Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lone Tree and Junction

Some months ago I noticed at Second Story Books a novel or two by Wright Morris, and have since found and read more. All involve Nebraska, but four in particular involve Lone Tree and Junction, Nebraska, towns said to be about 20 miles east of Grand Island: The Home Place, The Field of Vision, The World in the Attic, Ceremony at Lone Tree. In Field of Vision and Ceremony at Lone Tree the people who count most are of the families of Gordon McKee and Lois Scanlon McKee, with the outsider Gordon Boyd. In The Home Place and The World in the Attic it is the families of Clyde Muncy and (in the latter) Bud Hibbard.

The details of the lives of the McKees and Scanlons have the comfortable inconsistency of legend. In The World in the Attic it is Tom Scanlon who died with ash-filled cuspidor balanced on his head; in Ceremony at Lone Tree it is his father Timothy Scanlon. In The Field of Vision, the younger Gordon McKee, aged about 6, is the oldest of the four children of Walter McKee's son Gordon; in Ceremony at Lone Tree, he is the baby of his family, with a much older brother. Tom Scanlon's hotel is the New Western Hotel at the west side of Junction in The World in the Attic but the Lone Tree Hotel of Lone Tree in Ceremony in Lone Tree. For that matter, Will Brady from The Works of Love gets a mention under his own name in Ceremony in Lone Tree, but his son goes by W.B. Jennings.

Railroads still shape the world. Scanlon's hotel is beside the tracks in Lone Tree (or Junction), where it catered to travelers.Will Brady begins as a railroad clerk, and becomes prosperous selling eggs to the railroad. Clyde Muncy, the narrator of  The Home Place and The World in the Attic, is the son of a station agent; Walter McKee is the son of a railroad worker. The Union Pacific and C.B. & Q railroads divide the town of Junction, just a little way from Lone Tree; Junction reveals the geography--and sociology--they impose only from the grain elevator. No native much notices the sound of a passing freight, though it wakes visitors. In fact, Clyde Muncy finds electric locomotives troubling for their lack of smoke and sound.

Morris's Nebraska is a dangerous place. A number of the men of Lone Tree have departed this life when they failed to notice an oncoming train. Will Brady's father died falling from a windmill he was repairing. Gordon Boyd's father died crushed by cargo he was unloading by the tracks. Young men commit unmotivated murders by gunshot or by car. Older men end up in Chicago, imagining impossible things. The women wear out from drudgery and from putting up with the men formed by and suited to such a land, Other women take a look at the town or the homestead they've married into, and disappear next day.

There is a dignity to those who have learned to live with the land on its own terms, notably on the farms:
Character is supposed to cover what I feel about the cane-seated chair and the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches, of an old man's overalls. Character is the word, but it doesn't cover the ground. It doesn't cover what there is moving about it, that is. I say these things are beautiful, but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean.
(The Home Place) And there is beauty here and there in the landscape, for all the "too much sky, ... too much horizontal, too many lines without stops":
I had heard so much talk, in the last twenty years, of the dreary flatness of Nebraska, that I had come to think of it as flat myself. Perhaps I had never known the land could be beautiful.
  "You ever see--" Bud said, propping his foot on the fence rail, "anything prettier than that?"
  Well, maybe I had. But I wasn't sure. I had seen country like that in France, but that was long ago, I was an exile, and I thought it was France--in country like that--that appealed to me.
(The World in the Attic)

The University of Nebraska Press publishes Morris's work under the Bison Books imprint. Kramerbooks was able to order The Home Place for me, and received it in a week.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Two Great Stories

During the late 1980s, when I traveled a good deal for work, the travel and the solitary meals led to a lot of enforced eavesdropping. The spectacular aside, I noticed some patterns, and came to conclude that there are two stories that American men tell, a lot:
  1. I could've, and probably should've, kicked his ass, but it would have been unbecoming.
  2. My boss is an idiot.
An admirable example of the first story appeared in the newspapers in 1986, when Congressman Henry Gonzales punched one of his constituents at a San Antonio restaurant. The man he punched had been referring to Gonzales as a communist, speaking to be overheard. Gonzales, at the time 70, allowed that he gone easy on the man; after all, he had been a boxing champion of his college. The man punched, a flourishing youth of 50 or so, told the reporters that he could have thrashed Gonzales, but who could hit an old man?

As for the second, Scott Adams has made a fortune out of it with Dilbert. As a staple of conversation, it is almost up there with talk of the weather. Yet it leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that it is mostly we have not found a vocation, who are putting in an honest day's work at any one of several jobs we might have held, who tell it. I don't think the members of the technical staff at the old Bell Labs were telling this story, or the engineers at Intel or Google.

Have I told these stories? Yes, you bet. Have I told them as often as I did before about 1987? I hope not.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lost Allusions

I noticed the other night in Wright Morris's The Home Place

"Thinks I--" the old man said, "tube as heavy as that will last forever. Well, he says, it would if it was rubber, but it ain't rubber. What is it, says I? Airsuds, says he. What's that, says I? That's what it is if it ain't rubber, says he."
The term "airsuds" appears several more times in the book, and it left me baffled. When I looked back at the early pages, I understood: Ersatz.

The Home Place appeared in 1948, when the war and the German rearmament preceding it had made "ersatz" a familiar term. It may not have been familiar to old Nebraska farmers, but I suppose Morris could count on his readership knowing it, and recognizing it in its disguise of "airsuds". We baby boomers must know "ersatz" from the reading of history and literature, if at all. I wonder whether our children will recognize it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Philosophy and Finance

Today's Washington Post has an article about J. Paul Reddam, owner of the Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another. Mr. Reddam is unusual among horse owners, in that his first career was as a teacher of philosophy in the California state university system. Having become fed up with academia and academic politics, he founded and later sold a mortgage company.  After this, he founded "CashCall, a company that makes unsecured loans to high-risk borrowers." The radio today mentioned some complications with the state regulators.

Perhaps he is in good, or at least notable company there. The agents of that noted Stoic Brutus charged 48% annually on loans until Cicero, then governing Cyprus, held them to the legal 12%, Adam Smith thought the high rate a natural consequence of lack of security for the loans. Peter Green, in Alexander to Actium quotes somebody on Brutus as a man of high principle, and even higher interest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parallel Texts: Rousseau and Burke

I noted the other night in Emile
Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour.
which recalled a passage from "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly":
It is that new-invented virtue which your masters canonize that led their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence, whilst his heart was incapable of harboring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labor, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honors the giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young: but bears are not philosophers. Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural feelings. Thousands admire the sentimental-writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Amazon Reviews

Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. notes a piece at TechCrunch, "Amazon Killed the Book Reviewer Star" The author of the latter piece, Greg Ferenstein, interprets a paper from the Harvard Business School "Working Knowledge" site as showing that "the aggregate rating of Amazon reviewers are every bit as good as professional book critics." I read the paper as making a different claim: that for the 100 highest-rated books on Metacritic between 2004 and 2007, the ratings of the professional reviewers are correlated with those of the Amazon reviewers. As best I can judge from a brief reading, the correlation is strongest in mainstream US journals and alternative sources, weaker among magazines; and the correlation could be checked only for books rated between 5 and 7 out of 9 by professional reviewers.

Mr. Ferenstein also interprets as "nepotism",  meaning favoritism,  the paper's finding that "connected" authors receive better reviews. That I think is subject to interpretation. Does Joe Dokes, who has reviewed for the NY Times, get good reviews because they know his face, or did he get to review for Times because the editors admired his previous work?

The mainstream reviews have their faults, which have been catalogued by excellent critics. Yet I find that Amazon reviewers give out a lot of high scores to books I would score low. To name a couple:
  •  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. Out of 682 reviews on Amazon, 520+ were 5 or 4 stars out of 5. A hinge of the plot involves a Chinese father, during WW II, planning to send his son from Seattle to Canton to finish his education. If Mr. Ford had picked up a history book, he might have noticed that Canton was then occupied by the Japanese.
  • The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. Out of 217 reviews, 168 are 4 or 5 stars. I found it implausible as to character and plot, and awkwardly written in too many places.
And I could go on, but why?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mount Vernon

Last week we went to Mount Vernon, for the first time in probably a dozen or fifteen years. About the only detail that seemed familiar was a recipe for cake, which uses 40 eggs and four pounds of butter. While waiting for our turn in the mansion line, we walked down to the wharf, and through the gardens and threshing barn there.

One of the better episodes in Henry Adams's novel Democracy is the excursion to Mount Vernon. The novel is set around 1870, so about 10 years after the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had bought the property from Washington's family. Restoration had not gone very far.
 They passed on, wandering across the lawn, and through the house. Their eyes, weary of the harsh colours and forms of the city, took pleasure in the worn wainscots and the stained walls. Some of the rooms were still occupied; fires were burning in the wide fire-places. All were tolerably furnished, and there was no uncomfortable sense of repair or newness. They mounted the stairs, and Mrs. Lee fairly laughed when she was shown the room in which General Washington slept, and where he died.
This is to say, I suppose, that the room was not large by standards of New York. As I recall the dimensions, it would not do for a master bedroom in a large American house now, but I would not consider it cramped. What is noticeable is the length of the bed: to my eyes it is nearer five and a half feet than six; yet George Washington stood well over six feet tall, and Martha Washington had the bed made for him.
 Carrington smiled too. "Our old Virginia houses were mostly like this," said he; "suites of great halls below, and these gaunt barracks above. The Virginia house was a sort of hotel. When there was a race or a wedding, or a dance, and the house was full, they thought nothing of packing half a dozen people in one room, and if the room was large, they stretched a sheet a cross to separate the men from the women. As for toilet, those were not the mornings of cold baths. With our ancestors a little washing went a long way."
"Do you still live so in Virginia?" asked Madeleine.
 "Oh no, it is quite gone. We live now like other country people, and try to pay our debts, which that generation never did. They lived from hand to mouth. They kept a stable-full of horses. The young men were always riding about the country, betting on horse-races, gambling, drinking, fighting, and making love. No one knew exactly what he was worth until the crash came about fifty years ago, and the whole thing ran out."
Yet Senator Ratcliffe (a stand-in for James Blaine) remarks
What I most wonder at in him is not his military or political genius at all, for I doubt whether he had much, but a curious Yankee shrewdness in money matters. He thought himself a very rich man, yet he never spent a dollar foolishly. He was almost the only Virginian I ever heard of, in public life, who did not die insolvent.
He was, by the standards of his time and region, a very rich man. He did manage his money well, and unlike Jefferson and Monroe, died prosperous. This enabled him to free his slaves, as Jefferson could not have done.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Text and Context

In today's New York Times, William Deresiewicz writes, among other things
The lie goes on. The poor are lazy, stupid and evil. The rich are brilliant, courageous and good. They shower their beneficence upon the rest of us.
I don't know who writes about the poor that way. As for the rich, the Sunday Styles section of today's Times leads off with an article "The Last Empress", on Bunny Mellon. I cannot be bothered to read it--it is in the Sunday Styles section after all--but if I were out to demonstrate someone's faults, I would not lead off with pictures showing her next to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The lead story in the Travel section includes
A friend mentioned the Fisher Island Hotel and Resort, on a small, highly exclusive private island two miles from South Beach, the kind of place where oligarchs and Oprah Winfrey buy and sell $15 million condos.
 An article in the NY/Region section "Still Flaunting the Luxe Life", seems to have reservations about some sorts of display; yet the non-flaunters seem to do their shopping less at Ikea than at ABC Carpet and Home.

I don't particularly imagine the rich to be brilliant, courageous, and good. Yet if I took what I can read in the New York Times more seriously, I suppose I might begin to imagine them so.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Travel Literature

Two persons on a motorcycle can travel at 25 times the speed they can manage on foot, given an open road. Yet unless they tow a trailer, they are likely to have much less carrying space than they would with backpacks. This calls for discipline in packing bulky articles, evidently including books.

The relatives who have just come through either developed or learned a system by which two persons can share one book: the leader reads along to a convenient breaking point, and tears off the portion just read, to be handed to the follower. They are reluctant to treat a good book this way, and so have been serially sharing Dan Brown's novel Lost Symbol. It was looking pretty well plucked this week, after 5000 miles and about 20 days of such treatment.

I have respect for books as objects, yet I don't know that I'd subject myself to Dan Brown to show it. Perhaps for the sake of the motorcyclists we should revert to the old custom of publishing novels in three volumes. Or American publishers could learn to publish slimmer volumes, as the British and the French (at least) know how to.

Pillow Talk

A couple of relatives passed through this week, stopping off during a cross-country trip by motorcycle, during which they have spent most of their nights camped out. The wife says that what she misses most is a pillow--clothing stuffed into a bag is not an adequate substitute.

This brought to mind a passage from a letter of Evelyn Waugh's, written to his wife June 2, 1941, just after the battle of Crete:
In case I don't see [his son] again, tell him when he goes to war that the most important thing an officer can carry with him is a pillow. I stuck to mine to the end after I had jettisoned gas-mask & steel helmet & blanket etc & blessed it every hour.
and also the story passed on to Gene Fowler by some Scotch immigrant in Colorado, and recounted in Fowler's Timber Line. According to this, a Scottish clan had gone raiding over the board, and was camped for the night. The patriarch, making a late survey of the camp, found of one of his sons sleeping, wrapped in his plaid, and with his head on a stone. The father kicked the stone out from under his son's head, crying "Never let it be said that any son of mine was raised in the lap of luxury!"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the One Hand ...

In Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, the narrator quarters himself and a sidekick on the philosopher Davey Gellman. We see Gellman at work
... writing an article for Mind on the incongruity of counterparts. He had been working for some time on this article, which he wrote sitting in front of a mirror, and alternately staring at this reflection and examining his two hands. He had several times tried to explain to me his solution, but I had not yet got so far as grasping the problem.
 I have never written an article for Mind, nor contemplated doing so. Yet now and then I find myself writing queries in SQL and thinking of this, usually when I am combining a layer or two of inclusion. Time series can produce that effect too.

May Day

Out for a lunchtime stroll on May Day, I entered Franklin Square from the northeast corner, from which point I saw a number of persons frolicking down where the paths crossed. The men, and a couple of the women, were dressed in knee-breeches and white shirts, and wore derbies. Most of the women wore long dresses of a light cloth in various colors, perhaps tie-dyed. As I got nearer, I could see that one of the men was playing on a small accordion. The circle unwound itself as the dancers flourished white handkerchiefs.

Morris dancers, I guessed, and a check once back at the desk showed that these were the Foggy Bottom Morris Men. This was their third event of the day, the first two--no real surprise--having been in Takoma Park.