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Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project Susan Rubenstein DeMasi McFarland, 2016 Writing biographies is a particular challenge. There is a normal literary reflex to turn a life story into a chronological account of events instead of locating the arc of the subject’s principal accomplishments. Facts pile on facts covering up the real story underneath. Additionally, sometimes it seems that it is a biographer’s nightmare to leave out a piece of research, no matter how trivial. It is a curse of biographers to be convinced that readers must be interested in what the subject had for lunch on Thursday afternoons before napping. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is to be highly commended not only for navigating around these dangers but also for taking on the task of writing about a subject who is not well-known. Henry Alsberg’s spirit is surely doing hand spins, for DeMasi has rescued him from undeserved obscurity and then told his fascinating life in clear and well-written prose. Some subjects are cursed by the settings of their lives. The world itself provided insufficient background for them to lead an interesting life. Alsberg faced no such hardship. The Great Depression, alongside the Revolution and the Civil War, is one of the principal defining eras of the American experiment. Writers were among those who suffered economic deprivations. The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s programs to help the unemployed. The project hired more than 6,000 people, mostly young and from the working class. It was Henry Alsberg, a journalist with an eye for understanding the social forces at work in the society and a moral compass with social justice as its true north, who was appointed to direct the Project. Because Alsberg himself came from the political left, and many projects were deemed left-wing, it didn’t take long for the House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify the Project as a threat to the country. Alsberg deserves the principal credit for what turned out to be a thousand publications under his tenure. Ultimately, for example, there were 2,300 accounts of what it was like to have been a slave. Alsberg labored to ensure that such a vital history was collected. In a way, Alsberg was the man who wrote America. The American Guide Series provided histories of each of the 48 states then in America. It took 6,000 writers to produce this invaluable series, which came under attack from some individual states for their inclusion of sharecroppers and workers. The Project and its accomplishments are important stories in American life. It is odd, therefore, that Henry Alsberg’s name is not more widely-known. DeMasi is out to correct that. Here’s Alsberg helping Jews who survived pogroms in Eastern Europe. There he is with Emma Goldman. Turn a page in DeMasi’s impressive book, and you find Alsberg aiding political prisoners. Alsberg led a quiet personal life. It would have been easy to miss the inner man and focus... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I’ve spent my life writing non-fiction almost exclusively, and I thought it was time to walk down a mean mystery street. I could have sat down at the computer and just started typing to see what came out. But I thought of Ernest Hemingway. He once told George Plimpton in The Paris Review that he had re-written the final page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. Eventually, the endings were discovered in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Only Hemingway was incorrect. There are in fact forty-seven different endings. I didn’t have Hemingway’s talent or doggedness, so I figured that maybe before I started writing I should do a whole lot of planning. I knew I wanted to write a mystery. I wanted to make it in the 30,000 word range (it ended up being 32,000), and I wanted for several reasons to publish it as an ebook. That still left about 125 empty pages. I knew that any planning was tentative. I knew that as I wrote new ideas would arise. New characters would pop out of nowhere. Elie Wiesel once told the story of taking a character out of a story only to have the character appear in a dream that night and beg to be put back in the novel. Wiesel obliged, and the character returned. My characters were not so bold or lively, but I expected some would by force of personality need to be included. I wanted to have a protagonist who was struggling to be moral and live at an interesting time in an interesting place. If there were a literary genre titled “Ethical Novels,” then I wanted to try to write a book that would have found a home in that genre. I considered various options and recalled how much I had enjoyed researching my book At the Edge of a Dream about Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. So I had a location. I picked the year 1914, just as World War I was beginning and therefore just as the world that existed was ending. Having a setting, I sat down to consider the other elements of fiction, plot (including point of view), characters, theme, and language. All the guidebooks say to start with characters, but after I had the setting, I looked at the themes I wanted to develop. That led me to characters. I was partially constrained in choosing characters because in a mystery there are specific sorts of characters to develop. As with a thriller, the mystery story really begins with the villain’s plans. A killer had to choose a victim. Then I had to find a hero to confront the villain. There needed to be suspects, red herrings, and carefully planted clues. My book is titled The Gallery of Missing Husbands. As I write on my website, the title refers to a weekly section of the newspaper Jewish Daily Forward. The Gallery consisted of mostly grainy... Continue reading
Posted Jun 8, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday on May 24th almost coincides with the 50th anniversary of D.A. Pennebaker’s remarkable film Dont Look Back. To celebrate all this, the Morrison Hotel Gallery (at 116 Prince Street, 2nd Floor, New York), in partnership with Arthouse 18, will offer a Dylan exhibit from the film from May 18th to June 14th. The exhibit will also be at the Gallery inside the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood from June 11th through June 26th. All the images displayed in these exhibits are available for purchase. I still vividly recall seeing the film in September 1967 when it arrived in New York. I didn’t realize it would provide a record of Dylan’s final solo acoustic tour. It was filmed in England from the end of April to May 10, 1965. I was impressed watching Allen Ginsberg in the background of the famous opening with Dylan tossing aside large cards with parts of the lyrics to the accompanying sounds of Subterranean Homesick Blues. The great irony is that the whole song is performed, unlike the relatively brief snippets of songs in the film itself. In that sense it’s a deliberately anti-documentary. It’s in black and white. It’s jumpy. The refusal to use an apostrophe in the film’s first word might be a sly wink at Dylan’s attitude toward grammatical rules or it might be a Joycean attempt to play with language or it might be a mistake. At any rate, Dylan didn’t need to follow Satchel Paige’s dictum. No one was ever going to gain on Bob Dylan. The film’s virtue was to capture a crucial moment, a pivotal moment, in Dylan’s life. He was under enormous pressure. On July 25th he would be at Newport and ignite a storm because the ghost of electricity would howl in the bones of his guitar. He would soon be marrying Sara, but Joan Baez took herself along on the trip, and he had to find a way to come to distances with her. Everybody wanted a piece of Bob Dylan. Every time I saw the film, I was attracted and repelled by an overwrought, spoiled, or petty Dylan struggling to balance his responsibilities and his audience and his art. Some (but not all) of the outtakes of the film were released as Bob Dylan 65 Revisited. In that film, we see another side of Bob Dylan, one in which, for example, he talks kindly to British children and teenagers. It was almost like this sweet side was expunged from the original to create a particular image. I once asked Pennebaker what it was like to work with Dylan, and the director offered an interesting response. “In everybody’s life he was like a shadow. He just sort of went through their lives and out the front door…He just was hardly there.” It’s a telling observation. Dylan’s elusive lyrics emerge from an elusive person, as though he needs to keep the heart of his being completely private. That unsettled self can shock... Continue reading
Posted May 16, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
When I was young, I went to Woodstock one day to visit the artist Clarence Schmidt. Clarence lived alone in a treehouse. The property he owned had rusted automobiles, wooden stakes with dolls’ heads stuck on them, and aluminum foil wrapped around much of the place. I knocked at the small door of the treehouse. Clarence opened up. There were a lot of Table Talk pie wrappers. He was lying flat. He showed us a magazine spread of his paintings. He was proud of them and the fact that they were recognized. We talked for a while, and then I asked him why he had wrapped so much aluminum around his belongings. He looked at me slyly and said, “To keep out the death rays.” I think he meant that the aluminum was a border to stop the insane content of the outside society from killing him. Among those I was with was a young woman who had remarkably smooth skin. Clarence, whose skin was rough and tattered, asked her if he could rub her cheek. She let him. After a while, he said he needed to be alone again. I was very taken with Clarence. I thought he was alone but not lonely. For an artist, the solitary life away from the bustling intrusions of society allowed for uninterrupted and private thought. Wordsworth called it “that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” Artists in this role are metaphors for humans deeply in need of silence not for its own sake but as a prompt for constructing a castle of private thought. I once heard Andy Warhol interviewed as he walked out of a play. The interviewer asked him what he thought of the play. Warhol responded, “I thought it was boring. But I like being bored.” It struck me that his life was so busy that an unengaging play gave him an unusual moment to be with himself. Boredom became a rare but valued friend. A lot of people mistakenly believe Thoreau was a hermit at Walden Pond and deliberately went there to live separately. Thoreau’s friends had helped him. The cabin was built on Emerson’s land. Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer and Louisa May Alcott’s father, loaned Thoreau the axe to fell trees for the cabin’s construction. And these and many other friends came to visit him. He liked having them there. He also liked walking home to have lunch with his mother. Thoreau’s isolation was undertaken to have an opportunity to study nature, what he considered to be the source of eternal truths. Solitude, when he had it, let him focus on the natural world. Emily Dickinson’s solitude came from what was probably a nervous disorder, an inability to leave their home. During her last years she left it only once to go next door to her brother’s house because her much-adored nephew was dying. She had to rush back quickly. This solitude, imposed by her psychological make-up, certainly gave her time to write, but no... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
The Reverend John B. Matthias was born on the first day of 1767. He eventually joined the clergy of the Methodist Episcopal Church and, like other ministers of the church, he became a circuit rider traveling around his assigned territory serving those who lived there and starting new congregations. In 1836, he was serving the areas of South Huntington and Islip on Long Island, and it is then that he supposedly wrote a gospel song titled Palms of Victory (alternate titles are The Wayworn Traveler and Deliverance Will Come). That, at least, is what is presumed. The song, unlike other hymns, doesn’t have the easily memorable lines associated with a composition that arose bit by bit from a community. So it seems to have sprung from the mind of one author, an author deeply influenced by John Bunyan’s religious classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Nevertheless, in truth the authorship is unclear in part because the Reverend Matthias was not known as a songwriter and no other song is attributed to him. He died in 1848. His singular achievement in songwriting was not widely known or used in church circles. But it was recorded by various singers, most famously by the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and Ralph Stanley. It is not clear how or when Bob Dylan heard the song, but its melody certainly impressed him. The most plausible explanation is that Dylan heard the Carter Family’s version which used the title Wayworn Traveler. He probably wrote his song Paths of Victory around July 1963. What Dylan did to the song was interesting. He took a traditional gospel song and made it secular. Even more particularly, he made it political. In Dylan’s hands, the song became an anthem of hope for those engaged in social action, not a song to nourish believers. On August 12, 1963, Dylan was in the studio for a recording session for his third album. None of the songs recorded that day, including Paths of Victory, was considered good enough to be included on the album. Dylan then took a break, briefly traveling with Joan Baez and performing in a number of concerts. Evidently in the time gap between sessions for the album, Dylan re-considered Paths of Victory. He had a new vision and transformed it, reworking the verses in a whole new, much more sophisticated, way, changed the time signature to ¾, and had a new song, the one that became the remarkable song that gave its name to the album’s title: The Times They Are a-Changin’. He recorded the song on October 24, 1963. Paths of Victory is included on Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 released in 1991. Once Dylan, seeking artistic freedom, separated himself from those who wished to have him keep writing protest songs, he soon found himself caught in an emotional and spiritual maelstrom. Seeking a new form of shelter from this emotional storm, he experimented with religion, family, and rural values before settling on a more or less consistent religious view.... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Among the vast number of contradictory phenomena I don’t understand there is this: Why do Americans seem to have a decreasing attention span (witness the popularity of tweets and the fact that interest in a YouTube video declines after thirty seconds) while at the same time publishers and presumably readers want longer novels? For example, I read a lot of mysteries, and it turns out that between 1960 and 1979 the median length of novels that won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery was 72,001 words. However, since 1980 that medium length has been 102,533. There are a lot of theories about why the length of all novels has increased. One person in publishing told me readers feel cheated if they pay thirty bucks and get a thin novel. Or maybe novel readers take a look at the world and have a greater need to escape than they once did. For those of you who enjoy or write novels under 65,000 words, I thought I’d compile a list of brief novels. I figured I’d list ten classic novels under 50,000 words to emphasize the point. Here are the titles, authors, and word count of those novels: Animal Farm, George Orwell, 29,966 A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens, 28,944 Farenheit 451. Ray Bradbury, 46,118 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 47,094 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, 29,160 The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway, 26,601 The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane 47,180 A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, 37,761 Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 49,459 A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 49,965 There are also many great classic mystery novels that are relatively brief. James M. Cain was a master of brief novels. Double Indemnity, for example, had 30,072 words. I don’t have the exact word count for The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it was about 35,000 words. Cain wrote such tight prose with compelling narratives that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the films made from these two novels are among the best mystery films ever made. Of course, this is not to suggest that great novels need to be brief. In the 19th century, without all the distractions of contemporary life and without radio, film, audio books, television, video games, and the internet to offer alternative ways for readers to find the pleasures of storytelling, novels were often much longer. War and Peace was 587,287 words. Tolstoy was, by comparison, a slacker in creating Anna Karenina. That was only 349,736 words. In the United States, Melville took 206,052 words to compose Moby-Dick. Emily Bronte was, by comparison, frugal with her words. She used only 107,947 of them to write Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen was somewhere in the middle. Emma was 155,887 words. I personally often prefer shorter novels. I can carry the characters and the plot completely in my head throughout the story. I can finish a book in one sitting. A briefer novel can, at its best, carry the power of a poem. But, judging... Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I have been thinking about Israel a lot in the last few months as I finished off work on a new book titled The Dream of Zion: The Story of the First Zionist Congress. The book will be published in January, and I’ve been doing the normal preparation for its release. As I write this, there are ongoing disputes about cultural boycotts of Israel and artists visiting there. J.K. Rowling recently signed a letter with others denouncing such boycotts, but there are British intellectuals who support it. Roger Waters, a founding member of Pink Floyd, keeps belittling performers who appear in Israel and others, like Howard Stern, rightly defend the artists who go. For people like Waters, Israel is still a neighborhood bully. I am thinking of that Bob Dylan song, because Infidels, the album on which it appears, was released thirty-two years ago today. Dylan spent a total of nineteen recording sessions from April 11th to May 17th 1983 trying to get the album right. He hadn’t had a real artistic success since Blood on the Tracks in 1975. His religious albums had not produced the stirring effects he evidently had hoped for. On April 19th, he turned to his new song, “Neighborhood Bully,” singing six separate versions of the song. Evidently still unhappy, he returned to it on May 17th, the final song sung at the final recording session for the album. Clearly, getting the song right was on his mind, and he refused to be satisfied until the song accomplished the goal he intended. "Neighborhood Bully" is a Zionist anthem. It is a raucous, sarcastic, unvarnished full-throated defense of Israel. For Dylan, the Israelis, ironically and with deep injustice called the bully of the neighborhood, have "got no place to escape to, no place to run." They are "criticized and condemned for being alive." There is no attempt to be subtle here. There is no nuanced view of Middle Eastern history. The persecuted and embattled Jews are in the right and are simply defending their lives. Dylan invokes the Jewish people's tragic history as a way of defending Israel: The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land, He's wandered the earth an exiled man. Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn, He's always on trial for just being born. I wrote my book about Zionism to unearth the story of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland. Of course, reality is always more complicated than the tale contained in a story or a book. I was after logical arguments. Dylan was after the emotions behind the support of Israel. He and his then wife Sara had visited Israel in May 1971. They traveled there without their children, hoping to escape the ravenous American media and the fans who too often mistook Dylan for God. Dylan’s father had died on June 5, 1968, and a trip to Israel was also part of his quest to explore his Jewish roots after that death. On May 24th,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 27, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I recently watched the British comedy series Jeeves and Wooster for the third time since its release in the early 1990s. While viewers are never in danger of being exposed to an idea, the series is particularly artful in its use of language, using vocabulary that would stump too many SAT takers and a subtle sarcasm and dry wit that are hilarious. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie offer perfect renditions of P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable characters. There was, however, a nagging companion to my enjoyment of the shows. I found myself haunted, even as I laughed, by the burdensome knowledge of P.G. Wodehouse’s radio broadcasts for the Nazis. As you will recall, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse and his wife moved from Great Britain to Le Touquet, France evidently to avoid taxes on his writing. The Germans entered Le Touquet on May 22, 1940. Two months later all male enemies under 60 were interned. Wodehouse was 58. After being moved several times, the prisoners were sent to Tost in Upper Silesia. On June 21, 1941, members of the Gestapo visited Wodehouse, gave him ten minutes to pack, and took him to the fancy Hotel Adlon in Berlin. While staying at the hotel, Wodehouse agreed to make five radio broadcasts to the United States (which had not yet then entered the war) for German radio. The broadcasts were Wodehouse’s “humorous” accounts of being an internee. He even, very gently, mocked the German captors. He did not, that is, voice any support for the Nazis, mock or attack the Allies, or talk about much else other than his own existence. The recordings were later broadcast in Great Britain. The British were shocked. Some libraries removed Wodehouse’s works. Politicians denounced him as a traitor. He did have his defenders, including Sax Rohmer (creator of the Fu Manchu series) and the famous mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. The Department of War in the United States saw the interviews as perfect anti-Nazi propaganda. Later, in early 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” in which he argued that at worst Wodehouse was only guilty of stupidity. Orwell thought Wodehouse’s moral development remained that of child in school. When MI5 representatives later examined the case, they concluded that Wodehouse had not consciously provided assistance to the enemy. There were, therefore, insufficient grounds on which to prosecute him. However, there was a meeting in 1946 in which an MI5 officer met with the director of public prosecutions. The director noted that if Wodehouse ever returned to the country he should be prosecuted. Wodehouse never did return. He spent the remainder of his life in the United States. Wodehouse himself blamed prison life for sapping his intellect. He claimed never to think politically and that he simply wanted to let all his fans know that he was still alive. He also claimed the broadcasts were to thank other prisoners for their support. And so, for people like me who find that the broadcasts dilute the pleasure... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Sometimes when I doubt my mental acuity or the worthiness of a paragraph slowly taking shape on my computer screen, I think about writers who have stopped writing. A writer’s creative desert is much in the news now because of the publication of Harper Lee’s old-new novel Go Set a Watchman, which is in fact the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird so that its publication does not truly end Ms. Lee’s streak of not writing. I first became aware of this phenomenon in college when Henry Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep was re-issued in 1964. When I later became Arts Editor for my college paper, I reviewed the book. I was astonished that the author of so brilliant a book, so joyous in its Joycean delight with language, so able to apprehend a child’s sensibilities, had simply stopped writing. When the novel was re-issued, Roth was making his living breeding ducks and geese and selling their carcasses and feathers. I didn’t find out until much later that Roth’s complaints of a sore elbow or depression or Jewish self-loathing or anti-Semitism or struggles with his Communism were not the sole reasons for his silence. In 1994 he published the first volume of his series with the overall title of Mercy of a Rude Stream. That work contained a revealing tale of incest between the protagonist and his sister, and then his cousin. Of course I knew that Rimbaud was infamous for giving up poetry at the age of nineteen. But I soon learned of the many other examples of sustained literary silence. In the very year of Call It Sleep’s awakening, Joseph Mitchell, the writer who has my nomination as the greatest article writer of all-time, produced the still-astounding piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” After Mitchell published that piece, he showed up at The New Yorker office each day for the following thirty-two years. He was duly given a salary but never handed in another article. As my education proceeded, I encountered a cascade of similar stories. Coleridge’s famous poems were mostly written when he was in his mid-twenties. An opium addiction and some “indescribable Terror” occupied much of the remainder of his life. I still don’t know what to make of the incomparable American hard-boiled mystery novelist, Dashiell Hammett. When he was in his thirties, he produced four novels in three years. His fifth novel, The Thin Man, was published in 1934, the year Call It Sleep was first published. Hammett was thirty-nine. He lived until the beginning of 1961 managing to make plenty of money in Hollywood, serve as a lover and mentor to Lillian Hellman, endure the McCarthy years, and never publish another novel. Perhaps Cyril Connolly was correct when he said, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” Ralph Ellison did not produce another novel after Invisible Man was published in 1952. He died in 1994; his literary executor assembled a one-volume novel out of the writings Ellison left. Juneteenth was published... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I previously wrote about my writing a book detailing the origins of Zionism and the role of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political movement that eventually led to the birth of Israel. In that earlier article, I explored how Herzl desperately searched for a response to the murderous attacks on Jews especially in Russia and finally concluded only a Jewish nation could protect against ongoing anti-Semitism. He planned his first action in May 1895. He thought there was a trade to be made. Turkey, the center of the Ottoman Empire, controlled the Land of Israel. But Turkey was deeply in debt. Herzl saw his answer: he would provide debt relief and in return Turkey would allow Jewish sovereignty in part of the Jews’ ancient homeland. Herzl therefore went to wealthy Jews to seek the funds for his vision. Much to his shock, wealthy Jews didn’t think his idea feasible. Maurice de Hirsch had his own alternative: sponsoring the growth of Jewish communities in Argentina. Anguished, Herzl thought of a way to present his idea to the world. He considered writing a novel but then decided that he had to be more direct. The plan took shape. He would write a brief publication offering the idea that Jews needed their own nation. Der Judenstaat was published on February 14, 1896. It is the seminal work of political Zionism. The pamphlet is often translated as The Jewish State. This translation carries political implications, as though the state established by Herzl’s ideas was intrinsically Jewish, that its essential character was Jewish. In such a state, the national anthem should reflect Jewish thought. The laws of the state should give provide special privileges for Jews, such as the right of Jews throughout the world to return to their ancestral home as citizens. It is this interpretation that has caused some later readers of the pamphlet such as the prominent Israeli novelist Amos Oz to use a different translation, to call Herzl’s pamphlet The State of the Jews. This translation is meant to convey the notion that no state can be “Jewish” in its nature. A state of the Jews is a state with a Jewish majority but without special privileges for Jews stemming from the nature of the state. However, both of these translations are incorrect. The correct translation is The Jews’ State. The word “Juden” was frequently used pejoratively by those who hated Jews. What Herzl had in mind was a bold, defiant, assertive title to say to the haters that even the Jews that were hated, the Juden, could form their own nation. Herzl, however, did not intend a specific political dimension in his title. It might be noted that The Jewish State does not need to be used with political implications but simply as a more polite way to translate the title than The Jews’ State. The pamphlet’s intentionally stiff, legalistic prose, written in that way to avoid charges of utopianism or romanticism, lays out Herzl’s analysis of why people... Continue reading
Posted Jul 28, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I’m currently writing a book on the origins of Zionism, the political movement to re-establish a Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. One of the great pleasures of writing the book is learning more about Theodor Herzl, the writer who made the idea of a return to Zion popular and who organized the movement that eventually led to the birth of Israel. Herzl was a deeply unlikely hero of the story of Zionism. He identified with German culture. For example, he loved going to Wagner’s operas. He kept a Christmas tree in his home. He didn’t know the Hebrew necessary for religious ceremonies or a lot about Jewish life, traditions, or history. He was, that is, hovering over the precipice of assimilation. Herzl was born in Pest (later Budapest) in Hungary on May 2, 1860 in a building next to the Dohany Synagogue. He was next to Judaism but not part of it. After attending law school and starting a career in the law, Herzl eventually found his way into journalism. When he was 22, Herzl first became aware of the depth of hatred of the Jews. Although the Dreyfus trial is often considered to be the triggering event in Herzl’s conversion to Zionism, in fact his desire to solve the problem of anti-Semitism started after he read Eugen Duhring’s book The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture. No book on a Jewish subject took up more space in his reading journal. Duhring’s stunningly horrific conclusion to his analysis of Jews as a race was that the Jews could not be absorbed into European societies and therefore had to be annihilated. Herzl took these words more seriously than other Jewish readers. Intellectuals saw the power of words, but to them words of hate were either dismissed as without influence in polite circles or, if serious, countered by other words. Herzl was a different kind of intellectual. He was deeply attracted to the emotional power of words, but as his interest in the theater and opera showed him, words accompanied by a setting, costumes, and dramatic events taking place in front of him, were even more powerful than the words alone. Somehow, Herzl differed from many other Jewish intellectuals in that he was not satisfied in live in the world of German. He had to take the world he created in his head, the world of ideas, and travel with it to the real world. This was the crucial difference in his personality. Seeking an appropriate response to anti-Semitism, Herzl first considered doing what European aristocrats had always done to deal with opponents—challenge them to a duel. He quickly realized that he could not duel to the death every anti-Semite in Europe, and so his search continued. Herzl’s next possible solution rested on his reasoning that those who hated Jews would not let them assimilate because they remained Jews. Herzl thought if they converted to Christianity they would then be accepted. He envisioned himself, with a... Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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The highway is one of the most compelling of American symbols. Constant travel went from being a necessity for the hobos during the Great Depression to being a source for inspiration. Tennessee Williams has his character Tom observe at the end of The Glass Menagerie that he was “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” He couldn’t find the answer, his place in the cosmos, at home so he had to be moving all the time. Jack Kerouac, of course, influenced an entire generation and its inheritors in On the Road about characters feverishly in search of a meaning that is never found, characters who speed from one broken dream to the next. Beyond the highway as the pathway to a life search, it can also be a pathway to doom as in Leon Payne’s remarkable song Lost Highway, a song Hank William made famous. Singers, comedians, and other performers go on the road for these but also for professional reasons. Some singers can’t wait to get out there and do what they love the most—sing with their friends. This was the entire theme as Willie Nelson sang “On the Road Again.” (Bob Dylan also sang a song titled “On the Road Again,” but his wasn’t about touring but about a deeply flawed romantic relationship. The title was most probably not taken from Kerouac but from the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 song also titled “On the Road Again”). Not every singer, though, was so happy to be touring. The lonely grind, the aching sameness, and the longing to return to the familiar are summed up in Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound.” These touring songs may or may not include a singer’s exploration of the locales where they perform. But whether they do or not, when a singer like Dylan tours, the primary purpose is not to search for meaning, not to find a pathway for life, but to appear in front of an appreciate and paying audience. Dylan’s constant travels, then, are not like Kerouac’s or Allen Ginsberg’s or Woody Guthrie’s. The travels Dylan takes don’t exemplify the myth of the open American road. And these tour trips are not taken on the real Dylan Highway. Dylan goes on his own highway by changing identities, musical styles and interests, and belief systems. His highway is internal and eternal. He doesn’t have a single place to return to on this internal journey; he really doesn’t have a direction home because he has no settled self. Home isn’t a place for him. It’s a fixed, unchanging identity. Most of Dylan’s listeners aren’t like him. They do have a settled self, an evolving but still identifiable being. But Dylan is precisely valuable to all of us because he can destabilize our settled selves. He can force us to look at ourselves as we watch him discard selves like last year’s distasteful choices. We watch him go through the cycle: get a self, use it, throw it away, get another self. And... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
A Facebook friend posed a question online asking people to identify two men he described without naming. I answered that he was referring to “Houdini and that other escape artist Bobby Dylan.” I had been thinking about escape artists, though not in the usual sense. I’m writing a book about the origins of Zionism and how the persecuted Jews especially in Eastern Europe felt a deep and sometimes painful yearning to escape so that they might lead a new life. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, was one man who needed an escape from the failures of the European attempt to assimilate Jews and from much else. I realized as I explored this theme that while we often think of an escape as getting away from a place, escaping also means escaping from the travails of the world, from the traumas and terrors of our own body, and from our own minds--the stifling emotions, the ideological rigidity that prevents liberating thoughts, the pattern of emotional reactions that can undermine our treatment of ourselves and others. In thinking about my flip answer to my friend, I realized that Bob Dylan had indeed been a master escape artist. He had to escape Hibbing, his parents, the intellectual choke hold of a politically needy folk community, Albert Grossman, and Joan Baez—the woman who had a principal role in making him famous but whom he had to escape from to be with his first wife, Sara. Dylan had to escape from the annoyingly aggressive press and the earnest, sometimes helpful and well-meaning but often self-aggrandizing and misleading critics who wrote about him. (I include myself in this ever-growing group). He had to escape his own fans. Dylan had to escape each succeeding identity he acquired so that his identity of the moment wouldn’t become a straightjacket preventing his soul from moving about freely. And just like Dylan needed to escape others and sometimes himself, others sometimes had to escape him. Women made up most of those escapees. Women, from the young, decent, loving, kind, confused Suze Rotolo who started out dating a singer and ended up with a celebrity and going through the “pretty maids all in a row” that he encountered in his life. They ended up needing to escape Dylan’s tornadic life. And other singers found they needed to escape Dylan’s musical orbit. At the beginning, in Greenwich Village, many of the musicians were jealous of the shocking expanse of Dylan’s talent and the velocity of its growth. Many, like Tom Paxton, reconciled themselves to the realities of their competitor and just accepted Dylan. But some, like Phil Ochs, couldn’t accept that their talent was lesser than Dylan’s. They tried to escape and, in Ochs’ case, could not. Ochs surely must have understood that without Dylan on the scene, Ochs could easily have been accepted as the boy genius, the heir to Woody Guthrie, the greatest writer of political folk music. Of course, I was punning in calling Dylan an... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I am just beginning to write a new book. The idea for the book came after I had read enough about efforts to question Israel’s right to exist. I was riddled with questions. Judaism is a religion for people who like to keep asking questions, who can tolerate ambiguity, who can temper justified true beliefs, also known as knowledge, with a morality-fueled ability to be uncertain. The Talmud begins with a question, and so would I. It’s never clear where an idea begins. Zionism, at least in its modern political formulation, did have a beginning. It started when an assimilated Viennese playwright, a man so enmeshed in European culture that he listened to Wagner to relax and kept a Christmas tree, was overwhelmed by the hatred of the Jews. He had read the anti-Semites. Theodor Herzl was also there as a journalist in Paris when Dreyfus was put on trial and when he was publicly humiliated. Herzl had no knowledge of his predecessors who had thought of the idea of reviving a Jewish nation in their ancient homeland, so this most unlikely of people cast to play the role of a modern Moses set about his life’s work. He first wrote a pamphlet. And then, incredibly, he decided to hold a meeting of Zionists, what in essence was a parliament, an international Jewish political organizational meeting for the first time in almost two thousand years. Chutzpah does not seem like an adequate enough word. But he did it. For the last three days of August in 1897, Herzl ran the First Zionist Congress. There he established the organization that would eventually lead to statehood, established the national anthem and flag, and did so much more. Herzl, of course, had his opponents. Some thought the Jews had to await the Messiah to return to the Land of Israel. Some thought their patriotism would be questioned if they claimed to be citizens of a country that didn’t even yet exist. Some, a very few, pointed out that the sacred homeland was not an empty land, that thousands of Arabs were living there. They demanded to know how to think through that issue. I looked around for a book on the First Zionist Congress. I found chapters in some histories of Zionism or biographies of Herzl. I found a book which focused more on Switzerland and Swiss Jews than what in fact transpired at the Congress. That is, when the search was completed, I was astonished to discover that one of the seminal and consequential events of Jewish history, and arguably of modern history, did not have a book devoted to it. As I thought about the book, I very quickly realized I wanted to do more than describe Herzl’s extraordinary achievements and personality and even more than delineate who attended the Congress and what exactly they did there. Driven by the Jewish insistence that a moral career must accompany any other, I realized that, however distasteful it might be, I had to... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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This post is dedicated to the great David Lehman. In his latest album, Shadows in The Night, Bob Dylan sings ten songs to God. For Dylan, singing is the most authentic form of prayer. The songs aren’t his own but come from the Great American Songbook as filtered through Frank Sinatra’s inimitable voice. Why not Dylan’s own songs? And, if not his songs, why Sinatra’s? To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand Dylan’s aim in the album. Dylan was after an album of allegorical love songs. This tradition started for him with “Visions of Johanna.” In that song Dylan is with the earthly Louise while yearning for the spiritual Johanna. The exact nature of Johanna's Godliness is not clear in the song. She could be God as represented by a female, or a metaphor as in the "Song of Songs" tradition, or one aspect of God, or a private way that Dylan experiences God. It is very likely that Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess influenced Dylan. That complex book is about a muse, a White Goddess, who was a single Goddess behind the various mythological goddesses. In his book Graves argues that “pure” poetry is linked to the White Goddess. That is, however Dylan formed the idea, he sometimes appears to be singing to a woman but in reality is singing also or exclusively to God. Other examples of his allegorical love songs include “Shelter From the Storm” and "Red River Shore." Therefore, while it’s easy to hear the songs on Shadows in The Night as standard love songs, they are more resonant, closer to Dylan’s intentions, if they are heard as songs to a feminine representation of God. That in part explains the use of Frank Sinatra’s songs. Sinatra provides a perfect counterpoint to the idea of woman as God because Sinatra could uniquely deliver love songs. That is, his songs were sung to woman as woman. Dylan takes these great love songs and uses them in a new way, expanding them, not just reinterpreting their sound but also their meaning. Interpreted in this way, the Sinatra songs of romantic longing remain intact but suddenly also include a desperate plea, an intense spiritual longing. These are not the songs of Dylan on a spiritual quest or Dylan in the rapture of religious embrace. These are the songs of a lost God, of Dylan wondering why God has gone. A shadow in the night is a darker shade of what is already dark. These songs long for an absent God. The album operates by looking at all angles of this longing. In “I’m a Fool to Want You” Dylan berates himself for even wanting God. In “Stay With Me,” just the opposite is true because “every path leads to Thee.” Dylan wants God to be near. “Autumn Leaves” sounds like a whole new song on the album. In “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Dylan begs God to accept him as he is: “Don’t you remember? I... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
There are readers, and, I suspect, editors and agents who see the first line of a mystery metaphorically, as an anecdote is used. The line is both different from other lines but emblematic of them just as an anecdote is a unique experience in a person’s life but ironically also revealing of the whole life. A great first line uses language in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, with a sense of rhythm much in the same way that a song’s lines might. And, like a reverberating line from a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song, a first line can be aphoristic and therefore memorable. A great first line sets up the whole story or novel. Consider this opening line from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story, not routinely listed as one of his mystery stories, is an extraordinary study of the motive and strategy of a murder. Here is the line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Look at what this line contains. It has both of the principal characters in the story, the narrator and the tragically misnamed Fortunato. It contains the speaker’s motive: revenge. And it has anticipation through unanswered questions: what will the revenge be? What was the insult that triggered the desire for revenge? We learn the chilling answer to the first question; the second remains a mystery. A mystery in part provides the intellectual pleasure of a puzzle, but much more importantly it provides an exploration of issues involving our own life and inevitable death. All this has to be contained in a single line. No wonder some writers agonize so painfully over that line. Of course, it is agonizingly difficult for a writer to construct a first line that contains all of these elements. So most first lines settle on their most crucial task, which is getting us to read the next line. Consider the first line of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca: “The last camel died at noon.” As a perfect title does, a good first line provides readers with a picture. We can see that camel dying. We have a sense of the setting. There’s a lot of information in those six words. Consider the single word “last.” It’s a crucial word, for camels provide transportation. If the last one has died, will a character or characters be stranded? Many popular first lines overwhelm us with charm or bowl us over with the power of their imagery and language. Consider, for example, the well-known first line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." Now, that’s a line. My favorite Dashiell Hammett first line is this famous one from Red Harvest: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Authors were the people who had the greatest influence on me. They weren’t the people I loved the most. That group includes my wife, children, grandchildren, and extended family. The authors weren’t even the people I necessarily admired the most. Many of them made morally repugnant political judgments. The America First Committee was a pressure group founded before World War II that urged Americans not to intervene as much of Europe was conquered, British bombed, and Jews, among others, rounded up for what would become systematic murder. Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, was a member. So was the poet E.E. Cummings (or, if you prefer following his own example e.e. cummings). A young Gore Vidal, then a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, was a member of the student chapter there. In 1937, the philosopher John Dewey headed a commission. It included the novelist James T. Farrell. The Commission was inquiring into charges against Leon Trotsky at the show trials Joseph Stalin had set up. A year earlier sixteen well-known Bolsheviks “confessed” to having plotted with Trotsky to kill Stalin. The defendants were sentenced to death as was Trotsky in absentia. There were four show trials; they ended in the death of every member of the Politburo Lenin had set up except for Stalin. Of course, Stalin ended up purging millions of people, including many writers and intellectuals. A month before Dewey left on his inquiry, a group of Americans wrote an “Open Letter to American Liberals.” In the letter, this group attacked Dewey and his Commission for questioning the assertions of the Soviet Communist Party that the Bolsheviks convicted at the trials were traitors. Signers of that Letter included Nathaniel West, Dorothy Parker, Henry Roth, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, and Theodore Dreiser. Of course, Celine, Ezra Pound, and Knut Hamsun (who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920) were notorious racists and anti-Semites. There are, sadly, many other examples of authors with repugnant political views. But it is not for political guidance that I admire authors. What authors have done is not provide social or political guidance, but a guidance that is much more personal. Many people like to point to a parent, a friend, or a teacher who changed their life, and pointed them in a direction that proved decisive in the definition of their lives. Such writers provided those directions either through an epiphanic insight, what Edmund Wilson termed a “shock of recognition,” or a reasoned argument or the emotional sway and linguistic dazzle of a well wrought novel. What is interesting in the author-reader relationship is that the two participants rarely meet, and when they do the meeting doesn’t go so well. Their intimate relationship involves authors providing a road map to the bottom of our souls and readers taking the tour of that soul and learning from it as they continue their own journeys. The last line of the Leonard Cohen song “Stories of the Street”... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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DYLAN: THE BIOGRAPHY. Dennis McDougal. Turner Publishing Company. There are a thousand doors that lead into the House of Dylan. Dennis McDougal has managed to open a new door. Applying a muckraking sensibility to Dylan’s life, McDougal has opened the door of snarky biography. His book is chock full of revealing and sometimes unflattering incidents, gossip, and well-researched facts. There are nuggets of juicy information on every page. This constantly entertaining approach has, however, some built-in limitations. To focus so exclusively on Dylan’s life means McDougal has to strain out extended discussions of the lyrics and the music. It might be argued that such efforts already exist or that they are unhelpful since so many of Dylan’s best lyrics are private to the point of being inexplicable. McDougal inherently argues that the life is so jam-packed, so quivering with meaning, so curious with its parade of characters, so endlessly fascinating to legions of obsessed fans, that trying to decipher the lyrics is best left to the professors who like Dylan’s poetic looks. Still, some readers will be disappointed. All biographies of Dylan have the same big problem. We know a lot about Dylan, but we also don’t know a lot. Dylan’s life is marked by interiority. No one has access to his thought dreams. No one can unpack all the lies, all the deceptions. It should be noted that McDougal’s book is particularly valuable because he emphasizes Dylan’s many false identities, “borrowing” lines, and misleading stories. With all the facts, it would have been interesting for McDougal to pause and reflect more. He has a very insightful understanding of Dylan’s audience, and I’d like to have read more of his thoughts about them. He writes in an eye-opening way about Dylan’s mother and her ability to make up stories or invent new lines for Mother Goose rhymes. I wonder to what extent Dylan’s linguistic skills, evident early to his Hibbing friends, were inherited. And do Dylan’s misdirections to everyone indicate a manipulative personalityor is there another explanation? Allen Ginsberg said of Dylan in 1976, "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self." McDougal is a talented journalist, and he includes material not found elsewhere. I’m impressed, for example, at how intelligently he describes the privately-printed memoir of B.J. Rolfzen, Dylan’s influential high school English teacher. But the very inclusion of such interesting material brings up a wider question. What is amazing is that even with the heft of the book, even with McDougal’s impressive research, there are compelling stories that are not included. For example, Rolfzen told me that he used to go to a local cemetery jotting down epitaphs, connecting them together, and reading that list to Dylan’s class. For the effect of this, see “11 Outlined Epitaphs” in the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’. In a way, McDougal’s book makes it abundantly clear that an artist like Dylan ultimately needs a very long multi-volume... Continue reading
Posted Aug 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I recently read a new chapbook of poems by a former colleague of mine. I thought the poems were so intelligently constructed, so perceptive that I wanted to introduce them to readers of The Best American Poetry Blog. I decided the best way to do that would be to conduct an interview with the author. Sarah Kain Gutowski's poems have appeared widely in such places as The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. She lives on Long Island with her husband and what she describes as "their circus of children and dogs." FABULOUS BEAST The Sow is available from Hyacinth Girl Press. This chapbook is part of a wider collection of poems for which she is currently seeking a publisher. LE: The book is about a sow that can shift shapes and take the form of a human. (My favorite image is her as the farmer's wife playing at the piano). What special perceptions can you achieve by using a sow as the narrator? How did you come up with the idea of using a sow as the controlling image? SKG: The sow character developed as a reaction. I didn’t want to write first-person lyric, sometimes-confessional poems anymore. There isn’t anything wrong with first-person lyric/confessional poems – in fact, that describes many of my favorite poems – but I’d been doing that too much. Or rather, I’d done that too much; I wrote the first sow poem after almost two years of relative silence. Occasionally I’d write, but those attempts felt lackluster. I was rehashing the same content with the same forms. I needed a change. So the sow was my way of coming back to writing. I decided I would write poems about a character, in the third person. I gave myself an assignment; I knew, and know, that inspired writing rarely comes from assignments, but I needed a focus. Also, I stopped worrying about whether or not what I was going to write well. I needed to write, period. I have a spectacularly terrible memory, and yet I can remember the moment I conceived the sow image, which tells me that even if no one else were to identify with these poems, this character was the right one for me: It was at night, and everyone else in my household was in bed, and I decided to take my notebook out on the deck, and sit in the dark, and actually think about a character. My first thought was to choose an animal – something physically very different from myself – and my next thought was of a pig. And then she was a female pig, and then she was waking up in the dark, and then she was there, outside with me. I’m not sure about special perceptions, but the sow character allowed me to write at a distance from myself. Or, really, it allowed me to believe I was writing about... Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty-first-Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition has just been published. Writing it compelled me to think of how idea systems are structured and about the nature of their constituent elements. Of course, my mind inevitably wandered from trying to provide an organized and systematic explanation of the Jewish articles of faith to other belief systems. Since I’ve written so much about Bob Dylan, I began to wonder what it would look like to examine Dylan’s basic beliefs. I quickly concluded that, very much like the Judaism I had just written about, it wasn’t possible or even desirable to pretend that there was an easily defined set of such beliefs. Still, surely Dylan had strongly-held beliefs. So I wondered how to locate them. I finally decided to consider a representative song. My choice is completely arbitrary. I chose it because it was written at a creative and pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. “Maggie’s Farm,” recorded on January 15, 1965, is most frequently is understood as Dylan’s refusal to go along with the folk movement’s expectations of him, especially that he stick to acoustic rather than electric music and continue to write social and political protests against injustice exclusively rather than write about his personal feelings. The song became a living symbol at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric as he sang it. Proponents of the view that this song is a rebellion against the folk community point out the similarity of Maggie’s name to that of Silas McGee. It was on McGee’s farm that Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” for a 1963 civil rights gathering. This song can be seen performed in Dont Look Back. However, it is also plausible that Dylan took the idea of complaining about working on a farm from the 1929 song “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which Dylan had heard on Harry Smith’s iconic collection Anthology of American Folk Music and had used as the basis of an earlier song, “Hard Times in New York Town.” “Maggie’s Farm” also bears some similarities to Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett’s “Tanner’s Farm,” recorded in 1934. There are two beliefs inherent in these observations. Dylan’s foundational belief in the song is that he will not be chained to any movement, any group that wants to claim and own him as their own. As he asserts in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” another song on the same Bringing It All Back Home album: “It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” He laments that “everybody wants you to be just like them.” Dylan’s crucial belief is in artistic and intellectual independence. As a rebellion against the folk music movement, it is possible to read the song’s characters as either general types or specific people Dylan knew. For example, when you ask what female ran the “folk music farm,” the answer is obvious: Joan Baez. On this level, the song is... Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Public libraries shaped my life. In the sixth grade I went regularly to a library in Queens. Most of my friends who went there were more intrigued by the bakery across the street. The main attraction was at a side window where this new food called pizza was being served. But I was going to the library for a project. My class was assigned what was called a special interest report. I wrote mine about Israel. This subject choice would have astonished my Hebrew school teachers. They had rarely encountered a student who so exquisitely combined indifference and inability. I wasn’t sure why I picked Israel. No one ever talked about the country. This was 1958, and it wasn’t particularly in the news. For whatever reason, I dutifully scanned the shelves, taking down books, reading them. I met another boy from another school. We agreed to meet each week so we could read together. That was a special kind of friendship. My work was the first research I had ever done. I didn’t know it then, but doing that research prepared me for my entire life. My family moved to Sag Harbor, a small town on the eastern end of Long Island, a year later. The John Jermain Library was a few minutes walk from my house. It was a pleasant place, even if its collection was restricted. I read my first adult novel there. I was thirteen, unsure what to read. I was in the library looking for material when the librarian told me the place was closing in a few minutes, and I had to choose. My mind rushed. I didn’t know any title or any author. Then I saw the title Babbitt. I had no idea what the book was about, but I did recall that I had seen an Abbott and Costello cartoon in which the Costello character had called the Abbott character “Babbitt.” I thought the book must be funny. I took it home, sat on a couch, and began reading. I hadn’t finished half a page before I rested it against my chest and said words to myself to the effect that I couldn’t believe someone could get down so much truth on a page. And so I began serious adult reading, starting with all the Sinclair Lewis books in the library. This resulted in a problem later that year. The film version of Elmer Gantry was released in July 1960. Following the advice of her sister, my mother told me that I was not allowed to see the film. I argued that I had read the book and so I knew what the film was about. It didn’t work. She wouldn’t change. I was still thirteen, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t see that I was old enough to watch the film. As I got older, I found it easy to forgive her. For the rest of her life, though, she periodically apologized to me for what I thought was the only... Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Pimpernel Smith is the most morally influential film ever made. The 1941 adventure film focused on the main character’s rescue of innocent people from the Nazis. The film was made by Leslie Howard using money he had earned from co-starring in Gone With the Wind. Pimpernel Smith directly influenced extraordinary acts of heroism. For example, in 1942 the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg attended a private screening of the film with his half-sister Nina. She later noted, “On the way home, he told me this was the kind of thing he would like to do.” Surely, there were other influences on Wallenberg, but the film was one of them. Working in Budapest during the War, Wallenberg issued passports and housed Jews. He saved 100,000 Jews from the Nazis. He was later arrested by the Russians and disappeared in the Gulag prison system. Leslie Howard sought to transfer the heroism he portrayed on the screen to his own life. He made other anti-Nazi films and appeared on radio broadcasts. His work was so effective that Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, called him, “the most dangerous propagandist in the British service.” When Pimpernel Smith was released, the worried Nazis pressured neutral countries not to screen it in public. That’s why Raoul Wallenberg had to see the film within the confines of the British embassy. Eventually, the Nazis were so fearful of Howard’s work that on June 1, 1943, they shot down a civilian airliner over neutral airspace because they knew he was on board. According to a recent, credible study by the Spanish journalist Jose Rey-Ximena, Howard had been personally sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a successful mission to keep Spain out of the war and was returning on that flight. Beyond these two extraordinary cases, Pimpernel Smith stirred the patriotic feelings, provided emotional strength, and offered inspiration to untold millions of British citizens and alerted people around the world of the dangers of Nazism. Given this incredible history, it is both sad and unfair that Pimpernel Smith remains virtually unknown. Beyond its staggering influence, the film provides a gateway to crucial historical questions because Pimpernel Smith was one of only a few films that deliberately tried to influence America to fight the Nazis. Along with such films as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Pimpernel Smith raises the question of the moral obligations—as distinct from business and aesthetic interests--of films and the film industry. Pimpernel Smith was not allowed to be released in the U.S. until February 12, 1942 (that is, until after America’s entry into the War and even then under another title, Mister V), almost seven months after its release in England, and To Be or Not To Be’s release was delayed until March 6, 1942. Chaplin and Lubitsch came under enormous pressure in Hollywood, which depended on European, including German, markets. Pimpernel Smith thus needs to be seen against a specific historical background, the reluctance of America to enter... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Were the haunting, breathtaking, painful lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” written by almost any other songwriter besides Leonard Cohen, there would be no question about the song’s meaning. It appears to a straightforward confessional letter about a love triangle between “L. Cohen” his woman “Jane” and their mutual friend, a man with a blue raincoat who has gone to the desert and at one time had a brief affair with Jane. As such, the song is deeply, almost embarrassingly, personal, an epistolary song about a wounded man who cannot help forgiving the friend. The overpowering emotion of the song inhibits another look at the lyrics, but Cohen’s autobiography immediately suggests problems with this common interpretation. Specifically, it is Cohen’s life that is being described both as the narrator and the other man. It is the friend in the song not “L. Cohen,” the narrator, who has a “famous blue raincoat.” But as the real Cohen noted in liner notes to the 1975 collection The Best of Leonard Cohen, the blue raincoat was his. “I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959….It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather.” In the song, the narrator asks the friend, “Did you ever go clear?” This is a reference to Scientology and its state of “Clear.” Cohen himself for a brief time at least was a Church of Scientology member. In the song, “L. Cohen” sings to the friend: “You'd been to the station to meet every train And you came home without Lili Marlene “ But in his concert introduction to Chelsea Hotel #2, Cohen said, “Once upon a time, there was a hotel in New York City. There was an elevator in that hotel. One evening, about three in the morning, I met a young woman in that hotel… I wasn’t looking for her., I was looking for Lili Marlene.” The song “Lili Marlene” (there are variants in the spelling of her name) was a popular love song from World War II although it had been written in Germany in 1915 during the First World War. The song is about a soldier who stands waiting by a lamppost for his love, Lili Marlene. That is, Lili is a symbol of perfect love that has gone away. But if it is Leonard Cohen who has experienced all that is attributed to the friend, then to whom is “L. Cohen” singing? To ask the question is to answer it. “L. Cohen” is one part of Leonard Cohen singing to another part of Leonard Cohen. Call that other part, the friend in the song, “Leonard Cohen.” “L. Cohen” is faithful to women. “Leonard Cohen” is not. Leonard Cohen, the real songwriter, is writing about a romantic triangle, but he is both men in that triangle. “Jane” is any woman Leonard Cohen has been involved with. Using this premise, it is possible to work through... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Imagination takes precedence over intellect for Bob Dylan. David Dalton tries to trace the career of that remarkable imagination in his book Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan (Hyperion) which is being published today. Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, originally titled his work Bob's Brain. I suppose he did this because he wanted to attempt the impossible: a provide a written MRI of the creator of what some people claim to be the best songs ever written. Bob Dylan's identity is, to understate the point laughably, elusive, starting with his Jewishness. Karl Shapiro, in his work In Defense of Ignorance, wrote: "The European Jew was always a visitor...But in America everybody is a visitor. In the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness." But the Jewish writer has a more complex identity than other American writers. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow noted that "As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow you are not." That was Dylan's status. He was an outsider as a Jew in America, but doubly so in Hibbing, Minnesota. As a rural Jew, he was, in Dalton's phrase, "an outsider in a community of outsiders." This status led him to be free to invent a self while simultaneously feeling outside of any genuine self. In one sense he had no identity at all. In 1976 Allen Ginsberg said about Dylan: "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self." Dylan rebelled against his birth self in every possible way. He changed his name. He changed where he lived. He believed he had been born into the wrong family. He looked for a direction to his real self and could not find it. Robert Zimmerman had a profound sense of disquiet. And so, when he got to New York, he invented stories to everyone who would listen. He was an orphan, a circus performer, a Native American. He was anybody but a small town son of a Jewish appliance dealer. But accompanying this all--inclusive self-rejection was an intense belief in himself, a sense that Fate had cleared a path in life for him that would lead to his being the most important singer in America. For me, this juxtaposition provides an approach to Dylan's identity: to look at the rapport and the rancor between his private and public selves. To do this, I think it's useful to consider Dylan as an actor. Lies are the truth for an actor. The world has facts, but for Dylan those facts didn't explain inner turmoil, the ever-moving, ever-changing, often closely-related feelings of desire and loathing, the ways that words and sounds just came to him, often when prompted by a song that moved him. He loved those songs, and then stole them, and then made them his own, inevitably vastly improving them. Actors are frequently alienated from themselves. (The best book I know about this is Simon... Continue reading
Posted Apr 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Vincent Van Gogh was born 159 years ago today. But that's not a picture of him. It's a picture of his younger brother Theo, who virtually single-handedly provided the financial and emotional support that allowed his brother to paint. When we were teenagers, my younger brother, Richard, and I considered our destinations in life. He planned to become a lawyer. I thought I might be an alienated novelist like some in the peripatetic pack of Beats I admired. During those rare moments when I considered the financial implications of any such decision, I took to calling my brother "Theo." This was said half in jest, but only half. And it was said almost wholly in ignorance. I did not then know that Theo died at age 33 from dementia praralytica, a syphlitic brain infection. Luckily, neither did my brother know this. It's easy to exaggerate Theo's patience and transform him into a saint of patrons. But Vincent was not easy to be with. For many of us, our image of Vincent is forever tied to Kirk Douglas' portrayal in Lust for Life. The real Vincent, sadly, was not anything like Kirk Douglas. The real Vincent was like a dirty street wanderer with rags for clothes who mutters to himself and, seemingly for no reason at all, suddenly begins to yell at or lecture passers-by. As an alternative to Kirk Douglas, it's worthwhile to track down Tim Roth in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo. As Vincent's incredibly articulate letters make clear (letters we only have because Theo saved them; Vincent's mother destroyed his letters to her), Theo could get frustrated. The brothers fought about money, about what kind of art Vincent should be painting, about Viincent's interminable search for understandably reluctant women models. And yet, through it all, Theo stayed loyal. He sold the single painting of Vincent's that was bought during the artist's lifetime. As an art dealer, Theo also pushed others then not so well known including Monet and Degas. It was Theo who introduced Vincent to Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, and others, and it was Theo who convinced Gauguin to stay with Vincent at Arles. I found it interesting that Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith chose to open their fascinating recent biography Van Gogh: The Life with Theo traveling to get Vincent's body for burial. The authors assert that Vincent did not shoot himself but that he was talking to two boys, and one of them, who had frequently verbally tormented him, accidentally shot him. The authors believe Vincent took responsibility so the boys wouldn't get into trouble. This claim is made at the end of the 976 page book through a series of closely-reasoned arguments that I nevertheless did not find conclusive. What surprised me is that the claim is never considered that Vincent took his own life for a good reason--Theo was dying and when that happened Vincent would no longer be able to paint. Indeed, Theo died six months after Vincent. Theo's great-grandson, also... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2012 at The Best American Poetry