Sunday, January 31, 2010

Zinn/Salinger/Auchincloss + Congrats to Lucille Clifton

What a week: first Howard Zinn, then J.D. Salinger, then Louis Auchincloss. Okay, you may say, I get why Jstheater is mentioning the first two, but Auchincloss?

Let me go backwards and begin by noting that there was nearly a personal link there. When I was in grad school, perhaps my second year, I was reviewing the possible courses I could take for the upcoming term, and I saw that Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010), the extremely prolific chronicler, in prose fiction, of America's northeastern bluebloods, was teaching a class. I thought I might have misread this, as I'm known to do--why on earth was he teaching and how did he have the time, and if I was just imagining it, why him? The man was still practicing law part-time and had also managed to write many dozens of books (I think he was up to about 50 at the time)--so I asked around and was told that yes, he really was teaching an evening class. I'd only read his most famous novel, The Rector of Justin (1964), so I went and looked him up, and when I saw how much he'd published and who he was, I seriously considered trying to slot the class into my schedule. As it turned out, I couldn't and had to pass, but I always wondered what that experience might have been like, given the unlikely pedagogue. Auchincloss briefly mentioned his teaching in the larger stream of this 1997 interview with The Atlantic's Ryan Nally, which gives some sense of his literary accomplishments, and his abiding interest in larger moral questions among his class and milieu, which, as the last 8 years suggest, have gone the way of the dodo bird. Adieu.

As for J. D. Salinger, I tweeted almost instantly after I'd learned of his death about how important The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and the stories in Franny and Zooey (1961) were to me as an adolescent; didn't half the people on Twitter do the same thing? It was instantly a cliché. (I did not tweet, however, about my immediate feeling after finishing the book for class--that's where I first read it--that were I to have tried anything along the lines of Holden's behavior, my parents' response, and those of my much wealthier private school classmates' parents, would have been swift and corrective.) But I hadn't touched his work for decades until last academic year, when my literature honors student, Harris S., decided to write his thesis on Salinger and David Eggers. I plunged back into Catcher, and found myself impressed by its narrative tautness and control. Holden's voice no longer beguiled as it once had, but his author's skill in creating it did, as did Salinger's ability to both encapsulate the particular moment when the story took place and simultaneously write through that moment to create a story that still resonates vividly today with young people and adults. The spectacle of Salinger's public withdrawal equaled a novel itself; perhaps he wrote it down and we'll see his take in the future, though perhaps Arts & Letters Daily has published a mammoth list of links of various writers' and critics' encomia to Salinger, and so I'll reproduce that list here: ... Charles McGrath ... AP ... Stephen Miller ... Elaine Woo ... London Times ... Bart Barnes ... FT ... Telegraph ... Mark Krupnick ... Richard Lacayo ... Tom Leonard ... Martin Levin ... Rick Moody ... Richard Lea ... Malcolm Jones ... Morgan Meis ... Chris Wilson ... Robert Fulford ... Ian Shapira ... Michael Ruse ... Christopher Reynolds ... David Usborne ... Joe Gross ... Stephen King ... John Walsh ... Henry Allen ... Mark Feeney ... Ron Rosenbaum (1997) ... John Timpane ... Alex Beam ... Verlyn Klinkenborg ... Tom McGlaughlin ... David Ulin ... his neighbors ... Mark Medley ... Stephen Metcalf and Slate staff ... John Wenke ... Jeff Simon ... Tom Leonard ... Andrea Sachs ... David Lodge ... Christopher Hitchens ... Lionel Shriver ... Barbara Kay ... Nathanial Rich ... Holden’s heirs ... Lillian Ross ... Adam Gopnik ... John Seabrook ... Dave Eggers ... new photos ... Mark Bauerlein et al. in NYT ... Adam Kirsch ... Colby Cosh ... A.M. Homes ... Martin Amis et al. ... Robert McCrum ... Julian Barnes et al. ... Joan Smith ... Adam Golub ... Jonathan Yardley on “Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism” (2004).

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) leaves us as one of the best known and most progressive living American historians. A professor for several decades at Boston University, an outspoken activist, a World War II veteran, and a prolific writer in many genres, Zinn published in 1980 what has become one of the most frequently read books of American history, A People's History of the United States. This thick, polemical volume overturned some longstanding assumptions and approaches in American historical writing, while also aiming directly for an audience outside academe, which it eventually found. It was like and fitting that Zinn produced such a book; before entering academe, he had worked as a pipefitter and ditchdigger, and his first academic job was at historically Black women's college Spelman, in Atlanta, where his students included Marian Wright Edelman and Alice Walker. Zinn was a pillar of courage; for joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNIC) and openly opposed racial desegregation, which led to his firing from Spelman. When he went to Boston University, as this account on the Common Dreams website by his friend and former student William Holtzman, makes clear, nothing dampened his outspokenness and his advocacy of "people power." Here's a video of Zinn on Bill Moyers' Journal that's appeared on a lot of blogs, but I think it gives a great sense of who Zinn was, right up to the end.

Let me also say goodbye to drummer Ed Thigpen (1930-2010), whose syncopation with the Oscar Peterson Trio and many other performers I've often grooved to.


On a different tip, congratulations to the one and only Lucille Clifton, who was awarded the Centennial (1910-2010) Frost Medal, one of the American poetry world's most august awards, by the Poetry Society of America on January 25 of this year. Recent recipients of this award, given for distinguished lifetime achievement, have included X. J. Kennedy (2009), Michael S. Harper (2008), Maxine Kumin (2006), Marie Ponsot (2005), Richard Howard (2004), and Sonia Sanchez (2001). In reading through the PSA site, I missed the Poetry Society's concurrent exhibit, "Portraits of Poets, 1910-2010," at the National Arts Club, which ran through January 15. Did any Jstheater readers catch it? How was it?


  1. I was shocked at the extent to which Salinger's death affected me. In all of the discussion of his legacy, the thing that struck me most were people (none of them young, or involved with teaching young people, by the way) who claimed that "kids today" can't connect with Holden Caufield because they can't understand what it means to be isolated. You know, because they have facebook. And no one with a cell phone has ever been lonely. I call BS.

    If Holden had spent the entire book waiting for someone to give a satisfactory reply to his facebook status of "Holden Caufield is wondering where the Central Park ducks go in the winter" he would have been just as alone. Kids today understand loneliness just was well as any other generation.

  2. Miriam, my sense is that young people, but also adults, still do find Salinger quite affecting. I also do think there's a great deal of disdain towards Salinger, not only because of the supposed datedness of his work, its intensely adolescent focus, and the eclipse, by the spectacle of his seclusion, of the work itself, but nevertheless, it continues to draw millions of readers. I sort of have expecting this moment to come for years, especially after the blow up in the late 1980s over the Hamilton bio, but I did gain a deeper appreciation for *Catcher* while reading for and then supervising Harris's thesis. It was quite good.

  3. i only know auchincloss second hand, through gore vidal's non-fiction. i love gore vidal and have read too many of his books, so i sense of auchincloss's importance from vidal's chronicling of him.

    on another note- don't shut down j's theater! i read it at the end every week to help me make sense of what's going on in the world of arts, literature and politics from the perspective of a cosmopolitan black gay man. i promise to post more comments, if you'll stay.

    antonia (by the way, thanks for the card you sent us. am looking for a suitably groovy card to send to you.)

  4. Thanks so much, Antonia, for both reading and for the good words. Give my regards to Anita and I hope you're both doing well! Love, J