Saturday, March 24, 2018

`A Man Sawing Wood at So Much Per Cord'

Herman Melville went to Washington looking for a job in March 1861. Moby-Dick was ten years in the past, and he seemed to have given up writing fiction. Friends and relatives pulled strings. His father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, angled to secure Melville a consulship in Florence, Italy. Other acquaintances lobbied U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and the new president, Abraham Lincoln, who had been inaugurated on March 4. Though mortally ill, Shaw wrote to Sumner on March 21 regarding his son-in-law:

“He has suffered somewhat in his health, as his friends believe, by devotion to study, and a life of extreme solitude, and they fully believe, that with the improvement to be derived from a mild climate, a more free social intercourse with artists and men of letters and refinement, he would be able to perform the duties of American Consul at Florence, with great credit to his country.”

Melville arrived in Washington on March 22. Hershel Parker in the second volume of his biography tells us Melville “chased Sumner about the capital.” That night, he attended the new president’s second levee (a formal presidential reception) at the White House. In a letter to his wife dated March 24-25, Melville wrote to his wife:

“The night previous to this I was at the second levee at the White House. There was a great crowd, & a brilliant scene. Ladies in full dress by the hundred. A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with `Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Able is much better looking [than] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow -- working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord. Mrs Lincoln is rather good-looking I thought. The scene was very fine altogether. Superb furniture -- flood of light -- magnificent flowers -- full band of music &c.”

The meeting otherwise goes unremarked. Lincoln made no mention of it. Melville was one of thousands seeking patronage from the new administration. Hershel notes: “Melville’s description of Lincoln as sawing metaphorical wood at so much per cord indicates a high degree of fellow-feeling, since it was the image he used of himself in 1849 about the way he had composed Redburn and White-Jacket.” What to us seems like a meeting of giants, a rare convergence of two great American writers, turns out to be a minor social function.

In “Lemuel Shaw’s Meditation,” one of four dramatic monologues spoken by historical figures and collectively titled “Crossing the Pedregal” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002), the late Helen Pinkerton has Shaw, in January 1861, recalling his earliest awareness of Lincoln and meditating on the threat a demagoguery:  

“Then I recalled a speech made years ago,
A strong lyceum speech in Illinois
By a young Western lawyer, a Whig like me,
That made my point exactly: the risk we ran
In that mob-ridden time, prelude to this,
That some mad, towering genius, seeking glory,
Through antislavery or its opposite,
Might overturn our laws, for personal fame,
Might break the Union to enhance his name.
The lawyer urged obedience to law
Till laws, if bad, as slavery’s code, be changed.”

Near the end of the poem Lincoln reappears, this time as president. In Pinkerton’s retelling, Shaw has read Moby-Dick:

“If this young lawyer—no one-idea’d Ahab
Nor coward Starbuck he – can find his way
As President, during the coming conflict
To use his war powers, citing the Union’s need
In mortal danger, for black-soldier power,
Ending the nightmare slavery has been,
Though he’ll not change our human nature’s evil,
He might permit a lessening of the wrong,
A small increase of right.”

Lemuel Shaw would die, age eighty, on March 30, 1861. On April 12, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. Lincoln named T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston to the consulship in Florence. In 1866, more than a year after the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination, Melville wrote to Henry A. Smythe, whom he had met in Switzerland and had been appointed collector of customs for the district of New York in May of that year. Melville was sworn in as a customs inspector at the port of New York on Dec. 5, 1866. He resigned effective Dec. 31, 1885.

Friday, March 23, 2018

`His Enemy or His Friend'

Dr. Johnson on social media and political discourse in 2018:

“It is not difficult to obtain readers, when we discuss a question which every one is desirous to understand, which is debated in every assembly, and has divided the nation into parties; or when we display the faults or virtues of him whose public conduct has made almost every man his enemy or his friend.”

[From The Rambler #106, published March 23, 1751.]

Thursday, March 22, 2018

`Much that One Does Not Want to Know'

“We read, search, pick up one book after another & life becomes a febrile pursuit of knowledge.”

That was me when young. I felt ten steps behind the smart guys and could never catch up. Reading took on an industrialized aspect. I competed not with other readers -- I didn’t know any afflicted with my sort of culture-hunger -- but with myself. I felt anxiety when I didn’t know something, but good things can come from such neuroses. Many a gourmet begins as a gourmand. I came to understand that to recognize shoddy goods you first have to try them on. Why did I feverishly read James Baldwin and Joyce Carol Oates when I was young? So I don’t have to read them when I was old. The burden is lifted.

“But culture is to know that there is much that one does not want to know.”

The quoted sentences are from Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, 1922-86 (2014). The latter is the rarest sort of wisdom, hard-earned in my case. Vast fields of human endeavor leave me utterly indifferent, and today that’s just fine by me. I don’t care about economics, statistics and neuroscience. I’m glad other people do. There’s a good chance they don’t care about Henry James and Osip Mandelstam. In his next notebook entry, Oakeshott sounds a lot like Montaigne, who is always worth pursuing:

“We spend our lives trying to discover how to live, a perfect way of life, sens de la vie. But we shall never find it. Life is the search for it; the successful life is that which is given up to that search; & when we think we have found it, we are farthest from it. Delude ourselves that we have found it, persuade ourselves that here at least there is a point at which we can rest -- and life has at once become moribund. Just as to remain in love we must be continually falling in love, so to remain living we must be continually striving to live.”

[Added later, from Shirley Hazzard's Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008): "The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through literature, as being more real than our factual origins. It was thus that pilgrimage had been set in motion."] 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

`Built Around a Core of Sorrow'

“Journalism is at bottom no better than an unfulfilled scouring for truths that can never be more than provisional.”

For years I clipped Murray Kempton’s columns from New York Newsday and filed them chronologically in manila folders. My fingers left the folders smeared with ink from the newsprint, confirming the old cliché about “ink-stained wretches.” Those folders and hundreds of others are crammed into my green file cabinet in the garage. On Monday I was looking for something else when I came upon the Kempton files. I pulled out several, intending to idly browse, and ended up browsing the evening away. The passage quoted at the top is the opening sentence of the column Kempton published on April 18, 1991. Two days earlier, Kempton’s friend Homer Bigart had died at age 83. For forty-three years, Bigart worked first for The Herald Tribune and then for the New York Times. Kempton praises the Times’obituary for Bigart:

“There are scraps from what Homer Bigart wrote when he was working and from what he said when he wasn’t; and Richard Severo chose each with the care owed to fragments from a golden fleece.”

You will notice the Kempton touch. Stylistically, he was never afraid to launch a metaphor. His language was elegant, learned and complex by newspaper standards.
The abiding sin among the journalists I knew and worked with was provinciality, the conviction that our world was the world. Kempton always recognized the grander context. He knew that history is forever repeating itself, even on the individual scale. Kempton closes his column with an anecdote about covering, with Bigart, the arrival of a black family in all-white Levittown, Pa. Bigart lingered when Kempton was ready to leave. He talked at length to the elderly town clerk while Kempton waited in the car. Here’s the column’s conclusion:

“When we left at last, Homer apologized with the explanation that you might have to come back to this place and could need this sort of stuff. He would always know more than the rest of us because he could never think that he already knew enough.”

The Bigart column seems not to be available online. But while looking I found a profile of Kempton written by David Owen and published in Esquire in 1982. Kempton has often been likened to Mencken, but Owen sees another model:

“. . . I think first of Dr. Johnson. Kempton is more a creature of the eighteenth century than he is of Mencken’s, and although he is a Whig to Johnson’s Tory, the two men have much in common. Johnson used to trudge out into the streets of London to buy oysters for his cat, because he was afraid that if he left the task to a servant, the servant might come to hate the cat. It’s easy to imagine Kempton doing the same thing, except that he would probably pick up something for the servant as well. His prose style owes as much to Johnson as it does to anyone now breathing. His personality seems as inextricably bound up with New York as Johnson’s was with London. His happiness, like Johnson’s, has been built around a core of sorrow.”

[About Kempton’s sentence quoted at the top: It gives me deferred satisfaction to read it. More than thirty years ago I had an editor who used to say that our goal as journalists was to unearth “Truth with a capital `T.’” What horseshit. We’re reporters, not metaphysicians.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

`Tears, Fancy Cakes and Curry'

Readers devise private litmus tests to judge the bookish tastes of other readers, a practice that, in the wrong hands, can amount to summary execution. Jane Austen: pro or con? The Golovlyov Family: thumbs up or thumbs down? It’s all a little silly and simplistic, and all of us do it. My own pocket taste-tester is Laurence Sterne. If a reader tells me he can’t abide Tristram Shandy, I’m wary, if not contemptuous. His subsequent judgments are dubious. I ask myself, what’s wrong with this guy?

The supreme book critic of the last century was V.S. Pritchett (who died on this date, March 20, in 1997). That he was also among our finest writers of short stories, wrote a great travel book (The Spanish Temper) and one enduing novel (Mr. Beluncle), makes the lavishness of his gifts seem almost indecent. Here he is in “Tristram Shandy” (Complete Collected Essays, 1991):

“A little of Sterne goes a long way – as long as nearly 200 years, for his flavor never dies in the English novel. It is true we cannot live on tears, fancy cakes and curry. But, take him out of the English tradition; point out that George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence [that set off my taste-tester], Conrad – the assembled moral genius of the English novel – ignore him; explain that he is not Henry James; despise him because he created `characters’, a form of dramatic person out of fashion for a generation or more – and still his insinuating touch of nature come through.”

One senses a great big “but” in the offing. Up to this point, Pritchett is addressing not Sterne but his influence and reputation. The aphorist (and Pritchett is one of the greats at this art, too) is afoot: “Eccentricity is, in fact, practical madness.” And at greater length (aphorisms are not so much short as dense): “Constantly he reckoned up how much he was going to feel before he felt it; even calculated his words so subtly that he made a point of not ending half his sentences and preferred an innuendo to a fact.” How un-English of him. The practice of truncating sentences accounts for half of Sterne’s comic genius. He has Tristram say: “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” Tristram is defined by his fleeting mortality. Only when consumption finishes him off (as it did his creator) will he cease writing. Pritchett notices the essentially solitary state of Shandy/Sterne:

“Alone: it is that word which rises at last to the mind after it has been dragged for miles at the heels of the bolting, gasping fancies and verbosities of Tristram Shandy. The gregarious, egotistical Sterne is alone; garrulously, festively and finally alone . . . The indecencies and the double meaning of Sterne, if anything, intensify the solitude; they provoke private reflection and erect barriers of silent lecherous satisfaction.”

That’s part of the peculiarly interactive charm of Sterne and his prose. Sometimes a dirty joke is just a dirty joke. And sometimes it’s a revelation of character or a pitying flash of human consciousness. Sterne was a pioneer in more than novel writing; a bona fide world explorer for whom the world was his own sensibility:

“Sterne’s discovery of the soliloquizing man, the life lived in fantasy, is the source of what is called the `great character’ in the English novel, a kind which only Russian fiction, with its own feeling for `madness’ in the 19th century, has enjoyed.”

I’m reading A Sentimental Education again, as I reread Tristram Shandy last year. Does Pritchett pass my litmus test? Yes and no.

Monday, March 19, 2018

`We Know the Topography of Its Blots'

A magician I knew who specialized in parties for children once listed for me the words guaranteed to get a laugh out of preschoolers. Most will not come as news to parents. My friend didn’t “work blue,” as comedians used to say, so the list is G-rated. The ones I remember are monkey, underwear, potty, butt and banana. The last one surprised me, as it had surprised the magician at first. Something about the sound of the word and the shape of its referent, he learned from experience, cracked up kids. So much so that he added a toggle switch to a plastic banana and worked it into his act. For the adults in the room he added the obligatory Donovan allusion.

My younger sons and I were riffing on bananas the other day after seeing a cartoon involving the banana-peel-on-the-sidewalk gag. This in turn reminded me of the “Banana Breakfast” scene early in Gravity’s Rainbow. “Pirate” Prentice grows bananas in his rooftop hothouse in London and prepares a sumptuous morning meal:

“. . . banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead... banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter . . .”

And so on. I found my copy of the novel and read the passage aloud. It’s typical Pynchon silliness and earned a few laughs from my sons, though I had to explain kreplach. I hadn’t opened the book in years and last read it in 1973, when I reviewed it for an “underground” magazine published in Bowling Green, Ohio. It’s a first-edition paperback (“A Viking Compass Book”), stained and creased but still readable. I remember buying it in a mall bookstore in Youngstown, Ohio. I wrote my name and the date on the front endpaper: March 21, 1973 [on that date, John Dean uttered the memorable phrase "a cancer on the presidency"]. That same page and the front cover are stained with what appears to be coffee. The cover price is $4.95. On Page 4 my younger self (I was twenty) underlined this sentence: “There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet.” I have no desire to reread Gravity’s Rainbow but the book is familiar in my hands, and most of the annotations and underlinings make sense. I remember what Charles Lamb wrote on Oct. 11, 1802 to Coleridge:

“. . . a book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe, which I think is the maximum.”

Sunday, March 18, 2018

`Art Keeps Long Hours'

While reading Donald Justice again I was reminded of his fondness for Charles Burchfield, one of my favorite American painters and, like me, a native of Northeastern Ohio. Even at their most stylized, I recognize his landscapes and city scenes. Justice opens New and Selected Poems (1995) with “On a Picture by Burchfield”:

"Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours."

In Burchfield’s paintings everything is alive and writhing. Even Ohio winters writhe with spring latency. Some artists see desolation and sterility wherever they look. For Burchfield, even dead landscapes are charged with life. Objects in his paintings – trees, flowers, houses, seldom people -- are sacred because they live. “Pantheism” pushes the idea too far. Burchfield celebrates creation.
For fifty-six years he kept an almost daily journal. Written in pencil, ink and crayon, it amounted to 10,000 manuscript pages and more than 2 million words. J. Benjamin Townsend spent 15 years editing the sprawling journal housed at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo since the artist’s death in 1967. In 1993, the State University of New York published the result: Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place, Townsend’s 737-page selection, arranged chronologically within thematic categories. The Burchfield Penney Art Center now posts daily excerpts from the journal at a site they call “Charles E. Burchfield in his own words.” Here is Burchfield writing on March 12, 1922: “I would like to be the embodiment of March — both in life & art—.” And this, in the Keatsian mode, from Jan. 11, 1914:

“The analytical mind kills poetry. The rainbow was a supernatural event until someone ex­plained it that falling rain broke up the sunlight into colors. Yet it is ignorance not to know it.”

Burchfield had exceptional taste in literature. He loved the great Russians of the 19th century – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. He loved Moby-Dick. He read Yeats’ plays as early as 1915, and appreciated Winesburg, Ohio when it was published in 1919. He adored Willa Cather and read all of her books as they were published. See this entry from Oct. 15, 1948:

“The grass colors beautiful – orange yellow, sun-lit, rich reddish brown, pastel shades of pale brown pink, pale ochre, light gray creamy white, and some weed that gave off a slate gray color. With the sunlit fields of dead grass against a blue-black eastern sky, I thought of My Ántonia.”

Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916. He never received a conventional liberal-arts education but his culture was deep and broad. He loved music (especially Sibelius) and movies, and read for the best of reasons: pleasure and self-knowledge.