So far as I can tell, he's the one who instigated the move, then convinced the others to join in. That shouldn't only remind us that Stewart works overtime to be one of the good guys; it also underlines his clout. Except to Comedy Central's audience of "slackers and stoners," as Bill O'Reilly huffily miscalled them, The Daily Show had barely been on anybody's radar when Stewart took over from original host Craig Kilborn in 1998. Less than a decade later, broadcast TV's late-night big enchiladas -- all with much larger audiences than his -- treated him as not only their peer but a moral compass.
Don't blame me if I got entranced with picturing Stewart as Michael Corleone: the nebbishy college kid who somehow ended up as capo di tutti capi. True, this means imagining a Michael Corleone who is a) Jewish, b) impish, and c) on the side of the angels, three improbable new wrinkles. But Stewart's ascent from a gadfly comic on a cheesy cable network to Generation X's version of Walter Cronkite was fairly improbable too. No one would have bet on him to end up as the first late-night TV star since Johnny Carson to invent an original cultural role -- one that, like Carson's, is now the template his multiple successors try to emulate.
Unsurprisingly, he comes off awfully well in Smith's cast-of- dozens chronicle. He has a few bad moments, true -- including his eventual return to the air during that same strike, which some of his writers apparently never forgave him for. But he's often the one who beats up on himself the most in these pages. With a few disgruntled exceptions, practically everybody who ever worked for The Daily Show -- and Smith seems to have talked to almost all of them -- lauds his decency, creative smarts, and constant drive to bring out the best they had on tap. One word that comes up an awful lot is mensch.
It's easy to forget that Stewart's takeover of Kilborn's slot was on the bumpy side. Thinking they had a pretty good thing going without his creative input, the team he'd inherited balked at Stewart's determination to reboot the show's priorities from random spoofery to satire with a distinctive point of view -- his. "What I needed most," he says, "were accomplices."
He found them soon enough, especially in the hires of writer- producers Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum. But the most prominent turned out to be Kilborn-era holdover Stephen Colbert, who took to the new regime like a duck to water. Considering that Stewart was an untested quantity who'd never been the boss of much of anything up to then, his sure- footed resolve seems remarkable, especially since Comedy Central execs were a long way from convinced their newbie was on the right track. The stakes just weren't high enough back then for them to hit the panic button.
Thanks partly to then-correspondent Steve Carell's antic pursuit of candidate John McCain in New Hampshire, the 2000 election (a.k.a. "Indecision 2000") was the making of the new Daily Show -- the moment when people outside Comedy Central's target audience began to sit up and take notice, from New York's sherpas of chic to D.C.'s own movers and shakers. Then 9/11 was almost its unmaking, or so it seemed at the time. "I don't even know if we have a show anymore," one staffer recalls DS co-creator Madeleine Smithberg saying.
Stewart didn't go back on the air for over a week. When he did, his tearful monologue about his old view of the WTC towers being replaced by a view of the Statue of Liberty struck many people, me included, as, well . . . sweet, but not what we wanted from Jon Stewart.
Wrong again. From then on, his comic persona -- aggrieved, disbelieving, roguishly sassy -- was merely one facet of how Stewart manifested in public. That was what made him the most engagingly human of guides to the Bush era's iniquities along with one of the shrewdest, but only The Daily Show's puckishness kept his moral seriousness in balance. When he tried to convert his dandy cockpit into a bully pulpit and did so without the protection of the show's mordantly ironic context, he floundered.
That was the case when he went on Crossfire in 2004 to upbraid Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for "hurting America" with their reductionist sparring. Widely admired at the time, this Mr. Stewart Goes to Washington moment hasn't aged all that well; an America that could be damaged by Crossfire deserves to die of the common cold. On the other hand, Crossfire did get canceled just months later, and every little bit helps.
Six years later, a more ambitious attempt by Stewart to put his influence to concrete use -- the "Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" that he and Colbert staged on the Mall before the 2010 midterms, simultaneously burlesquing Glenn Beck's Tea Party rallies and hoping to peddle a rational alternative to the politics of hysteria -- was an unmistakable misfire. Uncharacteristically for him, its goals just didn't seem well thought out, leaving an unwelcome impression of vainglory. "I feel like it stood against everything we thought -- we never thought we were anything but a TV show," says executive producer Rory Albanese, who begged Stewart in vain to reconsider.
All the same, it's hard to imagine either Dubya's or Obama's presidencies without Stewart and The Daily Show's invaluable palliative. Sure, in a sense, he and it were preaching to the converted. But putting it that reductively misses the point. For one thing, there are limits to what satire can do, and helping people cope with lunacy is one job that's inside satire's wheelhouse. For another, like most good pop culture -- not just the political kind -- DS didn't cater to an established community so much as it created one. Attitudes that might have stayed amorphous and private otherwise got crystallized once Stewart defined how to express them, and knowing you were part of an audience of kindred spirits was exhilarating.
Colbert's 2005 departure for The Colbert Report, along with Ed Helms's and Rob Corddry's exits the following year, led to another bumpy transition. But that may have been a blessing in disguise -- by providing a bigger platform for Samantha Bee's talents, just to start with. Then a formula that might have gone stale otherwise got refreshed by new hires, from Larry Wilmore to The Daily Show's latter-day MVP, John Oliver. Predictably, Oliver -- who was on track to be Stewart's successor until Comedy Central let him slip away to HBO -- is the most entertaining contributor to Smith's collage: "I'm English," he moans of his emotional farewell to DS. "I'm dead inside. I don't have any echoes of feelings. What I have might be from ancestors centuries ago."
The ultimate measure of The Daily Show's beneficial impact, of course, is how many of its onetime correspondents went on to front shows of their own -- each with its own distinctive character but nonetheless all originating in a shared sensibility that was barely aware of itself as such before Stewart came along. DS was so obviously the signature TV series of its generation that this book's rare carping voices are almost a relief, in that keeping-things-honest way. If damn near everyone else sounds a bit in awe of what their unlikely Godfather wrought, no wonder.
A two-time National Magazine Award winner during his stint as Esquire's "Screen" columnist, Tom Carson is currently a columnist at GQ. He is the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel. EAN: 9781101870228 Reviewer: McAlpin, Heller Short description: An entire book devoted to a pedantic literary tiff that flared fifty years ago? Fear not. The Feud, Alex Beam's lively post-mortem on the friendship between two titans of twentieth-century literature -- Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson -- is a deliciously smart read. Long description: An entire book devoted to a pedantic literary tiff that flared fifty years ago? Fear not. The Feud, Alex Beam's lively post-mortem on the friendship between two titans of twentieth-century literature -- Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson -- is a deliciously smart read. Yes, Beam has plenty to say about literature and the passions it arouses. But The Feud is also a spellbinding -- and sobering -- cautionary tale about how ego and envy can destroy even the most brilliant friendship.
Beam confesses that he burst out laughing when he first heard that Nabokov and Wilson's quarter-century relationship ran off the rails because of a disagreement over Nabokov's translation of Alexander Pushkin's great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. But, he writes, "Several years into this project, I laugh less now." The implosion, he soon learned, was about far more than Wilson's very public takedown of dear Volodya's colossal, fourteen-year Pushkin project.
The two men met in 1940, when the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov wrote Wilson to ask if he could help his writer cousin, Vladimir, who, newly arrived from Paris with his Jewish-born wife and son after fleeing the Nazis, was in dire straits. At forty, Nabokov had spent the past twenty years in exile in England, Berlin, Prague, and Paris after his aristocratic Russian family fled the Bolsheviks in 1919. Writing in Russian under the pen name Vladimir Sirin, he had produced nine novels in twelve years. At forty-five, Wilson was a distinguished literary critic best known for his 1931 collection of essays, Axel's Castle, in which he championed modernist writers, including James Joyce. He obligingly commissioned reviews from Nabokov at the New Republic, arranged fruitful contacts with editors at The New Yorker and elsewhere, and provided a flattering blurb ("absolutely enchanting") for Nabokov's first novel published in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
The two men delighted in each other's company, and when they were apart, a legendary, "unashamedly intimate" correspondence flourished between them for two decades. "For many years Wilson and Nabokov could ask each other almost anything," Beam writes.
They had many similarities: Both were superbly educated, sons of "prominent jurists," and ladies' men. Both shared a disdain for academics and Freud. Neither could drive. Both liked magic tricks and loved discussing matters of prosody. Both not only went bald but wrote baldly about sex, for which they faced censorship.
Early on, they were able to "cheerfully disagree" over little things like the pronunciation of nihilist (NIE-hilist versus NEE- hilist) and even big things like Wilson's infatuation with Lenin and slowness at renouncing Stalin. But the gulf between them widened, especially when Nabokov's literary star rose after the 1954 publication of Lolita, while Wilson's fortunes sank. Wilson, who did not share Nabokov's fondness for puns, found his writing cold and too full of tricks, and declined to review his novels. He loved Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory, but said he couldn't even finish Lolita.
It didn't help their relationship when Wilson extolled Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Nabokov scorned. Nabokov repeatedly questioned Wilson's knowledge of both Russian language and literature, eventually calling him "a hapless flounderer in the language of Pushkin." The two split further on the great Cold War divide: Nabokov was virulently, unequivocally against Khrushchev's Soviet Union. Wilson, although he never joined the Communist Party, leaned decidedly Left.
Beam deftly rounds up all the ammunition for their eventual shootout. Nabokov, firing with anything but neutrality from Switzerland, where he retreated after the success of Lolita, does not come off well. He assassinated scores of writers, dead and alive: Dostoyevsky was "third rate," Henry James "that pale porpoise," whom he viewed "as a warmed over Turgenev manqué." His attacks on translators of Russian literature were even harsher. After suffering through several of Nabokov's anti-Zhivago rants on the telephone, Wilson complained to a mutual friend, "He wants to be the only Russian novelist in existence."
Although not a Russian scholar, Beam, a columnist and former Moscow correspondent for The Boston Globe, understands Pushkin's primacy in Russian culture: "To educated Russians, Onegin is simply everything, as if all of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies were supercollided into a narrative poem of 5000-plus lines, which many of them can quote at extraordinary length," he writes. His analysis of this "peripatetic tale," which follows eighteen months in the life of a "spoiled society rake," and his explication of the complicated rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter metrical system Pushkin created for the work -- since dubbed the Onegin stanza -- are remarkably succinct and clear. (He illustrates his points with Charles Johnston's 1977 rhyming translation, my personal favorite.) And while he concedes that "Onegin does not sing in translation," he adds that the English translations "aren't as awful as Nabokov insisted they were."
Which brings us to Nabokov's magnum, madman opus -- a hyper-literal, non-rhyming verse translation of Onegin followed by 930 pages of commentary, published by Bollingen in 1964. Spoiler alert: Beam sides with Wilson. "Nota bene," he warns. "Edmund Wilson knew something about Alexander Pushkin, and about his poetry." But summing up Wilson's 6,600-word review, "The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov," which appeared in the July, 1965 issue o The New York Review of Books, Beam writes, "It remains a classic of its genre, the genre being an overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job."
Beam observes that "the ensuing seven-plus years of malicious rhetoric" -- which he tracks doggedly, though never to the point of tedium -- followed balletic, duel-like rules and made for good "knocking copy." Although his own extensive vocabulary includes words like pasquinading and autarky, he agrees with complaints about Nabokov's "off-putting vocabulary," including curvate instead of curved, rememorate for remember, and sapajou instead of monkey. He also agrees with Wilson (and others) on another bone of contention, that Pushkin knew enough English to have read -- and been directly influenced by -- Byron in the original.
Beam, a witty, concise writer with a nose for sharp zingers and an ability to extract highlights without compromising substance, addresses his reader genially. "Are we done? Not quite," he writes before turning to Nabokov's most incisive critic, Harvard professor and fellow Russian émigré Alexander Gerschenkron, who lambasted Nabokov in a 10,000-word salvo in Modern Philology for his "inexcusable arrogance" and "lack of generosity." Nabokov eventually exacted his revenge with thinly disguised versions of his attackers in his novel Ada -- a bestseller in its day, though it failed to achieve anything like the impact of Lolita.
Citing "an infectious tendency to 'go Nabokovian' when writing about the late, great novelist," Beam has fun with all this. His book is enlivened by several classic Nabokov puns -- "Day Day" for Doubleday, "The Waistline" for T. S. Eliot's famous poem -- and by Wilson biographer Jeffrey Myers's irresistible quip about the feud: "when Pushkin came to shovekin." Beam cleverly refers to Wilson's problems with the IRS as the "sapajou" on his back.
In the end, The Feud acknowledges that Wilson provoked the quarrel with his scathing review but demonstrates that it had been simmering for years. Wilson "discerned a chilly soullessness" in his suddenly successful friend, who belittled him where it hurt most, by questioning his critical chops. The loss of a friendship that had "fed on the oxygen of intellectual discourse" was sad enough; lamentably, the dispute continued past Wilson's and Nabokov's deaths, in 1972 and 1977, respectively. Considering which of the two writers is still widely read, you might say that Wilson won the battle, but Nabokov won the war.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Tom Carson