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, …
When I asked W.H. Auden what he would like to hear Armstrong say, he replied at first with a mischievous chuckle: “I’ve never done this before!” adding, “What else should he say? It would be a true statement.” But when I went on to ask if he would not prefer something more elevating, perhaps about world peace, he grew sober. “Well, that’s a little different,” Auden said. “We all know that the chief reason for their going there is military, so I don’t think you should ask them to say much about that!”
In 1945, when Bennett Cerf of Random House was preparing to send to the printer An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, he omitted twelve early poems by Ezra Pound included in a 1927 anthology on which the new book had been based. In the years since those poems, Pound had become notorious for his fascist politics and florid anti-Semitism. W.H. Auden, one of Cerf’s authors at Random House, wrote Cerf some letters about Cerf’s action and its consequences that may still be clarifying today. “I think your very natural abhorrence of Pound’s conduct has led you to take the first step which, if not protested now, will be followed by others which would horrify you,” he wrote.
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.