Books on the bedside table

Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast by Bruce Bastin (University of Illinois Press, 1986 [hc]; 1995 [pb]) claims to be, according to the book jacket, the “definitive story of the origin and evolution of the American blues tradition.” Well, it’s not quite that, but certainly it’s among the best historical introductions to the Piedmont Blues tradition. Working with folklorist Peter B. Lowry, Bastin undertook a years-long investigation into the history and the then-current status of the Piedmont Blues; in the book, chapters are devoted to Georgia blues pianists, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, among many others. Bastin’s attempt to be comprehensive can lead to longueurs, and his prose lacks the sparkle of Sam Charters and Robert Palmer at times, but on the whole it’s indispensable.

Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer by Henry Nash Smith (Harvard University Press, 1962 [hc]; Atheneum, 1972 [pb]) was one of the first books to focus exclusively on Twain’s development as a writer rather than his colorful biography, with chapters on most of Twain’s major novels, speeches, and short fictions. What’s especially interesting is Smith’s description of Twain’s use of the American vernacular as it emerged from The Innocents Abroad all the way through A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court and his ongoing experiments with the novel form (something lacking in the continuing critical dialogue about Twain’s work even today).

The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Little, Brown and Company, 1997 [hc]; Back Bay Books, 1998 [pb]) is the go-to compilation of Crumb’s early- to mid-career achievements. Those who are only familiar with the Terry Zwigoff documentary about the cartoonist may be disappointed; as Ty Burr wrote in an essay about the book for the New York Times:

Where’s the wacky, dysfunctional family circus, the suicidal older brother upstairs, the younger brother on a bed of nails in an S.R.O. hotel, the carnal comedy of Crumb’s ex-girlfriends discoursing on his sexual dimensions?

They’re all merely alluded to in passing, and that is precisely the point. … [The] slick, often astoundingly funny 250-page compendium does make a case — up to a point — for Mr. Crumb as an unparalleled craftsman, social critic, sexual obsessive, blues freak, fly-on-the-wall of the 60’s and perhaps the most potent cultural curmudgeon since H. L. Mencken.

Going through this book (and The Weirdo Years, which picks up chronologically where the Coffee Table Art Book leaves off), I think an even stronger case can be made that Crumb is, in many ways, today’s Mark Twain. Like Twain, Crumb’s vocabulary is distinctly American; both artists evince an ambiguous nostalgia for a past that may be just corrupt as the present but which appeals more to their temperaments than our current culture; and both twist the cultural forms in which their work appears (the boy’s book and pastoral romance in Twain’s case; the comic book in Crumb’s) to expand the possibilities of those chosen forms, turning those vehicles for popular culture into bizarre, idiosyncratic satiric visions of the society in which they live. Crumb is not unlike Twain — with the sex added.

Vladimir Voinovich (1932-2018)

Vladimir Voinovich (1932-2018)

I was saddened to learn of the death on July 27 of Vladimir Voinovich, who passed away in Moscow at the age of 85. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that he’d lasted that long. He was perhaps the greatest satirist of the post-Khrushchev period in the Soviet Union, then the Putin period in Russia, and unlike many novelists, in Russia or elsewhere, he worked almost entirely in the satiric mode. Voinovich first came to notice in the West with the publication of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969; published in English in 1977), the first part of a three-volume masterpiece about a somewhat dim but honest and patriotic soldier in World War II Ukraine, then in the post-war Soviet Union. In 1986/1987, Voinovich would fine-tune his satiric vision in Moscow 2042, a fantasy about the future of the Soviet Union; in Monumental Propaganda (2000), he investigated the legacy of Stalin’s personality cult in Putin’s Russia. Voinovich was also the author of several non-fiction essays.

Voinovich’s biography details many run-ins with both the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia; by the end of his life, he was castigating Putin for his brutality in Ukraine and Crimea. In a 2017 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he drew parallels between contemporary Russia and the stagnated Soviet Union under Brezhnev in the 1970s: “They are breaking up demonstrations. They are throwing people in prison on basically the same charges. True, they aren’t giving seven-year sentences, but rather two. And now they have begun driving people out of the country.” He also supported Pussy Riot’s protests.

Though very much a Russian writer, Voinovich was a brilliant satirist of all kinds of authoritarianism and totalitarianism; much of what he has to say is just as relevant in Trump’s America as it is in Putin’s Russia (though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this). And the high comic spirit that infests almost every page of his work is accompanied by a rueful, pessimistic melancholy that the world would essentially never change — a trait he shared with most of the great satirists, from Swift and Twain to Joe Heller and William Gaddis.

In 2015, Cathy Young interviewed him for The Daily Beast, and on July 30 Victor Davidoff wrote this appreciation for The Moscow Times. Below is a short YouTube English-language conversation with the man himself, interviewed by Al Jazeera in 2014.

Great moments in satire

Number 1: Gulliver in Brogdingnag

In Chapter 6 of the second book of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Lemuel Gulliver, a pygmy in the land of giants (in contrast to his situation in the first book, in which he’s a giant in the land of pygmys), engages in a series of conversations with the king of Brogdingnag. “He desired I would give him as exact an account of the government of England as I possibly could; because, as fond as princes commonly are of their own customs (for so he conjectured of other monarchs, by my former discourses), he should be glad to hear of any thing that might deserve imitation,” Gulliver says. He goes on:

This conversation was not ended under five audiences, each of several hours; and the king heard the whole with great attention, frequently taking notes of what I spoke, as well as memorandums of what questions he intended to ask me. …

He was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

His majesty, in another audience, was at the pains to recapitulate the sum of all I had spoken; compared the questions he made with the answers I had given; then taking me into his hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in: “My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved, that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which, in its original, might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions. It does not appear, from all you have said, how any one perfection is required toward the procurement of any one station among you; much less, that men are ennobled on account of their virtue; that priests are advanced for their piety or learning; soldiers, for their conduct or valour; judges, for their integrity; senators, for the love of their country; or counsellors for their wisdom. As for yourself,” continued the king, “who have spent the greatest part of your life in travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many vices of your country. But by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wrung and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Remembering the Great Man

Fields defeated, in It’s a Gift.

UPDATE: Alas, the event is full as of this morning; no one will be admitted without a prior RSVP reservation.

This Wednesday, June 27, at 8.00pm, the National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett.

Just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.

Fields was one of the great satirists of the American middle class. He shares quite a bit in common with a similar satirist, cartoonist Robert Crumb, who has confessed his admiration:

Love him. I love to watch W.C. Fields. He has his visual jokes that he carried over from vaudeville, you know, where his hat gets caught on his cane and stuff like that. But just his persona; he embodies this American type of the 30s particularly: alcoholic; wheeling and dealing in a very low key way and not very successfully. Have you ever seen It’s A Gift, where he’s a grocery store proprietor in the 1930s?  He embodies that certain type of American man at that time. A lot of people my age remember having an uncle or somebody in their family that was like the W.C. Fields character; an alcoholic with a big, bulbous, red nose.

I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.

Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal. The essential biography comes from James Curtis; W.C. Fields by Himself is a similarly essential collection of Fields’ own writings, edited by his grandson Ronald J. Fields into an “intended autobiography”; William K. Everson wrote the first book-length critical work on Fields, The Art of W.C. Fields, worth tracking down at your local used book store.


It’s been a long hard week for many people in many ways. As I mentioned a few days ago, along with outrage, grim laughter may not be out-of-place either.

The New York Times isn’t usually considered a satiric magazine, but even they’re getting into the act with the below parody of a 1943 government film called Japanese Relocation. You can watch it on C-SPAN; according to those fine ladies and gentlemen, “Milton Eisenhower hosted and narrated this 1943 film that attempts to justify the need to move Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps in isolated areas of the west and mid-west. The film traces the process of leaving homes and businesses behind to move to various relocation centers.”

The New York Times video was produced by Taige Jensen, Leah Varjacques and Japhet Weeks. Ah, satire. I’ll be raising a glass to it at Cafe Katja this afternoon.