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Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performances

Overview

The experimental genius of American artists-interpreted by one of our most dependably brilliant critics.

Richard Poirier suggests, in the title of his new book, that the United States has been uncommonly hospitable to literary and artistic experimentation, to innovation and daring. Just as the nation likes to imagine itself as always in a state of becoming and renewal, some of its greatest writers seem willing to accept a measure of neglect during their lifetimes while remaining...

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Overview

The experimental genius of American artists-interpreted by one of our most dependably brilliant critics.

Richard Poirier suggests, in the title of his new book, that the United States has been uncommonly hospitable to literary and artistic experimentation, to innovation and daring. Just as the nation likes to imagine itself as always in a state of becoming and renewal, some of its greatest writers seem willing to accept a measure of neglect during their lifetimes while remaining confident of posthumous triumph. With analytical daring and shrewd literary delicacy, Poirier advances these themes in essays ranging from Emerson and Whitman to "those avowed imperialists of the novelistic imagination Herman Melville, Henry James, and Norman Mailer," along with kindred twentieth-century figures such as T. S. Eliot and Frank O'Hara, Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore.

Poirier's explorations of the American scene are not limited to poets and novelists. His moving account of the American ballets of George Balanchine, of Bette Midler in performance, of the reclusive Arthur Inman-whose immense diary offers incomparable glimpses into daily life during World War II-and his challenging refutations of some persistent myths of American "manhood" and of America itself, by outside observers like Jean Baudrillard or Martin Amis, will bring readers to a new appreciation of the most interesting (and difficult) features of American culture.

Richrad Poirier was named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.

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Editorial Reviews

William Deresiewicz
...[W]hat Poirier calls the Emersonian lineage in American letters — EmersonWhitmanJamesGertrude Steinamong others discussed here; also ThoreauDickinsonWallace Stevens — sees experimentation not as an option for art but as its precondition....Writers must resist not only the fixed forms and formulations given by the past...but the very ones they create themselves. It is not enough to innovate onceagainst tradition; one must innovate continuouslyagainst oneself. —The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Poirier is a distinguished and perceptive critic of American literature. These 19 essays, many of which appeared originally as book reviews, are loosely organized around the notion that American writers are particularly open to literary experiment. The authors covered range from American renaissance figures like Emerson and Melville to modernists like Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot to more contemporary writers such as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Not restricting himself to literary works, Poirier also includes articles on pop star Bette Midler and choreographer George Balanchine. Although the essays may have been conceived of separately, they are unified somewhat by Poirer's wide-ranging comparisons and by his exploration of several recurrent themes: the idea of American manhood, the meaning of literary success and failure, and the American writer's desire to "make it new." Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.--William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
As the title suggests, Poirier (distinguished professor emeritus, Rutgers University) believes that the US has been uncommonly hospitable to literary and artistic experimentation. With analytical daring and shrewd literary delicacy, he advances this theme in biographical and literary studies of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Mailer, and other American writers. He also gives accounts of the significance of several artists and performers, and discusses myths of America by outside observers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
William Deresiewicz
...[W]hat Poirier calls the Emersonian lineage in American letters — Emerson, Whitman, James, Gertrude Stein, among others discussed here; also Thoreau, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens — sees experimentation not as an option for art but as its precondition....Writers must resist not only the fixed forms and formulations given by the past...but the very ones they create themselves. It is not enough to innovate once, against tradition; one must innovate continuously, against oneself.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Essays on the American canon's rich difficulties, from the founder of the Raritan Quarterly. Sparked off by biographies, critical studies, and new editions, Poirier (The Renewal of Literature, 1987, etc.) discourses sharply and incisively on topics from his speciality period of the late 19th century to the novelists Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. In defense of American literature's richness, he has no patience with otherwise respectable biographers of Frank O'Hara and Walt Whitman who collect day-to-day minutiae but hesitate to address the literary work, or with the dubious reconstruction of a "restored" version of Melville's Pierre by noted scholar Hershel Parker. On the biographic side, Poirier's dogged pursuit of the literary tracks that T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman tried to cover in respect to their personal lives and poetic debts is refreshingly questioning, without any attempt to de-pedestal these authors. Poirier's all-American distrust of cant and intellectual arrogance is at its most scathing in taking apart Baudrillard's theoretically constructed version of this country, redolent with "European intellectual imperialism," and in chastising Martin Amis's sloppy Fleet Street journalistic forays to the US to confirm his worst expectations and clichés. The two pieces outside the literary field, on George Balanchine's choreographic career and on Bette Midler's tongue-in-cheek 1975 revue, show the limits of Poirier's academic training in discussing high and low culture in spite of his down-to-earth sensibilities. While his analysis of Balanchine's ballets underscores the Russian-born choreographer's unambivalent absorption of the American spirit and ordinaryAmerican culture into his classical background, Poirier's discussion of Midler's occasionally campy popular-song repertoire risks tendentiousness in its comparisons with Eliot's Waste Land pastiches or Burroughs's cut-up technique, to which Midler would probably just wink. Skeptical, tough writing from the homeroom of old-school criticism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374529185
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Poirier is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, chairman of the board of The Library of America, founding editor of Raritan Quarterly, and the author of many books on American and twentieth-century literature.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

MARIANNE MOORE:
ACCURATE GUSTO


* * *


Writing poetry, criticism, or, several times each day, letters of advice, sympathy, and chastisement to her numerous and celebrated friends, matching wits with the formidable mother she adored—the only person with whom she ever lived—editing The Dial during its great years in the 1920s, rewriting poems submitted by Hart Crane, or rejecting a section from Joyce's work-in-progress, Finnegans, Wake, working as a librarian, attending literary parties night after night in Manhattan, traveling, lecturing, picking up nearly every prestigious award available in her time to an American poet: whatever Marianne Moore chose to do in her long life, from 1887 to 1972, she did with élan and determined care. In all her actions—writing and reading were, she maintained, forms of action—she unerringly achieved a balance between what she called "gusto" and, another favorite word, "discipline," between an abundance of energy and the self-fashioned rigors of form, between freedom and reticence. In a talk in 1949 entitled "Humility, Concentration, and Gusto," she remarks that "gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves."

    Gusto and discipline are everywhere on display in her letters. Especially in the first two sections of The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore ("The Early Years: 1907-1919," which includes her student years at Bryn Mawr, and "The Dial Years, 1921-1929"), the letters areextraordinarily long, even after the editors wisely chose, in a few cases, to abridge them from their original thirty, forty, even fifty pages. She consumed space with dizzyingly minute descriptions of apartments and buildings down to addresses and how best to get there, of city and country landscapes, rare plants, animals, and fish, the personal attire of people she meets or the articles on a cluttered table, or plays and operas and dinner menus, and the back-and-forth of smart conversations.

    Very little of this is meant to be comic, though it reads at times like those moments in Jane Austen when, to show the boredom of country life, she satirizes conversations on the weather or on the proper consistency of really good gruel, or like Eudora Welty's superbly sad and funny story "Why I Live at the P.O.," given over to the ruminations of a paranoid woman who prefers to be alone rather than endure family conversations, amplified in her mind as insidiously against herself. Though justly famous for her wit, Moore isn't given to comedy at her own expense. Readers who patiently plow through such descriptive thickets will better understand why the editors seem occasionally to nod off when an explanatory note comes due. The notes, glossaries of names, and introductions to the four sections of Selected Letters are helpful and lucidly written, but a good encyclopedia should be kept handy by those who want to track down the names of certain exotic plants or animals, baseball players, politicians, writers, literary characters, and the like.

    The close pileup of detail in some of Moore's writing can work to the advantage of certain of the poems, if not to some of the letters, and it was a feature of the poetry admired by Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop was sent to meet Moore in 1934 by the librarian at Vassar, where she was then a student. The two struck it off immediately when the young woman invited the now-famous older one to go with her to the circus. Soon Bishop was sending drafts of her early poems to Moore and her mother for comment and, sometimes, correction and revision. It was a practice she gradually discontinued, especially after the Moores objected in 1940 to Bishop's use in her poem "Rooster" of the expression "water closets" and to other "sordidities," as Bishop superciliously called them.

    In a 1966 interview Bishop speaks positively of Moore's descriptive zeal as an aspect of an instinctive democratic feeling, and compared her in this respect to John Dewey, whose daughter was by then a close friend of Bishop and whose pragmatist writings Moore had read as far back as 1917, copying out passages she admired. Both Dewey and Moore, despite the complexities of their writings, had a rare capacity among literary intellectuals to "talk to everyone, on all social levels, without the slightest change in their manner of speaking," with a kind of instinctive respect. And both, Bishop adds, "loved little things, small plants and weeds and animals."

    Bishop could have had in mind Dewey's belief, evidenced no less by Moore in some of her forty poems about animals, that "to grasp the sources of aesthetic experience it is necessary to have recourse to animal life below the human scale," to "the activities of the fox, the dog, and the thrush," and his appreciative comments on "the tense grace of the ball-player." In her poem "Baseball and Writing," she, too, makes watching a ball game little different from the experience of writing or reading a poem. In sports, in the instinctive grace and measure of animal movements, no less than in the choreographed movements she admired in a dancer like Arthur Mitchell of the New York City Ballet—a dancer who can at once, as she puts it in a poem about him, "reveal/ and veil/ a peacock tail"—Moore found confirmation of her commitment to restraint not as a limit so much as an incentive to exemplary forms of extravagance.

    Moore's fascination with baseball emerges early, in the baseball lingo in letters from Bryn Mawr to her brother, and intensifies with the years. Her enthusiastic review in 1961 of Out of My League by George Plimpton, with whom she became friends and attended ball games and prizefights, was followed by a 1968 piece on the local library, where she expresses her admiration for the great New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. In the early 1920s, on visits to the Hudson Park Children's Room, she liked to recommend his book, Pitching in a Pinch, to the boys. The 1961 poem "Baseball and Writing" has resemblances to Frost's earlier poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time," where the wood-chopping poet, under the envious gaze of tramps who covet the job for wages, tells himself that it is his duty as a poet, even during the Depression, to "play / With what was another man's work for gain." He reasons that the physical sensation of woodcutting is akin to the sensation that goes into the activity of poetic creation, and that he is thereby able to "unite / My avocation and my vocation."

    When Moore refers to Frost in her letters she sounds more distantly admiring than she does of other comparable poets, Stevens, Eliot, Auden, and Williams, with whom she more frequently corresponded. But she is undeviatingly reverential about him and immensely appreciative of whatever attentions he paid her. Writing to Elizabeth Bishop in 1956, she is delighted to report that, in James Merrill's introduction of her at Amherst College, "I was compared with Robert Frost," the poet who wrote that "the work is play for mortal stakes." Though she nowhere compares, as he does, the bodily movements of sexual intercourse to "the figure a poem makes," she is as determined as he is to find analogies for the work of poetic creation in all kinds of other movements, human, animal, or botanical. In her poem "Nevertheless," she praises the sap struggling to fulfill itself as it works its way through a final "little thread," not just to make a cherry, but "to make the cherry red." Like Frost (or Dewey), she is less interested in production as a form of perpetuation than as a form of enhancement, of excess, of aesthetic excitation, spirit, and tenacity.

    Moore's writing, whether in poetry or in her letters and essays, is a celebration of those who have the discipline required to shape this excess of energy into any form of play, including poetry. The virtue of formal play, like baseball, poetry, or dance, is that it is publicly available to others, perhaps inducing in them some comparable degree of discipline and caring. Thus, in a poem entitled "Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese," the latter better known as Pee Wee Reese, she says of the manager and captain of the Dodgers: "Zest./ They've zest. `Hope springs eternal in the Brooklyn breast.'" After remarking in a 1966 essay that "writing is a fascinating business," she goes on to quote Faulkner: "`And what should it do?' William Faulkner asked. `It should help a man endure by lifting up his heart.' (Admitting that his might not always have done that.) It should."

    It is evident from the difficulties posed by Moore's own poetry that the way in which art or writing or other shaped activities might "lift up the heart" is not by exhortation or inspirational anecdote. It is by the artist's or athlete's performance, the aesthetic excitements called forth by intricate displays of human creative prowess. Thus, in a 1933 review of the letters of Emily Dickinson, Moore could easily be talking about herself when she writes:


Against near rhyme or no rhyme where rhyme is required, complaint seems genera. But Emily Dickinson was a person of power and could have overcome had she wished to, any less than satisfactory feature of her lines.... To some her Japanesely fantastic reverence for tree, insect, and toadstool is not interesting; many who are "helped" by a brave note, do not admire the plucked string; by some the note of rapture is not caught; and by the self-sufficient, Emily Dickinson has been accused of vanity. A certain buoyance that creates an effect of inconsequent bravado—a sense of drama with which we might not be quite at home—was for her a part of that expansion of breath necessary to existence, and unless it is conceited for the hummingbird or the osprey to not behave like a chicken, one does not find her conceited.


    A bit further on, she praises Dickinson for her capacity to "attain splendor of implication without prefatory statement, for her conciseness was an extreme of her largesse." Thirty years later "conciseness" is a virtue she ascribes (on the dust jacket of his I Am the Greatest) to Cassius Clay, as Ali then called himself: "He is a master of concision. Asked, `Have you ever been in love,' he says `Not with anyone else.'" Matching his own high spirits she remarks, "He is literary—in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney, defender of Poesie.... He fights as he writes. Is there something I have missed? He is a smiling pugilist."

    Moore's mention of Sidney is one acknowledgment that for centuries some of the most artistically venturesome writers have claimed that their work with language required something like the prowess, skill, discipline, and fortitude of athletes and warriors. In 1815 Wordsworth remarks that the poet of genius "will be called upon to clear and often to shape his own road: he will be in the condition of Hannibal among the Alps." The reader must therefore be correspondingly inspirited, and cannot expect "to be carried like a dead weight." Frost, who pitched softball in high school and well into his seventies, was invited to write in 1956 on an All-Star Game by Sports Illustrated, and in a piece called "Perfect Day—A Day of Prowess," he wrote, "Prowess of course comes first, the ability to perform with success in games, in the arts and, come fight down to it, in battle. The nearest kin to the artists in college ... are their fellow performers in baseball, football and tennis." And he says of his dear friend the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, killed in the last moments of World War I, that he had "come to look on a poem as a performance one had to win." Hemingway and Mailer are obvious additions to any little anthology of writers as would-be athletes, on the page and off. In a letter of February 5, 1965, Moore reports that she sat next to Mailer at Toots Shor's, where she had been taken by George Plimpton after the Floyd Patterson—Chuvalo fight at Madison Square Garden. "I liked Norman Mailer immensely," she writes to her brother, "and on getting home read his article in the Jan 31 Times; `Cities Higher than Mountains'—in which he says `Man is always engaging the heavens. Now the jungle is replaced by a prison.' Really ingenious article. He lives at 128 Willow. George P. is always alluding to him. I now see a reason."

    Wallace Stevens, who seldom revealed any interest in sports beyond sailing, and made the mistake once in Key West of drunkenly picking a fistfight with Hemingway in which he broke a hand and was knocked down, was nonetheless intent, as in the epilogue to "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," on comparing the poet with the soldier fighting in World War II: "Soldier, there is a war between the mind/ And sky...." This war is the endless war fought by the poet against already determined forms of reality. It is a war, he concedes to the soldier, that "depends on yours." For the Stevens of the lecture "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," delivered the year after the United States entered World War II, poetry represents "a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality." Moore had a devoted if complex regard for Stevens, reviewing brilliantly and at length all but one of his volumes. He in turn wrote two lengthy essays on her and trusted her to make the selection, for publication in England, of some of his poems. Writing to Winifred Bryher in 1935, she speaks of "all my efforts in writing criticism and in writing verse having been for years, a chameleon attempt to bring my product into some sort of compatibility with Wallace Stevens."

    Moore's reticence is so instinctive, her endorsements so tentative, that even in the relatively free form of her letters, no less than in her poems and critical writings, there is apt to intrude a word or phrase of quiet curtailment just as she seems to be surrendering to an enthusiasm. Thus, after her praise of Mailer in the letter to her brother, she says she now sees "a" reason (only one?) why George Plimpton so frequently alludes to him; Emily Dickinson is described as a "person" of power, raising a good question of why she isn't, by another woman poet, called a woman of power. And her apparently ever varying or ever modified ("chameleon") attempts at achieving some similarity to the work of Stevens are at most aimed, in her words, only toward "some sort" of similarity. The elegantly scrupulous inflections of her language—which makes her longest poem "Marriage" into a wonderful riddle on the subject—nearly always point to something important that can be discovered only by a reader's close inquisitiveness.

    Moore's carefully measured sense of her compatibility with Stevens turns out to be of considerable importance to our understanding of both of them. Her restraint has little to do, for example, with the fact that she sometimes felt mystified by him, as any friend sometimes can be by another. To William Carlos Williams in November 1944, she writes: "Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming he is so strange; it is as if he had a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose and just as he tells it out in his sleep, he changes to an uncontradictable judiciary with a gown and a gavel and you are embarrassed to have heard anything." In a correspondence that lasted some thirty-five years, she continued calling him Mr. Stevens in her salutations even after he, in March 1953, momentarily relented and addressed her as Marianne.

    Stevens always remained the contemporary poet she most admired—for what, in her first review of him, of Harmonium in 1924, she called his "accurate gusto" and because, as she said in 1937 of later poems, "they embody hope that in being frustrated becomes fortitude." And yet her poetry is distinctly and tellingly different from his, and she knew it. The persistent celebratory thrust of her poetry is not importantly conditioned by intervals of any perceived threat to it, as his quite often is, aside from the incontestable fact that life is inherently dangerous, as suggested in her poem of 1932 "The Steeple-Jack," one of her best. It is a poem in which she seems to endorse a town's complacently idyllic view of itself. And yet, as in the last stanza, she gently qualifies her endorsements, so gently as to suggest that the town could not bear any less delicate reminders that no place is immune to the perils of human existence. The ending seems to affirm the presence of dangers even as it denies them. Why else must the church steeple carry so visible a reminder of the need for hope?


It could not be dangerous to be living
in a town like this of simple people,
who have a steeple-jack placing danger-signs by the church
while he is gilding the solid-pointed
star, which on a steeple
stands for hope.


    Moore was acutely responsive to historical tragedies, like World War II, the depression of the 1930s, economic dislocations, racial injustice at home, and the horrors of anti-Semitism in Europe. But she exhibits nothing like Stevens's persistent sense of the threat, to poetic creativity, of imaginative desolation, of creative (and sexual) impotence. There are in her poetry no Frostean desert places or Stevens's mind of winter. The affirmative, optative mood of nearly all her writings presumes the facts of mortality and that "life," as William James puts it, "feels like a real fight" ("Is Life Worth Living"), a fight in which it is well to accept that there will be real winners and real losers. These inevitabilities are for her welcome incentives to scrappiness, discipline, and creativity, to "song" itself, as she suggests in her poem "What Are Years?":


The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
This is eternity.


    In thousands of letters written over sixty-four years, from 1905, when she entered Bryn Mawr, to 1969, after an incapacitating stroke which led to her death two years later, there will inevitably be a few confessions on her part to private, personal depression—amazingly few and far between, though, at least in this ample selection, for a woman who worked exceptionally hard, cultivated a number of difficult and troubled friends, and was never known to have had a single romantic or sexual or even very exclusive relationship with anyone other than her mother. Her mother was her closest friend and confidant, a brilliantly cultivated, loquacious, vigorously moral woman, the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, in whose house Marianne was born. Her mother, when pregnant with Marianne and already with an infant son, had separated from her husband—for the rest of her life, as it turned out. He had lost what fortune he had in speculation and, with it, at least temporarily, his mental stability. Marianne was never to meet her father. The mother, who shared in many of Moore's literary and personal friendships, was, like her daughter, pointed and original of speech, and her aphoristic phrasings can be heard in some of her daughter's poems. She died in 1947 at the age of eighty-five, after a succession of illnesses during which she was cared for mostly by Marianne, who often fell ill herself from exhaustion. It was the greatest loss in Moore's life, not alleviated by the succession of honors lavished upon her in the years close to it: the Shelley Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, election in the year of her mother's death to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in one year, 1951, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

    In this period of exceptional private loss and public acclaim, she wrote an uncharacteristically distressed letter to Ezra Pound, to whom she was always trustingly direct in her dealings, especially in her criticisms of his politics, though she was herself a Hoover Republican all her life. At the time of her writing, Pound was confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital, exposed to the kinds of trouble she herself was experiencing. In July 1946, she writes:


I sound dull because I am dull. You know our propensity for illness; the gloom of which you helped dissipate by visiting our infirmary. This time it is hard. My mother is having a battle to eat; or rather swallow (because of an injury to the nerve controlling the palate). I have been telling people I cannot write letters or even receive them; but we think of you, Ezra, and wish you could be comfortable. Don't be embittered. Embitterment is a sin—a subject on which I am an authority.


    If, somehow, she had in fact become an authority on the sin of embitterment, it was not for reasons deducible from any but three or four of these letters or from her published writings or the reports of her friends or the fine account of her life given by Charles Molesworth in his biography of her. She scarcely ever complains about financial problems, beyond those of other people during the Depression, though they are inferable from her letters of thanks to her brother and to Winifred Bryher, H.D.'s very wealthy and generous companion, for gifts of money. Far from feeling aggrieved about her literary standing, the letters reveal a reluctance to allow the first book publication of poems already printed in periodicals. They didn't by then seem to her to represent the best she would do. The publication was arranged, nonetheless, by H.D. and Bryher. There's no evidence either that she felt any so-called anxiety of influence with respect to poets past or contemporary. She was cheerfully candid about the exceptions she took to poets she knew, and she knew nearly all the best known, especially so when it came to Williams, and to the critic Kenneth Burke, her fellow editor of The Dial (who reportedly called her one of the sexiest women he ever met), to Stevens, Crane, Cummings, and her dear friend Elizabeth Bishop. These criticisms focused mostly on the use in their work of language she or her mother considered tasteless or obscene.

    It was on that score, it would seem, that Williams once said, "I am in perfect terror of Marianne," whose association with him and his family was all the while particularly affectionate on both sides. Just how formidable she could become on the subject of the off-color is apparent in her brilliantly rendered account, in a letter of 1923 to her brother, of a conversation with the American poet-critic Matthew Josephson. It is the kind of letter that makes one hope to see at least part of the novel she worked on for years but for which she could never find a publisher. In her salutation she addresses her brother as "Badger" and calls her mother (to whom she also occasionally referred as "he")"Mole," and herself, signing off, "Rat," these being among the pet names they used with one another, some of them drawn from their mutual appreciation of characters in Kenneth Grahame's 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows:


    Dear Badger,

... Mole described somewhat our conversation with M[atthew] Josephson and it was an ordeal. He said at one point of the salvos, "well, I hope we can still be friends." "Surely; one's interest in human beings" I said "transcends a difference in tastes." Previous to this, he had said that abroad nobody "studied over" obscenity: that grossness and sensuality were part of life, one didn't make a point of it or avoid it, it was just there like the trees on the street and he thought if I had lived abroad I would have a different feeling about it. I said, "I'm afraid not and what makes me sure I wouldn't is that none of the writers who write the fiction & poems you speak of ever discuss face to face with me any of the questionable matters that they write about. Mr. Burke when I am talking with him never borders upon a discussion of any of the details I object to in his writing because he would be embarrassed." He said, "that is a point I have raised myself in my own mind, but" etc. I said, "Shakespeare exhilarates me; These writers don't. When a piece of work focuses attention so strongly upon his grossness or its funniness that you can think of nothing else then all question of the writer's potential greatness disappears; he's not an artist, & signifies only as [a] moral problem." More of this and at length he said "Then I wonder what you think of my book—if you've troubled to read it." I said of course I had read it & and there was much I didn't like—much that I felt was unconscious & instinctive, not meant aggressively but that I deplored & felt was reflected from the society that perhaps he had happened to be in. He looked downcast & somewhat slyly defiant and then I said I liked 2 of his poems in which I felt that he escaped from impinging influences when I hadn't the feeling that he was writing with a view of the thing's being read by Gorham Munson & Slater Brown & James Joyce & Scofield Thayer. We laughed outright but he was displeased & we had a real carnage of skin & fur for 2 hours or more. Words couldn't do justice to the revolting inanity of it & as I said to Mole, the man's limitations which should enlist one's pity merely alienate me. However he will be here again & on that occasion I shall ignore the existence of offal & smelly fishheads and treat him as if he were a little mister in society & thus eventually fly away from him.

With love,
Rat


    Absent from Moore's own writing are any of those "questionable matters" she objects to. Absent, too, especially from the published correspondence, where if anywhere it might be expected, are evidences of any sexual feelings she might have harbored. Even the highlighting of human physical attributes that might offer some clue to such feelings isn't to be found and isn't inferable from her metaphors. Perhaps her descriptive voraciousness about every other subject is related to her diligent neglect of sexuality or of the human body in her writing. This extraordinary avoidance of the sexual, even in the long poem "Marriage," ought to call particular attention to two letters written from Bryn Mawr when she was twenty, letters which the editors have commendably made available, but without comment. The letters are remarkable because they reveal her intense, close to self-shattering sexual feelings for young women, a crisis in her life which her interpreters, except Cristanne Miller, have not noted or discussed, so far as I can discover. Still more, the two letters show that her recognition of these feelings caused in her an intensity of depression not to be found again in her letters until close to forty years later, with the final illness of her mother.

    The letters are addressed to Marcet Haldeman, a classmate at Bryn Mawr who was off campus for the semester. In one of these, at the end of January 1908, when Moore was twenty, she confesses, "I have lost my heart to Frances Stewart and call her my lady-love." Two weeks later, in another letter to Marcet, she describes a most marvelous sunset witnessed alone with Frances from the roof of a college building. In her account of this moment of shared enthusiasm, Moore confesses, "I could have kissed her." She also refers here to another college friend, Peggy James, daughter of the philosopher William: "I get nervous as a horse though when [I] get to touching certain parts of her," she writes, adding:


I don't believe she has "understanding" or the shadow of it. Alas some deficiencies do not, however, keep one from being a Circe, if the instinct to please, and a gentle feeling aspect and a mind over which passions show color as they run, are present. I hate to make Peggy an objet d'art and it is her fault that I do—but if she cannot acknowledge me as a man without giving me a black, she cannot.


Earlier in this same letter, she makes one of her very rare admissions of depression:


I am sorry you have to think upon my Sunday's broken growl of anguish. I don't mind your knowing that I slip into a black frenzy occasionally but I insult your understanding by retailing you the mess of it, and not taking for granted that I have your sympathy unconsciously whether or not I say I need it and why.


Here, much as in the letter to Pound forty years later during her mother's final illness, Moore's famous reticence comes into play. Here, too, she hastens to assure her correspondent, who is apparently already familiar with the problems Moore is experiencing, that she won't burden her with details. And she goes on, as she will when warning Pound and herself against the sin of embitterment, to declare her resolve to master her depressions:


Silvia—where is Silvia? in all this. At the bottom of it I fear. She will not do. She cannot reach. I feel like molten lead inside once and a while. It's terrible to the place where you feel. Sampson! wake up. You stand trying to conjure up for yourself a phantom Delilah. Dig your poor sensitive mortal's foot into the earth and run with yourself till you are a man.


    This is troubled prose, and it is likely that Moore wasn't in control of its implications. It's clear enough, however, that Silvia is not a reference to yet another student, a third along with a Frances and Peggy, with whom Moore, at least in her own mind, is involved in an intense and unrewarding romantic relationship. Throughout her correspondence she refers, with no attendant explanations, to literary and mythological figures as casually as she might to close acquaintances. In this instance, she can count on someone she's taken classes with to recognize Silvia as the much courted young heroine in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "Who is Silvia? what is she,/ That all our swains commend her?" But Moore was likely referring to some less famous lines in the play: "Except I be by Silvia in the night,/ There is no music in the nightingale." Moore had already published some of her poems in the Bryn Mawr magazine Tipyn O'Bob, and in her very next letter to Marcet, in the midst of much talk of the need for "courage" and to be "master of your fate," she announces, and not for the first time, "I have come to the conclusion that I want to write." That she meant to become not just any writer but a great one is suggested in a letter close by to her mother and brother: "Writing is all I care for, and for what I care most, and writing is such a puling profession, if it is not a great one, that I occasionally give up."

    So even as her allusion to Silvia momentarily evokes the nightingale, a traditional poetic figure for poetic song, and with it the notion that perhaps one needs a Silvia in one's arms to be inspired to song, she immediately banishes this same idea: such a romantic hope for an idealized Peggy or Frances "will not do. She cannot reach." Instead, Moore will go it alone, "run with yourself till you are a man." Indeed, to become a "man" in the form implied here requires that she not ask someone like Peggy "to acknowledge me as a man," that is, as the substitute for a male lover. She seems to have held to this decision even as, all through her life thereafter, she found close friendships and comfort with women like Elizabeth Bishop, Hilda Doolittle, and Katherine Jones, whose various lady-loves also became good friends and who made her comfortable in their homes, even babied her, on some of the few vacations she took.

    What, then, or who is this "man" she is determined to become by henceforth running "alone"? It is the same man, I would argue, called into being by two great women writers of whom Moore wrote most appreciatively, Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. Stein goes so far as to propose, through the puns and play of her language, that her own genitalia are the full equivalent of a male phallus, and in the little poem "Essential Oils are Wrung" Dickinson makes clear her intention to be the equal of any illustrious male poet with a pun on "sun": "The attar of the Rose/ Be not expressed by Suns—alone." In light of this, one can better appreciate why Moore refers to Dickinson not as a "woman" but as "a person of power." She means to suggest that Dickinson is a full equal, not a tolerated exception, in the nearly exclusively male line of great poets. She is a full inheritor, and if she will not join in the line of sexual reproduction of the race, she will hold a leading place, as Stein intends to do, in the exalted line of cultural reproduction, destined to be inherited by future generations. It is a thrilling moment in Moore's letters, like Stephen Dedalus's walk on the beach, written at the very beginning of her career, and the implications call for the kind of attention that the publication of these letters ought to excite. Meantime, Moore can be believed when she alludes, in a letter to William Carlos Williams in 1952, to "my case," and immediately adds, "disregarding gender—something I have always done."

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Table of Contents

Prologue
1 Marianne Moore: Accurate Gusto 3
2 Elusive Whitman 20
3 Reaching Frank O'Hara 36
4 Balanchine in America 55
5 The Hidden T. S. Eliot 78
6 Allusive Pop: Bette Midler in Concert 104
7 Erasing America 115
I Baudrillard's America Deserta
II Martin Amis's Inferno
III Peter Conrad's Confusions
8 Vidal's American Empire 145
9 The Case of Arthur Inman 155
10 Is There an American Manhood? 165
11 Gertrude Stein: "Manly Agitations" 183
12 "Are they my poor?": Emerson's Steinian Question 203
13 In Cold Ink: Truman Capote 218
14 Mailer's Strangest Book 226
15 In Praise of Vagueness: Henry and William James 238
16 Melville's Vanity of Failure 254
17 Whitman: The End Game 277
Acknowledgments 297
Index 299
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