Andrew Martin: It seems like the public perception of Twain remains the guy on the porch, this sort of genteel Southern nostalgia.
Andrew Delbanco: That’s a part of him, but to the extent that he puts it out there as his public face, it’s a construction. He was immensely sophisticated about a lot of things, with the possible exception of investment practices, which he wasn’t so good at. I think you can make the case that he was fundamentally a travel writer. I mean, he was children’s writer, he was a young-adult storyteller, he was a social critic, he was a lot of things. But his mode was really just to watch the world go by, and he was a relentless, compulsive traveler. Even if he was living in the same town, he would move constantly: he had multiple addresses in Washington, multiple addresses in New York, and so on and so forth. And then he took many long and arduous trips to Europe and around the world, often under financial pressure to make money by speech-making and by writing travel articles. It’s really in his travel writing that you find him at his most alert.
As is his custom, President Obama erred on the side of caution in confronting this country’s grave fiscal crisis. On Wednesday he gave a good speech far too late. What if he hadn’t been so dilatory on a subject he inevitably would have to confront?
Russia’s democratic opposition gets a lot of criticism from political observers for failing to convey its message to ordinary Russians. No doubt this owes in part to the overwhelming dominance of the country’s political space by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his supporters as well as to general political apathy. As authoritarian states in the Middle East erupt in popular uprisings, the Russian public continues, for the most part, to be resigned to its political leadership. In a new poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 61 percent of respondents said they take no interest in politics or public life, up from 39 percent in 2007. The liberal oppositionists clearly face an uphill struggle in trying to reach beyond the circle of urban educated people who comprise Russia’s small online community of bloggers and activists. But they have by no means given up.
To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self. Swift, master of exile, knew this. For him exile was the secret word for journey. Many of the exiled, freighted with more suffering than reasons to leave, would reject this statement.
All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.
Probably the first exiles on record were Adam and Eve. This is indisputable and it raises a few questions: can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?
The concept of “strange lands” (like that of “home ground”) has some holes in it, presents new questions. Are “strange lands” an objective geographic reality, or a mental construct in constant flux?
April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.
One Saturday last month I went to Lafayette Park in Washington D.C., across the street from the White House, in order to protest several wars. The squirrels were out doing seasonal things. A tree was balancing big buds on the finger-ends of its curving branches; the brown bud coverings, which looked like gecko skins, were drawing back to reveal inner loaves of meaty magnolial pinkness. A policeman in sunglasses, with a blue and white helmet, sat on a Clydesdale horse, while two tourists, a father and his daughter, gazed into the horse’s eyes. The pale, squinty, early spring perfection of the day made me smile.
In his poem “Some General Instructions,” which The New York Review published in 1975, Kenneth Koch offered advice on how to live. “Be careful not to set fire/To a friend’s house.” “When taking pills, be sure/You know what they are.” “To ‘cure’ a dead octopus/You hold it by one leg and bang it against a rock.” But quoting bits of the poem seems a falsification, because its true effects are cumulative—it is 233 lines long, a punch-drunk sort of length, as if its principal message were that one should never, in this life, worry about going over quota—and much of its alternating lyricism and irony depend on the coloring that each line receives from its placement above or below another. Koch stuck to ordinary language—the dangerously trite language of self-help manuals—and somehow walked the knife’s edge between wicked parody and an honest urgency that acknowledged the reader’s need to know how to exist in the world. “Think of what you feel/Secretly, and how music has imitated that. Make a moue.” Besides which, he was not afraid of humor—not just as an ornament, but as the engine driving serious self-examination, which is another way of saying that this extravagantly long poem is an enactment of stylistic humility. It never claims to know more than just what is contained in each line—for example, how to cure an octopus.
The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement of his planned retirement was not well received by China’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman described it as an attempt “to deceive the international community.” Many assumed this to be a reference to the fact that even after the Tibetan leader gives up his official position within the exile Tibetan administration, he will continue to travel, give speeches, and be a symbolic leader to Tibetans, a source of considerable frustration for Beijing. But Chinese officials also appear to be worried about something rather more obscure: a little-known seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.
For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.
Many observers are worried about the latest skirmish in the battle to destroy American higher education, which involves the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin. As has now been widely reported, on March 17, Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.
President Obama made an important contribution to the Libya debate in his speech Monday night by rejecting the over-worked dichotomy between America’s strategic interests and its core values. Most of the media coverage of the debate relied on this familiar trope. On March 16, at the beginning of the critical week that resulted in a UN resolution and the start of air strikes two days later, the Times reported that “senior officials, notably the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, have made it clear that the United States does not view Libya as a vital strategic interest.” After the President made the decision to support a no fly zone, the press continued to refer to this dichotomy, but now asserted that values had triumphed over interests. The Times story of the crucial meetings in which the decisions were made—the story which, not coincidentally, provided the original fodder for the “women go to war” saga—began: “Ever since the democracy protests in the region began three months ago, the Obama administration has struggled to balance America’s national security interests against support for democratic principles.”