Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dangerous Reading

Blog day has arrived, and once again I have been so preoccupied with life as to have neglected art shamelessly. If you will forgive a comparison between things minute and things much greater, I once again I find myself in the situation so frequently faced by Dr. Johnson in the eighteenth century. Johnson was one of our language’s greatest journalists, and one of the very first Englishmen to earn a living almost entirely from his writing. Journalism used to have something to do with journals, and journals (as any graduate of French 101-A) will know, has something to do with jours (days). To digress only a few steps more, it should be obvious that our word journey must be a cousin to journalism, a journey once being the distance one could walk in a day.

In any event Johnson always faced deadlines on a weekly basis, and he often faced deadlines on a daily basis. Whether weekly or daily, however, his modus operandi was unchanged. He would often begin writing his pieces only when the printer’s devil arrived importunately at his door to pick up finished copy to take back to the shop.

Thus I begin. The entry will be anecdotal, as so much great journalism has been over the centuries. I have a very clear idea of the subject matter, but I am at a loss for a title. Three possibilities: (1) “Physics and Fatality”; (2) “When Inanimate Objects Animate”; or (3) “How Harriet Beecher Stowe Gave Me a Fat Lip”. Of course the readers of this blog, being a highly select group, are probably capable of coming up with something better; and I invite them to do so.

First, however, a literary quiz. How many of you recognize the following dialogue from an opening scene of a great twentieth-century novel? If by any chance you have not read this great book, I advise you to do so soon.

"Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, and has not only bought it, but has already spilled it. So the meeting will not take place..."

Mikhail Bulgakov

Here’s a hint. The speaker is actually the Devil, well disguised, of course, and travelling under the name of “Woland”; the person he is addressing is a somewhat Faustian Soviet literary critic named Berlioz. Berlioz has no idea what Woland is really telling him: namely, that he, Berlioz, will very soon be decapitated. How could he know? He has no idea who Annushka is, not that it matters, and he rarely if ever contemplates the fashion in which an oleaginous substance might modify the wonted friction of a shoe sole against a pavement. No, Belioz’s mind is fixed not upon the fatality of physics but upon flimsier literary matters.

Indeed so was mine, a few days past, when I set out to recover a striking passage I half remembered reading in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. It was the story of a nurse attached to one of the Union hospitals in the Civil War.* This woman died and, by her own request, was given a military burial among the men to whom she had ministered.

I keep my volumes of the “Library of America” on two of the upper shelves of a tall bookshelf in the dining room. I have them organized according to a private system, roughly though not slavishly chronological, with occasional thematic medleys. One of these is the Civil War, which happens, at the moment, to be center-right on the very top shelf, barely accessible even to my long reach.

The space allotted is finite; yet the admirable productions of the Library of America continue to appear. The results, in my household, are a very tight fit and even some double shelving. I had to pull rather hard to release the Whitman volume from its crowded spot between General Grant and Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe—or, as it turned out—between a Rock and a Hard Place. I had to pull so hard, in fact, that three books came out of the shelf, but only one in my hand. With the lightning reflex and native athleticism of my vanished youth I was able to catch Grant in my left arm and hug him to my breast. This left me, with both hands full, helpfully cooperating with the descending novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe, still in their strong and sharp-cornered box, by presenting my face to its full impact.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is most famous for having written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that had a tremendous impact on American public opinion concerning chattel slavery. It was with reference to this book that President Lincoln, upon being presented to the author, is supposed to have asked the following question: “Are you the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war?”

“Little lady,” indeed! Let me tell you, this “little lady” gave me a fat lip. Don’t mess with her. She’s deceptive, like the Monty Python rabbit. Next time I’ll take my chances with General Grant.

*She was 'A lady named Miss or Mrs. Billings'”. See p. 754 of the Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, as I eventually did, following emergency first aid.