Wednesday, July 29, 2015


I grew up mainly in the country and entirely in what my father called the United States, meaning somewhere certainly west of Pittsburgh and preferably west of the Mississippi.  When for college I went all the way to Tennessee I considered that I was doing a bold and contrarian thing.  That I ended up spending most of my life on the East coast is one of those ironies through which Life punishes bigotry and redresses ignorance.

I know all the New Jersey jokes—what exit?, only state with a state smell, etc.—and am known to dust them off myself.  But while it is true that our state is not entirely free of problems, generally only one of our senators is under indictment at any particular moment.  I have long since become a great booster of the Garden State, beginning with the garden part.  The topsoil of Middlesex County is so scrumptious-looking that when you see a pile of it you want to reach for a spoon.  God obviously intended it for vegetables, but a square foot of it is worth so much to the real estate developers that God is no longer frequently consulted.  There is a smallish building lot in central Princeton currently on the market at one million dollars.

So the pressure is on us suburban farmers.  Central Jersey remains a paradise for the amateur squash and tomato crowd, whose numbers I have this year expanded.  My own horticultural efforts have been pretty lame for years, but I always had the excuse that I was away from Princeton for several crucial weeks of the growing season.  This year, as I knew in advance that my absence would be shorter and earlier than usual, I decided to go all out.

Going all out meant some serious manual labor.  I have had a small tomato patch at the front of the house where it is fairly easy to put up temporary fencing and where the road traffic, though light, has some inhibiting influence on the deer.  But this year I constructed a more ambitious garden, in full sun, on the south side of the stone wall at the end of my property.  This had to be wrested from heavily sodded turf, which I sieved, shovelful by shovelful through a tough steel mesh, enriching the crumbled remains with several years’ worth of compost and leaf mold.   It is about seven yards by six, which is not exactly the south forty, but still plenty big enough to keep me busy.

This back garden is seriously overplanted.  Of tomatoes alone there are about twenty vines--Ramapo, Krim, Big Boy, Cherokee Purples, the odd grape and cherry, and two or three as yet unidentified volunteers found in odd places, one odd place being the buildup of gutter silt along Hartley Avenue.  In addition I have luxurious patches of sweet basil, some sturdy eggplant, reasonable bell and sweet peppers, and several exuberant patches of zucchini squash, which behave as though in a try-out for a science fiction flic.  One out-of-control Concord grape vine, which I allowed to remain on the site, gives some kind of punctuation to this jungle.  

 compost offerings to distract the groundhogs

There are natural enemies galore.  In previous years I have never grown anything here that has not shown signs of mysterious blights, blotches, or vegetable eczemas; but this year, so far—knock on wood...  Animal critters are another matter.  I think I have bought off the resident groundhog colony with the opulence of the vegetable compost on offer, and I have made it pretty difficult to get into the garden at ground level.  Still, we live by faith.  The deer are another matter.  The casual fences I have constructed must be regarded, from a deer’s perspective, as merely symbolic.  If I expand the garden yet further, as I am tempted to do, I shall perhaps get serious and go to ten feet.  But so far this year I have lost only one plant, swallowed nearly whole by a rubbernecking white-tail browsing over the fence. I am happy to report that the lost plant was a jalapeño pepper planted by mistake.  I can but hope that the marauding deer had a few dyspeptic moments.

I was somewhat late in getting the plants in, and the crop is only now appearing.  We are drowning in zucchini, which has the unfortunate tendency to grow large and woody overnight, before I even spot it.  We have had the first delicious peppers and eggplant, and loads of small, succulent salad tomatoes.  The first of the big tomatoes are now turning red, and all indications suggest a bumper crop in tidal wave form.  It is never a good idea to count unhatched chickens, but I think I am being prudent readying my Mason jars to do up a batch of spaghetti sauce for the bleak midwinter.

 agricultural photography by Joan Fleming

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saint Augustine at Downton Abbey

For my scholarly writing last week I needed to consult very briefly a Latin text of Augustine’s Confessions.  My library is well supplied in that category.  I even have a prized signed presentation copy of the edition of that work—signed by the editor rather than the author, needless to say—but one doesn’t use fine Limoges for Chinese take-out, which in intellectual terms is roughly analogous to what I was up to.  So I plucked the nearest to hand, which turned out to be a crumbling school edition published  at Ratisbon (Regensburg) in 1894.  I must have bought it in Oxford about 1960, and I haven’t looked at it in years.  I quickly finished my pedestrian task, and then turned my attention to the physical book.  It seems to have cost me two shillings and sixpence and once belonged to “E. Courtney [?] from the library of Canon Claude Jenkins”.  This latter eminent gentleman once had been Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford.  But it was the elegant bookplate of a yet earlier owner that caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. 

Who was this Winifred Burghclere who would serve only ung and whose kinky emblem was a dragon-backed nun?  Like thousands of others in the Anglophone world we were caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the BBC television series Downton Abbey.  I was aware, too, that the actual great house used in its filming is Highclere Castle in Hampshire.  And the bit of philologist in me knew that the root meaning of burg—OE byrig, which shows up as the suffix –bury in so many English place names--is “fortified place” or “castle.”  Hence, the strange Burghclere might possibly mean “Castle Clere” or something like bright or shining castle.   So I thought there might be some connection with Highclere.  The odds were not good, but even a stopped clock gets it right twice a day; and in this instance philological phantasy leads to an interesting story.

The previous owner of my Augustine, Lady Winifred Anne Henrietta Christiana Herbert (1864-1933), was the daughter of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon and (eventually) the wife of Herbert Gardner, an important Liberal politician and (eventually) the first, last, and only Baron Burghclere of Walden.  Lady Winifred’s girlhood home was Highclere Castle—i.e., “Downton Abbey”!  She was very close to her slightly younger brother George (1866-1923), who before succeeding to his father’s title (Earl of Carnarvon) was titled Lord Portchester and known to his intimates as “Porchy”.

"Porchy" at his ease

“Porchy” must be remembered as one of the great eccentrics in the famously eccentric British aristocracy.  (Among the few failings of Downton Abbey is Lord Grantham’s want of eccentricity.)  Porchy was filthy rich and could indulge his passions.  He loved fast horses and fast cars.  Fast women seem not to have been his thing.  Their traditional role was filled by amateur Egyptology.  “Porchy” bankrolled several important digs, including most famously the work of his close friend Howard Carter, who in 1922 stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen.   This was among the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology.   All the world marveled, but King Tut himself was not amused.  We have all heard about the “Curse of the Mummy” or the “Revenge of the Pharaoh”.  Some few months after the opening of the tomb a mosquito bite on Porchy’s lordly jowl, complicated by a razor nick, turned septic and killed him.  Lady Burghclere, a serious historian and a fine writer, has left us a beautiful, crisp, and moving memorial of her brother.  It is published as a preface to the wonderful book by Howard Carter and A. C. Mace on The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.  It is a little gem, and finding it has fully justified the time spent wandering by the wayside of my ostensible current project.

Howard Carter examines the find 
There is yet more in this digression to interest an English professor.  Lord and Lady Burghclere had four daughters.   The youngest of them was named Evelyn—a name of importance in the Herbert family.  Actually her whole name was Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred (1903-1994), but the most important part was the Evelyn.  That is because in 1928 she married a young British writer, destined for later fame, whose name was also Evelyn—Evelyn Waugh.  For a while this elfin couple cut quite a swath through the socio-literary upper crust as “He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn”.  But marriage is a fairly serious business, and the common ground in which it is rooted should probably be more than nominal.
He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn

The he and the she wandered apart, and I fear that the she wandered so far as a lover’s arms.  Waugh sued for divorce—with all the self-righteousness and ignominious rituals that the stolid law of that time required in such matters.  Some critics think this was the event that plunged Waugh into the depressive misanthropy that, at least in my opinion, colors so much of his work.  It perhaps also hastened his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which in turn required further legal shenanigans, this time ecclesiastical, to get an annulment.  He got one, and it was then as though She-Evelyn had never been, and he had never had an Anglican mother-in-law who read Augustine in Latin.

 Tut, tut

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Killing Mockingbirds

               To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, had already achieved a kind of canonical status by the autumn of 1963, when I taught my first class of freshmen at the University of Wisconsin.  Its staying power for the next four decades, roughly the period of my active career, was phenomenal; and it continues to this day.  After 1970 I cannot remember meeting a new student who had not read it, except perhaps for a few exotic birds with French baccalaureates.  Later still, when I had a more active engagement with high school teachers through a seminar program of the National Endowment for the Humanities and with the College Board,  I came to suspect that it was the only novel that many American seniors had read.  This is not a dig, exactly, though in my own day we had had three: The Scarlet Letter, Silas Marner, and A Tale of Two Cities.

               Like many other people I have been caught up in the hoopla surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” (i.e., old) novel entitled Go Set a Watchman, though as a life-long lover of literature I have been bemused at the tenor of the discussion, much of which is in my opinion painfully wrong-headed.  I am sure you are acquainted with the “problem”.  Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird, is a splendid fellow whose commitment to justice trumps the powerful cultural racism of his native South and inspires his adoring daughter.  Atticus Finch, the aging father of the central character in Watchman, expresses political and racial views that pain and disillusion his once-adoring daughter, now a mature women who has achieved considerable distance from her Alabama girlhood.

               Ms. Lee finds herself in a peculiar situation for a writer.  On account of agreeing to the publication of an old manuscript guaranteed to make small fortunes for herself and her publishers, sage critics are doubting her mental capacities.  On account of revealing that she has a considerable breadth of imagination and the artistic capacity to treat her materials in strikingly different ways, she is charged with some kind of ethical treason.  The explanation, in my opinion, is that many of her fans among the chattering classes lack that imaginative breadth and that experimental capacity.  Many of them also seem to think all this has something to do with Gregory Peck.

               I have not read Watchman, and I am not sure I will read it.  My uncertainty is based largely in the principle of Ars longa vita brevis.  As Chaucer puts it, the life so short, the craft so long to learn.  I am thus far dependent upon the opinions of reviewers, and I’d like the guidance of a few more I trust before making what might be a largely archaeological investment.  Some books merit the archaeology, and others don’t.   Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an important enough book to encourage one to read its inchoate and incomplete germ Stephen Hero, posthumously published.  Mockingbird might be of similar import.  Indeed in terms of its cultural impact and its place in the history of American secondary education it undoubtedly is. 

               Some fine novelists have the power of creating and delineating characters so full and three-dimensional that we feel we known them intimately and with a depth that leaves little room for major surprises, particularly uncomfortable surprises.  This is perhaps odd, given how mysterious even those we know well "in real life" can be.  Whether one prefers a hagiographic Atticus or a clay-footed Atticus is a matter of choice, but a writer should not be condemned for her power of imagining both.  It would be hard to fault the choices that Harper Lee and her editor made half a century ago.  They resulted in a masterpiece.  Yet it sounds as though Watchman is a coming-of-age story that corresponds more closely to my own lived experience than does that of Mockingbird.  The first presidential election in which I took an informed interest was that of 1952.  Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, a liberal Democrat whose only victories were in the old Solid South.  I graduated from high school in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown versus Board of Education.  For the next four years I was an undergraduate at the aptly named University of the South, then all male and all white.  The racial “question” was everywhere around us, and everywhere insistent.  The considerable racial turmoil in the South during those years had a large dimension of the generational both for black people and among whites.   In nearly every era disgruntled elders have judged our college campuses hotbeds of dangerous radicalism.  As the editor of the college paper, a weekly, I got in very hot water for saying things utterly unexceptional among my contemporaries, very few of whom neatly fit the racist stereotype. Practically all of us were in favor of “integration” and “Negro” or  “colored” equality—terms that were then earnestly used by us and by black leaders alike, and only later to be purged from the politically correct vocabulary except where chiseled in stone in the names of venerable Civil Rights organizations.  

               The theme of the generational reverberations of the “racial question” among white southern families is not exactly the heart of the matter of that turbulent era of our national history, so near and yet so far away; but it is a worthy one that an intelligent, sensitive, youngish white southern woman writer setting out in the post-War era might very well elect to explore.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of our cherished guides to youth.  Perhaps Go Set a Watchman might one day become a meditation for our elderly.  All children know that fathers disappoint, but you don’t know the half of it until you are a father yourself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bernie Rocks

 Warren VT, 4 July 2015: Senator Sanders in the Ship of State

           I have just returned from a delightful family vacation in Vermont where, thanks to an opportunity offered by the new “sharing economy” we were able to establish ourselves in a beautiful private chalet, with sufficient room for six adults and three small but energetic kids, near Warren, Vermont.  I had taken with me lots of “scholarship” and numerous brave intentions for “activities”.  What I mainly did, it hardly needs saying, was to hang out with my grandkids and read novels, though there was a respectable amount outdoorsy stuff of the genre reported on last week.

            There proved to be an unexpected politico-cultural highpoint to the week—namely the civic parade mounted by the Town of Warren on the Fourth of July.  The small town Fourth of July parade is very old-fashioned, very New England, and very Norman Rockwell.  From my many years teaching at Bread Loaf I was vaguely aware of the popularity and ambition of such parades, which are the rough equivalent in the American civil religion of many medieval saints’ festivals.  Bristol, not too far up the road from Middlebury, was reported to have a notable one.  Perhaps also Brandon and Salisbury to the south.  Within certain generic limitations, there is said to be a considerable amount of distinctive local spirit among these festivities.  Certainly the Warren parade has a delightful character all its own centered on a rather wacky float competition.

            The floats, intermingled with marching musicians, stray children and domestic animals, happy patriots and a few free-lance exhibitionists, move along several blocks of Warren’s Main Street, thickly hemmed in on both sides by enthusiastic spectators, before coming to rest a couple of hundred yards up a side road.  The atmosphere among both paraders and spectators was carnivalesque but also deeply patriotic.  One word that comes to mind is eclectic.  There was to begin with a certain amount of the usual.  There was a solemn-looking guy driving a stolid-looking tractor.  There was another guy with an antique motor vehicle, which of course died in the middle of the road and had to be shunted to one side.  So far as I could tell the medium was the message for these motorists, who pursued no identifiable political agenda.  Many others did, of course.  There was an enthusiastic group of female dancers, or perhaps cheerleaders, celebrating the recent decision of the Supreme Court concerning “marriage equality” and advertising their support for the LBGT community.  One of the subthemes, made explicit on tee-shirts among the crowd, was “Black lives matter”.  (This seemed to be a generally unexceptional and pious sentiment rather than a pointed local critique, though I did see three black people among a crowd I would estimate at many thousands.)  At least one of the floats was pointedly local.  It was a kind of mobile petition to reinstate “Laurie”—apparently a beloved teacher, school nurse, or librarian who had been let go under circumstances unknown to me by the local School Board. 

            It was the winning float, however, that was most instructive.  It was called “Bernie Rocks the Boat”, and it was the collaborative work of a like-minded group that included several of my son Richard’s Red Hook neighbors from Brooklyn.  These people have various connections with the Warren region, where several of them summer.  The world knows that Bernie Sanders, formerly of Brooklyn, is a United States Senator from Vermont, and that Bernie Sanders, though a political Independent, is a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President.  What at least my personal part of the world didn’t know is that a lot of people in Vermont are very serious about his candidacy.

            I must describe the creators of this float as material artists of rare talent and absolute geniuses of political theater.  The boat that Bernie was rocking, the USS “Status Quo” berthed in Washington, was constructed mainly of lathe framing and expertly painted cardboard.   It would be hard to suggest an allegory more fitting to our current ship of state. The “Status Quo” must have been a good thirty feet long.  Out of it rose a huge simulacrum of Bernie Sanders, composed of God knows what materials.  Bernie’s enormous glasses, for example, seemed to have once been an automobile windshield.  The Senator 's  large mitts invited a certain amount of poetic license.   The boat was constructed in such a way that viewers along the route could not see the people within it who were helping to propel it and to make it rock dramatically every now and then.  It soon became obvious that the Status Quo being rocked was our Big Money Politics as Usual represented by various disquieted Republican candidates, but also, and conspicuously, by Bill and Hillary Clinton.  There were many other witty features that probably would have clinched the prize even had the content not been so widely approved.

 Mal-de-mer among the one percenters

           I grant that the demographics of rural Vermont have changed a bit since the Fourth of July in 1872, when Calvin Coolidge was born there.  Affluent urbanites with summer properties have replaced Robert Frost’s hired men.  Yet far better than most of our rural states, today’s Vermont has negotiated without excessive trauma the de facto disappearance of the early agrarian republic.  I noted years ago that the state is full of the kinds of eccentric human character, energy, and micro-entrepreneurship that conservatives prize, at least rhetorically.  Senator Sanders is usually an enthusiastic participant in two or three civic parades in the state he represents, but this year he was off in Iowa among the ethanol addicts where he was doing some rocking on his own behalf.  I was amused to read an article in Monday’s Times entitled “Sanders' Momentum in Iowa Leaves Clinton Camp on Edge.”   It began thus: “The ample crowds and unexpectedly strong showing garnered by Senator Bernie Sanders are setting off worry among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believe the Vermont senator could overtake her in Iowa polls by the fall and even defeat her in the nation’s first nominating contest there.”

Photographs courtesy of Richard A. Fleming, exercising his first amendment rights above, and Joan Fleming


Wednesday, July 1, 2015


one impulse from a vernal wood...

There is a difference between a nuclear family and a nuclear-powered one.  We have a brood of globe-trotters, and quite honestly we frequently have a better idea of the current whereabouts of Carmen Santiago than of our three offspring.  But this year we were able to corral sixty-six-point-six percent of them for a contemporary version of the family vacation of yesteryear—one that involved packing antsy infants and far too much of their gear into station wagons to drive long distances into the rain forest.  That is how six adults and three infants have come to find themselves is a contemporary rustic mansion deep in the backwoods of suburban Warren, Vermont.  So far we have mainly been watching it rain, but that is bound to change soon.

            We know this part of Vermont quite well.  For many summers in the Eighties and Nineties I taught in the summer session of the Bread Loaf School of English—a very fine master’s program offered by Middlebury College.   Middlebury, Vermont is itself hardly a metropolis, but the college’s Bread Loaf campus, which a hundred years ago was an upscale camp for New England “rusticators” in the heart of the Green Mountain Forest, is really out in the sticks.  I reckon that here in Warren we are about twelve miles, as the crow flies, from our old Bread Loaf haunts; should the crow be travelling by Subaru, however, he’d better recalculate to about twenty-five.  The ancestral engineers who laid out the roads in this part of the world were not great believers in the hypotenuse.

            All members of the family have happy memories from those old Bread Loaf summers, and we had them in mind when we were investigating possibilities on AirBnB.  The gorgeous house we found is on an appealing man-made pond, called Blueberry Lake, probably within a hundred feet of its shoreline.  It’s a little hard to tell because of the heavy woods.  But from the main kitchen-dining area one gets a fine sliver of a glimpse of water in the gap along the short, steep path used to transport the canoe. Our first two days were for the most part spent indoors trying to convince three squirmy kids that standing at a window watching it rain is actually a highly entertaining activity.  But on day three the sun burst forth early, and so did we.  This turned out to have been a wise move on our parts, as the rain returned early in the afternoon.

            Several hours of glorious sunshine allowed us all some opportunities for delightful athleticism.  Richard and Katie took their daughter Ruby, along with her cousin, bosom buddy, and unindicted co-conspirator John Henry, out in the red canoe.  Joan and I were not on hand to critique the regatta, but lots of photographic evidence confirms that it was exciting.  I was not on hand because Joan and I elected to go on a semi-serious trail hike in the adjoining National Forest.  We had noticed signs marking a trail-head less than a mile up the road.

            Vermont is all about the outdoors, and especially its intensely green woods.   There is a distinctive quality to the Vermont woods, a kind of wild freshness, that I have encountered nowhere else.  It’s one of those comforting places where Nature seems very much to be holding her own.  The nineteenth-century farmers cleared large acreages on the hillsides, pulled stumps, hauled tons of field stone to make fences and field boundaries.  The labor is almost unimaginable, and I can only suspect that the agricultural rewards were pretty exiguous.  The forest has now returned to many of these acres in a by now substantial second growth.  Not infrequently you now encounter old stone walls in dense woods.

            The trails in the National Forest are both wild and tame.  In addition to hikers, they entertain cross-country skiers in the winter and mountain bikes in the summer.  The steepness of the trail was as much as I could deal with on foot.  I have no idea how the bikers—of whom we encountered a few—manage.  After a good rain the whole mountain seemed as fresh as on the day after the world was made, full of the play of flashing sun and shadow, the gurgling of rivulets, and everywhere wonderful birdsong.

            We hope for more glorious days, but I have to say that if one must perforce be cabined, cribbed, confined, there is no better company than one’s three youngest grandchildren, each of them emerging from the chrysalis of infancy into distinct, determined, and delightful individual personality.  The pageant of the generations is a fascinating one, and moving from the center of the maelstrom to a slightly removed observation point is an opportunity for fruitful contemplation.  The comparative advantage enjoyed by grandparenting over parenting is its substantially optional character.  You can rock the kid in your arms as much as you like; then when it poops, pass it back to Mom.

Our promising future: Hazel, Ruby, and John Henry

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Goodbye, Old Paint

 Parting is such sweet sorrow...          

            Forty, maybe even fifty years ago I heard a Country and Western song on the radio.  At least I think I did.  I heard it once and once only, paying little attention to it at the time.   But now that I need it, I am unable to recover it.  And since no Google,  Bing, or Yahoo search can retrieve it, I am left to doubt my memory or perhaps my sanity.  But here’s a big clue: it very improbably rhymed the words vehicle and icicle, improperly stressing the final elements of each and pronouncing them as a Hollywood cowboy might imagine them to be pronounced in Skunk Creek, West Virginia.   If any of my unusually erudite readers can identify it for me, I will be most grateful, though its identification is not the point of my mentioning it. 

            The current relevance of the song lay in its theme, which was the fidelity, reliability, unwavering allegiance, and trustworthiness of the singer’s automobile.  This man appeared to have had a hard life.  A lifetime of frustrations and letdowns left him emotionally wounded and fearful.  His erotic life, in particular, had been a long string of disappointments and betrayals.  He had been walked out on, cheated, stomped on, two-timed, and generally humiliated by a string of females.  He could never love again—love women, that is.   What he loved was his car.  His car never let him down.

            Only decades later would I come to appreciate the singer’s particular form of auto-eroticism, which at the time seemed a little strange to me.  It was I believe in 1994 that I purchased from a colleague-friend a steel gray 1990 Toyota Corolla with about 25,000 miles on its odometer.  The general appearance and feel of the car were confirmed by the seller, who reported that it worked just fine, that it indeed had recently successfully initiated his 'teen-aged son into the ranks of licensed New Jersey drivers.  My colleague and his wife, however, now wished to purchase a Saturn, and the Saturn dealer was offering such a pathetic trade-in offer for the Toyota that he preferred to sell it privately.  In case you blinked and missed the Saturn, it was a General Motors flash-in-the-pan of the decade of the 1990s.

            Although I made no unnatural or unchaste emotional investment in my car, I did in time come to assign to it a feminine pronoun.  I certainly came to think of her as a member of my family.  I drove her happily through two terms of Bill Clinton and then two of George W. Bush.  Eventually in the Obama era pieces started falling off and needing to be replaced.  I hovered between hope and change.  My children drove the car.  Eventually my eldest granddaughter, now known as The Graduate, needed to prepare for her driving test, and the trusty and experienced Corolla was, as they say, there for her.

            My car aged gracefully, but she did age.  At some point recently I became aware that she was commanding only modified approval from my wife Joan.  Ken Larini, on the other hand, approved unconditionally.  He was the proprietor of Larini’s Garage, and he has just this last month gone out of business—one of many venerable local institutions my car outlasted.

            How strange are the operations of the invisible hand!  Not too long ago my athletic spouse required a consultation with an orthopedist.  She found herself talking with a doctor she had never met before, a youngish man though no stripling youth, who seemed to recognize her name.  “I believe my father sold a car to your husband years ago,” he said.  It had been the first car he himself had ever driven.  He had been through high school, college, medical school, residency, and several years of professional practice since then.  The news that I was still driving the car flabbergasted this man.  It was in turn his astonishment, perhaps, that led Joan to draw my attention to a cunning scheme participated in by our local NPR station WHYY in Philadelphia.  They have a nearly painless way in which you can give them your old car in lieu of a cash donation.

            Even so had not a massive fluid leak appeared suddenly in the left rear wheel, leaving the Toyota literally unstoppable, I might have persevered.  I put the car up on the lawn, Arkansas style, but Princeton just isn’t that kind of place.  My neighbors are reasonably tolerant of my eccentricities, but I don’t want to press my luck.  The guy from Browns Mills who came with the flatbed to take her away couldn’t believe his good fortune.   He judged any mileage under 300,000 as “hardly broken in.”  I’d be very surprised if the old car ever shows up at the wholesaler in Rhode Island to whom I signed over the title.  I expect the tow-truck guy will be driving it around the Pine Barrens for the next decade or so.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bernard Malamud

            I have resisted increasingly importunate invitations to “monetize” this blog—that is, to license Mr. Google to try to sell you Coca Cola while I am ostensibly discussing the metempsychosis of material individuality or whatever—but I allow myself once every other year to make one quasi-commercial pitch.  I refer to my self-appointed role as cheerleader for the Library of America.  Most of us think of American power almost exclusively in economic or military terms.  Certainly our Congress, who regularly spend more on a part of a single weapon than they do on the combined annual budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, think that way.  But America’s cultural contributions in the fields of serious art and literature continue to be quite extraordinary.  (American dominance in popular culture hardly needs mentioning.)  Every nation should know and honor its own literary tradition, and many do so magnificently.  You are unlikely to encounter a cultivated Frenchman who doesn’t have a volume or two of the beautiful Bibliothèque de la Pléiade on his shelves.  The fairly recent founding of the Library of America, which produces in a beautiful uniform series moderately priced, very high quality editions of important American writers, ended a national embarrassment.

             At this point in my life I ought not to be adding to my “permanent” home library—the scare-quotes intended to cast ironic light on the idea that I could possibly still be thinking that any of my possessions are permanent.  But I find myself making exceptions in certain categories, and above all in the Library of America.  Over the past few weeks I was for a song able to pick up practically untouched copies of two volumes of the LoA edition of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986).

            How did I miss reading Malamud back in the day?  After all, he was winning prizes and getting lots of attention.  Perhaps it was because he was being so vigorously peddled by our intelligentsia as a “Jewish writer”, as though the category required some arcane ethnic expertise unavailable west of the Hudson, where I was at the time.  Well, you pay your money, and you take your choice.  You can’t read everything.  When I was an undergraduate in the late Fifties I bet the metaphorical farm on three American novelists—James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978),  John O’Hara (1905-1970), and William Styron (1935-2006).  I doubt that anybody under fifty has even heard of Cozzens, and I cannot imagine many are still reading O’Hara.  My investment in Styron was closer to being prescient, but I have to judge him finally as a disappointment. 

So the Library of America’s first two volumes of Malamud—covering the decades of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties—are a kind of wonderful literary time capsule that allow me to go back and fill some unsightly gaps.  Late is generally better than never and often a great deal better.

            Malamud is a real master of the short story, and I have read several of his pieces with delight.  But I have spent most of my time on what must be his two most famous novels, The Natural and The Fixer.  My first surprise was that both of them are historical novels, though with very different senses of the “historical”.  The history behind The Fixer is sinister and repellent: an episode of the infamous anti-Semitic blood libel, born in the Middle Ages but still virulent in the last years of Romanov Russia.  If the subject alone is not enough to make you anxious, Malamud’s remorselessly complex characterizations will do the trick.

 The medieval blood libel--still going strong in 1913, and possibly in 2013

            Perhaps paradoxically the essence of historical fiction does not lie in fidelity to generally agreed upon historical “facts” but in the artist’s ability to reimagine them defensibly.  Malamud’s “take” on the episode of the blood libel offended the offspring of the victim/hero of the originating events.  This man (Mendel Beilis) had died only in 1934.  All Malamud could say was the obvious: two different stories, in some ways similar, in others very dissimilar.  As for his brilliant debut novel, The Natural, the story of a baseball player, it does have a definite historical germ in a bizarre instance of what might be called the “John Lennon syndrome”.  From time to time some deranged person seeks fame by shooting some famous person, and before there were rock stars there were baseball stars.  Yet its real “history” is the imagined world of the locker rooms and ballparks of the age of Babe Ruth.  But that is only the beginning of the book’s excellence.  Malamud is a “baseball novelist” in the same way he is a “Jewish novelist”—by getting inside his own minutely observed created world and animating it in a way irresistible for a reader.  Roy Hobbs, the “natural,” is perhaps a strange epic hero, but one perfectly suited to the strange epic world that, somewhere between fact and literary invention, was once our “national pastime”.

          So while it is perhaps a little embarrassing to be "discovering" major writers other people were reading half a century ago, it is comforting, indeed exhilarating to know that I have a copious source of future delight already on my shelves or modestly awaiting me, amazingly undervalued, among the Ebay listings.

Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the Hollywood version