Fall 1990, Volume 7.2
Keno Runner: A Romance Reviewed by
Levi S. Peterson
The School of Love Reviewed by Paul Swenson
The State of the Language Reviewed by John E. Schwiebert
The Testimony of Mr. Bones Reviewed by Marjorie Jarrett
Against Paradise Reviewed by Katharine Coles
Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 2, 1867-1868 Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft
The Writer's Mind: Interviews with American Authors, Volume II Reviewed by Phillip A. Snyder
Keno Runner: A Romance by David Kranes. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989, 276 pp., $17.95.
Reviewed by Levi S. Peterson, Department of English, Weber State College(Return to top of page)
As its subtitle predicts, this novel is a love story. It is also a romance in the older, Hawthornian sense of the word: it is filled with the fantastic, the improbable, and the shocking. Its protagonist, Benjamin Kohlman, leaves New York and heads west to Las Vegas to write a confessional biography of a woman who has been acquitted of murdering her father-in-law by arson. Kohlman's geographical transition is an archetypal journey into a new psychic world. Even in modern America, "west" continues to be the direction of discovery.
Foremost among the mythic personalities who initiate Kohlman into a new order is Janice Stewart, the subject of his biography. She is a keno runner in a casino where the dealers call her "Angel." Of a seemingly injured, unstable temperament, she interprets the literary agreement Kohlman persuades her to sign as a marriage contract. She introduces the nonplussed and resistant Kohlman as her husband and loves him with unconditional devotion.
Before Kohlman can be healed by Janice's love, he must undergo a series of shocks and disillusionments. His journey west teaches him that he has no continuity with the past; his parents, who have long since sold the Iowa farm on which Kohlman grew up, roam the United States in an Airstream trailer, sending their son an occasional postcard with no return address. He quickly discovers Las Vegas to be a hellish paradise, characterized by astonishment, irony, and violence. Its mammoth marquees blaze with false promises. Its casinos, which feign an air of lavish hospitality, reveal dowdy, ruined women still playing the slots at dawn. A real white tiger escapes from a casino cage. Caged, it has served as a sensation; on the loose, it is a sign of the predatory heart of this city. The illusions of this city bring buyers from far away; the President of the United States arrives to engage the services of a video maker whose creations can make any public relations fantasy seem real.
Of more drastic concern to Kohlman is the violence he personally suffers. Unknown assailants warn him he must leave Las Vegas on pain of death. On one occasion, they shove him into a burning alley; on another, they stab him in the back. In an unrelated incident, a man and a woman mistake him for an enemy and shoot him in the shoulder. When they discover he is not their intended quarry, they treat his wound and apologize profoundly. Later the woman entices him to a hotel room and insists that he slash her with a razor as a prelude to sexual intercourse. He seizes the razor and slices open his hand.
Luckily Kohlman finds redemptive support among a number of personalities. Only a little less important than Janice, whose love Kohlman at last reciprocates, is a black boxer named the Challenger. Kohlman saves the Challenger from a falling slot machine, whereupon the boxer teaches Kohlman the meditative art of psychokinesis. Kohlman observes a remarkable incident in which the Challenger lifts a diesel truck entirely off the ground, and Kohlman himself performs a feat almost as fantastic. The fantastic quality of his relationship with the Challenger extends to a boxing match in which the Challenger allows the reigning champion to batter him mercilessly. The watching Kohlman inexplicably suffers the same wounds as his mentor: a split scalp, an opened back, a cut mouth, a smashed nose. When at last the Challenger exerts himself and, with a single blow, demolishes the champion, Kohlman is psychically healed. Through blood he has been redeemed.
What shall we make of this parable of love, health, and confidence born of injury, indignation, and despair? Though it is not a comfortable or sanitary novel, it has power and visceral authenticity. David Kranes is a dealer in archetypal transformations. His style is intense and introspective. His action is fast paced and suspenseful. His metaphors are sometimes audacious, always striking. His theme is affirmative. He assures us that the calm, as well as the rage, of the world will assert itself.
The School of Love by Phyllis Barber. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990, 120 pp., $14.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Paul Swenson, Writer and Editor , Salt Lake City.(Return to top of page)
A woman is levitating in the purple haze of an abstract expressionist morning on the cover of Phyllis Barber's The School of Love, her feet tucked beneath her in a modified lotus position. Sensual, mysterious, ambiguous, she looks you straight in the eye.
The thirteen short stories in Phyllis Barber's first collection are about women in transitionoften from one lonely, secluded plane to another, where awareness has been heightened to a richer sense of life's absurdities. Yet Barber's characters are survivors who will not capitulate to the buffetings they absorb. If they sometimes float in a painful limbo, where AT&T's "reach out and touch" slogan seems as shallow as its advertising roots, they use their isolation to reflect intelligently or to feel more poignantly the ironies of their lives.
Love is pain, is one of Barber's dominant themes. For example, in three "short shorts" she strips her heroines down to almost pure hurt. The first person narrator of "Trees," a little ecological horror story, invites a man with a chain saw to her home for what she believes will be some innocent pruning. But things seem to get out of hand. She hears her trees screaming in the nightespecially the white birch. "I loved my trees," she says flatly. "I meant to hug them good-bye." While she has remembered to kiss her ash, she has banished the birch. "How can I get it to forgive me now? It's in so many pieces."
"Argument" is a bottom-line marital dispute between co-dependent partners. The story (written in the mid '80s) anticipated the conjugal animosity of the Danny Devito film War of the Roses but disposes of it in a pithier and wittier fashion.
"Almost Magnificence," the best of the "short shorts," is Barber's allegorical tour de force. If there is a more striking image in modern feminist fiction for the sense of loss felt by many women in the last decade of the 20th century than "God's sawdust doll" in this story, I'm not aware of it. Some feminists will identify directly with the central metaphor, while others, of course, will reject it as politically incorrect. Is it vulnerability or weakness that God's doll leaks incrementally around town? (Her seams weren't sewn straight.) Her husband can't abide the leakage and splits. Her kid is allergic to sawdust. Her brain has slipped down to her esophagus; her uterus is stuck in a knee joint. Even in this depleted condition, God's doll is taking sensual risks in a health-food restaurant.
Barber's stories aren't what you would call cheerful; they're often funny, sometimes ecstatic, walking the borderline between surreality and sanity, dream and desire. Tragedy and comedy are not far apart in these pages. Some of the stories are fueled by paradox, such as the tension/conjunction between femininity and feminism.
Chasms are commonplace between males and females in Barber's fiction. A Nevada teenager and her father struggle to reach each other across dry desert evenings in "Silver Dollars," but can't bridge the gap. In the disturbing fairy tale "Tangles," Alice is in a lifelong dance with her aloof Papa, a dance that also spins her into the arms of the carnivorous George, the ominous yolky-eyed man, a bear prince, and a dwarf with nubbed but dextrous digits. In "The Glider," one of Barber's most accomplished tales, the bright, lively and fiercely competent ranch woman Martha gets to choose between a square cinderblock of male chauvinism named Harold and a flat, white vision of dead perfection that floats to rest in her pasture one day. It is the shape of Martha's late father's memory that hovers over the story.
Repression and sexual tension are endemic to the atmosphere in which many of Barber's heroines live and breathe. And when they achieve a measure of sexual independence, or of spiritual or emotional release, they always pay a price. Being a lady isn't easy for Sara in "White on White." In love with the illusion of purity, bleached of any emotion, almost sucked dry, Sara goes out on a limb her own left leg assumes a life of its own. (She glimpses its full power through the slit in her white suit one evening in the ladies room in a restaurant.) Stuck with her thick-headed husband Don, Sara is still harboring a shimmering notion inherited from her mother of a knight on a white horse. But it is Godiva who saddles up for the story's conclusion.
In "Criminal Justice," a sheltered suburbanite, who's had a fight with her husband, gets a shock to her system when a highway patrolman bends her over the car she is driving on Highway 89, pats her down, and takes her to jail. She may be guilty of nothing worse than speeding, but alone in her cell, her righteousness has vanished, her respectability is shredded, and her innocence has become a silly deception. It's a scary little story.
"Radio Keno" is about first love, lost love, strange love an even more unsettling lapse of equilibrium than in "Criminal Justice." Chloe's old boyfriend Wagner is an emaciated vegetarian when she finds him in a tract house in Las Vegas, married to a sunbeam named Shauna, with a yard full of mutant ninja children.
Barber has saved the most perplexing, least linear and yet most powerful story for last. "Anne at the Shore" is a dream of terrible clarity, played out in seven days at the beach. (With trepidation, we note that day one is missing as if a chunk of time has dropped from memory.) Anne is unaccountably attracted to a dark and possibly dangerous drifter, a man who has nothing in life but what he carries in a bag. As the story ebbs and flows, we observe that Anne is drifting too, farther and farther out with the emotional tide. What happens in the story is less important than the feeling it provokes a timeless evocation of need and longing. When Anne has even less to lose than the man with the bag, we feel that she will be washed away to nothingness. Instead, Barber ends with a concrete, potent image that is both moving and satisfying.
Phyllis Barber, who is both a writer and a musician, has a prose style that is rare for both its control and its richness. She is not afraid to exert control, nor to abandon it when it is necessary to let go. She has a novel and a children's book on the verge of publication, and another novel in the pipeline.
The State of the Language, eds. Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels. Berkley: U of California P, 1990, xv + 531 pp., $25.00.
Reviewed by John E. Schwiebert, Department of English, Weber State College.(Return to top of page)
Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels edited their first collection of essays, The State of the Language , in 1980. Critics praised that work for being as "sprawling . . . noisy, and appealing" as its subject. This new volume, which updates and expands the earlier collection, is like its predecessor always informative and often entertaining. While a few articles draw rather heavily on linguistic jargon, this is clearly a book for all users and lovers of the English language experts and lay readers alike.
Ricks and Michaels have gathered an impressive range of voices and viewpoints (over 60 authors in all) to reflect the richness and heterogeneity of the language itself. Contributions are grouped under six headings ("Englishes," "The Body Politic," "Money," "Practices," "Art," and "Rectitudes"), and contributors represent a wide variety of disciplines and professions. In addition to essays by professional linguists and rhetoricians (such as Seymour Chatman, Randolph Quirk, and Sidney Greenbaum), there are poems, stories, and essays by poets (e.g., Anthony Hecht, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Rees), fiction writers (e.g., David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Frederic Raphael), literary and cultural critics (Hugh Kenner, Sandra M. Gilbert, Walter J. Ong), journalists (M.F.K. Fisher, Robert MacNeil), and others.
Leonard Michaels notes in his preface that the language is in continual flux; indeed, the very phrase "the English language" is increasingly hard to define. The first group of contributions examines the proliferating variety of "Englishes" in England, America, and other countries around the world. The intermingling of diverse cultures, ethnic and racial, is constantly enriching the language, thus the existence of "British" English, "American" English, "Nigerian" English, and "Filipino" English. Even as it is diversifying, English must also increasingly compete with other languages. Thus Randolph Quirk notes "a significant relative decline . . . in the currency of English worldwide" as demographic and political-economic trends reshape the linguistic world. In countries once colonized by English-speaking peoples, native leaders and intellectuals are striving, with growing public support, to "marginalize" English in an assertion of cultural independence.
The ideological function of language is the focus of the book's second section, "The Body Politic." While Marina Warner, Hermione Lee, and Sandra M. Gilbert discuss the merits and possibilities of developing a gender-free language, Roger Scruton (voicing the conservative opposition) argues that the imposition of non-sexist language is as ideologically self-serving as the discourse of political propaganda. Three authors at the end of this section address emerging issues of language and AIDS, contending that persons and groups in authority have used language to condemn AIDS victims and to blunt public perceptions about the magnitude of the crisis.
Several essays in the next two sections, "Money" and "Practices," examine the fate of the language in an information age. What diverse effects are visual and electronic media having on written language? On our ability to process and synthesize ideas? In the visual advertisements of a cigarette company, Seymour Chatman finds an effort to circumvent the logic of printed language and rhetoric by appealing directly to the "viscera" of viewers. Such "visual narratives," he believes, are crippling our capacity to articulate" and to reason. Then Michael Rogers and Michael Heim offer balancing, opposed viewpoints on the impact of information age media (particularly word processing) on cognition, writing, and society.
Postmodern thinkers have defined "art" and "literature" in increasingly inclusive terms. Thus it is appropriate that the fifth section of the book titled "Art" treats its subject broadly. Alongside discussions of language and "high" art (e.g., opera and traditional poetry) are an article on tabloid journalism and an essay, by Walter J. Ong, on the "art" of graffiti artist-writers in the New York subway.
The book is not without flaws. Some essays stray rather far from the book's ostensible focus. It's not clear, for instance, why there should be an article on the relationship of words to music in English opera (fascinating as the essay is), or an essay on the travails of professional editing. But most authors, despite digressions, come firmly back to the subject the state of the language today. In their prose style as much as in their ideas, they demonstrate that the language in 1990 is not only thriving but as one contributor put it "manic."
Eclectic, spirited, and provocative, The State of the Language will make a valuable addition to any bookshelf.
The Testimony of Mr. Bones, by Olive Ghiselin. Santa Fe, NM: Teal Press, 1989, 151 pp., $10.00, paper.
Reviewed by Marjorie Jarrett, writer, Berkeley, CA.(Return to top of page)
These eighteen short, succinct stories are delightful in several ways. Some are up to the standard of the very best magazines or a collection of the best short stories of the year. They surprise. They educate. They spread a panorama of places in Italy, Mexico or Utah, usually out in the open air. Even inside a house, some characters look outward as if this is where the life and death cycles of bird, plant, and human life are close. The birds and plants are not put in for decoration or bits of gratuitous information; they belong, being forms of life that die in their own ways, as do people.
Mrs. Ghiselin wastes no time on long explanations or expositions. A point in each character's life blooms into a full concept that allows us to predict the quality of the rest of that life. In fact, the characters carry the story themselves, and the tone of each is appropriately different. Phrases such as "jeweled democracy," or "indifference, the boredom of the soul," a cemetery of doves cooing with "a warm throbbing in the hot air," the "currency of conversation," "wings of panic," "untenured and on tenterhooks," and the "spasms of neon" run throughout most of the stories. Other images are found in action, for example, in "The Convergence of Gerda," who "went toward a narrowing future that was like looking through a tunnel." Or in "The Spacious World of Aunt Louise," where the "talk sprayed out like water from a sprinkler."
In the opening story, Signora Grigia watches the tourists from her window beside the Cathedral steps. The storyteller watches her and traces her life back to when the young woman was jilted, how she retaliated, and the curse that followed.
The violent ending of "Mary Mansfield's Garden" shows the passion for plant life (not even her own) that takes precedence over human life. Is it possible to love too much a wild garden in a park?
The victory of "The Loiterer," Irving Bott, is small to the world, but large for him and it requires a small lie. He does nothing of importance to or for anyone. Watching others requires him to be brave enough to lie, and smart enough to ensure no more harrassment.
The story of "Carl Gustav Larus" is not one of the best, but it contains a complete cycle of a life, every action correct, from breaking out of the shell to the inevitable end. His life is as important as any other creature's, and there is no anthropomorphic parallel as in Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. The reference is slight, but those who know the story of how the Utah seagulls saved the first Mormons still have a soft spot for gulls.
"Ah Love, Remember Felis" is one of the finest stories, a real treat to read. It is outdoors again, and berry-picking time. The rapport between an old woman and a strange young man is magical. In fact, perfect.
"The Convergence of Gerda" is a wonderful portrait of a woman who has never lived a life of her own. She frees herself in a precise and delicate way, knowing that "things turn out."
"The Testimony of Mr. Bones" is beautiful. An old gentleman is in the process of changing his life. Is it to make up for something? To learn something about life and death? To atone? What makes him feel alive by walking through a cemetery?
There are eleven more stories, and like the ones already introduced, the action often rebounds as if what goes on before is not the issue at all, but something quite different. Yet, without the issue, the "something different" could not occur. The author sees exactly who the character is, and so do we, but nearly always there is a surprise that shows the deeper character, or the important change, or the comfort of sameness. The characters have some of the purposefulness found in the plants and birds there is something that must by done, and they will do it, whether it is a dinner with the best china, driving too carelessly, a carefully chosen death, the swallowing of disappointment, wild flowers coming up unaided, or the way in which a gull fulfills his short life.
Against Paradise by Jonathan Holden. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990, 61 pp., $7.95.
Reviewed by Katharine Coles, Utah Arts Council, Salt Lake City. (Return to top of page)
As its title implies, the poems in Jonathan Holden's Against Paradise are uneasy even about what their speakers love or, at least, desire; and they may, though they don't always, participate in what makes their speakers uneasy. Regardless, the line between good and evil, to reduce the argument, is in the best poems here difficult to distinguish, tending instead to remain open to revision and argument and surprise.
The astonishing opening poem, "A Personal History of the Curveball," for example, is both a nostalgic look back at boyhood and an elegant, adult discourse on the nature of power. As do many of Holden's poems, this one begins with a simple dichotomy: the power to throw a curveball may be either "a gift/or else some trick." Holden keeps complicating that dichotomy, however, until it becomes impossible to distinguish which side the poem wants to take. In some ways, technique wins: the adult speaker can name both the principle that makes a curveball possible and reasons "magic" can't measure up: triteness, the helplessness it implies. But children on the edge of mysterious, terrifying adolescence, along with the other powerless, still must believe in magic:
what other word does the heartbroken
or the strikeout victim have
to mean what cannot be and means what is?
The question of the relative values of technique on the one hand and, on the other, of passion or sincerity is one that occupies Holden in many of his works. In this book it becomes a subject through which he interrogates another concern: the problem of moral absolutism, of certain kinds of fixity. Of course, taking a moral stand against what is fast and fixed in some views of morality contains its own ironies, and the best poems here work with this ambiguity.
In "Goodness," the speaker struggles with his own hypocrisy in letting "the widow Dettmer," who is "totalitarian" in her goodness, "make" him "a party member to [her] orthodoxy." He condemns her for rigidness and lack of humor; then he blames her for his own complicity in pretending, for the sake of expedience, to be what she believes him to be. Again, the objection is really to a system in which "good and bad have been divided into two": by consenting to participate in the widow's system, the speaker must both take the role of "bad" and pretend at the same time to share her simplified vision of goodness. The poem becomes increasingly complex and the speaker increasingly entangled, until finally he establishes his own polarities:
I manage that villainous polite smile
we reserve for those who are good
those bastards who always leave us lonelier,
who accept us without question for
everything we are not.
In using "we" in the last lines, Holden invites the reader to participate in the speaker's exclusions as the speaker has participated in the woman's. It is not only the widow's behavior and the speaker's, then, that come into question, but our whole notion of "goodness." This concern is further pursued in such poems as "Son of Babbitt" and "The Wisdom Tooth."
A poem in which the tensions between two opposing worlds operate in somewhat different way is the title poem, "Against Paradise," which addresses questions of power and, in this case, its enforcement through certain forms.
The oppositions established in the first stanzas are largely simple ones, but the richness of the technique enriches the pleasure in the reading and the complexities of the points being made. The wealthy here are wealthy because they always have been; they therefore have a vested interest in maintaining an antiquated status quo that spurs the boy speaker into games of revolutionary violence, Though he resents their casual trespasses, he nonetheless envies the rich as well, longing to give his own lawn "the elegiac look/ of their estates."
The houses and grounds of the rich are kept like museums to their power; and though the speaker finds everything about their lives "conspicuously false and very trite," his language takes on a certain quirky humor when he talks about them:
like those dignified, melancholy dogs
varnished on the backs of playing cards,
should have a pedigree. It should maintain
a solemn, philosophical expression
and be named "Rex" or "Rusty."
In fact, everything should be of museum quality.
Still, the tension in the poem, arising as it does almost purely from the poem's techniquea playfulness the language maintains even as the speaker condemns a way of lifesoftens to an unfortunately single-minded rhetoric as the poem nears the last stanza. Here, the speaker returns in his imagination to his own home, where he practices throwing his curveball against the garage, his "threadbare tennis ball alive/ in the dead air." As the language comes to life here, it also becomes rhetorically one-sided, allying its every and its beauty only with the life the speaker is accustomed to. Though the speaker offers such wonderful images as that of the rich "nymph, fawn, satyr wired/in their casual positions" around the swimming pool, such descriptions become not playful but cruel in their alliance with such words, unredeemed by stylistic tension or irony, as "banal" and "torpid." Ultimately, they become dogmatic as well, setting up pure oppositions that the other poems resist.
It may be too much to ask that every poem rise to the level of such stunners as "The Personal History of the Curveball." Perhaps ironically, I might be more patient with a lesser book; set beside what this book offers at best virtuosity in which moral vision is inherentthe weaker poems seem pale and far too simple, and, when they falter, they become guilty of what the best poems stand against.
Still, a reader looking for examples of what a poet committed both to a strenuously complex moral vision and to the technique that makes the accurate translation of this vision possible would do very well to read Against Paradise. It is well worth the many fully realized poems it contains.
Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 2, 1867-1868, Eds. Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci Assoc. Ed. Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, 672 pp., $39.95.
Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft, Department of English, Brigham Young University.(Return to top of page)
Of chronicling and examining the life of Mark Twain there seems to be, thank Heaven, no end, and Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 2, 1867-1868 adds further welcome bits to the mosaic, another in the Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers series, edited by Robert H. Hirst. Following hard upon Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1: 1853-1866 (1988), this volume of more than 150 letters begins with a letter to Artemus Ward's manager, Edward P. Hingston (15 January 1867), Unsuccessfully importuning Hingston to manage Twain's projected lecture tour, and follows Twain through a number of decisive personal and professional steps over two very crucial years, 1867-1868.
The letters plot the genesis of Twain's first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, And other Sketches (May 1867), as well as his decision to join the Quaker City excursion that illustrious/infamous five-and-a-half month chartered voyage to Europe and the Holy Land (June-November 1867). This well-documented cruise of the Innocents would result not only in the famous (and sometimes controversial) letters to the Alta California and New York Herald, and, in time, The Innocents Abroad, but also in the establishment of lifelong friendships (such as with Mary Mason Fairbanks, Emeline B. Beach, and Charles J. Langdon), and Twain's introduction (via Charles) to Olivia Langdon (whom Twain claims to have met on 27 December 1867, a date which the editors question in a typically packed footnote in which they suggest 31 December 1867 as the actual date of their meeting [fn.3, 145-46]).
In fact, the editors have exceeded the standard of the Center for Scholarly Editions in being admirable and exhaustively thorough in providing a moveable feast of explanatory notes for each letter, presenting thumbnail biographies of the lives of individuals mentioned, placing the events alluded to in historical and personal contexts, and citing and obituaries, newspaper or scholarly articles pertaining to the individuals. The result is a fascinating panorama of Mark Twain's America.
The letters of 1868 follow Twain through his East coast lectures, his fleeting, nominal Washington, D.C., secretaryship to Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada (January-March 1868), and on his business trip to California (March-July 1868), where he would reach agreement with the Alta on revising his newspaper letters into a book and, with Bret Harte's assistance, complete that book, The Innocents Abroad, which he would publish with Elisha Bliss, Jr. In the letters we also mark the beginning of Twain's friendship with the Reverend Joseph H. Twichell of Hartford (October 1868); it is Twichell, along with "Mother" Mary Fairbanks, who would give Twain aid and moral support in the most important event chronicled in this two-year periodhis eventually successful courtship, launched in August 1868, with the somewhat reticent Olivia Langdon, and his equally important courtship of Livy's nonplussed parents, who expressed serious doubts about mating their fragile, virtually invalid, literal-minded, sheltered and pious daughter, age twenty-three, with the brash, rough, flamboyant, earthy and skeptical doubter, Sam Clemens, age thirty-three. By the conclusion of the volume, however, and Twain's nineteenth love letter to Livy (which she later carefully ordered and numbered), the couple is engaged (and will marry on 2 February 1870). Twain ends the year (and the volume) with a reflective and soaring letter to Livy in which he alludes to his well-intentioned attempts to become a Bible-reading, non-swearing, praying, believing, practicing Christianattempts to gentle and refine his life for her sake. As he would reflect years later (in 1899), and as these letters demonstrate, "Courtship lifts a young fellow far and away above his common earthly self; . . . he puts on his halo and his heavenly warpaint and plays archangel as if her were born to it. He is working a deception, but is not aware of it" (Mark Twain's Which Was the Dream? ed. John S. Tuckey [Berkeley: U of California P, 1967]:170). Concluded Twain, on 31 December 1868:
Tomorrow will be the New Year, Livy & the gladdest that ever dawned upon me. The Old Year is passing... without regret, & yet with many a friendly adieu . . . . For it found me a waif, floating at random upon the sea of life, & it leaves me freighted with a good purpose, & blessed with a fair wind, a chart to follow, a port to reach . . . . It found me well-nigh a skeptic leaves me a believer. . . It found me careless of the here & the hereafterit leaves me with faith in the one & hope for the other. (370)
The editorial apparatus enhances the value of this collection of letters. Though a number of the letters were already available in the collections by Albert Bigelow Paine, Bernard DeVoto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson, and Hamlin Hill, this collection brings together all of the extant letters from 1867-1868, many of them published for the first time. Indeed, this volume and the volume that preceeded it (and those which will follow) are probable as complete as possible. The search has been exhaustive:
The editors have even included paraphrases of vanished letters as they occurred in letters written to others by Twain's correspondents. And we learn with sadness that Twain requested, on the death of his brother Orion's widow, in 1904, that attorney John R. Carpenter burn "almost four trunks" full of Twain's letters to his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, and the family. The attorney complied, but with understandable reluctance. (513-14).
As in Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1, the editors have followed what they call the "plain text" system of manuscript notationa system which reproduces the original in such detail and exactness that the reproduced "plain text" becomes a reliable substitute for the original letter which can "still be read, relied on, and quoted from, as if it were the original" (481-82). These letters become, then, definitive texts for Twain scholars.
This definitiveness is further enhanced by the appendixes, which present, among other items, genealogies of the Clemens and Langdon families; documents pertaining to the Quaker City passengers, crew, and itinerary; thirty-eight photographs (many hitherto unpublished) of Twain's friends, contemporaries,and fellow-travellers on the Quaker City; and a number of pages of photostatic reproductions of Twain's letters.
Most vital to the appendix, however, are the rich and informative textual commentaries describing the copy-texts of the letters, indicating the provenance for each text and the nature of the collection or source from which the copy-text was taken; the places (if any) of previous publication of the letter; and any peculiarities or editing problems relative to the copy-text. The appendixes conclude with a bibliography of all works and every letter cited in the collection.
This volume of letters is replete with information as essential to Mark Twain scholarship as the raft to Huck and Jim's journey downstream; this volume is one territory scholars can't light out from without having lit into.
The Writer's Mind: Interviews with American Authors, Volume II, edited by Irv Broughton. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990, 368 pp., $29.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.
Reviewed by Phillip A. Snyder, Department of English, Brigham Young University.(Return to top of page)
"People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out." -Joan Didion from Slouching Towards Bethlehem
"The mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing." -Michel Foucault from "What Is an Author?"
Neither Didion nor Foucault is among the writers interviewed by Irv Broughton in his second volume collection of The Writer's Mind, but their observations here illustrate some fundamental problems with a book dedicated to authors talking about themselves and their work and then published in a post-structuralist age. By undercutting the author's privileged interpretive status with regard to the text, post-structuralism has tolled the Death of the Author while celebrating the Birth of the Reader. The question post-structuralist theory would ask of The Writer's Mind is Foucault's: "What difference does it make who is speaking?" For Broughton, of course, it makes all the difference because "who speaks" is what makes his book publishable and, for many, recommendable. Perhaps we still do live in a time of lionizing the writer/celebrity. However, Broughton's unstated assumption that these interviews articulate a particular textual "'author'ity" largely ignores Didion's observation that writers (and interviewers?) cannot be trusted and Foucault's notion that the traditional "author" may be obsolete. Hence, there is a certain theoretical naivete and self-conscious seriousness that underlie the book, particularly some of Broughton's questions, which can range from silly Barbara Walterisms (such as "What plant would you like to be turned into?" and "What is your favorite obsession?") to the excessively psychological (such as "Do you use dreams in your writing?" and "What is your god like?"). That some interviews are as old as 1974 may also contribute to this sense of naivete and self-consciousness.
Despite these basic theoretical problems, however, The Writer's Mind has much to recommend it. First, Broughton's interviews offer an interesting and eclectic mix of writers poets, screenwriters, novelists, and short story writers with varying degrees of public fame even though they are all from the same generation (born in the 1920s): Isaac Asimov, Ann Darr, James Dickey, Horton Foote, George Garrett, Richard Hugo, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Levine, Julia Randall, William J. Smith, Elizabeth Spencer, Richard Wilbur, and Miller Williams. Second, all of these writers manage to be highly engaging, rising above poor interview questions, as they offer witty and often perceptive responses. In their loquacity, language awareness, and sense of the writerly tradition, they demonstrate particularly why they write. In fact, as a whole, The Writer's Mind provides an interesting perspective on 20th century American literature: Foote critiques the dialogue of Eugene O'Neill; Smith relates Theodore Roethke anecdotes; Wilbur considers his parallels with Robert Frost; Dickey discusses the influence of Melville, Tennyson, and Yeats; Levine examines the idea of "Jewish" writers. Likewise, these interviews include some fascinating commentary on writing: Asimov relates the "illnesses" endemic to the writer's profession such as hemorrhoids and "writer's back"; Spencer considers the issue of writing as catharsis; Dickey lists his favorites from among his poems according to categories such as "philosophy" and "honesty"; they all discuss their particular "routines" for writing.
Perhaps the clearest way to communicate how The Writer's Mind works at its best is to include an excerpt from one of the better interviews. None surpasses George Garrett's for irreverence, humor, and wit.
IRV BROUGHTON: Frank Norris felt that the novel could express modern life better than painting, architecture, or poetry. Can you make sense of that?
GEORGE GARRETT: Not really. I guess it would be a nice idea, except you can't live in a novel. And most of them, in spite of attractive jackets, can't make good wall decorations. As physical objects they're depending on size useful for door stops and for windows that won't stay in place. I've frequently used novels to hold up the windows on a hot night in my house in Maine . . . .
IB: What novel do you use to hold up the window?
GG: If you want it pretty high on a hot summer night, Portrait of a Marriage by Nicholson, Harold Nicholson. That's a very nice sized book. I think Peter Mattheson's Far Tortuga is an interesting shape. Modern library giants fit beautifully for just a kind of moderate level, keeping the window up. Over the years, I've used the plays of Eugene O'Neill a lot. That's true. Unfortunately, it rained a few times. It's in strange looking condition now. Poetry is not worth a damn for holding up windows or as a doorstop either. It's very decorative in rows, but you have to get so many of them, because they're thin.
IB: Did you ever use Sunrise at Campobello?
GG: No, I never have done that, but Fear of Flying held up my window for quite a while. Then the kids got hold of it.
The Writer's Mind could fill such a practical purpose itself on a hot summer night and also provide some good reading before bed. We should remember, as Roland Barthes writes in "From Work to Text," that the "dead" authors may reenter their texts as "guests." We just shouldn't trust them as much as Broughton seems to do. They might steal the towels.