Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

“The Civil War and American Art” by Eleanor Jones Harvey

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

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This book is published in connection with the museum exhibition of the same name, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from November 16, 2012 through April 28, 2013. The show will travel to New York City where it will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of American Art from May 21, 2013 to September 2, 2013. Both the book and the museum exhibition are experiences of such quality that they will appeal to persons beyond the camps of Civil War buffs and lovers of American Art. For me the exhibition is a must-see. The book? It is a must-have.

What impresses is how successfully all elements of the book converge.

First and foremost is the text. Eleanor Jones Harvey’s thesis is a simple one: “The Civil War had a profound and lasting impact on American Art, as it did on American culture. Both genre painting and landscape painting were fundamentally altered by the war and its aftermath.” As well, she demonstrates how photography–the third of her areas of interest–was newly empowered as an art form.

Harvey’s writing occupies pages 1 through 241 of this large book. Each generous page measures 12 1/2 by 9 15/16 inches, allowing double-column formatting of the text and providing a broad field for its many illustrations, most prominently the 77 paintings and photographs that form the exhibition. Harvey’s prose is wonderfully clear, a pleasure to dip into, blessedly free of academic jargon and devoid of esoteric pleading. She unleashes a seemingly inexhaustible supply of essential facts and observations without halting the forward momentum of her narrative and argument. This is no mean feat.

It is a pleasure to follow the author as she conscientiously uncovers layers of meaning in each of the featured paintings and photographs. Among the pieces closely analyzed are thirteen Civil War related paintings by Winslow Homer, an artist who will grow larger in your estimation thanks to the findings of Harvey’s eye and mind. She unfurls a mini-essay on each of these works, and her enthusiasm cannot help but inspire your own looking at art. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the exhibition, as I was, this book is an enlightening spur to engagement.

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During my tour of the exhibition at the Smithsonian I spent several reflective minutes in front of Homer’s Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, a small work (just 16 1/8 by 8 inches) that Harvey discusses on page 167.

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While standing before it at the Smithsonian, I noticed two aspects of the painting not touched upon by Harvey — two understated features that will slowly surrender meaning to the patient viewer. The first is Homer’s treatment of the trooper’s stance. The artist’s depiction of feet or shoes, the natural terminus of the long-legged figure, is ambiguous, replaced with brushstrokes that create a seamless transition between the human body and the field of the dead. The vector of this transition is uncertain. Is the figure emerging from the earth . . . or subsiding into it? The second stunning detail is the trooper’s jacket whose middle buttons are opened. To a viewer this initially reads as a split in an otherwise closed seam, a way for the proudly uniformed trooper to cool himself on a warm day. Then the literal reading gives way to an alternative view, seeing a gash in his torso that opens up to reveal darkness. Homer renders this void in pure black pigment, blacker than any other application of black elsewhere on the canvas. Call it an exposure of the darkness of the heart, or the heart of darkness. We see a figure, eyeless, hollow, soulless: Death.

Each new encounter I have with Homer reinforces my belief that transition is the essential theme of his work. And how could it be otherwise for a contemplative artist whose career was birthed by the Civil War? If the vicissitudes of transition are encoded in Homer’s best work, the complementary theme of connections is of nearly equal importance. Not the least of the linkages Homer carefully constructs is that of viewer to painting. Consider this:

In a museum I stand in quiet reflection before a painting that depicts a man standing in quiet reflection before a grave. The grave is marked by a simple wooden cross. From the soldier’s perspective that cross is tilted back, as if responding directly to his gaze. It is easy for me, the viewer, to imagine the unseen face of the cross as a mirror, reflecting back to the man his own face. It is a face I study, with trepidation, for revelation.

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The book, “The Civil War and American Art,” contains a feast of documentation. This includes a section of Notes (32 pages); a Bibliography of over 300 sources and references (20 pages); a Catalog listing the 77 works featured in the Exhibition; and a list of the 123 Figure Illustrations found throughout this beautifully designed book. A helpful Index rounds out the volume.

If I have any quibble it is that its reproductions sometimes fall short. Especially is this so with the many images captured by the early photographers Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady, George N. Barnard and others which are reproduced in the chapter devoted to The Art of Wartime Photography. They have a denatured look on the page, in contrast to the original source albumin prints in the exhibition which possess a life and death immediacy.

A similar deficiency-of-the-derivative occurs in the reproduction of Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865). Harvey’s discussion of the painting (at pp. 225-229) mentions its “autobiographical quality,” and she specifically focuses on the former soldier’s war-issued canteen and jacket resting on the ground in the lower right corner. Here is a photo I took of page 227 on which the painting is reproduced.

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A close-up shot of the lower right corner is unrevealing.

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What’s not visible because of the book’s low-resolution reproduction, is a critical detail: the initials “WH” inscribed on the veteran’s canteen. This detail is best appreciated, of course, if you are in the presence of the painting itself and are able to move in for a closer look. At the end of the exhibition’s tour, The Veteran in a New Field will return to its permanent home as a treasure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently renovated wing devoted to American Art. In the meantime, you can catch a glimpse of  the “WH” inscription thanks to the Met’s online image of the painting (click on the “fullscreen” option and zoom in). Here’s a screen capture of the jacket and canteen.

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Unlike Richard Estes (or, in a different medium, Alfred Hitchcock) who plants his name (or himself) in his work as an act of whimsy, Homer sometimes does so for a meaningful reason. Most poignantly this occurs in my favorite Homer painting, The Fox Hunt, 1893 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), where in the lower left corner of the painting his signature is immobilized by the drifting snow, echoing the pose and plight of the fox. Note also how the fox, just as the war veteran three decades before, turns his body to face away from us as he confronts a new kind of challenge on a potentially exhausting field.

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On a playful note, another example of Homer’s look-at-me urge is to be found in a wood engraving, The Beach at Long Branch, published in Appleton’s Journal, August 21, 1869 (click on the image to enlarge). Here three young women stand wondering, Who is WH? What I myself wonder is whether Homer is alluding to the Judgement of Paris episode in Greek myth. Is he pulling a tongue-in-cheek reversal on that story, assigning to the most comely of the three young women the role of selecting . . . Mr. W.H. himself ?

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“The Civil War and American Art” is a publication of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in association with Yale University Press. To get a sense of the book’s design, you can view the first 18 pages on Scribd.com. Some additional photos of my copy prove the values that guided its production.

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NOTES and further observations

1.  An abbreviated version of this book review appears on Amazon.com, here.

2. The photograph of Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave in this post is the Announcement Image for a 2009 exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens (Memphis) and the Katonah Museum of Art, “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era,” a show organized by Kevin Sharp which explored ground similar to that of “The Civil War and American Art.”  Additional information about that exhibit is available herehere and here.

3. Faith Barrett, in her recently published “To Fight Aloud is Very Brave,” argues that poetry also had an important role in defining national identity: “Civil War poetry changed the way Americans understand their relationship to the nation.”  A November 2012 interview with Barrett can be read on the Poetry Foundation’s website , here.

4. A new installation of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts “explores the themes of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery.” The works in the small exhibition are part of the permanent collection galleries in the Richard A.Manoogian Wing of American art. Among the paintings is this 1861 still life, Patriotic Bouquet, by George Henry Hall.

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5.  On the subject of communication by metaphor, in a previous blog post I argued that still life paintings — no less than landscape and genre paintings — may encode responses to the Civil War.

6.  Three years after he painted The Veteran in a New Field, Homer once again included himself in Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. The renewed artist has returned to his natural field. Homer’s back is turned away from us; he is intent on work. In a corner of the canvas, instead of finding a discarded canteen or jacket we now see a large case for the tools of the artist’s trade (visible in the detail, below). That is where Homer proudly affixes his signature.

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“Manet and the Object of Painting” by Michel Foucault

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

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The text of this thin volume is a translation from French to English of a transcript of a recording of a lecture Michel Foucault delivered in 1971 at the Tahar Haddad Cultural Club in Tunis. Foucault’s words, in print, occupy 40 pages.

While multiple factors (time, place, language, the reduction of voice to print) conspire to keep Foucault’s lecture from fully engaging the American reader of today, what Foucault still manages to communicate are insights that, I believe, will interest the typical museum-goer.

Foucault illustrated his lecture with 13 slides. The book includes reproductions of each of those paintings, from “Music in the Tuileries” (1862) to “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1881-82). Unfortunately, the illustrations are so tiny (for example, the 81.9 inches by 104.5 inches of “Luncheon on the Grass” (1862-63) are shrunk to a Lilliputian 3.2 by 4.2 inches) and so blandly reproduced (details are lost, colors misplaced, and the punch of Manet’s blacks absent) as to make them nearly worthless. Until a future e-publisher energizes Foucault’s text with interactive content, consider bringing to your reading spot both this book and a tablet on which to access the illustrations in fuller detail, such as the set of 13 gathered on one page on this site.

Additional editorial content includes an excellent introductory essay by Nicolas Bourriaud (11 pages), a very brief Translator’s Introduction by Matthew Barr, and a one-page index.

At the beginning of his lecture Foucault notes: “I am not a Manet specialist; nor am I a painting specialist, so it is as a layman that I would speak to you about Manet.” His focus is on formal analysis, and he organizes his thoughts under three rubrics: (1) the space of the canvas; (2) lighting; and (3) the place of the viewer. It is with these strategies, Foucault argues, that Manet succeeded at “inventing, if you like, the ‘picture-object’, the ‘painting-object’” — a move that made possible all of modern art.

Reading “Manet and the Object of Painting” provided me a new set of deciphering tools to use when standing before a Manet. More broadly, Foucault taught me new ways to look at representational art of all kinds.

Consider, for example, the first of his themes — Manet’s adoption of a radical approach to space that eschews traditional depth into the picture plane. Pointing to his first slide, the painting “Music in the Tuileries” (1862), Foucault notes how “there is not much depth, the figures in front are in a way masking almost completely what happens behind, from which derives this effect of a frieze.” In his second illustration, “The Masked Ball at the Opera” (1873-1874), he again points to how “the whole spatial balance is modified … Not only is the effect of depth erased, but the distance between the [front] edge of the picture and the back is relatively short, such that all the figures find themselves projected forward; far from there being depth, you have on the contrary a sort of phenomenon of relief.”

Similarly, in “The Execution of Maximilien” (1868), Manet employs “the same procedures, that is to say a violently marked and compressed closing of space by the presence of a large wall, a large wall which is no more than the repetition of the canvas itself; whereby, as you can see, all the figures are placed on a narrow band of earth.”

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Armed with Foucault’s observations, I looked anew at the work of Norman Rockwell. This may seem an odd choice for a compare-and-contrast exercise. Yet I would argue that in many of his immediately memorable compositions Rockwell effectively reforms space in ways reminiscent of Manet. Recall Foucault’s descriptions in the preceding paragraphs: not much depth … the presence of a wall … a violently marked and compressed closing of space … the effect of a frieze. See how fittingly those strategies attach to “The Problem We All Live With” (1964):

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Citing Normal Rockwell serves a secondary purpose, which is to suggest the constraints on Foucault’s perspective. First, his interest is limited to painting. Other forms of representation such as sculpture, drawing, printmaking and illustration, are ignored. More importantly, the revolt whose success Foucault convincingly attributes to Manet ended what we now are able to appreciate was merely a brief interregnum, a mode that triumphed but a few hundred years (from, say, the early 15th to the late 19th centuries) before receding into the broad flow of European artistic output. Also, non-European art — the bulk of mankind’s imaginative achievements — is not within Foucault’s ken.

You may be disappointed too if you expect Foucault to stray much beyond formal analysis into the realm of philosophy. Fortunately, that task is taken up by Nicolas Bourriaud whose superb essay I recommend be read both before, and after, reading the main text — especially if, like me, you’ve had no previous exposure to Foucault’s works of philosophy.

“Manet and the Object of Painting” is a handsomely produced book; I was pleased by Tate Publishing’s surprising use, in a paperback binding, of stitch-sewn signatures (click on the photos to enlarge them).

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NOTES

1.  Available online are the initial minutes of Foucault’s Lecture on Manet, in Tunis (I estimate the entire lecture occupied an hour). The audio recording can be accessed from the right side of this French language pagehttp://michel-foucault-archives.org/?Manet. The site introduces the audio excerpt with this explanation: ”En marge du Cahier de l’Herne Foucault qui reproduit deux versions des conférences de Foucault sur Manet, nous mettons en ligne quelques minutes de la conférence que Foucault donna le 20 mai 1971 au Club Haddad, conférence intitulée « La Peinture de Manet ». Foucault avait en effet le projet d’un ouvrage sur Manet, entrepris à partir de 1966, et qui était promis aux éditions de Minuit. Ces recherches donnèrent lieu à plusieurs conférences : à Milan en 1967 où il fit la rencontre d’Umberto Eco, à la Albright-Knox Art Gallery de Buffalo le 8 avril 1970 sur “Le Bar des Folies Bergères” ainsi qu’à Florence en novembre 1970, à Tokyo durant l’automne de la même année, et enfin à Tunis en 1971.”

2.  Here’s a mystery calling for a solution: The present volume (on page 27, footnote 1) indicates this lecture was part of a regular Tuesday evening series at the Haddad Center. Yet all the scholarship I’ve found cite Foucault’s Manet lecture date as May 20, 1971, which was a Thursday.

“Custer” by Larry McMurtry

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

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Larry McMurtry’s take on CUSTER, according to a growing consensus of reviewers on Amazon, is a pathetic effort. Some of these reviewers are historians of professional or amateur status and others are not. But all of them, it seems to me, come across as serious readers who care about the truth and care about history done right. They’re offended by the book’s countless flaws, factual errors, book production missteps, and quality-control oversights.

I join them in saying this is a sadly misbegotten thing.

I’m not a historian, amateur or otherwise, just a general reader. Before opening CUSTER I knew next to nothing about the General, other than how easily come the laughs whenever his name is invoked when characterizing someone else’s abject failure. Even if you don’t know the date by heart as do Custer-maniacs — it was June 25, 1876, by the way — everyone knows the outcome of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. So to those of you in a similar position, novices who might be attracted to the book because it looks like it might be a good way to enter Custer’s world, I say this:

Stay away.

As a biographer, McMurty fails the new reader. His presentation is disjointed. Without any helpful introduction, McMurtry drops in names and places and events that aficionados of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn will recognize but that leave the rest of us neophytes without a clue. He repeatedly veers off into tangents that have little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. The chapters are so short that narrative momentum is impossible.

Maybe you’re like me, expecting McMurty would take his talents as a storyteller and his skills as a novelist (no dispute that in his fiction he’s crafted fully-rounded characters you swear are real people) and use those talents and skills to re-imagine Custer for readers of today. Well, there too you’ll be disappointed. For me the final bitter pill was this: when I finished the book I had no strong sense of what it would have been like to meet Custer in person and know the man.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but aside from the major criticisms of knowledgeable reviewers, there’s yet one more problem to mention. In a book that carries a $35 list price, you will be shocked — and as a reader you will feel insulted — by how many typos mar McMurtry’s text as it now lies on the pages of this book. Was nobody at Simon & Schuster available to proofread it? On the more serious matters of factual inaccuracies in McMurtry’s text and in the captions accompanying the otherwise interesting illustrations (on the latter point, see the list of errors, here), why didn’t the editor listen to the pre-release readers who submitted comments and corrections? Why was this rushed into release in this sorry state?

For sure there’s a story to be told someday about how McMurtry, a writer with a long and distinguished career, got roped into this terrible adventure. If the unfocused, error-riddled text is from his hand and if it represents his final polished draft, then this truly must be viewed as a misconceived endeavor.

If, despite all the guff we unpaid reviewers are dishing out, you remain interested in adding CUSTER to your library or giving it as a gift, please consider waiting a bit. Mark my words: not long after the holidays there will be stacks of CUSTERs on the remainder table at your nearest Barnes & Noble, radically marked down with a ”must-sell-or-we-send-it-to-the-pulp-mill” low price.

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One more thing that got my goat is how Amazon teamed with the Simon & Schuster publicity shop to tout a product using misleading means.

A lot of people will decide whether to buy CUSTER based on information found on the book’s product page on Amazon. Potential purchasers may check out a few of the customer reviews and might also scan the “Editorial Reviews” section for insights. That section, just above the “Product Details” area, is where Amazon places comments on the book derived main stream media outlets — newspapers and magazines. This material is fed to Amazon from the publisher. In the case of CUSTER, this means Amazon is featuring blurbs plucked by Simon & Schuster from ten positive reviews of the book. Or at least you’re led to believe they’re reviews of CUSTER. And so someone who absorbs that material, together with the customer reviews, may wind up scratching their head in wonder: How could those smart folks at The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post say such nice things about CUSTER, when most of the common readers who posted detailed reviews are so negative? The answer is simple:

None of those positive-sounding quotations relate to CUSTER.

If you do a Google search you’ll discover the quotation from the Wall Street Journal actually comes from a review of McMurtry’s 2010 book entitled “Hollywood”. The statement from The New Yorker was previously attached to the author’s “The Berrybender Narratives”. The sentence from the Chicago Tribune was pulled from a 2002 review of “Sin Killer” (the first of the “Berrybender Narratives”). The words from the Washington Post were also previously attached to “The Berrybender Narratives”. Of you’re wondering about that second dry quotation from the Wall Street Journal — well, it appeared in a recent interview piece with the author; in no way should it be taken as the Journal expressing a positive judgment on CUSTER.

The remaining excerpts in the “Editorial Reviews” section do in fact come from recently-published reviews of McMurtry’s new book. Yet there, too, skepticism is in order.

For example, the 20 upbeat words carefully lifted from Kirkus Reviews are, in truth, more than overshadowed by the critical remarks found elsewhere in the complete review (available online here), such as this less-than-enthusiastic summary: “McMurtry’s observations are not especially interesting [...] and some wander off topic.” The same goes for the excerpt from a review in Booklist, which, when read in its entirely, also comes across as damning McMurtry with faint praise. Booklist labels the book as “neither a comprehensive nor a conventional biography of Custer. Instead, McMurtry offers a series of vignettes and musings … McMurtry often paints an unflattering and probably unfair portrait of Custer.” Granted, the Booklist reviewer does say many of the author’s “tidbits” are “interesting.”

As for the USA Today’s review of CUSTER that Amazon cites, upon reading the complete review I found it contains some not entirely reassuring words of advice to the potential reader; words that, for some reason, are missing from Amazon:

“You will enjoy the book more than Custer enjoyed the battle.”

I kid you not.

(As Jack Paar used to say.)

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An Apple that was America

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

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Recently I acquired a small still life painting by the 19th century American artist Edward Chalmers Leavitt (1842-1904):

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Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop
Oil on canvas, signed lower right and dated 1862.
6.5 x 8.75 inches

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Depictions of apples are very common in nineteenth century American art, and it’s not hard to understand why.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the apple had achieved a status approaching that of a national symbol. Twice in his journals (in 1848 and 1851) Ralph Waldo Emerson declared “the apple is our national fruit,” and he voiced that conclusion without fear of contradiction in a lecture devoted to “Country Life” delivered to audiences in Boston and Worcester (1858) as well as in Brooklyn (1859).

The apple’s renown can be traced to years of widespread cultivation of apple trees throughout the growing nation. Abundant and flavorful table fruit was only one result of successful crops. The growing harvest of apples also yielded millions of gallons of hard cider, and thirsty Americans consumed it with abandon.

For a young nation still in the process of defining itself, the apple was an object poised to take on symbolic importance. The natural stages of apple production — seeds, saplings, trees, new blossoms, nourishing fruit — furnished metaphors for nation-building. And when the new nation was in need of home-grown myths, there was Johnny Appleseed, whose legend is rooted in fact.

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Johnny Appleseed became a legend of a quintessentially American kind, as his story blends both moral and practical lessons. So, too, was there something especially American about the apple. In the apple Americans saw an object they were temperamentally inclined to invest with representational authority.

This background adds to our understanding of Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop and the artist who painted it.

In 1862, Edward Chalmers Leavitt, a young man eager to extend his artistic reach beyond an early talent for drawing, decided to capture an apple’s essence in oil paint on canvas. This small painting may be the earliest surviving work by him, according to my research. Indeed not much is known with certainty about Leavitt’s training and early career as an artist. His first participation in an art exhibition occurred five years after Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop, when a work labeled “Fruit Piece (painting)” appeared at an exhibition sponsored by the Rhode Island Society for Domestic Industry. In his later years Leavitt achieved local prominence as the premier still life painter in Providence, churning out grandiose and meticulously detailed compositions reflecting America’s material prosperity at the end of the century. These later commercial works, designed for an upper middle class market, are a long way away from his early apple.

A single apple on a shelf: what could be simpler, more humble, more innocent?

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But look closer. Doesn’t this begin to look like more than the commonly encountered image of an apple? I think the answer is yes. Many a curious thing is to be found in Leavitt’s depiction of America’s fruit. Some things extraneous. Some things pointing beyond the literal, beyond the space the artist constructed to house his apple. Perhaps something with a personal meaning.

What I see in the painting now set before me is this:

Here, in a simple depiction of an apple on a marble shelf, the artist has encoded the state of the nation in 1862.

I interpret the painting as a representation of the country as seen through the eyes of a young man during the eventful year of 1862. Yes, I’m engaging in some speculation here. I may never find confirmation of my premise. But what I do have in hand already are two things: a tantalizing biographical fact, and the evidence of the painting itself.

Here is the interesting fact: Edward Chalmers Leavitt, born and educated in Providence, Rhode Island, decided at the age of 19, at the outbreak of the Civil War, to volunteer to serve the Union cause. Exactly when in 1862 he painted Apple on a Marble Tabletop may never be determined. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout the months of 1862, Leavitt, like other young men of his time and place, followed assiduously every scrap of news and rumor that came his way about the campaigns and battles of the war. That second year of the Civil War saw the further terrible sundering of our nation. Blood was spilled on the battlefield; tears were spilled on the homefront.

The painting itself — its iconography — is intriguing. My reason to believe Leavitt had a higher aspiration for his apple, that he intended this apple as a commentary on events, is grounded in three elements of the painting. These details telegraph a message.

1.   The geography of battle

First there is the matter of how Leavitt depicts the physical setting the apple occupies. Within a very small format (just 6 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches) the artist has created a narrow and shallow display space. On reflection, however, this space broadens out to encompass a larger space. This in turn allows the apple to assume a larger meaning. What did Leavitt do to transform the space?

I find it significant that instead of attempting to replicate the look of marble as would other painters of the period, Leavitt purposely designs the stone’s signature mineral veins to achieve something other than mere verisimilitude. I’ve never before seen an American still life artist paint marble in this way. The veins, as ordered by Leavitt, are like meandering rivers that spread out across a wide territory. More broadly still, these lines suggest geographical markers or boundaries of territory. Some of these geographical cues refer to natural formations (we think of rivers) while others are man-made (notice the straight east-west line marking the meeting of the interlocked planes — the north and south portions of the painting).

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Both the flat backdrop slab of marble and the flat shelf that projects outward toward the viewer are of equal prominence. While we perceive these as two separate surfaces, they can also be read as sections of one partially unfolded but not yet fully flattened map, thanks in part to the implied continuation of veins from one plane to the other. Indeed, on the left side of the picture we seem to be able to observe a river, formed in the north, grow as it wends its way south. The web of arteries, while mysterious, strongly suggests this decipherment. But what, in a larger sense, is the meaning of this eerie feature of Leavitt’s composition? What does it signify in the American context of 1862?

I believe the landscape-like element of this still life represents the geography of the American Civil War.

For Leavitt to use his painter’s brush to conjure up rivers, creeks and runs in the year 1862 was inevitably to awaken the names of skirmishes and battles lately entering people’s consciousness and speech: Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Middle Creek, Shiloh. Even if it was the convention of one side of the conflict (the Confederacy) to name battles after the nearest river or run, those names and the names of other battle creeks and rivers would have been in the minds of everyone following war news, north and south, reading newspaper accounts and pouring over illustrated maps. I cannot claim the lines Leavitt etched into his unfolded stone map correspond to actual geographical boundaries or actual waterways met in the path of war. They don’t have to. It served Leavitt’s purpose to create a general schematic of the water-carved fields of battle. What Leavitt intended has been successfully evoked.

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Notice also what happens to us, as viewers, when we entertain the notion, even if only for a moment, that this apple is resting on a huge expanse of territory. In our mind’s eye the apple balloons in size. Our sense of scale goes kerflooey, as happens when we look at a surrealistically large apple in a painting by Magritte.

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At the very least, our sense of the meaning of the apple expands to include new possibilities.

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2.   The inflicted wound

The apple has suffered a bruise. It is a distinctive wound.

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For centuries still life artists have used the trope of imperfections in the skin of a piece of fruit to signify the impermanence of beauty, illustrating the poet’s observation, “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.” Yet this is almost always conveyed through depictions of naturally occurring flaws, inherent decay rising to the surface, or the natural decomposition of skin post-ripeness. Apples, for example, may be shown with lesions of apple scab disease, as in David Johnson’s circa 1857 painting of Apples and Quinces.

In contrast, the bruise Leavitt painted has a different look and meaning. It clearly was imposed by some irregular action, by some unnatural external source. A possible reading, and one that I believe is most likely, is that the wound is meant to be seen as one inflicted by an opposing human hand, from the violent pressure of a finger and nail whose ghostly outline remains all too discernible on the skin.

This wound occupies the southwest quadrant of the face of the apple the artist presents to us. From the vantage point of Leavitt’s New England roots and his Providence, Rhode Island, home base, the southwest is the very direction to which we would look to witness the depredations of the major Civil War engagements of 1862. Think of Shiloh (Tennessee); Gaine’s Mill (Virginia); 2nd Battle of Bull Run (Virginia); Battle of Richmond, Kentucky; Antietam (Maryland); and Fredericksburg (Virginia).

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3.   The blood of battle

One aspect of the apple delights the eye at first glance — or at least delights the eye of a viewer who assumes this to be an innocent representation of an apple. Two drops magically cling to the apple’s skin. These two drops belong to the tradition of trompe l’oeil still life, whose practitioners applied embellishments of this sort to impart a reality to the painted object (depicting a fly alighting on the fruit is another off-used trick). Later in his career Leavitt himself would return to the practice, in one instance dotting a cabbage leaf with drops of water, and on another occasion affixing raindrops to the yellow roses and leaves in a painting from 1885:

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But note that in these later examples the drops of moisture are of an entirely different character. We understand the drops on the cabbage leaf were applied externally (from refreshing rain or from being washed by man) as were those on the rose (again, from rain). In contrast, the drops on the apple appear to come from inside the apple. Just as a matter of gravity it’s hard to fathom how a drop of water could be placed on the shear side of the apple and retain its globular form. Instead we must imagine a puncture, a hole in the skin from which a vital essence slowly is escaping. The top drop appears to have just emerged. We imagine it will grow larger. The heavy bottom drop falls like a tear.

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It does not matter that science can explain why the drops are red, can assure us the drops are only behaving as lenses relaying the red color of the apple skin. No. Despite such knowledge we are seized by one terrible thought: this is blood.

The apple is bleeding.

This apple was America.

If you also admit the possibility of seeing the apple as a human torso, then what Leavitt depicted is a consequential image. It is the scene that follows in temporal sequence the triggering scene drawn by Winslow Homer and published in Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862 (The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty). Homer called the actions of the sharp-shooter “near murder.”

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War’s lethal logic pierced the heart of America.

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Notes and additional observations

1.  As I write and post this piece, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is preparing to open an exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, that will be on view from November 16, 2012, through April 28, 2013. Later the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, May 21 through September 3, 2013. Although the accompanying scholarly catalogue, authored by Eleanor Jones Harvey, is not yet available to me (Amazon currently lists a future release date of November 27, 2012), I’ve just read an illustrated essay, apparently an excerpt from the catalog, in American Art Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, 2012 (November-December), pp. 80-85. In it the author reveals her thesis that the Civil War had a profound effect on the mission, content, and uses of art in America. She focuses her analysis on landscape painting and photography as well as postwar genre painting. While those are the most obvious arenas, let me suggest the investigation into signifiers should not stop there. Still life may also respond to a war’s wounds. In the hands of an engaged artist, even a mere apple can be a nation.

2.  Here is a quarter plate tintype of John Egler, a Civil War soldier. He would later be wounded at Spotsylvania and die 19 days later. Why does he hold an apple in his hand? Why was the apple tinted red?

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3.  I’ve mentioned that the web of veins in the marble platform have a mysterious aura, a mystery that activates a viewer’s desire for decipherment. In this way they remind me of the puzzling lines in the backgound of some Jasper Johns works from the 1980s and ’90s (lines whose source and meaning art scholars have scurried to uncover):

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4.  With respect to my supposition that Leavitt set his apple upon a map of America, it seems almost unnecessary to call attention to the shadow — of death? of mourning? — that has fallen upon the land. Save an unthinkable suicidal plunge, the apple has no escape from the narrow shelf. Fate awaits. Three years later, ruminating on the spilling of every drop of blood, Lincoln sadly recalled:

. . . AND THE WAR CAME

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“Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe: Exclamation! Points! Every! Where!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

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The other day I began to read Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood. Things were going fine until page 3. That’s where I came upon a physical description of a woman named Mac, wife of the editor of a Miami newspaper. Mac, the overwrought Wolfe urgently wants the reader to understand, is stunning. And so we read words, words, and more words that establish the proposition that Mac is stunning. Then, redundantly, Wolfe decides to tells us in no uncertain terms that Mac is . . . “stunning.” Finally, since Wolfe is not a man to let go of the obvious, he appends to the word “stunning” the filigree of an exclamation point:

“Stunning!”

Yes, a wee thing, this punctuation mark … (!)  Like the falling of a small drop of rain.

But, dear reader, more drops fall. As when the swollen South Fork Dam collapsed, what follows is a veritable Johnstown flood of exclamation marks clotting the prose. Exclamation marks are pinned, wantonly, on utterances, thoughts, descriptions, and proper names — all without sense or grace.

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How bad does this get?

Below, culled from pages 3 to 35 of Back to Blood, is every instance in which Wolfe felt an exclamation point was, somehow, appropriate. This list records the words or the word phrases that immediately precede the mark. In some instances, where it’s needed to convey the subject Wolfe wants emphatically to express, I’ve included the whole sentence.

Enjoy.

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Stunning!

Absolutely gorgeous, this big girl of his!

Now!

This was the chance!

This was the crack in the wall of words he was waiting for!

An opening!

Never mind!

“Attractive” barely began to describe what he felt!

Such nice tender long legs the two girls had!

Perfect little cupcake bottoms … for him!

And that was obviously what they wanted!

Tighty-whiteys!

Oh, ineffable dirty girls!

Oh, ineffable Latin dirty girls!

An ordinary conversational voice!

The spell was broken!

Perfect little cupcakes!

Their short short-shorts!

Short short short-shorts!

Sex!

Sex!

Sex!

Sex!

Up on golden Lucite thrones!

Well, you are!

Good subject!

Everybody!

Get up!

Let’s go!

On the sand!

Now, that was an accomplishment!

FIDEL, SI!

PATRIOTISM, NO!

Even if I wanted him to!

Jesus Christ, those lights are bright!

Brake light on the back window!

A big black thing — huge!

Godalmighty! — it was a white Ferrari 403!

A Ferrari 403!

That’s a $275,000 car!

Why, that bitch!

That brazen little bitch!

LYING AND SAYING YOU DIDN’T!

Look at her!

You stupid bitch!

DON’T YOU DARE TALK TO ME LIKE THAT!

A NASTY LITTLE MONKEY IS WHAT YOU ARE!

Both of you! Stop!

Go to hell, bitch!

Why can’t they just stop!

SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT!

SPEAK ENGLISH!

Rude bitch!

But Please, God!

God knows they’ve got the money!

Oh, yes!

There!

Everybody … all of them … it’s back to blood!

A leaning pool!

Blond hair! — and blue eyes!

The blond ones! — with blue eyes!

As far as SMACK that goes!

Pumping iron!

That’ll do the trick!

Dense!

Nnnnnnooooooooooooo!!!

Gym!

dense!

Magdalena!

That day!

Nes-ter!

Wait a minute!

The “eyes”!

So dismissive!

Such a rebuke!

Impudent and a half!

Straight out!

The anger he felt!

If only he had added a “Sarge”!

He’s still a sergeant!

Blown out of the water!

Quick!

Throw in a Sarge right now!

Sarge and Sarge!

Jesus Christ!

He dares say!

Most revered figure in Cuban history!

The filth right in the face!

And this is not Marti’s birthday!

Even with that!

Canadian!

Holy shit!

Up there!

Canadians!

It would take a genius to catch on!

But get hold of yourself!

Expelled from the force!

Canned!

Kicked out!

Biscayne Bay!

He’d be finished!

Magdalena, too!

Magdalena!

Eighty-fucking-two feet!

The man on the mast!

Up on top of the forward mast!

He’s up as high as the tontos on the bridge!

He did it!

He did it!

With the fluid power of a tiger he did it!

Slid it!

Slid a sliding door open!

Without fucking up!

Christ it was hot out there on the deck!

Scorching!

Enervating!

Miami summer sun!

Cries!

Exhortations!

Imprecations!

Ululations!

Supplications!

Boos!

Biscayne Bay!

A regular rubber room, this deck was!

Girls — all but stark naked!

Wild blond hair!

Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis!

Almighty God, I beseech thee, don’t let me … fuck up!

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That prayer reaches the reader at page 35.

It’s hard for me to express, in my own words, the feeling that wells up inside me when I realize another 669 pages stand between me and the final exclamation on the novel’s final page.

So, to express the moment, let me borrow an exclamation from Mr. Tom . . . and at the same time pay homage to Mr. Bill.

Let me shout out my feelings thus:

Ohhhh Nnnnnnooooooooooooo!!!


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NOTES

1.  If my audit of pages 3-35 missed some exclamation marks, please forgive me. Or better still, thank me.

2.  [Spoiler Alert] The novel’s final exclamation, intended to send the reader off with a grin: “That’s … so … wonderful!

3.  A tip of the hat to James Wood whose dissection of Back to Blood in this week’s The New Yorker includes a couple of remarks about Wolfe’s overuse of exclamation marks. Wood refers to them as “the blurting, Tourette’s-like exclamations” and notes how Wolfe’s excitability works counter to the individualization of his characters: “In the regime of the enforced exclamation mark, everyone is equal.”

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A rare sighting at The New Yorker

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

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A magazine I cherish is The New Yorker.

Wait, let me rephrase that: The New Yorker is a magazine I read each and every week cherishly.

Better put, no?

The New Yorker has been dubbed “the most meticulously edited magazine in the world.” Articles, paragraphs, sentences, words — all are filtered clean by a cadre of fact-checkers, copy-editors and proof-readers. One of its editors recently boasted:  at The New Yorker “every quote, every detail, every attribution, every everything is checked for accuracy.”

So don’t expect to find the word cherishly in its pages.

Is it any wonder that for many readers the hunt for typos in The New Yorker has become something of a sport, nay, obsession? Examples of these hunters — including a few proudly displaying their trophies — can be found here (“the other night I found a typo in The New Yorker“), here (“stunned to find a typo”), here (“this week’s New Yorker has a shockingly obvious misspelling/typo”), here (“I have discovered typos in The New Yorker), here (“there are now typos in The New Yorker“), here (a tweet about a Saturday night well spent “looking for typos in The New Yorker”) and here (“…extra credit for catching typos in The New Yorker“).

Can I jump in here?

Today, while reading Ian Parker’s profile of J.K. Rowling featured in the October 1, 2012 issue of the magazine, I came across this passage on page 62:

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The same typo — Mr. Mosley’s surname erroneously offered up first as “Mosely” — appears in the online edition:

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I did a Google search to see whether anyone else had bagged this catch and then bragged about it online before me. No results. My arms shot up in triumph! (Sorry, no photo).

Essayist Joseph Epstein, a seasoned questioner and answerer, had this to say on the subject of spotting typos:

“Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors—typos, in the trade term—especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much “see how the mighty have fallen” as “see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become.” Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day.”

Just so: I savor my finding of this error with cherish.

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On Seeing “Death of a Salesman” in NYC

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

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Yesterday afternoon I attended a performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the Barrymore Theatre. The cast of 14, directed by Mike Nichols, was headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Willy Loman), Linda Emond (Linda Loman) and Andrew Garfield (Biff Loman).

The anticipation of a crowd of eager theatre-goers as they entered the theater is something I tried to capture in a video, uploaded here. What I cannot adequately capture is the general force and impact of the production we saw.

Instead, here are particular things that struck me:

Numbers.  Someone could write an entire essay on the use and meaning of numbers in “Death of a Salesman.”  Years, ages, dimensions, limits, prices and payments — the script is chock-full of them. The characters measure their lives with numbers. From the early flashback scene in which Linda recites the household bills needing to be paid (16 dollars on the refrigerator, nine-sixty for the washing machine, three and a half on the vacuum), to the later scene when Willy’s neighbor Charley lends him support (the usual 50 dollars plus, this time, 110 to pay for insurance), all the way through to an ending where we find Willy wondering over his life “ringing up a zero,”  you can hardly catch your breath before some new numbers are announced, debated, corrected, and chewed over some more. There are the sinking salary requests made by Willy as he pleads with Howard to keep him on the payroll after he’s “put 34 years into this firm.”  Willy starts at 65 dollars a week (“I don’t need much any more”), then lowers himself to 50 (“all I need to set my table”), then bottoms out at a beggarly 40 (“that’s all I’d need”). There are Linda’s imprecise references to Willy’s age (is he 60 or 63?); Ben repeating the limits of his jungle adventure (17 when he walked in, 21 when he walked out); and Willy’s precise recollection of lumber stolen for a home improvement project (those beautiful 2-by-10s). We hear of Biff’s failing math grade of 61, just 4 points way from passing — those 4 points something Willy declares he’ll gain for his son. Then a circular debate over how much of a loan Biff should request from Bill Oliver (10 thousand? 15 thousand?). There’s Linda’s mention of their 25-year home mortgage (she’s compelled to note that Biff was just 9 when they bought the house). Amid this onslaught of figures, our apprehension grows. Are numbers for Americans the preferred way to follow and ultimately judge a life?

Insurance. When, in order to aid his elder son, Willy strikes a bargain with death — twenty thousand dollars from an insurance policy (those numbers again!) — there is an echo of the climactic plot device in Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” in which a no longer useful man similarly chooses a disguised suicide to bankroll the future of his grandson.

Athletics. How fine and assuring it was to be an audience member watching Hoffman, Garfield and Finn Wittrock (who played Hap Loman) in an early flashback scene as they tossed a football around, between stage left and stage right, in a precise, easy manner.

Comedy 1. There were some awkward bursts of laughter from the audience, as when Willy repeatedly berates Linda when she tries to join in the family conversations. His bullying putdowns got laughs that were scarily undeserved. I wonder whether this was simply embarrassed laughter from otherwise psychologically astute adults who were already on to (and forgiving of) Willy’s gross and contradictory ways? I’m not sure. I think another factor might be our collective exposure to years of TV situation comedies where belittling is a staple, where similar putdowns are accompanied by canned laughter. The two times when Hap interjected his inapposite news — “I’m getting married, Pop!” — the audience roared with laughter. Were some among us hearing the voice of TV’s womanizing Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), interrupting the banter of his Friends with yet another impossible statement?

Comedy 2. Yet how truly funny Miller can be, funny intentionally and on his terms, as in the restaurant scene in which the headwaiter, Stanley (Glenn Fleshler), tosses out  a handful of lines that anticipate Neil Simon.

Blocking. For this production Nichols resurrected the set designed by Jo Mielziner for the original 1949 production. His direction featured blocking that places an emphasis on the actors’ profiles, from our viewing perspective. I’m guessing this was dictated by the set design, but I wonder whether it also is a borrowing from Nichols’ film direction. There are superb details. The last time we see Willy he is in his hoped-for garden. Centered down-stage, he looks straight ahead into the audience, talking not to himself (remember Miller conceived of the play as taking place in Willy’s skull) but in these final moments to us. This I thought was a perfect thing.

The lines we all know, still new. How right it was for Linda Emond not to specially deliver, not to call special attention to, her  attention must be paid lines. How right a choice it was for her to allow those words to emerge as a seamless part of her argument for loyalty.  How right her decision to permit those words to appear new, just as they were received as new by audiences attending the original production. The same sureness was evident during her speech at the funeral scene, done so quietly, a simple “I can’t cry . . .”.

Delayed catharsis. Then something occurred I’d never seen before at a staged performance of a tragedy. When the tragedy is ended and the curtain falls and then rises to reveal the cast, by convention the magic is broken and we return to our lives. But at the end of this “Death of a Salesman,” the full cast of 14 appeared linked hand-in-hand, and the entire troupe was dour faced. The four principals stood before us in the middle of the line with faces frozen in the very same shock, sorrow, and grief of the funeral scene. They remained so. Our loud standing ovation could not break the cast’s concentration, could not entice them to adopt the ecstatic mood of our side of the proscenium. Catharsis would not be shared just yet. It was as if a spell had taken hold of the actors and would end only if we sufficiently witnessed their pain. And so, after what felt like minutes, the focus resolved on Hoffman, who moved ever so slightly forward. The burden lifted when he smiled with pride.

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Also in attendance. At play’s end, after exiting the row, I noticed the actor John Turturro walking up the aisle behind me, and though I tried my best to overhear the conversation he was having with others about the performance, I was not close enough to hear particulars. Drat. A compensatory thrill came earlier.  Sitting in seat K-115, the aisle seat, was an elderly gentleman who, I learned, was 97 years old. His caretaker, a young woman, sat between us. After he cracked a joke about hoping to see at least three more years’ worth of  plays, I asked if he had seen this play before. Yes, he replied, he saw it during its first Broadway run. (That would have been in 1949 or 1950!)  I wanted to ask if he would tell me more of what he remembered, but the show was about to start and he had turned his attention to the stage.

Trivial questions I have.  What is Linda’s backstory? Was Willy eligible for Social Security benefits? What are the odds the insurance company will successful rebuff the family’s claim? Viewing the Loman house as a character, were Miller and Mielziner familiar with the illustrations Virginia Lee Burton created for her 1942 children’s book, “The Little House“?

Why did this production succeed? A revealing, hour-long interview with Nichols and his three leads, conducted when the when the play was still in rehearsal, can be found here.

Time for effusiveness.  The topmost quotation in the sign posted next to the stage door is right on the money. Hell, the whole sign is right on the money:

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“Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley

Friday, May 18th, 2012

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The legion of Robert Sheckley fans is usually a quiet and unassuming bunch. Yet sometimes they stir. The occasion of a new publication, or even the repackaging of old material, may spur hidden aficionados to step out of the shadows and publicly declare their loyalty.

One such declarant is Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize winning book critic for the Washington Post, whose review of STORE OF THE WORLDS, a newly-gather collection of 26 short stories from the 1950s and 1960, appeared this week under the headline, “A Master of Satirical Fiction.”

If you’ve never read anything by Sheckley and wonder if he’s worth a try, Dirda provides some helpful comparables: Kurt Vonnegut’s books, the sardonic comeuppance stories of John Collier and Roald Dahl, Edward Gore’s little albums, and reruns of “The Twilight Zone.”

To that affinity list I’d add this advice: If you remember fondly the mind-stretching experience of your college anthropology class, and/or if your ideal of humor is all sorts of Lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be satire, then this guy’s for you, and STORE OF THE WORLDS is a good point of entry.

One caveat. Don’t be misled by the fact this volume appears under the imprint of New York Review Books, whose reputation rests on resurrecting out of print literary gems. Sheckley is not a “literary” writer, at least not as that term is generally understood. Your reward as a reader is not the quality of his prose. Your reward will be to enjoy the playfulness of a fertile mind — a mind delivering ideas sometimes antic, mostly sardonic.

There’s one other collection of the author’s stories currently in print that you should consider as an alternative: The Masque Of Manana. It’s a hardback and contains 41 stories, 15 more than the paperback STORE OF THE WORLDS. Among the stories found in both books are the four Dirda specifically calls out in his review. Another fan-favorite, “Watchbird,” a cautionary tale that presaged by half a century today’s controversy over domestic use of drones, is found in STORE but not in MASQUE. One of Dirda’s favorites is mine also: “Shape,” aka, “Keep Your Shape,” an aliens-visiting-earth story in which Sheckley maintains tension so well that you’re simply overwhelmed by its lovely dénouement.

I was introduced to the world of Robert Sheckley by a friend way back in graduate school, and, following a pattern not unknown to inveterate readers, gobbled up the author’s work — some novels but mostly the collections of tasty short stories — like a kid in a candy store. Those days you could easily find Sheckley in bookstores specializing in science fiction/fantasy. Every city had one. (But today?) Another source: the disreputable dark dusty corners of used bookstores where ratty SF paperbacks were kept.

Thank you, NYRB, for allowing readers like me to revisit these stored pleasures.

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A shorter version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

Comden & Green & Shakespeare

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

The 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town” brought together the composer Leonard Bernstein and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics. The show follows the adventures of three sailors on 24-hours of shore leave in New York.

In Act I, one of the sailors, the serious-minded Gabey, expresses his rapture at suddenly finding love. The song he sings is “Lucky to Be Me“:

I used to think it might be fun to be
Anyone else but me.
I thought that it would be a pleasant surprise
To wake up as a couple of other guys.
But now that I’ve found you,
I’ve changed my point of view,
And now I wouldn’t give a dime to be
Anyone else but me.

What a day,
Fortune smiled and came my way,
Bringing love I never thought I’d see,
I’m so lucky to be me.
What a night,
Suddenly you came in sight,
Looking just the way I’d hoped you’d be,
I’m so lucky to be me.
I am simply thunderstruck
At the change in my luck:
Knew at once I wanted you,
Never dreamed you’d want me, too.
I’m so proud
You chose me from all the crowd,
There’s no other guy I’d rather be,
I could laugh out loud,
I’m so lucky to be me.

Now, you’d be right to say the song’s romantic formula — a woebegone fellow looking for redemptive love finds it smack dab in front of him – has been used so often as to be, by now, a cliché.  But there’s something about the song’s lyrics, some quality that makes it work.

So let’s back up a minute.

Suppose it was your task is to write a jaunty update of this old tale of a lucky turn of fortune, this love-walks-in cliché. Suppose you’re expected to write something that fits within the tongue-in-cheek style of the show while also paying respect to tradition. From whom, among your betters, would you respectfully borrow? What ur-text would you reference?

A possible answer hit me a few days ago, and it may be the very same answer Comden & Green came upon seventy years ago.

I think the guy Comden & Green latched onto was the father of durable clichés: Shakespeare.  My guess for the text they referenced?

Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

You don’t have to strain to see parallels. Both sonnet and song are emotional exclamations and both foreground a man whose depression lifts with the appearance of a loved one. Yet the affinities go beyond subject matter. The path of Gabey’s and the sonnet writer’s stories charts the same course. The same cues appear. All of this is described with synonymous language.

To begin, Comden & Green’s twentieth-century American notion of fate and destiny is of course entirely different than that of Elizabethan England. Yet notice how crucially the word “fortune” is used in both instances. Though separated in time, there is the same initial yearning to be “anyone else but me,” the distressed wish to be “like him” over there or “like him” over there — and, then again, like this man, like that man. We see that the “couple of guys” mentioned by Comden & Green are a summary of what may have been twice that number in Shakespeare.

The emotional “turn” (“Haply I think on thee”) that Shakespeare withholds until the two-thirds of the way through the sonnet is something Comden & Green choose to reveal partially in the introduction (“I’ve found you”) and then with fuller detail as to the circumstances further along (“Suddenly you came in sight”). A different pace and placement of the revellation is understandable, as the lyricists’ audience would demand more lavish attention be paid to the emotional payoff (Sing to me at length, repeatedly, about how you feel now!) than does the reader of the sonnet. The quiet reader is content to learn that the speaker feels like singing at heaven’s gate — and demands no demonstration thereof.

Both song and sonnet close with the identical lesson learned: When I’m in love, there’s no other guy I’d rather be. I wouldn’t change my lot for a king’s fortune. I scorn alternatives. In my state of joy I just want to laugh out loud.

How daunting it is to stand before Shakespeare and his verbal mastery. How could anyone — even word wizards like Comden & Green — not desire that man’s art, that man’s scope? Back to the task at hand, the solution was to stand with Shakespeare or, let’s say, to borrow a little from the guy. To form an informal trio of Comden & Green & Shakespeare.

OK. I’ve got no proof of my hypothesis. But, pace Google, I did find an interview Betty Comden granted in 2004 that offers some interesting leads. Here she reflects on her early education and drama apprenticeship:

I understand that you attended a special program at New York University in the Department of Dramatic Arts. What were your studies like at NYU, and how did they influence your later work?

Oh, well, it was an interesting school. I was there all four years, and we mainly studied the classics—Shakespeare, a lot of Shakespeare—so it was a dramatic group at the college. Not in regular classes, but they did performances every evening in the school auditorium, and so I saw a lot of Shakespeare. But a lot. And it was a great education; I’m glad of it. I recommend it to anyone.

What were the Washington Square Players?

Oh, well that’s the group I was just mentioning that played mostly Shakespeare and some Sheridan. Let’s see, what else? It really was mostly the Shakespeare plays.

While “Lucky to Be Me” is mostly all Comden & Green, it takes nothing away from their accomplishment to say they learned to play well with Shakespeare.

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“The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard”

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

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A Special Publication of the Library of America, this is a generous volume. It contains a three-page preface by the book’s editor Ron Padgett (a poet whose friendship with the author dates back to their high school days in Tulsa, Oklahoma); a ten-page Introduction by novelist Paul Auster; followed by over 500 pages of writings interspersed with the author’s own drawings and cartoons. Rounding out the book are pages of helpful editorial content: a Chronology; a Note on the Texts; and a Glossary of Names. The names belong to fellow artists, writers, dancers, musicians and associates mentioned by the shy-but-gregarious, serious-but-gossipy, frivolous-but-solemn, Joe Brainard.

The volume leads off with I REMEMBER, the autobiographical book Edmund White once labelled “a completely original book” and Paul Auster calls “a modest little gem.” There is an undeniable charm and relentless spell to it. Baby Boomer readers especially will be nodding their heads non-stop in recognition:

“I remember putting on sun tan oil and having the sun go away.”

“I remember catching lightning bugs and putting them in a jar with holes in the lid and then letting them out the next day”

“I remember Christmas cards coming from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.”

“I remember red rubber coin purses that opened like a pair of lips, with a squeeze.”

“I remember wax paper.”

Over the years the simple template of I REMEMBER has influenced thousands of students in American creative writing classes, jump-starting imagination. Foreign writers too have followed its trail. One is Édouard Levé, whose Autoportrait is a pour of thousands of self-contained, self-referential declarative sentences — chips off the Brainard block.

And yet I REMEMBER fills only the first quarter (pages 3-134) of this Collected Writings volume. The bulk of the book falls into the category of Miscellany. To get a sense of the scope of these nearly 100 pieces, see the book’s Table of Contents on the Library of America site, here. Truth to tell, these pieces, which cover the hunt for love to the hunt for cigarettes and everything in between, include many misses among the hits. Take for example the illustrated piece on page 391 entitled “Matches.” It reads in its entirety: “If I strike say 60 matches a day (and I do) in a year’s time that would be — let me see — that would be — I hate math.” But the prevailing tone is a winning youthful energy, casual, humorous, miniaturistic. In his 1971 “Bolinas Journal” (reprinted at pages 285-333), he revealed his credo as simply “trying to be honest.”

Without doubt this book will appeal to Brainard “completists” — readers so taken by the delights of “I Remember” that from this intimately personal raconteur, from this easy sharer of confidences, they demand to hear more, more, and more.

The critic Michael Dirda recently observed that while THE COLLECTED WRITINGS “may not be a fully canonical Library of America title,” it is still “a superbly engaging bedside book.”  I agree. After the opening section devoted to the minimalist yet somehow magisterial “I Remember,” this becomes a book to be dipped into at leisure.

A note to readers who care about books as objects, especially the matter of their binding: Unlike volumes in the main Library of America series which are Smyth sewn (allowing you to open the book wide and bend back the covers without “breaking” or otherwise harming the binding), THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD is a “Special Publication” that features a different design and production. The trim size is larger (good), but notch binding is used here, a disappointment as it renders the book less elegant than regular LOA volumes.

I see I’ve used a lot of numbers in this review. A final one is 52. That is the age of this still-young author at the time of his death in 1994. The coldness of numbers masks the warm effect of THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD. In its pages you meet a big-hearted guy.

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[A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.]

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04-07-2012: This morning I came across an adoring review by Alberto Mobilio in the April/May 2012 online issue of Bookforum, here. Mobilio argues, convincingly, that “I Remember” is best read as an incantatory poem, one that epitomizes “that peculiarly American aspiration to self-mythologize in the face of an otherwise relentlessly quotidian world.”