Reviewing the Review: January 28 2007

Personally, I like the dead white males. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I can extract great enjoyment from a New York TImes Book Review featuring a cover piece on Thomas Hardy, an endpaper on Karl Shapiro and interior articles about Hart Crane and John Osborne. And I did enjoy this weekend’s issue very much, even if only one book by a living literary author is discussed.

That singleton is Chris Abani, and I think I’ll check out his The Virgin of Flames based on Karen Olsson’s halting but respectful consideration. Now we’re on to the dead writers, beginning with Thomas Hardy, subject of a new biography by Claire Tomalin. Critic Thomas Mallon urges us to look past the Victorian novels this author is most known for and take an interest in his later career as a poet. I’m surprised and pleased to learn that Hardy once wrote a series called the “Emma poems”, an “extended series of questioning, penitential elegies for his first wife, the whole set of them racked with guilt and wonder”. It all sounds very Ted Hughes-esque, or perhaps Donald Hall-esque, but either way it doesn’t sound like the Thomas Hardy I thought I knew.

This issue scores again with Jim Harrison’s superb endpaper on Karl Shapiro’s satirical Bourgeois Poet, in which this edgy poet grappled with the disappointing discovery that he could not maintain a career as a university professor without compromising his bohemian public image. This is a dilemma Harrison relates to:

Historically, of course, the scales are tipped in favor of the non-bourgeois poet. Yeats warned that the hearth was more dangerous for a poet than alcohol. Rilke said, “Only in the rat race of the arena, does a heart learn to beat.” Well off the margins of the page in “The Bourgeois Poet” there’s an invisible Greek chorus singing, “You’ve got to earn a living.”

While we’ve got Jim Harrison on the line, though, I wonder if the Book Review would commission the Jim Harrison essay I’d most love to read. He was one of Richard Brautigan‘s close friends before the great hippie surrealist killed himself in Montana, and I’d love to hear Harrison share his intimate memories of Brautigan (perhaps he has somewhere else, but I’ve never seen it). That’s an endpaper I’d love to read.

John Heilpern’s John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man is well-served by Granta editor Ian Jack, although the pairing of critic and subject is typically pedestrian (women must review women in the Book Review, and I guess Brits must review Brits). The most jarring article in this week’s issue is William Logan’s energetic hatchet job on Hart Crane, which cracks a few bad jokes:

It helps only a little to know that this dreadful mess was called
“Chaplinesque.” One of Crane’s friends later knocked on his door with Charlie Chaplin in tow, and the three went out on the town until dawn. Having learned this, a hundred American poets will begin odes to Angelina Jolie.


Crane’s language, when not a matter of tangled metaphors (he mixed them almost more often than he mixed drinks), was a schoolboy code for which an English-Fustian, Fustian-English dictionary would have proved helpful.

This seems a bit harsh, and I think Hart Crane has earned more respect than William Logan is offering here. The critic doesn’t help his position when he takes misguided side-swipes at other targets and reveals that he doesn’t know much about them either:

Reading “The Bridge” is like being stuck in a mawkish medley from “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma” — you’d buy the Brooklyn Bridge to make it stop.

I wonder what mawkish tunes he’s thinking of — “Old Man River”? “People Will Say We’re In Love”? Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers may have written some mawkish tunes in their long careers, but there is not a false note in either of these innovative musicals, and I’m not sure there are as many false notes in the work of Hart Crane as William Logan claims to find either.

With that, this week’s serving of literary comfort food is complete. I hope we’ll get a bit more nouvelle cuisine next week, but I can’t say I’m not satisfied.

One Response

  1. IFIf half these dead people

    If half these dead people were alive, I wonder if the analysis of their work would be the same.

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