Jay Parini 1948-
(Full name Jay Lee Parini) American novelist, poet, critic, essayist, biographer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Parini's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 54.
Though Jay Parini first came to the attention of critics through his poetry, he also garners praise for his novels, biographies, and several works of criticism. Within each of these genres Parini works with a diverse array of subject matter—from the Pennsylvania coal mines of his youth to classical mythology to prominent historical and literary figures. While his poetry reflects an affinity for both nature and mining, his novels—particularly his biographical fiction—incorporate his interest in literary history, as evident in The Last Station (1990) and Benjamin's Crossing (1996). Parini provided significant contributions to contemporary literary scholarship with his nonfiction biographies of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost, and as the co-editor of The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993).
The son of a minister, Parini was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and his childhood was spent among the coal mines of nearby Scranton. He attended Lafayette College and later earned his Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. While at St. Andrews, Parini published his first collection of poetry, Singing in Time (1972). Following his graduation in 1975, he began working as an assistant professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. During his time there, he founded and served as co-editor of the New England Review and released his first book of criticism, Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic (1979), as well as his first novel, The Love Run (1980). In 1981, Parini married Devon Stacey Jersild, with whom he shares three children. Upon leaving Dartmouth, Parini published his most critically acclaimed book of poetry, Anthracite County (1982), and joined the English faculty at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he remains still.
A versatile author and scholar, Parini initially attracted critical recognition for his second book of poetry, Anthracite County. Several of the poems in this volume deal with his childhood amid the Scranton coal mines, while others consider themes of nature, love, and death. Both nostalgic and serious in tone, these poems present sincere emotion through a field of experience. This nostalgic quality also permeates his next poetry collection, Town Life (1988), an autobiographic, cyclical work in which the middle-aged poet reflects upon his life and future. These highly personal poems employ a conversational yet introspective tone in their investigation of personal consciousness and demonstrate Parini's firm command over his art. In The Love Run, the author's first novel, Parini transposes the myth of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid's Metamorphoses to contemporary times. Drawing attention to love's obsessive power, in Parini's version a dull-witted Teddy Leskovitch kidnaps Dartmouth College student Maisie Danston, who actually comes to choose the ardent Teddy over her romantically dull boyfriend. For his second novel, The Patch Boys (1986), Parini returns to the world of his childhood. While it takes place in 1925, decades before the author's birth, the novel is set in the Pennsylvania coal mining country and brings to life the long-since-gone world of the Scranton anthracite mines. Narrated in the protagonist's Italian-American idiom, the story focuses on the coming-of-age of fifteen-year-old Sammy diCantini, who lives near the “patches” of houses built near the anthracite mines.
With the novel The Last Station Parini enters the realm of biographical fiction, creating a fictional account of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy during his last year of life that culminates in Tolstoy's fatal abandonment of the estate where he spent his entire life. The story is told from the various perspectives of several narrators, among them Tolstoy's wife, daughter, and doctor. The novel Bay of Arrows (1992) is an unconventional commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas. The story juxtaposes a portrait of the famed explorer with that of Christopher Genovese, a contemporary English professor-poet who, after being accused of sexual harassment by a student, moves with his family to the Dominican Republic. In Benjamin's Crossing Parini revisits the genre of biographical fiction, this time taking as his subject Walter Benjamin, the renowned German Jewish intellectual whose writings significantly influenced contemporary literary theory. The novel focuses on Benjamin's final days as he attempts to flee occupied France to escape the Nazis; after being refused entry into Spain, and suffering from heart disease, Benjamin apparently commits suicide. Parini also writes in a more traditional biographical form as evident in John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995) in which he delivers a sympathetic reconsideration of a writer whose literary reputation has not fared as well as other more acclaimed contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. In Robert Frost: A Life (1999), Parini offers a portrait of his favorite poet which reveals Frost's own attempts to overcome personal tragedy through artistic creativity. Parini also edited and contributed to Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain (1992), a volume of scholarly essays and reviews on an author famous for his own biographical fiction, though, as Parini contends, remains underappreciated. Having already worked on numerous anthologies, Parini took on his most challenging editorial task with The Columbia History of American Poetry, a volume of scholarly essays that highlights a diverse array of important American poets and poetic movements from the colonial era to the present day.
Critical response to Parini's writings is almost as varied as his literary output. His volumes of poetry, particularly Anthracite County and Town Life, attract positive assessment and helped establish his literary reputation. Reviewers praise Anthracite County for the honesty and risk-taking of Parini's poems and his deft handling of language. Parini also received favorable reviews for his first two novels, notably The Patch Boys, which critics commend for its insightful portrayal of adolescent discovery and complex depiction of labor problems. The Last Station was a welcome surprise to the literary establishment, considering that its protagonist, Tolstoy, had heretofore been the subject of an immense number of biographies and other critical works. Critics praise the biographical novel for offering a faithful rendering of Tolstoy's last months and for presenting a intricate portrait of Tolstoy's art and difficult personal life. Parini's subsequent novels, Bay of Arrows and Benjamin's Crossing, however, are not consistently well regarded. While Bay of Arrows is praised as an entertaining and stimulating novel, it is also criticized for exhibiting a lack of substance. Benjamin's Crossing is acknowledged for presenting an accurate account of Benjamin's last days and for succinctly describing many of his ideas, but is also faulted in its portrayal of Benjamin as an intellectual. Parini's nonfiction biographies of Steinbeck and Frost also received differing reviews. John Steinbeck is praised for both its readability and its reconsideration of an author often neglected by university academics, though Parini is panned by some for a lack of objective distance, failing to bolster Steinbeck scholarship, and an overly sympathetic treatment of his subject. In contrast Robert Frost—which received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for the Best Work of Nonfiction in 1999—finds almost universal critical acclaim and is regarded as an informative perspective on the popular American poet's approach to his craft, though somewhat wanting in analysis of Frost's inner, especially intellectual, life. As editor of Gore Vidal, Parini received near unanimous praise for his part in establishing academic interest in Vidal's writings. In numerous major periodicals, critics highly extol The Norton Book of American Autobiography, which Parini edited and published in 1999. Critics are not as generous, however, in their appraisal of Parini's work as editor of The Columbia History of American Poetry. As expected, reviewers fault the work for its omission of various poets. Critics generally agree that, despite its many excellent essays and the difficult and contentious question of what exactly constitutes “American” poetry, The Columbia History of American Poetry falls short as a definitive “history” of American poetry due to its inability to unify its disparate subjects and perspectives, but still offers the reader a provocative consideration of what William Carlos Williams called “the American language.”
Singing in Time (poetry) 1972
Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic (criticism) 1979
The Love Run (novel) 1980
Richard Eberhart: A Celebration [editor; with M. Robin Barone and Sydney Lea] (nonfiction) 1980
Anthracite County (poetry) 1982
The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry [editor; with Robert Pack] (poetry) 1985
The Patch Boys (novel) 1986
An Invitation to Poetry (nonfiction) 1987
The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Short Stories [editor; with Robert Pack] (short stories) 1987
Town Life (poetry) 1988
The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Essays [editor; with Robert Pack] (essays) 1989
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year (novel) 1990
Bay of Arrows (novel) 1992
Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain [editor] (criticism) 1992
The Columbia History of American Poetry [editor; with Brett C. Miller] (criticism) 1993
Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry [editor; with Robert Pack] (poetry) 1993
American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices [editor; with Robert Pack]...
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SOURCE: A review of The Patch Boys, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 19, 1986, p. 3.
[In the following review, Stone offers a positive assessment of The Patch Boys.]
The easy rhythms and harsh reality of “patch” towns where coal was king. People with names like Will, Bing, Jesse, Lucey, and “The Nipper.” Boys sneaking puffs of Fatima cigarettes while gazing in rapture at passing Pierce-Arrow automobiles. Purple twilight in a tent along the banks of the Susquehanna. Idle talk of Babe Ruth and Roger “The Rajah” Hornsby. Fields and woods shimmering in heat while far below in the black bowels of the earth, men labor and die. A young boy with inordinate common sense growing to manhood in Pennsylvania mining country during the summer of 1925.
Jay Parini, who grew up in Scranton, Penn., and is the author of a previous novel and two works of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Anthracite County, has, in The Patch Boys come up with a dazzling change of pace and a beguiling piece of fiction. This is not the standard “us” versus “them” sage of grim labor troubles. This novel is about the life, escapades and often humorous recollections of Sammy diCantini, a 15-year-old trying to make some sense out of life.
The Patch Boys sets its satire and sardonic wit among the poignant comings and goings of an Italian family...
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SOURCE: “Tolstoy's Tumult,” in The Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 1990, p. 14.
[In the following review, D'Evelyn offers positive assessment of The Last Station.]
Once involved in this famously unhappy family, it’s impossible not to take sides. Jay Parini’s witty, immensely moving presentation of the Tolstoys, Sofya and Leo [The Last Station], concentrates on the last year of the writer’s life the year he finally took steps to put distance between himself and his wife of 50 years.
Parini has used the journals of both Tolstoys, their children, and the “Tolstoyans,” to provide as objective a view of the matter as possible. Of course this leads one to the conclusion that such judgment is completely subjective!
Though we see the dissolution of the marriage from the points of view of their daughter Sasha, Leo’s physician, his secretary, and his acolyte, as well as from those of the principals, it only increases the imponderability of the affair.
Acolyte Chertkov has a secret plan to have the old man change his will, turning over the copyrights of his work to the Tolstoyans, not to Sofya. Sofya finds out and slides into hysteria. Money and sex: In a way it comes down to money and sex.
When Sofya married Leo, she seemed half his age. She was a pampered rich girl and he was a worldly count, a writer, a reformer....
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SOURCE: “Tolstoy's Final Days,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, p. 4.
[In the following review, Condren offers a positive evaluation of The Last Station.]
Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelists in any language. As a man whose ideals often contradicted his life, he has a less certain reputation.
Among his many idiosyncrasies, none seems more apparent, nor more responsible for tormenting his last months, than his habit of laying guilt upon others to atone for his own excesses; or, to turn the same coin on its opposite side, his fondness for half-baked ideals which actually arose from some personal inability. For example, though he was born to the wealthy, land-owning nobility, his opulence embarrassed him, since he believed—and continually lectured those around him—that to own property is to be a thief; yet the only possessions he ever tried to give away were the copyrights to his work, a gesture that could only have hurt others.
Similarly, his once-prodigious sexual appetite—indeed 13 legitimate children and at least one illegitimate one were born at his huge estate. Yasnaya Polyana—later influenced him to preach against all forms of sexual activity. Yet here, too, he did not so much surrender a comfort as find relief from a burden, for he was already an old man becoming increasingly estranged from Sofya Andreyevna, his wife....
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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1991)
SOURCE: A review of The Last Station, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 21.
[In the following review, the critic offers a brief positive assessment of The Last Station.]
Widely reviewed and well-received (Gore Vidal calls it “easily one of the best historical novels written in the last twenty years”), poet and novelist Jay Parini’s story [The Last Station] is concerned with the 82nd, last year (1910) in the life of the great Leo Tolstoy and, in the words of the publisher, “dances bewitchingly between fact and fiction.” Parini has based his account mainly on the actual diaries, memoirs, letters, and published writings of the principals. Using the familiar modern device of multiple narration, Parini lets six characters tell the story from as many different angles: Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Andreyevna; Bulgakov, his secretary; Dr. Dushan Makovitsky; Vladimir Chertkov, disciple and would-be publisher; Sasha, Tolstoy’s daughter; and Tolstoy himself. Beginning at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate south of Moscow, and following Tolstoy on his final flight which ended with the old man’s collapse in the house of the stationmaster of the town of Astapovo, the story is of the battle for the soul, wealth, and future of the master. Parini builds to a brilliant ending,...
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SOURCE: “A Household and Its Head,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 28-January 3, 1991, p. 1408.
[In the following review, Bayley offers a favorable evaluation of The Last Station.]
In spite of the eulogy on the cover by Gore Vidal, himself the pioneer of a remarkable new kind of historical novel, I began this book rather sceptically. Biographers have surely drained the last of Tolstoy dry, recording the latest period of his life from every angle—that of his wife, his daughters, his young secretary Bulgakov, his medical adviser Dr Makovitsky, the odious but somehow also pathetic disciple and bad angel. Vladimir Chertkov, A. N. Wilson’s biography, Anne Edwards’s Life of the Countess Tolstoy and the edition of her diaries have recently told the story in great detail from opposite sides, and told it very well. How can it be done again through the medium of a sort of poetic novel?
Well, evidently it can be done, because it has been done. The Last Station is an unexpectedly successful and subtle masterpiece which, as used to be said of Pushkin, may at first seem simple and banal but comes to reveal an ever-deeper distinction and warmth of meaning. Considering the kind of life and the people it presents, and how masterfully it manages to do this, it is surprisingly free from any hint of authorial superiority. Even Gore Vidal’s richest and most effective novel...
(The entire section is 2057 words.)
SOURCE: “Visionary Historians,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 125-32.
[In the following excerpted review essay, Wilhelmus offers a positive assessment of The Last Station.]
History, mother of truth; the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what took place; it is what we think took place. The final clauses—example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future—are shamelessly pragmatic.
—Jorge Luis Borges, from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
Current theory explains that written history reinvents the past to meet the needs of the present. “Truth,” according to Nietzsche, is the product of a “mobile army of metaphors”: and there is no truth except the one portrayed in the array of voices and vocabularies which translates event into consciousness. Since they are human voices, they inevitably have needs that are “shamelessly pragmatic,” though such pragmatism does not have to be conceived as utilitarian in any narrow-minded way. I would say, for instance, that high on the list of pragmatic goals for writers or readers of historical fiction is the desire to soften the impact of current events, to forestall contingency and create an...
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SOURCE: “All That Glitters,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable assessment of Bay of Arrows.]
Jay Parini begins his new novel [Bay of Arrows] with a short scene richly evoking the arrival of Columbus in the New World. A cacique and his high priest gaze in awe at the three caravals standing in the ultramarine bay. They are ancestors, says the high priest, they are returning to claim kinship. The cacique, deeply impressed by these words, resolves to make the supreme sacrifice of his only daughter. The beautiful black-eyed maiden is bathed and anointed, then tied naked to a stake. Columbus and his officers at last wade ashore, kissing their wooden crosses. Columbus stops a respectful distance from the girl, entranced. He moves ceremoniously toward her…
“His breath was foul and hot as he swayed above her; his right hand reached toward her face, and he pinched the gold ring in her nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“‘It’s gold,’ he said, turning to the men behind him, his eyes peppery and red. “The ring is gold!’”
It is a fictive moment which, with superb economy and poetry, captures the essential sordidness and contempt for humanity that characterized the Columbian venture. A moment later—at the start of Chapter 2—we have: “‘It’s...
(The entire section is 880 words.)
SOURCE: “The Tale of a Not-So-Heroic Hero,” in The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1992, p. 13.
[In the following review of Bay of Arrows, Rubin describes Parini's novel as “unobjectionable” but “less profound than it pretends to be.”]
Apart from a small, but persistent, scholarly dispute as to whether he, Leif Ericson, or someone else ought to be credited with discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus enjoyed a fairly glorious reputation for most of the five centuries following his famous voyage.
Honored for his courage in braving the unknown, his contribution to proving that the earth really was round, and his role in opening the New World to the Old, he seemed a conveniently nonpartisan hero whom all Americans—North, South, Caribbean, and Central—would admire.
In recent years, however, the enterprising Genoese sailor has been subjected to severe revisionist scrutiny.
Columbus the discoverer is now viewed by some as Columbus the exploiter: He has been denounced as an avaricious fanatic who needlessly robbed, killed, and terrorized the native “Indians” he met, and blamed in more general terms as the spearhead of a massive, manifold movement of explorers, plunderers, conquistadores, slave mongers, and colonizers who destroyed native American peoples and their cultures.
In Bay of...
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SOURCE: A review of Bay of Arrows, in Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 1992, p. 20.
[In the following review, Rosenheim offers a tempered assessment of Bay of Arrows, which he characterizes as a “campus novel.”]
Christopher “Geno” Genovese is a forty-two year-old poet, teaching at a small college in Vermont and suffering from a fairly standard mid-life crisis. His writing has come to a virtual standstill, his marriage is weakening, his two young sons seem remote and unintelligible to him. As in most campus novels, little is made in Bay of Arrows of Geno’s professional commitments; predictably, his relations with students are represented by one joyless seduction of a two-dimensional female undergraduate.
Accused by the seduced student of sexual harassment, Geno is rescued from professional disgrace and personal ruin by the timely (and improbable) intervention of the MacAlistair Foundation, which awards him half-a-million dollars and frees him from the straitjacket of college life. Geno and his family go south to the Dominican Republic, and he builds a house on the coast at the very place in which Christopher Columbus, the protagonist of his unfinished long poem, first encountered resistance from the natives.
This links the novel with its main subplot, an alternating narrative that follows Columbus as he enlists support for his...
(The entire section is 356 words.)
SOURCE: “Resurrection,” in New Statesman and Society, March 26, 1993, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review, Coover offers a positive evaluation of The Last Station.]
The 20th century has produced so many monsters and so few even-might-be saints that the temptation is to cling on to the few moral exemplars we inherited from the 19th: Schweitzer, Gandhi, Tolstoy … the list seeps into the sands already. Written from the points of view of six protagonists, including Leo Nikolayevich, the American poet Jay Parini’s novel [The Last Station] appears at first to be little more than another appliqué of varnish in the Tolstoy hagiographic tradition, all breathless deference and significant pauses.
We have Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Andrevevna, his leading disciple and spy Chertov, the new, sycophantic secretary Bulgakov, his doctor Dr Makovitsky, and so on, each narrating, commenting, bitching, moaning—all obsessed with the Christ-like, self-appointed old saint. It was Nabokov, attempting to inject some levity into the American-Puritan hero worship of saintly Russian literati, who coined the all-purpose Slavic genius “Tolstoievski”, closely followed by “Doll’s Toy”. Either Jay Parini has his tongue deeper in his cheek than any writer since Swift or he, too, has swallowed the Sacred Tolstoy legend.
The ostentatious sanctity, the Byzantine hysteria, the...
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SOURCE: “Simple, Clear, Generous, and Lucky,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 1994, p. 25.
[In the following review, Leader discusses John Steinbeck's literary career and Parini's biography of him, which Leader finds to be an insubstantial contribution to existing Steinbeck scholarship.]
The chief virtues of John Steinbeck’s writing are those he associated with superiority in all its forms: “simplicity, clarity, and generosity”. The best stories and novels quickly grip and proceed with easy, confident economy. Their effects are straightforward, unstrained, which may help account for their popularity both with the young and in translation, as well as for their successful adaptation to stage and screen. A moment from the early story “Saint Katy the Virgin” provides a representative instance. Katy, an enormous, malevolent sow, becomes pregnant. “Katy swelled up and swelled up until one night she had her litter. She cleaned them all up and licked them off … you’d think motherhood had changed her ways. When she got them all dry and clean, she placed them in a row and ate every one of them.” The turn is neat, sly, uncomplicated, like the story itself. “Generosity”, here and elsewhere, is less a matter of social concern, an obvious quality in the better-known works, than of manner, the story-teller’s hospitable urge to please and inform. This urge also underlies the...
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SOURCE: “Paupers to Presidents,” in New Statesman and Society, May 6, 1994, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review, Binding offers a favorable assessment of John Steinbeck.]
Perhaps we all met Steinbeck too young; there can be few readers, particularly in his own America, who have missed having The Red Pony, The Pearl or—for all its unflinching grimness—Of Mice and Men put their way during their schooldays. And so they have tended, as they moved forward into wider reading, to relegate him to some unsophisticated region, a perpetual adolescence of sensibility. Jay Parini reminds us [in John Steinbeck] that many fewer academic studies of Steinbeck appear than of his contemporaries, Faulkner and Hemingway: 20 a year as opposed to 130.
The problem is not a new one; on the contrary, it dates from a comparatively early point in Steinbeck’s career. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was a huge success with almost everybody, though extra-literary reasons played a big part in this. But from then on Steinbeck could hardly do a thing right in the eyes of US critics. While the public continued to buy him in enormous numbers, men of such different stamps as Malcolm Cowley and Alfred Kazin treated him disparagingly. The novel with which he hoped to salvage his reputation, East of Eden (1952), had only a lukewarm reception; more enthusiasm was expressed for Elia...
(The entire section is 1039 words.)
SOURCE: “The Sun Went Down with His Wrath,” in The Spectator, May 7, 1994, p. 28.
[In the following review, Foot offers unfavorable assessment of John Steinbeck, finding Parini's depiction of Steinbeck disjointed and overprotective.]
John Steinbeck’s great novel about the migrant workers of the American depression, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in May 1939. The original print was 19,804. By the end of 1939 it had sold 430,000. Every year since then, Jay Parini tells us, the novel has never sold less than 50,000.
At the time, not everyone rejoiced. The ‘Okies’ who fled or were evicted from the dustbowl were hard-working, puritanical farmers who were meant to be beneficiaries of the American dream. Yet the wonderful American economic system had treated them with cruel disdain. The people who profited most from that system were outraged that its shortcomings should be so eloquently exposed. Congressman Lyle Boren of Oklahoma made an angry speech to his constituents:
I say to you and to every honest, square-minded reader in America that the painting Steinbeck made in his book is a lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.
In the Palace Hotel, San Francisco a public luncheon was held to denounce the novel. In his office at the Federal Investigation Bureau, J. Edgar...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 377-8.
[In the following review, Corber offers a positive evaluation of Gore Vidal.]
Gore Vidal is arguably one of the most important writers of his generation. Unusually prolific, he has published over twenty novels, several collections of essays, a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, and several screenplays. Moreover, his treatment of gay male experience in such novels as The City and the Pillar (1948) and Myra Brickingridge (1968) helped pave the way for the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. Vidal’s refusal to treat gay male identity as a form of ethnicity deeply influenced postwar gay male activists who looked forward to the end of “the homosexual” as a category of individual. Despite his importance, however, he has not been taken seriously by academic critics. He continues to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow whose masculinist cultural politics were more appealing to readers in an era marked by the rise of the “organization man.” Nor does the recent emergence of queer studies as a legitimate academic discipline promise to reverse this situation. Vidal’s influence on the gay liberation movement has been all but ignored in recent studies of postwar gay male writers.
In Gore Vidal: Writer Against the...
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SOURCE: “True Nature First Inspires the Man,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 1994, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Tomlinson discusses American poetry and offers a positive evaluation of The Columbia History of American Poetry.]
“American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist.” This italicized passage (unattributed) appears in Book Three of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Williams having excerpted it from an article of George Barker’s published in Poetry London in 1948. Tackled almost twenty years later by Mike Weaver, then in the preliminary stages of his book on Williams’s American background, Barker cheerfully responded: “Certainly it is a remark that, in and out of my cups, I made several times too often in those days. Myself I don’t think it disputable that American poetry is beginning to happen now.”Beginning to happen? The year is 1966. In 1994, the subject is coming apart at the seams and contained with difficulty in Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller’s wide-ranging Columbia History of American Poetry. The volume runs to over 800 pages and will long go on giving us food for argument, but little reason to suppose that this history was not in full flood by 1966.
When I first read the Barker quotation in Paterson, unaware of its author, I took it to be...
(The entire section is 2590 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 3, December, 1994, pp. 1258-9.
[In the following review, Altieri offers an unfavorable assessment of The Columbia History of American Poetry,citing omissions and empty homages.]
The first two-thirds of this collection of essays [The Columbia History of America Poetry,] provides a lively, informative, and intellectually stimulating treatment of the major moments in American poetry up to World War II. Some of the work offers engaging and useful traditional literary history—of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor; of early African-American poetry; of Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bogan; of Gertrude Stein, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Marianne Moore; of William Carlos Williams; of the twentieth-century long poem; and (superbly) of the Harlem Renaissance. But most of the essays present synoptic appreciations devoted to how we might best read and value canonical American poets. In this vein we find an absolutely major essay on the transcendentalist poets that establishes an anti-Walt Whitman heritage of impersonal and transpersonal imagining that these poets bequeath to the twentieth century. There are also spirited, provocative accounts of the epic in the nineteenth century and of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that force us to take seriously...
(The entire section is 1198 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 832-3.
[In the following review, Folsom offers an unfavorable assessment of The Columbia History of American Poetry,noting that “the overall result is an uninformed and internally contradictory history.”]
This volume [The Columbia History of American Poetry] has the look and heft of a history of American poetry, but it does not read like one. It reads more like The Columbia Big Book of Essays on American Poetry. Like the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), this project betrays suspicions about the possibility of any kind of authoritative “history” while it sets out to construct one anyhow. For all the brilliance of many of the individual “chapters,” the overall result is an unformed and internally contradictory history, focusing on a random assortment of poets. In his introduction, Jay Parini, who had the unenviable task of trying to conjoin the very different critical sensibilities of his contributors, seems almost to apologize for the more glaring absences and silences in this “history.” He begins by quoting Adrienne Rich and concludes by reminding us that she may be “the central poet at work in America today”—all by way of nervously acknowledging the fact that the Columbia history virtually ignores her,...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
SOURCE: “Shifting Sands: The Columbia History of American Poetry,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 641-7.
[In the following review, Jarman provides an extended analysis of The Columbia History of American Poetry,noting both the volume's flaws and strengths.]
In the mid-1600s, as the Massachusetts colonist Anne Bradstreet was writing the poems that would be published in London in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America, the oral tradition of Native American poetry was uniting use and beauty inextricably, though in ways unknown and even ignored until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, two hundred years later, tried to capture them in Hiawatha. And in the early 1700s, the nonconformist minister and colonist Edward Taylor wrote the last of his “Preparatory Meditations” some twenty years before Lucy Terry, a slave, also in Massachusetts, wrote “Bars Flight” about an Indian massacre, the first formal poem known to be written by an African American. As this useful new reference book makes clear, all sorts of Americans have been composing poetry, from the first American colonies, and before, until the present day. Some have enjoyed celebrity in their day, others have not and have waited to be retrieved at different times. Bradstreet was known as a poet during her lifetime, but Taylor had to wait to be rediscovered in the 1930s by that invaluable...
(The entire section is 3221 words.)
SOURCE: “Laureate of the Underdog,” in Washington Post Book World, February 12, 1995, pp. 4-5.
[In the following review, Shechner discusses Steinbeck's literary career and Parini's biography of Steinbeck.]
The first clause of any brief on John Steinbeck’s behalf is that he was the quintessence of Main Street, Huck Finn with a typewriter, who put no stock in Europe or its cultural exports. Painfully shy and short on social graces, self-educated (a wayward student at Stanford, he never graduated), ignorant of art or music until he discovered jazz late in life, innocent of abstract ideas except about biological interdependence, and a true-blue binge drinker—he was the guy from Salinas. He did not chase after the Lost Generation, decamping to Europe, declaiming against Prohibition or American Philistinism. He stayed put, drank home brew, and studied native ground, the agricultural valleys of central California.
His writer’s strengths—his populism, his muscular individualism, his sympathy for common folks, outcasts and victims, his reverence for fact, his moral indignation, his compassion for the underdog, his stout patriotism in wartime (seduced by Lyndon Johnson, he avidly supported America’s role in Vietnam)—and his weaknesses—sentimentality, a Huck’s-eye view of society, a prose dumbed-down at times to banality—were the heraldry of origin. His literary ontogeny...
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SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in American Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 195-6.
[In the following review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Bremen discusses the difficulty of compiling such a volume and the successes and shortcomings of Parini's History.]
Recounting his signing on as editor for The Columbia History of American Literature, Emory Elliot told the audience at last year’s MLA convention that it was done via instructions from a self-destructing tape recorder, with the theme from Mission Impossible playing in the background. No doubt Jay Parini heard the same tune as he compiled his Columbia History of American Poetry; in fact, the only mission more impossible may be reviewing a work such as this in a succinct and fair way. In other words, it would be easy to focus at length on what the work is not—and it is not a history of American poetry, but a history of Black, Native American, and Caucasian poetry in the United States; not a very complete look at contemporary poetry, but a full genealogy of traditions that contemporary poetry grows out of; not a compendium of bibliographic sources or a traditional biographical look at an array of United States poets, but an eclectic mix of critical voices and perspectives on both their work and on the issues of poetic history. What makes Parini’s mission so...
(The entire section is 707 words.)
SOURCE: “A Poetry History for the 1990's,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 362-6.
[In the following review, Piller offers a positive evaluation of The Columbia History of American Poetry, though notes shortcomings in the volume's limited treatment of contemporary poetry.]
In The Columbia History of American Poetry editors Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller have given us the politically correct critical volume for the 1990’s. On the whole, this is a good thing, for they have accurately reflected the current thinking about American poetry. Their method was simple. They simply solicited a diverse group of writers from various backgrounds and allowed them to freely express their opinions regarding a poet or poetic movement. The results are often fascinating. The current lack of consensus regarding the poetic canon encourages lively debate about the validity of traditionally held opinions and leads to some interesting “turf battles.” One representative example comes in John Shoptaw’s essay on James Merrill and John Ashbery, two respected contemporary poets. After noting that Merrill and Ashbery were both primarily influenced by Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop, Shoptaw describes how Merrill’s and Ashbery’s followers refuse to acknowledge the other’s significance: “While Language poets dismiss the new formalists as retrograde...
(The entire section is 1836 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 160-3.
[In the following review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Vos Post comments on the lack of “science” poets and poetry in the volume.]
Since the United States of America put human beings on the moon twenty-five years ago, it is no surprise that science is profoundly “In the American Grain,” and this is amply confirmed by a thematic thread running through The Columbia History of American Poetry. This is not to say that science dominates American poetry as much as it dominates the physical landscape of the postindustrial era, but that it returns again and again either as subject, anti-subject reacted against, or epistemological substratum to the poetic process.
What is in this book on this theme is very good, yet there are surprising omissions. The Columbia History of American Poetry makes no mention whatever of major American poets such as William Empson (b. 1906), with his science poems such as “The World’s End,” “High Dive,” “Letter I,” “Letter V,” “Invitation to Juno,” “Note on Local Flora,” and “Doctrinal Point.” William Everson is cited twice (583, 584) without a hint of his science poems such as “In the Shift of Stars,” “Who Sees through the Lens,” and “Orion.” H. D. (Hilda...
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SOURCE: “History By Many Hands,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XVII, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1995, pp. 219-24.
[In the following extended review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Spiegelman weighs the volume's weaknesses against its strengths and concludes that it contains disparate perspectives and inconsistencies which detract from the work as a whole.]
David Perkins is the most recent in a long, scholarly line to pose the question, as the title of his elegant 1992 book puts it, Is Literary History Possible?, and to answer with the ambivalent response that, on the one hand, it is not, but that, on the other, we had better keep doing it. The Columbia History of American Poetry conforms to a relatively new model for literary history (which includes three previous volumes from Columbia), neither a narrative, nor an encyclopedia, but a medley. And its very presence on the scene forces us to inquire anew: What does literary history do? What does it explain? For whom is it written?
There is good news and bad news to report, and I’ll get the latter out of the way first, beginning at the level of minutiae. This book has more solecisms, grammatical errors, and misspellings (Who was proofreading? Who was copyediting?) than it ought, and it is disheartening, at the very least, to find mentions in it of Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Arlington Robinson and...
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SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Melus, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 154-6.
[In the following review, Higgins praises the general quality of The Columbia History of American Poetry, though finds fault in its exclusionary focus on major figures and its failure to address the cultural significance of American poetry.]
At the present moment, a wide spectrum of claims are being made about the health of American poetry. More poetry is being published in America today than ever before, and yet poets regularly complain about a lack of readers, especially outside the university. The editors of poetry journals regularly complain that they get far more submissions than subscriptions. At the same time, the poetry reading has undergone an amazing revival over the past fifteen years, with the poetry slam, a sort of poetic jam session, being the most exciting aspect of this phenomenon. Poets and critics constantly argue over whether these are signs of the decay or of the revitalization of American poetry. One thing we might expect a history of American poetry to do is to show us how poetry has existed in American culture in the past. Unfortunately, as a whole title The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, rarely addresses these questions. Columbia University Press’s history of American poetry could more accurately be called a history of...
(The entire section is 1271 words.)
SOURCE: A review of John Steinbeck, in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 881-2.
[In the following review, Hearle offers a negative assessment of John Steinbeck.]
The British edition of this book [John Steinbeck] contained so many errors that this American edition was delayed almost a year, and still there are so many problems with this biography that its value as a scholarly reference is negligible. At his best Parini merely rewrites Jackson Benson’s earlier and much superior biography of Steinbeck; at his worst Parini displays an almost humorous ignorance of California geography and of Steinbeck’s work. In his discussion of Steinbeck’s books, Parini usually manages to summarize reasonably well the critical wisdom of the early 1980s; however, he gets into trouble when he doesn’t stick closely to his sources. For example, according to Parini, Pirate in Tortilla Flat is a schemer who outwits Danny, Pilon, and company by “cleverly giv[ing] them his money for safekeeping, realizing that the paisanos will not steal his money now” (159). Even in the few areas in which he offers a fuller account than did Benson, sloppy research undermines his authority. For example, although this is the first Steinbeck biography to discuss at any length the existence of a romantic triangle between Steinbeck, his first wife, and Joseph Campbell, Parini commits...
(The entire section is 384 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 191-2.
[In the following review, LaHood offers a favorable assessment of Gore Vidal.]
Gore Vidal has written over twenty novels (starting with Williwaw in 1946), three mystery novels under the pseudonym of Edgar Box, nearly a hundred television scripts, a volume of short stories, two very successful Broadway plays (Visit to a Small Planet, 338 performances; and The Best Man, 520 performances), film scripts, and a collection of essays on literature and politics. He ran for Congress in 1960 in New York; in 1982 he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in California. He has debated William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer. In short, he is as prolific and visible a writer as twentieth-century American letters has produced. Yet Jay Parini, who edited the comprehensive and masterful collection of essays on Vidal’s work Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, states in his opening essay, “When the dust settles on this half of the twentieth century, Gore Vidal may well assume the place among his contemporaries denied to him throughout a long and various life of writing.”
That Gore Vidal has not yet been given that “place” among his contemporaries is clear. Perhaps this collection of substantive and well-reasoned essays on every aspect of Vidal’s work...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
SOURCE: “Liking Steinbeck,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 155-9.
[In the following review, Watt offers a positive assessment of John Steinbeck, which he regards as a homage to its subject rather than a work of scholarship.]
Steinbeck didn’t much—like Steinbeck. Well into his forties he remained self-dismissive. As a young man his chosen emblem was Pigasus, the flying pig. Sensitive about his appearance—the protruding ears, hulking upper body, Oil Can Harry mustache, and, later, pointy goatee—he likened himself to the devil. “Don’t you go liking people, Jim. We can’t waste time liking people.” Mac issues this warning in the novel In Dubious Battle. “Most people do not like themselves at all,” Steinbeck wrote in his eulogy for friend Ed Ricketts. “They distrust themselves, put on masks and pomposities. They quarrel and boast and pretend and are jealous because they do not like themselves. But mostly they do not even know themselves well enough to form a true liking.”
Jay Parini quotes these sentences in [John Steinbeck,] his new biography of Steinbeck. Written in an engaged and economical style, this is a book that likes its subject. It comes in at under half the length of Jackson Benson’s authoritative The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, and it exceeds in every regard the first stab at...
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SOURCE: A review of John Steinbeck, in Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. 245.
[In the following review, Allison offers a favorable assessment of John Steinbeck.]
[In John Steinbeck] Parini does not ignore the popular question among academics, referred to by Donald R. Noble as “the Steinbeck question”—“Why,” Noble asked, “has Steinbeck not received the intense academic scrutiny awarded his peers?” In other words, why is Steinbeck not considered a great American writer like Hemingway and Faulkner? Parini addresses this question, but his main focus is how Steinbeck’s creative powers endured despite the odds against him. This more dramatic theme makes Parini’s biography compelling.
As a writer and a man, Steinbeck did have strikes against him. He never graduated from college. He suffered through two failed marriages before finding bliss with his third wife, Elaine. Furthermore, he never achieved critical acclaim after his early work, despite the popularity of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. He suffered from the judgment of critics who believed his work should not be accepted as real art, and that Steinbeck lacked the fictive imagination of Hemingway or Faulkner.
Parini shows that Steinbeck was a writer with intellectual rigor who grappled with his dedication to the idea of the “phalanx” (a term akin...
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SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 160-1.
[In the following review, Moran offers a positive assessment of Gore Vidal, though notes a lack of focus in the volume.]
This collection [Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain], published in hardback in 1992, announced itself as the first serious book-length study of Vidal, aside from the usual Twayne and Frederick Ungar volumes intended primarily for undergraduates. It consists of a series of nineteen essays, half specially commissioned and half pre-published, sandwiched between a long introduction/career summary and an interview with the author by the editor. It beats the previous studies by being more up-to-date and extensive, covering (or at least mentioning) virtually all of Vidal’s twenty three novels up to and including Hollywood, as well as his non-fiction, television and theatre work.
The essays are by fellow novelists and journalistic critics as well as academics—several of the contributions appeared first in non-academic periodicals like The Nation and The New York Review of Books—which helps to set the tone of the collection. Some of the essays are of review length, barely three or four pages long here, which does not give much opportunity for detailed argument, and some contributors (Stephen Spender, Italo Calvino) are...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
SOURCE: “Critical Overdose,” in Washington Post Book World, May 18, 1997, p. 7.
[In the following review, Mehlman offers an unfavorable assessment of Benjamin's Crossing.]
Walter Benjamin, the subject of Jay Parini’s new novel [Benjamin's Crossing], is as close as the self-styled iconoclasts of the literary-theory crowd have come to producing a genuine icon. A delver into the devious autonomy of signs, Benjamin, a German Jew, wrote his major work—on the arcane subject of German tragic drama—in the 1920s. Baroque “allegory” was the touchstone of semiotic perversity in that work, “intercepting” images of plenitude, waking readers from their every aesthetic lull. It was perhaps inevitable that Benjamin, a brooding man of genuine brilliance, would end up as something of a patron saint of deconstruction.
His posthumous aura, however, was a function of a very different “interception”—or rather of its conflation with the case just mentioned. This second instance is biographical. Benjamin, who fled the Nazis in 1933, established himself (precariously) as a journalist in France. With the fall of Paris, in June 1940, he made plans to settle in New York. In September 1940, ailing, having traversed the Pyrenees by foot, he was turned back at the Spanish border. That night, told he would be turned over to the Vichy police the next day, he died of a morphine overdose....
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SOURCE: A review of Benjamin's Crossing, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1998, p. 372.
[In the following review, Gross offers a positive assessment of Benjamin's Crossing, despite what he asserts are its inaccuracies concerning Marxist thought.]
Benjamin’s Crossing is identified on the title page as a novel. And that it is. It also has as its main character a real person, who can lay claim to being the most original and important thinker of the twentieth century. Jay Parini’s novel is quite good, but would probably not get much notice were it not about Walter Benjamin. As a book “about” Benjamin it has both its moments and its problems.
During the last years of his life, in the late 1930s, Walter Benjamin lived in Paris, spending most of his time at the Bibliothèque Nationale, working on his great unfinished book on the Paris Arcades. As the Nazis threatened the French capital and the extent of the Fascist catastrophe became undeniable, especially for Jews, Benjamin left Paris, first for Marseilles and, finally, crossing the Pyrenees on foot to Spain, only to be turned back by the police in the first Spanish village he came to. Already very ill with heart disease, and harboring no illusions as to his fate were he to reenter occupied France, he almost certainly committed suicide in that village on 25 September 1940.
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SOURCE: A review of Some Necessary Angels, in American Literature, Vol. 71, No. 1, March, 1999, pp. 205-6.
[In the following review, Mauro offers a tempered assessment of Some Necessary Angels.]
This collection of essays [Some Necessary Angels] is an uneven array of homages, nostalgic meditations, and reflections on the “writing life” that seems at odds with itself. While some of these pieces individually are engaging, as collected, they create some tension among themselves, revealing lapses and distracting inconsistencies.
In his chapter “Mentors,” Parini pays tribute to Alistair Reid, Robert Penn Warren, and Gore Vidal, each of whom has powerfully influenced him. “Their energies have charged me in different ways. … Their styles of writing, subjects, ideas, prejudices, fears, and fondnesses have played into my own.” Yet it is unclear from these essays what specifically Parini has absorbed from them. While the much later, more academic essay on Reid’s poetry articulates a fascinating view of “achieved innocence” as opposed to romantic naïveté, the relation between this view and Parini’s homage is lost. He wants to convey the sense of the “spell” and “aura” that surrounds these writers but ends up conveying a sentimental coziness that may charm the casual reader, but annoy the serious student of literature, as when he writes, “I was sitting...
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SOURCE: “Frost: The Icon and the Man,” in The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999, pp. 17-8, 20-1.
[In the following review of Parini's biography of Robert Frost, Donoghue discusses Frost's life, legacy, and critical assessment of his work.]
In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was free to spend four or five days being feted. He was accompanied by Lawrance Thompson, since 1939 his designated biographer. I was teaching in the English Department at University College, Dublin, so I was included in a few social occasions. On one of those I met Thompson and we hit it off pretty well. Over the following days I showed him the literary sights of Dublin. Joyce’s tower at Sandycove, the Merrion Square of Wilde and Yeats, the Book of Kells, and the Hill of Howth.
We talked mostly about Melville, hardly at all about Frost. I sensed an awkwardness there. But I mentioned that I had written an essay on Frost that I thought of submitting to an English monthly magazine, The Twentieth Century. I might also use it as a chapter in a book I was writing on modern American poetry. Thompson offered to read it. I warned...
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DeZelar-Tiedman, Christine. Review of Benjamin's Crossing, by Jay Parini. Library Journal (15 April 1997): 120.
Offers a favorable assessment of Benjamin's Crossing.
McQuade, Molly. “Jay Parini: His Novel on Tolstoy Reflects a Consuming Interest in the ‘Radical Subjectivity of Experience.’” Publishers Weekly (20 July 1990): 41-2.
Provides an overview of Parini's life and literary career, along with discussion of Tolstoy and The Last Station.
Review of Bay of Arrows, by Jay Parini. Publishers Weekly (22 June 1992): 45.
Offers a positive assessment of Bay of Arrows.
Review of Benjamin's Crossing, by Jay Parini. Publishers Weekly (31 March 1997): 60-1.
Offers a positive assessment of Benjamin's Crossing.
Review of Some Necessary Angels, by Jay Parini. Publishers Weekly (5 January 1998): 51.
Offers a positive assessment of Some Necessary Angels.
Seaman, Donna. Review of Robert Frost, by Jay Parini. Booklist (1 January 1999): 790.
Offers a positive evaluation of Robert Frost.
Steinberg, Sybil. Review of The Last Station, by Jay Parini. Publishers Weekly (1 June 1990): 47....
(The entire section is 189 words.)