Commonplace book: Jules Feiffer

Poster from the 1967 Broadway premiere of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders.

It’s very dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses.

Alfred, in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders

Feiffer’s comedy about the human cost of alienation, mistrust, and arbitrary violence in American cities, Little Murders, opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on April 25, 1967, and closed four days later; its cast included Elliott Gould, David Steinberg, Barbara Cook, and Heywood Hale Broun. Two years later, it opened off-Broadway for a rather more successful 400-performance run, this time directed by Alan Arkin and featuring a cast that included Fred Willard, Linda Lavin, and Vincent Gardenia. It is a chillingly dark comedy, and I would recommend that you search the 1971 film version out, but it’s exceedingly hard to come by, unavailable for streaming or DVD purchase in the U.S. despite a limited-edition 2018 U.K. restoration. Arkin directed the film, which gathered the best performances from both the Broadway and off-Broadway casts, and Arkin himself contributed a cameo performance as a police lieutenant, originally portrayed on Broadway by the great character actor Phil Leeds. Also appearing in the below clip (which contains Arkin’s full performance) are Elliott Gould as Alfred, Vincent Gardenia as Carol Newquist, and Elizabeth Wilson as Marge Newquist.

Ragtime break: “The Ragtime Nightingale” by Joseph Lamb

Joseph Lamb’s “The Ragtime Nightingale” (originally published by John Stark in 1915 as “Nightingale Rag”) is among the most popular of this classic ragtime composer’s works, its lilting birdlike sonorities a light but exemplary example of the form. Lamb, along with Joplin and James Scott, is considered one of the masters of piano ragtime composers, but he was in some ways an outlier, hailing from the East Coast rather than from the Midwest (he was born in Montclair, NJ, in 1887 and died in Brooklyn in 1960; of Irish descent, he was one of the few white composers of classic ragtime). He remained in obscurity from the decline of ragtime in the 1910s until the 1950s, when he was rediscovered; the Folkways album Joseph Lamb: A Study in Classic Ragtime features the composer playing his own work and discussing his career.

Joseph Lamb, in about 1915.

Despite his location and background, Lamb was entranced by the work of Scott Joplin and in 1907 travelled to St. Louis to meet the composer. Joplin himself was impressed by Lamb’s music and encouraged John Stark, his own publisher, to issue Lamb’s rags; Stark did so, and published most of Lamb’s output through the following ten years. Joplin also generously suggested an “arranged by” credit on Stark’s first publication of a Lamb rag, “Sensation,” believing that his own name on the sheet music cover would increase sales of the piece.

In the 1978 Rags & Ragtime: A Musical History, David Jasen and Trebor Tichenor compare and contrast Joplin’s compositional style with Lamb’s:

The strength of Joplin’s ideas in ragtime is best exemplified by the rags of Joe Lamb. Rags written before 1907 (which is to say before he became aware of the Joplin rags) … show a rather mediocre attempt at composing rags, using all of the overworked devices of the cakewalk, Popular rag and song. From the twelve works published between 1908 and 1919, we find that his rags are more predictable, as he synthesized the Joplinesque legato melody style with Scott’s expansive keyboard work. Then, Lamb replaced Joplin’s phrase structure, making the first half of a section contrasting rather than parallel. He also avoided the short, motivic phrasing of James Scott, but used Scott’s echo effect and rhythmic exuberance. Among Lamb’s greatest original stylistic features are his use of sequences for developmental purposes and his diversity of texture, not only from light to heavy rags, but from section to section and even phrase to phrase. …

Ted Tjaden looks more deeply into Lamb’s career here. Along with the Folkways album above, there have been a few other significant recordings of Lamb’s music. I highly recommend Guido Nielsen’s 1998 recordings of The Complete Stark Rags; below, Joshua Rifkin performs “The Ragtime Nightingale,” from the Decca album Rags & Tangos, issued in 1991.

The good kind of corruption

The cover of a 1967 anthology I owned in my teen years.

Following up on the relation of my own personal teen adventures yesterday, I thought I’d repost this, written and published here in 2016.

While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.

As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline.

Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life, more in hope than with evidence:

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

Mineshaft, my brief radio career, and disillusionment

Later this spring, Mineshaft #40 will appear on the streets of Durham, NC, and in your mailbox; as the cover above attests, you’ll find friends new and old, including more than a few veterans of the old humor and comix magazine circuits. It’s a coterie publication, perhaps, but it’s a coterie that includes the likes of R. Crumb, Drew Friedman, Bill Griffiths, Mary Fleener, and others of a unique generation of American artists. More information about the issue here, including ordering information. Get it while it’s hot!

Speaking of old humor and comix magazines, I’ve been spending the past few months paging nostalgically through old issues (well, anthologies, anyway) of the magazines and publications I enjoyed when I was a kid, in those long-ago days of the 1970s. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been viewing them through rose-colored glasses; rather gray they are, but certainly much more dark than light.

When I was 14 years old I went to high school in Hazleton, PA (pop. 28,000 or so in 1976), and at the time the local AM radio station hosted a “High School Hour” once a week, inviting teens from the local schools to host their own radio show, read some school news and play some popular music. I loved radio back then — I still do — so I was among the first to sign up for my school’s Radio Club. There weren’t many of us, but together we put the hour together, and I was responsible for writing up the school news, submitting it to the vice-principal for approval, then reading it on the air to the enraptured listening audience.

About three or four months into the year, I decided to mix it up a little. So instead of writing up news about debate club competitions and the math team, I wrote parody news items about teachers, classes, clubs, and sports competitions. That Friday afternoon during Club Hour in the typing classroom, I giggled, I confess, at my weak digs at favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, at the sports teams, and whatever else might have sparked my fancy. I have no doubt that few of these passed the smell or, for that matter, the humor test, but they were innocent enough; and what the hell, I had fun writing them up. And, as usual, I passed my script along to the vice-principal a few days before without warning him that this month’s news would be a little … well, different.

It wasn’t long before I was summoned to the vice principal’s office. I took my seat in front of him as he looked down at my script, shaking his head. “I don’t know what this is supposed to be,” he said.

“I just thought it would be nice to tell a few jokes and make the show a little different this time,” I responded.

He tsk-tsked, looking at one typed page, then another. “This is just inappropriate, George,” Mr. Rudewick said. “It’s inappropriate, it’s …” and here he searched for the right word, eventually finding it: “It’s uncalled-for.” He put me on notice that I’d have to re-write the news items, and write them straight-up, unless I wanted to be an ex-Radio Club member. So a few nights later I sat in the WAZL-AM radio booth, 1490 on your dial, enlightening Hazletonians with properly humorless renditions of recent accomplishments by the MMI Debate Club, the MMI Math Team, and the MMI basketball team (then, I believe, enjoying a 0-14 season).

None dare call it censorship, I guess — I don’t know why I expected to get away with it, especially with the pre-approval process in place, and though I suppose I could have slipped my original parodies in there at air time, I was far too cowardly for that. Rebelliousness was not in my nature, then or now, though I admit I’ve never forgotten that “It’s uncalled-for,” which sets the hair on my neck on end even now. But I do know precisely what to blame for my uncalled-for-ness.

The mid-1970s were halcyon years for American satire magazines and American satire generally. When I was in my teens, I subscribed to both MAD Magazine (which I’d started reading when I was eight) and National Lampoon, eagerly digesting each issue as they arrived in my mailbox; once in a while I’d even pick up the MAD ripoffs Cracked and Sick at my local newsstand, which also carried the occasional NatLamp specials like the high school yearbook and Sunday newspaper parodies. MAD and National Lampoon were enjoying their highest circulation then, and in the mid 1970s Saturday Night Live debuted and Monty Python’s Flying Circus appeared on American television for the first time. On my own, I was discovering Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts, then being issued on LP, along with Richard Pryor’s early albums. A few years later, too, there was Weirdo.

I suppose I was in a way a perfect audience for all of it. What all of these cultural artifacts aimed at — from MAD parodies to Lenny Bruce’s sex and race talk — was disillusionment. All of them encouraged skepticism about the ideals peddled by teachers, parents, religion, authority, and especially the media, in advertising and drama and news, rendering blind obedience absurd. They even rendered blind obedience to their own perspectives absurd; instead, the message was that each individual had to think for themselves. It was not hard for me to get the message. In my junior high school social studies class in the spring of 1973, I and my classmates were taught about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and democracy (learning about how politics was supposed to work); that same spring and summer, I sat transfixed in front of the televised Watergate hearings (learning about how politics really worked). I’d been raised on The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, and The Partridge Family as examples of domestic life; my own parents separated acrimoniously when I was eight, after an acrimonious marriage. So every month, when these magazines arrived, they confirmed what experience had already taught me. To come across the below at the age of eight or nine, from “The MAD Primer” in the September 1958 issue (and reprinted in MAD anthologies in the 1970s, when I read it), generated a frisson in me that was very hard to shake:

I can’t say really that I knew what a “klepto,” a “bookie,” or an “auditor” was back when I was 10 or so, but I think I got the picture.

And, as a result, these artifacts, these magazines and comedy routines, told me that I wasn’t alone. I’m sure that I’m far from the only member of my generation who had this experience (as the circulation numbers I mentioned above attest, the magazines sold quite well even without me). What me and my peers shared was laughter: laughter at our predicament, laughter at our own tendency to buy in to the corruptions of culture, but especially, though parody, laughter at these corruptions themselves. What’s more, these magazines insisted that they, too, were corrupt, like all human endeavors and for that matter all human beings. Art Spiegelman said of MAD: “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” As MAD publisher William M. Gaines insisted, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!” And finally, as Eric Stratton cheerfully told his fellow Delta House fraternity brother Flounder in National Lampoon’s Animal House, “You fucked up! You trusted us!”

This insistence that individuals had to think for themselves echoed in other satiric magazines of the period as well. In 1958, in the first issue of his magazine The Realist, Paul Krassner wrote: “I am neither for conformity nor for non-conformity. I am for individuality. If one’s individuality is in effect non-conformity, then so be it. But basically, one’s individuality consists of conformity — to oneself.”

That such pretenses to individuality could be, in some situations, uncalled-for remains true, even though it’s been years since MAD or the National Lampoon appeared on newsstands. For that matter, newsstands themselves are becoming rare sights. But a larger question may be: What happens after disillusionment? What happens after all of this trust in media, institutions, and the human capacity for the amelioration of human ills is broken?

Well, for most of us, it’s re-illusionment. As we pass from the hallowed halls of this kind of often-sophomoric satire (“Any good humor is sophomoric. ‘Sophomoric’ is the liberal word for ‘funny,'” Michael O’Donoghue once said), we grow up, we get jobs, and we begin to believe and trust again. Especially today, when thanks to the internet all of us are members of the media, our tendency is to believe in our own press releases, web sites, and Facebook feeds. After MAD‘s parodies of superheroes more than sixty years ago — which insisted that sometimes strength was weakness, good was evil, and patriotic ideals meshugginah — Marvel Comics is now one of the most successful and influential media companies on the face of the earth. Moronic celebrity we still have with us, more than ever, thanks to that same internet. And Donald Trump made Richard Nixon look like Lincoln.

But re-illusionment wasn’t the result for all of us. In some cases that disillusionment, and the uncalled-for urge to express that disillusionment in humor and satire, stuck with us. (Somehow I never got around to writing satire or parody myself; I don’t know why; perhaps I was never in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, a lifelong trait of mine; perhaps it was that same cowardice I demonstrated in the WAZL-AM radio booth. Perhaps I was distracted. Perhaps I can still aim at it; I may be no longer young, but I’m still disillusioned. A matter for my therapist, I suppose.) So, after disillusionment, there’s also solitude. But not entirely. There are remnants of that commitment to individuality in small communities of what used to be called free thinkers, even in the print media. Mineshaft (not a humor magazine, but certainly for individual free-thinkers) is one of those communities, and there are others, here and there. And so long as society is careless enough to permit people like myself to raise children, I can pass it along to the next generation. In the meantime, I page through those old issues of MAD, National Lampoon, The Realist, Weirdo, and Mineshaft … biding my time.

A few small gifts from New York Review Books

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A few months ago, the publicity department at New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) was kind enough to send me review copies of their new editions of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975), the first with an introduction by Tom McCarthy and the second with an introduction by Joy Williams. Handsome and necessarily sturdy the new editions of these lengthy novels are, too; what’s more, this is the first time either book has been corrected and re-set in decades, following careful readings by Gaddis experts. I had been hoping to have the time to re-read both of these, but time presses more now, even when time has seemed to become more abstract than usual. I do have a few moments, though, to welcome these new editions, perhaps the seminal satiric novels of post-war America.

Their accomplishments as satire have been overshadowed by their reputations as proto-postmodern novels, leading to a general conclusion that the books are just very hard to read because of their formal and stylistic innovations. Gaddis himself demurred about this characterization, considering himself the heir to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and T.S. Eliot, if anyone. And the style itself, exemplified by just the first few pages of The Recognitions, is redolent more of a dry, distanced wit and humor, more down Evelyn Waugh’s alley than William Burroughs’. An example from page 10 of the new NYRB edition:

Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided for against all inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.

On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty pocket comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. …

A self-portrait by William Gaddis

There, now that didn’t hurt much, did it? What’s more, the three paragraphs alone introduce almost all of the major themes of the book, which is a catalogue of spiritual, social, and aesthetic fakery, falsity, and fraudulence in post-war American culture (not to mention fate: “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase that appears in all five of Gaddis’ novels) — an admirable economy. And there’s a body count: the “ship’s surgeon” is in reality a counterfeiter who botches the surgery and ends Camilla’s life, setting the entire action of the 933-page book in motion.

One day I hope to get to writing some more about Gaddis; in the meantime I celebrate these timely holiday offerings from NYRB Classics. To read more about these reissues, I point you toward Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times (“Read The Recognitions and J R as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are”), Craig Hubert in the Observer (“It may be that after 65 years, the world has finally, for better or worse, caught up to Gaddis’s vision in The Recognitions“), and perhaps best of all, Dustin Illingham in the Point:

The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of [a] sense of rootlessness. Gaddis’s America is cut off from the redemptive potential of continuity, be it in God, or art, or a shared sense of tradition. He is an heir to Eliot, whose quests, imposters and enervated landscapes haunt his novels, as well as the great Russians — Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev — with whom he shared the hope of civilizing a benighted nation. That such an undertaking was doomed to failure lends his work its paradoxical idealism. His novels refute utopian imagination, but always with a sense of frustrated longing. This longing — contemporary in its contradiction — is the skeleton key to his fictions. Where so many postmodernist writers envisaged a range of possible futures, Gaddis dreamt of an unbroken past that would render his satire unnecessary.

Those who wish to dig deeper are directed towards Joseph Tabbi’s biography of the novelist, this collection of Gaddis’ letters (a bit pricey at the moment), Steven Moore’s seminal monograph on the writer, and this anthology of recent essays about Gaddis’ work. And below you can watch a rare interview with the novelist, conducted in 1986 by Malcolm Bradbury.