Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Flashback, March 1961: Richard Yates’ Searing Suburban Satire, ‘Revolutionary Road,’ Published

Even though it depicted a postwar trend—Americans’ adjustment to suburban life—Revolutionary Road, published in March 1961 by Little, Brown & Company, harked back to earlier sources of inspiration. 

The attractive couple at its heart—Frank and April Wheeler, in their late 20s with a pair of children, about to plunge into infidelity, alcohol abuse and despair—are reminiscent of the troubled married duo Dick and Nicole Diver of Tender Is the Night, and its realistic, irony-tinged style owes much to that novel’s creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

At the same time, critics hailed Richard Yates for his unique, melancholy recounting of the dream that beckons to the Wheelers: chucking their humdrum, materialistic lives in Connecticut for a more low-cost, bohemian and creative existence in Paris—the same aspirations that lured Fitzgerald and wife Zelda to become expatriates in the 1920s.

Some critics have felt that Yates never equaled his achievement in this first novel of his. But the same might be said of Orson Welles with Citizen Kane.

(As I mentioned in a blog post from 12 years ago, by no means do I share this dismissive view of Yates’ other fiction. Whether in his short stories or novels, he is, I believe, our postwar bard of disenchantment.)

“The emotions of fiction are autobiographical,” Yates once observed to friend Grace Schulman, “but the facts never are.” That applied to Revolutionary Road. Although the novel was not strictly speaking a roman a clef, it reflected Yates’ frustration in simultaneously trying to write fiction, stay financially solvent, and maintain a marriage crumbling under the strain of his affairs and alcoholism.

The wonder is that his portrait of Frank is shot through less with self-pity than with withering scorn for his self-delusions and failures of will. Frank works in New York for ''the dullest job you can possibly imagine,'' with the New York firm Knox Business Machines, but he thinks he’s made for another life “as an intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man.”

Having returned in the early 1950s from just the kind of expatriate life Frank desires, Yates saw the dangers lurking for the intellectually pretentious: someone culturally aware enough to speak of the latest philosophical fashion, but all too willing to surrender to the all-too-easy office girl, to the liquor that takes the edge off the day, and to the better-paying job supposedly needed to keep up with the Joneses in the new suburban nirvanas cropping up around the country. Or, as Yates sums up Frank’s thinking:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstances might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.”

Unfortunately, Frank’s existence has been bound up in forgetting who he is. He welcomes “being contaminated” as his means of avoiding discovering whether he really is talented and ambitious enough to make a career of writing fiction.

In the book’s opening scene, April realizes the limits of her creative talents far more quickly and painfully. Despite her good looks (“a tall, ash blonde with a patrician beauty that no amount of amateur lighting could disguise”), she flops even in the “little theater” amateur production mounted in their town. The aftermath of that disaster—a bitter post-performance argument on the drive home with Frank—prefigures the volatile summer that follows.

At least April has the energy to plan for a more fulfilling life, as well as a touching if absurd faith that Frank is gifted and dogged enough to achieve it. But, as they come face to face with the collapse of their hopes, Yates also presents her with the novel’s most pungent, memorable line: “No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

The address that becomes the scene of the Wheelers’ undoing—Revolutionary Road—is ironic, implying that Wheelers are unequal to the spirit of independence that founded the nation and that they seek to embody in their quest for the creative life.

“Pessimistic,” “depressing,” “bleak”—all adjectives that aptly describe Yates’ work without adequately conveying the power of it. For that, it might be best to absorb passages like the following, where Yates evokes the deadening routine experienced by the commuters who stream daily into the city:

“How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their grey-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! There were endless desperate swarms of them, hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting mid-town office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.”

Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award the following year, losing out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. After abortive attempts by director John Frankenheimer and actor Patrick O’Neal to bring the book to the screen in the 1960s and 1970s, director Sam Mendes succeeded in doing so in 2008, in an adaptation starring wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio (in the image accompanying this post).

Though faithful to the book and critically acclaimed, the movie enjoyed only tepid results at the box office. Its subject matter is dark at any period, but Americans plunged into a recession during the 2008 holiday season were particularly not in a mood for the romantic hopes and tribulations of the Wheelers.

In other ways, though, the times may have caught up with Yates and his vision. The world he depicted with such unflinching fidelity to truth in Revolutionary Road—the synthetic suburban dreams, the Madison Avenue suits who manufactured a glossy future by day when they weren’t carrying on trysts afterward, the photogenic, seemingly perfect couples who ended up in drunken screaming matches—was recreated by AMC for Mad Men. (Indeed, that series’ showrunner, Matthew Weiner said he would never have bothered to create it if he had read Revolutionary Road beforehand, remembered ChristinaWayne, who was senior VP of scripted series/miniseries for AMC at that time.)

But it appears now that the book’s admirers have succeeded in moving the novel from cult to more mainstream status, where it can be appreciated for what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford called “its apparent effortlessness, its complete accessibility, its luminous particularity, its deep seriousness toward us human beings -- about whom it conjures shocking insights and appraisals.”

Quote of the Day (Will Durant, Arguing Against Utopias and Nationalism)

“In the end we must steel ourselves against utopias and be content, as Aristotle recommended, with a slightly better state. We must not expect the world to improve much faster than ourselves. Perhaps, if we can broaden our borders with intelligent study, impartial histories, modest travel, and honest thought — if we can become conscious of the needs and views and hopes of other peoples, and sensitive to the diverse values and beauties of diverse cultures and lands, we shall not so readily plunge into competitive homicide, but shall find room in our hearts for a wider understanding and an almost universal sympathy. We shall find in all nations qualities and accomplishments from which we may learn and refresh ourselves, and by which we may enrich our inheritance and our posterity. Someday, let us hope, it will be permitted us to love our country without betraying mankind.” — Pulitzer Prize-winning American philosopher and historian Will Durant (1885-1981), Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God (2014)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Photo of the Day: Kayakers, Overpeck Creek, Bergen County NJ

Overpeck Creek, a few miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, has been a favorite site for kayakers and canoeists for quite some time. (In fact, it has hosted Columbia University’s dock and rowing crews, as well as crews for several high schools in the area.)

For the last week or so especially, as the weather has warmed up, I’ve wanted to photograph this activity. But the conditions weren’t right: trees getting in the way, say, or the kayakers moving just beyond the range of my camera.

But today, the conditions were just right. There were several kayakers together (even more than in this picture), they had slowed down, and I was on a bank with nothing blocking the view. I was delighted to have an opportunity for this shot—almost as much as I am for the onset of lovely weather brought on by spring itself.

Quote of the Day (Flannery O’Connor, With a Scene in a Southern Barn)

“It was a large two-story barn, cool and dark inside. The boy pointed up the ladder that led into the loft and said, ‘It’s too bad we can’t go up there.’

“ ‘Why can’t we?’ she asked.

“ ‘Yer leg,’ he said reverently.

“The girl gave him a contemptuous look and putting both hands on the ladder, she climbed it while he stood below, apparently awestruck. She pulled herself expertly through the opening and then looked down at him and said, ‘Well, come on if you’re coming,’ and he began to climb the ladder, awkwardly bringing the suitcase with him.

“ ‘We won’t need the Bible,’ she observed.

“ ‘You never can tell,’ he said, panting. After he had got into the loft, he was a few seconds catching his breath. She had sat down in a pile of straw. A wide sheath of sunlight, filled with dust particles, slanted over her. She lay back against a bale, her face turned away, looking out the front opening of the barn where hay was thrown from a wagon into the loft. The two pink-speckled hillsides lay back against a dark ridge of woods. The sky was cloudless and cold blue.”—American short-story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), “Good Country People,” originally published in Harper’s Bazaar, June 1955, republished in her short-story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955)

As last week’s PBS documentary Flannery made clear, stories such as “Good Country People” were inspired in part by O’Connor’s life on her family’s 550-acre dairy farm in Milledgeville, GA, where she also raised peacocks and chickens.

I have not had the chance to visit that farm, but on the two occasions when I was in Savannah, I made it a point to see her birthplace on Lafayette Square. This childhood home was just across from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. That building was not just a weekly but daily presence in her life, as the young girl could view its steeple and hear the tolling of its bells from her room. Anyone trying to understand the strong feelings about God expressed with oblique but unusual force in her fiction and more conventionally if pungently in her letters would do well to go to this neighborhood.

For any writer, O’Connor’s life is an inspiration, proof of the power of forsaking self-pity, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles (in her case, the lupus that hobbled and eventually killed her at age 39), through iron commitment to work.

Monday, March 29, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Honeymooners,’ on ‘Poor Little Pizza’)

[Alice has just left the room, after telling Ralph he should eat the salad in the refrigerator rather than the pizza Ed Norton has brought in.]

Ed Norton [played by Art Carney]: “You want me to take the pizza upstairs—you know, sort of remove the temptation?”

Ralph Kramden [played by Jackie Gleason]: “What do you think I am, a child or something? That if anything’s in front of me, I’ve gotta eat it? Who needs it? I’ve got a salad.”  [Goes to refrigerator, takes it out, puts it in the table, while Ed plays with the pizza.] “Not a bad one, either. Everything on here is good for you. Got carrots for your eyes, got beets for your blood, lettuce for your teeth. Everything’s good. Everything’s good for something on this plate.”

Ed [picking up the pizza, laughing]: “Poor little pizza, ain’t good for nothin’. I’m telling ya, if pizzas were manhole covers, sewers would be a paradise!” [Ralph fumes as Ed bites eagerly into it, then finally bursts out with:]

Ralph: “Will ya stop waving that thing?!!!!”—The Honeymooners, Season 1, Episode 25, “Pardon My Glove,” original air date Mar. 17, 1956, teleplay by A.J. Russell and Herbert Finn, directed by Frank Satenstein

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Peter, on Participating in ‘The Sufferings of Christ’)

“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”—1 Peter 4:13 (New International Version)

(The image accompanying this post is the 1886 painting Christ in Gethsemane, by the German artist Heinrich Hofmann.)

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Photo of the Day: St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, Bogota NJ

Once or twice in the past, I had driven by this longtime religious institution in Bogota. But only two days ago did I approach St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church on foot and took this photo.

I have a special reason to be interested in this parish: it was founded by the Carmelites, who, from their base in my church, St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, went on to set up other parishes in New Jersey’s “Northern Valley” in the first half of the 20th century. 

In Bogota, the first mass in the parish was celebrated in 1913 in Bogota’s Central Avenue. It would be another 16 years before the present Romanesque structure, designed by the architectural firm A.F. DePace of New York, was dedicated.

Over the next eight decades, the Carmelites—including several who, at one point or another, also served at St. Cecilia—led the parish. But, as the order’s ranks thinned out, it felt unable to continue in this role. Starting in 2013, the parish has been run by archdiocesan priests outside the Carmelite order.

Quote of the Day (Chrissie Hynde, on Hippies vs. Punks)

“[Punks] didn’t like hippies, because their parents were hippies. I was in the States during the hippie era and in England during the punk era. They were both anti-establishment—that’s what they had in common. But the hippies were smoking pot, which makes you complacent, and the complacency wasn’t what punk was about—it was about action.”—Singer-songwriter—and Pretenders leader—Chrissie Hynde quoted in Rob Tannenbaum, “Q and A: Chrissie Hynde,” Rolling Stone, June 19, 2014

(The image accompanying this post, showing Chrissie Hynde in concert, was taken Aug. 10, 2007 in Santa Barbara, CA by John Slonaker.)

Friday, March 26, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (Demetri Martin, With a Brief Intellectual History of the Word ‘Dude’)

“I wonder what the most intelligent thing ever said was that started with the word 'dude.' 'Dude, these are isotopes.' 'Dude, we removed your kidney. You're gonna be fine.' 'Dude, I am so stoked to win this Nobel Prize. I just wanna thank Kevin, and Turtle, and all my homies.'”—American stand-up comic Demetri Martin on Comedy Central Presents, Season 8, Episode 14, original air date Mar. 19, 2004, written and directed by Demetri Martin

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Penelope Fitzgerald, on Writing Biographies vs. Novels)

“On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.”—British novelist-biographer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), in a 1987 letter to her American publisher, Chris Carduff, in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (2008)

In one sense, I agree with Ms. Fitzgerald (who chronicled the lives of her father and three uncles in The Knox Family): For the biographer, it may be enormously difficult to spend years researching and writing about a figure you despise (or come to despise, as Lawrence Thompson did while producing his three-volume life of Robert Frost).

But in another sense, I must take issue with her. For readers, learning about a hateful figure—particularly one possessing power—is crucial in ensuring that the influence of such people is never wielded again.

Even for people in between—more complicated types, like Ernest Hemingway—putting distasteful details in the full context of their lives and times can demonstrate why their work matters and endures, despite their considerable personal failings.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (G. K. Chesterton, on Good Taste)

“Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed." —English man of letters G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Heretics (1905)

I don’t think we have this problem today, do you? Take a look at this for evidence. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Quote of the Day (Richard Brookhiser, on Sparrows As Great City Birds)

“Pigeons are the iconic city bird but sparrows come close behind. Like pigeons they live not in the curated patches of parks but on the sidewalks and streets. They are streetwalkers, pedestrians, non-stop maintenance men…Why they are so suited to an urban existence I cannot say. Size must help; they were early converts to the tiny-house movement. If you want to see their houses, follow their chirping. That is how I discovered, years ago, that they had colonized the cross-pieces of street lights. Once I started looking up I saw that every tubular hollow end had an insistent denizen. They also like the metal housings of retractable awnings; they live over the door of my favorite restaurant, just below the neon sign, watching the aspiring models come and go.”—Essayist and historian Richard Brookhiser, “City Desk: Bird’s-Eye View,” National Review, Jan. 23, 2017

(The accompanying photo of Richard Brookhiser was taken Dec. 9, 2011, when he was discussing his book James Madison in Charlottesville, Va., by the Miller Center, a non-partisan institute at the University of Virginia focused on the American Presidency.)

Monday, March 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (James Thurber, on a Fine Point of Exclamation Point Use)

"Don't use an exclamation mark in a moment of anger. If you insert one in a fit of temper, lay aside the letter until morning. You will be surprised how silly it will seem then -- not only the exclamation mark but the whole letter."—American humorist, cartoonist and playwright James Thurber (1894-1961), The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities (1931)

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Photo of the Day: Environmental Walkway, Olsen Park, Bogota NJ

This afternoon, after walking in Foschini Park in Hackensack, I crossed the Lt. Ryan Memorial Bridge to a place I’d never visited in my 60 years in Bergen County: Bogota's Oscar E. Olsen Park. The park’s environmental walkway, seen here in this photo I took, affords a fine vantage point to look west onto the Hackensack River.

Nature watchers can not simply peer beyond the rail for signs of life, but also read the signs on the walkway that explain such matters as the plumage of birds, the food chain of the creatures below, and the river's function as a resting spot for ducks.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Denzel Washington, on This Age’s ‘Free Will on Steroids’)

“We’re the only animal on this planet that’s blessed with free will, and we live in a time where it’s like free will on steroids. We’re free to think and go in any direction we want in this information age, and we have to protect our ears, our eyes, our minds. We have to be very careful with the information we take in and rely on as truth. We have to look inside, not outside. We need spiritual callisthenics.”—Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington quoted in Emanuel Levy, “We Need Spiritual Callisthenics,” The Financial Times, Jan. 23-24, 2021

(The photo accompanying this post, of Denzel Washington at the press conference for The Magnificent Seven at the Toronto Film Festival, was taken Sept. 8, 2016, by GabboT.)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Photo of the Day: Goodbye to Winter in Nyack, NY

Earlier this week, a local TV weather forecaster explained the difference between astronomical spring (based on the orbiting cycle that produces the vernal equinox on March 20) and meteorological spring (based on annual temperature cycles). The two, she noted, did not coincide.

But this afternoon, throngs of walkers in Nyack, NY, considered the two forms of spring in alignment.

At Memorial Park, in this photo I took, people were enjoying the sunshine and the temperatures hovering near 60 degrees. When not strolling with parents or congregating with friends their age, teens were using the skateboard park.

Only 24 hours before, the wind-chill factor plunged precipitously, leading me to cut short my daily walk near where I live in northern New Jersey. That seemed like the last vestige of winter until I came across these large mounds of snow in Memorial Park.

In my own driveway, the last bit of snow from the roughly 30 inches of snow dumped this winter had melted more than a week ago. I wondered how high the snowbanks in this park must have been piled before the intermittent warmer temperatures and rain of the last three weeks had begun to have an effect.

As I looked beyond the snowbanks to the Mario Cuomo Bridge across the Hudson, I felt like waving the winter of 2020-21 goodbye, with a big smile and not the slightest nostalgia. 

Quote of the Day (William Shakespeare, on the ‘Uses of Adversity’)

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”— English playwright-poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616), As You Like It (1599)

Friday, March 19, 2021

This Day in Exploration History (Birth of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Roguish Arabist, Author and Adventurer)

 Mar. 19, 1821— Sir Richard Francis Burton, who opened up previously unknown realms in geography, religion and anthropology—even as he shocked proper Victorians with his roguish exploits and prolific writings—was born in Devon, England.

Much of what the British empire knew—or thought it knew—about the Arab world came through the efforts of Burton and a later soldier-linguist: T.E. Lawrence. Both men inspired biopics: Lawrence of Arabia and the far less well-known Mountains of the Moon.

But David Lean was able to encompass most of the career of Lawrence in his Oscar-winning Best Picture, whereas Burton was so varied in his pursuits that director Bob Rafelson was only able to depict the adventurer’s relationship with John Hanning Speke, the deputy on his expedition to discover the source of the Nile.

Two decades before Rafelson’s big-screen cult film, I became interested in Burton through the small screen, via a 1971 BBC miniseries that ended up broadcast in the U.S.: The Search for the Nile, a documentary narrated by James Mason, with key scenes from the explorer’s life dramatized. Later, I was intrigued when I learned that Fawn Brodie, who made waves with a 1974 psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson, used the same approach seven years before with her life of Burton, The Devil Drives.

Brilliant enough to master 40 different languages and dialects, Burton could have been content to spend much of the rest of his life in libraries. He would have had the perfect opportunity at Oxford, where his army officer father had sent him with the inexplicable thought that the university could prepare his son for the clergy.

Even before Richard’s post-education career thoroughly disabused anyone of such a notion, he was already doing his best to ensure that he would not even make it to graduation. In short order, he was challenging to a duel another student who ridiculed his droopy moustache; running up massive debts with his tailor; frequenting wild parties and bordellos; and, in the stunt that brought about his expulsion, breaking a university rule by attending a steeplechase, then refusing to apologize.

His appearance added to the overwhelming impression he made on those he met. To that moustache he added a thick beard, which, together with his eyes (described by poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as conveying “unspeakable horror”), gave him an almost Mephistophelian look, as well as an only slightly less fearsome nickname: “Ruffian Dick.”

After Oxford, Burton became an intelligence agent for the British Army in India, where his facility with languages and physical prowess (boxing and fencing) proved useful. But after a decade, he became restless and requested permission to pull off the feat that landed him firmly in the public eye for the first time: undertaking the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage, to Medina and Mecca.

Taking months to prepare (including his disguise as a Pathan, or Indian born of Afghan parents), he came to Mecca in September 1853. His surreptitious notes on what he saw, as a Westerner in this holy Arab city, formed the basis of a subsequent sensational account.

A secret expedition to yet another forbidden site—Harar in the Horn of Africa, the center of the slave trade—followed two years later, with the public enthralled once again by the identity he assumed for getting inside (a Turkish merchant) and his brush with death (nearly dying of thirst, until the sight of desert birds convinced him that water was nearby). 

Immediately afterward, on another trip to Africa, he survived being impaled by a javelin that entered one cheek and left the other. It left him with a scar for the rest of his life, as well as visible confirmation of his willingness to brave all perils.

In 1856, Burton embarked on his most significant, dangerous and controversial adventure: searching for the source of the Nile with Speke. The trip, up hills and through swamps in East Africa, was slow and arduous. Both men fell sick at various points. 

But Burton’s condition was serious enough that, after they had discovered and explored Lake Tanganyika, he decided to recuperate rather than accompany Speke to find another huge body of water they had been told about: what turned out to be Lake Victoria, the source of the great river.

Burton refused to believe Speke’s subsequent report that he had discovered the Nile’s source, and they had fallen out by the time they came back, separately, to Britain. 

Acclaimed for the discovery, Speke still felt the need to prove it. Just before he was to set off on another expedition to confirm the discovery—and on the very day he was supposed to debate Burton on his claim—Speke died on his uncle’s estate, in what was officially ruled an accident but which many (including Burton) believed was suicide.

After marrying the daughter of an aristocratic Catholic family, Isabel Arundell, in 1861, Burton, feeling the need for more regular employment, started working for the British Foreign Office. He used the opportunity to travel still more, but his postings, when not in hellish environments (Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea), were tedious. But in the 1880s, he broke out of his ennui in spectacular fashion.

Already considered colorful, if not eccentric, Burton became notorious for translating explicit texts, such as The Kama Sutra and, more surprisingly, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night and Supplemental Nights. Bad enough that he delivered an unexpurgated version of the so-called Arabian Nights, but he also created a sensation with something even more unlikely: footnotes on Arab sexual practices.

“He paid heavily for his frankness,” noted Canadian novelist-critic Robertson Davies in his 1960 collection, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, “for it was at least as hard a century ago as it is now for people of conventional mind to recognize that a man can be interested in the vagaries of sexual behaviour without wishing to practise them himself.”

Others have taken a dimmer view of Burton’s observations, notably Edward Said in his influential 1978 study, Orientalism, who saw Burton as emblematic of British imperialism and ethnocentric. Still others, such as John Wallen in Burton and Orientalism, regard the explorer as a non-judgmental guide to non-Western moral practices.

Scholars have faced major challenges in assessing Burton following his death in 1890. It’s not just that new academic theories such as Said’s have created an alternative interpretation of his achievements. Researchers also must cope with questions related to Burton’s voluminous writings:

*Absorbing his output. Burton wrote 43 books on his expeditions and translated another 30. Reading and interpreting it all is staggering.

*Weighing his veracity. Clearly, Burton loved telling tales. But to what extent were they true? Biographers who take his accounts at face value run a grave risk.

*Looking beyond holes in the record. After his death, Isabel depicted her husband as the most faithful of husbands. Yet she also took steps to ensure that nobody would second-guess her, as she burned 1,000 pages of his final manuscript.

(For an interesting account of the tomb of Richard and Isabel, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church in London, see Jonathan Carr's 2019 post on the "Victorian Fencing Society" blog.)

Movie Quote of the Day (‘What's Up, Doc?’, With Streisand Proving the Value of Loving Emerson)

Howard Bannister [played by Ryan O’Neal]: “Sir, I must point out to you...”

Frederick Larrabee [played by Austin Pendleton]: “I must point out to you that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Judy Maxwell [played by Barbra Streisand]: “Emerson!”

Frederick: “I beg your pardon?”

Judy: “Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 1803 died 1882.”

Frederick: “You like Emerson?”

Judy: “I adore him.”

Frederick: “I adore anyone who adores Emerson!”

Judy: “And I adore anyone who adores anyone who adores Emerson. Your turn!”

Frederick: “She's a delight, Bannister, a delight—and you're a lucky dog.”

Howard: “I...”

Frederick: “Admit it! Admit you're a lucky dog.”

Howard [helplessly]: “I'm a lucky dog.”

Frederick: “Miss Burns, may I call you Eunice?”

Howard: “No!”

Frederick: “What's that?”

Judy: “What Howard means is that back where we come from, everyone calls me Burnsey.”

Frederick: “Burnsey! I like that.”—What's Up, Doc? (1972), screenplay by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Photo of the Day: The Path Through the Park, Tenafly NJ

Sometimes it takes just a slight shift in where one stands to see in a different light something you’ve taken for granted of your life. So it was for me the other day, when I found myself at the corner of Riveredge Road in Tenafly, a couple of miles from me in northern New Jersey.

Ever since I was a teen, I had been coming to adjacent spots on this 10-acre site: the memorial dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, a pond, and, next to the local high school, a track where I have taken to walking. I had also driven past the corner on this picture, on my way to somewhere else: relatives’ house a bit north, say, or just across the street and slightly east, the borough’s library.

But the other day when I came to this spot I was on foot, so I took the time to look. That’s when I saw how this path led off into the distance—a kind of photographic illustration of the principle of perspective that I had learned about in art history class more than 40 years ago.

It just goes to show that if you take enough time to look—really look—you can see things that you should have seen before, but now you’re taking them in for the first time.

Quote of the Day (Robert Penn Warren, on How the World is ‘Like an Enormous Spider Web’)

“[T]he world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but spring out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping.”—American poet-novelist Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), All the King's Men (1946)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Diarmuid Russell, on Humor, Irish Writing’s ‘Most Marked Characteristic’)

“Perhaps it was just this severity of existence which brought into Irish writings that sense of comedy which seems to me its most marked characteristic. It seems to matter little whether the subject is one of sadness or marked for tragedy. Everywhere in Irish prose there twinkles and peers the merry eye and laugh of a people who had little to laugh about in real life. Swift’s humour is savage, Stephens’ is impish, Wilde’s sophisticated, and Lever has the schoolboy touch, but they all share the common characteristic of using humour to achieve their ends. The only offset to unhappiness is happiness and it was probably some divine law of compensation that gave to the Irish the ability to squeeze laughter out of an existence from which they could extract little else.”—Irish editor and agent Diarmuid Russell (1902-1973), Introduction to The Portable Irish Reader (1946)

Nowadays, if Russell were to include more contemporary names to demonstrate Irish humor, I think he would put high on his list Roddy Doyle (pictured), most famous for his novel (and screen adaptation), The Commitments. Here, for instance, from the 1991 film, is a choice bit of dialogue between the pianist of “The World's Hardest Working Band" and a priest:

Steven Clifford [in confessional]: “Used to, when I studied I would sing hymns, but now all I can sing is ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Marvin Gaye.”

Father Molloy: “Percy Sledge.”

Steven: “What?”

Father Molloy: “It was Percy Sledge did that particular song. I have the album.”

Steven: “Oh...”

(The image accompanying this post, showing Roddy Doyle in the festival garden at Haus der Berliner Festspiele during his participation in the Children´s and Young Adult Program of the 15th International Literature Festival Berlin, was taken Sept. 14, 2015, by Christoph Rieger.)

Tweet of the Day (‘Rollinintheseat,’ on St. Patrick and Uber)

“St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. They gave him a great Uber rating.”—Lindsay @Rollinintheseat, tweet of Mar. 17, 2018

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (William Carlos Williams, Contrasting Poetry and Prose)

“Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”—New Jersey poet-doctor William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), introduction to “The Wedge,” in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (1969)

Monday, March 15, 2021

COVID-19: An Impressionistic History of the First Year of the Emergency

A year ago this week, the reality of COVID-19 hit full force for Americans with the declaration of a national emergency and a ban on non-US citizens traveling from Europe.

Virtually no aspect of life—at the workplace, at home, at “third places” that bound together society—went unaffected.

During this time, while one day seemed to blur into the next, a whole way of life was being transformed over the long term.

These are my recollections of what I directly experienced or heard from others in the Northeast, one of the original pandemic areas in the U.S. I am writing not just for future readers who won’t be able to understand what happened, but also for those now who have lost some memories of aspects of our lives in this time.

In Manhattan, where I was working then, company such as mine watched, with growing concern, in late February and early March as the number of cases and deaths rose. In short order:

*Industry members suddenly backed out of events, afraid to travel by plane or linger in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods.

*Hand sanitizers began to appear on counters all across offices.

*Workers looked askance at anyone veering within six feet of their desks, rolled their eyes if they heard of a colleague exposed to the virus coming into the office, and came into the office in decreasing numbers as management offered the option of working from home.

*Management, after listening to national and local officials, announced, after a day of testing, that employees would work from home till further notice.

*Local newspapers began reporting on how your town was a “hot spot” or “epicenter,” even amid a state that was one of the first—and worst—hit by the pandemic.

*Morning buses, once filled to capacity—even sometimes with commuters standing in the aisles—were now all but empty, even during rush hour.

*Company executives told employees that they were living in “unprecedented times. Nobody could have foreseen this.”

*Employees speculated whether major recent expenses, such as furniture bought for a new move, might have been well-advised, given the subsequent hit to business.

*Employees in mass Zoom sessions looked like The Hollywood Squares, only with considerably more unglamorous people in casual wear replacing the celebrities on the old game show.

*The President repeatedly told the nation that the pandemic “is going to go away.”

*Seemingly everywhere, in rapid succession, supermarket and retail shelves were progressively emptied—of masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators, drugs, toilet paper, meat, shoe varieties—and everyone prayed for a vaccine.

*Cursing and screaming matches occurred at supermarkets, as some customers ignored cashiers’ request to wear masks or crowded into the personal space of other customers online.

*Virtual wars erupted on Facebook among longtime friends, with quarrels centering on the true count of COVID deaths.

*Many states allowed liquor sales for fear of withdrawal symptoms by alcoholics, with some governors saying that revenues from marijuana legalization might help offset those lost to COVID-19.

*Obituaries shifted during the week and, in the case of the Sunday paper, greatly expanded in column inches—as the bereaved, with no possibility of receiving visitors at final services, chose to disclose loved ones’ deaths on the day of the week when the items would be most read.

*Manhattan, emptied of tourists and office workers, became a ghost town.

*An obnoxious new phrase was coined—“The New Normal”—even though nobody could figure out what it was or how long it would last.

*Businessmen across multiple professions griped about the unfairness of it all—why they were singled out for closures when other industries weren’t so affected.

* “Curbside pickup” became the only viable option for restaurants that, if not closed completely by state law, were forced to operate with limited capacity.

*Self-checkout lanes became more prominent in supermarkets and discount department stores, supposedly to foster safety—but leaving at least one shopper suspicious that the move was a Trojan horse to reduce the need for cashiers.

*Technostress was experienced in multiple settings—not just at companies forced virtually overnight to crank up digital operations, but also among workers at home, unable to get online or to get rapid help from overwhelmed MIS personnel.

*After a few weeks, executives announced limited furloughs—and the fear grew among remaining employees that more extensive layoffs might be in the offing.

*After a few more months, that fear was realized, as mass terminations occurred—with employees first requested by e-mail to stay near their computers and phones, then informed in calls with executives and human resource consultants hired for just this eventuality that they were being let go.

*Unlike times past, COVID-induced isolation meant that terminated employees could not gather with colleagues for last dinners, drinks, or hugs.

*Former co-workers, with neither a job nor even the need to show up at any office, left the city. And now, you thought more than ever of these Billy Joel lyrics: “Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes/I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

*Terminated employees over age 50 not only faced massive competition for fewer remaining jobs, but also the daunting prospect of age discrimination.

*Friends begged off appearing on Zoom calls because of “COVID-15,” the weight gained during the emergency because of physical inactivity.

*A new form of litter appeared on city streets: discarded masks.

*Cities and states struggled with how to reopen schools—particularly when young people flouted social-distancing restrictions by holding parties that became super-spreader events.

*Librarians tried to maintain services, even with irate patrons who hurled (possibly COVID-infected) spittle in their direction.

*Friends told you on the phone that, after a few symptoms, they were terrified that they had contracted COVID.

*Relatives wrote from across the Atlantic of fierce outbreaks even in rural villages, as your ancestral homeland went into lockdown.

*Sports were played despite shortened seasons, simulated crowd noise, and contests affected by players who had come down with the disease, despite widely publicized precautionary measures.

*Weddings were delayed, and delayed again.

*Fitness buffs, unable to use gymnasiums, exercised outside, as long as weather permitted.

*Zoom religious services replaced the in-person Sunday masses attended by families for decades, with a progressive hollowing out of interior spiritual peace occurring with each week.

*Situation comedies of one’s childhood—“Bewitched,” “The Munsters” and “The Andy Griffith Show”—became more of a go-to option, a kind of electronic bath in which to wash away anxiety.

*Spring dragged into summer, summer into fall, and fall into winter before vaccines became available, if only on a limited basis.

*Economists began talking up a possible burst of renewed business activity in the near future, while epidemiologists cautioned about letting our collective guard down as mutations of COVID-19 began to spread.

*The end of winter brought talk of “pent-up demand.” But “pent-up frustration” might be an equally accurate description of what so many were feeling.

Quote of the Day (P. G. Wodehouse, Inside the Restless Mind of a London Pub Puppy)

“I was born…in a public-house in the East End, and, however lacking a public-house may be in refinement and the true culture, it certainly provides plenty of excitement. Before I was six weeks old I had upset three policemen by getting between their legs when they came round to the side-door, thinking they had heard suspicious noises; and I can still recall the interesting sensation of being chased seventeen times round the yard with a broom-handle after a well-planned and completely successful raid on the larder. These and other happenings of a like nature soothed for the moment but could not cure the restlessness which has always been so marked a trait in my character. I have always been restless, unable to settle down in one place and anxious to get on to the next thing. This may be due to a gipsy strain in my ancestry--one of my uncles travelled with a circus—or it may be the Artistic Temperament, acquired from a grandfather who, before dying of a surfeit of paste in the property-room of the Bristol Coliseum, which he was visiting in the course of a professional tour, had an established reputation on the music-hall stage as one of Professor Pond's Performing Poodles.”— English humorist and lyricist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), “The Mixer,” in The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1917)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Emily Bronte, on Faith ‘Arming Me From Fear’)

“No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.”—English novelist-poet Emily Bronte (1818-1848), “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” in Poems of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

This Day in Theater History (Death of Maureen Stapleton, ‘Triple Crown’ Winning Actress)

Mar. 13, 2006— Maureen Stapleton, who overcome what she called “fat, unhappy teenhood” to win the coveted acting “Triple Crown” (Oscar, Tony and Emmy) as an adult, died at age 80 in Lenox, Mass., of chronic pulmonary disease.

Confiding in neither her Irish-American parents nor her friends in parochial school in upstate New York, Stapleton kept her acting aspirations to herself until she revealed it to her Uncle Vincent, who encouraged her. Appearances in high-school plays kept the dream alive.

But the key to conquering her self-doubt may have been her decision to model. Darryl Reilly, in a post for the blog “Theater Scene,” focuses on what transpired after she came to New York at age 18 with only $100 in 1943 and yielded to a friend’s suggestion that she pay her bills by posing.

The work—involving not high-fashion outlets but nude posing at the Art Students League—required that she shed self-consciousness about her body as well as her clothes. In her 1995 memoir A Hell of a Life, Stapleton credited this morning work with allowing her to look for acting jobs in the afternoon.

But the modeling assignments may also have helped her in other senses. She learned the value of holding a pose, of the prolonged, necessary concentration required to react to other actors in a scene.

Along the way, she was also learning the importance of toughness—or, as she told Lillian and Helen Ross when interviewed with acting peers for The Player: A Profile of an Art: “Actors are a much hardier breed of people than any other people. We have to be as clever as rats to survive.”

She demonstrated it for the first time in 1946 when she phoned Guthrie McClintic about the leading female role in a revival of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. His curt brush-off led her to respond that she “didn't give a damn who was playing it.” That plain-spokenness may have allowed the veteran director-producer to see qualities required for the production. Eventually, he cast her not only as a supporting player but also understudy to the lead in her first Broadway production.

At night, Stapleton took lessons as part of the original 1947 class of 20 in the Actors Studio, along with the likes of Marlon Brando, David Wayne, Patricia Neal, Mildred Dunnock, Tom Ewell, Kevin McCarthy, Sidney Lumet, John Forsythe, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. It was illustrious company, but time proved that Stapleton could hold her own with the best of this elite group.

All of this was necessary preparation for a career that resulted in her 1981 induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, as she became the go-to actress for playwrights as varied as Tennessee Williams (a Tony-winning turn in The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending), Neil Simon (Plaza Suite, another Tony for The Gingerbread Lady), and Lillian Hellman (Toys in the Attic).

In contrast, film acting was not an easy adjustment for Stapleton to make. “I found it somewhat demoralizing, not being able to act the way I felt I must act,” she told the Ross sisters. “There are so many reasons for that. For one thing, you sit around for hours, and then, suddenly, you're told you're on. I was never ready. I was too accustomed to the discipline of going on at eight-forty. In the theatre, when you don't have to do one of those guts-away parts, it makes it much easier on your private, away-from-the-stage life.”

Eventually, Stapleton got the hang of it, gaining three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress in Lonelyhearts, Airport and Interiors before taking home an Oscar trophy for her role as radical Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).

Stapleton’s Emmy came for the 1967 TV drama Among the Paths to Eden. She just missed joining the elite company of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners, as she was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word category for her recording of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Her bluntness, even occasional raunchiness, only occasionally masked her insecurities, which over the years found outlets in alcoholism, pill-popping, weight gains and phobias (fears of elevators, airplanes and even being killed by audience members).

Any of these could have been fatal to her career (at her first Hollywood party, she took a drunken swing at Burt Lancaster). But therapy eventually helped her cope with these problems, and the humor and lack of pretentiousness that turned colleagues into friends also kept success from going to her head. As she noted in A Hell of a Life, “I've been asked repeatedly what the 'key' to acting is, and as far as I'm concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.”