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Discussion in 'The Reading Room' started by Lancealot, Aug 13, 2006.
Ambrose Bierce is just fantastic.
The other night I pulled I.F. Stone's The War Years 1939-45 from the shelf, a collection of his commentaries
writ for The Nation. And he just gutted a Wall Street snake whom had slipped inside the Treasury Department
under Roosevelt's $1-a-year-man program. Just eviscerated the bastard. The second column, a 1940 piece
examined aviation industry fat cats who spoiled for more after millions in non-recourse loans, plant retooling,
and a guaranteed subsidized profit per plane; and, again, Stone just cut these thieves with old fashioned
hard hitting journalism. His pen was sceptered and honed to a razor's edge against a strop of hard fact.
I know I. F. Stone from his book "the trial of Socrates". He is great. Not surprisingly he is a kind of hero to many reporters.
And lawyers Martin. Late in life Stone mastered ancient Greek to examine the trial record as writ in fact,
legend, and supposition found in surviving contemporary Athenian, philosophic reportage. Stone put the question
to Socrates, the unanswered hanging questions of his philosophy and sacrifice.
The Americanization of Emily arrived, but Sloane's 'associate' wait-listed until Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights read.
Reading The Great Gatsby for the first time since I was in grade school. Oh, lord--folks say I'm cynical about women: "Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply. . . "
There are more astonishing passages of descriptive language in that book than in dozens of equally "classic" novels. The observations from Carraway's father, and the closing lines which include "...boats against the current..." linger on in one's mind (well, in my mind at least). The characters are not really likable, more to be pitied, but Fitzgerald moves us seamlessly though their lives.
I agree with all you said, with the possible exception of Nick, who while flawed, still seemed to keep his moral compass reasonable well set in the crazy immoral world of "the Eggs."
Having finished my annual "Confederacy of Dunces" reread, I've moved on to what stands at the moment as the most reliable biography of its author. "Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces," by Cory Mclauchlan.
Toole is the will-o-the-wisp of mid-20th Century literature. He wrote two novels during his lifetime, published neither of them, and killed himself when he was 31 years old. One of those novels won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and is a genuine classic of American humor. And yet very little is actually known about the man, how he wrote, and what made him tick. Mclauchlan does the best that can be done with the traces he left behind, tracking his life as a pampered and precocious child in WWII-era New Orleans, his service in the peacetime Army, which he spent on an obscure base in Puerto Rico in a company that seems like something out of a contemporaneous TV sitcom, and his unsuccessful struggle to get "Confederacy" published. The key figure in that struggle is Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb, who liked the book but found it too non-commercial, or even anti-commercial, to sell -- and was willing to work with Toole in revising the manuscript, until the author suffered what appears to have been a psychotic break in Gottlieb's office.
Although Toole's mother blamed Gottlieb for her son's suicide, the editor doesn't really come across as the villian of the story -- rather, he comes across as a man who simply didn't get the point of the manuscript and wanted Toole to turn it into something it could never be. (I used to take acting classes from Gottlieb's ex-wife long ago, and she painted him as one who, once he made up his mind on something, was not likely to change his view. He comes across very much that way here.)
Having read this book, though, I still don't really know who Toole really was. Theories abound about him among fans of his work, but Mclauchlan doesn't really speculate beyond pointing out what real-life figures in his personal circle were the models for the characters in "Confederacy" -- a teaching colleague in Louisiana seems to have been Ignatius J. Reilly in the very flesh, and McLauchlan suggests a young woman Toole may or may not have had an affair with when he taught at Hunter might have been the original Myrna Minkoff. But there's no sense of who Toole himself was -- he seems to have been a rather sardonic figure who floated thru his own life without ever really letting anyone fully inside. I now know more of the outlines of that life than I did before -- but I'm left more curious than ever about what really motivated Toole, and what drove him to his final destiny.
Eons ago I tried Toole, never made it through Dunces, but recognizing his innate genius later picked up a biography
to gain some measure of the man. I failed in this as Toole remained enigmatic, his suicide particularly grated and
the primary sources for the coverage were themselves distant mercurial sorts; one of whom I recall challenged the
veracity of his commentary as recorded by the author; whose name eludes recollection. Toole remains interesting.
Mclauchlan is certainly worth a look.
Yep, you're probably thinking of "Ignatius Rising," which was the first attempt at a Toole bio about twenty years ago, and which was repudiated by just about everyone who had known Toole himself. Mclauchlan avoids the kind of sensationalistic excess of the earlier book, but you can only get so far with a man who seemed determined not to be Known.
Working my way thru a stack of "Ken" magazines from 1938-39.
"Ken" was arguably the most notable publishing flop of the 1930s, and it didn't have to have been. The magazine was a project of David Smart and Arnold Gingrich, the publisher-editor team behind the success of "Esquire," and was conceived as a left-leaning alternative to the rightward slant of all mass-circulation magazines of the day. The idea was to produce a large-format, well-illustrated cross between an opinion journal and the "Life" type of picture magazine, with pieces by some of the leading writers and journalists of the day without allowing editorial policy to be controlled, thru advertisers, by the National Association of Manufacturers. It was a noble idea, but as the actual magazines reveal, it fell quite a bit short in the execution.
Smart and Gingrich lined up some impressive talent for the project -- among those publicized as editors for the magazine were crusading journalist George Seldes, radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing, and Ernest Hemingway, who would provide exclusive coverage of the Spanish Civil War from a Spanish-Republican point of view. But even before the first issue came out in the spring of 1938, it was clear to the participants that something wasn't quite right about the project. Seldes made his participation conditional on the promise that there would be no political censorship tied to advertiser pressure, but it became obvious that Smart and Gingrich had no intention of following thru on this and he quit. Hemingway agreed to continue writing from Spain, but only on the proviso that his articles be preceded by a disclaimer that he in no way was connected to the administration of the magazine.
When the magazine came out, Seldes was furious with the "red-baiting cartoons" Gingrich and Smart had inserted in order to assure advertisers that the magazine was no threat to the hegemony of the NAM, and he denounced the magazine -- remaining bitter over the experience for the rest of his long life. Advertisers, even though Smart and Gingrich bent over backwards to placate them by inserting treacly editorials praising the advertising profession as a cornerstone of a free society declined to rally behind the magazine, and the appearance of such content did nothing to attract the loyalty of the magazine's intended audience. By the middle of 1938, "Ken" carried very little advertising of consequence, and its circulation was tanking. It expired in mid-1939, and in Seldes' words, "no one ever missed it."
The tragedy of "Ken" is that some of it was very very good. Its covers, featuring intense close-up paintings of faces linked to the theme of each issue were striking and effective -- the August 25, 1938 issue, for example, featuring an article exposing the debutante racket, features a stark, unsettling image of a generic Brenda Frazier-ish glamour girl whose dead and empty gaze reveals more than even the article could.
The July 14th issue, with a detailed examination of Nazi indoctrination camps for small children, shows a blond-and-blue-eyed Aryan baby with the shadow of a bayonet cast across his face.
With covers like these, "Ken" looked like nothing else on the newsstand in the summer of 1938.
The articles, however, were a mixed bag. Hemingway's pieces from Spain were classic Hemingway reportage, and muckraker John L. Spivak offered several fine piece of investigative journalism. Raymond Swing contributed a thoughtful essay on the need for a non-commercial publicly-owned broadcasting network in the US, prefiguring the rise of PBS by thirty years. World news gets heavy coverage, with a strong anti-Fascist tone -- the magazine was among the first American publications to go behind the scenes in a Nazi concentration camp, with a piece on Dachau that's extremely disturbing in its matter-of-factness, and there's a piece on the Rape of Nanking that actually gave me nightmares. The magazine covered the cultural scene with a gimlet eye, and was refreshingly candid in its examination of the superficial stupidity of the Hollywood scene. But alongside its worthwhile content were such ridiculous red-baiting articles as "My Daughter Married A Communist!," the sort of cheap yellow tripe that sends you looking to the masthead for the name of Bernarr Macfadden.
Worst of all, though, is the physical layout of the magazine. Instead of placing the photo spreads alongside the articles that accompany them, all the picture content is grouped in the center section of the magazine. There's an obvious reason for this -- the photos are printed on quality slick paper, while the text section has to settle for cheap coated newsprint, a cut-corner technique that does not flatter the magazine at all. Even worse, the text sections are laid out in an exasperating four-column format that strains the eye and confuses the reader -- one article seems to blend immediately into the next, and you're constantly shifting your eye around to figure out exactly where one ends and the other begins. The effect is less that of a well-put-together, high-class publication and more that of a cheesy Sunday supplement.
"Ken" didn't end well for anyone. The magazine lost a fortune for "Esquire," which might, in fact, have been the intention all along: not long after it folded, David Smart went to prison in a two-million-dollar stock rigging scheme, leading to the speculation that, perhaps, the whole "Ken" venture was an attempt to cover his tracks. Seldes and Hemingway weren't fooled, and as it turned out, nobody else on the Left was either.
As her Court tenure draws closure, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's written commentary gain increased notice.
Her brief, The Role of Dissenting Opinions, 95 Minn L Rev 1/2010 which I would like to follow with the film,
On The Basis of Sex; although since I still haven't seen Brad Pitt's Moneyball, whenever.
Am enjoying “Three Stones Make a Wall; the story of archaeology” by Eric H. Cline. I confess that, to a degree, I’m trying to recapture the awe and excitement that I got when I read “Gods, Graves, and Scholars” when I was a teenager. Cline notes that GG&S was a big influence on him when he was a pup too. Anyway, Three Stones is a worthy update, if you will. It’s refreshing me on all the classic cases AND briefing me on all the important discoveries and developments in the field that have occurred in the last 50 years. Also the book has a few “how to” chapters that are interesting. My only small quibbles are that he sometimes repeats himself and that he is a bit arrogant. He has nothing but distain for amateurs and “pseudo-archaeologists”. He conveniently forgets that many of his heroes from the early days of archaeology were exactly that: amateurs. But the book is a fun review of archaeology as it stands today, and also a very brief overview of the long view of human history.
I think Ceram was cited as an influence by at least half of my anthro professors (Indiana Jones was a major influence for the rest).
I'm working my way, not thru college, but thru a short stack of "James Madison's Monthly Radio Humorist," a mid-1930s trade publication for radio comedians and comedy writers.
This "James Madison" has nothing to do with the powdered-wig guy of the same name. This particular Madison was a turn-of-the-century vaudeville comedian who became quite well known among the slapshoe-and-bladder fraternity for "Madison's Budget," an annual compilation of gags, cross-talk routines, and one-liners that was mined for many years by middle-of-the-bill funsters. "Monthly Radio Humorist" is Madison's attempt to remain relevant, with bits written especially for broadcast use by solo comics, by double acts, and by he-and-she teams.
The material ranges from simple wisecracks to fully-written five-to-eight-minute routines. And, alas for Brother Madison, it's pretty shopworn stuff. Fred Allen wouldn't use this material to fumigate his apartment, but I'm pretty sure I've heard some of it being used by the likes of Pick and Pat, and I imagine small local stations could get some use out of some of the gags. especially those stations that went in for "personality" morning shows, home-talent minstrel/variety/amateur shows, and such as that. The magazine -- or rather, the top-stapled packet of mimeographed pages, doesn't come cheap -- a dollar a copy or $10 a year -- so Madison was under pressure to make his stuff good. He didn't always rise to the occasion.
The June 1936 issue is typical. The front page editorial seems pretty defensive, with Madison declaring that he's been an author of comedy material for over twenty-five years, but feels as young and active in mind, body, and viewpoint as he did thirty years ago. And he stresses "all of my comedy material has always been sold on a money-back guarantee." So let's get to it.
Here's something that looks promising, a routine for two men entitled "Blitz and Blotz Discuss What's Wrong With This Country." But it turns out to be a bit that looks like something Smith and Dale might have left under the bed in a hotel room, with Blitz and Blotz reaching the conclusion that the best way to solve America's problems is for Uncle Sam to sail to Europe and then pretend to be a Frenchman asking for foreign aid. I think I might have actually heard Eddie Cantor use a variation on this line, which suggests just how hokey it was even by 1936 standards.
The male-female crosstalk routines offer Tim-and-Irene-level variations on the Burns and Allen formula, without understanding what made Burns and Allen work: "I sent her out to get me a Corona-Corona, and she came back with two typewriters." Okey then. And then there's a bit headed, as God and Dave Freedman are my witnesses, "Luke and Lizzie," in which the following exchange is provided:
Luke -- They ought to call you "Kaffee Hag."
Lizzie -- Why would they call me "Kaffee Hag?"
Luke -- Because everything's been extracted from the bean.
(See, Kaffee Hag was a brand of decaffeinated coffee, and -- oh, hell, if you have to explain it, it won't work...)
Most of the rest of the stuff in these issues is of the same vein -- maybe funny if you squint, but if you know *good* mid-thirties comedy, it's obvious that Mr. Madison is long past his writing prime. Consider:
"William Haines, former movie star, was explaining to the well-known picture star Jean Muir that he now decorates houses -- according to the personality of the client. "How do you work that?" asked the blonde young beauty. "Take my house for example. Downstairs, it is severely plain, almost masculine, upstairs it is frilly and feminine. What would you suggest for me?"
"I'd suggest," answered Haines, "that you make up your mind."
Now, if I may play comedy editor for just a moment here, Mr. Madison has missed the boat on this one. All he has to do is change "Jean Muir" to "Tallulah Bankhead," and he's got a whole different kind of joke that works on multiple levels. The censor might not like it, but I would.
As we are about to embark on a 3 month sojourn thru the western states, Texas and into Appalachia I picked up a copy of Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charley' at my local used book store. I have not read any of Steinbeck since I was a teenager and that was a long time ago. The book is a wow, what a great writer he is. The intention was to take it on the road but I started it and could not put it down so now I am heading back to the used book store to rediscover more of his work.
Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; Travels with Charlie-all of his canon really cast a spell uniquely his own.
He visited Vietnam and carried a civilian rifle, not a military issue weapon. The passage in Travels with Charlie
when he recounts zeroing a rifle dovetails his preferred weapon carry. Tidbits of memory scattered across
time's literary landscape.
Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" might just be the finest forgotten novel in the 20th Century American literary canon.