Lewis Stone (review date 19 October 1986)

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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 ensconced in a large house in Luzerne, Penn.

“Mama” diCantini runs a speak-easy in the cellar on Friday and Saturday nights to make money for her family now that her husband has been killed in the mines. Her eldest son, Vincenzo, has given up a promising baseball career to become a union organizer. Another son, Louis, lives in New York City and has taken up loan-sharking and political work (in his eyes the two are interchangeable). Sammy, the one DiCantini with aspirations for a college education and eventually a career as a lawyer, falls in love above his station, and thereon hangs much of the tale.

To our senses, Parini brings the sights, smells and visages of the “patches”—the clusters of housing built near the gaping open maw of the mines that both take life and sustain it. To our minds, he opens the hearts of the miners, afraid as they are to notice the beauty of the day because they awake in the darkness, labor in darkness and return in darkness to their homes.

Above all, however, this is Sammy diCantini’s personal diary. We chuckle to ourselves as he describes a girl’s acne-splotched face; “it seemed to fizz and pop when she got excited …”; hence the nickname “… the carbonated woman.” Our stomachs sympathize with Sammy as he describes the salami, fried onions and pepper special at a local diner, a special that “… reminded you of its specialness the whole rest of the day.”

These are the portraits and vignettes of a bygone era when “bare-ass” was the only way for a boy to swim; when bootlegging was a semi-honorable profession; when old Italian ladies dressed in black all the time so as to be ready at a moment’s notice for a funeral; and when the warning whistle of the mine was a constant reminder of death and grieving.

Parini relates Sammy’s reminiscences in a down-home first-person idiom that clings to the memory as coal dust to a miner’s overalls. With engaging simplicity, he lets events unfold against a backdrop of labor meetings, country baseball games played on old slag heaps, the smells and effects of “still” home brew, the taste of fried bullheads and...

(This entire section contains 651 words.)

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the excitement of secret trysts at the swimmin’ hole.

The Pierce-Arrow, Ruth, Hornsby, Fatima cigarettes are gone. Even the mines are all but gone. But Parini brings them back for us in an endearing novel of the madness, lunacy and common sense of a boy’s rite of passage, one summer long ago.

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 10 August 1990)

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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. The first part of their lives together was given to establishing a home out on the farm.

Sofya proved an able manager—which meant controlling the serfs that Tolstoy was so sentimental about. She helped him write “War and Peace” (1869) and “Anna Karenina” (1877). She worked alongside him during the great famine, running soup kitchens for the serfs and managing the estate as well. She gave birth to and raised 13 children, offspring of her husband’s impulsive lovemaking.

Even his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 didn’t alienate her from him completely, though his unconventional religious views, and insistent attacks on church and state, tried her patience.

By 1910, theirs had become very much a public marriage. Tolstoy’s followers from all parts used their home as a shrine and gathering place. Yet, as Parini paints her, Sofya was a great actress, carrying herself with regal poise when she could—or succumbing to operatic displays of despair when overwhelmed. Part of the suspense of the book depends on our concern for her rapidly deteriorating mental health—but we do care about Sofya.

Which is remarkable, for in many ways, as Parini shows, Tolstoy was a saint. Parini quotes a letter of Leo’s to Sofya dated 14 June 1910. It’s a confession as well as a defense. Tolstoy admits his depravity in his youth (something she had begun nagging him about as he became more distant).

But now we can see, he says, that “your moral development did not run parallel to mine, which has been unique.” Many readers will agree; Sofya is called a materialist and her husband spiritually minded.

Parini produces Tolstoy’s letter to Gandhi to illustrate his awareness of the inherent contradiction between the demand of loving one’s neighbor and the social use of violence by the state. Apparently Tolstoy believed that by getting rid of government, the kingdom of heaven would come to Earth.

From his death bed, he preached love to his daughter Sasha. “God is not love, but the more love there is in man, the more is God made manifest in him, and the more truly does he exist.” This is the gospel of Leo Tolstoy. In practice, this love did not satisfy his wife, who scorned his later teaching of celibacy in marriage.

As Parini shows, Leo’s love teachings also troubled some of his young followers. Parini shadows his main plot with the love affair of Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s personal secretary, and an exquisite and worldly young blonde from Petersburg. Sofya befriends young Bulgakov, as does the wily Chertkov, who asks him to write detailed letters of what goes on in the home—to spy, in effect.

Bulgakov fills the letters with invention. It’s not that he sides with Sofya but that his own life has an oblique relationship to the teachings of the master. Bulgakov writes: “I do not consider myself immoral. A man must follow his own conscience, and while the Tolstoyans oppose sexual relations outside of marriage (indeed, Leo Nikolayevich has grave doubts about the morality of sex within marriage). I find myself more in accord with Plato, who said that one can progress from sexual love to spiritual love. Ideally, one should not have to suffer a split between body and soul.” Said like a true disciple of Tolstoy.

Progress. Idealism. Conscience. In the end, Leo’s own life may illustrate progress or decline. As he fled Sofya for the last time, he was followed by reporters: The eyes of Russia were upon him. Though his books had been banned, he had never been silenced. His hold on the people in a revolutionary time made any move against him unwise.

Parini’s portrait balances Tolstoy’s profound desire to leave his comparatively soft life behind him and live with the serfs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the dangers of hypocrisy. His final decision to leave his wife was made only after he tried out the truth of the proposition that when in doubt, “one ought surely to give preference to the decision which involves the most self-sacrifice.”

Parini’s self-described “cubist” portrait of Leo Tolstoy does not diminish the man in any way. One of the delights of the novel—providing pleasure that qualifies the almost too intimate immediacy of our involvement—is the ironic shift in point of view from chapter to chapter. It is never irony for its own sake, however. Parini draws the reader into the tumult of the Tolstoy household.

Inserting three lyric poems by himself in chapters headed J.P. helps Parini ground the novel in something like a central human consciousness. Somehow the fragments tell a powerful story.

In the end, the most appalling thing about it is this. In a world—Tolstoy’s world—where they all kept track of themselves in daily journals, where self-consciousness was perhaps the highest virtue, and where privacy seemed impossible, there was still a way for stubborn individuality to leave its mark. If Leo hadn’t married Sofya, he would have had to invent her—and in a way, he did.

Edward Condren (review date 9 September 1990)

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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.

Perhaps most ironic of all, this consummate creator of intensely emotional characters eventually believed the novel a frivolous form, later abandoning it for the craft of essayist and philosopher, though he had often called analysis inferior to love. Yet it cannot be a coincidence that by this time he feared his creative powers had waned.

In Tolstoy’s last months, the most obvious manifestation of this attack of conscience, and coincidental evidence of his deteriorating marriage, was the battle between the author and his wife over the copyright to his works. Leo Nikolayevich wanted to atone for his own privileged birth by assigning the copyright to a publisher, Chertkov, a disciple who had promised to make the works available to the public in inexpensive editions. To Sofya Andreyevna, this was the worst kind of disloyalty—failure to provide for his family’s future, while preferring a hanger-on who would only enrich himself. A mortal battle developed, not between Chertkov and Sofya over the soul of Tolstoy, for Sofya had already forbidden Chertkov to set foot on Yasnaya Polyana, but between Tolstoy and his wife over which way Tolstoy would bestow his affections.

The Last Station unfolds the fascinating story of these Dantean circles—made by both Tolstoy and others—that closed about Russia’s then greatest writer and most outspoken critic during his last year. In his closest circle, a constant jockeying for the great man’s quixotic affections alternated with sincere attempts to effect what these several people in their different ways deemed his best interest. Others were ruled by self-interest, as careers and incomes stood in jeopardy.

And at the widest circle was the ruthless world beyond, hovering like birds to screech the latest scandal in Tolstoy’s marriage, as it had done a decade earlier; gossiping that the celibate wife-murderer in “The Kreutzer Sonata” was an image of Tolstoy himself; or flapping in delight when some Tolstoyan disciple had been imprisoned for slandering the czar’s government. And all the while everyone ghoulishly awaited news of Tolstoy’s health.

Jay Parini faithfully re-creates these events with the unusual technique of six narrators, all historical figures, who offer their perspectives of the day-to-day activities leading up to Tolstoy’s death. As each chapter ends, a new narrator takes over. Chertkov has the fewest chapters, three; Tolstoy’s doctor has four; his secretary-daughter five, and his wife eight.

The largest role—nine chapters—and most attractive personality belong to a young writer whom Chertkov had sent to Tolstoy to be a kind of research assistant/spy. His name was Valentin Bulgakov (not to be confused with the near-contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita”).

Several of these narrators believe that the overly dramatic Sofya became so unstable, and so obsessed with what she thought was her husband’s sordid attraction for Chertkov, that she drove Tolstoy to leave her secretly in the middle of the night of Oct. 28, 1910, on a desperate journey that caused his death nine days later. This belief, however, overlooks some obvious facts.

When he converted a domestic temper tantrum into a secret journey, Tolstoy was a man so advanced in years that his health was already precarious. Then, exploding the secrecy of his trip by sending letters and telegrams to everyone and by giving something of a public lecture on the train suggests that he was as much of a self-dramatizer as his wife. Moreover, this final journey, especially its first stop at a sparse monastery to visit his sister, a nun at the adjacent convent, may have appealed to Tolstoy as a symbolic rejection of the worldly possessions he had often philosophically disowned.

Although a sub-title describes the book as “a novel of Tolstoy’s last year” (Gore Vidal even calls it a historical novel), this may be a misleading category. For, apart from two poems signed J.P. and an unsigned sestina probably also by the same hand, the entire work is a tour de force of editing. As Parini himself says, the subject first suggested itself to him in a used-book shop in Naples while he was browsing through Bulgakov’s diary of Tolstoy’s last year. He later learned that Dr. Makovitsky wrote a book about his prominent patient. Sofya wrote extensively about these times; Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha kept a diary. Even that archvillain, (from Sofya’s point of view) Chertkov published his version of these events.

Having access to all of these first-hand accounts offers a splendid advantage: a variety of narrators giving authentic historical perspectives, many incompatible. But there are disadvantages as well. By presenting these voices twice removed from their original sounds—once due to the translation from Russian to the English from which the author worked, and then in editing for continuity—Parini gives us six narrators who sound very much alike. Some of this editing doubtless improves the book, as a brief look at Parini’s sources clearly shows. (The colorless, blunt style of Andreyevna’s diary required a more extensive editorial effort than did the interesting prose of Bulgakov, which was largely taken verbatim.) Nevertheless, the final result is not exactly a novel, with all that that term implies about an author’s invention.

One example of the author’s skillful selection of material from the available diaries provides happy relief from what might otherwise have been a lugubrious chronicle of an old man’s decline. Bulgakov, the young assistant, was staying at Telyatinki, a Tolstoy residence a few miles from Yasnaya Polyana, where he met and fell in love with Masha, another young Tolstoyan. The passages describing this affair, like fresh air let into a musty room, remind us of what the young Tolstoy must have been like when he was passionately in love with his 22-year-old wife and the two of them worked together on “War and Peace,” he writing new material a few pages at a time, she copying it in smooth draft and making suggestions along the way. Sofya often said that these were the happiest days of her life.

In the contrast between the young lovers Bulgakov and Masha and the tired old warriors Tolstoy and Sofya we see, then, not only the beginning and end of one of the world’s greatest artists but also the two facets of Tolstoy’s life. This story is about deeply emotional people who were willing to sacrifice everything for each other, and the complicated life that Tolstoy himself actually led outside his art. By selecting the most interesting observations of people whose works we would perhaps never consult, in a novel that grows more compelling as it proceeds, Parini has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of Tolstoy.

Coincidentally, he confirms what we have always known in some subconscious way, but still need to learn: that we can always trust a great writer’s works, never his commentary—on anything.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1991)

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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, concluding with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s own The Death of Ivan Ilych and, finally, with “Elegy,” a poem by Parini. The overall method, not unlike a superior collage, overcomes the possible objection to making fiction out of the well-documented lives of “real” people. Parini reinforces his method with a fidelity to fact: “A novel is a voyage by sea, a setting out into strange waters,” Parini writes in an “Afterword,” “but I have sailed as close as I could to the shoreline of literal events that made up the last year of Tolstoy’s life.”

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

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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 in this new genre, Lincoln, does not entirely avoid a background sense of the novelist’s own personal satisfaction in having woven history and the novel, the known and the intuited, so artfully together. The Last Station has by contrast something of the natural humility so desperately sought by the great man who is its subject. Pushkin himself would certainly have seen the point of Jay Parini’s novel, and its capacity to absorb and to move the reader in a new way about a familiar subject. What Tolstoy would have thought is less easy to say, but au fond he would probably have recognized the work of a true artist.

Because of the quiet and calm nature of the writing it is not easy to single out passages to indicate how good this novel is. In spite of the formal divisions of its structure, with the several characters contributing their brief sections alternately, it comes more and more in the reading to look like a seamless whole, as if the prodigious creature at the centre were animating the project with his own genius. It is of course the case that everyone around Tolstoy at this time was keeping a diary, and Parini has transposed this historical fact into a uniformity of style which in its directness and simplicity, its tranquil but unnerving air of going at every moment to the heart of the matter, certainly contributes to the Tolstoyan impression.

Bulgakov, the young secretary, is in his own way at once the most congenial person in the east and the one who comes closest to us: natural enough, because his position is most evidently that of a conventional authorial presence. He notes ironically in his diary the story told about the mighty Potemkin, minister and favourite of Catherine the Great, and the little clerk Shuvalkin. “Shuvalkin was a man who wished everyone to be happy, especially those above him in rank.” Bulgakov, too, tries to keep in with everyone in the tormented household at Yasnaya Polyana, and particularly Sofya Andreyevna, the Countess Tolstoy, who after a brief period of trying to win his confidence has already begun to distrust and dislike him. But more significant is the tale of Shuvalkin’s attempt to win favour and impress his superiors by being the only man willing to go to Potemkin’s study, during one of the great man’s fits of rabid melancholia, to persuade him to sign a batch of vital State documents. Overcome with terror, hut intrepid in his humble ambitions, Shuvalkin places the documents before the motionless figure of the minister and begs him to sign. To his amazement Potemkin, a huge and terrifying zombie, obediently takes each in turn and appends his signature with the quill the clerk has obsequiously proffered. The clerk returns trembling but in triumph to the Chancellery, but when his delighted superiors go through the documents they find each one has been signed, in the minister’s gigantic hand, Shuvalkin, Shuvalkin, Shuvalkin.

It was of course true that each member of the household, each disciple, every Tolstoyan present and to come, together with the biographers and the critics, would be trying to persuade the great man to put his name to their view of him, and finding their own name written there. Every attendant upon Tolstoy, or any comparably great figure, is necessarily a Shuvalkin. But Parini’s altogether remarkable achievement is to have avoided this process by means of his own modest and almost invisible creative method, which removes the patterns of analysis, definition and judgment explicit in every biographical study of Tolstoy and implicit in any critical survey of his works. Vidal’s Lincoln saw himself in terms of a Shakespearean tragedy, which in a sense is historically true—his favourite play was Macbeth—and Tolstoy might well have said with Goethe that every old man was a King Lear, except that he detested Shakespeare as much as he had come to distrust art in general. But the point is that tragedy, which in Matthew Arnold’s words “calms and satisfies” us, does so by dissolving our urge to determine and possess both the nature of individuals, and the significance of policies and creeds.

Thus the problems of responsibility and blame, truth and falsehood, which preoccupy Tolstoy’s biographers and critics can disappear in the light of an art which is, in however remote a way, comparable to his own. War and Peace defies and denies its own massive capacity for assertion; Anna Karenina as a work of art cannot and does not say who in it was to blame, and why the love of Anna and Vronsky ended in disaster. The paradox of Tolstoyan penetration is that it knows it can ultimately reveal nothing. Parini’s method intuits this, and makes subtle and satisfying use of what follows from it. Tolstoy’s wife describes with fond love and patronage in her “diary” the way he would make love to her, rushing her out of the room before a dance or a party was over, throwing himself on her and taking her before she could even undress. When he slept she felt peaceful, and yet “I wished he understood about these things, but I could not tell him”. The reader’s response is to sympathize with Sofya Andreyevna, generalizing her position in terms of women of the time and what they had to put up with from importunate husbands who knew nothing about the niceties of female sexuality, and cared less.

On the other hand, to his young secretary Bulgakov Tolstoy talks openly, not of course about his sexual relations with his wife, but about those with other women in his past, and notably a Tartar girl whom he still frequently thinks of and dreams about. Together in the act of love they had chatted, made jokes, exchanged intimate endearments. The reader who might have been inclined to conclude (and every reader wishes to “conclude” things about Tolstoy) that his trouble was the kind of enormous ignorance to which he himself sometimes hauntingly referred—he had lived in a glass bubble, cut off and sheltered from the world—is brought up against a fresh perspective of reality: he has perceived something here for himself, but the author of this novel has put him in a position to do the perceiving. Tolstoy no doubt could not bear to behave with his wife as he had behaved with other women, and she in turn has taken to mocking him in old age for alleged homosexual tendencies—sneering at his friendship with the to her repulsive Chertkov, and at his diary entries about the young officer whom he had known in the Crimea.

All these matters, which a biographer can only produce and comment on, are blended by Parini into a continuously undefined and mobile portrait of the old man, bringing him to life in his physical and diurnal being, as much as in his mental processes. The sheer misery of his in a sense self-inflicted predicament—the crushing burden of being Tolstoy, the vast holy presence whom everyone was watching and writing about—is brought out in this novel as never before. It is significant that every friend of Tolstoy, and every surviving member of his family, had spoken or written what they considered to be the “truth” about him: even his sister, for whom he always remained the obstinate know-all little boy who nearly drowned in a pond because he boasted that he knew it was only two and a half feet deep. Chertkov, with his pasty face and eczema-covered hands, was certainly not physically attractive to Tolstoy, as Chertkov himself knew very well, but he also knew that Tolstoy pined for the kind of friends he had known in the army (Chertkov had been an officer in the Guards) and for a comradeship which alleviated the loneliness of his position.

With remarkable delicacy Parini has brought to life the people of the household around Tolstoy, and the poignant facts of their private lives to which the lonely giant had no access. Bulgakov and his fellow-disciple Masha start a happy affair together, and seem bound for the kind of simple happiness and mutual reliance which the old Count and Countess have never known. Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha, who is in charge of the “Remington Room” and who types his writings, has a blissful physical relationship with Varvara Mikhailovna, who looked after her when she had pneumonia in the Crimea. Not all these are known facts, but they do not in the least intrude on the known area of diary and memoir: they serve on the contrary to broaden and humanize the otherwise claustrophobic conditions of the year that ended at Astapovo railway station. So too does the curiously felicitous assumption by Sofya Andreyevna—I doubt whether it could be authenticated—of an affair between her mother, wife of the court physician Dr Behrs, and the novelist Turgenev. Sofya remarks in Parini’s version of her diary that her parents were miserable together, but that she had always supposed them to be ideally happy, and this had comforted her during the early days of her marriage with Tolstoy. Against all advice her mother had determined to marry Behrs, who was much older than her, although it was intimated that a doctor was not quite a gentleman, that he was German and might even be Jewish. Again, there seems a kind of inner truth in such possibilities, even in our glimpse of the Countess as a kind of distracted Yiddisher momma, striving to hold her family together, interfering in all they do, exasperating and exasperated.

“What a literary family we have turned out to be!” exclaims Sofya Andreyevna to her diary, with characteristic coyness, wondering at the fate that had drawn her mother to her family’s friend Turgenev, herself to Leo Tolstoy, and her sister Tanya to his elder brother Sergey. But although it is written by a poet and novelist this novel is not literary at all: it breaks triumphantly out of the “Tolstoyan” world of letters, memoirs and opinions by virtue of the very poetic skill and perception with which it has used them. We seem back in the real world of Yasnaya Polyana, among the pious idioms and helpless impulses of the people who actually lived there. A sense of the innocence of the past hangs over the end of the novel, as if, just by being in the past, these great figures had to take life much more seriously than we need to. But among the soft polyphonic hubbub of their different voices comes at the end the voice of Tolstoy’s own character, the hero of his story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, who tried with his dying words to say “Forgive me”, but was too weak and said “Forget” instead, knowing at the last that it did not matter.

Tom Wilhelmus (review date Spring 1991)

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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 opportunity for reflection, to delay action, and to limit the effect of cruel immediacy. For what purpose? To create a self, to escape unpleasant or threatening circumstances, to avoid past errors, to provide an “example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.”

The finest fictions this season are historical. …

More familiar to most readers, the long and bitter struggle between Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna, over disposition of his copyrights and estate has proved a perpetually interesting subject for literary investigation. No doubt part of the fascination lies in how the struggle appears to belie Tolstoy’s greatness and the spiritual doctrine he preached during the last years of his life. In Jay Parini’s new novel, The Last Station: A Story of Tolstoy’s Last Year, this struggle is portrayed especially as a conflict between Sofya Andreyevna and Tolstoy’s principal disciple, Vladimir Chertov, against the backdrop of a whirling stream of believers, journalists, photographers, and curiosity seekers who visited Tolstoy’s estate during the last year of his life. In the hands of another writer, all the grief, deceit, intrigue, faked suicide attempts, divided loyalties, and final disintegration that drove the old man to his last escape from Yasnaya Polyana might have contributed an atmosphere of sordid farce—especially the last scene at the tiny railroad station at Astapovo where the novelist, too ill to continue, eventually succumbed, while Sofya Andreyevna, denied access to Tolstoy’s deathbed by Chertov, waited just yards away and over a hundred newspapermen looked on. Yet despite these events, Parini’s approach managed to be studied, lyrical, and restrained.

He achieves this effect partly by having his six principal characters represent themselves through their own diaries, interspersed with quotations from Tolstoy himself and several poems by the author. As a result, he keeps the focus on individual personalities—an approach he no doubt derived from the germ that inspired the novel, his stumbling on the diary of Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, in a Naples bookstore. This event led to his reading other memoirs and diaries as well. The result, he says, was “like looking at a constant image through a kaleidoscope. I soon fell in love with the continually changing symmetrical forms of life that came into view.”

The symmetry, however, lies not in the events but rather in Parini’s carefully chosen language and his elegant, restrained style. The fact that all of the diary writers speak in their own voices gives sympathy to their causes. Sofya Andreyevna’s acquisitiveness seems less culpable in the context of the emotional abandonment she had previously suffered. The daughter Sasha’s mannerisms seem understandable given the titans she lives among. Even the severe Chertov seems forgivable once we learn about his love of Leo Nikoleyovich and the cause they share.

Bulgakov, however, is the reader’s observational center. Like us, he is a newcomer, and his youth and idealism mirror our own innocence of what is going on. Bulgakov was hired by Chertov not only to assist the great man but also to act as a spy. Yet he never loses his objectivity. He is charmed by Tolstoy’s personal warmth, inspired calm, and continuing productivity, but he also sympathizes with Sofya Andreyevna’s desperate desire to regain the man she had married and secure her own and her children’s futures. And although he listens while Tolstoy preaches chastity, he still manages to fall in love with a co-disciple and learns to weigh the claims of idealism against the claims of the flesh. In this manner this elegantly written history takes us out of the media event that Tolstoy’s final days had become and humanizes our understanding in ways no official history can.

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

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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 gold!’ Geno cried, sitting up in bed.” Whereupon his wife Susan whispers to him to go back to sleep.

Geno (Christopher Genovese) is a 42-year-old college professor in Vermont. He is a poet, currently (and for many years) writing a long poem about his almost-namesake. Susan is a writer of fiction. They have two sons. Each also has a psychoanalyst. They are, in fact, an admirably characteristic, liberal-minded, educated American couple of 500 years post-Columbus. Bay of Arrows interweaves the story of their moderately muddled lives with short vignettes from the life of Columbus.

In the hands of a lesser writer this technique could have soon lost its interest and come to seem tiresome and overstrained. Parini, however, accomplishes his own voyage of discovery with never-failing grace and lightness of touch. Geno does not exactly pull the gold ring in his wife’s nose, but he is guilty, in his own way, of diminishing women. He goes to a student dormitory one night, feeling randy, and seduces a girl who has been sending him notes about Virginia Woolf all semester. He’s accused of sexual harassment when his final grade (B+) displeases her; it is an unjust accusation, yet Geno has a moment of tormenting revelation, late in the book, when he remembers the scene in the dormitory precisely, and he acknowledges to himself that he took advantage of his status. His wife, hurt but forgiving, feels that she is invisible to him.

Just as Columbus is granted the miracle of sighting land, when all seemed hopeless, Geno has the miracle of a letter announcing that he’s been awarded a ‘genius’ grant of half-a-million dollars, to do with as he pleases. He takes his family off to an inlet called the Bay of Arrows, in the Dominican Republic. Geno and the Genoese, Columbus, are moving ever closer. For the Bay of Arrows is where Columbus first met resistance—Taino Indians driving him away with their primitive arrows.

Geno builds a “simple” American house, with the aid of peasant labor. Susan, ashamed to have shrieked at the sight of a hand-sized spider on the pillow when she wakes, meditates herself in the best New Age way into loving spiders. The boys steal her shortwave radio (she listens only to the BBC and other European services) to take with them into their secret den. And Augusto, their friendliest, most trusted servant, is caught at night with the radio in his hands. He runs away, and Geno reports him to the police. Augusto spends weeks in jail—long after the boys have confessed: Augusto was in the process of returning the radio, not taking it away. Geno has reacted in a typical colonialist way, and the betrayed villagers turn their backs on him. It’s time to go home back to Vermont. The small empire, like the vast one in Columbus’s wake, has failed the test of humanity.

Meanwhile the Japanese have brought their caravels, exact replicas of Columbus’s, into the Bay of Arrows for the quincentennial. And again the natives repel them, seeming to believe they have driven off Columbus himself. One of the most terrifying scenes relates the story of an American professor writing a book on the cruel dictator, Trujillo; he is kidnapped, brought to Dominica, and finally lowered, inch by inch, into a vat of boiling water. Parini moves effortlessly from ironic humor to absolute evil.

Occasionally his style dips into a sentimental, cloying mode: “She bloomed in his hands like a spring bough of lilies dipped into a tub of warm water and forced, prematurely, to radiate color, light, and smell.” But the novel’s almost 400 pages fly by with almost too little effort having to be made by the reader. If that is a fault, it is one that some recent writers of the Great American Novel might envy. At the end of the deceptively easy voyage, Parini has found gold.

Merle Rubin (review date 6 October 1992)

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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 Arrows, poet and novelist Jay Parini offers an intriguing look at Columbus and at current efforts to reevaluate him—and Americans. It’s a novel that poses a pair of interrelated questions: To what extent are Americans Columbus’s heirs? And do they have the right to judge him?

The scarcely heroic hero of this novel is a 42-year-old Vermont English professor named Christopher Genovese (get it?). Geno, as he’s known to friends and family, is coping with a minor mid-life crisis, while trying to write a long poem about Columbus. (Parini, himself a poet, furnishes specimens of Geno’s opus.)

The book is a veritable network of parallels, many rather obvious and heavy-handed. Parini alternates chapters about the daily life of the professor with chapters retelling episodes from the life of the famed explorer. Although Parini has won praise for his previous work as a historical novelist, his retelling of Columbus’s story, while unobjectionable, is uninspired. Relying on a direct, modern style to bring the past to life, he succeeds only in making history seem flat and banal.

Geno’s world, however, is portrayed with greater subtlety. His awkward relationship with his young sons, his shaky, but basically solid love for his wife, and his tenuous alliances with his colleagues emerge in a series of deft little strokes that fill in the picture of who and what he is.

In many ways the typical modern academic, Geno cherishes fond memories of 1960s radicalism while battening off a system the soi-disant “revolutionaries” once derided. He considers himself pro-feminist, but dislikes his feminist colleague. He hobnobs with students, including a one-night stand with a young woman whose thesis he’s advising, but resents the encroachments on professorial power that enable this same young woman to turn around and charge him with sexual harassment. Happily for Geno, just as things are getting uncomfortable for him at the college, he receives, quite out of the blue, a half-million dollar grant from the “MacAlasdair Foundation,” which allows him to tell the college to “take this job and shove it.”

Without properly consulting his wife, he decides to move the whole family to a secluded beach-front property in the Dominican Republic, where he envisions a life close to nature, with plenty of time to work on his poem. Geno’s choice, near the so-called “Bay of Arrows” on the island of Hispaniola, not so coincidentally, is one of the places Columbus met resistance in landing.

Employing cheap local labor to help him build his ecologically correct dream-house, Geno achieves a seemingly symbiotic relationship with the islanders. He feels a particularly warm bond with the kindly, reliable Augusto, who becomes his mainstay. The children of the two families, Anglo and Hispanic, play together, and all seems well in this tropical paradise. Geno’s long-suffering, clever, and sympathetic wife Susan even learns to overcome her distaste for the gigantic spiders that flourish in the clime.

The serpent in this paradise is Alec Selkirk, a stalwart ex-colonial Scotsman, whom the impressionable Geno sees as the epitome of manly self-reliance. “Don't let 'em rob you,” is Selkirk’s constant refrain about the “lazy, dishonest natives.” Geno knows better, or ought to. But when his wife’s favorite short-wave radio disappears and the evidence points toward Augusto, Geno reports his suspicions to the local police.

Augusto, of course, is innocent: Geno’s children and their friends had taken the radio as part of a spy game they were playing, and Augusto was only trying to return it to its rightful owners. But having set the creaky, corrupt legal machinery in motion, Geno has a hard time getting poor Augusto released from police custody.

As Geno discovers the extent to which he—wittingly and unwittingly—has exploited people, from the islanders to his patient wife and even the student who accused him of harassment, his perception of Columbus undergoes some modifications.

Initially, Geno considers him to have been “a genocidal monster.” By the novel’s end, his view has softened: Columbus may indeed have been harsh, brutal, and greedy for gold, but he sincerely believed his enterprise would help fund the Christian conquest of Jerusalem.

If Columbus was woefully deaf to the anguish his actions caused, such deafness is a persistent human trait each generation must battle in itself.

Yet behind the edifying message about the need for self-criticism is a less attractive attitude of self-satisfaction. Geno seems a little too pleased at being able to accuse himself of exploiting other people, and his willingness to admit blame looks suspiciously like a slick way to get him—and Columbus—off the hook in a burst of ill-conceived cultural relativism.

On the whole, Bay of Arrows is a diverting and thought-provoking novel, but it is also a lot less profound than it pretends to be.

Andrew Rosenheim (review date 30 October 1992)

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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 expedition from the Spanish Court then bravely sails west. Perfunctory, underdeveloped, this smaller story none the less outpaces its weightier counterpart, perhaps because it has the natural advantage of an interesting main character. Columbus is presented as an obsessive fantasist, an amoral egoist incapable of being deterred from his compulsive geo-mania.

The focus of this novel, however, remains on the diminished figure of Geno, although the attention is undermined by an occasional shift to his wife, who has yearnings of her own, and by an inconsistency of viewpoint—sometimes all we see is what he sees, at others we have a glimpse of a wider horizon. Bay of Arrows is essentially a campus novel, despite its geographical and historical shifts. Most appealing when quirkiest and poetic (there is a lovely surreal concluding masque), it is least apt when invoking the comic conventions of its genre.

Robert Coover (review date 26 March 1993)

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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 Slavic soul wallowing in guilt and the endless self-examination are all revealed in loving detail. “What would you call a rich man who lived in the lap of luxury, waited on hand and foot by serfs, yet who preaches simplicity to the world, a sensualist who has whored and fornicated and fathered 13 children—yet who calls for chastity in others?” demands a correspondent of the frail and aged Tolstoy. Nodding agreement, L N gently raps out another mea culpa on his bony old breast, sighs, and orders a glass of lemon tea from the nearest grovelling lackey.

It was a 19th-century Russian, one recalls, who observed that God put the Russians on earth as an example to all the other nations of how things should not be done. Here in this hothouse in the deep Russian snows, Tolstoy and his dismal disciples replay the Passion as farce instead of tragedy. Everyone takes themself and their every glum vapouring as seriously as the Sermon on the Mount. Those who dare to laugh at life (like Bernard Shaw) are damned as abysmally frivolous.

The endless plots, conspiracies, hysteria, tears, faintings and weeping fits recall the atmosphere of the late Tsarist era in all its superstitious silliness. It is like wading through a swamp of rancid marshmallow: no one in this circle ever does anything. The Russia of peasant, worker and merchant toils out of sight, while these miserabilists maunder on about their souls, with Tolstoy as Parasite-in-Chief. He at least realised it; yet was too weak and enervated by his wealth and position to do anything to change matters. Aware of all the faults of autocracy, he could not bear to advocate revolt, sliding off instead into spiritual escapism.

No wonder the Bolsheviks swept everything before them! These spineless, sentimentalists couldn’t organise a piss-up in a vodka distillery. All they do is talk, talk, talk, about sin and God and their souls and sacred Mother Russia, and sin, sin, sin, and how everyone else is so wicked and wrong. I closed this book with a grateful snap, free at last of these enervated succubi, and in a rage of sympathy for Lenin—no mean achievement for an author to induce in 1993.

This novel couldn’t have been written by an English author. Not just Tolstoy “stomping off”, nor yet recording the stationmaster of Astapovo who “seemed quite chuffed that Tolstoy should be using his guest room”. No, there’s a quality here of spiritual amplitude that we do not possess on this cramped, pinched side of the Atlantic. That Parini—a poet in academe—captures so well the opulence of spiritual anaemia in late tsarist Russia may well inform us as much about contemporary America as it does about the world of L N.

Last month in Russia, Stalin was voted the most popular 20th-century Russian in a nationwide poll. He got 80 per cent of the vote. Tolstoy came nowhere. This novel makes one understand and sympathise.

Zachary Leader (review date 15 April 1994)

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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 writing’s sharp detail, its rich harvest of things seen. The clear lines of Steinbeck’s stories are studded with vivid observations: a dead cat grinning “up into the light, its pink tongue stuck out between its needle teeth”; low whitewashed ranches and bunkhouses “girded with red chrysanthemums”; a winter fog that “sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot”. When an adulterer, surprised in bed, is shot through the brain, Steinbeck notes how his hands “came crawling out from under the covers like big white spiders … walked for a moment, then shuddered and fell quiet”.

These details are taken from an early volume of stories, The Long Valley (1939), one of a number of lesser-known works that Jay Parini’s admiring new biography [John Steinbeck] singles out for praise. These wrongly neglected works, newly reissued in Britain by Mandarin, are drawn from all periods of Steinbeck’s life; the view that nothing much is worth reading after The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Parini argues, is simply wrong. Yet Parini also, sometimes inadvertently, provides evidence of decline, if not in discussion of the late works themselves (this is a critical biography, one that stops for each of Steinbeck’s works, thirty-three of which are listed in the bibliography) then from the letters; even, ironically, the letter in which Steinbeck singles out “simplicity, clarity, and generosity” as marks of superiority. This letter was written by Steinbeck in 1957, at the height of a dismaying fascination with King Arthur and the Round Table. It was addressed to Eugène Vinaver, a Professor of Medieval Literature at Manchester, whose work on Malory Steinbeck knew. “I cannot tell you what pleasure and stimulation I had in meeting and talking with you”, writes Steinbeck.

Just as Launcelot was always glad and returned to find that a good fighting man was also a king’s son, so I am grateful to know that the top of the Arthurial pyramid is royal. … I could not have believed it to be otherwise for I have been fortunate in meeting a number of great men and it has been my invariable experience that in addition to eminence, superiority has two other qualities or rather three—simplicity, clarity, and generosity.

This passage might almost have been written by Walter Annenberg. Its awkward orotundity, partly a matter of self-regard, is anything but simple or clear (though its generosity is pretty embarrassing). This is the voice of a particular kind of American public figure, the voice Steinbeck used to write to Presidents, to Lyndon Johnson in particular, or to accept awards or address writers’ congresses. It is a voice, the biography suggests, Steinbeck long resisted, a product of debilitating good fortune; yet as even Parini concedes, in the later allegorical writings especially, its effects are obvious. “Sanctimoniously full of ‘meaning’,” “hyper-rhetorical”, “sentimental”: these are Parini’s terms, and Parini admires the late writings.

How, though, avoid such failings, given Steinbeck’s experience? Here was a writer whose vocation came early and was never in doubt; whose apprenticeship as a novelist was relatively brief and well appointed (mostly cushioned by the “income and unswerving support” of his middle-class parents); whose first best-seller, Tortilla Flat (1935), was published when he was thirty-three; and who was ever after, for the remaining thirty-three years of his life, rich and famous. The Grapes of Wrath, which propelled him into mega-celebrity, won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, sold 430,000 copies in its first year, and has never sold less than 50,000 copies annually. Everything Steinbeck wrote in its wake, even his feeblest experiments, has sold (though the plays sometimes flopped). Yet Steinbeck consistently defied commercial and critical pressure (would not, that is, be confined to social realism); never took a job he didn’t want; even emerged unscathed from Hollywood, making piles of money, happily working with gifted and amiable collaborators. As for the adaptation of his own works (by John Ford, Nunnally Johnson, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan), in Gore Vidal’s words, no writer “has ever been luckier”—a comment that might well be extended to the career as a whole. Only at the hands of what, in his 1962 Nobel address, Steinbeck identifies as “a pale and emasculated critical priesthood”—Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, high-canonical “Americanist” academics—has Steinbeck suffered. Yet he has hardly been without distinguished admirers, beginning with Saul Bellow, whose support, according to Vidal (another admirer), was crucial to winning the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck’s best writing draws deeply on Californian landscape and culture. He was born in 1902 in the Salinas Valley, to which his German grandfather migrated just after the Civil War; was educated at Stanford (where he did poorly); and lived much of his first forty years on or near the Monterey coastline, with occasional spells in Southern California. Only when the “frenetic and confusing” enticements of celebrity helped destroy his first marriage, did he head East, settling in New York in 1941, a move his friends mostly deplored. To some (Kazan, for example), the work immediately suffered; without the ballast of local detail, of Californian particulars, Steinbeck’s mythic, eschatological propensities—for Parini, a mixture of Jung, Emerson, and the scientific and proto-ecological theories of Steinbeck’s marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts—burgeoned. The collapse of the first marriage figures here as well. “Stay with the details” was the advice Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, gave him when he was struggling with The Grapes of Wrath. It was Carol, also (though partly from envy), who helped fight off the distractions of celebrity, what Burgess Meredith, one of several new showbiz friends, called “the money and the people, the rising expectations”. “What the hell would we do with $5000 a week”, she shouted at an importunate Hollywood producer. “Don’t bother us.”

The collapse of the first marriage is one of only a few episodes in the biography that reflect badly on Steinbeck. Carol Steinbeck had long wanted a child, and at last, in the late 1930s, she and Steinbeck were in a position to have one; he, though, balked. She got pregnant, reluctantly acceded to an abortion that went wrong, leading to a hysterectomy, and the marriage, understandably, never recovered. Parini is the first of Steinbeck’s biographers to write of this episode, which he seems to have uncovered in a 1991 interview with one of the wife’s friends. Though he points to mitigating circumstances, in the end, as he rightly insists, Steinbeck’s behaviour was indefensible.

In almost all other respects, Parini presents Steinbeck as admirable: a loyal and patient friend; interested in everything; socially and professionally responsible; fully engaged “in the routines of life”, the daily writing process, the neighbourhood (be it Cannery Row or Sag Harbor), the garden, household chores (“he was a practical man who loved to work with his hands”), parties, travel. Like everyone else in his world, Steinbeck drank a lot, and his moods swung wildly; but he was no monster. After a disastrous second marriage (to Gwyn Conger, a nightclub singer almost twenty years his junior, the mother of his two sons), Steinbeck at last settled down with Elaine Scott, ex-wife of Zachary Scott. The marriage was a great success and lasted for the rest of his life, eighteen years. As for relations with the literary world, though sensitive to criticism, Steinbeck was also, given his fame and fortune, remarkably modest, invariably polite and deferential to writers he admired, even when they behaved towards him with unprovoked boorishness, as did both Faulkner and Hemingway.

This modesty Parini partly attributes to Steinbeck’s lifelong insecurity, the product of a stern and demanding mother. Though Parini’s psychologizing is crude (weak father, dominating mother, beloved only son), his account of Steinbeck’s early struggles for independence, his defiance of the mother’s bourgeois aspirations, is the best part of the book. Especially affecting is his reconstruction of the moment in 1933, round about the mother’s death, when Steinbeck seems fully to have found himself as a writer. “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism”, Steinbeck recalled, “a reverse egotism, of course, beginning with self-consciousness.” As he sat by his mother’s bedside—broke, married but still living off his parents, unrecognized as a writer—“the forces that used to tug in various directions … all started to pull in one”. The rest of the world fell away, he began writing “like wildfire”, and the resulting book. Tortilla Flat, made his career.

If Parini’s narrative of the early life is what is best about the book, the critical sections, in particular the pronouncements on art, are what is worst. “Style in prose is not accidental or unrelated to the mind that generates it”; “artists do not by nature advance along a preordained scale”; “originality does not occur ex nihilo”. Then there are the clichés: Steinbeck devotes himself to his craft “with a burning fire”, his plays “grace” the stage, the “quiet greatness” of his character issues in “simple nobility of expression”. Nor is Parini strong on original research (discovery of the first wife’s miscarriage notwithstanding), relying heavily on Jackson Benson’s much fuller and no less readable 1984 biography. When, for example, Steinbeck is quoted as claiming in an interview that the character of Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1937) was taken from life, was “a real person”, and that Steinbeck not only worked with him but saw him kill a man (“stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach”), Parini contents himself with echoing Benson’s scepticism. “He is in an insane asylum right now”. Steinbeck claimed in the 1937 interview. “I worked alongside him for many weeks. … I saw him do it.” Might this not have been checked? Steinbeck’s life is fascinating and important, but at such moments it is hard to see what new light this biography brings to it, for all Jay Parini’s sympathy for the man and his work.

Paul Binding (review date 6 May 1994)

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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 Kazan’s film version, made so tense and memorable by James Dean.

Worst of all was American reaction to Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize. Hardly anybody whose opinion counted thought he deserved it, believing that the award showed the Swedish Academy’s ignorance of what was vital in America then, and many said so. Steinbeck was bitterly hurt; in fact he never really got over his Nobel Prize. Yet for sheer fame, for sheer numbers of books read all over the world, Steinbeck was a real giant—and in these respects, still stands as one today.

Jay Parini has done us all a great service in devoting his considerable powers of understanding to such a man as Steinbeck. There does seem to be something fascinatingly representative (in a very American way) about Steinbeck that transcends literature. His was a compelling combination of driving ambition and anxious self-doubt, of fundamentally bourgeois goals and beliefs (often strong and admirable) with a very masculine brand of recklessness. This was a positive, since some of his attacks on the bourgeoisie and his championship of those they spurned have been among the most hearkened-to of our century. Parini presents these contradictions with an exemplary sympathy.

There is certainly plenty of work for his powers of sympathy to do. Steinbeck was a good son and brother, looking after his mother with great unselfishness, maintaining warm relationships with his sisters all his life. He was a loyal friend, who seems truly to have rejoiced in others’ successes and had been there when they needed him in adversity. One of these friendships, about which Jay Parini writes with a singular excellence, was with the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts.

This was perhaps the most creative relationship of Steinbeck’s life—in a double sense, since Ricketts’ ecological holism permeates all his major work. On the other hand he appears to have been—with the exception of his third and last marriage—an appalling husband: wilful, negligent, detached. He was a failure as a father too, not least in the eyes of his sons. Though he tried hard with them, he perhaps didn’t try hard enough. Always his own inner drama interceded.

But we read about Steinbeck because he is a writer, and here Jay Parini shows that the same contraries were in operation. The very intentness of purpose that, as a young man, kept him going in the teeth of poverty and discouragement was also his later undoing.

His determination to produce a shattering masterpiece led him to literary inflation and portentousness (in East of Eden).

The position from which he wrote his later books had a fatal instability in it. Steinbeck was a true democrat: a committed New Deal man of the Democratic Party. Parini leaves us in no doubt about his sincerity and wide charity. But that local-boy-made-good side, which never forsook him, made it impossible for him not to attach himself to the powerful.

He sought out—and was sought out by—Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson, whom he would address in fulsome terms. For Adlai Stevenson (for whom he worked) he entertained hopes that he would be little less than America’s saviour, the strong, just intellectual the nation needed. Meanwhile, his knowledge of the jetsam and flotsam of society, of the bums and whores of Tortilla Flat, grew weaker. It’s hard not to believe that this life among the successful—including close relations with Hollywood and Broadway—wasn’t fatal to any true development of the artist.

Steinbeck was an opponent of the atomic bomb, a profound believer in civil rights. He defended, if a little tardily, friends facing McCarthy and was for the most part a truly humane man with a great love of the natural world. Yet liberal America understandably turned against him when he publicly endorsed Johnson’s Vietnam war—mostly out of an almost Boy Scout loyalty to Johnson himself. Privately, he had the gravest misgivings, but could never express them.

In a sense that is emblematic. For all its courage and liveliness, Steinbeck’s work shows that he was never quite prepared to go the whole way of independence and defiance. He wanted more to be loved, admired. At the same time, there was a stubbornness that made him, an imaginative man, unreceptive in important areas.

Parini has himself exhibited independence and defiance of conventional judgments in his continuously readable biography. Sometimes, I think, he feels himself too much bound on Steinbeck’s side, and he never quite makes clear how good he thinks the books are in relation to other writers’. Sometimes he falls back on cliché to jolly the narrative along, something it has no need of. For Parini, a novelist himself, has a good grasp of how to recapture the essence of a time while not forsaking chronology. Whether or not our view of Steinbeck is fundamentally changed is another matter.

Paul Foot (review date 7 May 1994)

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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 Hoover stepped up his campaign to root out what he assumed was yet another red author cashing in on the Depression. FBI agents set to work in Monterey, where John Steinbeck lived. They successfully turned the hearts and minds of the local bourgeoisie against the stunningly successful writer in their midst. Eight years later, Steinbeck was still being refused office space. His gas supply was suddenly and inexplicably cut off. Even his attempt to get credited as a war correspondent met with opposition from a Hoover front organisation called the American Legion Radical Research Bureau, which pointed out that Steinbeck had written articles for ‘red’ publications.

The witch-hunters were wrong in strict fact—Steinbeck never joined a socialist organisation, let alone a Communist one. His suspicions about party members and their threat to individuality are set out strikingly in some of his most radical works, in particular his novel about a migrant lettuce workers’ strike, In Dubious Battle (1936). But in principle, his right-wing detractors were on target. The outstanding quality of Steinbeck’s writing in the later 1930s is his ‘feel’ for the lives, thoughts and aspirations of ordinary people. The Grapes of Wrath is the outstanding example, but the lesser works which ran up to it and established Steinbeck’s reputation—Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat—are inspired by the same enduring compassion for men and women who were alien and threatening to the literati.

John Steinbeck was born into a prosperous bourgeois family who were always happy to provide for him. Even in the years after the Great Crash, when he had no money and grew his own food, he lived in his father’s seaside cottage. But he was always happiest and most at ease among truck drivers, migrant fruit-pickers and unemployed Okies.

He found it hard to cope with the fame and fortune which followed The Grapes of Wrath. Gradually, the ties which bound him to his talent were loosened. He had no political party—only a loose and ingratiating allegiance to important Democrats. His first wife, Carol, had had a profound political and literary influence on him. She took him to socialist meetings, argued strongly for a more ideological approach to the problems of the day and even gave him his best title: The Grapes of Wrath. Frightened, perhaps, of her influence, he refused to contemplate a child, and insisted on an abortion, which led to a hysterectomy and permanent childlessness. After that the relationship disintegrated, and the couple parted. A new, younger, more politically pliable wife proved a disaster. In politics Steinbeck drifted down the drain, from Adlai Stevenson (whose campaign speeches he wrote, earnestly wishing he could use more violent language) to Kennedy (whom he adored) to Lyndon Johnson. During the McCarthy witch-hunts in the early 1950s, of which he could easily have been a victim, he prevaricated. When his friend Arthur Miller was indicted for refusing to testify to the Senate Committee on Unamerican Activities, Steinbeck reflected ruefully: ‘If we had fought back from the beginning instead of running away, perhaps these things would not be happening now.’ He defended Miller against the ‘safe and public patriotism which Dr Johnson called “the last refuge of scoundrels”’, yet a decade or so later he provided an intellectual prop for the ‘last refuge’ patriotism of the scoundrel Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam.

Jay Parini’s enormous biography [John Steinbeck] strives mightily to protect its subject from the age-old criticism that he lost his bite when he made his fortune. The plain truth is, however, that Steinbeck never again wrote anything half as good as The Grapes of Wrath. His wit and his lean, terse style never left him, but his roots were systematically torn up by too many nights in luxury hotels, by nannies and houseboys and fawning Presidents. Only when he returned to his old stamping grounds, in particular when he wrote the script for the Elia Kazan film on the Mexican revolution, Viva Zapata!, did he recapture any of his former glory. Parini’s biography, so desperate to defend its hero in almost every particular, so keen to cram in random criticism of every work, often loses the thread; and as a result, John Steinbeck emerges unfairly as a rambling, rather unattractive loner, searching only to satisfy himself at the expense of others.

Still, there are many gems here, most of them gleaned from Steinbeck’s wise, dry, atheistical journalism. ‘What can I say about journalism?’ he asked his friend John McKnight. We journalists would do well to learn the answer by heart:

It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only literature we have, and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended.

Robert J. Corber (review date Summer 1994)

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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 Grain, Jay Parini seeks to rectify the lack of serious critical response to Vidal’s work by “uncovering some of the best writing that has already been published about [him].” In addition to important essays and reviews by Italo Calvino, Stephen Spender, Harold Bloom, and Richard Poirier that have appeared elsewhere, Parini includes essays by a number of leading academic critics (William H. Pritchard, Catherine R. Stimpson, and Donald E. Pease) that were especially commissioned for the volume. The diversity of writers and critics Parini has brought together not only indicates the extraordinary range of Vidal’s achievements but also attests to his importance as both an essayist and a novelist. He emerges from these essays and reviews as a writer of undeniable weight whose place in American literary history deserves re-examination.

Although Parini has succeeded admirably in providing the most comprehensive portrait of Vidal that has yet been published, it seems unlikely that the volume will accomplish his goal of increasing scholarly interest in Vidal’s work. The essays are overwhelmingly belletristic. Except for those by James Tatum, Richard Poirier, and Donald E. Pease, none of the essays stresses the relevance of Vidal’s work to the issues in which academic critics are currently most interested, issues such as the politics of identity, multiculturalism, the critique of the subject, postcoloniality, and so on. Nor do they make use of recent developments in literary and cultural theory. Especially disappointing in this regard is Claude J. Summer’s “The City and the Pillar as Gay Male Fiction,” which is one of the few essays in the volume that specifically addresses Vidal’s identity as a gay male writer. Summers reads The City and the Pillar as a “typical” coming-out story in which Jim Willard, the novel’s gay male protagonist, learns to accept his homosexuality as the “truth” or essential core of his identity. In so doing, he suppresses the novel’s interrogation of the logic of identity, an interrogation that anticipated the gay liberation movement.

For a more subtle analysis of Vidal’s achievement as a gay male writer, one must turn to Donald E. Pease’s essay “America and the Vidal Chronicles.” Pease situates Vidal’s literary career in relation to the Cold War construction of “the homosexual” as a national-security risk and stresses his role in the emergence of the counterculture of the 1960s. He also links Vidal’s revisionist construction of American history in the chronicles to the emergence of New Historicism as an important critical practice. In so doing, he accomplishes what the other writers and critics included in the volume assert but do not demonstrate, namely that Vidal’s work can sustain rigorous theoretical and critical engagement. Parini has wisely placed Pease’s essay last so that readers will come away from the volume with a sense of the insights into postwar American culture that a theoretically informed approach to Vidal’s work can yield.

Charles Tomlinson (review date 21 October 1994)

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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 merely a piece of (probably British) arrogance, as indeed it turned out to be. However, I am no longer sure that this is the way Williams meant it to strike us, but rather as supporting his own contention that the American poetry he was inaugurating, written in the mode of twentieth-century modernism and what he aggressively called “the American language”, was indeed hardly under way. It had to cope with the sell-out to Europe, as he saw it, of Eliot and Pound, and to re-root and replenish itself on the often thin soil of American locality, in his case, that of New Jersey. And The Columbia History makes perfectly clear how, after Williams, in much American poetry—from the Beats to the blacks, to the emergence of other ethnic poetry in English and the anti-paternalists among women poets—the irreducible and unavoidable fact of America, political, psychological and geographic, or people’s not infallible perceptions of the fact, looms as centrally as it had for Whitman.

Whether this makes for good, bad or indifferent poetry is the job of the literary historian to try to assess. In the present volume, some honestly undertake that task, others politely mouth the agreed shibboleths and reiterate what F. R. Leavis used to call currency valuations. But present-day critics have long since buried the name of Leavis, as they have that of another critic and poet, the American Yvor Winters. The latter might have provided an interesting, resistant and acerbic presence in this history, but he doesn’t get included. The reason is hard to fathom. It is difficult to believe no one would have taken on the job of attempting to evaluate Winters. His work, as Parini tells us, “has been hard to place”. He gestures towards Robert Pinsky’s “homage to Winters in his essays and poems”, and that is that.

But to return to George Barker and non-existent American poetry, and to how it began to exist for the interested British reader. Barker’s generation and my own found their way into American poetry as a chiefly twentieth-century affair—we had forgotten bits of Longfellow glimpsed at school, and we were suspicious of Whitman—via our reading of Michael Roberts’s Faber Book of Modern Verse, a book whose subsequent re-editings disguised the shapely intelligence of Roberts’s original choice. Barker, whose own early poems rode in that anthology, ought surely to have spotted the extraordinary range of the Americans Roberts had lighted on. Williams was, of course, missing, as he almost always was in those days, and for some reason there was no Robert Frost, perhaps because of the absence of such tokens of modernism as Roberts was looking for (an absence that caused him to reject Edward Thomas, though Wilfred Owen was included on the showing of those half-rhymes and modern-sounding assonances). Roberts, however, already included in 1936 many of the poets who have survived to the stock-taking of The Columbia History, and some—Aiken, Cummings and Laura Riding—who are given unaccountably short shrift in 1994. Roberts had picked out all three of the above along with Hart Crane, H. D., Richard Eberhart, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate and the then (on this side of the water) very elusive Wallace Stevens. (Vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Stevens is noted on Columbia’s publicity leaflet as “the much beloved, insurance salesman-poet, Wallace Stevens”.)

If Roberts’s selection, in its battered third printing, led undergraduates like myself to explore a wider range of American poetry, working backwards from the twentieth century, it was F. O. Matthiessen’s Oxford Book of American Verse of 1950 that brought one into the wide-open spaces that are to be explored by Parini’s team of literary critics and historians—his writers are sometimes both together, though occasionally one has the feeling one is being told about “causes” or treated to special pleading, and that literary discrimination is in abeyance. Diane Wood Middlebrook on the over-rated Anne Sexton drove me back to Helen Vendler’s excellent piece in The Music of What Happens (1988), where distinctions of literary quality are being made over the course of Sexton’s work. Indeed, Vendler expresses there feelings I came to experience when confronted by some of the more predictable jargon from gender studies in The Columbia History. As Vendler writes, “Nor will it do to hail any poet, finally, as a ‘woman’ poet (or a ‘gay’ poet). Every poet is in the end only one sort of poet—a poet of the native language. The poet does well by perception in vesting it in language, or does not. The poem finds a language for its experience, or does not. Sometimes Sexton found that language.”

If Matthiessen’s anthology helped open out a growing interest in the whole range of American poetry, it was Roy Harvey Pearce’s critical study The Continuity of American Poetry of eleven years later that ambitiously elucidated connections, looked at forgotten authors—Bryant, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Whittier, Lanier—characterized the different geniuses of Whitman and Dickinson, and brought focus to the roles of Pound and Williams. This was one critic’s attempt to take on single-handed most of the territory covered by The Columbia History, though the thirty-year gap has left much subsequent work for comment and inquiry. There is some virtue in having the literary history of a given phase written by one person, as readers of Johnson’s Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets soon discover. And it was Johnson, after all, who invented the genre, literary history, that is being practised by Pearce and by the numerous contributors to the Columbia compilation.

Jay Parini has his worries about the many points of view displayed here and opens the book with a quick look at everybody and, after a pat on the head, sends them each on his or her own way. There occurs some phrase-making of the blurb kind in this introduction—“it might easily be argued that she is the central poet at work in America today” (on Adrienne Rich); “Her compacted poems are bullets aimed straight at the heart, and they kill”, this on Dickinson whose “intensely wrought lyrics splinter in the reader’s eye”. There is also some honest anxiety about the justifiability of a plurality of views, something Roy Harvey Pearce was not obliged to consider. “These chapters are arranged chronologically, and represent what the editors consider important aspects of American poetry. Nevertheless”—and here we prick up our ears—“each chapter should be taken as one critic’s point of view: necessarily subjective, rooted in the critic’s position in the evolution of the culture as a whole.” Is criticism so bound to the evolutionary and subjective as to need an editorial health warning before we can assume that all worthwhile critics should be in possession of many years of reading experience, of some sense of the literary canon, and have tested their subjectivities against their spouses, colleagues and students over a long period?

After the preliminaries, it is good to get into the body of the book with Francis Murphy’s excellent account of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. (It is now politely assumed by all that American poetry begins with Bradstreet, though an equally good case could be made for George Sandys, whose pioneering translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was completed in 1626, while he was Treasurer of the Virginia Colony.) Murphy is incisive and handles the contrast of the style of these two poets well. There is a somewhat Johnsonian savour to his phrase on the opening lines of Taylor’s “The Preface” to Gods Determination—“lines that first captured the imagination of Taylor’s readers, and no one who has written about him since has failed to quote them”, which he does:

Infinity, when all things it beheld
In Nothing and of Nothing all did build,
Upon what Base was fixt the Lath, wherein
He turn’d this Globe, and riggalled it so trim?…
Who Lac’de and Fillitted the earth so fine,
With Rivers like green Ribbons Smaragdine?…
Who Spread its Canopy? Or Curtain’s Spun?
Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?

It is the sound of poetry once more brings over the flavour of an epoch, dire in itself, in Carolivia Herron’s often moving second chapter, “Early African American Poetry”. Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), the most popular African-American poet of his day, has his own well-tuned version of “Go down, Moses”:

Now ole Pher’oh, down in Egypt,
Was de wuss man evah evah bo’n,
An’ he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin’ in his co’n;
‘T well de Lawd got tiahed o’his foolin’,
An’ sez he: I’ll let him know—
“Look Hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher’oh
Fu’ to let dem chillun go.”

Phillis Wheatley (1753?–84), shipped as a child to the Boston slave-market at the age of seven, proved—much to the delight and pride of her owners, the Wheatley family—to be a literary prodigy. She mastered English and by her teens knew Latin and was translating Ovid. Pope and Milton were her formative influences. Her ill-health caused the alarmed Wheatleys to send her to England for convalescence. There her poems were published, and she returned with a valuable edition of Milton given to her by the mayor of London—returned, one is glad to say, to her freedom. Others were less fortunate. George Moses Horton (1798–1880) “sought, begged and wrote for his freedom from the North Carolinian Horton family for most of his life”. He finally got it at the age of sixty-five. He, too, must have been a man of spirit and a believer, not only in liberty, but in poetic discipline:

True nature first inspires the man,
But he must after learn to scan
And mark well every rule;
Gradual the climax then ascend,
And prove the contrast in the end
Between the wit and fool.

I was less persuaded by the evidence Herron has to offer on African-American epics. George Marion McClellans’s The Legend of Tannhäuser, written in the blankest of blank verse (“In horror-stricken tones the nobles cried…”), may well be, as she says, “the most successful work in the genre”, but verse like this isn’t much of an adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.

A number of these thirty-one chapters are of quite exceptional interest. My first candidate, in order of appearance, would be Dana Gioia’s “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism”. Modernism had little use for the kind of narratives that Longfellow excelled in and which brought him a small fortune—£2,000 a year more than Tennyson. Gioia makes a persuasive case for these poems and the need for a revaluation that would correct the blind spots of later writers who are our immediate literary ancestors. He points with some irony to the fact that two of the greatest modernists, Eliot and Pound, were anticipated by Longfellow in his shift of the poet’s frame of cultural reference from Anglo-American to European literature—German, Spanish, French, Danish, Italian. Longfellow, like Pound, was also a translator and Pound (Longfellow’s grand-nephew, as Gioia reminds us) represents him in his anthology Confucius to Cummings with a translation from Saint Teresa of Avila. “Longfellow’s vision of the American poet’s international role was central to both Pound and Eliot”, writes Gioia, “and it remains a dominant force in poetry (locked, of course, in eternal dialectical opposition with nativism). Although Eliot did not take his mission directly from Longfellow, he developed it in the Harvard humanities curriculum that Longfellow helped create.” Gioia takes note of the over-copiousness of too many of Longfellow’s offerings, but the variety of his prosody, his ability to tell a story directly and the faithfulness of his best translations—his versions of Goethe’s Wanderer’s Night Songs matching rhyme for rhyme—all argue for the permanence of his contribution to American poetry. “You’ll have to go a long way round if you want to ignore him”, concludes Gioia.

One might say the same of Longfellow’s contemporaries Bryant, Whittier, Holmes and J. R. Lowell, for whom no space is found in The Columbia History. Pearce thought Whittier’s long narrative Snow-Bound “a great poem”, and a case might be made also for The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, some of the ballads (particularly Maud Muller) and the blank-verse prelude to Among the Hills, a prelude finer than the poem it introduces. With this, one is already in the grimness of Frost country:

how hard and colourless
Is life without an atmosphere. I look
Across the lapse of half a century,
And call to mind old homesteads,…
Within, the cluttered kitchen-floor unwashed,
(Broom-clean I think they called it); the best room
Stifling with cellar damp, shut from the air
In hot midsummer. …

The kind of level of excellence found in Gioia turns up again with William Pritchard on T. S. Eliot, and W. S. Di Piero on “the essential relation between the political order and the poetic imagination” in Pound and George Oppen (other important Objectivists do not appear in this history: Reznikoff, Rakosi and Niedecker, likewise Mina Loy). Patricia Wells makes a thoughtful case for the poetry of Robert Penn Warren, and Helen Vendler still finds new and enlightening things to say about Wallace Stevens after long years of practice. What is admirable about all these articles is their tone, balanced and often witty, not irritably bristling with partisan intensities, a delight to read in themselves.

Among much fascinating work on the modern era, a theme started by W. S. Di Piero left me hungry for its development. A one-man history would have had to go on to substantiate (as no doubt he can) the following perception of things: “I sometimes think the intense personalism of American poetry in recent decades, with its psychological fussiness and maniacally modest self-absorption, is one sign of the failure of belief in the possibility of poetry as truly public music.” This provocative statement glimmers with suggestion. Fully articulated, it could well help define one’s too frequent dissatisfaction on opening American poetry reviews today.

Charles Altieri (review date December 1994)

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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 question of how poetry manages to engage a public readership, as well as accounts of Ezra Pound and George Oppen as public poets; there are brilliant stylistic analyses of Whitman’s making the body electric within the poem and of Wallace Steven’s lyric strategies, both of which I think should become fundamental in our teaching of these poets. There are interesting overviews of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, the American W. H. Auden, and the Agrarians and beautifully argued overall evaluations of T. S. Eliot’s continuing appeal in the present and of the fundamental differences between Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Finally, I must mention essays on Pound and on Hart Crane that are more intellectually ambitious than the others, but also more uneven and more problematic: Pound is seen as substituting “objective for subjective interests, historical for human complexities,” while Crane becomes the heroic subjectivist committed to a Keatsian visionary immanence.

One might complain about quite limited bibliographies (appropriate for appreciations perhaps) and about the coverage: there probably should be essays on what Cheryl Walker calls “the nightingale tradition,” on the alternative modernisms of Bliss Carman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Lee Masters, on “objectivism,” and on Marxist poetry in the thirties. And one must complain about the lack of any powerful account of modernism or, more generally, the lack of critical effort to place American poetry within its cultural contexts. The only generalizations take place in Jay Parini’s vapid introduction: “The struggle of American poetry from the beginning has been this dream of a common language, and … there has always been in our best poets a sense that ‘a whole new poetry is beginning here.’”

The major weakness of this section of the book sharply defines its historicity in a culture eager for moral self-congratulation. When appreciation works, it articulates specific imaginative visions, voices, and lyrical strategies so that we can identify completely with the poet’s engagements and it allows a deep sense of shared enterprise among readers. But when it fails, two other possible critical stances emerge, both all too indicative of our current literary ambitions: critics can labor to conceal the fact that certain poets are too weak for such individualizing to compel attention, or they can openly reveal their need to subsume that individuality under their own generalized imperatives. Here we find the first most pronounced in the essay on Amy Lowell et al. The second dominates the chapter on Emily Dickinson, here become a female version of Pound’s Christ in his “Ballad of the Goodly Frere.” Dickinson becomes a committed champion of women, pursuing a representative (yet personal) voice that can recover love poetry from a tradition disempowering women and that can use God to attack “the very essence of unjust authority, especially male authority.” So we lose the great poet who warred directly on God, not on what he represents of masculinity, and who insisted on the terrifying ways that her own soul found itself drawn to the very solipsistic intensity that she feared.

When the book turns to more contemporary materials, such problems become the rule rather than the exception. There are intelligent historical essays on the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance, on black arts poetry, on Native American poetry, and on confessional poetry (although this one is perhaps too seduced by the psychoanalytic framework that is part of the historicity of this work). There is also much that is simply missing—all of the Charles Olson tradition, all of the New York school with the exception of John Ashbery (who is linked to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E writing so that he can all too sharply be distinguished from James Merrill), and all the various political energies driving current work, while pious nature poetry and an essay on “the Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright” take the place of discussing C. K. Williams, Robert Hass, most of Adrienne Rich, Louise Gluck, etc. The one essay that does propose scope, on the postconfessional lyric (and it does make some interesting points), fails to place the work within general aspects of a therapeutic culture that itself might be questioned, and it ignores autobiographical poets as important as Robert Creeley and June Jordan, as well as the various ethnic efforts at autobiography—Mexican-American and Asian-American poets are not treated anywhere in the volume. Any history would have to make choices, but not every history would make such consistently conservative ones without directly arguing for its values or presenting overviews that at least address the range of imaginative interests ignored here.

In such a narrow context, appreciation becomes indulgent moralizing, largely because the poet contributors simply ignore the contextual and evaluative concerns shaping academic discourse about contemporary work. Thus John Berryman and Theodore Roethke get lumped under a simplified notion of elegy, with Roethke treated as the better poet because of his transforming “the search for understanding and acceptance into a psychic and spiritual journey” figured in the mythic “lost son.” There is no questioning whether such traditional spirituality is still feasible in contemporary culture, and no interest in Berryman’s perverse internalizing of elegy as a possible alternative to dead pieties. Similarly, postconfessional lyrics are praised for escaping the confessional entrapment “in the conditional circumstantial world,” since they manage instead to gain access to the transcendent and accept a “proportionate ego” capable of honoring “the competing claims of self, other, world.” Poetry then becomes therapy, rather than the full imaginative living out of what cultural shifts entail. Finally, the concluding essay on Levine and Wright as the exemplary contemporaries manages to turn historical scholarship into the banalities of the New York Times Book Review: “Philip Levine has created a memorializing poetics of human separation and connection. Charles Wright has defined a radiant metaphysics of absence and aspiration, of the longed-for presence of the divine.” This is history writing all too historicizable in its nostalgic conventionality.

Ed Folsom (review date December 1994)

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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, giving her only passing mention.

The poets who get their own chapters (or at least share chapters) are Bradstreet, Taylor, Longfellow, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Bishop, Stevens, Williams, Crane, Warren, Auden, Berryman, Roethke, Merrill, Ashbery, Levine, and Charles Wright (James Wright is barely mentioned). Much of this list has a slightly antique feel about it; the most revisionary gestures are the revaluing of Longfellow and the reclaiming of Auden as an American poet. The most surprising aspect is the canonization of Merrill, Ashbery, Levine, and Wright as the four contemporary poets worthy of extended treatment. The white male tradition is thus underscored as the dominant one in this telling of American poetic history. Minority voices are heard only in groups: Carolivia Herron writes on “Early African American Poetry,” Arnold Rampersad offers a cogent overview of “The Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,” William W. Cook deals with “The Black Arts Poets,” and Lucy Maddox offers an illuminating summary of “Native American Poetry.” If a group of poets doesn’t get its own chapter, as Chicano and Asian American poets do not, they are ignored. There are impressive attempts to more fully inscribe women into the national poetic tradition—Jeanne Larson deals with Amy Lowell, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan, and Margaret Dickie writes on “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism”—but they are overwhelmed in this version of the history.

The book is most profitably read as a disparate collection of provocative essays on topics dealing with American poetry. It is a pleasure to encounter some of our best critics offering concise redactions of their major work: Lawrence Buell on Transcendentalist poets, Cynthia Griffin Wolff on Dickinson, Helen Vendler on Stevens, John McWilliams on the nineteenth-century epic, Diane Wood Middlebrook on confessional poetry. Lacking the weave and capaciousness of a history, this volume nonetheless offers a lively pastiche of commentary on some important American poets, poetic movements, and poetic themes.

Mark Jarman (review date Winter 1995)

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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 editor Thomas H. Johnson, who also labored long and fruitfully to give us the poetry of Emily Dickinson. As for poetry by African Americans, its history is lengthy, but made up of even more piecemeal retrievals, until the nineteenth century and the Harlem Renaissance, and even today major figures like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden are subsumed by categories of African American literature where they do not exactly fit. Native American poetry, on the other hand, has only recently developed a tradition of written texts. Otherwise Native American poets have had to look, like most other American poets, to Anglo-American and European traditions, a vexing issue for its practitioners.

What is happening to canon formation elsewhere in American literature is at work in American poetry, and this book [The Columbia History of American Poetry] is a reflection. It’s the sand dune effect. Prominent features of the landscape are being effaced by the sands of reaction, reformation, and forgetfulness, as others are revealed. William Pritchard writing about Eliot assumes “there does not exist a younger nonacademic reading public for Eliot’s writings.” The poet who for Pritchard is “the major poet-critic of the century” lives on only where such designations matter—in the academy. Whereas Ann Charters writing about “Beat Poetry and the San Francisco Renaissance” states confidently that Ginsberg and his associates are “some of the most widely read American poets of the last half-century.” The difference between Pritchard’s approach and Charters’ is that as a good practical critic Pritchard tries to determine which of Eliot’s poems still deserve even academic interest (“Prufrock” does, but “Gerontion” may not). He leaves it up to future generations to hear the personal note in Eliot that Randall Jarrell first detected. Charters, on the other hand, seems to think there’s very little difference between a landmark work like “Howl” and the puerile, drugged mumbling of Michael McClure. This lack of practical discernment characterizes a number of the book’s entries, especially in those areas where the writer is trying to sweep away the dune and reveal the forgotten glories. Writing about poets Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bogan, Jeanne Larsen reminds us just how modernism à la Pound and Eliot served to squelch these poets because of its aversion not only to their elegant, at times brittle, lyricism, but, she argues, because of an aversion to women’s love poetry. But when she tries to make a case for Amy Lowell as a writer of memorable lesbian erotica, it just doesn’t wash. Lowell was a terrible poet, and the other four were good, particularly Louise Bogan.

The sand dune effect all but buries Robinson Jeffers in Lynn Keller’s “The Twentieth Century Long Poem.” After mentioning his name in regard to the long narrative poem, she pays no more attention to him or to the form. Her interest is in the modern sequence, as defined by M. L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall in their book on the subject. Though Keller understands that recent interest in the long poem is a response to the exhaustion of the lyric, she ends her essay with an obtuse statement about how nondiscursive patterns “point to a language in which women and colonized people might achieve liberty and self-portraiture.” In fact, traditional narrative serves much more ably than the disjunctive techniques she refers to. How would Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah or Garrett Hongo’s “Stepchild” hold together without the binding of narrative? This is a vital point she also misses in her reference to Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad” or Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. Her refusal to see the importance of narrative in the long poem may be why she won’t touch Jeffers or mention a major achievement in the form like George Keithley’s The Donner Party.

As valuable as a book like this is in unearthing what we might otherwise forget, when most of its contributors accept the ongoing sweep of modernism—and over twenty of its thirty-one entries deal with modern American poetry—many things will remain ignored or buried even deeper. The most interesting example of the conflict created by the sand dune effect and the conventional wisdom that modernism is an advance can be seen in the contrast between John McWilliams’ “The Epic in the Nineteenth Century” and Dana Gioia’s “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism.” McWilliams takes the view that James Fenimore Cooper was an epic poet, that Moby Dick was an epic poem (he even includes a politically correct nod to the racial balance aboard the Pequod), and that Whitman’s “Song of Myself” displaces the traditional epic hero with the self. None of this is news, at least from the modern perspective. McWilliams dismisses Hiawatha along with some justly forgotten attempts at the epic, like Barlow’s The Columbiad and a number of other “iads” (The Coloniad, The Judead). About Hiawatha, McWilliams writes:

… when Longfellow raided Schoolcraft’s research into Winnebago customs, fitted them into an overlay of Iroquois mythology, blithely transformed the whole into the tripping meter of the Finnish Kalevala, and then offered Hiawatha as a coherent series of North American Indian legends the result could only be poetic make-up of the most transparent kind.

Such a history should probably record conventional wisdom like this somewhere in its voluminous pages. But how much more interesting it is to learn the following contradictory, fresh, and much more thoughtful assessment from Dana Gioia:

The stylistic objections to Hiawatha … are largely based on misconceptions of Longfellow’s intentions. The most frequent criticism is of the poem’s meter … which has seemed too artificial and formulaic to some readers. The chief advantage of this measure, however, is that it isn’t naturalistic. It was an overt distancing device, as was the incorporation of dozens of Ojibway words. These devices continuously remind the listener that Hiawatha’s mythic universe is not our world. … Although more often ridiculed than understood, the style of Hiawatha is in its own way as original as that of Pound’s Cantos.

Gioia’s entry asks us to think again about Longfellow, whose poetry is still part of the culture at large and whose occupation as a “poet professor” foreshadows the role most American poets play in the academy today. He is the antecedent of Eliot and Pound, a father they had to dispose of. Gioia makes the point at least three times that Pound was Longfellow’s grandnephew. He also makes a case for the great variety of the poet’s work, for his major narratives, Hiawatha and Evangeline, and for his many lyrics, which include a range of tone and subject no other American poet has equalled. And Longfellow has at least one modern heir who did not disown him—Robert Frost. Still, I am afraid that when I read Longfellow’s poems beside Whitman’s or Dickinson’s or even an English contemporary like Browning, there is always that aura of the Genteel Tradition about his language that makes me reluctant to endorse him as Gioia has done.

The sand dune effect isn’t all bad. It also allows an enterprising and discerning critic to clarify an issue that was ambiguous, with a good deal of sweeping and polishing in one area. Two entries that give us a definitive outline of what we might only have guessed at are J. T. Barbarese’s “Ezra Pound’s Imagist Aesthetics: ‘Lustra’ to ‘Mauberly’” and “Hart Crane’s Difficult Passage.” A third is W. S. Di Piero’s “Public Music.”

Barbarese argues that Pound was an imagist and never ceased to be one and that the visual dimension of his poetry, especially in the Cantos, was as important as the linguistic one. He also provides an accurate and serviceable definition of Imagism. It is “essentially an elliptical approach to poetic design, substituting juxtapositional for connected meanings.” That more or less defines Pound’s method and, furthermore, it characterizes those descendants of Pound who usually have only that elliptical approach in common with him. Barbarese is probably the most idiosyncratic of the writers assembled, given to obscure gems like “chthonian,” “ouranian,” “fideism,” and my favorite, “pococurantism,” a synonym for indifference. In his essay on Hart Crane he asserts that Crane was never a “vernacularist.” Neither is Professor Barbarese. But he has an excellent sense of what makes modern poetry, and this also comes out in an observation comparing Pound and Crane. He finds Crane difficult often because there is no source, no allusive echo, for his difficult passages, whereas, the echo is an essential ingredient for Pound. In Pound’s elliptical poetry “the inherent wisdom (and moral purpose) … is never to leave the scene of the crime.” This seems brilliantly simple as a description of Pound’s Modernism.

W. S. Di Piero’s “Public Music” may be the most interesting and challenging entry, because he takes as his subject the problematic issue of American poetry and politics. He finds Pound a useful figure as well and contrasts him with George Oppen. In both poets he examines the difficulty of bringing public speech into poetry and in making poetry public. Pound fails, Di Piero claims, because “he lost his way by becoming snared in the very confusion his poem presents as a matrix for renewals.” George Oppen, whose political activism served to silence his own poetry for twenty years, found that “the political lay in writing truthfully one’s perceptions, not arguing one’s beliefs.” I am not sure if this issue will ever be settled when there are so many political avenues, each with its own lingo, inviting the poet to feel engaged. But Di Piero makes sense. “Poets,” he writes, “cannot finesse idiosyncrasy so that it seems populist or communal.” This may be the very reason that, as Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.”

One reads a reference book like The Columbia History of American Poetry expecting information and good sense. If one is lucky, there will also be entries offering fresh perspectives that cut through conventional wisdom, like Dana Gioia’s on Longfellow. And there will be only one or two that are so conventional in their restatement of status quo opinions, like McWilliams on the nineteenth-century epic poem, that one wonders why the author bothered and the editor did not. Most of the entries reflect the current topography of American poetry with a clear sense of why the sands lie as they now do. Cynthia Griffin writes about Emily Dickinson and Donald Pease about Walt Whitman with an up-to-date understanding of their current status in modern American poetry, to wit, as foremother and forefather. Pease reminds us that the Saturday Club, of which Longfellow was a member, rejected Whitman’s application for membership. There is that strain of gentility to hold against Longfellow, though why one of the roughs would want to join the Saturday Club is worth wondering about. Margaret Dickie in “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism” asserts that Gertrude Stein, H. D., and Marianne Moore were “a century ahead” of their time because they were “not limited by the misogyny, reactionary politics, and conservative impulse that held back their male counterparts.” Insofar as gender and other political issues have come to play a central role in literary criticism, Dickie’s assertion has merit. Jay Parini states right off the bat in “Robert Frost and the Poetry of Survival” that Frost “was among the great poets of this century—or any century.” It’s good to hear that said, even though it is Stevens, as Helen Vendler describes him in her entry, who reigns supreme among Frost’s male counterparts at the end of the century. Arnold Rampersad contributes a helpful entry on the Harlem Renaissance, touching on the conflicting attitudes of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes about the degree of blackness their poetry should display. William W. Cook in his entry on the Black Arts Movement emphasizes the strengths of Amiri Baraka, Don Lee, and Sonia Sanchez as performers of their poetry, and also casts a dubious look at the work of Nikki Giovanni, characterized by some as “a black Rod McKuen.” It is a pity that the most gifted African American poets of the century, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, do not have an entry to themselves. Instead they are merely referred to in the two entries on African American poetry and not in great detail. The most troubling entry is on Native American poetry. Not because there is an entry, but because it is clear that there is very little to say about a written tradition of poetry by Native Americans. There is no entry on Hispanic American or Asian American poetry and these genres, though also relatively new, are much more advanced. The problem for all of these ethnic genres is the one tacitly admitted in the entry on Native American poetry. Lacking a tradition, will future Native American poets have only the current generation, poets like Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, and Joy Harjo, to look back to? The sand dune effect swallows the fact that these accomplished writers were nurtured by a more extensive tradition.

As the history approaches the present day, it’s easy to find fault with the representations. The editor, Jay Parini, is himself apologetic in his introduction that he has set aside no single chapter for Adrienne Rich or, perhaps, Adrienne Rich and a contemporary, as he has for John Ashbery and James Merrill, and Philip Levine and Charles Wright, who are the subjects of the last two entries. John Shoptaw uses Merrill and Ashbery to represent divisions in contemporary poetry between formalism and language-oriented poetry. Yet his actual analysis of the two poets is based on their long poems. He detects a strain of elitism in Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, but he manages to suggest that in Three Poems, for example, Ashbery is actually comprehensible. Edward Hirsch refers to the poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright as “visionary” and states that Levine “has created a memorializing poetics of human separation and connections” and Wright “has defined a radiant metaphysics of absence and aspiration, of the longed-for presence of the divine.” He traces the development of both poets (something Shoptaw does not try to do), but in the meantime makes these living masters sound posthumous, a necessary side-effect, I suppose, of a book like this.

Finally, History comes with surprises pleasant and unpleasant. The unpleasant surprise might better be called bizarre. It is Gregory Orr’s “The Postconfessional Lyric” in which he vacillates among the terms lyric and dramatic lyric and postconfessional lyric in order to describe a kind of contemporary autobiographical poem and invokes Whitman and Keats at various stages as precursors. Mainly what the writers of the p-c lyric have in common, according to Orr, is a traumatized childhood, like Orr’s own (his book Gathering the Bones Together is based on his accidental killing of his brother when they were children), which they also write about, like Orr. He creates a genealogy of poets that includes Jarrell, Kunitz, Bishop. James Wright, Levine, Rich, Bidart, Orr himself, Glück, and Olds. While acknowledging that the Confessional Poets broke the ground he is describing, he concludes:

Perhaps one of the most inadvertent gifts of the confessionals was to blur the distinction between art and life. Such a blurring can have destructive and self-destructive consequences but can also have salutary effects: what can’t be resolved in life can be brought over into art, where it is again engaged, again encountered by a self struggling to extract sustaining meaning from experience.

I’m sorry, but this makes poetry sound like therapy. Orr adds a series of strategies that the p-c poets employ to set them apart from the confessional poets. One of these is “the proportionate ego.” According to Orr the p-c poet does not indulge, for example, in Robert Lowell’s excesses of appropriation. The kinder, gentler poet that Orr describes sounds as if he or she were made up by a committee of human potential experts.

The pleasant surprise is Claude J. Summers’ “American Auden.” Summers charts what he calls “the metamorphosis of the enfant terrible of English poetry into the religious Horatian ruminator of American poetry” and considers each of Auden’s major long poems with a good deal of understanding and gives us some of the life Auden was living as an American when he wrote them. It is a pleasure to see this great poet treated to his own entry, to consider the sand dune effect working to his favor, as it mantles over some of Auden’s most damaging and persistent critics. Summers ends his entry with the aptest lines anyone wrote about Auden after his death, these from Richard Howard’s elegy:

After you, because of you,
all songs are possible.

There is not a poet writing in the English-speaking world who does not owe Auden something, usually a vital debt.

I imagine in another generation aspects of this book will look quaint, especially as it tries to map the current terrain. The future may look back and wonder why Robert Lowell had become only one of a number of poets treated in the entry on Confessional Poetry and why Elizabeth Bishop had to share an entry with Marianne Moore. It may look back and wonder why a unique master like Louis Simpson is nowhere mentioned. He actually would have provided an excellent contrast to Merrill or Ashbery, Levine or Wright. And when the future does look back, perhaps it will see an edition in which the numerous typos and misspellings are corrected and the index is adjusted for accuracy. Meanwhile, we can be grateful for this history which tries to reveal more than it conceals, to retrieve and preserve more than it discards and dismisses, before the sands shift again.

Mark Shechner (review date 12 February 1995)

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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 recapitulated Main Street phylogeny, and the celebrity he enjoyed at the zenith of his career was accorded for speaking his readers’ language and appealing to cherished homespun sentiments.

Jay Parini’s biography [John Steinbeck] is a labored elaboration of this point, as well as a boost for a literary stock so long devalued that Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize in 1962 “was ridiculed in America by a few well-known academic critics and a handful of journalists who refused to believe that a writer with a popular following could be any good.” Our own time, with realism in the ascendant, regionalism gone main line, and politics clinging to literature in rapturous embrace, should be propitious for taking a fresh look at Steinbeck. Whether we can take an interest in him is another matter. The son of John Ernst Steinbeck, a passive man given to bouts of depression, and Olive Steinbeck, who ruled the family roost with disapproval, John Steinbeck grew up a sensitive, watchful boy, given to daydreaming and yarn-spinning. A bout of influenza during the 1918 epidemic contributed a sense of vulnerability to an ego already bruised by family dysfunction and self-consciousness about his ungainly features.

Forsaking Stanford for the docks and dives of San Francisco, Steinbeck aspired to a discipline of riotous living, hard drinking and writing a la Jack London, whom he revered along with another California novelist and social rebel, Frank Norris. Oddly, he also gravitated toward Arthurian romance, and a crease of medieval allegory cuts across the grain of his social fiction. Early and late he would tinker with mythic/regional cross-pollinations, Camelot fertilizing Salinas or Monterey, usually creating grotesque hybrids that he himself knew were monsters. Even popular books like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, with their charming winos and saintly prostitutes, were mapped on Arthurian gridlines.

Parini is handcuffed by some of this, though he applauds Steinbeck’s rambling ventures into form and is quick to praise a neglected experiment in “symbolic realism” like The Wayward Bus. But Steinbeck’s metier was social realism, the lush foliation of circumstance around an event, and his great novel on the Dust Bowl migrations to California, The Grapes of Wrath, was a meticulously researched performance in which the friction of character against circumstance grew from actual lives in fully realized circumstances. Steinbeck had spent weeks in the Arvin Sanitary Camp, a federal camp set up to ameliorate migrant suffering, accompanied by its manager, Tom Collins, to whom he dedicated the novel. His diaries grew in proportion to his indignation.

The moralist and the journalist in Steinbeck galvanized each other, and he never wrote so convincingly, or close to his material, again, though later, as household name and “genial famous man,” he continued to enjoy popular sales and film success: John Ford’s “Grapes” (1940), Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden” (1955), starring James Dean, and the screenplay for Kazan’s “Viva Zapata!” (1952).

Not until 1962, in Travels with Charley did Steinbeck turn the spotlight upon himself, suggesting that the life, whatever its exigencies, was a footnote to the books. In Parini’s biography, Steinbeck comes alive mainly through his depressions, self-lacerations and failings, especially as a husband. (Requiring his first wife Carol to have an abortion lest fatherhood compromise his writing is a shocking, but also symbolic, detail.) With the cooperation of Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine, Parini has produced a satisfying narrative, and one learns to appreciate the human scale on which Steinbeck did everything heartsore and self-absorbed, to be sure, but never self-mythologizing. Warts and all, John Steinbeck is our usable past.

Brian A. Bremen (review date Spring 1995)

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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 impossible, of course, is figuring out just what his History will be. But if these sorts of works are meant to expose a general audience to a generation’s definitions of poetry, formulated in the midst of a wide range of critical debates, then Parini has accomplished his impossible mission as successfully as any completed by Mr. Phelps.

As Parini explains, “each chapter should be taken as one critic’s point of view: necessarily subjective, rooted in the critic’s position in the evolution of the culture as a whole.” Still, these critics share what Parini calls the poet’s wish to speak for and to “the American people at large”—a desire to “go through” potentially divisive issues such as nationalism, class, race, and gender, and to work toward “the dream of a common language.” Particularly successful in this regard are the more traditional essays of literary history on early African American poetry; on the overlooked contributions to the emergence of Modernism by HD, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore, as well as on the work of their even more neglected contemporaries—Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Elinore Wiley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bogan; on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance; on William Carlos Williams; and on the long poem in the twentieth century. More provocative are essays on the epic in the nineteenth century; on the counter tradition to Whitman formed by the transcendentalist poets, as well as on the issues inherent in reading Whitman himself; and on the ways in which Modernist provocations force a reexamination of Longfellow and a reconsideration of a poet’s relationship to the public. The endurance of T. S. Eliot, and the works of Poe, Frost, Bishop, the Agrarians, Pound, and Stevens are equally well presented in essays that provide both insightful overviews and important arguments.

More problematic are the essays on more recent writers and on what might be called “essays of inclusion,” though the problems are by no means entirely the fault of the individual critic. With less of a critical history to draw on, these essays—on Native American poetry, on the modern elegy and post-confessional lyric, on a staunchly feminist Dickinson, and on the Black arts movement—are bound to strike notes that will ring true to some and fall flat with others. Equally problematic are the two schools of “contemporary traditions” formulated in the essays on Merrill and Ashberry, and Levine and Wright. But then this is the impossible mission of History—the task of unearthing and explaining the hidden strata revealed in the poetic core sample. The task would be easier, too, if it were more geological and less conversational, less the idea of a conversation whose recording inevitably omits some voices while it changes the pitch of others. The most important mission, however, is to keep the conversation going.

John Piller (review date Spring 1995)

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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 versifiers created to fill a vacuum of conventional journals and awards, new formalists reject the Language poets as lineated literary theorists created to fill the vacuum of academic articles. Moreover, many (though by no means all) new formalists label Ashbery as a sloppy postmodern sham, and nearly all Language poets revile Merrill as an elitist premodern prosody manual.”

Of course, most of the differences of opinion are much more subtly stated than this one. But the jockeying for position is nonetheless evident. Many times it concerns correcting the “errors” of the past. As Mr. Parini notes in his introduction, “[o]ne of the chief tasks of criticism in the past decades has been the recovery of lost traditions. Women and African Americans, in particular, have been occluded, pushed to the margins, forgotten.” No such marginalization takes place here. The decades-long reordering of literary canon has, in effect, been collapsed between the covers of this book. Taking advantage of the opportunity to make a lasting impact on literary reputations, most critics adopt a tone of advocacy. Their purpose is to show why their subject deserves attention, respect, and praise—and to question the assumptions of the past. The questions raised are intriguing. For example: has Emily Dickinson’s stature as a feminist been given its due? Who really was the more experimental Modernist, Pound or Stein? Why are American poets so enthralled by the long poem? How have recent findings about possible ecological disaster changed the way poets write about nature? Who among contemporary poets will emerge as the most important to future readers?

In one of the collection’s strongest essays, Dana Gioia focuses Parini’s theme of recovering lost traditions on the role Modernism played in the evolution of critical judgment. Gioia’s primary purpose is to incite a reevaluation of Longfellow’s poetry “in the aftermath of Modernism.” But his secondary purpose is to show how Modernism’s tremendous influence narrowed the definition of valuable poetry and led to the diminished reputations of many worthy poets working outside that tradition, such as Longfellow. In addition to the presence of the “historical chasm that separates his age from our own,” Longfellow’s reputation fell because Modern critics favored a poetry that emphasized “compression, intensity, complexity, and ellipsis.” This bias fostered a devaluation of narrative poetry, Longfellow’s strength, and led to the emergence of “Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, and—for the Symbolist’s sake—the critical half of Poe” as the major pre-20th-century poets. Gioia laments “[t]he simplified version of nineteenth-century American poetry that grew out of this critical tradition [and that] excludes so much interesting and enduring work.” But rather than an outright rejection of Modernism, “which was our poetry’s greatest period,” Gioia echoes Parini’s desire to recover lost traditions when he calls for critics to now “correct the blindspots and biases of its critical assumptions.”

In order to better understand specific blindspots and biases, one must gain an objective perspective on Modernism, which means reevaluating important individual Modern poets, such as Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams. Parini and Miller devote a chapter to each of these writers, as well as assigning one on Hart Crane, “the James Dean of American poetry,” according to J. T. Barbarese. Of these essays, William Pritchard’s on Eliot stands out. His engaging and understated tone balances his impassioned argument as he develops the reasons he believes Eliot’s best poems will endure. His command of Eliot’s work allows him to toss off winning lines such as: “Indeed the weary futility is contradicted by the vitality of the verbal, aural performance.”

In addition to addressing the traditionally studied male Modern poets, Parini and Miller offer an essay on “Female Poets and the Emergence of Modernism” to off-set past bias. In this essay Margaret Dickie addresses the reasons females were “neglected in the conventional literary history.” At her most pithy she concisely—if somewhat unfairly—notes that one reason Gertrude Stein’s poetry is often overlooked by male critics is because her “contribution to Modernist experimentation [is] deeply dependent upon everything that patriarchal categories devalue: women’s erotic experience, the material of language, the play of the irrational process in narrative, the surface pleasure of the text.” Other essays providing a feminist perspective or simply focusing on female poets include Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s on Emily Dickinson and Jeanne Larsen’s on “Lowell, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan.”

Probably the largest blindspot in American poetry that requires correcting remains the work of minority writers, especially that of African and Native Americans. Though it is still unsettling that these writers continue to be grouped primarily by race, they both receive distinctive and sympathetic discussion here. Essays focusing on early African American poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Poets, and Native American poetry explore both the successful individual poets associated with these groups and the reasons why they remain outside the critical mainstream. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance poets and Native American poets who did not explicitly ignore the white critic’s literary values, the Black Arts poets, including Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, set out to establish a unique “black aesthetic” through music and essays as well as through poetry. William W. Cook looks at the origins of this movement, as well as at the lasting effect it has had on African American poets. In contrast to the Black Arts poets, the Harlem Renaissance “sought the broadest possible audience, and imagined their role as poets to be the kind of moral and intellectual authority that had characterized the Fireside tradition.” While the work of the best writers associated with this movement, such as Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, has received consistent attention over the years, Arnold Rampersad surveys the entire movement and provides an excellent analysis of the subject. Regarding Native American poetry, Lucy Maddox explores how this writing, which is “in the strictest sense, almost entirely a twentieth-century phenomenon,” has had to evolve away from the cultural traditions that emphasized “oral productions that are distinguished by their perfomanitive context and their use,” such as the Navajo Blessingway Rite, before it could reach a wider audience. Presented in chronological order throughout this volume, these and similar essays make one wonder how this important writing—though admittedly outside the European tradition—was so completely overshadowed for as long as it was.

The struggle to define a fair and accurate literary history is always intense, and Modernism’s influence on American poetry has been immense, but to leave the impression that these are the only issues relevant to this 894-page volume would be wrong. Many essays fall outside the boundaries of these concerns. Some take another look at often ridiculed groups of writers like the Beat poets, the San Francisco Renaissance poets, or the Confessional poets. Others address undervalued poets like Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, and the Fugitive poets. Still others examine issues such as “Nature’s Refrain in American Poetry” or “The Twentieth-Century Long Poem.” The breadth of material covered is impressive, and it is to the editors’ credit that none of the essays seems blatantly out of place or uncalled for.

But, of course, with a project like this one the problem lies more with what to leave out than what to include. The greatest failure seems to be a loss of nerve by Parini and Miller when it comes to addressing contemporary writing. Parini addresses this difficulty in his introduction when he notes that “[t]astes shift, and what looks to one generation like ‘major poetry’ often reads like doggerel to the next.” Thus his solution—not a bad one, but a conservative one—is to focus on four major contemporary writers—John Ashbery. James Merrill, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright. However, his choice not to survey the current poets and their interests (as the companion volume of British Poetry does) makes the book seem incomplete. Of course tastes will shift. Nonetheless, even if the Language poets and the new formalists, for example, do seem eccentric and peripheral to future readers, their interests have consumed enough creative and critical energy to merit inclusion here.

Similarly, the influence of foreign poetry on recent American poetry is an important topic that is overlooked. For a time, in the 1960’s and 70’s particularly, it seemed that the influence of foreign poetry theories, especially surrealism, was going to radically change the face of American poetry. Why didn’t it? What lasting influence will it have? James Wright and Robert Bly, two influential poets and translators, barely get mentioned. Nor do Mark Strand and Charles Simic, who edited the excellent anthology Another Republic, and who have written original poems for 20 years. At a time when four foreign-born Nobel Laureate poets—Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Octavio Paz, and Derek Walcott—spend much, if not all of their time in the United States, this issue calls out for analysis.

Finally, one must lament the absence of favorite poets. My short list includes Frank O’Hara, Donald Justice, Thom Gunn, and James Tate. Every reader will no doubt enjoy compiling a list of grievances as he or she notes who is included and who is excluded. That said, the editors’ choice to conclude their selections with Edward Hirsch’s essay on Philip Levine and Charles Wright is inspired. They are two poets who have distinguished themselves as the best American poetry has to offer. Hirsch highlights their “visionary poetics” and shows how Levine “has created a memorializing poetics of human separation and connection” while Wright “has defined a radiant metaphysics of absence and aspiration, of the longed-for presence of the divine.” This exceptional essay provides a fitting conclusion to a book that offers an enjoyable, and sometimes provocative, look at American poetry.

Jonathan Vos Post (review date Summer 1995)

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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 Doolittle) is very extensively cited—almost seven column inches in the index—without a squeak about her science poetry such as “Stars Wheel in Purple.” Why is Marilyn Hacker (558–59, 665) typecast as a “Formalist Lesbian poet” with no reference to her science fiction or her ties to Samuel Delany? Why Henry Holt but not Rochelle Holt?

Where is David Ignatow (b. 1914) and his “Poet to a Physicist in his Laboratory”? Stanley Kunitz gets half a dozen citations (xxxvii, 257, 653, 654–56, 661, 668), with no citation for “The Science of Night.” Why not Andrew Joron? Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) gets short shrift (60, 536) without “Reply to Mr. Wordsworth.” Michael McClure’s ten references actually include the book Scratching the Beat Surface (584–55) without pointing to his detailed discussion in that book of the Beat movement’s relationship between science and poetry, which ties together biologist Harold Morowitz, evolutionist Ernst Haeckel, science philosopher Alfred North Whitehead all in the context of Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Su Tung-p’o.

In all the discussion of Marianne Moore, why no hint of “In the Days of Prismatic Colour” or “Four Quartz Crystals”? We have Howard Nemerov (70, 78, 89) without “During a Solar Eclipse,” “Unscientific Postscript.” “Cosmic Comics,” or “Seeing Things.”

Kenneth Rexroth is given his due (77, 584, 586, 587, 599–600), but the reader would never know of his deep commitment to science poetry as shown by: “Moon Festival,” “A Lesson in Geography,” “Blood on a Dead World,” “The Great Nebula of Andromeda,” “Halley’s Comet,” “The Heart of Herakles,” “A Maze of Sparks of Gold,” “Protoplasm of Light,” “A Sword in a Cloud of Light,” “Lute Music,” “On What Planet?,” “Theory of Numbers,” “The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Part 4,” “The Dragon and the Unicorn, Part 1,” “The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart” in The Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: New Dimensions, 1968); and “An Equation for Marie,” “Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries” (mathematics jargon in dispute with surrealism). “Inversely as the Square of their Distance Apart” (gravitation as a symbol for love), “OTTFFSSENTE,” “Pronesis, III,” “The Place,” “Theory of Numbers,” “A Lemma by Constance Reid” from The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: New Directions, 1966).

We see Adrienne Rich (xxviii, xxx, xxxi, 758, 660–62) but not her “Planetarium.” Muriel Rukeyser is mariginalized to a single citation (541) so there is no listing of “The Dam” or “Gibbs”—two particularly significant poems on mathematical beauty and understanding. Anne Sexton appears (641–44, xxvii, 636, xi, xviii, 75, 638, 646, 632, 664, xxvii, 636, 652) without “Riding the Elevator into the Sky” or “The Starry Night.” And where, oh where, is William Stafford, a major figure whether or not one appreciates “The Stars in the Hills”? Why nothing of D. M. Thomas, who before his best-selling novels such as The White Hotel was best known for his poems based on fiction by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Tom Godwin, Damon Knight, and James H. Schmitz (Penguin Modern Poets II, 1968). Where is Lewis Turco, with or without the science fiction and fantasy element of A Cage of Creatures and Season of the Blood?

One might hardly expect mention of major science fiction authors whose reputations were established in prose but who have also published science fiction poetry. This pantheon includes Poul and Karen Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Greg Benford, Michael Bishop, James Blish, Orson Scott Card, Christine Carmichael, Stanton A. Coblentz, George Robert Ackworth Conquest (too popular a poet for Columbia?), John Creasy, L. Sprague de Camp, Gordon Dickson, Thomas Disch (England considers him one of America’s top-ten poets), George Alec Effinger, Suzette H. Elgin, Harlan Ellison, Carol Emswiller, Philip Jose Farmer, Kenneth Fearing (1902–61), John M. Ford, Janet Fox, Robert Frazier, Esther Friesner, Randall Garrett, Felix C. Gottschalk, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Frank Herbert, L. Ron Hubbard, John Inouye, John Jakes, George Clayton Johnson, Virginia Kidd, Stephen King (perhaps America’s best-known living or undead authors), Dean Koontz, Henry Kuttner, Geoffrey A. Landis, Alan P. Lightman, Alice M. Lightner, Jeffrey G. Liss, Robert A. W. Lowndes, Bruce McAllister, Ann McCaffrey, Frederik Pohl, Jonathan Vos Post, Fred Saberhagan, Pamela Sargent, Hilbert Schenck Jr., Lucius Shepard, John Sladek, Theodore Sturgeon, Steve Rasnic Tem, Gene van Troyer, George Henry Weiss (“Francis Flagg” 1898–1946), and Roger Zelazny.

One could go on in this vein, but, in all fairness, The Columbia History of American Poetry is neither an encyclopedia nor a CD-ROM and cannot reasonably make an effort to be complete, or even comprehensive, but merely representative. I have seen ample, indeed overwhelming, evidence for the thesis that science poetry is profoundly (in the words of William Carlos Williams) “In the American Grain.” I have traced a science and science fiction thematic thread through the tapestry of thirty chapters. One can hope that future editions (perhaps a more comprehensive electronic book or computer database edition) will explicitly acknowledge what is only implicit here: that the American spirit exalts (and sometimes recoils from) the stellar sweep of science, and that science fiction shares the stage with poetry.

Willard Spiegelman (review date Summer-Fall 1995)

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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 William Cullent Bryant. As a reference work (which this really is not) the book fails to maintain any consistency of annotation, inexcusable even if one acknowledges the different styles of its thirty contributors. Each essay ends with a list of suggestions for further reading, but these random, arbitrary items exclude a great deal, most troubling those unspecified works by critics referred to by name within the body of the essay. (For example, M. H. Abrams, Clara Claiborne Park, Marge Piercy, and Alan Wilde appear in different chapters, but a reader interested in their works will search the bibliographies in vain.)

To move up the ladder of complaints: someone who wants to hear more than the merest nugatory word of faint praise about Conrad Aiken, e. e. cummings, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, James Whitcomb Riley, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Trumbull Stickney, May Swenson, Jones Very, or Richard Wilbur will come away disappointed and unenlightened. These omissions are a trifle scandalous. As an omnium-gatherum, John Hollander’s recent two-volume anthology of nineteenth-century American poetry1 achieves both greater breadth and more significant depth than this critical history. Those mid-nineteenth-century popular poets, against whom Hollander’s anthology allows us to take the genuine measure of Dickinson and Whitman, play no part in Parini’s volume. Sidney Lanier and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman get no mention whatsoever, nor do such representative popular poets as Francis Scott Key, Emma Lazarus, and Ernest Lawrence Thayer. On the other hand, there are two separate essays that treat Marianne Moore at considerable length. In his introduction, Parini calls Bryant “our first national poet” (xiii), but only two other contributors even bother to mention him, and neither can be said to discuss or analyze him. It appears that our first national poet is of little consequence.

Matters of inclusion and exclusion inevitably coincide with problems of point of view. The book is so heavily biased toward the modern (six hundred of eight hundred pages deal with this century) that it might be retitled “The History of Twentieth-Century Poetry with Some Attention to Its Precursors.” One obvious strength of a multi-authored anthology is the opportunity it affords its readers to witness multiple takes on a single issue, or squarings off, or an implicit teaching-of-the-controversies that Gerald Graff has persuasively recommended that we make a part of our pedagogic agendas. One is perplexed, however, to hear Francis Murphy, in his essay on Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, call Michael Wigglesworth’s 1662 poem The Day of Doom “the most popular poem ever written in America” (10), and then to search (again in vain) for anything else pertaining to him and it until, hundreds of pages later, in an essay on Pound’s Imagist aesthetics J. C. Barbarese refers to it en passant as “Wigglesworth’s absurd The Day of Doom [which] seems owned by Paradise Lost” (305). This discrepancy qualifies as more than a mere difference of opinion, and it opens up the whole issue of factuality (What accounted for this poem’s popularity? Who read it? How many copies? How many editions?) and of literary taste as well. Whether it was popular, or merely absurd, might the curious reader be given some excerpts of it to chew on?

Discord among the critics is inevitable, healthy, and speaks for the strengths of this volume as well as for its weaknesses. So does the apparent multiplicity of authorial techniques. As I have mentioned, this volume neither tells a story, hewing to the older narrative model for literary history, nor offers itself as an encyclopedia, chockablock with facts, dates, and other useful information. It is not a reference book. (As I write this, I look nostalgically at my shelves: Baugh, Brooke, Chew, Malone, and Sherburn’s A Literary History of England [1948], which got me through graduate school and which mentions everything and everyone in sensible chronological order, pausing occasionally to make a pithy critical epigram or evaluation, stands beside The Oxford Classical Dictionary, which moves alphabetically from Abacus to Zosimus and provides thumb-nail sketches of the monuments and forgotten scribes and data of antiquity.) One does not go to the Columbia History to “look things up.” It won’t help.

In his introduction Parini makes a somewhat exaggerated generalization when he says that our poets have always tried “to lay claim to a voice that reflects the genuineness and separateness of a particular culture” and that American “poems have consistently taken the measure of the culture as a whole” (x). There have been many poets with much more modest aspirations, like the late Howard Nemerov—another poet scanted in these pages—who said sensibly that “poetry is a way of getting something right in language.”2 Parini’s own goal, in other words, begins to look grandiose, and more political and cultural than, strictly speaking, poetic. The melting-pot image of America, merging with Emersonian patriotic zeal and Whitman’s expansive proposal that the United States are themselves the greatest poem, has been matched in the pages of this volume with the current fashion for multiculturalism, the rainbow coalition, and intellectual teamwork. Such a composite method has many advantages for an anthology whose editor speaks on behalf of separateness. Just as we constitute a congeries of separate “particular” cultures, so it makes sense to consider those cultures, or topics, poets, and poetic moments from the specific viewpoints of different scholars.

Parini also claims in his introduction that his contributors are “some of our strongest critics” (xi). Finally, the Columbia History comes down to a series of discrete critical essays (some stronger than others) in which, quite often, history takes a back seat to other primary focuses. (Parini’s essay on Frost is, by his own admission, “largely an attempt to characterize the work itself” [xxi]: it could sit comfortably at the beginning of a selection of Frost’s poems.) The editor is to be commended for encouraging a variety of critical views and tastes, and for discouraging obscurity and jargon. The intended audience for the book, one infers, is a general educated reader who is not necessarily checking up on facts or looking for specific information but, instead, interested in learning something about individual authors (via separate essays on the usual suspects: Longfellow, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Hart Crane, and Auden); pairings or groups of authors (Bradstreet and Taylor, the Transcendentalists, several gatherings of women poets, the Fugitives, the Beats, the Confessionals, James Merrill and John Ashbery, Philip Levine and Charles Wright); groups defined racially (early African-American poets, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts poets, native American poets); or, in a few instances, topics arranged by formal and thematic considerations (“The Epic in the Nineteenth Century,” “The Twentieth-Century Long Poem,” “Nature’s Refrain in American Poetry”).

Not only do focus and style vary from one essay to the next, but so does method. Some writers follow the older model of listing everything in order, giving everyone a mention. Carolivia Herron’s essay on early African-American poetry (23–32) is of this sort: a catalog that retrieves obscure or formerly lost writers and weaves them all into a list with dates and titles but with little analysis or evaluation. The essay is a bibliographic data base. Lynn Keller on the long poem in the twentieth century (534–63) does pretty much the same thing, but with virtually no poetic excerpts. Although omitting from analysis Benet, Robinson, MacLeish, and Jeffers (who is treated in John Elder’s essay on nature poetry [707–27]), she manages to make a brief mention of practically everyone else. Some essays (such as Elder’s) are primarily thematic; others use biography as the basis for generic and stylistic achievement (Lea Baechler on Berryman, Roethke and the elegy [605–31]; others (Barbarese on Crane [419–51], Helen Vendler on Stevens [370–94] are analytical but not particularly historical. Some awaken us to forgotten gems, as Lawrence Buell does in his piece on the Transcendentalists (97–120), by making a generous use of quotation, especially from the work of Ellen Hooper. John McWilliams’s curious piece on nineteenth-century epic (33–63) daringly blurs generic lines to talk mainly about fiction and history rather than poetry.

The individual essays are all competent, and some are first-rate. Some of them have only a passing interest in matters of poetic form, prosody, and technique. Others (like Parini’s mentioned above) constitute appropriate introductions to individual poets. The very best offer guidance to both novices and advanced readers alike. As usual, Helen Vendler merits praise for the way in which she first puts Wallace Stevens into a historical context and then teaches us how to read a Stevens poem. Her piece, like Parini’s and William Pritchard’s on Eliot (319–42), epitomizes judiciousness and clarity. She gives one page to the poet’s biography, one to his publishing history, several more to his literary antecedents and the traditions into which his best readers have placed him, before settling into her main topic, not Steven’s “themes” but “his exceedingly original voice, conveyed through his many experiments in language” (378). Now we have landed in familiar critical territory, and Vendler leads us with sympathy and assurance through the strange verbal landscape of Stevens’s planet, his titles, his symbols, his riddles, his syntax, and his experiments with both shorter and longer poetic forms. When useful she connects the poetry to Stevens’s life and to the background of national and international events to which it sometimes obliquely alludes, and she moves with a measured pace from the experiments of Harmonium through the final poems, exiting with a glance at his posthumous reputation.

At their impressive best, individual essays locate our central or even our peripheral poets within their own time, among their contemporaries, and in regard to their predecessors and descendants. Some of the essays, as I have said, focus on thematic or historical issues to the exclusion of formal ones, whereas others tend to be exercises in close reading or stylistic investigations that have less to say about historical matters. Dana Gioia’s “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism” (64–96) marches right down the middle of the road, explaining history by explaining poetic form. (Arnold Rampersad makes a comparable march in his piece on the Harlem Renaissance [452–76].) Gioia revisits our most popular poet and investigates the High Modernist standards that permitted his fall from critical grace. Not only was Longfellow internationally successful, but he also achieved his fame by a kind of formal experimentation that has gone either unnoticed or unappreciated by subsequent generations of scholars and poets, even (or especially) those who wear the badge “poet-professor” that he first wore in this country. Gioia sides with the perhaps mythical common reader, the person who has not forgotten Longfellow, who knows by heart individual lines or larger chunks of his verse: “Contemporary taste does not esteem the genres Longfellow favored—the ballad, idyll, pastoral romance, and moral fable—nor does it regard the stylistic strengths his contemporaries praised—clarity, grace, musicality, masterful versification, and memorability” (68–69). Gioia demonstrates clearly and succinctly how changing taste can become a cudgel with which to beat, or viciously to neglect, a former star, and he does so without forcing his argument into the straightjacket of theory or ideology. Instead, he wisely discusses the rise and fall of poetic genres, categories, and forms. His view of Modernism as the villain relies a bit too heavily on an older, Procrustean version of the early twentieth century, which is itself now undergoing considerable revision (as we see from the essays of Margaret Dickie, Lynn Keller, and Arnold Rampersad in this volume). Gioia attributes Longfellow’s decline to the modernist preference for the private voice (What about Pound’s strident didacticism?), for hermetic or autotelic art (What about Williams?), for difficulty of approach (What about Frost?), and for the strenuous Flaubertian removal of the artist from the public sphere (What about Allen Ginsberg?).

But he also suggests another, perhaps more interesting reason for Longfellow’s devaluation. Not just Modernism itself (whatever that might have been) but also a neopuritanical resistance to certain kinds of meter might explain Longfellow’s expulsion from critical favor. Gioia goes beyond Timothy Steele’s recent diatribe against free verse and the revolution wrought by Walt Whitman to consider equally the strong preference of Robert Frost, Yvor Winters, and other formalists, for iambic pentameter in either its strict or loose version.3 Such a formal monopoly, says Gioia, tended to depreciate and therefore to ridicule other kinds of metrical experiment—trochees, various triple rhythms and so on—as suitable only to light verse. The very omission from this volume of so masterful a poet as E. A. Robinson, whom we might call the American Hardy—at least musically—proves Gioia’s point.

Other critics in the volume are less interested than Gioia (himself a practicing poet linked with the so-called New Formalists) in poetic forms. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her essay on Dickinson (121–47), ignores much of the formal and rhythmic originality of the poetry (although she manages a couple of paragraphs about the notorious punctuation) in exchange for a focus on imagery, tonality, and the historical questions surrounding a woman’s entry into a predominantly male sphere. Donald Pease is more attuned to Whitman’s presence in his poetry “as indissociable from the United States’s ongoing experiment in democracy” (170) than to his prosodic revolution.

The inevitable question to be posed about a volume such as this is whether its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Probably the answer is no. Reading this book straight through, we may wonder what a literary history is, or should be, a history of: we might, for example, want to read pieces on “The History of the Sonnet in America,” or “The Use of Free Verse from Whitman to the Present,” or “Race and Meter,” but Parini and his writers have chosen to tell other stories, most of them having to do with major figures or with movements in which all the single players receive equal, and cursory, attention to thematic more than to formal matters. It all comes down to the problem John Ashbery describes at the start of “The New Spirit”:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.4

What to include, what to omit? The Columbia History of American Poetry makes what many might regard as unfortunate omissions, in spite of the general excellence of what it contains. It tells no single story, and it lacks a thread, aside from an accidental one, to connect the several stories that appear within its glittering parts.


  1. John Hollander, ed., American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (New York: Library of America, 1993).

  2. Howard Nemerov, “Poetry and Meaning,” rpt. in The Howard Nemerov Reader (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1991) 281.

  3. Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1990).

  4. John Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Viking, 1972) 3.

Andrew C. Higgins (review date Fall 1995)

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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 major American poets. The book is made up of thirty-one excellent chapters that discuss the development of major and not-so-major poets and schools of poets. These chapters are interesting and informative, but the structure of the book leads to a glaring omission: the book fails to discuss adequately the role of poetry in American culture. What would remedy this omission would be a series of chapters such as those found in the Columbia Literary History of the United States on “Literature and Culture,” “Intellectual Life and Public Discourse,” or “Culture, Power, and Society.”

A blueprint for the kind of discussion I am arguing for might be Lucy Maddox’s chapter on Native American poetry. Maddox begins by talking about the distinctions between Native American “oral productions that are distinguished by their performative context and their use, and written productions that are distinguished by internal formal features” (729). Her discussion of contemporary Native American poets then considers the role that their poetry plays in Native American culture as both a continuation of the oral/narrative tradition of various tribes and as a non-indigenous art form.

Overall, the book endorses the view of American poetry as leading up to and away from the high modernist period embodied in writers like Eliot, Pound, Frost, Williams, Stevens, and Moore. As such, the book presents a history of a certain poetic tradition with occasional chapters on writers from outside that tradition with occasional chapters on writers from outside that tradition as counterpoint. While the book has some very interesting moments, particularly Carolivia Herron’s essay “Early African American Poetry,” readers seeking a history of poetry in America will be, on the whole, disappointed. But the reader should not be surprised by this focus after hearing editor Jay Parini marvel: “More recently one can hardly imagine poets with styles as different as James Merrill and John Ashbery” (x).

In regards to minority voices, the book suffers hugely from what Herron, in her essay, describes as the “WHOA” or “we have one already” syndrome. From a purely head-counting perspective, the multiculturalist will be disappointed by the fact that there is not a single writer of color named in the table of contents. Throughout the book, with the exception of Lynn Keller’s article “The Twentieth-Century Long Poem,” which considers long poems by African American, Chicano, and Native American writers, writers of color are safely ensconced in their own chapter. This leads to two distinct disappointments. First, no writer of color is considered on his or her own. And second, there is no dual perspective on any of these writers. Poets such as Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Langston Hughes are all important and interesting poets who are given, unfortunately, brief consideration in the catch-all format of the chapter in which they appear.

Herron’s tour of African American poetry prior to the Harlem Renaissance is a treasure trove of delightful poets such as George Moses Horton, who while a slave, working as a janitor for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, composed his first book of poetry before he had learned to write, and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, who wrote some of the most searing abolitionist poetry in works like “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction.” If there is a limitation to this chapter, it is that it attempts too much. One wishes the editor had split this chapter in two, with one essay focusing on African American poets whose careers began prior to the Civil War and one tracking African American poets who began writing during or after the Reconstruction. As Herron’s article makes clear, there is more than enough material for two essays.

Arnold Rampersad’s chapter on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is informative and wide ranging, illustrating the connections between the social history and the literary history. However, William W. Cook’s discussion of the Black Arts Movement tends to focus too much on the various manifestos of the movement at the expense of a more thorough consideration of the wider social forces of the times. Still, in his discussions of the poets and their works, particularly Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni, Cook provides numerous quotes from the poetry, giving the poets’ voices a chance to come through, and also comments insightfully on various literary influences on the writers, such as Brooks’s use of the prophet Amos and Baraka’s involvement with the Beats.

Chicano/Chicana and Puerto Rican poetry is barely mentioned in the book. And while dealing with recent trends is a difficult matter in a history of this scope, the development of modern Chicano/Chicana and Puerto Rican poetry in the last thirty-five years would certainly seem to be a fact worth mentioning. Chicano poetry is mentioned only briefly in Lynn Keller’s essay, “The Twentieth-Century Long Poem,” where she mentions Rudolfo Gonzales and Jimmy Santiago Baca as examples of Chicano poets who either draw on the corrido tradition (Gonzales) or who draw on contemporary Chicano/Chicana community and imagery (Baca). What is ignored wholly in The Columbia History of American Poetry is the important growth of Chicano/Chicana poetry from the activist writers of the Aztlan school, such as Alurista, to the more disciplined and introspective yet still powerful social poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, and Alberto Rios, all of whom have been established since the early eighties. Puerto Rican poetry is wholly ignored; important and established poets such as Clemente Soto Velez and Miguel Algarin are not mentioned at all.

Literature—whatever form it takes—is a reaction to our specific social, personal, environmental, and economic conditions. Consequently, what we might hope to find today in a history of American poetry is how poetry has existed and changed in light of the many significant events of American history. But unfortunately, you will not find in these pages mention of the poetry of Angel Island, the corridos, the cowboy ballads of the late 1800s, and the many other locations where poetry has flourished in the United States outside of the major publishing houses. What this history covers, it covers well. But in this age of New Historicism and Cultural Studies, one finds oneself wishing for a more encompassing view of American poetry.

Kevin Hearle (review date December 1995)

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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 serious errors of fact and of documentation in his description of this relationship. Specifically, he falsely claims that Carol Steinbeck never remarried (257), and, apparently on the basis of a single, undocumented claim in the Larsen biography of Campbell, he states categorically that, at John’s insistence, Carol Steinbeck had an abortion which left her sterile. There may or may not be some basis in fact for his claim, but Parini does not provide the evidence. Similarly, one of Parini’s primary sources for new information on Steinbeck’s relationships with Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell, one Mr. Allen Simmons, is a bit of a mystery. Neither Ricketts’s surviving family, nor his good friend Jean Ariss can identify the man. For that matter, Simmons is never mentioned in any of Steinbeck’s published letters, nor do the Larsens make any mention of Parini’s mysterious source in their biography of Campbell. Perhaps the American edition should have been delayed a few more years.

Marvin J. LaHood (review date Winter 1996)

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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 will help. And yet it is possible that this critical acclaim, so long in coming, might never come. Vidal’s writing, his vision, his world view, may not be great enough to garner him the acclaim he and Jay Parini feel is so long overdue. The reasons Parini suggests for this neglect range from some sort of “troubled” relationship with academe to Vidal’s “unusual productivity” that makes it difficult for critics to “focus” on his oeuvre.

The volume begins with an excellent introductory essay by Parini, “The Writer and His Critics,” and ends with a very revealing 1990 interview with Vidal by Parini at Vidal’s villa “La Rondinaia” in Ravello, Italy. There are essays by such Vidal watchers as Italo Calvino, Harold Bloom, Louis Auchincloss, and Catherine Stimson. All of his work, from Williwaw to Hollywood (1990), is covered. His most provocative writings—The City and the Pillar, Julian, Burr, Lincoln, Myra Breckenridge, and Duluth—are carefully dissected and analyzed. The result is the best book yet on Vidal’s work, and still one that will leave readers unsure of the mystery of Vidal’s place in twentieth-century American literature.

Vidal never writes about anything he doesn’t know, and he does his homework. He has conducted extensive and intelligent research for his many historical novels, which include his important series of books in the “American Chronicle.” In the 1990 interview he states, “I may buy two or three hundred books for each novel.” He even has a professional historian check the novels when he is finished. And he certainly has brought that history to life. Perhaps Vidal’s flaw, that small defect that keeps him from the status many think he deserves, is the flaw every satirist must deal with: the question of cynicism. Lincoln is illustrative. Even Parini’s assessment is striking in this regard: “That Lincoln was willing to go to any end—a dreadful and terrible end, as it were—to perpetuate an idea that appears, in retrospect, curiously abstract, is Vidal’s underlying theme.” Lincoln is the most important American of all time. Yet even he seems not the great altruist to Vidal, but rather some kind of pragmatist. Perhaps he was, but in Lincoln it is Vidal’s vision that colors him so.

Thinking of Vidal’s place makes one wonder about others who have found and kept a place, such as Faulkner and Hemingway. Was their vision less cynical? Was their world more substantive? Was there more altruism, honor, integrity, self-discipline, or heroism in it? Are those the things great writers have traditionally espoused in one way or another? Does one need to create a Dilsey or a Santiago in order to have a place at the top? Even acerbic Sinclair Lewis created a Martin Arrowsmith. But at least Vidal’s work and Vidal’s criticism raise all these questions and others, and Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain asks them well.

David Watt (review date Winter 1996)

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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 a biography undertaken by Thomas Kiernan’s The Intricate Music. While it does contain some new material—a good four pages on first wife Carol’s attraction to Joseph Campbell, for instance—Parini has not written a scholarly book. Benson’s massive research provides, instead, the foundation for a writer’s appreciation of a fellow writer.

“Like many men who consider themselves ‘ugly,’ Steinbeck was dependent on women.” This sentence reveals Parini’s method as well as his central theme. He allows the details of Steinbeck’s story to provoke him into a kind of generalizing wisdom, and he focuses these claims around the issue of self-esteem. Although the story Parini tells is, for the most part, a familiar one, his open sympathy foregrounds Steinbeck’s effort toward acceptance of self, one gained through the twin challenges of writing and marriage.

Steinbeck’s first marriage to Carol Henning began to turn bad in the middle thirties In 1932, Carol initiated and then broke off the affair with Campbell. In 1933, Steinbeck’s parents began their long day’s dying, and both Carol and John spent many weeks in the next two years caring for them. Carol grew restless in the role, while Steinbeck, according to Parini, “was unable to recover his trust” in Carol in the wake of the affair. Meanwhile, Steinbeck wrote ferociously. He finished To a God Unknown in the summer of 1933 and quickly began work on “The Red Pony” as well as many of the stories that would fill out The Long Valley. That fall he wrote three-quarters of Tortilla Flat in a month. Olive Steinbeck died in February 1934. John finished Tortilla Flat during the following month and then began a novel about a strike in an apple orchard. He completed In Dubious Battle by February 1935 and described it as a book about “self-hate.” John’s father died in late May, five days before the publication of Tortilla Flat, the book that was to make him his first real money and to make his name.

The price of this ordeal of achievement—Steinbeck’s periods of creativity were typically intense and intermittent—was the loss of the first marriage, although Carol and John would patch things together until separating in 1941. In 1943 he married Gwendolyn Conger, a decision he later described as a mistake from the start. In 1948 he separated from Gwyn, and, in the next year, finally met the woman with whom, he believed, he could be himself. He married Elaine Scott in 1950 and spent 20 happy years with her. The years in which he ended his second marriage and began his third provide a marked contrast to those in which he inaugurated his career.

The Wayward Bus had been published in 1947. It was described by one critic as a story about a man who intentionally enters traps. Parini finds here a new “sympathy for the humiliations and depredations that women in their traditional roles must undergo.” The Book-of-the-Month Club sold 600,000 copies and Viking unloaded another 150,000 before the trade publication, “making it the author’s most successful book, commercially, to date.” In May 1948, Steinbeck’s dearest friend, Ed Ricketts—the man who had mentored him in his theories about the “phalanx” and “non-teleological thinking”—was killed while crossing a railroad track in Monterey. When John came back to New York after the funeral, Gwyn asked for a divorce, as well as for custody of their two sons. Thus began an interrupted relation that would lead Steinbeck to conclude, as Parini argues, that “he had failed” as a father. After the confrontation with Gywn, Steinbeck moved back to the family cottage in Pacific Grove, began gardening, and, nine months later, met Elaine Scott while on a date with Ann Southern. In falling in love with Elaine, and in marrying her, he thought he had merged the “two things,” as he wrote John O’Hara, he could not do without: “work and women.”

“What John really wanted,” friend Toby Scott said some years later, “was a home, a steady place to work, a garden, and love.” Did Steinbeck finally get it all? Most critics trace a decline in his work after the 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. This would confine the best work to the period of the first marriage. Even sympathetic critics usually write-off the work of the 1940’s, the years that correspond to the marriage to Gywn. If the 20 years with Elaine are to be seen as a time when Steinbeck did successfully blend arheiten und lieben, the case must rest on books like East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent. East of Eden deserves and is beginning to receive a critical reappraisal. While Parini describes The Winter of Our Discontent as a novel of “satisfying veracity and authority,” the case for Steinbeck’s last novel remains to be made.

Unlike Hemingway and Faulkner, who saw writing as performative or agonistic, Steinbeck viewed it as a pragmatic, even a therapeutic activity. “A novel may be said to be the man who writes it,” he wrote in a letter from Rome in 1957. “Now it is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with one chief or central character in his novel. Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be. We can call this spokesman the self-character. You will find one in every one of my books and in the novels of everyone I can remember.” Steinbeck’s embrace of fiction as expressive form allows him to use writing as a way of working through that frees up energy needed to experience pleasure in his personal life. Although this process was largely complete by 1940, Steinbeck was unable to take full advantage of his imaginative realizations until the late 1940’s, when he met Elaine Scott.

Parini does establish, once again, that on his third try Steinbeck achieved a remarkable happiness in his married life. Perhaps this was possible for him because he had earned, through hard and bitter experience, the right to like himself. All of his life he remained consistent in defining the human enterprise as a curtailment of the will. His fascination with group behavior marked an attempt to get beyond the egotism—even the narcissism—that so disfigures the unsponsored modern self. In a 1934 letter he wrote that his mother and father “are the only two things which make me conscious of myself as a unit. Except for them I spread out and over landscape and people like an enormous jelly fish, having neither personality nor boundaries. That is as I wish it, complete destruction of anything which can be called a me.” Tom Joad’s speech, in which he will become nothing but be everywhere, echoes this. The movement “from ‘I’ to ‘we’” marks not only the dynamic of his greatest novel, but of its author’s life effort itself, one in which a complex disciplining of the ego led, at last, to the capacity to love.

The irony in Steinbeck’s case is that in order to love, he had to learn to think more rather than less of himself. He could only do this by reconceiving the kind of self that a “me” should be. “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism,” he wrote in 1935. “A reverse egotism, of course, beginning with self-consciousness.” The enemy that had to be fought off was an inflated and demanding ego-ideal. It was only as his first marriage failed, and as he began to enter the death-haunted passage called middle age—a passage he attempted to abort by marrying a much younger and even more self-absorbed person—that Steinbeck began to abandon the very American pastime of turning the self into a project. One is special, he came to see, neither in one’s goodness or one’s badness. In a 1941 letter held at the University of Virginia and quoted by none of his biographers, Steinbeck breaks through to the knowledge that a true liking of the self is based not on striving after admiration but rather on the gentle acknowledgement of the shadow. Although Parini may not have seen this letter, it serves as a kind of epilogue for his warm and welcome book:

I must have got from my father (a man who never lived fully until it came his time to die) a feeling that I should so live and think and act that I could admire myself, that I could feel that I was just and good and decent. I tried that for a long time. There’s no better way of cutting oneself off. Now I don’t admire myself at all and I know I have been unjust and not good and decent and far from being a bad thing it makes me feel very much related to people and things. If I can grow through these things to actually like myself that will be good.

Stephen Allison (review date Spring 1996)

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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 to Jung’s “collective unconscious”) before giving in to his own rugged individualism. Parini emphasizes Steinbeck’s heroic, creative endurance despite the critics; he held on to his career and sensibility with a tenacious grip, gaining enormous popularity among readers and a highly developed social vision. However, Parini does not underemphasize Steinbeck’s career in relation to Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s. Some of his anecdotes shed light on this complex and sometimes amusing subject.

Joe Moran (review date April 1996)

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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 personal friends of Vidal’s, their pieces being part-reminiscence and short of analytical clout. Above all, one senses that, perhaps because Vidal’s aversion to “the hacks of academe” is cited approvingly passim, the contributors often eschew academic discourse and current theoretical debates in favour of a style and tone which is relaxed and personal—only half the essays, in fact, have footnotes. The mode is also generally evaluative—either commendations or, more rarely, attacks (Robert Boyers’s dismissal of Vidal’s essays as “bilious one-upmanship” being particularly memorable)—rather than theoretical or thematic.

I found the best essays to be those with a clear point other than content analysis, reading Vidal’s work either through sexuality and gender (Catharine R. Stimpson on Myra Breckinridge and Myron as satires on the repressive sex codes of the nuclear family) or the political (Donald E. Pease on Vidal’s compression of the distinction between history and literary text—a link with the New Historicists—and his corresponding dismissal of the prevailing view of literature as a sublimation of political action). Generally, though, the essays tend to be organized around individual works or groups of works rather than pivotal themes. Overall, this is a highly accessible, literate and comprehensive introduction to Vidal’s work which, perhaps because of the number of its contributions and the way they have been gathered, is somewhat lacking in focus.

Jeffrey Mehlman (review date 18 May 1997)

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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. He was 48 years old.

It is the legend of that fatal interception at the Spanish border, as it fused in imagination with the interception of image by allegory, that gives the figure of Benjamin its pathos and tragic weight. Deconstruction, which has always felt a modicum of guilt at the gratuitousness of its own hijinks, could appeal through Benjamin to issues of life and death. A whole generation of American academics has nourished the dream of pursuing paths opened by Benjamin, bringing to fruition intuitions brutally cut short by the most wrenching historical circumstances. To have the Benjamin legend as part of one’s baggage meant, among other things, never having to countenance the accusation of gratuitousness or ahistoricism again.

Benjamin’s Crossing, as its title suggests, is more interested in the tragedy at the Spanish border than in its subjects’s theories. (At times, in fact, the tension between sublime landscape and historical catastrophe seems an open invitation to imagine the book as a dry run for a motion picture.) This makes for a number of problems. The first is that Benjamin the thinker comes across as an endearingly pedantic clown, libidinally driven, to be sure, but fundamentally a portly courtly would be professor whom Parini drapes in a patchwork of relatively familiar fragments from his published essays. By the end of the novel this Benjamin is looking fairly good in such attire, but it still feels more like couture than genuine culture.

And then how is one to react to the fact that the very episodes Parini feels free to reinvent—or remystify—are at present the subject of ongoing and painstaking historical research? A significant biography (by Moraine Brodersen) published in 1996 reveals just how far the reconstruction of the events of September 1940—through hotel, medical and police records—has gone. The resentful hotel keeper invented by Parini is an intriguing enough character, but this reader finally felt cheated upon confirming that she is an utter fantasy.

The principal shortcoming in the novel’s use of the historical record, however, is a function not of freedoms taken but of apparent carelessness. One has the impression that the author, fascinated by the border suicide, has inadvertently confused the events of 1939—the “phony war,” Benjamin in a French internment camp—and those of 1940: the German invasion in May, the fall of Paris on June 14, Benjamin’s suicide in September. Why else date Benjamin’s flight from Paris on June 15, 1940, without the slightest mention of the German entry into the city the day before? Bloopers, regrettably, abound. Benjamin (who died at age 48) is said to have clarified a specific issue “fifty years later in Paris.” Born in late 1892, the protagonist, we are told, “remembered the day, in 1892, when his family got their first telephone.”

Benjamin, an experimentalist of sorts, advocated a technique of literary montage. Parini’s stylistic innovation, plainly inspired by Benjamin’s thought, has been to offer up his story through a variety of narrators. Of these, Asja Lacis, Benjamin’s sometime lover and muse of Marxism, a woman of stunning callousness, is depicted with a certain brilliance Parini’s take on Benjamin’s grieving friend Gershom Scholem, the distinguished historian of Jewish mysticism seems particularly unfortunate. To imagine this most rigorous of scholars emoting “What a literary mind!” is to relinquish austerity for schmaltz. Or perhaps the author conceived his Scholem—his heart “thumping,” then “pounding” at the thought of speaking with Benjamin—as a personification of gay self-discovery should the book ever reach movie stage. In any event, it is hard to imagine a less convincing version of Gershom Scholem than the one in the first section of the book.

Benjamin’s Crossing is a flawed retelling of an extraordinarily moving story. Parini has Benjamin die with a stock phrase from Kabbalah on his lips. (Biographer Broderson has established that he received extreme unction.) But the best corrective to the novel’s sentimentalities, better even than the recent biography, remains one of Parini’s sources, Scholem’s own account, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, not because it is truer but because it is altogether stranger in its will to truth than anything the novelist, in his empathy, has been able to come up with.

David S. Gross (review date Spring 1998)

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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.

Parini’s novel follows what is known of Benjamin’s last months and days quite accurately. And in a series of flashbacks narrated by important people in Benjamin’s life, the author invents scenes in Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s, which for the most part ring true with regard to Benjamin’s ideas and opinions, his relationships, and the important events of his life.

The novel rarely comes fully to life, despite Parini’s efforts to people it with interesting characters, both “real” and fictional. An exception to this is the series of scenes involving Benjamin and José, the teenage son of Henny Gurland, the fellow refugees who accompanied him on the difficult walk through the Pyrenees during his last days. One of the best statements Parini attributes to Benjamin himself is one which José remembers in the days following Benjamin’s death: “He could hear that low voice, guttural, keyed and pitched like no other. ‘The world is a dark place,’ he was saying. ‘It is always in disrepair. But we—you and I, José—we have a little chance, an opportunity. If we try very, very hard, we can imagine goodness. We can think of ways to repair the damage, piece by piece.’”

As a “novel of ideas,” Benjamin’s Crossing is weakest in those passages which deal with Marxism, especially the ideas of Bertolt Brecht. It is simplistic to assert as “the basic Marxist presupposition,” “that economics rules the world.” It is just not quite right to say of Benjamin, “He was no Marxist.” Certainly not only a Marxist, but in meaningful ways, very much the most brilliant Marxist thinker of our time. And to interpret Brecht’s notion of plumpes Denken—his injunction that we “think crudely”—to mean that “all useful thought must be simple, crystalline, and fresh” seems to miss the point. Brecht’s “Eats first, morals after” from The Threepenny Opera is more like what he had in mind.

On the other hand, Parini’s summary descriptions of the Arcades project, of Benjamin’s ideas on language and on history, are quite accurate and interesting accounts of very important, very difficult conceptions. For someone already interested in Benjamin, the book is fascinating, whatever our quibbles. If it attracts to Benjamin’s writings readers who might otherwise never have found their way there, it will have accomplished a worthy service.

Jason Mauro (review date March 1999)

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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 with Gore one summer in the piazza of Ravello, drinking wine, as the cathedral threw a long shadow across the cobbled square.” Indeed, sentimental clichés abound startlingly, since in his fiction and poetry Parini’s voice is so fresh and concrete. The aging George Santayana is described as “the husk of the man,” and the Mediterranean “winks” in the distance. And in such a paean to the beauties of the language how can Thoreau’s knife-like jab at the pretensions of Concord society—“I have traveled a good deal in Concord”—become diluted under Parini’s eye to “I have traveled much in Walden” (22)?

The disjointedness is even more serious and disturbing between the essays “Amalfi Days” and “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.” The first begins, “Ten years ago, my wife, Devon, and I spent the better part of a year in Amalfi, a coastal town in the Naples region of southern Italy,” “having fallen in love with the particular shade of blue that seems possible only beneath a bright Mediterranean sun.” The essay continues to romantically conjure the allures of small-town Italian life, including “the crisp white walls, and vaulted ceiling” of their medieval villa and the aura of Gore Vidal’s nearby residence. In “Reflections,” the stay in Amalfi is described as a kind of self-imposed political exile. “In the mid-eighties, my wife, Devon, and I decided to detach ourselves from the United States temporarily.… It would have worked nicely had I not taken to reading Time, Newsweek, and the International Herald Tribune. … The news, which these publications did their best to make appealing, ruined my mornings.” The eerie detachment between these two views is unsettling, and it hints at an incompletely realized kind of self-fashioning.

Where the narrative self is more fully realized, Parini’s writing is truly engaging. His “interview” with John Steinbeck in heaven, as Steinbeck discusses Parini’s own biography of him, is a humble, witty, and illuminating meditation on the inescapably fictional nature of biographies. Indeed, this interview enacts the conflict discussed in the essay “The Lessons of Theory,” in which Parini’s romantic wish for a unique voice and original contribution confronts Foucault’s sense of the author as a “limiting principle.” If such a resonance rang through more of these pieces, this array might be a beautiful collection. But the noise too often obscures the music.

Denis Donoghue (review date 21 October 1999)

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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 him that the essay was severe and that he would not like it. Why? Well, I thought that several of Frost’s poems were nasty and that they corresponded to the chilling, careless note of the Social Darwinists, especially Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. I couldn’t see the merit of transferring to politics, economics, and sociology the conclusions that emerged from Darwin’s biology. It seemed to me that some of Frost’s poems were corrupted by Social Darwinism, and that their narrative voice implied: “I’m surviving quite well under my own steam, why should I worry about you?” Thompson asked me which poems I had in mind. I named “Death of the Hired Man,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Sand Dunes,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and the last lines of “Out, Out—.” More specifically, I thought it was cruel and glibly Darwinist of Frost to say of the parents of the dead boy in “Out, Out—”:

… And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to
their affairs.

Why should Frost think they turned to their affairs? “Since” gives the most blatant explanation available, and “turned” is morally facile. The parents may have turned their faces to the wall and lived out their lives in despair. “Give us immedicable woes,” Frost said, “woes that nothing can be done for.”1 Speak for yourself, I say.

Two or three weeks later, I sent Thompson the essay on Frost. In reply, he wrote me a long letter—which I’m sorry I’ve lost—in which he said that my sense of Frost was accurate but that I didn’t know just how accurate it was. Frost, he said, was a monster, a man of systematic cruelty. His indifference to other people was at least partly to blame for the insanity of his sister Jeanie, the sadness of his wife, Elinor, the mental illnesses of his daughters Irma and Marjorie, and the suicide of his son Carol. Social Darwinism was indeed an ugly prejudice, regularly called upon to justify mistreating poor people—if they haven’t survived, it proves they didn’t deserve to survive—and Frost’s version of it was so habitual as to be instinctive: he had probably inherited it, Thompson said, from his father, a drunken, violent lout.

That was the gist of Thompson’s letter, so far as I can recall it. His edition of Selected Letters of Robert Frost came out in 1964, followed by Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874–1915 in 1966 and Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915–1938 in 1970. In those books, Thompson makes the same charge against Frost: that he was an appalling man, petty, vindictive, a dreadful husband and parent. Very little of the third volume of the biography, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938–1963 (1976), is Thompson’s work, so there is no need to put it in evidence: he died after a long illness on April 15, 1973, and the book was mostly written by a former graduate student of his, R. H. Winnick. But the books and essays for which Thompson is solely responsible make a sustained attack on the man he once revered. Jay Parini’s biography [Robert Frost: A Life] presents an almost entirely different account of Frost.

As Parini notes, there are three phases in biographies of Frost. The first one began in 1927 with Gorham B. Munson’s Robert Frost: A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense and culminated in Sidney Cox’s A Swinger of Birches (1957) and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant’s Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence (1960). In that phase, Frost is a farmer-poet, a man of classical temper, wise, imperturbable, humorous in a craggy way, a man accessible to the people and therefore universally loved. Thompson’s biography inaugurates the second phase. Jeffrey Meyers’s Robert Frost: A Biography (1996) is an extension of it. In this version. Frost was cruel to his wife and children and combative toward virtually every contemporary writer who had become prominent. He was also a predator: as soon as Elinor died, he took his friend Theodore Morrison’s wife, Kathleen, as his mistress and employed her as his secretary to facilitate the affair. He urged Kathleen to marry him, but she declined, preferring to stay with her husband. But she assured Frost that she was married to Morrison in name only. Meyers claims that she gave sexual favors not only to Frost but to Thompson, Bernard de Voto, and Stafford Dragon, Frost’s hired man on the farm in Vermont.

The third phase of biography began with the publication of Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost, edited by Arnold Grade in 1972. Kathleen Morrison’s Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (1974), William H. Pritchard’s Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984), Stanley Burnshaw’s Robert Frost Himself (1986), John E. Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (1988), and now Parini’s book present Frost in far more genial terms. According to this version, he may not have been gifted with a sweet nature, but he was a faithful husband to Elinor for the forty-three years of their marriage, and a devoted parent to their several children. He supported his grown-up children not only financially but with endless and unquestioning affection. If he was combative, his early life gave him no choice. He had to win the struggle for existence.

These three phases in biography occur in other writers than Frost. In the first phase, the writer is presented as the author of works already widely loved: it is not a time for discrepancy between the writer and the work. The life is in accord with the poems. Discrepancy arises later and in a spirit of irony. A biographer in the second phase is not convinced that the writer was as agreeable as the standard portraits claim. In this phase, Van Wyck Brooks writes The Ordeal of Mark Twain and claims that Twain was a bitter man, not a humorist in a white suit. Mark Schorer writes nine hundred pages on Sinclair Lewis and makes him appear hateful. Lyndall Gordon shows that T. S. Eliot was often careless in his treatment of the women who attended him: he had good reason to reflect, in “Little Gidding,” on “the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.” In the third phase, biographers who knew the writer—and some who didn’t—claim that the portraits painted in the second phase are libels: the subject was not like that disfigured wretch at all.

But it is difficult to revert to images of simplicity, the transparent smile, the lavish manner. After Thompson’s evidence, and even if we think that Thompson’s hatred of Frost accrued from many little slights, a sense of injured merit, and sexual jealousy, it is implausible to insist that Frost was a good man after all and that his true voice was the one we hear in “After Apple-Picking” and “Birches”:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Parini’s claim seems reasonable:

My narrative presents Frost as a major poet who struggled throughout his long life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion. His family life was not often happy, and he experienced some extremely bad luck with his children. On the other hand, he was a man of immense fortitude, an attentive father, and an artist of the first order who understood what he must do to create a body of work of lasting significance. …

But some of those words and phrases—“struggled,” “not often happy,” “extremely bad luck,” and “what he must do”—could be interpreted as hiding something, as if Parini chose them to suppress many rival considerations.


Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, the first child of Isabelle Moodie and William Prescott Frost Jr. She had been a teacher and was still interested in literature: in her religious life she was a Swedenborgian, an adept of vision and second sight. William was a journalist, a Democrat with political ambitions, but mostly given to drink, gambling, and, so far as his bad health permitted, swimming and running. He died of tuberculosis on May 5, 1885, and the family soon moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to be cared for by William’s father and other relatives before Isabelle got a teaching job. Frost started writing poems in 1890 and took odd jobs to keep himself afloat.

On December 19, 1895, he married Elinor White in a ceremony conducted by a Swedenborgian pastor. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard on money borrowed from his grandfather. On March 31, 1899, he withdrew from Harvard and, partly for medical reasons, took up poultry farming in Methuen, Massachusetts, and later in Derry, New Hampshire, where he combined farming with a part-time teaching job at the Pinkerton Academy. During those years the Frosts were poor, but not—as some biographers claim—dirt poor. In 1901 their fortunes improved dramatically when Frost’s grandfather William Prescott Frost Sr. died and left Frost an annuity of $500 and use of the farm in Derry for ten years, after which the annuity was to be increased to $800 and Frost was to own the land.

In 1912 Frost and his family moved to England, where he intended to devote himself full-time to his poetry. By now there were four surviving children: two had died, Elliott at the age of four and Elinor Bettina in infancy. In London, Frost met the poet F. S. Flint and, through Flint, Ezra Pound, who took him up and reviewed his first two books of poetry. A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). Pound reported to Alice Corbin Henderson in March 1913: “Have just discovered another Amur’k’n. VURRY Amur’k’n, with, I think, the seeds of grace.” But he lost interest in Frost’s poems after two or three years and decided, I surmise, that he was not up to the mark of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford.

Frost became friends with Edward Thomas and with several other poets much less gifted than Thomas: his closest friends in England were Wilfred Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie. When the war started in 1914, the Frosts decided to go back to the US. On February 13, 1915, the family sailed from Liverpool to New York, where Frost’s poems and books were much in discussion. So a remarkably successful career began with the American publication of North of Boston (1915) and Mountain Interval (1916). Thereafter, Frost lived a comfortable public life as a poet: some of his books sold triumphantly, he was continuously in demand as a highly paid lecturer and poet-in-residence, his readings—“barding around,” as he called his travels—were immensely popular, he won the Pulitzer Prize four times, his years were loaded with honors. Not that he was ever content. His domestic life, as Parini and other biographers have made clear, was a scene of occasional happiness but also of stress and confusion.

Meanwhile he wrote poems, essays, and plays. Parini is good on the poems. He doesn’t go in for close reading, but he has a vivid sense of patterns and archetypes. Like Richard Poirier and other critics of Frost, Parini notes how often Frost’s later poems “return to the scene of a lone walker in a swamp or dense forest, which rapidly takes on symbolic aspects”:

Indeed, if Frost can be said to have an archetypal poem, it is one in which the poet sets off, forlorn or despairing, into the wilderness, where he will either lose his soul or find that gnostic spark of revelation. The pattern of setting out into the unknown, of casting free from the bonds of society and family, is there in everything from “The Sound of the Trees” and “Birches” to “Directive.”

Parini quotes, to illustrate this, the first stanza of “Traces”:

These woods have been loved in and wept
It is not supposed to be known
That of two that came loving together
But one came weeping alone.

Parini is informative, too, on Frost’s theory of poetry, which started as a theory of what Frost called “sentence sounds.” Parini quotes from a well-known letter of Frost’s to John Bartlett:

I give you a new definition of a sentence:

A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.

You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes.

The number of words you may string on one sentence-sound is not fixed but there is always danger of over loading.

The sentence-sounds are very definite entities. …

They are apprehended by the ear. They are gathered by the ear from the vernacular and brought into books. Many of them are already familiar to us in books. I think no writer invents them. The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously.

It sounds casual, but it allows for a workable theory of the mutual impingement of meter and rhythm, syntax and the vernacular. Meter is the abstract pattern of sounds, as in iambic pentameter, a pattern of ten syllables, five metrical feet, each consisting of a relatively unstressed followed by a relatively stressed syllable. But even in a regular line of iambic pentameter—“He thought he kept the universe alone”—the abstract pattern is enacted as rhythm, featuring different degrees of semantic emphasis and the play of a word of three differentiated syllables—“universe”—against the pattern. The pattern is ideal or notional, but it is sufficiently in the mind’s car to be played with, played against. Similarly, the laws of grammar and syntax don’t capitulate to the vernacular, but they make concessions to it and to the rhythm. As Frost’s “In a Poem” has it:

The sentencing goes blithely on its way
And takes the playfully objected rhyme
As surely as it keeps the stroke and time
In having its undeviable say.

The sentence is a genial master, and it admits “the playfully objected rhyme” without being deflected from its course. The linking of “rhyme” and “time” adds a new relation, a further consideration aslant from the main one, but it doesn’t undermine the authority of the sentence. It is the syntactical form of Frost’s will: he listens to objections, but gets his own way, his own say. Sometimes, as in “Directive,” he imposes the will of the sentence immediately, as if he were indifferent to the meter, and he relents only after the force of the sentence has been acknowledged:

Back out of all this now too much for
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

In another version of the tension between authority and freedom, Frost feels the power of the public world, but he exerts his own force of will against it. “Every poem,” he said in “The Constant Symbol,” “is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.” That was his metaphor, too, of his way of being in the world.

Parini is helpful on these matters, but he doesn’t wait patiently enough on their disclosures or meditate on their significance. He treats Frost’s life as if it were a sequence of external events broken now and then by domestic insistences. It is hard to know at any moment what Frost was thinking about, as distinct from the next move he was plotting for his career. He must often have been reading and thinking, if we take seriously—as I do—Robert Faggen’s argument in Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin that he thought hard not only about Darwin but about Lucretius, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, and William James. The best context in which to understand Frost’s poems, according to Faggen, is Frost’s thinking about biology, botany, astronomy, and technology, prompted by Darwin and other writers.

Faggen doesn’t claim that Frost was a scientist: he entered into the popular Darwinism of his time, and made what he could of it. He wasn’t, as Henry Adams described himself, “a Darwinist for fun.” But it would be absurd to claim that he went deeply into the niceties of the hypothesis. My own sense of the matter is that Frost got from Darwinism metaphors for his poetry and, more pervasively, warrant for his prejudices. He didn’t look into the issue between Lamarck and Darwin on genetics.2 Faggen hasn’t done much with my own hobbyhorse, Social Darwinism, but that doesn’t matter now; very few of Frost’s poems are nasty in the way I made a little fuss about in the Twentieth Century essay and in my book Connoisseurs of Chaos. Faggen has shown the difference it makes if you read, with Darwin in mind, “Spring Pools,” “A Star in a Stone-Boat,” “West-Running Brook,” “Kitty Hawk,” “Design,” and “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” “Design” ends:

What brought the kindred spider to that
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Even if you didn’t especially think of Darwin, the repeated “design” would call up the theological “argument from design,” a standard argument for the existence of God. But it would make your reading of the poem more pointed if you recalled William James’s discussion of design in Pragmatism or—Faggen quotes it—a letter of July 12, 1870, in which Darwin wrote:

My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficient [sic] design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details. As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a specific end, I can no more believe in it than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.

Parini hasn’t given himself time for such considerations.

Nor has he pondered all the evidence he has produced. I’ll give two instances, both involving Lionel Trilling. In late September 1946 Frost lectured at Kenyon College. Trilling attended the lecture and wrote in his journal:

At Kenyon: Frost’s strange speech—apparently of a kind that he often gives—he makes himself the buffoon—goes into a trance of aged childishness—he is the child who is rebelling against all the serious people who are trying to organize him—take away his will and individuality. It was, however, full of brilliantly shrewd things—impossible to remember them excepting referring to the pointless discussion of skepticism the evening before, he said: “Skepticism”—is that anything more than we used to mean when we said, “Well, what have we here?—But also the horror of the old man—fine looking old man—having to dance and clown to escape (also for his supper). American, American in that deadly intimacy, that throwing away of dignity—“Drop that dignity! Hands up” we say—in order to come into anything like contact and to make anything like a point.3

Parini comments on this:

This account is harrowing to read. Trilling cringed at the manner Frost had evolved over the years: the joshing, avuncular, ingratiating manner that won over large audiences but, at least in Trilling’s mind, demeaned the great poet and his work.

No, it won’t do. Buffoonery is not a joshing, avuncular, ingratiating manner. Eliot spoke of Hamlet’s levity as “the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action” and said that in Shakespeare himself “it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.”4 It would at least be worth thinking of the possibility that Frost’s buffoonery in his roadshow at Kenyon issued from similar frustration. The form—the lecture, the public reading—could not have fulfilled the emotion of such a poet. There are also, in Trilling’s note, the questions of the aged childishness and the larger cultural issue of the terrible American intimacy, matters that deserve at least the passing tribute of a biographer’s reflection.

The second episode I want to mention is Trilling’s speech at the dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria for Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday on March 26, 1959. It was Stanley Burnshaw who suggested that Trilling be the invited speaker; he wanted to hear what Trilling would say, since he hadn’t yet written anything on Frost. Burnshaw gave a convincing account of the dinner in Robert Frost Himself. But I would venture a slightly different interpretation. It is clear that Trilling’s short speech disturbed Frost’s friends more than it disturbed Frost himself. Parini takes the standard view, that Trilling caused a commotion by saying that he regarded Frost as a terrifying poet. There was nothing unusual in that emphasis. It was Randall Jarrell who promulgated “the other Frost,” the tragic poet, not the genial bard of New Hampshire and Vermont. What really disturbed Frost’s friends. I think, was Trilling’s assertion that “the manifest America of Robert Frost’s poems is not the America that has its place in my own mind:”

The manifest America of Mr. Frost’s poems is rural, and, if I may say so, it is rural in a highly moralized way, in an aggressively moralized way. It thus represents an ideal that is common to many Americans, perhaps especially to Americans of the literary kind, who thus express their distaste for the life of the city and for all that the city implies of excessive complexity, of uncertainty, of anxiety, and of the demand that is made upon intellect to deal with whatever are the causes of complexity, uncertainty, anxiety.5

Trilling repudiated, in effect, the whole pastoral tradition of American literature, before going on to say that he had of late surmounted his resistance to Frost’s poems in that respect. Perhaps, he said, the characters in Frost’s poems are ultimately reassuring even though they begin by terrifying us:

Read “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived.

It was the repudiation of the rural tradition, I think, that caused such a commotion, not the claim that Frost was a tragic poet. It is no insult to be associated, as Trilling associated Frost, with Sophocles. But when Trilling spoke of himself as “a man of the city,” and confessed that he had been for a long time “alienated from Mr. Frost’s great canon of work,” he turned an after-dinner speech into a cultural episode.

It is now accepted, at least by literary critics, that Frost belongs to the dark strain of American literature: he is kin to Hawthorne, Melville, and—among the poets—to Edwin Arlington Robinson, another master of the tragic fable. In literary history, he has nothing to do with the international Modernism of Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, the Imagists and Objectivists; and therefore he has not been highly regarded by critics from Allen Tate to Hugh Kenner. He is now regularly placed in association with American Pragmatism, and especially with the sense of life we find, however diversely, in the Emerson of “Experience” and “Fate,” C. S. Pierce, William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, G. H. Mead, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Rorty. Richard Poirier has made the strongest case for Frost’s Pragmatism in his Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, The Renewal of Literature, and Poetry and Pragmatism, a case further elaborated in Mark Richardson’s The Ordeal of Robert Frost.6 If you read Frost’s poems and essays alongside the major books of William James especially, the affiliations become irrefutable. In Pragmatism, according to Santayana, “theory is simply an instrument for practice, and intelligence merely a help toward material survival.”7 Mead says that cognition “is simply a development of the selective attitude of an organism toward its environment and the re-adjustment that follows upon such a selection.”8 In The Will to Believe James is even more specific than Mead:

From its first dawn to its highest actual attainment, we find that the cognitive faculty, where it appears to exist at all, appears but as one element in an organic mental whole, and as a minister to higher mental powers—the powers of will.9

It is also typical of Pragmatism to say, as James does:

The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.10

And it resumes its rights in Frost’s “A Star in a Stone-Boat” and nearly every poem of Frost’s that marks his terrestrial insistence. When we read James, Santayana, and Mead on cognition, we think at once of Frost and we contrast Stevens, in whose poems consciousness is a free-standing creative power subject only to the constraints of the language it works with. I know that Stevens, too, is being assimilated to Pragmatism, as in Jonathan Levin’s The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism,11 but I find the argument unconvincing. Stevens seems to be irrefutably a philosophic Idealist at heart as well as on principle. Frost’s mind never claims the privilege it would have in Idealism: it wants to be respected only as a concentration of energy and will upon the matter in hand. He is never willing to lose the self “to the victory of stones and trees,” as A. R. Ammons, one of Stevens’s ephebes, writes in “Gravelly Run.”

But Frost, it is necessary to say, is a poet rather than a scientist or a philosopher. In my reading of him, he is a post-Romantic poet, more specifically post-Wordsworthian and post-Shelleyan. It is surprising how often his poems allude to poems by Wordsworth, Shelley, and other English poets he first read in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. “The Most of It” may have started from Wade Van Dore’s “The Echo,” but its deeper source is Wordsworth’s “The Boy of Winander.” “Spring Pools” reimagines Shelley’s “To Jane.” The main difference between Frost’s sense of life and Wordsworth’s is that Frost regularly insists, as Wordsworth only occasionally does, on finding the daily sublime in his own mind rather than in the given world. The quirks and turnings of his mind, the workings of it in the language, are his riposte to those who find plenitude only or mainly in the world at large.

So we come back to Frost’s life. Why does it matter whether the truth of it is in Thompson’s biography or in Parini’s or another’s? It matters, I think, for two reasons. First, many readers believe that at some level of interpretation there is no difference between the poems and the man or woman who wrote them. It would be more convenient to think that they are entirely separate and that we need not care what the mere man or woman was like: the poetry is everything. Eliot said that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”12 But few readers are ready to act on that belief. The publication of Philip Larkin’s letters has probably made readers—some readers, anyway—irritable in their relation to Larkin’s poems. If we hold to Eliot’s view, we are bound to think of Frost as a relatively imperfect poet: the man who suffered and the mind that created are inextricable.

The second consideration is that Frost is an icon in American life, the only such poet since Whitman. Readers who love Frost’s poems—I, too, however belatedly—must feel queasy about his life and wonder what the continuing veneration of Frost as a rural sage entails. Trilling’s speech made that question a pressing one. It arises also from Yvor Winters’s essay on Frost:

Frost writes of rural subjects, and the American reader of our time has an affection for rural subjects which is partly the product of the Romantic sentimentalization of “nature,” but which is partly also a nostalgic looking back to the rural life which predominated in this nation a generation or two ago; the rural life is somehow regarded as the truly American life. I have no objection to the poet’s rural settings; but we should remember that it is the poet’s business to evaluate human experience, and the rural setting is no more valuable for this purpose than any other or than no particular setting, and one could argue with some plausibility that an exclusive concentration on it may be limiting.13

If we put Winter’s essay beside Trilling’s speech, we have to ask ourselves whether establishing Frost as an icon is the projection of a pastoral or bucolic fantasy, as if we could designate American life in its essence, free of history—free especially of the urban experience of industrialization and Big Business. Frost may not survive much longer as an icon if the image of him as a tragic poet becomes common property. Readers may not want to think of American life as in its essence Sophoclean.


  1. Quoted in Russell Fraser, “Frost in the Waste Land,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Winter 1998), p. 49.

  2. See Edward J. Steele; Robyn A. Lindley, and Robert V. Blanden, Lamarck’s Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwin’s Natural Selection Paradigm (London: Allen and Unwin, 1999).

  3. Trilling’s note is published in Partisan Review: The Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, edited by William Phillips (Stein and Day, 1985), p. 26.

  4. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace, 1950), p. 126.

  5. Lionel Trilling: “A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode,” Partisan Review, Summer 1959, pp. 448–449.

  6. University of Illinois Press, 1997.

  7. George Santayana, The Genteel Tradition, edited by Douglas L. Wilson (Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 56.

  8. G. H. Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Merritt H. Moore (University of Chicago Press, 1950), p. 350.

  9. William James, Writings 1878–1899 (Library of America, 1992), p. 562.

  10. The Writings of William James, edited by John J. McDermott (Random House, 1967), p. 404.

  11. Duke University Press, 1999.

  12. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 17.

  13. Yvor Winters, The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), p. 160.


Principal Works


Further Reading