Monday, April 30, 2007

Some Major and Minor Characters

Hello and welcome to my three readers.

Recently read: Jack's Book, an oral biography (probably one of the first of the genre) of Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. It's sad, and perhaps inevitable, that the public image of the Beats, which exploded around 1957 with On the Road's publication, was very different from how they felt about themselves and their work. They freely acknowledged literary models like Thomas Wolfe and Whitman. 1957 was ten years after the events depicted in On the Road, and about six years after it was written. It required all that time for the publishing world to be ready for it. Tragically, Kerouac was never able to cope with his fame, became an alcoholic, and struggled to produce quality work in the twelve years left to him. Gifford and Lee point out that the Beats were different from the literary generation of the Twenties. They didn't leave the United States to rebel against it, but instead stayed and became invisible in the Eisenhower fifties. The Beats (with the notable exception of Burroughs) were of, and wrote of, the working class, and any kind of hipness was far from their minds. I never knew that Allen Ginsberg was such a networker -- carrying around his colleagues' poetry, introducing people, in general promoting his and others' poetry. And the world does Neal Cassady a disservice by remembering him as driving the Pranksters' bus. He aspired to be, and sought to learn from his friends to become, a writer but didn't succeed.

Also recommended: Joyce Johnson's 1983 memoir Minor Characters, which I read in the 80's. Johnson had a romance with Kerouac and is a wonderful writer.

Continuing my reading of literary biography, I turned to Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, which I couldn't put down. If J.D. Salinger was ever a hero to you, this book will provide a bracing dose of reality when you meet the creepy, cranky, misanthropic recluse. He is deeply immersed in quackish homeopathic medicine, eats only raw vegetables and undercooked lamb patties, and lives with a series of decades-younger women, of which Maynard was one. He continues to write novels and stories, but I can't imagine what he might be writing about, or how his unpublished fiction could be any good given his pathetic lack of human contact.

Maynard's narrative has its problems. She never explains why her relationship with Salinger, or her subsequent marriage, fell apart. The reader is left to conclude that she's difficult to live with, especially since her husband seems a much nicer and more patient guy than Salinger.

Still, it's a touching and, overall, honest meditation on writing, growing up, parenthood, and being at home in the world. Maynard learned how to feel at home in the world; Salinger was at one time, and at the time depicted in this book he was not.

Reading now - Black Sun, a biography of poet Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff. Will have more to say about it, but wow. Crosby is not much remembered today (would be even less so if not for Wolff) but his life is way more interesting than his writing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A flaw in the ointment

Eggcorns are spelling or usage mistakes that make a kind of sense. Link (via Language Log)
They left out one of my favorites, "card shark" (instead of card sharp -- this was referred to in a Friends episode).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Henry James, Freud, Janet Malcolm, Jeffrey Masson, Peter Swales

Daisy Miller (1879) by Henry James, In the Freud Archives (1983) by Janet Malcolm

I love Janet Malcolm's writing. It's clear and beautiful, like early Joan Didion, before Didion got all sour. On the same day I read Daisy Miller and then ITFA. From ITFA: "There are a few among us -- psychoanalysts have encountered them -- who are blessed or cursed with a strange imperviousness to the unpleasantness of self-knowledge." Daisy Miller was one of them.
Malcolm herself invokes James's The Aspern Papers -- her story is a real-life Aspern Papers.

In the Freud Archives is an intellectual romp. (The story in brief -- Jeffrey Masson contended that Freud changed his view of his patients' experiences of sexual abuse as children from memories to fantasies for self-serving reasons. The Freudian establishment of the time closed ranks against him.) I remember reading the story when it was published in the New Yorker in the 80's and being fascinated by Peter Swales, the self-taught Freud historian. Today, he would have a blog and email -- in the 70's and 80's, he did it all with Xeroxing and letters. The issues he and Masson and others were arguing over were serious issues. But Masson was naive to think his book (The Assault on Truth, 1984) would doom psychoanalysis. Freud had great insights into our inner lives. Our unconscious and fantasy lives are important. But child abuse really does exist. Sadly, it abounds. Reality does matter, but so does its effects on us. That abuse (real, not imagined) leads to later problems is now a psychological truism.