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Editor's Blog

Sightings from around the Web that will be of interest to our readers.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012)

We thank CHR contributor William Millard for the following commemoration:

Paul Fussell. Photo: Elaine Miller.
Paul Fussell.
Photo: Elaine Miller.

Sad news reached the CHR community just before this issue went to press: the death of Paul Fussell , who taught at Rutgers, Penn, and elsewhere, and whose writings transformed scholars' and nonacademic readers' understanding of a wide range of topics, from eighteenth-century poetry to the cultural resonance of World War I, the American class system, and the culture of international travel. Rutgers English alumni remember Prof. Fussell as a charismatic lecturer, a rigorous scholar, an irrepressibly cantankerous personality, and a generous, witty host. He was born in Pasadena, Cal., attended Pomona College and Harvard, and served with honor in the U.S. Army during World War II, an experience that yielded lasting insights into military values and psychology.

His books trace a trajectory from relatively conventional literary and historical scholarship to sui generis works addressing a broader readership in a voice simultaneously authoritative, incisive, and dryly hilarious in its rendering of revelatory detail. The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) brought him to public prominence, observing how World War I replaced military mythologies with the darker, more skeptical and ironized world view of modernity. Abroad (1980) called attention to travel writing as a distinct genre, and to true travel as a more arduous, risky, substantive experience than mere tourism. Class (1983) anatomized America's social distinctions according to aesthetic criteria, skewering each of nine strata (from the "top out-of-sight" through various upper, middle, and proletarian levels to the destitute "bottom out-of-sight") and proposing a bohemian "Class X" as an escape valve. BAD, or The Dumbing of America (1991) continued his assault on assorted forms of metastatic mediocrity, drawing a useful distinction between the merely bad and the pretentiously BAD. Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (1988) offered frank and contrarian perspectives on subjects including his own wartime experiences, Orwell, and the decline of chivalry. His first marriage to food writer Betty (Harper) Fussell produced two children and a scathing postmarital memoir by his ex-wife; later remarried to Harriette Behringer, he retired from his last professorship at Penn in 1994 and spent his later years in Oregon, where he died of natural causes. He is survived by two children, four stepchildren, a sister, numerous grand- and great-grandchildren, and a wide, admiring worldwide readership.

A few Fussellian resources online:

5 July 2012

How poets do it, or not

Isaac Chotiner reviews Jonathan Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works, pointing out its tautologies and defining it as still another example of a current mania, "fetishization of the brain":

Lehrer may want us to believe that creativity is essentially abnormal, medically or socially or intellectually; but the history of creativity is riddled with geniuses who worked within the conventions and in the centers. So, perhaps sensing that he has made himself a hostage to fortune, Lehrer also assures us that sometimes rest and relaxation, or outsider status, or a lack of knowledge, is not really the secret to creativity. Sometimes the secret is, in fact, hard thinking. In a brief discussion of Auden, he writes that "September 1, 1939," feels as if "it were composed on the back of a cocktail napkin," but assures us that this "ease" is an illusion, and that the poem required a lot of hard work. This is one of the features of Lehrer's genre: make an absurd claim, and then act as if you alone have the insight to knock it down. It is ridiculous and condescending to conclude from even a perfunctory reading of Auden's poem that it could have been jotted down on a cocktail napkin. Lehrer goes on to say that sometimes inventions do not come until one can "think no more," and that an obsessive focus is crucial. Uh-huh. So the lesson of Lehrer's hot book is this: creativity comes from intense thinking, or it doesn't.

5 July 2012

Reggae Roots

We enjoyed reading Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's essayistic review of reggae roots in The Los Angeles Review of Books, describing some notable events in the development of the music:

Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Bob Marley and the Wailers.
By the end of 1964, The Wailers, affecting shiny suits and shinier dance routines,were headlining a packed Christmas concert at Kingston's Palace Theater. But just as they kicked off "Simmer Down"—as Grant describes in an exemplary scene from The Natural Mystics—the house lights went dark. The blackout was citywide, but the crowd didn't know. A notorious "rudie" called Big Junior, his head swollen from a cameo appearance in the film-version of sometime-Jamaican Ian Fleming's novel Dr. No, smashed his wooden chair on the floor. The Wailers only escaped the ensuing riot by barricading themselves in a backstage loo. In a young country where the rule of law was as inchoate as its electrical grid, a song urging self-control may have made street-tough youths into singing stars. But it was outlaws like Big Junior, flocking to shoot-em-up westerns popular in Kingston's cinemas, joining in the action by firing their own pistols at the screen, who remained its favorite folk heroes.

5 July 2012

What Munch Saw

In a characteristically intelligent review of an exhibition of works by Edvard Munch and of the exhibit catalog, A. S. Byatt exposes complexity in an artist who can seem monotonous:

In 1890 Munch said "I don't paint what I see - but what I saw", and this reference to the part played by memory in the construction of his images makes us see them as different from, for instance, Monet's beautiful and terrifying image of his wife Camille, painted as she died. The first Sick Child was painted in 1885-86, and another in 1896, and there are versions in, for instance, 1907, 1925 - six versions in all.
Edvard Munch, 'The Sick Child'.
Edvard Munch, 'The Sick Child'.
Lampe and Chéroux point out that Munch came under attack for making numerous copies of The Sick Child. He defended himself by saying that all the repetitions were an act of memory - a continuous struggle with the motif - a continuing work of art.

5 July 2012

LOA Story of the Week
Did you know you can sign up for a "story of the week," from the Library of America? LoA also offers a monthly newsletter and a blog called The Reader's Almanac.

5 July 2012

The Proverbial Mencken
H.L. Mencken.
H.L. Mencken

In the online edition of the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout brings attention to an out-of-print volume of proverbs compiled by H. L. Mencken including a few composed by the Sage himself. Don't miss some lively by-play in the readers' comments.

When Morton Dauwen Zabel reviewed the "New Dictionary" for the Nation, he suggested that it should have been called "Mencken's Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others." Nowhere is this more evident than in the 7½pages devoted to "Life," the cumulative effect of which is summed up by the aphorism with which the entry ends: "Life is like drunkenness: the pleasure passes away, but the headache remains." Anybody out there care to guess who coined that "Persian proverb"?

5 July 2012

Algren and his defenders

Browsing the online archives of the New York Review of Books, we discovered that an assessment of studies of Nelson Algren, by Thomas R. Edwards, failed to please some of Algren's admirers. Edwards' responses to their complaints shows off well his suavity as a polemicist:

Drew's complaint about my "scholarship" and fairness sounds feeble coming from someone willing to say that I called Algren "a writer simply recording gritty realism" when in fact I wrote, "The breaking up of Algren's original idea of himself as a writer simply recording gritty reality," referring to his own description of his work, quoted earlier in my essay, as "reportage." Drew's notion that I meant to "dismiss him as a 'social realist' " (for being one, I guess she means) has no basis in my text, and her characterization of me as some sort of neoconservative, "cold war" aesthete would be insulting if it weren't as ludicrous as her idea (in her book) that Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, Leslie Fiedler, and Jacques Barzun were "New Critics."

5 July 2012

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