Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s
by George Hutchinson
George Hutchinson’s Facing the Abyss has bracing and revelatory things to say about American culture in the 1940s; also, by contrast and implication, about American culture today. The book brings into focus intellectual and emotional realities of the decade during and after World War II that current historical memory largely occludes behind heroicizing or condescending stereotypes.
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
by A.O. Scott
This Thing We Call Literature
by Arthur Krystal
Two lucid and intelligent books, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism and Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature, explore the same complex theme: criticism as a public art and a public service, performed, however, by critics who speak for themselves, addressing individual readers, not a collective public. Both books …
James Merrill began his public career as a poet at twenty-five, four years after he graduated from Amherst, with the exquisitely crafted, tautly controlled lyrics in his First Poems (1951). His style gradually relaxed over the next twenty-five years, but he remained committed to his early elegance and virtuosity. Then, …
Historians argue among themselves whether Thucydides is a moralizing philosopher or, in a common phrase, “the first scientific historian.” What is radical about him, and gives him his unerring clear-sightedness, is that he is both. He understands morals, not as a set of arbitrary rules imposed or wished upon reality, but part of the fabric of reality itself, in the same way that Greek philosophy had begun to understand physical laws as inseparable from reality. Thucydides came to the same insight that Ludwig Wittgenstein recorded centuries later when he wrote that ethics “must be a condition of the world like logic.” In the two years since the 2016 US election, it seems ever more clear that Thucydides is the greatest historian not only of empire but also of contemporary politics.
In a letter to his college girlfriend, Barack Obama writes with strikingly suggestive insight into Eliot’s literary and religious tradition and his special relation to it. Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone.
When I work in Word, for all its dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.