A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Kraus in English

Update: Speaking of Kraus’s play The Last Days of Mankind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Austrian artist Deborah Sengl’s 2014 “staging” of the play at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuberg bei Wien — with, somehow appropriately, stuffed rats. Marjorie Perloff also contributed an essay to the book about the exhibition.


This week Yale University Press released a complete translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms of Karl Kraus’s late masterpiece The Third Walpurgis Night. Formerly available only in excerpts, the anti-Nazi polemic was written in 1933 but withheld from publication, to be published only in 1952, almost two decades after Kraus’s death. It is a diatribe against the Nazis, of course, but it’s also a diatribe against the media, both left and right, that created them. Writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction:

In the Age of Trump, Kraus’s book could hardly be more timely. … In its brilliant and cruel dissection of the Nazi media of 1933, The Third Walpurgisnacht is … a truly prophetic work.

It’s winging its way to me now, per Barnes & Noble, though you’d best order it through bookshop.org. I wrote about Prof. Perloff’s fine Edge of Irony, in which she discusses about Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, in 2017; that review is below.


I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire from the University of Chicago Press. The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. She writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, their origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.

Coming soon: “Trots and Bonnie”

Shary Flenniken‘s “Trots and Bonnie” ran from 1972 to 1990 in the late National Lampoon (Flenniken also served as an editor of that magazine from 1979 to 1981). “Trots” contributed a radical feminist and sexualized perspective to the comics styles of the 1930s and 1940s, right down to what Walt Kelly would call the “blunked-out” eyes of its main human character, Bonnie (itself a tribute to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). Well, you can now sell those old copies of the Lampoon on Ebay; NYR Comics will publish Trots and Bonnie: A Selection on September 15. Sez the publisher:

Bonnie stumbles through the mysteries of adulthood, as Flenniken — one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon — dissects the harsh realities of American life. Dating, marriage, sex, and violence are all confronted with fearlessness and outrageous humor, rendered in Flenniken’s timeless, gorgeous artwork. After all these years, they have lost none of their power to shock and amuse.

More information from NYR Comics here.

Although it’s true that Flenniken was “one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon,” it should be said that the female contributors to Lampoon, among them Anne Beatts and Emily Prager, were some of the most accomplished writers and artists in that magazine and take the edge off the justifiable accusation of sexism that is often hurled at the Lampoon. In addition, the Lampoon in 1978 published one of the few English-language collections of the work of Claire Bretécher, the fine French feminist cartoonist who recently shuffled off our mortal coil. So, as they say, there’s that.

Below, a few additional notes on the magazine, first published here in 2017.


Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise begs the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we go from here is still something of a mystery.

William Gaddis in the Age of Trump

Satirist William Gaddis‘s first two novels have gone out of print at the Dalkey Archive Press, but fear not: NYRB (New York Review Books) has picked up the rights to both. The Recognitions (1955), an encyclopedic satire of the role of forgery and fraudulence in post-war American cultural, artistic and spiritual life, and J R (1975), a bracing comic examination of the corruptions of American capitalism and how they affect learning and art, will both be issued by that firm with new introductions by Tom McCarthy and Joy Williams respectively on October 6 — precisely four weeks before Election Day 2020.

Alas, four weeks won’t be enough to read and contemplate both novels, not at 992 pages for the first and 784 for the second. Nonetheless, these two books, as well as Gaddis’s later novels, provide a concise roadmap describing how we got where we are, politically and otherwise. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) is a bleak romance of cynicism and geopolitics, a mordant consideration of globalization; A Frolic of His Own (1994) describes the deterioration of the law from a mechanism for dispensing justice to a weapon of bureaucratic revenge; and Agapē Agape (published posthumously in 2002) is a tortured monologue mourning the disappearance of authenticity and musing upon the possibility of a redemptive art. (I should add also that Gaddis is one of the great New York City novelists; very little of the action of all five novels takes place outside of a 100-mile radius of New York, a feature of his work that has been somewhat neglected.)

In the months between now and November, Gaddis’s work may well prove an oasis of sanity in the midst of ever-increasing, maddening chaos. You don’t have to wait for October; if you start now, you may find, by November, that we’ve been living in Gaddis’s world all along.

“Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor”

A gentle reminder that you still have a day or two to prepare for the new year with the purchase of your 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, now in its 228th year. Since its founding by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, the almanac has proven indispensable, and you can still find in it a wealth of information about the weather, gardening, herbal remedies, snappy household tips, your pets, tides and the moon, and 1,001 other topics. Issued from the bucolic haven of Dublin, NH (which looks to me like a pretty attractive place to live right now), the Old Farmer’s Almanac still comes with a small hole drilled in the upper-left-hand corner, making it convenient for hanging in your kitchen or any other appropriate room of your house. It is as much a hymn to nature and simple living as Thoreau’s Walden — and a damn sight more useful. Other information in the 2020 edition, according to the publication itself, includes:

  • Noise: why it’s bad for our health and how people — since the beginning of time — have been fighting against it.
  • 20/20 for 2020: Eye-catching insights on this optical year, including an eye test to see if ancient people would consider you an elite warrior.
  • What the size and shape of toes says about their owners.
  • Donkeys, their extraordinary memories, and their link to the world’s most expensive cheese.
  • Why the best-trained dogs have the best-trained humans. Plus: Top 10 Halloween costumes for furry friends.
  • Unlocking the mysteries of weather extremes by looking to the Arctic.
  • Growing flavorful tomatoes in a fraction of the space. Plus: the best day to eat a tomato!

Pick up your copy today at your local general store. And if you have a moment, learn a little about the history of this fine publication below. (Those who wish to learn a little more about that history can enjoy George Lyman Kittredge’s The Old Farmer and His Almanac, published in 1904 by William Ware and Company of Boston and available online here.)