Thursday, July 30, 2009

Carver Re-Collected

Raymond Carver Pictures, Images and Photos

From an interesting piece about a new Library of America collection of Raymond Carver's work that includes the originally published stories as well as the versions excavated by Tess Gallagher:

The capacious spread of the stories in their original form is something readers will recognize as belonging to the Carver of Cathedral, though by then he had matured as a writer and had curbed (somewhat) his characters’ tendency to become prolix and sentimental. But there is scant room for argument about the abrupt, elliptical tone of early Carver, which intoxicated a generation of readers and writers. Carver was the singer but Lish was his producer, and the mood of the sessions is largely his creation.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Redistributing Wealth

I'm currently reading Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, which is absolutely fascinating and making me think a lot about everything from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to The Andy Griffith Show, from Cormac McCarthy's Child of God to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

One thought that's occurred to me early on, though, is the simple fact that the end of slavery in the South essentially constituted a gigantic transfer of wealth—from Southern slaveholders to the slaves themselves. The wealth transferred, of course, was the value of the slaves, a tangible monetary loss for all of the slaveholders. For the slaves themselves this new wealth was both immeasurably valuable and relatively valueless, as the post-Reconstruction South steadily stripped away blacks' abilities to achieve political power and economic independence.

As the escaped slave Jim tells his young companion Huck Finn, recounting his financial woes, "I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

The emancipation of the slaves was the starkest redistribution of wealth in American history. Arguably, our nation is still feeling the aftershocks of that cataclysmic act of justice. Meanwhile, in the current debate over health care, what's ultimately at stake is another, much less dramatic redistribution. As Hendrik Hertzberg notes in this piece, the Blue Dog Democrats (not to mention Republicans), are resistant to part of Barack Obama's plan and "vociferously oppose a modest surtax on the top one per cent, whose effective tax rates have dropped by fifteen per cent since 1979, while their after-tax incomes have more than tripled."

To what extent should government intervene to ameliorate inequality and offset the damages wrought by vicious greed? It seems to me that that's the fundamental question of politics in America. The federal government fought a war and amended the Constitution to outlaw the owning of one human being by another. Then, over period of decades, Southern states gradually clawed their way back toward a slave system (as Blackmon argues persuasively). The federal government, under LBJ, again came down hard on the side of equality, and in response the South turned its back on the Democratic Party and conservatives embraced a doctrine of states' rights and laissez faire capitalism, essentially declaring that the government should do little or nothing to protect its citizens from being exploited. Profiteering and prejudice, in the minds of some, became synonymous with patriotism.

Those who have wealth will always complain about its redistribution. Slaveowners were outraged to have their chattel taken from them. FDR was a "traitor to his class" for engineering the New Deal (of whose benefits blacks were intentionally deprived, according to Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey's Categorically Unequal). White southerners violently resented the federal troops who made them integrate their schools. And now Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck decry Obama's health care plan as socialism.

But there's a big difference, of course, between the revolutionary seizure and redistribution of wealth that occurred in Cuba or the Soviet Union and the plan that Obama is currently working on within the normal legislative channels of American government (also nicely discussed by Hertzberg). There's an inherently conservative nature to America's political structure, one that probably protects us from wild instability but also serves to entrench the interests of the powerful and the wealthy, even when that concentration of wealth and power threatens the overall health of our nation (literally and figuratively).

Another question that has occurred to me while reading the first seventy pages of Blackmon's book: What would have happened if the South had welcomed former slaves into its society instead of brutally repressing and exploiting them?

To the extent that that repression and exploitation served only to enrich a small percentage of white Southerners at the expense of poor whites (who may have clung to their sense of racial superiority but were no doubt harmed economically by being pitted against oppressed blacks in the labor market), it seems to me that a racially equal society would have spread the wealth out more equitably to both blacks and whites and helped the South to share more fully in the wealth of America at large.

Likewise, in America today, I believe, our nation is stronger if more people have access to affordable health care and fewer people are driven to economic ruin by crushing medical debt. It's not socialism. It's a reasonable plan for moderating a market economy in order to deliver the best quality of life for the most citizens possible. And it's on a spectrum with the abolition of slavery, the New Deal, and the Civil Right Act—a spectrum of controversial but necessary steps by the government to make the nation a better place for its citizens.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cover Discoveries

The Book Bench does a weekly contest in which you have to identify four books based only on a small detail from their covers.

This week the theme was books that might show up in women's studies courses. One of the books was Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Look closely at the cover, though, in the contest solution.

It has been defaced. It reads: To the Shighthouse. Or, "to the shitehouse," as they would spell it in Ireland.

I wonder who pulled this little prank?

It reminds me of something that happened at the yearly Open House we have at the high school where I teach. For the English Department's table in the library, we set out all the books we teach, in order of class year. We then can use the books to talk prospective parents through our curriculum.

Sometimes we pull the display books from a shelf in our office where we keep books that we've found abandoned in the halls or classrooms over the years.

One year, I had been working Open House for about an hour or so. It was the middle of the afternoon, and many parents had been by the English Dept. table. As I talked yet another family through the books, beginning with the ones we teach to freshmen, I noticed that the copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I was pointing to had been defaced. It read, boldly: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn's PENIS.

Evidently we'd taken the book from the shelf of extra books, and the student who'd abandoned his copy of Huck had also added to its title, perhaps thinking wishfully about the contents of the novel.

One might expect such shenanigans at an all-boys school. But it's funny to see the same thing happen at one of the blogs of an august institution such as the New Yorker.


As of 3:50 today, they've replaced the shitehouse cover with a non-defaced one.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Acocella on Jackson, the Dancer

From an interesting piece by Joan Acocella, who analyzes Michael Jackson's dancing from a technical perspective:

Jackson, who had a thorough knowledge of the movie musical, revered Fred Astaire. He records in his memoir how thrilled he was when Astaire praised him. The old master even invited him over to his house, where Jackson taught the moonwalk to him and his choreographer Hermes Pan. (Astaire told Jackson that both of them, he and Jackson, danced out of anger—an interesting remark, at least about Astaire.) But despite Jackson’s awe of his predecessor, he never learned the two rules that Astaire, as soon as he gained power over the filming, insisted on: (1) don’t interrupt the dance with reaction shots or any other extraneous shots, and (2) favor a full-body shot over a closeup. To Astaire, the dance was primary—his main story—and he had it filmed accordingly. In Jackson’s videos, the dance is tertiary, even quaternary (after the song and the story and the filming). The camera repeatedly cuts away, and, when it comes back, it often limits itself to the upper body. Jackson didn’t value his dancing enough.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Violent Bear It Away

The other day I watched Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's quite entertaining film about the Mayans. It's a well-made thriller, but along the way the film made me think about violence in human history. In this piece, Steven Pinker asserts that our current world is the least violent it's ever been, and reviews some theories about why:

Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by journalist Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the Golden Rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Judicial Activism?

From a review of Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Activism and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court, by James McGregor Burns:

It is Mr. Burns’s contention in “Packing the Court” that “as the ultimate and unappealable arbiters of the Constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court have become far more than the referees in constitutional disputes that the framers intended. They have gone beyond interpreting the rules — they have come to create them.”

He argues that the liberalism of the Warren Court is the exception, that the Court’s historic role has been “as a choke point for progressive reform,” and that in “the Gilded Age of the late 19th century” and the “Gilded Age at the turn of the 21st,” the justices “fiercely protected the rights and liberties of the minority of the powerful and the propertied.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009


An interesting account of the judge's decision in the case of the unauthorized Catcher in the Rye sequel:

Mr. Colting’s lawyers argued, among other things, that the new work, titled “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” did not violate copyright because it amounted to a critical parody that had the effect of transforming the original work.

Judge Batts rejected that argument, writing, “The Court finds such contentions to be post-hoc rationalizations employed through vague generalizations about the alleged naivety of the original, rather than reasonably perceivable parody.”

The judge’s ruling weighed literary arguments made by both sides in the dispute. “To the extent Colting claims to augment the purported portrait of Caulfield as a ‘free-thinking, authentic and untainted youth,’ and ‘impeccable judge of the people around him’ displayed in ‘Catcher’ by ‘show[ing] the effects of Holden’s uncompromising world view,’ ” Judge Batts wrote, citing a memo submitted by Mr. Colting, “those effects were already thoroughly depicted and apparent in Salinger’s own narrative about Caulfield.”

Judge Batts added: “In fact, it can be argued that the contrast between Holden’s authentic but critical and rebellious nature and his tendency toward depressive alienation is one of the key themes of ‘Catcher.’

“It is hardly parodic to repeat that same exercise in contrast, just because society and the characters have aged.”

It's funny to think that this guy wrote an entire novel about Catcher in the Rye without really understanding the book. 

I guess I shouldn't be surprised: Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon inspired by the novel, which he clearly didn't understand, either.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

I really like this passage from a 2005 interview with Rene Spencer Saller, a friend of a friend: 

People talk a lot about guilty pleasures -- what you like that you're not supposed to like. It's all such a lie, because I've never met anyone that doesn't love to divulge their guilty pleasures. "Oh, look at me, I'm so cool. Not only do I like Bjork, I'm also really into obscure bubblegum girl groups from the '60s!" They're proud of it because it distinguishes them from the other little consumers that are out there, loading these cool bands onto their iPods.