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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.


Another big birthday

Learning the Bicycle
by Wyatt Prunty

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The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she’ll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.

"Learning the Bicycle" by Wyatt Prunty from Balance as Belief. © John Hopkins University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It's the birthday of the man who said, "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open":Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.
Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture - going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.
Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for."
Today is the birthday of the man who once wrote, "I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America": ornithologist and artist John James Audubon(books by this author), born in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). Audubon grew up in France, and when he was 18 years old, his father managed to get him a false passport to escape the Napoleonic Wars, and he headed to America. Fascinated by all the new American birds he saw, he began to study them more closely. He found some Eastern Phoebes nesting in a cave. He had read that they returned to the same spot to nest every year, and he wanted to test that idea. For days, he sat in the cave with them and read a book, until they were used to him and let him approach. He tied string to their legs to identify them, and sure enough, the next year the same birds were back in the cave. It is the first known incident of banding birds.
Audubon fell in love with a woman named Lucy Bakewell. Her father objected to Audubon's lack of career goals and insisted that he find a solid trade before marriage. So, he opened a general store in Kentucky on the Ohio River, and soon after, John and Lucy were married. Audubon was a terrible business owner, and eventually he realized that his best chance for success lay in his birds after all. Lucy took on the main breadwinner duties by teaching children in their home, while her husband traveled all over the continent collecting specimens for his masterpiece, Birds of America (1838). The book was two feet wide and three feet tall, with 435 life-sized hand-colored plates of birds. It was extraordinarily expensive to print, and was financed by advance orders as well as commissioned paintings, exhibitions, and any furs that Audubon was able to trap and sell on his excursions. But it was a success. One reviewer wrote: "All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men."
It's the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. He is known as the founder of American landscape architecture and designed New York's Central Park. Though Olmsted is most famous for landscape architecture, that's only one of his accomplishments. He worked as a journalist and wrote several books on various subjects, including two on slavery and Southern society. He was a managing editor of Putnam's Magazine and was also a partner in the publishing firm of Dix and Edwards. He drained the saltwater and sewage from Boston's Back Bay and created the Fenway. He managed a gold-mining estate in California. He was the administrative head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was the forerunner to the American Red Cross and helped meet the needs of Union soldiers during the Civil War. He was a leader in the conservation movement, helping to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls.
His friend and colleague Daniel Burnham once said of Olmsted: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."
It's the birthday of screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1889). Her father was an alcoholic, and she often tagged along with him on visits to San Francisco. He always claimed that these were fishing trips, and although they did spend some time on the pier, he was more interested in going on a bender. His daughter was exposed to some less-than-savory characters, and they fascinated her. With her father's encouragement, she began acting on the stage, to bring in some extra money. When he began managing a theater company in San Diego, she acted for them and later began to write one-act plays for the stock company to perform. One of these, The Ink Well, was a moderate success and occasionally brought her a royalty check.
She sold her first screenplay in 1911; she received $25, but it was never produced. Her third screenplay, The New York Hat (1912), was directed by D.W. Griffith, and starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Between 1912 and 1915, she wrote dozens of screenplays. Griffith eventually hired her as a staff writer and paid her $75 a week. After she'd written several successful features for Douglas Fairbanks, Fairbanks lured her away from Griffith's studio for the remarkable sum of $500 a week, which she shared with director and future husband John Emerson. She became a famous Hollywood writer and received as much publicity as film stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. In 1917, the movie magazine Photoplay reported, "The most important service that Anita Loos has so far rendered the screen is the elevation of the subcaption, first to sanity then to dignity and brilliance combined."
She eventually married Emerson, but he turned out to be a philanderer and not nearly as smart as she had once thought he was. She consoled herself by forming friendships with other show-biz wives, and hanging around with H.L. Mencken, whom she admired passionately for his intellect and wit. Unfortunately, Mencken preferred young, pretty blondes who didn't have a lot going on upstairs. In 1925, Loos published a series of sketches about just such a young woman: naive, flighty gold-digger Lorelei Lee. When the stories appeared in Harper's Bazaar, the magazine's circulation soared, and the next year, the sketches became the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). The first printing sold out overnight.

Name Calling

Name Calling | Lapham’s Quarterly

A chart detailing times that authors have called other authors names in their work


Authors on Museums: William Wordsworth didn’t just live in the Lake District—he helped define it. Ann Wroe celebrates Dove Cottage, once his home, now his memorial
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009
"PLEASE DON’T MENTION the rain," pleads the man in the Dove Cottage shop. It’s hard not to; water is running down his anorak and dripping on the floor. Harsh drops beat against the windows, which show a misty procession of visitors shrouded in capes and hoods. "The Cumbrian Tourist Board will be very upset with me." In the porch of Dove Cottage, across the road, a basket which might have held broad beans or apples is now crammed with flimsy collapsible umbrellas in bright pink, blue and green.
It rains a lot in the Lake District, even in August, but tourists soon learn not to care. Water is intrinsic and essential to this place. I walked to Dove Cottage the hard way, through soaking bracken up to Alcock Tarn and down the other side. For the first half-mile I followed Greenhead Gill in spate, surging through high dark rocks hung with rain-dripping brambles, sycamore and ash. That furious brown water, swirling, foaming, leaping and thundering, represented for Romantics the continuous force of thought: William Wordsworth’s thought, as he walked here two centuries ago, humming and hawing along the roads as his neighbours observed him, making poems. That quiet pool, out of the flow, surrounded by mossy stones and where only one ripple enters, would have marked for him a point of equipoise and calm, in which words could be captured; that lace of foam, full of sparkling and bursting bubbles like a nebula of stars, suggested the transitoriness of human effort and human affairs. Wordsworth looked on these things, and mused as he looked. His presence has moulded the landscape as surely as streams and rain, so that the whole area round Grasmere, not just Dove Cottage, is a monument and museum to him.
Dove Cottage was the home to which, from 1799 to 1808, he returned from his walks, the nurturing cell in which many of his best poems were grown. His poetical career was long, lasting until 1850, and the muse gleamed only fitfully in the last decades. He had become a national poet, like Tennyson; the productivity was there, but not the light. By contrast, in Dove Cottage he wrote this:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
And these lines, almost too well-known, on his sighting of wild daffodils in Ullswater:
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
And these, perhaps his greatest, from the “Immortality” ode:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
From God, who is our home.
The blaze of inspiration in these poems—the sense of each object "apparell’d in celestial light"—is all the more striking because Dove Cottage is a dark, poky place. The steep slopes of Rydal Fell and Nab Scar crowd in this tiny, limewashed house to north, south and east; only to the south-west does the view open up to Grasmere Lake and the facing mountains, chased by shifting colours and shadows of the clouds, as Dorothy, Wordsworth’s sister, often described them.
THE COTTAGE WAS once a pub, the Dove and Olive Bough, on the road to Rydal; the word “snug” might have been coined for it. As Wordsworth entered, shrugging off his wet coat in the vestibule, he would have found a welcoming fire in a small, low room wainscotted in dark oak from floor to ceiling. The panelling hid walls deep-stained with drinkers’ tobacco smoke. The latticed window, one-third larger now than it was then, would have looked out mostly on the glistening slabs of slate used (illegally) by William and Dorothy to enclose a patch of garden in front of the house. A dry stone wall has long replaced them, now overgrown with ivy, herb robert and wild strawberries. It may not be authentic, but it seems right. In the rain, each thin stalk and green leaf is diamonded with drops.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
The entrance room, called the "Houseplace", contains a primitive painting of a mournful, cross-eyed dog. This is Pepper, a gift to the Wordsworths from Sir Walter Scott, and a reminder that there were children here, at least for a few years. In 1802 William married Mary Hutchinson; by the time they moved out there were three toddlers, who sometimes slept in a recess under the kitchen table, tucked in baskets, and sometimes in a minuscule unheated room upstairs, insulated by Dorothy with pages from the Times. (The pages have had to be replaced, which the Wordsworth Trust has done with great care and ingenuity, finding pages of just the right date, including one from 1800 with an advertisement for the second edition of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s revolutionary democratisation of poetry, the "Lyrical Ballads".) The newspaper room (pictured, previous page), as it is called, sums up much of the character of this place. From remote Grasmere the Wordsworths kept up keenly with the news of the day, both through papers and a stream of visitors, but the real use of good rag newspaper was to keep infants warm. This was a house where nothing was wasted: where dogwood twigs from the garden, stripped and frayed, made toothbrushes, and where used tea-leaves were dried and sent to friends.
The kitchen tells the same tale. Two objects, on the mantlepiece over the (later) range, evoke the importance of frugality—and of light. One is a candle-mould, into which melted mutton fat and beeswax were poured and cooled. The other is a rush-light holder, in which the rush may be adjusted diagonally for one person reading or writing, or horizontally, burning at both ends, for two. There were usually two people working here in the evenings: William dictating, from his favourite "cutlass" chair or cane-seated couch (both still here), and Dorothy or Mary inscribing. The mere light of rush or candle did not go very far; it illuminated, perhaps, the table top. When several were reading and sewing, their heads were bent companionably together. From out on the benighted fells, the window would have shone like a star.
The Wordsworth household at Grasmere was a triangle of poet, sister and wife. Both women waited on the great man, cooking his mutton chops and mending his thick grey socks, watching anxiously how he ate and how he slept, for poetry-making wore out his nerves. Both loved him, and he loved them. His relationship with Dorothy and hers with him seem to have been perfectly correct, sealed by brotherly-sisterly tenderness and mutual inspiration. Nonetheless there is often a frisson in this house, of feelings suppressed. It touches you especially in William’s bedroom, which became Dorothy’s in 1802, and from which she watched swallows building and rebuilding in the eaves over the window. It now contains William’s and Mary’s nuptial bed, very small and cosy under a patterned quilt; Dorothy nailed up the valances and hessian hangings on this bed to make it even cosier, a love nest. The mirror on the washstand, which was Dorothy’s, now reflects the bed in its dim, spotted glass. On it lies William’s tiny suitcase, which she probably packed for him: for four weeks in France in 1802, when he was revisiting his first French lover, one day-shirt, one night-shirt, a notebook and a pen.
NOT MANY OBJECTS are kept in the cottage now. They have gone to the Wordsworth Museum up the road, or to the splendid modern library and archive at the Jerwood Centre next door to it. But in glass-fronted cupboards upstairs lie Wordsworth’s wooden skates, which he nailed onto his shoes (“All shod with steel/We hissed along the polished ice in games/...and every icy crag/Tinkled like iron”). There are delicate teacups, whose worn rims still seem to hold the murmur of conversation, and lurking nearby a small, dark phial of Kendal Black Drop laudanum, the cure for most aches and pains in this house. But perhaps most moving is a small piece of bright blue stone that was found, after his death, in Wordsworth’s dressing-case. "Mr W’s eyes have been cured by one of our visitors, Mr Reynolds, who prescribed touching them with the Blue Stone which acted like magic on them," wrote Sara Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, in 1826. A pair of spectacles on the same shelf, with small dark lenses, confirm that those eyes, which saw "into the life of things", were physically weak, and often hurt him.
ON ALL THE back windows of the cottage the garden presses in, lushly green and shining with rain. Roses, heavy with their soaking, lean against the glass, and sprays of fern fall down like water. The lawn is slippery and steep, rising to the woods and the fell. William and Dorothy laboured on this “little Nook of mountain ground”, and Dorothy recorded it all in her journal: stringing up the scarlet beans, cutting the pea sticks, transplanting "raddishes", and William’s digging of the shallow, muddy well. They grew most of the vegetables they ate with their almost sempiternal porridge. But this was also a place where Nature and her moving, affecting power might be brought in from outside, corralled with the ferns and columbines and marsh-marigolds which the Wordsworths had purloined from the lakeside. In this "Dear Spot" William built a terrace, where he could pace back and forth as he did along the roads, gazing over the lake and the favourite mountains, Helm Crag and Silver How, to find inspiration. "We walked backwards & forwards", wrote Dorothy on March 17th 1802, until "William kindled, and began to write the poem." Another time, at the end of April, "Walked backwards & forwards with William—he repeated his poem to me—then he got to work again & would not give over" [a lovely northern note] "—he had not finished his dinner till 5 o clock." Thanks to Dorothy, we know he was writing his lines "To the Small Celandine".
Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about her nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun
When we’ve little warmth, or none.
An "Indian shed", now speculatively reconstructed, was built at the top of the garden, and beneath it a "sodded wall" from which they watched tourists in landaus going past. One wonders what the tourists made of them: the lanky, aquiline poet and the thin, dreamy women, their hands still red from chores, lying on their cloaks on the orchard grass to look at blossom falling and listen to the birds.
IN MID-AFTERNOON sunlight falls on Dove Cottage, unexpectedly, like a grace. The Japanese tourists are astonished. They come out of the back door blinking, lowering their umbrellas. As Wordsworth did, they watch "the dancing of shadows amid a press of sunshine", washed by the last gleams of the rain. It is easy to lose confidence in Lake District weather. But in the end—as in the dingiest corners of this unassuming house—the light that he evoked with such power is always palpably there.
The stars pre-eminent in magnitude,
And they that from the zenith dart their beams
(Visible though they be to half the earth,
Though half a sphere be conscious of their brightness)
Are yet of no diviner origin,
No purer essence, than the one that burns,
Like an untended watch-fire, on the ridge
Of some dark mountain; or than those which seem
Humbly to hang, like twinkling winter lamps,
Among the branches of the leafless trees;
All are the undying offspring of one
Sire: Then, to the measure of the light vouchsafed,
Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content.
Dove Cottage is open daily except Christmas and most of January; 9.30am-5.30pm, last entry 5pm (in winter: closing 4.30pm, last entry 4pm)
Ann Wroe is obituaries of The Economist and the author of "Being Shelley" and "Orpheus: The Song of Life"

The US shale revolution

The US shale revolution - FT.com

Francis Bacon: at home with history

Francis Bacon: at home with history - FT.com

Pablo Picasso’s ‘A Young Lady’ (1909)

Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker

Thomas Berenato on Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker

Progress of Stories

April 21st, 2015RESET-+
MOST ACCOUNTS of Joseph Mitchell’s storied career at The New Yorkerend in September 1964, when, at age 56, the reporter published his last piece for the magazine: the two-part exposé of “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Thomas Kunkel’s long-awaited biography of this demon-driven journalist devotes five chapters, almost 100 pages, to the three “secret” decades of Mitchell’s writing-life that followed. With the exception of a 1,200-word letter in his hometown newspaper in 1976, a four-and-a-half-page “Author’s Note” to a collected edition of his New Yorker articles in 1992, and the coy flap copy for that volume, Mitchell withheld his work from print to the end of his life, in May 1996, when he was 87 years old. Since then, starting in February 2013,The New Yorker has published three excerpts from a sort of memoir that Mitchell spent at least some of his silent years composing. Kunkel gives the backstory in detail. These edited selections are fragments of a fragment. Three opening chapters of Mitchell’s “personal narrative” survive, according to Kunkel, “essentially” or “largely” or seemingly complete. All 12,000 words, 1,200 of which comprise a catalog set down as a single sentence, are wondrous, glinting here and there with what Mitchell once called “a kind of wild exactitude.”
Mitchell’s perfectionism, not to say procrastination, came at a cost. Four successive editors of The New Yorker kept this press-shy staff writer on continuous payroll, from September 26, 1938, to his death. Kunkel’s pages on Mitchell’s salary negotiations with William Shawn make for tense reading. Few employees would dare demand a raise for invisible work; perhaps only The New Yorker was in a position to ponder the matter seriously. But Mitchell was not just lucky. He had been prolific once, filing a story in the morning and another or two after lunch through his newspaper days. In the eyes of his editors as well as his readers, Mitchell’s published words rose in value in inverse proportion to their availability. Shawn, according to Kunkel, noted in an internal memo, “Mitchell’s pieces, as we are probably agreed, cannot be evaluated in any ordinary way.”
Joseph Mitchell left his family’s southern North Carolina homestead at age 21. He arrived in New York without a job in October 1929, the day after the Crash. His father, known as A. N., was a planter from a long line of planters. He attributed his considerable professional success to a policy of tight-lipped reserve; he taught Mitchell to keep his cards, whatever they held, close to his chest. Mitchell, as great a talker as he became a listener, took this advice hard to heart.
Kunkel records A. N.’s disappointment on learning that his eldest was off to try to make it as a Gotham newshound: “Son, is that the best you can do, sticking your nose into other people’s business?” Almost half a century later Mitchell reflected in his journal on the series of profile-subjects that peopled his past: “I am only now beginning to realize what I was writing about in those stories: my father as a Hudson River shad fisherman; my father as an Italian-American restaurant keeper; my father as an old Negro man.”
Mitchell had a prodigious memory, Kunkel reports. He used an idiosyncratic shorthand, never a tape recorder. He also had a mastery of microhistoryavant la lettre that carried other costs — namely, adherence to the truth. “Sometimes facts don’t tell the truth,” Mitchell once said. According to Kunkel this conviction was appreciated, shared, and often encouraged by TheNew Yorker editors responsible for guiding Mitchell’s early articles into print. Methods like Mitchell’s no longer fly, least of all by the fact-checking flak at today’s New Yorker. But, as Mitchell himself readily acknowledged, “truth” is a bird rare, elusive, and, above all, motley. He may not have been in the habit of “making up” quotations in any simple sense, but he routinely applied heavy makeup to those he did record.
Mitchell’s cast of “characters” (his own word for them) often have attitudes and opinions in common, many of them morbid and sentimental by turns. Kunkel sets aside a whole chapter for discussing one of them in particular, George H. Hunter, the octogenarian son of a runaway slave and a longtime resident of a former oyster-fishing community on the South Shore of Staten Island. On Kunkel’s account, richly informed by Mitchell’s reporting notes, Mitchell began researching this story in the spring of 1947. The New Yorkerpublished it in September 1956. The intervening decade of repeated visits, interviews, and archaeological immersion in the world of his subject yielded probably the profoundest installment of Mitchell’s ongoing investigation into the personal history of the city.
What the “character” Mr. Hunter says in the story “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is not verbatim what George H. Hunter told Mitchell in propria persona, but it is revelatory of his character, or at least of “character” period. Sometimes Mitchell sought, and received, permission from his subjects to rearrange or even reassign the dialogue that took place. Sometimes not. In any case, monologues unspool for pages at a time. Soliloquies as charming and harrowing as these are few to find outside the works of Joyce, Beckett, or Bernhard. They are all as unmistakably Mitchellian as Sebald’s are Sebaldian. Mitchell, Kunkel writes, “was in fact a first-rate writer of literature whose chosen medium happened to be nonfiction.”
By far the slipperiest trick of literary biography is catching the writer in the act of actually writing. For Mitchell-twitchers, the holy grail is a glimpse of Mitchell, that least flagrant of writers, hunting exactitude in the wild. One paragraph of Kunkel’s that pulls off this feat comes exactly halfway through his book:
With his stacks of notes at the ready, then, Mitchell would get down to his real labor — the writing. And labor it truly was, as can be readily seen from the few draft examples Mitchell left behind. Seated at the sturdy Underwood typewriter that he would use his entire New Yorkercareer, Mitchell would patiently cast and recast sentences, sometimes dozens of times, changing just a word or two with each iteration until an entire paragraph came together and seemed right. He would move through his drafting of the story in this slow, painstaking fashion, at certain points (in that pre-computer era) using scissors to cut these passages apart, sometimes sentence by sentence, and physically rearranging them to get a better feel for the narrative rhythm. In doing so he often used paper clips to hold the sentence strips together, and these constructions would come to resemble a long, flexible washboard or a kind of primitive girdle.
This is exactly the sort of dope for which readers lustily gut the biography of a writer they love, the only kind of gossip that even begins to rival reading the writer’s writing itself. Kunkel’s mention of the paper clips is a painterly detail akin in expressive power to what Mitchell called “the revealing remark” that he was ever after in his own reporting. “I couldn’t really write about anybody until they spoke what I consider ‘the revealing remark’ or the revealing anecdote or the thing that touched them,” Kunkel quotes Mitchell at second hand. “It’s not in the way a psychoanalyst does, I’m sure. But you’re trying to report, at the beginning without knowing it, the unconscious as well as the consciousness of a man or woman.” Excavating another person’s “unconscious” entails what Freud called “transference” as an inevitable side effect of the therapeutic process.
One of Mitchell’s New Yorker stories that Kunkel does not discuss involves the profile-subject as vengeful ghost, a figure that would haunt the writer’s later career: In “The Cave Dwellers,” published under a different title in the Christmas issue of 1938, Mitchell recounts a tale that dates to Christmas 1933, when he was still covering the city for the New York World-Telegram. His editors, under the impression that in the fifth winter of the Depression “nothing brightened up a front page so much as a story about human suffering,” had sent Mitchell around town to drum up something of “human interest” among the urban down-and-outs. At the Hoover Village on the Hudson at 74th Street Mitchell asked the people there about their holiday plans. “The gaunt squatters stood and looked at me with a look I probably never will get over; if they had turned on me and pitched me into the river I wouldn’t have blamed them,” Mitchell reports. After some days on this beat he soon came to believe that he had “no right to knock on tenement doors and catechize men and women who were interesting only because they were miserable in some unusual way.” Mitchell began to feel that he was “preying on the unfortunate.” Between the lines of this seasonal “casual,” Mitchell confesses to nothing less than an incipient crisis of vocation.
Mitchell’s “faith in human dignity was almost gone” when, a few days before Christmas, he stumbled on a couple who, turned out of their apartment a year before, had taken up residence in a cave in Central Park. When he interviewed them, they had, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor, temporarily relocated to a rooming house off Columbus Circle. “They were on the fourth floor,” Mitchell writes. “An inch and a half of snow had fallen during the night and there was a ridge of it on the window sill of their furnished room.” A virtuoso touch.
Mitchell’s front-page feature in the next afternoon’s newspaper relayed the detail, gathered from their conversation, that the couple had seven cents left to their name. By the next day, sympathetic readers had poured $85 and two job offers for the profile-subjects into the newspaper’s mailroom. When Mitchell promptly returned to the rooming house to deliver the alms, the couple rebuffed him. “I told you we had seventy cents left,” the woman told him. “What do you mean, putting lies about us in the paper?” the man asked, and then hurled a gin bottle at him. Mitchell made one more attempt to hand over the money, but the couple had disappeared, so he went back to his office to send letters returning all of the donations.
This story sums up succinctly the crux on which Mitchell nailed his art: the act of empathy. Although “The Cave Dwellers” stands almost unique among his published work in its steady focus on the first-person narrator, no plot of Mitchell’s fails to dramatize its ethical dilemma. All of his writing is suffused with the exquisite pathos of letting go.
Mitchell seems to have had a genius for identifying revealing remarks; his will to reveal them may well have fallen victim to this very ingenuity. A reporter as sensitive to speech as he was — who identifies with his subjects as strongly — will sooner or later discover that he has become, without meaning to, the stenographer of his own soul. “In some sense he became his subjects, and whatever that act of impersonation was required the person he was writing about to be available to him,” Kunkel quotes Dan Frank, the editor of Mitchell’s 1992 omnibus volume.
“I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.” This is one of a multitude of remarks that Mitchell selected as “revealing” from the ultimately unremarkable mind of the Bowery bum Joe Gould, subject of his last, and longest, profile. Gould finally revealed to Mitchell that the “Oral History of Our Time” he had claimed for years to be compiling — the alluring idea of which piqued Mitchell’s interest in Gould in the first place — does not exist. Gould’s confession takes the form of the following remark, which Mitchell also finds revealing: “It’s not a question of laziness.” Kunkel’s research makes clear that the answer to the abiding question of Mitchell’s post-Gould silence has nothing to do with laziness. From 1964 to 1996 Mitchell was not so much shirking as pursuing his essential purposes calmly, and although it pained him to disappear — from himself, his editors, and the increasingly cultish readers and re-readers of his increasingly hard-to-find back-catalog — he was anything but idle.
In these years he began a journal on the advice of a doctor he was seeing for chronic depression; he made notes and amassed files for his projected personal history, which was to double as a profile of one or another of a handful of potential authorial stand-ins; he reread his beloved Finnegans Wake; he tended his dying father, his dying wife, his family’s farms in his native North Carolina, all the while tending to the village-level legacies of his adopted megalopolis, New York City, in capacities both official and unofficial, and sometimes illegal.
Always a bricoleur, Mitchell became a full-time collector. He filled boxes in his tiny 10th Street apartment with carefully labeled artifacts (nails, bricks, rocks, keys, bottles, doorknobs, cutlery …) picked up — or pried off — during his daily tramps:
In one journal note, Mitchell describes his fixation with trying to remove the number off the doorway of a building that was to be razed the next morning. It was night, and he was working furiously, trying to keep one eye out for the authorities. Prying at the numbers wasn’t working; eventually he realized they were bolted into place and that he would need to get inside the building to free them. The building, of course, was locked up tight. So in a spontaneous and adrenaline-fueled moment, he took his hammer and hurled it through one of the painted-over windows adjacent to the door. Having thus gained entry, Mitchell sawed at the bolts for fifteen minutes until he tapped the numbers free.
Joseph Mitchell believed that he could write his way into the truth by virtue of the facts — not through the facts but in them. Facts — rendered over to the reader in their fullest opacity, in a spirit of “wild exactitude” — might be induced, by careful curation, to attain a critical mass at which they take on a kind of paradoxical transparency. Windows sometimes require breaking if they are to serve their purpose. “Mitchell’s papers,” Kunkel has discovered, “include a 1978 letter complimenting the author of The Story of Brick, ‘a fascinating book to anyone interested in the history of brickmaking […]’.” Treating words like bricks, Mitchell laid walls of words that opened sunlit windows into the souls of his subjects. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he found that he had walled himself into the full glare of publicity usually reserved for those writers who plunge headfirst into the confessional mode. This is the truth that Kunkel is getting at when he writes in a paragraph full of facts about Mitchell’s style: “His authoritative and liberal use of facts framed his tale, even as his careful sentences relentlessly propelled it along.” Mitchell’s second career in creative destruction that Kunkel has so lovingly unearthed represents the attempt of this most reticent of writers to build a window out of brick.

‘A Wonderful Life’ by Stuart Hampshire | The New York Review of Books

‘A Wonderful Life’ by Stuart Hampshire | The New York Review of Books


President Obama during his speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, D.C., Saturday night.
President Obama during his speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, D.C., Saturday night.
Evan Vucci/AP
It's a long-time ritual — American presidents going before the Washington journalists who cover them to recognize some of the best work of the prior year from the assembled crowd.
Of course, there are also jokes. Here are eight Obama jokes that stood out from the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner:
1. The "Bucket" List: Obama said he's asked, " 'Do you have a bucket list?' I say, well I have something that rhymes with bucket."
Immigration executive action? "Bucket!" he deadpanned. Stricter climate rules. "Bucket!"
2. Those Grey Hairs: "I look so old John Boehner's already invited Netanyahu to speak at my funeral."
Meanwhile, First Lady Michelle Obama looks great, he said. "I ask her her secret. She says, [Obama employing a nasally voice] 'Fresh fruits and vegetables.' It's aggravating."
He also lamented that he has so much to do, like negotiate with Iran, "all while finding time to pray five times a day."
President Barack Obama brings out actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play Luther, Obama's "Anger Translator" during the White House Correspondents dinner.i
President Barack Obama brings out actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play Luther, Obama's "Anger Translator" during the White House Correspondents dinner.
Evan Vucci/AP
3. "Arrogant And Aloof": "People say I'm arrogant and aloof," the president said. "Some people are so dumb."
4. End of Times: "Michele Bachmann predicted I would bring about the Biblical end of days. Now that's big. ... Lincoln, Washington — they didn't do that."
5. Hillary Clinton: The economy's gotten so bad for some people, Obama said, "I had a friend, just a few weeks ago, she was making millions of dollars a year, and now she's living out of a van in Iowa."
6. The 2016 GOP Field: "The Koch brothers think they need to spend a billion dollars to get folks to like one of these people," Obama said of the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates. "I raised a lot ... but my middle name is Hussein."
7. Reach Out And Touch A Veep: Talking about how close he and Vice President Biden have gotten, especially in stressful times, Obama joked that he loves Biden's back massages. "Those Joe Biden shoulder massages are like magic. You should try one." [Pause.] "Oh, you have?"
He added, "We've gotten so close, in some places in Indiana, they won't serve us pizza anymore."
8. A Third Obama Term (Sorta): Talking about how much he liked Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who could run for the Democratic nomination for president: "Apparently people really want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House. We could get a third Obama term after all."
Obama also brought out "Luther," his "anger translator" from Comedy Central's Key & Peele. Here's some of Luther's past work:

A Big Day

From the Garden
by Anne Sexton

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Come, my beloved,
consider the lilies.
We are of little faith.
We talk too much.
Put your mouthful of words away
and come with me to watch
the lilies open in such a field,
growing there like yachts,
slowly steering their petals
without nurses or clocks.
Let us consider the view:
a house where white clouds
decorate the muddy halls.
Oh, put away your good words
and your bad words. Spit out
your words like stones!
Come here! Come here!
Come eat my pleasant fruits.

"From the Garden" by Anne Sexton from The Complete Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1800 that Congress established its own legislative library: the Library of Congress. As part of a legislative measure to move the government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved spending $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress [...] and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them."
Congress ordered 740 books and three maps from London, and in just over a decade, the library had more than 3,000 items. During the War of 1812, the British attacked the Capitol and burned everything to the ground, including all the contents of the library. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote from his home in Virginia: "I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited." As a replacement, he offered to sell his personal library, which was considered the best in the country. Not everyone in Congress thought it was a good idea - Jefferson's tastes were eclectic, and some legislators thought it was unnecessary to have books on art and science, or in foreign languages. Jefferson replied: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." In the end, they paid him $23,950 for 6,487 books.
Beginning in 1870, copyright law required that the Library of Congress receive copies of all new materials. After that, the library quickly outgrew its space at the Capitol, and in 1873 the government announced a contest to design plans for a new space. The resulting library, built in Italian Renaissance style, is now called the Thomas Jefferson building. The Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, declared it "the book palace of the American people," and it was called "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library in the world. Today, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelves, and 150 million items, including more than 35 million books.
It's the 200th birthday of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London in 1815. His father, Thomas, was a hot-tempered barrister who had trouble keeping a job, and the family frequently had money troubles as a result. Anthony went to a prestigious public school, but it was readily apparent that, unlike most of his classmates, he wasn't rich, and he was bullied by students and teachers alike.
As a young man, he got a job as a postal clerk, but earned a reputation for insubordination and tardiness. He resolved to turn his life around when he was offered a transfer to Ireland in 1841, and his fortunes did indeed change: the cost of living was lower there, so he was able to enjoy a sense of prosperity, traveling more and taking up fox hunting, which he loved. His job took him all over the country, and he enjoyed the working-class Irish people, finding them more clever and hospitable than their English counterparts. And he began writing novels on his long train rides, occasionally raiding the "lost letter" box for ideas. In 1859, he transferred back to England, wanting to be within easy reach of London now that he was an established author. He remained with the Post Office for 33 years, rising to a fairly senior position, and he is credited with developing the pillar-style post box, which has since become a British classic.
He was most disciplined as a writer, getting up at 5:30 every day to write for three hours before he went to the office, and wrote in his autobiography: "Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours - so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas." Trollope wrote 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few travel books. He created the fictional county of Bartsetshire, and set several novels there. His most famous book, The Way We Live Now (1875), is a scathing 100-chapter satire of English greed. He was, and remains, one of England's most popular authors.
He said: "The habit of reading is the only one I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live."
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (books by this author), born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). Growing up, he had no interest in writing or literature. He wanted to become a naval officer, but his plans came to an abrupt end as a teenager when his brother accidentally hit him in the eye with a rock and he lost his sight in one eye. He felt ashamed, ugly, and angry - not with his brother, but at life in general. He had been admitted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, but now he couldn't go. He enrolled at Vanderbilt, intending to study chemical engineering. Instead, he fell in love with writing. He said, "I found the English courses so much more interesting [...] chemistry was taught without imagination."
Warren was particularly charmed by one professor, John Crowe Ransom, whom he described as "a real, live poet, in pants and vest, who had published a book and also fought in the war." Ransom encouraged Warren to join the Fugitives, an informal group of professors and students who got together to discuss philosophy and literature. Warren said that it was this group, more than anything, that provided his education.
Warren went on to write fiction, poetry, and criticism. He is the only person to have received Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry (for which he won it twice), and he served in the position that is now called the poet laureate. His books include Understanding Poetry (1938), At Heaven's Gate (1943), All the King's Men (1947), Promises (1957), and Now and Then (1978).
It's the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). Grafton went to college at the University of Louisville. She thought about becoming a lawyer, but her father was an attorney, and he told her not to go to law school - that it was too boring. She was married at age 18, divorced, and married again a few years later. She started her career by writing screenplays, until her agent told her that she was good at writing character but not at plot. So she decided to focus all her energy on writing plots, and mystery novels seemed like a good outlet for that.
One day, she was reading through Edward Gorey's illustrated book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, about children dying in bizarre ways. It begins: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh." Grafton decided that this was her hook, and in 1982 she published "A" is for Alibi. She followed it up with "B" is for Burglar (1985), "C" is for Corpse (1986), "D" is for Deadbeat (1987), and on down the line. The star of her novels is a tough-talking private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, who loves fast food, always carries a gun, and distrusts intimate relationships. Grafton said: "I am Kinsey Millhone. But she is my unlived life. I got married for the first time when I was 18 [...] so, she is the adventures I've never had." Her most recent Kinsey Millhone mystery is "W" is for Wasted (2013).