Commentary Magazine

Books, Identities, Syntax

To the Editor:

Let me protest Elmer Borklund’s slick disdain, in his review of The Noble Savage [August], for Harold Rosenberg’s essay, “Notes From the Ground Up,” in which, Rosenberg, to my understanding, brings attention to the way in which middle-brow critics and writers have debilitated the idea of “identity” into a sort of fetish. . . .

For a demonstration of the insight behind Rosenberg’s essay, you can’t do better than consider Mr. Borklund’s own review. His critiques of Ralph Ellison and Wright Morris wouldn’t let you suspect that there was some difference of quality between the men: it’s all a question of “identity”; i.e., totting up errors in composition, bad usage, etc., and never of forwarding ideas of values behind the writing. Every writer, good, mediocre, and hack, has his identity, which means everybody gets a prize, or an “evaluation.” Phoney analogies also have their place in the commerce of “identity”; e.g., “neighborhood Harcourt Reilly,” “Beckett in the Midwest,” or comparing Herbert Gold, never ask me how, with Dylan Thomas. Step up and get your identity, even if it’s someone else’s!

Donald Phelps
Brooklyn, New York



To the Editor:

Your reviewer of my collection of stories, Love and Like, believes that one of the stories is a “young classic” and that two of them are almost as good, but the book is mostly not to his taste. The decisions of taste and interpretation are his privilege and I shall not dispute them on this occasion.

However, he also manages to misquote me four times in the space of a short review. I believe that a young man hoping to grow up to be a book reviewer should learn the few rules of the game. Taste should certainly be individual, but quotations must follow the text.

With one exception, his misquotations of me are trivial. The word “greatest” for “great” only makes my sentence slightly ridiculous; the reversal of the nouns in my title, “The Burglars and the Boy,” provides a slight, perhaps academic disappointment; the combination of quotation and misparaphrase enables him to get in some polemical moments when he deals with this sentence in my postface: “The unheroic isolation of the bachelor seems to me to be an emblem of the unheroic isolation of various esthetes, hedonists, Platonists—lonely and ambitious and failed and reduced to brutal egotism.”

However, in one case, where he belabors me for faulty syntax, he engages in an illegitimate bit of business by supporting the accusation with citation of a sentence from which he has removed a syntactically important preposition, “to.” I have examined the books and magazines in which this story has appeared, in the hope that this particular error of syntax occurred in some other printing and could therefore be justified. It occurs only in your reviewer’s version as a bit of creative writing on his part.

I do not consider myself beyond criticism and in one case have even learned something from a magazine review. But your reviewer, defending his version of “form” and the “paleface” virtues against my “redskin” violence, has marched into the woods with too much pale skin showing behind.

Herbert Gold
New York, New York



Mr. Borklund writes:

I must apologize for carelessly changing “great” into “greatest” and “The Burglars and the Boy” into “The Boy and the Burglars.” But in the rest of Mr. Gold’s letter (which avoids the basic criticism I have made of his recent stories), he distorts my remarks about Love and Like. Since the passage from the postface is quoted accurately, I can only conclude that a “misparaphrase” must mean a paraphrase which Gold dislikes. In other words, he does not approve of the way in which I use the quotation, and this, of course, is his privilege. Finally, when I say that sense and syntax collapse at times, I have in mind (and suspect that Gold realizes this as well as I do) that part of the sentence which reads “some pretty, some unpretty, and nevertheless the long Sunday afternoon habit of lovemaking spoke for a true intimacy” (Best American Short Stories 1959, Ballantine Books, p. 139, the only text I have handy at the moment). I have reread this passage several times, and it still strikes me as being incoherent: what is the antecedent of “some,” and how can one justify the sudden shift in construction in the clumsily tacked-on final clause (“and nevertheless” etc.) ? Regardless of the terms one uses, grammatical or stylistic, this, like many other passages of Gold’s prose, seems to me awkward and unsatisfactory.

As to Mr. Phelps’ comments: I object to Mr. Rosenberg’s essay primarily because of its barbarous style. Here, as elsewhere, his prose is ponderous, ugly, and unnecessarily obscure. I happen to agree with one of the points in question (a fairly obvious point, it seems to me) : namely, that too many novelists evidently feel their major objective is an accurate description of their characters’ social positions.

Why is Mr. Phelps so upset by my use of comparisons? They are meant to be helpful, to suggest parallels, but not to the extent of implying “identities,” suggesting influences or making judgments. While Mr. Phelps may not approve of my particular analogies, I fail to see how he can seriously attack the principle of discussing the new and unknown in terms of the already known and established. Herbert Gold’s stories of his childhood remind me, pleasantly, of Dylan Thomas’s stories of his childhood. That’s as far as it goes, and when I make a major critical objection to Love and Like, I do not rely on comparisons, but try to take the work in its own terms. Had I devoted more space to the individual writers in The Noble Savage, I would have used the same approach; but unlike Mr. Phelps, I do not feel that the issue warranted further attention. As for “totting up” errors and awarding prizes, it is idiotic, in my opinion, to imply that this is not a legitimate critical concern.



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