Sunday, November 30, 2008

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells is one of those American writers of whom I’ve only been peripherally aware. His paperbacks have been floating around our house forever, though they have remained largely unread, because I understood that he was “second-rate.” Second-class novels are resigned to abysmal fates: they lie inert and dusty forever unless someone takes them idly off the shelf. Our grandmothers may have read them, but we have considered ourselves too modish and posh for such unfashionable literature. After bingeing on Sinclair Lewis’s satires, however, Howells, famous for his realistic “domestic” novels and skewering of capitalism, seemed the next logical step..

“Where’s Howells?” I asked. I looked over my glasses.


“Which do you recommend?”

Vaguely: “I’ll bring you a pile.”

“Just one.”

The pile grew. I considered his science fiction novel, A Traveler from Arturia, but decided to start with a more conventional, characteristic work. I chose A Hazard of New Fortunes (a classic reminiscent of Henry James, and why it took me so long to get around to it I’ll never know).

A Hazard of New Fortunes is brilliantly written and structurally convoluted , a luminous example of the “new realism” of the late 19th century. Howells controls the threads of his New York unobtrusively and the detailed, reflective, almost businesslike story unfolds in a subtly organized manner. The focus of A Hazard of New Fortunes is the inception of a literary magazine: its many employees s comprise a complete society, who are transplanted to New York to pursue “new fortunes." They come from all classes and economic strata: poor artists and writers, intellectual editors and publishers, shrewd businessmen and backers, nouveau riche, middle class, and genteel poor. All are connected to the new literary magazine. There are many, many protagonists: in Part One the March family reluctantly leave Boston for New York after March loses his insurance job. Fulkerson, the founder of the new magazine, has recruited him through sheer bluster to take a chance on being the editor. In Part Two we meet Beaton, a moody artist, and Alma Leighton, an illustrator, whom he has dropped after luring her and her mother to New York. The publisher, the son of a nouveau riche farmer who has made a fortune in real estate after being forced off the family farm, has no interest in the literary business, particularly as regards making money, and his sisters miserably live alone in a great house, unable to make friends in New York, having hoped to break into "society." (Their religious mother and their shrewd monied father care nothing about it.)

Howell, the son of an itinerant newspaperman and printer,worked as a journalist in his youth and eventually became editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote 13 novels and three works of criticism. Among his friends were Henry James and Mark Twain.

He is one of the best writers I’ve discovered this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Oh, Sinclair Lewis! As I read Babbitt, I'm beginning to mix Sinclair Lewis up with Upton Sinclair. Such good ideas, such insightful sociology, such clumsy sentences. What is (was) America of the '20s and '30s? These two documented it unflinchingly.

Sinclair Lewis's Main Street is a beautifully written classic--Carol Kennicott gives us the middle-class, liberal arts-educated perspective on the horrifyingly closed-minded materialism of prairie towns . Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels operate on a broader canvas--Lanny Budd, over a period of 20 years, analyzes international politics, often living in Europe and dealing with politicians (as did Sinclair in his lifetime).

But Lewis's Babbitt has almost defeated me. This satire is so broad, and the style much more florid than in Main Street. The style itself condemns George Babbitt. Yet I feel so sorry for the babbling, boosterish Babbitt. Babbitt's Zenith is a super-sized Gopher Prairie, a city of 300,000 people characterized by dog-eat-dog businessmen, state-university-educated vs. Yale-educated clubs, desperate housewives in modern housing developments, aimless daughters (graduates of Bryn Mawr with nothing to do), and punk sons who want to drop out and take correpsondence classes. It's a sad society, but of course they don't feel sad. Babbitt, a realtor who lives to shop and chomp cigars, is immensely proud of his self-made man status but also empty and bewildered as he wishes inarticulately for something better.

Babbitt and his overly-sensitive friend Paul (of whom he is proud) go to Maine for a week without their wives. Babbitt finds himself gradually descending into enuui, breaking down, wanting silence, relieved to escape the "chumminess" of his everyday life.. He becomes more lethargic when his wife arrives. He doesn't feel well until the last day of vacation.

Some of the scenes are really hysterically funny--a seance scene at one of Babbitt's dinner parties (the guests are Vergil Gunch, Chum Frink, Eddie Swanson, Orville Jones, Howard Littlefield, and their wives): and the wives want to "talk to Dante."

Vergil Gunch says: "I suppose Dante showed a lot of speed for an old-timer--not that I've actually read him, of course--but to come right down to hard facts, he wouldn't stand one-two-three if he had to buckle down to practical literature and turn out a poem for the newspaper-syndicate every day, like Chum does.:

But Babbitt thinks privately--and this is why we love him--"We're all so flip and think we're so smart. There'd be--A fellow like Dante--I wish I'd read some of his pieces. I don't suppose I ever will, now."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Main Street

Sinclair Lewis, who refused the Pulitzer in 1925 (see below) and accepted the Nobel in 1930 (love that international yet anti-American chauvinist attitude), isn't much talked about anymore.

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis' classic satire of the midwest, is my favorite book--at least occasionally, when I reread it. It has a perennial place in women’s studies and American studies (a kind of thank-God-I-took-that-class novel, with a radical bent). Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, mocks the sanctimony of small town America . His Gopher Prairie (brilliant name!) is a dull, smug town of 3,000 gossips, which dismays and almost defeats Carol Kennicott, the heroine. (If you've read Babbitt, you'll know that Gopher Prairie is the country cousin of Babbitt's Zenith City.)

Poor Carol Kennicott, the heroine and would-be lofty converter to the arts in Gopher Prairie, is horrified by the ugliness of the town. She is baffled by the dull citizens' emphasis on "comfiness" and "jolliness" and resistance to change. She dreams of art, writing, drama, anthropology, archaelogy, plays, parties, and concerts. Born in Mankato, a university town with hills and valleys, she is encouraged to dream and studyt. As a librarian in Saint Paul, she dreams and influences patrons and attends parties where people discuss the latest" ideas." Her marriage to the good-hearted Dr. Will Kennicott almost shatters her dreams. Gopher Prairie, Will's home, almost breaks her. Although she loves Will, Carol fights back.

She guides us through the small town as though she has a Baedker. It takes 31 minutes to walk around the town. She is aghast at fly-specked store windows, a grocery store with a cat sleeping on bananas and lettuce, Billy's Lunch (an odor of onions and hot lard), ugly one-and-a-half-story houses, no town square. This is not a pioneer town--it's a nightmare, she decides.

Lewis’s style is blunt, yet he knows exactly the bluff tone of the dialogue. “Maybe we’re kind of slow, but we are democratic,” “Bridge is half the fun of life,” “There’s a fine class of people,” and “Best people on earth here. Great hustlers, too. Course I’ve had lots of chances to go live in Minneapolis, but we like it here. “Real he-town. did you know Percy Bresnahan came from here?”

Carol alienates people by her attempts to inculcate culture. Even Vida Sherwin, the "liberal" schoolteacher, a friend, crushes her by passing on the biting gossip of "The Jolly Seventeen "about Carol. (A whole chapter describes Vida's hatred and envy of Carol).

The most interesting character in the novel after Carol is Miles Bjornstam, a socialist handyman who becomes a successful and farmer and tones down his ideas so his wife, Bea, Carol's former maid, will make friends. No one comes near her. Carol has more in common with these two than with anyone else and visits them often.. But she is afraid to declare it. She doesn't want to lose any more friends.

Carol, though she is also subtly satirized, is a strong character, a nonconformist who tries hard not to be provincial, who doesn’t want to give in to the men’s narrow jokiness and the women’s gossip. Completely realistic.

Excerpt from Lewis's reasons to decline the Pulitzer:

"I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

"All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

"Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. "

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Post-Wright Read

After Wright Morris’s The Works of Love, I had trouble settling down to another book. Clearly Morris made an impression on me. It's not that he’s a GREAT writer--he can be sentimental--yet there are flashes of brilliance. And his voice mimics perfectly the bleak rhythms of midwestern speech, its strange mix of gloom, lyricism, numbness and sentimentality. Do you think Midwesterners are articulate? Think again. And Morris shows this through dialogue.

Most midwestern writers satirize their home. Sinclair Lewis couldn't wait to get away: think of Main Street, my favorite book (and why am I not reading it now?): in which Carol, the librarian from the Twin Cities, marries and get stuck in a small town with no culture. Then of course there's Babbitt.

Perhaps Larry Woiwode's artistic, lyrical novels are closest to Morris's in style. His extraordinary classic, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, describes four generations of the Neumiller family in North Dakota. Woiwode wrote for The New Yorker for a while, then he disappeared and returned to North Dakota. He has a title there: laureate of North Dakota. Yet people seem to have forgotten his masterpieces, now that he is farming, now that he is writing less.

I prowled around the room and stared at my bookcase. After rejecting a few yuppiebacks from my collection, I dug out Miles Franklin’s saucy My Brilliant Career. Stella Maria Miles Franklin wrote this witty, autobiographical account of a pioneer girl’s rebellion in Australia at the turn of the century when she was 16. Her chatty, upbeat--resentful, but undefeatable--narrator, Sybilla, longs to escape the failing farm in the bush. She is passionate and ambitious: she wants desperately to read, write, sing, dance, anything artistic. But she is doomed to work dawn to dusk on her parents’ farm, until she is invited to her grandmother's. And that's not the end of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wright Morris

Regional literature, often uninteresting to mainstream publishers, maps the fictional history and geography of the country between NY and California: the midwest, south, and west; of farms, small towns, and unknown cities. The work of regional writers Susan Glaspell and Dorothy Canfield Fisher has recently been revived: Glaspell perhaps by Updike's inclusion of her work in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, and Canfield Fisher by small presses in the U.S. and England.

Wright Morris’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer (2 novels) was reissued by Black Sparrow Press (before it was bought up by a mega-publisher). This exceptionally good writer is virtually unknown

The Works of Love, published in the '50s, is the terrifyingly sad story of Will Brady, a man with no connections, because of the geography that shapes him. Born on the empty plains of Nebraska in a dugout, Will grows up in the town of Indian Bow, where there is "a depot, a cattle loader, several square frame houses with clapboard privies; and later there were stores with pressed tin ceilings along the tracks." When he moves to the tiny town of Carbury (Will takes a train; trains and hotels are the connection in the novel for lonely ), working at the hotel seems the height of sophistication. But he wants and needs a wife. Where does he look for one? The town whorehouse, where he "connects" with the same woman every weekend. When he proposes, all the women laugh at him. A young prostitute with whom he has never had sex leaves her baby behind with his name on it: he raises the son as his own.

He is lonely and passive. He marries a rich woman who initiates the marriage but who is terrified of sex. Is this marriage normal? He doesn't know. Later he marries a young woman who is closer to his son's age than him: they hang out in the front room all day while he works.

Obviously influenced by Willa Cather, Morris is a good writer, yet there is something sentimental about his attempts at humor. His lonely protagonist has a bleak life, yet Morris tries sometimes to instill hope that isn’t there. But sometimes he gets it just right.

Though Morris won the National Book Award twice, one must look to small presses for his books: Bison Books publishes Plains Song (a Natl book award winner), a moving saga of three generations of Nebraska women; The Home Place, and Ceremony in Lone Tree. The University of Nebraska Press publishes Field Vision and The Works of Love.

Wright was also a photographer and a few of his books of photograpy are avialable (most out of print). Here is one of his quintessential Nebraskan photos:

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lost in Sandwich, or How to Take a Women's Road Trip

On a hot blue-skied day in Sandwich, I get lost.

Okay, not everybody could do this. I have three maps, dotted with “You are here” signs and decorated with arrows.

Well, I warned everybody: “I’m not very good at map-reading.” But I said goodbye to Mindy and Jan and walked briskly down the private drive from the condo.

It started with a wrong turn. It is my first day in Cape Cod. I turn instinctively toward the downtown area. The only problem is it’s not a left-hand turn, as Jan advised when I asked for directions to the beach. So what? Didn’t she mention the First Church of Christ? Yeah, It’s historic. Something like that. So why consult a map?

Founded in 1639, Sandwich has a Ye Olde New England look that tourists “ooh” and “ah” over. As the first village on the 70-mile peninsula of Cape Cod, it is a natural place to get out and stretch one’s legs. Personally I cared more about its beautiful white sand beaches than its Colonial architecture. In the middle of the village I passed a glass museum, a doll museum, and....all wasted on me. I refused to do anything educational.

Finally, unable to find the beach and aware that I was walking in circles, I sat on a bench on the village green and just sipped from my water bottle. I thought, What am I doing in Sandwich? On my first girl trip since 1981, I was already lost..

What’s a "girl's" road trip? It’s a trip taken with women friends, without husbands or boyfriends. It’s driving down the road at 75 miles an hour, praying a cop doesn’t ticket you, popping your gum while you swap life stories. It’s stopping at countless rest stops without some guy interrupting, “Do you have to go again?”

Perhaps women's road trips are a twentieth century phenomenon. Over the centuries most road travel books have been written by men, judging from a quick glance at the Oxford Book of Travel. Road trip literature since the 1960s has included the ultimate road novel, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road , Tom Wolfe’sThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip , an account of the Merry Pranksters’ rock-and-roll, acid-laden cross-country bus trip, and William Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, a back roads look at America. Then there are the road trip movies: “Easy Rider,” “Get on the Bus,”“Harry and Tonto,” and “Stranger than Paradise.” And who was television’s premier chronicler of back roads? Charles Kurault.

When women in literature hit the road, they’re often on the lam or running away from husbands: there’s the mother/daughter road trip in Mona Simpson’s novel Anywhere But Here , and the cross-country adventures of Taylor Greer in Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling The Bean Trees.. In movies we’ve seen the offbeat travels of women characters in “Manny and Lo,” “Thelma and Louise,” ”Boys on the Side,” “Trip to Bountiful,”and “Leaving Normal.”

An old woman in a church dress walked past. “Well, you found a nice shady spot.”

I smiled. “It is nice here, isn’t it? But could you tell me how to get to the beach?”

I had, of course, gone the wrong way entirely. I was all turned around. I had no clue what direction to go in. “Which beach? Oh, near Horizon House? Left, left, right, right, right,” she said. “That’s the easiest way, I think.”

So I started up the street around a left curve until I hit an intersection. And lo and behold, I was finally on the right road, Tupper Road, the road I started on, for God’s sake, the road I was supposed to turn left on instead of right. And I was approaching the intersection of Route 6A when Mindy pulled up in front of me in her Tracker.

“Want a ride?” she said.

“Please. “ And I climbed in, grateful to escape the heat .

So we went to the Bee Hive, a pub with a mural in the foyer and beehives hanging above the bar, and ate respectively a Greek salad (me) and clam chowder (Mindy). Then we went shopping. It was only hours later, when the sun was starting to set, that I realized, We never made it to the beach.

Not much of an adventure, you say? I think that’s the whole point.

In the evenings, we went in search of night life. We went to Hyannis! Oh, land of the Kennedys. Described by Jan’s husband as “tourist ticky-tacky,” it appeared to be a town of strip malls and tourists.

A used bookstore employee directed us to a coffee house called Prodigal Son. I cannot pretend that the ambiance was charming. It was a dingy hole-in-the-wall coffee bar, smelling of smoke and sweat. Mindy and I squeezed our bodies onto a faded burgundy couch in the back, banged down our decaf (Mindy) and latte (me) on a coffee table, and awkwardly opened books and laptop.

Then a guy stood up on a makeshift stage area in the front and announced that it was Poetry Slam night.

“It’s the Boston slam team vs. Hyannis,” announced the emcee. “And what’s our prize?” he asked as an afterthought

A ponytailed guy working the sound system quipped, “A date with me?”

Everybody groaned.

I typed notes about the slam on my laptop, though it was so dark I could only see by the light of the blue screen. A man with round glasses approached, nodded, and said, “Cool laptop.”

“Yeah.” I wondered, Hasn’t he ever seen a laptop?

Then Patricia Smith from Boston got up. I grabbed Mindy’s arm like a groupie.

“I can’t believe it. We get to see a famous slam poet. She’s a past winner of the National Poetry Slam,” I said.

Smith, a slim African-American woman, was younger than I expected. Funny, I felt about thirty on this vacation, but Patricia Smith probably is thirty, while I’m a forty-one-year-old pretender.

“Did I tell you that I’m the architect of rock and roll...Now I’ve never been sexy...But if I do say so myself..I do still turn some eyes,” she recited.

Oh yeah. I hear ya! I felt the same way, especially tonight. I typed frantic notes, and suddenly looked up to see one of the ponytailed guys turned around on his bar stool andsmiling.

What is this? Are these guys blind or desperate or what? By the time Mindy and I left, we were laughing.

“Hey, I really think we could have picked up some guys in there,” Mindy said.

“Oh, my husband would have loved that,” I said.

During the remainder of the girl trip I:

1. went to the beach, but did not go swimming.
2. went shopping in Provincetown, an artists’ colony on the tip.
3. read novels.
4. dyed my hair.
5. and did as little as possible.
And I returned from my girl trip refreshed and rested, horrifying my husband with my tales of DOING NOTHING on vacation.

RESOURCES FOR GIRL TRIPS (These may be old; I'll look them up)

Journeywoman,an online travel magazine for women:

The Women’s Travel Club, itineraries designed for married and single women who like to travel:

women’s adventure travels, adventure travel service for women over 30:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Phillip Hensher

Books: I am reading Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, finally released in the United States this month. This book in a way strikes me as the quintessential American novel (only English), similar to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the epic which failed as an Oprah book after Franzen made the mistake of saying on the radio something about not having written for Oprah fans. The Corrections (which I threw up on during an illness and then had to buy another copy of) focuses on two siblings from Kansas City, the brother a professor who is sued and fired after having an affair with a student (the girl calls her parents from a motel), and the sister a cook who, having escaped the midwest, turns lesbian. Hensher’s epic is a slower narrative and covers a much broader canvas, including minutiae about multiple characters from Sheffield, and focuses on two generations of families, straight, dull fathers, often discontented mothers, occasional drug dealers laundering money, and untraditional children who grow up to escape to London. (I’m only halfway through.) Both Franzen and Hensher shock with masturbation scenes: Franzen’s character masturbates on a couch (or perhaps it’s a leather jacket, I can’t remember), and one of Hensher’s characters actually DIES from masturbation. Please, no.

Hensher’s writing is lively and acerbic, his characters are realistic, and somehow we trust his analysis of the culture of the '70s and '80s: he has obviously observed and absorbed, understood and organized the confusing, jumbled elements of ordinary life. When the neurotic Katharine wants to have an affair, we understand why: her husband lives for re-creation's of the Civil War and gardening, while she dreams on a large scale and ends up outdoing him by working in a florist’s shop and even having sex with the florist (once).

It's a sociological novel: "All happy families are alike..,etc."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

E. Nesbit

At night, you want to read something that will put you to sleep. There is a pile next to my bed: Georgette Heyer, Poldark, and E. Nesbit. E. Nesbit has become a favorite lately, because after half a chapter of Story of the Treasure Seekers, the Wood-Be-Goods, or The New Treasure Seekers, I fall asleep. ZZZZZZZ. As a child, I loved her books. Every birthday I received her books in plain red editions, published, I believe in Great Britain, which were always on the same shelf of the bookstore, which my parents became very familiar with. My favorite was The Enchanted Castle , but I also loved The Phoenix and the Carpet ,The House of Arden, The Magic world, and other” magic adventures.” All had the original H. R. Millar illustrations.

Gore Vidal read and admired them. In the ‘60s, he wrote an essay n which he attacked the American teachers and librarians who,, according to Vidal, rejected turn-of-the-century fantasy classics by Nesbit and pushed badly-written realistic novels on children. He lamented the slow development of children’s imaginations, and gave many examples of Nesbit's influence on C. S. Lewis (and, my God, was she better. Those ghastly Narnia books!) As a matter of fact , he may have overstated the case. because many public libraries carried Nesbit (under her maiden name, Edith Bland, and perhaps he didn't look there) and certainly my parents good-humoredly purchased every one of them over a period of years.

So it has been a while since I read them. I read half of The Enchanted Castle a year ago, and though I remembered loving it, I eventually abandoned it. Perhaps it's less entertaining when you’ve read it 20 times. (It was the Harry Potter of its day. Only in those days they didn't need midnight book parties to read) Recently I began rereading the Story of the Treasure Seekers, one of my least favorites as a child. But The Story of the Treasure Seekers--one of the Bastable books-- is more readable because it is more realistic: the Bastable children wish to estore the family fortunes, only nothing quite works out: when they dig the hole for treasure the earth collapses when the sniveling Albert-Next-Door digs. Etc. Etc.

Nesbit was a socialist and feminist and a “free thinker” who had to write to support her family and found she could easily crank out children’s books. She had tried all kinds of writing, and though she didn’t particularly like children, she remembered exactly what it was to be a child. In fact, Vidal also loves her autobiography (which I have not been able to find).


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Everyman: Gogol's Tales

Who could not fall in love with the touching epigraph : “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in the most need to go by thy side”? A good library SHOULD be a guide, and Everyman retains this idealistic principle. The new editions have jazzed-up covers, presumably to sell books to an over-stimulated generation (though I like the covers very much and admit that I bought this new edition of Gogol’s The Collected Tales partly because of the new translation but also partly because of the art , a reproduction of The Peasant). Founded in England in 1906 and relaunched in the U.S. in 1991, Everyman Books resembles Penguins and Oxford Classics in their lluminating introductions and notes.

This is a superb edition, translated by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Divided into "The Ukrainian Tales" and "The Petersburg Tales, " Gogol's voice is rollicking, irrespressible, and merry (one would like to meet Gogol at a party). The earlier Ukrainian Tales often adopt the voice of a flippant narrator who claims he cannot remember the tale or cannot even remember who has told the tale or, when he finds, that person, then HE cannot remember the tale, either. There is often a fairy-tale quality to these early tales: demons "call" souls of innocent daughters, old women turn into witches, warrior ghosts appear, friends feud almost to the death (the feud has the quality of a folk tale). These earlier stories, good in their own right, pave the way to his equally witty, more sophisticated later work.

One of the best stories in the Petersburg Tales is “The Portrait,”which begins in medias res when an artist acquires an unlucky painting. The painting falls into many hands: all are driven to crime or suicide. The tale leaps and bounds and finally combines both past and future.

Of course the best stories are also included: "The Nose," "Diary of a Madman," and "The Overcoat." In "The Nose," a man wakes up without a nose: then he meets his own nose riding in a coach around Petersburg. “He did not know what to think of such a strange incident. How was it possible, indeed, that the nose which just yesterday was on his face, unable to drive or walk--should be in a uniform!” In “Diary of a Madman” and "The Overcoat," civil servants are maddened by poverty and lack of status: in "Diary of a Madman," a schizophrenic expresses grandiose dreams of royalty; in t"The Overcoat," another civil servant attempts desperately to acquire a new overcoat.