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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.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

» June 10th, 2019

Note: I think Wilde was a great playwright but not so much a great novelist. The Picture of Dorian Gray seems more of a vehicle for Wilde to present his philosophy of aesthetics than a successful modernist work. That said, when a talent such as Wilde falters even a little the result is worth it, as is this book.

“A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do.”

The quote is one of hundreds offered up by Lord Henry Wotton, who veritably speaks in such pithiness, and it’s entirely ridiculous as a factual claim. Which is not to suggest that there is not an element of truth in it. What I find worth pondering is the relationship between the work we are required to do to survive and the desires we want to pursue to live. One reason why I’m deeply intrigued by the guaranteed minimum income is that I see it as a step in the direction of allowing many Americans more time to live fuller lives dedicated to grand passions. The current requirement that we work incessantly to pay rent, eat, and cloth ourselves is an antiquated hangover idea in a society marked by our level of technology and wealth. We need a concerted protest movement against super wealth, be it in the form of individuals, familial dynasties, or corporations. Our happiness–one fueled by the desire to be curious and creative humans–hinges on it. How do we get there? Here are two seemingly random facts: a) my close friend could not find the time to read Middlemarch last year because her work schedule drove her into the ground so she could make 60K a year; b)Amazon paid no federal income tax last year. Anyone want to connect these dots with me?

How to do Nothing (cont.)

» June 8th, 2019

Note: My repeated references to the same book should not necessarily imply an endorsement of that book. This one, for example, has many interesting moments but ultimately falters on several structural and interpretive problems that I’m not really interested in elaborating in this space. If you want to know more about the book, or at least my thoughts on it, email me at james.e.mcwilliams@gmail.com.

Odell quotes several times from a book called The Embodied Mind, and one quote that caught my attention was this: “Cognition is not the representation of a pre-given world by a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind.” (p. 142)

Initially I was taken in by the word “representation.” The idea that our minds represent reality, rather than confront it as an objective phenomenon, seems an empowering take on what we do when we encounter the world. Next, the notion that anything about such an encounter is pre-established is certainly worth questioning, as the quote does. After all, if we consider what this premise allows–basically nothing short of the power to create our own realities–the moral responsibility to be thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent becomes paramount. I think about this responsibility a lot as a parent. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat-race of “success” for kids growing up in a world of privilege. As the father of an upcoming high school senior I’m tormented by the prospect daily. But I think what’s critical is that parents spend more time helping their children cultivate characters rooted in the broadest concept of thoughtfulness. George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) has her character Dorothea Brooke (from Middlemarch) say something to the affect of “I enjoy thinking about my thoughts.” Therein lies a very basic form of happiness–and something profound. As a parent, I want to raise children who feel this way, can always retreat into the pleasures of their own thoughts and feelings, and who can creatively and compassionately enact “a world and a mind.”

How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (by Jenny Odell)

» June 7th, 2019


Note to readers: For the next year I will be treating this space as a kind of reading journal. Rather than confine my thoughts to a notebook, which I have done for the last decade, I will instead make them more public. In some ways this represents a natural progression from being totally unsure of my analyses to being not quite totally unsure of my analyses. These posts will follow no particular agenda or order but will reliably start with a quote from my reading and respond to it according to my mood. Annually, I attempt to read at least 60 books– I’m currently at #28.

Quote: “There’s something important that the moment of stopping to listen has in common with the labyrinthine quality of attention holding architecture: in their own ways, each enacts some kind of interruption, a removal from the sphere of familiarity.” (p.9)

It seems like this challenge is heightened by the tyrannical means through which social media reinforces that “sphere of familiarity.” Recently I chose to leave Twitter and Instagram. I’d always told myself that I was the one in control of those platforms, not the other way around. Wrong. Freed from their distracting influence–and, yes, a little out of the loop as a consequence–I have been far more relaxed and productive with my reflections and contemplations. My writing became immediately more prolific and attentive to stylistic integrity and voice. But more than all this, I also noticed that I was in a better position to do what Odell suggests: allowing my attention to rest and linger on more meaningful, inherently rewarding spaces. There is nothing hugely new or surprising about this Merton-esque response. But what does get overlooked as a benefit of leaving that suffocating sphere is how, once you are steeped in more meaningful interruptions, you bring a better self to social relations with friends and family. You become, in essence, better company, if only because your perspective is one that is not informed by the monocultural industrial complex through which today’s algorithms structure so much of our lives. You have traveled elsewhere, visited strange lands, and you have stories to share.


» May 7th, 2019


I encourage you check in and subscribe to my daughter’s blog, Zest. She has an interesting take on the intersection of fashion and individuality, and a lot of insightful general ideas to boot. Meanwhile, I have a backlog of articles to post and will do so very soon. My own blog has been dormant for a while but is getting ready to pick up again. Thanks for sticking around.


Rivers in Southern Literature

» December 26th, 2018

This piece originally ran in The Smart Set.

In the morning,” wrote a wistful Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist.” And so the Merrimack River, which young Henry was surveying with a friend in 1839, emerged in print as an idealized thing, a natural phenomenon of a Massachusetts ecosystem inseparable from human activity — mingling its elegant vapor with the “smoke of our fire” — while being warmly respectful of all surrounding features. Nice.

I recalled these dulcet Thoreauvian reveries while at the same time observing the Merrimack’s cantankerous counterparts: the violent rivers that wreak Biblical havoc in the literature of the American South. Rivers do not gracefully ebb and flow through the southern literary landscape; instead, they swell into angry ribbons of mud thickened sludge, rising with ruthless force to exceed their boundaries and submerge human ambition and hubris in the same gutted delta, washing the folk away — physically and emotionally — alongside the precarious detritus of their betrayed surroundings. Nothing calming about them. A river in Thoreau’s oeuvre invites admiration; but in the southern variation it becomes, as Eudora Welty put it in The Eye of the Story, the South’s “describable outside,” the very essence of place “that defines us, willy-nilly, to others.”

Once you key into that definition, the distinction between the Merrimack and its southern brothers takes on more than anecdotal regional significance. Whereas rivers in the literature of the north urge us, as Whitman cheerily suggested in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (Leaves of Grass), to be “refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,” in the iconic work of southern literature they are a collective phenomenon that, as Faulkner explained in Absalom, Absalom!, “runs not only through the physical land of which it is the geological umbilical, not only runs through the spiritual lives of the beings within its scope, but is very Environment itself, which laughs at degrees of latitude and temperature . . .” The southern river does not, in other words, merely coexist; it coopts, swallows, defeats, humiliates, drowns.

See more here.

Deliverance as a Runaway Slave Narrative

» December 6th, 2018

When Burt Reynolds died last August, the obits recounted the strange life of an iconic American actor. Particularly weird was how Reynolds often lied about where he was born. He said he was born Waycross, Georgia. Why anyone born in Lansing, Michigan would want to be from Waycross, Georgia is a baffling question. What we do know is that Reynolds, who always identified as southern, and even affected a twang to fit the image, was, with this odd fib, participating in a cultural practice with roots dating back to nineteenth-century plantation culture. Burt Reynolds was “storying.”

To best understand storying one could do worse than turn to Kevin Young’s The Grey Album. Slaves, denied evidence of their heritage, resorted to counterfeiting tactics to recover a sense of identity and community. The trickster, separated from self, society, and family, storied his way to survival. It was a strategic embellishment, a move that allowed enslaved African Americans and their descendants to “forge their own traditions . . . even their own freedom.” Ultimately, it was a habit of mind, one most urgently cultivated in the hothouse of necessity—usually underground, down in the hole, trying to escape the master.

If Reynolds’ penchant for storying led him to identify as southern, his role in the 1972 movie Deliverance, based on the novel of the same name, allowed that penchant to intersect with art. Based on the novel by the Georgia writer James Dickey (who also wrote the screenplay), Deliverance is an underappreciated and misunderstood film, one in which Reynolds clearly thrived as a swarthy Lewis Medlock. The movie is typically characterized as a thriller, or (more generously) as a psychological and physical journey undertaken by four Atlanta suburbanites on a canoe trip down North Georgia’s Coossawattee River.

Read more here.