Reviewing the Review: July 16 2006

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review features an informative cover article by Michael Kazin on the ecstatic 19th-century celebrity preacher Henry Ward Beecher. I thought I was well-versed in 19th Century American theology, but I barely knew Beecher’s name, and Kazin’s short piece tells me a whole lot else I didn’t already know about this emphatic figure, who is the subject of a new biography by Debby Applegate. The book is titled The Most Famous Man in America, which is meant to emphasize the fact that this homespun American philosopher was tremendously influential in his time (his admirers included Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman).

With fundamentalist religion on the world’s mind today, it’s enlightening to remember that 150 years ago America’s top Christian preachers were among its most outspoken liberals. Kazin summarizes Applegate’s work with enthusiasm here, and he finds so much to say that he doesn’t even drop the pleasing fact that Henry Ward Beecher was the younger brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe until the article’s final paragraph. It’s nice to learn something I didn’t already know on a Sunday morning.

Okay, so this week’s edition of the Book Review does something good. Now let’s get to the bad, of which there’s at least one big glaring example today.

Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus already has a reputation for allowing critics to carry out private grudge matches in the guise of impartial book reviews (the John Dean/Deep Throat incident is the most recent example). Today he allows critic Edward Rothstein to turn a review of On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain by Edward Said (the late Columbia University professor, author and advocate for Palestinian causes) into a political polemic. Edward Said was a highly respected writer in many fields including music and aesthetics, and his book deserves a thoughtful review on its own terms. Instead, Rothstein points to Said’s observations about playwright Jean Genet’s offensive record of supporting Palestinian terrorism, concludes that Jean Genet’s politics were inhuman, and summarily dismisses Said’s entire book on this account. He spends four long paragraphs pressing the point about Genet as if it represented a major problem for Said’s book.

If Rothstein were writing an article about Jean Genet, this would be entirely appropriate (I find Jean Genet’s quasi-romantic embrace of Palestinian terrorism very offensive myself, and I hope most others do as well). But this is a book by Edward Said, not Jean Genet, and Edward Said is under no compulsion to apologize for every artist he admires. I can’t imagine why Sam Tanenhaus thinks he is serving his readers well by failing to publish a review of Said’s book that discusses Said’s book. I think this is another major screw-up, and a definite sign of bad judgement on the editor’s part.

Elsewhere in the Book Review, there’s an intelligent piece by Liesl Schillinger on Maria Arana’s novel Cellophane, an uninspired spin on Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle by Brad Leithauser, an intriguing summary by Lisa Zeidner of The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas and a halfway decent endpaper by Benjamin Kunkel on the Romantic and Transcendental roots of the literary memoir form.

2 Responses

  1. the politics of literary
    the politics of literary celebrity

    I, too, find Genet’s support of Palestinian terrorism to be quite mad. Offensive even, yes. A lot of the things Genet did (the petty crimes, the overt racism) were offensive. Genet didn’t satirize. He meant what he wrote. I don’t know if he used his life in symbolic ways that were relevant. The man was a thief. He stole BREAD. Because he was hungry at a time in a place. I also find it quite mad that the culture at large elevates literary celebrity to such heights that it would take a Jean Genet seriously outside the realm of what he did best which was to write plays and fiction.

    But we do. Do that. We take a Brad Pitt and elevate him to the status of something beyond the realm of a guy who makes movies, not all of them that interesting or good, and we say, well, let’s seriously take into cultural consideration his ideas on architecture as we rebuild New Orleans. We are doing that now.

    I admire what Pitt and Jolie do with their celebrity. They do put their money where their mouths are. However, going to Darfur to observe suffering does not, unfortunately, qualify movie stars to shape such issues as military intervention in Africa.

    The culture is conflicted.

    We want to see our celebrities. Often, we rather enjoy it when they fall from grace.

    Genet had fallen from grace so many times it was absurd.

    It is absurd to take anything Genet might have to say about Palestine when his conclusions are based on observations of contact and the physical intimacy of Palestinian men. Taking Genet seriously on an issue such as this is the equivalent of taking Jean Genet seriously had he written a book of recipes for cookies. He was not Julia Child who never commented on Palestinians.

    I am told time and time again to the point where I am browbeatensilly with it that where a writer comes from is important (I have NOT arrived at my own conclusions yet) and Genet was from the Bad Behavior Gutter of France. A culture that has yet to resolve its relationships with Arab peoples. That Sartre could elevate Genet to cultural importance says a lot about Sartre, not Genet.

    Danielle Steel can (and has done so) walk into a room at a party wearing a pink gown and receive applause. The denzions of culture find this appropriate. Jean Genet has arrived at parties wearing almost the exact same gown. He, too, received applause. I can’t help thinking that many of Genet’s theatrical performances were based on the absurdity of it all. Because someone writes FICTION where do they get off performing cultural heroics to the tune of applause. What in the world are we applauding.


    We buy, sell, trade, and market success a zillion times every day. We invite Tom Clancy to the White House to present his opinions on the use of military technology.

    To the President of the United States. An idiot.

    Success begets success. Ask any publicist. The fact that Clancy got consultted on military technology by the White House was trumpeted by his publicist until the woman went hoarse.

    Why do we believe these fictions and trade in on them not unlike they were cash. They are cash.

    If I comment any further, I will be thrown into the Bastille and fed boiled rats.

    WHY would we take the Marquis de Sade seriously in any thoughtful dialogue on the complex subject of human sexuality. The man wrote vaguely amusing plays.

    Why would we take George Bush seriously (the man owned a baseball team in Texas and he failed at that) on the subject of political stability in Afghanistan.

    Because he got good press and we believed him and we voted for him.

    Had Jean Genet been exposed to the Black Panthers in Oakland and the physical proximity in that brotherhood, he would have reacted with a statement having to do with the nature of masculinity.

    Which is exactly what he did.

    Thusly the pink gown entrance (it was actually a tutu) at a fundraiser for the Black Panthers in Oakland.

    What does it mean. I don’t know. What does wearing a pink tutu mean. I don’t know that Genet’s support of the Palestinians was all that relevant either.

    What was relevant about Genet was that he could achieve success through his literary interpretations of Bad Behavior because he had been punished for it. Like I said, the culture is conflicted.

    Writers (even writers of fiction) can give us a glimpse into a time and a place. Movie Stars can give us a couple of hours of entertainment. Painters can give us visual experiences ranging from contruction to romanticism.

    But would you hire a WRITER to solve the conflicts of the Mid-East. I wouldn’t even hire Tom Friedman. He gives us a glimpse into a time and a place. He cloaks it in a lot of cultural and political veracity. He can even get on CHARLIE ROSE.

    Personally, I would vote for anyone who can do that as Queen for a day.

    I am glad there was a Jean Genet. I am glad there was an Edward Said. I am equally glad their was a Golda Mier and an Isiah Berlin. These people add context to a culture. What scares me to death is celebrity and the equivalent notion that ANY aristocracy is always right by virture of their success.

  2. An excellent write. You
    An excellent write.

    You wrote, “…the equivalent notion that ANY aristocracy is always right by virture of their success,” is a truism of our times. Would the press have any greater credibilty if they were to quote Jonathan Hickenbotham, a person that nobody has ever heard of? It all revolves around the key word, ‘success’, and that includes the press, the writers, the business that promotes and encourages this success upon the public as the only thing that matters in life, as long as this illusive ‘success’ is for their own benefit.

    We have a worship for success in any field of endeavor, it matters not what it is as long as this ‘it’ produces success from sales to changes to society’s behavior. The greater its effect the larger its success. Even a serial killer has a certain success in being heard, due to his success in killing so many people without getting caught for sometimes years.

    There is a correlation between success and quantity – the more your have the more successful you’ve become. These are the people that are admired/despised… people enjoy hearing about their success. It gives our dreams substance to see others ‘make it’… and we feel that some day, maybe… just maybe… we can achieve great quantity and also be heard.

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