(Syracuse University Press)The title is a little off-putting, like Dick Gregory's Nigger, or that briefly famous book on disability, The Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues. Like those, New York Jew is meant to catch your attention, give a literary jolt. Because for years the phrase had a touch of the prejudice built into it, "Well, you know, he's just a New York Jew."
It worked; it caught our attention; we spent a week with Kazin, and yes, we are envious of that splendid but somewhat cobwebby intellectual life from fifty years ago. Walking in the park with Robert Frost. Arguing with Saul Bellow, at the knees of Hannah Arndt. Carlo Levi in Rome lusting after Kazin's girl friend. Having tea with T. S. Eliot. (Having tea with T. S. Eliot!)
Would you believe Lionel Trilling and Kazin getting wound up on the subject of Paul Goodman hustling young men on the streets of New York? How about an afternoon with Gertrude Stein's brother Leo? A drink with Bernard Berenson? "Sitting with Silone in a sweltering mob at the restaurant Re degli Amici." Saul Bellow's psychoanalysis appears on page 263.
Edmund Wilson, anyone? Here's an atomic New York name-drop Whammy: (1) Edmund Wilson is in the office of (2) "The New Yorker." He's reading, over someone's shoulder, (3) The manuscript of a review of (4) Kazin's book, and, standing there, (5) Makes casual corrections of a date that's wrong. Doesn't that beat tea with T. S. Eliot?
Kazin was what the Beatle's call "a mixer." He can talk about Mailer because Mailer regaled him at lunch one day on the subject of sex. Henry Luce? Kazin worked for him for several years. Lots of confidences. Let me tell you what Luce told me on the subject of journalism, or about Clare, or ... or.... (No trace of guilt for being in the thrall of one of the king-pins of fifty years of disaster vis-à-vis China.)
Sylvia Plath? How about he's teaching at Smith, and this perfect co-ed comes in with a manuscript that is perfect, so perfect that you suspect plagiarism. Little did we know.
Writing about writing, and writing about writers writing about writing. It's a merry chase with fame, and you are there, in Kazin's lap, so to speak. One of his lady loves says, most perceptively, "You intellectual! You critic! You can write only about other people's books." Right on, as they used to say on the streets, way down there far below the plush offices of the Time/Life building.
§ § §
Is it worth it, all this intellectual name-drop banter? In the hands of a better writer, we'd have to say yes. These are important people, important in the world of English letters, in the world of public policy, historical perspective. The real problem is that Kazin has been putting words together for three-quarters of a century and it comes too easy. If he weren't so eager to make sure that we knew how many connections he had and how vital he was to that far-off time, he might have pulled off the whole pot-au-feu.
Those of us who have intellectual pretensions of our own are easily entranced by one who met so many of our literary and political heroes. Who wouldn't want to walk back and forth with Robert Frost at two in the morning on the lovely campus at Amherst? Who wouldn't want to hear Eliot, with his "delicious impersonations"..."constructing a personality for the public gaze." (Who of us who grew up under the shadow of Prufrock wouldn't give our left nut to sit in with "the bishop of modern poetry?") How about an hour with John Kennedy and then you turn around and stab him in the back with a snotty article in The American Scholar? Talk about nuts.
Yes, Kazin is a good mixer. He knew how to get into the same room with the very famous. Unfortunately for the readers of New York Jew, and despite all his high-class literary contacts, as a writer, Kazin is not a master. He's too familiar with putting words together.
And I knew, more firmly than I had ever known anything, that I wanted it, I wanted her so badly that my heart was clanging in my ears like the wire fence around the reservoir in the wintery wind.
Anyone who could come up with a klunker like that needs an oil change and a grease job.
He does have his moments, an occasional fine turn-of-phrase. His description of his Russian immigrant father's life and death in Brooklyn is touching. His thoughts on some New York intellectuals are dandy:
They should have been as happy as larks. They knew too much to be happy. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"
He's a lover of Bach, one of the few to recognize that Bach, with his "broken chords," is writing "dance music." (Listen to the first "Bourrée" in the A-minor English Suite #2, or the first Gavotte in the G-minor Suite #3. Why aren't you and I dancing to these, right now?)
But for all its literary fireworks, it carries a heavy burden --- even a feeling of entrapment, of being stuck in the bird-cage of the head, the curse of the intellectual, the over-intellectual ("You can write only about other people's books?") Or: is it the stammer, casually mentioned but once, then immediately deflated (although it's something that we know must go deep), deflected into a hash of a thought:
I had just been turned down by the Army because of my stammer. "What would you do," asked the roly-poly Dr. Brill, Freud's worst translator, "if you had to say, 'F-F-F-Fire'?
Maybe it's all the baggage that comes along with what he so proudly declaims --- 72 point type, white-on-black, on the cover ---
Perhaps the fault lies with being one who for all these years has constantly been on the make, collecting literati as others collect match-
book covers or old cars? Does it flow from the fact that he knows that he will never be able to be an artist of the stature of those he endlessly hustled: Auden, Wilson, Mailer, Silone?
Kazin lies just shy of his (and our) heroes. The give-away is, as it always must be, in the termination. Kazin chooses to end with an imitation of the ultimate pages of Portrait of the Artist. It's a take-off which almost makes it --- almost makes him a master --- but not quite. Alas for him, and for poor us, having to plow those famous fields. His words just don't take him over the top: as much as he and you and I and all the fans might wish.--- Ignacio Schwartz
Village and Country
Residences and How to
Classic House Plans
For City and Farm
S. B. Reed
(Lyons)Our cheap modern houses have defeated us, haven't they? They are built to be fortresses, stupidly alienated from the street. Instead of windows, and a front porch --- there's a two door garage for the neighbors to look at and the occasional visitor to enter. There's a front door, but most often, the garage is The Way In. A garage!
And what happens when you enter a living space through the oil-smelling windowless carport with its concrete floor? It's not a sign of welcome. It's a statement that the inhabitants of Fortress America are living and dying in a rabbit warren --- the garage doors a sign that says Don't Tread On Me.
It's enough to make you want to cry...as this whole slim volume will make you want to cry. The dictum of the author here is: build your own home; do it cheaply and well; and it will be a joy for you and for everyone else to look at and to come into and to enjoy. We have here a full reproduction of the book published in 1878 by S. B. Reed. He was an architect; he was opinionated. He was always putting in touches to gussy up the blank walls, inside and out --- those Victorian geegaws over the doors and windows and under the eaves so that you would know it was "house" and not a safe-deposit box.
The editor of this volume, Nathaniel Tripp, points out that Reed may have been out-of-step even with his own times: "He refused to accept the balloon framing style that was revolutionizing home building at the time." But he was one of us. He liked space. He liked decoration. He was even worried about squeaky stairs,
which are abominable, and even when assured of their safety, one feels an instinctive suspicion of danger and will look for treachery in every part of the house.
Reed was nothing if not creative, claiming that he had created "machine-placed siding" and "fool-proof rain gutters." He even "includes formulas for making your own paint, and the proper proportions of both animal hair and beef suet in your plaster." Don't eat the walls!
We begin at the beginning with a two-room cottage --- glorious cottage! --- for $230, and ending up with a monster-
delicious- break- your- heart "large and convenient house, arranged to embrace nearly all of the modern improvements." Total cost? $8,000, complete with cellar and store-room, dining room, kitchen, pantry (whatever happened to pantries, anyway?), six "chambers," one bathroom, one library (whatever happened to libraries, anyway?) attic, study, "wash," furnace-room, and parlor (whatever happened? etc.) Eight thousand clams, and room for you and all the extended family and a few illegals in the attic and hanger-on relatives in the basement.
You couldn't do it now. And we aren't just speaking about inflation. They wouldn't let you. The big They: the use-permit people, the Building Department, the Planning Department --- all those people that were put in place by the insurance companies, the "developers," and, most of all, the banks --- those that see zoning as a way to keep out the strange and the wonderful, to protect the value of those immensely profitable loans they have already placed.
Even if you went to the far reaches of southern Idaho or northern Arizona or western Maine, there would be some dratted county official who would look at your plans and shake his head and say, "Sorry, it can't be done. It's just not up to code." Code: the scourge of the house beautiful (or at least, the house interesting). Code Man will explain to you of the additional $100,000 in items necessary to bring you dream house up to these corrosive standards that have, so slowly, chewed up and split the hearts of our cities --- the rules written by those who exploit the land and don't give a toot for you and me and any would-be "Contiguous Houses" [see below], costing just $1,000 each.
They came and pretended to protect us; they ended up eating our cities alive.--- L. W. Milam
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Pity the poor American poet. Read by few. Understood by even fewer. Making words, teaching, giving readings. Knowing that in one evening, more people will be reacting to "Monday Night Football" or "The Millionaire" than your carefully wrought thoughts and feelings and words sprinkled end-stop on the page. It's a drear life there in poetryville.
It's probably saddest for the poetasters that don't get it --- the children of the 5,000 circulation magazines like "Virginia Quarterly Review," the "Midwest Review," "Poetry Magazine," "Sewanee Review." Who's going to listen; who's going to care about those poetasters whose verses get swept off the table shortly after they pop out of the toaster; never to rise again?
Fortunately, there's John Ashbery, as good as the best. Listen:
Memories of ImperialismDewey took Manila
and soon after invented the decimal system
that keeps libraries from collapsing even unto this day.
A lot of mothers immediately started naming their male offspring "Dewey,"
which made him queasy. He was already having second thoughts about imperialism.
In his dreams he saw library books with milky numbers
on their spines floating in Manila Bay.
Soon even words like "vanilla" or "mantilla" would cause him to vomit.
The sight of a manila envelope precipitated him
into his study, where all day, with the blinds drawn,
he would press fingers against temples, muttering "What have I done?"
all the while. Then, gradually, he began feeling a bit better.
The world hadn't ended. He'd go for walks in his old neighborhood,
marveling at the changes there, or at the lack of them. "If one is
to go down in history, it is better to do so for two things
rather than one," he would stammer, none too meaningfully.
One day his wife took him aside
in her boudoir, pulling the black lace mantilla from her head
and across her bare breasts until his head was entangled in it.
"Honey, what am I supposed to say?" "Say nothing, you big boob.
Just be glad you got away with it and are famous." "Speaking of
boobs . . . " "Now you're getting the idea. Go file those books
on those shelves over there. Come back only when you're finished."
To this day schoolchildren wonder about his latter career
as a happy pedant, always nice with children, thoughtful
toward their parents. He wore a gray ceramic suit
walking his dog, a "bouledogue," he would point out.
People would peer at him from behind shutters, watchfully,
hoping no new calamities would break out, or indeed
that nothing more would happen, ever, that history had ended.
Yet it hadn't, as the admiral himself
would have been the first to acknowledge.
§ § §
What a wag! Admiral Dewey, of imperialistic fame, confused by his wife's insult (vide, the booby, genus sulus) vs. his own lust ("speaking of boobs"). Poetic pun games galore, twisted around each other: "Manila" (site of Dewey's victory over the Spanish navy), "mantilla" (black lace head-dress of the Spanish), "vanilla" (rhymes with both), "manila" (as in envelopes made from Philippine manila hemp).
Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War mixed up thoroughly with dull Melvil Dewey, the Decimal Classification man ("Go file those books/on those shelves over there.")
Dream images: ancient libraries with the Dewey Decimal numbers hand-written on the book spines (milk-like white ink) tossed overboard, floating in Manila Bay. A "bouledogue" --- ay, mama mia! A dog! A real "boulevardier." Ashbery: a punster's delight --- an etymological dream-pie.
And over it all, the apocalyptic: those dull people hiding in their houses, hoping "that history had ended." Dewey, by now turned into a prophet, in his "gray ceramic suit," knows, as all of us know, that it hasn't, and won't.
Critics, those noisome bouledogues hired by tedious newspapers and occasional on-line magazines to drag good writers down to their level, never know what to do with Ashbery. Is he a poet? Is he pulling our leg? Is he a crazy! And those puns! Why can't he be serious!
He was sent, we do believe, to bedevil those soft-soaps who write the long, oleaginous reviews on poetry for the New York Times. Long may he spread confusion over their tedious ranks. Long may he wave.--- A. W. Allworthy