Review- Brooks, “The Flowering of New England” and “Indian Summer”

Van Wyck Brooks, “The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865” (1936) and “Indian Summer, 1865-1915” (1940) – Van Wyck Brooks used to be a big deal. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a major critic, an influence on the emerging field of American Studies. The early American Studies scholars had a few goals in mind: combatting both right- and left- (but mostly left-) wing radicalism in American culture, proving America’s cultural weightiness as opposed to European stereotypes of cultureless Americans, and creating a sort of high-middlebrow American monoculture to incorporate immigrants, the working classes, and new generations into safely.

I don’t know how much Brooks actually participated in American Studies, which was a pretty well-organized (and CIA-backed) enterprise from the beginning; Brooks seems to have been an “independent scholar,” i.e. a rich guy who could do research, write, and get published by respectable outlets without institutional help. But the monoculture thing is definitely part of Brooks’ project in these two books. Between them, “The Flowering of New England” and “Indian Summer” cover a century of literary history in New England, the years between 1815 and 1915. They follow a sort of sine-wave pattern- rise, fallow period, lesser reconstitution, of New England influence over American culture, particularly but not solely writing.

But he doesn’t make straightforward arguments about why New England “flowered” or went fallow as it did, he doesn’t try to empirically measure New England’s literary influence, even qualitatively, and he only barely lays out a thesis to the books at all, and not in an introduction, where you figure it would go. He writes very flowingly and impressionistically, dedicating chapters to writers or artists and their circles in rough chronological order, stopping in at certain hot spots (Cambridge, Concord) from time to time. In the first book, “The Flowering of New England,” he puts a lot of emphasis on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, and it bleeds into his writing, both structurally and stylistically, not for the better. I never cared for either one, seeing them as individualistic phoney philosophers, jumped-up graduation speakers, and Brooks did not change my mind.

As it turns out, Brooks was borrowing heavily from German historian/pseudo-philosopher Oswald Spengler. He rejects Spengler’s racism (though his books aren’t free of patronizing attitudes to black people and Native Americans, and his literary New England is blindingly white), but uses something like his theory of how cultural spaces develop in history. “Culture cities” like Florence or Bruges in the Renaissance, Spengler argued, came from a concatenation of sources: a certain degree of wealth and power (not too much!), connection with “the soil,” meaning with a specific place, and a kind of spark of genius provided by rubbing those together with a broadly educated public, and hey presto! You’ve got yourself a “culture city.” Insofar as the model makes any sense and isn’t idealistic gobbledegook, it applies perfectly well to Boston/Cambridge/Concord in the nineteenth century, which did indeed have all of those things going for it (though I tend to think the real genius was Herman Melville, who get short shrift from Brooks, possibly because he bailed to New York when the opportunity came). Decline came in the post-Civil War era, when people (well, rich New Englanders, but that’s “people” as far as Brooks is concerned) gained interest in making money and marriages and lost interest in causes and greatness. This produced a sort of subsidiary bounce of genius as figures like the James brothers and Henry Adams portrayed and criticized this society, but in the end, we are left looking wistfully back at the genius of New England now eaten by the maw of modernity.

I read this book as part of a project on the intellectual history of New England, how it constituted (and constitutes) itself by the light of ideas. Brooks’ project here was part of a bid to make the literary history of New England part of a broader monoculture for America as a whole, a civilizing project for the unwashed masses, the kind of thing some of Brooks’ characters would take up. Obviously, I am not part of this project, nor am I especially sympathetic to it, though I do think people could benefit from looking at literature once thought “canonical,” both on its own merits and for historical purposes.

I guess what I got out of this was more archaeological than anything. The ruins of a lost civilization, or rather, two: the New England of the American Renaissance (scholars prefer the broader term, incorporating non-New England figures, than the “Flowering” metaphor Brooks used), and the mid-twentieth century literary Americanism project. It’s like you need to decode the latter before you can get at the former in Brooks’ work. This is basically pointless to the modern reader because others (Louis Menand, David Reynolds, probably loads more) cover much the same ground but don’t expect you to know or care who these triple-named Yankees are before they explain why. In Brooks, it’s assumed you know most of them and care. I try to imagine even scholarly friends of mine reading these books and I get the idea of a comical morass, like the begets of the Bible or the sludgier portions of the Silmarillion, though Brooks does have some nice turns of phrase. You can see the accomplishment here — I don’t know if I got this across, but the books are really exhaustive, as far as white upper-class New England literature goes — but I don’t think Van Wyck Brooks is going to make his way back from obscurity any time too soon. ***

Review- Brooks, “The Flowering of New England” and “Indian Summer”

Review- Auster, “The New York Trilogy”

Paul Auster, “The New York Trilogy” (1986) – Every now and again, I look into the whole “big names of contemporary capital-L Literature” thing. I want to say, “just to see if it’s still bad,” but sometimes I find something I like; Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” was pretty good. It’s arguable how “contemporary” “The New York Trilogy” is, given it’s about as old as me, but Auster is still a name I hear get thrown around by literary young people. He doesn’t seem like much too bad a guy, avoiding the bad reputations of other great white chiefs of American literature: Franzen, Foster Wallace, Bellow, etc.

So I haven’t got a problem of ethos or politics with the guy, as far as I know. May he continue his journey in peace. I can narrow down my complaint with “The New York Trilogy” to one word: verbs. There’s a real dearth of good verbs in these three novellas. Especially given that Auster is inspired here from crime fiction, which has a lot of good action words in it if it’s worth a damn, this is baffling. It makes reading a slog. Is he trying to get across something about existential pointlessness this way? If there’s no point in writing, is there a point in reading? Hell if I know.

The best story is the first one, which at least has an interesting antagonistic, an intellectual with peculiar ideas about God, language, and child rearing, but he disappears and that’s that. The other stories lack such interest, and the middle one has this annoying tic of having all the characters named after colors (Brown, White, Blue, etc), and it doesn’t work, even if it did for “Reservoir Dogs.” I understand that they were meant to be slices of a certain kind of New York life… but beyond street names and the occasional conversation about the Mets, there’s not a lot here to distinguish it from any other big city. Maybe there’s a whole lot I’m not getting. But Auster failed to convince me there’s much more to get. **

Review- Auster, “The New York Trilogy”

Review- Ellroy, “This Storm”

James Ellroy, “This Storm” (2019) – How to even describe a late-stage Ellroy novel? Nearly six hundred pages of cop-fantasy fugue gets at the gestalt. Ellroy described his early method as transcribing the crime fantasies he came up with while bumming around LA, frequently homeless and high on shoplifted cough suppressant. His later method, as far as his very few interviews let us see, is to hole up in his house sans internet or tv, marinade his brain with old LA newspapers and jazz and classical records, and let his imagination, full as ever of wild schemes, outre ultra-violence and chintz, spool out into a book every few years. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, though he had to go through hell to get there, what with his mother being murdered when he was a kid and him being raised essentially feral…

Anyway, “This Storm.” Title taken from a line in an Auden poem. Set in LA and Baja California in 1942, second part of a planned quartet of wartime LA crime novels. Ellroy’s trademark telegraphic/police report style enhances the effect of a constant drip of incident, new (sometimes new old- these books link up with his previous books and share characters) characters, layers upon layers… a group of characters, mostly the shady, violent cops Ellroy loves, stumble upon a massive conspiracy involving a gold heist and some kind of totalitarian left-right alliance to sabotage America, during and after the war. As a historian, it’s deeply amusing to me to see Ellroy, a smart guy and lover of history but not a theorist, walk backwards from his kiddie-crime-book inspired rogues gallery of commies and Nazis into something like the classical totalitarianism school concept of mid twentieth century history.

Different characters want different things but most of them want some combo of gold and a “clean solve” to a baffling triple murder connected with the gold. The most interesting is Dudley Smith, as close to a classic Ellroy ubermensch as any Catholic (he’s ever so Irish, y’see) will be (Ellroy might be the last mainline Protestantism snob alive), is seduced by the right side of the right-left gold alliance. This comes in the form of the Sinarquistas, a sort of Mexican fascist movement that actually existed. While Smith and other Ellroy fascists have some right-wing values — order, for sure, and hierarchy — for them, it’s mostly fetishistic, a matter of the look and the violence (this is presumably what attracted Ellroy to the Nazi right as a teen). Communists, in Ellroy’s telling (at least this time around- he was a little more sympathetic towards the end of the Underworld USA trilogy, which I wrote about in Jacobin many moons ago), are a little more self-righteous but much the same- in it for the excitement and the opportunity to lord it over others.

Not to get persnickety with what is, after all, a crime novel and not a political treatise, but it’s not like Ellroy’s USA exactly has some grand point to it other than murder, sleaze, and chintz. One of Ellroy’s great strengths is that he doesn’t even pretend there’s anything at the bottom of it. He continually has his characters refer to it as “this white man’s country.” It’s not subtle and he doesn’t really try to justify it. In the end, he makes clear the totalitarians are just crooks with an added layer of ideological excitement going for them, so… not sure what it all adds up to, but as Ellroy will be the first to tell you, he’s not a political animal these days and he won’t talk about Trump. So there.

There’s a lot else going on, too. There’s divided loyalties, between characters who are sometimes too generic, types, strongarm cops and strong-willed arriviste women. There’s a depiction of a gay Japanese-American dealing with the internment of his community on top of all the crime mess, the sensitivity of which belies Ellroy’s usual provocativeness. And there’s Ellroy’s invocation of nighttime LA which really makes me want to go get a drink at a Chinese restaurant at 1 in the morning, which between living in greater Boston and living under covid doesn’t look too likely…

At this point, one doesn’t read an Ellroy novel for the plot. Starting with the end of the Underworld USA trilogy, they got too big, too fantastic, hallucinogenic even, which I saw as a fitting end to the trilogy but now just appears to be the man’s MO. But the immersion into Ellroy’s nighttime, nightmare world of blackmail, violence, chintz, the fetishitic invocation of the objects and rituals attached to them… for those who have come with Ellroy this far, “This Storm” is worth it. To those beginning the journey, I say go to “American Tabloid” and start from there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ****

Review- Ellroy, “This Storm”

Review- Ngugi, “Devil On The Cross”

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Devil On The Cross” (1980) (translated from the Gikuyu by the author) – Neither my phone nor google docs allows me to make the diacritical marks above the vowels in Ngugi’s name, or in the name of the Gikuyu language (moreover, wikipedia only refers to “Gikuyu” as “Kikuyu” with no diacritical marks, whereas the copy of the book I have does not)… a point Ngugi, largely responsible for the movement of African literature into native African vernacular languages, would surely appreciate ruefully. And these were no minor linguistic points for Ngugi- he wrote “Devil On The Cross” on toilet paper in his jail cell, where he landed sans trial for plays criticizing the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi over Kenya. Part of his criticism was that Kenya and other postcolonial African countries sold themselves to the West, including using the erstwhile colonizers’ languages as marks of status (though he was also critical of hypocritical deployment of African-ness by dictators and their lackeys).

“Devil On The Cross” is largely an allegory for the corruption of post-independence Kenya and what Ngugi thought could help. Kenya became independent after a long counterinsurgency war pitting the British Empire against a rag-tag group of rebels, the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau were closer to a religious movement than the sort of Marxist-derived insurgencies we associate with decolonization. They slaughtered a handful of British settlers (who squatted on the best lands, once held by the Kikuyu people) in bloody (and feverishly publicized by the British) ways. The British and their native allies came down hard, killing tens of thousands and routing the whole Kikuyu population and millions of others through a system of concentration camps (less than twenty years after a British judge sat in judgment at Nuremberg, “he repeated tiredly”). Even still, the British knew they couldn’t hold on forever: the point of their counterinsurgency, not unlike the similarly bloody, protracted, and forced-resettlement-based war in Malaya, was to force the process of independence into a mold that suited British interests. The British found conservative Kenyan partners with whom to do business, post-independence, rather than handing the country over to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. Kenya continued to be an outpost of European-friendly capitalism into the late seventies and beyond, when Ngugi was writing.

We encounter the allegory for this situation largely through the person of Jacinta Wariinga, a young woman who’s forced out of her secretarial job because she won’t sleep with her boss, and so takes a matatu bus away from Nairobi to her village. On this bus ride, she meets a variety of allegorical figures representing various social types: the worker, the peasant, the student, the nascent capitalist. Over the course of the ride, they all find out that they have been invited, by various parties, to attend a festival celebrating Modern Theft and Robbery in Kenya, where a King of Thieves and Robbers for the country is to be crowned by an international committee.

Much of the middle portion of the book is taken up by a description of this robber’s feast. Various Kenyan capitalists get up on the stage to describe the various ways they rook their countrymen — land schemes, schooling scams, etc. — brag about their cars and women, detail their collaborations running from working for foreign corporations to exploit the country to previously working for the British during the counterinsurgency, talking shit about each other, etc. Wariinga finds out that she’s connected to several of the passengers on the matatu in ways she couldn’t have predicted. The passengers react to the feast in several ways. Some try to join, and find they are too small-time or possessed of patriotic notions of only allowing Kenyans to rob Kenyans (allegorical representation of African capitalism). The peasant lady tries to get the police to come, but of course the police side with the ruling class.

Finally, the worker leads an uprising to chase the thieves and robbers out. It’s a sort of false climax to the book. Ngugi, influenced by Marx and Fanon, believes that only the African working class can overthrow the neocolonial regimes imposed on places like Kenya, preferably with help from peasants, students, etc., all of whom are in the allegorical mob. But in the end, they only can do so much. They chase the thieves and robbers out, but they all get away. Wariinga winds up in a couple with the allegorical student, which goes well for a while… but love can only do so much in the face of necolonial capitalism, and she winds up having to break free to an uncertain future in the actual climax.

“Devil On The Cross” fairly hits you on the head with its symbolism, but subtlety isn’t always strength, especially when dealing with an anguishing situation like that of post-independence Kenya. The language is interesting, interspersed with songs, bits of fable, and the occasional speech on the destiny of the African working class. Ngugi’s despair and wild hope for his country and the world comes through loud and clear. ****’

Review- Ngugi, “Devil On The Cross”

Review- Tooze, “Crashed”

Adam Tooze, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World” (2018) (narrated by Simon Vance) – I graduated from college in 2008, straight into my first grad school program at the New School, so I was insulated (somewhat) from the big financial crash that happened right as my cohort was entering the world. I remember being mostly bemused. A finance guy I am not. I can just about see the sense in commodity futures, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the most financially complex I’ve seen science fiction get. But anything beyond that strikes me as so much confidence gamesmanship, somewhere between a busybox for people who like really boring games and a black box idol that we occasionally make sacrifices to as though Target wouldn’t have flaming hot cheetos if we didn’t. Adam Tooze, an economic historian, does his best to make things clear as he discusses the crash and its attendant fall-outs, but there’s limits to how much it penetrated my thick, hairy skull.

As far as I can tell from both this book and other sources, at some point in the nineteen-seventies the powers that be gave financial institutions permission to go even more hog wild in terms of making up various money-magic techniques than they had previously been. This resulted in things like mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps and whatever the fuck else. The credit rating agencies colluded in making these seem sounder than they were. It seemed to me like a big game of musical chairs, except the governments of the world and especially the US made sure everyone who paid enough money got a seat no matter how badly they bungled whilst the music played. The big losers appeared to be countries like Greece and Ireland, caught up in the game without the resources to back it up, but punished by hypocritical countries like Germany and the US, who encouraged them to this model of capitalism in the first place. If you ever thought Europe was so much more enlightened than the US, their treatment of the financial crash really gives the lie to that point. China comes out looking relatively sane.

Insecurity, opacity, and a clear bias in favor of the already rich and powerful helped produce the various backlashes we’ve seen in the last few years, from Syriza on the left to Trump and Brexit on the right. How much is this just capitalism doing what capitalism does? I tend to think that’s exactly what it is, though Tooze, a self-described “left-liberal,” is as such a little more cagey. This book doesn’t come to any mind-blowing conclusions (unless it does in the bits describing the actual financial shenanigans I don’t find easy to follow), but it’s a worthwhile sally into the history of the near past. I also enjoyed the reading by Simon Vance, whose accent (which sounded vaguely Scottish to me but apparently he was born in England? Who knows) put fun spins names like Angela Merkel. ****

Review- Tooze, “Crashed”

Review- Miller, “The New England Mind”

Perry Miller, “The New England Mind” Vols I and II (1939-1953) – Someone on Perry Miller’s Wikipedia entry dug up a quote from an obscure essay about another topic altogether to claim that “the dark conflicts of the Puritan mind eroded his own mental stability.” Miller drank himself to death in 1963, not yet sixty years old, and the event was hailed as a major loss to American intellectual history. He produced many books but “The New England Mind,” his two volume work on the intellectual world of the Puritan settlers, probably stands as his magnum opus.

Miller’s work here has the thoroughgoingness of the Puritan, and his radicality, in the sense of getting to the root of things. He spends hundreds of pages on foundation work, most notably in the first volume, where he excavates the logical, scholastic framework of the thinking of the first generation of Puritan leaders in New England. We hear a lot about the medieval scholastic tradition, with which the Puritans tinkered but did not dispense with until everyone else did, and a whole lot about Peter Ramus, the French Huguenot logician who sought to displace Aristotle as king shit logician man. As you might be able to tell from my levity, these chapters took some digesting on my part, but the spadework was spectacular.

The picture of the Puritans that emerges from the first volume is that of a deeply dour kind of cosmic optimist. They finagled their way out of the terrible strictures of Calvinism through the establishment of the Covenant of Grace. This was the idea that God, despite being empowered to and justified in arbitrarily damning and saving whoever He pleases, condescends to make a pact with his believers in the same way men of business (as so many Puritans were) make pacts amongst themselves. Faith would bring salvation, not just for individuals but for the community — the new “city upon the hill” of New England — as a whole. The terms of the pact were to be regulated by the (Congregational) church- you couldn’t just go off and make the deal on your own. This way, Miller tells us, the Puritans navigated between the Scylla of Arminianism (the idea that good works could bring about salvation, more or less, a Calvinist no-no) and the Charybdis of Antinomianism, the idea that salvation was entirely interior, an inner light that redeemed the person totally without need of structures.

My image of the Puritan covenant-based social/theological/intellectual order as depicted by Miller is that of a powerful but delicate engine, capable of great feats of world-building but needing constant tinkering to keep from going off kilter. This helps explain why the Puritan fathers came down so hard on antinomians like Anne Hutchinson, who they saw as threatening the colony with spiritual and hence general anarchy (which some scholars of Puritanism, like Edmund Morgan, came to see as essentially correct in a way Miller avoids). Covenant theology ran into a generational problem- what happens when the children of “saints” i.e. full church members don’t have the right kind of conversion experience, the right kind of faith to become full church members themselves? This was tied in to the question of infant baptism, a serious issue in seventeenth century Protestantism.

Miller leads off the second book with the New England solution to this issue, the Half-Way Covenant. This allowed people to baptize their kids as partial members of the church but not recipients of the full communion. As the name implies, this didn’t really satisfy anybody. People either wanted to stick with the old system, babies be damned (literally?) or, as eventually came to pass on the Connecticut Valley frontier, simply let all adults who professed faith and weren’t notorious sinners take communion. Above and beyond the deeply felt theological issues here, there were political issues at work. The church was the center of the New England town (hence those pretty, plain white frame churches around so many New England town greens), everyone paid to maintain it and magistrates enforced its rules, even once the British government twisted the arms of Massachusetts and Connecticut to allow other sects to worship. At first, the likes of John Winthrop, Increase Mather, and other big names in Puritanism were perfectly fine with a minority of “saints” lording it over everyone else in town. Time eroded that system and their confidence.

Miller might have been the origin of the idea of the Half-Way Covenant as the beginning of the decline of Puritanism… and the beginning of New England looking like America, as he conceived it. The rest of Volume II is a long series of defeats for Puritan orthodoxy, but it’s not as simple as that. In many respects, these defeats — ranging from the loss of control over social hierarchies as capitalism developed to introductions of new models of physics — were encouraged by the beliefs of the Puritan fathers themselves, no strangers to deal-making or broad liberal educations that eventually led to acceptance of a recognizably “modern” economics and science. Miller, while protective of the Puritan genius from its many irreverent critics, doesn’t see the declension away from Puritanism as a bad or good thing in and of itself. It’s part of the construction of an American way that would include Puritan ideas in its DNA but would be its own thing.

For a long time, many Americans saw the Puritans as father figures. For the “filiopietistic” strand of American historiography in the nineteenth century, this meant enshrining them as demigods of wisdom. For the irreverent writers of the early twentieth century, ranging from progressive historians to H.L. Mencken, the Puritans were bad dads- “abusive” wasn’t the language they would’ve used, but certainly to be looked at with scorn. For Miller and the other American Studies writers in midcentury, they had a complex, conflicted — dare I say psychoanalytic — approach to the Puritans-as-father, an appreciation but also an ironic distance (which makes sense- this was the first generation of American university scholars to involve many Jews and other non-WASPs) that seems distant from our own sensibility… but made for some great scholarship. Thick, dense, at times exhausting along with being exhaustive (it reminded me of Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment,” both for good and for I’ll), “The New England Mind,” like the achievements of the Puritans, is an impressive piece of work from a perspective that can only now be approached from outside. *****

Review- Miller, “The New England Mind”