Friday, December 01, 2006

Penny Press! New Yorker!

Quite a lot to cover in the new issue of Harper's!

A quiet little grace note is found early in the issue: a small excerpt from a 1962 letter Rose Kennedy wrote to her son:

Dear Jack,
In looking over my old diary, I found that you were urged on one occasion, when you were five years old, to wish for a happy death. But you turned down this suggestion and said that you would like to wish for two dogs instead. So do not blame the Bouviers if John has similar ideas.

Much love, dear Jack.

Of course the editors chose it for the chill of foreshadowing we all get from knowing that President Kennedy's death was by no means a happy one. But we here at Stevereads were more struck by the ballsy overreach of the young JFK's alternate wish - not one but two dogs. Exceedingly good instincts, even for a five year old.

Alas, there are no good instincts on display in the John Updike short story in the same issue. Many of you will already know that Updike is something of a stalking-horse here at Stevereads, but even so, this story, "Kinderscenen," hits a new low. Not only does one of America's Literary Lions win the prize for being the ONE MILLIONTH person to compare the lit tip of a cigarette seen in the evening to some kind of star (now that we've hit ONE MILLION, can we declare a moratorium?), but he manages to turn in a story that has: no dialogue, no characterizations, no plot, no climax, no original ideas, and no beauty of language.

We here at Stevereads renew our fervent plea to Mr. Updike: die already! Your one-trick pony, your schtick? We've GOT it. No reason for you to stick around. As soon as you're dead, as soon as the requisite encomiums have been aired in all the right places (Time magazine's sub-lead: "The Shakespeare of Suburbia"), we can all have the happy experience of watching one after another of your tired, witless books pop out of print. "The Centaur" (about middle class malaise)? You're off to the races. "Witches of Eastwick" (about middle class malaise)? You're exorcised. "Bech" (about middle class malaise)? You're not a book anymore.

Fortunately, the burst of irritation over the fact that Harper's would give space to Updike's dithering senility is counterbalanced by their running of a book review written by the great David Quammen.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the man, Quammen is one of the greatest 'nature writers' currently living (his only serious contender in our opinion is Bernd Heinrich). He's mastered a narrative voice that's the perfect blend of learning and conversation - reading him is, literally, always a pleasure.

(those of you who don't own a copy of at least one of his books - especially "Natural Acts" and "Song of the Dodo" - hie thee hence and obtain them immediately ... well, not immediately - wait until I'm done edumicating you, and THEN hie thee hence)

Quammen here reviews two big fat Darwin collections, "Darwin: The Indelible Stamp" (edited by James Watson) and "From So Simple a Beginning" (edited by Edward O. Wilson), and as usual, he delivers the goods. Almost any other writer would have taken the occasion to bloviate about the life and ideas of Darwin (usually mangling both in the process), only tacking on some perfunctory comments about the actual books under review at the very end.

Quammen does write a little about Darwin and his theories (so clearly and engagingly that you wish he'd written more), but he spends far more time actually talking about the two books - and about their respective editors. We learn something of the history of Watson and Wilson, some of the bad blood between them, and something of the publishing-house manuevering that led there to be two such nearly-identical books issued at the same time.

Quammen's piece has only one flaw. At one point he writes:

"Other choices for a Darwin omnibus might have been better, even assuming that four was the right and only number. Why not include his engaging, poignant, admirably self-critical Autobiography?"

Why not indeed! If Quammen had checked around a little bit more, he'd have discovered that big, evil ol' Barnes & Noble publishes "The Darwin Compendium," which DOES include the Autobiography, in addition to the four texts shared by the books under review. Wilson's book is $40. Watson's book is $30. The Barnes & Noble book is also $30 and gives you one-fifth more for your money. Damn those big-box retailers!

Quammen (we're considering starting every paragraph of this entire entry with 'Quammen') points out that there are innumerable editions of Darwin's works out there, and that seems as opportune a place as any to plug the Whitestar edition of "Voyage of the Beagle." It's part of their 'Adventure Classics Series,' and it's the neatest, most hand-friendly edition out there!

Speaking of hand-friendly things, Garrett Keizer's 'Notebook' essay, "Loaded," trots out the subject of GUNS in America, with decidedly weird result (we're more than halfway convinced that the piece's title also refers to the author's condition while he was writing it).

The piece confers a vertiginous feeling while being read: you sense immediately that the author, however many good or bad points he's making, isn't really in full control of himself, and sometimes his prose just slips away from him:

"I continue to believe that if the mass of Americans refused to earn or spend a dollar for a single day following a fishy election - no matter whose guy won - by the dawn's early light we would behold our country."

Or this:

"Give me some people who are not so evolved that they have forgotten what it is to stand firm under fire or even to squat near the fire in a cave."

Um, what the eff?

Still, he does makes some interesting points, none moreso than this:

"There are nearly 1.4 million active troops in the U.S. armed forces; there are an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. The war over the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment is effectively over."

This strikes us as true, as far as it goes. Nothing can ever be done about the vast inundation of guns in this country (my esteemed colleague the Reichmarshal would, I'm sure, maintain that nothing SHOULD be done about it). But just because one side wins doesn't mean one side is right, nor does it somehow legitimize a false reading of the Constitution.

The Second Amendment protects the rights of Americans to bear arms - in the service of a state militia. Period. Not in the service of a state militia - and other cases as deemed needful. ONLY in a state militia. There's absolutely no getting around what the text actually says.

But Keizer is right: the debate is largely moot. America is a gun-crazy country, and no amount of argument is going to change that.

But even so, it should be illegal for a civilian to own automatic assault weapons, and that doesn't have anything to do with the Second Amendment - that's just public safety common sense. Owning a gun that has no practical purpose but to kill someone (a gun that fires enough rounds per second to atomize a game animal, for instance, so there goes that excuse) should be de facto illegal, since murder and attempted murder are illegal. Drug dealers are imprisoned on charges of INTENT to distribute, and no drug-lobbies squeal in their defense. Because it's perfectly sensible: if you have forty bricks of heroin in your basement, you're OBVIOUSLY planning to distribute heroin. Likewise, if you own an automated assault-weapon, you're OBVIOUSLY planning to shoot somebody with it. Only a card-carrying gun-nut would argue your innocence (cue the card-carrying gun-nuts! Incoming!).

But the centerpiece of this issue is Jeff Sharlet's long essay "Through a Glass, Darkly - How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history."

Sharlet is a fantastic writer, and he's got a fantastic story and knows it. He manages to get religious fundamentalists to say the looniest things on the record (I know, I know - no big feat there), and his piece has the lilt and fluency of all really good essays.

Our enjoyment of it only came to a screeching halt once - but what a halt! Imagine the spectrum of our responses when we read this:

"In the pantheon of fundamentalist history, the man revered above all others is General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant military commander in American history and certainly the most pious."

(the fingers go numb with disbelief even whilst typing the words)

It's a little tricky to know whether Sharlet is writing this in his own voice or extendedly paraphrasing the mindset of his fundamentalist subjects, but in either case, when we read the above quote during a quiet lunch at our club, our cry of alarm expelled half a croissant from our mouth and sent it pinging across the table and caromming off the nose of poor Dana Thayer Alsop opposite us.

'Perhaps the most brilliant commander in American history'? Jackson? What on Gawd's green earth?

Ladies and gentlemen, listen carefully: MICHAEL Jackson would have made a better commander than Stonewall ever was. And pious? Maybe so, but with the purity of mind reserved only for full-blown sociopaths.

Virtually his entire military career veers drunkenly between slaughtering innocents, disobeying orders, and bungling battles. During the Mexican War, he killed far more innocent civilians than enemy soldiers. And during the Civil War, he was guilty of the very first mortal sin any combat general can commit: he was unreliable.

Time and again - at Mechanicsville and Gaine's Mill and many other crucial battles - Jackson showed up grossly late, and more than once he followed this up by being conspicuously no help once he finally got there.

Had he not been shot and killed by his own pickets (Sharlet repeats the historical line that this was accidental ... we here at Stevereads will only point out that Jackson drove his men like they were pack mules and almost always made them pray, sometimes for hours, before breakfast), Jackson would almost certainly have led the Confederacy into some cataclysmic military mistake. Hell, even dead he managed to do that: for what were Robert E. Lee's disasterous tactics at Gettysburg but pages taken from Jackson's book?

Of course, none of this even touches on the most hateful thing about Stonewall Jackson: he, like every other Confederate general, was first and foremost a traitor. Jackson was vain, histrionic, psychotic, and inept - but even if he'd been 'brilliant' (like, it must be said, Lee), he'd still have deserved a public hanging (like, it must be said, Lee) for taking up arms against his country.

And he hated dogs, too.


Jeff said...

I put a google alert for Harper's to see what people were saying about the story, and I'm glad I did for no other reason than to have discovered someone who, like me, thinks Stonewall Jackson was fragged. You're correct about the paraphrase (although I trudged through enough secular as well as fundamentalist history of Jackson to trust, perhaps incorrectly, the popular belief in his brilliance), and I think you're correct about his early death. So many of the historians croon about how his troops loved him that you know it's bullshit -- officers are never loved.

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff E. said...

FYI regular posters, that Jeff is not me.

But welcome, Jeff Without An E!

Kevin Caron said...

I second the welcome, Jeff-with-just-the-one-E-right-there-where-you'd-expect-it... You're google alert has served you well.
Pull up a chair and stay awhile - if only to lend purpose to Jeff E.'s initial (aside from the main: to make me chuckle as I picture that pillar of manliness as a "Jeffy").

Remember: the more you post, the better your chance of a charming brow-beating by our beloved host.

Kevin Caron said...

Love the reviews, Steve. Funny you should mention hanging the Confederate generals - Just the other night, I caught Gore Vidal on "Air America Radio", discussing how, in his opinion, Lincoln had no legal/constitutional right to wage war on the seceding states, as nowhere did it state that the States which formed the Union couldn't opt to leave it, if they decided it was no longer in their benefit... I assume you see it differently, Steve (I've always been of two minds on this myself - sometimes wondering if we shouldn't have created some kind of Articles of Secession, creating a legal process by which we could give the South an 'out'). I'm wondering what everyone's thoughts are on this one.

jeff eaton said...

The south probably did have a legal right to secede, but Lincoln's actions to preserve the union were utterly and obviously justified. Unpacking the term "justified" in a philosophical or legal sense would take a while, but I see it in this case as fulfilling his duty to act in the best interest of his country (what was left of it). Half his country decides to quit, and his response is to conquer them. A fine response.

As an incidental aside, I firmly believe that his decision to do this benefited both sides in the long run. A divided US would have been vulnerable to all kinds of European meddling. Hard to say who would have aligned with whom, but certainly both sides' weaker positions would have cost them both some autonomy.

Sam Sacks said...

A fine posting, mine host. And as for the comments, I'm with Jeff - both of 'em! Saying that Lincoln had no constitutional right to wage war on seceding states might be technically correct, in the same way that, say, Communism could technically be a good form of government. But lets not forget that the South fired the first shots (a whole cannonade of shots) at United States military who were merely trying to bring provisions to men holding a coastal fort. And what about Missouri, and the undefined territories of the northwest and the southwest. Was the Confederacy just going to concede that land to the Union? Obviously not - they wanted it with them, wanted it slave-holding and allied to the South. Secession was a clear act of war, as everyone in the south knew and approved of, despite the purism of Alexander Stephens' ideas of states' rights.

But maybe they should have been allowed to do it! Have a gander at the red/blue state breakdown! A confederacy relying on slavery and King Cotton would have been economically and socially ruined within fifty years, if that. They would have come crawling back, or else we'd be building a big anti-immgration wall on the southern banks of the Ohio River. As it is, they enjoy national the national prosperity that came from innovations almost exclusively derived by non-southerners, and by virtue of their irresponsible population booms they hold incommensurate power in the government. Being forced to stay in the Union was the best thing that ever happened to the South.

And finally, I second or third the wise words about Stonewall Jackson. (Although I need more to convince me that he was killed on purpose - he crossed the picket near the end of a horrid, totally chaotic battle, a time that 'friendly fire' is enormously common.) He was simply a religious fanatic who was so absolutely convinced of his position in heaven and of the perfidy of whomever opposed him for whatever reason (the reasons were irrelevant) that he wasn't afraid of dying. Take a 9-11 hijacker, put him on a horse and give him command of a confederate division in 1861 and he'd be just as effective (or ineffective). Jackson was merely aided by incompetent, confused, conservative, or timid Union leadership.

Kevin Caron said...

Took the words outta my mouth, Sam - I was just about to post that, even if we did somehow peacefully let the south seceed, the two sides would probably have come to blows over the remaining territories. Like I said, I'm split on this one - though it may only be the red-state nonsense that causes me to entertain pro-secession ideas. That and the chance to save over half a million lives...

That said, I do tend to lean preserve-the-union, overall.

I wonder where John is on this one?

steve said...

Of course the South had the right to band together and secede from the Union. They even had the right, having done so, to make war on the Union.

But they should have paid the price for failure in both those endeavors. Every man who ever served in the Confederate army should have been hanged without trial; every single square inch of Confederate land should have been confiscated for re-distribution (in a perfect world, to the former slaves who used to work the land - but in practicality, probably to soldiers); no former Confederate state should retain any scrap of political reality - no voting, no Federal money.

They tried to destroy the Union Boston (and some others) worked so hard for so long to bring about. And they had the right to try. But they failed, and they should still be paying for that.

The last time I was down South (apart from one rather spectacularly ill-fated 24-hour stay in Washington), I saw Confederate flags flying everywhere and more than once heard 'The South Shall Rise Again!' ... talking about Kevin's 'over half a million lives' being totally squandered ...