[played by Leslie David Baker]: “How many freakin' vampires am I supposed to care about these days?”—The Office, Season 7, Episode 6, “Costume Contest,” original air date Oct. 28, 2010, teleplay by Justin Spitzer, directed by Dean Holland
Monday, October 31, 2022
Sunday, October 30, 2022
“Cathy's lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit. Most liars are tripped up either because they forget what they have told or because the lie is suddenly faced with an incontrovertible truth. But Cathy did not forget her lies, and she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also -- either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.”—Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968), East of Eden (1952)
Several months ago, I thought of using the above quote to mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of East of Eden. Though I didn’t have time to write at the length I wanted then, it may have turned out for the best. This meditation by John Steinbeck on a monster in beguiling human form is appropriate for the present moment—the weekend before Halloween, not to mention an evil hour in the life of the American republic.
Several years ago, when the American version of House of Cards was still in production, a close relative of mine asked about Robin Wright’s Lady Macbeth-type political wife, “How could a woman so beautiful be so evil?”
Claire Underwood’s American psychological predecessor was Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames, who sheds lovers, homes—even past identities—as periodically as a serpent does its skin.
I use “serpent” advisedly, as East of Eden, as alluded to in the title, is an allegory.
The two male characters with first names beginning with “A”—Adam and Aron Trask—are innocent or naïve, like Adam and son Abel in the Book of Genesis. The three males with first names starting with “C”—Cyrus, Charles and Caleb—are analogous to Cain—wild, resentful and despairing.
The letter “C” also suggests Cathy’s affinity with the second set of Trask males. But as the novels’ principal female, she also functions like Eve or Lilith, the she-demon of Near East mythology.
Since its publication, East of Eden has not been treated warmly by literary critics, who have complained that Steinbeck grafted this allegorical structure onto a historical saga about his maternal family, the Hamiltons; that the novel is long and ungainly; and that the author intruded commentary on the action, violating the injunction to today’s creative writing students to “show, not tell.”
But, though East of Eden may not be perfect, it is surely compelling, with its dramatic qualities recognized when it was turned into a film in 1955, a network TV mini-series in 1981, and (now in development) a Netflix limited series written by Zoe Kazan.
Hollywood’s divergent treatments of this sprawling epic partly set in Steinbeck’s own Salinas County resulted in different main characters. The movie’s director, Elia Kazan, narrowed the plot to the book’s last quarter, spotlighting James Dean in a prototype thereafter indelibly associated with him: a conflicted, tortured youth.
But in the early 1980s, the golden age of the mini-series, TV offered the opportunity for a more expansive treatment of the novel—6½ hours that concentrated on Adam and Cathy. Inevitably, viewers focus less on Adam, who fundamentally changes little, than on Cathy (played by Jane Seymour, pictured in the image accompanying this post).
Midway through the plot, Cathy abandons her life as wife and mother to become Kate, a prostitute and madam. Her sexuality is not itself sinful. It’s her use of it, combined with her propensity for deceit, that makes her fascinating and unpredictable.
As cunning as Eden’s serpent, Kate becomes additionally cynical as she learns how the hypocrisy of her clients in the sex trade leaves them utterly vulnerable to her insatiable drive for wealth.
While middle-aged Adam is scrupulous to a fault, refusing gains from son Caleb’s speculation on beans in a wartime economy, Kate says in business by keeping a stash of photos of brothel clients for blackmail.
Rereading East of Eden after over 40 years, I found inadequate Steinbeck’s explanation that monsters like Cathy/Kate are “variations from the accepted norm to a greater or a less degree.”
But the better word to describe this heinous type is “violations” rather than “variations.” While “variations” are something inherent that a person is born with and unable to change, “violations” are products of free will.
Cathy/Kate violates every norm of responsibility and selflessness. She shares with Cyrus, Charles and Caleb a willfulness that leads to destructive outbursts, but unlike them never resists this impulse.
That lack of remorse renders her utterly alien, Steinbeck observes, in the same way that, “To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish.”
In the postwar period, the United States struggled to understand the radical evil that gave birth to the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. But Americans’ aspirations for liberty didn’t eliminate their own vulnerability to cynics ready to exploit falsehood and bent on power.
After all, East of Eden arrived halfway through the reign of terror perpetrated by Joseph McCarthy, as careless about truth as he was about the damage he created through his access to the media and investigative responsibility in the U.S. Senate.
Steinbeck abominated McCarthy but did not find him alien to the Eden of American democracy, according to an article this past week in the British paper The Guardian.
In an essay that originally appeared in 1954 in the French journal Le Figaro Litteraire (now published in English for the first time by Strand Magazine), the novelist wrote:
“We have always had a McCarthy. I could list names and movements going back to the beginning of our history. And always the end was the same … It changes its name every few years. It always uses the bait of improvement or safety.”
The exterior of Cathy Ames may have been beautiful, but her interior was as ugly as Joe McCarthy’s. The senator, Steinbeck warned in his French essay, represented “the taking of power by a self-interested group.”
Current events lead me to think that Cathy schemed enough but didn’t dream big enough. All she wanted was wealth accumulated and invested as a sex worker.Nowadays, if applied on the campaign trail, her reckless disregard for truth, her mockery and infringement of every civilized norm, could have landed Steinbeck’s monster on Capitol Hill, a serpent in the temple of American democracy.
Saturday, October 29, 2022
collection of articles from Sept. 9, 2019 on “What We Love About America”:
“Freedom, in fact, is what I feel like I’m breathing in as I see the blue of the sky or the road that leads down to Washington Square Park. Anything seems possible on Fifth Avenue. And one miracle in particular: some semblance of American unity. At some places on Fifth, the Stars and Strikes seem to be everywhere. It’s as if America does, in fact, still mean something we can all agree on. I keep looking and I think about [Abraham Lincoln’s phrase] ‘the mystic chords of memory.’ Fifth Avenue inspires gratitude. I don’t want to look at my phone. I want to keep walking. American culture today can be overwhelming with noise and soil-crushing images. But here, even with the traffic, things seem quieter.”
Then I came across what you see here: a photo of a Tom Ford shop display at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store in Midtown Manhattan, which I took a few days before the Fourth of July six years ago.
In one way, it seems a bit crass to transform the Stars and Stripes—something people have carried and even died for—into such commercial fodder.
But at least, the instinct this window display appealed to was pride in America. These days, the most powerful instinct is fear.
Maybe, at this current perilous moment in American history—when the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been critically wounded in their home, when Capitol Hill lawmakers of both parties and Supreme Court justices are investigating, as never before, security arrangements for themselves and their families—it would do well for us all to catch our breath, and remember the “gratitude” and “semblance of American unity” that Ms. Lopez evoked.
In a tweet from last night about the assault on Paul Pelosi, Ms. Lopez also noted that “Sometimes it’s better to pray for fellow human beings and that by some miracle the temperature of hate and anger is turned down.”
Well, I suppose that’s a start. But more than a few of us are getting tired of hearing “thoughts and prayers” or their equivalent evoked for victims of violence.
More basically—and painfully—we need an examination of conscience, and a commitment to the “mystic chords of memory” and “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” that infused President Lincoln with the political courage to take on those accepting aggression to tear the Union asunder.
Finally, a Great Movie About Cancel Culture,” The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2022
The photo accompanying this post, of Michelle Goldberg at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival panel, was taken on Sept. 23, 2012, by Joann Jovinelly (editrrix) from NYC.
Friday, October 28, 2022
“By now she also calls me ‘Honestly, Mother!’ and ‘Mother, really’ and sometimes just plain ‘Mother.’ She worries constantly about her figure—usually with one hand in the refrigerator. She thinks any beardless adolescent who sings through his nose is ‘cute.’ She has perceived that in addition to being slightly behind the times in my dress and manner, I am hopelessly dated in my grasp of teenagers–especially of what ‘everyone else’ is allowed to do. This, incidentally, is a phrase I can't even write without feeling a little chill down my back. My daughter says it without difficulty. I tell her, ‘I don’t care what everyone else does…’ and ‘No daughter of mine is going to…’ and ‘When I was your age, I had…’ Neither of us listens to the other. She no longer thinks boys are silly.”—American horror and humor writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), “Motherly, Honestly!”, originally printed in Good Housekeeping, reprinted in Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, edited by Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt (2015)
It can be hard to believe that the author of such disturbing fiction as “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle could deliver slices of wry like the above passage to the same primary audience—American housewives and mothers—as Erma Bombeck would later do.
But these humorous essays on her family—whose tone could also be modulated to ironic short fiction like “Charles”—helped pay the bills for Shirley Jackson, as she raised the four children of herself and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.
And they can still be appreciated by readers—even those who, in October, might be more tempted to seek out the macabre novels and short stories that make Jackson a crucial link between Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.
For a brief description of the life and career of Jackson, see my blog post from six years ago, on the centennial of her birth.
Thursday, October 27, 2022
(Accompanying this post is a photo of Ian McEwan taken during the 2011 Paris book festival on Mar. 20, 2011, by Thesupermat.)
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Glum Days for the Geezer Greats,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 25, 2022
The photo accompanying this post—of Tom Brady being sacked by Daron Payne of the Washington Football Team during a game against the Buccaneers—was taken Jan. 9, 2021, by All-Pro Reels of Washington, DC.
With a little less than half the season played now, Brady, with 10 sacks, is on track to at least match and maybe exceed his totals for 2020 and 2021 (21 and 22, respectively).
At age 45, with seven Super Bowl victories and who knows how much money earned, what does he have to prove at this point? Does he think he’s going to recover faster from these hits than he did before?
Five years ago, Gisele Bundchen blurted out what her husband had not previously admitted: that he’d had multiple concussions. Even then, she was extremely worried about his future health.
I never expected to write that a supermodel could be the one with brains in a family, but that is clearly the case here. Hope that Brady still has his senses intact when the season is over, but don’t bet on it.
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
Out of My League: The Classic Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball (1961)
Even if a sweep occurs during the upcoming World Series, the Fall Classic is scheduled to end in the first week of November. Over 60 years ago, when players were not as wealthy as today’s millionaires, they might engage in barnstorming tours abroad—or play closer to home in an exhibition game.
It was in one such example of the latter—a post-Series game at Yankee Stadium of all-stars fronted by Mickey Mantle (for the American League) and Willie Mays (for the National League)—that George Plimpton latched onto one of the great sports journalism stints. While the team with the most total bases would split $1,000 (chump-change now, but not in those pre-free-agent days), Plimpton would pitch a first “unofficial” inning to baseball’s luminaries.
As a tween, I watched Plimpton! Shoot-Out at Rio Lobo, a TV one-hour documentary demonstrating his brand of “participatory journalism”—in this case, playing a gunman in the 1970 John Wayne western Rio Lobo.
The Duke’s repeated on-air insult of the amateur actor—“Pimpleton”—was still probably nowhere near as mortifying as what the author-editor encountered when he took the mound at The House That Ruth Built. Out of such acute embarrassment came Out of My League, as hilarious as it was insightful.
Out of a simple set of rules for his inning—no umpire, no walks—Plimpton’s agony was constructed. Amazingly, he retired two batters before the others learned to wait him out and find a pitch they could whack.
As he watched his pitches fly in every direction past catcher Elston Howard (“flung with abandon and propelled by a violent mixture of panic and pent-up anxiety let loose”) when they weren’t sent screaming into the outfield by hitters, the 31-year-old Plimpton undoubtedly felt this was more audacious and foolish than editing The Paris Review.
After what he endured at the hands of the NL All-Stars, Plimpton didn’t have the strength to continue against their AL counterparts. At his typewriter, however, he was more philosophical: “I suffered a steady stream of humiliations … what happened to me is bound to happen when an amateur is thrown into the company of professional athletes. It is inevitable.”
That didn't stop Plimpton from trying his hand at other wild stunts as he pursued "participating journalism": playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions and goalie for the Boston Bruins, boxing against light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, performing with the New York Philharmonic, and photographing Playboy models.
Even while chuckling at Plimpton’s mound misadventures, though, I couldn’t help but think that he had conveyed something that the fan in the stands or at home can barely appreciate: how hard it is to make a baseball do your bidding.
In certain weather conditions, even seasoned professionals find it difficult just to get an adequate grip on the ball. In a Sports Illustrated interview last year, Mets slugger Pete Alonso was even willing to give pitchers a pass on sticky substances for that reason: “I don't want 99 mph slipping out of someone's hand because they didn't have enough feel for it."
Pitchers who experience a loss of control may suffer the loss of their roster spot, their career—or, in its way, a Plimpton-style humiliation on the pitcher’s rubber, this time listening to thousands of booing fans.
Since last year, for instance, Aroldis Chapman has gone from closer for the Bronx Bombers to bullpen odd-man out to being left off the postseason roster—largely because, for whatever reason, he could not pitch a baseball with his onetime feared velocity, nor compensate with pinpoint location.
In the late 1990s, I got to see Plimpton at a lecture and book-signing event for his oral biography of Truman Capote, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. I was glad to see that he was as wry in his remarks about the literary life as he was 3½ decades before about facing baseball’s greatest hitters.
(The photo of George Plimpton accompanying this post was taken on Dec. 12, 1977 by Bernard Gotfryd.)
Monday, October 24, 2022
Gomez Addams [played by John Astin]: “We don't want money. What we want is another bear.”
Morticia Frump Addams [played by Carolyn Jones]: “What else could possibly go with our decor?”
Joe Digby [played by Eddie Quillan]: “The bear may be a little hard to come by. How about a lion?”
Morticia: “We already have one.”
Morticia [eyeing the animal as it enters the living room]: “Well, he is after he's had his dinner.”—The Addams Family, Season 2, Episode 28, “The Addams Policy,” original air date Mar. 25, 1966, teleplay by Harry Winkler and Hannibal Coons, directed by Sidney Lanfield
Sunday, October 23, 2022
“A beautiful dog,” a friend observed when he saw this photo. Yes—and, much like others of her breed, playful, gentle, affectionate, and loyal, too.
In front of Misty is a tennis ball that she loved to chase, catch and toss in the air for my father. In another sense, though, the photo catches her in an uncharacteristic moment: at rest, rather than scampering around in the backyard or in a nearby park, as she enjoyed.
As happy as she was greeting all members of our family, she was devoted to none more than my father, who, especially after he retired, gloried in taking her everywhere he walked.
He and my mom were especially heartbroken, then, when, after 15 years—with the last several marked by deteriorating health—Misty had to be put to sleep. No dog could ever replace her, they felt—and, in fact, they never had another.
“All Dogs Go to Heaven,” went the title of a 1996 animated film. If any canine belongs up at the pearly gates, it’s surely Misty. Twenty-five years after leaving us, I hope she’s still spreading happiness.
), The New York Times, Jan. 22, 1956
Saturday, October 22, 2022
Faith in Liberalism” (Address to the State Committee of the Liberal Party in New York City), Aug. 28, 1952
Friday, October 21, 2022
Quote of the Day (Finley Peter Dunne, on How Irish-Americans Took to American Football Over a Century Ago)
Thursday, October 20, 2022
Steve Jobs' 13 Most Inspiring Quotes,” Business Insider, April 13, 2014
(The photo accompanying this post, of Steve Jobs showing off the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference, was taken on June 8, 2010 by Matthew Yohe.)
Wednesday, October 19, 2022
(1920-1993), “The Value of the Canon,” The New Republic, Feb. 18, 1991
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.” — English poet and literary critic Coventry Patmore (1823–1896), “Magna Est Veritas,” in The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch (1922)
Monday, October 17, 2022
[played by William Demarest, pictured right with Brian Donlevy]: “If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish.”
Catherine McGinty [played by Muriel Angelus]: “Especially since you can't rob the people anyway.”
Skeeters: “Sure.” [Doing a double-take.] “How was that?”
Catherine: “What you rob, you spend, and what you spend goes back to the people. So, where's the robbery? I read that in one of my father's books.”
Skeeters: “That book should be in every home.”— The Great McGinty (1940), screenplay by Preston Sturges, directed by Preston Sturges
Sunday, October 16, 2022
1 Timothy 6:11. (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)
(The 1612 image accompanying this post, Apostle St. Paul, was painted by El Greco, and hangs in Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain.)
Saturday, October 15, 2022
Though it’s best to see the changing colors in the countryside, it can surprise you even in a suburban downtown, as it did with me on Dean Street this morning in my hometown of Englewood, NJ. It was still early in the morning when I took this photo, just before shoppers would come out in droves.
Living on a Thin Line: The Autobiography (2022)
Friday, October 14, 2022
Movie Quote of the Day (‘Love at First Bite,’ With Dracula’s Big Come-On Uncharacteristically Rebuffed)
Count Dracula [played by George Hamilton]: “I love you, and can give you eternal life.”
Cindy Sondheim [played by Susan Saint James]: “Shit! I knew it! An insurance salesman. I’ve already got Prudential.”
Dracula [haughtily]: “I am Count Dracula. I don’t sell life insurance!”
Cindy: “Well, don’t get so hostile! You walk over here and start to tell me you love me. How can you possibly love me? You don’t even know me. Maybe the only thing you know is that I don’t want to get married.”— Love at First Bite (1979), screenplay by Robert Kaufman, directed by Stan Dragoti
Dragoti knew about blond supermodels all too well: he was married, in the Seventies, to perhaps the biggest one of the time: Cheryl Tiegs.
Thursday, October 13, 2022
American literary critic, short story writer, essayist, and Columbia University professor Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), “Manners, Morals, and The Novel,” in The Liberal Imagination (1950)
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
, Oct. 9, 2022
Stormy Daniels? Please! Don’t go giving the guy any more ideas!
(The photo accompanying this post, showing Herschel Walker at the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Playoff Fan Central, was taken Jan. 6, 2018, by Thomson200.)
Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Monday, October 10, 2022
Mark Shields, Political Analyst Known for His Sharp Wit, Is Dead at 85,” The New York Times, June 19, 2022
(The accompanying photo of Mark Shields was taken May 19, 2010, by DC_Rebecca from Washington, DC.)
Sunday, October 9, 2022
French essayist and philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943), Waiting for God (1950)
Saturday, October 8, 2022
) to Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Michael Keaton), in Batman (1989), directed by Tim Burton, story by Sam Haam, screenplay by Sam Haam and Warren Skaaren, based on characters created by Bob Kane
Friday, October 7, 2022
[played by Rainn Wilson] [to camera crew]: “Can't a guy just buy some bagels for his friends, so they'll owe him a favor which he can use to get someone fired who stole a co-manager position from him anymore? Jeez, when did everyone get so cynical?”—The Office, Season 6, Episode 9, “Double Date,” air date Nov. 5, 2009, teleplay by Charlie Grandy, directed by Seth Gordon
Thursday, October 6, 2022
To put to words the grief I feel,
For words like nature, half reveal,
and half conceal the soul within.
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”— British poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), “In Memoriam” (1850)
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.”
Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Familiar Letters, edited by F. B. Sanborn (1865)
Tuesday, October 4, 2022
, the family always seemed to eat together and the pies were homemade. June Cleaver, it was noted, prepared two hot meals a day. The Cleavers were not that different from the Nelsons, who had preceded them into the television suburbia: No one knew in which state or suburb they lived, and no one knew what Ward Cleaver, like Ozzie Nelson, did for a living, except that it was respectable and that it demanded a shirt, tie, and suit….As Beaver Cleaver (a rascal, with a predilection for trouble), once told June Cleaver (who was almost always well turned out in sweater and skirts), ‘You know, Mom, when we’re in a mess, you kind of make things seem not so messy.’ ‘Well,’ answered June, ‘isn’t that sort of what mothers are for?’”— American journalist and historian David Halberstam (1934-2007), The Fifties (1993)
Sixty-five years ago today, the official first episode of Leave It to Beaver premiered, with two crucial casting changes from its pilot in the spring: Hugh Beaumont took over as Ward Cleaver and Tony Dow as Wally, the older son of Ward and June.
As David Halberstam’s analysis in the above passage shows, it was too much to expect much in the way of reality from Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, or the other two major family sitcoms of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. These series offered escapism, a flight from sordid reality, the same way that the suburban viewers they primarily appealed to had sought it in fleeing from the ills of the city in the postwar world.
Nowadays, those black-and-white images are bathed in nostalgia, even set in amber in a world where parents were not only “respectable,” unquestioned paragons, but adults never quarreled for long or broke up for good--or where adults as a group never aged, let alone died.
More than a few baby boomers, watching Leave It to Beaver in either its original run or (like me) in reruns, felt reality intrude on our memories when we heard the news several weeks ago of Tony Dow’s death. A talented, gray-haired, 77-year-old artist passing on? Nah. He’ll always be the cheerful, good-natured older brother who always looks out for you.