Tuesday, January 31, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Norman Mailer, Controversial 2-Time Pulitzer Winner, Born)

Jan. 31, 1923— Combative in war and peace alike, Norman Mailer, who won Pulitzer Prizes for two works that straddled fiction and nonfiction, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song, was born in Long Branch, NJ.

With his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer, along with Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity), formed a trio of WWII veterans who wrote sprawling fictional accounts that attempted to capture both their personal experiences and the disruptive impact of the conflict on American servicemen.

The three measured themselves against Ernest Hemingway’s achievement with A Farewell to Arms. But most critics agree that, despite massive sales, none matched the impact of that landmark WWI novel.

At this point, Jones’ account is best remembered indirectly, through the 1953 Best Picture Oscar-winning film adapted from it. Shaw, producing novels commercially successful if uneven in quality, has found a secure niche for his many superb short stories.

Mailer’s case for literary posterity is trickier. His ambition and bravado were every bit as immense as his talent. He was never afraid to dare greatly, even if he risked looking foolish—which he did, repeatedly, and with all too few signs of having learned from his experiences.

David Denby’s December critical reappraisal of Mailer in The New Yorker argued that the novelist never really got over the war, in which his military service forced a never-ending feedback loop with an aggressive stance against the postwar world:

“The enormous success of The Naked and the Dead left Mailer uneasy. He had no idea how he was going to live up to it. Seemingly on top of the world at twenty-five, he feared many things. In his novel, the Harvard-educated liberal allows himself to be trapped by power. Mailer, in his own eyes, needed to escape the traps not only of his soft middle-class Jewish background but also of postwar America--the desire for ‘security,’ the endless consumerism, and what he took to be the country's humiliating spiritual mediocrity. It's as if he were still in the jungle, pulling artillery through the night. He had made himself into a novelist in the Pacific, and now he brought the war home, fighting on two fronts—against what he disliked in himself and against those menaces of the nineteen-fifties, ‘conformity’ and ‘adjustment.’ He acted out his rebellion in a continual performance with phallus, fists, booze, and sustained ass-in-chair writing sessions—a pressure at times noble, at times foolish, and certainly rough on other people as well as on himself. He became an egotist of a peculiarly self-afflicting sort, both calculating and spontaneous, provoking many blows, all of them deserved, all of them welcomed. For the author of The Naked and the Dead, the truce never arrived.”

At his best, in person, Mailer could make self-deprecating jabs at his considerable ego and awe listeners with jeweled phrases that came effortlessly to hand—as I witnessed firsthand when I covered his appearance in a seminar at Columbia University’s Writing Division in the School of the Arts back in February 1981.

*He thought while writing The Naked and the Dead that it was "the greatest book since War and Peace and maybe even better," but now admitted wryly that his idea of the book "was higher than it deserved.”

*He chuckled at Truman Capote’s claim that he relied on his photographic memory in lieu of taking notes for In Cold Blood: “I love Truman Capote in 82 ways, but he's a terrible liar. I know he doesn't remember conversations we've had two or three days ago."

*He had used point of view in his own work either as an obtrusive ego, "a burning type of light," or an invisible, disembodied "voice coming over the hill."

At the same time, Mailer pointed out a reason for both his remarkable productivity starting in the 1960s and his prodigal misuse of this creative energy: “I made three movies in the Sixties—directing, writing, and starring in them—and they all failed. I lost $300,000. I've been in debt ever since."

As Mailer was telling the writing students this, he was only months away from a supporting role in yet another movie: philandering architect and murder victim Stanford White, in Milos Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

One can’t resist thinking that Mailer identified with the intersecting creativity, lust and violence in this figure at the heart of one of the most notorious scandals in early 20th-century America. If he had never equaled Hemingway’s feat of fashioning a virtually new writing style, he had Papa beat in the number of wives (six versus four) and children (nine versus three).

(Knowing the wink-wink style of so much of the Gilmore Girls TV series, I can’t help thinking a similar spirit was at play when it titled one episode, “Norman Mailer, I’m Pregnant!”)

Besides a scandalous private life, another major factor that may ultimately lower his critical reputation could be the baggy monsters of novels that he cranked out starting with The Executioner's Song: Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost, and Oswald’s Tale.

Over 30 years ago, while interviewing for a copyediting job at a magazine with a reputation for publishing high quality, I was told by a senior editor just how far my authority would extend: “You’ll have to keep in mind who you’re dealing with when you make suggestions in a manuscript. Listen: Norman Mailer will make more from a single article here than you will with your entire yearly salary.”

How many editors, even ones with considerably higher reputations than I would have had starting out, shied away from battling with Mailer? They could go mano-a-mano line by line, chapter by chapter with a manuscript, or they could watch him take his wares to someone else willing to let him write whatever tripe he liked. Neither alternative was appealing.

But with the novelist dead 15 years now, The Mailer Wars are beginning in earnest now.

On one side you have broadsides like this from “One-Way Street” blogger Richard Prouty, who, after Mailer’s death in 2007, predicted that his influence would be “nil” and saw “his only truly original creation” being “journalism mixed with self-aggrandizement, a combination…that can be described as literature as performance art.”

On the other side are defenders like English and film professor Phillip Sipiora, who calls Mailer “arguably the foremost public intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century,” and Denby, who writes that it would be “naïve to pretend that he was not a great American writer.”

My own initial instinct, given the sheer quantity of bad, even idiotic, work Mailer produced over nearly six decades in the public eye, is to lean closer to Prouty than Denby or Sipiora.

But it might be more accurate to see him as a kind of American literary counterpart to the actor Richard Burton, another creative figure who wasted his overwhelming talent in scandal and never-ending substandard projects meant to satisfy his craving for fame and money.

An unblinkered assessment would find that, like Burton, Mailer could, at moments, with his energy focused tightly on work at hand, rank with the very best of his contemporaries.

The Armies of the Night may have the best chance of any of his works of continuing to be read and re-read. It masterfully balances opposites: fiction and nonfiction, comedy (his own larger-than-life persona, enlarged even further through referring to himself in the third person) and the deepest seriousness (the stakes of a government not called to account for its mishandling of the Vietnam War), and the yawning, increasingly unbridgeable divide between the student protesters and the working-class soldiers and marshals facing off against them in front of the Pentagon—a harbinger of today’s “woke” left and Trump voters.

And there is the sheer exhilaration of Mailer's high style in passages like this:

“Arrayed against them as hard-core troops: an elite! the Freud-ridden embers of Marxism, good old American anxiety strata—the urban middle-class with their proliferated monumental adenoidal resentments, their secret slavish love for the oncoming hegemony of the computer and the suburb, yes, they and their children, by the sheer ironies, the sheer ineptitude, the kinks of history, were now being compressed into more and more militant stands, their resistance to the war some hopeless melange, somehow firmed, of Pacifism and closet Communism. And their children—on a freak-out from the suburbs to a love-in on the Pentagon wall.”

Quote of the Day (William Maxwell, on the Author-Editor Relationship)

“There are times when having an editor is like having a second wife. Who but a wife ever feels they know who you are and what you should do better than you do yourself? And then they have that annoying way of sometimes being right.”—New Yorker fiction editor-novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000), letter from January-February 1963 to Irish writer and friend Frank O’Connor, in The Happiness of Getting It Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell, 1945-1966, edited by Michael Steinman (1996)

Monday, January 30, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ With Ted Outraged Over Being Dissed On Air)

[Mary’s idea for a new, more casual news format backfires spectacularly when Ted demonstrates his idiocy before a live audience—leading Mary, to her horror, to tell him to shut up. Instead of disciplining her, though, boss Lou Grant is delighted by Ted’s comeuppance.]

Ted Baxter [played by Ted Knight]: “Why are you giving a $50- a-week raise to someone who told me to shut up on the air?”

Lou Grant [played by Ed Asner]: “It's all I could afford, Ted.”— The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 3, Episode 1, “The Good-Time News,” original air date Sept. 16, 1972, teleplay by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, directed by Hal Cooper

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Thomas Aquinas, on Many Cries to the Lord)

“Many cry to the Lord that they may win riches, that they may avoid losses; they cry that their family may be established, they ask for temporal happiness, for worldly dignities; and, lastly, they cry for bodily health, which is the patrimony of the poor. For these and suchlike things many cry to the Lord; hardly one cries for the Lord Himself! How easy it is for a man to desire all manner of things from the Lord and yet not desire the Lord Himself! As though the gift could be sweeter than the Giver!”— St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) [Angelic] Doctor of the Church, On Prayer and the Contemplative Life (2012)

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Photo of the Day: Barrymore Film Center, Fort Lee NJ

Late this afternoon, filled with curiosity while in Fort Lee, NJ, I walked over to the Barrymore Film Center, which opened late this past October after a two-year delay caused by COVID. Longtime readers of this blog might be surprised to know that it took this movie aficionado so long to make my way over there.

I wasn’t really expecting much when I heard about this space, a combination of a repertory film theater and museum. But, at $16 million, it’s a handsome structure.

Increased development in the borough over the past decade or so has made traffic and parking more difficult to negotiate.

But I expect that, come what may, I will find a way to return soon—and, with luck, often—to this site that celebrates not only Fort Lee as the birthplace of the motion-picture industry in the silent era, but also its greatest acting family—a dynasty whose most illustrious siblings (Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore) grew up in a rambling summer house in the Coytesville section of town.

Within a few weeks, I hope to post on an exhibition running into March on the Barrymores—and, perhaps, on the 267-seat theater. (Among the classics scheduled for the next week: The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, The Birds, North by Northwest, and Vertigo.)

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, Showing Why Students Hate Math Word Problems)

“Even when the lessons are done, the worst is yet to happen, in the shape of an appalling sum. This is invented for me, and delivered to me orally by Mr. Murdstone, and begins, ‘If I go into a cheesemonger’s shop, and buy five thousand double-Gloucester cheeses at fourpence-halfpenny each, present payment’ — at which I see Miss Murdstone secretly overjoyed. I pore over these cheeses without any result or enlightenment until dinner-time, when…I have a slice of bread to help me out with the cheeses, and am considered in disgrace for the rest of the evening.”—English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1850), David Copperfield (1850)

It's been nearly 50 years since I read David Copperfield, and with this novel so teeming with incidents and characters—and similarly lengthy Charles Dickens works I have read since—this particular episode involving the title hero, his wicked stepfather, and the latter’s only-slightly-less villainous sister had long since receded well back into my memory.

Then, about two weekends ago, as if in answer to one of my viewing prayers, TCM ran the wonderful 1935 adaptation of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic, produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. It’s a model not just of terrific casting (W.C. Fields, most prominently, as Wilkins Micawber), but of editing a sprawling novel down to its essentials in just two hours of running time.

This scene stood out for me. David’s humiliation and fear on the page are not only captured but heightened on the screen, with fast cuts among David, his anxious mother, her goading sister-in-law, the smooth suitor turned household tyrant, and the whip that the latter carries and shortly uses on his stepson.

In addition, there’s a short addition of dialogue that I think would have further pained audiences that first saw this in movie theaters.

Right after Murdstone (played by Basil Rathbone, captured here in despicable perfection with Freddie Bartholomew as David and Elizabeth Allan as Mrs. Copperfield) mentions a “halfpenny each,” he continues, “And if I sell half of them at six pence-halfpenny, twenty at five pence, and use the rest myself, do I make a profit or loss?"

“Profit or less” would have been uppermost on the minds of Depression-era youthful moviegoers. Imagine them trying to quickly do this sum in their heads, floundering, and wondering how their inadequacy with this math might have contributed to their own failure to barely stay solvent.

Even now, the scene has a kind of horror for kids today, I think—not so much for the beating David endures at the hands of Murdstone (so sadistic that an unnerved Rathbone required several takes to get it right), but for what leads to it. The question is all too close to those word problems not only in algebra tests but also in standardized math tests taken by high school students of the postwar era.

Those of us who don’t recall those word problems with a shudder chuckle at jokes we’ll occasionally come across about them. (For instance, from Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in “Peanuts”: “Only in math problems can you buy 60 cantaloupes and no one asks what the hell is wrong with you.”)

“I have in my heart of hearts," wrote Dickens of the novel closest to him, "a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield." Let nobody forget that math was among the multiple traumas endured by this beleaguered orphan—and by no means the least.

(For more about Dickens’ pungent feelings and writings about math and education in general, try Brittany Carlson’s November 2020 blogpost for the Dickens Society.)

Friday, January 27, 2023

Joke of the Day (Colin Quinn, on the Decline of Small Talk)

“Between phones, AirPods and self-checkout, small talk is down 87%.”—Stand-up comic Colin Quinn, Small Talk, quoted by Joe Dziemianowicz, “'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' Review — Fast-Paced Comedy Show is All Talk, Little Substance,” New York Theatre Guide, Jan. 23, 2023

The image accompanying this post of Colin Quinn was taken in June 2010 by thefallofitall.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

This Day in Film History (Edward G. Robinson—Public Tough Guy, Private Softie—Dies)

January 26, 1973—
Edward G. Robinson, who shot to fame in gangster roles in the Thirties that contrasted sharply with the cultured, thoughtful figure he was offscreen, died at age 79 in Hollywood of bladder cancer.
The actor’s death came two months before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was due to present him with an Oscar—albeit an honorary one, rather than in a competitive category—in recognition of more than four decades of diverse and compelling screen appearances, the latest for a sci-fi neo-noir he had only just finished shooting, Soylent Green.
Personal and professional challenges had filled Robinson’s entire career:

*a fellow Warner Brothers lead who shocked the entire crew by publicly cursing and shoving him on set (George Raft, in Manpower);

*another, more powerful entertainer whose fast pace meshed poorly with Robinson’s deliberate style of rehearsal and preparation (Frank Sinatra, in A Hole in the Head);

*“graylisting” in the McCarthy era for leftist associations that even an appearance as a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee could not mitigate;

*an expensive divorce that saw him lose a substantial portion of his prized art collection; and

*a son struggling with drink, depression and run-ins with the law.
But only a lifetime of professionalism—and precautions taken by caring, admiring on-set colleagues—got Robinson through the final scenes of his career, in Soylent Green. He had not said anything to his co-workers about his cancer diagnosis.
The film’s insurance company felt squeamish about the actor’s age and prior health issues (e.g., a cardiac condition that had forced him to withdraw as Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes), so his scenes were shot first and he was allowed to leave the set each day at five.
But now another health complication emerged: Robinson could barely hear, including when director Richard Fleischer yelled “cut.”
Robinson correctly saw that this supporting role, as father figure and mentor to Charlton Heston’s detective, was a great, scene-stealing part to play. So he worked relentlessly with other actors to get down the timing of the scene right—even though he could not hear the lines.
At the start of production, when Fleischer was introduced to Robinson, “The entire crew stared at him like a bunch of fans or tourists,” the director later recalled in an interview. That respect only grew during filming.
Heston brought Robinson a variety of wines and cheeses from all over the world each day the elderly actor was on set. In mid-December, the crew held a birthday party for him where their admiration was evident.
Heston concisely depicted Robinson’s heroic struggle—and the crew’s respect for it—in The Actor’s Life: Journal 1956–1976:
“He knew while we were shooting, though we did not, that he was terminally ill. He never missed an hour of work, nor was late to a call. He never was less than the consummate professional he had been all his life. I’m still haunted, though, by the knowledge that the very last scene he played in the picture, which he knew was the last day’s acting he would ever do, was his death scene. I know why I was so overwhelmingly moved playing it with him.”
As Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (1931), Robinson paved the way for James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in later Warner Brothers gangster roles. His small stature and a homely face often likened to a pug prevented him from taking on the romantic leads that later came to these younger actors.
Yet DVDs—not to mention prolonged exposure to his filmography on TCM—should be enough to convince anyone of the range that Robinson could display, even with his physical limitations. He could turn naturally to film noirs (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street), biopics (Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet), Biblical epics (The Ten Commandments), westerns (Cheyenne Autumn), and even comedies (A Slight Case of Murder).
(The image accompanying this post shows Robinson in what I regard as his best performance: here with Fred MacMurray, as Barton Keyes, the dogged insurance investigator and moral center of Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity.)

Quote of the Day (Sara Teasdale, on the Homeless on ‘A Winter Night’)

“God pity all the homeless ones,
The beggars pacing to and fro.
God pity all the poor to-night
Who walk the lamp-lit streets of snow.”—American lyric poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), “A Winter Night,” originally published in Helen of Troy and Other Poems (1911), reprinted in Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (1966)
Unlike the scene in this poem, what I saw looking out my window last night was steady rain rather than snow. But it looked and sounded dismal—and wet—and with the wind whipping up periodically, it was easy to imagine it being as raw as what Teasdale described.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Quote of the Day (Donna Tartt, on Being a Freshman Cheerleader in Mississippi in 1984)

“The gymnasiums were high-ceilinged, barnlike, drafty, usually in the middle of some desolate field. We were always freezing in our skimpy plaid skirts, our legs all goose pimples as we clapped and stamped on the yellowed wooden floor. At halftime there were the detested stances, out in the middle of the court, which involved perilous leaps, and complex timing, and—more likely than not—tears and remonstrations in the changing rooms. As soon as they were over and the buzzer went off for the third quarter, the younger girls rushed in a greedy flock to the snack bar for Cokes and french fries, Hershey bars, scattering to devour them in privacy while Cindy and her crew slunk out to the parking lot to rendezvous with their boyfriends. We were all of us, all the time, constantly sick—coughing, blowing our noses, faces flushed with fever: symptoms that were exacerbated by bad food, cramped conditions, exhaustion, and yelling ourselves hoarse every night. Hoarseness was, in fact, a matter of pride: we were accused of shirking if our Voices Weren't Cracked by the end of the evening, the state to which we aspired being a rasping, laryngitic croak. I remember the only time the basketball coach—a gigantic, stone-faced, terrifying man who was also the principal of the school and who, to my way of thinking, held powers virtually of life or death (there were stories of his punching kids out, beating them till they had bruises, stories that perhaps were not apocryphal in a private school like my own, which prided itself on what it called ‘old-fashioned discipline’ and where corporal punishment was a matter of routine); the only time this coach ever spoke to me was to compliment me on my burned-out voice, which he overheard in the hall the morning after a game. ‘Good job,’ he said. My companions and I were dumbfounded with terror. After he was gone they stared at me with awestruck apprehension and then, one by one, drifted gently away, not wishing to be seen in the company of anyone who had attracted the attention—even momentarily—of this dangerous lunatic.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Donna Tartt, on life as a freshman cheerleader in Mississippi in 1984, in “Basketball Season,” Harper’s, April 1994

(This photo of Donna Tartt was taken Oct. 21, 2015 by Antonio Monda.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Quote of the Day (Pat Conroy, on Why ‘Good Writing is the Hardest Form of Thinking’)

“Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.” —Southern novelist Pat Conroy (1945-2016), My Reading Life (2010)

Monday, January 23, 2023

Quote of the Day (Fran Lebowitz, on Household Help)

“I'd love to have a cook because I'm very interested in eating but not in cooking. And I don't like to eat in restaurants where the general public is so often to be found. I would really prefer to eat at home, except there's no food there. I have frequently been observed in other people's kitchens talking to their cooks, in the hope that they will like me so much they will come work for me for free. I don’t really want to do anything for myself at all.”—American humorist Fran Lebowitz, “Money” (interview), Vanity Fair, July 1997, reprinted in Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor, edited by Michael J. Rosen (2000)

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (G. K. Chesterton, on Reason and Faith)

“Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all...’Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all—the authority of a man to think. We know now that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it. For we can hear scepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities, and at the same moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne. In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.” — English man of letters (and Catholic convert) G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Orthodoxy (1908)

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Flashback, January 1973: Springsteen’s Debut LP, ‘Greetings From Asbury Park,’ Released

Fifty years ago this month, a 23-year-old rock ‘n’ roller, crafting songs more than an hour outside New York City, sought in his first album to gain a national following and shake what an earlier New Jersey singer would call “these little town blues.”

At that time, despite the commitment of the Columbia Records label, Bruce Springsteen did not measure up to initial expectations with Greetings from Asbury Park. Only 25,000 records were sold then—the result of absent guitar solos, failure to fit into then-current pop music trends, a sound that lacked the tightness and electricity of his live shows, and a musician who had not found his unique voice yet.

But two and a half years later, when Born to Run gave Springsteen an across-the-board radio breakthrough at last, fans like me flocked to record stores for his two other albums to that point, including Greetings.

Ensuring the collection’s continuing longevity, other artists would cover several of its songs, and Springsteen would incorporate all 11 songs into his epic concerts over the following half-century, with varying degrees of frequency.

In a David Brooks piece 11 years ago, the New York Times columnist cited Springsteen as exemplifying “artists who have the widest global purchase [being] also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. 

The work in which the musician began to create that landscape was Greetings—with the album titled and designed like a postcard, unapologetically proclaiming the musician’s New Jersey roots.

Isolation from music centers like New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Detroit both hurt and helped Springsteen. It meant that he would start without a network of influencers and fellow musicians who could have boosted his career.

However, plying his trade as a rising bar-band presence, he would not be unduly limited by a single genre, and could gauge, on a micro scale, how to bring audiences to their feet again and again.

Springsteen’s firm embrace of his Jersey Shore roots did more than just mark him as a unique musical personality. It also gave exposure to other local musicians, such as good friend and future bandmate “Miami Steve” Van Zandt and “Southside Johnny” Lyon, and ensured that the fate of Asbury Park—a shore town that had fallen on hard times—would not be forgotten by those who encountered the community through the music.

To their credit, Columbia Record executives John Hammond and Clive Davis recognized that Springsteen had talent. But they weren’t sure what to make of it, or him.

The dominant template for the music scene of the time was the confessional singer-songwriter movement—not just Bob Dylan, but newly ascendant stars like James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne. Coming from the folk music scene, they could operate solo with a single instrument—a guitar or piano.

All songs have to start from somewhere, and Springsteen’s came together in particularly unprepossessing conditions. 

Several of them were written on a piano in an abandoned second-floor beauty salon in Asbury Park, while sessions took place at 914 Studios in Blauvelt, N.Y. There, Springsteen and his musicians could record cheaply and, because the studio was adjacent to a Greek diner, eat cheaply, too.

(In contrast to later Springsteen albums, there was little time to perfect the product—only two weeks for the 11 songs, unlike for the marathon Born to Run sessions two years later, which took 14 months—with six devoted to the title tune itself.)

Hammond, the legendary record producer who had signed such acts as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Leonard Cohen, wanted what he heard at Springsteen’s audition: a solo act. So did Springsteen’s manager and producer at the time, Mike Appel. 

So Springsteen could forget about having his band as an integral part of his first release. He was lucky he could get any of them onto half of the songs originally submitted. (Even best friend “Miami Steve” only got onto one song, “Lost in the Flood”—Springsteen would be the lone electric guitar player on the album.)

Greetings from Asbury Park, then, wasn’t the album Springsteen wanted to make but the one he could make. 

Clive Davis, then head of Columbia Records, rejected Springsteen’s first group of songs, insisting that he couldn’t hear a hit in any of them.

In response, the two songs that Springsteen came up with, “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night,” introduced into the mix Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the charismatic saxophonist who would become the indispensable on-stage foil for “The Boss” for the next three decades.

Clarence’s “cool saxophone,” Springsteen wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, “made a big difference”: “This was the most fully realized version of sound that I had in my head that I would get on my first album.

Still, for all the pleasure that Springsteen took in seeing his work out in the market, Greetings faced significant headwinds. Even with the likes of Dylan and Neil Young paving the way, Springsteen’s vocals were unusual for these times—and it could be tough for some listeners to get past his raspy tones in order to decipher his lyrics about boardwalk bohemians, dreamers, hangers-on, and misfits. 

Moreover, the label’s “New Dylan” label did no favors for Springsteen. It opened him up to criticism that he was derivative, a creature of hype, while ignoring the host of other influences that would soon become apparent in his work: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Roy Orbison, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hank Williams, Pete Seeger, and Phil Spector.

Nevertheless, for those who came to the album and its creator later, there was something distinctive about what Wall Street Journal contributor Marc Myers termed earlier this month Springsteen’s “brand of machine-guy storytelling peppered with unmoored characters and seedy imagery.” It was raw and alive.

The LP just needed the conditions that would be in place for Born to Run two years later: a band of brothers forged under fire—their leader’s pushing himself and them to their creative and physical limits—and the desperate sense, in the studio and even in the lyrics, that life was riding on this moment.

For many of  us venturing outside the state, The Boss was giving us something we didn't have before: not an embattled identity but a source of pride. And, instead of Tony Soprano's "family" of not-so-good-fellas or the reality-show party animals of "Jersey Shore," Springsteen was demonstrating the wonders that could be created from local color.

Quote of the Day (Amanda Mull, on Opening a Package in the Digital Age)

“Opening up a brand-new purchase is the carefully orchestrated emotional crescendo of the consumer experience, and it has the power to give basically anyone a dopamine hit. These opportunities used to be more isolated—maybe you went to the grocery store once a week and the mall a couple of times a month. Now, if you have an internet connection and a credit card, something new to open can always be on the way. It feels good to dig through all those layers and unearth a little treat, no matter if it’s just hair dye or sweatpants….

“This phenomenon has only accelerated as Americans have shifted more of their consumption online, where they can’t touch or smell or otherwise size things up the way they would in a store. On the internet, packaged products are often judged by how attractive they look in photos, and there’s no shortage of alternatives on offer. As the sheer number of consumer choices has grown exponentially, the purposes that packaging serves have grown more intricate. At this peculiar moment in American consumer history, the experience of opening and handling a purchase can be more important than the thing itself.”— Amanda Mull, “Unwrappers' Delight,” The Atlantic, December 2021

Friday, January 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tim Harford, on That Obnoxious ‘Redundant Reminder Email’)

The redundant reminder email: Surely I do not need an email from an airline or train company or theatrical impresario reminding me to bring my ticket? Surely I do not need an email from an airline or train company or theatrical impresario reminding me to bring my ticket? A helpful reminder to the hopelessly inept, they are a colossal annoyance to everyone else. Given that the Covid rules might have changed, or the departure time rearranged, it’s risky to delete them without careful scrutiny. But when that careful scrutiny merely reveals that I will not be allowed on the plane if I don’t bring my passport, then you’re wasting the time of your 99.9 per cent least incompetent customers.”— “Underground Economist” columnist Tim Harford, “The Seven Types of Email You Should Never, Ever Send,” The Financial Times, Jan. 7-8, 2023

Song Lyric of the Day (Cole Porter, on Why You Should ‘Be a Clown’)

“If you become a doctor, folks'll face you with dread,
If you become a dentist, they'll be glad when you're dead,
You'll get a bigger hand if you can stand on your head.”—American lyricist and composer Cole Porter (1891-1964), “Be a Clown,” performed by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in the movie musical The Pirate (1948)

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Quote of the Day (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., on Fame vs. Notoriety)

“You long to ‘leap at a single bound into celebrity.’ Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be remarkable. Fame usually comes to those who are thinking about something else,—very rarely to those who say to themselves, ‘Go to, now, let us be a celebrated individual!’ The struggle for fame, as such, commonly ends in notoriety;—that ladder is easy to climb, but it leads to the pillory which is crowded with fools who could not hold their tongues and rogues who could not hide their tricks.” — American physician, teacher, and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894), The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Quote of the Day (Bernard Bailyn, on Why the Numbers for the African Slave Trade Matter)

“It matters that the overall magnitude of the African diaspora is now quite definitely known: that…eleven million Africans were forcibly carried abroad, more than nine million of them to the Americas. It matters—it stretches the imagination to visualize—that at the height of the British slave trade, in the 1790s, one large slave vessel left England for Africa every other day. It matters that slave rebellions occurred on approximately 10 percent of all slave ships, that 10 percent of the slaves on such voyages were killed in the insurrections (which totals 100,000 deaths, 1500–1867), and that the fear of insurrection increased shipboard staffing and other expenses on the Middle Passage by 18 percent, costs that if invested in enlarged shipments would have led to the enslavement of one million more Africans than were actually forced into the system over the course of the long eighteenth century. It matters that the incidence of revolts did not increase with the decline in crew size, hence that slave-centered factors determined the uprisings. It matters that shore-based attacks on European slave ships were twenty times more likely in the Senegal and Gambia River areas than elsewhere in Atlantic Africa. It matters that shipboard mortality (only 50 percent of all slave deaths—the rest occurred in Africa or at embarkation) did not increase with the length of the voyages or with the number of slaves per ship (‘tighter packing’) but did vary according to African ports of departure. It matters that French slave ships left Africa with an average load of close to 320 captives; that one such vessel sailed with 900 slaves; that another lost 408 Africans on a single Atlantic voyage; that 92 percent of the ‘cargo’ on another French vessel were children; and that the average number of captives on French vessels rose from 261 in the seventeenth century to 340 at the end of the eighteenth century. It is astonishing simply to attempt to visualize the consequences of the fact that in one year, 1790, French ships landed at least 40,000 slaves on the small island of St. Domingue, 19,000 of them (equal to the entire population of contemporary Boston) at the small port of Cap Français—and to consider the profound effect that fact must have had.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Bernard Bailyn (1922-2020), “Considering the Slave Trade,” in Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (2015)

The image accompanying this post, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade,” an engraving by Isaac Cruikshank, shows British Captain John Kimber on the deck of the Recovery, with the girl he was alleged to have whipped to death.

More than two centuries after it was published, the picture still has the power to shock—but, in another sense, how could it have been worse than the above facts cited by Bailyn--or, for that matter, the resistance of so many in the United States to educating students why slavery was so horrendous and yet so persistent?

Kimber was acquitted of the girl’s murder after a trial in 1792, but the case was instrumental in mobilizing public opinion behind William Wilberforce’s campaign to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire. It would take a bloody civil war to end slavery in the United States, but we are living still with its consequences.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Big Bang Theory,’ As Amy Refuses to Take Sheldon to the Dentist)

Amy Farrah Fowler [played by Mayim Bialik] [explaining why she can’t take Sheldon to the dentist]: “I'm sorry, Sheldon. I'm busy. I'm right in the middle of my addiction study. I've got a lab full of alcoholic monkeys, and tomorrow's the day we switch them to O'Douls.” — The Big Bang Theory, Season 5, Episode 15, “The Friendship Contraction,” original air date Feb. 2, 2011, teleplay by Bill Prady, Steven Molaro, and Steve Holland, directed by Mark Cendrowski

Clearly, a bigger emergency than Sheldon’s!

Monday, January 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (Martin Luther King Jr., on When ‘A Man Dies’)

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true."—Civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), sermon on courage, delivered Mar. 8, 1965, Selma, AL

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Augustine, on the Reward of the Saints)

“Here below [the saints] endure obloquy for the City of God, which is hateful to the lovers of this world. That City is eternal; no one is born there, because no one dies. There is the true felicity, which is no goddess, but the gift of God. From there we have received the pledge of our faith, in that we sigh for her beauty while on our pilgrimage. In that City the sun does not rise ‘on the good and on the evil’; the ‘sun of righteousness’ spreads its light only on the good; there the public treasury needs no great efforts for its enrichment at the cost of private property; for there the common stock is the treasury of truth.”— Theologian, philosopher, and bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson (1984)

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Photos of the Day: Riverside County Park, Lyndhurst-North Arlington NJ

I took these photos last Saturday afternoon, when I drove 30 minutes from my home in Bergen County, NJ, down to Riverside County Park.

The picture I posted about then was of the Bergen County Rowing Center. But it struck me that another suitable subject was how the bare trees adjoining the Passaic River in one photo contrasted considerably with the broad, open track in the other photo.

(Thanks to my friend Emil for the photo advice.)

Quote of the Day (Lewis Carroll, on a ‘Few of the Things I Like’)

“I may as well just tell you a few of the things I like, and then, whenever you want to give me a birthday present (my birthday comes once every seven years, on the fifth Tuesday in April) you will know what to give me. Well, I like, very much indeed, a little mustard with a bit of beef spread thinly under it; and I like brown sugar — only it should have some apple pudding mixed with it to keep it from being too sweet; but perhaps what I like best of all is salt, with some soup poured over it. The use of the soup is to hinder the salt from being too dry; and it helps to melt it. Then there are other things I like; for instance, pins — only they should always have a cushion put round them to keep them warm. And I like two or three handfuls of hair; only they should always have a little girl’s head beneath them to grow on, or else whenever you open the door they get blown all over the room, and then they get lost, you know.”— English children’s book author, clergyman, mathematician, and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), letter to Jessie Sinclair, Jan. 22, 1878, in The Best of Lewis Carroll (2011)

Lewis Carroll died 125 years ago today in Guildford, England. His “child-friends,” who included Alice Liddell (the inspiration for the children’s-lit masterpiece, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), have in recent years come in for considerable speculation as to the exact nature of their relationships with the author.

Jessie Sinclair was reputed to be another of these “child-friends,” as one might guess from the whimsical tone that the middle-aged author adopted in this letter.

Friday, January 13, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Zola Sparks Firestorm With Defense of Wrongly Accused Dreyfus)

Jan. 13, 1898—French novelist and journalist Émile Zola had raised the hackles of censors before with his often sexually frank novels. 

But nothing matched the intensity of the storm that swept over him when, in a ringing front-page open letter to the President of the French republic published in the socialist the Socialist newspaper L'Aurore, he charged that army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus had been falsely charged with espionage—and that embarrassed military and political leaders had continued to cover up the miscarriage of justice after learning of their mistake.

Largely apolitical until this time, Zola learned a couple of months before the details of the case from a friend of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the head of French intelligence—who, for his efforts to reopen the investigation and expose the real spy who had handed a military document to Germany, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had found himself reassigned to Tunisia.

Zola not only brought to wide public attention the grave injustice done to Dreyfus, who had been stripped of his command and imprisoned in a penal colony on Devil’s Island, but issued a prescient warning about the factor that had made the captain a scapegoat: the “odious anti-Semitism, of which the great liberal France of human rights will die, if she is not cured of it.”

By naming the culprits in the affair—not only Esterhazy but top generals and three handwriting experts who had perpetuated the coverup—Zola took a calculated risk, daring the authorities to prosecute him under defamation laws so that the full details of the case could be exposed at trial.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of the Dreyfus Affair on French political, military, media, cultural, and religious institutions. For a dozen years, the nation was consumed by each twist in this controversy, dividing into roughly two factions: the anti-Dreyfusards, who tended to be monarchist and Roman Catholics; and the Dreyfusards, with a more republican and secular orientation.

Even among the unusual figures in this controversy, Zola stood out. In 20 novels over a four-decade career, he proposed a school of writing that came to be called naturalism, in which characters are observed as if under a microscope, less obedient to free will than to instincts such as greed and lust. His frankness on the latter score, whether through a prostitute in Nana or a pair of adulterous lovers who murder a husband in Therese Raquin, caused sensations.

Zola could be unappreciative or dismissive of people who influenced or aided him. Writing about Gustave Flaubert, he criticized him as “a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories,” while contrasting Flaubert’s painstaking writing process with his own, which was “forged on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines."

When a British book publisher was prosecuted for obscenity for translating novels by Zola, the writer not only didn’t support his friend but told a reporter that a successful prosecution might be better for him, as readers could hunt them down in the original French rather than endure cheap translations into English.

Assessing Zola in a retrospective history of the first decade of Masterpiece Theatre (which featured an adaptation of Therese Raquin), host Alistair Cooke assailed the author’s “exhibitionism” and flair for self-dramatization. Although there was some truth in the characterization, Zola also truly did expose himself to real legal and physical danger with “J’Accuse.”

He not only was indicted for defamation, as he expected, but also was exposed to death threats provoked by the vitriolic anti-Dreyfusard press. After being condemned to fines and a year-long sentence of imprisonment, he fled to England, where he stayed until the charges against him were dismissed.

Captain Dreyfus would not be reinstated until four years after Zola’s death in 1902. Nevertheless, the novelist died still firmly believing in perhaps the most famous quote from his expose of this shameful chapter in the life of France: “Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it."

The dozen years of the Dreyfus Affair were a mad swirl of events in France’s Third Republic: “intrigues, fraud, resignation and overthrow of ministers and the parliament, riots, assassinations, suicides, the attempt of a coup d’état and an alarmingly widespread anti-Semitism,” in the words of a 2015 post from the Europeana Newspapers blog.

It was a mark of the tumult of the time that even Zola’s death in his home became swallowed up in the dizzying news cycle. Rumors circulated that he had been murdered by anti-Dreyfusard fanatics.

The results of the inquest indicated carbon-monoxide poisoning, but the public was told simply that he had died of natural causes. It would not be until 1927 that an anti-Dreyfusard stove-fitting contractor allegedly confessed on his deathbed to have blocked up the chimney while mending the roof, and not until 1953—a full half-century after Zola’s death—that a French newspaper published this account. After so much time, it may not be possible to fully establish the truth of the account.

(For more on Zola’s still-contested death, see this 2015 blog post from Dr. Gabe Mirkin and Richard Cavendish’s September 2002 account in History Today.)

“J’Accuse” marked the turning point in the larger uproar of the Dreyfus affair, which itself represented a hinge moment in Western history. Its repercussions were long-lasting, even global, as it:

*contributed to the formal separation of church and state in 1905, to prevent any repetition of the virulent anti-Semitism displayed by many French Catholics in the controversy;

*convinced Theodor Herzl that, even after consistent, enduring attempts at assimilation in relatively liberal France, European Jews were not safe, and spurred him to advocate for Jewish immigration to Palestine in an attempt to create their own homeland;

*foreshadowed, through the interaction of government, mass media, and ephemera, the modern news cycle of nonstop ideological firestorms;

*paralleled the 21st-century divide between secular, urban liberals and more religiously orthodox, rural conservatives;

*inspired intellectual crusades against judicial verdicts perceived as blighted by ideology or prejudice—including, in the United States, the Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and Rosenberg trials.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, film directors recognized the dramatic impact of the Dreyfus Affair, with French filmmaker Georges Méliès staging and shooting 11 one-minute silent reenactments of the trial. In one of the first cases of government censorship of motion pictures, the French government banned further exhibition of Melies’ pioneering film effort. (Indeed, that ban on cinematic treatments of the affair would remain in effect until 1950.) 

That did not stop other nations’ filmmakers from depicting the scandal, including Richard Oswald’s Dreyfus (Germany, 1930); William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola (U.S., 1937); José Ferrer’s I Accuse! (U.K.–U.S., 1958); and Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse) (France, 2019).

(For a useful summary of many of these films, see Thomas Doherty's Fall 2020 overview in Cineaste Magazine.)