Since Marguerite collects angels, Be an angel and come, You may shed your wings if you wish …
… from seven o’clock into eternity …
I suppose it’s been a long time since my blog posted any new or useful content here. I’m not certain these remarks will be useful to anyone — I hope that they will — but it’s time I said a few words about Marguerite Young (1908-1995).
I’m no expert on Young or her work, but I have acquired a number of her (somewhat rare) books and I have read around in them a fair amount. From my very partial reading of just one of her books, I became convinced she was a genius, and I admire to no end her ability to write beautifully in the florid idioms and rhetoric of the English Renaissance and Baroque eras. People say that she is obscure, forgotten, unknown, unread. The Paris Review published a piece not long ago that reinforces this cant. It is sloppy work indeed to borrow (or adapt) your headline from a throwaway phrase appearing in Young’s New York Times obituary: “The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed” (by Meghan O’Gieblyn, Paris Review Blog, Sep 19 2018). To me this rankles because from the outset Young is framed as a little read author. Now, supposing your publication’s readers are interested in literary excellence, what does the size of an excellent author’s readership matter to begin with? Furthermore, to gauge the size of a readership is no pat task. Who can say who’s picking up her books in old shops and taking them home? I think of that Rilke line: “you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart” (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 74). Now as for that book everyone is talking about just this moment, whether Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or that new Houllebecq about to be published… I don’t give one hoot.
Every writer who is not a household name is obscure until one “discovers” them, as simple as that. Is S.J. Perelman obscure? Nathanael West? Heinrich von Kleist? Nathalie Sarraute? Madame de Lafayette? You tell me. They’re all among my favorite writers… I have known about Marguerite Young for five or six years I think. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. If you read her, or even if you don’t, now that you have heard of her, she will no longer be obscure to you. Her books are there waiting, stored on the shelves of libraries and shops, entirely out of print, not always exorbitant. She is not obscure, she is lucid. Moreover, her work is available freely on the Internet in the form of a series of radio adaptations produced by Charles Ruas. There is a truly epic amount of audio available there, including Young in interview — you can hear her speak.
Without being a critic of her work, I have been an advocate of her work on twitter for some time. I have even helped a few readers discover her work. One of them read the entirety of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling! It’s a very strange feeling as a reader to know that you encouraged another reader to embark on a journey of 1,200 pages, and that they made the journey intact.
But the book which has fascinated me to no end, with many interruptions, is not Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but Young’s Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945). Judging from the title, this work might be a rather dull work of local history, a work of social and religious import, an entry in the utopian catalogue. It is all of these things, I have found it dull at times, though stupefying and wondrous in almost the same instant. Young’s greatest achievement here is to have captured something of the anarchic character of the American interior before it was organized by modernity but to have done so using a phraseology that puts one in mind of the (baroque) elegance of the King James Bible and of John Lyly. (Marguerite Young’s MA thesis was written on the latter, in fact.) I fear it is an inexhaustible work and that even by reading it over many times it will continue to surpass me. Gobsmacked I am by it. Here are two exemplary (and representative) passages from Angel:
Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)
What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)
As I said, her work is out of print. I am lucky to have a lot of it before me, I appreciate it greatly. As a resource for her future and present readers I am taking the liberty of posting some photos of her books and a few very brief excerpts. “Fair use” in copyright being always subject to interpretation, I feel only slightly trepidatious sharing these materials. (If you can prove that you are a copyright holder and you are opposed to the sharing of these brief materials, drop me a line and I would be more than happy to cease and desist.) I think that the Tables of Contents of the two rather ancillary volumes may prove useful to some readers and researchers in locating relevant texts. Lastly, I know that the material aspects of the books may be of interest to some readers.
Also, to this blog’s loyal readers, the many thousands, the happy few — Happy New Year!
Young’s first book, a collection of poems, Prismatic Ground (1937), and “Spring” therefrom.
Young’s second (or third book?), Moderate Fable and Other Poems (1944), and two poems therefrom. Angel in the Forest would be published the following year.
The above edition of Angel in the Forest (with its Table of contents after) is not the original 1945 edition, but a beautiful 1966 reprint by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Note that the jacket text added to the title – An Epic of Two Utopias — A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America — is not a true subtitle as it doesn’t appear on the title page or in most bibliographic information. It’s a very nice paratext though, all the more for it being ambiguous in that way. The first edition seems to have had the subtitle A fairy tale of two utopias. I have never seen a first edition of Angel.
Inviting the Muses (1994) was edited by Steven Moore (with input from scholars of Young’s work, including Miriam Fuchs and Martha Sattler) during his time at Dalkey Archive Press, and it contains stories, essays, and book reviews Marguerite Young wrote over the decades. Curiously, Marguerite Young reviewed a lot of books in 1945. The other book reviews are chronologically very few and far between.
A very useful chronology of Young’s life, by Martha J. Sattler:
Marguerite Young, Our Darling (ed. Miriam Fuchs, Dalkey Archive, 1994), contains a wealth of ancillary materials, including about ten photographs of Young (see below), the invitation card to the release party of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) up at the top of this post, the above chronology by Martha Sattler, and so on.
And for good measure I’ll leave you with one of the many thousands of striking passages in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling — from page 265 in the Dalkey reissue. Let’s hope that the French translator Claro manages, as he has been trying I know, to convince a French publisher to take on this book and pay him to translate it.
P.S. Many before me have made guideposts to Marguerite Young’s work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t provide at least a few links, so here goes. They are all themselves full of links, so much to explore:
You finish a long article, revise it, submit it, respond to the fact-checker, revise it further, and resubmit it. Then you wait a year. One day you will receive a fat tome in the mail, one that will be sold for $320 USD to a few dozen research libraries across the USA and maybe Canada. At any rate, I find the situation absurd. Consider the price of the book: $320 USD. (That’s to pay me and the fact-checker and the editor, I suppose.) Then there are the size and the heft of the thing, which are almost too much. I can find no proper link to the table of contents or the list of contributors. Presumably university students and profs whose institutions have a subscription to the right consortium will be able to access my essay on Paul Metcalf in PDF form, though I can’t verify that right now.
Earlier this spring I was in the process of preparing an article on the work and life of Edward Dahlberg to feature in the same series, when I received notice that the series was definitively cancelled. What a pain in the ass. I was already at work on the article. I have racked my brains for an alternative publication outlet that would be interested.
Anyways, I touched a lock of Metcalf’s hair in New York City. To my surprise, it was more auburn than brown. I saw other things in the archive, including a photo of Metcalf in a wetsuit hamming it up in his New England kitchen with his wife Nancy. A picture of Charles Mingus, annotated by Nancy — “Paul’s favorite picture of Mingus.” A medical note about Paul’s dizziness in the months before his heartattack in 1999. A certificate of “excellence in safety” that he received one of the years that he was a schoolbus driver on the outskirts of Asheville, NC. Photos of him in a firefighter’s jumpsuit, also from the Asheville years. His elementary school composition notebook. Much else. The remnants of a lifetime.[caption id="attachment_4675" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Somehow not as excited about my $100 discount as I might have been.[/caption]
The audio of Pierre Senges discussing The Major Refutation at Shakespeare and Company is at Soundcloud. The event was in November. A few readers of this blog may be interested in that discussion, with Shakespeare & Co’s astute commentator.
The Major Refutation is a nonpareil book that I came to translate. It was published in late 2016 by Contra Mundum Press. It’s a fake Renaissance treatise arguing that the newly discovered Americas don’t exist. Pierre Senges is brilliant.
Should’ve posted this link a while back; I really wish that I could embed the file to display here tidily, but no dice, it plays havoc with the CSS layout.
It’s an amazing coincidence I guess, but a member of the audience seems to accuse Senges of being complicit in the mythologization of America at the very end of this recording. It’s like he stepped right out of the book, Guevara’s shadow.
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 40:
One day, Ephraim Bedlam, the water-drinker and raw carrot and celery philosopher, who always smelled like musk or gymnasium sweat, tweaked me on the cheek, asking, “Have you seen any human beings lately?”
“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”
from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66
America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
– Audio & images –
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
– Interviews –
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
– Miscellaneous –
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
We are now in a little town in Ohio. Here and there among the houses, which are certainly comical in their structure, all towered and pillared and trellised, like a child’s drawing of a hous, we saw strange, shell-like cellars extending deep into the earth. Our inquiries brought the information that these were originally designed as roasting pits for the preparation of human flesh. Upon consulting a history book, I learned that cannibalism was prevalent in the Middle West as late as 1924. These pits are now the scene of dog-baiting and cock-fighting. This region is up-to-date in the extreme: it is not at all unusual to see other sights in these diggings — women cohabiting with sheep, pigs, and dogs; men masturbating stallions with greased inner-tubes; surgeons performing cancer operations; local election rallies featuring the castrating and lynching of Negroes — all this is done to acquaint the public with a new cosmetic or tooth powder, or to open a new movie palace or church. I do not wonder that this state ranks second in the number of sons it has contributed to the White House.
– from Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight (New Directions, 1941)
My latest revelation has been the works of Susan Howe, an American poet and essayist. Since the 1970s, Howe has been fashioning original works from early American historical narratives, including those that document the violent encounter of New England colonists with Native Americans. It contains many other aspects, too, I’m sure, but for now this is what seems most present and palpable in her work — taking inspiration from historical and documentary texts, and the period of early American colonial conflict.
I was referred to her work by a Twitter acquaintance some time ago after mentioning in conjunction two other authors (Paul Metcalf and W.G. Sebald) whose work plunges us headlong into the past, and I have since read several of her books: That This (2010), The Birth-Mark (1993), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996), and Singularities (1990).
My enjoyment of her work I think stems from the disorientation and awe I feel on a first reading. These are texts that demand a second reading if we are to truly get at them. And those second readings, too, are limited in what they reveal. It would be very hard to succinctly say what she’s up to, in fact it’s quite varied among the works I refer to above; but as a general observation, her work seems to be constructed on principles of quotation, lexical borrowing and combination, unusual typographical arrangements. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the way her work confronts, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very directly, the power and violence that are implicit in conquest and (historical) interpretation.
In The Birth-Mark, for instance, in the context of an essay about Emily Dickinson (“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values”), Howe underlines the fact that
It is over a hundred years after her death; if I am writing a book and I quote from one of her letters or poems and use either the Johnson or Franklin edition of her texts, I must obtain permission from and pay a fee to
The President and Fellows of Harvard College / and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Indeed, that is outrageous. (It’s not hard, in light of this travesty of liberalism, to see why Howe titled another of her books My Emily Dickinson.) How can institutions like Harvard and Amherst claim to be advocates of scholarly inquiry, while controlling the dissemination of and access to Dickinson’s work in that way? For an institution of higher learning, this is rank hypocrisy.
As I read through Howe’s poems lately (what generalizations I’m making here refer mostly to Frame Structures and Singularities, her two books freshest in my mind), I am lost much of the time, as if in the American wilderness that forms the scenic background of the poems. I move along understanding only a fraction of what I read, grasping for bits and pieces that make me feel less lost. A fragment hoves into view for a moment, crystallizing the understanding —
infinite miscalculation of history (in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time, published in Singularities, p. 17)
and is gone. I have the sense the effect is itself calculated — not a sign of the poet’s failure to communicate or achieve coherence or cogency, but intentional. We are meant to be lost, phenomenologically, lexically. As we are lost in history, or in this present. We salvage what shards we can.
More on Howe later, maybe. I’m captivated. For now, I invite you to listen to any number of recordings of her reading from and discussing her work at PennSound.
Seen in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson.
Here is a page from Paul Metcalf’s Apalache (1976), to my mind one of the most beautiful books ever written. The work is available in vol 1 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, published by Coffee House Press, or alternately in an exceptionally handsome 1st edition from Turtle Island Foundation. (The page scan is from the latter.)
Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question Paul Metcalf asked at the end of his life two decades ago:
In April 2015 it was announced that the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was writing a novel about Melville in the aftermath of his writing Moby Dick.
A few months later in August Pierre Senges‘s latest book came out: a six hundred pager, giving us the sequels to Ahab: Achab (séquelles). Ahab (Sequels). It tracks Ahab as he makes his way back on land in New York, working small jobs and trying to sell his story of the whale to Broadway and then Hollywood.
After all these years…
Some of Mallarmé’s personal library was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and I took this screenshot of one of the more expensive items, a manuscript version of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.
It was sold recently for 963,000 Euros.
C’est beau, n’est-ce pas? Here’s an interesting passage:
There are a few other typographically interesting pieces appearing in the same volume, starting with the stunning cover:
And here is a rather beautiful page from M. Kitchell’s Dark Topographies:
(The typo escaped my awareness for a good long while as I admired it. That is a typo right?)
And here is a rather overwhelming shot of an excerpt from Chaulky White’s SSES SSES SSEY:
Anton Ivanov and Jared Fagen did a good job putting this together, needless to say.
I’m hoping to see more print publications like this. Print rules.
Following up on the preceding post, I would like to point out the excellent piece on Thoreau that Levi Asher of Litkicks has written. As I said before, I haven’t ever properly read Thoreau, but Levi’s article provides a lot of context for how we ought to read Thoreau. It seems like an important corrective to the Schulz. Read it.
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) October 13, 2015
May I recommend a damning critique of Thoreau (“Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”), written by Kathryn Schulz?
Banish Thoreau from the canon, it urges; he was a rotten thinker and a hypocrite; a good nature writer, yes, but a fabricator of lies and a pontificator on society who cared none for his fellow man, a comfortable curmudgeon whose ability for self-deception knew no limits. I have no love for Thoreau, I haven’t read his work, except for in high school, but I found it interesting to feel myself through her essay, which I found myself agreeing with and disagreeing with in some different respects.
Near the beginning, it cites Thoreau’s writing in Cape Cod (1865) about the experience of seeing some shipwrecked Irish on the beach along with their dead. He feels only a sense of dull disappointment at the spectacle, no sense of empathy for the plight of the poor persons, nor a sense of wonder as he might feel “If [he] had found [only] one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place.” Schulz opens the essay with this moment in Thoreau’s thought as being exemplary of what a moral monster Thoreau must have been, and even seems to suggest an (implicit) parallel with the our present historical moment, as desperate Syrian refugees are landing on the shores of the Mediterranean probably as I write — but there is a severe lack of historical context in the way Schulz cites this moment. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for poets, writers, artists, and painters under Romanticism’s sway to seek out the picturesque sublime. The inhuman forces of nature were looked on as the source of sublimity, and for the picturesque effect to be just right, it was always important that the human element not intrude too much, or be absent altogether. It’s this valorization of the sublime that makes possible Thoreau’s indifference to the plight of the shipwrecked — and it’s not necessarily callousness I don’t think, unless we want to apply our standards of judgment and our language of moral description to someone living in a different historical era, in another culture.[caption id="attachment_3202" align="aligncenter" width="512"] Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818[/caption]
It certainly takes some seeing to imagine how relativistic our perceptions are, or what great cultural gap separates us from Thoreau, but taking some account of the powerful hold of the picturesque sublime on the 19th century imagination would go a long way to mitigate our perception of Thoreau standing on the beach of Cape Cod. (To pass definitive judgment on the souls and writings of men who have been dead for 150 years: what a way to spend one’s time.)
Another interesting question the essay raised in my mind was whether or not Thoreau (always) wrote in a way that always reflected his true thought and his character. May be; however, as I read through the quotes Schulz marshalls, I thought I perceived a lot of rhetorical shading, and some intentional ironies. I don’t want to be overgenerous to Thoreau; and again I think we get into a problem of historical perspective, a problem of incommensurability.
For example, one section begins, “Only by elastic measures can Walden be regarded as nonfiction.” Surely true, but, to Thoreau and his contemporaries the idea of a mutually exclusive classification of some books containing veridical truth, and other books of pure invention, would not have been as we know it today. (And today, that separation exists only as an idea, or an illusion.) So here we are treated to an inventory of the many gross liberties Thoreau took in distorting the “truth” (or, as Schulz has it, “the facts”).
At any rate, the great pleasure of this essay is how it shows Thoreau to be an idiot. Which is no small pleasure, because Thoreau appears to have been no small idiot. (I am using the term somewhat affectionately, thinking of the countless idiots Pierre Senges catalogued in L’idiot et les hommes de paroles, and which appear in his fictions. The idiot may be contemptible, but at least he’s relatively harmless! Moreover, like the clown, he is a source of laughter — tonic balm!) For instance:
At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.”
How human is it to contradict oneself !! – And ever so briefly, I also caught a passing glimpse of that townsquare idiot-curmodgeon Diogenes, dear Diogenes living in his tub:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home.
Is there not a dose of irony here, or at least some rhetorical intent (as opposed to literal meaning, earnestness)? A touch of self-exaggeration, self-parody, yes — but is it a self-aware tendency, or an entirely unconscious one? I found myself curious to see what Schulz would make of how irony enters into Thoreau’s declarations, how humorous and delicious his contradictions can be. Was he so blind to them? What a motley mess of a man. I get the feeling that there’s been a missed chance to see Thoreau the comedian at work. (Thoreau the joker, the fool, the jester.) But no doubt I am bringing my own obsessions to bear on this old killjoy.
It’s terrific (and rare) to see bold, provocative long-form critiques of much-revered and little-read 19th century American writers in a mainstream publication like The New Yorker. Bravo!