Elijah Wald – Book Reviews
[Home] [Bio] [Jelly Roll Blues] [Robert Johnson] [Dave Van Ronk] [Narcocorrido] [Dylan Goes Electric] [Beatles/Pop book] [The Dozens] [Josh White] [Hitchhiking] [The Blues] [Other writing] [Musical projects] [Joseph Spence]
Eric Nisenson, known for his biographies of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, is out to prevent the murder of his true love. His love is, of course, jazz; the crime scene is Lincoln Center; the murderer (with many accomplices) is Wynton Marsalis, musical pawn of the evil masterminds Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch.
That is slightly overstated, but then so is a good deal of Nisenson's book. This is not necessarily a shortcoming. An impassioned polemic, if it is well argued, can be an invigorating thing. It makes one reassess old views and consider alternative positions.
Nisenson looks at a jazz scene that, while getting more attention than it has in years, is to a great extent sterile and directionless. He wonders if jazz will survive the century and suggests that, if it does not, the youthful "neo-classicist'' movement led by Marsalis will be largely responsible.
Nisenson's contention is that the essence of jazz is improvisatory expression of one's self and one's time. Thus, classicism is contrary to the spirit of the music; the past can be mined for technique and guidance, but one cannot recreate it. In his mind it is criminal to declare older styles to be the "true" jazz, cutting off later innovators, even if the older styles include virtually all of both his and Marsalis's favorite artists, and the innovators play electric jazz-rock fusion, about much of which he has mixed feelings.
Marsalis's Lincoln Center series, which has celebrated jazz from Louis Armstrong to hard bop, is to Nisenson doubly guilty. First, it is a "museum'' full of false exhibits; the music presented is not fresh and self-expressive, and freshness and self-expression, rather than the notes played, were what defined the classic jazz styles. Second, it has essentially written white musicians out of jazz history.
Neither of these are new accusations. Miles Davis famously dismissed the neo-classicists with the comment, "Didn't we do it good the first time?'' As for Marsalis's exclusion of white figures from the Lincoln Center pantheon, while it is to a great extent understandable in the light of past abuses, it has drawn fire from musicians and historians alike. The idea, variously suggested by Crouch and Murray, that only African-Americans can have the true jazz feel denies a history that has included quite a few important white figures (Nisenson would start with Bix Beiderbeck and Bill Evans).
These disputes may seem esoteric, but fortunately Nisenson's book is not only a polemic but also a passionately written guide to the evolution of jazz. While his passions carry him away at times, causing sentences to stumble and grammar to disappear (his editor was either on vacation or got swept away in the flood), he has produced a singularly gripping history. It is not objective, but it is exciting, and makes one want to go back and check his observations.
Such checking will reveal flaws. Nisenson is a lover first, a balanced historian second. When he likes a revivalist record (e.g. Gerry Mulligan's recreation of "The Birth of the Cool''), it proves the power of the original music; when he dislikes one, it proves the impossibility of jazz revivalism. When he argues that the "greats'' have always been open to innovation, he ignores the diatribes Armstrong launched against the boppers or myriad bop masters launched against Coleman. And, whatever Marsalis's faults, it is misleading to keep likening the young, black neo-classicists to white good-time bands like the Dukes of Dixieland.
Furthermore, his fervent equation of jazz with "freedom'' blinds him to the fact that many of his arguments are more general: classicism has stifled innovation and self-expression in "classical" music as well, making it safe and comfortable. Jazz's position, while not identical, is not altogether different; the fact that Marsalis has brought a large African-American audience back to jazz may be simply a sign of the growing black middle class adopting a similarly respectable and unchallenging concert life.
Then, there is his complete failure to acknowledge the young players who have tried to follow his prescriptions. He says that jazz musicians must attempt to play the music of their time, even at the risk of artistic failure. Yet Branford Marsalis is treated only as a minor clone of his conservative brother, though as leader of Buckshot LeFonque, a hip-hop jazz band, he is doing exactly that. Street revolutionaries like New Orleans's Soul Rebels are ignored, while Nisenson searches as far as Scandinavia and North Africa for a viable jazz future.
Nisenson makes many strong points, though, and raises important questions. When he was growing up in the 1950s, jazz was his salvation in a way that would be unlikely today. His book reminds the reader of the way the music once expressed and affected the life and times of both its players and listeners, and of what will be lost if it becomes simply a respectable "art" music. He does not provide a solution, but even his critics will find this a provocative and often eloquent manifesto.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of books on blues, including histories, biographies, discographies, and psychological, poetic, musical and sociological studies. However, there have been only three autobiographies of early blues musicians: Big Bill Broonzy's fascinating but thoroughly unreliable "Big Bill Blues,'' an "as told to'' book by the Texas sharecropper Mance Lipscomb, and now the memoirs of David (Honeyboy) Edwards.
Of the three, Edwards' makes the most central contribution to blues history. Born in 1915, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, he was present for some of the most significant events in American music, and knew many of the central players. His memory for names, dates, and minor biographical details of the people he met is incredible, and he is an engaging and entertaining narrator.
In the first pages, which give some general background and family history, it seems as if Janis Martinson has been overly faithful to Edwards' speech patterns, sacrificing literary flow for transcriptional integrity. Soon, though, Edwards is telling stories, and the flow of his speech is a perfect vehicle. Clearly, a lot of editing went into making this a cohesive narrative, but it was beautifully done. The chapters sort his life and experiences, staying chronological when possible, but not to the detriment of the larger picture being given. The totality is not simply a lot of interesting conversation, but a real book.
Edwards was among the last generation of acoustic bluesmen, palling around with contemporaries like Tommy McLennan and Robert Johnson, and becoming an important partner of two legendary harmonica players, Big Walter Horton, who would record with him in later years, and Little Walter Jacobs, who came to Chicago as Edwards' protege before making his classic sides with Muddy Waters.
Edwards himself made no commercial recordings in his early years, though he did make some wonderful sides for the Library of Congress in 1942. He expresses regret for this, but explains that he was simply traveling too much to be found. He was a hobo, hopping freight trains and hitch-hiking around the deep south. Also, like Jelly Roll Morton, he says that he was as much a gambler as a musician. Between musical stories, he tells gleeful tales of cheating the rubes. The stories are not exactly admirable, as when Edwards meets a country boy who just sold his grandmother's cows for $200, and promptly gets him drunk, then wins all but $20 and sends him packing.
Edwards is not making any claims as a moralist, though, and his candor is refreshing. As he tells it, he had a fine old time, avoiding manual labor whenever possible and living a life of gambling, music, alcohol, and a plethora of female companions. There are also stories of mayhem, jail, racism, and hard traveling, but Edwards is clear that the balance was in his favor, and there is nothing he would change. He winds up many a story with the book's satisfied title phrase: "The world don't owe me nothing."
Edwards gives little insight into his thoughts or feelings, preferring to provide anecdotes of his travels and the music world. Because of this, there are portions of the book that will be more interesting to country blues fans than to casual readers. Edwards was a student of the music, and he sought out and learned from many of the greats, including Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, and the revolving group of players who made up the Memphis Jug Band. People unfamiliar with early blues may at times feel lost in the flood of strange names. Fortunately, the book includes an excellent biographical appendix covering all the named players, as well as a useful glossary of local terms.
Edwards has less to say about his later years, when he was settled in Chicago. He continued to do some playing around the local bars, but had decided to settle down some. After a life of "hustling,'' he had married (at first, his wife traveled with him, and it was in fact she who got the aforementioned country boy drunk), had a daughter, and he now relaxed into day jobs as a machine operator and construction worker.
In the 1970s, Edwards found his career revived by a new audience of young blues acolytes, and he began to tour Europe and Japan. Today, he is, along with Robert Jr. Lockwood, the last of the old Delta players still on the road, providing modern listeners with a link to one of the most fertile periods and places in recorded musical history. Good as his music is, though, it is with this book that he stakes out a unique place in the blues pantheon. Though not as personal or moving as the Lipscomb book, it is far more central to the story of the music's evolution, and takes its place as the best primary document of the Mississippi blues' golden age.
Douglas Hofstadter is best known for "Godel, Escher, Bach," a book that mixed biography, meditations on modern computer technology, and a writing style that tried to mirror the complexities of fugues and optical illusions. Since then, he has written a number of thinner volumes, but "Le Ton beau de Marot'' is his first try at another major work.
The book was sparked by Hofstadter's attempts to translate a short poem by a 16th century French poet, Clement Marot, and it contains over 70 examples of his and other people's translations and reworkings of that piece. It also includes all sorts of quirky word games (puns, anagrams, a chapter written entirely in anapestic tetrameter, an extended section written without a single use of the letter e) combined with an almost pathological devotion to form (Hofstadter worked out his page-lengths in advance, and wrote just enough text so that none of his included poems or quotations spill over from one page onto the next).
To Hofstadter, the game-playing is there to make a point. He is in love with form, and believes in the inspirational power of working within tight, predefined limits as an antidote to intellectual laziness. An amateur linguist, he details with pleasure the problems that have come up as "Godel, Escher, Bach"s intricate games were translated into French, German and Chinese, and the solutions he and his translators found. Looking at the work of other translators, he is often horrified at their willingness to throw form out the window, preserving content but losing the very thing which might have made the original work so special. He believes that, with sufficient effort, almost any work can be translated in such a way that both form and content are preserved.
He also believes a lot of other things, most of them vehemently. One of the pleasures of reading Hofstadter's book is that he writes directly, brightly, and with an emotional fervor that matches his linguistic virtuosity. Exploring the idea of translation, he pokes into all sorts of surprising nooks and crannies, stopping along the way to take pot-shots at his pet hates (rock music, obscure verse) and to introduce favorite characters. He devotes pages to Raymond Queneau's "Exercise de Style,'' a retelling of the same story 99 different ways, to a short story by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, and to multiple translations of Dante's "Inferno'' and Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin'' (the latter with a side-trip to savage Vladimir Nabokov's savaging of other translators).
Mixed in with all this is a good deal of autobiography, and elegiac revisitings of moments with his wife Carol, whose sudden death from a brain tumor inspired some of his deeper musings. And a long discussion of Artificial Intelligence and the question of whether computers can, will, or ever should "think.'' And all sorts of other stuff.
Indeed, there is so much jumping around that, were he not such an engaging writer, Hofstadter would wear out a reader's patience long before page 600. That he does not is a victory, and proves one of his principle points: that a mastery of form and an acrobatic skill with language are marvelous things.
But is art, with a small "a,'' Art? There is a hole at the middle of Hofstadter's book, exemplified by his "transformation'' of a little verse by Piet Hein. Hein wrote, "There is/one art,/no more,/no less:/to do/all things/with art-/lessness.'' Hofstadter translated this into German, French and Italian, then produced this English variant: "One art/there is,/no less,/no more:/all things/to do/with sparks/galore.''
Sparks galore are indeed to be found in Hofstadter's work, but after a while he begins to seem like a very bright, energetic kid, constantly yelling "Hey, look at me!'' He has the hubris of the scientist among artists, scattering brilliant sallies hither and yon without making sure that they add up. He constantly creates and demolishes straw men (to demonstrate the flaws of literal translation, he gives a French verse mnemonic for the number pi, and an English translation that no longer works mathematically), and runs off on interesting tangents that never really lead anywhere.
Further, when he applauds the quotation, "writing blank verse is like playing tennis without a net,'' one cannot help thinking his approval comes in part from the fact that, for him, poetry is very much a game, like tennis. One gets the idea that, while he might grant some value to Hamlet's soliloquy, he would like it more if it rhymed and the first letters of the lines formed a clever anagram. As a result, his own translations are often entertaining, but pretty lousy poetry. He believes that intricate rhyming is in itself an art, but his work proves the limitations of this credo.
Still, if Hofstadter's book often lacks depth, it is never dull. Ideas fly by at an exhilarating pace and, if some are silly, all are presented with a verve that is all too rare in works dealing with complex and arcane subjects. Hofstadter is no Borges or Nabokov, but he is one of the most engaging dilettantes around and, if this is nothing more than the best intellectual beach book of the year, that is no small accomplishment.
Stephen Foster is the father of American popular songwriting, progenitor of Berlin, Kern, Gershwin and all the other composers and lyricists who dominated the field until the rock 'n' roll revolution. It is therefore somewhat odd that his name in recent years has been linked so consistently with issues of racism, to the exclusion of other considerations. Gershwin's reputation has not been forever scarred by the stereotypes of "Porgy and Bess,'' or Kern's by the dialect of "Old Man River.'' Foster, though, often seems to be uniquely remembered as a romanticizer of happy days down on the old plantation.
This new biography traces Foster's life and work, and makes some attempt to place it in a historical and cultural context. In his introduction, Ken Emerson, an editor of the New York Times Magazine, considers the way that black-face minstrelsy presaged all the later appropriations of black music by white stars, from Berlin to Elvis Presley and beyond. As he writes, "Burnt cork [a standard substance for face-blacking] is as up-to-the-minute as The New Kids on the Block, Vanilla Ice or Ted Danson at the Friars Club.''
Emerson also explores the way Foster's melodies have often managed to transcend the blackface stigma, being embraced by everyone from African-American minstrel stars to Antonin Dvorak to Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. Then, in the early chapters of his book, he looks at their varied roots, demonstrating that Foster's songs of homesickness for the old plantation are directly adapted from a vogue for Irish-American songs of longing for the Emerald Isle.
Indeed, one of the most useful things about this book is the way it succeeds in placing Foster's work within the context of its musical era. Foster was a popular songwriter, producing the songs that the public, or the contemporary stars, demanded. While minstrel songs like "Oh, Susannah,'' "Camptown Races,'' and "Old Folks at Home'' provided his biggest hits, they accounted for less than half of his compositions. His ouevre is full of immenently forgettable laments for dead children and sweethearts, rich in pseudo-operatic melodies and thick with Victorian sentimentality.
Foster did not invent this style, by any means, but he was among the first Americans to challenge the dominance of parlor song by British songwriters like Thomas Moore and Henry Russell. Emerson traces Foster's debt to these artists, then goes on to trace the rise of minstrelsy. Here, again, he does a fine job, exploring the inherent racism of the genre, but also its varied sources and its importance as a root of all later American musical theater, from vaudeville to Broadway. He knows the field well, and draws helpful parallels, as when he compares Dan Emmett, the first minstrel star, and his smoother follower, E.P. Christy, to the rock 'n' roll era's raucous Alan Freed and slick Dick Clark.
It was in the 1850s, as contract songwriter for Christy's Minstrels, that Foster had his greatest success. From his home in Pittsburgh, he made up wild comic scenarios of a Southern black life he had never seen, and Christy featured them in the most popular touring group of its kind. In the process, according to Emerson, Foster became the first American songwriter ever to make a living simply by his writing. He received only a modest payment from Christy, but thousands of dollars from royalties on sheet music sales, protected by a recent amendment to the copyright laws that brought songs under their protection.
In those days, every home that could afford one had a piano, and the daughters of the household were expected to become at least limitedly proficient on it. Foster churned out light piano pieces and lachrymose songs of love and longing for this parlor market and, while they never brought in the money that the minstrel hits did, it seems that these were often the songs closest to his own, resolutely middle class, heart.
Emerson tries as best he can to plumb the depths of that heart, but his psychologizing is far shakier than his history. He wildly over-interprets Foster's songs as clues to his feelings, insisting on equating the "massa'' of the minstrel songs with Foster's father, or writing that, as Foster was still living at home with his family when he wrote of being "far from the old folks at home,'' he was "imagining (guiltily, no doubt) the imminent deaths of his parents.'' The anachronistic psychobabble extends to juxtaposing "feminine'' question marks with "phallic'' exclamation points, and referring to Foster as in "denial'' because he never wrote a song about Pittsburgh.
The fact is, Foster was a pro, and by and large his songs were driven by the demands not of his heart but of the market. Unfortunately, he was unable to keep up with changing times and the later portion of this book depressingly details his ever more convoluted financial meanderings and final slide into drink and poverty. For some reason, once Foster's heyday is past, Emerson virtually ignores the larger society and concentrates single-mindedly on this personal decline, and the book becomes proportionately less interesting.
Indeed, Emerson does not finish the book he began. The excitement and wide-reaching approach promised by the introduction gradually melt away, until the Afterward traces nothing but the later lives of Foster's children and some other previously visited characters, and the eventual slipping of Foster's song rights into the public domain. Considering Foster's importance in American culture, and the size of the issues raised earlier, one wishes Emerson had kept his eyes on the big picture till the end. Nonetheless, this is a provocative and informative book, and gives Foster a far more thoughtful and informed evaluation than he has usually received.
These days, when America's political center has moved so far right
that "left'' is virtually synonymous with "liberal,''
it is hard to remember that America once had a genuine, and powerful,
left. One of the most startling facts in Michael Denning's new book
is tossed in quite off-handedly: that a "Fortune'' magazine
poll in 1942 found that 25 per cent of Americans considered themselves
"socialist'' and another 35 were open-minded about socialism.
Denning's book is an attempt to change that, and to show the profound and enduring effect leftist thinking had on the formation of contemporary American culture. With that in mind, he has concentrated not on the usual suspects, the artists, musicians and writers who were clearly affiliated with the Communist Party, but instead on figures like Orson Welles, Billie Holiday and John Dos Passos, on the Broadway musical "Pins and Needles" and the 1941 strike of Walt Disney cartoonists.
His point is that there was once a shared left-wing culture, which has been obscured by all the debates about who was or was not a Party member, or which organizations were "Communist fronts.'' During the red scare everyone was forced to choose up sides, and the bitter factionalism led them to forget what life had been like before the HUAC show trials. In earlier times, Denning argues, Communists, socialists, and New Deal Democrats, whatever their disagreements, were all by and large reading the same books and magazines, seeing the same plays and movies, and listening to the same music.
The Depression had created a shared working-class identity. Americans were aware, as never before or since, that the monied powers, the business leaders and corporations, did not have their interests at heart. It was the era of the C.I.O., unionizing both skilled and unskilled workers, and of support for the international struggle against fascism, first in Spain and then throughout Europe.
With these struggles came new shared beliefs, replacing the pioneer myths of the 19th century with ideals of building a fair society for the "common man.'' Like another young leftist historian, Maurice Isserman, Denning argues that the "Popular Front'' that flourished in the 1930s and during World War II was not simply a cynical Communist maneuver, but an American reality. The "cultural front'' he documents was not an organized project, but the artistic expression of beliefs shared by a significant mass of Americans. It included everything from novels of immigrant assimilation and labor struggles to the W.P.A. murals and guides, the adoption of jazz as concert music, and that war movie cliche, the battalion of hyphenated-Americans fighting side by side.
Denning has a valuable case to make, and makes it well. Unfortunately, he is covering ground that has been largely ignored, and keeps getting sidetracked by the wish to revive and reassess forgotten or misinterpreted works. These side trips, while interesting and worthwhile in their own way, overwhelm and distract the reader from the book's central argument. The section on Dos Passos's "U.S.A.,'' for example, goes on for dozens of pages after making its relevant point, that while the trilogy did not come out of the Popular Front, it "became the master narrative...for [that] generation.''
For readers who are not already familiar with the period he covers, this makes Denning's book rather unwieldy, while leaving a great deal unexplained. Because he devotes so much attention to the less familiar leftist cultural contributions, he slights the more familiar ones: the folk-song movement, the plays of Clifford Odets, and the work of Paul Robeson.
Clearly, Denning concentrates on people like Holiday because they are not usually remembered as political figures and he wants to correct this. Nonetheless, it is frustrating to read in passing that her co-workers Teddy Wilson and Hazel Scott were far more ideologically committed, but to have no exploration of their work, while the case for Holiday's political impact is made at length without being totally convincing.
Nonetheless, Denning's scholarship is impressive and, despite the digressions, he succeeds in making his point: The obvious agit-prop of the C.I.O. era was only the tip of an iceberg of socially-concious art, and the self-conscious blending of high-culture ideals and proletarian realities had an effect that profoundly changed American arts and entertainment. His book is not light reading, but it is rewarding, acquainting the reader with forgotten works and figures, and providing fresh insights on a key period in American cultural history.
Nicholas Dawidoff's paean to classic country music is an oddly satisfying book. Odd, because it slights its declared central theme and has many minor flaws, and yet gets so much right that this hardly matters.
Dawidoff is a reporter with a mission. Like many longtime country fans, he is bothered that, even as country music is selling more records than ever before, the heart and soul of the music are getting lost. The chart-topping "hat acts'' all pay lip service to their predecessors, but what success Johnny Cash is having comes largely on the alternative rock scene, and all-star tributes to Merle Haggard make the charts while Haggard's own releases are overlooked. Dawidoff set out to expose the roots that have traditionally nourished country music, and to show the depth and strength of the music at its best.
His idea was to visit country legends in their homes, go back to the scenes of their childhoods, and show how the music was connected to the lives of its exponents and of their audiences. His narrative wanders across the United States, to the mountain birthplace of the Carter Family, the musically fertile flatlands of the Texas Panhandle, Buck Owens's spruce office in Bakersfield, California, and the Nashville bar where Harlan Howard holds court among the cream of country songwriters.
Dawidoff obviously believed that this journey would take him to the source of the music, but his book rarely backs up this hypothesis. Indeed, he gives surprisingly little sense of the places he visits, and almost never ties them in any convincing way to the meat of his story. His brief descriptions are no more than the detail that might be given to add body to any interview, and rarely connect as sources of musical inspiration. In most cases, one could switch performers and locations, and the feel of the profiles would remain pretty much the same.
If he fails in conveying this explicit connection, however, Dawidoff has by no means wasted his time and travel. Clearly, whatever he may pass on to us, he profited from seeing the performers in their native habitat. It gave him insight into their lives, and the performers were more relaxed and open than they might have been had he caught them on the road. There are so many automatic areas of overlap in the lives of touring country stars that it is easy to let their stories flow together. Here, each portrait is distinct and one gets a rich sense of the way in which the differences in personality informed each artist's musical approach.
Dawidoff is a somewhat distracting writer, often using words in ways that are slightly off kilter, and veering into outright malapropism when he refers to Patsy Cline's "artesian'' phrasing or Emmylou Harris's "soigne(GET ACCENT).'' Fortunately, he balances these quirks with a rare gift for describing music. His analysis of George Jones's vocal phrasing follows every swoop and curve of Jones's ornate style, showing how the technical mastery is used to create an emotional impact. He also has a flair for analogy, as when he compares the interaction of Bill Monroe's mandolin with Earl Scruggs's banjo and Chubby Wise's fiddle on "Bluegrass Breakdown'' with "a bird being pursued by a pair of quick, eager dogs.''
The descriptions do not stop at the surface of the music. This is a book about the sources of country's greatness, and those are to be found in the music's emotional power and its connection to the lives of the listeners, rather than in its technical brilliance. While there are portraits of a songwriter, Harlan Howard, and two seminal instrumentalists, Chet Atkins and Earl Scruggs, this is a book about singers, and that is as it should be. As with any rural soul music, from blues to flamenco, the instrumental prowess and clean songwriting of the best country performances are only there to frame the vocals: Cash's primeval rumble, Jimmie Rodgers's soaring yodel, the Louvin Brothers' impeccable harmonies, or Rose Maddox's raw shout.
There are fuller histories of country music, and Dawidoff sometimes slips up on the details (Jean Ritchie does not play hammer dulcimer; Monroe was producing the Stanley Brothers at a time he describes them as implaccable rivals), but there is no book that better conveys the spirit and passion that informs the music at its best. He has chosen his main characters well, including both jukebox stars and quieter figures like Doc Watson and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He is not blinded by stardom, highlighting Emmylou Harris's unique skill as a harmony singer over her abilities as a soloist, and giving Kitty Wells and Sara Carter equal space with Patsy Cline.
Most important, he loves the music because it touches him, and he explores that emotional connection and brings it home to the reader. Dawidoff cares about the people in this book, and makes us care. We may not like all of them, but that is beside the point. Country music, at its best, feels like a direct communication from the singer to the listener, and these profiles have that same direct feel. Even longtime fans will come away knowing the artists better, and for newcomers there is no better introduction to the world of deep country song.
Johnny Cash is an oddity, a man who both represents bedrock values and upsets them. The grand old man of country music, and an American icon comparable to John Wayne, he is also the great country maverick, more welcome on the alternative rock scene than in Nashville.
Cash's new autobiography falls short of bringing us inside Cash's world, but gives a feel for what it might be like to spend some time with him. In form, it falls somewhere between an autobiography and a loosely-gathered memory book. Rather than following Cash through his life, it travels from his house in Jamaica to tour stops on the road and two other houses, in Tennessee and Florida. Each place brings its memories, which are intertwined with a more regular, chronological narrative.
While this sounds confusing, it works quite well (though, combined with the lack of an index, it makes it hard to find any particular event). Cash is a good storyteller and, whether due to his efforts or those of co-writer Patrick Carr, the book has the easy flow of conversation. The more prosaic details of Cash's life are leavened with anecdotes of famous friends and high times at the top of the country heap, and the somewhat disjointed style reminds us that these are the meditations of a thoughtful, 65-year-old man rather than a standard biography.
Cash's basic story is fairly familiar, though myths have sometimes overshadowed the truth (He was never in prison, for example, though "Folsom Prison Blues,'' and two live prison albums have led a lot of people to think otherwise). He was born in south-central Arkansas, and raised in Dyess, a New Deal experiment in communal farming on the banks of the Mississippi river.
Cash's mother sang around the house, and he took to music early. The dark strain that has run through his work came early too, with the death of his older brother Jack, whom he idolized. He moved through various odd jobs, then joined the Air Force. He bought his first guitar in Germany, and was signed to Memphis' Sun Records soon after returning Stateside. Hitting the road with labelmates Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, he racked up hits like "I Walk the Line'' and "Big River.'' His career, at least as measured by record sales, sagged in the early 1960s, but was rejuvenated by his prison albums and popular TV show at the end of the decade. It sagged again in the 1970s and 1980s, and now has snapped back on the alternative fringe.
Country biographies tend to deal in cliches: a poor boy or girl loves music, is discouraged, gets a break, and is hailed by devoted fans, then suffers through drink, drugs, or depression, while all along bolstered by a firm faith in the Lord and America. Cash's earlier autobiography, "Man in Black,'' was virtually an evangelical testimonial, albeit with some interesting stories included. This book is far better, though it shares some of the same flaws. Cash has always considered himself a rebel, and he often veers off from the usual boilerplate dished out for country music's middle-American, conservative fan base.
His anecdotes, which are the best part of the book, are quirky and sometimes outright bizarre. There is the story of Faron Young's funeral, for instance, a scattering of ashes disturbed by a rogue gust of wind: "when I . . . got in my car, I found I had Faron on my windshield. I turned the wipers on. There he went, back and foth, back and forth, until he was all gone.''
Other friends are recalled with loving detail: Carl Perkins, neighbor Roy Orbison, drinking and drugging buddy Waylon Jennings, one-time guitarist and son-in-law Marty Stuart, and Mother Maybelle Carter and her family, who were stalwarts of Cash's early road show and included his wife, June. The anecdotes are clearly only a sample from a wide store, and at times it seems a pity that Cash did not write a whole book of entertaining stories about his friends and peers.
This regret becomes strongest in book's later sections, as Cash renegs on a promise not to dwell excessively on his battle with drugs. While the craziness of his drugging days is darkly entertaining, the tale of recovery is just another long medical journal. In Cash's case, redemption came with June Carter's love and a personal religious awakening. Carter is shortchanged here, coming off once again as a long-suffering heroine rather than a full person.
As for the religion, while it is heartfelt and admirably non-judgemental, it lends a ponderous weight to the last part of the book. This is increased by Cash's desire to give space to all his grandchildren, and all the people who keep his organization going.
Nonetheless, any Cash fan will find a lot here to enjoy. his description of his youth in the cotton belt is fascinating, and he has interesting observations on his music and that of his contemporaries. While his soul-searching tends to lead to theology rather than introspection, he has produced a far more thoughtful book than the normal country fare. Cash is a unique figure, and this book is as close as most of us will ever come to learning what makes him tick.
The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and
Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards
Over the years, there have been hundreds of books on blues, including histories, biographies, discographies, and psychological, poetic, musical and sociological studies. However, there have been only three autobiographies of early blues musicians: Big Bill Broonzy's fascinating but thoroughly unreliable "Big Bill Blues,'' an "as told to'' book by the Texas sharecropper Mance Lipscomb, and now the memoirs of David (Honeyboy) Edwards.
Of the three, Edwards' makes the most central contribution to blues history. This is both because he was at the center of the blues world, and because he has a phenomenal memory for names, dates and interesting details. He is also a rarely engaging raconteur, giving a rich picture of a rambling bluesman's life in the pre-war Mississippi Delta.
At the beginning of the book, which gives a bit of Edwards' background and family history, it seems as if Janis Martinson has been overly faithful to his speech patterns, sacrificing literary flow for transcriptional integrity. Soon, though, Edwards is telling stories, and the flow of his speech is a perfect vehicle. Clearly, a lot of editing went into making this a cohesive narrative, but it was beautifully done. The chapters sort his life and experiences, staying chronological when possible, but not to the detriment of the larger picture.
Edwards was among the last generation of great acoustic bluesmen. He learned from Tommy Johnson and Big Joe Williams, and palled around with younger contemporaries like Tommy McLennan and Robert Johnson. He was also partner and mentor to two of the most important harmonica players in blues, Big Walter Horton, who would record with him in later years, and Little Walter Jacobs, who came to Chicago as Edwards' protege before making his classic sides with Muddy Waters.
Edwards himself made no commercial recordings in his early years, though he did some wonderful sides for the Library of Congress in 1942. He expresses regret for this, but explains that he was simply traveling too much to be found. He was a hobo, hopping freight trains and hitch-hiking around the south. Like Jelly Roll Morton, another magnificent musical memoirist, he was as much a gambler as a musician, and he tells gleeful tales of cheating the rubes. The stories are not exactly admirable -- at one point Edwards meets a country boy who just sold his grandmother's cows for $200, and promptly gets him drunk, then wins all but $20 and sends him packing -- but they are thoroughly entertaining.
Edwards had a fun, full life, avoiding manual labor whenever possible and devoting his energy to gambling, music, alcohol, and a plethora of female companions. There are also stories of mayhem, jail, racism, and hard traveling, but Edwards is clear that the balance was in his favor, and there is nothing he would change. He winds up many a story with the book's satisfied title phrase: "The world don't owe me nothing."
Edwards gives little insight into his thoughts or feelings, preferring to provide anecdotes of the road and the music world. Despite the hell-raising, Edwards was a serious student of the music, and he sought out and learned from many of the greats. The famous names come fast and furious and, for newcomers, the book includes an excellent biographical appendix, as well as a useful glossary of local terms.
Edwards has less to say about his later years, when he was settled in Chicago. He continued to do some playing around the local bars, but had decided to settle down some. After a life of "hustling,'' he had married (at first, his wife traveled with him, and it was in fact she who got the aforementioned country boy drunk), had a daughter, and he now relaxed into day jobs as a machine operator and construction worker.
In the 1970s, Edwards found his career revived by a new audience of young blues acolytes, and he began to tour Europe and Japan. Today, he is, along with Robert Jr. Lockwood, the last of the old Delta players still on the road, providing modern listeners with a link to one of the most fertile periods and places in recorded musical history. Good as his music is, though, it is with this book that he stakes out a unique place in the blues pantheon. (written for Sing Out! in 1998)
Earl Robinson was one of the stalwarts of the early left-wing music scene, and of the folk revival. His songs range from "Joe Hill," a setting of a poem by Alfred Hayes, done in 1936 while he was a counselor at Camp Unity, a Communist summer camp outside New York City, to the epic "Ballad for Americans" and the progressively patriotic "The House I Live In," made most famous by Frank Sinatra.
At the time of his death in a car accident in 1991, Robinson was well on the way to completing the basic work on an autobiography, with the assistance of Eric Gordon. Gordon has done the impressive job of pulling this work into publishable form, though one assumes there are things he would have done differently if Robinson had remained alive to fill in blanks. As it is, Ballad of an American is an often fascinating, often frustrating, sometimes startling, sometimes annoying book, and a welcome addition to the literature on music and the American left.
Much of what makes the book frustrating is Robinson himself. While he keeps writing of how he opened up emotionally and became deeply introspective in his later years, after discovering pop psychologies from e.s.t. to transactional analysis and spiritual aids from yoga to channeling, he rarely gives any sense of this depth in his recollections. The book is very much an "I did this, then I did that" relation, in which dates and events are used not only as markers but as the substance of the story. Even after reading 400-plus pages of first-person narrative, one has little sense of what it would have been like to meet and talk with Robinson. This is particularly frustrating when he is writing about, for example, the years he and his wife shared their apartment with Lee Hays. Hays was a famously complex and difficult man, and Robinson indicates this, but with no attempt to explore the relationship or even give some revealing anecdotes. He speculates about Hays' sexuality, but in the way one might speculate about a neighbor rather than an intimate friend. Similarly, he takes responsibility for the failures of his longterm relationships with women, putting it down to his compulsive philandering, but never gives a feeling for either the women or the relationships.
As for the "responsibility" he takes, it is of a very I'm OK, You're OK kind (he felt this book helped change his life). In project after project, he tells of how the brilliance of his work was undercut by other people's shortcomings or failures, while explaining that he takes full responsibility and holds no hard feelings. Undoubtedly, he sometimes had bad luck in partners, but the constant taking of "responsibility" that leaves him pure and blameless gets rather annoying.
Obviously, someone who had more sympathy with all the pop-psy and new-age spirituality would come away with a different feeling. When Robinson reaches the point of writing a cantata based on channeled messages from a wise dolphin, and follows up with a Jesus piece, "I Been Thinkin' About J.C.," written with Christ's personal assistance, this may be charming to some people. Anyone with doubts, though, will only find them exacerbated by the excerpts he includes of his later work. After working with excellent lyricists through the years, Robinson decided that, with his spiritual aids, he was best able to express his new ideas through his own lyrics. He was wrong. The excerpts here never rise above doggerel, and pretentious doggerel at that. Combined with the new-age piffle running through the ideas themselves, they make for a disappointing end to an admirable career.
That all said, there is much of value in Robinson's memoir. He was a key player at a key period in American history, in at the birth of the folk scene and at the center of several decades of left-wing artistic disputes and triumphs. If he spends little time on analysis, he includes some illuminating comments from other people (including a very funny critique by his first wife that leaves one wishing that she had written more of this book), and some interesting perspectives on the "party line" politics he espoused and suffered for.
It is also fascinating to read of the artistic collaborations that gave birth to his finest works, interactions with Yip Harburg, Millard Lampell and Carl Sandburg (and with Paul Robeson, with whom, due to the similar last names, he frequently and comically found himself confused). Robinson's creations inspired several generations of progressives, and their stirring optimism is a reminder of a time when millions of people really did believe they were building a better world. Whatever changes Robinson went through in later years, he maintains an admirably clear-eyed view of his political past, standing by the values that formed the foundation of his mainline Communist Party positions while at the same time exploring the heavy-handed attitudes and self-delusions that many people today find baffling. If one often wishes that his book had more personality to balance its facts, it remains a priceless document of an important time and a unique character. (written for Sing Out! in 1998)
By Elijah Wald
Mark Kurlansky writes history with a quirky verve that makes his books as entertaining as they are enlightening. His last one, “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” was a careful and interesting survey of the impact of cod fishing on human affairs. His new one is a logical offshoot: There have been few more assiduous cod fisherman than the Basques. As before, Kurlansky includes not only history, but also recipes, and indulges in odd digressions that add variety to his narrative (What he does not include, unfortunately, is an index -- the one major flaw in his work).
This time out, his subject is more focused (in geography if nothing else), and the story line is thus more linear. This is a fairly straightforward, and thoroughly engaging, history of the Basques and their world. )Lest the title confuse, there is little on the Basque impact outside their region; the point is that, to them, that region is the world.)
The Basques are unique among European peoples, and know it. They believe, with plenty of evidence to back them up, that they are the only surviving speakers of an indigenous European language. While other languages, from Celtic to Latin to Finnish, trace back to Central Asia, Basque has no surviving analogue of any kind and is very likely the sole linguistic survival of the paleolithic folk who painted on cave walls in what is now southern France and northern Spain.
Language is a very important part of the story, because there is no Basque word for “Basque;” the closest thing is “Euskaldun,” which means a person who speaks Euskera. This potentially fluid way of defining national or ethnic identity has little to do with parentage or geographical boundaries, and it has allowed the Basques to survive as a distinct people, and to flourish, as empires rose and fell around them.
And flourish the Basques have. Unlike most small groups living in the corners of powerful nations, they can tell far more stories of national leadership and triumph than of ethnic oppression. Indeed, Kurlansky traces much of the might of Spain to Basque industriousness: They were the first commercial whale hunters, and hence among the greatest sailors in Europe. While he hesitates to credit them with being the first Europeans to visit America (as do some ardent Basqueophiles), he thinks they were here well before Columbus. Furthermore, it was a Basque who first circumnavigated the globe; Ferdinand Magellan, who is normally given credit for this feat, was killed in the Philippines, and the journey was completed under the command of the Basque Juan Sebastia[GA]n de Elcano.
The Basques not only travelled, but understood how to make use of what they found on their voyages. While Columbus searched for gold, his Basque companions found corn and chocolate, and became pioneers in the production and export of both, as well as being the only Western Europeans to take to hot chili peppers (though, oddly, they rejected the potato for anything but livestock feed).
This early history takes up the first third of Kurlansky’s narrative. The second, and longest, section begins with the rise of Basque nationalism in the 19th century, and goes through the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. This was the period that defined the Basques as a modern people, and found them battling to retain their identity, first against Fascist bombs and then Franco’s attempts to wipe out regional identity throughout Spain (the French Basques, fewer than their Spanish compatriots, are also covered, but to a much lesser degree).
By Franco’s death in 1975, a new group had appeared: Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, was formed in 1952, but it was in the late 1970s that it became international news, with a string of killings that earned it a reputation among Europe’s fiercest “terrorist” groups. Kurlansky’s treatment of ETA is perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most controversial part of his book. Simply put, his view is that Spanish governmental terrorism beat anything that ETA ever dished out, and that, without supporting all of the group’s tactics, there is much to be said in its favor. Although an outsider, Kurlansky is clearly a Basque nationalist himself, without wanting to define what that nation is or could be.
Reading his book, it is easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm. As he deals with everything from traditional inheritance systems to the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, he reminds us that the world is not, in fact, becoming a homogenized global village. He insists that, whatever happens with the European Union -- even if Spain and France as we know them cease to exist -- the Basques will remain Basque. Whether that prophecy will hold is far from clear, but Kurlansky’s passion is among his greatest strengths. No history is ever objective; his is exciting, illuminating, and thought-provoking, and that is no small thing.
By Elijah Wald
Near the end of his biography of the writer Bruce Chatwin, Nicholas Shakespeare takes a moment to defend Chatwin against the backlash that followed his death in 1989. Shakespeare quotes a review of a Paul Theroux “rememberance,” which characterized Chatwin as “a bore, an incessant chatterer, an embellisher of fact, a callow enthusiast for pretentious sentences and bogus science, and someone who whinged with unattractive self-absorption about the difficulty of writing. . . .”
It is surprising to find Shakespeare citing this as an attack on his subject, since it is an impression one could easily have got from reading the previous 567 pages of his biography. He is an admirer of Chatwin’s, but his book is anything but a hagiography. His Chatwin is a spoiled brat, a name-dropper, a brilliant talent who is a constant source of fascination and irritation to all around him. He is a marvelous conversationalist, charming, funny, and immensely knowledgeable on an extraordinary range of subjects, but when he was talking no one else ever got a word in edgewise, even if they happened to know a good deal more about the subject at hand. His stories grew and shifted until fact and fiction were inseparable, his adventures were exaggerated, other people’s adventures were appropriated, and a one or two day visit to a place would be recast as a deep immersion in a culture.
Is this an accurate picture? Is it the one Chatwin deserves? There is no way for the outsider to judge, but in Shakespeare’s hands it makes for an intriguing and immensely readable book. Chatwin was a mass of contradictions, a hypochondriac and world traveler, a serious scholar and a diletante, a truth-seeker and a flamboyant gay man who did his best to conceal the fact -- dying of AIDS, he put out the word that he was suffering from an incredibly rare fungus “recorded among ten Chinese peasants, . . . a few Thais and a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia.”
Chatwin invented an image for himself as the modern equivalent of an English Victorian adventurer, a T.E. Lawrence or Richard Burton. The difference is that, where his models lived their lives in the wilds of Africa or Arabia, learning the language and customs until they could almost pass for natives, he took trips. One could argue that this difference was in the times: there was no longer a source of the Nile to be found, or a war to be waged with a troop of dashing bedouins. Still, if there had been, Chatwin would not have been the man for the job. He was not a man of adventure; he was Ariel, the charming, evanescent, blonde sprite.
He was also, at his best, an unusual and gripping writer. His finest works are those that hew closest to real life: “In Patagonia,” “The Songlines,” and the collection of short pieces, “What Am I Doing Here.” Some of these are presented as reportage, others as fiction, but all contain elements of both. At least as Shakespeare presents him, Chatwin had virtually no ability to invent a story: obvious models can be found for almost every character and action in his books. On the other hand, his non-fiction regularly included passages that were denounced as fabrications.
For a Chatwin fan, much of the pleasure of this biography comes from its presentation of the story behind the stories. There are interviews with the Australians who appeared under fictitious names in “Songlines,” and of people who were with Chatwin in Africa and Argentina, as well as in the rural Wales of “On the Black Hill.” Most admired him, all were amused by him, and many continue to speak well of him even as they correct the factual record. He had a storyteller’s gift, and Shakespeare convinces the reader that he was genuinely trying to find and expose deeper truths even when he was retouching the surface.
Shakespeare’s research is impressively thorough, tracing Chatwin’s childhood, his career as an antiques and art expert at Sotheby’s, and his formation and reinvention as a writer. The books are covered in detail, from the research trips through the final publication, and anyone entranced by Chatwin’s work will be caught up in the process of its creation. There is one unforgiveable exception to this rule: Shakespeare follows “The Songlines” up to Chatwin’s first meeting with his editor, who finds the book an unwieldy mess and Chatwin too sick to work on it, then drops the story, without comment, until the book is published and hailed as a masterpiece. Whether Chatwin came through in the end or his greatest work was whipped into shape by someone else is never explained.
This is a rare lapse in an otherwise masterful biography. The heroic polymath who is the “I” of Chatwin’s literary adventures is, in the end, a less complex and puzzling figure than its creator. One assumes that Chatwin would have hated this book, but it balances rather than destroying his legend, and is a fit tribute to an odd and interesting man.
By Elijah Wald
Robert Park’s new book is written in clear, straightforward prose, which no doubt made his publishers happy. There is a rule for popular books on science that they should be colloquially written and contain as few graphs and equations as possible. This is because many people find graphs, equations, and scientific language both dull and frightening. Science often confuses, scares and annoys laypeople. So we leave it to the scientists -- whom we thoroughly mistrust.
This ignorance-driven blend of faith and mistrust can drive scientists crazy. Of course they doubt and argue with one another, but virtually all scientists share a basic body of knowledge that seems pretty straightforward to them (“evolution, conservation of energy, the periodic table” is Park’s quick list). It irritates them that we cannot separate out this basic foundation from the reasonably disputed territory, and particularly from the wild claims, politics, silliness, and outright fraud Park groups as “voodoo” science.
This is certainly a problem. More and more people are cloaking unscientific views in scientific language. An obvious case is “creation science,” where a religious position is stated in terms that can trick even apparently intelligent media people into saying things like “even scientists agree that evolution is simply a theory.” The suggestion is that, while the evolutionists may be right, there is a complex question being debated. This is absurdly misleading: while there is some debate over the exact mechanisms set forth in Darwin’s theory, all serious scientists agree that evolution itself is a fact. When one muddies this distinction, it is like saying that, because the curse of the Bambino is “only a theory” to explain the Red Sox’s 80-year losing streak, one must admit the possibility that the Sox have, in fact, regularly won the World Series. (I wish.)
Park is a physicist, and many of his examples and explanations come from that discipline. This does not mean that they are complex or mysterious; he spends much of his book on funny tales of perpetual motion machines and their quirky inventors, and even his discussion of an apparently complex subject like “cold fusion” ends up seeming like a story rather than a lecture.
Unlike some defenders of science, Park is not a simple rah-rah boy for new research and technology. His targets are admirably broad, from homeophathic medicine to manned space flight, the fear of electric power lines to the “star wars” missile defense. While explaining that homeopathic drugs are simply water, alcohol, and sugar pills, he adds that “by keeping people from seeking unneeded antibiotics or overdosing on cold pills, something like homeophathy may actually promote health among the not-very-sick-to-begin-with” (though it also may distract severely ill people from more effective treatments).
Even more valuable than Park’s arguments are his explanations. He has a gift for finding simple, direct ways to lead the reader through concepts like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, making them seem interesting and accessible. This is, in a way, his point; he calls that section “Heisenberg Was Certain,” and suggests that new age hucksters like Deepak Chopra are exploiting the amazement laypeople feel at the discoveries of modern physics to create a cloud of pseudo-scientific mystification.
Park does not simply go after the usual targets. He reserves much of his strongest condemnation for more mainstream “voodoo.” His exposure of the scientific irrelevance of sending people into space and the political reasons that the U.S. has continued to spend a fortune on such flights, or his sharp critique of Edward Teller and the “star wars” insanity are excellent. The simple fact of putting such mainstream programs alongside the perpetual motion machines and flying saucers is refreshing, as is his critique of the effects of government secrecy.
Oddly, he spends virtually no time on what is perhaps the most pernicious force in derailing the sort of science he applauds: that more and more work is being funded by corporations that are interested only in positive results. He touches on this problem when it intersects with favorite stories, but ignores the fact that the whole system is becoming more and more tightly controlled by people who are looking not for knowledge but for salable products. Which is to say, his position is that of a skeptic, but one operating from within the current American establishment.
His insider viewpoint shows up when he occasionally touches on behavioral science. This is not his field, and he seems to rely on the reputation of his sociobiology-minded colleagues without putting their claims to the same tests he would use in the physical sciences. (For example, in his conclusion he credits science with unfolding “an orderly world in which everything from the birth of stars to falling in love is governed by the same natural laws.” If he means that love does not contravene the laws of thermodynamics, fine, but if he thinks scientists understand its mechanisms he should check the divorce rate around the faculty lounge.)
On the whole, though, this is a clear and thoroughly entertaining guide to a world that often seems dry and maze-like. Park may be wrong on some points, but that hardly matters; he is arguing not for specific scientific positions, but for a process -- that claims must be tested, and tested again, not taken on faith -- and if the reader can occasionally prove him wrong that only bolsters his case.
By Elijah Wald
Gore Vidal is a gleeful iconoclast and, since sex is often defined by its icons, it is a particularly fertile field for him. His memoir, “Palimpsest,” was filled with bedroom tales of friends and famous acquaintances, all related in exceptionally straightforward and uncutesy prose. These bits were, in fact, that book’s greatest pleasure; the clothed portions of Vidal’s life seem frequently to have been less exciting, or at least remembered with less relish.
It is thus natural that someone should have collected Vidal’s writings on sexuality, and that the result is a very amusing volume, as well as, at times, a challenging and enlightening one. Cleis Press editor Donald Weise, who compiled this collection with Vidal’s blessing, was particularly interested in Vidal’s position as a pioneer gay male writer, the man whose 1948 novel “The Pillar and the City” was an early cannon shot against the walls of silence surrounding same-sex relationships.
A couple of things make this tricky. One is that, while Vidal enjoys writing on sex, he has devoted relatively few full pieces to the subject. “Sexually Speaking” has a half-dozen substantial essays: on pornography, feminism, sex and the law, the relationship of homophobia and antisemitism, and, overarchingly, the political character of sexual behavior. The rest of the book is fleshed out with portraits of friends and literary models, some relevant (Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Oscar Wilde), some not (Eleanor Roosevelt). There are also three interviews which, while containing some funny lines, do not stand up beside Vidal’s writings.
The second problem with Vidal as a spokesman is that he is by temperament a renegade, viewing all conventional wisdom with olympian disdain. If he enjoys shocking the straight world by proclaiming his pleasure in sleeping with men, he is no less eager to go against mainstream views in the gay (a word he hates) community. A recurring theme is that sexual tastes are not defining: “There is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people.” If we believe that there are “homosexual” people, this is only because church and state have singled out those who perform certain acts for condemnation, creating a false perception of otherness and a bonding together of the condemned. This is not a particularly popular view in either gay or straight camps, but Vidal supports it with a wealth of historical and theoretical argument.
He also weighs in with personal experience. Born into America’s ruling elite, Vidal went to the “right” boarding schools, where he reports that playing around among boys -- especially healthy, athletic ones -- was common. The fact that he went on to play around with thousands of young men and occasional women while most of his companions got married and settled, he sees as a sign of his freedom to do so. We all, if left to our own devices, would sleep with whomever attracted us, and it is only societal strictures that have forced most of us into narrow boundaries.
This is all very George Bernard Shaw, who shared Vidal’s blithe certitude that the extremely rich and poor alike are free of the false trappings of bourgeois morality. Vidal likes to stand apart from American provinciality and puritanism just as Shaw twitted their English counterparts. Which tempts one to recall what Vidal himself once wrote of a quotation from Shaw, “[It] is only half the truth, but it is the charming half.” Vidal is superbly knowledgeable in many fields, but not all of his positions are as solidly constructed as that on the naturalness of same-sex attraction, and he will sometimes sacrifice thoughtful analysis for a felicitous phrase or wittily provocative aphorism.
This makes for, depending on one’s temperament, a very entertaining or somewhat irritating book. There is more than a soupcon of superciliousness in Vidal, especially when he takes on his nemeses among the New York Jewish intellectuals: Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and “what I take to be a Catskill hotel called the Hilton Kramer.” On rarer occasions, he can also get a bit twee, as when he says of someone who assumed Somerset Maugham, being gay, must be a misogynist: “This is one of the rocks on which the whole Freudian structure has been, well . . . erected.” One longs to quote back at him his earlier comment on the uptightness of those who are cute about sex.
Nonetheless, if being funny about difficult subjects is a crime, it is one that should be committed far more frequently. Vidal’s maverick wit is a welcome relief from the dry seriousness or forced cheerfulness of most writing on sexual topics, and it is disconcerting how many of his observations from 30 years ago remain startling and provocative. In full flight, he can force us to rethink our opinions while laughing out loud, and that is a triumph for any writer.
By Elijah Wald
William Finnegan has made a career out of covering war zones in Southern Africa, but in his new book he finds scarier terrain in his own back yard, among poor and lower middle class American kids. Over several years, he lived with black teenagers in New Haven and East Texas, Mexican-Americans in Washington State, and white skinheads in Southern California, and everywhere he found young people confronting a bleak world of crime, drugs and lousy, dead-end jobs.
Unlike some other recent writers, he does not find the kids themselves strange or frightening; on the contrary, he likes them, but is horrified by how little chance they have to break out of a downward spiral of poverty and hopelessness. Despite what is said to be a healthy economy, standards of living for most Americans are falling, and working class teens are faced with the realization that they will do worse than their parents, who are doing worse than their grandparents. In San Augustine, Texas, Finnegan finds it easy to understand why so few black kids finish high school, since the only work available to them, diplomaed or not, is in the chicken processing factory.
Finnegan's book is not a sociological study. Rather than seeking out statistically representative subjects, he "tried to find hard-pressed people whom I liked enough to spend months with.'' Far from invalidating his conclusions, this makes them all the more powerful: the teenagers and families he spends time with are smart, talented and engaging; and yet, they seem unable to change their situation in any significant way. All of them make efforts -- entering educational programs, starting small businesses, or simply finding romantic relationships that might make life easier or more fulfilling -- but, while none of the book's four sections ends tragically, none holds out much hope for its protagonist.
The reasons are not hard to find, and Finnegan backs up his personal stories with a wealth of research (much of it handily placed in notes at the back of the book). Since roughly the early 1970s, America has seen the deliberate dismantling of the programs developed from the New Deal through the Civil Rights era, combined with a huge loss of industrial manufacturing jobs and a virtual war on organized labor. Simultaneously, largely through television, poor people have been treated to a barrage of propaganda adroitly designed to make them feel that their worth is directly linked to the objects they are able to purchase (Finnegan estimates that, by the end of high school, the average American child has seen more than 380,000 TV commercials).
The result is predictable. Juan Guerrero's parents, in Washington's Yakima Valley, are United Farm Workers organizers, optimistically fighting for a better world, and finally winning a historic contract, but for Juan their values have ceased to have much meaning. Sure, they might make working conditions better for agricultural field workers, but, as Finnegan writes, "The nobility of labor was no longer even a minor value in the devouring consumerism of the America where he was growing up.''
Though unusually bright and aware, Guerrero has been expelled from school because an imported "gang awareness coordinator'' took a dislike to him and singled him out as a danger to his classmates (In fact, he is an ironic individualist, contemptuous of the whole gang lifestyle). Finnegan finds, again and again, that this is symptomatic of the official reaction to troubled teens. School funds are being slashed, job programs disappearing, the social safety net destroyed, and all are being replaced with declining tolerance and increasingly punitive sentences for youthful wrongdoing, and a huge boom in prison construction.
The "war on drugs'' is a particular focus of Finnegan's ire. In San Augustine, a flamboyantly mediagenic "sting'' operation has put dozens of local black figures (and a handful of white ones) in jail, some doing life without parole, and forever stigmatized many of the more enterprising local youths as criminals. The result on the street is that the drugs are now brought in by gun-toting gangsters from Houston. Finnegan is not pro-drug, but with the local economy in free-fall, affirmative action disappearing, and racism still very much alive, he finds it easy to understand why a young, ambitious African-American would rather deal cocaine and buy nice things than be trapped in a minimum wage job that barely pays rent on a miserable room in the projects.
In his final chapter, Finnegan is forced to confront some of his own demons. He grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and his return to the Antelope Valley finds him startled by the unfamiliarity of what he has considered his home turf. Here, the drug is crystal meth, and the kids he is hanging out with are skinheads, some of them neo-nazi and others anti-racist "sharps.'' Though ideologically at opposite poles, both seem equally lost in a violent world that has little to offer them.
If this sounds like a depressing book, it is also a gripping, expertly written, and often quite funny one. The people Finnegan spends time with tend to face their situations with keen insight and dark humor, as well as frequent, if generally misplaced, bursts of optimism. Finnegan clearly likes them, and reserves his fury for those who would hold them responsible for their troubles, spouting phrases about a "culture of poverty" rather than facing the fact that the American government has betrayed the majority of its people, and especially the young.
By Elijah Wald
Chester Himes has been seriously underrated in the 20th century American canon. The only of his books to attract much readership have been his detective novels, weird, surrealist tales of the adventures of two brutal Harlem cops, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.
Himes only became a detective writer late in his career, though, after settling as an expatriate in Paris in the 1950s. He had first written three "protest'' novels, "If He Hollers Let Him Go'' (1942), "Lonely Crusade'' (1947), and "Cast the First Stone'' (1952). The first two, in particular, were exceptional, though largely unsuccessful. As Melvin Van Peebles notes in the introduction to this book, there was only room in the American pantheon for one black novelist at a time, and Richard Wright's fame buried Himes'. Himes' stories lacked the "primitive'' quality that attracted many white readers to Wright's "Native Son;'' his work had less obvious drama, was more prosaically inclined to show the stresses and strains of normal life in the racist world of the L.A. shipbuilding industry, or of a smalltime crook in his native Ohio.
"Cast the First Stone'' was the least impressive of his novels, an autobiographical account of the seven years he spent in prison for robbery before becoming a writer. Part of its problem was that the narrator never really came alive, and it was hard not to think that this was in part because Himes chose, for some unexplained reason, to make Jimmy Monroe, his literary alter ego, white, and hence distanced in part from the real-life experiences that fueled the story.
As it turns out, there was another reason why the book failed to seem complete. It had been butchered by a string of editors over a 15 year period from 1937, when Himes wrote it as his first novel, to its publication. Now, it is finally being issued in its original form and under its original title, "Yesterday Will Make You Cry.''
While there are naturally many overlaps between the two versions of the novel, the differences are so great as to make them seem almost like two books based on the same general incidents. The most surprising thing about the complete book is the extent to which it does not feel like a prison novel. The prison is simply the setting for a largely internal story. Monroe has tried never to let anything touch him, and his frustrations in prison are little different from those he had on the outside. The only key effect of his prison experience is his innability to escape from the loneliness and self-loathing he has always felt, and his finally beginning to face himself.
"Yesterday'' is written in the third person where "Stone'' was in the first, is substantially longer, and is divided in four discreet sections. The second, a flashback of Monroe's life leading up to his crime and incarceration, was deleted from "Stone.'' In its proper place, it not only makes him into a much fuller character, but marks a dividing line between the first section of the book, from Monroe's arrival in prison to the deadly fire that shakes him out of his stupor, and the later period when he begins to change and open up.
The other major difference is in the fourth section, which begins with the entry into Monroe's block of a new prisoner, Rico. In "Stone,'' they were friends, maliciously accused of homosexuality by the other cons. In "Yesterday,'' they are lovers. Rico's unconditional love and belief in him give Monroe strength as a neophyte writer, and it is when for the first time he chooses to make a sacrifice for someone he loves that one begins to hope that he may stop being the loser he has been all his life. The relationship is complex: Rico is coming to terms with a homosexuality which predates prison, and keeps trying to get Monroe to agree that what they are doing is not sick; Monroe is asserting his heterosexuality, even when he manages to acknowledge the strength of his feelings, and in the end, as he leaves the prison, he is already putting the relationship behind him.
Given the additional material, one is tempted to think that Himes made Monroe white so that race would not be a distraction from his story. Even today, a novelist who is black tends to be typed as a "black writer,'' and all of his or her work seen through that prism. While, on the outside, Himes's life was harshly circumscribed by racism, his outline of life in prison suggests that, though it was segregated, things were much the same for white and black convicts. It may be that, assuming a largely white readership and wanting to tell a story of personal transformation, Himes did not want his book to be ghettoized. (If this is the case, it is hard to escape the irony of the book jacket, which shows a line-up of black suspects.)
Even in restored form, "Yesterday'' falls short of being a masterpiece. The first two sections sometimes drag, reminding one of a prosier version of Camus's "The Stranger'' as Monroe unemotionally through his life. It was a first novel, and Himes became a surer craftsman as he went. Still, it is a unique work and a fascinating one, even leaving aside its time and the unusual circumstances of its author. Himes has long deserved a serious reassessment, and this is a fine place to start.
By Elijah Wald
There is something infectious about western swing, the Southwestern jazz style that mixed fiddle tunes, Mexican polkas, blues and steel guitars with a driving beat, and tore up dance halls across Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and 1940s. Especially, perhaps, if one is a Scot from the isolated northern island of Orkney.
For Duncan McLean, Texas might as well be the headwaters of the Upper Zambezi; it is wild and unexplored, and all he knows about it is that it is home to the music and musicians he loves. At least, that is how it seems as the Scottish novelist sets off in a rented car to try and track down the spirit of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
McLean is fascinated and repelled by Texas, and indeed by America in general: The fascination with guns, the imbecile rantings of Rush Limbaugh, the motels out of a Charles Bukowski poem, the good hotel he finally finds, only to find his floor filled with The National Narcotic Detector Dog Association convention. His responses are funny, insightful, and full of good-natured literary pyrotechnics. He is a singularly gifted writer, and his experiences propel him to write his own Bukowski poem, to rework Texas swing lyrics to fit Scots themes, and to ransack his un-Texan vocabulary for terms that will properly capture the sights and sounds of the Lone Star State (for example, referring to country songwriter Ted Daffan's "classic coronachs to love and loss'').
Sounds, naturally, are paramount. McLean is armed with a library of western swing, and along with the travelogue he provides capsule histories of everyone from Vernon Dalhart to the Light Crust Doughboys, the Texas Top Hands, Milton Brown's Musical Brownies and, of course, "the Great Bob.'' He quotes song lyrics, traces personel from band to band, and tries with surprising success to capture in print something of the thrill he gets from the music.
What most attracts McLean to western swing is its freedom, its willingness to borrow sounds and styles from any music around. He laments the streamlining of the modern music business: "Music in America is so well niched these days . . . that once you know what you like, there's little chance of ever stumbling across some new recordings or artists that are going to surprise you, or shake you up. . . . Music doesn't change people's lives in the USA today, it confirms the life you've already chosen, or had chosen for you.''
McLean is trying to experience the music he loves in its native habitat, to get the feel of a swing dance hall in full swing, taste that lost freedom, and give himself up to its sway. "This is what my Texas trip was all about: the power of the music, the way conjunto or western swing or Orkney fiddling turns desperation into celebration.''
This is something of an impossible quest; the music he loves is long past its prime, and the surviving musicians he turns up are mostly playing in their own living rooms or performing low-key gigs in small clubs or, in one case, a senior citizens' center. McLean waxes enthusiastic whenever he gets a whiff of the wild, raw sound on the old tapes, and eagerly badgers the old musicians for tales of their glory days, but he is well aware that he is chasing shadows. By page 213, he is forced to wonder why it is that he is drawn to the past for his pleasures: "Was I a sad old bastard? Quite likely. Tough queso. Personally, I don't see the point in travelling forward in time. We're all going there anyway: what's the rush?''
But enough introspection; McLean has only four weeks, and a lot of ground to cover before making it to Turkey, Texas, Wills's home town, for the annual Bob Wills Festival. He fails to meet up with Adolph Hofner or Floyd Tillman, but sees Roy Lee Brown and Buddy Ray, and visits Cliff Kendrick and Walt Kleypas. Those names will strike chords with very few readers; they were sidemen for the great western swing bands, not famous leaders. To McLean, though, they are talismans that bring him spiritually closer to the Wills legend.
Turkey, his Mecca, is where at last the dream comes true. He is houseguest of an old Wills pal, and gets two full shows by the surviving Texas Playboys. Their music fulfills all his expectations, and he even gets to talk with several of them before wandering off to drink whiskey and dance the night away to a rock band in a Texas field.
That is about it, though there is still one more stop on the itinerary. McLean loves words, phrases and names as much as he loves music, and his path home leads through McLean, Texas (pop. 849), simply because it is McLean. Fortunately, the town is home to an abandoned stretch of Route 66, the Cactus Inn, the Cowboy Cafe, and what may be the only museum of barbed wire in the world. What more could a Scotsman desire?
By Elijah Wald
Last year's political buzzword seemed to be "civility,'' with conservative pundits drawing parallels between everyday impoliteness and all sorts of geopolitical ills. In his new book, Nicolaus Mills is tapping the same sorts of concerns, but from a liberal perspective. In his introduction, he quotes Franklin Roosevelt: "The test of progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.''
Mills argues that the compassion and empathy exemplified in those words is fast disappearing from American society, and is being replaced by a ruthless, me-first, lifeboat mentality. He finds a bulging grab-bag of offenders: Racists and gangsta rappers, misogynists and feminist fans of Lorena Bobbitt, CEOs blithely firing employees, governors cheerfully boosting executions, enthusiastic patrons of dog and cockfighting, and a plague of "attack journalism.''
Mills' unhappiness is understandable. Our public discourse certainly seems to be becoming ever more vindictive, intolerant and brutal. The end of his introduction, however, reveals an aim that could almost be a parody of traditional "liberal'' thinking: "Having a bad conscience doesn't by itself guarantee that we will change, but it is a starting point and one that I hope [this book] will provide the grounds for cultivating.''
Which is to say that his book has an "us,'' and it consists of middle class, white, educated Americans who would be willing to sacrifice a little if that would make the world a nicer place. This is a fair description of the book's likely readers, and it is not inappropriate that he should address them. However, Mills seems to suffer from the misimpression that it was people like this who originally brought us the New Deal ideology he applauds.
In fact, liberals did not give the poor a safety net after the depression. Rather, people organized and protested in numbers that threatened the wealthy, and pointed the way towards some variety of socialist revolution. The depression had shown the middle class how easily it could become poor, and the rich were widely perceived as rapacious villains ready to let the rest of the country starve.
The New Deal was a reaction not of charity, but of unity. The battle lines were drawn, with us, the mass of working Americans, against them, the robber barons. The majority carried the day, and laws were passed with the intention of at least partially redistributing the country's wealth and providing people with a chance to move forward and prosper.
Mills seems to have little sense of cause and effect, or of anything resembling a cohesive political position. His book is full of genuinely upsetting stories, but he finds little in the way of patterns to link them. He strongly condemns the depredations of the rich and powerful, but constantly tries to be even-handed by condemning the reactive anger of the poor, as if the problem was simply an increase in the sum total of nastiness.
The implication is that the polarization and meanness he deplores is bad for everyone. He gives no sense that the world he describes, with its divisions along racial, national, sexual and class lines, might be working very nicely for some people. By many standards, wealthy Americans are currently making more money faster than any group in history. The rest of us may feel trapped in a sinking lifeboat, but we were thrown off a yacht that remains comfortably afloat.
Mills describes "America's war against its better self,'' without any suggestion of why this war is being waged. The thought that we are being bankrupted by welfare recipients, that "criminals" are the foremost threat to our daily lives, that we are being swamped by penniless immigrants, all serve to shift blame downwards rather than up. Mills does reserve his strongest censure for the wealthy and powerful, but the net result is to bolster a middle class impression of being decent folks caught between the callous rich and the brutal poor.
Mills produces plenty of anecdotes, but most are more colorful than they are representative. Despite gaudy press coverage of murder and mayhem, there is little evidence that the average American is growing meaner. In recent years, crime rates have actually been going down, and the world remains a far less dangerous place than one would gather from news reports. Of course, the growth of poverty can lead to desperation, making some people bitter and violent, but they are only limitedly representative.
Granting that there has been a growth of public callousness, Mills book does nothing about it but express his own distaste and horror. He offers no clear alternatives, and ignores the many people and organizations that are working to counter the trends he deplores. Focusing exclusively on the bad, he seems not to realize that such scare-tactics reinforce exactly the xenophobic wagon-circling he condemns.
Which is to say, Mills' book is essentially of a piece with the conservative "civility'' rants. His epilogue, which compares Edward Bellamy's utopian novel from 1897, "Looking Backward,'' with the dystopias imagined by current filmmakers, ends by simply bemoaning the death of optimism. This is pointless and inappropriate. Bellamy was not expressing the cultural zeitgeist; he was using a literary device to influence social change, and providing a voice of hope in a period of desperate inequalities. Mills, by contrast, gives us a 256-page catalogue of hopeless hand-wringing, which leads nowhere.
By Elijah Wald
"The Twilight of Common Dreams" is that rarest of things, a book that delivers more than it promises. Offering to explain the so-called "culture wars" that have been raging in academia and overflowing into the mass media, it provides a chilling wake-up call to anyone interested in progressive politics or social justice and a cogent analysis of forces behind the fragmentation of the American left.
Gitlin was a 1960s radical leader, president of Students for a Democratic Society, but his book is no exercise in nostalgia for that time or any other. Rather, it is an exploration of the history of ethnic, race and class identifications in the United States and the purposes they have served, both to unify and to divide people from one another, and an attempt to find a contemporary progressive commonality to counter the mythical commonalities of the conservative right.
Gitlin writes well, and his book is excellently organized to make his points. It begins with a chapter on the Oakland, California, battle over adoption of a new set of textbooks, which were designed to be "multi-cultural" and yet were attacked from some quarters as racist and ethnocentric. Rather than railing about "political correctness," Gitlin goes on to explore the roots of such battles in a section titled "The Exhaustion of Commonality." He studies the shifting meanings of the "American dream" and the splintering of the left from a movement of "the people'' (at least theoretically) into an extremely loose coalition of disparate interest groups.
His question is, essentially, how did populism become an instrument of the right? At a time when the mass of Americans are becoming steadily poorer and the elite richer, with income disparities wider than at any time in American history, how have conservative Republicans managed to capture the white working class vote as never before? And why does the left, such as it is, not seem to care? Why, to quote one of his chapter headings, was the left "marching on the English department while the right took the White House?"
Gitlin does not attempt to provide easy answers. In examining how the left has replaced broadly-based political movements with ever more narrow tribal allegiances, he does not simply dismiss these allegiances as silly and closeminded. Rather, he examines their tactical limitations. For the rulers of academia, he points out, ethnic and gender-based studies programs cultivate "a rapture of marginality" that is "a relatively cheap alternative to disruptive protest.''
Meanwhile, in the outside world, a tiny, white, male elite that continues to have a monopoly on wealth and power has been wooing a white majority that is becoming ever poorer and more powerless with the idea that they are all in the same boat, threatened by a tide of multicultural foreigners and leftist social engineers. Though patently ridiculous, this is a myth that is clearly aided by those whose knee-jerk reaction to differences of opinion is to lump all white males together as oppressors. Separatists reap the fruit of separation, which is to remain forever outsiders.
Gitlin is neither opposed to feminism and racial consciousness, nor a defender of some sacred "canon." Rather, he is a defender of thought. If conservative idealogues declare a certain group inherently inferior and the group's members rebut by declaring themselves superior, Gitlin believes that both sides are equally wrongheaded, albeit for different reasons. He would like people to stop taking absolutist positions defined by their cultural identifications, and instead to think issues through, listen to one another, and build coalitions that might actually accomplish something.
Such advice might sound conservative in some quarters but, as Gitlin points out, the current extremist positions are not building any radical movements. Rather, they are manifestations of a leftier-than-thou attitude that flourishes mostly in the sheltered groves of academe. Even when they spread to the outside world (as in the ''afro-centric'' rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan), they have produced nothing in the way of solid benefits for the disenfranchised. They simply create a culture of victimization which, no matter how justified, leads nowhere, and get in the way of myriad possible alliances.
Of course, one could argue that Gitlin is simply taking the natural position of an older, white, male radical feeling marginalized. Indeed, he seriously entertains this possibility before concluding that his background is beside the point if his ideas are good (or, he might add, if they are bad.)
The picture is pretty bleak for the left, but Gitlin remains guardedly optimistic. His suggestions for the future are less clear and precise than his dissection of the past, but that is hardly his fault. If one of the left's problems has been to become ever more academic and isolated from reality, it is not a professor's job to lead the masses into the light. He does, however, have some basic suggestions.
The main one is that the left stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The 18th century enlightenment, he insists, was a good beginning. Yes, its leaders were of their time and culture and were thus subject to an array of pernicious prejudices, but to dismiss all previous progressive ideas as tainted by racism and sexism is counterproductive. If they were good, they need to be carried into the present. As Gitlin puts it: "We don't need resurrection, we need sensible conversation.''
By Elijah Wald
H.L. Mencken published "A Mencken Chrestomathy," the definitive collection of his work, in 1949, and it became an immediate best seller. He planned a sequel, selecting and revising favorite pieces for it before his death in 1956, but it remained buried among his papers and has only now been edited and issued.
In the intervening years, Mencken has received a sort of secular canonization; once jokingly called "the sage of Baltimore," today he is seriously cited as "the patron saint of American journalists." To his acolytes, this new collection will be a trove of sacred relics and a blessed elixir for what ails the world. To non-fans, it will seem an entertaining but overlong collection of scattershot bile and vituperation.
Mencken delighted in criticism and, while he considered himself first of all a literary critic, he ranged far afield in search of targets. He had enthusiasms as well--he was an energetic booster of Dreiser and Nietzsche--but his accolades frequently took the form of lambasting and ridiculing those who disagreed. Professors were favorite whipping boys, as were "...osteopaths, communists,...Christian Scientists, Ku Kluxers, Prohibitionists, and all other such dolts and swindlers."
Attack was all; Mencken offered no alternative programs and was contemptuous of anyone who took him as a leader or prophet. "My writings...have only one purpose: to attain for H.L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk," he wrote. "It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own."
He was well aware that an acid pen makes entertaining reading, and his writings still have the power to make one laugh, and even sometimes to think. His prose style is often brilliant, forcing one's admiration even when one profoundly disagrees with him, and he is one of the most imitated writers in American letters. Unfortunately, his prejudices (a word he embraced) often come off as cheap shots or pompous snobbery. The poor and downtrodden, in his view, are simply a pack of boobs and imbeciles, and their poverty is the proof. His review of "The Grapes of Wrath" is titled "Disaster in Moronia," and he dismisses Roosevelt's "new deal" as a vicious and cynical ploy to buy the votes of an idiot majority.
Indeed, though he considered himself a free-thinking iconoclast, Mencken often avoided being part of the herd only to be part of the pack. His racism and occasional anti-Semitism are often cited against him, but in fact he was generally contemptuous of the weak, whatever their race or religion. He thought as little of the mass of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or even of Germans, the nationality closest to his heart.
Mencken found America to be a haven for the second-rate. A Europhile from birth, he considered Americans intelligent and talented only to the degree that they resembled Europeans. "Mark Twain was a great artist, but his nationality hung around his neck like a millstone," he writes. When Twain, in his comic yokel persona, mocks European culture, Mencken misses the point and sniffs that he is "puritanical." Mencken considered himself the opposite, a drinker, womanizer and bon vivant, but there is a Teutonic heaviness about him that makes one wonder whether he ever had much fun. Twain often described himself as somber, but his satire has a grace and sureness that Mencken could not approach.
And yet, Mencken was in his own way a great man. His ideas poured forth and, if one essay often directly contradicts the next, there is a good deal of wheat among the chaff. His literary opinions have tended to stand the test of time. Not all his favorites are remembered, but many then obscure are now considered classic, and the then-popular writers he disparaged are all long forgotten. (D.H. Lawrence, whose work he dismisses as "blowsy tosh," is the exception, but give it a few more years.)
More important, whatever opinions he held were grasped firmly with both hands and waved in the face of the world, with no apparent regard for popular or professional acclaim. Unlike the self-conscious curmudgeons who populate newspapers today, he was a genuine fighter who more than once went down swinging. He was more hated than loved, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.
And he sure could write. This is not a book to be read at one sitting, but sampled in doses it is a bracing tonic. When, toward the end, he includes a doggerel "Elegy in C Minor," its perfect, easy flow is astonishing, light years away from the attempts of other dilettante versifiers. Mencken has often been praised too high, and sanctification ill becomes him, but there was no one else like him. Forty years after his death, he is remembered and most of his foes are forgotten. And those who attack him will forever have to begrudgingly admit that he could do it better.
By Elijah Wald
It is often said that the mark of a great work of art is that after one has seen it the whole world looks different. Of course, the same can be said for being hit on the head with a brick. Judging by Lawrence Weschler's new book, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is trying to transform its visitors' viewpoints with methods that fall somewhere between these extremes.
Located in Los Angeles, the MJT is the brainchild of one David Wilson, its founder and curator. It is, at first glance, a rather quirky museum of natural history, science and technology. At second glance, it is...well, actually, that is kind of a difficult question.
Take the exhibit on Donald Griffith, noted bat expert, and his studies in South America on the (make ital.) deprong mori, or "piercing devil,'' an animal which can fly through solid walls. Griffith discovered this creature to be a bat, (make ital.) Myotis lucifugus, and managed to trap a specimen in a wall of solid lead. Now, there is a Don Griff(make ital.)in; he was a coworker of my parents and I remember the darkroom full of wires where he tested his discovery of bat sonar. Weschler hunts him up in the course of the book and asks him about the MJT exhibit, and the result is a mutual agreement that maybe in this case Griff(make ital.)ith is not a mis-spelling after all.
Which is to say, in a parallel universe the MJT might have the story right, but in this one it seems a bit off kilter. In this case. In others, it doesn't. Some of the exhibits are absolutely straight by any standard, on loan from respected natural history collections. Others seem perfectly plausible, though Weschler has trouble finding any outside confirmation. Some just leave him scratching his head in utter bafflement as to what they mean and why anyone would care.
David Wilson does not seem inclined to provide any answers. Indeed, he seems to regard the confusion of reality and fiction as at least a salutory spur to thought, and possibly a great truth. Which leaves Weschler amused, bemused, and with a great story on his hands. The first half of "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder,'' an expanded version of a piece Weschler published in Harper's, attempts to replicate
the experience of a visit to the MJT, confusion and all. Starting as a tour guide, Weschler proceeds to peel away layers of fact, interviewing scientists and museum contributors and searching libraries for dusty volumes cited in Wilson's notes.
The wonderful thing is that, the more he searches, the more fact and fiction seem to intertwine. Wilson is building a world of his own, loosely based on reality and overlapping it in many places. Or maybe it is the same world we all live in and he is just doing what other natural scientists have been doing all along, but in a funnier way. Except, he seems quite serious.
Weschler is pretty serious as well, and his deadpan exposition is perfectly suited to the subject. It is so perfect, in fact, that at first I wondered whether he had made the whole thing up. The first section, "Inhaling the Spore,'' is a complete pleasure, drawing on the sort of absurdist erudition that informs Melville's weighty chapters on cetology. In the second section, "Cerebral Growth,'' he moves further afield, relating the MJT to the Wunderkammern, or "wonder cabinets'' of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual shift from magic and alchemy to science. (There are also some 40 pages of notes, a scholarly touch that nicely matches his theme.)
Weschler points out that magic and science were for a long time interwoven, and applauds Wilson for restoring a sense of wonder and poetry to a field that the victory of pure science has made prosaic. One might wish that he had taken that idea a little farther and questioned how real or pure our modern scientific knowledge really is, but that would be a lot to ask of such a slim and engaging volume.
As it is, Weschler muses about the origins of museums, the separation of science and art, and the need for wonder, singular and subjective, as well as for wonders, be they natural or technological. If the majority of his cited texts are from the last five years, suggesting that he has not delved as deeply as he might, the questions he raises are still provocative and his enthusiasms contagious. Like the MJT visitor who paused, fascinated, before Wilson's quite ordinary pencil sharpener, one emerges from this book struck with the oddity of almost everything. It is a profoundly salutory feeling.