Fuck yeah. This is great. I felt fully absorbed and enclosed in the nightmare. I was scared. McCarthy at his very best commands some black and frightfFuck yeah. This is great. I felt fully absorbed and enclosed in the nightmare. I was scared. McCarthy at his very best commands some black and frightful reserves. To chose from so many scenes: Judge Holden under a ribcage parasol holding the halfwit by a leash, the two shuffling though the sun-bleached desert Golgotha bellowing threats and promises to Kid and Expriest who are hidden, cowering, “prone in the lees of those sour bones like sated scavengers” awaiting “the arrival of the judge and the passing of the judge if he would so pass." A classic is a book whose audacity and imagination overwhelm my presumption of judgment, my niggling page-by-page interrogation of stylistic choices. Everything bodied forth complete, final, and inevitable. I find no seam.
Like Moby-Dick, Blood Meridian restores to us a proper fear at our planetary marooning and barrenness, our culture-making sacralization of bloody motions amidst an indifferent geology. Melville’s “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” heralds Judge Holden’s “War is god” soliloquy. …all the land lay under darkness and all a great stained altarstone.
But I do think that at present man is a predatory animal. I think that the sacredness of human life is a purely municipal ideal of no validity outside the jurisdiction. I believe that force…is the ultima ratio, and between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add what I no doubt have said often enough, that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men… (Justice Holmes, letter to Sir Frederick Pollack, 1 February 1920)
“Melville manages to keep it a real whaling ship, on a real cruise, in spite of all fantastics” (D.H. Lawrence). So does McCarthy. Hence my fear. The world of Blood Meridian is at once recognizable, historical—and a prehistoric void, the very birth of violence:
The Yumas seemed immobilized by these misfortunes and the kid cocked the pistol and shot down another of their number before they began to collect themselves and move back, taking their dead with them, lofting a flurry of arrows and howling out bloodoaths in their stoneage tongue or invocations to whatever gods of war or fortune they’d the ear of and retreating upon the pan until they were very small indeed.
Even the horses looked alien to any they’d ever seen, decked as they were in human hair and teeth and skin. Save for their guns and buckles and a few pieces of metal in the harness of the animals there was nothing about these arrivals to suggest even the discovery of the wheel.
The rough materials of spirit and form and idea—the cities made from packed mud, the “rude Christ” kissed by the villagers, “a poor figure of straw with carven head and feet.”
Holden, the metaphysical pessimist who practices what he preaches. Philosophizing and killing; meditating upon ruins and making them. A cold kiva of the Anasazi is his perfect lectern.
McCarthy recommends that I go re-read Faulkner, by showing that rhapsodic run-ons can coexist with laconic pictorial precision. My unrevised undergraduate prejudice against Faulkner centers on mushmouthed prolixity. Perhaps an inevitable opinion when Absalom, Absalom! goes up against the revelation of Nabokov's suavity.
The historical situation of Blood Meridian is a sweet spot. I love the Mexican War just a bit less than the Civil—the former the bloody nursery of the latter. McCarthy’s Glanton gang rides out in 1849, a year after the signing of the treaty that gave the US sparse and haphazard dominion over a land area greater than France and Germany together, an empire won by the tiny regular army supplemented with irregular settler militias, levees of war-hungry volunteers, deputations of rough riders and sundry freelance killers. The historical John Joel Glanton rode with the Texas Rangers during the war and made epic desert rides scouting for the army. Expriest mentions riding with Ben McCulloch’s company of Ranger scouts, and the Kentuckian with whom Kid and Toadvine join the gang is a veteran of Doniphan’s Ride, the 2,500 mile trek Missouri volunteers made through Northern Mexico, fighting Apaches and the Mexican army all the way. The war and its aftermath was the great age of the filibustero, the freebooter, the hired gun paid partly in plunder. It was a time when a band of Americans armed with rifles and the new six-shooters was thought invincible against mestizo conscripts with antique muskets and Indians with simple bows. During the 1850s bands of adventurers sallied forth from New Orleans, Mobile and San Francisco ambitious to reproduce the seizure of California in Cuba, Nicaragua and Baja. Some were picked up by the navy and set back; others made landfall and proclaimed brief chimerical kingdoms; and still others were captured and garroted in crowded plazas or stood against walls and shot down by squads of fusileros.
This was neither the first nor the last of many American filibustering expeditions south of the border during the unquiet years following the Mexican War. The chronic instability and frequent overthrows of the government in Mexico City created power vacuums filled by bandit chieftains and gringo invaders who kept the border in a constant state of upheaval.
(McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era)
Benjamin and Elizabeth Turner, Nat’s original owners in Southampton County, Virginia, were Methodists. Methodism had spread wildly across America in tBenjamin and Elizabeth Turner, Nat’s original owners in Southampton County, Virginia, were Methodists. Methodism had spread wildly across America in the late eighteenth century; and like many zealous divines before they become institutionalized, the missionary Methodist preachers pounding over the young republic’s backcountry roads brought rather uncomfortable news to the converts who gathered to hear them—namely that God did not approve of their owning other people. That didn’t play in the South, however, and rather than lose congregants, the Methodist elders promulgated tepid half measures: like, Methodist clergy couldn’t own slaves; or, Methodist converts could own slaves, but couldn’t trade in them; finally, they gave even that up, and contented themselves with encouraging Methodist slaveholders to Christianize their slaves and so prepare their souls for the Kingdom of Heaven, where the raw deal they were getting here on earth would be recompensed, sort of.
This Benjamin and Elizabeth Turner duly did, and their slaves, like those of many others, were fed a steady diet of the submission- and obedience-counseling passages from the Old Testament, along with the quietist, turn-the-other-cheek stuff from the New. Problem was, their slave boy Nat, son of a runaway father and pure-blood African mother, was something of a genius—Benjamin Turner even said Nat would be of no use to anyone as a slave. Nat somehow learned to read (no one ever figured out how), and got a hold of a Bible. Therein he found all the crazy shit his owners probably wouldn’t have wanted him to know about, like the eschatological visions of the exiled Hebrew prophets—you know, the captive Israelites must smite down their oppressor—and the apocalyptic phantasmagoria of the book of Revelations. Nat Turner—brilliant, prideful, and increasingly bitter about being a slave, especially after being broken to field hand, and sold away from his wife and children—“grew to manhood with the words of the prophets roaring in his ears.” Uh-oh!
Nat Turner among his fellow slaves was a lot like Crazy Horse among the Sioux—aloof, austere, given to bouts of broody introspection and solitary rambles during which he fasted himself into visions. He was an outsider, but all the more impressive for his abstention from group amusements like apple brandy and dancing; and the other slaves felt that because he had magically taught himself to read, and bore cranial bumps and birthmarks that in African tradition mark the warrior-prophet, he must represent a mystic potential worth respecting. So when he began to hear the Spirit talking to him in the fields, and discovered blood droplets on the corn (“as though it were dew from Heaven”), and find leaves marked with runic symbols, and see black spirits and white spirits battling in the sky, they believed him. To whites Turner was the object of at times uneasy curiosity—this “smart nigger” who even dared baptize and pronounce born again a white man, a neighborhood ne’er-do-well by the name of Etheldred P. Brantley—but generally they felt reassured by his obvious piety and abstemiousness, as well as by his mask of “Yessuh!” In hindsight, it seems incredible that they could have thought innocuous a man who preferred to spend his scant free time exhorting hellfire, or fasting and praying alone in the woods. Don’t fear the drunken slave, he’ll be asleep soon enough, fear the slave who believes alcohol incompatible with his holy mission.
So during the late 1820s Nat was allowed considerable freedom of movement among the county’s farms, to preach at Sunday slave “praise meetings.” These rambles not only allowed him to sow dissension among his fellow slaves and identify which of them seemed suited to his plan, but also to gain a tactical knowledge of the county’s topography, and, ominously, to note the cruel and kind among the masters and overseers. On Saturday, August 13, 1831, there occurred some sort of atmospheric disturbance that dimmed the sun and produced a visible black spot on its surface. This event caused consternation up and down the eastern seaboard, from South Carolina to New York, and many in the religious young republic feared the end was nigh…such fears were complete nonsense everywhere but in Southampton County, where Nat Turner saw the sun spot as the “black hand of Jehovah,” an unambiguous sign that it was time to launch the backwoods Judgment Day he had been preparing: “It was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great Day of Judgment was at band.”
The next Sunday night, with the whites gorged and drowsy from a day of convivial barbeque, Nat and his followers burst from the woods. At first they eschewed firearms in the interest of stealth; with windmilling axe blows, jugular daggers and, later, musket volleys, they destroyed some 60 whites—men, women, babes in cradle, a schoolyardful of children decapitated and left in “one bloody heap.” As Turner’s men neared the uprising’s vague objective, the town of Jerusalem, Virginia (Holy Land place-names add what is perhaps a gratuitous touch to this already Boschian tale), they acquired guns, horses, plentiful liquor, and a semblance of tactical disposition:
Nat placed his twenty most dependable fighters in front and sent them galloping down on the homesteads before anybody could escape. The rest of his troops moved helter-skelter behind the advance cavalry, some guarding Negro hostages, others drinking brandy. For some unknown reason, Nat stationed himself in the rear of his strung-out forces, riding alone again, lost in his thoughts and his prayers.
After personally claiming but a single victim—a teenage girl he chased across a field, overtook, then brained with a fence rail—Turner rode apart, probably to look for further signs and direction from the Almighty, but usually caught up his men, “sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed,” he later said, and “viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims.” He had the idea that his massacres were prelude to the apocalypse, but obliterating several families only served to instigate the well-armed militia company that attacked and scattered his band on its second day of marauding. Turner fled back into the woods, where he hid out for two months before his discovery, trial, and hanging. He went to the gallows unrepentant and self-commanding, confident in Christ-parallels, ready for that hereafter.
Before his execution, as he languished, “loaded with chains,” in the pit of the gaol, Turner was approached by a local lawyer who wanted to secure an avowal that the killing spree was not part of a coordinated interstate uprising, the specter of which was causing many summary massacres of slaves and free blacks by cagey white mobs in Virginia and North Carolina. Turner went on record to make such an avowal, and in the process dictated his famous Confessions—autobiographical essay, delusive religious testament, and a powerful contribution to the debate, already then in progress, about the uprising’s political meaning and consequences, and the future, at least in Virginia, of the South’s peculiar domestic institution.
The ferocious rage, the absolutely ruthless nature and extent of Turner’s murders shattered forever the Upper South slaveholders’ pretentions to a benevolent, mildly paternal slavery—the whole propaganda of happy darkies strumming banjos in the sweet summer dusk, contented after a day of honest Christian toil redemptive of their ancestral heathenhood. Violence like Turner’s is the resort of the desperate and the vengeful, not the contended. It was therefore imperative that the proslavery authorities, in defending the institution from Virginians who in Turner’s wake pointed out its great danger, to label Turner an aberrant slave (which he was, of course, but not exclusively so—he had disciples after all, and many spontaneous joiners) and a religious fanatic…and a religious fanatic he surely is by our lights, but not by the standards of his time. Set next to the behavior of his owners, Turner’s actually looks quite normal, an idea he makes plain in his unrepentant confessions; where they found biblical justification of slavery, he found biblical justification of the murder of slaveholders. As Lincoln would write in his Second Inaugural Address, Americans on both sides of the great slavery war read the same Bible, invoked the same God while spilling each other’s blood.
I would place Nat Turner among the singular black men whose powers, Du Bois wrote, are seen, “throughout history,” to “flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.” The tale of Turner’s intellectual life is obviously one of isolation, impoverishment, and grotesque warping; nonetheless, in it we see powers equal to the attainment of literacy with a only a smuggled grammar—to the assimilation of classical rhetoric while being worked and whipped like a mule—to a revelation of the radicalism of the slaveholders’ cherished Bible, and the winnowing of murderous propaganda from the text meant to pacify and humble him. In his confession he says God told him to slay his enemies “with their own weapons.”
Poised against the Mayflower is the slave ship—manned by Yankees and Englishmen—bringing another race to try against the New World, that will prove its tenacity and ability to thrive by seizing upon the Christian religion…—William Carlos Williams
And about this time I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in the streams…—Nat Turner
Stephen B. Oates shows up in Ken Burns’ The Civil War looking and sounding like Ned Flanders with a southern accent and fire in his belly—mustachioed, bespectacled and be-sweatered, righteously arraigning command decisions of the Gettysburg campaign (“Lee had come by Gettysburg to believe in his invincibility and that of his men, and it was his doom”). His is a smoothly integrated, Cattonesque narrative style (Catton supplies an epigraph), the authorial emphases and particulars of presentation defended in the extensive essayistic endnotes. I found it went down all too easy at times. I for one like it when historians work through interpretations before the reader, make a performance of the sifting and assembly of atrocious fragments, with lots of bewildered shrugs and rueful sighing; as an archivist—bored sentry over page-turning patrons—maybe I like to see the documentary grunt work show up in the prose. But Oates is still quite effective—even gives a nod to modernistic meta-history with an epilogic first-person account of a visit to Southampton County, to the farms still standing—and this book will make your hair stand up. There’s a graphic novel based on Turner’s revolt that is considered one of the most violent ever published, and all despite never straying from the historical record. Not sure why Oates didn’t append Turner’s Confessions, they’re not that long:
I got my clammy adolescent hands on this just months before my parents mustered the courage to give me The Talk. Oops. "But Mom, I already know aboutI got my clammy adolescent hands on this just months before my parents mustered the courage to give me The Talk. Oops. "But Mom, I already know about all that stuff...Who told me? Umm, my friend, Gee...Who's he? Umm, he's this, like, syphilitic roué I met at Barnes and Noble." ...more
This is a biography that actually merits the “magisterial” among its blurbs, the kind of book that shows biography second only to the novel for difficThis is a biography that actually merits the “magisterial” among its blurbs, the kind of book that shows biography second only to the novel for difficulty of organization and effect. As epigraph to the first of the five volumes he would devote to the life of Henry James, Leon Edel quoted a line from his subject’s rare foray into biography (William Wetmore Story and His Friends, 1903):
To live other people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same—since it was by these things they themselves lived.
Du Bois began his intellectual life in the 1870s, a prodigious New England preteen saving odd job money to buy Macaulay’s History of England on an installment plan—and died in 1963, a Pan-Africanist Marxist with a villa in Accra, capital of newly-independent Ghana, and a chauffeured limousine provided by the Soviet embassy. So yeah, Lewis had a lot of ground to cover, plenty of change “to live over.”
Du Bois requires two +500 page volumes (this is the first) in which Lewis synchronizes his subject’s restless ninety-five years with an account of the turbulent modernity he inhabited and strove so variously to interpret. This book is full of fascinating microhistories. Every page is dense, chewy with a trenchant portrait or ideological summary or sketch of socio-political context; the history of the United States from Andrew Johnson to Lyndon Johnson, from the Civil War in which Du Bois’s father fought to the Vietnam War he predicted and denounced a decade in advance; imperialism, Gilded Age economics, race and class dynamics, assimilation and separatism, Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism, Bismarck and Négritude, German philosophy, Romantic Nationalism, and every stripe of social thought. In some people egoism is a revelation of spirit; Du Bois’ life is a political and intellectual history of the twentieth century.
Things I learned, stuff I was prompted to recall, random notes:
1. At Harvard Du Bois read The Critique of Pure Reason with Santayana—not under him, with him. Just hangin’ out.
2. At Harvard Du Bois was a star student of William James, who sent The Souls of Black Folk to Henry, who admired it and invited Du Bois to conclude his 1909 bicycle tour of the Lake District with a visit to Rye House. They never did meet. But James-Santayana is the missed friendship of American Letters.
3. After former U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes publicly questioned the relevance of higher education to blacks, the undergraduate Du Bois wrote him a stern letter in which he told Hayes that he “owed an apology to the Negro People.” This was particularly egregious of Hayes, who at the time was trustee of a black college fund, and particularly ballsy of Du Bois, whose application to that same fund—he wanted a doctorate from a German university; Herr doktor, the prestigious credential of the era—was pending. Hayes was impressed and Du Bois got his grant. Du Bois studied political economy at the University of Berlin, wrote a dissertation comparing the black American peasantry with the Eastern European variety; drank in beer gardens, romanced shop girls, hiked throughout Austra-Hungary, thrilled at Prussian military parades, and affected the upturned points of Wilhelmine mustache.
4. Du Bois was labeled a “dangerous man” by another president, Teddy Roosevelt, for his “freewheeling, militant” editorship of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races (I love that subtitle; Du Bois ran plenty of pride-instilling Nubian images on the cover; my aunt has several sets of Sphinx-head bookends). When the Justice Department formed its Bureau of Investigation in 1908, Du Bois’ was an inaugural dossier, henceforth a rite of passage for African-American leaders. The white establishment was quite dismayed that by 1914 many American blacks had turned away from the earthy, humble, accommodating, vo-tech vice-principal Booker T. Washington, to listen at the feet of this “sociologist turned propagandist,” a colleague of Weber and Durkheim who could provoke like an old school Abolitionist, who had put aside brilliant historical work and foundational contributions to the new sociology to rake American pretentions up and down, in sermonic editorials of a grandly indignant style, a lynchable sass—“When it was not hurling thunderbolts, The Crisis dripped acid, issue after issue. Mordant observations and gratuitous asides filled its pages”—that needled even whites on the NAACP board and made Du Bois a hero to blacks, who named children, learned societies and even a brand of cigars after him. Du Bois died the night before the March on Washington; when Sidney Poitier and James Baldwin, standing around a hotel lobby, got the news that "the Old Man is dead," they didn't need to be told who he was.
5. Booker T. Washington’s power was a function of educational funding. In the absence of a federal Dept. of Education, national funding for higher education was in the hands of robber baron philanthropies. Washington had the philanthropic ear and whispered that blacks were rooted to the peasant soil of the south, uninterested in demanding rights that would upset the southern caste system, or in education beyond that of mechanics and menials, carpenters and cooks. Black liberal-arts colleges, like Du Bois’s alma mater Fisk and periodic hub Atlanta University, were left to wither on the vine; the trustees of the Rockefeller and Carnegie education monies wanted to see such institutions literally perish.
6. Washington’s lackeydom extended throughout the black press—he attempted to disrupt the forming of NAACP, then a cutting-edge attempt at interracial civil rights action, by planting lurid news stories about the fraternization of black men and white women in the ranks of the new organization, a specter he thought sure to enrage popular sentiment. Washington could also advance or quash federal civil service appointments of blacks due to his pull with Republican administrations, and was a pretty smooth bureaucratic operator, buying off potential dissenters with plum posts; although to his credit he also secretly funded early legal efforts against the imposition of Jim Crow—secret because his white backers would not have been cool with that.
7. At philanthropic conclaves Washington would warm up the crowd with “darkie jokes” and savage lampoons of citified “college negroes.” That ridicule still echoes. I wonder if he used a super-nerdy “white voice” when doing Du Bois.
8. Washington is the quintessence of Uncle Tomism, a representative man of southern caste. Uncle Toms don’t like whites, as is commonly thought, but fear and distrust them, and so resort to obsequious accommodation as a way of staying out of the cross-hairs. They fawn and flatter but are extremely angry. Southern mores—backed up by the rope, the pyre, the castrating blade—exacted a degree of Tomism from all blacks, especially men. Washington’s relevance waned when it became clear that the progress of the race was in the north. His assault by a street tough while out whoring, and his incapacitation and slow death from what looked like syphilis, weakened his standing also.
9. Du Bois and Jack Johnson show pride and egoism in heroic, visionary dimensions. They exemplify unintimidated blackness at the post-emancipation high noon of white supremacy. The love of beat-downs and the poses of a frosty hauteur never looked so good. And both were sharp dressers.
10. Newly arrived, cash-strapped Vladimir Nabokov did a lot of peripatetic lecturing in the early 1940s, and was a great favorite at black colleges in the south. He always brought down the house by declaring Pushkin the striking example of what mankind can achieve when the races are allowed to freely mingle. In the fall of 1942 he met Du Bois and recorded his impression in a letter to Edmund Wilson:
Celebrated Negro scholar and organizer. 70 years old, but looks 50. Dusky face, grizzled goatee, nice wrinkles, big ears—prodigiously like a White Russian General in mufti played sympathetically by Emil Jannings. Piebald hands. Brilliant talker, with an old-world touch. Très gentilhomme. Smokes special Turkish cigarettes. Charming and distinguished in other, more important, ways. Told me that when he went to England he was listed as “Colonel” on the Channel boat, because his name bore the addition “Col.” on his passport.
Appomattox, one of “the homely American place-names made dreadful by war.” Appomattox Court House has a homeliness, but Wilderness Tavern, SpotsylvaniAppomattox, one of “the homely American place-names made dreadful by war.” Appomattox Court House has a homeliness, but Wilderness Tavern, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor - the Virginia killing fields of Grant’s overland push - those sound entirely sinister. And then you have the fight-grounds and sites of massacre from three centuries of Indian Wars, which seem to fall on either side of a fine line separating the comical (Tippecanoe, Little Big Horn) from the weirdly resonant (Fallen Timbers, Wounded Knee).
I could read about this war indefinitely—especially the final twelvemonth scourge. Every new narrative makes me a rapt listener at the Homeric campfire. Tell me again how it went. (Next to chant: Melville and Whitman, the former’s dark little poems on Shiloh and ghostly guerrillas, the latter’s army hospital recollections in Specimen Days and painterly, Winslow Homer-ish vignettes—“Cavalry Crossing a Ford”—in Drum Taps.) “Up-to-date” is idle praise for a book on this war, because it’s the original, partial accounts that make one’s flesh creep, and they are rediscovered and rearranged to varying effect by later writers. Every American generation beginning with the one that fought has done some kind of literary justice to this transformative conflict—our Great War and catalyst of modernity, as Gertrude Stein saw it. Catton, writing in the early 1950s about black troops at the Crater, is less sociologically comprehensive but just as affecting as Slotkin, a dedicated scholar of race relations, writing in 2009.
As a storyteller, Catton makes particularly his own the weariness of the men. They hiked rough country blindly at night, during the day launched and repelled savage assaults, all for an entire Somme-like month—May to early June 1864—at the end of which everyone who hadn’t been shot was mad or nearly so with shell-shocked fatigue. Catton is also very eloquent on the disappearance of celebrated units under the wheels of war. This or that decimated regiment, brigade, division or even whole corps (two were wrecked at Gettysburg) would be struck from the army’s rolls, its few disbanded survivors scattered to other formations whose commanders sometimes indulged the aggrieved pride of the exiles by allowing them to continue carrying their bullet-riddled banners, on which the names of old battles—various -burgs and -villes, and mysterious Indian-named rivers—were sewn. ...more
Literature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But
Literature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But that is part of our lesson. (Specimen Days, “New Themes Entered Upon”)
Intensely artful, intensely vernacular—some draughts of the tipsy-making water Emerson talks about in the essay by which young Whitman was called (“The Poet”). But Whitman’s waters do not flow in the clear stream of a style that refuses to call attention to itself—the bizarre ideal of those dismayed at the demanding perceptual detours and little linguistic renewals that constitute “good” writing, truly readable writing, “poetry”—in any case, “language in its aesthetic function.” (Jakobson’s definition will always serve.) Whitman recoiled from what he called “the sickliness of verbal melody,” and the prose of Specimen Days is among the most casual and colloquial in English—but the style still calls and holds one’s attention. Because that’s the point. Style, Flaubert insisted, is an “absolute way of seeing,” and Whitman wants to see what he sees, in the way he sees, with all the corporeal contours and spiritual subtleties apparent to him.
And did he see! The guy was everywhere. Metropolitan man of ferried crowds, omnibus flaneur and opera-goer in the booming Astoria of midcentury New York City—an ink-stained bohemian, arguing politics over sudsy steins in rowdy fireman taverns—a stroller of Broadway, where he sees Andrew Jackson, Dickens, and “the first Japanese ambassadors.” In 1861 he goes down to fort-belted wartime Washington (“her surrounding hills spotted with guns”) to nurse the wounded and watch over the dying—meets the bloody boatloads down at the wharf, dresses wounds, reads the Bible at bedsides, loans books, distributes money, stamped letters and writing paper—soda water and syrups when Lee is repulsed at Gettysburg—and pens letters home for the illiterate and the too-weak. He doesn’t know how much good he does but he cannot leave them, stays on in the embattled, cemetery- and hospital-environed capital through the four years of carnage. When not in the wards, he loafs in army camps, observes and notes the goings-on, chills with the pickets through their watches, and clerks part-time in a government bureau until its indignant head realizes he’s employing an “indecent poet.” He stands in the street all night as the endless columns file past to the front, savoring unseen the jokes and songs that waft through the dark. He and Lincoln nod to each other when they pass in the street. He chats with Rebel prisoners and Union deserters; compares eastern and western, northern and southern soldiers, speculates about regional types, local moldings, the looks of future Americans. The war—“the most profound lesson of my life,” with “the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Army Hospitals”—breaks his health, and the lusty rambler is confined paralyzed for a time. He regains much of his strength later, enough to resume “gaddings-about in cities” and even to manage “a long jaunt west”—to the “distances join’d like magic” by the railroad—and there to eyewitness the course of empire, to see America planting the prairies with world-feeding wheat, tunneling railways through mountains, feeding forests into steam-powered sawmills, the sublime statistics of this titanic industry yet dwarfed by the continent itself, by the tinted canyons and empyrean peaks, the melted snows thundering through gorges.
Whitman on Abraham Lincoln:
Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. Lincoln was dress’d in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They pass’d me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen’d to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow’d and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
On New York harbor:
…the mast-hemm’d shores—the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin’d, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled tumultuous current below—(the tide is just changing to its ebb)—the broad water-spread everywhere crowded—no, not crowded, but thick as stars in the sky—with all sorts and sizes of sail and steam vessels, plying ferry-boats, arriving and departing coasters, great ocean Dons, iron-black, modern, magnificent in size and power, fill’d with their incalculable value of human life and precious merchandise—with here and there, above all, those daring, careening things of grace and wonder, those white and shaded swift-darting fish-birds, (I wonder if shore or sea elsewhere can outvie them,) ever with their slanting spars, and fierce, pure, hawk-like beauty and motion—first-class New York sloop or schooner yachts, sailing, this fine day, the free sea in a good wind. And rising out of the midst, tall-topt, ship-hemm’d, modern, American, yet strangely oriental, V-shaped Manhattan, with its compact mass, its spires, its cloud-touching edifices group’d at the centre—the green of the trees, and all the white, brown and gray of the architecture well blended, as I see it, under a miracle of limpid sky, delicious light of heaven above, and June haze on the surface below.
Specimen Days made me think of Nabokov—Whitman’s attempt to discover the germs of his individual consciousness and destiny in ecological phenomena, historical patterns, and the designs of fate reminded me of Speak, Memory. Also, Whitman is an arch-aesthete guised as loafer, near-bum, democratic mingler and perceiver; a common narrator of Nabokov’s Russian novels and stories is the down-at-heel but delicately dreamy émigré poet (or poet manqué) whose exuberant consciousness cannot but perceive inspiriting marvels and fated correspondences in the grimy Berlin and Prague districts to which he is relegated. The narrators of “A Guide to Berlin” and “The Letter That Never Reached Russia,” as well as Fyodor in The Gift, might say with Whitman,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river…
(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”)
Whitman felt the import of, and renovated English poetry to sing, the democratic transformation and ungenteel energy of nineteenth century America (particularly the boom and rush of 1850s New York City), and Nabokov was similarly concerned with Russian literature’s assimilation of the hitherto unhallowed realities encountered by its now-wandering poets (he found translating Lolita into Russian very difficult because not even his inclusive and flexible literary Russian, forged in the 1920s-30s, could at first accommodate all the gadgets and devices invented since then; if there was going to be a Russian word for jukebox, he had to coin it). A recurring theme of Nabokov’s letters to his younger brother Kirill, an aspiring poet, and of his polemical sparring with Georgi Adamovich and the “Paris School” of émigré Russian poetry, is an insistence that the poet’s removal to an exilic, demotic-industrial landscape isn’t the end of the Russian poetic tradition born amid neoclassic palatial façades. He tells Kirill not to shun warehouses and factories, blasts with scorn and contradicts with the example of his own classically grounded modernism (so darting, filmic) Adamovich’s gripe that Pushkin is useless to the émigré writer and the Pushkinian tradition of verbal artistry powerless to accommodate the political and nervous dislocations of interwar Europe.
Once in America, Nabokov fell out of the Russian milieu partly because he did not, could not as an evolving artist with a new tongue and a new milieu to master, share the easy, enclaved contempt many émigrés felt for “barbaric” America. They were worn out, he tired but ever-responsive; and with butterfly net in one hand, and a stack of note-cards penciled with the germs of Lolita and Speak, Memory in the other, he hit the road—Véra behind the wheel, of course—to net and name new species, to clamber the continent’s mountains and immortalize its roadside humanities. Updike said Nabokov had every excuse for exhaustion once he reached these shores—but as he had poetically assimilated Europe, he set about doing the same for America. Think of the first two chapters of Lolita’s second part, the Whitmanesque catalogue that begins, “It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States.”
Whitman and Nabokov are superb landscape colorists; spooky naturalist-animists; all-perceiving enchanters sensually-primitively attuned to and obsessed with birdsong, light effects, arboreal personalities, stars, mountains, sex; and Whitman is really into butterflies, too. Both mark the point at which the highest artistry grades into mysticism and gnosis. The New World, they recognized, was not to be dismissed, especially its landscape, flora and fauna. The Rocky Mountains were a fascination to both. Whitman fell in love with Colorado’s “delicious atmosphere” and mountain tops “draped in their violet haze,” thought it "the most spiritual show of objective Nature [he:] ever beheld," and even conceived a wish to spend his last years there; while Nabokov wrote Edmund Wilson that some part of him must have been born in Colorado, for while butterfly hunting on its slopes, he was “constantly recognizing things with a delicious pang”—the Baltic contrast of “the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity,” the appearance of the Boloria freija, a circumpolar species he had pursued as a boy through the bogs on his family estate.
We follow the stream of amber and bronze brawling along its bed, with its frequent cascades and snow-white foam. Through the cañon we fly—mountains not only each side, but seemingly, till we get near, right in front of us—every rood a new view flashing, and each flash defying description—on the almost perpendicular sides, clinging pines, cedars, spruces, crimson sumach bushes, spots of wild grass—but dominating all, those towering rocks, rocks, rocks, bathed in delicate vari-colors, with the clear sky of autumn overhead...I get out on a ten minutes’ stoppage at Deer creek, to enjoy the unequal’d combination of hill, stone and wood. As we speed again, the yellow granite in the sunshine, with natural spires, minarets, castellated perches far aloft—then long stretches of straight-upright palisades, rhinoceros color—then gamboge and tinted chromos.
Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities, with a system of neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen; pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, "too prehistoric for words" (blasé Lo); buttes of black lava; early spring mountains with young-elephant lanugo along their spines; end-of-the-summer mountains, all hunched up their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush; oatmeal hills, flecked with green round oaks; a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot.
With Eliot, I only occasionally feel the pungency his declared influences (English Metaphysicals and French Symbolists) seem to promise. This, though,With Eliot, I only occasionally feel the pungency his declared influences (English Metaphysicals and French Symbolists) seem to promise. This, though, might be the thing. Creepy-crawlies and the skull beneath the skin.
Looking back, I might have just read the carefully sequenced, climactic Ariel, but this selection, Diane Middlebrook's, was pretty consistently thrilling all the same. What a poet! Two of Plath's strengths immediately compelled my admiration: her genius for well-wrought hallucination--
How the elements solidify! The moonlight, that chalk cliff In whose rift we lie
Back to back. I here an owl cry From its cold indigo. Intolerable vowels enter my heart.
The child in the white crib revolves and sighs, Opens its mouth now, demanding. His little face is carved in pained, red wood.
My god the iron lung
That loves me, pumps My two Dust bags in and out...
--and her attention to the cavorting beasties, her comprehensive sight:
Inched from their pygmy burrows And from the trench-dug mud, all Camouflaged in mottled mail Of browns and greens. Each wore one Claw swollen to a shield large As itself--no fiddler's arm Grown Gargantuan by trade,
But grown grimly, and grimly Borne, for a use beyond my Guessing of it.
They moved Obliquely with a dry-wet Sound, with a glittery wisp And trickle. Could they feel mud Pleasurable under claws
As I could between bare toes?
("Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor")
Pebble smells, turnipy chambers. Small nostrils are breathing.
("Poem for a Birthday")
Yep, I'll be reading more of her in the future. And I'm curious what her prose is like. I mean, just look at this:
He won't be got rid of: Mumblepaws, teary and sorry, Fido Littlesoul, the bowel's familiar. A dustbin's enough for him. The dark's his bone. Call him any name, he'll come to it.
Oh, she’s funny. Her eighty-one year-old mother “still spends an hour every morning ‘putting her face on,’ with predictably fantastical, Isak Dinesen-Oh, she’s funny. Her eighty-one year-old mother “still spends an hour every morning ‘putting her face on,’ with predictably fantastical, Isak Dinesen-like results.” Castle’s stepfamily was grim and horrible, and everything she writes about them makes me laugh—even her description of the short nasty life and shotgun suicide of her hooker-beating sociopath stepbrother, Jeff:
I think of Jeff as someone who had no language, or no language other than brutality. Not that he couldn’t read or write, on a primitive level. One of the strangest things about his death were some crude letters—presumably sent back and forth between him and another Marine—that turned up in a closet afterwards. They could only be described as billets-doux—but sick, obscene ones. Full of things like, I going to fuck you cunt, you fucking cunt, suck my dick, scrawled in pencil. My mother told me all about them once, how upset Turk [her stepfather] had been. Turk himself idolized other men but his homoeroticism was sentimental and unconscious. He was diabetic and short and had soft, bosomy breasts. He didn’t like taking his shirt off. He used to say he wanted to kill all the fags. (He politely pretended not to know about me.) The happiest time in his life had been when he was under the North Pole for months in a nuclear submarine. It was so hot and claustrophobic down there, he said, he and the other guys spent most of their time in their skivvies, and sometimes even polished the torpedoes in the nude.
Not only does Castle crack me up, she is, after Camille Paglia’s withdrawal into a predictable punditry (the rote reiteration of her anti-elitist bona fides, of her elective affinities with pop stars and talk radio ranters), our premier Lesbian Critic Who Grew Wanting to be Oscar Wilde. (I write “our” but the title is probably the fruit of a bizarre personal taxonomy.) Paglia and Castle are ambivalent—indebted, disappointed—before the doyenne of their style, Susan Sontag. Castle could be writing for all three women when she recalls the scarcity of lesbian role models in her youth, contrasted with the availability, at least to the bookish, of the gay male personae to be found in English aestheticism and Continental modernism. “I knew more about green carnations, the Brompton Oratory, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and the curious charms of Italian gondoliers than I did about Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein.” Sontag and Castle both read tons of André Gide as teenagers in postwar Sunbelt suburbia—were both precocious mandarins, priggish aliens, amid loutish stepfamilies (Sontag’s stepfather advised her, “Don’t be too smart: you’ll never get married”). Paglia and Castle have written insightful memoirs of Sontag, but I think Castle’s best reveals the dandified, Whistler-Wilde performance art, the self-definitive schtick, that all three writers use. Sontag directed Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo, and while Paglia mocks the narcissism of what she sees as a bleak-chic stunt, Castle pays attention to Sontag's maintenance of her myth, her integration of the event into a personal legend:
The Sarajevo obsession revealed itself early on: in fact, inspired the great comic episode in this brief golden period. We were walking down University Avenue, Palo Alto’s twee, boutique-crammed main drag, on our way to a bookshop. Sontag was wearing her trademark intellectual-diva outfit: voluminous black top and black silky slacks, accessorized with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs. (The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’) Somewhat incongruously, she had completed her ensemble with a pair of pristine, startlingly white tennis shoes. These made her feet seem comically huge, like Bugs Bunny’s. I half-expected her to bounce several feet up and down in the air whenever she took a step, like one of those people who have shoes made of ‘Flubber’ in the old Fred McMurray movie.
She’d been telling me about the siege and how a Yugoslav woman she had taken shelter with had asked her for her autograph, even as bombs fell around them. She relished the woman’s obvious intelligence (‘Of course, Terry, she’d read The Volcano Lover, and like all Europeans, admired it tremendously’) and her own sangfroid. Then she stopped abruptly and asked, grim-faced, if I’d ever had to evade sniper fire. I said, no, unfortunately not. Lickety-split she was off – dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store. Five or six perplexed Palo Altans stopped to watch as she bobbed zanily in and out, ducking her head, pointing at imaginary gunmen on rooftops and gesticulating wildly at me to follow. No one, clearly, knew who she was, though several of them looked as if they thought they should know who she was.