Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Commander Abraham "Frustrated by McClellan" Lincoln

Travel has once again stolen my blogging time, though that situation should ease up by mid-July, after which point I plan to sit little anywhere other than my porch or my piano bench for the rest of the summer. Which means blogging should be a tad more reliably from that point. I hope.

My travel reading for this trip is the first volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War. Though a trusted colleague swears by it--going so far as to say he envies my getting to read it for the first time--I had stayed away from it for years because I was worried that Foote might be too much of a Southern apologist for my Northern blood. I'm glad I gave it a try: thus far, though Foote clearly appreciates the South and damns their cause only gently, I'm finding it spectacularly good, full of well-drawn characters and dramatic set pieces. (Oh, and it took but a single quote on Twitter--a line from Sam Houston calling Jefferson Davis "ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard"--to bring someone on Twitter to call me "scum" for insufficiently censuring Foote as a Davis apologist.)

Today I'll share an incident that I must surely have encountered before in reading on the Civil War and Lincoln but had completely forgotten: the President's first and only experience of field command. It came at the point of Lincoln's maximal frustration with General McClellan's self-important dilatory caution: McClellan had finally embarked on his complicated water-borne sweep around the Confederate army protecting Richmond, and Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton had headed out to Fort Monroe to see what they could see. From here, I'll let Foote tell the story:
Amazed to find that McClellan had made no provision for the capture of Norfolk [across the river inlet], outflanked by the drive up the opposite bank of the James, the President decided to undertake the operation himself, employing the fortress garrison under Major General John E. Wool. . . . The first trouble came with the navy: Goldsborough thought it would be dangerous to ferry men across the Roads with the Merrimac still on the loose. But Lincoln not only overruled him, he and Chase got in separate tugs and reconnoitered the opposite shore for a suitable landing place. When they returned, however, they found that Wool had already chosen one from the chart and was embarking with the troops who were to seize it. Chase went along, but Lincoln and Stanton stayed behind to maintain a command post at the fort and question various colonels and generals who, the President thought, were to follow in support.

"Where is you command?" he asked one, and got the answer: "I am awaiting orders." To another he said, "Why are you here? Why not on the other side?" and was told, "I am ordered to the fort." Experiencing for the first time some of the vexations likely to plague a field commander, Lincoln lost his temper. He took off his tall hat and slammed it on the floor. "Send me someone who can write," he said, exasperated. When the someone came forward--a colonel on Wool's staff--the President dictated an order for the advance to be pushed and supported.
It turned out that "no push or support was needed," as the Confederates had secretly evacuated Norfolk the previous day. Alas, perhaps, for presidential glory, but better, surely, for the fate of America: imagine the chaos of a Lincoln-less Union in late 1862 had he fallen in battle, thrusting the nonentity Hannibal Hamlin (who spent most of the war years in Maine) into command of a fractious nation and tentative army. It's worth a shudder or two.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Reading the teacups

One of the most entertaining aspects of Diana Holman-Hunt's My Grandmothers and I, which I wrote about briefly on Wednesday, is each grandmother's endless attempts to set herself up as better, more socially prominent, and more important than the other. The desire for recognition of their social prominence extends to all comers, but it takes on particular force when the opposite number is involved.

My favorite example thus far comes when the Holman-Hunt grandmother--widow of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt--is about to have a tea party. The food at her shabby bohemian home is generally unpalatable in its stinginess. Young Diana is mostly fed eggs stamped "foreign" that are, at best, about to go off; one night, her grandmother marvels at the "excellent" turnip she's brought home to boil for three for dinner. But for the tea party, Grand does at least break out the good china:
Each cup had a tag tied to its handle: so-and-so drank from this cup: Lear, Dickens, Burne-Jones, Carlyle, Thackeray, Madox Brown, Meredith, Gladstone, Millais, Patmore . . . There were twenty-four altogether.

"Our tea set at home [with the other grandmother] is quite different," I said, blowing off the dust. The cups and saucers I like best are white and gold, with little views painted on in grey."

"Apart from a few Spanish and Italian things, our china is all oriental. Holman held the strongest views on the design of domestic utensils, maintaining that the whole surface should be covered with symmetrical pattern. Mr Gladstone owned a lot of rubbishy Dresden and Sevres, and yet was most interested to hear Holman's opinions, and in principle William Morris agreed; he and William de Morgan were, in fact, inspired by the idea."

The labelled tea service was a swindle because all these people hadn't come together. She didn't know that any particular cup was really Millais'. "We never tie labels on our cups at home. Arthur [the manservant] wouldn't like it."

"It is rather wearisome, my pet, to be so frequently regaled with Fowler's and Arthur's taboos." She sighed, and then, summoning her patience, went on brightly: "Not everyone has been privileged, as I have , to receive such a galaxy of stars, at one time or another."
So deliciously horrible, no?

The denouement of the tea party scene is fun, too. Diana is talking with one of the guests, who look at her cup:
"What a thrill!" She crooked her little finger. "My cup is labelled Browning!"

"I'm afraid Browning's rather chipped."

"What an At Home it must have been--what a party!"

"They came at different times. It's Grand's idea. It helps people think of conversation . . . " I didn't add that the mistress must have her little fancies.

"You wicked child! Don't spoil it," she pleaded. "I like to think of them all, drinking tea in this wonderful room; the wallpaper and everything is perfect. I can't wait to tell my folks at home. Would it be all right if I wrote my name on the other side of this label? Claire van der Groot?"

"Please do, if you've got a pencil." No one was looking and I could always rub it out.
I love the idea of the nametags as conversation starters: "This reminds me of the time I met the Inimitable Dickens . . . "

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Only time today for two things, but I think they're both worth it:

1 Recommending you read Diana Holman-Hunt's My Grandmothers and I (1960), which is available in paperback from Slightly Foxed Editions. It's yet another in their series of minor English memoirs of childhood, and it's as full of entertaining oddity as any of them. Hunt's grandmothers, as Linda Leatherbarrow puts it in her introduction, were
ferociously egocentric and shockingly indifferent to their granddaughter's welfare. They come prancing off the page, every line of their dialogue ringing horribly true, every word evoking the manners and prejudices of the period between the two World Wars.
One is rigidly just-post-Victorian, one late Pre-Raphaelite Bohemian, and neither can see anything but her own needs. Yet Holman-Hunt tells the story with such winning detail, such an understanding of the inexplicable combination of sensitivity and blindness that is childhood, that we laugh over and over again.

2 Telling you about the part that's made me laugh the hardest thus far, which is one of the most absurdly Edwardian bits: when Diana's grandfather is eating--or, more properly, being fed by his servant, Arthur:
I knew I mustn't watch Arthur poking food into grandfather's mouth, but out of the corner of my eye, across the silver bowl of roses or carnations, I could see a spoonful of meat or pudding poised under his nose. He talked a great deal and when he finished a sentence, he would open his mouth like a baby bird and Arthur would be ready, like the mother bird with a worm.
Horrid, yet funny, no? It goes on, and descends into pure silliness:
If he were in a good mood, when asked if he would like another helping, he would answer in a solemn voice: "No thank you, I am not hungry, but if pressed, I might manage," and then he would burst into song:

Some mulligatawny soup, a mackerel and a sole,
A Banbury and a Bath bun and a tuppenny sausage roll,
A little drop of sherry and a little drop of cham,
Some roly-poly pudding and some jam, jam, JAM.
Magnificent, isn't it? When you read it, you can't help but put a tune to it; if you're me, you can't help but actually sing it aloud to your wife. Who, because she is kind and to some extent knew what she was signing up for, opts for a smile rather than a grimace.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dickensian Laughter

Though I read a lot of literary biographies, I don't read a lot of non-biographical secondary literature. Oh, here and there I'll read something about one of my favorites--Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, or Thomas Hardy, for example--but the only writer about whom I regularly find myself reading criticism is Dickens.

In part it's because Dickens, two hundred years after his birth, still seems inexhaustible. There's so much matter in each of his books that it seems there's always a new angle of attack or area of focus. He also has the benefit of being stodgy enough that even contemporary critical writings about him feel largely like the product of an earlier century: even as they may take new findings and new approaches into account, they nonetheless keep an eye on the general reader, and work in a prose register that is accessible to him or her.

In addition, those are the books that bring me into better contact with the wild world of non-novelistic Dickens writings. Any serious Dickens fan does some dipping, here and there, into Sketches by Boz, or American Notes for General Circulation, but those books don't bulk so large in our memories as the novels. And who reads beyond that, to the Household Words pieces, or the countless volumes of letters? But there are rewards in almost any page of Dickens's writing, and one of the great pleasures of a good work of Dickens criticism is the new acquaintance it offers us with those writings.

All of which is by way of a long preamble to saying how much I'm enjoying Malcolm Andrews's new book Dickensian Laughter: Essays on Dickens and Humour. As Dickens's own people say, it does what it says on the tin, offering a number of different angles on how Dickens used humor, how his audience received it, how he fit with and broke from earlier traditions, and--best of the bunch--what we know about Dickens's own laughter.

The book is so rich with quotation that it feels at least as much like a conversation as an argument, throughout the book, Andrews treats us to gleanings from the minor Dickens, along with opinions and insights from his contemporaries and friends. I'll treat you to my favorite bit thus far, from a letter Dickens sent to Georgina Hogarth from a reading tour in Ireland on August 25, 1858. Dickens cast this portion of the letter in the form of a dialogue between himself and a young boy he met on the street:
INIMITABLE. Holloa, old chap.


INIMITABLE (In his delightful way). What a nice old fellow you are. I am very fond of little boys.

YOUNG IRELAND. Air yer? Ye'r right.

INIMITABLE. What do you learn, old fellow?

YOUNG IRELAND (very intent on Inimitable, and always childish, except in his brogue). I lairn wureds of three sillibils, and wureds of two sillibils, and wureds of one sillibil.

INIMITABLE (gaily). Get out, you humbug! You learn only words of one syllable.

YOUNG IRELAND (laughs heartily). You may say that it is mostly words of one sillibil.

INIMITABLE. Can you write?

YOUNG IRELAND. Not yet. Things come by degrees.

INIMITABLE. Can you cipher?

YOUNG IRELAND (very quickly). Wha'at's that?

INIMITABLE. Can you make figures?

YOUNG IRELAND. I can make a nought, which is not asy, being round.

INIMITABLE. I say, old boy, wasn't it you I saw on Sunday morning in the hall, in a soldier's cap? You know--in a soldier's cap?

YOUNG IRELAND (cogitating deeply) Was it a very good cap?


YOUNG IRELAND. Did it fit uncommon?


YOUNG IRELAND. Dat was me!
Dialect often feels like the weakest of jokes, but here it's animated so wonderfully by Dickens's sly stage directions, and by the fun that he and the young man both are clearly having. Oh, to have gone to your mailbox and found there a letter from Dickens!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Highsmith takes aim at one of the evils of life

Donald Westlake and Gillian Flynn led me back to Patricia Highsmith this week. Westlake, unsurprisingly, did so through The Getaway Car. Sadly, there wasn't much in Westlake's files on Highsmith, which is too bad, since I would have loved to read an extended analysis of her everyday sociopaths in light of Parker's more focused pathology. But Westlake did discuss Highsmith at least once, in the context of the work he did on a film version of Ripley Under Ground, and I was able to include that. If you want a thumbnail version of it while you wait for the book itself to arrive in September, you can head over to Nick Jones's Existential Ennui, where he's recently posted about it.

Gillian Flynn, meanwhile, last week led a Wall Street Journal book club on the Highsmith novel that most influenced her, Deep Water (1957). And hoo, boy, now that I've read it I can see why: it's about a marriage made toxic by infidelity and acquiescence . . . and just a touch of sociopathy. As in the Ripley novels--or, to draw the circle more tightly, Burke Devore in Westlake's The Ax--the husband Highsmith creates is plausible and ordinary, yet capable of monstrous acts. It's that everydayness that frightens, and draws us in; only slowly do we realize that the disconnect between his mind and his emotions, his behavior and his analysis of that behavior, is fundamental, and deadly.

It's Friday night and I'm behind-hand a bit after a day spent dealing with dull yet time-consuming new (108-year-old) house problems, so I'll just hit a couple of more sociological points then leave you with a passage that amused me. First, the sociology: Highsmith's couple is ensconced in the upper middle class of 1950s suburban Connecticut, the land of Cheever and Updike (and, at one remove, John O'Hara). And, murder aside, there are aspects of that life that--no matter how much Cheever and Updike we read--remain jaw-dropping to an upper middle class twenty-first-century urbanite. To wit:
1 Oh, lord, how they drink. Don't get me wrong--I'm mid-martini right now myself--but that will be the evening's martini. For the 1950s suburban set, that would be mere pre-gaming. Actual social drunkenness, for me (and most of my cohort) is an occasional error, regretted; if Highsmith and her peers are to be believed, in that set it was common, bordering on constant. Combine that with a relative lack of entertainment options and a narrow range of acquaintance, and no wonder there was all that sleeping around . . .

2 Pants. Oh, midcentury men's pants. Highsmith's murderous husband finds himself eating better and drinking less, and he becomes
pleasantly conscious of the fact that his front was absolutely straight now, that there was no bulge at all below his braided belt.
The braided belt we'll abhor, then leave. It's the "below" that I want to deal with. Look at this picture of Bogart (and, I think, IBRL favorite Sydney Greenstreet in the wheelchair?) if you need a reminder.

Good god, men at midcentury wore their pants too high. Even Bogart can't carry off that look.
And now, to carry you into the weekend, I'll share the one moment in the novel when Highsmith allows a character to acknowledge the presence of evil in the world:
The likelihood of typographical errors in spite of rigorous proofreading was going to be the subject of an essay that he would write one day, Vic thought. There was something demoniacal and insuperable about typographical errors, as if they were part of the natural evil that permeated man's existence, as if they had a life of their own and were determined to manifest themselves no matter what, as surely as weeds in the best-tended gardens.
In the current paperback edition of Deep Water, published by Norton, the next typographical error doesn't appear for more than ten pages.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Westlake, and the risks of being (or working with) an author

I hope you enjoyed the long wander through Daniel Deronda that saw me through the process of packing and moving house for the first time in fourteen years. Many thanks to Maggie Bandur for joining me, and to the folks who left comments--Mark Marowitz's defense of Grandcourt, in particular, is worth your time if you've not seen it.

Now that the move is complete (more or less--the tiny bit of construction we're having done reminds me that construction, like certain novels, is never exactly done), I'm planning to dive back into more reliable blogging. And I can't help but begin with a bit of horn-tooting: the collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction that I edited, The Getaway Car, just received its first official notice, a starred advance review from Publishers Weekly. And, oh, it's a good one: when you get your copy of the book in September, you'll see this on the back cover:
A must-have for all Westlake fans.
{I should also point out that this week's issue of Publishers Weekly marks another step in my and Ed Park's secret plan to take over the book world: one of the other nonfiction reviews is of a book of essays from the Believer that he coedited, Read Harder. When you stop at your local bookstore in September to get the Westlake, you can also grab Ed's! Book world domination awaits!}

And now, having played author for a bit, I feel obligated to turn the microphone over to James Laughlin, founding publisher of New Directions, and a letter that he wrote to William Saroyan of October 11, 1937 that's included in his sort-of memoir, The Way It Wasn't:
I'm sorry but I can't let you have proofs on the stories. By sad experience I have had to make that the rule. If I let every contributor have proofs it would cost me $150 in corrections. You don't know what authors are like because you are one. First, authors don't know that corrections cost $3.50 an hour, secondly they don't realize that when they change one word in linotype it knocks out a whole page of slugs and that costs two or three hours' time to fix.

Thirdly, authors just have to take one look at a page of proofs to go entirely crazy and decide they are Jesus instead of Napoleon and rewrite the damn thing.

I'm sorry, I just can't afford it. You authors will have to realize that we small publishers can print you but can't humor you . . .

College keeps me working like a shithouse eel. No time for letters.
And that's all that need be said on that front, no? I'll try to keep it in mind as I'm endlessly badgering the colleague who is stuck being my publicist . . .

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

One last lash at Deronda

{And now, one last post on Daniel Deronda, this one by Maggie Bandur. For the whole run of Deronda posts, just scroll on down!}

I really don't think I should have the last word, but I do feel like I need to express a sense of disappointment with Daniel Deronda. When I began it, I was so swept up, I thought this is the book I am going to be giving as a gift for the next several years--with a long explanation why the recipient should commit to 900 pages. But I do think the book never quite gels, and it is not a challenge to my expectations, but a flaw. Even as I am touched by Gwendolen's unrequited love, I still feel all her dealings belong to a separate novel from the one of mystical religious awakening.

I also found myself affected by the scenes where Deronda and Mordecai are drawn to each other--in the shop, on the bridge. There's something undeniably beautiful about them. But the first part of the novel paints Deronda so convincingly as the typical deeply humanistic, but unambitious protagonist, that it is hard for me to believe him when he tells Gwendolen he has always been wanting a sense of duty. I don't object to a character not realizing he has a void and then discovering the spiritual sense that fills it; I just don't think Eliot has shown me his development convincingly. The child who had such a hissy fit when someone mildly suggested he should be a singer seems unlikely to be the adult who, not only takes the revelation of himself being a Jew so calmly--a revelation that immediately changes his status in the society to which he has hitherto been so devoted--but now feels as if his whole life is fulfilled. I think his journey might need another 50-100 pages to feel real. Although I laughed when his mother basically asks, "So who's the girl?" I suppose that explains a lot.

I found myself unexpectedly amused several times towards the end. When Mirah lashes out from jealousy, she is such a stranger to normal human emotion that she wonders at the revelation that this "jealousy" must be what all those arias she sings are about! And Gwendolen, whose whole story is about her learning to be less selfish, never stops talking about herself long enough for the basic courtesy of asking Daniel how he is doing, and so it takes him weeks to tell her the news he is getting married and moving away forever. And as much as she needs his comfort, what special message does Deronda really impart to her about how to live beyond be kinder? It makes me think of Mark Markowitz's comment: maybe these people just aren't very nice.

There is so much that is good and clever and well-observed about the book, that I would still recommend it, but it is not a complete enough piece to give for Christmas (or Hannukah). And I know it is a moral failing, but I find myself clinging to the hope that "off screen" the characters are getting a traditional Victorian novel ending. Humbled and with diminished circumstances, Gwendolen can marry Rex and Hans will marry Anna, and they will all live happily ever after. I was surprised how much I ended up liking the selfish, flighty, pretentious Hans because he seemed to have the right attitude toward the proceedings: when Hans suggests Gwendolen will marry Rex, and Daniel wonders why she should have to wed again, Hans replies, "'You monster!' retorted Hans, 'do you want her to wear weeds for you all her life--burn herself in perpetual suttee while you are alive and merry?" Yeah!