» Arrange a Lecture with James!

A Confederacy of Dunces

» September 30th, 2019

 

I’d been wanting to write this essay for many years, so was thrilled when Public Books answered my query. By journalistic standards, it’s a lengthy piece, with the introduction excerpted here and a link to the full article appearing at the end. 

Thelma Toole, the mother of the novelist John Kennedy Toole—author of the extraordinary almost-unpublished novel A Confederacy of Dunces—delivered one of the most irresponsible accusations in American literary history. But responsibility really wasn’t her thing. Instead, it was to ensure that her son’s genius would be acknowledged: preferably by the world and ideally by means of Robert Gottlieb, a kingpin of New York publishing.

So when Gottlieb, a young but virtuosic editor at Simon & Schuster, opted not to publish Ken Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the mid 1960s—and then when the 32-year-old author killed himself in 1969, 50 years ago this past March—Thelma mixed correlation and causation, sending up a full-throttled J’accuse from New Orleans to New York. Gottlieb—she stated publicly1—by rejecting Toole’s manuscript, had effectively killed her son.

Gottlieb’s restraint in the face of Thelma’s behavior was more than heroic. He stayed silent, recognizing that a grieving mother will do horrible things to assuage her suffering. But Gottlieb cannot be so easily exonerated from another charge leveled against him. This one came from the broader literary establishment and was backed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded A Confederacy of Dunces a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Certainly by then, if not before, this accusation could stick: Gottlieb, like much of the New York publishing world at the time (eight other presses would pass on the manuscript), misunderstood Toole’s book.

Today, 50 years after the death of Toole, during a technological era when social media intensify and publicize our status anxieties, and at an ecological point in time when the city where the novel originated—New Orleans—is under seasonal threat of Armageddon, it has never been more important to revisit Toole’s masterpiece.

If only as a critique of late capitalism, A Confederacy of Dunces uncannily identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “Make good.”

Keep reading here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fast Life

» September 6th, 2019

Tim Dlugos is a poet that a friend introduced to me by reading a poem of his into my phone. I was enchanted. But it was a hectic day and all I could remember was that the poem was perfect and the poet’s name started with a D, not followed by a vowel.

A year later, at the library, I searched for him, D…g? . . l?… and eventually I landed on his collection A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos. I can’t really summarize the poems other than to say they track the intricacies and love and lust through the jungle of AIDS and death. Dlugas seemed incapable of a dull line.

Like a lot of great poetry it’s what’s left out that captivates:

 

It’s cold, you note

(correctly) as we walk

to the train

 

It’s midnight, it 

will be colder 

when you leave 

6 a.m. or so . . .

 

This is such a wonderful poetic somersault, with the flip left out. You head home with a potential lover you know might be an actual lover.  To fill the space he says “It’s cold.” The forced nature of the comment makes the anticipation between the walk to the train and the bed palpable. The clock strikes midnight and, suddenly, you are, as the voyeur/reader, curtained off. This is a private moment. But then morning threatens and we’re let back in. The sky is pale blue with dawn and what thrilled to the core six hours earlier is a now source of ineffable sadness. Sadder than a petite mort.

 

 

 

1619

» August 18th, 2019

Today’s New York Times‘ Magazine issue was based on the single and profound conceit that slavery began in the American colonies in 1619. In terms of editorial packaging, it was an editor’s dream. Consider: the 400-year anniversary of the defining scar on our nation’s past–slavery– coinciding with a white supremacist president who has revived the racism our better angels have tried, however inadequately, to resolve and redeem. You’d be a fool not to make the most of this anniversary.

But the problem is that 1619/slavery connection is wrong. It’s factually not the date slavery began in what Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor, implies was “our nation.” There was no “our nation” in 1619. There was England. And her colonies. “The country’s true birth date” was not, as Silverstein tells us, 1619. It was in fact 1776. But the problem here is not with the ridiculous ahistorical implication that the US was somehow accountable for what happened a 150 years before its founding. It’s rather with the more complicated origins of North American slavery itself.

I’m not going to belabor things too much here. But I only want to make two quick and essential points: a) the arrival of 20-30 slaves in 1619 cannot be characterized as having “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery”; and b) it does the world of elite journalism, much less those of us who want to trust it, no good to hinge its truly noble commitment to righting historical injustice on bad history.

Now, to succinctly elaborate the former claim: The 20-30 Africans who disembarked in Virginia might have been slaves on the ship from which they disembarked. But when their feet hit Virginia soil they were by no means slaves, at least in terms of what slavery would become. There were as yet no slave codes in Virginia, only an array of contractual agreements dealing with indentured servants. It was into the wide framework of these indentured arrangements that these 20-30 Africans were incorporated into Virginia’s tobacco economy. These black servants–not slaves– enjoyed some level of legal protection on par with white indentured servants. As Edmund Morgan has shown, black and white servants toiled together, sued their masters’ together, escaped together, and even made it through their servitude and owned land together. Indeed, Anthony Johnson, a black servant who fulfilled his contract, eventually grabbed up land and worked it with white indentured servants!

The origin of American slavery actually came in 1676, when black and white servants linked arms and rebelled, quite violently, against their masters, in an event known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Tidewater masters, realizing that racism could diffuse the class tension that almost left their heads in a pile of rubble, began to impose slave codes as the dust of the this massacre settled.  Perhaps slave codes might ensure that the poorest whites would no longer unite with blacks. Rather, due to legal designations, those whites could feel a sense of superiority to blacks, and even some affinity with the rich whites. Slavery could pull that off.

Trump’s race baiting makes a hell of a lot more sense in this more accurate narrative. But–and to point b– I imagine the NYT Magazine wasn’t willing to wait another half century to get history right. Upshot (a word the journos love): the 1619 gambit is a darling that should have been killed.

 

Ammons

» August 17th, 2019

 

 

 

A.R. Ammons was a southern poet who grew up poor on a Carolina tobacco farm owned by his Pentecostal parents. He scratched his way to that sweet spot between total immersion in and angry disownment from parental influence and majored in science at Wake Forest University. Poetry snuck up on him as he stared into the South Pacific as a soldier during WWII–”The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination”–and he wrote like a demon on weekends and evenings while making a living in his father-in-law’s glassware business. In 1977, his poem “Easter Morning” recollected a visit back to North Carolina:

. . . . I cannot leave this place, for

for me it is the dearest and the worst,

it is life nearest to life which is

life lost: it is my place where

I must stand and fail . . .

As a resident of Austin, Texas since 1994, and having grown up in Atlanta, where I make obligatory and frequent visits to family, this quote spoke up to me. Both places have been transformed by untethered greed and creativity. The physical landscape has been altered so drastically under these not incompatible influences that the only continuity that I can positively identify is the literal longitude and latitude measures that mark these homelands in Google space.

In Atlanta, I now get lost in the same stretch of three miles between my home and high school. In Austin, if you leave for a week, it’s as if someone took a giant weed whacker to blocks of old structures and saturated the earth with Miracle-Gro for boxy big-windowed buildings. The whole  transformative project seems catered to an odd but fierce millennial-inspired dedication to “lifestyle” and “quality of life” and it’s as shallow as a kiddie pool full of warm piss.

Yet “I cannot leave this place.” It’s the darnedest and dearest and the worst. I stand here, for sure, and even more for sure, I fail here. Cascades of failure. My homeland cuckolds me on a daily basis and yet I remain, obediently and with disarming loyalty, loyal to her turf. Explaining this adherence to place would likely require going deeper into my psyche than I wish to do in this public forum, but there seems an easy explanation: Austin is where my friends are and Atlanta is where my family is. I know, yawn. But time ensures this tyranny. We abide our geography if we want to be grounded in a way that matters, and in the way that Ammons so brilliantly understood.

Meeting Cormac McCarthy (Garry Wallace)

» July 25th, 2019

Cormac said that education often got in the way of understanding.

One of the finer pleasures of being a book hunter is that, if you hound around used/rare bookstores enough, you sometimes find wedged into a wayward shelf a book you have never heard of by a writer you have never heard of, and, for whatever weird intuitive reason, you pick it up (in this case, for $8.00) and end up enthralled.

Meeting Cormac McCarthy, by Garry Wallace, is a self-published volume I spotted at Crescent City Books, in New Orleans (a great city for bookstores). The first essay, and the title of the book, contained the quote cited above, one that Wallace paraphrased after getting to spend a few days with the notoriously elusive author of the finest literature being written today. (Suttree, for my money, is unsurpassed in the canon of American Lit, except perhaps by Moby Dick and Invisible Man.) 

I love the quote. I’m a university professor but I’ve never been much convinced by the pedagogical mission underscoring my professional existence. If nothing else, I think my decision to model a passion for literature and the kinds of experience that makes literature stick might inspire a Quixotic student or two. But I honestly think the vast majority of my students would be better off chucking the best four years of their life for an unconventional experience in the “real world.” (See my posts on Fermor.)

Cormac can’t stand academic horseshit–and most academic writing is total horseshit–and I agree that the best writing is free of such nonsense. Anyway, Cormac’s literature thrives by exploring those who have gone into the world and lived close to the bone of experience. Nobody in his novels has a degree. Mind you, I love the pursuit of esoterica and obscurity. Hell, I’m writing a book about a poet nobody knows. But I think what this guy Wallace does so well is channel Cormac’s understanding of a truth that’s totally lost on the vast majority of college students grinding away for a degree: You’re missing out on something you lack the ability to imagine.

A Time of Gifts (Fermor cont.)

» July 22nd, 2019

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.

Fermor continues to push the connection between representation and reality in the most intriguing ways. It’s something of a motif in his uneven but charming book. His reverential reference to Brueghel really pleased me. I wrote my college application essay (mind you, decades ago) on Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus.” It was a writing experience I remember with a certain amount of high schoolish nostalgia. (The fact that my son, now the same age as I was then, is currently fixated on another painting, “The Arnofini Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck, only sweetens the memory and moment.)

 

Art is reality–this point should be noted, if not tattooed into the brain. It represents but, in representing, it is. So art, in the most uncomplicated way, is real. I think Brueghel blended reality and representation so well due to the insane technical skill underscoring his work. According to a recent New York Review of Books piece, his virtuosity was peerless. Each painting is, according to author, “plausibly the greatest painting ever made.” Love that.

Perhaps as evidence that Brueghel fused art and reality so perfectly, poets have swept in to ostensibly usher his work into a poetic netherworld, to deem it beyond reality. But his painting won’t abandon the grit of life. W.H. Auden’ s “Musee de Beaux Arts” exemplifies this paradox with brilliance. Reading it, I cannot help feel how poetry, painting, and the world in front of me–all the suffering and pleasure therein– is, despite the ceaseless effort of modern bourgeois categorization, a convergence immune to fantasy or metaphysical flight, permitting us to feel it as real while also sailing calmly on.

Here’s Auden, best read very slowly:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Fire on the Mountain (Edward Abbey)

» July 20th, 2019

The landscape before me was much the same as that in the mural on the wall of the Wagon Wheel Bar.

Edward Abbey is not much of a novelist in my opinion. His non-fiction, most notably Desert Solitaire, is among the best in the American canon. But his novels are pedantic, preachy, and contrived. And yes, I still read them because, well, it’s Edward Abbey. My latest bout of frustration with this paradox was with Fire on the Mountain (1962).

The quote above rang a similar chord as did the one I last wrote about from Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. The big theme–the interchange between art and reality (as a general rule I’m a fan of both)– intrigues me. In the case of this quote, Abbey turns us to the iconography of the west, a region of the country that has arguably been shaped more by the imagery of it than our actual interchange with it. Is there really any way to experience the grandeur of, say, the Grand Canyon in its singular power without being biased by the endless imagery we have consumed before seeing it?

This was a question once asked by the great southern novelist and essayist Walker Percy (in Message in a Bottle). Years ago I took it to heart, and accepted it as a challenge, and headed to Arizona. After spending 17 hours running through the Canyon, starting at 3:30 am, I can say with some confidence that I saw the beast on its own terms. So I was disappointed in Abbey’s protagonist so easily accepting the interchangeability of tavern mural and actual landscape. Granted, the kid–Billy Vogelin Starr–is only twelve, but one hopes that he grows up a bit, and learns to think for himself. (Note: it’s possible that the quote is ironic, and that irony will only be evident at the end of the novel, when Billy has breathed the landscape–but I’m not sure Abbey was that kind of novelist.)

In the novel, Big Gov’ment takes Grandpa Vogelin’s land from him. Much of the novel involves Billy and grandpa rueing the imposition of the feds (Abbey’s libertarianism is a sticking point for me). What Billy never realizes, and what Abbey never seems to intuit, is that the supposed tyranny of Bureau of Land Management is nothing compared to the tyranny of the western iconography that wants us to go west young rich family to the nearest bullshit ski resort.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (A Time of Gifts)

» July 19th, 2019

For, if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one [Holland]; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work.

I’ve been meaning to read Fermor for years and, now that I’ve given in to whatever impulse drove me to pick this book off my shelves, I’m glad I did. As an 18-year-old, Fermor, in 1933, walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople, escaping a troubled youth marked by the chronic inability to follow rules. This book is a travelogue of his salvation, published in 1977. The account is witty and insightful but also discursive in a way that allows the author to observe what he does in the quote above.

It caught me immediately, had me reaching for my pencil right away, and I’m delving a bit here into why. I think it touches on the relationship between art and reality–however we want to define those terms–in a way that reminds us of the priming power that representative art can have on a careful viewer. But this power also raises the question of whether we want to be primed, whether art serves us well by doing so, and if that’s what is subversive about art. Furthermore, we might wonder: Did the painter, when he painted the Dutch landscape, anticipate that viewers would see it elsewhere and have their expectations shaped from afar? Or was it painted to appeal to those more locally, those who already knew the landscape, intending to evoke a different sort of response? Maybe this line of questioning is too historicist, but it seems to matter.

Fermor is unfazed by my concerns. He has no trouble with the way Dutch painting, which he was exposed to in Kent as a schoolboy, shaped his vision of the actual Dutch landscape as he moved through it on foot in the winter of 1933. (Oh, a great quote, not appropo to this topic, but still: “On foot, unlike other forms of travel, it is impossible to be out of touch.”) And good for him. His lack of angst over such matters makes him good company.

But I’m going to think a bit more about the connection between art and reality. For one: Is it ever possible to see anything fresh in our image-saturated culture, one where most of what we see has been presented to us in a schlocky commercial framework? If you find this concern a legitimate one, maybe spending more time in museums, looking at art, protects us from the ongoing denigration of reality through commerce posing as art. After all, would I rather have my idea of the Dutch landscape shaped by Bruegel or a travel brochure?

Frank Stanford

» June 19th, 2019

Note: I’m writing a biography of the poet Frank Stanford. Ask most any poet about Stanford and you’ll get a reaction. Ask anyone else and you’ll get a blank stare. Thus my attraction to Stanford, not to mention that his poems are brilliant. This excerpt is from Stanford’s poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. 

 

you must have a brain like a dill pickle Sylvester I said

here you is one my best and favorite blood brothers and you is crazy

nah its your book learning that’s done gone bad he said

 

I love these lines because it reminds me that the smartest people I know have no degrees and the biggest idiots I know have names followed by a half dozen credential-designating letters. As I writer I sometimes feel that I have spent my career trying to undo the damage that was inflicted on me in my 20s, as a young man learning to think and write in . . .  graduate school. The bad habits, the jargon, the over-educated cliches, the insufferable smugness–they take a lifetime to undo. I’m not so sure my book learnin’  has done gone bad,  as I think it has helped me think. But it’s very easy for the way the overeducated express themselves–fueled by our ridiculous insularity and assuredness– to create a verbal prison the we can spend a lifetime trying to escape.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

» June 14th, 2019

 

Note: While I’m always reading a couple/few books, Ulysses is on a perpetual slow spin. I’m reading it forever–usually just a few pages at a time. A new friend of mine, who gives tours in Dublin based on the novel (plug: https://www.tripadvisor.ie/ShowUserReviews-g186605-d10499551-r504251692-Dublin_Ulysses_Tours-Dublin_County_Dublin.html), told me that he learned to love the book by joining some friends in a pub once a week and reading it aloud. He said that by his eighth time through the book (lot of pub time, lot of pints) he started to get it in an intuitive way. Interestingly, I will often be alone but feel compelled to read the novel aloud. And I do. The thing is nothing short of a gift to the world. (Image above is the Dubliner Joyce at 20 in his Latin quarter hat, which would have been like wearing a pink fez in Vicksburg, Mississippi today).

“My Latin quarter hat. God, we simply must dress the character. I want puce gloves. You were a student, weren’t you? Of what in the other devil’s name? Paysayenn. P.C.N you know: physiques, chimiques et naturelles. Aha. Eating your groatsworth of mou en civet, fleshpots of Egypt, elbowed by belching cabmen. Just say in the most natural tone: when I was in Paris, boul’ Mich’, I used to.” 

Ah, Joyce. Lot of French in there–but not enough to distract from the point that we are all at least partial poseurs (which must be a French word). Artists in particular feel the need to dress the part. There’s Stephen (one of the novel’s protagonists and basically Joyce) with his hipster Latin quarter hat and his insider reference to the Boulevard St. Michel, the street in Paris where artists and writers congregated in cafes or, as Arthur Symons brilliantly described them, “brainsick young people who haunt the brasseries of the Boulevard Saint-Michel and exhaust their ingenuities in theorizing over the works they cannot write.” (Me)

Anyway, when I read (red) the above passage I began to think about the sartorial choices we make (or in very rare cases don’t) and how those choices align with the work we identify with. Last semester a philosopher I teach with wore the same outfit every day. I think his little experiment was fun, but also deeply related to the fact that he was a philosopher. But the real question I have is a chicken-and-egg sort of query. Does the sartorial predilection come first? I mean, does whatever mysterious element of our psyche that leads us to dress as we do–which, if you think about it, is about as intimate as we can be about ourselves with the world on a daily basis–shape our vocational choices? Or is it all just mashed up in our identities–clothes, person, work, love, political view, gender, race, ethnicity, view on animal rights and abortion and capital punishment and beer choice. Of course it’s just mashed up. But, when getting dressed,  it’s worth wondering who wears the pants, you or some ridiculous cultural expectation of what you are supposed to wear.