June 19, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Sixteen years ago I wrote about “An American Masterpiece You Can’t See on DVD — Yet.” Now, at last, we can forget the “Yet.” Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933) has been restored to its original length and released on a Blu-ray disc from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Although this is an entirely legitimate piece of good news, I can’t help recalling the moment in Mad Men when Pete Campbell goes to Mr. Cooper with proof that the firm’s genius Don Draper is an imposter, a fraud, a criminal, maybe worse, to which the boss croons, three times, “Who cares?”

In his “Front Row” appreciation of Man’s Castle, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody cares; it’s a film that he’s “cherished’” for decades. Referring to the “eight minutes of risqué plot points and dialogue” that were cut in deference to the Motion Picture Code, Brody confesses that his “love of the movie has been accompanied by tantalized curiosity about what was missing.” As he puts it, “the restoration emphasizes all the more strongly the depth and power of Borzage’s vision — and the wit and style with which he brings it to light.” more

June 12, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Go, seize the day
Wake up and say
This is an extraordinary life ….

Less than a week before Father’s Day, my son and I are talking about the time he fell off the sofa dancing around to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.” It was mid-May 1983; he was 7. “But it wasn’t the sofa,” he tells me; he’s 48 now. “It was a bunch of cushions I’d piled onto a chair. I didn’t cry, I yelled, I kept jumping around. John Wetton was singing.”

Wetton’s Power

I italicized “John Wetton” to show the 7-year-old’s excitement still alive in the 48-year-old’s voice. In fact, when Wetton sings, the whole world is italicized, there’s no such thing as was; his is the power of is, is, forever is, and the first time I heard him singing Asia’s anthemic “An Extraordinary Life” on the 2008 “come back” album Phoenix, I had to know more about the musician my son had been mourning for the better part of five years. When Wetton sang “Go seize the day, wake up and say this is an extraordinary life,” he had less than a decade to live, after surviving 20 years of heavy drinking and smoking, plus triple-bypass surgery. He died of cancer on January 31, 2017, at 67, same age as my heavy drinking and smoking mother, who also died of cancer and was very much on my mind as Wetton sang of “the smiles and frowns, the ups and downs, of fortune turning … the twists and turns, the lessons learned.”

Asia’s first single, “Heat of the Moment” was a huge hit, spending 26 weeks on the charts while the group’s debut LP was the No. 1 album in the U.S. for 1982, according to Billboard and Cashbox. As Wetton puts it in a 2014 HuffPost interview, “We got let out of the elevator at the penthouse instead of the ground floor.” In a 2011 interview about “Heat of the Moment,” he says that he and keyboardist Geoff Downes wrote the song in an afternoon: “The lyrics are an abject apology for my dreadful behavior towards a particular woman (the woman I would eventually marry, but divorce 10 years later), the chorus began its life as a 6/8 country song, but when Geoff and I started writing together, we moved the time signatures around, and ‘Heat of the Moment’ emerged.” more

June 5, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Franz Kafka died on June 3, 1924, a month short of his 40th birthday. The word “Kafkaesque” reportedly entered the English language in the 1940s, the earliest usage being from 1947 in the New Yorker.

The first time I actually thought “This is like Kafka” was on a cold rainy night in October 1965 when I was dropped off in Zagreb by an Iranian who was not driving so much as being driven by a brand-new VW Beetle. After registering at a tourist office where they treated bearded hitchikers like vermin, I was given an address that people on the rain-swept street said didn’t exist, which nevertheless took me to an empty bed in a large, high-ceiled room that I shared with a number of displaced-looking old men who seemed to know me. more

May 29, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol…

Allen Ginsberg called “Idiot Wind” one of Bob Dylan’s “great great prophetic national songs,” with “one rhyme that took in the whole nation.” Dylan wrote it 50 years ago this summer, first recorded it in New York that September around the time Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and recorded it again in December before releasing the final version in January 1975 on the album Blood On the Tracks, which I’ve been listening to ever since Dylan’s 83rd birthday on Friday, May 24.

That same day, with election year winds blowing the word trial trial trial like “a circle around my skull,” I began rereading Franz Kafka’s The Trial, looking ahead to the centenary of Kafka’s death, June 3, 1924, the day Max Brod took charge of the unpublished work that delivered a great writer to the reading world.  more

May 15, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ve been writing the same sort of thing since I was 15 years old — about people who are a little cracked.

—Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)

The line I’ve quoted is from an August 1991 interview Patricia Highsmith granted the International Herald Tribune shortly before publishing the last novel in the Ripley series, Ripley Under Water (Knopf 1992), which I read in a day, swept along in a fever of morbid anticipation. Whenever that most civilized of psychopaths Tom Ripley is involved, it’s not what happens next that carries you along but the need to know when it will happen and to whom and how, and then how Ripley will get away with it, which he always does. There’s no denying you’re in the grip of the writer Graham Greene called “the poet of apprehension.”

Even before she started writing about “cracked” people, Highsmith was reading Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, which she found in her parents’ library when she was “8 or 9,” and going through “case histories with footnotes about murders, sadists, crackpots, if they could be cured or not and what the psychiatrist decided to do about them.” more

May 8, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

What you see is what you see….
—Frank Stella (1936-2024)

My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.
—Paul Auster (1947-2024), from The New York Trilogy

There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.
—Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Here’s my ideal reading experience: I’m on the top floor of the Fieldstone Suite at the Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, Pa., it’s the last Sunday in April 2024, the hour before midnight, my wife is asleep in the bed by the window, and I’m watching the gleaming, darker-than-night waters of the Delaware River move relentlessly toward New Hope, Trenton, Whitman’s Camden, Poe’s Philadelphia, and points south and on into the Atlantic. The small book I’m holding half-open is the 1899 Raven Edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which I’d stuck in my overnight bag at the last minute.

For the better part of 30 years, I’ve been meaning to read all 130 pages of this charismatic little volume with its charming deep-blue, deep-black cover, a raven perched in a grey circle at the center. At this hour of the night, with the window slightly open for a breeze, you can almost hear the water moving, and while I know the river is the Delaware, tonight it’s the Seine and the Hudson flowing as one, and it belongs to Poe, who has reimagined the murder of a New York girl named Mary Rogers as the murder of Marie Rogêt, a Parisian grisette, meanwhile rewriting the Hudson as the Seine, New York as Paris, Weehawken as the Barrière du Roule, and Manhattan’s Nassau Street as Rue Pavée Saint Andrée.


May 1, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

The adolescence of a whole American generation was mediated by Dylan’s songs…

—Helen Vendler (1933-2024)

The last week of National Poetry Month began on Tuesday, April 23, William Shakespeare’s 460th birthday. Right now a whole generation of listeners is being “mediated” by Taylor Swift, whose latest album The Tortured Poets Department opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, “with historic numbers,” according to the New York Times. It’s hard to ignore an album with that title in a month celebrating poetry, not to mention the fact that Swift’s work is the subject of courses being taught at major universities, including Harvard, which offers an English Department class called “Taylor Swift and Her World.” more

April 24, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (HarperCollins 2004) was the year’s number one fiction best-seller when it was published in 1927; it also received the 1928 Pulitzer Prize and is still in print, reportedly selling seven thousand copies worldwide every year. So how is it that in my long life as a reader I ignored it until April 17 of last week, Wilder’s 127th birthday? There may be a clue in the wording of the New York Times December 8, 1975 obituary: “Aloof from the 20th century’s preoccupation with politics, psychology and sex,” Wilder “concentrated in his novels and plays on what he construed as the universal verities in human nature. He seemed to be examining mankind from an Olympian platform.”

In his foreword to the 2004 edition, novelist Russell Banks, who died in January 2023, says that Wilder’s novel is “as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature.” The book “feels, in its exquisite universality and ease of timeless application, ancient, classical, almost biblical.” Probably aware of the “aloofness” issue, Banks admits that while “in certain ways, the prose seems antique,” it’s “not in the least antiquated,” the “sentences are elegant, but never self-admiring, exquisitely balanced, yet not overformal, and complex without being elaborate.” Banks’s way of bringing the novel into contemporary America, circa 2004, is to suggest an analogy between the fictional fall of the bridge that “precipitated five travelers into the gulf below” on July 20, 1714 and the terrorist attack that killed thousands when it brought down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. more

April 17, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I was a wing in heaven blue … I was a vision in another eye …

—Patti Smith, from “Wing”

Midway through National Poetry Month, I found a poem Patti Smith sang for Haruki Murakami after presenting him with a literary prize in Berlin 10 years ago. The song ends “And if there’s one thing … Could do for you … You’d be a wing … In heaven blue.” In her memoir M Train (2015), Smith calls Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf 1997) a “devastating” masterpiece that she immediately wanted to reread because she “did not wish to exit its atmosphere.” She was haunted by “the ghost of a phrase” that had to do with “the fate of a certain property” in the opening chapter.

Having just finished Murakami’s epic of wonders and horrors, I’ve also been haunted by the beginning, where the narrator, Toru Okada, is searching for his lost cat and ends up, in Smith’s words, “at an abandoned house on an overgrown lot with a paltry bird sculpture and an obsolescent well.” What particularly intrigued me was Okada’s reference to “the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird” although “we didn’t know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn’t bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.” That last sentence winds the spring of the book.  more

April 10, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Last Friday when news of the local earthquake hit, I was at the library checking out the Criterion DVD of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dogs (1949). At home I returned to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage International 1997) to find my place bookmarked at page 217, just as Toru Okada, “Mr. Wind-up Bird,” was packing a knapsack “kept for earthquakes and other emergencies.” When the late-afternoon aftershock rumbled through the house, I was on page 245 just as Okada was experiencing “a strange reverberation.” Call it what you will, a minor coincidence or magical realism in action, these things happen when you’re reading Murakami, not to mention the name game connection wherein the hero of Stray Dog is a detective named Murakami and the older detective showing him the ropes is Sato, a name he shares with the yakuza hero of Tokyo Vice, the exciting new series I hope to write about in a future column. more

April 3, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m looking for Marlon Brando on the covers of Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile (2014) and William J. Mann’s The Contender (2019). Filmgoers and biographers have a right to their own Brando. This filmgoer’s Brando, the Byronic avenger of One-Eyed Jacks (1961), has little in common with the self-consciously seductive, smugly smiling man on the cover of Brando’s Smile; put some period clothing on him and he could be the boy next door in Meet Me in St. Louis. And the face staring at me from The Contender is clearly the choice of a biographer looking for an image expressive of the pain and pathos of the line Brando’s been associated with ever since his “I coulda been a contender” moment in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). The main problem is that this painfully posed, well-groomed portrait taken by the celebrity photographer Philippe Halsman could, at first glance, be mistaken for that of some Brandoesque young actor of the day. more

March 27, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Twenty years ago, I wrote about “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr,” my first article on an event that I’ve covered ever since, including the 2020 sale that was canceled after two days because of the pandemic.

Two years ago, my title was “How I Spent $8 at the BMW Book Sale and Came Home Happy.” This year I showed up at 3 p.m. on opening day, spent $13, and came home with a Royal Shakespeare Company curiosity ($1); a paperback copy of the play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer ($3); a Limited Edition of Daniel Defoe’s Diary of Moll Flanders, illustrated and signed by Reginald Marsh ($6); and a “homeless poet” named Michael Roberts ($3).

Twin Ghost Towns

By the time I arrived at Stuart Country Day School last Wednesday, both gyms were virtually deserted, twin ghost towns, except for volunteers restocking the plundered tables. In Collectors Corner, the rarities I’d noticed on my visit the previous Sunday had been snapped up. Gone (no surprise) was the first hardcover edition of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in the original dust jacket, priced at a fraction of the $400 being asked online for copies in similar condition. Among the items buyers had passed over were Freddy Goes to the North Pole and three Signet paperback mysteries by Mickey Spillane — a quick study of my adolescent reading habits, from Freddy the Pig and Jinx the Cat to Mike Hammer.  more

March 20, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

…the forgotten book, in the forgotten bookshop, screams to be discovered.

—from The Unquiet Grave

Today is Ovid’s birthday. In the unlikely event that my math is right, he would be 2067 years old. His full name was Publius Ovidius Naso, born March 20, 43 BC, and banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus in AD 8, presumably for writing (and apparently living) The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). I found a passage in Book 3 that relates to my subject if you tweak the words “path, bark, port, banquet” to fit this “undisguised” Preview Day column on the 2024 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale:

“But let us return to our path; I must deal with my subject undisguised, that my wearied bark may reach its port. You may be waiting, in fact, for me to escort you to the banquet, and may be requesting my advice in this respect as well. Come late, and enter when the lights are brought in; delay is a friend to passion; a very great stimulant is delay.”

I know from experience that book dealers and bibliophiles waiting outside previous preview sales have experienced the “stimulant of delay,” especially in the days when a low-numbered ticket to a place near the front of the line was worth getting up for at the proverbial crack of dawn, and believe me, “passion” is not too strong a word for the book lust surging through the line the moment the doors are opened.  more

March 13, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I was looking forward to a walk on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, my destination the pond in the final scene of  Christopher Nolan’s multiple-Oscar-winning film. With the weather report predicting rain, I wanted to be there when the first drops were falling, as in the three-hour-long film’s beginning and end. I was hoping for a quietly eloquent spring rain, just enough to create the desired ripple effect, but before I could get there, it began pouring and I had to make do with a photo on the Institute’s website. Taken during the April 2022 filming, it shows Tom Conti’s Einstein in conversation with Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer while the burly, grey-maned, grey-bearded Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema hunkers down on a four-wheeled rig squinting at them through the Panavision lens.

“It was constantly close-ups, close-ups, close-ups, talking, talking, talking,” Van Hoytema says in a February 2024 screendaily.com interview. Referring to the sequence by the pond: “Towards the end of the scene, we creep in on Oppenheimer, and get the feeling that we crawl right through Cillian’s eyes into his head, and start understanding the world, how he sees it now. More importantly, we shoot a close-up of him that is more powerful than most of the other close-ups in the film, even though we have been on top of his face for the whole movie. So, the challenge was, ‘How the hell do we make that interesting?’”

The answer was delivered on Sunday night when the producers of Oppenheimer won the Academy Award for Best Picture, with Oscars going to Best Lead Actor Murphy, Best Supporting Actor Robert Downey Jr., and Best Director Nolan, as well as to Ludwig Göransson for his score, to Jennifer Lame for editing, and to Van Hoytema himself for cinematography. more

March 6, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

How can you laugh if you can’t cry?

—Ring Lardner (1885-1933)

Today is Ring Lardner’s birthday, spring training baseball is underway, and I’ve been reading You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters (Doran 1916), in which “living” and “having” are spelled “liveing” and “haveing,” and a series between two teams becomes a “serious.” After Lardner’s team, the White Sox, were branded the Black Sox for throwing the 1919 “World Serious,” he saw it as a betrayal, although five years passed before he said, “I have kind of lost interest in the old game, or rather it ain’t the old game that which I have lost interest in it, but it is the game which the magnates have fixed up to please the public with their usual good judgement.”

In her August 1, 1925 Saturday Review essay on “American Fiction,” Virginia Woolf surprised a great many readers, including no doubt Ring Lardner and his neighbor at the time F. Scott Fitzgerald, by observing that Lardner “writes the best prose that has come our way” and “often in a language which is not English. Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.”

As it happens, Woolf’s eloquent appraisal could be applied to another character who is allowed to “cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths” until he “lives before us” as he “babbles out his mind on paper,” with friends, girlfriends, enemies, a little sister named Phoebe, scenery (Central Park) and town (New York City) all surrounding him and making him up “in his completeness.”  more

February 28, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

And what curious flower or fruit
Will grow from that conspiring root?

—Elizabeth Bishop

Those lines are from the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s reimagining of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Bishop has admitted that she was hoping someone would compose tunes for her suite “Songs for a Colored Singer” (an acceptable title in the 1940s). “I think I had Billie Holiday in mind,” she said in a 1966 interview. “I put in a couple of words just because she sang big words so well — ‘conspiring root,’ for instance.”

The Bishop-Holiday connection was pointed out by Paul Alexander in Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year, the subject of last week’s column. In fact, a misprint in that article (“Back” for “Black”) is the reason I’m  returning to Holiday and rereading Bishop with particular attention to “The Man-Moth,” a great New York poem inspired by a newspaper misprint for “mammoth.” more

February 21, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I was going to begin with some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts” — except that setting the passage as an epigraph would have been typographically unsightly, and the only thing it has to do with Billie Holiday is that I can hear her singing it, beautifully, in her special way, making new words of old words. I can also hear her singing of “something given and taken” from the same sequence, and of “selflessness and self-surrender” and “the moment in and out of time.”

It’s fun to imagine Lady Day enlivening Eliot as she did various Tin Pan Alley songwriters. You can hear her on YouTube singing “My first impression of you was something indescribably new” to words by Charley Tobias (“The boy who writes the songs you sing”) and music by Ukrainian-born Sam Stept — but first I had to skip an ad flogging Trump bobbleheads and the call to arms for a second American Civil War that follows it. more

February 14, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

…when love finally calls the tune, it almost always comes from the least expected direction — from the bohemian, the excluded, the marginalized and least powerful folks, and the most hidden places.

—Ted Gioia

On Valentine’s Day 2024 I’m thinking about the way love happens in a song that’s been synonymous with February 14 ever since I sang along with it as a teenager. Although “How Little We Know” comes from a relatively “hidden” songwriter, it was put on the map in 1956 by Frank Sinatra, one of the “least marginalized” and “most powerful” of performers. According to Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford University Press 2015), Sinatra brought a “new level of sophistication” to the romantic ballad by adding “layers of irony, sometimes outright cynicism, to the emotional immediacy of the torch singers,” which resulted in “a performance that delivered the inner meaning of the lyric while also offering an arch commentary on it.”  more

February 7, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

People who listen to the Beatles love them — what about that?

—Richard Poirier in The Performing Self (1971)

Remarkable, unspeakable New York!

—Henry James, in The American Scene

My mood at the moment is best expressed in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I was reading when the Beatles landed at JFK on February 7, 1964:

“I enter upon this part of my story in the most pensive and melancholy frame of mind that ever sympathetic breast was touched with…. Every line I write, I feel an abatement of the quickness of my pulse, and of that careless alacrity with it, which every day of my life prompts me to say and write a thousand things I should not.”

Truer words were never not spoken. Did I really care about the Fab Four? I had no choice since my transistor radio was permanently tuned to Top 40 servings on WINS from Murray the K, the DJ who liked to call himself the Fifth Beatle. My idea of musical bliss in those days was a moment in Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 on Blue Note, the change of pianists that occurs in Thelonius Monk’s “Mysterioso,” after Rollins delivers one of his boldest statements and Monk makes way for Horace Silver as J.J. Johnson’s trombone booms overhead. Never did it occur to me that a bunch of funny looking characters from the U.K. could compete with that.

At the time of The Great Arrival, I was living in a small front room of a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street, with a poster of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles over my bed and one of Joan Miró’s The Farm on another wall above a portable stereo and a box of jazz LPs. My window looked across the street to No. 26, where Billie Holiday had been living at the time of her death in 1959. Lady Day’s “townhouse” sold for almost $14 million in 2022. In 1964 I was paying $120 a month. Most likely Billie had a couple of furnished rooms in 1959. She reportedly died with 70 cents to her name. It’s been four years since I felt like going into New York. The city I love is not the one where Billie Holiday’s townhouse sold for $14 million.  more

January 31, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Today, January 31, is Franz Schubert’s birthday. Born in 1797, he died on November 19, 1828, age 31. Toward the end of that year he was composing his last three piano sonatas and vicariously exploring the backwoods America of James Fenimore Cooper. I’ve been intrigued by this deathbed connection ever since I read Schubert’s last letter, in which he tells a friend, “I am ill. I have eaten nothing for eleven days and drunk nothing, and I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to bed and back again…. Be so kind, then, to assist me in this desperate situation by means of literature. Of Cooper’s I have read The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, The Pilot, and The Pioneers. If by chance you have anything else of his, I implore you to deposit it with Frau von Bogner at the coffee house….”

For the past week I’ve been reading The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) and listening to Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A-major completed on September 26, 1828. The sonata’s haunting second movement, the Andantino employed so powerfully in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, has been following me around ever since last Wednesday’s  mist-making Schubertian snowfall. more

January 24, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

This is an anniversary year for Franz Kafka, who died on June 3, 1924, a doubly noteworthy centenary, given the immensity of the author’s posthumous presence, which suggests that if ever a writer was born on the day he died it was Kafka. No wonder, then, that a photograph of his face dominates the January 24 entry in A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) when all he accomplished on that day in 1913 was to interrupt work on a book he never finished. Originally titled The Man Who Disappeared, it was retitled Amerika after his death by his best friend and executor Max Brod, who is best known for ignoring Kafka’s wish that all his unpublished writings be destroyed. more

January 17, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

January is the birth month of two ageless poets of the snow, Anton Chekhov, born on the Feast Day of St. Anthony the Great, January 17, 1860, and Franz Schubert, born on January 31, 1797.

Chekhov’s 1886 story “Misery” has a wintry atmosphere like that of “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” the last song in Winterreise (1828), Schubert’s song cycle about a man whose snowy wanderings end with an old organ-grinder playing “with numb fingers as best he can,” holding his little plate, “with no reward to show,” for “no one wants to listen.” Chekhov’s epigraph for “Misery,” which I first read as “Heartache” in Avrahm Yarmolinksy’s edition of The Portable Chekhov, is “To whom shall I tell my sorrows,” a reference to the plight of a bereft St. Petersburg cabby, who sits unmoving in the snow, waiting for a fare.  more

January 10, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Robert Donat may be the only movie star Holden Caulfield would ever think of calling on the phone. Donat, who plays Richard Hannay, the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The 39 Steps (1935), “could draw us further into himself by his very modesty,” according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Writing about Donat’s performance in Knight Without Armour (1937), another movie J.D. Salinger liked to show on his 16 mm projector, Graham Greene observed that he “is sensible, authentic, slow; emotion when it comes has the effect of surprise, like plebeian poetry.” In contrast to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood that Holden hates, Donat has, in Greene’s words, an “invincible naturalness.”

In The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (Crown 1970), David Shipman calls Donat’s story “a heart-rending one,” using an adjective also favored by 7-year-old Seymour Glass in Salinger’s extraordinary, still unpublished novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, surely the longest, strangest letter home from camp ever written. What makes Donat’s story “heart-rending” is that this “highly gifted actor,” known “for a beautiful speaking voice and a quiet and diffident charm,” was plagued by chronic asthma. As Thomson points out, Donat’s “illustrious” career included only 19 films, due to the major roles he turned down because of “the profound tentativeness at the root of his stammer and nervous breathlessness.” Even so, in one of his least compelling parts, as the title character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Donat beat out Clark Gable for the Best Actor Oscar, thwarting Gone With the Wind’s sweep of the 1939 Academy Awards. more

January 3, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. 

—William Faulkner on Holden Caulfield

“If you really want to hear about it,” the first thing you need to know is that J.D. Salinger was born in New York City on the first of January 1919, 105 years ago. The first and only time his creation Holden Caulfield appeared in the The New Yorker was on December 21, 1946, in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a story that got bumped from the 1941 Christmas issue after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The writer who crafted The Catcher in the Rye’s famous “all-that-David-Copperfield-kind-of-crap” opening sentence clearly had another character in mind in the story’s “Holden Morrisey Caulfield,” who wore his hat “with a cutting edge at the ‘V’ of the crown.” The character who came to life in his own voice in 1951 is the one who left “all the goddam foils” of the Pencey Prep fencing team on the subway the same morning he bought a hat “for a buck” in a sports store and wore it with the peak swung “way around to the back” because he “looked good in it that way.”

One of the few times the later Holden’s presence can be felt in “Slight Rebellion” is during a theatre intermission when someone calls the Lunts “absolute angels” and Holden thinks “Angels. For Chrissake. Angels.” You hear him again when he and his date Sally are talking about school and he says, “Boy, do I hate it!” and “hate” gets him going. He hates living in New York, the Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue busses “and getting out at the center doors” and “the Seventy-second Street movie, with those fake clouds on the ceiling.” You get another hint of the reading world’s Holden when he tries to talk Sally into running away from New York with him. more

December 27, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

He has too much talent for his genius; it is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from nor set at rest. You would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson on Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Tree” in the December 21, 1850 issue of his weekly journal Household Words. While there are references to “bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness” that echo the spirit of A Christmas Carol (1843), the later, shorter work reveals a much darker vision of Christmas and childhood.

Just as Scrooge tries to dismiss the horror of Marley’s ghost as “a slight disorder of the stomach … an undigested bit of beef,” Dickens tells himself that the “prodigious nightmare” embodied by the Christmas tree may be “the result of indigestion, assisted by imagination …. I don’t know why it’s frightful — but I know it is. I can only make out that it is an immense array of shapeless things … slowly coming close to my eyes, and receding to an immeasurable distance. When it comes closest, it is worse.” The apparition reminds Dickens of “winter nights incredibly long; of being sent early to bed, as a punishment for some small offence, and waking in two hours, with a sensation of having been asleep two nights; of the laden hopelessness of morning ever dawning….” more