The fall books have already started piling up. There are titles I’ve asked the publishers to send, and the ones volunteered by eager publicists, and the ceaseless influx of small books of poetry, which fill me with guilt for watching “Law & Order” reruns instead of reading them. (But verily, man cannot live by print alone.)
Before the new publishing season begins and they are lost in the flood, let me take a quick look here at a few recent titles – books I have found absorbing and rewarding, but not had a chance to discuss in this column. The list is miscellaneous, and the tip of an iceberg. I doubt they have much in common. But each title is a reminder of the fine and irreplaceable work that university presses do with no fanfare, and seldom much recognition. And let’s not even talk about profit.
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a.k.a. Gates-gate) has generated great heat but not much light. Various media loudmouths have been outdoing themselves in portraying the Harvard professor as some kind of wild-eyed radical. This is, of course, a matter of ignorance, robust and unashamed. Gates is in reality the most anodyne of centrists. But at least the furious fantasies he has provoked should put to rest for good any notion that the United States has lately turned into a “postracial” society.
It seems like a good moment to recommend Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Hahn’s new book The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, a compact but challenging volume published by Harvard University Press. The author is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His three chapters -- each a miniature monograph -- are based on a series of lectures at Harvard, given at Gates’s invitation.
Hahn looks at the complex way the African-American struggle for emancipation took shape both under slavery and in the wake of its abolition. This process involved the creation of institutions for self-governance, as seen in “the efforts of newly freed people to reconstitute their kinship groups, to form squads and other family-based work groups, to pool community resources, and, of course, to acquire land.”
These weren’t just social movements. They contained, argues Hahn, a political element. Hahn considers whether the activity of black Southerners during the Civil War amounted to a variety of slave revolt, and he sketches aspects of the political life of Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist group in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Only the mo
st small-minded conception of American life would assume that these are matters of interest only to black readers. In a healthy culture, this little book would be a best-seller.
A few months ago, an editor asked me to review Adina Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, published by Yale University Press. To tell the truth, my heart did not initially leap at the opportunity. For I had never read any of his poetry, and rather feared that it might be full of slogans -- that, indeed, the poet’s own life might be one long slogan.
This proves that I am an idiot. A couple of sessions with his selected works revealed Ali to be a wry, ambivalent, and often understated lyricist. (In translation, at least, he seems a little bit like Edgar Lee Masters.) The figure who emerges from Hoffman’s biography is that of a quiet shopkeeper in Nazareth who carefully studied Arabic literary tradition, and also absorbed the influence of the Palestinian nationalist “resistance literature” – then created his own distinctive style: one stripped-down and unrhetorical, but sensitive as a burn.
One of the remarkable things about this biography, as indicated in my review, is that it evokes not only the political and historical context of Ali’s work, but also how his poetry took shape. Its quietness and simplicity are hard-won.
At the other extreme from Ali, perhaps, is Walt Whitman, whose poetic voice is booming, and whose persona always seems a couple of sizes too large for the North American continent. A couple of years back, Duke University Press reprinted his one and only novel: a cautionary tale of the perils of strong drink called Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate. I have somehow never gotten around to reading it, and probably never will. But it is impressive to think that Whitman grew to his familiar cosmic dimensions while stone cold sober.
His poetry certainly intoxicated the readers portrayed in Michael Robertson’s Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, published by Princeton University Press. The noun in its subtitle is no exaggeration. The readers portrayed here found in Whitman’s work something akin to a new scripture -- nearly as much as followers of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy did the Book of Mormon or Science and Health.
You can still find R.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (1901) -- where Whitman is identified as “the best, most perfect example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense" -- in New Age shops. Other disciples took his “chants democratic” as hymns for a worldwide socialist commonwealth. And his invocation of manly “adhesiveness” were understood by a few readers to be a call for what later generations would term gay liberation. Whitman insisted that his homophile readers had misunderstood him, and that when not writing poetry he had been busy fathering illegitimate children all over these United States. The biographers will continue to hash that one out -- though it’s clear that his literary persona, at least, is ready to couple with anything that moves, regardless of gender.
Whitman’s work gave some of his Victorian readers a vision of the world extending far beyond the horizon of the familiar and the acceptable. No surprise that they revered him as a prophet. Robertson, a professor of English at the College of New Jersey, tells the story of his steadily expanding circle of enthusiasts (which at one point aspired to become a global movement) with due appreciation for how profound the literary experience can be, when the right book falls into the right person’s hands.
Of course there are times when reading is a nothing but a guilty pleasure. So to go from the sublime to the sleazy, I have to recommend Jack Vitek’s The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer, published by the University Press of Kentucky late last year.
Not that the book itself is sleazy. The Enquirer may specialize in celebrity gossip, horrific crimes, UFO abductions, and Elvis Presley's posthumous itinerary. But that's not to say that the author -- an associate professor of English and journalism at Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisc. -- is anything but serious and measured in his approach. Vitek tackles his subject with all due awareness of its lingering cultural relevance. Pope modeled himself on newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
The publisher also happens to have had family “connections” (as the preferred expression has it) with what its members do not call the Mafia. He also spent about a year working for the Central Intelligence Agency. This makes it especially interesting to consider the mission statement Pope released when he bought a local tabloid called the New York Enquirer in 1953. “In an age darkened by imperialist tyranny and war,” it said, “the New York Enquirer will fight for the rights of man, the rights of the individual, and will champion human decency and dignity, freedom and peace.”
Any biography moving between lofty rhetoric and very low company is bound to be pretty absorbing. The Enquirer, after it went national, reached a peak circulation of 6.7 million copies per issue in the late 1970s, with Pope playing an aggressive role in crafting its distinctive strain of populist sensationalism.
In a footnote, Vitek points out that Fredric Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism somehow overlooked Pope’s role as formative influence within what Jameson calls "the degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch." Quite right -- and it is good to have this oversight finally corrected.