Close to the Bone: Mary Robison Reconsidered

On a dormant blog called “Gordon Lish Edited This” there are some blurry photographs of a personal letter on Alfred A. Knopf letterhead—a blurb request—that Lish sent to someone named Bill, to accompany the uncorrected proof of a book he had acquired. It was February of 1979:

I stood on my left ear to work up special notice for Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah, for their stories, and I do not think my will to raise a rumpus for these two young writers was thereafter judged too assertive or misplaced. Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Hannah’s Airships have proved themselves notable additions to the record of the contemporary American short story, and I am of a mind in that account. I am also of a mind to think the same will be proved of Mary Robison’s Days.

Robison was thirty at the time. Today she is the author of eight books, six of which are being reissued by Counterpoint throughout 2018-19. The project began in January with her novel Why Did I Ever, followed in May by Tell Me: 30 Stories. Two novels, Subtraction and One D.O.A. One on the Way, appeared in September. Her first novel, Oh!, and her early story collections (Days, Believe Them, and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night) will round out the package in 2019, to coincide—wittingly or otherwise—with the fortieth anniversary of her debut.*

I understand why Counterpoint chose Why Did I Ever as the inaugural title in the reissue series. It’s arguably her best-known work, having achieved something approaching cult-classic status—at least among the MFA set. The book is written in 536 numbered sections (some have titles, some don’t), most of them small enough to fit on an index card. Here’s Robison describing the composition process to Bomb magazine in 2001: “I would go out, take a notebook. Or drive, or park wherever and take notes. . . . Some berserk conversation I overheard. The crap on the radio. This big, brilliant cat. Ridiculous weather. Then it was months before I read over the scribbles and realized they had a steady voice, and that there were characters and themes.”

Three ex-husbands or whoever they were.

I’m sure they have their opinions.

I would say to them, “Peace, our timing was bad, the light was ugly, things didn’t work out.” I’d say, “Although you certainly were doing your all, now weren’t you.”

I would say, “Drink!”

That’s section 4 of the novel presented in its entirety. It is short enough to tweet (I checked) but then so are Kafka’s aphorisms, Martial’s epigrams, and every haiku ever. What makes Robison feel so startlingly contemporary is her sense of humor, the way it toggles between flatness and agitation, exhaustion and incredulity; the way she juxtaposes specificity and vagueness, pivoting from snark (“I’m sure they have their opinions”) into fantasy (all those “I woulds”); the way the acid tone of the prose betrays just a hint of wistfulness, perhaps even regret.

The novelist Adam Wilson, writing in the online journal 4 Columns, rightly describes Why Did I Ever as “the spiritual spawn of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and the missing generational link between those and recent works like Jenny Offill’s aphoristic divorce drama Dept. of Speculation, Rachel Khong’s diaristic Alzheimer’s comedy Goodbye, Vitamin, and the entirety of Tao Lin[.]” This genealogy, and specifically Wilson’s notion of a missing link, may contain a clue as to why this particular cultural moment feels optimal for a Robison renaissance.

I remember encountering Why Did I Ever when it was new. I was attracted to the format and thought it was pretty funny, but I couldn’t quite grok what the author was up to. The whole thing seemed, frankly, a little self-indulgent and a little undercooked. Rereading it in 2018, I was floored by its anguished comedy, its bursts of off-kilter poetry, the powerful currents of emotion which its absurdities ride like birds on the wing. The novel no longer reads to me as scattered or obtuse, but rather as scarily authentic and openhearted. It feels true in the deepest sense, which is more than I can say for a good deal of the so-called autofiction that has been sucking up much oxygen of late. What changed? Maybe I’m just older and wiser. Certainly I’m a better reader at thirty-six than I was at nineteen. But it’s more than that. As American life becomes ever more disjunctive and absurd, more perverse and exaggerated at every level, novels that were once taken (indeed, intended) as perversions or exaggerations of reality are lately scanning as downright verisimilar.

Robison studied with John Barth at Johns Hopkins in the mid-seventies. An early champion of her work, Barth introduced her to the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, who published her first story, “Sisters,” in June 1977, and then just kept on publishing her. By the time Days came out in the spring of 1979, the magazine had published nearly half of the stories in it. The next two books appeared quickly: Oh! was published in 1981, followed by An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, in 1983. Lish edited all three.

The year 1983, also when Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Robison’s old Hopkins classmate Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe, and Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” came out. (Hempel’s first book, Reasons to Live, would be published in 1985, also by Lish.) It was the heyday of what became known as minimalism, a term every single one of the not-quite-movement’s not-quite-members detested. “I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting,” Robison told LA Weekly in 2002. “It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in.” Elsewhere they were called the Kmart realists, owing to their tendency to use brand names in their fiction (not a soda but a Coke, not a burger but a Whopper), which they felt was an unskirtable truth of contemporary American life (in this they really were prescient) but which was still regarded in some quarters as déclassé. Robison has said that her preferred label, if she had to succumb to one, would be “subtractionist.”

Anatole Broyard, reviewing Oh! in the New York Times, confessed to having met her work with skepticism, which he soon overcame. He described her writing as “a sort of deliberate counterpoint to the actual, just as in certain kinds of jazz singing, the vocalist sings against the melody. . . . It’s remarkable what an effect you can get if you look at the world upside down.” When An Amateur’s Guide to the Night came out, David Leavitt—whose own minimalist-influenced and Lish-edited debut, Family Dancing, would be published the following year—raved in the Village Voice that “no American short story writer speaks to our time more urgently or fondly than Robison. Word for fucking word, her work demands our attention.”

But vogues, like regimes and tides, rise and fall. By 1988, Kirkus—reviewing Believe Them—was gleefully sneering at the “oh-so-trendy stories by a writer who, with Beattie, Carver, et al., has helped set the (mono) tone for hip contemporary fiction.” That same year, Frederick Barthelme (despite having been relegated to the “et al.”) published an essay in the New York Times called “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans,” in which he noted that “one can’t read a book review these days without encountering the obligatory attack on ‘minimalist’ prose.” 1988 was also the year that Raymond Carver died.

“On Being Wrong” is long, a little loopy, and well worth reading. In it, Barthelme explains that for him and his confederates, minimalism was a reaction to both realism and postmodernism. “The big ‘philosophical’ ideas in realist fiction too often seemed like setups, photo opportunities for the discharge of somebody’s prefab canon in a protected environment.” Postmodernism had rightly rejected this notion, and invented a new approach, but was gradually ossified by conventions of its own. The minimalists’ project was, in essence, to

draw a distinction between realism, standing for a whole system of literary artifice, and representation, standing for only one part of that system. What you figured was you could try some of this representation stuff, and do your dog and cat too, and see what happened. So suddenly you had characters that looked as if you just slowed for them in the parking lot outside the K & B drugstore, but instead of waiting patiently and driving off, as you would in life, now you were talking to them, and they were talking back.

Robison’s second novel, Subtraction, came out in 1991. She was still with Knopf but no longer with Lish, whom she had fired (her word) either during or just after the edits on Amateur’s Guide. “You can understand an editor wanting to put his mark on the fiction,” she told LA Weekly in the 2002 profile. “He was so powerful in those days, and he could be generous and helpful and very sane sometimes. But, oh God, he was an overbearing bullying type of person: so bright you couldn’t dismiss him, but just out of control.”

Michiko Kakutani praised Robison for “breaking out of a minimalistic style, just a little”—which at that point was understood as a worthwhile goal in itself—and called Subtraction her “most powerful and affecting book yet.” Nevertheless, Robison and her cohort were losing ground to the likes of David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, et al. A neomaximalist tide was rising, and a new generation of postmodernists and metafictionists (to use just two of the labels they got stuck with) overtook their forebears in aesthetic primacy and column inches just as surely as Carver, Robison, and Frederick Barthelme had once unseated William Gass, John Hawkes, their teacher Barth, and Frederick’s big brother Donald. One cannot help but think here of Barny, a minor character in Subtraction, a physicist in a poetry workshop led by the novel’s narrator, Paige. He introduces Paige to the concept of enantiotropy: “the method for something becoming its own opposite, which it does because of a critical pressure, usually; becomes the reverse of what it was or ever intended to be.”

The nineties were not good to Robison. She spent them wandering, both literally and figuratively: there were teaching gigs around the country, and stints as a script doctor necessitated occasional trips to Hollywood. Writer’s block hounded her. She divorced her husband, the novelist James Robison, in 1996. When Why Did I Ever came out in 2001, it was published by Counterpoint, which has been her home ever since. They brought out Tell Me: 30 Stories, a career-spanning selection, in 2002, and a new novel, One D.O.A. One on the Way, in 2009. It remains her most recent book to date.

Oh! concerns the wealthy and dissolute Cleveland family, who live somewhere in the Midwest that is or might as well be outside Cleveland. At the center of the book is Mo (short for Maureen), who grew up too fast while somehow also failing to grow up at all. At twenty-four, Mo is the mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Violet, doesn’t seem to have ever held a job, and has no discernible plans beyond cocktail hour. She and her equally aimless brother, Howdy, still live at the family compound with their father, who pays lip service to kicking his fledglings from the nest while doing everything he can to make sure that their wings stay clipped. Orbiting the Clevelands are Lola, their longtime housekeeper; Stephanie, daughter of the groundskeeper and sudden love interest of Howdy’s; Mr. Cleveland’s girlfriend, an evangelical Christian who hosts a local TV show for children; and Chris, Violet’s father, who returns from an inexplicable six-month sojourn to Canada looking to set things right with Mo.

Oh! is a very funny novel about deeply broken people who—like alcoholics, which most of them also are—badly need each other for mostly bad reasons. There’s a helicopter, a tornado, some sex, a fire, and a lot of drinking, but nobody changes much and nothing gets particularly resolved. This, to me, is the tell that for all their childishness, Robison understands the Clevelands to be adults, and that the novel itself is not about protracted adolescence, but rather about adulthood—the deflating fact of it, and how we come to grips.

Alcoholism, arrested development, and abrupt disappearance would prove themselves signature Robison themes. We find them all again in Subtraction, which is narrated by the poet Paige Deveaux. She’s on leave from her job at Harvard and in search of her erstwhile husband, the darkly charismatic and sexually voracious Raf, who has gone on the lam from Cambridge—and their marriage. Raf is a Princeton dropout who “would sign on to any crew doing anything, provided he could get away with drinking while he worked.” His only remaining link to the life of the mind would seem to be Paige herself. Maybe that’s the problem? It can’t be a desire to sleep around, since he already does that and Paige for the most part doesn’t care. Anyway, Paige tracks Raf to Houston, where she teams up with his old friend Raymond, another Princetonian-turned-manual-labor-lifer, but a sober one.

Raf and Raymond have a yin-and-yang relationship to each other, and it may be that neither is any good—or at least any good to Paige—without the other. Raymond helps Paige find Raf, who immediately diagnoses his wife and his friend as in love with each other. He’s correct, of course, and encourages them to consummate, which doesn’t help the situation. “This is a different record you’re playing,” Paige says to Raymond when he abruptly comes on to her in the car. “No,” he replies, “It’s the flip side of the same.” It feels like the truest thing he’s ever said, and could be the novel’s motto. Indeed, it could be Robison’s. Enantiotropy über alles!

When, midway through the novel, Raf disappears a second time, it feels less like a development than a doubling-down. Here’s how Raymond explains it to Paige: “Raf’s like me. I mean, he’s not anything but roach for leaving you behind, but otherwise he’s just wobbly and can’t trust what he thinks or sees. He’s not running from you, he’s just running.” This makes sense to Paige, who decides to finally sleep with Raymond and then get the hell out of Houston—two fine ideas. She makes her way back to the Northeast, where she holes up at a seaside motel managed by her mother, Dottie, an affable stoner who also writes a column for the local paper on “conscience shopping.” Inevitably, both Raf and Raymond wind up there, along with a troupe of high-concept performance artists seeking refuge from a monster snowstorm.

Subtraction doesn’t progress so much as it distills. I’m not going to play the Harold Bloom game of claiming that it is her “best” novel (I don’t know if it is, and if it is—so what?) but it is definitely my favorite one. It feels to me like the book where Robison blossoms into the fullness of her talent, the moment when the squinky genius of her worldview achieves communion with her exactingly subtracted prose. Oh! is a good book, but limited (in spots even stifled) by its third-person point of view, which can hardly help but intensify minimalism’s bias toward surfaces and, yes—though I’m sorry to say it—monotony. Similarly, the early stories, from Days and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, are hit and miss for me. All of them are, on a technical level, enviable; many are impressive, a few are moving, and I can see why Lish regarded them (and her) so highly. But they have aged less well than the novels. Moreover, when I pore over my copy of Tell Me, it tends to be the first-person pieces that draw me back. These include “An Amateur’s Guide to the Night,” “Father, Grandfather,” “I Am Twenty-One,” “What I Hear,” “Mirror,” and “In Jewel.” (Of course there are also some great stories written in the third person, such as “Coach,” “Likely Lake,” and “Yours.”) What can seem like affect or mannerism when described from without becomes a way of seeing, a mode of being, when narrated from within. Here, for example, is Paige describing the snowstorm:

I passed a parched orchard, electric towers shaped like huge party dresses, a cluster of floodlights trained on a gorge, a white bowling alley blinking in the late sun, trees with rusty pine cones, fields of twisted weeds, crowd scenes of cattails.

And tires along the roadside; parts and strips and hunks, and some were whole.

The sky shook loose more snow.

Subtraction is also the first work of Robison’s to boast a deep sense, a lived sense, of place. Oh! is set, as mentioned, in the Ohioish Midwest, which is where a lot of the stories take place as well. Robison rarely names a city, and it doesn’t seem to matter much when she does. I suspect this interchangeability, this anywhereness, is purposeful (the stories nearly all date from the high Kmart realist era, and the whole point of a Kmart is that it’s the same everywhere you go) but that doesn’t make me like it any better. In Subtraction, on the other hand, Houston itself becomes a character: “The downtown buildings—banks and towers from before the crash—with their height and cool angles and slick panes, loomed close but unreal as Oz beside these junkyard streets. . . . The temperature was a hundred and seven. The air smelled of crude oil. It felt wet but there would be no rain, not here or anywhere else according to the headline of the Chronicle.” Paige knows this place—and so does Robison, who taught at the University of Houston before decamping to the University of Southern Mississippi (in Hattiesburg), before decamping to the University of Florida (in Gainesville). And thus another reason that I love Subtraction: it is here that Robison reveals herself not just as an extraordinary writer of “place” in general, but of the South in particular, and the lesser-sung South at that. From Houston to New Orleans and from Southern Mississippi across Alabama and into the Florida Panhandle, Robison is one of the Gulf Coast’s unlikeliest and most ardent bards.

The narrator of Why Did I Ever is a woman named Money Breton. Like Mr. Cleveland in Oh!, Money has two grown children who keep her good and sick with worry; their sorrows are part of the grammar of her life. Money’s daughter, Mev, is a recovering heroin addict who struggles to hold down a job in the meat department of the local grocery store. Money and Mev both live in Melanie, which I understand to be a stand-in for Hattiesburg. Money’s son Paulie, who lives in New York, has been the victim of a brutal sexual assault and finds himself under twenty-four-hour protective police custody, awaiting the results of an AIDS test and the trial of his rapist, at which he will testify.

Money is a script doctor who has been fired from almost every studio in Hollywood. Her beloved cat, Flower Girl, has gone missing. She’s a Ritalin addict and a compulsive forger: of paintings, of inscriptions in books, of a marriage to Sean Penn. She suspects that at some point in the recent past “my personality fractured and I became a multiple,” a dubious claim that cannot be fully discounted, since she does have a habit of carrying on entire conversations with herself and occasionally says things like, “Now I don’t remember anything. Nothing. Well, I remember bits of this and that but not much. And sleep was when?” (That’s all of section 216, in case you want to go ahead and tweet it.)

Money spends most of her time in her car, driving with or without destination, because she prefers motion to stasis. She knows that if she stops, or even slows down, something awful will catch up with her, whether that’s a notice of back taxes owed or a confrontation with the full reality of what has happened to her son. Here’s section 140:

I drive under morning stars along the Perdido River, through thirty miles of barrens. Now and then a barn’s side advertises maize or syrup or something else I wouldn’t buy.

I should turn back. Florida is a horrible toilet. There are a zillion snakes woven into this road and those clouds over there mean God’s coming.

As a native Floridian, let me just say, Amen. But of course, nobody can run forever (section 264):

I take the corner booth at IHOP, where perhaps I can last until two. Thinking about my lean and suntanned son. Weeping into a napkin. Ignoring a short stack and a side of links that, anyway, would be tastier if I ate their depiction on the menu.

I have long thought pharmaceutical drugs were the solution and I was right about that and that’s correct. Still, you have to consider, with even the best prescription drugs, who it is who’s taking them.

To be clear, there are scenes longer than two hundred eighty characters—some go a whole page or more—and the novel isn’t just a super-cut of one-liners and riffs. It’s like watching an epic Twitter thread spin out in real time, but only in the most superficial ways, and those as a result of Robison’s extraordinary ear for language and instinct for structure. The extent to which her work feels artless is the precise extent to which we should admire Robison’s command of her art. The novel feels antic, random, and tossed-off because Robison has achieved that superlative unity of voice, style, and character known as total effect. Every sentence is clean as a sun-bleached bone, and scenes rarely start or end where you think they would, but there is always meaning being made, withholding and then revealing itself like a well-bluffed hand of cards. Much of the pleasure of reading Robison is in the way she jukes and swerves, the way she creates narrative gaps for the sheer thrill of leaping them, an Evel Knievel of the section break.

There’s a clear sense of evolution (or, again, distillation) from Subtraction to Why Did I Ever, and from there to One D.O.A. One on the Way, the shortest and by far the darkest of Robison’s novels. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, D.O.A. revisits many of Robison’s signature motifs (doubles, drunks, adultery, family money) but updates and complicates her interest in them. Eve, the narrator, is married to Adam, who lives in his family’s mansion in the—wait for it—Garden District. She works as a freelance location scout for film production companies, though the gigs have largely dried up since the storm came through. Eve doesn’t live at the mansion, but she spends a lot of time there. Sometimes Eve gets Adam confused with his identical twin brother, Saunders, a lecherous drunk. How confused, you ask? Very confused—at least twice.

Structurally, the novel is identical to Why Did I Ever, with numbered sections (a mere 225 this time) grouped into chapters, while in terms of cast and premise it feels like a throwback to Oh! The Broussard family is a more sinister iteration of the Clevelands, and there’s something about Adam and Saunders, the way they both resent and require each other, that has as much to do with Mo and Howdy as it does with Raymond and Raf. D.O.A. is a more severe book than Why Did I Ever, and a more cynical one as well. Eve is as shrewd an observer as Paige or Money, and she’s often just as funny (“I’m on a sofa, involved in hating my in-laws for their wealth”) but her rambunctious rambles about the city and its surrounding countryside, bayous, levies, and other backdrop-worthy places are interspersed with grim little listicles. These come in three varieties: facts about post-Katrina New Orleans (“86,000 families still inhabit FEMA trailers”); things Eve has lost or is quitting (“No more drinking from the milk cartons in the dairy section of the store”); and a comparative analysis of different kinds of gun holsters (“Groin Holsters, for example, stay under your waistband, and once in place, don’t restrict your movements at all”). We begin to see the purpose in the punning names of the main characters: life after the apocalypse has collapsed into life before the fall. The two conditions have what you might call an enantiotropic relationship; either one can become the other because they both take place outside of history, in the time outside of time.

In Subtraction the drama is staked entirely on Paige: Will she find Raf? Can they work things out? What might “work things out” even mean, in the context of this particular marriage? And why, even if things can be worked out, should she want to do so? In Why Did I Ever, Money, like Paige, is one of her own biggest problems, but her daughter Mev’s drug addiction really exists, and she has no control over it; the same is true of the man who violated her son. Her cat is actually missing. The IRS is definitely going to come for what they’re owed. Money may be crazy, but not crazier than the world she inhabits. It’s even arguable that some of her behavior—those all-night drives, or her total disdain for Hollywood—are fundamentally sane responses to fundamentally insane stimuli, such as being ordered to rewrite Bigfoot as a romantic lead, or living in Hattiesburg (excuse me, in “Melanie”), Mississippi.

D.O.A.’s Eve is screwy but clear-eyed, and she’s less concerned with the absurdity of life in an uncaring, ungoverned universe (though she worries about that, too) than with a city abandoned by its leaders, left first to drown and then to rot. Evil, in other words, willfully and cruelly inflicted by the powerful upon the weak. The novel, for all its narrowness (the principal characters are white, with privilege to burn) has a moral compass. One D.O.A. One on the Way is a howl of rage, but also a holler of resistance. And a declaration of loyalty. Eve has seen New Orleans in all its glory and squalor, at its best and at its worst. It has tried to kill her and it may now be full of killers, but it is also full of life and promise and she chooses to love it without hesitation. “I’m not from here and I’ll probably never get used to things,” Eve says early on, “but I doubt if I’ll ever leave.” Later, in what might be my favorite passage in the whole novel (section 94):

The temperature has dropped below eighty-five, so my windows are open, and there’s a breeze carrying in smells of molasses, oranges, chicory, papayas, camellias, rum, sorghum, powdered sugar, gumbo, newspapers, dogs, road tar, cigars, garbage, étouffée, perfumed women, babies, lumber, jambalaya, sex, car exhaust, saltwater, bourbon, horses, manure, coffee, absinthe, roses, seafood, urine, Tabasco, crawfish, prostitutes, lemonade, barbecue, pianos, sweat, the river, bananas.

I love the way this sentence is both epic and static, the way it overwhelms you with sensory detail while being an entirely passive construction. Jam-packed as it is, the sentence offers a welcome moment of stillness and grace in the midst of the novel’s rush, inexorable as the rising tide, toward the violence promised by its title. Even as the smells paint a panoramic portrait of city life, the only thing in motion is the evening breeze.

A note on the copyright page of Tell Me reveals that the pieces from Days and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night (some seventeen of the thirty stories selected) have been restored to the versions that ran in the New Yorker, replacing the versions that appeared in the original collections. Put another way: she chose Roger Angell’s edits over Gordon Lish’s. I’m just enough of a geek for this stuff that I did some side-by-side comparisons, and for the most part the changes appear minor: Lish will condense a phrase or cut a line of description; he’ll break up an already-short paragraph into a staccato string of two or three single-sentence paragraphs; he’ll add a section break early on to give the story a more sliced-and-diced feel. The title of “Happy Boy, Allen” (which first appeared in the Mississippi Review) was changed to the decidedly more Carver-ish “You Know Charles” in Amateur’s Guide. In Tell Me it’s back to the original. There are places where one senses Lish nudging Robison to be bleaker, blanker, a little more obtuse than she might otherwise have been. But other than the butchered ending of the Amateur’s Guide version of “Coach” (from which Lish cut an entire page, effectively sabotaging the story), they really were just nudges—or else Robison did a better job standing her ground than Carver did. That in mind, I’m not sure what the impetus is to reissue An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, especially in light of the fact that eight of its thirteen stories are included in Tell Me. Anyone looking for the equivalent of Let It Be . . . Naked or Carver’s Beginners is going to be sorely disappointed.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: the minimalists met with the most success, individually and in aggregate, as story writers. They came to prominence through magazine publications. Some (Carver, Hempel) never wrote novels, and even those who did have tended to fare better in the short form (Hannah, Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason). Because Robison’s style is elliptical, and because her novels are short and appear so rarely (every ten years or so), it has been too easy for too long to consider Robison a member of this second category. But all three of Robison’s story collections are from the first decade of her career (1977–88). There are only six previously uncollected stories in Tell Me: “What I Hear” was published in the New Yorker in 1998; “Likely Lake,” and “Father, Grandfather” were published in the Paris Review and LA Weekly, respectively, both in 2002, apparently as part of the promotional cycle for the book. The other three are stories that the New Yorker published in the seventies and eighties but which didn’t, for whatever reason, make it into the collections of that era. One, “The Help,” is either an excerpt from or an embryonic version of Oh!

For the most part, I could take or leave Robison’s stories, and the sense I get is that so could she. Her major work has always been her slim, feral, sublime novels. Maybe now that we’ve got them all in front of us at once it will be easier to see that plain.

We are all subtractionists now. Meme-savvy and permalancing, it is not news to us that surface is the new depth, or that the middle class is a fever dream from which we are being kicked awake. Our lives are perverse and exaggerated. Adults use the word “adulting” to denote those rare occasions when circumstance conscripts them into behaving like adults. Mother Nature has disowned us; she’s so fed up she’s tossing Louisiana into the sea. Hit the refresh button and the screen fills with white space: a section break. Oh wait, here’s something. The movie with the fish-monster as the romantic lead has won the Oscar. The President wants a war with Canada. Here’s to the return of Mary Robison, addled queen of enantriopy. Long may she reign.

*An earlier version of this review omitted Days and Believe Them from the list of titles to be released in 2019.

This Is the Beginning of Writing

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.

—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse





I often come across writers I love talking about the beginnings of what they do. Why and where it starts, what gets in its way. It’s a preoccupation of the essay, you might say. A trope. I suppose I’m only now noticing it because I’m at the beginning of a few projects, trying to decide which to devote myself to first. Each has its own hold on me; each requires the exclusion of the others. If I make a decision in any of several directions, that’s the next few years of my life.

I’m at the beginning of another kind of project too, a more personal one, a project of self-definition or self-assertion. It comes down to asking for more than I’ve had in my marriage, wondering if perhaps what I’ve been settling for is enough. Again: my future, and someone else’s, hang in the balance, here at the beginning—or is it somewhere toward the end?

There is someone off to the side, making it difficult to see what I have or could have, generating work that I didn’t count on or allow for. I won’t go toward this person, except in writing, but in writing, I am willing to go very far. I think.

The beginning of writing, like the beginning of love, is a period of risk.






Roland Barthes wrote a whole book about being kept in a state of unfulfilled longing by his erstwhile lover. He writes that it is futile to write to this lover, because the utopia or atopia of language (as he calls it) can never bridge the gap between them. He tries anyway.

Like Barthes, I do not believe that writing will cause me to be loved by this person on the side, but the attempt both reveals and conceals an impulse, a going-toward, that we all share: me, Barthes, and the side-person (that is, you).

As It Was Give(n) to Me

Representing place is a complicated negotiation. How can a photographer demystify stereotypes, represent culture, sum up experience, and interpret memory and history? The following images are excerpted from As It Was Give(n) to Me, a book that attempts to answer that question using images of exploration and extraction in Appalachia today.

At one time, the federal government believed it could eradicate poverty in the United States. The War on Poverty initiated by President John F. Kennedy and implemented by Lyndon B. Johnson was a radical policy initiative: billions of dollars were doled out to programs to solve the problem of poverty in America and turn it into the “Great Society” it was meant to be. In the Appalachian states where these photographs were taken—eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, and southern Ohio—this grand gesture attempted to undo the region-wide devastation caused by the coal industry in the first half of the century, which poisoned the waters and obliterated the mountains, offering little or nothing in return to the people who lived there.

Photographers descended on the region, and Appalachia became the poster child for American poverty, a reputation that has haunted its people ever since. The producers of these images likely had the best of intentions, but they did more harm than good. No community is reducible to its gravest problems, and the unfair stereotypes—think moonshine, diabetes, feuding, inbreeding, bigotry—only further alienated a group of people who already felt ostracized from the “Great Society.”  As I began to make work in the region, it became clear that I was part of the legacy of photographers whose use of the medium fueled further problems.

I realized I had come to Appalachia with a fantasy of what I wanted it to be—an amalgamation of Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee novels, the CBS miniseries Christy, and other sources—and that this fantasy collided with my desire to realistically portray the places I visited and the people I met. My work in Appalachia is about the tension between the two. I do not want to make images that reinforce views of Appalachia as a poverty-ridden region, but I do not want to ignore the poverty I encounter. Selectively showcased positivity would be as problematic a way of looking as the negative stereotypes it’s meant to counteract. Instead I have chosen to carve out a path that makes no claims to an authoritative view of the region. The work destabilizes the certainty that the meaning of things can ever be perfectly “known” at all. I’ve come to Appalachia to open up a new kind of narrative, one that examines our understanding of culture and place while inhabiting the space between arguments about right and wrong.


Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, 2012.



Grundy, Virginia, 2011.



Beckley, West Virginia, 2012.


Real Talk: Rachel Cusk’s “Kudos”

Near the beginning of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov wanders into a seedy tavern, where he is approached by a bloated alcoholic wreck: a former clerk who introduces himself as Marmeladov and asks if they might have a polite conversation. Ignoring Raskolnikov’s obvious reluctance, Marmeladov skips the small talk and plunges into a monologue that lasts for pages and pages: a rambling, self-lacerating narrative of abject misfortune, poverty, addiction, guilt, shame, helplessness, sin, weakness, and betrayal. His long-suffering, consumptive wife, whose stockings he has sold to buy drink, has been beaten up by their exasperated landlord. His beloved daughter has become a prostitute to help feed the family. By the end of the novel, the unsolicited confession of this “useless worm” will turn out to be the thing that Raskolnikov most needed to hear, partly because it comes to mirror his own concerns in ways he could not have predicted during their initial meeting in the tavern.

The novels in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy—Outline (2015), Transit (2017), and the recently published Kudos—could be described as a succession of Marmeladov moments. In all three books, the narrator, a writer named Faye, who has two sons and is divorced from their father, encounters people—friends, a former lover, distant acquaintances, and total strangers—who, without much prompting, prove eager to tell her their secrets, to uninhibitedly and eloquently recount the most disruptive, wounding, and shameful events in their lives. Their stories are rarely as brutal as the Russian clerk’s account of seeing his daughter forced to wear the insignia of an official prostitute, but there’s plenty of malice, threat, deception, heartbreak, and damage. People make terrible decisions for reasons they barely understand. They lie, and proceed to distort their existence, to avoid admitting that everything about them is pretense. They treat their spouses or lovers very badly, or are treated even worse. Women suffer at the hands of manipulative and vindictive men. Children are benignly ignored, abused, misunderstood, or at least resented. Death matches over real estate transpire in gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Petty jealousies escalate into irreparable estrangements. As Faye hears these stories, the novels create a kind of liminal space, one we all experience when strangers tell us stories, where the point of view belongs to neither the teller nor the listener. It’s not so much that Faye’s a cipher; more accurately, the stories she hears are more like an environment in which she dwells, her novelist’s natural habitat—the very air she breathes or water in which she swims.

The Minister of Ministrations

How can we explain Bruno Gröning’s explosive impact in post-World War II Germany, like a bolt out of the blue? People waited in the rain for days to catch a glimpse of him, prostrated themselves in supplication before him, tried to buy his bathwater, and believed he could raise the dead. What freighted his appearance with such intense outpourings of emotion? Had he emerged at any other moment, he might have remained a simple lay healer. He would have developed a local following, treated the sick in his community, and had no wider influence. Instead, he was hailed as a messiah. The secular imagination fails before scenes like those that greeted Gröning.

One thing seems certain. His arrival would never have been so dramatic had it not been preceded by years of spiritual insecurity and wave after wave of apocalyptic rumors—an especially fervent round of which was just culminating as he shambled onto history’s stage in the spring of 1949. Suddenly, end-time rumors were replaced by extraordinary reports of a different variety: a pious man of the people was healing the sick and helping the ailing. According to the rumors, Gröning had been sent by God, the forerunner of some final unveiling. To appreciate the magnitude of the reverberations he unleashed, we have to return to the war, and the kinds of questions it raised in some Germans’ minds—questions that, once posed, would never stop being asked.

On the Transit of Toledo

In the world above our world there lives a race of perfect beings—beings who are perfect because they are unities, because they are wholes—who are always being called down to this world by half-wits and fools, and who only occasionally, in rare foolish moments of their own, heed that call and decide to descend. They come down to us, they come down to us slowly, but then ill-advisedly they speed up their descent as our summons of them becomes more and more impatient and insistent, and, in passing through the nearly imperceptible white sheet that separates their world from our world, they are mutilated, they are maimed. In their passage, their perfect forms become imperfect: deformed.

These deformed forms then proceed to drag themselves around our world, around our highly flawed and polluted planet that we call “earth,” complaining for years, for decades, even in some extreme cases for over a century, about how good it used to be, about how good they used to have it, and how utterly repugnant and defective they are now—whining about how Up There was so much better than Down Here, and about how they were lured Down Here by false representations, by misrepresentations—they were victimized, defrauded, cozened by lies—and they go on like this, these deformed forms, moaning and groaning and just generally making an intolerable fuss for as long as it takes them to fully embody their grievance, for as long as it takes them to become nothing but their rage, in doing so once again attaining a state of total purity, at which point they are allowed to ascend: they are allowed to travel back through that flimsy atmospheric sheet to the world from which they came, and in the process of that return, they mysteriously reacquire their original perfections.

I have the fantasy that were this legend I’ve just related to you to be translated into the terms of some dead language, like ancient Greek or even Latin—were this legend to be translated in that impossible direction, the past—that some wayward ancestor of mine might recognize my description of what’s now known as Neoplatonism. My admittedly completely imperfect description of what’s now known as Neoplatonism.

Mosul Lives: Verbatim Poems

I work for Kashkul, a research and arts collaborative at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). There, with regional and international scholars and artists, I participate in Mosul Lives, a project that gathers stories of daily life in Mosul. In April 2017, as the last Islamic State (Daesh) fighters dug into Mosul’s Right Bank, we traveled to the newly liberated areas, as well as to camps for the recent waves of internally displaced people, mostly lifelong residents of Mosul.

On the 2017 Man Booker Prize

One might imagine that a book in which every character except the president is dead would be static, but in fact it is lively and moving and sometimes hilarious. There are plot developments, in ways that ramify beyond the death of Lincoln’s son to some of the more important moments in American history. The dead learn something.

One Hundred Parties for Mary Ruefle

I would like to throw her a party. Her. Mary Ruefle! One hundred parties.

Well, don’t overstay your welcome.

Mary Ruefle says, “Lectures, for me, are bad dreams.” Me too. Bad dreams littered with disappointed nuns and playground equipment. I couldn’t run fast enough away from any lecture you could name. I’m confused, in fact, that you’re still here. There are trees outside! It’s almost spring!

It’s more fun, I think, to have a party: some music in the leaves, perhaps some light refreshment. Gin. Raspberry sherbet. Chinese lanterns. A punch bowl. A swimming pool.

All lecture-parties should be BYOB.

Did you bring yours?

I brought mine.

The first Mary Ruefle poem I read was in Skid, a book of poems by Dean Young. The poem was called “A Poem by Dean Young.” Mary Ruefle doing drag? I love that about language. It can sneak up on you in someone else’s togs. It doesn’t even belong to whom you thought it did.

Of course I have written a poem by Dean Young!
More than once I have written a poem by Dean Young.

The relationship between the poet and the reader is always slippery, and Ruefle often seems to be in two places at once. Singing and listening. She is herself, in Dean Young’s clothes, clothes she let him borrow.

I, I mean you, I mean the shadow
of your shadow

Li Po said writing poetry was like being alive twice. Lightning Hopkins said playing the blues in the old days was like being black twice.

Bring your own beatifics. Mary Reufle always does. They include: pot holders, berries, apples, my cracked heart.

Mary Ruefle lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, for a short period of time a long time ago. I like to think we lived on the same block, but I don’t think that could have been true. But I want it to be true. Reading is such an intimate experience. Left alone with a hundred pages or so of Ruefle’s perfectly tuned and dazzlingly open poems, and suddenly it’s as if we know everything about each other.

More than once I have stuffed the eucalyptus leaves
in your mouth.

I’m realizing now that all the trees in Mary’s poems I had imagined to be in Portland, Oregon, most likely took place in Vermont, where she’s lived most of her life. If a tree can be said to take place. Here is a poem called “Fall Leaf Studies”:

I wake up, I count my money,
then I have lunch.
After lunch I go
to the window.
The leaves are no longer green.
When the leaves fall,
at the end of summer,
who knows if there are enough
to cover the ground?
Do they themselves
ever actually really know?
They come down slowly
and with many conjectures
after all that yak
and in that bronzed state
they pause.

They were right when they told us that money doesn’t grow on trees. But I’m struck by the money that is being counted next to this tree. And how the leaves, which are not money, fall and turn to bronze, which could be turned into money. And there we pause. To catch our breath, I think, and to look back at that word “yak.” Often the light thrown across the vocal surface of Ruefle’s poems gives you a false sense of calm that a kayak couldn’t navigate, because the current is real and will sweep you away.

If I had to guess, I’d put some money down on the idea that Mary Ruefle writes most of her poems in winter. Winter is a great season to write poems in. In Vermont it snows blank sheets of paper. Lines float down out of the sky at many angles. You could be walking through a drift of poetry by midmorning—if, that is, you can get out of bed to pull on your boots. I want to bet on winter because so many of her poems mention spring. Is Mary Ruefle a spring poet? Could be. Her lines push up through the world’s hardpan and too-often frozen consciousness like white, yellow, and purple crocuses. The crocus. Not a flower to fuck with.

Here is some spring in four Mary Ruefle poems:

Ah spring! The cedar waxwing with a plume
in his ass, pumping seeds from his mouth
like a pinball machine

spring, ripening to her ideal weight, has fallen
from the bough and into my lap.
For twenty minutes the world is perfect

That old spring prop, birdsong, wafts
through the trees, the trees with their leaves lit
like the underside of the sea.

It is spring. I am the peppermint king!

Spring is in the air even in poems that are not about spring but about autumn, poems which begins with bonfires and woodchucks, but quickly turn away from fall to pass over winter to get to:

On brisk spring nights
I can hear the frogs singing in their disbelief.

Now these are many different kinds of spring, though I think they may share one characteristic. Disbelief. Or a version of disbelief. By which I mean a kind of shocked surprise. My favorite spring is the first one in the list above, because it’s the first time that I’ve experienced spring in a poem that belongs in an S&M dungeon. I am surprised by this, in part because I know many people, some of them poets, who would go to great lengths to find a plume in their ass while they pump seed from their mouths like a pinball machine. And yet not every spring poem makes this desire so clear. I am in awe of this poem as well as in a pleasant state of disbelief, the disbelief of the aforementioned shock, of being shocked awake in fact, tuned up like a fork.

Don’t think I have not eaten
in the most beautiful Chinese restaurant
in the world

Worth a moment also are those spring lines where we followed birdsong out of the air through a tree and onto a leaf, a leaf lit like the underside of the sea. If I were pressed into teaching a class on cinematography and film editing, I might exchange anything Bresson ever wrote for those three lines. (Sorry, Bresson.) A crane shot moves from music in the atmosphere down through a tree and then close up to a leaf dissolving into the bottom of the sea and the music of the seafloor forever, in less than twenty-five words. This movement would take most poets more than a few lines, a few poems, a few books, a lifetime.

The person whom Lightning Hopkins was speaking to was named Peppermint Harris.

Maybe Mary Ruefle is not a spring poet after all but a poet of disbelief. If you have any money left over, you might lay your next bet down on disbelief.

Starfish, champagne, blood, innumerable birds.

Often enough at the end of a poetry reading, there is time for a Q&A, which stands for “questions and answers,” and not, as one might hope, “quaaludes and Ambien,” or even “quartets and Amadeus.” There is a very good chance that the following questions have been asked of Ms. Ruefle before, and in fact are asked over and over again at poetry readings. Still I am interested in them, even though, in this instance, the answers come from poems and not from a person.

Why do you write poetry?

Star Light, Star Bright,

First Star I see tonight . . .

When is a poem finished?

many of these things glint in the morning

sun, weirdly, why do you ask?

Where do your ideas come from?

Basho thought a good life was spent picking up

horse chestnuts from off the ground.

Is “Happiness” a thing?

My job is writing poems and reading them to a cloud.

What’s your email address?

I love you.

But who is the I

and who is the you?

            Beavers, roosters, Pluto, John Philip Sousa.

Letters, 1936-1977

With a flood threatening Collinsville, Illinois, in July 2014, Francesca Williams scrambled to transport her father Dakin’s legal correspondence upstairs from her basement. As she deposited box after box in her living room, a handwritten note caught her eye. Francesca immediately recognized the stationery of New York’s legendary Hotel Elysée, and the penmanship of her uncle Tennessee Williams. Seeing the note triggered a memory—more like a fragment, really, from when Francesca was seven—of one of Williams’s rare visits to St. Louis. Dressed in a crisp linen summer suit, the man she’d known as Tom was kneeling to embrace her.

Francesca began exploring the correspondence. The letters in the boxes depicted the mundane rhythms of Williams family life, but also described hospital stays and nervous breakdowns, the decision to have their sister Rose lobotomized, the years of struggling in anonymity, the intoxication of success and fame, the despair of a career in decline, the drug-fueled paranoia and recurring depression, and the family members’ abiding love and respect for one another. These personal dramas were the raw material that Williams would ultimately transform and recast in the characters of Amanda, Laura, and Blanche.

Francesca, who is herself a playwright, brought the letters to me. I was a friend of her father’s as well as a screenwriter and faculty member of the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, which both Dakin and Tennessee attended, and I had already written a screenplay based on Dakin’s book My Brother’s Keeper: The Life and Murder of Tennessee Williams. Francesca and I subsequently edited the correspondence and turned it into a play, ensemble, which has been produced in New York and St. Louis. Francesca’s real goal in sharing these letters with the public, however, was to provide a new look at her family’s legacy, one too-often considered merely dysfunctional and tragic. The Williamses were finally a modern family, one that faced the challenges and tumult of life with the same courage, passion, and hope we all aspire to.

—Richard Chapman

And so we talk to each other, write and wire each other, call each other short and long distance across land and sea, clasp hands with each other at meeting and at parting, fight each other and even destroy each other because of this always somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls to each other.

—“Person-to-Person,” Tennessee Williams, the New York Times,

March 20, 1955


When I was in junior high, I was assigned to sit in chapel next to a girl who spent each service picking scabs off her elbows and knees. She methodically harvested the dried blood of each wound and gazed at it, oblivious to the world around her. I thought, Gross, why does she do that in public? But I couldn’t take my eyes off her. When I watch Tennessee Williams’s plays or read his letters, I think of him picking at his wounds in public. They’re our wounds, too.

Williams wanted to be known and loved through his plays, but he left us so much more of himself, maybe more than he intended, in the “somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls” of his loneliness: scraps written on stationery of the Hotel Elysée or the Plaza; fragments of lines on the backs of restaurant bills; postcards from his endless travels; notes on airline stationery of Alitalia or the Concorde; letters, so many letters, scribbled or typed on anything he could find. Each one was like a dry flake of skin, a scab, detritus falling from his body every time he scratched an itch, each one containing some essential bit of his DNA. Writing was the way he scratched that nagging itch, and for a moment the words gave him respite, some peace, though never for long.

A few of Williams’s notebooks are housed in the Archives of the University of the South. Just holding them and reading his handwriting is so private, so personal; it is like looking over his shoulder in St. Louis while he writes. Some of his manuscripts are there, too—The Red Devil Battery Sign, Moise and the World of Reason—strewn with insertions and revisions written on napkins stained with coffee and wine or on the backs of menus from ocean-liner crossings. He wrote a poem on a half-melted lava lamp. Everything he left behind, from his toaster to his ashtray, seems like a message of some kind. Even his small black phone book, with its cramped, handwritten entries for Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote, is fascinating.

Then there are the letters. They’re as carefully crafted and ironic as his characters’ dialogue. Williams’s letters, I’d argue, are the dress rehearsals for his theatre. Each one has an audience, familial and familiar—grandparents, cousin, brother, mother—that responds to his provocations and pleas. Those responses become the dialogue of the drama of his life, by turns condescending and manipulative, comic and tragic.

The letters below are part of a recently discovered cache, only two of which have been published before in excerpts. The Sewanee Review approached me before I began teaching my Tennessee Williams course this fall to ask if I would respond to them, not as a scholar, but as someone who loves Williams’s works and words and who knows his ties to Sewanee. Seeing his handwriting and the font of his typewriter, being able to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations between Williams, his brother Dakin, and his mother Edwina, brings him to life, sheds light on his significance, reminds us of his humanity and his tragedy. The letters remind me why I started teaching Williams in the first place, and why he will continue to “break through walls” and speak to anyone who knows his plays.

The letters and their bits of truth, their various voices and attitudes, allow us to assemble a creaturely version of Williams the way he assembled his own characters out of real life. We read the letters; we watch him picking at his wounds. We can’t turn away.

—Virginia Ottley Craighill

August 30, 1936

Dear Grand and Grandfather:

Dakin and I have just returned from a delightful two weeks at camp in the Ozarks. It was nicer this year than I have ever known it. We had everything, even a mild tornado, by way of diversion and escaped some of the worst heat, according to reports at home. Dakin gained some weight and we are both feeling fine. We produced three plays, which I wrote and Dakin acted in. The last one was an old-fashioned melodrama and for the heroine we had a little Ozark girl that waited on the tables whose accent and manners were just perfect for the part. She pronounced villain as “vill-yun” and was so dumb she didn’t realize the play was supposed to be funny, which made it all the funnier.

It rained just the day before we returned and has been pretty cool here since then. I hope the heat has broken in Memphis also. It must have been awful to have to conduct services in such weather.

While I was away I got a letter from Simon & Schuster publishing company that published Josephine Johnson’s “Now in November.” They said my short story in “Manuscript” was excellent and wanted to know if I were working on a novel and said if so they would like to see it. So I think that I will try to write one during my spare time—just a short one. It is easier to sell a good novel than a good short story. I’ve also had a story tentatively accepted by “American Prefaces,” which O’Brien the short-story critic considers the most promising new literary magazine.

It is certainly lovely of you to offer to send me to Washington. But I don’t want you to do it if it would mean sacrificing things that you need. I think I could complete my work in another year and of course I could get out of the physical education on account of my irritable heart. At camp I met a Washington U. junior who said he wanted me to write for the school magazine and join the Poetry Club. He’s an editor of the magazine. I think my contacts at the University would be extremely helpful. I’m going to get in touch with some newspaper editors pretty soon and perhaps in another year they will have a place for me or something else will open up.

Jiggs and the others are all quite well.

With much love, Tom


At twenty-five, Williams’s insatiable desire for success is already evident, along with the exaggeration of triumphs to loved ones—“They said my short story in ‘Manuscript’ was excellent and wanted to know if I were working on a novel and said if so they would like to see it”—and the cruelty, side by side with the insight into character and dialect: “a little Ozark girl . . . pronounced villain as ‘vill-yun’ and was so dumb she didn’t realize the play was supposed to be funny.” Williams might have learned to pick up on rhythms of speech and dialect by listening to stories told by his black nurse Ozzie or to sermons given by his grandfather Walter Dakin, but where did he get the meanness? Maybe from his father, Cornelius, the hard-drinking, abusive shoe salesman, who called Williams “Miss Nancy.” Or maybe it was always there in his “irritable heart.”

April 25, 1945

Dear T. W.—

I do appreciate your invitation for the 27th. I can’t come, but I appreciate your asking me. The reason I can’t come is that I hate to find myself in crushes of people, just as you probably do. If you ever find time and want to, come and see me at home or call me for lunch at the office.

I’m very glad about the acclaim given your beautiful Glass Menagerie; and while you may not be enjoying it to the hilt—for as an artist you don’t have to give a damn what the public thinks, and may not want to—certainly your mother is now happy in the glow of satisfaction over what she has achieved, in proxy, through you. That is maybe God’s greatest reward to good mothers—when they are fortunate.

Not that I mean you had a wise mother, as distinguished from one of goodness. I wouldn’t know; but few Dakins I’ve heard about or known seemed particularly wise. And in the Dakin heritage you and I have both had much to bear in common. Both of us had father trouble. Both of us grew up in what seemed tawdriness. Both had to escape and then go it alone, as sensitive pieces of machinery that nobody could help because nobody knew anything about the job those machines had to do. So both had to work out any answers they found all by themselves.

The best thing about the Glass Menagerie is its inner evidence of the answers you’ve found for yourself and are still finding. It’s this, more than the people who are galloping to see it, that can make you glow way down inside yourself. I hope it does, and I’m glad for this opportunity to tell you so. In a time full of the terrible failures of men, you have a right to your deep pride.

Most sincerely,

Edwin F. Dakin


Apparently the Dakin family liked to recycle names, making Edwin F. difficult to trace. He may have been Williams’s second cousin once removed—Edwin’s grandfather was brother to Tennessee’s grandfather, Walter Dakin—but he is never mentioned in any Williams biographies, and this is perhaps the only correspondence. While working for the public relations giant Hill and Knowlton, Dakin convinced the tobacco industry to stop using doctors to advertise the benefits of smoking, but otherwise he managed to live privately, unlike his cousin.

He signs the letter formally, but appears to understand Williams’s family troubles and knew Williams grew up in “tawdriness.” The letter conveys a deep sense of who Williams was, a “[sensitive piece] of machinery that nobody could help.” His cousin, his soulmate, this man who empathized with Williams’s “irritable heart,” didn’t show up on the 27th and never shows up again, which is too bad.

Taipei, Formosa

April 23, 1956

Dear Tom—

Have just returned from visit to Philippine Islands where I had to prosecute a sergeant for stealing $460 from an enlisted man. The Sergeant was convicted and sentenced to two years. While in Manila I attended a performance by the Manila Theater Guild of your Rose Tattoo. The play was a big success in Manila—seats all sold out—and I was lucky to get in.

Next Monday I’m invited to a reception given by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, the Madam. In case they haven’t read your plays, this situation will be remedied as I am giving them copies of The Rose Tattoo and Streetcar, as well as my own Nails of Protest! My purpose in giving them the latter book, is, of course, to convert them to the Church!

Never did hear your opinion of Nails of Protest. Did you read it? I thought so—you gave it to Frank or tossed it in a waste can?

I still haven’t been able to see your Rose Tattoo movie. It’s now in Japan—and I’m enclosing a very favorable review from the Tokyo newspaper we get here.

Joyce sent me a clipping about St. Thomas Island which I’m also sending you; we thought you were going there on a visit. Sure sounds like an interesting place. We are trying to save all we can to open up a law practice again as soon as possible and have over two thousand in cash set aside—half of which was received from you for which we are most grateful. I also have a little over four thousand in bonds and hopes (very small) of getting royalties from Nails of Protest. Aunty says that Ed and Jenny Ashe (our Catholic relatives in Knoxville) bought several copies!

Aunty, too, is very appreciative of the help you are giving her. She is quite a gallant person and I am most happy that you are keeping her from being dependent on Dad, who is very rude to her—she says Dad “has it in for me,” and wouldn’t even have dinner with her on his last visit to Knoxville.

Hope you got the small gift I sent for your birthday. There isn’t much available here, but if there is anything you would like in Hong Kong or Japan—I can get it there for you—as I visit there occasionally.

Mother is well and says Rose enjoyed being home for Easter and looked very well in the new blond beaver coat you gave her.

I certainly do appreciate your continuing to keep me on your “payroll”, but if you find it is too much when added to all the other responsibilities you have, Joyce and I can always make ends meet. The Air Force is not very generous with their pay, but at least it is regular.

Hope Kazan did a good job with your new movie and the two plays 27 Wagons and Unsatisfactory Supper were successfully blended. I should think it quite a job—but both are excellent.

The overseas tour has been cut to fifteen months so I may be home for Christmas and am counting on taking Joyce to the next “opening night.”

Lots of love—



Always little brother to the superstar playwright, Dakin’s letter oozes with desire to level the playing fields. How is it fair, the letter fairly screams, for Dakin, the “good son,” who did everything by the book—graduated from college and law school, went to Harvard for an MBA, married, joined the armed forces, was a devout Catholic, wrote his own book—to be forever eclipsed by Tom, the dropout, hypochondriac, homosexual momma’s boy whom Dad never liked? We cringe when Dakin notes that he’ll provide the Kai-sheks with copies of The Rose Tattoo and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as his own Nails of Protest, as if putting the title of his book in close proximity to his brother’s plays makes them equal.

You can almost hear Dakin’s teeth gritting when he writes that he and Joyce “are most grateful” for the gift of a thousand dollars, and feel his clenched jaw as he describes his “appreciat[ion]” to Tom for “continuing to keep me on your ‘payroll.’” Dakin acknowledged in a letter to Williams from 1977, “It may well be that the only lasting memorial to having lived my life, will be that I was instrumental in enabling you to continue your writing career.” Somehow, it doesn’t seem like enough.

July 20, 1962

Dear Dakin:

Sorry to have been so long in answering your letter about “Mother’s book.” If Mother and you are pleased with it, I am sure I will be, but I do think you had better have Putnam’s send me a copy of the manuscript, for Mother’s sake more than my own. You never can be sure how books of this sort may be slanted. They could be embarrassing to all of us, and I certainly don’t want Mother to be embarrassed.

Of course I am very dubious about having poems I wrote at junior high school published, just as I am dubious about the advisability of ever publishing any of that awful “juvenilia” that Mr. Andreas Brown has gotten together in the basement.

I have written a few good things, just a few, and the rest is better forgotten. I think Mr. Brown means very well indeed. But it would be awful to suspect that, after my death, some book would come out containing all the discards of a life of writing. It might destroy whatever reputation I have made as a writer.

Please get Putnam’s to send me the manuscript right away. We may all need money, but we don’t want it at the price of being made to look foolish in print, publicly, do we?

If the book is friendly, sympathetic, not supercilious or slyly mocking, you know I will be very happy about it and cable an immediate endorsement.

I have been ill and exhausted and depressed or I would have written much sooner. Now I’m back on the beach and beginning to feel a bit better.

Hermione Baddeley was terrific in the Spoleto tryout, and if my continued work on the play goes well, we may try it out in England in a couple of months, touring the provinces first.

Period of Adjustment has scored a hit in London and has been transferred to a bigger theatre, in the “West End.” I will see it soon. The star, Collin Wilcox, is a girl from Knoxville who knew Aunt Ella.

Love to you all,



If your mother were about to publish an unauthorized biography of your life, you might, like Williams, feel some trepidation, even if you didn’t have a literary reputation at stake. Williams’s claim that he “certainly [doesn’t] want Mother to be embarrassed” rings false, as it seems Edwina was not the type who was easily shamed. She apparently never recognized, or never acknowledged, that she was Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and anyone that deep in denial is not likely to be embarrassed by her own musings on the past.

 Williams gets to the heart of the matter, condescendingly using the royal we: “We may all need money, but we don’t want it at the price of being made to look foolish in print, publicly, do we?” It’s an interesting comment coming from the son who used his mother as the model for Amanda, and for Violet Venable. Edwina’s book, Remember Me to Tom, did get published in 1963, and the “awful ‘juvenilia’ that Mr. Andreas Brown” of the Gotham Book Store had gotten “together in the basement” ended up as the invaluable Tennessee Williams Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Williams wanted control of his life and work, but he left too much of a paper trail to be successful at it, and we, the voyeurs and scavengers, are the beneficiaries.

June 22,1968

Dear Dakin,

If anything of a violent nature happens to me, it will ending my life abruptly, it will not be a case of suicide, as it would be made to appear.

I am not happy, it is true, in a net of con-men, but I am hard at work, which is my love, you know.




The letter has been partially quoted before, in an article in the June 28, 1968 New York Times entitled “Tennessee Williams Expresses Fear for Life in Note to Brother” and picked up by John Lahr in his 2014 biography, but looking at the uneven penmanship, one wonders how many manhattans Williams had at L’Escargot before he wrote it, and whether he woke up the next morning and chuckled before sending it, given the penciled note at the top: “melodramatic but true!” Was Williams aware that he was giving his brother a kind of gift, a theory that Dakin could work with and live on long after Williams’s death in 1983?

There’s evident editing: the first “it will” is scratched out and the cramped addition of “as it would be made to appear” heightens the drama, which Williams knew well how to do. Even the exclamation mark in the penciled claim seems more like an ironic wink than an interjection of fear. Maybe Williams knew where this would lead, not to a crime scene or to a murderer, but to a distracting postmortem for conspiracy theorists (not just Dakin), and a morbid fascination with the nature of his death rather than the character of his work.

December 19, 1975

Dearest Mother:

I am somehow managing to keep up with the heaviest schedule of my career, with the aid of various jet planes. Last week I was in Los Angeles to see a preview of Night of the Iguana. Then flew to San Francisco to attend rehearsals and make revisions on a new play called This Is (An Entertainment), which is being done brilliantly by ACT (American Conservatory of Theatre) in San Francisco. Yesterday flew back to New York for the opening, last night, of The Glass Menagerie revival with Maureen Stapleton.

Rose and her delightful new companion went with me, and I am writing with pen so my typewriter won’t disturb them—in the adjoining suite. There has also been a very successful revival of Sweet Bird of Youth. (Dakin saw it with me in Chicago)—it opens soon in New York with the great English actress Irené Worth.

Tonight we celebrate Christmas early—a home dinner for Rose and her (practical nurse companion) Tatiana, who is a titled white Russian lady with whom Rose is very pleased. Then this coming Monday I must fly to Europe for the world premiere of the new Red Devil Battery Sign at Vienna’s English Theatre. It will be brought to the States later. Several producers are eager to do it here. My dear friend Maria is appearing in an important supporting role. I will be there for Christmas. Then I must fly back for the final rehearsals and previews of the play in San Francisco.

The itinerary makes me dizzy—but I have always preferred an active life, as you know.

In February I am invited to Australia for the Adelaide Festival where Kingdom of Earth will be done.

A reporter asked me how I explain all this resurgence of interest in my work and I said “Well, if you just hang on long enough, you are either forgotten or remembered too much.” I’ve been lucky—the plays receive better productions and attention than originally.

After Australia I have promised myself a season of rest—in Key West. And I will gladly visit Sewanee with you.

Rose seems well and happy. I’ll give her a lovely Christmas party tonight. She is the bravest and sweetest person I have known in my life. Nothing is sufficient to compensate for the ordeals she has endured so gallantly. I try to do what I can.

Please come South with me this spring and enjoy the fresh air and peace of Key West.

Everyone remembers you with love.

As I do—always.



If the other letters are comic or melodramatic, villainous or grandiose in their theatricality, this one is purely tragic. The loneliness of his travels echoes in the list of cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Vienna, back to San Francisco, Australia, Key West, the hope of visiting Sewanee with his mother (did he ever?).

Like the rondini, the birds in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone that have no legs and so can never land, Williams flew around the world looking for himself in his plays, to see if he was “either forgotten or remembered too much.” When he writes of “celebrat[ing] Christmas early” with “a home dinner,” the home is a hotel suite at the Hotel Elysée, where he would eventually die. Homeless himself, for Williams it was Rose, placid, empty, the unwitting recipient of all his fierce love and guilt, the sister for whom “nothing is sufficient to compensate for the ordeals she has endured”—ordeals of institutionalization followed by shock treatments followed, ultimately, by a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy in 1943—who was his home. Rose, the “lunatic with tranquil eyes,” was his resting place, his constant torment.

Aug 29, 1977

Dear Mother:

I just returned here (Key West) for what I hope may be a nice rest period after shuttling back and forth between the States and London since late spring. Of course it’s the rainy season, but everything looks fresh and green.

Among the mail that had come here while I was away was a letter from Dakin, enclosing a highly amusing article he has written for the Washington University magazine and an article about your birthday with a really nice picture of you.

You’ll be pleased to know that I found Rose looking well and in good spirits and health. She walks about ten paces ahead of me and Tatiana, a charming old Russian lady who visits her at Stoney Lodge regularly while I’m away from New York. She is eager to come back down to Key West for a visit as she did last Spring. The problem is that she smokes and drinks Coca-Cola almost continually here. At the Lodge she is limited to six cigarettes a day.

Aside from being tired, I am comparatively well. I do have some evidence of a cataract developing in my right eye, but it’s expected to mature slowly. With strong glasses, I have no difficulty in reading and writing.

The principal problem right now is that the housekeeper, Leoncia, has gone on vacation to New York, taking with her all the house keys. I was able to get in the house only through the assistance of a neighboring locksmith—won’t be able to use my studio till Leoncia’s return from Harlem.

This aging process is far from agreeable—but we’re all in the same boat and must be as philosophical about it as possible.

Please be more careful about avoiding falls. In the sixties I used to keep falling down—due to Dr. Feelgood’s shots—and I acquired an almost acrobatic skill at the practice. But now that some arthritis has set in, I am watching my steps.

There was also a lovely picture and article about you in the Key West newspaper in honor of your birthday. You and Grandfather are both remembered here by all who met you with great affection.

Love to all,



Williams writes to Edwina from a resting place, a house he owned in Key West, but emotional weariness, not just physical exhaustion, permeates the letter. He tries to be hopeful—“everything looks fresh and green,” and Rose is “well and in good spirits and health”—but he counteracts that hope at every turn: Rose can’t come back to Key West because she smokes and drinks too much Coca-Cola; he has another slowly developing cataract; “it’s the rainy season.”

Even at home he’s homeless: the housekeeper has locked him out. Williams eventually gets into the house, he tells his mother, but he “won’t be able to use [his] studio” until the housekeeper returns from her vacation. The studio is where he writes, and writing is how he re-creates home. Towards the end of the letter, Williams talks about “falling down,” but it’s not just a physical fear. Tennessee had been watching himself fall from grace, watching the critics mock his new plays like The Red Devil Battery Sign. In May of the same year, Williams called himself “‘the ghost of a writer’” in a letter to the New York Times. He is a homeless ghost who haunts us still.

Letters Home from College: The Making of a Writer

In 1955, after graduating from Miami Beach High School, I went off to the University of Florida, in Gainesville—a pretty town located between Tallahassee to the west and Jacksonville to the east. Nearly every day of my four years there, I wrote letters home to my mother, who in turn typed letters to me from our family’s apartment in Miami Beach. In 1962, this correspondence, carefully saved by my mother, crossed the country in an ancient truck my father bought to transport the contents of his antique store from Florida to California. On the nights that my mother and sister slept in a motel, my father kept watch on a blanket under the truck to protect his cargo. Now, in the late years of my life, I sit with the letters spread about me, discovering truths I had forgotten.
My first roommate, a blonde Betty Lu Butterfield, was desperate to be chosen by a sorority, and she made fun of me as I typed on my typewriter. She said things like: “Writing another poem, Merrill? Writing the great American novel, Merrill?” Betty Lu had six crinolines, all crammed into her side of the closet. Her bras were pink lace and padded, and her girdle was made of some kind of brown rubber. She played her Elvis records round the clock. When her friends were in the room, all of them smoking, they’d chatter till midnight, even when I begged them to leave. She was irritated that I already had a boyfriend and would ask, “Where do you and Joe go? Into the woods? Is that where you get all those mosquito bites? And what do you do in the woods with him?”

I did want to write a novel someday. The summer after high school I had worked posting mortgage payments in the offices of Marvin Lachmann Associates on Lincoln Road. Joe had a job in North Miami Beach posting stock market quotations on a blackboard in an investment office. My bus went south on Collins Avenue, Joe’s bus north, and we timed our respective departures, each watching for the approaching bus and waving passionately as we sped past each other. His beautifully-formed forearm waving at me filled me with joy that had to last me for a long day of entering mortgage payments on a big green NCR machine. Other women in the office worked full-time for Mr. Lachmann, who always had a cigar in his mouth as he checked on our work. I dreaded the thought of growing up to be one of those secretaries, going into an office like his, taking dictation from a man like him, who always made a point of complimenting my dress or my hair in a way that disgusted me. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing today!” he would say.

On my lunch hour I read, every day, a Shakespeare play. I knew I was college bound. Joe was also not going to be writing stock quotes on a blackboard all his life. I had met him the day before my sixteenth birthday at the meeting of a Young Judea club at Miami Beach High School. He was so handsome, already muscled and manly. He was, I knew as soon as we spoke, a deep soul. My heart leapt at the sight of him.

Both sets of our parents had moved to Miami Beach from Brooklyn, our fathers in search of some business venture that never worked out. Our mothers were both legal secretaries. Joe and I recognized each other as kindred spirits. Even at sixteen and seventeen we knew our destinies. Love. And college.

During the first meeting with my advisor at the University of Florida, she said, “With your interests, you will want to study with the great writing teacher here, Andrew Lytle. You may not take his class for credit freshman year, but he might let you sit in.”

Emerson’s Eyes

In the spring of 1825, a month after moving into a room in Cambridge and registering for Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to lose his sight. He was not blind, but his vision was impaired enough that reading and study were impossible. It seems likely that Emerson’s condition was diagnosed as rheumatic inflammation, and that the root cause was tuberculosis—the disease that had afflicted his father, killed two of his brothers, took his wife, and ended the life of his protégé, Henry David Thoreau. Nearly one third of all deaths in Boston, in fact, were from the disease, which was incurable at the time but whose symptoms could be managed. Emerson visited Boston’s leading eye doctor, Dr. Edward Reynolds, who recommended surgery.  

Dr. Reynolds had trained in England under James Wardrop, who developed a procedure for relieving inflammation of the eye by puncturing the cornea with a cataract knife or couching needle. The knife was then twisted slightly, to keep the cornea from closing, and allowing the aqueous humor that had built up to drain through the small hole. It was a simple procedure, relatively safe and painless, though it was designed to bring only temporary relief and to be repeated as necessary. Emerson underwent the procedure twice, once that spring and once in the fall.  

On Stanley Elkin

In the summer of 1995, I was asked to read a passage from Stanley Elkin’s work at a memorial service for him, to be held during the Sewanee Writers Conference, at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Stanley had died that past May.

I was honored to have been asked because I was a huge fan of Stanley’s fiction, and because he had been a dear friend.

In fact I was such an ardent fan that it often struck me as astonishing and highly unlikely that we had become friends. To me, spending time with Stanley seemed like the equivalent of being invited to hang out with the Dalai Lama on a beautiful porch—on a succession of beautiful porches—at the various writers conferences (first Breadloaf, then Sewanee) at which Stanley and I taught. Actually, it seemed better than hanging out with the Dalai Lama; Stanley was funnier, louder, told dirtier jokes, and had a bigger personality. Certainly Stanley was a more eloquent complainer than I imagined the Dalai Lama being, even (or especially) at the spiritual leader’s lowest moments. There was something about crankiness, Stanley’s own crankiness and the crankiness of others—the performative aspect of crankiness, let’s say—that delighted him. I always felt he liked me best when I was most irritated, or irritable, and when I was able to transform that irritability (as he did so well) into humor.

For more than a decade before his death, Stanley and I had spent weeks in the summer on those porches, most often with our families, with my husband Howie and Stanley’s wife Joan, and sometimes with our children, for whom those conferences provided an excuse to enact their version of some Lost Boys or (worst-case) Lord of the Flies scenarios, running wild across the scenic campuses with the other writers’ kids. Stanley and Joan’s daughter Molly, older than my own kids, was already great fun to talk to, as she has remained.

When we weren’t sitting on the porches, we were eating (mostly awful) Conference food, attending readings, giving readings, teaching classes, reading student manuscripts and having manuscript conferences. Those last three elements of our job description were the main focus of Stanley’s complaints, which would rise to a pitch of annoyance, of grievance, of righteous fury—and then subside. And then he would go off to meet his lucky, grateful, and understandably anxious students. Stanley was known to be a fierce critic of student work; to say that he didn’t suffer fools gladly doesn’t begin to describe the intensity of his disapproval, of his response to anything he found careless, false, or second-rate.

As I’ve said, I was honored to have been asked by the conference director and poet Wyatt Prunty to speak at Stanley’s memorial. But I was also nervous about it, for several reasons.

One of those reasons was that, unlike many writers, Stanley was a terrific reader of his own work. He managed to get it all across: the cadence, the force and sheer exuberance of his language; the nervy plots; his frequently pathetic, repulsive, and profoundly sympathetic characters; the grossness and obscenity, the poetry; the all-too-rare gift for writing “serious” fiction that could make its readers laugh out loud. The off-the-charts energy of his sentences, his ability to reanimate and reconstruct the written word, his talent for using a particular word in a way in which (as far as you knew) it had never been used before, and which made you stop and think until you figured out how and why it was precisely the right word—that no other word would have done.

And his maximalism: the continual testing, testing, to see how much weight a sentence could sustain, how long it could go on without losing its clarity, its logic. In an interview, Stanley said that there were writers who took things out and writers who put things in, and that he was one of the latter. One of the things I remember saying at the memorial service was that I kept several of Stanley’s novels near my desk, and that whenever I felt I’d written a lazy sentence, a cliché, or a sloppy or inexact passage of description, I’d open one of Stanley’s books at random, and every sentence I read would inspire me to go back to my own writing and work harder. I still have his books near my desk, and his sentences still function, for me, that way.

I’d heard Stanley read many times, and every one of those readings had been a stellar and unforgettable performance. He usually claimed to be reading from a work in progress, but how could something so perfect and polished be in progress? In progress toward what? Each performance outdid the previous one in its brilliance, its poetry, its humor, its honesty, its pure cringe-inducing ballsiness.

I heard him read the early pages of The Magic Kingdom, in which a grieving father named Eddie Bale manages to convince the Queen of England to kick-start his obsessive, well-meaning but ultimately disastrous program to bring dying children to Disneyland; a description of heaven and hell (some of it in the voice of God) from The Living End; the beginning of The Rabbi of Lud, one of the darkest and funniest meditations on Judaism and New Jersey ever written. It’s telling that both Howie and I remember Stanley standing up when he read, though by the time we met him, his multiple sclerosis had advanced to the point at which that would have been unlikely or impossible. He was sitting—it only seemed as if he were standing.

One thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to read, at Stanley’s memorial service, anything I’d heard him read. I didn’t want to hear his voice in my head, reminding me—as he would never have done in life, because, for such a notorious curmudgeon, he was unfailingly polite and kind to me—of what a lousy job I was doing.

Also, because he’d died just a few months before, and because I was still extremely sad about his death, I was afraid I might find it hard to keep my composure throughout the reading. I have strong feelings about speakers at memorial services not compelling the assembled mourners to witness their emotional breakdowns. It always seems somehow . . . unhelpful. I’d spoken at several memorial services in the months leading up to that summer (it was one of those times, when, as sometimes happens, a number of loved ones die in dizzyingly quick succession), and somehow I’d managed to keep it together when I’d been asked to say something.

I found it consoling to recall an evening, several summers before, en route to dinner in Vermont, when we’d passed a lovely rural cemetery, and Stanley had greeted the tombstones—the dead—with a hearty, expansive wave. “See you soon, guys!” he’d called out.

Stanley loved to be right.

So the question was: what to read?

Maurice’s Blues

In late May my sister calls. Her son Maurice is being sentenced in Kansas City on June twenty-third. The charge is armed robbery. She needs to go, but does not want to go alone.

I stand in my kitchen, waiting for water to boil so I can make green tea. It’s a beautiful late-spring afternoon, and I like my kitchen on such days: it’s sunny and comfortable and warm. Also old, which does not bother me. The tile dates from the previous owner, who had a love affair with dusty pink. The picture window no longer opens, the cabinets are dark and unappealing, and the floor is actual linoleum. Through the open side window comes the sound of buzzing saws. A neighbor is renovating her kitchen for the second time since I have lived in this leafy little suburb; somebody died and left her a wad of cash. Across the way another neighbor is refinishing his attic, and on the next block up a dumpster sits in a driveway, collecting construction mess. In towns like this there’s a constant churn of improvements, additions, refurbishments. On the outside my house looks the same as the others. Inside the best I can do is patch whatever breaks.


The hockey parent has an internal clock. The countdown kicks in when you get to the rink, an hour before puck drop. Another winter morning: the boys, in matching sweats, performed their warmups in the parking lot, while their coach, a heavyset Czech, presided with a baleful glare that even the kids knew was only half-serious. Jog, sprint, squats, hops, jumping jacks, malaprops, taunts. He’d once written on a whiteboard, after a game, “You are suck.”

When they were done, they jogged past us through the lobby of the rink and jostled into their locker room. They were awake now, in a way we’d never be, though we’d been mainlining caffeine since dawn. While the boys dressed and chattered, and then sank into a depressive kind of stillness for the Czech’s pregame speech, we watched the Zamboni cut the ice, refilled our coffee cups, or retreated to a bathroom stall with a tabloid in hand. One of us arranged the boys’ sticks along the wall, outside the locker room. Another had turned over his car keys to a rink attendant as collateral for the team’s key to the room. But we were no longer permitted in the room, now that the boys were eleven. We were support staff. A paunchy entourage in bad jeans. Soon the referees stepped onto the ice to glide out a few lonely laps. And so we took up our positions along the glass.

This was somewhere in New Jersey. Wayne, maybe. Or Secaucus. Or Brick. The critical ones among us stood together. Negative commentary required like-minded observers. It can be fraught to disparage other people’s children in their earshot. We were the Platonists, yearning for the Form of the Good—quick tempos, crisp passes, hard accurate shots, the instinctive carving up of the ice surface into open spaces and hidden seams. Displays of strength, cunning, and character. The elevation of our sons and ourselves.

It’s hard to understand, if you’re a sensible person, or even an insensible person who happens not to have children, just how much hope builds up in the minutes before your offspring participates in a sporting contest. We know that the arc of athletics bends toward disappointment, that we must learn to accept and even forgive our sons’ flubs and deficiencies of effort, that we are at best projecting our own dashed aspirations onto them, or else merely raging at them out of frustration at the intractability of the world. We also know that the kids can’t hear us on the ice, and that even if they could, they would much prefer not to. But once the puck drops, such knowledge gives way to the ache of thwarted expectations, the pangs of our own powerlessness. As they disappoint us, we disappoint ourselves. And so we yell.

Getting Good

I was in junior high—as middle school was called back then—when I heard my first live band. The venue was the gym where we hormone-driven eighth-grade boys ran laps, climbed ropes, played dodgeball, and wrestled, in the process converting our recent cafeteria lunch—half a ham-salad sandwich and a shallow bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup—to methane. I’d been to dances before at the YWCA, but in that smaller gym a DJ spun records. This was different. Hearing the same songs I’d listened to on the radio thundering through guitar amplifiers, the insistent bass thumping so hard that the bleachers vibrated, was a revelation. I all but levitated. This was for me.

The boys in the band were older by what—two or three years? Four at the most, but an eternity back then. And cool? Dear God. Their longish, shiny hair was slicked back on the sides, their pompadours somehow dangling down over their foreheads and swaying to the music’s urgent beat. They wore white shirts and narrow ties, dark jackets and tight “pegged” pants. When they stepped up to the microphone to sing “Baby, Wha’d I Say,” they seemed almost to whisper into the mics, but their voices boomed and echoed off the walls, the pulses and crackles of their low-slung Fender guitars seeming disconnected from both the fingers of their left hands, which flew over the frets, and their barely moving right hands, as they picked and strummed. The songs themselves weren’t perfect, like the more polished and heavily orchestrated versions played on the radio, but to me they were so much better. Hearing the former, you’d smile and nod your head. In the gym—never mind the wafting aroma of dirty socks and sour jockstraps—you could sense in every ringing, echoing note the thrilling proximity of something you couldn’t name or even describe. Freedom was part of it, but more than that, power. Music played this loud by tall, lean boys showed even the school’s thick-necked bullies what mattered and what didn’t. Though trying to look nonchalant, they hung on every note as hungrily as dweebs like me. The boys behind those roaring sunburst guitars altered our world and in the same instant ruled it. It would be decades before I’d want anything as much as I did to be one of them. Before that eighth- grade moment my most fervent wish had been that my father, long banished, might return to the house my mother and I shared with my grandparents in an upstate New York mill town. Afterward, there were things I needed more than him and an intact family. A guitar. An amp. A mic.

What do you do with such visceral yearning?

If all you have is a cheap acoustic guitar, you start saving the money from your after-school job for a cheap electric one, and after that you somehow manage to buy a secondhand amplifier about a quarter the size of those in the gym. Everything that comes out of it sounds fuzzy because some other boy with a need identical to yours has blown one of its two tiny speakers. Next, you join forces with a kid who dreams of being a drummer and whose parents have promised him a set for Christmas, and another boy who also plays guitar—his is better than yours—and has a decent amp. When the drummer gets his drums, his parents let you practice in their basement. Somehow, somewhere, you locate a couple microphones, which means both mics and guitars are now plugged into your good amp. It takes you forever to find the setting that doesn’t result in ear splitting feedback. Your drummer doesn’t think of the band as a collaboration so much as a competition between members. He wants to bang, so bang he does. The song he’s beating out is only tangentially related to the one the guitars are playing. He works himself into a frenzy of wallops that don’t take into consideration where you are in the song, its slow build toward climax. Sometimes he doesn’t even notice when you stop playing, just keeps pounding until he’s spent. He hates ballads because he’s not permitted to work himself into his preferred ecstatic state.

You suck, but you keep practicing. The drummer takes lessons, improves. You all do, though it’s hard to tell how much because your needs—better instruments, amps and mics—are so great, so far beyond your economic reach. Also, you need an audience. You need feedback, and not the sort that comes out of your amplifier when you turn up the guitars and the mics so you can be heard over the drums. One of the few things you need that doesn’t cost money is a name for the band, so you obsess about that as if it were your most pressing concern. You go through the list of car names, most of which have been taken. Have you arrived on the scene too late? You need to look like a band, which means clothes. You can’t afford the skinny black suits those other boys had, and even if you could your parents would never let you out of the house looking like that. They understand you’re in the grip of something powerful, though, so they confer and buy you matching fuzzy sweaters, powder blue.

Even though it costs money to enter, you sign up for a county-wide Battle of the Bands to be waged at the old armory, where three or four hundred kids will hear you. Even as you set up your equipment, long before the first note is struck, you can tell the other four bands will be better. With your two small amps you won’t be heard above the ambient noise of the crowd, and the tiny part of you that’s tethered to reality whispers in your ear that this may be a blessing in disguise. You’re up first. People are still arriving when you play your two-song set, which only people standing next to you can hear. Later your friends drift over and ask when you’re going on, and you have to explain that you already did. No surprise, you finish last. Fifth out of five. Nor, as it turns out, is this the worst humiliation of the evening. In the armory parking lot, you watch the boys in the other bands load their instruments into an armada of vehicles—pickup trucks, vans, rented U-Haul trailers; the winning band has a repurposed hearse. Yours is the only band whose equipment fits, with room to spare, into one rig, the back of the drummer’s parents’ pathetically uncool Nash Rambler station wagon.

Monday, after school, you do a postmortem. You tell yourself you’d sound better with better equipment, but in your heart of hearts you know you’d only sound louder. At the end of the week, your other guitarist announces he’s quitting and taking with him the only good amp. Face it, you’re a joke. You and the drummer, sick at heart, look for another guitarist. You hear about a Jewish kid who’s supposed to be good, so you give him a try and he is good. He’s been studying classical guitar for several years and seems not even to have heard of rock and roll. You invite him to join the band anyway because there’s nobody else. You tell him where his parents can buy the requisite powder-blue sweater.

Since you’re fourteen, you don’t understand that far worse than not having what you need is not knowing what you need. That you need so much—better instruments, a sound system that’s separate from your guitar amplifier, the means to get to gigs in the unlikely event that anyone hires you—obscures the fact that what you need most, which renders your other needs irrelevant, is to get good. Right now all you’ve really got is this terrible, relentless hunger to strap on a Fender Stratocaster, plug it into a killer amp, step up to the mic and make the kind of music that doubles as a sledgehammer. Nothing else matters.

Hunger has no business preceding ability, but it always does, with no exceptions.

On the Man Booker Prize

On October 25, 2016, Paul Beatty was announced as the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize. This outcome surprised many observers because Beatty’s novel The Sellout is not conventional Booker material. For one thing, it is not a historical novel, like previous winners The English Patient, Midnight’s Children, or Hilary Mantel’s two fictions about Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry viii. It is instead a contemporary tale, fantastically detached from the sensation of reality. Mordant and scarifying, it also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. In its forty-seven-year history, the Booker Prize has not often shown much interest in comedy and, when it has, it has favored a wry version, a collection of mild ironies in the Henry-James-does- humor mode.

More significantly, Paul Beatty is an American, the first to win the Booker Prize since it opened to U.S. writers starting with the 2014 competition. It was clear from that moment that it would take a brave jury and a richly deserving novel to breach the long-standing barrier against American novelists. On a somewhat less momentous but still striking note: Beatty is African American, so, following the previous year’s award to Jamaican Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings, two consecutive winners have come from the African diaspora.

The judges who named Beatty the winner dared to fulfill chilling prophecies of American co-option of a British prize, risking complaints of competitive asymmetry, since Brits cannot win the Pulitzer. Amanda Foreman, a historian, chaired the committee. Other members included the academics and writers David Harsent and Jon Day, the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Olivia Williams, an actor. As chair, it came down to Foreman to announce the winner and to explain the thinking behind the choice. She declared, “this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. That is why the book works — because while you’re being nailed, you’re being tickled.” The decision was reported to be unanimous, but, since the judges took four hours to reach it, it may not have been easy.

Beatty’s novel, along with Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, was one of two American finalists. The rest of the short list comprised Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, All That Man Is by David Szalay, and His Bloody Project by Graham Macrae Burnet. Burnet and Levy are British — Scottish in Burnet’s case, while Levy is a transplanted South African. Szalay, born in Canada and brought up in England, now lives in Hungary. Thien is Canadian.

An Anatomy of Melancholy

The review of The Waste Land, with the above title, came out in The New Republic on February 7, 1923, in other words, four months after the poem’s appearance in The Criterion of October, 1922; and I suspect it was the first full-length favorable review the poem had then received—at any rate, I do not remember any predecessors.   To be sure, I had the advantage of having known Eliot intimately for fifteen years—since my freshman year at Harvard and had already, in 1917 and 1921, apropos of Prufrock and The Sacred Wood, heralded him as the fugleman of many things to come.   Of Prufrock I said that in its wonderfully varied use of rhymed free verse there was a probable solution of the quarrel, at that time as violent as it is now, about the usefulness of rhyme or verse at all; the Imagists, and Others, including of course Williams and his eternal Object, were already hard at it.   I think Prufrock still has its way.

As to The Waste Land and my review, it might be helpful for the general picture if I record here two episodes with Eliot, one before he had written the poem, and one after.

In the winter of 1921-22 I was in London, living in Bayswater, and Eliot and myself lunched together two or three times a week in the City, near his bank:  thus resuming a habit we had formed many years before, in Cambridge. He always had with him his pocket edition of Dante. And of course we discussed the literary scene, with some acerbity and hilarity, and with the immense advantage of being outsiders (though both of us were already contributing to the English reviews); discussing also the then-just-beginning possibility of The  Criterion, through  the generosity of Lady Rothermere.  And it was at one of these meetings, in midwinter, that he told me one day, and with visible concern, that although every evening he went home to his flat hoping that he could start writing again, and with every confidence that the material was there and waiting, night after night the hope proved illusory: the sharpened pencil lay unused by the untouched sheet of paper.  What could be the matter? He didn’t know.  He asked me if I had ever experienced any such thing.   And of course my reply that I hadn’t wasn’t calculated to make him feel any happier.

But it worried me, as it worried him.   And so, not unnaturally, I mentioned it to a very good friend of mine, Dilston·Radcliffe, who was at that time being analyzed by the remarkable American lay analyst, Homer Lane.   Radcliffe, himself something of a poet, was at once very much interested, and volunteered, at his next meeting with Lane, to ask him what he thought of it.   And a few days later came the somewhat startling answer from Lane: “Tell your friend Aiken to tell his friend Eliot that all that’s stopping him is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection.   He thinks he’s God.”

The result was, I suppose, foreseeable, though I didn’t foresee it.   For when I told Eliot of Lane’s opinion, he was literally speechless with rage, both at Lane and myself.   The intrusion, quite simply, was one that was intolerable.   But ever since I have been entirely convinced that it did the trick, it broke the log-jam.   A month or two later he went to Switzerland, and there wrote The Waste Land.

Which in due course appeared in the first issue of The Criterion, by that time endowed by Lady Rothermere, and again in due course came to me from The New Republic, for review.   And once more, it was as we proceeded from Lloyd’s bank to our favorite pub, by the Cannon Street Station, for grilled rump steak and a pint of Bass, that another explosion occurred.

For I said, “You know, I’ve called my long review of your poem ‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’.”

He turned on me with that icy fury of which he alone was capable, and said fiercely: “There is nothing melancholy about it!”

To which I in turn replied:  “The reference, Tom, was to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,and the quite extraordinary amount of quotation it contains!”

The joke was acceptable, and we both roared with laughter.   To all of which I think I need add one small regret about that review.  How could I mention that I had long been familiar with such passages as “A woman drew her long black hair out tight,” which I had seen as poems, or part-poems, in themselves? And now saw inserted into The Waste Land as into a mosaic.   This would be to make use of private knowledge, a betrayal.   Just the same, it should perhaps have been done, and the conclusion drawn:  that they were not organically a part of the total measuring.

Mr.   T.   S.   Eliot is one of the most individual of contemporary poets, and at the same time, anomalously, one of the most “traditional.” By individual I mean that he can be, and often is (distressingly, to some), aware in his own way; as when he observes of a woman (in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”) that the door “opens on her like a grin” and that the corner of her eye “Twists like a crooked pin.”   Everywhere, in the very small body of his work, is similar evidence of a delicate sensibility, somewhat shrinking, somewhat injured, and always sharply itself.   But also, with this capacity or necessity for being aware in his own way, Mr.   Eliot has a haunting, a tyrannous awareness that there have been many other awarenesses before; and that the extent of his own awareness, and perhaps even the nature of it, is a consequence of these.   He is, more than most poets, conscious of his roots.   If this consciousness had not become acute in “Prufrock” or the “Portrait of a Lady,” it was nevertheless probably there:  and the roots were quite conspicuously French, and dated, say, 1870-1900.   A little later, as his sense of the past had become more pressing, it seemed that he was positively redirecting his roots-urging them to draw a morbid dramatic sharpness from Webster and Donne, a faded dry gilt of cynicism and formality from the Restoration.   This search of the tomb produced “Sweeney” and “Whispers of Immortality.”   And finally, in The Waste Land, Mr.   Eliot’s sense of the literary past has become so overmastering as almost to constitute the motive of the work.   It is as if, in conjunction with the Mr.   Pound of the Cantos, he wanted to make a “literature of literature”—a poetry actuated not more by life itself than by poetry; as if he had concluded that the characteristic awareness of a poet of the twentieth century must inevitably, or ideally, be a very complex and very literary awareness, able to speak only, or best, in terms of the literary past, the terms which had molded its tongue.   This involves a kind of idolatry of literature with which it is a little difficult to sympathize.   In positing, as it seems to, that there is nothing left for literature to do but become a kind of parasitic growth on literature, a sort of mistletoe, it involves, I think, a definite astigmatism-a distortion.   But the theory is interesting if only because it has colored an important and brilliant piece of work.

The Waste Land is unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant.   It is important partly because its 433 lines summarize Mr.   Eliot, for the moment, and demonstrate that he is an even better poet than most had thought; and partly because it embodies the theory just touched upon, the theory of the “allusive” method in poetry.   The Waste Land is, indeed, a poem of allusion all compact.   It purports to be symbolical; most of its symbols are drawn from literature or legend; and Mr.   Eliot has thought it necessary to supply, in notes, a list of the many quotations, references, and translations with which it bristles.   He observes candidly that the poem presents “difficulties,” and requires “elucidation.”   This serves to raise, at once, the question whether these difficulties, in which perhaps Mr. Eliot takes a little pride, are so much the result of complexity, a fine elaborateness, as of confusion.  The poem has been compared, by one reviewer, to a “full-rigged ship built in a bottle,” the suggestion being that it is a perfect piece of construction.   But is it a perfect piece of construction? Is the complex material mastered, and made coherent? Or, if the poem is not successful in that way, in what way is it successful? Has it the formal and intellectual complex unity of a microscopic Divine Comedy; or is its unity-supposing it to have one-of another sort?

If we leave aside for the moment all other consideration, and read the poem solely with the intention of understanding, with the aid of notes, the symbolism; of making out what it is that is symbolized, and how these symbolized feelings are brought into relation with each other and with other matters in the poem; I think we must, with reservations, and with no invidiousness, conclude that the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent.   We cannot feel that all the symbolisms belong quite inevitably where they have been put; that the order of the parts is an inevitable order; that there is anything more than a rudimentary progress from one theme to another; nor that the relation between the more symbolic parts and the less is always as definite as it should be.   What we feel is that Mr.   Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive matter, has left it unabsorbed, lodged in gleaming fragments amid material alien to it.   Again, there is a distinct weak­ ness consequent on the use of allusions which may have both intellectual and emotional value for Mr.   Eliot, but (even with the notes) none for us.   The “Waste Land” of the Grail Legend might be a good symbol, if it were something with which we were sufficiently familiar.   But it can never, even when explained, be a good symbol, simply because it has no immediate associations for us.   It might, of course, be a good· theme.   In that case it would be given us.   But Mr.   Eliot uses it for purposes of overtone; he refers to it; and as overtone it quite clearly fails.

He gives us, superbly, a waste land-not the waste land.  Why, then, refer to the latter at all-if he is not, in the poem, really going to use it? Hyacinth fails in the same way.   So does the Fisher King.   So does the Hanged Man, which Mr.   Eliot tells us he associates with Frazer’s Hanged God-we take his word for it.   But if the precise association is worth anything, it is worth putting into the poem; otherwise there can be no purpose in mentioning it.  Why, again, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata? Or Shantih? Do they not say a good deal less for us than “Give:  sympathize:  control” or “Peace”? Of course; but Mr.   Eliot replies that he wants them not merely to mean those particular things, but also to mean them in a particular way—that is, to be remembered in connection with a· Upanishad.  Unfortunately, we have none of us this memory, nor can he give it to us; and in the upshot he gives us only a series of agreeable sounds which might as well have been nonsense.   What we get at, and I think it is important, is that in none of these particular cases does the reference, the allusion, justify itself intrinsically, make itself felt.  When we are aware of these references at all (sometimes they are unidentifiable) we are aware of them simply as something unintelligible but suggestive.      When they have been explained, we are aware of the material referred to, the fact (for instance, a vegetation ceremony), as something useless for our enjoyment or understanding of the poem, something distinctly “dragged in,” and only, per haps, of interest as having suggested a pleasantly ambiguous line.   For unless an allusion is made to live identifiably, to flower where transplanted, it is otiose.  We admit the beauty of the implicational or allusive method; but the key to an implication should be in the implication itself, not outside of it.   We admit the value of the esoteric pattern; but the pattern should disclose its secret, should not be dependent on a cypher.              Mr.   Eliot assumes for his allusions, and for the fact that they actually allude to something, an importance which the allusions themselves do not, as expressed, aesthetically command, nor, as explained, logically command; which is pretentious.   He is a little pretentious, too, in his “plan”—pourtant n’existe pas.   If it is a plan, then its principle is oddly akin to planlessness.   Here and there, in the wilderness, a broken finger-post.

I enumerate these objections not, I must emphasize, in derogation of the poem, but to dispel, if possible, an allusion as to its nature.   It is perhaps important to note that Mr.   Eliot, with his comment on the “plan,” and several critics, with their admiration of the poem’s woven complexity, minister to the idea that The Waste Land is, precisely, a kind of epic in a walnut shell:  elaborate, ordered, unfolded with a logic at every joint discernible; but it is also important to note that this idea is false.   With or with­ out the notes the poem belongs rather to that symbolical order in which one may justly say that the “meaning” is not explicitly, or exactly, worked out.   Mr.   Eliot’s net is wide, its meshes are small; and he catches a good deal more-thank heaven-than he pretends to.   If space permitted one could pick out many lines and passages and parodies and quotations which do not demonstrably, in any “logical” sense, carry forward the theme, passages which unjustifiably, but happily, “expand” beyond its purpose.   Thus the poem has an emotional value far clearer and richer than its arbitrary and rather unworkable logical value.   One might assume that it originally consisted of a number of separate poems which have been telescoped-given a kind of forced unity.   The Waste Land conception offered itself as a generous net which would, if not unify, at any rate contain these varied elements.   We are aware of this superficial “binding”—we observe the anticipation and repetition of themes, motifs; “Fear death by water” anticipates the episode of Phlebas, the cry of the nightingale is repeated; but these are pretty flimsy links, and do not genuinely bind because they do not reappear naturally, but arbitrarily.   This suggests, indeed, that Mr.   Eliot is perhaps attempting a kind of program music in words, endeavoring to rule out “emotional accidents” by supplying his readers, in notes, with only those associations which are correct.   He himself hints at the musical analogy when he observes that “In the first part of Part V three themes are employed.”

I think, therefore, that the poem must be taken—most invitingly offers itself—as a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; as a series of sharp, discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings, dramatically and lyrically presented, and violently juxtaposed (for effect of dissonance), so as to give us an impression of an intensely modern, intensely literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments.  We are invited into a mind, a world, which is a “broken bundle of mirrors,” a “heap of broken images.”   Isn’t it that Mr.   Eliot, finding it “impossible to say just what he means”—to recapitulate, to enumerate all the events and discoveries and memories that make a consciousness—has emulated the “magic lantern” that throws “the nerves in pattern on a screen”? If we perceive the poem in this light, as a series of brilliant, brief, unrelated or dimly related pictures by which a consciousness empties itself of its characteristic contents, then we also perceive that, anomalously, though the dropping out of any one picture would not in the least affect the logic or ”meaning” of the whole, it would seriously detract from the value of the portrait.   The “plan” of the poem would not greatly suffer, one makes bold to assert, by the elimination of “April is the cruellest month” or Phlebas, or the Thames daughters, or Sosostris or “You gave me hyacinths” or “A woman drew her long black hair out tight”; nor would it matter if it did.   These things are not important parts of an important or careful intellectual pattern; but they are important parts of an important emotional ensemble.   The relations between Tiresias (who is said to unify the poem, in a sense, as spectator) and the Waste Land, or Mr.   Eugenides, or Hyacinth, or any other fragment, is a dim and tonal one, not exact.   It will not bear analysis, it is not always operating, nor can one say with assurance, at any given point, how much it is operating.         In this sense The Waste Land· is a series of separate poems ot passages, not perhaps all written at one time or with one aim, to which a spurious but happy sequence has been given.  This spurious sequence has a value-it creates the necessary superficial formal unity; but it need not be stressed, as the Notes stress it.  Could one not wholly rely for one’s unity-as Mr.   Eliot has largely relied-simply on the dim unity of “personality” which would underlie the retailed contents of a single consciousness? Unless one is going to carry unification very far, weave and interweave very closely, it would perhaps be as well not to unify it at all; to dispense, for example, with arbitrary repetitions.

We reach thus the conclusion that the poem succeeds-as it brilliantly does-by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations.   Its incoherence is a virtue because its donnee is incoherence.   Its rich, vivid, crowded use of implication is a virtue, as implication is always a virtue—it shimmers, it suggests, it gives the desired strangeness.   But when, as often, Mr.   Eliot uses an implication beautifully—conveys by means of a picture-symbol or action-symbol a feeling—we do not require to be told that he had in mind a passage in the Encyclopedia, or the color of his nursery wall; the information is disquieting, has a sour air of pedantry.   We accept the poem as we would accept a powerful, melancholy· tone-poem.   We do not want to be told what occurs; nor is it more than mildly amusing to know what passages are, in the Straussian manner, echoes or parodies.   We cannot believe that every syllable has an algebraic inevitability, nor would we wish it so. We could dispense with the French, Italian, Latin, and Hindu phrases—they are irritating.   But when our reservations have all been made we accept The Waste Land as one of the most moving and original poems of our time.   It captures us.   And we sigh, with a dubious eye on the notes and “plan,” our bewilderment that after so fine a performance Mr. Eliot should have thought it an occasion for calling “Tullia’s ape a marmosyte.”   Tullia’s ape is good enough.


For a man who observes the world without giving up his place in it, it is very difficult to think always the way Chamfort did.  For example, it is difficult to admit that superiority always makes enemies, that genius is necessarily solitary.  These are things people say to flatter genius or themselves.  But they are by no means true.  Superiority is compatible with friendship; genius is frequently good company.  Solitude is not peculiar to genius: a genius is alone only when he wants to be.


It is very difficult also to follow Chamfort in one of the most commonplace and stupid notions in the world, namely, scorn for women in general.  There is no such thing as scorn or enthusiasm· in general.  Every judgment must rest upon pertinent and concrete facts.  Moreover, misanthropy seems to me a futile and ill-advised attitude, and I heartily deprecate Chamfort’s surliness, his snappishness, his all-inclusive despair.  Yet, to complete the paradox, I must affirm that in spite of everything Chamfort seems to me one of the most enlightening of French moralists.  But let me say right away that when he indulges in very general judgments, he is false to the basic principles of his art.  Usually, however, he follows a quite different procedure, and herein lie his originality and his depth.


Our greatest moralists are not makers of maxims, but novelists.  Now what is a moralist?  Let us say simply that he is a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the human heart.  But what is the human heart? That is difficult to define, one can only assume that it is the most individual thing in the world.  This is why, in spite of appearances, it is very difficult to learn anything about human conduct by reading the maxims of La Rochefoucauld.  These beautifully balanced sentences, these carefully-wrought antitheses, this vanity exalted to the plane of universal reason, are far removed from the hidden complexities and whims which make up the experiences of a man.  I would willingly give the whole book of Maxims for a felicitous phrase from La Princess de Cleves and for two or three true little facts such as Stendhal knew how to collect.  “One often goes from love to ambition, but one can scarcely come back from ambition to love,” said La Rochefoucauld, and I know nothing more about these two passions, for the phrase can easily be turned around.  Julien Sorel ruining his career through two love affairs, each so different, tells me far more in his every act.  Our real moralists have not made phrases, they have observed, and have observed themselves.  They have not made laws, they have painted.  And in so doing they have done more to explain the conduct of man than if they had patiently polished, for a few wits, a hundred or so set formulas doomed to be material for academic theses.  For only a novel is faithful to the particular.  Its objective is not to sum up conclusions about life, but to depict its very unfolding.  In a word, it is more modest, and as such it is classic.  At least, as such it is a source of knowledge far more valuable than either mathematics or maxims, which are both mere intellectual pastimes.


Now what is a maxim? We might call it, by simplification, an equation1 in which the elements of the first term reappear in the second, but in a different order.  This is why the ideal maxim can always be turned around.  Its whole truth lies within itself and has no more to do with experience than an algebraic formula.  We can do with it what we please until all possible combinations of the terms are exhausted, whether these terms be love, hate, self-interest or pity, liberty or justice.  We can even, just as in algebra, gather from one of these combinations an idea regarding experience.  But there is nothing real in such things because everything is general.


What interests us in Chamfort is that, with few exceptions, he

really does not write maxims.  And, save for giving way to fits of bad humor when discussing women or solitude, he never generalizes.   If we look closely at what we are pleased to call his thoughts, we see clearly that neither antithesis nor formula is cultivated. The man who writes “The philosopher who wishes to silence passion is like the blacksmith who wishes to put out his fire” is a kindred spirit of the man who, about the same time, makes the following capital observation: “We inveigh against the passions without realizing that it is from their flame that philosophy lights her own.”  Both writers express themselves, not through maxims but through remarks which would not be out of place in a narrative.  They are sallies,” flashes of insight, but not laws.  Each one deals with a subject about which there is nothing to make laws and everything to paint.  Indeed, we can seek a long time before finding in the writings of our professional moralists a text which goes so far or offers more in practical wisdom than the following, the last part of which seems exceedingly appropriate to our society: “There are errors in deportment which nowadays we are rarely guilty of.  We have become so refined that, with our mind where our heart should be, even a base person, however little given to reflection, avoids certain platitudes which formerly might have been successful.  I have seen dishonorable men bear themselves proudly and in seemly fashion before a prince or a minister, never bending the knee, etc. . . .  Such behavior deceives inexperienced people who do not know, or else forget, that a man must be judged on his principles or his character as a whole.”


But we see at the same time that we are in no wise dealing with the art of the maxim.  Chamfort does not reduce life to a formula.  His great artistry consists, rather, in amazingly accurate strokes the implications of which” the mind can explore afterwards.  In this he immediately recalls Stendhal who also sought man where he could be found, namely in society, and truth where it lurks, namely in the particular. But the resemblance does not stop here, and we may, without paradox, think of Chamfort as a novelist.  A thousand flashes of a similar insight add up to a sort of unorganized novel, a collective chronicle which appears here in the form of the commentaries which it might call forth.  I refer to the Maxims.  But if we consider also the Anecdotes, in which now the characters are not suggested by the judgments relative to them, but rather depicted in their concrete particulars, we may get a better idea of this unavowed novel.


By putting together the Anecdotes and the Maxims, we have enough complete material, characters and commentaries, for a sort of great “Social Comedy” complete with plot and hero.  Merely by establishing a coherence which the author chose not to give it, one would create a work far superior to the collection of thoughts which it seems on the surface to be, a true book of human experience the pathos and cruelty of which cause its vain injustices to be forgotten.  We can at least point out the possibility of such an understanding.  It would show that Chamfort, unlike La Rochefoucauld,” is as penetrating a moralist as Mme. de Lafayette or Benjamin Constant, and that he takes his place, in spite of and because of his instances of passionate blindness, among the greatest creators of an art in which truthfulness to life has at no time been sacrificed to linguistic artifices.


The action takes place toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, amid a weak though charming society whose sole occupation seems to have been dancing on volcanoes.  The setting of the novel is laid in what was then referred to as society.  Let us note from the start that this removes Chamfort’s observations from the sphere of the general.  The hasty reader is often inclined to attribute to the human heart what the author says only of certain erratic characters.  So the famous sentence on love being reduced to the contact between two epidermises, incomprehensible in a man who has said so many profound things about passion, may be understood only in the light of what Chamfort himself adds: “Love, as it exists in society . . .”


What Chamfort’s chronicle attacks is a social class, a minority separated from the rest of the nation, blind and deaf, bent on pleasure.  This class provides the characters for the novel, the setting, and the objects of satire.  For, at first glance, it is a satirical novel.  The Anecdotes supply the precise details.  The king, the court, Madame the king’s daughter being astonished that the maid has, even as she, five fingers; Louis XV wincing on his death-bed because his doctor presumes to use the expression “you must”; the Duchess de Rohan taking for granted that bearing a Rohan is an honor; the courtiers preferring to rejoice at the king’s good health rather than to deplore five de­ feats suffered by the French armies, the I run fathomable stupidity, their incredible pretentiousness in designating God as “the gentleman above,” the colossal ignorance of a class in which d’Alembert is nobody compared to the Venetian ambassador; Berrier having poison administered to the man who warned him of Damiens’ attack and ignoring the warning; M. de Maugeron having an innocent scullion hanged in place of a guilty cook only because he was fond of the latter’s cooking; and still others.  These are portraits, pictures in which the same characters often reappear.  Having to deal with a society congealed in the abstractions of etiquette, Chamfort has chosen to depict them as marionettes, seen from the outside.  Except for two or three instances when he leans toward the theater, his technique is that of the novel and even the modern novel.  Per­ sons are always depicted through their deeds.  His sallies offer no conclusions; they merely indicate characters.


In the midst of all these characters the hero is Chamfort himself.  His biography could provide us with interesting data.  But it is superfluous since he has depicted himself in the Anecdotes and Maxims, and always in keeping with the novelistic technique, that is to say, indirectly.  Indeed, if we were to collect all the references to a certain M…, we should have a rather complete portrait of the character for whom Chamfort invented the word “sarcasmatic” and whose conduct in an unreal and mad society he painstakingly describes.  This individual has reached the time of life when youth is fleeing and taking with it the companions who had always been regarded as a source of everlasting delight.  In capable of accepting the consolation of religion, having tasted everything and now enjoying nothing, he would consider himself an empty shell, were it not for two things which give his life interest: the memory of love and a devotion to character.  It is not for nothing that Chamfort be­ stowed such a haughty title upon one section of his maxims: “On the Enjoyment of Solitude and the Dignity of Character.” There is nothing about a man that he rated more highly, and his only error is perhaps to have confused character with solitude.  This is also the subject of his secret book which we will have occasion to return to later.  We will, however, interpret correctly Chamfort’s emphasis on character if we recognize it as the obvious reaction of a man surrounded by a decadent society in which wit abounds, but great lessons of will are not to be taken seriously.  But in establishing this supreme quality, Cham­ fort avoids the arbitrary or the general.  He tempers his postulate by reference to experience: “It is imprudent,” he says, “to set for oneself principles stronger than one’s character.”


The reason is not far to seek. This individual so deeply concerned with lofty moral qualities is no stranger to passion and its wounds.  The very man who wrote one of the proudest maxims ever conceived by a French mind: “If good fortune is to come to me, she will have to submit to the conditions which my character imposes,” he nevertheless shows his delicate sensitivity on every page.  In short, and here our man reveals his full stature, he has achieved a combination of will and passion which constitutes the tragic character and sets Chamfort considerably ahead of his century.  In writing the following, he becomes a contemporary of Byron and Nietzsche: “I have seen very few cases of pride which pleased me.  The best example I know is of Satan in Paradise Lost.” Here we recognize the tragic tone and the stamp of what Nietzsche called the free spirit.  Let us only keep in mind the society to which this spirit belongs in spite of himself, and on which, to his misfortune, he has been unable to resist passing judgment.  We can then well imagine the experience of scorn and despair in store for a soul of this stature in a world which he holds in contempt.  Thus we perceive the novel for which Chamfort left us the elements.  It is a novel of denial, a tale of total negation which finally encompasses a negation of self, a flight toward the absolute which ends in a paroxysm of annihilation.


Such a tale can be understood only in the light of the impulsive enthusiasm which colored Chamfort’s youth.  He was, they say, as handsome as a god.  Success came early.  Women fell in love with him; his first works, however mediocre, won over the salons and even gained royal favor.  Society did not in fact act very harshly toward him, and even the illegitimacy of his birth was not a hindrance.  If the expression “social success” has any meaning, we can say that in the beginning Chamfort’s life is a brilliant success.  But as a matter of fact it is not certain that the word has any meaning.  At least this is the message of Chamfort’s novel, which is the story of a solitary life.  For social success means nothing if one does not believe in society.  And there is in Chamfort a certain tragic disposition which will prevent him from ever believing in society, as well as a certain sensitivity which will keep him apart from a class which might hold his origins against him.  He is one of those temperaments whose great and brilliant qualities put them in a position to conquer all, but who have another bitterer quality which leads them to reject the very thing which has just been conquered.  Let us add further that his environment is a society contemptible even to those whose profession it is to believe in it.  What attitude can a man take toward a world which he scorns? If his character is superior, he will set for himself standards such as cannot be met in this world.  Not to make himself a model, but merely to act consistently.  If every plot must have a basic motive, the motive of this story will be found in the author’s moral bent.”


We behold our hero lodged in the midst of his successes and his disdain for a corrupt society.  The only thing which moves him to action is his personal ethics.  Immediately he singles out for attack his very own interests.  He owes his living to pensions, but calls for their suppression; he collects his fees for attending meetings of the Academie, but attacks it violently and calls for its dissolution.  A man of the old regime, he casts his lot with the party which will ultimately cause his death.  He draws away and rejects everything, he spares neither himself nor anyone else: we have before us a tragedy of honor.  His solitude once achieved, he reveals himself the rabid foe of the only comfort to which a solitary man may have recourse; never has unbelief been declared in such vigorous accents: Not even his physical appearance remains unmolested: his countenance, once so engaging, becomes “altered, then hideous.”


Our hero will proceed still further, for renouncing his own interests is nothing and destroying his body is little compared to the destruction of his very soul.  Here, in the last analysis, lies the greatness of Chamfort and the astonishing beauty of the novel he sketches for us.  Scorn of mankind often indicates merely a vulgar mind, for it is usually accompanied by self-satisfaction.  It can be defended only when it is based upon scorn of self.              “Man is a stupid beast,” says Chamfort, “I can judge from myself.”  For this reason he seems to me a moralist of rebellion, in so much as he has experienced rebellion to the full by turning it against himself, his ideal being a sort of hopeless saintliness. Such an extreme, uncompromising attitude was to lead him eventually to silence, the ultimate negation: “M . . .  who was asked to talk on various public or private abuses replied coldly: No day goes by that I do not add to the list of things about which I shall never speak.  The longest list belongs to the greatest philosopher.”  This conviction was to bring him to deny the work of art and even the uncorrupted force of language which, within himself, had been striving so long to try to forge for his rebellion a matchless expression.  He did not fail, to be sure, and here we have the final negation.  He attributes the following words to one of his characters who is reproved for not taking any interest in his own talent: “My self-concern perished in the shipwreck of the interest which I had in mankind.”  Nothing could be more logical.  Art is the opposite of silence, it is one of the signs of a complicity which links us with the rest of mankind in our common struggle.  For one—who has renounced this complicity and set his face completely against his fellow men neither language nor art has any meaning.  Doubtless that is why this novel of negation was never written.  For it was precisely a novel of negation.  · can perceive in this art those very principles which were to lead him up to a negation of self.  Perhaps Chamfort never wrote a novel because it was not customary to do so.  But the fundamental reason is that he loved neither mankind nor him­ self.  It is hard to imagine a novelist who has no fondness for any of his characters.  Not one of our great novels can be understood except in the light of a great sympathy for mankind.  The example of Chamfort, unique in French literature, offers adequate testimony to that.  In any case, it is here that this great “social comedy” ends, belying the futile title which it bears.


We must turn to Chamfort’s biography to learn the end of this tale.  In its entirety and in its details it presents a picture of utmost tragedy and consistency.  For when Chamfort flung himself completely into the Revolution he was but giving logical expression to his convictions.  No longer able to speak, he acted, and instead of the novel which he never wrote, he occupied his talents with lampoons and pamphlets.  But it is obvious that he was concerned only with the negative aspect of the Revolution.  He was drawn too much toward an ideal justice actually to accept injustice as such, inseparable from all action.  Here again he was bound to fall.  For anyone like Chamfort, tempted by the absolute and incapable of achieving it through mankind, the rest remains only to die.  And this is exactly what he did, but in circumstances so horrible as to give its proper dimension to this ethical tragedy: it concludes in utter butchery.  The mania of purity fuses here with the madness of destruction.  The day when Chamfort thinks that the Revolution has condemned him, faced with complete failure, he draws a pistol upon himself, smashing his nose and putting out his right eye.  Still alive, he returns to the attack, cuts his throat with a razor and slashes the flesh to bits.  Covered with blood, he buries his weapon in his chest and finally, opening the veins of his legs and wrists, collapses in a pool of blood which eventually trickles under the doors and gives the alarm.  Such a frenzy of suicide, such delirium of destruction, surpass ordinary imagination.  But the Maxims offer a commentary: “Violent decisions frighten; but they befit strong minds, and robust characters are at ease in extremes.” It is just such a cult of the extreme and the impossible which Chamfort’s novel depicts.  This precisely is what Chamfort’s peculiar moral bent amounts to.  Only, this novel of a superior morality is consummated in torrents of blood, in the midst of a topsy-turvy world in which every day a dozen heads bounce into the bottom of a basket.  Compared to the conventional pictures which we are shown of this period, Chamfort’s gives us a deeper understanding of himself and of morality.


For the profession of moralist cannot proceed without upheavals, without transports, without sacrifices—or else it is only an odious sham.  That is why Chamfort seems to me one of our rare great moralists: morality, the great torment of mankind, is with him a personal passion which he carried out logically, even unto death.  On all sides I have read condemnation of his bitterness.  But really I prefer this bitterness bathed in the full light of a great conception of mankind, to the dry philosophy of the great lord who wrote this unforgivable maxim: “Manual labor delivers one from mental chores, and that is what makes the poor so happy.”  “Even in his most sweeping denunciations, Chamfort never forsook the cause of the vanquished.  He harmed no one but himself, and this for lofty reasons.  Most assuredly I can see the weakness in his point of view.  He believed that renunciation indicates character, and there are times when character must say yes.  How can superiority be imagined, separate from mankind?  Yet that is the sort which Chamfort, and after him Nietzsche (who admired him so much), chose.  But both he and Nietzsche paid dearly, proving that the adventure of an intelligence in quest of a profound justice can be as bloody as the greatest conquests.  It is an idea which compels respect.  It is likewise an idea which has a bearing on us and our world.  Let us remember in this connection that Chamfort is a classic writer.  But if coherence, reason, logic even unto death, stubborn adherence to morality are classic virtues, we must admit that the way Chamfort chose to be classic was to die of it.  This restores to the classic ideal the immensity and the thrill which it could mean to our great centuries, and which it must not lose for us.


Translated by LAURENCE LeSAGE

Stations of the Cross

I was wandering through downtown El Paso, not far from the old neighborhood of Chihuahuita, when I saw the white van. It was parked in the shade, under a tree, and spray painted across the side was the word YAHWEH. I parked and walked over. Two people were sitting inside, a black man and a white woman. Their son was asleep in the back. I asked about the words on their van. They told me to read the other side, so I walked around that way. YAHWEH SAID: GIVE ME YOUR HANDS!! EXO CHAP 20. The handles of the van’s doors formed exclamation points.

They were travelers, coming from California and heading back toward Ohio. We talked about God for a little while, and I had a hard time following what the man was saying. I asked them what they thought about the whole border situation. The man looked at me and said he didn’t want to go all Nazi or anything, but it wasn’t anything a few machine guns couldn’t take care of. He wasn’t talking about the drug smugglers.

And God said, Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.

Later that day I met Rudy Garcia for the first time. He gave me a tour of his mountain shrine, a very high altar indeed. I came back a few months later, on the last Saturday in October 2011, the day before the annual pilgrimage of Mt. Cristo Rey, a mountain straddling the Mexican border just west of El Paso, crowned with a forty-two-foot-high statue of Jesus standing before his cross. Up to thirty thousand pilgrims were expected on Sunday, and preparations were under way. Garcia, a longtime member of the Mt. Cristo Rey Restoration Committee, had invited me to spend the night on the summit with him to guard against the depredations of what he called “the Satanics from Juárez.” No barrier other than the mountain itself would protect us from the most dangerous city on earth.

I arrived shortly before ten A.M. after driving west through El Paso alongside the Rio Grande on Paisano Drive, a stretch of road that only a decade before had been subject to cross-border bandit attacks, past a weedy, dilapidated park commemorating the spot where in 1598 Don Juan de Oñate forded the river with his colonists and his army and his priests to give El Paso its name, past the remaining buildings of Old Fort Bliss, now converted into seedy apartment buildings. An enormous smokestack displaying the word “ASARCO” dominated the view, not quite rivaled by the novelty of the fifteen-foot-high Homeland Security border fence looming over the roadway. Eventually, after crossing the Rio Grande into the state of New Mexico, I turned off the macadam onto a gravel road that led through the bleak and blasted landscape of a defunct silica mine where paleontologists study lithified dinosaur remains. The winding road led me across the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad and up to the base of my destination, the jagged Cristo Rey pluton, an igneous intrusion exposed by eons of erosion, jutting upward from its ancient cradle in the sediment of shallow seas. I left my rental car along the edge of an empty parking area and walked up toward a rock, cement, and galvanized-steel shelter surrounded by human figures. It was already getting hot. Jeeps and pickups drove this way and that. Fine powdery dust billowed and hung in the air. Several ranks of blue portable toilets stood off to the side, and the doors of storage sheds and containers swung open, disgorging their contents. A dozen or more men and women busied themselves with obscure tasks, laughing and calling out to one another in Spanish and English. Walkie-talkies crackled, and power tools whined. The music was loud.

The Curses: Part II

This is the house where the boy was born, and where he played on the floor as a toddler while the Civil War began. The house was not where it is today, in a small park on the banks of the Wabash. It stood about a halfmile farther north, at 318 South Second Street in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a couple of blocks from the river, in a row of similar-looking structures that precisely one hundred years later were scheduled to undergo demolition as part of a “slum clearance program.” But the citizens proved unwilling to let this particular house be destroyed, since it had briefly belonged to a favorite son of Indiana, or to his family. People mailed in donations as small as a dollar to the county historical society, a couple of area businesses pitched in, and a government grant came through. Finally, moving day arrived: June 5, 1963. The number-one song on the radio was “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, a first big American hit for a young producer named Quincy Jones. In Terre Haute, a reporter watched workmen wrap the two-story Federal house in “cables and metal strapping, as though it were a large box.” A crowd cheered. A new foundation waited at the park, where, fifty-three years later, a person can still visit.

Look up from the floor where he’s sprawled in his rag diaper with his crude toys at the family as it existed at the start of the 1860s. The boy’s mother, Sarah Maria, had grown up in Ohio, but her parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, that term “Dutch” being in this case not our surviving word meaning Hollanders but a corruption of “Deutsch”—Germans who had left the homeland, settling among their own far-flung people in Pennsylvania’s evangelical townships. Pennsylvania, founded by early Quakers, had always been friendly to breakaway sects. Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites—the family belonged to all three, at different times. But her parents had met among the Moravians, radical Pietists from Central Europe and Saxony. By the testimony of Sarah’s daughters, she carried that mystical streak all her life. Much good in her, mixed with coldness. Considered a beauty in youth, in late-life pictures she looks out through a pleasant, round, half-smiling face. Now she is working “for fifty cents a day for Wabash avenue merchants” to make “miserably small payments” on the house. Her parents have disowned her for marrying a Catholic. There he stands, beside her, towering over the fat little boy, who later remembers him as “a religious fanatic.” He was German-born, from a place called Mayen, a small walled city in the west. When Indiana census takers came around, he identified himself as Prussian. A fiercely hard worker but contentious. The family never starved but was always poor while he ran it. The Civil War ended, and less than a year later, a board fell onto his head at the mill. After that he was thought somewhat simple-minded. “The old tyrant wore earrings and behaved like a cruel gypsy,” according to one who had known the boy. “He beat them unreasonably and made of their home a kind of noisy sepulcher.”

The boy already had a younger brother, Marcus Romanus, just a year old, and before these two, there had been three other sons, but all had died as infants. For this Sarah blamed herself. One night, in the exhaustion of young motherhood that runs to madness, she had wished herself free of the burden. Shortly after that, she saw three glowing orbs float past in a field (possibly ball-lightning, which occurs for unknown reasons with some regularity in Kentucky and Indiana) and considered it an omen. When soon thereafter her three boys died in just two years’ time, she viewed it as a fulfillment. Weeping by the third grave, she swore to God that if he would send her more babies, even as many as ten, she would never again indulge such dark and selfish thoughts. God sent her ten more exactly, boys and girls, and all of them lived. The ninth became the naturalist novelist Theodore Dreiser and changed the course of American literature, but that great and tormented man’s birth remains a decade off. The one who concerns us now is this little strapping round comedian, whom the sisters, when they arrive, will nickname Pudley. His real name, or the name we know him by, is Paul Dresser. He will grow into one of the fattest men in America, and for a time its most successful songwriter.

Nurzai’s Odyssey

In 2010, when Nurzai was eight years old, a shoot-out at the Afghan-Iranian border separated him from his family. It was late at night, and Nurzai, his parents, his older brother, and his sister were trying to cross into Iran by automobile. Instead of being met by border guards, they found themselves negotiating with smugglers.

“They told us to get out of the car and walk,” says Nurzai. “We had been warned by the smuggler’s own henchmen that he was a thief and might kidnap children, even if we paid him . . . we thought that if we ran for it we might escape. They opened fire, spraying bullets everywhere. . . Everyone else ended up in one group and I was on my own.”

Nurzai, who prefers not to reveal his real name and hometown, is now a demure, soft-spoken fourteen-year-old. He has spent the last six years making his way, alone, to Greece—the first European foothold attainable from Asia. The fuzz on his upper lip suggests a high school sophomore, but his experiences, his composure as he relates them, and his very survival reveal a resourcefulness and maturity rarely found in adults, let alone children.

Nurzai’s family had reason to take great risks leaving Afghanistan. In the months preceding their attempted escape, a powerful neighbor sought their then ten-year-old daughter, Semiram, as a bride for his son. The two families met to discuss the match, but it went badly. “The man’s son was not a good kid,” recalls Nurzai. “He was a thief, and my father told the neighbor, ‘I cannot give you my daughter. She will not be happy with you.’ After that the problems began. They kept coming to our house and saying, ‘if you don’t give her to us we will kill you all.’” Nurzai’s father was a farmer with no political connections. In contrast, he says, “these people had power. They had the Taliban on their side and my father could do nothing about that.” After Nurzai’s older brother was beaten badly at school, the family locked itself up at home for several months. “We were afraid that we would be kidnapped if we left the house. We kept hoping the man’s son would get married to someone else.”

Scenes From A Marriage

Last July, at a reading I was giving in Washington, D.C., a woman raised her hand and asked: “You write so well about trauma, but has anything really terrible ever happened in your life?”

Normally at these events I’m asked different versions of the same fairly innocuous questions. Where did the idea for your novel come from? How long did it take to write? When did you realize you were a writer? As far as I can remember, I had never before been asked about my own proximity to trauma or misfortune. Yet, as chance would have it, I had discovered, just the morning before, that my husband and best friend were having an affair.

That day, July 20, also happened to be the publication date of my new novel Listen to Me, which is centered around a marriage in crisis. The story takes place over the course of a single day, on a road trip that the couple, Maggie and Mark, makes from Chicago to rural Virginia. Their journey, which is interrupted by a massive storm, is fraught with misperception and miscommunication.

When I answered the audience member’s question, I shied away from talking about the affair; likely I anticipated the awkwardness such a comment would inspire, or knew deep down that to mentioning it to a crowd would break whatever spell was allowing me to remain in a semi-coherent state. What I said instead was that my adoptive father died of pancreatic cancer in 2006.

In the painful days that followed the discovery of my husband’s affair, the woman’s question refused to go away. Soon it brought to mind a more distressing one: Had I written my novel in search of the truth about a particular fictional marriage, or as a means of escaping the deteriorating state of my own?

In 2014, my husband and I moved from Chicago to Kentucky for matching tenure-track jobs at the same university in the same field in the same department. It was the type of opportunity we had long hoped to secure by our early fifties, maybe our late forties if we were fortunate. Instead, we were still solidly in our thirties when we landed the gig, and our writer friends from all over—L.A., New York, Chicago—wouldn’t stop telling us how lucky we were and how jealous they were of our good fortune. Our days of struggling to find adjunct jobs to stay afloat were over. We would both be teaching two classes per semester, instead of the three-three-three schedule we’d endured at our school in Chicago. Professionally speaking, we were made.

What is Minor Poetry?

I do not propose to offer you, either at the beginning or at the end, a definition of “minor poetry.” The danger of such a definition would be, that it might lead us to expect that we could settle, once for all, who are the “major” and who are the “minor” poets. Then, if we tried to make out two lists, one of major and one of minor poets in English literature, we should find that we agreed about a few poets for each list, that there would be more about which we should differ, and that no two people would produce quite the same lists: and what then would be the use of our definition? What I think we can do, however, is to take notice of the fact that when we speak of a poet as “minor,” we mean different things at different times; we can make our minds a little clearer about what these different meanings are, and so avoid confusion and misunderstanding. We shall certainly go on meaning several different things by the term, so we must, as with many other words, make the best of it, and not attempt to squeeze everything into one definition. What I am concerned to dispel is any derogatory association connected with the term “minor poetry,” together with the suggestion that minor poetry is easier to read, or less worth while to read, than “major poetry.” The question is simply, what kinds of minor poetry are there, and why should we read it?

The most direct approach, I think, is by considering the several kinds of anthologies of poetry: because one association of the term “minor poetry” makes it mean “the kind of poems that we only read in anthologies.” And, incidentally, I am glad of an opportunity to say something about the uses of anthologies, because, if we understand their uses, we can also be guarded against their dangers—for there are poetry-lovers who can be called anthology addicts, and cannot read poetry in any other way. Of course the primary value of anthologies, as of all poetry, lies in their being able to give pleasure: but, beyond this, they should serve several purposes.

One kind of anthology, which stands by itself, is that which consists of poems by young poets, those who have not yet published volumes, or whose books are not yet widely known. Such collections have a particular value for both poets and readers, whether they represent the work of one group of poets, with certain principles in common, or whether the only unity of the contents is that given by the fact that all the poets belong to the same literary generation. For the young poet, it is generally desirable to have several stages of publicity, before he arrives at the point of having a small book all to himself. First, the periodicals: not the well-known ones with a national circulation—the only advantage, to the young poet, of appearing in these, is the possible guinea that he may receive on publication—but the small magazines, devoted to contemporary verse, and edited by young editors. These small magazines often appear to circulate only among contributors and would-be contributors, their condition is usually precarious, their appearance at irregular intervals, and their existence brief, yet their collective importance is out of all proportion to the obscurity in which they struggle. Apart from the value they may have in giving experience to future literary editors—and good literary editors have an important part to play in a healthy literature—they give the poet the advantage of seeing his work in print, of comparing it with that of his equally obscure, or slightly better known contemporaries, and of receiving the attention and criticism of those who are most likely to be in sympathy with his style of writing. For a poet must make a place for himself among other poets, and within his own generation, before he appeals to either a larger or an older public. To those people who are interested in publishing poetry, these small magazines also provide a means of keeping an eye on the beginners, and watching their progress. Next, a small group of young writers, with certain affinities or regional sympathies between them, may produce a volume together. Such groups frequently bind themselves together by formulating a set of principles or rules, to which usually nobody adheres; in course of time the group disintegrates, the feebler members vanish, and the stronger ones develop more individual styles. But the group, and the group anthology, serve a useful purpose: young poets do not ordinarily get, and indeed are better without, much attention from the general public, but they need the support and criticism of each other, and of a few other people. And, last, there are the more comprehensive anthologies of new verse, preferably compiled by more detached young editors. These have the value of giving the poetry reader a notion of what is going on, a chance of studying the changes in subject-matter and style, without going through a great number of periodicals or separate volumes; and they serve to direct his further attention to the progress of a few poets who may seem to him of promise. But even these collections do not reach the general reader, who as a rule will not have heard of any of the poets until they have produced several volumes and consequently found inclusion in other anthologies covering a greater span of time. When he looks at one of these books, he is apt to judge it by standards which should not be applied: to judge promise as if it were mature performance, and to judge the anthology, not by the best poems in it, but at best by the average.

The anthologies which have the widest circulation are of course those, like the Oxford Book of English Verse, which cover whole of English literature up to the last generation; or those specialising in a particular period of the past; or those which cover the history of some part of poetry in English; or those which are limited to “modern” poetry of the last two or three generations, including such living poets as have established some reputation. These last, of course, serve some of the purpose of the purely contemporary anthology as well. But, confining ourselves for convenience to those anthologies which include the work of dead poets, let us ask what purposes they may expected to serve their readers.

No doubt The Golden Treasury, or the Oxford Book, has given many people their introduction to Milton, to Wordsworth, or to Shelley (not to Shakespeare: but we don’t expect to make our acquaintance with a dramatic poet through anthologies). But I should not say that anyone who had read, and enjoyed, these poets, or half a dozen others, in an anthology, and yet had not the curiosity and appetite to tackle their complete works, and at least look to see what else they might like—I should not that any such person was a real poetry lover. The value of anthologies in introducing us to the work of the greatest poets, is soon over; and we do not go on reading anthologies for selections from these poets, though they have to be there. The anthology also helps us to find out, whether there are not some lesser poets of whose work we should like to know more—poets who do not figure so conspicuously in any history of literature, who may not have influenced the course of literature, poets whose work is not necessary for any abstract scheme of literary education, but who may have a strong personal appeal to certain readers. Indeed, I should be inclined to doubt the genuineness of the of poetry of any reader who did not have one or more of these personal affections for the work of some poet of no great historical importance: I should suspect that the person who only liked the poets whom the history books agree to be the most important, was probably no more than a conscientious student, bringing very little of himself to his appreciations. This poet may not be very important, you should say defiantly, but his work is good for me. It is largely a matter of chance, whether and how one makes the acquaintance of such poetry. In a family library there may be a book which somebody bought it was published, because it was highly spoken of, and which nobody read. It was in this way that I came across, as a boy, a poem for which I have preserved a warm affection: The Light of Asia, by one Sir Edwin Arnold. It is a long epic poem on the life of Gautama Buddha: I must have had a latent sympathy for the subject-matter, for I read it through with gusto, and more than once. I have never had the curiosity to find out anything about the author but to this day it seems to me a good poem, and when I meet anyone else who has read and liked it, I feel drawn to that person. Now you don’t, as a rule, come across extracts from forgotten epics in anthologies: nevertheless it is always possible that in an anthology you will be struck by some piece by an obscure author, which leads to a closer acquaintance with the work of some poet whom nobody else seems to enjoy, or have read.

Just as the anthology can introduce us to poets who are not very important, but are what one happens to like, so a good anthology can give us useful knowledge of other poets who are very important, but whom we don’t like. There are only two reasons for reading the whole of The Faery Queen or of Wordsworth’s Prelude. One is that you enjoy reading it: and to enjoy either of the poems is a very good mark. But if you don’t enjoy it, the only reason is that you are going to set up as a teacher of literature, or as a literary critic, and have got to know these poems. Yet Spenser and Wordsworth are both so important in the history of English literature because of all the other poetry which you understand better because of knowing them, that everybody ought to know something about them. There are not many anthologies which give substantial extracts from long poems—there is a very useful one, compiled a few years ago by Mr. Charles Williams, who has the peculiar qualification of really enjoying all sorts of long poems which nobody else reads. But even a good anthology composed of short pieces, can give one some knowledge, which is worth having, of those poets whom we do not enjoy. And just as everybody must have his personal tastes for some poetry which other people set no store by, so everybody, I suspect, has a blind spot towards the work of one or more poets who must be acknowledged to be great.

The next use of the anthology is one which can only be served if the compiler is not only very well read, but a man of very sensitive taste. There are many poets who have been generally dull, but who have occasional flashes. Most of us have not time to read through the works of competent and distinguished dull poets, specially those of another epoch, to find out the good bits for ourselves: and it would seldom be worth while even if we could afford the time. A century ago or more, every poetry lover devoured a new book by Tom Moore as soon as it came out: who to-day has read the whole even of Lalla Rookh? Southey was Poet Laureate, and accordingly wrote epics: I do know one person who had Thalaba, if not The Curse of Kehama, read to her as a child, and retains something of the same affection for it that I have for The Light of Asia. I wonder whether many people ever read Gebir; and yet Landor, the author of that dignified long poem, was a very able poet indeed. There are many long poems, however, which seem to have been very readable when they first appeared, but which no one now reads—though I suspect that nowadays, when prose fiction supplies the need that was filled, for most readers, by the verse romances of Scott, and Byron and Moore, few people read a very long poem even when it is new from the press. So anthologies, and volumes of selections, are useful: because no one has time to read everything, and because there are poems only parts of which remain alive.

The anthology can have another use which, following the train of thought I have been pursuing, we might overlook. It lies in the interest of comparison, of being able to get, in a short space, a conspectus of the progress of poetry: and if there is much that we can only learn by reading one poet entire, there is much to learn by passing from one poet to another. To pass to and fro between a border ballad, an Elizabethan lyric, a lyric poem by Blake or Shelley, and a monologue by Browning, is to be able to get emotional experiences, as well as subjects for reflection, which concentration of attention on one poet cannot give. Just as in a well arranged dinner (if I may be pardoned for reminding you of such pleasures nowadays), what one enjoys is not a number of dishes by themselves but the combination of good things, so there are pleasures of poetry to be taken in the same way; and several very different poems, by authors of different temperaments and different ages, when read together, may each bring out the peculiar savour of each other, each having something that the others lack. To enjoy this pleasure we need a good anthology, and we need also some practice in the use of it.

I shall now return to the subject from which you may think that I have strayed. Though it is not only the minor poets who are represented in anthologies, we may think of the minor poets as those whom we only read in anthologies. I had to enter a caveat against this, in asserting that for every poetry reader there ought to be some minor poets whom it is worth while for him to read entire. But beyond this point we find more than one type of minor poet. There are of course poets who have written just one, or only a very few, good poems: so that there seems no reason for anybody going beyond the anthology. Such, for example, was Arthur O’Shaughnessy, whose poem begining “We are the music makers” is in any anthology which includes late nineteenth century verse. Such, for some readers but not for all, will be Ernest Dowson, or John Davidson. But the number of poets of whom we can say that it holds true for all readers that they left only one or two particular poems worth reading, is actually very small: the chances are that if a poet has written one good poem, there will be something in the rest of his work which will be worth reading, to at least a few persons. Leaving these few out of account, we find that we often think of the minor poet as the poet who has only written short poems. But we may at times also speak of Southey, and Landor, and a host of writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as minor poets also, although they left poems of the most monumental size: and I think that nowadays few, at least among younger readers, would think of Donne as a minor poet, even if he had never written satires and epistles, or of Blake as a minor poet, even if he had never written his Prophetic Books. So we must count as minor poets, in one sense, some poets whose reputation, such as it is, rests upon very long poems; and as major poets, some who wrote only short ones.

It might seem at first simpler to refer to the minor writers of epics as secondary, or still more harshly as failed great poets. They have failed, certainly, in the sense that no one reads their long poems now: they are secondary, in the sense that we judge long poems according to very high standards. We don’t feel that a long poem is worth the trouble unless it is, in its kind, as good as The Faery Queen, or Paradise Lost, or The Prelude, or Don Juan, or Hyperion, and the other long poems which are in the first rank. Yet we have found that some of these secondary poems are worth reading, for some people. We notice further that we cannot simply divide long poems into a small number of masterpieces and a large number of those we needn’t bother about. In between such poems as those I have just mentioned, and an estimable minor work like The Light of Asia, there are all sorts of long poems of different kinds and of every degree of importance, so that we cannot draw any definite line between the major and the minor. What about Thomson’s Seasons and Cowper’s Task—these are long poems which, if one’s interest lies in other directions, one may be content to know only by extracts; but I would not admit that they are minor poems, or that any part, of either of them, is as good as the whole. What about Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which I have never read, or that long poem by George Eliot of which I don’t remember the name?

If we have difficulty in separating the writers of long poems into major and minor poets, we have no easier decision with writers of short poems. One very interesting case is George Herbert. We all know a few of his poems, which appear again and again in anthologies; but when we read through his collected poems, we are surprised to find how many of the poems strike us as just as good as those we have met with in anthologies. But The Temple is something more than a number of religious poems by one author: it was, as the title is meant to imply, a book constructed according to a plan; and as we get to know Herbert’s poems better, we come to find that there is something we get from the whole book, which is more than a sum of its parts. What has at first the appearance of a succession of beautiful but separate lyrics, comes to reveal itself as a continued religious meditation with an intellectual framework; and the book as a whole discloses to us the Anglican devotional spirit of the first half of the seventeenth century. What is more, we get to understand Herbert better, and feel rewarded for the trouble, if we know something about the English theological writers of his time; if we know something about the English mystical writers of the fourteenth century; and if we know something of certain other poets his contemporaries—Donne, Vaughan and Traherne, and come to perceive something in common between them in their Welsh origin and background; and finally, we learn something about Herbert by comparing the typical Anglican devotion which he expresses, with the more continental, and Roman, religious feeling of his contemporary Richard Crashaw. So in the end, I, for one, cannot admit that Herbert can be called a “minor” poet: for it is not of a few favourite poems that I am reminded when I think of him, but of the whole work.

Now compare Herbert with two other poets, one a little senior to him, and one of the previous generation, but both very distinguished writers of lyrics. From the poems of Robert Herrick, also an Anglican parson, but a man of very different temperament, we also get the feeling of a unifying personality, and we get to know this personality better by reading all of his poems, and for having read all of his poems we enjoy still better the ones we like best. But first, there is no such continuous conscious purpose about Herrick’s poems; he is more the purely natural and un-selfconscious man, writing his poems as the fancy seizes him; and second, the personality expressed in them is less unusual—in fact, it is its honest ordinariness which gives the charm. Relatively, we get much more of him from one poem than we do of Herbert from one poem: still there is something more in the whole than in the parts. Next, consider Thomas Campion, the Elizabethan writer of songs. I should say that within his limits there was no more accomplished craftsman in the whole of English poetry than Campion. I admit that to understand his poems fully there are some things one should know: Campion was a musician, and he wrote his songs to be sung. We appreciate his poems better if we have some acquaintance with Tudor music and with the instruments for which it was written; we like them better if we like this music; and we want not merely to read them, but to hear some of them sung, and sung to Campion’s own setting. But we do not so much need to know any of the things that, in the case of George Herbert, help us to understand him better and enjoy him more; we need not concern ourselves with what he thought, or with what books he had read, or with his racial background or his personality. All we need is the Elizabethan setting. What we get, when we proceed from those of his poems which we read in anthologies, to read his entire collection, is a repeated pleasure, the enjoyment of new beauties and new technical variations, but no such total impression. We cannot say, with him, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

I do not say that even this test—which, in any case, everyone must apply for himself, with various results—of whether the whole is more than its parts, is in itself a satisfactory criterion for distinguishing between a major and a minor poet. Nothing is so simple as that: and although we do not feel, after reading Campion, that we know the man Campion, as we do feel after reading Herrick, yet on other grounds, because he is so much the more remarkable craftsman, I should myself rate Campion as a more important poet than Herrick, though very much below Herbert. All I have affirmed is, that a work which consists of a number of short poems, even of poems which, taken individually, may appear rather slight, may, if it has a unity of underlying pattern, be the equivalent of a first-rate long poem in establishing an author’s claim to be a “major” poet. That claim may, of course, be established by one long poem, and when that long poem is good enough, when it has within itself the proper unity and variety, we do not need to know, or if we know we do not need to value highly, the poet’s other works. I should myself regard Samuel Johnson as a major poet by the single testimony of The Vanity of Human Wishes, and Goldsmith by the testimony of The Deserted Village.

We seem, so far, to have arrived at the tentative conclusion that, whatever a minor poet may be, a major poet is one the whole of whose work one ought to read, in order fully to appreciate any part of it: but we have somewhat qualified this extreme assertion already by admitting any poet who has written even one long poem which combines enough variety in unity. But there are certainly very few poets in English of whose work one can say that the whole ought to be read. Shakespeare, certainly, and Milton: and as to Milton one can point out that his several long poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, not only should each be read entire, for its own sake—we need to read them all, just as we need to read all of the plays of Shakespeare, in order fully to understand any one of them; and unless we read Shakespeare’s sonnets as well, and the minor poems of Milton, there is something lacking to our appreciation of what we have read. But the poets for whom one can make such a claim are very few. One can get on very well in life without having read all the later poems of Browning or Swinburne; I would not affirm confidently that one ought to read everything by Dryden or Pope; and it is certainly not for me to say that there is no part of The Prelude or The Excursion which will not bear skipping. Very few people want to give much time to the early long poems of Shelley, The Revolt of Islam and Queen Mab, though the notes to the latter poem are certainly worth reading. So that we shall have to say that a major poet is one of whose work we have to read a great deal, but not always the whole. And besides asking the question, “Of which poets is it worth while to read the whole?” we must also ask the question, “Of which poets is it worth my while to read the whole?” The first question implies that we should always be trying to improve our taste. The second implies that we must be sincere towards what taste we have. So, on the one hand, it is no use diligently going through even Shakespeare or Milton from cover to cover, unless you come across something there which you like at once: it is only this immediate pleasure which can give you either the motive power to read the whole, or the prospect of any benefit when you have done so. And there may be, indeed, there should be—as I have already said—some poets who mean enough to you to make you read the whole, though they may not have that value for most other people. And this kind of liking does not only pertain to a stage in your development of taste which you will outgrow, but may indicate also some affinity between yourself and a particular author which will last a lifetime: it may even be that you are peculiarly qualified to appreciate a poet whom very few other people are able to enjoy.

I should say then that there is a kind of orthodoxy about the relative greatness and importance of our poets, though there are very few reputations which remain completely constant from one generation to another. No poetic reputation ever remains exactly in the same place: it is a stock market in constant fluctuation. There are the very great names which only fluctuate, so to speak, within a narrow range of points: whether Milton is up to 104 to-day, and down to 97 1/4 to-morrow, does not matter. There are other reputations like that of Donne, or Tennyson, which vary much more widely, so that one has to judge their value by an average taken over a long time; there are others again which are very steady a long way below par, and remain good investments at that price. And there are some poets who are good investments for some people, though no prices are quoted for them on the market, and the stock may be unsaleable—I am afraid that the comparison with the stock exchange rather fades out at this point. But I should say that while there is an objective ideal of orthodox taste in poetry, nevertheless no one reader can be, or should try to be, quite orthodox. There are certainly some poets, whom so many people of intelligence, sensibility and wide reading have liked for a long time, that (if we like any poetry) it is worth our while to try to find out why these people have liked them, and whether we cannot enjoy them too. Of the smaller poets, there are certainly some about whom, after sampling, we can pretty safely take the usual opinion that they are quite adequately represented by two or three poems: for, as I have said, nobody has time to find out everything for himself, and we must accept some things on the assurance of others.

The majority of smaller poets, however—of those who preserve any reputation at all—are poets of whom every reader of poetry should know something, but only a few of whom any one reader will come to know well. Some appeal to us because of a peculiar congeniality of personality; some because of their subject-matter, some because of a particular quality, of wit or pathos for example. When we talk about Poetry, with a capital P, we are apt to think only of the more intense emotion or the more magical phrase: but there are a great many casements in poetry which are not magic, and which do not open on the foam of perilous seas, but are perfectly good windows for all that. I think that the Revd. George Crabbe was a very good poet, but you do not go to him for magic: if you like realistic accounts of village life in Suffolk a hundred and twenty years ago, in verse so well written that it convinces you that the same thing could not be said in prose, you will like Crabbe. Crabbe is a poet who has to be read in large chunks, if at all; so if you find him dull you must just glance and pass by. But it is worth while to know of his existence, in case he might be to your liking, and also because that will tell you something about the people who do like him.

The chief points which I have so far tried to make are, I think, these: The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to do with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems—though the very greatest poets, who are few in number, have all had something to say which could only be said in a long poem. The important difference is whether a knowledge of the whole, or at least of a very large part, of a poet’s work, makes one enjoy more, because it makes one understand better, any one of his poems. That means a significant unity in his whole work. One can’t put this increased understanding altogether into words: I could not say just why I think I understand and enjoy Comus better for having read Paradise Lost, or Paradise Lost better for having read Samson Agonistes, but I am convinced that this is so. I cannot always say why, through knowing a person in a number of different situations, and observing his behaviour in a variety of circumstances, I feel that I understand better his behaviour or demeanour on a particular occasion: but we do believe that that person is a unity, however inconsistent his conduct, and that acquaintance with him over a span of time makes him more intelligible. Finally, I have qualified this objective discrimination between major and minor poets by referring it back to the particular reader. For no two readers, perhaps, will any great poet have quite the same significance, however in accord they may be as to his eminence: all the more likely, then, that to no two people will the pattern of English poetry be quite the same. So that of two equally competent readers, a particular poet may be to one of major importance, and to the other of minor.

There is a final reflection to be made, when we come to consider contemporary poetry. We sometimes find critics confidently asserting, on their first acquaintance with the work of a new poet, that this is “major” or “minor” poetry. Ignoring the possibility that what the critic is praising or placing may not be poetry at all (for sometimes one can say, “If this was poetry, it would be major poetry—but it isn’t,”) I don’t think it is advisable to make up one’s mind so quickly. The most that I should venture to commit myself to, about the work of any living poet when I met it for the first time, is whether this is genuine poetry or not. Has this poet something to say, a little different from what anyone has said before, and has he found, not only a different way of saying it, but the different way of saying it which expresses the difference in what he is saying? Even when I commit myself this far, I know that I may be taking a speculative risk. I may be impressed by what he is trying to say, and overlook the fact that he hasn’t found the new way of saying it; or the new idiom of speech which at first gives the impression that the author has something of his own to say, may turn out to be only a trick or mannerism which conceals a wholly conventional vision. For anyone like myself, who read a good many manuscripts, and manuscripts of writers no work by whom I may have seen before, the pitfalls are more dangerous still: for one lot of poems may be so much better than any of the others I have just been looking at, that I may mistake my momentary feeling of relief for an awareness of distinguished talent. Many people content themselves either with looking at anthologies—and even when they are struck by a poem, they may not realise the fact, or if they do, they may not notice the name of the author—or with waiting until it becomes apparent that some poet, after producing several volumes (and that in itself is some assurance) has been accepted by the reviewers (and it is not what reviewers say in writing about a poet, but their references to that poet when writing about some other poet, that impresses us most).

The first method does not get us very far; the second is not very safe. For one thing, we are all apt to be somewhat on the defensive about our own age. We should like to feel that our own age can produce great art—all the more so because we may have a lurking suspicion that it can’t: and we feel somehow that if we could believe that we had a great poet, that would in some way reassure us and give us self-confidence. This is a pathetic wish, but it also disturbs critical judgment, for we may jump to the conclusion that somebody is a great poet who is not; or we may quite unfairly depreciate a good poet because he isn’t a great one. And with our contemporaries, we oughtn’t to be so busy enquiring whether they are great or not; we ought to stick to the question: “Are they genuine?” and leave the question whether they are great to the only tribunal which can decide: Time.

In our own time there is, in fact, a considerable public for contemporary poetry: there is, perhaps, more curiosity, and more expectation, about contemporary poetry than there was a generation ago. There is the danger, on the one hand, of developing a reading public which will know nothing about any poet earlier than say Gerard Manley Hopkins, and which will not have the background necessary for critical appreciation. There is also the danger that people will wait to read a poet until his contemporary reputation is established; and the anxiety, for those of us who are in the business, that after another generation has established its poets, we who are still contemporary will no longer be read. The danger for the reader is double: that he will never get anything quite fresh, and that he will never return to read what always remains fresh.

There is therefore a proportion to be observed between our reading of old and modern poetry. I should not trust the taste of anyone who never read any contemporary poetry, and I should certainly not trust the taste of anyone who read nothing else. But even many people who read contemporary poetry miss the pleasure, and the profit, of finding something out for themselves. When you read new poetry, poetry by someone whose name is not yet widely known, someone whom the reviewers have not yet passed, you are exercising, or should be exercising, your own taste. There is nothing else to go by. The problem is not, as it appears to many readers, that of trying to like something you don’t, but of leaving your sensibility free to react naturally. I find this hard enough, myself: for when you are reading a new poet with the deliberate purpose of coming to a decision, that purpose may interfere and obscure your awareness of what you feel. It is hard to ask the two questions, “Is this good, whether I like it or not?” and “Do I like this?” at the same time: and I often find that the best test is when some phrase, or image, or line out of a new poem, recurs to my mind afterwards unsummoned. I find, too, that it is useful for me to look at the new poems in the poetry magazines, and at the selections from new poets in the contemporary anthologies: because in reading these I am not bothered by the question, “Ought I to see that these poems are published?” I think it is similar to my experience, that when I go to hear a new piece of music for the first time, or to see a new exhibition of pictures, I prefer to go alone. For if I am alone, there is nobody to whom I am obliged to express an immediate opinion. It isn’t that I need time to make up my mind: I need time in order to know what I really felt at the moment. And that feeling is not a judgment of greatness or importance: it is an awareness of genuineness. So, we are not really concerned, in reading a contemporary poet, with whether he is a “major” or a “minor” poet. But if we read one poem, respond to it, we should want to read more by the same author; and when we have read enough, we ought to be able to answer the question, “Is this merely more of the same thing?”—is it, in other words, merely the same, or different, without adding up to anything, or is there a relation between the poems which makes us see a little more in each of them? That is why, with the same reservation as about the work of dead poets, we must read not only separate poems, as we get them in anthologies, but the work of a poet.

The Curses: Part I

In discussing twentieth century American popular music and its most essential genre, the blues, there have been two main channels for getting into the history, or, as we like to say, the roots, of that tradition. The first and more familiar involves the so-called “pre-war blues”—confusingly called so, if you stop to think, since the music referred to by that name was recorded between 1921 and about 1937; the term ought to be, “between-wars,” or entre deux guerres. Regardless, people who love old music know what you mean when you say it. A dim blue light comes on over crackly shellac. “Pre-war”: that’s the twenties and thirties, the Okeh and Paramount labels, southern blues queens and obscure rural guitar geniuses. The real business. The plutonium.

The second and less familiar way of grappling with the music’s roots, and the one to which this story belongs in a sideways fashion, has to do with what gets called the Early Blues or, in a few instances, proto-blues. These terms are more elastic, chronologically, and can expand at the user’s discretion to fill the whole span of time between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I, but they most often and most properly relate to the quarter century or so between, say, the late 1880s and 1915 or ’16, the years of formation, when the cultural elements that combined to form the music we call blues were active in the American test tube. This is an age not of “race records” but of Edison cylinders and sheet-music hits. It’s Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville, minstrel shows and medicine shows. Music happens by lamplight under canvas tents and in late-Victorian parlors, in brothels and churches. It comes from player pianos in taverns. If we hear a blues queen singing on the phonograph, she will be not Mamie or Bessie or Ma, but Nora Bayes, aka Dora Goldberg, a Jewish girl from Illinois, doing “Homesickness Blues” “This darky was some homesick, believe us!” reads the Victor Records catalogue. Or else she is Marion Harris, a white teenager from Indiana, from a miniscule place on the Ohio River called Pigeon Township (though she told people she came from the other side of the river, in Kentucky—it sounded better). She got famous, went to England, and married an English guy, but their house in London was obliterated by a German bomb in 1944, so she came back to America, only to die alone in a fire in her hotel room in New York City (cigarette, bed). All white girls. No African American singer was able to record a vocal blues for several more years, not until Mamie Smith did “Crazy Blues” in 1920 (and Mamie only got that job because Sophie Tucker—Jewish and from Connecticut—fell ill). A year or two later Smith’s contemporary, the black singer Sara Martin, a real Kentuckian (Louisville), found herself billed as “the black Sophie Tucker.” At times there’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to it all. Much that we think of as solid is liquid. Blacks and whites are both performing in blackface. Authenticity and appropriation play hide-and-seek.

The State of Letters

This editorial, like many elements of the Sewanee Review, has a long history. The poet and critic Allen Tate created the State of Letters in Autumn 1944 to announce his editorship when he took over from Tudor Seymour Long, and every subsequent editor assuming the mantle—John Palmer, Monroe K. Spears, Andrew Lytle, and George Core—has employed it to reiterate the Review’s editorial policy and reinterpret its core values.

In his piece, Tate discusses what he perceived as the “collapse of American literary standards.” He was troubled, in particular, by certain popular critics who would do away with such standards altogether. It was wartime, America was in an existential struggle with fascism, and to these men, all authority, even that of intellectuals, was suspected of being anti-democratic. “If you believe in ‘standards,’” Tate writes, parroting these critics’ line of thinking, “who is going to uphold them but ‘authority’? And what other authority is there than the authority of force?” Tate knew this to be ridiculous. Without literary standards, there can be no literature. Jettison any measure of merit, and the slide into anti-intellectualism is quick.

Engrams, California

Like the tectonic plates that keep California unsteady, trauma’s movement is never interrupted; it is always shifting—yet we only pay attention when it’s a disaster.

The Love Interest and I are driving again, this time along the San Bernardino freeway where it splits the desert. We are heading east to camp for the weekend, first to Joshua Tree and then the long way back to LA by the Salton Sea. He’s picked me up from a bachelorette party in Palm Springs. I have glitter in my hair and four false eyelashes left. I’m so hungover I’m nearly fetal. I’ve been gone four months on book tour, I leave again in a week, and I’m on a deadline.

“I want to say that the desiccation of Owens Lake is the greatest environmental disaster in California’s history.”

“The greatest?” He’s skeptical. “Is that true?”

“I don’t know. It feels true.”

“Maybe you should do some research before you write something like that. I can put you in touch with one of my professors.”

“No, never mind.”

I put my hand on the window. Heat ripples against the glass, the wind turbines moving plaintively through it.

“So you want general permission to write whatever feels true?”

Many months ago, on our first trip to the desert, The Love Interest took me to see a piece of land art at Owens Lake. I’d never heard of the place, but he once worked on a ranch overlooking it.

Machado de Assis at the Rio Olympics

I flew to Rio de Janeiro on a red-eye, having shared my brain all night with the writer Joachim Maria Machado de Assis, whose novel Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (better known in English as Epitaph of a Small Winner) I’d read between snoozes. I was in Brazil to cheer on my sister, Sarah, competing in the Olympic Games in triathlon. I try to be a good literary citizen and had bought the book because I wanted to see Rio not just in its new Olympic colors, but also in the strange and shimmering light of literary history.

As the main character of Epitaph of a Small Winner, Brás Cubas says of the novel he is narrating, “this book and my style are like a pair of drunks: they stagger to the right and to the left, they start and they stop, they mutter, they roar, they guffaw, they threaten the sky, they slip and fall. . . .” Rio itself seemed half-drunk, this late in the Games, which had been going on for over ten days, and would finish in a great burst of fireworks and weepy flag-waving the day after my sister’s race. There was something missing, I felt, looking out at this city I had loved so much in a previous lifetime, and I realized that what made it feel a little empty was that I was there without my husband. Ten years ago, we had stayed on Ipanema Beach during our honeymoon, and the city had been sweaty, hot and sexy and bright, a little bit dangerous, full of nightclubs and beaches and strange and delicious food. We didn’t have children or a mortgage then; I’d just graduated from my MFA program and had giant dreams of writing, but no books yet. Rio felt young to us, but maybe we were projecting our own youth onto it.

The Rareness of Poetry: On Christian Wiman

Literary awards, when you really think about them, are paradoxical things. It is customary for the recipient of an award to say that he or she is grateful for it. At the same time, however, the award itself is an expression of gratitude, a way of recognizing how thankful we are for the work being honored. In a sense, what is being judged in the giving of any award is primarily the judgment of the judges. And when you look at the list of poets who have received the Aiken Taylor Award—from Howard Nemerov, Maxine Kumin, and Gwendolyn Brooks to Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, and Louise Glück—you realize that the judgment of these judges has been exacting.

Any writer would be proud to join such an illustrious company, and perhaps it is the feeling of having been admitted into company that really appeals to writers when they desire recognition. Poets often write, or used to, about their longing for the recognition of posterity. But posterity is faceless, an abstraction, compared to the past, which we can know intimately in the persons of the poets we love. Dante fantasized about meeting Homer, Ovid, and Virgil in the afterlife; and Keats mused, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.” Tellingly, for both, it was only in the next world that such encounters could take place. Prizes are this world’s substitute or equivalent for that kind of recognition; they are a way of saying to a poet that we believe he would be welcomed by the company of his peers.

No poet working today deserves that welcome more than Christian Wiman—in part because few poets have been so eloquent on the subject of the rareness and loneliness of the poetic vocation. “Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency,” Wiman writes in his essay “A Piece of Prose.” Indeed, if poets long for the companionship of the dead, it is because they very often have trouble feeling at home in the company of the living. Today it is unfashionable to insist that being a poet is a kind of fate, and an ambiguous one at that, a fate that involves separation and suffering as well as lucidity and achievement. For a fate is something given, not chosen—as the Romans said long ago, poeta nascitur, non fit: a poet is born, not made. In America today, of course, we tend to take the opposite view: the idea that you have to be born with a gift sounds undemocratic, elitist, contrary to our ideal of openness.

Trump’s Literacy

It was at once a diverting and disconcerting conversation. Last May, on assignment for Time magazine, I traveled to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to ask the then-presumptive Republican nominee about presidential literacy—what does a president need to know in order to govern effectively? How fluent need he be in the details of policy? How familiar with the ebb and flow of history? In our hour or so together, Donald Trump was gracious but evinced little interest in the substance of the questions, often turning, in his freewheeling, free-associating way, to his own popularity.

Had I seen Bobby Knight’s appearances for Trump in Indiana? he asked me. They were amazing, Trump reported—gold-plated. Nobody better out there than Knight. And what about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback who’d said nice things about Trump, a golfing pal, up in Massachusetts? Hadn’t seen it? Trump called out to his assistants: can they get him a copy of the Brady quote?

As we parted, Trump mused about the approaching general-election campaign: “People keep saying, ‘Donald, you’ve already made history, no matter what happens,’ but I’ll tell you this: I want to win. None of it means anything if I don’t win.” Of course, he did, and now the rest of us are left to wonder about what his victory will mean.

In our closely divided age, reactions to the news of Trump’s improbable victory ranged from the joyful to the apocalyptic. In the wake of the campaign, conventional wisdom—the phrase was John Kenneth Galbraith’s—explained the election as a great roar of populist fury at political, economic, cultural, and media elites who seemed out of touch with working-class voters whose lives have been circumscribed by the inequalities of globalization. There were other, harsher opinions, including the argument that Trump’s rise is at heart fascistic, and his election the first step toward racialist totalitarianism.

Hillary and the Grand Inquisitor

The setting, at least for the historically-minded, was a familiar one: the hall at Moscow State University in which Ronald Reagan had hailed the “Moscow spring” of two decades before, in the waning hours of the Cold War. In that classic Reagan speech, the American president struck characteristically optimistic notes. “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things,” Reagan said. “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government, has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put here for a reason and has something to offer.” Now, in the autumn of 2009, the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stood before a colorful mural featuring a hammer and sickle—the bust of Lenin from Reagan’s day had been removed—to address the students not of the Soviet Union but of Russia. And while Lenin was gone, the Russian past, and her own, was very much on Clinton’s mind.

Asked from the floor about what book had “changed [her] life”—it was a university crowd, after all—the Secretary of State cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov. Recalling two readings of the sprawling philosophical nineteenth century novel, Clinton singled out “The Grand Inquisitor” section of the book, what Dostoyevsky’s atheistic narrator Ivan refers to as a “poem” he recites to his devout brother, Alyosha. Conventionally interpreted as a depiction of Roman Catholic certitude against a more personal and Protestant understanding of faith, the scene features a cardinal of the church describing the perils of free will to a Christ who has returned to sixteenth century Spain. A long lament that God had made faith a matter of choice, the cardinal’s monologue

Expansion and the Philosophy of Power

Within the realm of economics, expansion was a good word because the growth of industrial capacity as it had been brought about through the industrial revolution was a working reality.

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