A Matter of Repose

In the light of the coronavirus, there has been much talk of face-touching, which we have been repeatedly told is a way the virus can get into our system and thus is to be avoided. I went to a concert Sunday night by the great country singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks, where he talked about trying not to touch his face. Then he touched his face, repeatedly.

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Fulks with his hand where it shouldn’t be.

He’s not alone. The New York Times recently reported on a 2015 study which filmed a group of medical students and found they touched their faces an average of twenty-three times an hour. Nearly half of the touches were to the so-called T zone—the eyes, nose, and mouth—through which a virus can most easily enter the body.

The Times also offered some tips on how to avoid or reduce the damage from this reflexive habit, including draping your hand in a tissue when face-touching, keeping your hands busy with a stress ball or some other activity, and, more generally reducing stress and cultivating calm.

The last item reminded me of the only literary passage on this topic I am aware of. I encountered it when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934) fifty years ago, as a summer reading assignment for high school. (It must have made a big impression on me, because it’s the only part of the book I remember.) The scene is a club in the south of France, and the character Dick Diver (based on Fitzgerald’s friend Gerald Murphy) thinks that such behavior reveals American men’s lack of “repose.” The relevant  Oxford English Dictionary definition for that term is “The state of being quietly inactive or relaxed, or of being free from care, anxiety, or other disturbances; ease, serenity.” In other words, the very qualities recommended by the Times.

Dick is willing to put his money, if not his hand, where his mouth is.

 

They were at Voisins waiting for Nicole, six of them, Rosemary, the Norths, Dick Diver and two young French musicians. They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose — Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with.

Things looked black for them — not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.

“We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches,” said Abe.

“Nevertheless Dick isn’t the ONLY man with repose —”

“Oh, yes, I am.”

“— but he may be the only sober man with repose.”

A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched — whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

A well-known general came in, and Abe, counting on the man’s first year at West Point — that year during which no cadet can resign and from which none ever recovers — made a bet with Dick of five dollars.

His hands hanging naturally at his sides, the general waited to be seated. Once his arms swung suddenly backward like a jumper’s and Dick said, “Ah!” supposing he had lost control, but the general recovered and they breathed again — the agony was nearly over, the garçon was pulling out his chair.

With a touch of fury the conqueror shot up his hand and scratched his gray immaculate head.

“You see,” said Dick smugly, “I’m the only one.”

Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Dick Diver, and cultivate our repose.

 

The Cyclone and the Trust-Buster

For today’s Wall Street Journal, I reviewed Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. Here’s the review:

Samuel Sidney McClure once said to his wife: “I would rather edit a magazine than be president of the United States.”

Today, that remark might elicit the response, “What’s a magazine?” But in the 1890s, it was a credible sentiment. Presidents, after all, had to contend with Congress, the press and the Electoral College. But to helm a magazine was to conduct an enterprise, as McClure wrote in ads for the one he launched in 1893, “designed to reflect the moving spirit of the time.”

It was indeed a moment when magazines were at the center of American culture. Part of the reason was a new literate audience. In Citizen Reporters, Stephanie Gorton tells us that at the time of the Civil War, 6% of the population had attended high school; by the turn of the century, the figure was more than half. This big chunk of the public not only could read but was able to stay in a chair and pay attention. Writing decades after his time on magazines, Ray Stannard Baker, a pioneer of long-form journalism, observed that in the turn-of-the-century period, readers “would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking—and ask for more.”

Technology boosted magazines as well: The arrival of electricity, halftone reproduction, the linotype machine, photography, the telephone and the typewriter allowed for the speedy production of a high-quality product at a reasonable price. (McClure once showed off a spiffy new printing press to his friend Mark Twain. The writer remarked, “Can that thing vote, too?”)

As for the competition, newspapers were partisan and (increasingly) sensationalistic, a 400-page book could be daunting, and movies had not yet begun to talk, emote or exceed a couple of minutes in length. And so magazines took up the task of informing and entertaining and sometimes provoking, among them the Century, Cosmopolitan, and the one that McClure, with characteristic immodesty, named after himself. (“Ah, Wagner,” he once mused. “He was the McClure of music.”) The publications were in everyone’s parlor, their writers’ names on everyone’s lips. After one of the muckraking writers McClure discovered, Lincoln Steffens, wrote an attention-grabbing series of articles called “The Shame of the Cities,” the boss was so impressed that he gave Steffens a 20-foot boat. Meanwhile, a cigar company approached the writer about endorsing its product. Reader, I will give you a cigar if you can name me even two current magazine journalists besides Malcolm Gladwell.

Outsize confidence was a lifetime characteristic of S.S. McClure, and Ms. Gorton’s book makes clear that it helped to fuel his Horatio Alger rise. (It was not unrelated to what today would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Rudyard Kipling, whose work McClure popularized in America, called him, in manic phases, a “cyclone in a frock-coat.”) Born in Northern Ireland, McClure grew up in Indiana, always one step from poverty. He couldn’t afford adequate outerwear and in the wintertime ran to school to keep warm. “Speed was my overcoat,” he said. It took him eight years to graduate from Knox College because every time he ran out of money, he’d withdraw from his studies and take up a route as a rural peddler.

After college he found his way to a series of positions in the publishing field and one day had a brainstorm that appeared to him, he later recalled, as “huge transparent globes like soap bubbles. I saw it, in all its ramifications.” His thought was to create a literary syndicate, acquiring stories and articles and placing them in newspapers all over the country. This was novel but not new; Charles Dana of the New York Sun had already embarked on a similar endeavor, selling stories by Bret Harte, Henry James and others. McClure took the Steve Jobs tack, polishing and expanding the idea and then acting as if it were his. “The proper policy of doing business is never originate if you can imitate,” he said.

All great editors have an eye for talent. After reading Citizen Reporters, I’m convinced that McClure had the greatest eye of all time. At the syndicate, he published—in most cases for the first time in the United States—Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. He sent Stephen Crane to report on Pennsylvania coal mines and, after reading a short story by a young California writer, commissioned Jack London to write his first novel.

The editors and writers he spotted and hired at McClure’s included (besides Baker and Steffens) William Allen White, Frank Norris, Willa Cather and Viola Roseboro. The last name is probably not familiar to you, but as the editor in charge of unsolicited manuscripts, she plucked from the slush pile work by the until-then-unknown Booth Tarkington, Damon Runyan and William Sidney Porter. (Porter would carve out a pretty good career as a short-story writer using the pen name O. Henry.)

But McClure’s greatest hire was Ida Tarbell. The two were born in the same year (1857), came from the heartland (western Pennsylvania in her case) and, rare among Americans at the time, had formative experiences in college. But the bond between them was even deeper than that, and Ms. Gorton appropriately and deftly structures her book as a dual biography.

Two years after Tarbell’s birth, oil was struck near her home, an event that would have profound consequences for the region, the country and Tarbell herself. Her father became an oilman, and the move initially pulled the family from poverty. But soon the cost of the industry became apparent, not only in damage to the landscape but in fires and accidents that took the lives of friends and neighbors. Tarbell wrote in her autobiography: “No industry of man in its early days has ever been more destructive of beauty, order, decency, than the production of petroleum.”

In time, her father’s fortunes suffered as a result of a secret plan devised by the railroads and the larger oil interests—dominated by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—to put the small oilmen out of business. Tarbell never forgot, and the experience ultimately led to her greatest work: a series of investigative articles on Rockefeller and his monopoly, published in McClure’s starting in 1902 and two years later forming a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. In its journalistic standards and rigor, doggedness, and clear writing style, the book could be said to have invented modern investigative reporting. In 2000, a blue-ribbon panel named it the fifth-greatest work of journalism of the 20th century. (No. 1 was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and in sixth place was Steffens’s 1904 collection The Shame of the Cities.) Tarbell could not have written it without the time, resources and moral support supplied by McClure.

Editor and writer had met cute, a decade earlier. Tarbell—whose lifelong quiet refusal to follow convention is inspiring—had moved to Paris with the idea of supporting herself as a writer. One day, about a year later, she opened her door to find that the person knocking on it was McClure, then in the middle of one of the frequent continental trips he took in equal parts to scout talent and draw down his alarming energy reserves. He said he had admired one of her recent submissions but had only 10 minutes to talk before his train left for Switzerland. He kept talking for three hours. When he finally left, he asked her if he could borrow $40. Surprisingly enough, she had it, and maybe even more surprisingly, she gave it to him.

Not long afterward, she joined the McClure’s staff in New York, just as the magazine was entering its golden period. A little more than a decade after its founding, circulation reached 400,000 and its journalism was driving the national debate. According to American National Biography, the January 1903 issue “has been called the most important single issue in the history of early twentieth-century periodical publication.” It included the third installment of Tarbell’s Standard Oil series, Steffens’s “The Shame of Minneapolis,” a piece by Baker investigating labor unions, and, it must be said, several works of genteel fiction and poetry that have not aged well.

Citizen Reporters, which is Ms. Gorton’s first book, doesn’t start auspiciously. There’s both a preface and a prologue, which is a little throat-cleary. Writing about the 1870s, she refers to Cornell as being in the Ivy League, a term that didn’t exist till the 1930s. Worst of all, she takes two separate occurrences and presents them as one composite scene. That isn’t an acceptable thing to do, least of all in a book about journalism, and her editor should have laid down the law.

However, as the book proceeds, one feels her gaining authority as a writer, and when she gets into the story proper, Citizen Reporters is solid, well-crafted and readable. It should be noted that much of the book traverses familiar ground, and Ms. Gorton’s notes cite many previous works. But she has also discovered letters and manuscripts from her subjects and effectively quotes them in the service of nuanced character portraits. Happily, none of her portraits are fuller than those of her principals, McClure and his creative other half, Tarbell. He was the undisciplined idea man who “valued accuracy and timeliness above all else”; she, as his editorial sounding board and star staff writer, was “the realizer of his visions.” They were never lovers but were something more than colleagues: Ms. Gorton calls them, at the height of their complementary powers, “a neatly effective symbiotic unit.”

The glory years at McClure’s ended abruptly. The boss’s confidence swelled into hubris as he schemed to start a second periodical, a bank, an insurance company, an entire Utopian town. Meanwhile, his infatuation with a female poet (and insistence on publishing her mediocre verse in the magazine) threatened his marriage and embarrassed his associates. In 1906 most of the senior staff, including Steffens, Baker and, yes, Tarbell, walked out to help launch a rival monthly, the American Magazine.

Both McClure and Tarbell lived a long time, into the mid-1940s. She wrote and lectured widely, but McClure suffered a series of business failures and ultimately became known as a remnant of a lost age, always good for an interview but difficult to shut up.Back in 1907, he had written Tarbell a letter that poignantly reflected not only how much he relied on her calm competence but also how painful the end of their partnership felt. It read in part:

“I dreamed of you a day or two ago. I often dream of you.

“I thought I was telling you how I found out that by speaking slowly & calmly & acting calmly I found I had much greater influence on people . . . & I thought that I was standing by your chair & you drew me down & kissed me to show your approval.

“When you disapproved of me it nearly broke my heart. . . .

“I wish you had not turned away.”

 

My Podcast, II

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Newton Minow testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1961. Photo: AP

Yesterday I described my idea for a podcast series called The Lives They’re Living,

Long story short: for about two years, I sent my pitch out to podcast companies. Half of them said no; the other half never responded. (I needed the backing of a company because I don’t have audio editing or production skills, and I wanted my episodes to be not just a monologue by me or a Q and A, but a produced story, in the manner of a This American Life piece, and for that I needed lots of help.)

Finally, a company expressed not only interest but enthusiasm, and agreed to back me as I made a pilot episode. The person we chose was Newton Minow, a 93-year-old attorney who is famous for one thing but has, I learned while putting together the episode, has accomplished and contributed so much more.

The company ultimately decided not to go ahead and distribute the series. I understood that — there’s very heavy competition to get podcasts out there in the ether — but I really wanted to get Newt Minow’s story out there, if only as a one-off piece on a public radio show or another podcast. To that end, I cut it from thirty minutes to eighteen, but still no luck.

Therefore, I’m sharing both versions of the piece. Here’s the original version.

And click here to get to the shorter version.

Thanks for giving a listen, and I hope you enjoy it.

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Minow getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a good friend,

My Podcast

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John Milius

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I had an idea for a podcast. Then I put together this pitch:

I’m sure I’m not the only person who opens the New York Times and goes straight to the obit section, or whose favorite issue of the Times Magazine is the last one of the year, the all-obit “The Lives They Lived.” I invariably encounter interesting, surprising stories of people I have not heard of, have barely heard of, or forgot I’ve heard of. Consider the ledes of just a few of the obits the Times has run recently:

  • “William J. Lombardy, who was one of the most talented and promising chess players of his generation, winning titles and accolades while he was still a teenager, but who all but gave up the game at the height of his career to become a priest…”
  • “Bob Schiller, a longtime television writer who had a hand in putting Lucy in a vat of grapes, getting Maude memorably slapped, and pitting Edith Bunker against a rapist…”
  • “Arthur Janov, a California psychotherapist variously called a messiah and a mountebank for his development of primal scream therapy — a treatment he maintained could cure ailments from depression and alcoholism to ulcers, epilepsy and asthma, not to mention bring about world peace…”

Another one began: “Tom Alter, an Indian-born character actor of American descent who spent his career playing Westerners in Bollywood films, died on Sept. 29 at his home in Mumbai. He was 67…

“With light skin, blue eyes and blond hair, which later turned bright white, Mr. Alter was an incongruous figure in Bollywood. But he spoke Hindi and Urdu fluently, making him a natural fit for roles like slick diplomats, British colonials, priests and police officers.

“You name it, I’ve played them all,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

As you read each of these obits and others you find irresistible facts and anecdotes, texture, drama, humor, and pathos.

They’re such great stories that, to me, the question is inescapable and obvious: why not tell them before the person has died? That’s what I propose to do in a podcast series, “The Lives They’re Living.” The premise is simple. Find people who, if they died tomorrow, would warrant a Times obituary. Then tell their story today—through interviews, archival audio, and narration.

The selection of subjects would not be quite as simple as I’ve framed it. I would disqualify anybody who’s too famous or claims too much of our attention—the Paul McCartneys, Jimmy Carters, Gloria Steinems on the one hand, the Ted Cruzes and LeBron Jameses on the other. The subjects would not have to be old, but I’d say as a rule of thumb that their claim to fame should have happened twenty or more years ago. And some people who would clear the Times bar—say, from having served in a presidential cabinet—wouldn’t qualify for this podcast, unless there was also some peculiar or distinctive thing about them.

And the premise is a bit more than a series of life stories. There would be an overarching emotional and thematic subtext: what is the meaning of a life, of having made a contribution, of having put one’s imprint on the world? Part of each piece, as well, is the subsequent story of the person’s contribution. In Arthur Janov’s case, for example, that entail charting the fortunes of his primal-scream idea as a therapeutic technique. For some subjects, there would also be the issue of how a singular moment—the claim to fame—resonated through their life, and how they approached Act II.

Such questions emerge, and become more pressing, over the course of one’s own life. For those of us in the Baby Boom (at 65, I’m smack dab in the middle), they’re more and more on our mind.

The lives would form themselves into themes, which might correspond to episodes (say, an hour containing three stories) or, to think optimistically, seasons of the series. Below are four such themes. I imagine that on average the real lineup of subjects will be less well-known than the examples given below, but they give a taste of the idea.

Innovators. People who started something big, and aren’t as known for it as you might think.

  • Aaron Fechter, who may or may not have invented Whac-a-Mole (Barack Obama’s favorite foreign-policy metaphor) but definitely invented the life-sized singing animals of Showbiz Pizza and Chick E. Cheese’s. (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a18927/the-man-who-made-the-whac-a-mole-has-one-more-chance/)
  • Maury Wills, the modern master of the stolen base.
  • Aaron Beck, who invented what’s generally considered the most effective form of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and who, at 95, is still practicing in Philadelphia.
  • Speaking of Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who invented The Philadelphia Sound.
  • Alan Kay, who among other contributions developed the technology that led to the laptop computer, the tablet, and the e-book.

One Shining Moment. People known for one big event, usually relatively early in their lives.

  • Felix Rohatyn, who in 1975 played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC) and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors
  • Charles Portis, who wrote the acclaimed novel True Grit in 1968 and then pretty much disappeared from public view—the Arkansan Thomas Pynchon (who I would say would not be a good subject for a show—people talk and speculate about him too much already).

Third Wheels and Fifth Beatles. They were overshadowed by their comrades and colleagues, but they have persisted, and have their own stories to tell.

  • Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, overshadowed for most of his life, who has come into his own as an interpreter of American standards.
  • Bernie Taupin, who for forty-six years has provided the lyrics to every Elton John song.
  • John Milius. In a 1978 interview, Steven Spielberg said that Milius was the key member of the group of young filmmakers that included himself, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola: “John is our Scoutmaster. He’s the one who will tell you to go on a trip and only take enough food, enough water for one day, and make you stay out longer than that. He’s the one who says, ‘Be a man. I don’t want to see any tears.’ He’s a terrific raconteur, a wonderful story teller. John has more life than all the rest of us put together.” But with the exception of Jeremiah JohnsonConan the Barbarian, and a handful of other notable films, Milius’s career has never reached the peaks of the others. In fact, he’s had more influence in the movie characters that were inspired by him: John Milner (Paul La Mat) from American Graffitiand Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski.

The Long and Winding Road. If icons weren’t a cliché, that’s what I’d call them. So we have to come up with another word.

  • Lee Friedlander, the documentary photographer who emerged with Garry Winograd and Diane Arbus, outlived them by thirty years or more, and is still doing innovative work at the age of 83.
  • Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote as many great Brill Building songs as Carole King and Gerry Goffin but somehow didn’t get the fame.
  • Lalo Schifrin, who personified the arrival of jazz into television and film scores and wrote the most iconic TV theme of all time: Mission Impossible.
  • W. S. Merwin, who, with the recent passing of Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery (both of whom would have been fine “The Lives They’re Living” subjects), is the last living poet of a splendid generation.
  • Sandy Koufax. Period.
  • Elizabeth Spencer, Southern short story writer and novelist, author of The Light in the Piazza, who published new work between 1948 and 2014.  (http://www.elizabethspencerwriter.com/index.htm)

I’d like to get moving on this as soon as possible, since time is a-passing.

And that was the pitch. Time indeed a-passed: since I wrote that, some of the people mentioned as possible subjects have died.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what happened to the pitch.

Movies in Other Movies

For a year and a half or so, I’ve been writing a blog called Movies in Other Movies: about films and TV shows with scenes in which characters watch other films in TV shows. This has long been a strange obsession interest of mine, and it’s been fun to deeply dive into it. I view it as a sort of (unpaid) book in progress, with forty posts written so far and probably about the same number to go. (Once you start looking, you find almost no end of movie-in-movie scenes.) The blog has one advantage over an actual book. At the start, I made a rule that each post has to contain at least one viewable clip, and it’s also been satisfying to obtain the (modest) technical know-how to make this happen. Unfortunately, benyagoda.com doesn’t support video, so to see the clips, head on over to the movie site.

Here’s my latest post.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

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A gif of the big dance number, thanks to sixactstructure.com

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

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Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

John Hersey Book Book Review

51F3Bl8MpYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal‘s April 27 edition. Since non-subscribers can’t read Journal articles, I’m posting it here.

Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima, by Jeremy Treglown.

It’s barely a quarter century since John Hersey died, at the age of 78, but already his life and his career as a writer feel so old-fashioned as to be antique. Hersey is of course best known as the author of Hiroshima—published as an issue-length article in The New Yorker in 1946 and as a book a year later, and never out of print since then—but he was an old-fashioned man of letters, whose body of work was as capacious and varied as that of an Emerson or a Disraeli. He wrote many other distinguished works of journalism in addition to his profile of six Hiroshima survivors; for example, The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), published when he was deep into his 50s, was a rigorously reported, deeply engaged and structurally inventive account of racial violence in Detroit. And he spoke out in essays, reports and speeches on the pressing issues of his day. Nonfiction was his strong suit, but his third book, the novel A Bell for Adano, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1945, and he always maintained the very 20th-century belief that novels were the gold standard of a writer’s output.

Hersey (1914-93) was also old-fashioned in what might best be described with the old-fashioned word “decency.” The late Gardner Botsford, an editor at The New Yorker, gently mocked him by dubbing him “Mr. Straight Arrow,” a designation borrowed by Jeremy Treglown for the title of his new book. (Botsford was comparing him to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a very curved arrow and to whom Hersey’s second wife was previously married.) Hersey came by his rectitude honestly. His parents were Protestant missionaries in China (he lived there till he was ten), and he inherited a reflexive urge to do good works and see the other fellow’s point of view. His civic engagement and high seriousness bore on his fiction, which took up weighty themes—sometimes weighing it down, critics often charged—and even on his reporting methodology. Treglown writes that interview subjects trusted Hersey because they picked up on his “imaginative sympathy . . . He was someone whose decency was recognized by other decent people, so they let him in.”

That Hersey belonged to a different era is also evident in the paper records, notes, and correspondence he accumulated and eventually donated to the library of his alma mater, Yale University. At one point, Treglown tells us, the Hersey archives took up 71 feet of shelving, and they have only grown since then. Even if one could imagine a current-day John Hersey, his collected papers would fit on an 8-gig flash drive.

Researchers fantasize about such a paper trail, but Mr. Straight Arrow frequently calls to mind the bromide “be careful what you wish for.” Biographers have always to be mindful of both big-picture forest and individuated trees; captivated by all this material, Treglown spends too much time examining bark. The book slows to a halt with extended discussions about the author’s photo and jacket copy for one of Hersey’s books; about whether Hersey did or didn’t name plants correctly in certain passages of Hiroshima; about negotiations with David Selznick about a never-to-be-realized movie version of the novel The Wall; and about the minutiae of the Yale English Department, of which Hersey was a product and to which he returned to teach from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s.

I’ve just referred to “biographers,” but the designation doesn’t apply to Treglown, at least not in this book. (A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has published proper lives of V.S. Pritchett, Roald Dahl and Henry Green.) It is, he writes, “a study of John Hersey’s career, not a full biography.” I imagine all the manuscripts, royalty statements and editorial back-and-forths on offer at Yale led him to that decision, but it generated a torque that seems to have directed him to library stalls and away from the wider world, to the detriment of the book. Judging by the text, end notes and acknowledgments, Treglown appears to have conducted no more than a dozen on-the-record interviews in preparing Mr. Straight Arrow. Talking to Hersey’s children, to a good sample of his scores of former students (instead of just one), to his surviving friends and colleagues at Yale, The New Yorker and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf not only would have provided anecdotes but also would have helped the author with perspective, sometimes a problem for the book.

Broader reading beyond just the Hersey papers would have helped, too. This was most clear to me in the material relating to The New Yorker: Treglown, who is English, doesn’t have a strong sense of magazine’s unique editorial culture, conventions and procedures and how they shaped Hersey’s work for it, which included not only Hiroshima but dozens of contributions from 1944 till 1988. The founding editor, Harold Ross, had an idiosyncratic approach to journalism and writing more generally, which showed up in the lengthy “query sheets” he attached to drafts of articles. Ross wrote a voluminous query sheet for Hiroshima, bringing up many minor points and some major ones. An example of the latter was prompted by Hersey’s reference, in his first draft, to a fact his characters probably wouldn’t have been aware of. Ross wrote:

Touchy technical point here, and an important one. This is a story throughout of what people see first hand and (except for a few parenthetical remarks) only that. Did this woman see her dead husband and know it that way. If so should be told that way. If not, should be out, as getting ahead of the story.

Hersey cut the line out. And Treglown makes no reference to the query sheet.

The book could also use a fuller and more nuanced sense of Hersey’s place in and ambivalent attitude toward the so-called New Journalism. Hiroshima is often named as pioneering some of the techniques associated with the movement, like dialogue and omniscient narration, yet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hersey spoke out what he saw as insufficient regard for facts and excessive self-promotion in some New Journalists. Treglown doesn’t mention an important 1980 essay where he laid out his criticisms, “The Legend on the License.” (“There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”) More seriously, he doesn’t seem to be aware that in a 1944 Hersey article about a damaged returning soldier, “Joe Is Home Now,” written in the style of a short story and cited by Tom Wolfe as a New Journalism precursor, “Joe” is a composite character, based on interviews with more than 40 veterans.

It’s annoying when reviewers say authors should have written a different book from the one they produced. But I can’t resist saying that if Treglown wasn’t going to do a full-scale biography he might have been better off writing a critical study of Hersey. His close readings of the author’s work are credible and smart, and he’s especially insightful on the way they reflect the author’s character. He writes of Hersey’s late novels, “Whatever parts of himself he was drawing on in these books, his puritanism encumbers them as fictional elements, and his reticence—surely part of the same apparatus—keeps them largely beyond biographical reach.”

That reticence, that rock-ribbed uprightness and uptightness, was an essential characteristic for John Hersey. It was part of what made him a great journalist, an ambitious and earnest but not first-rank novelist, and someone who, as the subject of this book, has proved frustratingly hard to pin down.

 

Flossing Your Prose

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I was pleased to review Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English, for the Wall Street Journal. And I was also pleased to note that soon after the review was published, the book shot up to the number 2 spot at Amazon.com, behind only Michelle Obama’s autobiography. No connection, I’m sure.

Here’s the review (note that I call him “Mr. Dreyer” because that’s WSJ style).

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris–a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker–published the splendid Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding Dreyer’s English.

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying–being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, ” ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

An illuminating and distinctive feature of Dreyer’s English is the portrait it provides of the copy editor’s trade. This differs from teeth-cleaning in that the subject–the author of a to-be-published book–is not directed to lie back with his or her mouth open, but rather to be part of the process.

The way it works is that the copy editor corrects spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like on the manuscript and then writes marginal suggestions or “queries” for other matters. Judging from Mr. Dreyer’s examples, these can be pointed, sometimes bordering on passive aggressive. In his section on redundancy, the author recalls editing a book containing the sentence “He implied without quite saying.” He goes on: “I was so filled with delight on encountering that, I scarcely had the heart to cross out ‘without quite saying’ and to note in the margin, politely and succinctly, “BY DEF.’ ”

Redundant or not, if the book’s author had insisted on keeping the phrase, it would have stayed. Mr. Dreyer recounts a dispute with Richard Russo, who had included in his novel Straight Man a sentence along the lines of ” ‘Hello,’ he smiled.” Mr. Dreyer wanted to revise, pointing out, with justice, that one cannot “smile” an utterance. But Mr. Russo held his ground and Mr. Dreyer ultimately gave in for a simple reason: “It’s his book.”

Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

And he loves him some footnotes. Many a page is bottom-loaded with asterisk, dagger and double dagger, and one footnote has two footnotes of its own. On the footnote matter, Mr. Dreyer might have heeded his own advice (he was talking about overuse of parentheses): “One too many coy asides and you, in the person of your writing, will seem like a dandy in a Restoration comedy stepping down to the footlights and curling his hand around his mouth to confidentially address the audience. One rather needs a beauty mark and a peruke to get away with that sort of thing.”

If I were Mr. Dreyer’s copy editor, I would suggest losing a “bit” or two, and maybe a couple of dozen footnotes. But I’d hold my fire on the rest. After all, it’s his book.

Adieu, Lingua Franca

For seven and a half years, I had the pleasure and honor of writing a weekly post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog on language and writing, Lingua Franca. Alas, the blog has been discontinued, although I’d assured that the offerings of me and my colleagues will be available forever at the Lingua Franca site.

Here’s my final post:

I recently got an email from my friend Milena Davison in which she commented, “I find myself increasingly annoyed with the use of ‘redact’ and ‘redaction.’ I learned and sometimes even used these technical terms in connection with textual — mostly ancient — studies. When and why were they appropriated and substituted for ‘blacked out’ or ‘censored’?”

I immediately got onto the websites of The New York Times, Google Books, and the Oxford English Dictionary — as I do — in search of an answer. Fifteen or 20 minutes later, I wrote back to Milena:

Interesting on redact. The OED doesn’t have a distinct definition for this meaning, but rather includes it in a broader one: “To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.”
The first relevant citation is from a 1957 law journal: “Means should have been adopted to redact De Gennaro’s confession and admissions — before their introduction into evidence.”
And then this from 1994: “But most disturbing is a confidential memo Ickes sent to Hillary Clinton on the RTC, which has been redacted from 25 pages to just one paragraph.”
It appears to have started as a legal term of art: The New York Times in 1973 quotes a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling: “public disclosure of testimony given by him before a Federal grand jury in that district on Nov. 26, 1971, redacted so as not to reveal the names of other persons or businesses mentioned therein.” And a federal judge in 1980: “counsel for the defendants had grossly overstated the number of documents that had been released in redacted form by the C.I.A.”
Maybe the first political use in the Times is from a 1983 article with the word in quotation marks, indicating that it’s a fairly new usage: “The agreement provides that subcommittee members and staff can have copies of ”redacted,” or expurgated, copies of the documents that have been withheld, and can demand to see the full, unredacted copies in executive session.”

Having done that much research, I resolved to expand it into a Lingua Franca post. Then I remembered that after tomorrow, there aren’t going to be any more Lingua Franca posts. Quite the pity that the world will be deprived of my complete and unredacted thoughts on redact! And the same with a number of other ideas I’ve been mulling over or looking into. For what they’re worth, here are some of the items in my real, virtual, and mental notebooks:

  • Headline from The Athletic: “Schultz: Kirby Smart knows bowl games have lost their relevancy …” Seems that relevancy has been increasingly used over relevance, leniency over lenience, etc. What’s next — importancy?…
  • Choose-your-own pronouns: Do I dare touch it?…
  • The expression move the needle has definitely been moving the needle lately. Another one’s set it and forget it. Trace their rise to popularity …
  • Rachel Maddow always chooses pled over pleaded. A change in usage?…
  • People pronouncing milk and bank as melk and benk: Is this in fact on the rise, or am I just noticing it because it annoys me so much?…
  • Spend a day answering emails by choosing one of Gmail’s three sometimes eerily prescient and sometimes way-off suggestions …

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  • From a Bloomberg News story: “About 7 percent of tweets prominent women receive in government and journalism were found to be abusive or problematic.” In some circles, problematic has long been a popular euphemism for more direct terms like “abusive,” “racist,” “hateful,” or “offensive.” What’s its appeal, and is it going wider? …
  • “Black and brown people” seems to be gaining on “people of color” …
  • “Never such truer words”: a thing? …
  • Sharp-eyed Emily Gordon sends a quote from a Washington Post article: “‘I am a normy guy,’ Davis said.” Emily notes: “It’s a common slang word, but it’s misspelled. It should be ‘normie,’ meaning exceptionally or overly normal, square, vanilla, straight, non-alternative. … So, ‘He listens to all that normie music from the radio’ (snicker). Or ‘She’s one of those normie girls who just cares about good grades and getting into college.’” How different from basic? Worth looking in to? …
  • The superiority of “looking in to” over “looking into”…
  • Did the seemingly common pronunciation of Beto O’Rourke’s first name as “Bay-toe” rather than “Bay-doh” signal a decline in alveolar flapping in American English? …

For seven and a half years, the prospect of having to write a Lingua Franca post every week has concentrated my mind wonderfully. It’s forced me to turn random observations and notions such as the above into 700-1,000-word pieces, with what were meant to be cogent arguments, backed up with solid research and reasoning, and expressed in a reasonably precise and elegant manner. It’s given me the privilege of being on the same team as the sterling crew you see pictured to the right of this column, gently reminded of deadlines and deftly guided into print by Heidi Landecker and her colleagues Mitch Gerber and Carmen Mendoza, and read by a discerning group of readers, who rapidly pointed out our errors, engaged with our arguments, offered praise when appropriate, and, in my case at least, upped my game.

Hopefully I hope that when it came to discourse on language and writing, we moved the needle a little bit.

Tom Wolfe Essay–The Director’s Cut

I wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at the age of 88. Then I followed up with a piece on his style for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a mashup of the two pieces, with some additional thoughts.

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (1979), starts out:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [. . .]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Like Yeager, Wolfe had an infectious voice. He revived or introduced into mainstream prose style the use of italics, ellipses, exclamation points, apostrophe (or direct address), the historical present tense, onomatopoeia, kooky spelling and repeated capitalized portentous phrases (“the Right Stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “Masters of the Universe”).  More generally, he wrote with by a verve and playfulness and wit that rammed a virtual alarm clock in the ear of what he once called the country’s “somnambulistic totem newspapers.” His style was pretty much the opposite of Ernest Hemingway’s, but the two men—who both were reporters in their youth—were the most influential American stylists of the 20th century. Every journalist with literary ambitions who came of age from the late 1960s through the ’80s either imitated Wolfe, imitated his imitators or had to make the deliberate decision to reject the Wolfean approach and find another way.

Take it from me; I was one of them.

Wolfe’s style was as original as it was influential, but innovations always have some ancestor or ancestors, however indirect.  The Wolfean literary forebears that come to mind, with one exception, were novelists—not surprising, considering that Wolfe championed journalism as a literary form.

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was published to a great deal of attention in 1960, just as Wolfe was embarking on his experimentation and innovation. He surely noted that it was composed in the present tense—in recent times a commonplace, in 1960 a novelty. Wolfe also had to have been intimately familiar with the work of J.D. Salinger, a near-Hemingway-level influence on young American writers in the ’50s. Salinger was very big on italics, especially in dialogue, where he characteristically applied them to just one syllable of a word. An exchange from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”

“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and leave.”

Next, Norman Mailer, who ventured into non-fiction in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. His coverage of the 1960 presidential conventions for Esquire not only had some of the stylistic much-ness of Wolfe but also—as in this bit from the piece on the Democrats’ Los Angeles—dealt with the same West Coast hot-rod ethos he would explore just a couple of years later:

And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.

It may or may not have been a matter of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but four decades later, Wolfe fomented a public feud with Updike, Mailer, and a third “literary” novelist, John Irving, whom he dubbed “My Three Stooges.”

The one nonliterary influence I’ll mention is advertising, which was probably the main bastion of enthusiasm in 1950s and early-’60s America; its characteristic utterance was the shout, juiced with real or implied exclamation points and italics. Raid Kills Bugs Dead! and all that. Mainstream culture had nothing but disdain for it. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in painting and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in architecture, Wolfe appropriated a debased discourse and used it for his own ironic devices. Come to think of it, the Right Stuff and other Wolfean catchphrases may also have been influenced by Madison Avenue, which loves a good slogan.

Moving on, here’s the opening to Wolfe’s 1964 piece “The Girl of the Year”:

Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast, old, moldering, cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!

Now tell me that Wolfe could have come up with that sentence if James Joyce — the most original literary stylist of the century? — hadn’t written Ulysses.

Finally, here’s another passage from “The Girl of the Year,” which was a profile of “It Girl” Baby Jane Holzer:

That girl on the aisle, Baby Jane, is a fabulous girl. She comprehends what the Rolling Stones mean. Any columnist in New York could tell them who she is … a celebrity of New York’s new era of Wog Hip … Baby Jane Holzer. Jane Holzer in Vogue, Jane Holzer in Life, Jane Holzer in Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Jane Holzer in the world of High Camp, Jane Holzer at the rock and roll, Jane Holzer is … well, how can you put it into words? Jane Holzer is This Year’s Girl, at least, the New Celebrity, none of your old idea of sexpots, prima donnas, romantic tragediennes, she is the girl who knows … The Stones. …

In the deliberate repetition (the Greeks’ word for it was anaphora), in the rhetorical question, in the laser-eyed view of money and its baleful effects, in the long sentences and the voice dripping with irony, I spy the influence of the master of such set pieces, Charles Dickens. From Our Mutual Friend:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

Wolfe’s long career (his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016) had five overlapping but distinct stages. He started out on the academic track, entering the doctoral program in American Studies at Yale after graduating from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia. His dissertation was turned down; one reader’s report (preserved in the Tom Wolfe Papers at the New York Public Library) observed that Wolfe had “written a piece of polemical journalism, in which he offers too many assertions that are not supported by evidence.” His second try was accepted but by that time he had already taken the hint and become a reporter, finally fetching up at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s. The Trib was known as a writer’s paper, and while there Wolfe made forays beyond totemic somnambulism.

But he didn’t come into his own till the third phase of his career commenced, with a 1963 article for Esquire about the culture of custom cars. He called it “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” At the time there wasn’t a name for what he and other innovators, like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were doing. Wolfe found one in a long-forgotten phrase from 19th-century England: The New Journalism. Like so many of his other coinages, it stuck.

To me the best Wolfe was Wolfe the reporter, on display in several collections published in the ’60s and ’70s (the first had the foreshortened title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the book narrates a cross-country trip of writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters) and in The Right Stuff. Everything came together: his verbal skills, his satirical sensibility, his eye for what he called “status details,” his American Studies set pieces (he was big on applying the theories of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen to the go-go ’60s) and, maybe least recognized, his shoe-leather reporting rigor. Wolfe was able to construct amazing interior monologues from the points of view of his characters because he spent so much time listening to and just watching them.

The accuracy of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” was challenged pretty much from the day it came out in 1965. Wolfe, by contrast, rarely faced the charge of getting anything significant wrong.

(After my essay containing the previous paragraph was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a circulation of some 2.3 million people, I was contacted by two people who demurred. My first correspondent commented, “As a pilot, Yeager was nuthin’ compared to say Bob Hoover, or Barney Olds.” He went on: “But the drawl thing … that is just about right.” The second, more serious, charge was that the members of a group of surfers and beachcombers Wolfe wrote about in “The Pump House Gang,” originally published in 1965, “made up stories about their antics at the Pump House by Windansea Beach in La Jolla, which Wolfe assumed were true.” Here’s an article that gets into some of the whys and wherefores.)

Wolfe’s fourth act was as a polemical essayist, starting with The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about modern art and architecture, respectively. They got attention in their time, and they pricked some art-criticism balloons that were ripe for pricking. But today, over all, they have a bit of the feel of a cranky uncle’s Grand Theory rant.

In his final guise, Wolfe became a novelist, aiming—in the tradition of Balzac, Zola and Dickens—to write narratively propulsive works that peeked into all layers of society. His four works of fiction were all best-sellers, and copies of the thick mass-market paperback editions still abound at any book sale you might happen to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the novels sold 50 times as many copies, collectively, as his books of journalism.

But the public and I differ on this matter. While The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a tour de force—not coincidentally set in New York City, his adoptive home town, whose streets he had pounded for so many years—I wasn’t able to get through the three novels that followed it. The satire sometimes turned to meanness, and Wolfe’s racial perspective was an obstacle. He didn’t depict people of color (a term he surely loathed) as villains so much as irredeemably different and other. This myopia was apparent from the start of his career. His phrase “Wog Hip,” in the Baby Jane Holzer profile, uses a term as offensive in Britain as the n-word is in the U.S.  In the same piece, he says Mick Jagger sings “with the voice of a bull Negro.” Describing the Playboy mansion in the introduction to an early collection, he said it had “huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase . . .”  One of the blacks. I could go on. In a Facebook comment, the critic Gene Seymour, who is African-American, said, “Even when Wolfe did his own version of ‘bending over backwards’ to conceive African American characters who weren’t (in his view) annoying or over-the-top stereotypes, as in A Man In Full, they came across as stiff and blank.”

More generally, without the tennis net of fact, Wolfe had to rely on his imagination, which struck me as ever less Dickensian as the years went on.

The later Wolfe, it seems to me, became something of a comfortable prisoner of his early innovations. He had a bead on white Christian American men, but that, it became increasingly apparent, left out a lot of the world. Status, on which he was fixated, accounted for some human behavior, but  it’s only one of many factors that account for how we think and behave. And his voice! So fresh and right for a certain time and place! But that time ended and, not unlike Hemingway, Wolfe was locked into a style that sometimes seemed like self-parody or—worse—old-fashioned.

But the journalism he wrote in his prime will last. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, someone who has never heard of Chuck Yeager, who only knows about airplanes from books, will read about that “little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right.” And give a chuckle of recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming: The System

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Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino

Here’s the opening of a piece I recently wrote for the New York Times Review section.

I had to buy two items at CVS — a bottle of mouthwash for me and some red yeast rice pills for my wife. I plucked the Listermint from the shelf, took it to the cashier and gave her my phone number and a $10 bill. The 38 and 1/16th-inch-long receipt had just what I was hoping for: a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more, expiration date three days later.

I headed straight for the vitamin section, where the economy-size house-brand red yeast rice was on sale — buy one for $22.99, get one free. I brought my two containers to the same cashier, who took the coupon and unjudgingly charged me $17.99. But wait, there’s more. I’d get the equivalent of 2 percent of that price back in CVS Rewards bonuses for future purchases, and 1.75 percent in cash via my credit card rewards program, a total of 67 more cents to my name.

Am I pitiful or what? Don’t answer that question.

Or at least don’t answer it till you hear me out. My CVS behavior is just one data point suggesting that I’m the precise person for whom the marketing strategy of “gamification” is intended. That is, saving some money on vitamin supplements is nice, but that’s not really what brought me to the drugstore. I was there for the buzz, the shots of happy I got when the cash register spit out a receipt the length of a 4-year-old. It’s all in the game.

You can read the rest of the article here.