His life and hard times

A few weeks ago I treated myself to James Thurber’s 1933 My Life and Hard Times, a fictionalized memoir of his early years in Columbus, Ohio. Thurber was the last in a line of American writers, starting with Mark Twain and moving through Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley, who defined American humor as a funny but melancholy body of work, characterized by the use of the American vernacular and the mining of a personal past for comic effect. By 1961, when Thurber died, comic essays like those found in The New Yorker turned more outward to a surrealistic parody of high and popular culture in the tradition of S.J. Perelman, Veronica Geng, and Woody Allen, instead of inward towards the self. My Life and Hard Times exemplifies the earlier trend, and it’s still rewarding, even 90 years later. In his preface to the book, Thurber discusses the character of such humorists:

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. … This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbors, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

There may be an echo of late T.S. Eliot of the Four Quartets period here; and indeed, in 1951 Eliot called Thurber his “favourite humorist” in Time magazine (Thurber, says his biographer Burton Bernstein, “felt that this was the best estimate of his work ever”):

[Thurber’s] form of humor … is also a way of saying something serious. There is criticism of life at the bottom of it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much of humor, it is not merely a criticism of manners — that is, of the superficial aspects of society at a given moment — but something more profound. His writings and also his illustrations are capable of surviving the immediate environment and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they will be a document of the age they belong to.

Why Thurber’s style of humor and that of his predecessors fell out of favor at some point is hard to say. Sometime around 1960, perhaps, this country finally descended from neuroticism into some form of psychosis. I don’t know why that is, but I get the feeling that it’s somehow our fault.

For whose who feel an affinity with these writers, they are also documents of those who read them. Anyway, My Life and Hard Times and the rest of Thurber’s work are ripe for reconsideration; after all, upon the publication of the book, Ernest Hemingway said that Thurber’s “was the best writing coming out of America.” A good enough recommendation for me.

In the early 1980s, actor William Windom travelled the United States performing Thurber, a one-man show featuring Thurber’s writing; I saw him when he played the Rutgers campus in Camden, New Jersey. Windom had played a Thurber-like writer a decade before in My World and Welcome to It, a low-key television comedy produced by Danny Arnold, who would go on to create the classic Barney Miller a few years later; rarely are an actor and a writer so wonderfully and appropriately paired. There’s very little video available of this show, but below you’ll find a small bit of it. Windom performs “Memorial,” which can be found in the 1955 collection Thurber’s Dogs. This one’s for the dog-lovers out there. You know who you are.

Schopenhauer on Beethoven

The Danish String Quartet. Photo: James Estrin for the New York Times.

In seeking some solace over the past few days, I’ve been dipping into a little music now and again, specifically Wagner and more specifically Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132. The quartet is rather famously that to which T.S. Eliot felt a strong affinity as he was composing his own Four Quartets, and I find its third movement especially a source of wonder in its surprising dissonances and resolutions.

I’ve also been dipping into a little philosophy, specifically Schopenhauer, where I often turn when I need that solace. In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discusses the metaphysical qualities of Beethoven’s symphonic work, although these apply as well to the late quartets, I believe:

Now if we cast a glance at purely instrumental music, a symphony of Beethoven presents us with the greatest confusion which yet has the most perfect order as its foundation; with the most vehement conflict which is transformed the next moment into the most beautiful harmony. It is rerum concordia discors [the discordant concord of the world], a true and complete picture of the nature of the world, which rolls on in the boundless confusion of innumerable forms, and maintains itself by constant destruction. But at the same time, all the human passions and emotions speak from this symphony: joy, grief, love, hatred, terror, hope, and so on in innumerable shades, yet all, as it were, only in the abstract and without any particularization; it is their mere form without the material, like a mere spirit world without matter. We certainly have an inclination to realize it while we listen, to clothe it in the imagination with flesh and bone, and to see in it all the different scenes of life and nature. On the whole, however, this does not promote an understanding or enjoyment of it, but rather gives it a strange and arbitrary addition. It is therefore better to interpret it purely and in its immediacy.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2, p. 450 (Payne translation)

I admit that, at my age and with my temperament, I’m less drawn to art that explores anything other than these transcendent qualities; that based in or speaking to race or gender or identity, politics, society, culture, or the “world” as we have it, is leaving me colder and colder. No doubt, my loss. But there’s no solace in it, at least for me.

Below, the Danish String Quartet performs the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. This is chamber music, not orchestral music, and I’m taken by the Danish String Quartet’s setting in a domestic chamber — a room in a home, rather than a concert hall or an auditorium, with lamps, pictures on the wall, a rug. Perhaps a nod, I think, to the strong likelihood that Beethoven’s late quartets received their first premieres not in public but in private, domestic settings. It is, too, where I hear it today.

A Yuletide Modernist

Enthusiasts of the poet and critic T.S. Eliot will find their Christmas stockings over-stuffed this year. Recently both Lyndall Gordon and Robert Crawford have added a few volumes to the biography shelf, and just days before Christmas W.W. Norton will issue another biography of sorts — of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” by Matthew Hollis. In part, this is no doubt to leap upon the very recent release of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend and, in many ways, poetic muse.

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe has already had at Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl, in a fair-enough review. Fair enough, I suppose, in that she doesn’t outright call Eliot an unrepentant misogynist; Gordon’s biography focuses on Eliot’s relationships with the women in his life, including Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan, and Hale, and it’s been no secret that Eliot’s attitude towards women was highly-fraught at best. “It’s hard, at times, not to be repelled by the poet,” Roiphe muses, and she also gets a dig in at Eliot’s antisemitic leanings (common-enough knowledge by now not to generate headlines like the publication of letters to a lover might).

I’m of two minds about The Hyacinth Girl myself, because, having been indocrinated into the New Criticism during my college years, my initial response is to steer away from relying too heavily on biography as an approach to art. (In the early 1980s, undergraduate literature study was still grounded in New Critical principles; graduate literature study was an entirely different story, which I found to my chagrin and, ultimately, amusement.) Besides which, I still think reading somebody else’s mail, even that of the long dead, is unforgivably rude.

I say this as somebody who admires Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Never has a book been so aptly subtitled — so aptly, I suspect, that any biography could bear it. It’s especially apt in that Eliot, flying high for nearly half a century as perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent Modernist poet and critic, has had his wings severely clipped since the 1970s, both for his obscurity and for those imperfections (not particularly obscure) that became public knowledge in the years after his death. For a while, Pound’s reputation overshadowed Eliot’s until the fascist label rendered Pound persona non grata in the seminar room too; Joyce quickly became TL;DR as our attention spans shortened through the 1980s and cable television and the internet began their dominance over every hour of our days and nights. Nowadays, so far as I can tell, readers who like their Modernism neat tend to take up Virginia Woolf, safely a woman, safely proto-feminist, safely rather dull.

Whether or not these new books spark a resurgence of interest in Eliot’s work is of course an open question. Hope springs eternal, but for me so does skepticism. I myself revisited Eliot’s poetry a few years ago not because of a biography but because of William Gaddis, whose five novels taken together constitute a kind of encyclopaedic post-war “Waste Land” of their own. Gaddis was so indebted to Eliot that he “at one point in the composition [of The Recognitions] intended to weave each line of Four Quartets into the text of his novel, such was his affiliation with Eliot’s vision and ethos,” Gaddis’s biographer Joseph Tabbi writes. This sent me right on to the Four Quartets and to “The Waste Land” again — both of which affected me more profoundly in my fifties than they did in my twenties.

That is a theme for another post. In the meantime, I also looked back to Eliot criticism, finding the best of it still in his earlier explicators, especially F.O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner. Unlike Gordon and Crawford, Matthiessen and Gardner knew Eliot personally, so had access to the man before he was planted in the ground, sprouting biographies. Nonetheless, they shunned the approach. While Matthiessen was speaking of critics and not biographers, I think he hit on something in the preface to his 1935 study of Eliot’s poetry:

The most widespread error in contemporary criticism is to neglect form and to concern itself entirely with content. The romantic critic is generally not interested in the poet’s work, but in finding the man behind it. The humanistic critic and the sociological critic have in common that both tend to ignore the evaluation of specific poems in their preoccupation with the ideological background from which the poets spring. All these concerns can have value in expert hands, but only if it is realized that they are not criticism of poetry. … The most fatal approach to a poem is to focus merely on what it seems to state, to try to isolate its ideas from their context in order to approve or disapprove of them before having really grasped their implications in the poem itself.

F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 1958 edition, Oxford University Press, vii.

It may or may not be pertinent to note here that Matthiessen was himself a socialist, even by some lights a political radical, in contrast to Eliot’s monarchistic, conservative Anglo-Catholicism; he was also homosexual and Episcopalian. He committed suicide in 1950, leaving behind a note that read in part, “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective.”

Matthiessen’s concern was with the relationship of form and content, but I think there’s something here about the contemporary trend to read poems, to listen to music, to look at art not only according to its ideological background but from a specific ideological perspective as well. So long as this continues, Eliot will remain a bird with clipped wings, I’m afraid, no matter how many biographies are published about him. And God help the rest of us too.