Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Andrew Marvell!

Our book today - the last in our batch of what turned out to be mostly very superannuated musty old biographies cleared out of church basements in Iowa (ah, the wonders of Stevereads) - is Andrew Marvell, a slim, sparkling 1929 volume by the great Vita Sackville-West. It was supposed to be the first volume in a new series called, somewhat unfortunately, "The Poets on the Poets," although I'm not sure the series ever really took off, poets being so notoriously awful about deadlines. The first curiosity of the thing today is the governing identification of Sackville-West as a poet at all: it would have been routine in her own day, but to the very limited extent she's known to the common reader today, it's as a novelist or even a biographer of her ancestral home, not as a poet.

Still, 90 years ago she was well enough known to kick off this "The Poets on the Poets" series (as far as I know, it petered out almost immediately), and she chose to write a very slim volume on Marvell by concentrating almost exclusively on reading through his poems rather than retailing the facts of his life and times. She states up front that she won't be indulging in more than a scraping of biography, intent instead on concentrating on the poems. In a brochure for next summer's series of seminars at the National Humanities Center, we're told: "Scholarship over the last fifteen years has made it plain that Andrew Marvell's poetry cannot be adequately studied apart from his life" - and it's safe to say Sackville-West knew that even in her own day (one of her cited sources, a life of Marvell by the great Edwardian critic Augustine Birrell, specifically makes that same National Humanities Center claim). Her pose of aesthetic purity - just the poems, not the tawdry life - is just that: a pose, an old and trusty trick to let a freelancer off the hook of doing a load of extra research. And at least she's eloquent about it:
The apparent facts of a man's life are rarely absolute, even to himself; he draws the strokes, one by one, and is surprised at the final design of the picture. What hope is there, then, for the reconstruction of the biographer? It is no reconstruction that he can hope for, but merely interpretation - a rather more well-intentioned form of fiction.

The reader - if this thin volume had any readers anymore, which I doubt - can more readily tolerate such stuff because a) it speeds us to Sackville-West's thoughts on the poetry, and b) she doesn't really ignore biography anyway - some of her comments are almost admonishing in their personal tone:
Two strange reflections her suggest themselves. The first, that Marvell should never have published any of these poems - did he not know how good they were? The second - which appears almost to grow out of the first - that so true a poet should have abandoned the writing of poetry and turned, as the old lady said, to writing sense instead. From first to last, it was certainly a cavalier way of treating so pretty a muse. Marvell's muse, indeed, if her spirit survives, has much to complain of. Not only did Marvell himself behave towards her with the utmost ingratitude and nonchalance, but posterity for well over a century did very little better.

Like many critics before her, Sackville-West locates the bulk of Marvell's first-rate poetry early in his life, during the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell, dismissing most of the later work and implying that most work of all poets should be likewise dismissed:
Poets vary, but most are more prolific than they should be; less fastidious than they might be, that is to say, in the chosen residue of their work that they expose to the judgment of the world. (Yes fecundity in itself is often a measure of a poet's greatness, provided the quality maintain a sufficient, even though intermittent, standard; and no poet, as experience proves, can be expected to act as his own editor. Wordsworth and Tennyson, not to mention Swinburne, were their own worst enemies.) Time and posterity, fortunately, act as sieves, and in the end it is often for a few pages of print, at most, that a poet is remembered; a few moments distilled out of all the years of his life.

It's hard not to read a note of personal experience into lines like those, but then, Andrew Marvell is a very personal essay, an informal and somewhat unstructured reflection of one writer on another - with perhaps more attendant ironies than Sackville-West herself ever saw. She tsk-tsks at how long it took the literary world to realize the worth of Marvell's work - and her own work is waiting for exactly that kind of realization. And we won't even hold our breath for poor Birrell.

(One last thing: my own much-battered copy of this particular book didn't come from a church basement in Iowa - it was a gift from an old friend, who formally bestowed it on me only after he noticed that I'd pinched it from his shelves without his knowledge)


Monday, November 28, 2011

Coke of Norfolk and His Friends!

Our book today is a hefty two-volume life of the 1st Earl of Leicester (of Holkham, that is), Thomas William Coke by that unsinkable Edwardian chronicler of the better sort, A.M.W. Stirling. She wrote these two volumes from 1908 to 1912, taking full advantage of her first-name familiarity (in this case, she was the great-granddaughter of her subject) with the top tiers of England's landed gentry, to whom Coke of Norfolk and His Friends is essentially one enormous love-letter. Anna Marie Wilhemina Stirling was fond of country houses and gossip and pearls, a living concordance of stereotypes who was nonetheless an entirely real and surprisingly wonderful person. She wrote earnest letters, sought through drafty country house archives, questioned old servants and farm hands all around Norwich, and in the end she produced these two fat volumes about a man described without embarrassment as "the indefatigable and disinterested friend of mankind."

Coke was a hale, outspoken kinsman of a tight-fisted earl whose wastrel son is viewed with a fishy eye by Stirling, who's not that much keener on the vain, vapid young woman who became that lecherous lord's bride:
Alas for the misguided Duchess! Lady Mary went to the altar playing the part of a weeping reluctant bride, but apparently forgot to pronounce her refusal to marry the man she professed to loathe, and so passed from imaginary into actual persecution. Still with the airs of a tragedy queen, she prepared to submit to the hated caresses of her husband; but Lord Coke promptly informed her that she had little to fear from his affection, and leaving her upon her wedding day, openly rejoined his boon companions, whom he regaled with a graphic description of the incident, making exceedingly merry over the airs of the deserted lady.

As Stirling puts it (without the slightest shred of first-hand experience), "Married life begun under such conditions was not likely to be harmonious."

In rapid succession, both old kinsman and young cousin died, and then Coke's mild-mannered father followed them, leaving Thomas William in possession of vast properties. Coke himself led the normal life of the Georgian landed gentry. He rode to hounds, he fowled, he tramped every inch of his family estates, and while he was still a strapping, handsome young man he did the Grand Tour in high style, bringing along valets, dogs, friends, and a stack of promissory notes for every major banking concern along the way. He's entirely forgotten today, but Americans once knew his name because he was an early and ardent champion in Parliament in favor of American Indpendence and stridently against the bottomless pit of expense represented by the Crown continuously pouring money and manpower into suppressing the American colonies. When Coke lost his seat in Parliament in 1784, he returned to his beautiful estates and to the magnificent splendor of Holkham Hall with its towering marble columns and enormous paintings on every inch of wall space (when young Princess Victoria stayed at Holkham shortly before she became queen, she found herself 'quite overwhelmed' by the ostentation of her rooms). Like many of the landed plutocrats of his day, Coke was an avid agriculturalist, constantly conferring with his tenants, constantly fiddling with ways to improve both his livestock and his land:
He also, like his ancestors, devoted his thought to reclaiming land from the sea. Laboriously, and at enormous cost, he reclaimed seven hundred acres which had previously been covered by the ocean, and began to prepare them for cultivation. Within two years, corn was growing upon soil which had been shingle swept by daily tides.

Stirling is careful to balance her long account; another chronicler of Coke would probably be tempted to slight his rural life in favor of the hurly-burly of his long stints in Parliament and the various excitements he had there (or else in favor of the more lurid aspects of his later life - in his old age he married a much, much younger woman and embarrassed everybody by immediately beginning to father children with her), but that rural life was the main focus and joy of Coke's life - and it was the world Stirling herself knew most closely. She's certainly aware of how transitory it all is - her volumes are full of mentions of how rapidly the world is changing, how increasingly ubiquitous rail travel is annihilating some old traditions and prompting people to forget what was so special about others. For instance, Holkham hosted many annual gala events, none more fun than "the Clippings," a great sheep-shearing festival that could rival just about any other social event - including, in 1821, the upcoming coronation of King George IV, which was briefly upstaged by the forty-third "Clippings" (which was attended by, among many others, the Dukes of Bedford and Norfolk). Stirling does a typically energetic job describing what she saw as a better, vanishing world:
In days when locomotion was slow and expensive, to many this gathering was the one occasion on which they met friends whom otherwise they would have been destined never to see. The greetings which were eagerly exchanged, the excitement of expected or unexpected encounters, the task of discovering and watching the celebrated men who were present, the vast hum of conversation,the whirling wheels and clattering hoofs which momentarily heralded fresh arrivals, the interest of recognising these new-comers thus ceaselessly appearing to swell the crowd - all formed a scene which the genial spirit of good-fellowship that had always constituted the keynote of the meeting was never lost sight of.

Late in his life, in 1837, Coke, called by many "the greatest commoner in England," got the kind of letter most of us will never find in the morning post:
My dear Mr. Coke,

I am very much obliged to you for your letters upon the electioneering prospects in the County of Norfolk; but I have now another matter to write to you upon, and which I have some satisfaction in referring to you. It is unnecessary for me to go into any details of the circumstances which have hitherto prevented that which has been eagerly desired by the Whigs and expected by the whole Country, namely, your elevation to the Peerage. I have now the pleasure of acquainting you that I have Her Majesty's commands to offer you an Earldom and to accompany the offer by every expression of Her Majesty's personal regard and esteem.

If this is agreeable to you, you have nothing to do but to send me back by return of post the titles which you are desirous of taking, and I can only add for myself that, if you accept this honour, it will be to me a source of great pride and satisfaction that it should have been conferred by my advice and under my administration. I beg to be remembered to Lady Anne.

Yours ever faithfully, Melbourne

And so, once again, an earldom of Leicester was created (this one specified as "of Holkham," so as not to confuse it with the other surviving earldom of Leicester), and Stirling is quick to advise us of its historical provenance:
Thus, after having been offered a peerage seven times, Coke was at length created Earl of Leicester. It was a curious coincidence that the first peerage created by Queen Elizabeth was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew was Sir Philip Sydney, while the first commoner raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew by marriage was Lord De L'Isle, the representative of Sir Philip Sydney.

The sheer sparkling energy of that snooty clarification never deserts our author, not in close to a thousand pages of highly detailed and copiously footnoted prose. She follows her hero right to his peaceful grave, and she illustrates her book with some stunning old photographs of Holkham Hall and its environs. This is a grand, sweeping biography of a friendly man who was the center of all the world's attention while he was alive. These two volumes - heaven knows where you'd find your own - bring that man to life again in all his laughter and gaffes and generosity, and that's an amazing feat, even if it appears no longer to be grounds to keep a book in print, or reprint it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Charles Lamb and the Lloyds!

Our book today is a little thing from 1898, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds by E. V. Lucas, and it illustrates how little has ever been needed in order to justify the appearance of a new book. In this case, a cache of letters discovered in 1894, letters between members of the prosperous Lloyd banking family (the imperious father, brother Charles the fourth-rate poet, sister Priscilla who married Christopher Wordsworth, Robert Lloyd the nonentity brother) and such luminaries as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. The Lloyds were intellectually undistinguished - when Coleridge took on young Charles as a student in 1796, he very quickly went from writing the boy's father about a communion of like-minded intellects to writing the boy's father apologizing that he wouldn't really have the time to instruct the boy in anything (and laying out very clearly the terms of his room and board). Coleridge demurred only partly because he was afraid of the enormous outlay of energy it takes to shepherd a young man to intellectual awareness (although that fear alone is usually what stops would-be preceptors in their tracks); the rest of it was the result of his up-close estimation of Charles: underneath the languid 'Romantic' pose of philosophical questing, there wasn't a whole lot going on ("no birdsong in the hedgerow," as one contemporary put it).

Still, Lucas didn't require much to justify writing about Lamb. Not only was Lamb a special favorite subject for him (his biography of the man is still eminently readable), but also: Lucas didn't require much to justify writing about anything. He wrote a book review of every book he read, new or old (his friends were forever commenting on the compulsion, but he claimed it kept him in fluid form), and he sold book and theater criticism to paying journals by the yard. The appearance of a new group of letters, no matter how inconsequential in the larger scholastic picture, was guaranteed to prompt him to write something new about it for the presses.

Luckily, he's a delightful companion on the page, as this little volume proves over and over. He has to be, since the only alternative is to watch almost all the leading lights of the age desperately try and fail to strike more than a passing flash from the flinty commonality of the Lloyd mind. Seventeen of these new letters are between Charles Lamb and Robert Lloyd, when the former was twenty-three and the latter nineteen, in the autumn of 1798. Lamb - that most patient of souls - did everything he could to encourage the boy, even when circumstances with Lamb's tragic sister were bringing him nothing but trouble:
My Dear Robert, I am a good deal occupied with a calamity near home, but not so much as to prevent me thinking about you with the warmest affection - you are among my dearest friends. I know you will feel very deeply when you hear that my poor sister is unwell again; one of her old disorders, but I trust it will hold no longer than her former illnesses have done. Do not imagine, Robert, that I sink under this misfortune, I have been season'd to such events, and I think I could bear anything tolerably well. My own health is left me, and my good spirits, and I have some duties to perform - these duties shall be my object. I wish, Robert, you could find an object. I know the painfulness of vacuity, all its achings and inexplicable longings. I wish to God I could recommend any plan to you. Stock your mind well with religious knowledge; discipline it to wait with patience for duties that may be your lot in life; prepare yourself not to expect too much out of yourself; read and think. That is all commonplace advice, I know. I think, too, that it is easy to give advice which in like circumstances we might not follow ourselves. You must depend upon yourself - there will come a time when you will wonder you were not more content.

Indeed, the main joy of this volume lies not in anything the Lloyds themselves have to say but rather in Lamb's sparse but characteristically wonderful contributions.
Let them talk of lakes and mountains and romantic dales - all that fantastic stuff; give me a ramble by night, in the winter nights of London - the Lamps lit - the pavements of the motley Strand crowded with to and fro passengers - the shops all brilliant, and stuff with obliging customers and obliged tradesmem - give me the old bookstalls of London - a walk in the bright Piazzas of Covent Garden. I defy a man to be dull in such places - perfect Mahometan paradises upon earth!

Lamb was never really one to attack a man's dreams - indeed, his congeniality shines through these pages just as it lives in every chapter of Lucas' biography - so there's a good deal of very tactful restraint in his dealings with young Charles Lloyd ("I don't know if you quite comprehend my low Urban Taste," Lamb tells him at one point, uttering the early Romantic version of "It's not you, it's me"). And not just the younger Lloyd, either! The book's most schadenfreudy chapter - fit to make just about anybody laugh out loud - details some of what happened when Charles' father decided to have published some of his translations of Homer, complete with the rhymes of Pope but lacking the actual talent of Pope. Even Lamb's tact had its limits - and Lucas' too.

Charles Lamb and the Lloyds will never be reprinted - its entire life now is to be a quick, inconsequential footnote in any soup-to-nuts biography of Charles Lamb and his literary circle. But in trifles we sometimes find fascinating details too small for inclusion in bigger, more ambitious works. Those works - biographies of Lamb, Coleridge, or Wordsworth - might tell us, for instance, that the latter two poets probably detested young Charles Lloyd's bumbling literary pretensions, but they would hardly pause to make a case for the defense (even though Lamb himself certainly always would have). And Lucas? Well, he tells us "Hypersensitive natures are apt to misconstrue ..." So maybe his tact is equal to the task after all.


Comics: yet another X-Men #1!

Deafened still by the ongoing kettle-drum of DC Comics' "New 52" media phenomenon, I almost missed Marvel Comics' recent re-launch of "Uncanny X-Men" with a new first issue. And I might have given the whole thing a miss in any case, except the artwork is by one of my favorite working comics artists, Carlos Pacheco.

This issue is written by Kieron Gillen and takes off right where a recent mini-series left off: Cyclops and most of the few remaining mutants left on Earth (in the wake of the still-seminal events in "House of M") are gathered together in Utopia, their city/stronghold in the bay off the coast of San Francisco. Cyclops is determined that mutants will no longer be the meek targets of non-mutant aggression, but he's equally sure that the way to turn that aggression around is for his core team (for some mysterious reason perhaps known only to Gillen, he dubs this his "extinction team") to function more as a standard save-the-world superhero team, ala the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. It's an interesting idea - mutants using PR to sway public opinion (to my recollection, it hasn't been used since the launch of the original "X-Factor," many moons ago) - and Gillon bungles it right from the start.

If it's any consolation, he bungles it in the exact same way DC has bungled all but a couple of its own much more headline-grabbing first issues this summer (winter on the calendar, but I'm in shorts with the ceiling fan going in Boston, so as far as I'm concerned, it's summer until it's actually cold): he picks up a game in mid-play, tweaks it here and there in ways that may or may not be good ideas ("extinction team"?), but never pauses for even a moment to give new readers any reason to care about any of it. First issues are - at least theoretically - about providing a 'jumping on' point for those new readers, and yet in the many wide open spaces so helpfully provided by Pacheco's artwork, Gillon never bothers to explain anything, never bothers to catch us up on anything. In short, he makes the same mistake that's been plaguing the various X-books for decades now: he assumes every single reader is chapter-and-verse familiar with every jot and tittle of the X-catechism. The X-Man Colossus is intermittently possessed by the spirit of the old X-Men villain Juggernaut? Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner wears a modified X-Man costume and for some unaccountable reason takes orders from the team leader's girlfriend? Magneto too? It would have taken five minutes to write dialogue and monologue-boxes that grounded new readers on all of this, but Gillon doesn't do that. Instead, he assumes the worst thing you can assume about the opening of any drama: that his audience is already interested.

The result is as insular as most of what's been going on at DC lately, a first issue devoid of drama, meaningful only to the insider crowd, full of 'payoff' moments comprehensible only to a thousand people on the planet. I bought it for Carlos Pacheco's artwork (which didn't disappoint), but if his past is any indicator, he won't be around more than a few issues. Let's hope Kieron bothers to ground his story in that time.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

William Hickling Prescott!

Our book today is Roger Wolcott's gigantic 1925 volume The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott, 1833-1847, featuring not only heaping piles of letters and notes by the great Boston historian but also a great deal of exposition, scene-setting, and explanatory footnoting - easily enough to constitute a life-and-times, despite the book's unassuming title.

The fact that there's so much Prescott correspondence to assemble is a testament not only to the man's die-hard Yankee work ethic but also to the long-suffering forbearance of his friends and associates - Prescott maintained the typical 19th Century voluminous flow of letters, but he was never able to simply sit at his writing desk and dash off a quick three pages. Instead, he was a member in good standing of that odd literary sub-set: historians who persevere despite near-crippling ailments.

In Prescott's case, there was no gradual decline: the fateful change happened in a moment - a moment neither he nor anybody else present would ever forget. During a raucous and very hard-fought food-fight with some of his fellow students at Harvard in 1812, Prescott was hit hard directly on his open left eye by a knot-tough little crust of bread. The pain and impact stunned him, and for the rest of his life, that eye was very nearly useless. According to the legend that sprang up around that day, the accident changed Prescott from a feckless boy to a conscientious adult, but even if that weren't true, when illness threatened his other eye three years later, the near chance of total blindness galvanized him as nothing else would have. He came from a wealthy family and wasn't expected to do much beyond the socializing he loved (and the production of some heirs to the line, which he loved perhaps less), especially since his eyes were crippled and often painful. But he decided to become a historian. He chose Spain as his subject and attacked the task with a will.

Wolcott's impressive volume here reprints a vast chunk of his correspondence from his working years, and it's fascinating to become reacquainted with all the routine impediments that were once a part of active scholarship. Prescott is forever importuning correspondents to hunt down certain obscure volumes for his research, constantly hectoring foreign friends to ransack their local libraries for works of possible interest to his researches. When such treasures are found, he's always obliged to shell out money for scriveners, hordes of scriveners, to make copies of the material - after which needs to find reliable couriers to get the material all the way to his library at Beacon Street in Boston (or his wonderful seaside house, Fitful Head, at Nahant). After publication, there are all sorts of new problems: international copyright is in its infancy, for example, and friends are needed in foreign countries to watch over the work at every stage. The world scholars take for granted in 2011 - a world of computerized libraries, searchable databases, scanning and photocopying - would have seemed to William Prescott to be the very secular image of paradise.

Likewise our ophthalmology departments. The horrible state of Prescott's eyes forced him to live big stretches of his life in darkened rooms, the tedium broken only by his sister reading to him (she often had to lay down on the floor and read by the light coming in at the foot of the closed door, and she never once complained about it). Even at its strongest, his good eye became painfully fatigued after more than an hour or two of reading a day. He had a zestfully powerful mind and a prodigious recall, luckily, and for much of his correspondence he used a device called a noctograph - a writing-slate with horizontal wire guide-lines designed to align handwriting the writer himself couldn't see ... essentially, a means of writing legibly in the dark. The noctograph gave Prescott a palpable (though illusory - he still needed copyists) sense of independence, and it was besides an oddly elegant-looking thing (it was a prized possession of Wolcott's for years).

The noctograph, helpful friends, many an unstinting amanuensis, and boundless amounts of self-discipline: through a combination of all these things, Prescott got his work done (needless to say, he would have been less than charitable to all those poor 21st century writers and would-be writers who moan over how hard it is to generate prose, despite having youth, perfect vision, ample leisure, and 24-hour access to the greatest research library in the history of the world). His History of Ferdinand and Isabella appeared in Boston bookstores on Christmas Day 1837 and promptly sold like griddle-cakes. There followed his The Conquest of Mexico, The Conquest of Peru, and he was working on his monumental work on Philip II when he died in 1859. His books set research standards on much the same level as Gibbon's - so high as to be virtually unimpeachable even in later, more politically correct ages. And his literary ability was nothing short of mesmerizing - whenever I find a young reader willing to tackle such obscure old volumes, they're always surprised to find such life in the pages (I get the same reaction about Francis Parkman as well, of course). They tend to have the same reactions as did priggish old Charles Sumner, who wrote about it to Prescott in 1843:
I hardly know how to express on paper the delight and instruction with which I have read your work. Since I first devoured the Waverley Novels, I have read nothing by which I have been so entirely entraine; sitting at my desk for hours, then trimming my lamp and still sitting on, and finally with the book under my arm adjourning home, where I read on until after midnight. The introduction was interesting and instructive, exciting thought and requiring attention, at the same time that it was clear and copious. Perhaps this will afford to enlightened minds a field of interest of a higher character than the other portions of the work; but these cannot fail to charm everybody.

Prescott's ability to make the past come alive is vividly on display in these letters, naturally. In 1840 he writes to a correspondent about his famous grandfather Colonel William Prescott, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill:
The moral courage demanded for the opening of the war of the Revolution was of a much higher order than what is required for an ordinary conflict, where the memory of the brave if he falls is covered with glory; but an unsuccessful rebellion brings only ignominy, and in case of capture an ignominious death. Yet strange to say historians have hardly touched on these circumstances. It is so true however that my grandfather even expressed his own determination before going on the field not to fall alive into the enemy's hands. It happened, singularly enough, that my wife's grandfather was a commander of a British ship of war, lying in an arm of the sea and firing on Bunker Hill, which my own ancestor was defending. The swords of the two belligerents are now peacefully crossed over my book cases, and there tell me silently, but not ineloquently, the tale of other years.

He adds a note that might make Bostonians smile: "A granite obelisk to be two hundred and twenty feet high is now erecting on the battleground, and it will be completed in a couple of years, probably ..."

Wolcott does a wonderful job mixing business with pleasure. For every two letters detailing text-corrections or making manuscript-requests, there's one of a purely chatty nature, catching up on the activities of friends, like the quick aside to Fanny Calderon de la Barca in 1841:
Summer divides friends as far asunder as politics or religion, or any other good cause for quarreling. Mrs. Ritchie is staying at Roxbury with her children. Her caro sposo has gone to France again. He usually touches at home on his peregrinations. Le pauvre homme, where is his home? His boys are in Germany at school. The Ticknors are at a place called Woods Hole, near Martha's Vineyard, where I propose to pass next week with them. The Appletons you know are in England ...

(Fanny wrote a little book of her own - a travel memoir, if memory serves - and the chivalrous Prescott tirelessly pushed its interests with every literary person he knew ... poor Charles Dickens got the worst of it, and in this instance he bore up magnanimously under the pressure)

And in addition to the personal and the professional, there was also the political, since despite the isolating nature of his eye-problems, Prescott was very much a man of the world. His letters are peppered with invaluable asides on the events of the day, and they often prove Prescott as shrewd a judge of the present as he was of the past. He certainly sizes up his commander-in-chief in 1846 rather tellingly:
We don't comprehend here the politics of President Polk. It is probable he doesn't perfectly comprehend them himself. He seems to be playing at fast and loose, and I rather think that it will prove a loosing game with him. HE stands on two crutches. the South and the West, but they will not walk the same way it seems. The South dreads a war with England as much as the North, though in the North there may be a warmer feeling of sympathy for our fatherland.

Prescott married a timid wife whose greatest delight was to help him with his work (and he genially adored her, starting several letters with variations on "My dear Wife, It is after ten and I am as tired as a cat. But I don't like to go to bed without telling you where and how I am ..."), and he was surrounded by friends and friendly rivals in the all-things-Spanish vogue that was then sweeping England and the United States. Prescott corresponded with Washington Irving while that gentleman was researching his big biography of Columbus, and of course Prescott kept up close contact with his fellow Boston Atheneum patron George Ticknor, who was also engaged in a massive, life-long work about Spain (his was a huge study of Spanish, Portuguese, and Castilian literature, a marvel of easy-going erudition that's now entirely forgotten) - indeed, the quasi-rivalry between the two of them is the basis for an entertaining novella called Ticknor that you should read if you can find it.

Needless to add, you should read Prescott too. I'd direct you to the pertinent Library of America volumes, but although there exist many volumes for such artistically negligible figurines as Saul Bellow and Philip K. Dick, there don't appear to be any for poor squinting Prescott, one of the greatest historians America has ever produced. There was a Modern Library volume from years ago, but I believe it only contained The Conquest of Mexico. No, the best volume to find is even older still: Irwin Blacker's fantastic 1963 Viking Portable edition, a compression of (what Blacker, that irrepressible man, called "the essence of") all four histories he called The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire. If you can read that abridgement and not come out of it hungry to read more Prescott, there's something medically - even spiritually - wrong with you.



Geographica: Tigers!

By now it should hardly need saying that every issue of National Geographic is  wonder-park of astonishment (or words, you know, to that effect). It's a continuous source of confusion to me why every thinking person I know isn't a lifelong subscriber, doesn't eagerly await each new issue and put everything on hold to pore over it like I do. Of course, that very same abundance makes a regular feature like Geographica feel almost redundant, since virtually every issue of National Geographic is so bursting with fascination that it feels nearly misleading to point out any one thing. My only justification is that some things strike me more than others in my reading of each issue. And in this current issue, Stevereads recidivists might be expecting the talking-point to be Adam Nicolson's wonderful, fast-paced overview of the King James Bible - its history, its 'reception' as a text, etc. And it was indeed a joy - as was the photo taken by Jeffrey Chua de Guzman on the sea-bed off the coast of Manilla: he spotted something moving and saw a broken soda bottle (it's standing upright in the photo - my inner Suspicious Aloysius wonders if the photographer didn't find it on its side and stand it up himself, for dramatic effect) - with an octopus leisurely canted inside.

But for me, this time around, the highlight was Caroline Alexander's tough but hopeful article "A Cry for the Tiger," in which she writes about both the plight of the world's wild tigers and (in the magazine's long tradition) the fight to save them. The article opens with an incredibly enheartening sight: a trip-wire camera's midnight shot of a tiger walking by in the forests of northern Sumatra, a magnificent creature caught for one instant in the middle of its invisible life. But then the very next image is discouraging: four hopeless little felons apprehended outside Chandrapur trying to sell a tiger skin (pretty discouraging too the shot in this article of a terrified puppy being used as live bait in a tiger-trap). I lived for a while in Chandrapur many years ago, and I saw tiger-articles - pelts, claws, teeth, tails - in the bazaar all the time ... it was immediately saddening to know it still goes on, even in today's far more eco-conscious atmosphere.

Sill, at least Alexander's prose is an unmixed joy. Her article bogs in statistics or exposition, and her narrative is always sharp with awe:
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat's, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping - flying - from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger - Aaaaauuuuunnnn! - can carry more than a mile.

The perfect accompaniment to the article: a pull-out poster with a beautiful Fernando Baptista illustration of a lion on one side and a gallery of incredible Vincent Musi photos of the world's big cats on the other.

Of course it will come as little surprise to any of you that I find these animals extra disturbing - pretty tough for a confirmed dog-person not to find the idea of a 600-pound cat with linoleum-knives for claws disturbing. But the article left me tensely hoping there's a future for these magnificent animals. National Geographic does that to you: it broadens your reactions to everything in the world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Anne McCaffrey

A generation of fantasy readers soared on the wings of her dragons. Rest in Peace.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Emma, Lady Hamilton!

Our book today is Emma, Lady Hamilton, a big fat 1905 volume by steadfast biographer Walter Sichel, who spends an eager amount of time at the outset of the book carefully detailing for his readers just why they should opt for his book on Lady Hamilton as opposed to any of the others. He stresses both the new content (letter caches, mainly) of his book and also his vigorous new interpretations of old content, all with a sharp commercial eye toward making his product stand out.

It seems an odd anxiety, from the viewpoint of 2011. Amy Lyon, who changed her name to Emma Hart and then became Lady Emma when she married the elderly and ultimately mysterious Sir William Hamilton, became famous all over the Western world not only as a sexual provocateur (her hair and clothing styles were lamentably imitated by beefy matrons from Venice to Vladivostok) but as the open mistress of England's famous naval hero Horatio Nelson. Despite the fact that Nelson was short, pock-marked, balding, dumpy, one-armed, rheumatoid, and gap-toothed, an entire long generation of Victorian young men desperately wanted to be like him - most especially in two respects: they wanted to be the victor at the Battle of the Nile, and they wanted the love of Emma Hamilton. Even in 1905, therefore, her name could still sell books and generate cutthroat competition between rival biographers.

Mainly this was because Emma Hamilton represents the beau ideal of the mistress. She was vivacious but not annoying, smart but not educated, a good enough singer and dancer but not so good that the singing and dancing commanded attention on their own, and she was beautiful: long eye-lashes, a gorgeous smooth voice, and breasts out to here. And added to this was one extra, crucial point: her husband didn't mind. A floundering little pansy like Nelson would have been reduced to a puddle of tears if Sir William had called him out to meet with pistols at dawn - but instead, Sir William admired him. It's the ultimate guilt-free fantasy.

Sichel realizes all this and goes at it with a true professional's gusto. This requires the production of vast job-lots of what is referred to, in technical literary terms, as drivel:
It has been well said that apologies only try to excuse what they fail to explain, and any apology for the bond which ever afterwards united them would be idle. Yet a few reflections should be borne nervously in mind. The firm tie that bound them, they themselves felt eternally binding; no passing whim had fastened it, nor any madness of a moment. They had plighted a real troth which neither of them ever either broke or repented. Both found and lost themselves in each other. Their love was no sacrifice to lower instincts; it was a true link of hearts.

Luckily for his readers, Sichel is every bit as energetic a guide even when he's not talking about body parts linking up, as when he sets the scene in 1798:
Nelson was in chase of Buonaparte's fleet.

Napoleon's Egyptian expedition was, perhaps, the greatest wonder in a course rife with them. He was not yet thirty; he had been victorious by land, and had dictated terms at the gates of Vienna. In Italy, like Tarquin, he had knocked off the tallest heads first. Debt and jealousy hampered him at home. It was the gambler's first throw, that rarest audacity. For years his far-sightedness had fastened on the Mediterranean; and now that Spain was friends with France, he divined the moment for crushing Britain. But even then his schemes were far vaster than his contemporaries could comprehend. His plan was to obtain Eastern Empire, to reduce Syria, and, after recasting sheikhdoms in the dominion of the Phraraohs, possibly after subduing India, to dash back and conquer England.

Biographies of Lady Hamilton (who fell quickly into squalor and desperation after Nelson died his famous hero's death) aren't nearly so numerous as they were in Walter Sichel's day, and they're necessarily a bit more strained than any note he ever struck. Professional historians of our self-righteous modern era find it worrying to celebrate a woman whose main claim to fame was her sexual pliability - it lets the side down. Feminists can't claim Emma because she slept her way to fame and fortune and lost both when she lost her lovers, but neither can they excoriate her, because we have enough of her letters to know she was a genuinely kind-hearted little ignoramus. Once the last generation to hero-worship Lord Nelson finally died off, the kind of popular interest that could animate a long, baroque work like Emma, Lady Hamilton died off as well.

But if you should feel a bit of that interest, this is the book to satisfy it. If a biographer is going to spend 500 pages writing about another man's mistress, the least he can do is embarrass himself for our amusement.

Meanwhile, in the Penny Press ...

It looks like Santa isn't too fond of the ultra-photogenic Tommy Hilfiger crowd, if we can judge by the steaming pile of you-know-what he left under their Christmas tree this year:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle!

Our book today is from 1910: Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle by Mrs. Matilda Carbury - I beg your pardon, Mrs. Stepney Rawson, a bustling literary lady from the beautiful Berkshire countryside who ingratiated herself to various book-column editors in Edwardian London to look kindly upon her various and numerous productions - some of which needed all the friends they could get. In a later generation, the author of such works as Journeyman Love, The Apprentice, and The Stairway of Honour would inevitably turn out to be a sham persona concocted by Bertie Wooster (and given ample form by the unfailing Jeeves)(and a generation after that, she'd take the form of Miss Amelia Nettleship and rob poor Rumpole of his sleep), but in the early years of the 20th century, she was all too real, and her letters to prospective reviewers - smilingly imploring them to look kindly upon her poor efforts - have a decidedly Carburyesque tone to them that the reader might wish had been deliberate parody on her part.

Alas, no: Mrs. Rawson was nothing if not earnest, whether organizing the church theatricals and musicals of which she was so fond or writing the books for which she was known and somewhat celebrated in her own time, though she's entirely forgotten in our own. Sic transit gloria Mudie's.

Her best-selling book was a frothy piece of fiction called A Lady of the Regency, for which she managed to obtain quite a few favorable (though often somewhat grudgingly so) reviews. Romance novel fans might note it now for one main reason: it was one of the earliest of the archly formulaic Regency novels that would later account for such staggering swaths of the Western world's book-production (if you took away Regencies, whodunits, and westerns, the total number of books every published would drop by half). Nearly a decade after the success of that novel, Mrs. Rawson finally realized a long-held ambition to write a big, serious work of biography, a serious "exploration" (as she put it) of history.

She chose as her topic that most fascinating of Elizabethans, Elizabeth Hardwick, "Bess of Hardwick," the feisty, pretty daughter of a prosperous Nottinghamshire squire who took unusual care that all his children were well-schooled in letters and literature. The crucial formative fact that her parents took her seriously as a person gave Bess a steel rod for a personality, and she'd no sooner hit puberty than she was helping her mother (and her mentor, Anne Gainsford, a beautiful beaker of pure poison who'd warrant a biography of her own if any reader could be found to stomach it) find her a likely husband. The first of these, a handsome local heir, coughed himself into an early grave before he could even deflower Bess, which infuriated her. An intense amount of lobbying and odds-handicapping followed, the fruit of which was a marriage much higher up the food chain: fifty-something Sir William Cavendish, a very prosperous courtier and landowner who'd already lost two wives to the childbearing bed. With Sir William, Bess became Lady Cavendish, she became a mother many times over (Sir William was a vigorous man), and almost accidentally, she fell in love with her husband.

Who died ten years later and left Bess on the marriage-market once again. She waited a decent two years and then married an even wealthier landowner, Sir William St. Loe, who (mincing, beady-eyed) was the exact opposite of Sir William Cavendish in all ways but one: he also quickly came under the spell of his new wife, taking her opinions exactly as he would those of a man, watching in wonder as she whipped his various estates into shape (many of the letters we have in Bess of Hardwick's hand are hot-tempered instructions to wayward stewards - even now, their words snap: they can't have been pleasant to receive), trying to keep up with her in the banquet hall and bedroom. Sir William was only human: he died after about five years in the whirlwind. He was also immeasurably grateful for the ride: he left Bess everything, making her a stupendously wealthy woman.

Her next and last husband was her worst: George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury - an even wealthier landowner than her previous two husbands, an intimate friend of the Queen, one of the great powers in the realm, and the mother of all humorless pricks (actually, considering the remorseless slab of beef his son Gilbert turned out to be, probably more accurate to call him the father of all humorless pricks). Through George Talbot, Bess finally had access not only to vast wealth and land but to the electrified cables of actual power, and the proximity worked its customary dark magic on her. She conceived dangerous ambitions - not for herself but for her daughter Elizabeth, whom she pushed into a marriage with Charles Stuart, the brother of the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (who was later quartered on the Talbots for large chunks of her house arrest in England, a discreet form of punishment meted out by an unforgetting Queen). Such a marriage was of course treason without the Queen's consent, and when Elizabeth I found out, Bess was ordered to report to London and explain herself. But she was ambitious, not crazy: she stayed on her impregnable country estates and waited for the Queen to calm down. And the Fates remembered her insolence: she was to have a grievously tempestuous relationship with Elizabeth's stunning daughter, Arabella Stuart.

Naturally, all this is catnip for Mrs. Rawson - how could it be otherwise, when she'd spent her entire literary apprenticeship as a novelist trying in vain to cook up plots half so enthralling? She goes at her subject in Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle with the same zeal she used in writing her novels - the exact same zeal, so this big, enjoyable book is full of 'my lady's and 'my good lord's and even a couple of brief dramatic scenes complete with stage-directions, which our author breathlessly defends:
The orthodox may be affronted at two brief incursions into fiction ... Let them skip these judiciously, magisterially. For my own part, I needed consolation at times for certain hard and bitter facts of history. Therefore, since the way was sometimes long, and the wind, in my imagination, very cold - as it whistled in and out of the ruins of those manors and castles, where the Scots Queen and her married gaolers dwelt, or as it drove the snow across the splendid facade of Hardwick (to say nothing of the draughts of the sombre, public research libraries) - I first drew my Countess down from her picture-frame to marshal her household, and then lured her child and her child's lover after to gladden your road and mine.

Well, how can you argue with that?

The 'orthodox' will find a great deal to object to in these pages other than amateur theatricals, but no matter: the romantic at heart, the dreamer, and especially anyone who's ever visited Hardwick Hall will very likely love this florid, heartfelt book. Certainly much better biographies of Bess of Hardwick have been written (Mary S. Lovell's is not to be missed), but none more passionate. If you can find a library that still stocks it, borrow a copy without delay! Mine came from this one, but they're no longer in business, unfortunately:


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Great Paragraphs and Otherwise in the Penny Press!

When historians finally settle the dust of the last decade, it wouldn't surprise me if the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum isn't an essentially unpayable 50 trillion dollar debt-chasm, or the entirely justified hatred of the rest of the world, or even the new knowledge that literally any imbecile can become President if he owns enough Supreme Court justices but rather something far simpler and far worse: the death of error. Bush famously disdained knowledge and expertise - he governed with his 'gut,' and the first and most important implication of doing anything with your 'gut' is that it's not susceptible to error. That's what the whole euphemism means: I'm consulting my heart, my instincts, my soul - because those things can't be fooled by statistics cooked up by Ivy League homosexuals. In fact, those things can't be fooled at all, because they come right from God. Aside from James T. Kirk, when's the last time you heard anybody say that something they believed with their 'gut' later turned out to be wrong?

It's a vile, preschooler's stance, and it's pervaded every inch of American society. It's especially prevalent among public figures, of course, and it always looks the same: Person X makes a stunning, jaw-dropping comment, listeners of every type express not only outrage but also scruple, pointing out factual errors and citing numerous irrefutable proofs, Person X acknowledges the outrage, acknowledges the irrefutable proofs - and then maintains that their original statement was right. A prominent radio personality says no Germans died in the concentration camps of World War II, a public figure says the American Revolution was fought over the issue of gun control, a Presidential candidate says he never said the country needs an electrified border-fence with Mexico ... within seconds, a) 4,744 historians step forward and say that quite a few Germans died in concentration camps, b) 10, 655 historians - and over a million grade school children - step forward and say that Paul Revere didn't ride from street to street saying "The British are coming for our guns! The British are coming for our guns!" and c) 16 news networks instantly produce film showing the candidate advocating an electrified border-fence just the previous day. And in all three cases - and so many more - Person X takes in the correction, blinks a couple of times, and then does a quick mental calculation: I spoke from the 'gut,' my 'gut' can't be wrong, so all these facty-things must be wrong, and the people saying them are just pinheads. Facts have become just slightly less flexible versions of opinions, rather than things that can precipitate correction.

Sadly, this toxic legacy has seeped even into the world of professional letters. Just recently we've seen Taylor Branch compare college athletes to slaves, have the manifest holes in that comparison pointed out to him - and then stand by the comparison anyway. And in the latest New York Review of Books, it happens again.

Some of you may recall the original incident, because I wrote about it here. In a review of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child, Daniel Mendelsohn inserts a damning little footnote about something he thinks Hollinghurst is saying through the use of some of his characters:
I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne's marital history seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final husband is a certain "Mr. Jacobs," a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the "plain old Sharon Feingold" sort. In this context it's worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances - he represents the distressingly crass "modern" world of publicity and celebrity - is called Jerry Goldblatt.

When I first read that, I wrote, not without dismay, that it was odious for a critic of Mendelsohn's calibre to stoop to making such insinuations of anti-Semitism. In the latest NYRB, my reaction is echoed by a reader named Galen Strawson, who writes:
I suppose this sort of prejudice - Mendelsohn's - will never end. But it requires a failure of ear, a narrowness of mind, an ignorance of the world, a capacity for unwarranted insult (the wearily regretful tone, the footnote as insinuation), that is in Mendelsohn's case surprising, and in any case squalid.

To which Mendelsohn responds by claiming that the 'old British literary habit' he was referring to was the habit of summoning the "Other-ness" of Jews, of treating them as "exotic" and "symbols of un-Britishness." Which is the most disingenuous thing I've read all week, and certainly the most pusillanimous thing I've ever read from this ordinarily bravely forthright critic. The 'old British literary habit' Mendelsohn refers to in his original footnote is anti-Semitism, plain and simple, not some lit-crit folderol about 'the Jew as Other.' He carefully doesn't name the habit in his original passage specifically because he wanted to preserve a little wiggle-room for himself should the comment draw criticism, and that's exactly how he's using it now. He goes on to write "I am a critic, and what I did was to offer a critical observation about a (small) aspect of the author's oeuvre"  - which is about as truthful as referring to John Wilkes Booth's little bullet as "a (small) aspect of the Lincoln's theater-going experience."

And this is what I meant by the death of error. What Mendelsohn should have written - what he would have written before George W. Bush got into all our drinking water - was "I am a critic, and sometimes immersion in an author's work can prompt critics to see things that aren't there. This was one of those times, and I apologize to Alan Hollinghurst." But alas, the gut wants what the gut wants.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the NYRB was superb, including a great paragraph from Charles Baxter's review of the new novel by Haruki Murakami:
This idea, which used to be the province of science fiction and French critical theory, is now in the mainstream, and it has create a new mode of fiction - Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is another recent example - that I would call "Unrealism." Unrealism reflects an entire generation's conviction that the world they have inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.

That's really fine stuff, and even it is overshadowed by something over in the latest New York, a quick review of the new Broadway revival of Godspell starring the douchebag Hunter Parrish. The piece is by Scott Brown (no relation, one hopes, to the startlingly evil Senator from Massachusetts), and its opening paragraph is just about as perfect as anything you'll find in Gershwin:
I suspect - and this is just one Pharisee's opinion - that it's possible to outgrow Godspell, that right of passage for drama nerds and nascent thrift-store enthusiasts everywhere, which is now glorying in its first Broadway revival. Embalmed in patchouli yet insistently, sometimes gratingly ageless, the show began in the early seventies as a downtownish affair, a (very) vaguely provocative American-tribal-love-rock Jesusical featuring ultracatchy pop songs by a young Stephen Schwartz, a loose New Testament story arc by the late John-Michael Tebelak, and a company of charming, vocally frowsy near amateurs. Four decades and innumerable high-school and church productions later, Godspell is less a show than a songbook, a vitiated transcript of Matthew, and a brief: Be relevant to today's youth. (Translation: pack in more pop-culture cutaway gags than a season of Family Guy.) In other words: Come to Gleesus, who's here playe by Hunter Parrish, the blond Adonis of Weeds and Spring Awakening. His voice is Christly gentle to the point of featheriness, his manner ranges from very charming to practically pamphleteering, and his delivery is straight-up Montessori. He's surrounded by apostles who were clearly called from a conservatory, not a drum circle, and most sport voices strong and smooth as industrially milled fiberglass. Theirs is a Beacon's Closet Golgotha. To fully appreciate their rapid-fire eagerness to connect, it helps to have the mind of a properly medicated Nickelodeon viewer.

Hee. Something like that will cure just about any A-holery conducted elsewhere in the Penny Press. Until next time, that is.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lady Suffolk and Her Circle!

Our book today is the 1924 volume Lady Suffolk and Her Circle by Lewis Melville, a wonderful and indefatigable hobby-historian who achieved his full writing powers in the all-too-brief Edwardian era and produced a shelf-full of great, meaty works of biography, letters, and history. Like everybody else, he wrote a book about Nell Gwyn (although his had the benefit of deep familiarity with the world of the theater, since that was his day job), and his Victorian Novelists is - or rather was - a classic. His Farmer George was the first readable biography of King George I (and it's still the most readable, not that it has much competition), and his "Life and Letters"-style studies of William Beckford, John Gay, William Cobbett, Mary and Agnes Berry, Lawrence Sterne, and the Duke of Wharton were the fruits of enormous industry and taste and are in most cases any researcher's starting-point on their various subjects. He wrote a biography and two very genial studies of his beloved Thackeray, several subject-histories of the Regency period, and an odd and extremely endearing book called Some Eccentrics and a Woman.

All of these books are extremely good - none of them deserves to be out of print for all eternity - but perhaps the warmest and wittiest of them all is this big, stuffed "Life and Letters" study of Lady Suffolk and the bright, sharp-tongued courtiers, politicians, and poets who made up her circle. You'd expect the bright and lively Henrietta Hobart, daughter of a baronet, sister of the future first Earl of Buckinghamshire, to have such a circle of attendants and followers. But the future Lady Suffolk's circle was much larger than it would otherwise have been, because she was the long-time mistress of a stout, coarse, near-buffoonish ignoramus named George Lewis, who instead of becoming Elector of Hanover and drinking himself into an early grave became, through circumstances known (and regretted?) best to God, King of England as George II. Among common readers, the Hanoverian Georges are the least-known of all the rulers of England (except of course for George III, and even he is remembered mainly because he lost America and went insane - other details of his enormous reign are now completely forgotten), and with good reason - George II had an ill repute right from the start, with court gossip maintaining that he only ever truly hated three people: his father, his wife, and his son.

Still, he certainly didn't hate Henrietta Hobart - quite the opposite: he quickly came to depend on her enormously. Her social and political cache was enormous - possibly eclipsing his own (as has so often been the way with royal mistresses throughout the ages), as Melville writes:
The social interest, however, is abundant, and from the letters Lady Suffolk wrote and received the Court of George II, both as Prince of Wales and as King, can be reconstructed. Not to know Lady Suffolk, first at Leicester House and Richmond Lodge, then at St. James's and Hampton Court, and finally at Saville Row and Marble Hill, was to argue oneself unknown to political circles; and, therefore, in the correspondence all the notabilities of the day make their bow. Three Prime Ministers wrote to her, Pelham, Grenville, and Pitt. Lord Peterborough, who was really old enough to know better, made "gallant" love to her. Pope and Arbuthnot were devote to her; as were Lord Bathurst and Lord Chesterfield; while Gay and Swift sought her influence with the King.

[caption id="attachment_4121" align="alignleft" width="215" caption="the king and his lady love, by kitty shannon"][/caption]

She had a rival in George's actual queen, Caroline, who was also well known to dominate the King - to the extent that she came in for some public joking on the subject, as in the poem that circulated:
You may strut, dapper George, but 'twill all be in vain:

We know 'tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign -

You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.

Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,

Lock up your fat spouse, as your Dad did before you.

As Melville writes:
George read the pasquinade, and was furious. He showed it to Lord Scarborough, who admitted he had already seen it but, when the King asked who had shown it to him, he refused to say, telling his Majesty that he had passed his word of honour, even before reading it, not to mention from whom it came. "Had I been Lord Scarborough in this situation, and you King," said his Majesty wrathfully, "the man would have shot me, or I him, who should have dared to affront me, in the person of my master, by showing me such insolent nonsense." "I never told your Majesty that it was a man," said the Master of the Horse dryly.

On page after page of Lady Suffolk and Her Circle, there are juicy anecdotes like this one, and judicious historical insights, and the whole bustling, decadent, fascinating world of the Georgian England that thrived and strived and revelled an entire generation before what most people think of when they think of "Georgian" at all. And at the heart of this portrait is the lady herself, proud but sensible, sharply intelligent but oddly non-manipulative, very human and very, very funny. History has largely forgotten her as it has her royal lover, but in the pages of a book like this one, she lives again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tricks of the Trade in the Penny Press!

It's a pleasure to watch practiced hands at work in the roller-derby world of professional letters, and this week in the Penny Press contained plenty of smiles in that department.

Those smiles came even in venues where a reader might expect nothing but sorrow - as in The New Yorker's annual? semi-annual? Far too often "Food Issue," which always features vast barren tundras of bland food-oriented writing that could scarcely interest the grandmothers of the authors (who are invariably mentioned in the pieces, so there you go). "Food" issues, "Money" issues, and especially the dreaded "Fashion" issues of any otherwise-respectable magazine drive this particular reader to the brink of subscriber-despair - and drive me to hurriedly flip pages in search of the non-theme scraps that almost always manage to fall from the table.

In this case, there were two - but oh, they were tasty! First, there was Thomas Mallon's rumination on "the genre fiction's genre fiction," alternate-history novels. Mallon gives proper credit to Harry Turtledove's fantastic 1992 novel Guns of the South and make the very sharp observation about Don DeLillo's Libra that it "has always seemed more accomplished than satisfying." You know somebody's doing a good job covering a subject when you finish the article and just wish they'd kept writing - I'd have loved a wider sampling from Mallon. I assume he's read and loved L. Sprague DeCamp's 1939 classic Lest Darkness Fall, but what about three of my more recent favorites, Douglas Jones' The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer from 1976,  Robert Skimin's 1988 Gray Victory, or J. N. Stroyar's massive The Children's War from 2001?

And the trick of the trade he employs in his article? He discusses Stephen King's rancidly narcissistic new JFK-assassination novel with actual adult intelligence and discrimination, rather than the opprobrium it deserves - because King mentions his own work favorably in the book. Sigh.

Right next to that article in the same New Yorker is a fantastic piece by Martin Amis (why is it, I wonder, that some of my least favorite modern novelists are some of my most favorite literary journalists?) about the aforementioned Don DeLillo's new book The Angel Esmeralda, and it brandishes its own trick of the trade right up front. When presented with a book that's a self-evident trifle, a writer of readable prose who's lucky enough to have a trusting editor has several options open to him - and my favorite of these (one I've been known to use myself!) is the one Amis employs here: use the book as a dog-and-pony show for some wonderfully indulgent stem-winding of your own (and get around to your actual review later on in the piece - or, if your Harold Bloom, not at all).

In Amis' case, this takes the form of a nifty little challenge:
When we say that we love a writer's work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on "Ulysses," with a little help from "Dubliners." You could jettison Kafka's three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of "Paradise Lost." Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to read the comedies ("As You Like It" is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with "King John" or "Henry VI, Part III"?

Hee. Wonderful stuff. I could read it for hours, whether I agree with it or not (needless to say, I don't in this case - "King John" has plenty of good stuff in it, and Amis shouldn't so readily admit his inability to find the worth in Daniel Deronda). In his tirade, Amis claims that even Jane Austen isn't immune from his theory - he speculates that the only two exceptions might be Homer and Harper Lee. And of course it prompted two natural questions: would Amis be brave enough to apply his theory to his own novels? Or, braver still, those of his father?

One of the oldest and most enjoyable tricks of the trade happens over in the latest London Review of Books (featuring the very first Peter Campbell cover-painting I've ever actually liked - and I'll never get another shot, since we're informed in this issue that the artist died in October): the letter-column rumble! In an earlier issue, Pankaj Mishra turned in a magisterial condemnation (a dismissal, really, at epic length) of Niall Ferguson's latest tome, Civilisation: The West and the Rest, coming as close as he legally could to calling it the steaming pile of smug racist jingoism it is. In the letters column of this latest issue, Ferguson writes an outraged, bombastic reply to that review, claiming he's been libelled and blimpishly demanding an apology. And Mishra, bless him, pens a response that's if anything more tart and damning than the original review.

Now Ferguson has been a show-boating very public historian for a decade or so (and he's done some very good work in that time, mind you), so I'm hoping he knows the tricks of the trade himself. The thing to do at this point is write another letter - letter-column slug-fests must be kept going at all costs, as far too few periodicals seem to realize anymore. The thing not to do is call his lawyers about a possible defamation suit. That's a trick of an entirely different trade.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Our book today is a jam-packed volume from 1903 called Stevensoniana, and it consists, as you might expect, of countless odd bits and pieces relating to the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson. The bits and pieces are assembled by the legendary bookman John Hammerton (whose own book of bits and pieces, Books and Myself, is very much worth your time, if you can find a copy), who right up front offers his justifications:
By far the greater part of the work consists of matter, always interesting and often of high value, which might never have been brought together in one volume, and could have been consulted with great difficulty only, if at all. Perhaps, for this reason alone, 'Stevensoniana' carries its own excuse. The feeling uppermost in the mind of the editor while proceeding with the work of research and collation was one of surprise that a similar undertaking had not been essayed before, so rich and abundant was the material to engage any compiler.

Hammerton was perhaps so busy with his researching and collating that he didn't notice the dozen or so previous examples of Stevensoniana (memoirs, remembrances, tributes, etc) that had cropped up in Scotland and England in the decade since the writer's death, but no matter: this one is the best, the most comprehensive of them all. Those of you who've been reading Stevereads for any time (or who've been unlucky enough to be receiving the "audio version" for lot, these many years!) will know the esteem in which I hold RLS, the sheer joy I take in the huge variety of his literary output. Stevensoniana (like Johnsoniana, Kiplingiana, and Trollopiana!) of virtually any kind is guaranteed to win a smile from me, and a volume like this one - sitting unwanted on a Massachusetts library shelf for a decade, with nobody consulting its treasures until it was dropped from inventory and sold to me - instantly becomes a treasure. Attentive readers can glean many things from such a volume of miscellanies that they might not be shown in a more carefully gardened presentation, as in Charles Lowe's enthusiastic recollection of the rail-thin chain-smoking youth he met at Edinburgh University:
From that single hour's conversation with the embryo author of 'Treasure Island,' I certainly derived more intellectual and personal stimulus than ever was imparted to me by any six months' course of lectures within the walls of 'good King James's College.' He was so perfectly frank and ingenuous, so ebullient and open-hearted, so funny, so sparkling, so confiding, so vaulting in his literary ambitions, and withal so widely read and well-informed - notwithstanding his youth, for he could scarcely have been out of his teens then - that I could not help saying to myself that here was a young man who commended himself more to my approval and emulation than any other of my fellow-students ...

That 'so funny' points squarely at the more ephemeral glimpses that collections like this preserve. And in addition to such things, sometimes reading through this king of volume brings unforeseen patterns to the fore. This is W. E. Henley remembering the great author:
At bottom Stevenson was an excellent fellow. But he was of his essence what the French call personnel. He was, that is, incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson. He could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every time he passed it; to him there was nothing obvious in time and eternity, and the smallest of his discoveries, his most trivial apprehensions, were all by way of being revelations, and as revelations must be thrust upon the world; he was never so much in earnest, never so well pleased (this were he happy or wretched), never so irresistible, as when he wrote about himself.

And here's S. R. Crockett, writing with far greater skill but striking oddly similar notes:
But when he writes of himself, how supremely excellent is the reading. It is good even when he does it intentionally, as in 'Memories and Portraits.' It is better still when he sings it, as in his 'Child's Garden.' He is irresistible to every lonely child who reads and thrills, and reads again to find his past recovered fro him with effortless ease. It is a book never long out of my hands, for only in it and in my dreams, when I am touched with fever, do I grasp the long, long thoughts of a lonely child and a hill-wandering boy - thoughts I never told to any; yet which Mr. Stevenson tells over again to me as if he read them off a printed page.

All of it - all these tantalizing glimpses - are food for thought, all of it re-ponderable as the reader continues to love the writings of the man himself. The two are inextricably linked in fondess, as Clement Shorter points out in this volume:  "Who could fail to love the man and his books?"

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Folds of Irony in the Penny Press!

Oh, the multiplicitous ironies in the latest batch of the Penny Press I consumed at my little hole-in-the-wall periodical-reading restaurant! Everywhere I turned, it was inescapable!

Take last week's TLS for example. Nicholas Thomas reviews the new biography of Captain Cook by Frank McLynn and finds it wanting. That verdict itself might not be so surprising - McLynn can often run hot and cold even with the same reviewer - but the context in which it's delivered is positively riddled with irony, because in pillorying McLynn, Thomas (a specialist in South Pacific art and history and a very amiable guy) raises the spectre of that greatest of all Captain Cook biographers, John Beaglehole - only to pillory him too! We're told Beaglehole's book is "marred by an opinionated style" and actually has the temerity to draw conclusions about its illustrious subject:
Beaglehole's Cook is almost narrow-minded, an indefatigable, practical rationalist, remarkable for his clear grasp of geographic, navigational, or nautical problems, and his single-minded approach to solving them. He is great, in Beaglehole's mind, in part because he has none of the sentimental or philosophical frippery of the eighteenth century around him.

The irony here of course being that if Thomas finds a book like Beaglehole's - vast, authoritative, utterly absorbing, beautifully written - wanting, he undercuts any credibility he'd otherwise have in finding any other book about Cook wanting. We might listen to a critic who called the latest Boris Akunin novel a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, but we instantly stop listening if that same critic says War and Peace is also a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, and we don't just disbelieve him about Tolstoy - we associatedly disbelieve him about Akunin even if we haven't read him.

A similar piercing irony crops up in the latest Harper's. That issue features a long and leapingly enthusiastic review of Christopher Hitchens' Arguably by Terry Eagleton, and the piece contains ironies of its own, mainly deriving from the fact that like every other 'review' of this big fat essay collection, it's really a boisterous stiff-upper-lip encomium - for a guy who isn't even dead yet. "He could tell you just who to talk to about Kurdish nationalism in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, as well as what to order in the only decent restaurant there. He can give you the lowdown on everyone from Isaac Newton to Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde to Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab..." Etc.... in every case, those 'can's are just itching to be 'could's - and it gets in the way of reviewers assessing the ample weak spots of this collection.

But the piece is part of a larger irony too. Hitchens has achieved most of his current notoriety for his brattish nose-tweaking to the concept of religion (particularly all the young people I know who adore him adore him for that reason), the sort of 'you adults are just DUMB to believe this stuff!' braying most of us got out of our systems in high school. But another essay in the same issue of Harper's could serve as good ammo for Hitchens' numerous droned-over debate opponents: Alan Lightman writes a piece about modern cosmology that contains a digression worth quoting in full:
... according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are require for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces an certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be "fine-tuned" to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine-tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it.

Carter's principle forms the basis for a 1988 book called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, one of the most persistently thought-provoking books of the 20th century, and it's ironic to fin that principle being elaborated cheek-by-jowl with more regurgitated Hitchens Got-baiting.

And there's irony to be found over in the latest Atlantic, in which Benjamin Schwarz reviews Higher Gossip, the new posthumous collection of literary journalism from the pen of John Updike. I'm no fan of Updike's book reviews - too bland, too timid, too falsely everyman - but as he always does, Schwarz actually makes me think about perhaps revisiting the guy's work. Certainly Schwarz ranks that work - a vast collection - highly:
This huge body of work, 4,314 pages in all, secured Updike a place among America's few great men of letters (since Edmund Wilson's death, only Gore Vidal and Updike can be added to the pantheon).

The irony of that outrageous parenthetical should be abundantly clear already, but just in case it isn't, here's a bit from the second half of Schwarz' book-column this month, on the fourth volume of the official history of the Bank of England:
Nevertheless, this book contains probably the most revealing record of a central bank's struggles in the modern era. (Others might bestow that crown on Allen H. Meltzer's magisterial an plainly written multivolume A History of the Federal Reserve, but that great work is more strictly a monetary history, and Meltzer doesn't treat the Fed's other duties, such as bank regulation, in the same rich detail as Capie does the actions of the Old Lady.)

Hee. So: the choicest irony of all - Schwarz is certainly leaving at least one name off his list of great 20th century men of letters. It could just be an old-fashioned modesty, but I'm guessing otherwise. I bet the idea never occurred to him.


An Additional, Deeper Irony in the Penny Press!

Perhaps the greatest irony in the week's Penny Press also cropped up in The Atlantic, where historian Taylor Branch responds to some of the many reader opinions generated by his recent article about college athletics. In that article, Branch outlines the enormous amounts of money colleges make off their 'amateur' players, who are technically student-athletes and who don't get paid. Certainly there are iniquities in that system, but Branch chose to underscore them in an untenable way: by reviving the old college-athletes-as-slaves argument and hammering on it.

Such a gambit raised a few hackles, most certainly including my own, and in this latest issue, Branch responds:
Let me respond to Steve Donoghue on the slavery analogy. He is one of many readers who find it extreme and inaccurate, but I stand by the comparison because I think it illuminates patterns of thought. My analogy was qualified, of course. College athletes are not literally slaves. However, they have in common the fact that immense wealth has been create from their skilled, diligent labor, in such a way that denies them the full rights of American citizenship.

... Anyone who wonders how slavery survived so long would do well to ponder the NCAA. It rests on fiat an inertia. People shy away from considering its basic justification, because there is none. Similarly, people once despised the abolitionists, not in defense of slavery in principle, but precisely because they were upset that the abolitionists were right.


My grandmother would have said "Stop digging before you bury yourself." First, you can't stand by a comparison that's flawed not at its fringes but at its heart, any more than you can qualify an analogy by vitiating its central tenet. College athletes aren't denied any "rights" as American citizens that all other college students aren't also denied; the "rights" to which Branch is alluding have been specifically abrogated by the athletes themselves, when they entered their colleges and Big Ten universities with their eyes wide open. Those athletes don't get nothing in exchange for their physical skills - and they get a whole hell of a lot more than the slaves in Branch's analogy did: not just food and shelter, but a free ride at their school (often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that non-ball-bouncing students actually have to pay) - a degree from Yale or Brown or Stanford. Yes, the schools exploit the popularity of college athletics to generate money off the 'diligent' work of these athletes, but the 'pattern of thought' illustrated is greed, not ownership. And there's plenty of greed to go around; as I pointed out in that earlier post, the entire superstructure about which Branch achieves such moral indignation is built on the greed of its student athletes and their parents. And their greed would be utterly unrecognizable to the slaves in Branch's analogy - they're hungry not to be free but to be multi-millionaires in four years or less. They know that they're not allowed to demand a multi-million salary while they're students - they voluntarily become students anyway, to play the long odds for those multi-millions the instant they graduate. There is no part of that reality which compares in any way with slavery, a system whose inhabitants entered into it involuntarily, with no hope of freedom, much less mind-staggering wealth. What Branch should have written this time around was "Look, the more I researched the iniquities and inequalities of college sports, the more hot under the collar I got, and in rage I wrote those slavery-comparison bits, but I see now I went too far."

And even such a backtrack wouldn't explain that second quoted paragraph! People despised abolitionists because they hated the fact that abolitionists were right? As with the slavery analogy, so too here: it's almost possible to forget that the writer of this nonsense is in fact one of the greatest historians America has ever produced, author of the incredible America in the King Years trilogy that should be required reading at every college and university in the country (this is, of course, the deeper irony). I know he must know this, but after reading that second quoted paragraph, I feel compelled to point it out anyway: Racists hated abolitionists because they thought those abolitionists were "nigger-lovers" - most certainly NOT because they secretly knew slavery was wrong. Slavery in America flourished because bigots actively used the Bible and majority tyranny to enforce it - not because of some self-loathing Freudian contortion.

I've almost never read such a statement from a working professional, and I can't account for it. We're all entitled to our occasional howlers, but yeesh - to put it mildly, William Lloyd Garrison would have been amazed to learn that the mobs screaming for his blood were actually agreeing with him ...