WRB—August 9, 2023
Just peachy, thanks.
The Bishop shook his head. “No, I can’t promise you—I do not know. I have noticed that he is a man of severe and refined tastes, but he is very reserved. In the District of Columbia they do not read books, your Eminence,” he added gently.
“No matter, Father. I see them through the Washington Review of Books, and I like them so. Now let us go to the terrace for our coffee and watch the evening come on.”
In today’s edition:
(working backwards from the bottom):
Robert Herrick…writing advice…sad girls…bagels…private equity…sugar…Walter Benjamin…a pretty abstruse joke about the Washington Football Team…1
In The Nation, Peter E. Gordon on Walter Benjamin’s radio career:
Following this first leap into radio commentary, Benjamin continued to build his career in Germany as both a freelance writer and a critic on the air, and for several years he managed to scratch out a more-than-tolerable existence, all the while hoping for grander things. His ultimate goal, as he confessed to a friend in 1930, was to become “the foremost critic of German literature.” But this ambition would go unfulfilled, and his bold forays into the high canon, such as an early essay on Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities, were masterful but rare. More typical were his exercises in short-form criticism, including the stories he wrote expressly for the radio. Among the most entertaining are reports in which the everyday becomes exotic or the modern is interlaced with nostalgia. In a broadcast from late 1929 or early 1930, he describes the market halls in Berlin that he had first visited as a child, where the smells of fish, cheese, flowers, raw meat, and fruit intermingle under one roof, creating a “dim and woozy aroma” that complements “the light seeping through the murky panes of lead-framed glass.” Nor can he leave out the smallest detail: “And let’s not forget the stone floor, which is always awash with run-off or dishwater and feels like the cold and slippery bottom of the ocean.”
[I feel like our readers like seeing the name “Walter Benjamin” when they open the WRB. —Steve] [I like seeing the name “Walter Benjamin” in my email—I assume this is universal. —Chris]
In The New Statesman, Rebecca Solnit on reevaluations of George Orwell:
I used to tell my writing students that there is a slippery slope between the malicious thing your stepfather didn’t really do and the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein didn’t really have, because I was trained as a journalist to regard factual accuracy as an unshakeable obligation writers have to their subjects, their readers and the historical record. Part of the historical record is that they were not us, and their norms and principles were different; you can think of us as possessing different imaginative equipment, just as we use technologies that didn’t exist a few decades ago. I value George Orwell’s writing for his devotion to truthfulness and his recognition of all the ways that truths get corrupted. This is why, even if his private mores are of his time, his public writing still gives us tools to think about ours.
[On principle, I am not linking to any reviews of the new group biography. —Chris]
His style here won’t please readers who want the author to cut to the chase, and I’ll admit that early on I felt annoyed when yet another new character would take center stage instead of the novel getting on with this business of who did what, how come and what’s going to happen to Dodo? But McBride’s story is not to be rushed; he wants to show you the whole world. He wants to build this community and display its full constellation of characters, all of whom orbit around one another with different gravities, pushing and pulling the story in different directions. The skeleton at the novel’s start is almost forgotten as the story lives in the town’s past, patiently braiding a tale of this large cast as we make our way back to those promised bones.
Laura Miller profiles him in Slate:
It comes as no surprise that McBride is very much not online, and that the raging rhetorical controversies that preoccupy the writers who are don’t seem very real to him either. The closest he comes to a rant in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is a passage about the future his characters can’t imagine, in which “devices that fit in one’s pocket and went zip, zap, and zilch delivered a danger far more seductive and powerful than any hot dog, a device that children of the future would clamor for and become addicted to, a device that fed them their oppression disguised as free thought.” It’s difficult to fit McBride’s fiction into a culture framework so profoundly shaped by discussions he considers irrelevant. And while McBride never glosses over the racism, antisemitism, ableism, and other forms of bigotry that afflict his characters, he remains, very unfashionably, optimistic. “I like Americans,” he told me. “I think Americans are resilient.” He’s a fan of Joe Biden and “enthusiastic about what’s happening now. I think this country is in a healing mode. I think people can’t see it, but we’re getting better.”
And McBride will be speaking about the book at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue tonight at 7 p.m.
In the LARB, Hollis Robbins reviews two books about Phillis Wheatley (The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence, by David Waldstreicher, March; and Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, by Vincent Carretta, April):
Again, had I written this review a year ago, I also would have stated that Carretta’s book is the more important volume, considered as a work of academic research and evidence-based argument. Waldstreicher’s portrait of Phillis Wheatley owes a debt to Carretta as well as to other key Wheatley scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joanna Brooks, and Cornelia Dayton, whose names appear in footnotes but not in the body of Waldstreicher’s text. Yet I also would have grudgingly admitted that Waldstreicher’s book was of tremendous importance in welcoming new readers to Wheatley’s poetry and Wheatley’s story. As much as I may have personal resistance to a “relatable” Phillis Wheatley, why not celebrate if her story elicits new public interest? Waldstreicher’s Wheatley is emotionally compelling: always in control, poised to resist and dissent, fully aware of systems of oppression and her place within these systems.
But we have entered the AI era, with new and ongoing discussions of how artificial intelligence will affect all of us who write, who sift evidence, who weigh facts and assess the motivation of historical and literary figures, who can hold in our minds simultaneously multiple perspectives on and versions of events, comfortable with ambiguity and being certain only about the fact that we will never truly know what happened long ago and how to interpret historical material. I am concerned that Waldstreicher’s repurposing of other scholars’ facts to craft a new and perhaps too convincing psychological profile of Phillis Wheatley, as modern as she is familiar, seems a frightening forerunner of what ChatGPT and other AI platforms will soon deliver.
And it’s here that deWitt’s attempt to answer whether Bob’s fascination with literature—and, by extension, his own—is conducive to a meaningful life proves a bit lacking. For most of the novel, deWitt is more preoccupied with having fun with words and language than providing a serious response. When he does finally get around to exploring the question, it marks a tonal shift, one that feels like a tossed-off balm for a moribund Bob. Bob’s insistence that he had in fact serviced his community and “been a part of it” registers as rushed. (It calls to mind a similarly dissatisfying late-stage detour in French Exit, when Frances Price, a woman so committed to nihilism that she sets a bouquet of flowers on fire because a waiter does not bring the cheque fast enough, becomes “sort of a joiner” as she approaches the end of her life.)
Well. It’s happened to you. It’s Wednesday morning. You’re struggling to maintain the illusion that you need to be at work in the middle of August. You’ve already read the George Orwell thing. The day stretches before you. If only you had access to the rest of the content in this weekday Washington Review of Books!