Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival.
 (August 2018)


Coffins and Jukeboxes

Robert Frank: Sick of Goodby’s, 1978; from The Lines of My Hand

American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank

by R.J. Smith

Robert Frank: Film Works

edited by Laura Israel
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” James Agee remarked at the start of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his landmark collaborative study, with the photographer Walker Evans, of three tenant families in Depression-era Alabama. “It would be photographs,” Agee insisted; “the rest …

The Loved One

Terence Stamp in Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Billy Budd, 1962

Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings

by Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg, and G. Thomas Tanselle, with a historical note by Hershel Parker
When Herman Melville died at seventy-two, in September 1891, he had been out of public view for so long that The New York Times identified him as Henry Melville. An obituary writer expressed surprise that the author best known for Typee—his first novel, set in the South Seas, notorious for …

The Quiet Little Warrior

John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt

by John Taliaferro

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image

by Joshua Zeitz
During the winter of 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to the White House to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp the large round knob of a staircase, as though to keep him in …

Building the American Dream

An engraving of New Harmony, Indiana, the utopian community founded by Robert Owen in 1825 and dissolved in 1827

Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War

by Philip F. Gura

Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism

by Chris Jennings
On a sunny August afternoon in 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, after a picnic in the Berkshires and a leisurely smoke under the trees, decided, seemingly on impulse, to visit the Hancock Shaker Village, on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For Melville, who lived nearby, it was a chance …


Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Stanley Cavell, 2017

He didn’t prepare a syllabus. He didn’t order books for his courses. He was casual with student papers. According to the awful assessment measures of our awful times, he was probably a lousy teacher, and yet he was the most exciting classroom presence I’ve ever experienced. He brought an extraordinary range of passions—for jazz and Shakespeare, for American film comedies, for “ordinary language” philosophy, for the unexpected philosophical richness of Thoreau and Emerson—to everything he had to say. And we hung on every word.

Renoir’s Onions

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Onions, 1881

Emerson, our cultural founding father, thought that the major contribution of the art of his own time was a new understanding of ordinary life. I am reminded of Emerson’s admonition whenever I make a pilgrimage to see one of my favorite paintings in all of New England: Renoir’s group portrait of six onions and two bulbs of garlic, painted in Naples in 1881. In them, one can see in a flash what Meyer Schapiro meant when he called still-life painting part of “a democratizing trend in art that gives a positive significance to the everyday world.”

Christmas in July

The Netherlands, 1912

My family is very passionate about Christmas trees. We insist—or rather, my wife and our two sons insist—that the search for the tree must be arduous. We are surrounded in bosky Amherst by small Christmas tree farms, as I meekly point out, but instead we drive over an hour to remote Ashfield, up near the Vermont border, to a particular farm. There, outfitted with saws and a large cart, a sort of wheeled gurney, we hike to where the trees are, a half hour’s climb up the sloping path. Then, with much discussion—should cuteness be a factor, or some elusive element of character?—we select our tree.

The Short, Sad Story of Stanwix Melville

Illustration by Bill Bragg from The Folio Society edition of The Complete Shorter Fiction by Herman Melville

“He seems to be possessed with a demon of restlessness,” Stanwix’s mother remarked. But his real demon was motionlessness. After eighteen months in California, Stanwix reports: “I am still stationary.” After Bartleby’s employer suggests that he might consider “going as a companion to Europe, to entertain some young gentleman with your conversation,” Bartleby replies, “I like to be stationary.” To which his exasperated employer responds: “Stationary you shall be then.” Published two years after Stanwix’s birth, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” could not be based on Stanwix. But could Stanwix be based on Bartleby? Could Herman Melville, the distant, depressed father, have helped create the conditions for a Bartleby?