Magazine Review

I’m not normally a magazine reader. All those slick articles that demand no effort or thinking and prey on small attention spans, serving up digestible morsels that are slightly bigger than a tweet, sandwiched between the cloying smells of perfume/cologne ads and toothy models. But a slew of airline-miles-exchanged-for-magazine offers arrived in my PO Box a few months ago, so I signed up for a schizophrenic variety: The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Seventeen, Sunset, The Atlantic, New York, InStyle, Vogue, etc. What was promised as the daily delivery of the WSJ newspaper to my PO Box was in actuality a weekly dropoff of the previous 5 issues all at once, crammed in among my other mail. I quickly extricated myself from that debacle but have been fielding calls from their subscription department ever since (“You know you were on a free plan. Why not continue?”). Seventeen was exactly the disaster I anticipated/desired. Keen to know what is being marketed to YA girls, I was left with the sourest possible taste in my mouth, canceling the subscription after three valiant months of gleaning cutouts that I mailed to friends with incredulous, “Can you believe this?!” scrawled across the articles/ads. My final straw with Seventeen was the wretched Girl Power! issue which interspersed tips on asserting yourself with tips on makeup and achieving the perfect butt for spring break. I’ve heard rumors that Sunset was once a worthwhile publication, but its current glossy pages promising me a taste of the good life in the West, upselling me on the rapidly gentrifying Divisadero Corridor in SF left me feeling like I’d been gnawing a piece of cardboard with a drawing of BBQ seitan on it. Vogue is another of the hordes choking my mailbox, and I admit to a guilty pleasure “reading” it after I tear out the stinky perfume ads at the post office, jamming them into the recycling. (Perfume is recyclable, no?) The latest issue gave me approximately 50 pages of written word nestled within 200 pages of magazine, pandering to its audience with an excerpt about her mom from Hillary’s memoir, an interview with Charlise Thereon (sp? who cares) proclaiming how wonderfully spontaneous she is and oh yes she is in a Relationship with Sean Penn. Praise be, someone whose name I actually recognize. The pages and pages of other “celebrity” grate on my nerves, I have no idea who these worthless hacks are and why I should care who they are coupling with at the moment. There was also a ~3 page story about a woman who lived in Kenya, and a few other forgettable stories, but I was actually stunned by the commitment to the written word in Vogue. InStyle and Cosmopolitan drained me of a few IQ points, and I quickly cancelled those subscriptions.
That leaves me with the three magazines that I’m sticking with (besides my true love, The Baffler, with its robust 3 issues a year):
* The Economist. When traveling, I’d grab a copy at the airport if I knew the book I was reading was on its last legs/pages. Strangely, when you’re a subscriber, you get a really poor quality cover to this magazine, er, newspaper as the editors call it. At the airport, it comes in a hefty, weighty glossy cover that gives it OOMPH. When it’s jammed in your PO Box, it’s of the flimsiest quality paper. Besides the aesthetics puzzle, I’ve discovered the best, the only way to read this “newspaper”: backwards. A few weeks ago, I lucked onto this scheme and it makes a world of difference to begin with the obituary and book reviews, work your way back through the meagre “culture” pages, before girding your loins to deal with the laughing-in-sleeve pompous commentary by the British hacks that run the joint. The only positive I can say about this rag is that it gives steady work to illustrators for the accompanying artwork to articles. But I’ll probably stick with this one until it runs out now that my backwards first approach makes it somewhat palatable.
* The Atlantic. I have a soft-spot in my heart for this pub, after it published Kate Bolick’s fantastic All the Single Ladies a few years ago. I was rewarded in my second issue of the magazine with the important contribution by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations. (Off-topic, my highlighted bits of the article are below.)
* New York. Not the feeble “cultural” New Yorker, but the straight up New York magazine. The writing is savage and funny, with cultural articles ranging from the Alex Baldwin “I’m retiring from the media” piece to the article featuring nudists trying to board the Google buses in SF. The latest issue has Chirlane McCray (de Blasio’s wife) on the cover and I’m itching to read it.
From The Case for Reparations, particular parts that struck me:

With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.

The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.

In 1783, the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations….At the time, black people in America had endured more than 150 years of enslavement, and the idea that they might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous.

But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”

By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”

Assessing antebellum democracy in Virginia, a visitor from England observed that the state’s natives “can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves.”

SCUM Manifesto

Luckily, this piece of feminist history survives in print, due to Solanas’ publicity stunt shooting of Warhol (she turned herself in at Times Square, Ground Zero of Advertisement Glory). Solanas’ words are gripping, clear, slightly besmirched with 1960s goo (“groove on”), but otherwise completely coherent and prescient, sly and witty, humorous to those not gripped in terror about strong females. The manifesto begins with a powerful shot across the bow:

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.

Talking genetics, Solanas deconstructs the male as a biological accident, a Y (male) an incomplete X (female) gene; “the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion… to be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited…”

Unable to relate or to love, the male must work. Females crave absorbing, emotionally satisfying, meaningful activity, but lacking the opportunity or ability for this, they prefer to idle and waste away their time in ways of their own choosing – sleeping,… bowling, shooting pool, playing cards and other games, breeding, reading, walking around, daydreaming, eating, playing with themselves, popping pills, going to movies, getting analyzed, traveling,… lolling about on the beach, swimming, watching to TV…,”improving their minds”…

SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes… A small handful of SCUM can take over the country within a year by systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder.
SCUM will become members of the unwork force, the fuck-up force; they will get jobs of various kinds and unwork. For example, SCUM salesgirls will not charge for merchandise; telephone operators will not charge for calls, office and factory workers will secretly destroy equipment. SCUM will unwork at a job until fired, then get a new job to unwork at.

Based on that, I need to revise my prior opinion of some of the lay-about workers who seemed to be “unworking” at jobs I’ve encountered over the previous decade. I didn’t realize they were part of the SCUM army.
This is an unrecognized work of art. Clearly mocking in tone, clearly not meant to be taken as operating instructions, yet she shivs the heart of 1960s patrimony that we still suffer under today.
One note: if you get the edition with the intro by blowhard Avital Ronell, skip her thirty-one pages of drivel and dive straight into the Manifesto. Ronell does Solanas a discredit throughout her intro, it’s best to let the text speak for itself. Solanas probably would have resented Ronell’s riding her coat-tails with the pseudo-intellectual analysis you have to wade through in order to get to the tight, clear prose of Solanas.

A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald

The author’s preface encapsulates my attraction to the subject: “The Dwight Macdonald I knew was a radical intellectual journalist with a splendid prose style and an acerbic, penetrating wit.” As Dwight describes his own dilettantism: “I refuse to become a lifeless lump of clay, dull, uninterested, stupid, sketchily read and impervious to 1001 of the finer sensations and experiences. To be open to all thoughts and experiences… is my one aim.” Dwight had an instant contempt or enthusiasm followed by backtracking throughout his life (sounds familiar!). This bio follows the upward, downward, sideways trajectory of the always interesting Dwight Macdonald.
Once he quits Fortune to focus on his own magazine and writing, he feels like someone discharged from the Army: “How difficult to decide, to act, instead of doing what one is told… Ordering one’s life so as to get something accomplished isn’t easy.” At the same time, he’s drinking too much and waking up with severe hangovers. Wife Nancy complained that the loudness of the conversation far exceeded the quality. With Nancy’s inheritance, he starts Politics, the influential magazine that could. Daniel Bell as an early contributor: “People move about in the huge caverns that modern technology has constructed, with little sense of relationship to meaningful events. They live as atomized human beings no longer controlling [their] lives but carried by events.” Bell later contributes in “The Coming Tragedy of American Labor” that the class had “co-opted by the promise of guaranteed annual wage if they behaved themselves and accepted an imperialist foreign policy.”
Indeed Dwight swings from Trotskyite to anti-Stalinist to anti-liberal and further back to the conservative wing. Turning away from politics, he sets his critical sights on culture. In a letter to his best friend, Chiaromonte:

Americans have been made into permanent adolescents by advertising, mass-culture- uncritical, herdminded, pleasure-loving, concerned about trivia of materialistic living, scared of death, sex, old age – friendship is sending Xmas cards… Anyway we have become relaxed, immersed in a warm bath, perverted to attach high values to trivial things like baseball or football (kids’ games really), and we just don’t function when we get out into the big cold world where poverty, the mere struggle for existence, is important, and where some of the people are grown ups.

It is a picture of a cerebral man frustrated with his own limits, lack of discipline. He wrote no book, in “cold blood”, merely essays (but grand ones at that). His big brain wrestled with WASP stereotypes, Marxist theory, the military-industrial complex and the meaning of the atomic bombs, finally resting on cultural criticism as his brand. Summers at the beach in Long Island, Nantucket, fueled his obsessive workload in the other seasons. He prides himself on being confrontational, a lone wolf.
Overall view of the bio: perhaps too meaty, covered too much detail. Got skimmy with parts towards the end about his descent into liberalism in the 60s with Civil Rights, Anti-War, etc.
Typo p 178: “He conceded that his radical view cold be compatible…” should be “could be compatible…”

South of Market: 1978-1986

[amazon template=image&asin=1907946381]I am rarely attracted to photography books after having suffered a surfeit of them during my six year tenure at Blurb. But this one appeared on my radar some months ago (when living in South of Market), and the library finally coughed up a copy today. Delaney moved into the transitional neighborhood when construction on the blight that is the Moscone Center had begun, a monstrous convention center, the Javits of the West. Pushed out of the blocks were older unmarried gentlemen living in residential hotels, hundreds of Filipinos, artists and gays that “snuck in” to the neighborhood (according to longtime resident Bobby Washington). The pictures are gorgeous, large format photos awash in color. The subjects have all but vanished, no more quaint coffee shop at the Budget Hotel, torn down schools, demolished blocks that are now rising with glass towers. Occasionally you’ll come across a familiar sight– like the “Flag Makers” sign on Natoma at 3rd street that was recently uncovered during the SFMOMA construction (where there used to be a Chevron-friendly King Garage). I love the photo of the bar at the SF Tennis Club– I had no idea the joint was so civilized back in the 80s. Besides the terrific photos, a dozen pages of interviews and explainer text snuggle into the back.

I think that San Francisco is the only place that I have felt is my home. I think it is a magical city, it is a city where I can realize my dreams and become more and more the person I want to be. I think the whole purpose of San Francisco is to become the magical person that you thought you were when you were five years old. — Lynn Forrest

The transformation is even more total in the central part of South of Market, where once vacant lots are filled with luxury hotels, museums, public parks and shopping centers. Young tech workers, international tourists and conventioneers have replaced working class families and the elderly poor. — Erin O’Toole

Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)

Why doesn’t every women’s history class doesn’t start with a discussion about Valerie Solanas, the writer/artist who penned the play, Up Your Ass, and the SCUM manifesto? Too radical for mainstream feminists who were busy trying to determine how much to push for in abortion rights, too self-reliant to trust any support from groups, too extreme, edgy, and volatile for too many people, Solanas was a poster child for Not Taking it Anymore. Her self-described idyllic childhood included being abused by her father (and possibly step-father), having two children of her own by the time she was 15. She always identified as a writer, working steadily on the draft of SCUM and Up Your Ass for years before unleashing them onto the world. This biography, pieced together from scraps and fragments of the shattered life of a forgotten artist, honors Solanas as the brilliant, ahead-of-her-time writer that she was, not pigeonholing her (as most have) as Andy Warhol’s shooter.
Solanas lived on the edge, sleeping on rooftops and on the streets of New York, or staying with people (barely friends), perpetually dragging her trunk of writing along with her. Forever having to worry about food and shelter frayed her already fragile mental state, and her schizophrenia worsened after being released from the indescribable horrors of the mental hospital/prison (forced hysterectomy, shock treatments, inhumane living conditions). She had a few relatively stable years living in a public housing apartment with her long term boyfriend, Louis Zwiren. When he left, her support system crumbled, and although she hadn’t lost her own housing, she wandered to the streets, eventually disappearing from NYC to reappear for a few years in Phoenix, Arizona, known to the local police as “Scab Lady” because she dug up her arms with a fork. Her last three years were spent in San Francisco, at the Bristol Hotel in the Tenderloin (56 Mason Street). She was found dead in her room, kneeling on the floor with her upper torso face down on the side of the bed, covered in maggots; dead of pneumonia brought on by emphysema.
She had previously lived in the Bay Area in 1968, living in Berkeley and visiting her friend Geoffrey LeGear. During the Greyhound ride back east from this trip, she picked up one of the guns she’d use on Warhol. LeGear paid her $10,000 bail after the shooting, the slip reading “12/12/68, $10,000 cash (ten thousand), Geoffrey LeGear – 1131 Lake Street, San Francisco, Calif”
Valerie and Andy had a playful relationship early on, Fahs suggests “perhaps Valerie’s energy, vigor, and ferocity did provide Andy with an amusing contrast to his own limp personality.”
One of my favorite quotes in the book:
“Sweetie, if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up space.” – Florynce Kennedy
Ben Morea’s recollection of Valerie:

She saw herself as a radical, just as I had a disdain for political liberals because I consider myself a radical. She spoke of her disgust, how stupid they were, or how shallow they were, or how one-dimensional they were, but she never came across as a really angry person. She came across as a person angered by stupidity and angered by the situation that existed but not as an angry person. I was much more like that than she was. She had a lot to contribute to the feminist political world and had a lot to offer and should be taken seriously… Radicals are ready to go over the edge. Liberals go just so far. She threatened them because she went all the way. She played out her conviction rather than just riding it.

Mexican Interlude

I am a sucker for travelogues, especially the kind where intrepid travelers set off for an adventure in a foreign land (like this story about a Brit who walks around Baja California.) Parts of this story were terrific, but the author’s tone was too smug for my tastes (albeit an understated smug). How clever he and his wife were to be fearlessly traveling the roads in 1930s Mexico without caring about bandits. How wonderful to bump into John Steinbeck a few times. How precious to be given the grand tour by Diego Rivera and then dine with Frida (oh, but see the Indian blood run strong in Diego). How wonderful that his letters of introduction gained him access to one of the remaining haciendas that hadn’t been broken up by the dirty evil communists. They survive a landslide taking out the road (bravely, intrepidly!, crossing a perilous six foot wide strip along a gorge), and reach Mexico City, where they stayed with a family for the next month, making day or weekend trips out to various towns, usually during market day where they’re amazed at the persistence of salespeople to haggle with them. Yes, they are so clever to have avoided the usual tourist traps, only visiting the shrine of Guadalupe on accident as they peeled out of Mexico City headed back to the States. Some classic descriptions of Mexican food, explaining what tacos are:

A taco can be a lot of things; a stopper or stopple, for example, a popgun or a billiard cue, an almanac pad (of all things), a “spruce young fellow or dandy”, or a volley of oaths. But it can also mean “light luncheon”, and hence, by extension, the dish we had that night. Its most necessary part is a tortilla, toasted but not too hard. In this semi-crisp binding is rolled almost anything, so long as lettuce and tomato are included.

The author makes a social blunder while relating the story of the Man From Detroit who didn’t like Taxco:

This gentleman, being irritated at the artiness of Taxco and well briago after too many fizzy rum drinks, had gathered to him a small army of little boys and taught them at the cost of ten centavos apiece to chant the slogan, “Taxco Mucho Stinko!”, thereafter leading them about town and producing the cheer at such strategic points as the bus stop and the center of the main plaza.

Most of my irritation is at the offhanded way he paints himself and his wife as being so liberal and tolerant. “Forget, if you have it, the notion that Mexico is full of dangerous, slinking brown people with a grudge against Americans.” And his observation, “Learn some Spanish. You won’t need much.”
Reco’d by the Neglected Books page, next time I will be more careful about taking Readers’ Choice recs.

The Game

As soon as I heard the premise for this book, it was a must read. The main idea: a man watches his neighbors from his balcony and develops a game of winning/losing points based on actions/things he witnesses (person reading +3 points, +6 for fiction, +4 for non-fiction; television on -19 points; couple fighting -9, etc.). He tells his wife about the game, it saves their marriage, they purchase expensive binoculars (“they leave nothing to the imagination!”). A man across the way from the couple discovers them watching, gradually others see the Watching Couple, the building complex turns into a frenzy, fueled by Lonely Man unloading his warehouse of binoculars by way of cryptic notes under everyone’s door. The police are called to visit the Watching Couple, and hear about The Game, which then leaks out to everyone else but without the rules. As a result, a group schemes to raise money to purchase the rules from the Balcony Man (the originator of the game), but he enters the bar and is surprised that everyone wants to know, gladly tells them. Soon everyone is playing The Game, watching everyone. Splinter rules arise. Teams of Sunnyside and Shadowside play each other. People stop watching TV because they are obsessed with the Game, television producers get upset and slither their way into the game by putting up television cameras on the housing blocks so that the world can play the game. People realize that other people can see into their apartments and start buying dummy objects to make themselves look more prosperous (fake grand piano, false waterfall on the wall). Balcony man falls in love with a girl across the way, eventually has a nervous breakdown and visits her, the whole complex watching. Soon after, he trades his apartment to Lonely Man for his villa in the mountains, retreats to nature. Rumors of Balcony Man inventing a new game spring up, and he soon sees people in the woods watching him.
Overall a dumb story, clunky in a 1970s way, making really obvious plot choices. But it fits nicely into exactly what I do when I daydream out my apartment window, seeing my neighbors across the street practicing guitar, working on their laptop, chopping onions. I feel good knowing that I am giving those very neighbors +9 points most nights when they peer across the street into my window (reading, fiction).

Letters of James Agee to Father Flye

A collection of letters from Agee to his lifelong friend, Father Flye. At the very least, reading this collection provides an excellent roadmap of book recommendations, as Agee let fly with what opinions swirled in his head about books, movies, poems he was reading/writing. The collection is one-sided, all from Agee, all becoming quite tiresome in their plaintive wail of apology about not having enough time to write and not being clever enough, feeling dull/dead… it made me yearn to see what was on the opposite side of the correspondence, what magic Father Flye was weaving to have Agee prostrate and begging for forgiveness letter after letter (tedious!). His magazine work spilled over into letters, the takedown in Fortune of people who worship orchids for being “the Largest, the Loudest, the Most Expensive, the most supercharged with Eroticism, Glamor, Prestige…” Topic ranged from philosophy to current events (Huey Long’s assassination netting some commentary about organizing a group of men to trail “the 300 key sonofabitches of the earth… and exactly a year from then, at just the same hour all over the world, to ring up the assassinations”) to musical recommendations (“Mitchell’s Christian Singers… the greatest singers of spirituals I’ve ever heard recorded”) and book recommendations (too many to count, but I want to check out Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe). His comments about being weary of Stoicism because it is often blended with self-pity, “a sort of self-pity with its fly open.”
I enjoyed his snub on psychiatry:

I would somewhere near as soon die (or enter a narcotic world) as undergo full psychoanalysis. I don’t trust anyone on earth that much; and I see in every psychoanalyzed face a look of deep spiritual humiliation or defeat; to which I prefer at least a painful degree of spiritual pain and sickness. The look of “I am a man who finally could not call his soul his own, but yielded it to another…”

Discovered while reading Dwight Macdonald’s magnificent thoughts on Agee and other writers.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861

I’ve sipped at the words, squeezed the covers, and taken delightful strolls through this book for nearly a year now. After it arrived in my post office box, I hied myself to read the first of its pages in the Yerba Buena gardens, a meager attempt at mimicking nature, but the best I could muster. It accompanied me on many outings thereafter, to be gobbled at in the shade of a tree in the community garden, on a plane ride to NYC, getting weathered on the road trip from Vegas to Zion/Bryce/Grand Canyon. A few days after we witnessed the gossamer threads of spiders flooding a field near Bryce Canyon at sunset, I read Thoreau’s musings on the same phenomenon, and I was reading his passages about snowflakes while a storm swirled around us as we camped on the edge of the Grand Canyon, nearly trapped by snow. It feels like a dear friend, the 600+ page beast, expertly abridged to preserve the spirit while cutting 90% of the complete text.
Journal entries are perfect for the type of consuming I would do in short bursts. This book contains too much gold for me to dog-ear pages that caught my eye, so I employed the pen, an occasional underline but mostly lines in the margins, sometimes with notes. To quote them here would be an enormous undertaking, and would result in an abridgment of the abridged. I look forward to being able to take this friend down from time to time and scan for a mark of interest I’ve left. “Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?” and “It is time now that I begin to live” are early markings.

My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods. As if it were not kept shut in my desk, but were as public a leaf as any in nature. It is papyrus by the riverside; it is vellum in the pastures; it is parchment on the hills.

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain

Page after page, the further I got, the more I felt deep in conversation with an old friend. The reviews on this site could learn a thousand things from Macdonald’s insightful eviscerations. He tears apart Hemingway, Cozzens, the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Tom Wolfe, the Great Books, the list goes on. Masterful writing + thinking = new favorite.
The first essay in this collection is Masscult and Midcult, masscult defined as a parody of culture pushed down the throats of the masses because the big bosses know what’s best for ’em. Masscult “is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” It offers no emotional catharsis or aesthetic experience, “the production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment… but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience… and it gives nothing.” Macdonald points out the cultural shift after 1945 that caused Midcult (a more serious threat than Masscult because of its incorporation of the avante-garde) to flourish: acceleration in wealth, leisure, and college education. On the negative side, this Renaissance is about consuming rather than creating, all those college brains slurp down content without producing anything of note.
Macdonald quotes T.W. Adorno, On Popular Music:

Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which…the masses are subject….People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire.

The second essay is in praise of that famous man, James Agee, dead at forty-five of a heart attack in a taxi. A friend of Agee’s, Macdonald takes his death hard but serves up kind and concise criticism of his postumously published A Death in the Family, comparing it to Agee’s masterful Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Macdonald blames himself for Agee’s death in a roundabout way, having gotten him a job at Fortune, which chained him to that magazine or its cousins for over a decade, precluding other writing he could have been doing. Agee lived big, worked hard, and died young, but at least he had some finished work. Macdonald was unable to say the same (leaving us only essays, but no “big work”). This essay interested me so much in Agee that I’m skipping reading LUNPFM and diving straight into a collection of his letters.
Ernest Hemingway gets flayed in the third essay, Macdonald showcasing ridiculous examples of his prose. George Plimpton comes to Hemingway’s rescue by refuting some of DM’s points in a rebuttal. The entire essay hilarious and worth reading.
The forth essay begins, “The most alarming literary news in years is the enormous success of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed.” Line by line he dismantles this work, “By Sex Possessed would be a more accurate title. There is very little love, which the author presents as at best a confusing and chancey business, to be patiently endured, like the weather.” Macdonald claims that Cozzens got the nod for this book simply because he’d worked too long without recognition and it would be downright un-American to ignore him any more.

Cozzens’s style is a throwback to the palmiest days of nineteenth-century rhetoric… that a contemporary writer should spend eight years fabricating a pastiche in the manner of George Meredith could only happen in America, where isolation produces oddity. The American novelist is sustained and disciplined by neither a literary tradition nor an intellectual community.

Next to be lain bare are the Great Books put out by the kindly folks at Encyclopedia Britannica (a mind-numbing Syntopicon, “collection of topics,” the reason for publishing this set), the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Macdonald makes a grand case for the lyricism of the King James), and the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. Somewhere along these essays I began to wonder what David Foster Wallace thought about Dwight Macdonald. Was he as big a fan as I was becoming? So far I can find only a speculated reference to Macdonald in Infinite Jest (the Macdonald Chair, referenced on p64). It seems to me these two would have had many lengthy and intense conversations. DM continues to show his fluency with words in these sections, “what Geiger counter will decide who is in fact educated and cultivated?”
Macdonald returns to the theme of Mid/Masscult in The Triumph of the Fact, clearly my favorite essay if I judge by the number of dog-eared pages. His basic assertion is that in the West (esp the US), our mass culture is dominated by “an emphasis on data and a corresponding lack of interest in theory, by a frank admiration of the factual and an uneasy contempt for imagination, sensibility, and speculation. We are obsessed with technique, hagridden by Facts, in love with information.” Oh yes. This rings especially true in today’s world of consuming vast quantities of information online. “(O)ur press lords make millions by giving us this day our daily Fact…” easily corresponds to the $$ made via ads shoving their way closer and closer to our news articles. “(O)ur way of following a sport is to amass an extraordinary amount of data about batting averages, past performances, yards gained, etc. so that many Americans who can’t read without moving their lips have a fund of sports scholarship that would stagger Lord Acton…”

Instead of being interested only in useful information, we now tend to the opposite extreme, valuing Facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect postage stamps, treating them… as objects of consumption rather than as productive tools…. We just like to have the little things around, like pets.

Imagine a person of the sixteenth century confronted with a copy of Time or The New York Times. He would take a whole day to master it, perhaps two, because he would be accustomed to take the time to think and even to feel about what he read; and he could take the time beause there was time, there being comparatively little to read in that golden age… Feeling a duty – or perhaps simply a compulsion – at least to glance over the printed matter that inundates us daily, we have developed of necessity a rapid, purely rational, classifying habit of mind… making a great many small decisions every minute: read or not read? If read, then take in this, skim over that, and let the rest go by. This we do with the surface of our minds, since we “just don’t have time” to bring the slow, cumbersome depths into play, to ruminate, speculate, reflect, wonder, experience what the eye flits over. This gives greatly extended coverage to our minds, but also makes them… coarse, shallow, passive, and unoriginal. Such reading habits have produced a similar kind of reading matter, since… our writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day’s spate of ‘news’ or the next month’s best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or as writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being “well informed,” how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how in general to elude the voracious demands on one’s attention enough to think a little.

The last two essays take apart Tom Wolfe’s brand of “parajournalism” (against or beside journalism, but not actual reportage) and Norman Cousin’s magazine, World, in which he names the two most “eminent global bores I can think of.” Similar to the above essays, he takes these works apart line by line, showing incorrect “facts” (Wolfe) and misplaced egotism (Cousin).
Found out about Dwight Macdonald through reading The Last Intellectuals. Unlike my take on Lewis Mumford, I want to read DM’s entire oeuvre.

Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York

Do you like reading snarky commentary about architecture in New York City? If yes, you’ll enjoy this collection of pieces originally published in the New Yorker as a “Sky Lines” column. “The chief question one should ask about a new building is not ‘Does it stand out?’ but ‘Does it fit in?'” Mumford walked the city during the 1930s and ripped apart or praised the construction work or plans he witnessed. He dubs the style of the new piers at Forty-eighth Street as “Funeral Parlor Modernique” and notes that after checking out the most popular restaurants in town the two most important ingredients are architectural bad taste and excessive use of the color red. He shreds the newly opened Frick Museum for setting up a traffic jam by roping off the galleries and forcing one-way passage through the building. He mostly approves of the new Cloisters museum, suggesting that it might be an experiment to get the public to prepare for the coming Dark Ages.
Overall, not terribly inspiring. Average writing, a bit tiresome snarkiness, mild sexism. I came across Mumford while reading The Last Intellectuals and wanted to sample some of his work. There might be better stuff he’s done, but I have satiated my curiosity about the man.

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

Marshall does an incredible service to the wit, wisdom, passion, energy and drive of Margaret Fuller, earning her a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. A well-researched book is one thing, but to infuse it with the magic of its subject is another. Marshall judiciously sprinkles the text with quotes from Fuller, making the story come alive. Pushed by her father to study Greek, Latin, the classics, her mind was shaped according to the standards of a “male” education, but she found no quarter to hold forth with her talents. While she was known to be a powerful and engaging speaker, she dared not ascend the speaker’s podium for a living, but found space for her thoughts in writing and private conversations. Steadily, Marshall builds the picture of Fuller’s talents becoming well-defined and well-known, climaxing with the publication of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She finally heads to Europe, where she finds an abundance of others skilled in the art of conversation, feeling at home at last. I’ve forgotten to mention her role as Goethe scholar, Dial editor (and huge contributor), school teacher, Conversations leader.
Steady correspondence with Waldo Emerson fills the pages, her need for a connection to other brains almost desperate at times, causing him to shrink back and then expand. I appreciate Marshall’s positioning of this delicate relationship, that Fuller did not kowtow to Emerson, but gave it straight to him, needling him, and once she realized she’d never get the deep emotional support from him, moving on. After years of disappointments in love, she finds fellow minds to commune with in Europe, culminating in an Italian love affair that results in a pregnancy and child she hides for a few years. Fuller’s descriptions of her initial time in Italy are fantastic, suffused by the emotion of finally living on her own and being swept up in mutual adoration for the first time. After the failed revolution, she boards a ship with son and husband, only to drown in a shipwreck 300 yards from shore along with her family. Emerson sends Thoreau to scout out the scene, obtain any relics or manuscripts washed ashore. Precious little is found.
Fuller on progress (p 114):

She allowed that society as a whole may have improved, but what of the individual? The very signs of progress others pointed to – innovations such as the railroad and the steamship – created or exacerbated “immense wants” in the individual: “the diffusion of information is not necessarily the diffusion of knowledge… the triumph over matter does not always or often lead to the triumph of Soul… when it is made over easy for men to communicate with one another, they learn less from one another.

Fuller’s loneliness (p 274):

In her diary that winter Margaret described an oppressive awareness that “I have no real hold on life, – no real, permanent connection with any soul.” She felt disembodied, like “a wandering Intelligence, driven from spot to spot.” Perhaps her fate was this: to live alone, to “learn all secrets, and fulfill a circle of knowledge,” but never to experience full communion with another being.

Reco’d by the inimitable Kate Bolick

The Last Intellectuals: American Culture In The Age Of Academe

This takedown of the intellectual elite still has relevance nearly thirty years after publication. Jacoby argues that the baby boomer generation of intellect fled to the hills, nestled into university teaching posts, began writing only for each other and ignoring the common reader. “If the intellectuals from the 1950s tower over the cultural landscape in the 1980s, this is not because the towers are so high but because the landscape is so flat.” Journalism provided a haven for some of the minds/writers, but even in 1987 the future of newspapers was uncertain.
Once these brains became part of the bureaucracy of a university, the fresh thinking, anti-conformist thoughts and writings withered up and died. The loss of living space that nurtured the bohemians also contributed to the decline, as Greenwich Village and North Beach were converted into boutiques and townhouses. “Even the isolated bookstore or coffeehouse has closed, to reopen as a fitness center or a fern and wine bar.” (Ouch. Jacoby is probably not pleased with the way things progressed for the next thirty years.)

Gentrification eliminated the cheap rents, squeezing out marginal intellectuals and artists. Areas that might have served as bohemian centers succumbed to real estate developers almost as soon as they emerged… cities boasted small, sometimes tiny and ephemeral, bohemian sections that served as way stations for young intellectuals. These can be easily denigrated. Nevertheless, the aerial view of society should not forget that in the lives of intellectuals – the lives of all individuals – it just takes several friends to make the difference; and these friends can meet in a coffeehouse in St. Louis or a bookstore in Seattle. Bohemia can be this small, this vital.

I love the suggestion that we can individually create our bohemias. It’s the only puff of hope in this whole piece. Of course, gentrification is the new urban blight, of which the pace has only quickened in the interval since publication. But if we can find one another, and have the space to talk freely and encourage thought… I swoon at the possibility. Fellow thinkers, get off the internet!
The crux of his argument:

Nor was the possibility of intellectual life outside the university enticing for post-1940 intellectuals. Writing as a freelancer made as much sense as homesteading: the open space did not exist. The shrinking cultural space – acknowledged or unacknowledged – herded younger intellectuals into the university. If academic salaries and security were the carrot, the decline of traditional intellectual life was the stick.
To live from selling book reviews and articles ceased to be difficult; it became impossible. The number of serious magazines and newspapers steadily declined (and the pay scale of those remaining hardly increased), leaving few avenues; the signs all pointed toward the colleges. If the western frontier closed in the 1890s, the cultural frontier closed in the 1950s. After this decade intellectuals joined established institutions or retrained.

The last half of the book explores the impact of the New Left infiltrating universities, radical professors finding a safe haven that then erodes their commitment to proclamation. The final chapter relentlessly fillets the work of a few intellectuals characteristic of this lost generation, Richard Sennett and Marshall Berman, “drab, pretentious, sloppy,” “diffuse, vague, uncritical… few pages attain clarity, few seem crafted.” Jacoby proceeds to eviscerate them further, dissecting their flaccid writing in a style very loudlatinlaughing-esque.

The Harbor

The narrator (Bill) grows up in Brooklyn Heights, a stone’s throw from the dreaded harbor he loathes when compared to the cultured foreign lands he reads about. As a young boy, he’s forbidden to leave the confines of the garden, but he escapes, lurching from lamp post to lamp post, until a policeman asks him if he’s ok. He runs back home and burrows into bed, sobbing. His first adventure. He ventures further, falls in with a crew of ragged and dirty kids whose leader is Sam. Together they explore the warehouses and docks, going home to eat dinner at Sam’s (who lives in a whorehouse), Sam whistling for him in the street when he was near Bill’s house. Bill rejects the life of his father, who owns a warehouse on the docks, watching foreign goods unloaded to pass into the US, and dreams of being a writer. After college, he spends a few years in Paris, slaving away at writing delicate prose and stories. News of his mother’s death drives him home to the harbor.
Reluctantly back, he stubbornly gets a job alongside his father (who has sold his warehouse but who’s kept on to do desk work), but yearns to keep writing. A conversation with his sister’s friend Eleanor opens up a creative stream in him as she prompts him to write everything he knows about the harbor. So begins his rise to fame (and quest of Eleanor). He goes deep into the subject, getting a room among the workers and finding work at the docks. His friend Joe comes along to fan the flames of revolution, showing him the dismal working conditions of the coalers that contrast sharply with the glittering party on deck. This eventually ends with a large worker’s strike at the docks, which is broken when scabs are sent in.
In addition to painting a pleasant picture of unions and revolutionary workers, Bill touches on the women’s right to vote, witnessing a women’s march for the right to vote (this is before he realizes his wife is in the parade):

I found to my surprise that in a very real sense this parade was different from anything that I had ever seen before… I was excited. And by what? Not by the marching lines of figures, fluttering banners, booming bands, nor just by the fact that these marchers were women, and women quite frankly dressed for effect, so that the whole rhythmic mass had a feminine color and dash that made it all gay and delightful. No, there was something deeper. And that something, I finally made out, was this. These women and girls were all deeply thrilled by the feeling that for the first time in their lives they were doing something all together – for an idea that each one of them had thought rather big and stirring before, but now, as each felt herself a part of this moving, swinging multitude, she felt the idea suddenly loom so infinitely larger and more compelling than before that she herself was astounded. Here for the first time in my life I felt the power of mass action.

He also talks about his sister Sue’s desire to get a job, but how their father is vehemently opposed to the idea. She yearns for a life of independence.
I can’t quite remember, but I think I got this recommendation from a talk about Sinclair Lewis, labor and feminism. While you’d expect this to be a book stocked at the SF public library, I had to order it up from the University of Nevada, and a 100 year old book arrived, to my delight!