Commentary Magazine


Topic: Henry James

The Stravinsky Controversy

Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

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Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

Having done a little historical research on Lawrence and Kitchener, I have found that the evidence for their supposed homosexuality is actually extremely poor. While they may have been repressed gays, there is little to no evidence of their having carried on a same-sex affair or, for that matter, an affair of any sort. The same is true of James. Hard as it may be to believe in the sex-soaked America of the 21st century, it is possible that they were simply asexual–secular monks as it were.

Whatever the case, it should hardly matter one way or another. “Gay” and “straight” are modern categories that scarcely fit people who lived centuries ago and did not think of their behavior in those terms. Nor is it the case that their sexuality, whatever it was, was necessarily the key to understanding their personalities and achievements.

Even most present-day gay men and woman who are proudly out of the closet don’t want to be defined by their sexuality; indeed, that was a point that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper made in explaining why he waited to come out publicly. What’s true for Cooper is certainly true for Stravinsky, Lawrence, James, and many other famous individuals: they should be judged by their achievements and merits, not on the basis of their sexuality–especially when there is no definitive evidence about what their sexuality was in their first place.

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Review: You Say You Want a Revolution

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.

Read Less

Veterans Day and Veterans’ Novels

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

Read Less

Dead Zone at the Core of American Life

In one of his typically remarkable posts at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reflects upon the story of Rajat K. Gupta, who was indicted yesterday on charges of insider trading. As head of the distinguished consulting group McKinsey & Co., Gupta was “privy to the most sensitive information in American corporate life,” Mead explains.

Gupta abused the trust of his clients in (allegedly) trading on the information to enrich himself. “If the government proves its case,” Mead says, “it will demonstrate that the American establishment has lost its ability to discern character and demand integrity”:

That a criminal could win the trust of so many of the “best and the brightest” in philanthropy and business chillingly demonstrates the moral and intellectual vacuum in the corporate world. Years of excessive payment for executives, okayed by go along to get along boards of directors, a culture of entitlement and a lack of personal character and strong moral codes have created a dead zone at the core of American life.

A haunting phrase — the dead zone at the core of American life. Success is now the measure of respectability throughout the culture; men and women of principle put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and are roundly hooted at.

It is not merely “the corporate world” that is to blame, however. Where in American life is the living zone of personal character and strong moral codes? The churches? Perhaps in the more Evangelical ones (and in Mormon temples), but the mainline Protestant churches have abandoned their tradition of moral radicalism, according to the great novelist Marilynne Robinson:

     What are called now the mainline churches were very much in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. They truly were radical in the terms of the time, and ahead of their time. . . . And I think that they are radical institutions in their deepest impulses, but that they have been stereotyped as the archetypal conservative institutions. . . .
     They don’t like this characterization. They don’t think past it. And they’ve been very much intimidated by these kinds of things. I think that they would be very well positioned to assume an important place in contemporary culture. For them, the issue seems to be, “Should we imitate others?” and it never seems to be, “How can we be more fully ourselves?”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say — how much more true of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which together account for 70 percent of American Jews. Much of the religious life in America is simply a lowered-voice rush to accommodate itself to the dead zone.

The universities? Don’t make me laugh. Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.

As a blogger at Ace of Spades HQ put it in asking whether education is the “root cause” of our current political dramas, “[A]n uber-expensive university system . . . encourages students to take on debts approaching a house mortgage yet leaves them ill-prepared to actually earn a living, much less pay back their loans.” Even the sharp-toothed Charles Krauthammer, liberally educated at McGill and Balliol College, Oxford, shares the same basic assumption about university education. In a recent column on Occupy Wall Street, he wrote:

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching —

and not in those worthless English degrees, I suppose, that left them ill-prepared to earn a living. The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as William James once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”

That leaves literature. In preparing The Aspern Papers for a course on Henry James recently, I stumbled upon a 1995 article by Joseph Hynes in the South Atlantic Review. Now retired from the English department at the University of Oregon, Hynes is a scholar of postwar British fiction who wrote one book on Muriel Spark’s novels and edited another. He calls his essay “Morality and Fiction,” and he focuses largely upon James, because James reveals “something valuable about fiction” — in his own work and since then. James himself is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” Hynes writes.

But James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction. “[S]ince James’s time, fiction-writers have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. Which brings us to our own time, and to what Hynes calls “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”

Religious men and women, scholars, writers — the company once known as humanists — suffered a failure of nerve. Scorned by “the corporate world” for principles and codes that seemed fully to explain their own economic shortcomings, confined to a zone of culture without power or influence, they were quick to capitulate. They preferred to imitate the standards of success. But the zone they abandoned is now dead, and the institutions that once made it possible for the fugitives to earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade — are not much better off. If a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.

In one of his typically remarkable posts at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reflects upon the story of Rajat K. Gupta, who was indicted yesterday on charges of insider trading. As head of the distinguished consulting group McKinsey & Co., Gupta was “privy to the most sensitive information in American corporate life,” Mead explains.

Gupta abused the trust of his clients in (allegedly) trading on the information to enrich himself. “If the government proves its case,” Mead says, “it will demonstrate that the American establishment has lost its ability to discern character and demand integrity”:

That a criminal could win the trust of so many of the “best and the brightest” in philanthropy and business chillingly demonstrates the moral and intellectual vacuum in the corporate world. Years of excessive payment for executives, okayed by go along to get along boards of directors, a culture of entitlement and a lack of personal character and strong moral codes have created a dead zone at the core of American life.

A haunting phrase — the dead zone at the core of American life. Success is now the measure of respectability throughout the culture; men and women of principle put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and are roundly hooted at.

It is not merely “the corporate world” that is to blame, however. Where in American life is the living zone of personal character and strong moral codes? The churches? Perhaps in the more Evangelical ones (and in Mormon temples), but the mainline Protestant churches have abandoned their tradition of moral radicalism, according to the great novelist Marilynne Robinson:

     What are called now the mainline churches were very much in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. They truly were radical in the terms of the time, and ahead of their time. . . . And I think that they are radical institutions in their deepest impulses, but that they have been stereotyped as the archetypal conservative institutions. . . .
     They don’t like this characterization. They don’t think past it. And they’ve been very much intimidated by these kinds of things. I think that they would be very well positioned to assume an important place in contemporary culture. For them, the issue seems to be, “Should we imitate others?” and it never seems to be, “How can we be more fully ourselves?”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say — how much more true of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which together account for 70 percent of American Jews. Much of the religious life in America is simply a lowered-voice rush to accommodate itself to the dead zone.

The universities? Don’t make me laugh. Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.

As a blogger at Ace of Spades HQ put it in asking whether education is the “root cause” of our current political dramas, “[A]n uber-expensive university system . . . encourages students to take on debts approaching a house mortgage yet leaves them ill-prepared to actually earn a living, much less pay back their loans.” Even the sharp-toothed Charles Krauthammer, liberally educated at McGill and Balliol College, Oxford, shares the same basic assumption about university education. In a recent column on Occupy Wall Street, he wrote:

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching —

and not in those worthless English degrees, I suppose, that left them ill-prepared to earn a living. The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as William James once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”

That leaves literature. In preparing The Aspern Papers for a course on Henry James recently, I stumbled upon a 1995 article by Joseph Hynes in the South Atlantic Review. Now retired from the English department at the University of Oregon, Hynes is a scholar of postwar British fiction who wrote one book on Muriel Spark’s novels and edited another. He calls his essay “Morality and Fiction,” and he focuses largely upon James, because James reveals “something valuable about fiction” — in his own work and since then. James himself is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” Hynes writes.

But James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction. “[S]ince James’s time, fiction-writers have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. Which brings us to our own time, and to what Hynes calls “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”

Religious men and women, scholars, writers — the company once known as humanists — suffered a failure of nerve. Scorned by “the corporate world” for principles and codes that seemed fully to explain their own economic shortcomings, confined to a zone of culture without power or influence, they were quick to capitulate. They preferred to imitate the standards of success. But the zone they abandoned is now dead, and the institutions that once made it possible for the fugitives to earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade — are not much better off. If a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.

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The Literary Equivalent of a Walk-Off Grand Slam

Nelson Cruz ended the second game of the American League Championship Series with a bang not a whimper yesterday in Arlington, Tex., driving a pitch from Detroit Tigers’ righthander Ryan Perry deep into the left-field bleachers to give the Texas Rangers a 7-to-3 victory and a two-games-to-none lead in the last best-of-seven battle for the league pennant. Cruz’s blast was not the first game-ending or “walk-off” home run in the postseason history of Major League Baseball — the names of Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, and Joe Carter come unbidden to the mind — but never before had a playoff game ended with a grand slam. I can’t even imagine the noise in the Rangers Ballpark when Cruz delivered his shot, but I can remember a game at the Astrodome that Jeff Bagwell ended with one of his signature drives that looked as if it would hit the roof before it cleared the fence. I couldn’t hear myself yell.

No sooner had Cruz homered, though, than Vicki Ziegler, a self-described “modest” book blogger from Toronto, tweeted the question: “What would be the literary equivalent of a walk-off grand slam?” (Somewhere, I am sure, a Jewish blogger is asking the related question, “Is a walk-off grand slam good for the Jews?”) Ziegler suggested that winning the Giller or Booker Prize or publishing a “NaNoWriMo” novel in December might just qualify. And though she allowed that “nothing in literary achievement” would make a writer “feel as euphoric as Nelson Cruz,” she went on to say that she had read things that obliged her to close the book and catch her breath. “That’s pretty walk-off,” she said.

I am trying to picture a crowd of readers rising to its feet and screaming itself hoarse at the ending of The Great Gatsby (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) or even Russell Banks’s Continental Drift (“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is”). Nothing in literature can possibly approach the finality of a walk-off home run.

The ideology of “literary art” leads writers and readers alike to expect something that literature cannot deliver — what Howard Nemerov called “the quality of decisiveness and finish, of absolute completion to which nothing need be added nor could be added.” When Ziegler says that she catches her breath at something she has read, she is describing this sensation of “absolute completion.”

But it is entirely an illusion. Electronic texts, which enable the author to go on revising them forever, were anticipated by Henry James in The Middle Years (1893). Dencombe is staying at a hotel in Bournemouth when the postman brings his latest novel, “just out” in hard covers, its “fresh pages” carrying the “odour of sanctity.” Dencombe begins to read his own prose with a feeling of wonder. Although he realizes that his talent has never been so fine, and though he recognizes the problems he faced and sees where his art surmounted them, he cannot resist taking out a pen and altering the printed text:

Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even for the collectors, poor dears, with a second.

Why he assumed that the “terrified revise” would cease with a second edition, though, is beyond me. There is every chance that the novelist will revise errors and gaps into his book, as Herman Melville did with his famous phrase “soiled fish of the sea” in White-Jacket or as Mark Twain did with the missing raftsman episode in Huckleberry Finn, and generations of readers will catch their breaths at the absolute completion of a corrupt text.

The expression walk-off home run is only about fifteen years old. The earliest example of it that I’ve found is in a July 1996 story by John Hussey in the Manchester Union Leader, recalling Mazeroski’s famous home run that ended the 1960 World Series. “It was the only ‘walk-off’ home run ever recorded in the seventh game of the World Series,” Hussey wrote. Squeezing the phrase between quotation marks like this suggests that it may already have become familiar in speech (but not established in print) by the time Hussey wrote it. Seven years later, in the New York Times, Allen Barra assigned it to the category of buzz words, saying that the “noble ‘game-winning home run’ — a phrase that used to compliment the winner — has been transformed into one that thumbs its nose at the loser.”

The doctrine of the breath-catching finish is a lot older than that, although it may only be a way that the fidgety and sleepless novelist, unable to hit upon a “final form” that quiets his nerves, thumbs his nose at his unsuspecting readers.

Nelson Cruz ended the second game of the American League Championship Series with a bang not a whimper yesterday in Arlington, Tex., driving a pitch from Detroit Tigers’ righthander Ryan Perry deep into the left-field bleachers to give the Texas Rangers a 7-to-3 victory and a two-games-to-none lead in the last best-of-seven battle for the league pennant. Cruz’s blast was not the first game-ending or “walk-off” home run in the postseason history of Major League Baseball — the names of Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, and Joe Carter come unbidden to the mind — but never before had a playoff game ended with a grand slam. I can’t even imagine the noise in the Rangers Ballpark when Cruz delivered his shot, but I can remember a game at the Astrodome that Jeff Bagwell ended with one of his signature drives that looked as if it would hit the roof before it cleared the fence. I couldn’t hear myself yell.

No sooner had Cruz homered, though, than Vicki Ziegler, a self-described “modest” book blogger from Toronto, tweeted the question: “What would be the literary equivalent of a walk-off grand slam?” (Somewhere, I am sure, a Jewish blogger is asking the related question, “Is a walk-off grand slam good for the Jews?”) Ziegler suggested that winning the Giller or Booker Prize or publishing a “NaNoWriMo” novel in December might just qualify. And though she allowed that “nothing in literary achievement” would make a writer “feel as euphoric as Nelson Cruz,” she went on to say that she had read things that obliged her to close the book and catch her breath. “That’s pretty walk-off,” she said.

I am trying to picture a crowd of readers rising to its feet and screaming itself hoarse at the ending of The Great Gatsby (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) or even Russell Banks’s Continental Drift (“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is”). Nothing in literature can possibly approach the finality of a walk-off home run.

The ideology of “literary art” leads writers and readers alike to expect something that literature cannot deliver — what Howard Nemerov called “the quality of decisiveness and finish, of absolute completion to which nothing need be added nor could be added.” When Ziegler says that she catches her breath at something she has read, she is describing this sensation of “absolute completion.”

But it is entirely an illusion. Electronic texts, which enable the author to go on revising them forever, were anticipated by Henry James in The Middle Years (1893). Dencombe is staying at a hotel in Bournemouth when the postman brings his latest novel, “just out” in hard covers, its “fresh pages” carrying the “odour of sanctity.” Dencombe begins to read his own prose with a feeling of wonder. Although he realizes that his talent has never been so fine, and though he recognizes the problems he faced and sees where his art surmounted them, he cannot resist taking out a pen and altering the printed text:

Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even for the collectors, poor dears, with a second.

Why he assumed that the “terrified revise” would cease with a second edition, though, is beyond me. There is every chance that the novelist will revise errors and gaps into his book, as Herman Melville did with his famous phrase “soiled fish of the sea” in White-Jacket or as Mark Twain did with the missing raftsman episode in Huckleberry Finn, and generations of readers will catch their breaths at the absolute completion of a corrupt text.

The expression walk-off home run is only about fifteen years old. The earliest example of it that I’ve found is in a July 1996 story by John Hussey in the Manchester Union Leader, recalling Mazeroski’s famous home run that ended the 1960 World Series. “It was the only ‘walk-off’ home run ever recorded in the seventh game of the World Series,” Hussey wrote. Squeezing the phrase between quotation marks like this suggests that it may already have become familiar in speech (but not established in print) by the time Hussey wrote it. Seven years later, in the New York Times, Allen Barra assigned it to the category of buzz words, saying that the “noble ‘game-winning home run’ — a phrase that used to compliment the winner — has been transformed into one that thumbs its nose at the loser.”

The doctrine of the breath-catching finish is a lot older than that, although it may only be a way that the fidgety and sleepless novelist, unable to hit upon a “final form” that quiets his nerves, thumbs his nose at his unsuspecting readers.

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Labor and Literature

It’s not clear any more exactly what Americans celebrate on Labor Day. As suggested by the rash of commemorative essays this weekend, including an especially doltish performance by an American novelist (you’ll forgive the expression) named Paul Theroux, its proximity to 9/11 may end up redefining the holiday.

But that’s not the whole of the story. As the late Anatole Broyard said in a 1980 review of Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (which is, in large measure, a strike novel set in the coal-mining district of West Virginia), “[W]e have grown used to more complicated oppositions between good and evil or labor and management. . . .” If nothing else, this explains the literary flimsiness of so much “labor fiction.”

Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood. Henry James may have been among the first to acknowledge the rise of the entrepreneur (Christopher Newman in The American, Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady), but he was remarkably vague about how these hard-working men earned their “piles of money.” The likelihood is that he had no clue. Theodore Dreiser was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face.

Since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Philip Roth is one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction. He tells the stories of men whose work is fundamental to their identities. In American Pastoral, for example, Swede Levov patiently explains the technical problems of glovemaking to the young political radical who will later deliver a canting message from his fugitive daughter. In Indignation, he gives a full-length portrait of a kosher butcher at work:

First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg — they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha — a blessing — and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain. . . .

The glovemaker belongs to management, though, and the butcher is a small businessowner. American literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions. Perhaps on this day Americans (and their writers) should celebrate the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity.

It’s not clear any more exactly what Americans celebrate on Labor Day. As suggested by the rash of commemorative essays this weekend, including an especially doltish performance by an American novelist (you’ll forgive the expression) named Paul Theroux, its proximity to 9/11 may end up redefining the holiday.

But that’s not the whole of the story. As the late Anatole Broyard said in a 1980 review of Mary Lee Settle’s Scapegoat (which is, in large measure, a strike novel set in the coal-mining district of West Virginia), “[W]e have grown used to more complicated oppositions between good and evil or labor and management. . . .” If nothing else, this explains the literary flimsiness of so much “labor fiction.”

Whether organized labor is more committed to organization than labor remains open to dispute, but there’s never been any question where American novelists stood. Henry James may have been among the first to acknowledge the rise of the entrepreneur (Christopher Newman in The American, Caspar Goodwood in The Portrait of a Lady), but he was remarkably vague about how these hard-working men earned their “piles of money.” The likelihood is that he had no clue. Theodore Dreiser was the first American novelist whose image of man included wringing bread from the sweat of one’s face.

Since then, American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.

Philip Roth is one of the few exceptions to the no-work rule in American fiction. He tells the stories of men whose work is fundamental to their identities. In American Pastoral, for example, Swede Levov patiently explains the technical problems of glovemaking to the young political radical who will later deliver a canting message from his fugitive daughter. In Indignation, he gives a full-length portrait of a kosher butcher at work:

First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg — they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha — a blessing — and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain. . . .

The glovemaker belongs to management, though, and the butcher is a small businessowner. American literature has been hurt by the simple association of labor with unions. Perhaps on this day Americans (and their writers) should celebrate the importance of work to human identity, no matter who performs it, along with the unions that, at least historically, sought to give it some dignity.

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Top Five Christmas Books

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

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Bookshelf

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

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• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

As those last two observations make clear, autobiography is never very far away in Epstein’s work. No small part of the kick of his criticism comes from the fact that, like his familiar essays, it is so unabashedly personal—and that he so well exemplifies his own preferred virtues:

I have a weakness for minor artists. But they must be genuinely minor, by which I mean that they mustn’t lapse into minority through overreaching, want of energy, crudity, or any other kind of ineptitude. They must not be failed major artists merely. The true minor artist eschews the noble and the solemn. He fears tedium for his audience, but even more for himself. He sets out to be, and is perfectly content to remain, less than great. The minor artist knows his limits and lives comfortably within them. To delight, to charm, to entertain, such are the goals the minor artist sets himself, and, when brought off with style and verve and elegant lucidity, they are—more than sufficient—wholly admirable.

This is the first paragraph of an appreciation of Lord Berners, a writer (and sometime composer) whom Epstein places alongside Max Beerbohm in his personal pantheon of admirable artists. It has the smack of a credo, one to which Epstein himself lives up with the utmost completeness, though I find it no less interesting that he can write about the truly great without the slightest touch of deprecating envy. W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, I.B. Singer: all these heavy hitters are summed up in the pages of In a Cardboard Belt! with the same appreciation extended to the lesser likes of Berners and Beerbohm.

If I had to choose a favorite piece in this collection, it would be “Books Won’t Furnish a Room,” in which the author tells what it felt like to get rid of the greater part of his personal library in the hope of simplifying his life: “Behind my selling all these books was a longing to streamline my life a bit, make it feel less cluttered, encumbered, book-bound. In doing so, I feel as if I had gathered my desert-island books about me without actually having to sail off for the island.” For me this essay passes the ultimate test of literary effectiveness: not long after I read it, I did as Epstein had done, and have never once regretted my decision. Talk about practical criticism!

Oh, yes, the title: it comes from The Producers. For further information, buy the book.

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• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

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• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

Summed up so baldly, The Great Man sounds like a feminist tract, but in fact it is a well-managed piece of plot-juggling in which Christensen detonates genuinely unexpected surprises at satisfyingly regular intervals, in between writing with impressive intelligence about the art world and its inhabitants (“Maxine’s paintings were intended to punish the viewer for failing to see what they were about”). She is, like Angus Wilson, the sort of novelist who is at pains to let you know that she has everybody’s number, but such knowingness is a venial sin in so smart a writer, especially when it is mixed, as it is here, with real sympathy.

Christensen has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the author of sharp-witted novels in which she frequently tries her hand at literary impersonation. In Jeremy Thrane (2001), for instance, she pulls off the tricky feat of writing in the voice of a gay man. In The Great Man, by contrast, most of the principal characters are women in their seventies and eighties, a difficult age for a youngish author to comprehend, and one that Christensen portrays with what looks to a middle-aged reader like complete understanding:

“Listen, Henry,” she said. “Oscar was my beloved mate. I never had any other or wanted one. But after forty-odd years, the word beloved takes on some fairly perverse complexities. You’re probably too young still to know. To be truly loved is to be . . . known, of course, which also implies despised and even hated.”

Less successful are the bookends of pastiche that frame The Great Man, a New York Times obituary of Oscar Feldman and a Times review of the two biographies of Feldman, whose writing sets the novel in motion. Christensen has no gift for parody, and neither piece sounds remotely believable. (Among other implausible things, the real-life Hilton Kramer would never have described any painter as “ballsy almost to the point of testicular obnoxiousness.”) A good editor would have encouraged Christensen to lop off these superfluous excrescences, and might also have nudged her to pare away some of the excesses in her rich prose style. Still, these are surface flaws in a novel good enough that I was forced by dint of sheer excitement to read it from cover to cover in two lengthy sittings. I don’t follow the work of very many younger novelists, but from now on I plan to keep up with Kate Christensen.

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• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Lee believes that Wharton was a great writer—she uses the word unapologetically—and it is a tribute to her persuasiveness that even if you disagree, you will likely put down Edith Wharton wondering whether you might be wrong. I regret to admit that I am more or less the kind of reader she has in mind when she writes dismissively of those who accept “the version of Wharton—which has proved extremely hard to shift—as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society, but with less depth and subtlety.” I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but I’d hitherto considered them exceptional among Wharton’s large and uneven output. Now, though, I’m feeling the itch to go out and read all the Edith Wharton I can get my hands on. Is there anything better to be said about a literary biography than that?

• I never saw Carolyn Brown dance—she retired from the stage in 1972, long before I moved to Manhattan and saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time—but there is plenty of filmed evidence to show that she was one of the finest modern dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, and a great beauty to boot. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that she’s also a very good writer. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 645 pp., $37.50) is nearly as overlong as Edith Wharton. But the first half, in which Brown describes what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodern movement in American art, is both readable and important. No one has written more acutely about Cunningham, John Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg, and even if—like me—you have mixed feelings about their legacy, you will find the story of how they got started to be wholly engrossing.

Brown has some odd gaps in her sensibility—she doesn’t get George Balanchine at all, for instance—but she writes about Cunningham and his choreography with perfect comprehension and a sense of proportion rarely to be found among acolytes. No less acute are her reflections on the act of public performance: “The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body.” I’ve never heard it put better.

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• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

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• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press, 1067 pp., $50) is the first all-new reference book of its kind to come along in years, and the first ever to make systematic use of what Fred Shapiro, the editor-in-chief, describes as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. It has a strongly American bias (Ambrose Bierce has 144 entries, Karl Kraus two) and an equally strong pop-culture slant (Woody Allen has 43 entries, Emily Dickinson 29). It also has an introduction by Joseph Epstein, who approves of the fresh tack taken by Shapiro and his collaborators: “Although I am normally conservative in matters of culture, I think Mr. Shapiro is correct to make these changes in emphasis . . . Even though, as Henry James well said, ‘It takes a great deal of history to produce even a little literature,’ cultural leadership usually follows political power, and for the past fifty or so years it has become apparent that the United States has been playing with far and away the largest stacks of chips before it.”

Far be it from me to disagree with Epstein, so I won’t—much. Having read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover, I found a number of suspicious-looking attributions, one or two outright errors, and many glaring instances of the variegated forms of bias one expects to find in any book produced by a team of academic scholars (somehow I doubt that George W. Bush’s slips of the tongue really deserve as much space as Shapiro gives them). As for the countless snippets lifted by the editors from pop-song lyrics of the past couple of decades, I doubt that many of them will be long remembered (indeed, a goodly number of them are already forgotten). I should also note that Raymond Chandler, Noël Coward, Johnny Mercer, and P.G. Wodehouse are all severely underrepresented, though G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, and Satchel Paige receive their due. All these quibbles notwithstanding, The Yale Book of Quotations is useful, diverting, and full of surprises, and while I don’t plan to throw away my well-thumbed copy of H.L. Mencken’s invaluable New Dictionary of Quotations, I’m making space next to it for this satisfying piece of work.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

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