Photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

Early Harvest

From The Dial review of Douglas Sladen's Twenty Years of my Life (1914), via a tip from Philip Waller's Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918:

Curiously interesting and rather characteristic of puzzling human nature is the fact that Mr. Sladen, with so many other books of far greater literary worth to his credit, seems to take especial pride in his editorship of the first “Who’s Who” in its present form there had been an annual of that name in existence for half a century before he recognized, in 1897, the splendid possibilities in its peculiar title. So great is his satisfaction in this product of his editorial industry that he calls himself, on the title-page to his present book, “author of ‘Who’s Who,’” and nothing more. In fact, he devotes a special chapter to the history of “How I Wrote ‘Who’s Who.’” Among the interesting things he tells us about the planning of the work we quote the following:

“The idea of adding ‘recreations’ to the more serious items which had been included in previous biographical dictionaries was adopted at one of the councils of war which we used to hold in the partners’ room of A. & C. Black, at 4 Soho Square. And for selling purposes it proved far and away the best idea in the whole book, when it was published. The newspapers were never tired of quoting the recreations of eminent people, thus giving the book a succession of advertisements of its readability, and shopkeepers who catered for their various sports bought the book to get addresses of the eminent people, who were, many of them, very indignant at the Niagara of circulars which resulted.”

. . .

Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock by Eliza Fenwick (1795)

It's cruel of F. P. Lock (as blurbed on Broadview's back cover) to suggest that readers contrast Fenwick to Jane Austen. As Terry Castle gleefully revenged, Fenwick the moralizing primer-writer never broke or scuffed the cheap toy characters and incidents of moralizing melodrama.

But she did at least have the courage to throw them away. Fenwick lived a life unconducive to smugness, and despite the risibly artificial details of her novel's course, I was shaken awake by the final kiddie boatride over the falls. The book's moral center, admired and feared by all, could be no more priggishly rigid than she is and still condescend to human involvement (and the novel frequently insists that hygenically avoiding human involvement lands one in worse scrapes still), but despite all her considerable ingenuity, her outrageously sound instincts, and her remarkable freedom of movement, she's correct to blame herself for the book's particular surprise unhappy ending. Fenwick energetically pursued the secret that virtually all novelists (including Austen) wisely, professionally, refuse to divulge: that we can never be good enough.

. . .

It's the sinker, not the sonk

It's odd that philosophers take more offense at relativism than at determinism when the evidence for the former's so strong and for the latter's so weak. Maybe it's because the former strikes directly at the pleasure of being righter than other people? Whereas the latter would imply at worst that they're not themselves responsible for their rightness, and big deal: most non-self-made men and women seem thoroughly at ease with unearned good fortune.

Me, I'm a relativist 'cause I've never had a choice in the matter. If I had a shot at the presidency I might get religion, but it'd be nuts for a powerless guy who doesn't want power to deny irreconcilable ethical differences: I may disagree with your blood lust, but I'll acknowledge to my death its proof by existence.

Still, I never got far with Richard Rorty (although I was almost flunked by his ex-wife). What makes the difference between feeling bored at the prospect of the same old stuff and feeling pleased by an expression of a familiar sentiment? I suppose it's a matter of how the conversation's going otherwise.


atem.metameat writes:

unweaving the rainbow

I suppose the appeal of determinism, or the appeal of being someone who espouses determinism, is that it can be made to sound like a scientific discovery flouting common sense. The personal will might be fickle, but it's a prominent enough player in everyday life that a demonstration of its nonexistence (should it come off) makes you Copernicus. The same probably goes for materialism (your SOUL, she is MEAT!); and both positions also carry the macho satisfaction of being the only man man enough to stare into the abyss and bring a tract home. Makes me think of Zola: not, shall we say, a rigorous thinker, but someone who had a lot of rhetorical fun with determinism and materialism both.

And speaking of assimilating philosophy to literature - the contingent irony is that Rorty, in grouping both forms under "compelling redescriptions of the world," ends up with an account that is largely correct and somehow not compelling. That Zola's indefensible freakshow actually has more life to it is a lesson for every young man and woman in our republic.

. . .

Repeat Since

The title page verso of Red Hats (which I just used to bat down a happy fly) by David Bromige, Tonsure Press, 1986:

Earlier versions of some of this writing appeared in BOXCAR #s I & II, ed. Leland Hickman & Paul Vangelisti, LA. If life were a movie, if one's entire existence had been filmed, mine would include those versions along with footage of me revising them into the present book, & what was closer in time would not be privileged over the earlier passages. But life's not like a movie.

. . .

The Triumph of Gender-Neutral English

STUDENT (to cell-phone): "... Yeah, one of the hosts the chick host is from Oregon..."

. . .

Our Town

There's a form of sleeptalking in which the sleeper sits bolt upright and combatively declares complete nonsense: "The horses need to graduate!" Startling the first time one encounters it, but simple agreement yes, of course the horses must graduate will elicit a satisfied nod and restored peace.

Last night it struck me that my insomnia might work in similar fashion: a buzz of words coalesces into clumps that rattle and thump, insufferable and interminable except perhaps by writing them out, the sheet of paper or backlit glass acting as demurely supportive bedmate.

Half the web can't go to sleep until all's corrected; half the web can't return to sleep until error's committed. Thus we achieve discourse.

. . .

Household Seers

"Omniscience for Atheists: Or, Jane Austen's Infallible Narrator"
by William Nelles, Narrative 14.2 (2006) 118-131

Nelles first demonstrates the critical power of statistical methods, then demonstrates their critical shortcoming: we can only maintain "distant reading" by maintaining our assumptions about what's being read. He launches from a bit of received wisdom: Although all Jane Austen's novels feature godlike omniscient narrators, Austen matured from an openly intrusive and manipulative authorial voice to a disciplined use of third-person-limited and free indirect discourse. From Samuel Johnson to Henry James, as the trebly cited formula goes. Stats don't back it up:

Just as a play has a certain number of speaking parts, so an Austen novel has a certain number of what we might call "thinking parts," characters whose consciousness the narrator reveals to us. Given the critical narrative outlined above, one might expect to see that number start out very large and narrow down to a single central consciousness. If one measures omniscience quantitatively, as Booth suggests, counting how many minds the narrator has access to, then Persuasion, in which the narrator reveals the consciousnesses of ten characters, is no different from Emma, in which she also reads the minds of ten characters. But not only is there no progression from Emma to Persuasion in this regard, there is no pattern of progression at all in Austen's novels: Northanger Abbey has ten thinking parts, Sense and Sensibility twelve, and Mansfield Park thirteen. Only Pride and Prejudice, with nineteen thinking parts, stands out.

Rather than resting on this uphoistery, however, Nelles takes it as a guide to closer reading, and finds a circular map to accompany his flat graph:

Oddly enough, an Austen narrator can only read minds within a radius of three miles of her protagonist; this is specified as being precisely the distance from Longbourn to Netherfield and also from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage. And even this level of privilege occurs rarely. Normally the narrator can only read the minds of characters within sight or hearing of the protagonist. Austen's narrator is under house arrest, and the protagonist of the novel is her ankle bracelet.... In every other case of telepathy in Pride and Prejudice and these are numerous the character whose mind is being read is within Elizabeth's audiovisual field. This degree of spatial restriction hardly seems consonant with handbook definitions of omniscience.

Just how mortal is Austen's storytelling voice?

An Austen narrator is not just bound by a "now" at the end of the story that she can't see beyond; she is also bound by the "now" of the action she is narrating moment by moment, and is prohibited from looking ahead to future events even if they will occur before the narrator's final "now".... Furthermore, an Austen narrator also has limited access to past events, seldom extending beyond the protagonist's childhood....

[Wayne Booth protested] "One objection to this selective dipping into whatever mind best serves our immediate purposes is that it suggests mere trickery and inevitably spoils the illusion of reality. If Jane Austen can tell us what Mrs. Weston is thinking, why not what Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are thinking?"

My response would be that it's easy to tell what Mrs. Weston is thinking, and difficult to tell what Frank and Jane are thinking. Within about twenty pages we learn that Emma has long since figured out Mrs. Weston's thoughts.... Not only does Emma know what Mrs. Weston is thinking, everybody who knows them knows what she's thinking, and Emma knows what all of them are thinking. Indeed, Mrs. Weston only hopes to conceal her thoughts "as much as possible".... Not every person is so easily read, however. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are good at blocking telepathy. When Emma tries to read Jane's mind during an evening at Hartfield, she is forced to concede, "There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved." Knightley is similarly stumped, because she does not have an "open temper." Recognizing that Jane's manners are designed to prevent her mind being read, Emma says to Mrs. Weston, "Oh! Do not imagine that I expect an account of Miss Fairfax's sensations from you, or from any body else. They are known to no human being, I guess, but herself," and our human narrator is of course included....

The template for the narrator in Austen is not at all a Godlike omniscience, but a very human skill: the ability of a perceptive and thoughtful person, given enough time and sufficient opportunity for observation, to make accurate judgments about people's character, thought processes, and feelings. Austen's protagonists are markedly less fallible by the end of the novel as they narrow the gap between their growing reliability of judgment and the infallibility of the narrator. Conversely, the narrator shares many of the characters' limitations of mobility. Like her protagonists, she can observe and analyze, but not foresee or control, social and personal outcomes; like them, she cannot really act upon her knowledge possessing it must suffice. At the risk of making my conclusion too simple and obvious, the model for Austen's infallible narrators is not God in heaven, but Jane Austen, more or less as she describes herself in a letter to Cassandra, written about the time she begins working on Emma: "... as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like."

Austen moved beyond open parody and Johnsonian discourse by returning to the novel's epistolary roots, writing as a friendly-but-detached on-the-scene reporter. In the fiction of Richardson and his direct successors, the most reliable narrators are either villains (who know the score because they're manipulating it) or tragically ineffective (guessing at events without being able to change them). Austen abstracted the pleasing activity of first-hand gossip from the distracting husk of the at-hand teller.

. . .

More gossip about strangers

Increasingly I wonder if we wouldn't do better without biography. Of course we want to know other people's stories and to roll around in distant tragedy, but the pairing of talent and life too often suffers from banal, received assumptions based on ghastly popular psychology.... Perhaps it should be left to fiction to worry about why and how, because fiction has the possibility and the freedom to be original in a way that dogged biography doesn't.
- Jenny Diski, review of Nina Simone: The Biography

Good luck with that. So far in 2009, the London Review of Books has published more than forty reviews (summaries, retellings) of biographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters; this issue alone considers three biographies and a memoir. Even when the reviewer's not handed a biography, one may be given to us.

I read these pieces, of course; how else would I have encountered Diski's lament? (For that matter I just finished reading an 1100-page scrapbook of literary gossip very thinly disguised as a scholarly book about the birth of literary gossip.) Is it to my credit that I don't read the books themselves? Certainly it's to LRB's credit that its retellings tend to provide such a refreshing crunch and such easily compostable cores. "Nothing too taxing, but interesting enough to last to the end of the pint before someone starts the next story."

And if we can't avoid swallowing a bit of the delusion that we've learned something and a bit of the poisoned pseudo-intimacy of celebrity, if the tales aren't as blood-clearingly wholesome as those of Kharms or Kafka, if they don't completely escape the received assumptions and ghastly popular psychology that monopolize contemporary short stories and novels, still from these snatched anecdotes and curt demurrals we absorb at least a trace of the irreducible arbitrary. Enough to scrape by. As Silenus advised Plutarch, "Best to have no biographies at all, but second best keep them short."


and I can't for the life of me fathom autobiography

Josh Lukin writes:

Delmore Schwartz, whose great strength as an essayist was metacriticism, enabled me to appreciate Bunny Wilson by pointing out that Wilson never writes about the literariness of literature or the politicality of politics but is in essence a yente journalist, writing gossipy profiles of interesting authors. With the armor of this perspective riveted firmly on (sorry—too much Wodehouse), I was quite moved by a couple of the better profiles in The Triple Thinkers: pace the many good bits in Unacknowledged Legislation, Wilson rather outdoes his present-day admirers in the yente journalism genre.

I like Jenny Diski's work, so I'm pleased to report that Terry Eagleton's LRB review of a biography of Teddy Adorno easily managed less self-awareness and more obnoxiousness:

The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas.... If they aren't able to extricate the man or woman 'behind' the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as 'human interest', goes hand in hand with their philistinism. It is not surprising that Adorno himself detested the genre. It is too often a middle-class alternative to material history, one in which that supreme creation known as the individual may hold untrammelled sway. Discussing the prosody of Don Juan is all very well, but how on earth did Byron get to Sintra on a club foot? As far as such literary prurience goes, Claussen remains high-mindedly Teutonic. Beyond a discreet allusion to the fact that female students found him attractive, a fact the photographs of him provided in this volume do nothing to confirm, there is not a word about Adorno's notorious philandering....

. . .

Out of a crib endlessly rockin' Anselm Dovetonsils sends:


Toy boat
Toe boyt
Tow boat
Toy boyd

. . .


Hotsy: "So the first thing at the top of the first page is this really weird blurb from John Leonard: 'Miss Hazzard writes as well as Stendhal.' What could that even mean?"

Totsy: "Is a comma missing after 'writes'?"


Josh Lukin illustrates:

My favorite missing comma. I knew Dr. Cosby would offer a simplistic solution to social problems; I didn't expect it to be so, er, Reichian.

. . .

Study for a Heraldic Device

Bee vs. Cactus

* * *

To my regret, we never photographed our previous residence's allegorical landscape.

After securing the landlord's permission, we'd asked the city to plant two trees in front of the house. They did so, two little locust babes, we watered them as directed, but throughout their tender childhood local tree-haters would tear off branches or slit their bark. (Did you know some people walk around with knives and stab trees? Apparently it's a lifestyle.)

We trimmed and dressed the damage as best we could, but eventually the northern tree's trunk was split in half and the city crew cut it down. The southern tree survived and grew into delightfully lush, if slim, maturity. (Not unlike your narrator.) Meanwhile, the northern planting re-emerged, was re-vandalized, was re-cut-down, and re-emerged, was re-vandalized, and at this point, "cut back" would be more accurate than "cut down." Because at each re-emergence, the... thing... became less like a tree and more like a thorn bush, and eventually, after five years or so, more like a tangle of barbed wire.

We'd tell visitors the two were siblings and we'd marvel at the horror of it all. It was like living behind a Victorian primer of criminology.

. . .


Villette sounds so voice-driven that (as someone said about Finnegans Wake) a single page bathed in nutrients would regenerate the book.

. . .

Movie Comment: Inglourious Basterds

A real friend would've taken away his keys and called a cab.


Easy to think of The Hurt Locker as an engaged no-concept genre termite against Tarentino's elephant, polished to a dazzling whiteness by the DP who embalmed Casino and The Aviator. But eleven million dollars is an unsustainable cost for termites, and Juliet Clark reminded me that lots of people still love The Sound of Music. As a wise drunk once said, "Are you lost? Yes, you are lost."

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material : Part 7 in an Occasional Series

Bank of America bus-stop kiosk ads:

The smart way to keep your money in check


And for Part 8, master film writer Juliet Clark points to the Jeanne Dielman Criterion Collection Cooking Video Contest. One can only wonder what other categories of amateur video might be inspired by Chantal Akerman's masterpiece....

. . .

We have always been YA

Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature
by Marah Gubar, Oxford 2009

I. Review

Gubar's point is clear and (so far as a choirmember can judge) convincingly argued: What made the first written-for-children children's classics classic was their refusal to endorse notions of child as miniature adult (AKA cheap labor and easy sex), child as holy fool, or child as segregated embarrassment. Their creators aimed at neither spiritual guidance nor colonization more like pushy but mutally beneficial tourism and Victorian critics accordingly complained that their entertainments were too knowing for little minds, or had corrupted the pure angels of yesteryear into premature sophisticates, or (by including adults in the audience) encouraged the general infantilization of culture.

It's been a long wait for a volume worth pitting against Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan which I liked very much, by the way, possibly because I encountered it as a voluntary corrective to habitual inattenation rather than as canonical blinders on an academic bridle. As demonstrated by both books, arguing clearly and forcefully for ambiguity and nuance is bound to lead to occasional overstatements or repetitions. (So unlike the home life of our own dear genre!) Gubar is nevertheless a worthy champion, and I cheer her.

II. Memoir

At age eighteen I retained little memory of Lewis Carroll. But I knew Nabokov approved, and so while I waited for my girlfriend to be done with her part-time job in the children's library I opened Through the Looking Glass at random and read:

"Seven years and six months!" Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. "An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you'd asked my advice, I'd have said leave off at seven but it's too late now."

"I never ask advice about growing," Alice said indignantly.

"Too proud?" the other inquired.

Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. "I mean," she said, "that one can't help growing older."

"One can't, perhaps," said Humpty Dumpty, "but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven."

"What a beautiful belt you've got on!" Alice suddenly remarked.

Gubar's innocuous account of this passage she describes Humpty Dumpty as "pompous" and "absurd" rather than homicidal doesn't quite fit the generally threatening mood of the novel, Alice's abrupt change of subject, or Gubar's own argument: one could hardly find a more explicit confession of the cross-purposes and power imbalances between cultish children's authors and the children they engage as pseudo-equals.

III. Speculation

I've frequently opined that all literature is destined to be treated as children's literature. And, having usually set out to puncture certain exceptionalist assumptions, my tone implied a narrative of decline not far from some of the Victorian pundits cited by Gubar.

Her argument suggests a reconfiguration of that narrative. Gubar's heroes are defiantly unimproving; they promote "active literacy" and "simultaneously entertain and undermine the idea that the child can function as a genuine collaborator." They produce, in other words, writerly texts.

If Maisie and Strether interpreted their perceptions within strictly contextualized limits, so did Oswald Bastable. While Stephen Dedalus tempted himself into artistry with imagined Byronic groupies and refused Muscatel grapes, Jim Hawkins and Tom Sawyer (and Fabrice del Dongo and Ishmael, so-called) found the limits of text-inspired adventure by adventuring. Tormented author-heroes like Flaubert and the Brontës melodramatically renounced melodrama, allowing us to disdain our cake and incorporate it too; Carroll preserved the earworm of namby-pamby versification after stripping the propaganda which justified it. More recently, Tove Jansson produced a successful adult novel, Sun City, by swapping human senior citizens in for her previous cast of Moomins and Fillyjonks.

The affably cynical tutelage of La Fontaine and Lord Chesterfield synthesized with Romantic ideals of wisdom in Nietzsche, that eternal favorite of precocious adolescents, and synthesized with Romantic ideals of childhood in the self-conscious role-play of Andersen, Lang, and Gubar's chosen authors. It's no coincidence that the standard bearer of ambitious realist fiction has been the bildungsroman, or that the bildungsroman slides so easily into curricula: texts constructed for exploration depict what's been set aside as an explorative phase of an extended lifespan. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were etched and bound together.

IV. Addendum

From Chapter 4, "Partners in Crime: E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving":

... she suggests that in order to participate actively in the shaping of their own lives and life stories, children should function like the discriminating editors who often turn up as characters in her books: rather than simply accepting everything they receive from the culture at large, they should criticize, edit, rewrite, even reject the endless submissions pouring in from all quarters. Still more often, as I will show, Nesbit employs the metaphor of theft, depicting children as avid appropriators who steal a little bit from a variety of sources.... she intimates child readers should follow her lead in becoming more daring and ingenious thieves.

From Noel Coward's Present Indicative (1937):

I travelled to school daily by tram.... There was a second-hand book-shop on the way where I could buy 'back numbers' of the Strand Magazine for a penny each, and I hoarded my pocket money until I could buy a whole year's worth in order to read the E. Nesbit story right through without having to wait for the next installment. I read 'The Phoenix and the Carpet', and 'Five Children and It', also 'The Magic City', but there were a few numbers missing from that year, so I stole a coral necklace from a visiting friend of Mother's, pawned it for five shillings, and bought the complete book at the Army and Navy Stores. It cost four-and-six, so that including the fare (penny half return, Battersea Park to Victoria) I was fivepence to the good. In later years I told E. Nesbit of this little incident and I regret to say that she was delighted.


Peli contrasts:

which is why i dislike charles bernstein, whose entire corpus is devoted to proving how much he's not a teenager.

I think of him as an uncle who's always telling jokes that aren't funny. Sometimes I even worry I might be him.

iGoogle's gratis Proofread (Tee Emm) service has determined that you need to drop an R from Barstable. Thank you for your patience.

Thank you. The typo was probably a compromise between reality and the conjoined twins of "barnstable".

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material : Part 9 in an Occasional Series

Jessie Ferguson sends evidence that the process is accelerating:

Alisa Weilerstein is not just a rising star. She is a shooting star.


Is it a South American emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus) or is it a green tree python?????


. . .

We have always been YA, cont.

V. Been there, done that

Following up, I found Juliet Dusinberre's Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art, which appears to cover "why, a six-year-old child could do that" Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting alongside high literature. (I assume she'll mention poor old Rusky-Busky, who taught art appreciation to the masses and once wrote a kid's book.)

And there's also Dieter Petzold's "Taking Games Seriously: Romantic Irony in Modern Fantasy for Children of All Ages" in Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations:

If Romantic irony provides a close link between Romanticism and modernism, the one between Romanticism and postmodernism is even closer. In particular, what has been labeled 'metafictional' writing seems to be just an application, or elaboration, of the German Romantics' ideas of irony.... It is on this level that a connection can be made between Romanticism, postmodernism, and some contemporary children's books.... By reminding their readers that they are participating in a game, the authors of ironic fantasy allow themselves and their readers to have their cake and eat it too: to remember that the fictional world they are enjoying is just make-believe and to realize at the the same time that it is, nevertheless, profoundly meaningful. Moreover, by insisting on the importance of the reader in this game, authors of ironic fantasy for children have also managed to reconcile the Romantic belief in the naive, imaginative child with the Romantic belief in the sovereignty of the subjective (therefore ironic) author.... The history of children's literature is not devoid of texts that make oblique comments on the complexities of reality by playing with the conventions and trappings of fairy tale and fantasy in other words, fantasy texts that employ Romantic irony. However, there have always been readers who found such books somewhat disturbing, and there is a widespread feeling that these are not really children's books since they are appreciated by adults at least as much as by children.... Yet, whether in spite or because of these ambivalences, these texts have been popular in their times (in part extremely so), both among adults and children, and they have endured.

Lookit me, ma, I partake of the spirit of the age! I've partaken of the spirit of the god-damned age!

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .