Monday, August 29, 2016

Even Although

In The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, one of the correspondents, Jeremy Melford, attends a dinner of Grub Street writers, where among others he meets
The sage, who laboured under the agrophobia, or horror of green fields, had just finished a treatise on practical agriculture, though, in fact, he had never seen corn growing in his life, and was so ignorant of grain, that our entertainer, in the face of the whole company, made him own, that a plate of hominy was the best rice pudding he had ever eat.
(Letter of June 10)

In the introduction to a Macmillan edition of Virgil's Bucolics and Georgics, the editor, T.E. Page, wrote that
... when true Grecian art had perished with Grecian liberty, no form of amusement became more fashionable among the literary dilettanti of Alexandria than the turning into verse of prose treatises on scientific subjects. Thus Aratus, "a man ignorant of astronomy" as Cicero tells us (de Orat I. 16), turned into verse a treatise of Eudoxus; Nicander too of Colophon wrote poems on bees (Μελισσουργικά), beasts (θηριακά), farming, and matters connected with the country, although Cicero again describes him as "a man who had never seen a field (homo ab agro remotissimus), while the fashion was so prevalent that even a student such as Eratosthenes did not disdain this form of art, even although he knew what he was writing about.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Not Really a Repetition

Some night this week, I opened up The Moviegoer, and found the eponymous character's mother describing how she had fed his father when the father was not eating, apparently because of an existential malaise:
I had my breakfast early and I made his and brought it to him right there in his bed. I got his book. I remember it--it was a book called The Green Murder Case. Everybody in the family read it. I began to read and he began to listen, and while I read, I fed him. I told him, I said, you can eat, and I fed him.
 On Friday when I went to drop off a book at Carpe Librum, a woman came to the counter to buy three books, the top one The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dyne. I knew the author's name somehow, but don't think I had encountered the title outside of The Moviegoer.

Readers of The Moviegoer will remember that the narrator, John Bickerson (Binx) Bolling is very interested in rotations--the experiencing of the new beyond expectation--and repetitions--encounters bridging years in a way that lets the time between be felt. This counts as neither. Perhaps if I had seen The Greene Murder Case on the family shelves, it would; yet though there may have been a Van Dyne mystery there, I can't say that it was that one.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Back from Oregon

We made a quick visit to Corvallis, Oregon, at the end of last week. Corvallis is not a large city, dominated by the expanding Oregon State University. However, the students were mostly not back from vacation, and the town was quiet.

Saturday was hot, with a high temperature approaching 100 F. The humidity was low, which I thought made it tolerable. The house we visited got by with fans; air conditioning is not common in Corvallis. In general, the summer temperatures must be tolerable, for our guide down to the farmers market did not seek out the shadiest possible path, as I would do in Washington, D.C.

The farmers market had some good musicians, from a violinist not yet in his teens to bands made up of men with white hair. It also offered food


and armaments

At least one of the local microbreweries, one that our hosts patronize, makes very good beer.

On Monday in Portland, I managed an hour's visit to Powell's. Thinking of the bag I would have to carry through a couple of airports, I limited myself to three books, and of course regretted several more as soon as I left. Of the books I bought, two were by Edward Dahlberg: The Sorrows of Priapus and a volume comprising (and titled) Bottom Dogs, From Flushing To Calvary, Those Who Perish And other hitherto unpublished and uncollected works by Edward Dahlberg. It seems to me that on the last visit to Portland I left a volume with only Bottom Dogs on the shelf.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Americans and Venetians

A while ago, in Yeats's Autobiographies, I noticed the passage
In the Dublin National Gallery there hung, perhaps there still hang, upon the same wall, a portrait of some Venetian gentleman by Strozzi, and Mr. Sargent's painting of President Wilson. Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body; it feeds upon it as the flame feeds upon the candle--and should that thought be changed, his pose would change, his very cloak would rustle, for his whole body thinks. President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of the body, nor any movement but that of the valet, who has brushed and folded in mechanical routine. There all was an energy flowing outward from nature itself; here all is the anxious study and slight deflection of external force; there man's mind and body were predominantly subjective; here all is objective, using those words not as philosophy uses them, but as we use them in conversation.
 (The Trembling of the Veil, The Tragic Generation, section III)

That called to mind a passage remembered from John Jay Chapman:
In looking at the eighteenth century portraits of Puritan Elders, I have often reflected that the Puritans were traders. Whatever they may have been when they first landed, they soon became keen-eyed and practical, hard and cold. Their resemblance to the old Venetian merchants may be traced in the Doge's Palace, where the cold, Yankee faces loom down familiarly on the shuddering American tourist. I could attach to almost every portrait in Venice an honored Puritan name; and, with a little study and reflection, I could tell how each pictured aristocrat must have made his money.
(The essay "Mr. Brimmer",  published in Memories and Milestones.)

Well, each gets what he looks for, when he looks for it. Chapman wrote mostly on culture and politics broadly considered. He had a good eye for art, but "Mr. Brimmer" is about a bygone period of Boston society. Yeats may not have considered that Wilson was not then a young man, particularly by the standards of 1917. Giovanni Battista Brignole (and I suspect he was Genoese, not Venetian) has a receding hairline in Strozzi's portrait; still, he has the look of a man in vigorous middle age.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Read and Remembered

In Not Entitled: A Memoir, the autobiography of Frank Kermode, I happened to notice the other day
The academy has long preferred ways of studying literature which actually permit or enjoin the study of something else in its place, and the success of the new French approaches has in many quarters come close to eliminating the study of literature altogether; indeed, there are many who regard the word as denoting a false category, a term used to dignify, in one's own interest, a one set of text by arbitrarily attributing to them a value arbitrarily denied to others. This position many find grateful, either because it saves trouble or because they have ideological objections to the notion that certain sorts of application can  detect value here and dispute it there; or because they are, as it were, tone-deaf, and are as happy with the new state of affairs as a professor deaf from birth might be if relieved of the nightmare necessity of "teaching" the Beethoven quartets.
(This is about 1970, and the new French approaches are structuralism and deconstruction.)

After the first smirk, it struck me that I had read something not dissimilar long ago. In Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man there occurs
I have seen many a graduate student who had gone to Germany to study under some great classicist, like a colour-blind botanist going to a flower-show with a bad cold in his head; he came back as a doctor of philosophy, knowing a great deal about his subject, I dare say, but not knowing how to appreciate or enjoy it. So between the ineducable pupil on the one hand and the ineducable mechanical gerund-grinder, as Carlyle calls him, on the other, the system, speaking generally, did fail; it failed, as many a good system has failed, through getting into bad hands.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing About Writers

Richard Zacks, the author of Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, writes adequately. He practices the Time manner of omitting the definite article, writing for example "Rogers's six-foot-tall assistant, twenty-eight-year-old Katherine Harrison", which sets my teeth on edge. Now and then he just has to wedge in some facts--
Twain reached France and brought the family back on May 18 to the famous harbor with more than one hundred piers, the busiest commercial port in America.
That is, New York. He has found that a dollar in the 1890s was the equivalent of $30 today, which is useful information for evaluating Twain's debts, expenses, and revenues; however, he gives 2016 equivalents repeatedly,  as if the reader will have forgotten the ratio, or can't multiply by 30 (or 150, if the money is given as pounds sterling). There are sentences that distract one, such as
(Chatto published elite authors such as H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett.)
Chatto and Windus did, but not by 1896.

Still, Zacks conveys the main facts of the trip clearly enough, and the history of Twain's business disasters and family griefs.

One would not notice so much the faults of the writing but for the paragraphs of Twain's writing given every few pages and, for those of us who have read Following the Equator, our memories of that book. Eudora Welty, reviewing Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, wrote of it that
The heaviness of [Mizener's] own style seems always to show most when he comes up against Ford's imagination; that seems to burden him. "The right cadence," so central in Ford's style and in his own test of good writing, is lacking in his biographer. ... This calls insistent attention to itself, for situated among the paragraphs of Mizener are the many quotations from Ford. To read while they alternate is like being carried in a train along the southern coast of France--long tunnel, view of the sea, and over again.
(Collected in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Selinsgrove and Sunbury

We drove up to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Friday afternoon, and returned on Sunday. The city changes slowly. After the 1990 census results came out, The New York Times ran an article on Selinsgrove as the city that had changed the least demographically over the years. Market Street--the main street, as seems often to be the case in central Pennsylvania--must not be what it was. Susquehanna University continues to do what American universities do, namely build and expand: it looked all the larger and newer for the absence of students. The presence of the university must help keep the town going, as an employer, and as a source of the young with money to spend.

While on an errand, I encountered this:

I was surprised, for I had thought of Coxey as a Midwesterner, and indeed by the time he led his army he was a resident of Ohio.

Sunbury, a few miles away upstream and across the Susquehanna, has suffered from the loss of industry. Market Street here has fallen off a good deal from what it was fifty years ago. The Edison Hotel

appears to be a rooming house. The building that housed the Aldine Hotel has a bar on the first floor, and I suppose apartments above. There are thrift shops where there were department stores. But the park that divides the lanes of Market Street a block above Front Street is well kept up. The churches appear to be in good trim, though not architecturally distinguished.

Lorenzo Da Ponte lived in Sunbury for some years, where he kept a store. In his memoirs, he spoke of it as "the fatal town of Sunbury", I recall. He found the time to tutor the young Simon Cameron, later a senator, cabinet member, and diplomat. But he must have found his work and his residence much more satisfactory when he became a professor of Italian literature at Columbia College.