Michael Gorra’s books include Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece and The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, which will be published in August. He teaches at Smith. (July 2020)
The March 1877 issue of The Atlantic Monthly included a memoir by the great English actress Fanny Kemble and a set of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There was a travel piece about the Canary Islands, the back of the book offered a shrewd appraisal of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, …
The more I disagree with Susan Sontag, the more interesting her mind becomes; her arguments help you realize the terms of your own, until ambivalence becomes inseparable from admiration. A great critic is always better at questions than answers, and here her position outside the university was a help. Sontag was undisciplined, in a positive sense. She took “everything” as her province, spilling from one mode of cultural production to another, asking large questions in a jargon-free style, and at the exact moment when the leading edge of the academic humanities seemed to lose its sense of a common tongue.
Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil
by Susan Neiman
Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
by Tony Horwitz
One of the more powerful memorials I’ve ever stumbled upon is a chipped and eroded block of stone that sits at a downtown corner in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was probably set in place as a carriage step for a neighboring hotel, but before the Civil War the crossing was the city’s usual spot for slave auctions, and in later years some freedmen recalled being made to stand on that stone when they themselves were up for sale, or seeing those who were. Other townspeople have disputed those memories. Still, it’s always been known as the “slave auction block,” and there’s now an explanatory plaque in the sidewalk before it; a found object, as it were, that has become a place of witness in spite, or maybe because, of the city’s uneasiness with its presence.
Here’s a sentence almost any of us would be happy to have written, an aphoristic nugget that can hold its own with Oscar Wilde or La Rochefoucauld: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Some of its brilliance lies in its rhythm, its strong iambic beat. But that …
There is a deep congruity between the movements of Faulkner’s mind, with its sense of an inescapable family trauma, and the history and culture of his region, so deep that it hardly seems possible to distinguish between them. So many of the ills he describes are with us still. He was born into an understanding of the way white supremacy works, and a part of him never stopped believing in the racial hierarchy that shaped his boyhood, even as the writer grew increasingly critical of it. He told inconvenient truths, and even some of his relatives saw him as writing “dirty books for Yankees.”
“Henry James and American Painting,” a compact but wonderfully heterogeneous show at the Morgan Library, includes a comprehensive selection of Jamesian portraits along with other paintings of and by his friends. James liked sitting, and the exhibition includes a round dozen of his many portraits; more probably than have ever been gathered in one place before.
In the tableaux vivants scene of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s posture announces that she is herself as a work of art. She stands on display, showing what she has, and the moment at which she is most herself is also the one in which she most becomes a thing, an object consumed by those eyes, and consumed perhaps in other ways as well. For art is often sold. Lily has here turned herself into a commodity, and poses as if she’s up for auction. The scene works to literalize the idea of the marriage market.
Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters; Nova Scotians, hair rinse, bluing, bleach…