In a memorable passage in the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, an observer says of the eminent writer Gustav von Aschenbach: “‘…[He] has always lived like this’—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—’never like this’—and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair.”

What more appropriate image for the art of criticism: the tightly closed fist, the open and relaxed hand? The one concerned with defining boundaries, passing judgment, inflicting punishment; the other with presenting the subject sympathetically, pushing beyond boundaries, a predilection for appreciation and praise. Contrary to what might be assumed, it is far easier for the critic to revile than to reveal; to deride and dismiss than to illuminate, especially when difficult work is being considered. In ordinary language, to be “critical” means to find fault, justly or unjustly. In fact, is there an art more exacting, more risky, more vulnerable to censure, than the art of intelligent appreciation? In contrasting the critical styles of H.L. Mencken and his younger contemporary Edmund Wilson, Joan Acocella speaks of Wilson’s enthusiasm for literature “together with sophistication, judiciousness, and an ability to generalize, to say what the ‘scene’ was.” Not the strongly opinionated Mencken but Edmund Wilson is her model critic:

Wilson knew his gifts, and wished they were less rare. He called on American magazines to develop “a genuine literary criticism that should deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer ‘let out a whoop’ for the book or threw it out the window.”

Such criticism requires of the critic not only intelligence and taste but a more rare talent for self-effacement of the kind so much in evidence in Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of thirty-one exemplary essays Acocella has written over the past fifteen years and originally published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Of the twenty-eight artists discussed in this volume, nine are associated with dance (among them Vaslav Nijinsky, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, and Twyla Tharp) and the remainder are writers (among them Italo Svevo, Stefan Zweig, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, M.F.K. Fisher, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, and Frank O’Hara). The saints are Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. In her introduction Acocella notes that when she was rereading essays for the collection, she discovered that a single theme predominated: “difficulty, hardship.” By this she means not unhappy childhoods and “early pain, conquered and converted into art,” but rather “the pain that came with the art-making, interfered with it, and how the artist dealt with this.”

When I first moved to New York in 1968, I fell in with a group of young artists whom I was often awed by. “What will they become?” I thought. They were so brilliant, so bold. And as the years passed I found out something that my elders could have told me. There are many brilliant people…but those who end up having sustained artistic careers are not necessarily the most gifted…. The ones who survived combined brilliance with more homely virtues: patience, resilience, courage.

Appropriately, Acocella casts a coldly skeptical eye upon the postwar/romantic “unhappy childhood theory” that art is born of neurosis, argued so persuasively in Edmund Wilson’s influential The Wound and the Bow (1947); her view is more practical, down-to-earth, “[Mrs.] Grundy-esque: that what allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite, ‘ego strength,’ meaning (among other things) ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment.”

Acocella notes that among her essay subjects, approximately half are women; one third are Jews; one fourth are homosexuals: “Members of all those groups have had difficulty getting going, and then keeping going, in the face of the assumption that, being what they were, they could produce nothing useful, or nothing ‘universal.'” In addition, in the lives of such women artists as M.F.K. Fisher, Marguerite Yourcenar, Sybille Bedford, Louise Bourgeois, and James Joyce’s daughter Lucia there are likely to be protracted “breaks in productivity” of the sort less frequently found in male artists, the consequence, in Acocella’s view, of women being on the whole “more discourageable.” In the view of near-universal sexist devaluing of women and of women’s efforts, Acocella’s theory comes perilously close to blaming the victim, yet in her essay on Lucia Joyce (“A Fire in the Brain”) she qualifies her position to a degree:

Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott Fitzgerald) or seventeen (Nabokov)—to make a career—you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage. Lucia Joyce encountered obstacles and threw up her hands; James Joyce faced worse obstacles…but he persisted. When the critics made fun of Zelda’s novel, she stopped publishing; when Scott had setbacks—indeed, when he was a falling-down drunk—he went on hoping, and working…. While nature seems to award brilliance equally to men and women, society does not nurture it equally in the two sexes, and thus leaves the women more discourageable. Nor, in females, does the world reward selfishness which, sad to say, artists seem to need.

Yet one might argue that the “obstacles” that James Joyce faced from hostile publishers and a philistine public were much mitigated by the ardent support of literary enthusiasts for his unique work, and that Scott Fitzgerald could not have been other than greatly heartened by his early, enormous success; while poor Lucia and Zelda had little support to bolster their morale. Though Acocella doesn’t speak of Alice James, the gifted younger sister of Henry and William James whose literary achievement is confined to a diary of exceptional merit, it seems appropriate to quote Henry James on his sister’s ill luck in having been born into a family, surely a typical American family in this regard, in which “girls seem scarcely to have had a chance.”


Equally provocative, and more convincingly documented, is Acocella’s essay “Blocked,” on the subject of “writer’s block”: a phenomenon seemingly related to the early Romantic exalting of poetry as “something externally, and magically, conferred” and the exaggerated self-consciousness of the writer as a high priest of art driven to forge an ever-new language in opposition to the vague and cliché-ridden nature of most speech. The “golden age of artistic inhibition” was the period following World War II when Freudian psychoanalysis became popular in intellectual and literary circles and talk of the Great American Novel aroused expectations impossible for most writers to fulfill. William Barrett, an editor of Partisan Review, published an essay titled “Writers and Madness” which suggested that the modern writer was by definition an “estranged neurotic.” A Viennese émigré psychoanalyst named Edmund Bergler coined the term “writer’s block” and suggested that its cause was “oral masochism”: “entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother.”

As Acocella notes, contemporary theorists are more likely to attribute the malady to brain chemistry and to prescribe antidepressants or stimulants for seemingly blocked writers; such biological theories of creativity as primarily brain activity may “shock people who still cherish the idea that art comes from something other than the action of neurotransmitters.” She discusses several notable instances of writer’s block in allegedly brilliant writers like the legendary Joseph Mitchell (a New Yorker writer felled, it has been suggested, after he was called “the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence”); Dashiell Hammett and Scott Fitzgerald (both alcoholics); Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Herman Melville (following the disastrous reception of his greatest novel, Moby-Dick); and Ralph Ellison (“probably the most commented upon case of writer’s block in the history of American literature”).

Possibly, Acocella notes, following the philosopher Ian Hacking’s theory of “dynamic nominalism,” some writers become blocked “simply because the concept exists.” As she says, writing is a nerve-flaying job to which some artists are dedicated, or addicted, as the analyst Donald Kaplan discovered when his writer-patients abruptly quit treatment once they began writing again: “They didn’t know and didn’t care what underlay their creative function. They just wanted to get back to it, as long as it lasted.”

Acocella’s enthusiasm for certain of her subjects makes the reader want to seek out their work immediately, to read and to reread. Among them are Italo Svevo (“a one-masterpiece master”), Stefan Zweig (“a magnificently cultivated mind, strong emotions, a pronounced idealism, and a passionate devotion to nineteenth-century art”), Marguerite Yourcenar (“If reading [Memoirs of] Hadrian is like gazing on white marble, reading The Abyss is like breaking open a clod of earth and finding strange, dark things: glints and bones and bugs, slimes and roots, sulfur and verdigris”), Primo Levi (“It is hard to find the words to praise Survival in Auschwitz, and this is not because of the enormity that it records but because of its internal qualities: the intelligence, the fine-mindedness, the sheer narrative skill with which Levi addresses that enormity”), and Susan Sontag (“A conversation with her is what a conversation with Rousseau must have been like. Her eyes flash. She waves her arms. She has a million ideas, and feels that all of them are right…. When she isn’t reminding me of Rousseau, she reminds me of Buster Keaton”).

Even when Acocella is qualified in her admiration of a writer’s work, as in her aptly titled piece on Dorothy Parker, “After the Laughs”—“Of the many rapid-burnout cases in American letters, one of the saddest is that of Dorothy Parker”—she takes care to single out what is valuable and enduring in the work: Dorothy Parker’s “unique contribution was her portrait, in the stories, of female dependency…. Female shame is a big subject, and for its sake Parker should have been bigger, but she is what we have, and it’s not nothing.”


In 2000, interviewing the British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald in Fitzgerald’s “granny flat” in Highgate, a neighborhood of London, Acocella encounters the very person she’d been warned of: “gracious, welcoming, and utterly evasive—a stone wall.” Asked by the admiring American literary journalist about the “curious form” of her novels, which are short, with brief scenes, Fitzgerald confesses that the “curious form” had not been her original choice but that of her publisher, who’d told her that her first novel—an attempt at a thriller—was too long, and suggested severe cuts. “Since then,” Fitzgerald says, “I’ve always written them short…. They ought to be longer, really.” The interview progresses more or less like this, with Acocella pitching reasonable questions to her subject, who responds to her graciously but like “a species of malfunctioning machine.” The frustrating interview does not qualify Acocella’s admiration for Fitzgerald’s work, which has, for her, something of “the burning moral focus of the nineteenth-century novel”—“cut versions of Pilgrim’s Progress, as it were”—and inspires her to this spirited summing-up:

Why do we bother to interview artists? Why expect them, in two hours, to tell us their story, or—what we’re really looking for—a story that will dovetail with their work, explain it? The better the artist, the harder it is to produce such an accounting, for the life has been more fully transformed. Why violate their privacy, brush aside their years of work—the labor of creating stories that are not their story?

More revealing, perhaps, is a visit to the writer’s hometown, or home, as when in 1994, while writing her book on Willa Cather, Acocella traveled into the desolate American heartland to stay briefly in Cather’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska (where, she discovers, the “major industry is Willa Cather”). In 2005, preparing her piece on the late, equally elusive Marguerite Yourcenar for The New Yorker, Acocella visited Yourcenar’s former home Petite Plaisance, now a museum dedicated to her, on Mount Desert Island off the Maine coast: “The most striking feature of the house is the library, which stretches from floor to ceiling and from room to room…. The place looks like the Bibliothèque Nationale crammed into a New England farmhouse.”

The occasion of reviewing M.F.K. Fisher’s A Life in Letters: Correspondence 1929–1991 provokes Acocella to contemplate the “moral beauty” of Fisher’s writing, a subject “not easy to talk about, because such a fuss has been made over it.” Her advocacy of this wonderful yet somehow elusive “food writer” is immediate, visceral:

If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me which piece of writing by M.F.K. Fisher I liked best, I would probably say the chapter on cooking meals during blackouts in How to Cook a Wolf, a book published during the Second World War. Fisher takes the problem seriously. Don’t curse God and die, she says. Cheer up! You can feed that family with no fresh foods, no electricity, no gas, no light, and no conviction that you’ll be alive tomorrow.

Editor of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, author of Mark Morris, longtime dance critic for The New Yorker, Joan Acocella writes brilliantly about such legendary and near-legendary figures as Nijinsky (“After the Ball Was Over”): “Nijinsky taps into a final myth, that of the genius-madman”; Suzanne Farrell (“Second Act”): “…In her the classical style seemed to have sunk into the bones of the dancing. The flesh was something else, an awakened force”; Mikhail Baryshnikov (“The Soloist”): “Homelessness turned him inward, gave him to himself. Then dance, the substitute home, turned him outward, gave him to us.” “Dancing and the Dark” is a portrait of Bob Fosse, Broadway’s “foremost choreographer-director during the late sixties and the seventies,” that leaps from the page with the quicksilver avidity of the very best prose fiction:

Though his motivation often seems naive, he was nonetheless interested in who we actually are. What is forbidden? What is true? Almost everything he did was unpleasant. His work was tacky, pushy, obsessive. He was a hophead. Yet he was a moralist, of a generation that had little hope of innocence…. With all artists, we have to deal with the business of personality versus art, neurosis versus imagination. With Fosse, the imagination is smaller, the neurosis bigger. Still, he was an artist.

Another painfully vivid portrait is that of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, whose work Acocella has admired in the past but is ambivalent about in 1992, on the occasion of the publication of Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove:

By its end, this autobiography, with its long tale of commercial projects, begins to look like a very commercial project itself. It fits right into the currently beloved genre wherein a star tells all about his or her journey through you-name-it—alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, codependency—and comes out okay in the end…. The problem is not the commercial venture but Tharp’s low opinion of commercial ventures, and hence her lowered ambition for them, apart from their profitability. This book will tell you everything—the abortion, the boyfriend who socked her in the face—except how intelligent she once was.

Acocella’s ambivalence about H.L. Mencken (“On the Contrary”) is tempered by her admiration for him as a writer of sharp and original prose, and of at least one masterwork, The American Language (1919): “a long, scholarly, but also fun and funny study of what was probably the greatest love of his life, American vernacular speech.” She also admires Mencken as a writing machine: “‘There is always a sheet of paper,’ he once said. ‘There is always a pen. There is always a way out.'” In this self-styled enemy of mediocrity we have no neurasthenic sufferer of writer’s block:

[Mencken] organized his life entirely around his work. He scorned the dissipation, alienation, expatriation of his fellow-writers of the twenties. He not only didn’t move to Europe, he didn’t move to New York, couldn’t stand the place. Twice a month, he would take the train to Manhattan and spend a few days giving orders to [the staff of The American Mercury]. But soon he was back in his beloved Baltimore, in the house he had lived in since the age of three, working all day in his upstairs study….

In this way Mencken became one of the most famous writers of his time, dogged, obsessive, unyielding—a “philistine,” as Acocella bluntly calls him—who had no interest in art of any kind, not even the prose of his macho contemporary Ernest Hemingway; he cared only about ideas, “or one idea, the American boob—and so he had only one emotion, the pleasure of despising.”

Persuasive as Acocella is in her enthusiasms, she is equally persuasive in her less frequent despisings: her disdain, for instance, for reviewers, critics, and biographers who attempt to appropriate genuine artists by means of reductive and formulaic biases. The more one admires Primo Levi, for instance, the more one is likely to resent the biographer Carole Angier, whose The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography “tirelessly [argues] for 731 pages that [Levi] was a neurotic man, split down the middle” because, simply, “he had never resolved the inner torment of his youth.” Quite sensibly, Acocella resists the biographer’s self-aggrandizing notion that she has found “the key to everything” that is Primo Levi. Yet in defending Levi, she eloquently defends all biographical subjects against their key-wielding biographers:

…Even if Levi did commit suicide [as the biographer argues], it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it. That’s the case with mystery novels, but not with lives. Nor do we have any reason to believe that life should not be sad. Many lives are sad, and fraught with double binds, which just means conflicts. We make of them what we can, then throw up our hands and die. The things that Levi made of his life—Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table—are in no way diminished by the possibility that he killed himself. They may even seem more remarkable and moving: the darker the night, the brighter the stars.

Reviewing Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993) provides the occasion for a lengthy, loving homage to the poet whom Acocella describes as “a symbol of the city [New York in the 1950s and 1960s] and a kind of paradigm of the phenomenon that [E.B.] White had described: the person who becomes himself, or his most interesting self, by moving to New York.” Speaking of O’Hara’s legendary energy and fluent, at times haphazard creativity, she concedes that his “generosity toward the world sometimes has a certain proto-flower-power coloration” but it is

this amoral, almost animal quality of attentiveness [that] gives to O’Hara’s sweetness a sturdier character. What might have been sentimentality becomes large-mindedness, zest—a capacity for interest and enjoyment that can still, across the space of decades, suck us back into the minds-on-fire spirit of those years.

Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, overwhelmed with detail, as Acocella sees it, is “dogged”—“a little cold”—even as it tells us far more than we need to know, or might wish to know, about O’Hara’s homosexuality, and slights the poet’s work:

Gooch’s dwelling upon O’Hara’s homosexuality is part of the Antithesis, a reaction to all the writings on homosexual artists in which homosexuality was unmentioned or glossed over, even when it was crucial. How long will we wait for the Synthesis, the time when homosexual artists will be treated like heterosexual artists? It will not serve the cause of justice for an artist of O’Hara’s general, human appeal to be put forth as a “gay poet.”

Acocella’s most extensive defense of an artist vis-à-vis her biographers and critics is the wickedly entertaining Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism,1 following by a year her work of investigative reportage, Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, in which, armed with statistics, interviews, and a Menckenesque zest for combat, she is on the attack on virtually every page.2 Her slender book on Willa Cather is both an overview of the writer and a skewering of numerous proprietary “interpretations” of her work by commentators who see in Cather what they have projected into her in the promulgation of their own prejudices. Not Cather, whose great achievement Acocella assumes, but Cather’s critics are defined as products of their times; after the derisive misogyny directed against her in the 1920s by Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Heywood Broun, and Ernest Hemingway (who coined the malicious term “Catherized” in a letter to Edmund Wilson), Cather’s reputation took a further battering from Marxist critics in the 1930s who attacked her for her “tragic vision” and her social irrelevance: “The more [Cather] was senselessly dismissed by the Left, the more she was senselessly exalted by the Right and used as a stick to beat the Left.”

After Cather’s death in 1947 she became a sentimental canonical figure in the culture war of that era, elevated by Roman Catholics and by conservatives with little interest in the beauty and precision of her prose. In the 1970s and 1980s, in an ironic about-face, she was appropriated by feminist literary critics eager to discover, in this writer who had so frequently disdained in print women’s writing (“Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts [literary] talent in the hands of women, they usually make an infernal mess of it”) and issues of gender entirely, an iconic kindred spirit, indeed a “feminist” and a “lesbian.” As Acocella notes, such championing of Cather has presumably been undertaken in the service of political causes, but how can it help those causes? “Will it be useful if we argue that while men and heterosexuals can write about anything they want, women can only write about gender, homosexuals only about sexuality?” In defense of the writer who cannot defend herself, Acocella is scathing in her criticism:

As for Cather, what do they have left of her—of the profundity of her vision, her originality, her ear, probably the best in American fiction—once all that has been ignored in order to turn her into a feminist? If a feminist is all she is, who needs her? As noted, there have been better feminists.

As metacriticism, this polemic is a work to set beside Janet Malcolm’s classic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994).

Sexual politics is a notoriously volatile subject, all the more in that fashions in beliefs change, and sometimes abruptly; a defensible intellectual position in, for instance, 1949 may look very different to us today:

The sex organ of a man is simple and neat as a finger…but the feminine sex organ is mysterious even to the woman herself, concealed, mucous, and humid, as it is; it bleeds each month, it is often sullied with bodily fluids…a horrid decomposition…. Man dives upon his prey like the eagle and the hawk; woman lies in wait like the carnivorous plant, the bog, in which insects and children are swallowed up. She is absorption, suction, humus, pitch and glue, a passive influx, insinuating and viscous.

This is Acocella quoting a notorious passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and she is funny about it: “It’s like something out of a monster movie.” Her essay on Beauvoir and Sartre (“The Frog and the Crocodile”) is both sympathetic and unsparing, informed and gossipy; the occasion is a review of A Transatlantic Love Affair (1998), a collection of Beauvoir’s “fascinating” letters to Nelson Algren, with whom she had a love affair in the late 1940s, begun when she was thirty-nine years old: “the only truly passionate love in [her] life.” Acocella is admiring of Beauvoir without being blinded to her less than admirable behavior (in “helping out” her longtime lover Sartre acquire new, very young lovers, for instance), and reminds us that it is naive and unrealistic to expect artists to be ideal citizens:

In the recent flap over Beauvoir we see again what might now be called the Philip Larkin syndrome: the insistence on the part of modern critics that celebrated authors’ lives be as admirable as their books. In the case of Beauvoir one might answer, “Do as she said, not as she did.”

It seems appropriate that the two saints of Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints are female; and that each has inspired from Acocella an informed, sympathetic overview of the subject along with a skeptical consideration of the uses—exploitive, idealistic, naive—to which the “saintly” subject has been put over the centuries. Since little is known of Mary Magdalene—“The Saintly Sinner”—who is mentioned only fourteen times in the New Testament, this female contemporary of Christ could be imagined as virtually anything: “sometimes a pin-up, sometimes a sermon,” or, as Mario Praz observed, “Venus in sackcloth.” Then came the discovery in 1945 of the Gnostic Gospels, in which Mary Magdalene unexpectedly emerges as a central figure, not only not a prostitute but “an evangelical hero and Christ’s favorite disciple.”

Amid the ever-swelling tide of materials on Mary Magdalene, including Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code, Acocella considers the “searching and passionately argued” Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the New Testament (2002) by Jane Schaberg, a professor of religion at the University of Detroit Mercy and a self-described “guerrilla exegete,” as well as two other books on the subject. She concludes her discussion by reaching back, beyond the Gnostic Gospels, to the Gospel of Saint John: “The New Testament’s most powerful statement about the confrontation with death, about losing forever the thing you love.”

The wittily titled “Burned Again,” which ends this volume, is occasioned by the release, in 1999, of a film by the French director Luc Besson titled The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, in which, as Acocella says curtly, “in keeping with the times, [Joan] is a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.” She traces the mythic, ever-shifting figure of Joan of Arc through the centuries, ending with a consideration of several films based on her life: Cecil B. DeMille’s “bloated, Bible-quoting spectacular,” Joan the Woman (1917); Marco de Gastyne’s “almost hysterically nationalistic” La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1928); Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), with its smug cold war righteousness; Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) starring the fatally untrained amateur Jean Seberg; Carl Dreyer’s classic Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Robert Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), “a kind of catechism, something recited rather than enacted”; Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maid (1994)—“Go get it. It’s the best Joan movie ever made”; and, disappointingly, Besson’s sensationalist The Messenger, with which Acocella’s essay began:

None of this…will do Joan’s reputation any harm. Her cult is big enough to absorb it…. The postmodern folk are on her trail: the women’s-studies people, the queer-studies people, the deconstructionists…. Meanwhile, the devout have not deserted the field. Throughout the Christian world, Joan is venerated…. We haven’t seen the end of the Johannic reception or, I’ll bet, the worst of it, but somehow Joan always slips through the net, small and fleet, brave and glad.

This Issue

March 15, 2007