Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Writer and the Reader

The late David Foster Wallace, from Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, as reviewed in the NY Times today:

"If the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is,” he says. Wallace contrasts literature with the electronic media, especially television, an amusement that is his own personal weakness, an actual addiction. “One of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Franzen, Freedom

The second excerpt from Jonathan Franzen's forthcoming novel Freedom is just as piquant as the first (which I wrote about here). In this one, titled "Agreeable," Franzen narrates a searing adolescent episode in the life of Patty (who, as an adult, is a central character in the other excerpt), an episode that cements her estrangement from her family.

Judging by his memoir The Discomfort Zone, Franzen is not someone who's experienced a lot of family love. Perhaps for that reason, he is expert at anatomizing familial dysfunction.

In this passage, Patty's mother talks with her about how her father will respond to a difficult and painful experience Patty's recently had:

“He’ll want to do whatever’s best for you. Sometimes it’s hard for him to express it, but he loves you more than anything.”

Joyce could hardly have made a statement that Patty more fervently longed to believe was true. Wished, with her whole being, were true. Didn’t her dad tease her and ridicule her in ways that would have been simply cruel if he didn’t secretly love her more than anything? But she was seventeen now and not actually dumb. She knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you were busy with other things.

"Agreeable" is a devastating piece of fiction, one that's left me eager to read the novel in its entirety when it comes out in August.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jesus X

Adam Gopnik's review-essay notes the felt disjuncture between two aspects of Jesus' message, the "relaxed egalitarianism of the open road and the open table" and the "violent and even vengeful prediction of a final judgment and a large-scale damnation," but Gopnik goes on to suggest that such bipolarity is not unusual:

And yet a single figure who “projects” two personae at the same time, or in close sequence, one dark and one dreamy, is a commonplace among charismatic prophets. That’s what a charismatic prophet is: someone whose aura of personal conviction manages to reconcile a hard doctrine with a humane manner. The leaders of the African-American community before the civil-rights era, for instance, had to be both prophets and political agitators to an oppressed and persecuted people in a way not unlike that of the real Jesus (and all the other forgotten zealots and rabbis whom the first-century Jewish historian Josephus names and sighs over). They, too, tended to oscillate between the comforting and the catastrophic. Malcolm X was the very model of a modern apocalyptic prophet-politician, unambiguously preaching violence and a doctrine of millennial revenge, all fuelled by a set of cult beliefs—a hovering U.F.O., a strange racial myth. But Malcolm was also a community builder, a moral reformer (genuinely distraught over the sexual sins of his leader), who refused to carry weapons, and who ended, within the constraints of his faith, as some kind of universalist. When he was martyred, he was called a prophet of hate; within three decades of his death—about the time that separates the Gospels from Jesus—he could be the cover subject of a liberal humanist magazine like this one. One can even see how martyrdom and “beatification” draws out more personal detail, almost perfectly on schedule: Alex Haley, Malcolm’s Paul, is long on doctrine and short on details; thirty years on, Spike Lee, his Mark, has a full role for a wife and children, and a universalist message that manages to blend Malcolm into Mandela. (As if to prove this point, just the other week came news of suppressed chapters of Haley’s “Autobiography,” which, according to Malcolm’s daughter, “showed too much of my father’s humanity.”)

Cleveland High School

For some reason, I received in the mail yesterday the alumni magazine of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. My wife got her M.A. in history there, but the magazine was addressed to me.

In any case, it has an interesting piece about Dan Younger, an art professor at UMSL who has published a book of photographs of Cleveland High School, his alma mater.

"Cleveland looks great from the outside," Younger says. "It's just kind of this funny abandoned thing. You hate to think of it as a metaphor for the city, but it's just another formerly great thing that's been abandoned."

You can look at the entire book (and buy it, too, if you want) at this link.

The photos are a fascinating look inside a majestic piece of St. Louis educational architecture, located at S. Grand and Osceola, a building whose future, like that of so much of that architecture, is unclear.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Eyes on Henry Hampton

For the past several weeks I've been making my way through all fourteen hours of Eyes on the Prize, the two-part documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement which aired on PBS in 1987 and 1990.

I've been watching it as background for an African American Voices course I'm teaching in the fall, and I'm excited about using parts of it in class.

I'm especially enthusiastic about it because the series was created and produced by Henry Hampton (1940-1998), a graduate of the school where I teach.

Looking back at a 1995 Talk of the Town piece about Hampton in the New Yorker, I came across a couple of interesting bits:

Life has done its best to foster some resentment in Hampton but, apparently, without success. A black man, he was born in St. Louis in 1940, when it was still under the thumb of Jim Crow. Hampton's father was a successful doctor, but the family wasn't welcome at restaurants or movie theaters in the white part of town.

Hampton contracted polio when he was fifteen and was in a wheelchair for three years. Nevertheless, he focuses on happier memories from that period, ones that include a sweet memory from his high school:

What he recalls from that time, though, is the friends at his virtually all-white parochial school who carried him up the steps to physics lab, and the red Thunderbird his father bought him.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Carr Square

Over at St. Louis City Talk, Mark Groth continues his fascinating project: writing blog posts, with plentiful photographs, about each of St. Louis's 79 neighborhoods. Today's neighborhood is Carr Square.

Surely this neighborhood, which includes the old Pruitt-Igoe site, must be considered the eye of the storm of racial segregation, poverty, and misguided urban renewal policies in St. Louis.

Mark cites some information from the 2000 census: 98% of Carr Square's residents are black, and of its 1,327 housing units, 74% are occupied, 99% rented.

From this data and his own observations of the area, Mark concludes:

This is one of those parts of town that has seen such massive disinvestment and lack of care and respect from its inhabitants and leaders, that it is basically a wasteland.

Mark notes that the area is included in Phase C of Paul McKee's Northside plan, and he welcomes that investment:

If McKee, etc. can come up with a contemporary, urban, mixed use, sustainable plan for redevelopment, this could be one of the greatest improvements in the city's long history.

On the one hand, part of me agrees with Mark: If Paul McKee wants to come in and build a neighborhood here on open land, more power to him, right?

But on the other hand: What happens to the 2,339 people, almost entirely black, who do live here? This neighborhood is not entirely open land, it's also people's homes. Just because they rent doesn't mean they can be disregarded. Will they be able to find affordable places to live elsewhere? And what effect will their relocation have on the places they relocate to?

Paul McKee's top-down, large-scale, clear-cutting plan has much in common with the policies that created Pruitt-Igoe and made Carr Square what it is today.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Taking the trash out to the alley this wet Saturday afternoon, I noticed some unusual fungi growing in the mulch along our garage.

I remember seeing some fungi like this in my neighbors' yard when I was a kid. I was fascinated and repulsed by them at the time, but I had not seen them since then.

I searched around on the internet and learned that these are members of the stinkhorn family of fungi. They go by the amusing but apt Latin name Phallus rubicundus.

This blog post at Hunter Valley Backyard Nature gives some more detail:

Phallic-looking fruiting bodies emerge from egg-like sacs and can elongate several inches within a period of a few hours, making these striking and almost obscene growths a novelty in suburban gardens and lawns.

But as odd and repugnant as they might appear, they will do no harm to your garden and will wilt and decay within a very short period of time.

The post also explains the rather alarming brown stuff at the tip of the stalk:

Stinkhorn fungi stink for a reason. Flies and other insects that are attracted to the smell of rotting flesh or feces are drawn to the foul odor of the fungi. The odor emanates from a greenish-brown gooey substance (gleba) that contains spores.

Our world is a strange and wondrous place, no? Not only the bizarre forms that life can take, but also the brain that has stored my memory of these, and the technology that allows me to finally learn something about them and post my findings for anyone to see.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


At Ecology of Absence, Michael Allen makes a sad, trenchant point about our city:

St. Louis remains far outside of the relevance of the recently-publicized writings by economist Edward Glaeser. In the New York Times yesterday, Glaeser argued against hard-line preservation: "[i]f a successful city doesn't build, its prices will skyrocket and it can turn into an exclusive, elite enclave."

Perhaps true, but too often in St. Louis we never get to that conundrum. We take down a building and leave its site empty for generations. Not only are we not building, but we are not preserving.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sophisticated Protest

Claudia Roth Pierpont has a great review-essay in the New Yorker about Duke Ellington. The final paragraph relates a story I'd never heard:

Two years before Ellington died, in 1972, Yale University held a gathering of leading black jazz musicians in order to raise money for a department of African-American music. Aside from Ellington, the musicians who came for three days of concerts, jam sessions, and workshops included Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, and Willie (the Lion) Smith. During a performance by a Gillespie-led sextet, someone evidently unhappy with this presence on campus called in a bomb threat. The police attempted to clear the building, but Mingus refused to leave, urging the officers to get all the others out but adamantly remaining onstage with his bass. “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music,” he was heard telling the police captain. (And very few people successfully argued with Mingus.) “If I’m going to die, I’m ready. But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ ” Once outside, Gillespie and his group set up again. But coming from inside was the sound of Mingus intently playing Ellington’s dreamy thirties hit, which, that day, became a protest song, as the performance just kept going on and on and getting hotter. In the street, Ellington stood in the waiting crowd just beyond the theatre’s open doors, smiling.

Real Leadership

In this NY Times "Bloggingheads" video, which is well worth watching, the Rev. Daniel Schultz of Religion Dispatches and Mark Kleiman of U.C.L.A. debate whether President Obama is a great moral leader.

Schultz complains that Obama's has compromised too much and failed to deliver on lofty promises, but Klein silences him with a careful and confident argument that Obama's moral leadership comes precisely in the form of his declining to make a great show of himelf as a moral leader.

By exerting real leadership, Obama deprived himself of the chance of exerting phony moral leadership.

Giving the examples of the health care bill and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Klein convincingly portrays Obama as a leader who chooses real, achievable reform at the price of meaningless, flashy statements.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I really enjoyed Gerald Early's essay about Thomas Sowell in this month's issue of The Figure in the Carpet. Early says he likes to think of the conservative Sowell as a "contrarian," and it seems to be in that contrarian spirit that Early himself entertains, without much in the way of rebuttal, some of the ideas underpinning Sowell's recent book Intellectuals and Society:

Sowell does not say this openly, but my general impression is that he thinks, on the whole, that intellectuals are status parasites with a self-created importance: they have no worthwhile skills, and if they all disappeared tomorrow, the United States would function very well without them. They are like an aristocracy that has deluded itself that it actually measures up in some important way in a meritocracy. This is why intellectuals generally hate capitalism: because it will not place the value on them that they feel their superiority warrants. [Philsopher Robert] Nozick makes this point also, adding that intellectuals generally are people who did well in school, were recognized as verbally brilliant by their teachers, but who hate capitalism because the larger society won't recognize their worth they way their schoolteachers did, which is why they like the strong, centralized government of the teacher and not the chaotic "market" world of the hallways and lunchrooms where they were not very popular or appreciated.

Terms of Choice

From Slate, an important observation that is suggestive about the way language influences our perception of reality:

Almost two weeks have now passed since oil began gushing from a leak in a deepwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico leased by the British oil conglomerate BP. As the massive slick crept toward the Louisiana wetlands, the media appear to have pretty much settled on "the Gulf Coast oil spill" as the term of choice when referring to the catastrophe. No doubt this was a welcome development to BP executives. The last major oil spill off the American coast, after all, was named after the company that spilled the oil, not the place where the oil was spilled. Otherwise we'd be referring to the "Prince William Sound" spill instead of the "Exxon Valdez" spill.

Fox News, of course, has been working to associate this disaster in Americans' minds with another phrase (italics mine):

As the massive oil slick grows worse by the day, the White House is fighting off a growing perception that the federal response to this ecological disaster is President Obama's Katrina.