March 29, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

…when we read a book, it is as if we were with a person.

—W.H. Auden

You could say that I met Helen DeWitt, the person, in the prologue to her novel The Last Samurai (New Directions 2016), having read the introduction to the first edition (Miramax/Talk Books 2000), which is included in the reprint. After being alerted to it by a friend, my wife introduced me to The Last Samurai, which I’d have read even without her recommendation had I seen a September 2022 interview with Helen DeWitt on There she recalls watching her ex-husband argue with a fellow academic at Oxford about Sergio Leone, whose films For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly became a passion for me at a time when most “serious” film people were dismissing the director as a maker of Spaghetti Westerns. After going to a video store and renting “all these Leone films,” DeWitt, who before that had “hated any Clint Eastwood movie” or “any movies where people got beaten up or killed,” suddenly had a revelation — “that moment where something I’d started out hating suddenly had me saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is absolutely amazing.’ ” Which is what my wife and I said to each other after our first experience of Leone. The ex-husband, Professor David Levene, introduced DeWitt “to all these different things — Leone, Kurosawa, bridge and poker …. Suddenly all of this was amazingly interesting.”

Readers of The Last Samurai will appreciate the connection to Akira Kurosawa, whose film Seven Samurai not only inspired Leone’s Man With No Name westerns, but is as central to DeWitt’s novel as the Odyssey is to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Besides providing a skeleton key to the book, Kurosawa’s film becomes a life text with a profound impact on Sibylla, the single mother who narrates the first 180 pages of the novel, and her polymath young son Ludo, who takes over the bulk of the narration later. more

March 22, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

At the 2009 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I found a book on a cart marked “Declined by Collector’s Corner,” the room where the rarest volumes are displayed. Given the event’s stated purpose (funding student scholarships) and timing (March being Women’s History Month), Hart’s Class Book of Poetry (1845) seemed worth a closer look. Compiled by John S. Hart, principal of the Philadelphia High School, the time-worn little anthology had a name and date written in brown ink on the title page (Lizzie Shipp, June 18, 1858) and under that, the words school almost out.

I bought the book not because it had been marked down to a dollar, nor because it was appropriate to the purpose of the sale or the national occasion; it was the specificity of time and place matched with the owner’s name. If it had been Elizabeth Shipp, I might have left this foundling on the reject cart, except that this was an anthology of selections from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wordsworth and Coleridge that belonged to a school girl who signed herself Lizzie, a name that for me still sings with the immediacy of the moment. I can almost hear the cries of “Lizzie! Lizzie!” echoing down the hallways and out on the schoolyard. But there’s another, later date at the bottom of the title page: “June 21st 1861 examination next week.” Apparently Lizzie had lived with the book for three years, the Civil War was looming, and now here she is in the 21st century on the magic carpet of this weathered volume, denied a place in Collector’s Corner, like one of the “homeless poets of Bryn Mawr” I wrote about in my first piece on the sale in March 2004.  more

March 15, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual, and the enigmas of his nature are multiform.

—Harold Bloom

Since Bill Nighy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Living is fresh in my mind, I’m beginning with him instead of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on this day, the Ides of March, 44 BC. Nighy’s one of those actors who is always worth watching and listening to, like James Mason, whose only Best Actor nomination was for his role in A Star Is Born (1955), two years after he played Brutus in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Close your eyes and listen and these are two of the rare actors in film you can hear, so distinctive are their voices and ways of speaking. And in Living, Nighy sings! The film would be worth seeing if only for the moment the terminally ill character he plays comes to life singing the Scottish folk song, “The Rowan Tree.”  more

March 8, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Don’t assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you have seen.

—John McPhee

Now and then A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) offers an entry that demands repeating, like the one for March 8: “1931: John McPhee (Giving Good Weight) is born in Princeton, N.J.”

Which follows a remark from journalist, novelist, and biographer Gene Fowler (March 8, 1890): “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Which is followed by the news that on March 8, 1935, Thomas Wolfe’s second novel Of Time and the River “was published to great acclaim” and that on March 8, 1941, the novelist Sherwood Anderson “ingested a toothpick with an hors d’oeuvre at a cocktail party” and died of “complications of peritonitus.” more

March 1, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

He is the most daring and the proudest poetic spirit of his time.

—Robert Schumann on Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in everything he ever wrote.

—Alfred Tennyson on John Keats (1795-1821)

At this time last year I was matching the power and poignance of Chopin’s music with television images of  Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, mothers and children fleeing to Poland, gazing out from rain-streaked train windows. For the past week, I’ve been listening again to Chopin while reading Princeton Professor Susan Wolfson’s A Greeting of the Spirit: Selected Poetry of John Keats (Harvard University Press $35). So, no surprise, I’ve been finding Chopin in Keats and Keats in Chopin.

On Chopin’s seventh birthday, March 1, 1817, Keats published his first book, Poems, which contained “To Kosciusko,” a sonnet celebrating the leader of Poland’s 1794 rebellion against Prussian and Russian rule. It’s possible that one of Chopin’s British acquaintances called the poem to his attention during the U.K. visits of 1837 and 1848. Chopin played the last concert of his life on November 16, 1848, at the Guildhall in London, a benefit for Polish refugees (“my compatriots”). He died a year later in Paris. more

February 22, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Why end the last column in February with Carson McCullers, who had the audacity to call her first novel, written when she had barely come of age, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? True, last Sunday was her 116th birthday. But consider the subjects usually associated with this month  — Valentine’s Day; Black History Month; the birth of James Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom “mutely craves to adore”; the death of John Keats, who “always made an awkward bow.” What about the presidents? McCullers’s magnificent title would surely have had resonance for Lincoln, who once said of Anne Rutledge, “My heart is buried in the grave with that dear girl.” And for Washington, born on this date in 1732? According to the Library of Congress (“Presidents as Poets”), of the two love poems he wrote in his teens, one begins, “Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart / Stand to oppose thy might and Power” and ends “That in an enraptured Dream I may / In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose / Possess those joys denied by Day.”

“White and Black Humanity”

After making Black history with the publication of his novel Native Son (1940), Richard Wright reviewed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in the August 5, 1940 New Republic. It’s a stunning notice wherein he celebrates “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Should Wright’s reference to “the first time in Southern fiction” bring to mind characters like Dilsey in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), Wright mentions a “quality of despair” in McCullers that he finds “more natural and authentic” than the same quality in Faulkner. He also credits her for creating  characters who “live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of.” As for Ernest Hemingway, Wright praises McCullers for describing “incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway’s terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison.”

Wright’s eloquent appreciation, with its reference to “the violent colors of the life” depicted with “a sheen of weird tenderness,” looms above the general acclaim that greeted The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. As if he understood the potential for misreading and mischaracterizing an unknown young author’s first work, Wright closes with an advisory: “Whether you will want to read the book depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality.” more

February 15, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Watching the HBO series The Last of Us, viewers saw computer generated images of a devastated Boston. Last Sunday night it was the shell of Kansas City. So it goes in February 2023, with ruined cities and a fungus-among-us plague conceived during a real world pandemic that killed millions, and now an earthquake with a death toll rising to 37,000 and counting has struck northwestern Syria and southeastern Turkey, where Antakya, formerly Antioch, was among the stricken cities.

According to Friday’s New York Times (“ ‘No More Antakya’: Turks Say Quake Wiped Out a City, and a Civilization”), Antioch was founded in 300 B.C., the modern city “built atop layers and layers of the ruins of long-gone civilizations.” Which inadvertently echoes Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” where “All things fall apart and are built again.” Meanwhile I’m rebuilding a memory that begins in the back of a pickup truck with a Turkish kid from the Antayka region who had spent the previous year in Kokomo, Indiana. Since I was from Indiana, we had a lot to talk about.

“Ancient Antioch”

As soon as the Indiana connection had been made, the boy talked his surly uncle into driving 20 miles out of the way so they could drop me off in “ancient Antioch,” as he continued calling Antakya. He promised to “show me around.” more

February 8, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

In a November 2022 essay posted on, Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer refers to SFI member Cormac McCarthy’s “subterranean connections” to James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), “a book that we keep in our library and that Cormac retrieves from time to time to remind us of the intimate connections between language and image, indigence and character, and the multifarious beauty found far from so-called civilized spotlights.” 

I found the phrase “subterranean connections” interesting in relation to the richness of McCarthy’s prose, most recently the striking one-page prologue to The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022), now available as a two-volume set. It was while rereading the bravura passage describing Alicia Western’s body hanging among the winter trees that I first noticed intimations of Agee’s prose presence, particularly in lines such as “her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered.”

The “multifarious beauty” of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is reflected in a sharecropper’s mirror in one of the homes Agee and the photographer Walker Evan visited in 1936: “The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were soon to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties.”

McCarthy’s prologue to The Passenger ends as the hunter who discovers the body “looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.” more

February 1, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.

—Cormac McCarthy, 2009

he’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

—from The Passenger/Stella Maris

Cormac McCarthy’s two-volume novel The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022) begins with the woman he had planned to write about for half a century.

It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered….”

The one-page prologue is printed in italics, as are all the first nine of 10 numbered, self-contained chapters of The Passenger devoted to Alicia Western and the theater of her psychosis. Her older brother Bobby’s adventures and misadventures a decade later are recounted in the interspersed unnumbered chapters (including the 10th and last), all printed in standard type, albeit with the author’s characteristic disregard of conventional punctuation. more

January 25, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I try to become a singer. The guitar has always been abused with distortion units and funny sorts of effects, but when you don’t do that and just let the genuine sound come through, there’s a whole magic there.

—Jeff Beck (1944-2023), 2010 NPR interview

The only time I saw virtuoso guitarist Jeff Beck in person was at the Fillmore East, where he, Rod Stewart, and the Jeff Beck Group performed a memorable cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious.” It was October 1968 and Halloween was in the air as Stewart keened “bad luck ain’t got me so far” while Beck stalked his trail like a demonic ventriloquist seemingly reanimating every black cat, hell hound, witch, or nightmare that ever bedeviled mortal man since the raven rapped at Edgar Allan Poe’s chamber door.

I’d first heard Jeff Beck two years earlier on the Yardbirds’ single “Shapes of Things,” which my wife and I played on numerous jukeboxes during a pre-nuptial hitchhiking trip through Italy. It was an astonishing creation, a feedback-driven march into a brave new world of psychedelia. I didn’t know who Beck was at the time, nor that he’d gone to school in South London with my old road companion Roger Yates and played in a skiffle band with several of Roger’s mates.

Later that year in Ann Arbor I saw Blow Up, Antonioni’s remake of “swinging London,” where a cosmically bored, glazed-eyed audience in a Soho club sat silent and unresponsive as the Yardbirds played a blues jam onstage. I still didn’t know that Roger’s schoolmate was the guitarist slamming his instrument into the amp in a futile quest for feedback or some sound or act outrageous enough to bring the dead crowd to life; nor did I know that another future guitar legend Jimmy Page was on the same small stage smiling over the scene as if in expectation of the moment Jeff Beck would throw his guitar on the floor, jump up and down on it, and hold the broken thing in the air, flourishing it before flinging it into a seething, screaming, come-wildly-to-life mob fighting over the remains. It all ended with the film’s photographer protagonist David Hemmings racing down a Soho alley with a piece of the mutilated guitar in his hand, before casting it aside, where the next passersby picked it up only to toss it in the gutter, leaving it there like roadkill.  more

January 18, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Dylan is beyond music and lyrics, he has something else. It’s that indefinable something else that makes him special.

—P.J. Harvey, in The Guardian, March 25, 2001

Bob Dylan’s “indefinable something else” is why I’m writing about him again this week. I’m also still walking around with, haunted by, “Where or When,” the last of the 66 songs in his new book The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan is not only still part of the where or when of life, he’s even farther “beyond music and lyrics” than he was when singer songwriter P.J Harvey said as much in March 2001. At that time he had yet to write Chronicles: Volume One (2004), record Modern Times (2006), and win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

As numerous reviewers have observed, The Philosophy of Modern Song is marred by some of Dylan’s sloppiest writing. Last week I suggested that in spite of the scant coverage of female songwriters and performers and the offensive language inspired by songs like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” the new book could be read as a coda to his tour de force Chronicles. Having returned to that extraordinary work, which I’ve lived in for almost 20 years, thanks in part to its evocation of New York’s Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961, I’m thinking the only “coda” worthy of the name may be the music of Modern Times and 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.  more

January 11, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again

“I feel like I’ve already written about this song before,” Bob Dylan says of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where Or When,” which he saved for the last chapter of The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster $45). “But that’s understandable” because it “dances around the outskirts of our memory drawing us in with images of the familiar being repeated and beguiling us with lives not yet lived.”

“It’s a song of reincarnation,” Dylan adds, referring to Dion and the Belmonts’ 1959 rendition of a number first performed in the 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms. “History keeps repeating itself, and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.” At this point, Dylan slips into the second person, as he does throughout the book and in some of his greatest songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You were having a discourse, rambling on, thinking out loud, discussing things, letting your hair down, having eyeball to eyeball encounters, playing peekaboo — going backwards, forwards, to and fro — without any difference, with an inkling that it all happened earlier, but you can’t pinpoint the location the district or the region, and now it’s happening again ….”

In fact, Dylan’s new book can be read as a coda to his acclaimed memoir Chronicles: Volume One (2004), which features scattered comments on innumerable songs and musicians, a practice he continued from 2006 to 2009 on Sirius XM’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” and again in “Murder Most Foul” (2020), the almost 17-minute-long epic that includes punning riffs on song and film titles and events of the sixties in a powerful reimagining of Kennedy’s assassination. more

January 4, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Just gently jam the jivin’, drum boogie, the cat is rockin’ with a solid eight, I tell you it’s more to gait, the joint is jumpin’…
—Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea

I was told that upon being asked to name his favorite among his books, Charles Dickens answered, “I love them all, but in my heart-of-hearts, I have a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield.” Well, though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.
—Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)

I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster 2022), which could serve as volume two of his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, or else as a solid place-holder until the next one comes along. In the chapter “Saturday Night at the Movies,” he says “People will tell you they don’t watch old movies for a bunch of reasons — because they are in black and white or maybe there’s a two-minute sequence that changing times have rendered politically incorrect. These people lack imagination and are fine throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Four days into the new year, the time is right for a closer look at two terms — “modern” in the context of Dylan’s new book and “dated” relative to the 1941 screwball comedy romance Ball of Fire, which is about, among other things, New York City, night clubs, gangsters, love, art, jazz, sex, and a group of scholars at work on the “encyclopedia of all human knowledge,” with a New Jersey denouement in an imaginary inn near Kingston. Also about New York and night clubs, the 1937 Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time’s screwball comedy of a plot is patched together around dance sequences that prove time and again that charm is never dated. In both films, which are a treat for the eye, ear, and spirit in any season, not least on New Year’s Eve, the standout “songs” are spectacles — “Drum Boogie,” a word-jazz jam, and “Never Gonna Dance,” a sublime lament.


December 28, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I drink because I want to make people respond wildly, be happy, enthusiastic…

—Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

One year ends and a new one’s looming, so get ready for “Auld Lang Syne,” toasts, laughter and tears, and remembering the friends you lost but never lose, like Jack Kerouac, born 100 years ago, March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Mass. Of all the writers I know and never knew, from Shakespeare to Salinger, Coleridge to Chekhov, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, who lived out his 47 years in the 20th century, is always good company, the writer most likely to make fast lifelong friends of readers like myself. On the scale of associations, no one else I know can go from New Year’s Eve parties dancing to Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon blowing “The Hunt” to the spire of Combray cathedral and Proust, “that old teahead of time” who “I love so much now that in the history of my affections he ranks with Wolfe & the man of the Karamazov darkness.” 

In his journal for November 13, 1951, Kerouac recalled the moment when “heaven punished me” for being drunk dancing “so crazily to Stravinsky that I tore my own shirt off.” The day before, he’d written, “I’m beginning to see my own tragedy. All I have to do is look in the mirror. The moment is coming when I must decide to go cold turkey on all alcohol. I just can’t restrain myself after a brew.” Ten days later and 18 years before his October 21, 1969 death from “massive internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis of the liver,” Kerouac stated his writer’s rational for alcoholic excess, that his drinking derived from his desire to make people “respond wildly, be happy, enthusiastic.” Yet it was the crowds of wildly happy, enthusiastic, privacy-invading fans that nearly drove him out of his mind and deeper into drink, a fate detailed in Big Sur (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy 1962).  more

December 21, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I love Christmas tree bulbs.

—David Lynch

You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.

—Chico Marx

Say you’re watching the classic routine from A Night at the Opera (1935), wherein Groucho Marx and his brother Chico are going over a contract and literally ripping out every clause until they get to a single shred of paper containing the provision requiring that the signatories be in their right minds, at which Chico delivers a punch line for the ages.

The first time I laughed along with my parents at that scene I was still a secret believer in the fantasy of St. Nick driving his reindeer team across the mysterious Christmas Eve sky with a gift for every child in the universe. While it was easy enough to laugh at a childish dream and move on, I’ve never really given up on the Christmas mystery, with its tree of many colors, its Dickensian coziness, and its music, and I’m pleased that David Lynch loves Christmas tree bulbs. It makes some kind of twisted sense that the Eagle Scout of the Darkly Strange and Weirdly Wonderful has a weakness for holiday customs and American icons. He didn’t invent “damn fine coffee and cherry pie,” but fans of Twin Peaks have reason to think so since he invented Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), the only FBI agent on the planet who employs Tibetan rituals in his work. Lynch is the Kilroy of American culture, he’s everywhere, giving daily YouTube weather reports in L.A., designing videos for Moby, and lending himself to a travesty of Santa in Family Guy (“How David Lynch Stole Christmas”), coming down the chimney to present a little boy with a human thumb in a box (à la the ear in Blue Velvet) while reminding him to leave a plate of black coffee under the tree next Christmas Eve. more

December 14, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Twenty-one years ago today, W.G. Sebald was driving to Norwich, the city explored in his internationally acclaimed novel The Rings of Saturn. He had just pulled on to the A-146 when his car “failed to follow the curve and drove straight into the opposite lane.” According to the account in Carole Angier’s biography Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury 2021), the horoscope for December 14 “warned that an eclipse of the sun was taking place visible only in North America, but ‘challenging for everyone.’”

Angier’s account has the makings of a passage from Sebald’s first book, Vertigo (New Directions 1999, translated by Michael Hulse) — his failure to follow the curve, his drive straight into the opposite lane, the challenge of the eclipse. Alive and at work, Sebald would drive the moment straight into a prose continuum, another road, or an invisible trajectory, and before you know it you’re staring through a train window with him as he takes you directly into the Arena Chapel in Padua, and suddenly you find yourself in the presence of Giotto’s frescoes, “overwhelmed by the silent lament of the angels, who kept their station above our endless calamities.”

In the distance far below you see Sebald’s car, crushed on the driver’s side, turned “facing the other way” after  crashing head-on into the cab of a 38-ton truck. Not to worry, by now he’s safe in All’estero, the second chapter, flying on the wings of prose through “the roaring traffic to take the very next train to Verona” while meditating on the hint of vertigo in the “disconcerting” afternoon Franz Kafka spent on his way from Venice to Lake Garda in September 1913. Instead of getting off at Verona, he continues to the railway station at Desenzano, knowing his Czech soulmate had stopped there more than 60 years before, and after finding the WC, he stares into the mirror above the  heavy stoneware basin in a room “where scarcely a thing had been altered since the turn of the century,” wondering as he washed his hands if Kafka had gazed into the same mirror. He puts the possibility in play by pointing out nearby graffiti, Il Cacciatore, Italian for “the hunter,” which he reads as a reference to Kafka’s posthumously published story, “The Hunter Gracchus.” After drying his hands, he makes an anonymous contribution, adding the words nella selva nera (“in the snow forest”), his secret sharing of Kafka’s story of a hunter fated to wander all the lands of the earth forever. more

December 7, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

In 1966, the victorious English team famously sang “Sunny Afternoon” in the baths after the World Cup final…

—from @The Kinks

Ray Davies calls it the “mystical fairy tale of ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and the World Cup” in his “unauthorized autobiography” X-Ray (Overlook Press 1995). After landing a song at the top of the charts the same month England’s team was at the top of the sporting world, Davies composed “Waterloo Sunset” the following spring, a British anthem for the ages that he would sing half a century later at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Clips of the highlights from England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany can be viewed on YouTube, the same black and white images that Ray saw on his home set, including the moment when a beaming Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with the captain of the British team before handing him the cup. In the aftermath of the Queen’s September 8 death, it’s moving to see her happily, unceremoniously caught up in the excitement of a cheering crowd 96,000 strong. Recalling the “magic” of July 30, 1966, Davies writes of himself and his band mates, “Patriotism had never been so strong. We were all war babies, we had all seen Hungary beat England when we were at primary in the early sixties.” When midfielder Bobby Charlton, considered one of the greatest players of all time, “buried his head in his hands as he fell to his knees and wept on the English turf,” Davies “felt like millions of others watching on television: I wanted to be next to him …..” more

November 30, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

… a damp, drizzly November in my soul ….
—Herman Melville

In the opening paragraph of Moby Dick, Ishmael makes cheerful poetry of the perennial November gloom, which is spelled out in scary-shaky black letters atop Roz Chast’s cartoon in the November 21 New Yorker. The three Chastesquely despairing characters are a frizzy-haired woman bundled up in a coat (“It’s only 4:15 but it’s PITCH DARK!”), a shivering young man rubbing his hands together (“Something is seriously amiss.), and under the last word-balloon a hair-tearing embodiment of horror (“It’s the end of the world.”).

For the purposes of this end-of-the-month column, I’m replacing the three Chastettes with two writers of note and a movie star. Mark Twain arrived in Florida, Missouri, on the last day of November 1830, along with Hailey’s Comet, which reappeared in time for his exit in 1910. Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis 100 years ago on November 11, 1922, three days before Veronica Lake appeared in Brooklyn under her birth name, Constance Frances Marie Ockelman. Thirty-two years later, November 26, 1954, Roz Chast herself was born — in Brooklyn. Although I stopped watching quiz and game shows long ago, it seemed there was always a contestant from Brooklyn who would inevitably be greeted with a level of enthusiasm (wild applause, shrill whistlings, cheers) afforded no other earthly locality.


November 23, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

—Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

David Milch’s memoir Life’s Work  (Random House $28) is a tour de force pulled together against all odds; as a work of literary art it’s worthy of comparison with modern American classics like Frank Conroy’s Stop Time, Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Patti Smith’s Just Kids and M-Train, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Potential readers, however, are met with a blurb in bold type presenting “a profound memoir from a brilliant mind taking stock as Alzheimer’s loosens his hold on his own past.” As if to make up for the pairing of a flat phrase like “taking stock” with the notion that Milch is losing his hold on his past, the jacket copy closes with a line that sings — “a revelatory memoir from a great American writer in what may be his final dispatch to us all.

The catch is that the great writer’s magnum opus was actually a rhetorically rich, fabulously profane American classic called Deadwood, which was not only written but spoken, staged, choreographed, and constructed with contributions from numerous others, only to be shut down after three seasons by HBO, which had once given Milch the game-changing freedom to take language where networks and sponsors usually fear to tread.

In Life’s Work, Milch describes how his thrust toward “ever more extreme varieties of language in their profanity or intricacy or strangeness” has been “to show, through the form of dialogue, the variety and ultimately the joy of the energy that’s given to us all as humans.” For Milch “the joy of the energy” drives both the story of his extraordinary life and his sweeping vision of community in a lawless American mining town in 1876. more

November 16, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I believe that if people would learn to use LSD’s vision-inducing capability more wisely, under suitable conditions, in medical practice and in conjunction with meditation, then in the future this problem child could become a wonder child.

—Dr. Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)

Lately it’s all about winning and losing, baseball and politics, the Phillies roaring into the World Series with seemingly unstoppable momentum and losing it in six games while across the state in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are losing 100 games for the second year in a row. Three days later as America goes to the polls, Pennsylvania Republicans are rolling down the yellow brick road to Oz, until a giant in a hoodie blocks the way. He’s from a town near Pittsburgh, half a year this side of a stroke, his communication skills may be flawed, his control can be concerning, but in pitching terms, he’s still got good stuff, plus he’s come back from the brink and when he says he stands for anyone that ever got knocked down and got back up, it means something. And when he says health care came through for him and should be there for everyone who needs it, he knows because he’s been there. Meanwhile, the Dr. Oz express is spinning its wheels as the yellow brick road turns to dust and the vision of the Emerald City Senate vanishes, leaving nothing behind but a Mar-a-Lago mirage fading in the Red State sky.

The  Fox

A fox crossed my path twice in broad daylight on Election Day. He looked to be a thoughtful, modest, easygoing, philosophical sort of animal the way he moved, like the word philosophical come to life, a five-syllable fox, a serious word-fox. Although I only saw him for a moment, both times, having slowed instinctively, no need for screeching brakes, no cause for alarm, the sight of a fox trotting across Harrison Street left me feeling stupidly, irresponsibly hopeful, something I remembered later that night when the Dems rallied nationwide. After doing some cursory online research about foxes and omens, I found a website — — that says seeing a fox is not only a good sign, it may indicate “the appearance of a new perspective in your life.” more

November 9, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

His poetry is about the difficulty of conceiving anything.
—Richard Poirier (1925-2009)

I’ve just revisited my favorite page in Valerie Eliot’s edition of her late husband T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber 1972). I don’t mean my favorite passage. I mean the first page of the facsimile that shows Pound’s first “annotation” in the form of a bold line striking straight through the heart of the typescript. That slashing of Eliot’s original is the essence of revision writ large. It’s also amusing to imagine how differently we’d have approached The Waste Land had Eliot stayed with the title He Do The Police In Different Voices, or had the two opening lines remained “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place, / There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.”

Eliot would surely have figured out on his own the downside of beginning a difficult, fabulously allusive work of art by, in effect, putting the reader on a first-name basis with the poet, old Tom Eliot. Instead of “April is the cruellest month,” we’re walking into a swirl of voices with the poet’s blind-drunk namesake leading the way. You can almost hear Ezra telling Tom it’s an opening that would make the hip readers of the day think the voices he was “doing” had already been “done” by Joyce in Ulysses. On top of that, there’s Tom’s pal Joe singing “I’m proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me,” which has been circled for special attention, with a note in the margin that could be read as a suggested replacement or a nudge from Ezra: “Tease, Squeeze lovin & wooin, Say Kid what’re y’ doing.”


November 2, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabelle Lee

—Edgar Allan Poe

Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had…

—Stevie Nicks, from “Dreams”

Asked in a publisher’s Q&A what inspired him to write Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks (University of California Press 2022), Princeton professor Simon Morrison, a scholar of Russian music and dance, says he got the idea about six years ago while talking with people who love her song “Dreams” — “just because they do, without needing or wanting to explain the love.” Morrison says that while he feels the same way, writing about the song and the singer “meant thinking about that love” rather than “leaving it be.” His plan was to write about Nicks by “exploring her creativity and immense power as a performer” while “focusing on her process, her sources of inspiration, and the bond she has created with her audience as a truth-teller.”

“Poe, Edgar Allan”

The Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor briefly channels “Dreams” in her memoir Rememberings (2021), writing, “I’m like Stevie Nicks. She keeps her visions to herself.” After reading O’Connor’s response to the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 (she was 11: “I need a new father now that Elvis is gone”), I searched for Presley in the index to Mirror in the Sky, where I found “Poe, Edgar Allan” and discovered that when Nicks’s Senior English teacher at Menlo-Atherton High asked the class to analyze Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Stevie turned the poem into a song that she, in Morrison’s words, “held close for decades,” finally recording it “once she had exorcised the demons of the past, the bad loves, the toxic habits.” Composed when Nicks was 17, “Annabelle Lee” rises gloriously from the undead almost half a century later in her solo album In Your Dreams (2011).

Having heard the wonders Nicks and producer Dave Stewart achieve in “Annabel Lee,” — Morrison quotes Stewart on “Stevie’s obsession” with Poe — I’d like to think that Vladimir Nabokov’s “Divine Edgar” would be entranced by Nicks’s rapturous singing and the majestic orchestration. Nabokov shares her obsession with Poe, having based the first incarnation of Lolita on “Annabelle Lee.” As someone who once claimed he was “as American as April in Arizona,” Nabokov would no doubt have been delighted to know that Nicks was born in Phoenix and that as a child paid frequent visits to a grandmother who lived in a town called Ajo. more

October 26, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humour or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching search-lights.

—Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

I had other plans for this column until I realized that Friday, October 21, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 250th birthday. On October 26, 1900, Henry James and Edith Wharton began a correspondence, a “marriage of true minds” that lasted until James’s death (“the distinguished thing”) on February 28, 1916. Having already set things in motion for a piece about Wharton and James, I had to make room — lots of room — for Coleridge.

All it took was a few clicks of the Microsoft mouse to confirm that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” not only stirred Wharton’s imagination in childhood, but returned full force during her mid-sixties in her account of a young writer’s moment of discovery:

“Oh, what beautiful, what incredible words! What did they mean? But what did it matter what they meant? Or whether they meant anything but their own unutterable music? …. It was a new music, a music utterly unknown to him, but to which the hidden chords of his soul at once vibrated. It was something for him — something that intimately belonged to him …. He sat with his head between his hands, reading on, passionately, absorbedly, his whole being swept away on that mighty current.” 

The passage is from Hudson River Bracketed (1929), in which Wharton’s protagonist writes a novel reimagining the dreamscape of Coleridge’s Xanadu in the Hudson River Valley. I knew the same thrill of discovery the first time I read the poem, in my teens, excited to know more because the vision was unfinished, penned upon Coleridge’s waking from a laudanum dream. Much of the poem’s allure is that he presents it as “A Fragment,” with an introductory paragraph in which “the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair.”  more

October 19, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, … the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation.

—W.G. Sebald (1944-2001)

As far as I know, King Charles III and Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) have nothing worth mentioning in common other than the fact that the author of Religio Medici was knighted by Charles II in 1671. A gap of 337 earthly years separates Charles II, who died in 1685, from Charles III, who acceded to the throne on September 8, 2022, after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned a mere 353 years after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, speaking of gaps.

Then consider Browne’s dates — born October 19, died  October 19, which is today, give or take three and a half centuries. What other literary luminary lived out a perfect birth-death span? None other than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564, died April 23, 1616, at which time Tom Browne was a lad of 11.

October 1982

A mere 40 years ago I was absorbed in the 1982 World Series pitting the St. Louis Cardinals against the Milwaukee Brewers, still an American League franchise at the time. On October 19 the series turned in the Cardinals favor with a 13-1 sixth game victory. On October 20, the deciding game was saved by future Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter, master of the split-fingered fastball, who died just five days ago, October 14. Shortly before his induction into the Hall, Sutter said, “I wouldn’t be here without that pitch.” When he was pitching relief for the Cubs in 1977, bumper stickers around Chicago read “Only the Lord Saves More Than Sutter.” more

October 12, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

little boys playing baseball in the rain

—Randy Newman

… it starts with a game of catch.

—Adam Wainwright

New York Mets fans will remember Adam Wainwright as the lanky rookie pitcher who struck out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded, sending the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2006 World Series. Randy Newman fans may remember his song, “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America,” especially the verse that begins, “Americans dream of Gypsies.”

Baseball Anniversary

Eleven years ago my wife and I were having dinner at the Swan in Lambertville and spending our 45th wedding anniversary night up the road at the Black Bass Inn, where I watched the pitcher’s duel between the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter and the Phil’s Roy Halladay, one of the great playoff games, won 1-0 by the wild card Cardinals on their way to the 2011 World Championship. I had to muffle my cheers because my wife had gone to sleep in the seventh inning.

Now it’s another anniversary, the wild card Phils are playing the Central Division-winning Cards, we’re in Lambertville again having dinner at the Swan Bar, and the Cardinals are facing elimination after the previous day’s ninth-inning debacle. more