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.