WRB—Feb. 7, 2024
“the two saddest songs”
What about the tortured Managing Editors?
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a roundtable with Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Dan Sinykin, Elisa Tamarkin, Michael W. Clune, and Jesse McCarthy on Jonathan Kramnick’s new book (Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies, 2023) and the question “Does literary criticism tell truths about the world?” [It’s a shame they beat us to this one. —Steve] [We’re just getting started here! —Chris] Tamarkin:
And there’s a lot of emphasis on “dexterity.” Literary criticism is very much a craft, a kind of handiwork. He turns to examples of what he describes as the everyday practices of close reading—including the use of embedded quotations (that “weave” other people’s words with our own), the ways in which quotations point to specific moments in texts, as well as creative paraphrase—that he says are so ordinary we have stopped noticing them. He’s doing this to make a case for the field as having an actual method that is ubiquitous among us.
Now whether or not our craftwork is good is the question of judgment which his vocabulary raises. Do we judge good criticism by the ways in which our writing about writing is “elegant” or “attuned” to other people’s writing, the ways in which it feels “apt” or “fitting” to the language at hand—is that the basis for criticism that has value or that describes the value and meaning of a literary text?
[Something I didn’t get to at all in my Gene Wolfe essay (linked on Saturday) is how much my early experience of reading Wolfe, with all its goads to something more, implied a more rigorous approach to reading itself; I went about reading all his short fiction systematically because I had the sense that it would leave me better equipped to read texts as a practice in itself. —Chris]
In The Paris Review, Emmeline Clein goes to the house Britney Spears grew up in:
Fay tells me that this museum is a collaboration between Britney’s family and her fans and is filled with donations from her parents and the devotees who visit, bearing gifts, as well as the ones who can’t make it to Louisiana and mail in their offerings. The museum’s centerpiece is a room within a room, a glass wall protecting it from the rest of the house, from our sweaty fingertips and heady breath. It is a reconstruction of Britney’s childhood bedroom, the one immortalized in a 1999 David LaChapelle cover shoot for Rolling Stone. It’s not a replica but a reconstruction, using Britney’s original belongings, down to the uprooted carpeting from the room she spent her childhood in—all donated by her parents while she toured, growing up on the road. One of the photos from the shoot is taped to the glass so her fans can encounter the uncanniness of the re-creation. I stare in at an angle, standing next to a life-size cutout of the starlet with a milk mustache, posing for a Got Milk? ad.
In Plough, Nicholas Allmaier on the conversion of Johann Georg Hamann:
In staggering debt, friendless, and alternating between self-contempt and despair, Hamann moved into an apartment rented by a young couple on Marlborough Street. He contemplated falling deeper into poverty, even becoming a beggar, and was reduced to giving his watch to his landlord to make rent. Imprudently, he added to the collection of books which he had hardly touched, purchasing a King James Bible. Resigned to do nothing but sit quietly in his room and read those books which seemed “poor comforters, these friends that I thought I could not do without,” Hamann arrived at the lowest point of his life.
At the height of this desperation, he returned to the God he had betrayed: “In the tumult of all my passions, which so overwhelmed me that I often could hardly breathe, I kept on praying to God for a friend . . . that I could no longer envisage . . . A friend who could give me a key to my heart, the thread that would lead me out of my labyrinth.”
[I’ve had the green Cambridge volume of Hamann on my desk as long as the WRB has existed—one day, I’ll get around to opening it seriously. —Chris]
In our sister publication in the City of Angels, Michael Downs on the Mencken Society and attempts to preserve the work of its namesake:
In the auditorium that morning, Bob Brugger—past society president, now retired from his work as a history editor with Johns Hopkins University Press—rose to call Fitzpatrick “a consummate gentleman. Always helpful to a fault, and generous.” How could such a nice guy as Fitzpatrick, he wondered, dedicate so much of his life to the vituperative Mencken? How could any of us? he added, looking from face to face. “We are all gentle people,” he said. The answer seemed to be that members of the society share respect for Mencken’s skepticism as an intellectual practice, without any of them sharing his style. “I don’t think any of us are bomb throwers of the sort in Mencken’s club,” Brugger said. “If it still exists.”
In The American Conservative, Jude Russo on the man:
Mencken, like most men, is a complicated and contradictory character. Unenlightened racial attitudes sit alongside an easy-going, almost ideological live-and-let-live outlook; unrepentant atheism (or at least agnosticism) doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the company of exalted clergymen; impatience with stupidity coexists with nearly endless affection for the vices and foibles of the human race and especially of the American people. You like him or you don’t; but in either case, you can’t say he isn’t an American original.
[Behind the paywall: Chris on the combination of reflection and ecstasy and the appeal of math, Steve muses on Gordon Lightfoot and names some Oscar nominees for Best Picture from the ’70s, Julia on a poem with lots of flowers, The Communist Manifesto, the big city, Anne Carson, and more links, reviews, news items, and commentary carefully selected for you. If you like what you see, why not subscribe, and why not consider a paid subscription? The WRB is for you, and we couldn’t do it without you.]