Jay Parini Essay - Critical Essays

Parini, Jay


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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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] (essays) 1994

John Steinbeck: A Biography (biography) 1995

The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1995

Benjamin's Crossing (novel) 1996

Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem [editor; Robert Pack] (essays) 1996

Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience [editor; with A. Kenneth Ciongoli] (essays) 1997

Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics (essays) 1997

Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems [editor; with Robert Pack] (essays) 1997

House of Days: Poems (poetry) 1998

The Norton Book of American Autobiography [editor] (autobiographies) 1999

Robert Frost: A Life (biography) 1999


Lewis Stone (review date 19 October 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 10 August 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)

Edward Condren (review date 9 September 1990)

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,...

(The entire section is 1376 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

John Bayley (review date 28 December-3 January 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2057 words.)

Tom Wilhelmus (review date Spring 1991)

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,...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

D. M. Thomas (review date 23 August 1992)

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....

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 6 October 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Andrew Rosenheim (review date 30 October 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Robert Coover (review date 26 March 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Zachary Leader (review date 15 April 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 6 May 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)

Paul Foot (review date 7 May 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Robert J. Corber (review date Summer 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Charles Tomlinson (review date 21 October 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)

Charles Altieri (review date December 1994)

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;...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Ed Folsom (review date December 1994)

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 entire section is 539 words.)

Mark Jarman (review date Winter 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 3221 words.)

Mark Shechner (review date 12 February 1995)

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 entire section is 804 words.)

Brian A. Bremen (review date Spring 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

John Piller (review date Spring 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)

Jonathan Vos Post (review date Summer 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Willard Spiegelman (review date Summer-Fall 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2719 words.)

Andrew C. Higgins (review date Fall 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Kevin Hearle (review date December 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Marvin J. LaHood (review date Winter 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

David Watt (review date Winter 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1714 words.)

Stephen Allison (review date Spring 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Joe Moran (review date April 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Jeffrey Mehlman (review date 18 May 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

David S. Gross (review date Spring 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Jason Mauro (review date March 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 21 October 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 5366 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 189 words.)