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

October 5, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

…our enemies are way too numerous, all of the dangers are beyond our powers of calculation…
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

…imagining the inferno that would descend on his social and even his most personal mileu just a decade and a half after his death was not in his power ….
—Reiner Stach, from Kafka: The Years of Insight

Stach is referencing the fact that “in the early years of Kafka’s worldwide renown, his work, his achievement as a writer, was insistently categorized as ‘prophecy,’” and that this was “the primary reason for his overwhelming resonance.”

Kafka’s reference to “dangers beyond our powers of calculation” is from “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” written three months before his death. I read it after watching the Ken Burns PBS series, The U.S. and the Holocaust. I had never read it before, and at the time I didn’t know it was the last story he ever wrote. When Stach speaks of the inferno’s descent on his “social” and “most personal milieu,” he means the deaths in the gas chambers of all three of Kafka’s sisters, as well as friends, lovers, and other family members.


Describing Kafka’s “sharp and skeletal face” as it appears in a photograph from 1924, Philip Roth says that skulls “like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens” and that had he lived, Kafka’s “would have been among them.” Rather than assume the worst, why not imagine at least the possibility that had he lived, he might have emigrated to Palestine and opened a little coffee house in Tel Aviv with his last love, Dora Diamant (a playful fantasy they shared), or why not go all the way and imagine a powerful secret admirer among the Nazis who would have made sure that he was spared? Nonsense, of course, but then Kafka is an infinitely interpretable figure.  more

September 28, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
—T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

….perhaps the most amazing thing about Albert Pujols is that less than two years before he began one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, he was a non-prospect.
—Joe Posnanski, in Sports Illustrated

How the miracle of Albert Pujols came to St. Louis, the city where T.S. Eliot was born 134 years ago Monday, is the stuff of dreams, especially if you’ve followed the St. Louis Cardinals for most of your life, longing for that October moment when, in the poet’s words, “all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well.”

A “Grown Man” at 18
Born January 16, 1980, in the Dominican Republic, Pujols was raised in Santo Domingo by his father Bienvenido, his grandmother America, and 10 aunts and uncles. At 16, he moved with his father and grandmother to New York City and from there to his paternal grandparents in Independence, Missouri, where he played ball for Fort Osage High. At 18, he looked old for his age, so much so that managers often walked him, not just because he hit eight home runs in the 33 at bats he was given (one traveling some 450 feet), but because they thought their pitchers should not have to throw to “a grown man.” In his first and only season with the Maple Woods Community College Wolves, Pujols hit .461 with 22 homers. Despite putting up numbers like that in Kansas City’s backyard, he didn’t interest the Royals or anyone else until the Cardinals claimed him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. He was the 402nd player taken overall. After a year in the minors, the “non-prospect” was the 2001 National League Rookie of the Year, hitting .329 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs.


September 21, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

We do onstage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance to somewhere else.

—from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

When the director Jean-Luc Godard died, an “assisted suicide,” five days after Queen Elizabeth’s monumental passing, I took a YouTube tour of the “most cinematic” images from his work. Accompanied by Georges Delarue’s warm, richly romantic soundtrack for Le mépris /Contempt (1963), the result was an uncharacteristically humane, borderline sentimental memorial for a director who set out to attack “all civilized values” in the 1968 Rolling Stones film One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. Godard’s version of doing “onstage the things that are supposed to happen off” was to punch the film’s English producer in the face onstage at the 1968 London Film Festival.

Stoppard’s Scoop

The onstage/offstage lines are spoken by the one of the players visiting Elsinore in Sir Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press 1967). The notion of the play as a “scoop” came to mind  as I read Maureen Dowd’s September 7 New York Times profile of Stoppard, which opens with the teenage journalist who “loved wearing a mackintosh and flashing his press pass, operating in the spirit of a British contemporary, Nicholas Tomalin, who wrote: ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.’ “

Call it what you will, a coup or a scoop, it took a world of cunning and more than a little literary ability to become the first playwright to claim the untold story between and behind the lines of two of the most fascinating and well-spoken minor characters in Shakespeare (although Gilbert and Sullivan had a shot in 1892 with a farce that ends with Rosencrantz marrying Ophelia). Hamlet’s Wittenberg classmates are clearly on a higher theatrical level than sycophants such as Osric of Elsinore (“Dost know this water-fly?”), who are mercilessly mocked, or slain onstage, like Goneril’s servant Oswald, his last words (“oh untimely death”) recorded for all time in the closing seconds of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.” Besides holding their own bantering with Hamlet as “the indifferent children of the earth” who live in “the secret parts of fortune,” they put in play phrases like “the shadow of a dream” and “a shadow’s shadow” that suggest how much there is to be imagined or discovered offstage. Jump ahead four centuries and Stoppard’s Guildenstern is speaking of the “half-lit, half-alive dawn” wherein a man was “just a hat and a cloak levitating in the  grey plume of his own breath.” more

September 14, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m always collecting things. I don’t consider myself materialistic, but things do make me feel good. Reassured. It’s easier to know them than people, because objects accept you as you are.

—Bette Davis (1908-1989)

The mystery guest at Friday’s Friends and Foundation of the Library Book Sale might say the same for collecting books. Bette Davis’s first husband, Harmon “Oscar” Nelson, knew from experience. The stated reason for the divorce, according to the December 7, 1938 New York Times, was that she “read too much.” Nelson claimed that she read “to an unnecessary degree…. It was all very upsetting.” As for accepting her as she was, it was at his insistence that she had two abortions, which probably saved her career, as she admitted to Charlotte Chandler in the 1980s during interviews for The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography (Simon and Schuster 2006).

When Chandler asked Davis what she thought of the title, based on Groucho Marx’s reason for taking two girls to a party (“Because I hate to see a girl walk home alone”), she said, “Absolutely. I want that title. That’s me. That’s been the story of my life.” The “girl alone” title somewhat softens the image of Davis as the straight-talking cynic who says “What a dump,” as she surveys Joseph Cotton’s apartment in Beyond the Forest (1949) — the additional emphasis added by Elizabeth Taylor, who played Martha to Richard Burton’s George in the film of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966). Bette desperately wanted to play Martha but the two-time Oscar winner who was once Hollywood’s top box office star couldn’t compete with the mid-sixties media magnitude of Dick and Liz. more

September 7, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Although Colm Tóibín is the featured reader in “The News from Dublin,” Friday’s Fund for Irish Studies event, the fact that he’s being introduced by Fintan O’Toole gave me this reading opportunity. For months now, my wife has been urging me to dig into We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright), so last week I took her copy from a small shelf of “keepers” and have been reading it ever since.

Making Connections

Connection is the operative word in We Don’t Know Ourselves. As the author puts it, “The desire for connection was given meaning by the reality that there was still something to connect to, traditions of music and singing and storytelling and language that had their own highly distinctive texture.”

O’Toole makes his first connection in the first sentence of the first chapter, in which wedding photographs of his parents remind him “of a frontier town in an old western.” The film he has in mind is High Noon, where “a respectable wedding” is “threatened by the dangers of a frontier town.”

Why were American westerns “vastly popular in Ireland”? Because “they probably seemed like social realism. In economic terms, Ireland was a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached.” A study on economic development conducted by a New York firm  began with the line, “In the Irish economy, cattle is king.” O’Toole recalls: “In my childhood, it was not unusual to find a stray bullock grazing in the back garden.” His way of bringing everything together to make a point both playful and profound is evident in the conclusion of the chapter, “Comanche Country.” After contrasting the general perception of life in the country (“we were denizens of a no-man’s-land that was barely a place at all”) with the “grittiness and depth of history” in “the old city slums,” he writes: “But we drew our water instantly from taps and made it privately in a little indoor room with the door closed. That didn’t feel like Siberia, or the Wild West or Comanche country. It felt modern.”  more

August 31, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

We do not need Henry V, and he does not need us. Falstaff needs an audience, and never fails to find it.

—Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

King Henry V of England (1386-1422) died on this day, August 31, 600 years ago, and I’m writing about him because Shakespeare found enough in Henry’s sketchy history to create Falstaff and Prince Hal, later Henry of Monmouth, the warrior king immortalized in the 1599 play Henry V, titled The Life of Henry the Fifth in the First Folio.

An “Amiable Monster”

Although noted essayist and critic William Hazlitt  (1778-1830) gives Shakespeare credit for presenting Henry V as “the king of good fellows,” the honor is one he “scarcely deserves.” All we know of Henry, says Hazlitt, is that he was “fond of war and low company,” as well as being “careless, dissolute, and ambitious” and “determined to make war upon his neighbours.” Thus, “because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France.”

Pondering what there is to like about the man, Hazlitt turns again to Shakespeare’s play, where Henry is “a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, … so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry.”

Olivier’s “Henry V”

Hazlitt’s “amiable monster” was redeemed by Laurence Olivier’s performance in his film Henry V, which opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational run in wartime England. Contrary to Hazlitt’s Henry declaring his resolution to bend France “to his awe, or break it all to pieces,” Olivier’s Henry declares his affection for Catherine of Valois in a spirited bilingual love scene. When Olivier was advised to film the picture in “battledress,” he said, “No, it’s got to be beautiful.” And it was. Reviewing the film in Time, James Agee called it one of the movies’ “rare great works of art,” brought to the screen “with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday.” more

August 24, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Balzac, of course, had said it all before.
—from Dividing Paris

On August 18, 1850, Honoré de Balzac died in “the very pretty little house” he’d made for himself in the portion of a mansion that had “escaped demolition.” Victor Hugo’s description of Balzac’s last residence could have come from the pages of Esther da Costa Meyer’s Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality: 1852-1870 (Princeton University Press), where demolition is a fact of life.

Squalor and Splendor
The first reference to a specific work by Balzac in Dividing Paris concerns an area “vividly described” in Cousine Bette (1846), a section of the city “wiped out” so that Napoleon III’s prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann “could build the Boulevard Malesherbes.”

Curious to read the passage mentioned, I found the most likely suspect 60 pages into my copy of the 1965 Penguin edition, in which Balzac describes a “conglomeration of houses … with decayed façades, … all that remains of an old quarter, in process of demolition since the day when Napoleon decided to complete the Louvre.” It’s “a sombre and deserted block, inhabited presumably by ghosts,” the houses “wrapped in the perpetual shadow cast by the high galleries of the Louvre, blackened on this side by the north wind.” What Balzac refers to as “these so-called dwellings” are “bounded by a swamp on the rue de Richelieu side, a sea of jostling broken paving stones towards the Tuileries, small plots and sinister hovels facing the galleries, and steppes of dressed stone and half-demolished ruins by the old Louvre.” In the spirit of Rabelais, Balzac imagines that “for nearly forty years the Louvre has been crying from the open mouths of all the gashed walls, the gaping windows, ‘Strike these excrescences from my face!’”


August 17, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Instructions for living a life:
   Pay attention.
   Be astonished.
   Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

When I saw Mary Oliver’s “Instructions” chalked on a stone bench in Princeton’s Marquand Park the other day, I was thinking about the signed copy of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987) offered for sale at next month’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

What could be less astonishing than a 35-year-old ghostwritten bestseller by the former president? The only thing really worth paying attention to and telling about is that copies in the same or lesser condition as the library’s are selling online for $18,000 to $45,000. But when you think of it, isn’t the lure of large library book sales the possibility of being astonished? You go in hoping that the book of your wildest dreams will turn up, and sometimes it does. Or, better still, you find a treasure you didn’t even know you were looking for, which happened to me when I embarked on this column about a book I have no interest in. Rather than devote an entire article to The Art of the Deal, I thought of something my wife and I have been binging on, an astonishing television series about the Vikings, where I discovered, incredibly enough, a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot.  more

August 10, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

When I think about the people who have questioned my mother’s choice to have me the way she did, or the people who have asked me if I was ever angry with her, it’s easier than ever to answer no, rejecting the antiquated assumption that a real father is a necessary element in a real family.

—Nabil Ayers, from My Life in the Sunshine

Today I’m writing about three admirable single mothers I found in the memoirs of a president and two musicians. If you look online for novels or stories with a single mother as heroine, you’ll find depressing results, with cover images often featuring men out of Harlequin Romance fantasies.

I tried upping the word-choice ante to single mother protagonists in classic literature and came up with the likes of Medea and Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Without doing any research on the subject, my first thought is of Eliza fleeing across the icy river with her infant son in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — which seems a fitting analogy for women dealing with a post Roe v. Wade reality.


In Dreams from My Father (1995), Barack Obama recalls going with his mother Ann and half-sister Maya to the film Black Orpheus, which Ann saw when she was 16, her first foreign movie and, as she told her children, “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen. Obama found the film patronizing, with its “black and brown Brazilians” singing and dancing “like carefree birds in colorful plumage,” but when he looked over at his mother, he was touched by the sight of her wistful face “lit by the blue glow of the screen.” In that moment he felt as if he were “being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth,” a white middle-class girl from Kansas waking to  the promise of another world: “warm, sensual, exotic, different” — where she would meet, marry, and bear the child of an exchange student from Kenya.

The former president celebrated his 61st birthday last week by naming a new installation at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago the Ann Dunham Water Garden. In a release, he pictures his mother, who died in 1995, “sitting on one of the benches on a nice summer afternoon, smiling and watching a bunch of kids running through the fountain,” which he thought “would capture who she was as well as just about anything else.” more

August 3, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

…nothing will cut New York but a diamond. It should be crystal in quality, sharp as the skyline and relentlessly true.

—Dawn Powell (1896-1965), from The Diaries

When Dawn Powell invited me to lunch, I had no idea that she was the author of a dozen novels. All I knew was that she’d just reviewed my first book in the New York Post under the head “Young But Not Beat.” I was 20. She was around 60. It wasn’t until the 1990s that her work would be revived by Tim Page, a heroic, obsessively devoted enthusiast, with help from Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, and, eventually, The Library of America.

At lunch that day, the real novelist at the table never said a word about herself or her work. She was wise, witty, and fun. We were dining in what was to me an intimidatingly classy French restaurant in midtown called L’Aiglon. I’d already been interviewed at the Algonquin and the Russian Tea Room, but this wasn’t an interview, this was a lunch date, and my experience with dates at French restaurants had not been happy. On both occasions, one in Paris the previous summer, I’d taken girls who knew more about wine and French cuisine than I did. There were embarrassing moments. 

In Tim Page’s edition of The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 (Steerforth Press 1995), where our luncheon is briefly noted, I’m “a bright, alert lad” who “knew Classic Comics by heart at age of 10.” Such was my contribution to the conversation. Nothing of my excitement about the novel I was writing in a top-floor room at the Players Club or about my Midwesterner’s love for New York, which, as it turns out, I shared with her. I could have talked about how, despite my heavy-handed trashing of the Beats, I loved On the Road, but I was tongue-tied. She’d actually liked my travesties of Ginsberg, my “excellent beat poems are fresh and vivid.” I already knew paragraphs of her review by heart, like the one about how the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wild orgies on beer, and romantic dreams “would be almost too juvenile” except for the way I grew up with my novel “until at the end you see a young, rich talent come into bloom.” I was “a young man of feeling with an eagerness for experience” — and the best I could do was talk about knowing Classic Comics by heart when I was 10? more

July 27, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

—The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”

And here comes the air-conditioning. I’ve already got the ceiling fan going. We’ve had central air for 30 years now and we never take it for granted. I spent nine summers in New York without it. In the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” the back of your neck gets “dirty and gritty,” and “people looking half dead” are walking on a sidewalk “hotter than a match head.” The song says it’s a pity that city days can’t be like city nights, dancing away the heat. I say day or night, New York was never more grittily, intimately, crazily itself than in the hot, humid core of an un-airconditioned summer of reading and sweating, breathing it all in because it was part of being one with the city. And in your teens and early twenties New York summer nights were fine for walking down Greenwich Avenue for a midnight hamburger at the White Tower or all the way up Seventh or Sixth Avenue to wander around Times Square feeling the flash and crackle of the big signs, the back of your neck not hot and gritty but cool and sweaty damp, standing outside the Metropole watching Cozy Cole and his band blowing the blues away on the stand behind the bar.

Reading City Heat

Summer afternoons reading Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger, pairing heat and fiction, I merged my sweet, sweltering city with the mid-1920s New York summer of The Great Gatsby, which I first read in a muggy second-floor room with windows open on Waverly Place. Jay Gatsby comes across cool and freshly conceived in contrast to the “deep summer” of the central chapter, where after referring to how in “this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life,” Fitzgerald offers a “room, shadowed well with awnings, … dark and cool,” where “Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.”

Years later in the front room of a second-floor brownstone oven on West 87th, when I wasn’t watching kids on the street below at play in the gush of the open fire hydrant, I was living in the post-war Manhattan summer of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, where “the heat of the afternoon was, to say the least, oppressive,” as the cab carrying the missing groom’s brother Buddy Glass and the chain-smoking Matron of Honor (“I’m so hot I could die!”) moved west, “directly, as it were, into the open furnace of the late-afternoon sky.”  more

July 20, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us. Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.

–Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

Pointing out how “the strong selves” of Jane Austen’s heroines attest to her “reserves of power,” Bloom imagines that “had she not died so soon, she would have been capable of creating a Shakespearean diversity of persons, despite her narrowly limited social range of representation.”

Austen (1775-1817) died in Winchester 205 years ago Monday, July 18. Two years later, in August 1819, John Keats (1795-1821) arrived in that “exceeding pleasant town,” where he took daily walks, admired “the beauty of the season,” took advantage of the library, and composed “To Autumn,” his “perfect poem,” according to Harold Bloom, and the “most perfect shorter poem in the English language.” In the introduction to Bloom’s updated Modern Critical Views edition of Keats (Chelsea House, 2007), he finds the poem’s “definitive vision” all the more “remarkable for the faint presence of the shadows of the poet’s hell that the poem tries to exclude.”  more

July 13, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Half a year into his presidency, on July 2, 1961, John F. Kennedy released a statement on the death of Ernest Hemingway. After mentioning the Nobel Prize-winning author’s “impact on the emotions and attitudes of the American people” and how he had “almost singlehandedly transformed the literature and the ways of thought of men and women in every country in the world,” Kennedy declared that Hemingway “ended his life as he began it — in the heartland of America to which he brought renown and from which he drew his art.” 

The connection between Hemingway and Kennedy is sealed not only by the presence of the writer’s papers and effects at the Kennedy Presidential Library but by the fact that both men died of gun shots to the head, the writer by his own hand, the president less than three years later by the hand of an assassin.

Why This Image?

The first time I saw the cover of Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts from a Life (Scribner 2018), I wanted to put it aside, out of sight. It troubled me, made me uneasy, the underlying question being not what did this man create but what happened to him? Instead of a more characteristic photograph that makes you think of his best work, you’re met with a strikingly uncharacteristic, undated, uncredited photograph that appears to come from the 1930s when he  was actually on his way to fame and fortune, having already produced the first stories, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms.

Given what you know and value of Hemingway at his best, the more you see of this deeply unhappy face, the more it moves you. What is he trying to say? What is he afraid of? Who or what is he mourning? That baleful stare won’t let you go, there’s no denying it, no looking away. Round and round you go asking  yourself unanswerable questions until you feel like Nick Adams at the end of “The Killers,” fretting over the impending fate of a doomed man and being told “You better not think about it.”


July 6, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the widely acclaimed last track on Bob Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, sent me back to the New York chapter of his memoir Chronicles (2004).

Titled “The Lost Land,” the chapter ends in a Greenwich Village coffee shop where “the waitress at the lunch counter wore a close-fitting suede blouse” that “outlined the well-rounded lines of her body. She had blue-black hair and piercing blue eyes, clear stenciled eyebrows. I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me. She poured the steaming coffee and I turned back towards the street window. The whole city was dangling in front of my nose.” Dylan’s sudden, seemingly impulsive reference to the rose is a whimsical touch of style, like a tip of the derby from Chaplin’s tramp, and the rhyming of rose and nose suggests a song in the making he knows is out there waiting to be found and finished: “I had a vivid idea where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about.” The last word of the chapter’s boyish, wide-eyed last sentence  completes the rhyme: “It was awfully close.”

I think of the waitress and the rose whenever I hear songs like “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” or lines from “Key West” like “Fly around my Pretty Little Miss / I don’t love nobody — gimme a kiss.” Or “Make me invisible, like the wind” from “Mother of Muses.”

“Feeling Wondrous”

Another place “Key West” sent me was Van Morrison’s Belfast, an easy move along the glowing dial from station WBD to WVAN, from the philosopher pirate searching for “love and inspiration” on that pirate radio station to the kid growing up on Hyndford Street, where you “could feel the silence on long summer nights as the wireless played Radio Luxembourg, jazz and blues,” which leaves you “feeling wondrous and lit up inside with a sense of everlasting life.”  more

June 29, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

The ‘watering down,’ if any, did not come from my aspergillum.

—Vladimir Nabokov, in the Playboy interview

Who else but a high priest of language could anoint the tired old term “watered down” with an implement for sprinkling holy water? Would the average Playboy reader of January 1964 reach for the nearest dictionary or keep reading? In the easy access world of June 2022, I unmasked the elusive aspergillum with a click of an iMac mouse.

This was Nabokov’s way of elaborately denying responsibility for “watering down” the central relationship in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Lolita (1962), the novel’s 12-year-old nymphet having been transformed into a 15-year-old blonde who looked 17. Asked if he was satisfied with the final product, Nabokov deemed the movie “absolutely first-rate,” adding that the “four main actors deserve the very highest praise,” and pointing out that he’d had “nothing to do with the actual production.” more

June 22, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“Garland’s rendition of this marvelous torch-song, in its visual and vocal subtlety and dynamic power, is the greatest piece of popular singing I know.”

—Douglas McVay, from The Musical Film

If there’s a torch in “The Man That Got Away,” which Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin composed expressly for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, it’s the one she carries up the mountain of the performance, and you go with her. She’s giving everything she has to the song, pushing aside invisible obstacles, then beckoning to the nearest musician, as if to call him up beside her, but then pushing him away, suddenly reaching for the heavens with her right arm to sing “It’s all a crazy game!” By then her voice is everywhere and everything and “game” could stand for life, death, art, love. But you’re up there with her, you who gloomed into the theater, a zombie at 22, alone in New York after a traumatic summer. In the span of a few minutes, she’s changed the world, you’re alive again, and you feel like shouting your thanks. By all rights the people around you should be standing, cheering, but it’s just you and her, you’re hers, and an hour or so later, you stagger out of the movie into the night thinking Judy Garland Judy Garland Judy Garland. The film you just saw is seven years old. You’ve seen a revival. That’s what they call it, you think, you who have been revived.

Time magazine called A Star Is Born “just about the finest one-woman show in movie history,” while Sight and Sound’s Penelope Houston found “the special fascination of Judy Garland’s playing” in “the way it somehow contrives to bypass technique: the control seems a little less than complete and the emotion comes through, as it were, neat. In this incandescent performance, the actress seems to be playing on her nerves; she cannot but strike at ours.”

After giving A Star Is Born almost 20 pages of his 164-page survey of the American musical from 1927 to 1966, McVay makes a prodigious apology: “I have dwelt on this film at such length because I consider it to be not only clearly the greatest musical picture I have ever seen, but the greatest picture of any kind I have ever seen” The level of praise reflects the critical excitement the film received on its release in September 1954. Within a month, however, the Warner executives made drastic cuts in the running time, thus, as McVay admits, the greatest picture he ever saw was the version from which 45 minutes had been deleted, the same one that viewers, myself included, had to make do with until the 1983 restoration.  more