal was on television going nastily one-on-one with William F. Buckley, Mailer was making literary history. The Gore Vidal I connected with was the young novelist of the 1950s, not the celebrity of the talk show feuds. Even though I was on his side most of the time, I found it hard to relate to the polished, sneering cynic trading insults with William F. Buckley. I never found those television skirmishes, including the ones with Mailer, amusing. I prefer writer-to-writer encounters like the famous one-night stand starring Vidal and Jack Kerouac, who presented a discreetly muddled version in his novel The Subterraneans, wherein Vidal becomes Arial Lavalina. A more graphic account of this literary tryst can be found in Fred Kaplan’s biography, Gore Vidal (1999).

On the Afterlife

One of the films in Point to Point Navigation that Vidal singles out for special mention during his “first and most vivid moviegoing phase” (from 1932 to 1939, age from 7 to 14) is The Mummy, with a lethally scary Boris Karloff in the title role. When Vidal saw the film again for the first time in 58 years, he “became, suddenly, seven years old again, mouth ajar,” as he inhabited, “simultaneously, both ancient Egypt and pre-imperial Washington, D.C.” Speculating on the movie’s appeal beyond “the charnel horror,” he observes that “any confirmation that life continues after death has an appeal to almost everyone except enlightened Buddhists.” In the next chapter, after meditating at length on The Prince and the Pauper, another Hollywood film that captured his imagination some four years later (“I wanted to be the identical twin boys … I wanted to be myself twice”), Vidal admits that “Like most children,” he used to “imagine what death must be like. But unlike most, I had no belief, or even interest in an afterlife.” Nevertheless, he sees fit to acknowledge “the notion of images impressed on celluloid” providing “a spurious sense of immortality, as does, indeed, the notion that those light rays which record our images will keep on bending about the universe forever.”

In the end, Vidal, the afterlife-denying novelist overrules Vidal, the moviegoer. “There are those who find comfort in such concepts,” he writes. “I don’t.”

August 1, 2012

How significant was the first week of August for Herman Melville? He was born August 1, 1819, married August 4, 1847, first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most momentous meeting of his life, on August 5, l850. For Marilyn Monroe, the first week of August was the last week of her life, 50 years ago this Sunday, August 5, 1962.

Lost in Melville’s Gaze

“A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect — with life to his finger-tips.” Sophia Hawthorne is describing her husband Nathaniel’s newfound friend Herman Melville. While observing the 31-year-old writer’s “very keen perceptive power,” and his “air free, brave and manly,” Sophia encounters his gaze and, in effect, gets lost in it. At first she sees his eyes as a defect (what “astonishes” her is that they are “not large and deep,” “not keen,” and “quite undistinguished in any way”), yet she can’t help wondering over what happens as he’s “conversing … full of gesture and force” and “his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected — an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.”

Sophia communicated this revealing first impression of Melville in a September 4, 1850, letter to her mother, who may have found the last sentence mildly alarming. And what would Hawthorne have thought had he been permitted to read the letter? It’s a seductive formula, eyes that put her off only to take her in with their “lazy power” — the way she’s expressed it, the person he was taking deepest note of seems to have been Sophia, who thus feels compelled to add that the subject of the taking “into himself” was not her but the Hawthorne’s six-year-old daughter, Una.

Moved by Marilyn

Fast forward a hundred years to another first meeting, on a Hollywood film set in 1950. “When we shook hands,” Arthur Miller writes, describing his first moment with Marilyn Monroe in his 1987 memoir, Timebends, “the shock of her body’s motion sped through me, a sensation at odds with her sadness amid all this glamour and technology and the busy confusion of a new shot being set up.”

For a single time-and-space-defying moment, imagine that the contact is between two equally inspired beings, that the person taking Marilyn Monroe’s hand is not Arthur Miller but Herman Melville at 31, ablaze with the writing of Moby Dick as he was when he swept Sophia Hawthorne off her feet. Then imagine Marilyn at her zenith, having gone from bit player to living legend, as she was in 1961 when she stunned Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen with an “almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness” as if “all the wild nature of Africa” were “amicably gazing” at her “with a mighty playfulness.”

And of course both leading players in the great American reality show were doomed to fall, Melville, his masterpiece all but ignored by the press when it wasn’t being scorned, telling Hawthorne in 1856 that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated” (only to die in obscurity almost four decades later); Marilyn in her own freefall of failed marriages, miscarriages, professional humiliation, dying world famous and alone at 36.

Writing in Timebends, Arthur Miller remarks on how “the press that gathered to chorus its lamentations” when Marilyn died was “the same press that had sneered at her for so long …. To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. She was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

A defining moment in Timebends comes when Miller and Monroe are living together in New York before their marriage, a “bond of shared silences, as mysterious as sexuality” having begun to form between them. It was after “one of those silences” that he told her she was “the saddest girl” he’d ever met, which she “first thought a defeat” and then took as the “compliment” he’d intended, telling him, “You’re the only one who ever said that to me.”

Imagining Marilyn

Though there may be no prototypical Marilyns in Melville’s work, there are definite intimations, beginning with Fayaway in his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846): “This gentle being had early attracted my regard, not only from her extraordinary beauty, but from the attractive cast of her
countenance, singularly expressive of intelligence and humanity,”
with “a tenderness in her manner which it was impossible to misunderstand or resist.” Strange but true, that the author now best known for Moby Dick and Billy Budd, with their all-male casts, created the literary equivalent of a Hollywood diva he delights in personally costuming: “Out of the calico brought from the ship I made a dress for this lovely girl” that “began at the waist, and terminated sufficiently far above the ground to reveal the most bewitching ankle in the universe.”

Fayaway’s “free pliant figure is the very perfection of female grace and beauty,” her face “a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire,” her “full lips, when parted with a smile, disclosed teeth of dazzling whiteness,” her hair “flowed in natural ringlets over her shoulders, and whenever she chanced to stoop, fell over and hid from view her lovely bosom.” Gazing into “the depths of her strange blue eyes, when she was in a contemplative mood, they seemed most placid yet unfathomable; but when illuminated by some lively emotion, they beamed upon the beholder like stars.” Her hands “were as soft and delicate as those of any countess,” her feet, “though wholly exposed, were as diminutive and fairly shaped as those which peep from beneath the skirts of a Lima lady’s dress. The skin of this young creature, from continual ablutions and the use of mollifying ointments, was inconceivably smooth and soft.”

If nothing else, the reference to Fayaway’s skin evokes the star of whom director Billy Wilder said, “The first day a photographer took a picture of her she was a genius.” One such photographer, Eve Arnold (1912-2012), observes in Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation (1987), that “her flesh … was almost touchable on screen; she had what cinematographer’s call ‘flesh impact.’ Her skin was translucent, white, luminous.”

The wonder of Marilyn Monroe is that she seems in some ways more hauntingly alive and aglow and charming in Arnold’s pictures than she does on film.

Isabel and Marianna

There are also intimations in Melville’s work of the troubled, vulnerable, lonely being Miller perceived in “the saddest girl” he ever knew. In Pierre: or The Ambiguities, the prodigiously immoderate, mannered and tormented, at once dated and uncannily “modern” novel written in the aftermath of Moby Dick, the bipolar title character finds himself obsessed by a “mystical face,” a “shadow” that has “come forth to him” and that appears to take the form of his mysterious, illegitimate half-sister, Isabel. “The face haunted him as some imploring, and beauteous, impassioned, ideal Madonna’s haunts the morbidly longing and enthusiastic, but ever-baffled artist.” Evoking the beguiling ambiguity at the heart of Marilyn’s appeal, on the screen and in her imperishable afterlife, Melville’s Isabel “lifts her whole marvelous countenance into the radiant candlelight,” and when “for one swift instant, that face of supernaturalness unreservedly meets Pierre’s,” it’s with a “wonderful loveliness, and a still more wonderful loneliness.”

Written in 1856 after the double debacle of Moby Dick and Pierre, Melville’s short piece, “The Piazza,” is presented as “an inland voyage to fairy-land” taken on “a mad poet’s afternoon,” wherein the narrator sets out to discover the “one spot of radiance” in the distant range he sees from the piazza he had expressly constructed so that he could cast his imagination into the view. As he’s been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he presumes the radiance must be emanating from a cottage in “fairy-land” where he will find “a fairy princess,” his own Titania. When he arrives after an epic, madly allusive, Melvillian voyage, what he finds is “a lonely girl, sewing at a lonely window.” Shyly startled by his appearance (“like some Tahiti girl …” surprised “by Captain Cook”) the “desolate maiden” whose name is Marianna invites him in, and as he sits with her thinking, “This, then, is the fairy-mountain house, and here, the fairy queen sitting at her fairy window,” he realizes that the “one spot of radiance” in the view sad Marianna sees every day is his piazza and his own house, which from her window once appeared to be “King Charming’s palace.” The tale ends with the narrator back on his piazza, “where every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountain. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna’s face, and many as real a story.”

On Film

Enchanted Island, an unlikely film version of Typee, was directed by the veteran Allan Dwan in 1952 with 50-year-old Dana Andrews in the Melville role and petite blonde Jane Powell, age 30, as Fayaway. The last picture made at RKO, it was released by Warners with the Four Lads singing the title song. (Feel free to roll your eyes.) More interesting and perhaps even more unlikely is Pola X, a sexually explicit French adapatation of Pierre directed by Leos Carax that turned up in 1999 with the late Guillaume Depardieu in the title role and Yekaterina Golubeva as Isabel. The film title is an acronym of the French title of the novel, Pierre ou les ambiguïtés, plus the Roman numeral “X” indicating the tenth draft version of the script that was used to make the film.

In the best, strangest, and most unlikely of all possible worlds, Marilyn Monroe would have been a heartbreaking Fayaway and a devastating Isabel. For now, we have to make do with the films being shown by the Princeton Public Library this week to mark the the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), The Misfits, (1961), and Some Like It Hot (1959), along with My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn. For details, visit princetonlibrary.org.

July 18, 2012

“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world.”

—Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along.
Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn,
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.

—Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”

When the folks next door gave us the new Neil Young record, Americana, I wasted no time sliding it in the CD player on Moby, my four-wheeled stereo CRV. As happened last month with the Beach Boys’ new one, That’s Why God Made the Radio, I let the thing keep playing, five times at last count, as I drove around town. To borrow an old term from MTV’s heavy metal youth, it was a high octane headbanger’s ball as Neil and Crazyhorse beat the joyful daylights out of old singalong favorites, including “Clementine,” “Oh Susanna,” “Travel On,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Although I was unaware until a few days ago that Woody Guthrie’s centenary was upon us, what better prelude to the event than all this pounding, full-throated vintage Americana? It was Neil Young, after all, who inducted Guthrie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. In his remarks, Young said that when he was in high school he thought “maybe I’d like to be one of those rockers that could bend the strings and get down on my knees, and kind of make everybody go crazy. Then I wanted to be that other guy, too, that had a little acoustic guitar, and sing a few songs — sing about things that I really felt inside myself, and things I saw going on around me.” He doesn’t come right out and say so (“I don’t know which one of those guys I tried to be”), but of course Neil Young is not only one of the most go-crazy-everybody guitar madmen in the universe, he is a passionately committed, devoted-to-the-message singer songwriter with one of the great rock and roll voices, full of hope and heartbreak, and as searing as a siren in the night.

“It all seems to go back and start with Woody Guthrie,” Neil said near the end of the Hall of Fame remarks. “His songs are gonna last forever, and some of the songs of his descendents are gonna last forever.”

While the first such descendents to come to mind are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, there’s also Johnny Depp, who grew up in Kentucky “on bluegrass and country music,” has listened to Guthrie all his life, and is editing with Douglas Brinkley Guthrie’s only novel, House of Earth, which will make its publishing debut next year. In the back page essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Depp and Brinkley locate “the roots” of the novel in Guthrie’s Dust Bowl experiences, his reading of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the writing of “This Land Is Your Land,” which he “conceived of” while hitchhiking to New York and wrote in late February of 1940, “holed up in a low-rent Times Square hotel.”

Not surprisingly, the version in Americana sung by Neil Young restores the more contentious verses, such as:


By the relief office I saw my people.

As they stood hungry,

I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.


There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was painted that said ‘Private Property’

But on the other side it didn’t say nothin’

That side was made for you and me.


With a few adjustments, those words still have some significance in the time of the 99 percent. Centenary Princeton coincidences abound here, given what Woody reveals in his wordslinging memoir, Bound for Glory (1943): “Born 1912. That was the year … my papa and mama got all worked up about good and bad politics and named me Woodrow Wilson.” Only ten days before Woody came into the world, the other Woodrow, Princeton graduate, professor, and president, then governor of New Jersey, had been nominated for president on the 46th ballot at one of the wildest Democratic conventions ever, which took place 12 days before Woody came into the world on July 14.

Woody in the Apple

At the end of Hal Ashby’s visually stunning film version of Bound for Glory (1976), Woody (played wisely and well by the late David Carradine) is headed for New York City. The Times Square hotel where “This Land Is Your Land” was written was the Hanover House, located on West 43rd and Sixth Avenue, “a long block from the New York Public Library,” according to Ed Cray’s 2004 biography, Ramblin’ Man. Guthrie’s American anthem, orginally titled “God Blessed America for Me,” was written as a corrective to Irving Berlin’s forthrightly patriotic, “God Bless America.” The tune came from the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine,” which, typically, derived from a Baptist hymn, “Oh My Lovin’ Brother.”

Some of the most colorful prose in Bound for Glory is inspired by his response to the big city. Sixty-five stories up (“Quite a little elevator ride down to where the world was being run”), he riffs on the Rainbow Room “in the building called Rockefeller’s Center, where the shrimps are boiled in Standard Oil” (a line ready made for the song in which it became “they tossed their salad in Standard Oil”): “I was floating in high finances, sixty-five stories above the ground, leaning my elbow on a stiff-looking tablecloth as white as a runaway ghost, and tapping my finger on the side of a big fishbowl. The bowl was full of clear water with a bright red rose as wide as your hand sunk down in the water, which made the rose look bigger and redder and the leaves greener than they actually was.”


There’s a photo from 1943 of Woody playing and singing on the subway that belongs with the iconic New York images of an overcoated James Dean walking, hands in pockets, in the middle of a rainy night Times Square and a decade later, a tan-jacketed Bob Dylan walking down West 4th Street in the Village with Suze Rotolo on his arm. My first thought was of Walker Evans’s clandestinely snapped pictures of subway riders between 1938 and 1941, most of which show seated passengers, with the exception of a blind accordion player standing and playing in the middle of a crowded car. Evans’s slightly unfocused image pales next to Eric Schaal’s photograph of Woody, who is also standing in the middle of the car bundled in what appears to be a black pea coat with a dark cap pushed back on his head, his eyes closed or perhaps downcast in a singing trance that gives his face a naked, exposed, almost beatific quality. If you’re accustomed to the more common images of Woody as the craggy, raw-boned Dust Bowl wayfarer, you might not even recognize him. He looks exotic enough to pass for, say, Jean Louis Barrault’s street-singer brother, having climbed aboard the D train fresh from the Boulevard du Crime in Marcel Carné’s film, Les Enfants du Paradis, his face lit with the otherworldly radiance of the mime Baptiste’s in one of his dumbshow reveries.

Twenty-one of the pictures Schaal took as he followed Woody Guthrie around New York can be seen (and should not be missed) in Life.com’s 100th birthday tribute, “Woody Guthrie: Photos of an American Treasure” at http://life.time.com/culture/woody-guthrie-in-nyc-1943. Guthrie’s politically suspect wartime reputation presumably explains why these flattering, sympathetic photos of Woody as a folk hero never showed up in the pages of Henry Luce’s Life magazine.

Dylan Crosses the Swamp

In his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan describes a visit to Guthrie at Greystone Hospital in Morristown New Jersey during which Woody mentioned some boxes of songs and poems stored in the basement of his house on Mermaid Boulevard in Coney Island. Having been told he’s “welcome to them” if he wanted them (Woody’s wife “would unpack them for me”), Dylan rides the subway all the way from the West 4th Street station to the last stop and finds himself walking across a swamp (“I sunk in the water, knee level, but kept going anyway — I could see the lights as I moved forward, didn’t really see any other way to go”). When he comes out on the other end, his pants are drenched, “frozen solid,” and his feet are “almost numb.” Guthrie’s wife isn’t there, just a nervous babysitter who wouldn’t let him in until Woody’s son Arlo tells her it’s okay. Nobody knows or can do anything about the box in the basement. Staying just long enough to “warm up,” Dylan turns around and trudges back across the swamp to the subway in his waterlogged boots. Like so much in Chronicles, this anecdote is a song in itself, waiting to be written, even though it would have been better yet had Dylan forged the swamp with his arms weighed down with boxes of Guthrie’s songs and poems.

As Dylan goes on to explain, Woody’s lyrics “fell into the hands” of Billy Bragg and Wilco, who “put melodies to them” and brought them “to full life” in the first of a series 40 years later. Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions was released this year on Record Store Day, April 21, in a 3-disc box set to commemorate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. Also in honor of the centenary, the Smithsonian has released Woody at 100, a 3-CD boxed set including 57 tracks and dozens of Guthrie’s drawings, paintings and handwritten lyrics.

July 12, 2012

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me.

—William Faulkner (1897-1962)

This time last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, I described “the big this-is-what-it’s-all-about moment where a 14-year-old who has been reading Mickey Spillane suddenly recognizes ‘the real thing.’” (“Fifty Years Later: Hemingway’s Hymn to the Writer and His Craft”). The book providing that moment was The Old Man and the Sea. With Faulkner, who died on July 6, 1962, almost a year to the day after Hemingway, the first shock of recognition came around the same age in a mass-market paperback edition of Sanctuary. The first thing I saw was a publisher’s note that immediately put Sanctuary and Faulkner beyond my range by referring to the novelist as “the modern master of the Grand Guignol” (whatever that was) and comparing his work with the plays of Webster and Tourneur (whoever they were). Next came the shock of encountering a character called Popeye in the first sentence when the only Popeye I knew was the cartoon sailor man and this was someone whose face “had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light.” When I went on to read that he had “that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin” and that his eyes were “two knobs of soft black rubber,” I knew I was “not in Kansas any more.”

Five years later I found myself pondering the first page of The Sound and the Fury. I was reading it outside of school, on my own, and I was lost. I had no idea what was going on. “I could see them hitting.” Hitting what? Caddie? Oh, golf. They were playing golf? The first time through was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t put the book down, but what kept me reading had nothing to do with plot or character or suspense in the usual sense of the word. Faulkner’s departure from the conventional guidelines added a new dimension to reading. As I began to pick up on what he seemed to be doing, it was like sneaking into his secret workshop to look over his shoulder as he wrote, feeling a small part of what he must have felt, to be building something so mysterious and unique. By the end, I thought I’d discovered a new world but only barely. I knew I was still missing a lot, I wanted more, I couldn’t put the book away. So I went back to the beginning and started reading it over again.

Faulkner in Princeton

Some months ago, thinking ahead to a column on the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s death, I began reading A Fable, which he finished writing here in Princeton in November 1953 in his editor Saxe Commins’s Elm Road home. Years later when we were living around the corner from the Commins house, I used to picture Faulkner in his overcoat walking off a hangover under the Hodge Road sycamores. He acknowledged his relationship with Commins in the dedication accompanying his collection of hunting stories, Big Woods (Random House 1955); presented in the form of an author-to-editor memo, it reads, “We never always saw eye to eye but we were always looking at the same thing.”

It’s best to read A Fable the way Faulkner suggested that readers come to James Joyce’s Ulysses, as “the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.” Even so, you soon get the impression that Faulkner approached the writing of the novel in the same spirit, in effect saying a prayer and betting everything he had on the power of his art while making himself available to that metaphorical “somebody else” who would write him if he “didn’t exist.” According to Dorothy Commins’s book, What Is An Editor: Saxe Commins at Work, Faulkner typed a two-page preface “as a favor to Saxe and to Random House,” to be used on the dust jacket of the finished book. The result was a rambling meditation on war and pacifism (“which does not work, cannot cope with the forces that produce the wars”), none of which was used in the eventual jacket copy, with its references to “mutiny in the trenches,” “the ageless tragedy and triumph of the crucifixion and the resurrection” and its promise to the reader of “a compelling story of violence and humility, of cruelty and compassion, of pathos and humor, of war and peace.”

Faulkner Plays 50 Choruses

At this point I should admit that I interrupted my reading of A Fable at page 215 in order to reread Light in August. Although I may never finish the book, I’m glad I read far enough to witness the feat Faulkner performs between pages 126 and 139, an Olympian run that begins inauspiciously with these two sentences:

“But when they reached the city they found no placid lake of grieving resignation. Rather, it was a cauldron of rage and consternation.”

I wonder if Commins had the nerve to point out that resignation-consternation trainwreck or the way the engine of Faulkner’s prose seems to come to a crashing halt when it hits a pair of labored, no-way-out, dead-end metaphors. “Seems” to come, I say, since what follows are 13 pages of Faulkner in full flight, all his jets and subsidiary igniters kicking in, propelling those “as if” and “not … but” clauses he’s addicted to. Give yourself up to it with a full measure of faith and the rhetorical onslaught sweeps you past bizarre liberties (“which was when the inspectors and inquisitors … realised the — not enormity, but monstrosity, incredibility; the monstrous incredibility, the incredible monstrosity, with which they were confronted”); when Faulkner’s locked in, it’s best to just sit back and let him play, the way you would if he were a jazz virtuoso standing on a storm-wracked promontory blowing 50 choruses against a gale-force wind. Like all great musicians, Faulkner has his own sound, as you’ll hear if you listen to the recordings of him reading from his work, his voice soft and swift and unstoppable, beyond mere accent and affect.

I’ve listened to recordings of Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Yeats, Pound, but no poet or writer I’ve ever heard is as insidiously seductive as Faulkner. It’s hard to imagine that a literate person of either sex could resist the way he makes love to the word “avatar.” The cassette I’ve been listening to includes passages from The Old Man, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, as well as the Nobel Prize acceptance speech that no one at the ceremony could hear because he rushed the words and was standing too far from the microphone. It’s true, he seems happiest when he’s reading uptempo, feeding off the momentum, muting the rush of rhetoric; in terms of intonation, cadence, and melodics, the musician who comes to mind with his, in Nat Hentoff’s words, “pulsating ease,” is Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian, Lester Young.

Faulkner and Blackness

In 1959, his skin darkened with the help of a dermatologist and long sessions under an ultraviolet lamp, the novelist John Howard Griffin (The Devil Rides Outside) took his chances travelling through the Deep South as a Negro and published the results two years later in his book, Black Like Me. In 1931-32, after, incredibly, producing Sartoris, Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying in the space of three years, William Faulkner wrote Light in August. You could say that Faulkner was safe within his fiction while Griffin put his life on the line passing as a black man in the reality of the South, but in Light in August, Faulkner dared to submerge himself and his art in the “black abyss” of race by creating and inhabiting and finally destroying Joe Christmas, who had passed as a white man until, obsessed by the enigma of his origins, he began fatally announcing that he had Negro blood.

Faulkner and Milch

According to a Dec. 1, 2011 New York Times article by David Itzkoff, when David Milch found that his daughter, Olivia, was studying Light in August at Yale, it “renewed [his] engagement with the material,” eventually leading to discussions between his company, Red Board Productions, and the William Faulkner Literary Estate for the purchase of the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories by Faulkner that could be adapted for film or television. HBO said in a news release that it would have the first opportunity to finance and produce these projects. Admirers of the great HBO series Deadwood, with its rhetorical overtones of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, yes, Faulkner, may agree with me in thinking that if anyone can do cinematic justice to the author of A Fable and Light in August, it’s David Milch.

In a Nov. 30, 2011, interview with the L.A. Times, Milch says that his interest in Faulkner “deepened” when he was at Yale assisting Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and R.W.B. Lewis “on a history of American literature.” What attracts him in Faulkner is that he “speaks to us on the questions of race, the challenges of modernity and modern man’s dilemma in all of its aspects.” Asked about the challenge of filming “an unfilmable writer,” Milch contends that Faulkner is “enormously cinematic,” his prose and dialogue “superb, and compelling, and absolutely authentic,” and “his ear … just impeccable.”

When he was asked which of Faulkner’s works would begin the series, Milch said the decision had not been made. My guess is he will choose Light in August. If he does, he might cast Ray McKinnon, who was so heart-breakingly brilliant as the Rev. Smith in Deadwood, as the fallen Rev. Gail Hightower, in whose kitchen Joe Christmas is gunned down and castrated by a National Guardsman with the “voice of a young priest” and a face that has the “serene, unearthly luminousness of angels in church windows.”

For an example of the challenges Milch will face if he means to put the essence of Faulkner on film, consider the language surrounding Hightower as he thinks he should never have let himself “get out of the habit of prayer.” When he turns to the book-lined wall of his study, what is he seeking? Something theological? No.

“It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.”

Good luck, David. Keep the faith.

July 3, 2012

Borough resident Marianne Farrin has worn many hats over the years: Stanford University alumna, wife, mother (raising her three children on several continents), psychotherapist, theologian. The list goes on, and has always, by the way, included sports like swimming, cycling (as in serious, days-long cycling commitments), and rowing. Her most recent role is translator; she has translated from German to English, Roosevelt: A Revolutionary with Common Sense, the book written in 1933 by her late father, Helmut Magers.

Magers’s book is a paean to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s swiftly-implemented accomplishments in the early 1930s. In 1930-1931, the German-born Magers spent a year as an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Initial skepticism about Roosevelt’s plans to reinvigorate the country turned to admiration as Magers observed what he described as “’a top-down’ revolution that, in generosity and reasoning, surpasses any radical social change currently experienced elsewhere in the world.”

“Magers’s reflections on Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the daunting challenges to American society posed by the Great Depression provide a remarkably prescient, and hitherto overlooked contemporary German perspective on the relevance of the New Deal to a world in crisis,” said Rutgers University History Department Chair Michael Adas of the English edition prepared by Ms. Farrin.

Sadly, Magers’ dream that Germany and other strife-ridden countries would emulate some of the economic policies that were proving successful in the U.S. never happened. Instead, he was silenced for what was considered progressive writing and thinking by Hermann Göring, a high ranking Nazi official. Magers was ultimately sent to fight on the Russian front in 1944, a fate Ms. Farrin describes as “a death sentence.” An advice-filled letter to her written from her father, who was then stationed in the Crimea, suggests that he knew his fate.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the family received a letter from the Red Cross describing Magers as “missing in action.” In the interim, Ms. Farrin says, “The silence was devastating.” A soldier who remembered Magers later described how they were eventually taken to a camp called Mogilev in Belarus as prisoners of war by the Soviet Army. Mr. Magers died there of typhoid fever in the spring of 1945, at age 38. Magers apparently, never lost his admiration for this country; the former soldier described how Magers would entertain them at night with stories about America.

Ms. Farrin, who was born in 1938, escaped to Denmark with her mother and two siblings. Ten years later they immigrated to America, and eventually settled in California. Ms. Farrin reports that she was very self-conscious about being a German in this country, and that she grew up quickly as the eldest child and helpmate to her mother.

Ms. Farrin’s sense of purposefulness and determination were apparent early. Moved by the grandeur of the procession and ceremony she observed as a junior at Hollywood High School graduation, she determined that she would be next year’s valedictorian, and she was. She moved on to Stanford, where she met husband, Jim Farrin (Princeton University class of 1958), with a full scholarship.

Ms. Farrin says she has no idea how the German edition of the book was received in Germany when it was originally published. A copy of the first edition is in the Presidential Library at Hyde Park, and Mr. Magers’s inscription is reproduced in the new edition of the book: “To the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in profound admiration of his conception of a new economic order, and with devotion to his personality.” It is signed “The author, Berlin, Germany, November 9, 1933.”

Translating her father’s book was, Ms.Farrin says, nothing less than a labor of love. The translation is “absolutely literal,” she comments; “there was no other way to do it.” Reading aloud as she worked helped her soften some of the “very stilted German sentences.” A research trip to the Berlin Library, where she read newspaper accounts of Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, left her “very depressed.”  Although her memories of her father are “slight,” she says that she was very attached to him, and shares his “intellectual, introspective character.” She would like to visit the site of the Mogilev camp where he died.

Copies of Roosevelt: A Revolutionary with Common Sense are in both the Princeton Public Library and Princeton University’s Firestone Library. It is available for sale at Labyrinth Books, and online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

June 20, 2012

Tuning in the latest star 

From the dashboard of my car

The CD-equipped dashboard providing 800 miles of words and music during a recent drive to and from Montreal belongs to a 2000 Honda CRV named Moby, after Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The two lines at the top are from the title track of That’s Why God Made the Radio, the first Beach Boys album in 16 years, which just debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Chart. In the spirit of the same lyric, “Feel the music in the air/Find a song to take us there,” this stereo-driven solo flight began at 10:40 a.m. last Wednesday, taking me up U.S. Route 206 to I-287 to I-87 and Quebec 15 to Montreal, where I bought the new CD at the big HMV store on Rue St. Catherine. Two days later, with Brian Wilson’s music leading the way, I followed the same course in reverse.

Brian Wilson turns 70 today while the group he founded marks its 50th anniversary with a tour that played Central Park June 15 and will touch down tonight, June 20, at the Bell Center in, of all places, Montreal.

Over and Over

I saved my first listen to That’s Why God Made the Radio for the moment we crossed the border into the springtime splendor of upper New York state. Between the border and Saratoga Springs, I played the album five times in succession (the title track seven times). The way Moby’s CD player works, unless you reject the disc when it ends, it automatically begins again at the beginning. This hitherto unthinkable behavior on my part was made possible only because Moby and I were on our own, and the album had become, in effect, one long song. No way would my wife and son have indulged me in this madness, however much they might have enjoyed the music the first time around.

The Program

Although I hadn’t mapped out a definite program either going or coming, everything fell into place as we headed north, from Debussy’s Preludes to P.J. Harvey’s magnificent Let England Shake (reviewed here Jan. 11, 2012) to Chapter One of James Joyce’s Ulysses (brilliantly read by Donal Donnelly) to the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society and back to Chapters Two and Three of Ulysses. As we entered (and left) Montreal, jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa was on the stereo performing his own peculiar form of magic. On the way home, after those first 150 miles of Beach Boys, Debussy took us from Saratoga Springs to the Modena pit stop on the New York Thruway. In need of something with a bit more caffeine in it as we approached the New Jersey border, I found Camden native Patti Smith’s Trampin, with passionate, driving songs like “In My Blakean Year” providing all the sonic fuel Moby needed for the next to last lap. Finally, taking us from the dread Somerville Circle to the front door on Bloomsday eve was Chapter Four of Ulysses, in which we meet Leopold Bloom, his cat, and his Molly at No. 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, June 16, 1904.

Debussy in the Passenger Seat

While Dodo Marmarosa may be little known outside the jazz world, he was a classically trained virtuoso with a fertile musical imagination, and I have no doubt that if Debussy could hear him play his own compositions (“Tone Paintings,” “Escape,” “Raindrops,” and “Bopmatism,” to name a few), the great man would want to shake Dodo’s hand. Had the composer of “Clair de Lune” been sitting in the passenger seat while Polly Jean and Patti and the Kinks were rocking out, he might have had to recalibrate his receptors. But the Beach Boys? My guess is that as soon as the first track of That’s Why God Made the Radio began playing — the achingly lovely wordless “Think About the Days” — Debussy would have been as receptive to those incredible harmonies as I was. As for the lyrics, I doubt that the man who set Verlaine and Mallarmé to music would be troubled by blatantly simplistic English rhyme schemes like motion/devotion/emotion, air/there/prayer, or forgivable outrages like the rhyming of “when I and antenna” (when-eye/anten-eye) in the title track.

From “Surfin Safari” to “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” Beach Boys lyrics have been predictably and often justly scorned or patronized or laughed at (“cringeworthy” is the word that turned up in one of the more positive reviews of the new album), which is one of the obstacles disdainful or doubtful listeners have to overcome before submerging themselves in the wondrously sustaining element of the music. The first Beach Boy record I ever bought was Smiley Smile, the 1967 version containing the leavings of the infamous recording studio debacle at the heart of the Brian Wilson-as-mad-genius legend (with quirky, sometimes clever-to-a-fault lyrics by VanDyke Parks). Also on that LP was “Good Vibrations,” the three-and a-half-minute masterpiece that dominated car radios all over the land through the heart of the sixties. Though Pet Sounds (1966) is still generally considered to be Brian Wilson’s finest hour, Sunflower (1970) is the record I feel closest to, the pinnacle being the 1:58 minutes of “This Whole World” (the transition at 1:40 is still no less thrilling to hear all these years later, even with the om-da-did-its and lines like “When girls get mad at boys and go/Many times they’re just putting on a show”).

A Father’s Day Aside 

Sunflower also provided the most effective music to rock our child to sleep to until the arrival of the, for him, aptly titled, The Beach Boys Love You (1977), upon which his bedtime was so dependent that I had to rush out to the Walmart to buy an emergency duplicate copy when we were visiting my father in Key West.

Since this column is being written on Father’s Day, I should mention the man without whom there would be no Beach Boys, Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl, who was born in Hutchinson, Kansas (as was I, strange to say), before moving to California at age five. By most accounts, he was the stage parent from hell, a tyrant who bullied Capitol Records on behalf of the group and is said to have hammered Brian in the head with a 2×4, causing a loss of hearing in the right ear. As recently as a 2004 interview with The Independent, however, Brian says of Murry, “He was the one who got us going. He didn’t make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I’m pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician.”

America, America

Reviewers in the U.K. were especially hard on That’s Why God Made the Radio. Here’s a sampling of British brickbats: “It’s good to have them back — but only just”; “all the warmth and personality of a motorway hotel’s car park”; “a cloudless orgy of nostalgia”; “pitifully thin stuff, with far too many nostalgic hankerings.”

So, I ask myself, if there’s the faintest glimmer of truth in those snide put-downs, how could I have done what I did? Even with favorite albums like the Beatles’ Revolver and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, two listens in a row was the limit. Five straight times I listened to a car park? I suppose I could blame my Honda alter ego, Moby, for whenever I looked in the direction of another CD, the speedometer would give a jump, as if to say, “Keep it going!”

Speed can be an influential accompanist. At 70 m.p.h., when the music’s moving, the weather’s perfect, you’re alone and feeling free, and the landscape’s head-staggeringly gorgeous, moderation is not on the menu. Days later, driving around Princeton, though the title track sounded as addictive as ever on Harrison Street, after that, I’m thinking, “How could I?”

Scenery and sentiment definitely had something to do with it. Imagine being back in your own country again after an hour of dull driving through the flat featureless landscape between Montreal and the border. Within a minute of crossing into New York state, rich, many-layered, almost unearthly stereo harmonies are sending chills up your spine amid all that Adirondack majesty, green, massive, brilliant, enfolding you and your car in its glory. Here’s where some deep-seated, unreal, inexplicable Beach Boy sentiment kicks in. If songs like “California Girls” and “Surfer Girl” can set your midwestern American boyhood heart pumping, what can you expect when you’re hearing nothing less than an anthemic creation against odds produced by a long-embattled, semi-dysfunctional group of 70-year-old teenagers 50 years down the line? Remember this is the group that doomed James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s most repellent cabinet member, the smug, sneering secretary of the Interior whose mission was to destroy it. When he mindlessly dissed the Beach Boys for “attracting the wrong element,” Watt was dead. Toast. Finito, though it took Reagan too long to dump him. The termination of Watt was not only one of the president’s finest hours, but Nancy’s. Like, “How dare you? My kids love the Beach Boys!”

Thus when we plunge at 70 m.p.h. into the lush heart of America, all this love of country is swelling in me until I’m about to explode while God’s stereo is filling my ears and God’s country is filling my eyes. Can scenery sing? Yes!

Up ahead traffic is slowing because just before you get to the New York Welcome Center on I-87, the U.S. Border Patrol has set up a surprise check point to ferret out “the wrong element.” Each driver is being asked the same question. Are you an American citizen? The Beach Boys are still singing as we approach. I start to turn down the music, but Moby won’t let me, the song that’s on is “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” sorry, can’t be done. The uniformed officer looks in, sees the CD propped on the passenger seat, hears those harmonies, starts to ask, ”Are you — ?” and before I can say a word, waves us through.

June 6, 2012

“June 6, 1944, was the turning point in Salinger’s life,” according to Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life. “It is difficult to overstate the impact of D-Day and the eleven months of continuous combat that followed.”

Six combat-driven days after landing on Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry Division, 25-year-old Salinger, a staff sergeant with the Counter Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.), was sending a postcard to Story magazine editor Whit Burnett saying that he was “too busy to go on with the book right now” (an understatement for the ages). The “book” would become The Catcher in the Rye. In effect, Holden Caulfield had landed at Normandy with Salinger, who carried a typewriter in his pack. Slawenski’s biography has C.I.C. colleagues talking about the “time when they came under heavy fire. Everyone began ducking for cover” except Salinger, who was “typing away under a table.”

Fussell’s War

Paul Fussell, who died May 23 at 88, was a platoon leader with the 103rd Infantry Division at Camp Howze in Texas when Salinger was taking part in the Normandy invasion. “D-Day of course excited us,” Fussell recalls in his memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little Brown 1996), “but the thrill was less in the Allied success than in the excitement we felt at the likelihood that the war would be over before we could be sent to it. At moments when we felt especially victorious, we persuaded ourselves that we’d probably do no fighting at all.”

Five months later, on the night of November 10, 1944, in a forest near the town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges while relieving “a filthy, beat-up company of the Third Division,” 20-year-old Lt. Fussell and 200 soldiers in F Company had their first taste of combat. “As beginners,” they expected night relief to go according to plan, but instead found themselves stumbling forward “in the pitch black” trying to find “their assigned places” while being “so cleverly and severely shelled” by the Germans that there was no choice but to lie down, get some sleep, and “finish the relief at first light.”

In Doing Battle, Fussell describes the moment the “skeptic” of the subtitle was conceived:

“At dawn, I awoke, and what I saw all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing …. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.”

Until then the only dead people Fussell had seen had been his maternal grandparents (“placid, dignified, cosmeticized, and decently on display in their expensive caskets”): “These boys were different. They had not been fulfilled but cheated. But worse was to come almost immediately. The captain called for me and as I ran toward him down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. The dead I’d seen were boys. Now I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head …. Such murders, after all, were precisely what my platoon and I were there for.”

Explaining his “ironic view of life” in a May 1997 PBS interview with David Gergen, Fussell says the irony is “Everything you touch is going to be defeated by time. You’ve lost. No matter what you make, no matter what you do, no matter what you achieve.” To be forever conscious of this gives you “both a refined sense of humor and a refined sense of charity.”

The ironic sense of life also gives you, in Fussell’s case, an ex-infantryman’s view of aspects of everyday reality still in play decades later. In his memoir, Fussell remembers commuting back and forth to New Brunswick during the 23 years he lived in Princeton and taught at Rutgers. On the drive home, at the end of “a long stretch of absolutely straight two-lane road,” there was “a small hill covered with shrubbery” that he “never saw … without thinking it a perfect position for an antitank gun, should Princeton ever be attacked by an envious New Brunswick, which sometimes seemed a not unlikely possibility.”

The Gift

On March 15, 1945, on a combat mission in the Alsace, platoon leader Fussell was hit on the back and thigh by shrapnel. At the time, the shell sending “red-hot metal” into his body instantly killed the two men fighting beside him.

“I thought I’d been killed,” Fussell told David Gergen, “and I apparently had been metaphorically, because that moment caused me to meditate as follows: I was killed in 1945. Every month since then has been an absolute gift. And I’ve tried to enjoy them appropriately, and I’ve tried to exploit them appropriately, because I could so easily have been the third person killed on that occasion. And that shows how much luck has to do with it. Luck has much more to do with it than skill, alertness, training, knowledge, the things that you’re invited to believe are so important. The important thing is luck, which you can’t do anything about.”

In Fussell’s Class

I knew nothing of Professor Fussell’s wartime history when I was a graduate student in English during those years he was commuting between “envious New Brunswick” and anti-tank-gun-ready Princeton. Of all the teachers I had, he was the most professorial, the closest to my idea of the complacent academic, with his tweeds and loafers and his pipe. In terms of organization and presentation, the course I took, Introduction to 18th-century literature, was a perfect prototype for graduate study. The first day of class we were treated to a vivid, earthy, admirably executed portrait of the period, and the sessions that followed were models of planning compared to the more exciting, free-form, close-reading-oriented classes conducted by Richard Poirier.

During those turbulent years, roughly 1968-1970, it was Poirier’s book, The Performing Self (1970), that caught the temper of the time. Five years later, the skeptic who had been conceived in that forest on November 10, 1944, and “born” the following March 15, would make literary history with The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford 1975), which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. In the works of social criticism that followed — Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) and Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) — Fussell became the “wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated” public intellectual “and cultural critic” described in the opening paragraphs of the New York Times obituary.

Salinger On The Front

If Lt. Fussell had luck, Staff Sgt. Salinger, it’s tempting to think, must have traveled with an angel — not an agent angel, but the supernatural kind. On December 5, 1944, of the 3,080 regimental soldiers enduring the month-long debacle of Hürtgen Forest, he was among the 563 who came out alive. Around the same time (“during the closing months of 1944,” according to Slawenski), Salinger wrote what appears to be his only actual at-the-front story, “A Boy in France.” Available online the last time I checked, the story, though it has Hemingwayesque lines, would be recognized as Salinger’s by anyone who knows his work. After finding a foxhole to bed down in (he ends up in “a Kraut hole” and has to dispose of the German’s blanket), the boy gets bit by a red ant, “nastily, uncompromisingly,” and compensates by fantasizing himself back in civilization, in a room with a door he can bolt, clean clothes, some records on the phonograph, and “a nice quiet girl” who will read Emily Dickinson to him (“that one about being chartless”) and William Blake (“that one about the little lamb who made thee”); the girl “will have an American voice, and she won’t ask me if I have any chewing gum or bonbons, and I’ll bolt the door.” The story ends with intimations of Glass-family-era Salinger as the boy, after perusing a crumpled clipping from a syndicated Broadway column, reads an amusingly mundane letter signed “love and kisses” from his sister Matilda in Manasquan, N.J.

In his progress from Normandy to Hürtgen Forest to the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of a subcamp of Dachau, Salinger, who had no “boyish illusions” about war, undoubtedly saw scenes as disturbing or worse than the ones recounted by Fussell. Rather than letting the sight of murdered children on the battlefield suggest a view of life based on the notion that “everything you touch is going to be defeated by time,” the unique sensibility Salinger developed in the years following the war enabled him to turn the battlefield into the field his creation Holden Caulfield describes to his sister Phoebe as he tells her he wants to be the person who stands on the edge of a cliff near a “big field of rye” where “thousands of kids” are playing: ‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff …. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.’”

When Salinger Returns

Significantly, it was Salinger, not Fussell, who suffered from post-traumatic stress and had to be hospitalized in the summer of 1945. Out of that experience came a short story classic, “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor.” After the war, while Fussell “exploited” his endgame sense of irony in a major work of literary history, Salinger established himself as a major literary force with The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories (retitled For Esmé – with Love and Squalor in England), and the Glass family stories, including the as-yet-unpublished ones written after 1965. If one day Salinger’s heirs release those stories into the world, I’ll feel like Staff-Sergeant X in “For Esmé,” only instead of Esmé’s dead fathers’s watch with its broken crystal, I’ll be holding a copy of the Salinger Returns issue of The New Yorker and unlike X, who hasn’t the courage to wind the watch to find out if it works, I’ll start reading, “suddenly, almost ecstatically,” knowing that if Salinger wrote it, it will work.

May 30, 2012

I had much sorrow in my life, and I was a soldier, which was the worst thing of all. But it is a good thing to have led a life which has had good consequences.

—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
(1925-2012), in a 2005 interview.

If there’s a Grand Central Station of the Beyond, Maurice Sendak would likely be among the first to greet Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau when the foremost singer of Schubert lieder gets off the train that departed the land of the living on May 18. Sendak, who expressed a “passion for Schubert songs and … his birds of doom or birds of good” to Bill Moyers in 2004, had arrived at the terminal only ten days before.

The concept of trains to the afterlife, including a special underground express to hell, is brilliantly pictured in Frank Borzage’s 1931 film, Liliom. In my version of the fantasy, I would add to the welcoming party the German baritone’s most frequent accompanist, British pianist Gerald Moore, who was a long time waiting to shake his colleague’s hand, having arrived back in March of 1987. Would you believe who’s standing shyly off to one side, his spectacles flashing in the heavenly glare? Yes, it’s Schubert himself and he’s singing, very softly, something from Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle that figures significantly in Fischer-Dieskau’s personal and professional history.

Schubert “sang continuously” during the last days of his life, according to Fischer-Dieskau’s biographical/analytical study, Schubert’s Songs (Knopf 1997). No wonder, since the only piece of music the dying composer had been able to focus on was the proof of the second part of Winterreise. Recorded a century and a half later by Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, Winterreise was also the subject of the 17-year-old singer’s first public performance, given in early 1943 in the town hall of Zehlendorf, a Berlin suburb. Seven songs into the cycle, the RAF intervened. “We had a terrible bombing of the city that day,” Fischer-Dieskau recalls in a 2005 interview, “and the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.” Asked where in the cycle he began again, he says the song was “Rückblick” (Backward Glance): “So we looked back to the part already completed.”

In fact, a clip on YouTube shows the singer rehearsing “Rückblick” with pianist Alfred Brendel for the 1978 recital that ends, memorably, with Fischer-Dieskau engulfed in darkness at the last stop in Schubert’s journey, singing “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), a composer’s farewell message as artless and lasting as John Keats’s “I always made an awkward bow.”

Imagine Schubert facing death in his closet of a room above Frau von Bogner’s coffee house in Vienna, musing over the last lines of “Der Leiermann” (“Strange old man, shall I go with you?/Will you grind your organ to my songs?”), and 115 years later at the conclusion of that bomb-blitzed recital, there’s Fischer-Dieskau facing war, soon to be drafted into the Wehrmacht, captured two years later in Italy by Allied forces, and not released until 1947, having proved himself a much-valued catch by giving morale-boosting recitals from the backs of trucks at various POW camps.

The Essence of Art

Maurice Sendak’s “passion for Schubert songs” was rooted in his identification with the aesthetic dimensions of Schubert’s accomplishment within that seemingly limited genre. What gave Sendak the idea, as he told Bill Moyers, was something said by the lieder singer Christa Ludwig in a television interview: “Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in this miniature form.”

For Sendak this was a revelation: “I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in the ‘50s and ‘40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole.”

In the first chapter of Schubert’s Songs, Fischer-Dieskau improves on Christa Ludwig’s appraisal, writing that when Schubert “raised the art song (Kunstlied) to hitherto unknown heights,” he “laid bare the essence of all art: intensity, concentration, a distillation into the purest of forms.”

A Lifelong Aversion

It goes without saying that anyone engaged by Schubert’s music must at some point learn to appreciate the genre in which he is the generally acknowledged master. The more you discover about this composer, the more you realize the obvious: that listening to Schubert without the lieder is like reading Shakespeare without the soliloquies or visiting Greece without seeing the Parthenon. Thus came the day in the 1980s when I swallowed a lifelong aversion to baritones with big voices singing in German and threw myself on the mercy of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, whose monumental Franz Schubert Lieder, Volumes I and II (Deutsche Grammophon) is one of the most rigorous two-man adventures since the Lewis and Clark expedition. We’re talking the equivalent of, say, five thousand kilometers on foot (with Schubert, you can ride part of the way on horseback), meaning close to 500 songs (not counting the 50-plus in Die Schöne Mullerin, Winterreise, and Swanengesang, another Fischer-Dieskau-Moore box set I purchased later).

When Schubert songs appear en masse in the form of 25 LPs in two formidable boxes, it’s not easy to comfortably or casually approach such a domain. As soon as you lift open the cover of one of the elegantly designed receptacles and take out the fat book of lyrics and translations, it becomes a formal experience, one I preferred to save for the after-midnight privacy of the downstairs study, which naturally encouraged a preference for compositions and performances in harmony with the nocturnal atmosphere. I wanted moody quietude. I saved the heavier, more operatic versions of Goethe, Heine, and Mayrhofer for daytime hours when I had the house to myself and could hear the singing and playing at full volume.

Over time I made pencilled notations in the booklets, asterisks for my favorite songs, according to the number of listenings, which I eventually transferred to miniature versions of the booklets after trading the two monsters for the boxed CD equivalent. For the past few nights, using an ancient Sony Discman and headphones, I’ve been listening to Volume II (Lieder from 1817-1828), with a copy of Schubert’s Songs in my lap, so I could consult Fischer-Dieskau whenever I had a question about the music.

With headphones, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice is an absolute. Listening to “Erlkönig,” one of his and Schubert’s most renowned performances, it’s as if the dynamic of an entire opera has been packed into a three-minute span, Fischer-Dieskau becoming the narrator, the clueless father, the crooning demon, and the terrified child, Moore’s piano at an unrelenting gallop until death halts it. “In a recital with a mixed program I have to portray 20 characters, one after the other,” Fischer-Dieskau told an Opernwelt interviewer after his 1992 retirement; in this one song alone, he portrays four.


While all Schubert belongs in the “common domain” of poetry and music Fischer-Dieskau refers to as the “landscape of the soul” in his autobiography Reverberations (1989), such language seems too ponderous next to melodies like “Der Jungling an der Quelle” (The Youth at the Well), where the charm is so simple, so transcendent, and yet so direct as to inspire thoughts of a Monty Python sketch where every time the song is played the listener drops dead from sheer delight; imagine John Cleese, idiot smile, sigh, swoon, before he keels over backwards, both legs straight up. “Captivatingly beautiful” is the best Fischer-Dieskau can manage when he first mentions the piece; returning to it a hundred pages later, he speaks of Schubert’s “water music,” a “genre painting over a murmuring accompaniment that wanders up and down the triad of the fifth, while the boy’s sighs rise to a high A, until he finally whispers above the sustained dominant, the musical name which Schubert added to the end of the poem: ‘Luise.’”

You have to hear, not read, the subtle but heartfelt yearning in Fischer-Dieskau’s singing of the girl’s name as Loueeesa. Even if I understood dominants and triads of the fifth, all I could say of this song is that listening to it is like falling in love, or rather, like the fleeting, haunting infatuation from family trips when your car passed a car with a girl your age smiling out the window at you, flirting at 50 miles per hour, and you smiled, and shading that sudden lost and found and lost flash of love was the knowledge that in all of life and the world and time, you’d never see each other again.


In “Der Jungling an der Quelle,” what seduces you is the way the piano “wanders up and down.” However, “Im Frühling” (In Spring) doesn’t wander, it strolls, and the stroll Gerald Moore takes after the second verse is one of the most exhilarating moments in all of Schubert: love hurts, but life goes on, merry and bright, till the next blow falls. When Fischer-Dieskau comes back for the third verse, Moore is still strolling but with a hint of urgency leading to the harsh, penultimate verse, where “joys with quarrels change” and all that’s left is “love and torment.” When love is love again in the closing verse, it’s a reunion, and the strolling couple is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, with Schubert leading the way, crossing a century and an ocean as he tosses off a “how-dry-I-am” quasi ragtime postlude that would make Scott Joplin smile.

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once told Fischer-Dieskau that the most important thing for a performing artist was “to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings.” Songs like “Im Frühling” create that “fellow feeling.” Said Fischer-Dieskau, “I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”


Except where otherwise noted, the quotes are from Martin Kettie’s May 20, 2005, interview in The Guardian, conducted a week before Fischer-Dieskau’s 80th birthday. Frank Borzage’s film, Liliom, is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.

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.