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 later this year. He teaches at Smith.
 (February 2020)


Young Woman from the Provinces

Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979

Sontag: Her Life and Work

by Benjamin Moser
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.

A Heritage of Evil

Workers removing a statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Robert E. Lee Park (now Turtle Park), Dallas, Texas, September 2017

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.

Loving with a Stiff Upper Lip

Julian Barnes

The Only Story

by Julian Barnes
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 …

Southern Discomfort

Peter Taylor, 1985

Peter Taylor: Complete Stories, Vol. 1, 1938–1959

by Peter Taylor, edited by Ann Beattie

Peter Taylor: Complete Stories, Vol. 2, 1960–1992

by Peter Taylor, edited by Ann Beattie
Let’s imagine a street of big houses in the 1930s—deep lawns, servants in the kitchen, and a clear sense of who belongs and who doesn’t. The paperboy doesn’t. The neighborhood girls may be sweet on Tom Bascomb, but he lives in an apartment building and even at thirteen everybody knows …

Shaping Stories to Make Sense of Ourselves

Claire Messud, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013

The Burning Girl

by Claire Messud
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Julia Robinson, the teenaged narrator of Claire Messud’s subtly made fifth novel, isn’t quite precocious enough to quote that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album. She’d recognize the sentiment, however, and I thought of those words in reading the story she …


The Nose of the Master

John Singer Sargent: Henry James, 1913

“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.

The Portrait of Miss Bart

Joshua Reynolds: Mrs. Lloyd, 1775-1776

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.

All Blue

China, 2012

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…