Review- Novik, “His Majesty’s Dragon”

Naomi Novik, “His Majesty’s Dragon” (2006) – Probably not the best way to begin a review of a book to talk about another book altogether, but I really should get around to reading “Master and Commander.” I have a copy of it sitting on a shelf. I’ve read “Master and Commander But In Space,” i.e., one of David Weber’s space navy books. And now I’ve read “Master and Commander But With Dragons,” or, the first in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I can’t even be sure how many of the shared tropes are really in the original work, but from context and what I remember of the Russell Crowe movie, it seems like there’s a lot. The new commander, earning the respect of their crew; learning the rites and rituals of the service; intimacies both warm and structured by custom and chain of command, on and on.

All that, but with dragons, is the premise of “His Majesty’s Dragon.” Everything about the world seems normal circa 1804 — there’s no additional magic — but dragons exist and are an important part of warfare. Royal Navy officer Will Laurence captures a French ship with a dragon’s egg. The egg hatches and the dragon imprints on Laurence, who names the dragon Temeraire. This imprinting means Laurence has to leave the Navy and join the dragon-borne Aerial Corps, a wild, wooly, and declasse bunch. At first Laurence is put out by this, and gets dumped by his sweetie, but he and Temeraire become close, flying is cool, and he’s an English officer, dammit, he does his duty.

Ships of the line were probably the most technologically advanced and complex systems of their day, and part of the “Master and Commander” genre appears to be immersing the reader in the management of and vocabulary adhering to keeping them going. Scifi writers like David Weber enthusiastically adopted this practice to allow them to geek out over their spaceships. There’s a lot going on with dragon combat, too, in Novik’s world. Much of the book is taken up with Laurence and Temeraire’s training and integration into the Aerial Corps. They fly around the Scottish countryside with other dragons, and we hear a lot of names of dragon breeds and their attributes. Laurence adjusts to such novelties as women officers (some of the dragons will only let women fly them). Novik describes the harnesses that allow bodies of men to stay aboard flying dragons throughout their combat maneuvers, dragon-borne battle tactics, etc.

Novik made the interesting decision to have her dragons come out of the egg capable of speech. I guess being a novel, she couldn’t go the “How To Train Your Dragon” route of having them just sort of mug and pantomime to communicate. Temeraire the dragon is somewhere between a cat and a child, supercilious, curious, fiercely attached to Laurence, basically good-hearted. As it turns out, he is a special breed with special abilities that come out in the nick of time to prevent a disaster. Pretty much all the fighting comes in the last fifth or so of the book. Truth be told, the balance between training and fighting being so heavily in favor of training didn’t really do it for me. The descriptions of aerial combat were all right, but not anything to write home about. And I am further biased: while I am critical of Napoleon, who in many ways wrecked the legacy of the French Revolution, I have a hard time getting myself to support the British aristocratic oligarchy against him, despite the efforts of two hundred years worth of propaganda, much of which has found its way into foundational tropes in a lot of fiction genres. For many readers, the premise — the Napoleonic Wars with dragons! — will be enough to get this book over. It is indeed a compelling premise, and Novik doesn’t waste it, but it was a little slow for my taste. ***

Review- Novik, “His Majesty’s Dragon”

Review- Faderman, “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers”

Lillian Faderman, “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” (1991) – I was raised more or less to believe in a straightforward arc of history that progressed towards greater and greater acceptance and freedom. Any real learning of history complicates this picture, showing that “progress,” to the extent it exists at all, is highly uneven and given to major setbacks. Lillian Faderman illustrates this in her history of American lesbian communities in the twentieth century. Beyond a preference on the part of women for women, there’s nothing about lesbian communities, in Faderman’s telling, that is predetermined, that isn’t given to influence from the society at large.

Faderman begins her story with the Victorian period, where a degree of intimacy between women, even to the exclusion of intimacy with men, was considered normal and wholesome, if not the norm. This is not normally how we think of that period, but it makes sense. These “romantic friendships” were accepted in no small part due to a prevailing gender ideology that held that women were basically non-sexual beings, and so no one thought there was anything sexual about two women basically being in long term love relationships with each other. Faderman is unclear whether these couples did, in fact, have sex, or whether that would even be germane. These couplings were by and large limited to middle and upper class women who did not need to rely on marriage to a man for economic support, and received a boost with the opening of women’s colleges and of careers for (again, mostly middle and upper class) women such as social work in the late nineteenth century.

Things took a turn once, around that same time, the (almost exclusively male) sexologists got a hold of things. Many of them, like Havelock Ellis and even to an extent Sigmund Freud, tried to relativize gay and lesbian behavior by explaining it as congenital. But they still pathologized queerness and brought lesbianism to the public consciousness as something defined by sexual behavior and as abnormal.

From then on, the conditions of the now-defined lesbian community had a number of ups and downs. In large part, these were occasioned by changes in the economy and social order at large. It’s hard to have a lesbian community without independent women and relatively safe spaces for community gathering. Good economic times, like the 1920s, were generally better for the community than bad times, like the 1930s, though of course results will vary by social class, race, and other factors. The forties were something of a boom time for lesbianism, Faderman writes, as the military and wartime employment both brought many women together in relatively male-light environments and allowed them a degree of independence previously unknown. The political and cultural lockdown around the Cold War threw all that out the window and lesbians were targets of the lavender scare along with gay men.

A consistent theme in this book is the ways in which social class conditioned what lesbian communities looked like. In the wake of the crackdowns in the fifties, working class and younger lesbians developed an elaborate culture around the tiny enclaves of relatively safe space they could build around lesbian bars. This centered around the dual roles of the butch and the femme, and in an echo of the gender conformity all around them, Faderman writes, lesbians enforced subscription to these roles strongly (something tells me this may be something of a controversial point). Upper and middle class lesbians, for their part, avoided the bars and tried to blend in with mainstream society, in an echo of the “romantic friendships” of yesteryear. You didn’t get the sort of class mixing you got in gay male environments, according to Faderman, anyway.

This arrangement was partially upended by the social revolutions of the sixties and seventies. If there’s one thing I’d ding Faderman for it’s not any of the lesbian history — I’m hardly in a place to criticize there — but in the way she sometimes summons a hazy “spirit of the times” as an actor in her history. But whether attributed to a spirit or to socioeconomic/political factors, the sixties were indeed a decade of change for lesbians. Attitudes loosened, organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis got together, and at the end of the decade, the Stonewall uprising ignited a general gay and lesbian surge into the public sphere.

Faderman is a little vague as to how it happened, and given what we know about counterculture/New Left sexuality I’m not sure I would place as much explanatory weight on the “hippie spirit” of “liberated” sexuality as she does, but seemingly overnight the phenomenon of a specifically lesbian feminism rose to prominence in the seventies. This proposed to remake society (or, anyway, to carve out niches within or outside of society) through liberating the essential goodness of woman, away from the corruption and violence of men. Not that I’m the target audience here, but I’m of a few minds about this one. On the one hand, I think it denies agency and full humanity to anybody to say they are not capable of the full panoply of human expression, and a brief look at the history of women given power over others, from Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi on down to many of the assistant managers across the broad land, will show they are indeed capable of expressing the very human attributes of aggression and love for power. On the other hand, given the miserable history of relations between men and women, you really can’t fault women for wanting to pitch in the shitty hand they’ve been dealt and try something, anything else. Luckily, the women of the world, neither in the seventies before I was born nor today, haven’t exactly been knocking my door down to know my opinions about their political options, so I think we’re safe to leave it at that.

For her part, Faderman seems sympathetic towards, even a little wistful about, the lesbian feminist utopian project of the seventies. She ultimately judges it too utopian, too impractical, it’s youthful proponents given to “fanaticism,” by which she means given to rigorous application of a program. A lot of lesbians at the time, excited by the potential for creating their own communities, chafed under the pressure to conform to expectations like performative non-aggression, refusal of patriarchal beauty standards, the wiping away of previous generations of lesbian culture as “politically incorrect,” a term apparently used unironically by lesbian feminists at the time. One lesbian Faderman talked to lamented that no one was allowed to play as a butch or femme, even as they all looked butch in the accepted uniform of overalls and sweaters. This, in turn, led to a reaction the other way, as lesbian cultural militants attempted to unleash a more robust and active female sexuality, complete with s&m, (negotiated) gender roles, and other aspects the utopians deemed patriarchal and taboo.

All was not for naught, however. While lesbian utopia broke up in the conservative turn in the 1980s (I don’t remember the eighties, but I do remember it’s slag collecting in the nineties, and the way tropes derived from lesbian feminist utopianism found their way into everyday reactionary expression), aspects of it carried over into the increasingly out and integrated lesbian communities that came to exist. These included a concern for inclusion; indeed, many of the inclusionary measures we use in leftist organizing today come from lesbian feminist organizing culture, it seems. Faderman seems to land on a sort of Goldilocks conclusion for where the community was at in the late eighties/early nineties as she was writing. Having (mostly) rejected separatism for increasing opportunity in the mainstream and also having (mostly) rejected sexual radicalism in favor of the tried-and-true serial monogamy, contemporary lesbians take the best from both and leave the rest, though Faderman saw the involvement of lesbians in AIDS activism as a sign things might get more militant in the future.

I am, by definition, “out of the loop” here. I do hear rumblings of rejection of the assimilationist compromises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, critiques of “homonationalism” and the like. Faderman seems more worried about attack from outside of the community, of denial of opportunity, than about what taking these opportunities costs (and who they’re still denied to), understandably enough, I think. The rise of the far right in this country complicates the picture further, as does the participation of queer people (anyone remember that Yiannopolous guy?) in it. I don’t know what the future holds, or what the thinking of the future will mean for how we conceptualize the lesbian history Faderman tried to tell. I will say that this book was informative and readable. Faderman ranged impressively widely to get sources, including many interviews with lesbians of all ages, races, and social classes, many of whom were speaking about their experience for the first time. Their resilience, having lived through hard times and always under the shadow of persecution, was heartening to see. From the cheap seats, this was a pretty good introduction to American lesbian history. ****

Review- Faderman, “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers”

Review- Frank, “The People, NO”

Thomas Frank, “The People, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism” (2020) – Thomas Frank deserves more credit than he gets in left-leaning circles. Much of his reputation comes from his 2004 breakout book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” This is a problem for two reasons. One is that while it’s a fun, fast book, it’s not Frank at his best. The other is that a lot of people, many of whom should know better, seemingly failed to read beyond the title. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” isn’t a screed at the expense of the people of the Sunflower State (Frank himself is a Kansan), as has been widely alleged and assumed. The book is largely an attack on the contemporary Democratic Party for abandoning the people of Kansas to the cruel whims of global market forces. Criticism of those same forces, the politicians who abet them, and the culture the whole gestalt produces, has been Frank’s project for decades. His magazine, The Baffler, formed an oasis of biting criticism during the gauzy, end-of-history 1990s. He deserves, at the very least, a fairer hearing than he’s gotten, which is one based largely on one line from his copious works.

Alas, Frank’s latest work, “The People, NO,” is not the book to fix this problem. The premise sounds promising: a scathing critique of the anti-populism that has reared its head prominently since Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. There is some of that, and a range of elitist figures from Mark Hanna to Jason Brennan get what’s coming to them in Frank’s fine prose. What is also present, predominant for much of the book, is an extended effort to rescue the reputation of the People’s Party, the original Populists in the American context, from an obloquy whose origins and persistence Frank makes sound close to conspiracy. More than conspiratorial, Frank’s defense of the original Populists and their contemporary relevance goes beyond impassioned and becomes, frankly, injured and myopic.

Like Frank, the American Populists deserve more credit than they get in many circles. Indeed, they have gotten it, from major historians who Frank cites, such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Charles Postel. These historians depict the People’s Party, an American third-party effort that lived and died in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as a noble effort to bring meaningful democracy to America’s political system. They were forward-looking reformers, promulgators of ideas such as regulation of railroads, the income tax, popular referenda, the direct election of Senators, and more. Populists made an effort to break single-party white supremacist rule in the post-Reconstruction South by making alliances between white and black farmers and workers, which were only defeated by force. Their ideas inspired future generations of American reformers, including the Progressives, the New Dealers, and portions of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. This is what Frank refers to as “our native radical tradition.”

The opponents of this native radicalism are predictably elitist and slimy. The original Populists were done in by the presidential campaign of William McKinley, who pulled out all of the stops to present the Populists as insane, foreign, dirty, motivated by madness and rapine. The New Dealers faced the Liberty League and others who decried the Roosevelt administration as a totalitarian disaster of the first order. The tone-deafness and often open racism of these attacks clang through the book.

Later attacks were more subtle, sufficiently subtle that the thread begins to get lost. Frank, along with his historiographical inspirations Goodwyn and Postel, fought (and continue to fight) against the long shadow made by Richard Hofstadter and his cohort. Hofstadter, godfather of the liberal consensus school of American history, depicted the American Populists as angry hayseeds frightened of modernity. He made bogus charges, such as laying American anti-semitism at the feet of the People’s Party, as though the elite of nineteenth century America needed any instructions in bigotry from farmers and workers. Social scientists aligned with the consensus school such as Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset conflated populism and McCarthyism, declaring that the goal of politics was to maintain democracy while containing or eliminating such dangerous mass movements as populism, which stirred people to intolerance and illiberalism.

This is where the problem of definitions begins to become glaring, not coincidentally where it starts entering into contemporary debates on populism. Conflating the Populists and the New Deal is enough to raise historiographical hackles, but in a book for a broad audience can be granted a pass- the Populism was, after all, a prominent strand in the New Deal’s DNA. But, always and everywhere, Frank argues, we should see the word “populist” as referring to the People’s Party and those whom Frank designates as its successors, such as the New Dealers. Other uses are illegitimate, he posits, either the product of elite anti-populism (academia especially plays a devilish role here by introducing other definitions of the term) or by those looking to hijack populism for right-wing ends. This wasn’t Frank’s position when he wrote about “market populism,” enthusiasm for the market as a supposed expression of the popular will, in his best work, “One Market Under God.” But it is his position now.

The major problem with this is that the term “populism” was never, even in the nineteenth century, confined to the People’s Party or its heirs designate. There were other populist movements going on at the same time in other parts of the world, most notably the Narodniki of Russia and the Volkisch movement of Germany. There were many differences between these movements and the People’s Party, and some similarities. But however one splits the populist definitional pie, scholars engaged in an international conversation on populism cannot restrict themselves to a definition made up solely by the example of one American party that existed for less than a decade. Say what one will about structural functionalist social scientists like Shils and Lipset, but they were part of an international conversation. Indeed, their anti-populism was heavily influenced by figures such as German sociologist Max Weber and the Italian Elitist school of political science. The idea that American social science decided to define populism the way it did — even if it’s wrong and wrong-headed — as a backlash against the People’s Party is a claim that does not pass muster. This is especially obvious when you consider their real target: the anticapitalist left of socialists and communists.

This definitional problem looms over the rest of the book and jeopardizes Frank’s ability to analyze the right, the center, and the left. We can’t criticize right-wing populism as populism because doing so dishonors the good name of “Sockless Jerry” Simpson and the decent plain folk of the People’s Party. Anyone so doing, no matter what their pretenses or intellectual lineage, are anti-populists, elitists, scolds, enemies of the people, in the bitter world of “The People, NO.” That such scholars might be engaging in a larger project than either upholding or sabotaging the legacy of the People’s Party — the only two options we seem to get — doesn’t enter into Frank’s considerations at all.

The damnable thing is that Frank isn’t entirely wrong. Why not use words such as “fascist” or “authoritarian” or “nationalist” instead of muddying the name of “populist” as in “right-wing populist?” Liberal anti-populists like Cas Mudde, even when they get into it with antifascist intentions, often get things glaringly wrong about the populist tradition. Alas, this all gets into thorny definitional issues of all of these terms and the unfortunate overuse of “fascism” in certain decades. But the idea that figures analyzing Latin American or European populisms use the term because they want to abuse a late-nineteenth century US political formation is deeply provincial and verges into conspiracy theory.

In Frank’s insistence on his definition of populism, non-populist leftists disappear, or worse, become revealed as elitist, antipopulist liberals. The People’s Party was a party that had workers in it but, like the Democrats, were not a worker’s party; its social base was small property owners, farmers, shopkeepers, etc. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t contribute to the left. But it does mean insisting that they are the left leaves a critical part of the story out.

Frank never addresses why the Democrats — who swallowed and disposed of the original People’s Party without so much as a backwards glance — all of a sudden came over so common-people-friendly in the 1930s. It was because of agitation to their left- much of it well to the left of the People’s Party. This is what pushed Franklin Roosevelt into adopting the reforms he did.

In “The People, NO,” Frank places his emphasis on Roosevelt’s populist rhetoric. This is a classical critical lapse and an odd one for a sharp writer like Frank. Paying attention to what Roosevelt actually did, as opposed to his soaring rhetoric, shows that he put in place many of his most important measures after massive pressure from his left. This was (and to the extent it exists, is) an anticapitalist left with its own lineage, of which the People’s Party is a small or negligible part. This is the same force that has pushed the Democratic party to do every worthwhile thing it has ever done, often dragging it kicking and screaming and leaving the draggers thinking that there has to be a better way.

Frank doesn’t come out and cast those to the left of populism in with the elitist anti-populists. He does so by implication, in his penultimate chapter where he reserves the term “the left” for the censorious liberals who dominate the contemporary Democratic party and who make such noise on twitter and on op-ed pages. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, who got nearly as much of their ire as Donald Trump did, doesn’t appear until one reference in the conclusion. Frank sees Sanders as a populist, a glimmer of hope. Let the populists make liberalism great again, is essentially Frank’s battle cry. The idea that we can do better than populism or liberalism is presumably the property of dreamers or scolds.

But the Democratic party and liberalism were never great. They occasionally did great things, but only under massive pressure and despite their instincts. The Democrats haven’t moved right because they had a beef with a long-dead third party. They moved right after the nineteen-seventies in large part because liberalism was and is terrified of the left. Antisocialism, anticommunism, and anti-Marxism animated both liberals and the right wing during the twentieth century. Enemies of the left used all of the tools once used against the People’s Party, and many more. There’s good reason for this. To take an example from the global history of his subject that Frank steadfastly ignores, the Russian populists killed a Czar. Russian communists killed Czardom.

The Democrats really did abandon whatever pretense of working for ordinary people they once had. Their anti-populism is motivated by class interest and, post-2016, a refusal to look reality in the face. That our elite is as worried about populism as it is is a sign of their decay, and that we need to keep pushing for what the Populists wanted and beyond. That Thomas Frank wrote a book about the matter with the flaws “The People, NO” has is a sign that his issue isn’t wondering “what’s the matter with Kansas?” It’s his refusal to follow anticapitalism where it leads. ***

Review- Frank, “The People, NO”

Review- Dubois, “Haiti”

Laurent Dubois, “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History” (2012) – From my years of teaching world history core classes to undergraduates, I know that teaching the Haitian Revolution is de rigueur… but after 1804, Haiti disappears from the syllabus. It was in part to correct this that I picked this book up- it even echoes my teaching experience, where I had read Dubois’s book on the Haitian Revolution first years ago before picking this volume up to read.

Maybe people avoid post-revolutionary Haitian history because it is a stone cold bummer. The country never truly had a chance to recover from the devastation of the revolution, between infighting and the imposition of crushing indemnities to the French slaveholders from which it had wrested its freedom. It had no chance to develop like a “normal” country, indebted and embargoed from the very beginning. The military was the one somewhat functional national institution and often called the shots.

Dubois walks a fine line between ascribing the appropriate amount of blame for Haiti’s misery to outside powers, and to acknowledging the agency of the Haitian people in their own situation. To a certain extent, he splits the difference- the Haitian masses have seldom had any systematic say in their own affairs. Successive strongman governments wrote constitutions that limited the franchise along property lines, and until astonishingly late no government business could be done in Kreyol, the language of the masses, only in French, monopolized by the elite. Foreign governments, including the US, which had the Marines run the country between 1915 and 1934, were perfectly happy with this state of affairs, agreeing with the Haitian elite that the Haitian people couldn’t be trusted to run their own affairs. Ironically, much of the evidence of this was governmental dysfunction… that is, the dysfunction of bodies over which the common people had no say.

The Haitian people, according to Dubois, have had a pretty consistent set of priorities from revolutionary times onwards: disinclination towards anything that reminded them of the plantation system and insistence upon independence on both a personal and a national level. Their central institution is the lakou, or cluster of family-held smallholdings. Most rural Haitians are quietly but stubbornly insistent on working their own land, not working for wages for somebody else, regardless of the inducements, in Dubois’s telling. This is the “counterplantation” system and ideology of the Haitian people. Everyone who has run Haiti, from military men to populists, from the Marines to Papa Doc Duvalier, have attempted to undermine, undo, or at the very least tinker with the counterplantation, even as they mouth its values of independence from foreigners and whites.

Maybe this, the insistence on the part of Haitians to go their own way, is why the rest of the world is so consistently so spiteful where the island nation is concerned. The world has never forgiven Haiti for overthrowing slavery on its own, for being black, for being Haiti. There’s a vindictiveness to the way foreign white people, even today, treat the country that you don’t see in the way other “least developed countries” get treated. Take the way outsiders obsess over the Haitian folk religion of Vodou. While the “backward beliefs of the natives” is a common colonialist trope, nowhere in the world that I know of is a folk religion genuinely seen not just as backwards, but as genuinely sinister and dangerous. As recently as the 1990s, elite US soldiers stationed in Haiti were warned of the danger of “voodoo attacks,” according to an essayist I read who was there. Folks, it’s just syncretism. It won’t hurt you.

Dubois’s book works against this dehumanization — in the case of the panic over Vodou, literally the supernaturalizing — of Haiti and its people. The Haitians he depicts, even outsized and genuinely sinister figures like Papa Doc Duvalier, are recognizably human, acting according to human impulses and massive structural constraints. It’s too bad the counterplantation has generally left us less in the way of records and incident than the elites of Haiti and the government they’ve dominated/ran into the ground over and over again. It’s hard to avoid frustration with the Haitian elite, even if you acknowledge they were victims of racism and other forces outside of their control. But the people of Haiti deserve our respect and admiration for their dedication to their hard-won freedom and their ability to survive blow after blow with their humanity intact. ****’

Review- Dubois, “Haiti”

2020 Birthday Lecture: Fear and Loathing in Genre New England

Now, in the heat of summer, isn’t the best time for this metaphor, but soon enough it will be: the New Englander walks through dead histories the way they walk through leaves in the autumn, whether they are conscious of it or not. I don’t mean the remnants of the past, though I guess I mean that too. I mean dead historical projects, the wreckage of teleologies and of ways of organizing experience into meaning, from Puritanism to the upper-middle-class suburban liberalism with which many of us grew up. Fragments from these projects exist everywhere from our spacial arrangements to place names through political structures and culture.

How is this different from anywhere else? How much does it matter, even if it is different? Well, for most people, it isn’t and it doesn’t. I would argue that while many, arguably most, regions of the country and the world are haunted by the past, relatively few have New England’s background of abortive historical and social experiment. But white settlement is white settlement, whether under socially/theologically ambitious Puritan auspices or relatively lackadaisical Virginian ones. And how much does any of it matter now? We’re all under capital’s domain. Regionalism is a dead end. I don’t even really have any heritage connection with New England’s first and most ambitious telos, that of the Puritans. I am descended from a rogue’s gallery of the sort of Catholics the Puritans feared and loathed most, and from Jews, who the Puritans thought they had replaced. So… what are we doing here, talking about New England like it means something?

Well… I think historical consciousness is a recursive process. It’s not the dumping in of information and correct opinions into one’s head. Historical understanding changes you as you understand historical change. Especially when a history is something other than facts on a page, but leaves an imprint on lived experience, it enters into you and becomes a part of you. It comes in through the things you see every day, the structures of space, childhood perceptions and memories, on and on.

In short, I think I’ve taken on New England-ness, whether I like it or not. And though my interest in New England has bored many and may yet bore you all if it hasn’t already tonight, I don’t think I’m the only one. More than any particular New England project — Puritan or Transcendentalist, the politics of white ethnicity or of suburban liberalism — I identify with the long history of dead projects itself. Something has made the people here look at the world — a world they see as bound by forces much larger than themselves — and say, “we’re going to do something different, here, and that different something will reverberate throughout the rest of the world.”

To make myself perfectly clear, I don’t really agree with or look to pursue any of the projects with which historical New England is broadly associated, with the exception of abolitionism, which was really a national project. My project is a radical anti-capitalist project. Most of the projects that define New England history have been pretty pro-capitalist, whatever else they’ve been. Moreover, the major New England projects have by and large not been about redistributing power downward but instead about creating systems of power that elide and short circuit power struggles. This is true of the most proximate project, suburban liberalism, with its notion that class conflict can be solved through expanding the pie of prosperity and education, as much as it was true of the granddaddy of them all, Puritanism, which sought to make a literal contract with God to fix the theologico-political problem- the original in “solutionism,” looked at in a certain way. Still, I can’t help but see something in the extended history of patient but defiant world-reconstruction that’s important… somehow.

One thing about New England-ness that differs from, say, Southern-ness, is that the various projects of New England have aimed themselves at the universal. If there’s a central paradox to New England identity, it’s that we’ve built a particularism out of being fixated on the universal (you can say that Southerners have built a universalism out of being fixated on their particulars, but that’s outside the scope of this birthday lecture). What we do is meant to ramify outwards, from the City on the Hill envisioned by the Puritan fathers to the standardized American canon enshrined by the people who decided the Puritans were a big deal in the first place (New England is also recursively self-reflective). This means, among other things, that New England intellectual products are meant for export, so much so they turn into kitsch when restricted to the local. How much would the work of Melville and Hawthorne mean had the early American Studies scholars who brought them into the canon not made them into broadly American, even international, literary figures, not just New England ones? It’s an open question and not really one we can answer. From where I sit, the best we can do is hope that through diligent application of ourselves — the usual New England answer — we can produce a worthwhile circuit between the New England-ish and the global that gets past the ways in which New England-ness has been willingly incorporated into a provincial/imperialistic American project of state-building and culture-construction.

It’s not all a matter of high culture, either. Tonight, we’re going to discuss two New England writers with a broad impact on genre culture. One is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the architect of cosmic horror as we know it and of much of nerd culture in general; the other is Dennis Lehane, a contemporary figure who looks to play an outsized role in the shaping of crime fiction as a genre. As writers for a popular audience (though Lovecraft was famously indifferent to who was reading him), both constructed a picture of New England for export- Lovecraft’s spooky, haunted New England of ancient port towns and isolated rural valleys hiding dark secrets, Lehane’s gritty blue-collar neighborhood Boston as site for crime dramas. Both deal in themes mooted by many other New England writers- fear and evil. Neither set out to be philosophical or political writers, but I think both construe and export New England-ness in ways that are indicative of the larger contradictions at work in living in the region in a historically-conscious way.

Let’s get one thing out of the way briefly before we proceed: say “New England genre writer” and probably the first name that comes to mind is Stephen King. I’m not going to write about King beyond this paragraph because I don’t find him interesting. He’s written so much there’s probably examples of his work where this isn’t the case, but it largely seems his New England is there for local color, a little spooky-dead-tree action of the sort inspired by what any idiot who looks outside around here on a late autumn afternoon would see. I don’t hate Stephen King, he seems like a decent enough guy, but his work never grabbed me, and I’m already dealing with one writer — Lovecraft — who I don’t love and another — Lehane — who has written his share of turkeys, too. Write your own birthday lecture if you want one on Stephen King.

That out of the way, I guess it would be a good idea to give the introductory version of our two subjects for those who might not be familiar. H.P. Lovecraft lived in the early twentieth century and wrote short horror fiction. Never a success in his relatively short life, his works were collected by a small coterie of avid fans and published and promoted in speculative fiction circles, where they eventually reached a degree of success that made Lovecraft an icon. Chief among these stories are the “Cthulhu mythos,” stories of a set of “elder gods” (like the titular Cthulhu), monstrous immortal beings that exist outside of historical time and occasionally come around to terrorize humanity. Lovecraft’s themes include the smallness and insignificance of mankind in the face of the vastness and coldness of the cosmos, and the connected idea that rationality and sanity are but a small island on a vast sea of the irrational. He was also, as I’m sure many of my listeners are waiting for me to point out, a cask-strength racist. Like many white men obsessed with decline and irrationality in his time (and ours), he racialized his fears, projecting them onto a racial other of people of color and immigrants. Many of his stories and even more of his voluminous letters reveal a rancid and febrile racism that even his various defenders can’t quite justify or explain away. More than his stories, the tropes Lovecraft bequeathed to horror and speculative fiction (and nerd culture in general) are his legacy- and people have been battling with the racism embedded in those tropes for some time now.

Dennis Lehane is still with us and relatively young- born in 1965. Starting in the early nineties, he’s written a series of crime novels, most of them set in Boston, which became best-sellers. Several of his books — “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “Shutter Island” — have been made into successful movies. I would say if there’s a center of his work it’s the adventures of his two Boston private eyes, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who starred in a series of novels in the nineties and oughts and who roamed Lehane’s Boston landscape in a Balzac-ian span from the lower depths of the slums to the heights of corporate and political power. Lehane is also a screenwriter and TV writer, having written for “The Wire” for instance (I get the idea — I haven’t been able to confirm — that the “McNulty as fake serial killer” bit might have been his). More than any particular theme, I think Lehane’s contribution to the genre has been setting and mood- the popularization of “gritty,” “authentic,” working-class and generally white spaces as a setting for contemporary crime fiction, and the actors in this space as conflicted, morally and ethically compromised, given to earthy fixations, but basically good, and confronting evil sometimes in the form of societal corruption but more often in the form of individualized pathology and innocence tragically corrupted. Like Lovecraft, more than anything Lehane lives through the recognizable tropes he gave to his genre- once you learn to recognize them, you see them all over the place on TV and in the movies.

With similarities, come contrasts. Most notably, Lehane has been a success in this life, a bestseller and Hollywood resource, whereas Lovecraft lived in genteel poverty with his indulgent aunts. Lovecraft came from the Puritan-descended upper crust of Providence society whose family lost all of its money. Lehane’s parents are Irish immigrants to Boston and their family story seems to be one of upward mobility. Along with racial and ethnic minorities, Lovecraft also feared and loathed sex- he was married for a little while, to a woman most of his biographers agree was too good for him (and a Jewish lady, go figure, considering Lovecraft’s ideas on Jews), but it’s not certain he ever consummated the relationship and in general, treated the body as a source of horror and contempt. Lehane, for his part, is pretty horny, and has, if his writings are an indication, a quite bodily idea of love and pleasure. Seemingly every book has a designated lust object, Kenzie and Gennaro spend a few volumes in a will-they-won’t-they (they do, then they don’t, then they do again, if I remember the books right), and Lehane’s male perspective characters are generally suckers for the dames, though not so much they can’t recognize a bad one when they see one… eventually.

Both write about New England with a profound sense of place. It goes beyond “local color” and you can tell because they do indulge in mere “local color” when writing about other places- Lovecraft’s occasional dip into orientalism, Lehane’s periodic excursions into Florida, his second home and another frequent recent crime fiction setting. New England is something more than that for them.

For Lovecraft, New England was the place for the “searcher after horror,” “the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence.” “…for there, the dark elements of strength, solitude, and grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.” All this is from his 1920 story The Picture In The House, wherein an unsuspecting traveler happens upon an old house in way out of the way Massachusetts inhabited by an ancient man who turns out to be both a fan of old, unwholesome books about cannibalism and the practice itself. Lovecraft followed up his own advice, setting many of his stories in what has come to be called “Lovecraft Country,” a fictional swath of New England encompassing towns like Arkham, home of Miskatonic University, with its faculty penchant for prying into things man wasn’t meant to know, and Innsmouth, the fishing town with some fishy secrets. Other stories are set in actual New England towns, like Brattleboro, Vermont, near where I went to college, Salem with its famous witchy associations, and of course Providence, Lovecraft’s beloved hometown.

What Lovecraft valued about New England, both as a site for horror fiction and as a place to live, is the thickness of its history and that history’s visible traces. Lovecraft was obsessed with eighteenth-century architecture and city design, touring the New England seaside towns and his own native Providence to find examples of colonial architecture unsullied, as he’d put it, by such modern gaucheries as Victorian houses or modern constructions. He insisted that the eighteenth century was more real, more alive for him than the present. This, of course, did not help with the declension narratives that he embraced which, in turn, led him to bigotry towards those he could regard as the visible agents of degenerative change- recent immigrants to New England, many of them Catholic or Jewish where his ancestors were Yankee Protestants, and people of color.

Lovecraft’s life took place during a long shift in emphasis in the historiography of New England. Some of the first real historians America produced were New Englanders praising their Puritan ancestors as the architects of what would become America- they call this the “filiopietistic” school of New England history. Almost immediately concurrent with this, you got histories, including some by other New Englanders with equally solid Puritan-descendant bona fides, writing about how the Puritans were nothing but bigots and cranks, and arguing that America as a civilization emerged out of dissent against the Puritan theocracy. I could bore you with a play by play, filled with those triplicate Yankee names that once dominated American academia, but I’ll spare you. This back and forth went on for decades. The skeptical side, helped along by Jazz Age critics like H.L. Mencken who used the term “Puritan” for anything that threatened their good time, from Prohibition to any whiff of social conscience, was winning by the time Lovecraft was doing most of his writing.

What did Lovecraft think of the Puritans? Well, he was an atheist, and sometimes, like Mencken, used “Puritan” to mean outdated, old-fashioned, unscientific. But Puritans definitely made up part of Lovecraft’s idea of New England-ness, and not simply as antagonists, either. It was Puritans and their descendants who reached into the outer darkness Lovecraft depicts as being the baseline reality in stories such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Dreams of the Witch House,” etc. Something compelled them forwards, and if Lovecraft doesn’t quite praise the inclination to press the cosmic envelope, he also clearly relates to it- he would have much less to write about if he didn’t.

Perhaps his most interesting comment in this vein was in one of his many letters to a friend, where he writes that the Puritans were “the only really effective diabolists and decadents the world has known; because they hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living.” By “decadent,” Lovecraft is referring not to just moral decline, in the pejorative sense of the term, but to the artistic movement of Decadence, which reached its height of popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Decadence emphasized the beauty of the artificial, the sickly, the decayed, the dream-like, in opposition to prevailing Victorian tropes at the time.

This doesn’t sound much like either the filiopietistic version of the Puritans, who were above all else standard-bearers of virtue, or the skeptic version, which held the Puritans were fraudulent pious hypocrites. Lovecraft elaborated in the vein that the Puritans in New England sought to create a totally new and artificial reality. To Lovecraft, it was more important that this reality be a “gothic” chiaroscuro of divine light and infinite human depravity than that it be a novel attempt at reconstruction of society from the ground up on largely new premises. He was, after all, a horror writer.

But around the time Lovecraft was writing that letter, a new generation of historians were rethinking the Puritans. They did not have Lovecraft’s aesthetic commitments to the Gothic but their thought did share certain structural elements with Lovecraft’s depiction of the Puritans. These were the early American Studies scholars, and lead among them was historian Perry Miller, who wrote a two-volume intellectual history of Puritanism in New England, The New England Mind, the first volume of which appeared in 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s death. Like Lovecraft, Miller emphasized the world-building element of the Puritan project, the construction of an intellectual (largely theological) scaffolding for a new way of living on Earth and in relation with a transcendent and unforgiving universal order- the pattern for New England’s projects ever since.
The conflict between the filiopietistic and the skeptical school of Puritan historiography was largely over whether it was ok for people to tell you how to live your life in the details of things like drink, dance, cards, theater, etc.- culture war stuff, basically, avant la lettre. Miller insisted that what made the Puritans special wasn’t their morals (which weren’t that different from prevailing seventeenth century ideas, if somewhat stricter) but their challenge to the prevailing solutions to the theological-political problem and matters of the relationship between God and man and man and man. Instead of ticky-tacky judgments over this or that Puritan rule, Miller focused on the intellectual, social, and political dimensions of Puritan belief, how it changed over time, and how despite Puritanism largely guttering out by the end of the seventeenth century (with a grisly death spasm in the Salem witch trials), it’s that intellectual — not religious or moral — lineage that makes the Puritans relevant to Americans today. Fun fact- “The Handmaid’s Tale” is dedicated in part to Perry Miller. Margaret Atwood studied with him at Harvard, sometime before Miller drank himself to death in 1963.

So, in a weird way, the horror writer and the historian converged on their judgment of the Puritans and their legacy in New England. In many respects, Miller and his cohort fought hard to avoid the conclusions Lovecraft came to regarding Puritanism and New England. The American Studies scholars saw New England as the seedbed for a larger American project, not as a region unique in and of itself as Lovecraft did, and they saw the Puritan/New England project as basically wholesome (if tragically flawed) and world-building, not as gothic and world-negating like Lovecraft praised it for being. They came to dissimilar conclusions about what to do about it, but both Lovecraft and the American Studies scholars that Miller stood among and taught saw the Puritans as their figurative ancestors (if also sometimes incidentally their literal ones) in a project of taking a world that wasn’t quite right and… here they depart. For Lovecraft, there was no solution to the not-rightness of the world. New England became a site for fear in part because of the mismatch between the heightened ambition of the Puritans to shape the world and the world’s indifference to human effort. The American Studies scholars largely elided the philosophical question in favor of literary-critical, historical, and political ones, which in a way is as much of an answer as any.

Dennis Lehane is, at least from what I’ve read of him, which is most but not all of his work, fairly quiet on the subject of the Puritans. Indeed, his New England and his writing in general seems to locate what transcendence is to be had not in any kind of larger social project but in individual romantic and familial love. I say “his New England” but really, his locally-based novels focus fairly strictly on Boston (except one, the last of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels, which has an extended excursion to, of all places, my dear hometown of Foxborough, Massachusetts, which he depicts as a suburban hole in the ground, fairly enough). And his Boston is no shining city on a hill, as I’m sure he or his marketing people would assure us. There’s no grandiose political-theological ambition to places like Lehane’s old neighborhood of Dorchester, at least not for a long time. Lehane’s Boston — which became the Boston or (insert postindustrial city here) of many another popular crime novel or tv serial — is, to use the now somewhat cringeworthy term, “gritty” and blue collar. The locals manufacture things and the locale manufactures childhood trauma, not abstractions about god and man or man and man or whatever.

In fact, the Boston historiography often specifically aligns “ethnic” (usually meaning Irish) political and cultural styles against Yankee/Puritan-descended ones, with the ethnics slowly but surely winning out. The Yankees represent politics understood in an upright, elitist way in the service of a transcendent project of civic virtue- the Irish represent mass politics in the service of the material succor of a poor people- the end. This is the explicit framing of such works as J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground,” on the Boston busing crisis, and of Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King,” a big life-’n-times biography of James Curley, the flamboyantly corrupt Irish-American politician who has come to memetically represent white ethnic politics in twentieth-century Boston.

Both of these are good books, well worth reading. But… I think there’s more to it than that. I actually think that in its own way, ethnic politics as pioneered in Boston and practiced in much of urban America in a rough century between the eighteen-seventies and the nineteen-seventies was also an ambitious project of reconstruction of the boundaries of the political in the face of dire structural constraints. I don’t mean to say here that I think it was a good way of organizing politics, anymore than I would want to live under the rule of Puritans or think that Transcendentalism was really that much of a philosophy or any more than I agree with any number of other New England projects and movements. What I think is that ethnic politics, even at its machine-driven nadir, had a content and a pedagogy to it, a problem — the reordering of boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in a republic bounded by the power of racialized capital.

Dennis Lehane engages this past in some of his detective novels. Machine politicians and their police loom over the proceedings and contribute to his detectives’ sense of ennui about changing anything structural. His first novel, A Drink Before the War, also gets the most into the dynamics of race and politics in Boston, where his white ethnic detectives come across collusion between similarly white ethnic political bosses and black gangs, and Lehane opines somewhat racistly about the differences between said black gangs and the white teenage gangs of his youth. Lehane has also dabbled in historical fiction, most prominently in The Given Day, a panoramic novel of the first Red Scare of 1919-1920, set in Boston. There, the Irish and Yankee power structures combine to crush labor militancy and anarchism- listeners might find some amusement in Lehane’s earnest but cack-handed attempts to grasp the differences between leftist groups, echoing the frustrations many a Red Squad cop has probably experienced.

When asked in interviews about what events influenced him growing up, Lehane cites the Boston busing crisis. Being a Dorchester native, he was not directly affected by the court-mandated integration-by-busing between South Boston and Roxbury, but it shook up the city’s neighborhoods and contributed to a general sense, in the 1970s and 1980s, of decline and change. We haven’t the space to get into a dissection of the busing crisis here, but I would describe it and its aftermath as a political cascade failure. Begin with the failure of mid-twentieth century consensus liberalism — which can’t in fairness be called a New England project, being national in scope, but which certainly had New England DNA — to meaningfully confront racial inequities in educational funding and outcomes. This lead to a band-aid Potemkin solution in the form of busing for integration which failed in its stated goal, which was insufficient to begin with. You also had the failure of urban white ethnic politicians and the newer type of urban politicians raised up by the black freedom struggle to come up with meaningful solutions, and, in the case of white community leaders, prevent their communities from embracing racist violence. There were also little epi-failures like that of much of the Boston left at the time, for what it’s worth, failing to recognize the savage dynamics of white racial revanchism leading to the violence that accompanied busing and instead focusing on what today would be jeeringly referred to as “economic anxiety.”

The neighborhood sectarianism reinforced by the busing crisis and deindustrialization’s economic fallout form the background gestalt of much of Dennis Lehane’s fiction (and, implicitly, the genre it has come to influence). In the foreground, Lehane often cites the unlikely-seeming but seemingly-inevitable follow-up: gentrification, emerging threat to the blue-collar authenticity Lehane’s detectives love and which Lehane himself sells in his books. This glorification of white urban authenticity, in turn, probably helps drive white audiences to seek out places like Dorchester and South Boston- I wonder if you could graph sales of Lehane’s novels (or, probably more pertinently, rentals of Good Will Hunting) to real estate prices in the neighborhoods affected. After his first novel, Lehane mostly leaves black people alone, and their neighborhoods too, so the impact of gentrification on them goes unnoticed. Lehane’s not a political writer, as he would probably tell you.

Once Lehane made the decision to leave aside black gangs as villains, he placed great emphasis on that other specter of evil characteristic of the end of the American twentieth century: the sexual abuser of children. In most instances, in Lehane’s fiction, this takes the form of a stranger in a van. This is how it is in Mystic River, which became a briskly-attended, critically-acclaimed Clint Eastwood movie, and his second Kenzie-Gennaro novel involves a literal van-borne squad of kid-diddling serial killers who sometimes dress up as clowns. To the best of my knowledge, there were no Satanists or day care attendants in Lehane’s rogue’s gallery, but otherwise, his work is very much a product of the child-abuse panic of the eighties and nineties.

To be fair to Lehane, he sometimes gets that child abuse most often comes from within a circle of trust, not from strangers in vans. Inter-family abuse comes up quite often in his work. More importantly though is the way in which childhood innocence stands at the center of what Lehane sees as good in the world, and childhood innocence corrupted as, essentially, the root of evil. Kids get abused and that turns them evil and hence into abusers themselves and so the cycle perpetuates. This, more than the downfall of blue-collar Boston, is the tragic element driving much of Lehane’s work- essentially, a local news theory of evil. There’s always someone out there lurking in a van to, one at a time individually, convert the normal into the abnormal and evil. Sometimes, you don’t even need the intervention of an abuser- I don’t think I’m spoiling a twenty-year-old book and blockbuster film when I say the conclusion of Mystic River is, the autistic kid did it, essentially because he was abnormal and hence lacking in the magic of childhood innocence. This, more than his occasional lapse in racial sensitivity, is where I see Lehane converging on Lovecraft’s xenophobia.

Sometimes, though, Lehane upends his own ideas. In what I would argue is his best work, Gone Baby Gone, also made into a movie, after slaying a physically grotesque gang of stranger-kid-diddlers, Kenzie and Gennaro come to find out the real villains are those posturing as protectors of the sacred family circle, leading to a profoundly ambivalent conclusion that fits the book’s larger autumnal mood. It’s pretty good, in case you thought I’ve been shitting on the authors unduly this lecture. The thing to keep in mind, I suppose, is that both Lehane and Lovecraft were/are writers who sought to entertain, more than they sought to make the sort of points I’m trying to suss out here- they made these points largely by implication, whereas the imperative to entertain — which generally involves novelty, finding new ways to express things — encouraged change and mixing things up. Some of Lovecraft’s later work, like At the Mountains of Madness, evinces much less xenophobia than his earlier stuff, something of which his defenders make much.

What does the protracted struggle between Lehane’s heroes and the greater Boston area’s child abusers (though not, weirdly enough, the Church, as far as I’ve seen) have to do with New England’s history? I would say like a lot of narratives going around Lehane’s hey-day in the nineties and early aughts, it’s (indirectly at least) about the decline of hopes for radical transformation promised in the 1960s and 1970s and disenchantment with the largely hollow replacements late twentieth century America provided instead. It doesn’t matter how much social justice you win if a stranger in a van can just do his thing and spread evil like so much coronavirus. I would argue that Lehane, a Gen Xer, was reared deep enough into the collapse that the possibilities of radical change are so much science fiction to him (a genre he has shown no sign of interest in), as it is to so much — not all! — of his cohort (a potential topic for next year’s birthday lecture- we shall see). This was a national phenomenon, not a specifically New England one.

I think what is characteristic of New England is the recursive nature of these failures of ambitious social projects and their self-reflexivity. To live in New England in a historically-conscious way is to know that you live among the remains of dead historical projects where the participants in which were, in turn, all too aware of their own failings. Lovecraft’s dread of an indifferent cosmos and Lehane’s existential disappointment at the inevitability of individual evil exist against the backdrop of belief in the ability to make the cosmos a place of hope through fulfillment of a contract with the Almighty — Perry Miller referred to the Puritans as “cosmic optimists” — or a belief in the amelioration of human violence and harm via social rearrangements of either a liberal or radical variety. Lovecraft and Lehane’s fears and loathings are dark-mirror reflections of the hopes of transformation on which New England was built and which it continues to generate. What’s more, similar dark forebodings existed within the hearts of the promulgators of these transformational projects themselves. The Puritans began thinking the project was doomed more or less straight off the boat. Philosophical pragmatism, developed down the street at Harvard, is all about the failure of people’s perpetual apparatus and working with and around it. The early American Studies proponents thought their project to create a positive, thoughtful monoculture for America was deeply unlikely to succeed. Ethnic machine politics and suburban liberalism, opposites in many respects, both understood democracy as a system given to going off the rails and requiring constant input to make work. Hope and fear- both are part of the New England inheritance. It’s something of a package deal, it seems.

I think this hope and fear combo should resonate with many of the people hearing and reading this. The New England pattern of daring to construct something new for the world pre-dates the revolution-counterrevolution cycle that defines so much of modern history and which most historians date to the French Revolution, by which point the Puritans were already a memory. This probably has a little to do with why New England intellectual-cum-political projects so often seem to elide and evade the dynamics of revolution and settle into a kind of tepid liberalism. The many failures of projects to change the world collectively are fecund in their own right, producing the cultural hummus from which sprang, among other things, the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the crime fiction of Dennis Lehane. The New Englander lives with these failures as surely as they live with the cold and the humidity and the insufferable sports fans. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think these failures are better tonic than a record of easy successes. They’re a reminder that, as inevitably as the leaves come down, it will soon enough be our turn to stand before the implacable universals, however we conceive of them, and see if we have the mettle to go our own way.

2020 Birthday Lecture: Fear and Loathing in Genre New England

Review- Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

William Shakespeare, “As You Like It” (1599) – Does reviewing a four hundred year old page on my blog make sense? Well, I read it, so I’ll review it. I remember well one of the summers I spent in New York reading many of Shakespeare’s plays, which I would pick up from the sidewalk used booksellers, like Everett in Washington Square. I got this one, if I recall correctly, at a book sale at the Brookline Public Library. All artifacts of the pre-COVID era… I wonder when I’ll next go through a free or one dollar book pile…

Anyway, shenanigans in the greenwood are the order of the day in this pastoral comedy. George Bernard Shaw thought Shakespeare phoned this one in and there is a certain desultory feel to the proceedings, but I thought it was enjoyable. There’s some dukes, one exiles another, there’s some brothers, one exiles another, the bad duke exiles the good duke’s daughter and her attendant, and everyone winds up in the greenwood, where anything can happen.

It’s a Shakespearean comedy, so everyone is married in the end. Rosalind, the good duke’s daughter, pretends to be a man and makes Orlando, the good brother who is also a plus wrestler (has there ever been a pro wrestling themed adaptation of this or any other Shakespeare play?), woo her in her manly guise. Some of Shakey’s most famous speeches are voiced by Jaques, a guy in the woods, like the “all the world’s a stage” bit. Eventually, everyone is reconciled, even people you’d rather see get a bit of comeuppance. All in all, a decent evening’s entertainment. ****

Review- Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

Review- Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children”

Salman Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children” (1981) – “And good luck with ‘Midnight’s Children,’ heaven knows no one’s ever finished it,” Mark tells another character on one episode of “Peep Show.” Well, I did finish it, though it took a while. What did I get out of it? That, perhaps, is the sort of question that a Rushdie novel seeks to subvert the basis of (conveniently enough, the cynical part of me adds). Should literature be the kind of thing one “gets something out of” or should it be an experience in and of itself? “Midnight’s Children” belongs to the latter category, which is to say that the novel itself is an interesting experience, and also a way of saying that the ending is not noteworthy.

“Midnight’s Children” is the story of Saleem Sinai… or IS it? Is it not the story of post-independence India? Because, you see, Saleem and independent India are born at the very same time, the stroke of midnight on that fateful night in 1947 (also the year Rushdie was born, but not the date). Baby Saleem gets a letter from Nehru marking the occasion and everything. But Saleem (the narrator along with being the main character) doesn’t tell the story beginning with himself. He talks about his grandparents, how they met, his parents, assorted symbolisms and portents in his background, a family habit for being there at key moments in India’s history. The stories are told from the point of view of an older Saleem writing his memoirs and reading them to a paramour, with a lot of asides, glimpses forward and back, etc.

Saleem is very much a literary figure of his or, rather, Rushdie’s time, resembling viewpoint characters found in other magical realist novels like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as quasi-fantastic literary recent-historical novels like those of Saul Bellow and E.L. Doctorow. He’s precocious, opinionated, destiny-crossed, bodily-marked (he has a big nose), voyeuristic, and horny. I guess in most of these respects he’s a reflection of the author and the anticipated reader- it’d hardly do to have an incurious unopinionated viewpoint character, unless you were trying something unusual.

He also has a super-power, though it seems to come and go somewhat arbitrarily. He can read minds and have others read his. Through his super-power, he comes to find out that hundreds of children all around India have super-powers, too, and all were born in the midnight hour of India’s birth, just as he was (hence the title of the book). He summons them all to nightly congresses in his mind (which now seem like nothing so much as so many meetings on Zoom, but of course Rushdie couldn’t have known about Zoom or the pandemic which forced its use back then). They don’t come to much — too many kids, too many ideas, too poorly organized — though Saleem does meet his archnemesis, the violent boy Shiva, born at the same time as him, whose super-power is to kill people with his oversized knees? Honestly, not the best or scariest power out there.

Saleem and Shiva share a secret, Saleem wittingly and Shiva unwillingly, related to their respective births and the families they belong to. There’s a lot of switching in this book, family-switching, name-changing, conversions, and Saleem goes back and forth between India and Pakistan as well. Relatedly, you get a lot about the malleability of identity and identifiers like family, religion, nationality. In one of those have-it-both-ways-and-neither-way things you get with a certain kind of literature, Rushdie both plays to the mystification of India in the western mind and critiques it- westerners are both wrong to see India as mystical and ineffable and also wrong to try to understand it rationally on their own terms. Well, it’s a big, old country. Who’s to say there’s a right way to approach it?

One way in which Rushdie is pretty conventional is in his treatment of women. Saleem claims to have been made and unmade by women every step of the way, from before his birth to his finding his super-power to falling in love with his (sort-of-not-really) sister to his misadventure in the Bangladesh War of Independence and on and on. Horniness and sentimentality combine to make seemingly all women alluring mysteries to Saleem. Is this how Rushdie sees things, or just his viewpoint character/avatar for exploring India’s identity? In the end, Saleem is nearly completely undone by the scariest Indian woman of all, Indira Gandhi. Rushdie abandons most of his literary ambiguity here and seems just shit-scared of that particular woman.

I’m probably not selling anyone on this book, but my tone is such in part because I’ve been sleep-deprived for a little while due to what appear to be medical issues, so I’m having trouble mustering up enthusiasm. But I kept reading the nearly 650 pages not out of stubbornness but out of genuine interest. Rushdie is a capable enough prose stylist, even when winking to assorted now somewhat played-out theoretical concerns, that he carries the reader along. It’s a lively book, which is in interesting contrast to the way it’s sort of a monument of world literature, something to be name-checked rather than really engaged with- “lively” isn’t the word you’d usually ascribe to monuments. Another contradiction for the road, I guess. ****’

Review- Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children”

Review- Machado, “In the Dream House”

Carmen Maria Machado, “In the Dream House” (2019) (narrated by the author) – Much of the time, great works come like bolts out of the blue, with no really visible antecedents: “Astral Weeks,” like I talked about last week, DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Other times, they grow out of unlikely hummus. “In the Dream House” belongs, to my mind anyway, to the second category: it is the millennial confessional essay, not a form I generally respond well to, raised to something both beyond and in keeping with the boundaries of the form.

This is an account of Machado’s emotionally abusive relationship with an unnamed woman, written in scores of tiny chapters, some only a sentence or so long. Machado processes what happens to her through the lens of criticism. Each chapter examines her relationship through a genre or trope, all harkening back to a central trope of the “dream house,” the spaces of her relationship, physically split between old houses in midwestern college towns, Iowa City and Bloomington, Indiana and figuratively inhabiting the utopian dream of lesbian relationships- all the good parts of love, none of the bullshit men bring with them.

How much detail of the abuse does it make sense to go into? In one harrowing chapter (there are many), Machado details how she had a sick desire for her abuse to have been more physical, with bruises she could point to. As it stood, the emotional abuse she sustained, the constant undermining of her sense of self and nurturance of a sick kind of dependence on another’s caprice, was bad enough for this reader. Machado manages emotional space in this work like the best prizefighters manage space in the ring. The examination of her relationship through genre and trope would seem to keep the whole thing at least an arm’s length. But, and perhaps this is my own methods of emotional distancing talking, I found the mechanism supremely relatable and capable of delivering devastating emotional payloads. The distancing, and Machado’s honesty about it, is its own form of closeness.

Me and my war and fighting metaphors… In the introduction, Machado writes, “if you need this book, it is for you.” Well, I don’t know if I need this book, or if it is “for me” in the sense that phrase is generally meant these days. Machado was born within a year of me, we are both nerds whose main medium is the English language… and there the resemblances leave off. Beyond the obvious demographic differences, romantic relationships have played a pretty small role in my life. My boundaries are high, and perhaps I’ve traded some degree of interpersonal connection to avoid what seems to me dramatics and irrational behavior. That’s about as confessional as I feel like getting. One of the points of literature is to nurture empathy. Sometimes, this project turns inward, curdles. Sometimes, I resist literature having a point, in part for the same reasons I avoid some kinds of personal connection- a disinclination to having others meddle in my head. All that said, I am glad I opened myself to Machado’s writing to the extent I did. *****

Review- Machado, “In the Dream House”

Review- Vachss, “Flood”

Andrew Vachss, “Flood” (1985) (narrated by Christopher Lane) – This crime novel, published in the year of my birth, catalogs many of the going fears of the time, most of which bled into my early childhood. The first of what seems to be a long series of novels starring Burke, an ex-con private eye who specializes in shaking down the “freaks” of his native New York City and protecting children, “Flood” capitalizes on the panic over organized child sexual abuse then raging unchecked. Vachss himself, according to wikipedia and his introduction to the novel, at any rate, considers himself first and foremost a protector of children. He apparently has a law practice that only takes on juvenile clients, and once ran a juvenile prison (honestly, seems to contradict the whole “child protector” thing right there, but what do I know?). Eye-patched and given to eccentric statements, like how his “personal religion is revenge,” he cuts a vaguely Moshe Dayan-ish figure.

I listened to this book in part out of general interest in crime fiction, and in part out of an interest in fictional depictions of this era of moral panic. My birthday lecture this year is in part on Dennis Lehane, another crime writer who draws from the well of corrupted childhood innocence. Cards on the table: “childhood innocence” talk from adults, especially adult men, creeps me out. I am indeed aware there are those who prey on children- growing up when and where I did, this is unavoidable. I’m also aware that these are crimes of power imbalance, and posturing as a protector of the weak is a good way to ensure that the power imbalance stays where it is, regardless of good intentions on the part of the “protector”. I also know that in the vast majority of instances, the power imbalances that generate child abuse come from socially-enshrined institutions, the kind you’re not supposed to question, like that of the Catholic Church or, most pertinent of all, the heteronormative patriarchical family. The local fascists like to posture about how opposed they are to pedophilia, as though such a stance makes them brave. They still support Trump and never touch the Church. I’ll believe a social worker or a survivor when they talk about this shit, not a rando vigilante wannabe.

Vachss (and Lehane, for anyone keeping score) acknowledge this power dynamic, partially. Child abuse exists in the sanctified spaces in the world of Vachss because, well, it exists everywhere, kind of rendering the point moot. Still and all, the “freak” Burke hunts in this book finds his victims via, where else, day-care centers, in this instance day-care centers run by liberal churches who buy a freak’s fake traumatized Vietnam vet schtick. He’s hired by the titular Flood, a hot young lady who wants to do a karate duel with the bad guy (who calls himself “The Cobra”). It’s that kind of a book.

Much of the book is a tour through the slime-pits of Burke’s New York. Vachss enumerates in loving detail Burke’s scams, security arrangements, and network of allies. We don’t know what Burke went to jail for but we do know he sees himself as being above both the square society of “citizens” and the “freaks” of the city- he sees himself as a meta-predator, preying on those who prey on others. Though to be honest, when he’s drumming up business for shyster lawyers or running his other penny-ante scams, he seems more like a scavenger than anything else, and Vachss’s descriptions of his security systems get tiresome too. For those playing the game of trying to dope out an ideology here, Vachss is complicated, though I wouldn’t say “complex” in the sense of “nuanced.” He’s disgusted by the society of freaks, but right-wingers are freaks just as much as anyone else in his book. Scamming the mercenary pipeline to Rhodesia winds up being a key part of how Burke finds his man, and Burke is pals with Puerto Rican militants and a trans woman who’s relatively sensitively portrayed, given the era and the context.. Moreover, there’s little appeal to lost innocence on a societal level- Burke and Vachss don’t look back to the fifties or whenever. Ultimately, in a fallen world, there is no society, only men and women and their — in this instance, chosen, like Burke’s posse — families, to borrow a phrase from a contemporary figure. Crime fiction doesn’t generally set out to solve the structural woes of the world, but the way they choose to portray these structures can tell you something.

How to rate this book? It was certainly an interesting glimpse into a time and place. Vachss’s work might form a building block going forward in thinking about the era, and I do plan on reading and writing more concertedly about the late twentieth century. I also found it markedly unpleasant to listen to. Vachss himself would presumably put this down to my incapacity to deal with the reality of the streets, but if I may speak for myself in this hypothetical conversation, I don’t think that’s it. For one thing, I’m not sure how real any of this is, between the karate duels and the friend of Burke’s who invented a laser as a kid and the open-air child slave and pornography markets. For another, it just ticked a lot of boxes of unpleasantness for me and I think for many readers orthogonal to the premise of child abuse existing, starting with the creepy protector-of-the-youth bullshit you need to accept as the price of entry, and including the choice of the voice actor to do ludicrous dehumanizing Asian and black dialect voices (his Hispanic voices were relatively restrained- thank god for small favors I suppose). In the last analysis I rate these books based on whether I liked them, like goodreads says (this all started with goodreads, for better or for worse), and in the end I would not say I “liked” this weird, scuzzy book. **

Review- Vachss, “Flood”

Review- Walsh, “Astral Weeks”

Ryan Walsh, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” (2018) – Van Morrison’s second solo album, “Astral Weeks,” seems to come out of nowhere. Those accustomed to the overplay of “Brown Eyed Girl” on oldies radio and assuming that’s what Morrison is all about — even if they like that version — are in for a surprise if they turn on “Astral Weeks.” Better essayists than me, most notably rock critic legend Lester Bangs, have already expanded at length on the album’s musical qualities, with a lot of words like “transcendent” thrown around. It really is worth your while to give it a listen.

One of the things that provokes discussion about the album is the contrast between the art and the artist. It’s not that anyone’s surprised that Van Morrison could create something like that on a talent level- from his early work with Them, everyone knew Morrison had talent. The contrast is between the emotional range of the album and that presented by Van Morrison the person, and much of his subsequent work. In short, “Astral Weeks” is a deeply felt, empathetic piece of work, and Van Morrison was and is… a piece of work. He himself has spent the last fifty years insisting “Astral Weeks” isn’t representative of his work or personal in any way. He’s something of a sour old man and always was, even when he was making brilliant music in his early twenties. This wasn’t rock and roll grandiosity, great talent and great failings (and great stories); he was just a low-grade, petty prick to everyone around him. You don’t need to believe great souls make great art but… the going theory seems to be that Morrison got in touch with something around the time he made “Astral Weeks.” Some of the magic lasted into subsequent albums, but it was mostly gone with a few years, and he never touched anything like it again, and it burnt something out of him.

Musician and music journalist Ryan Walsh puts forward the novel idea that there could be a Boston connection to that “something” Morrison touched in this book. It’s notionally about the album, but really it’s an attempt to summon a gestalt. Boston isn’t commonly thought of as one of the epicenters of “the sixties” as a phenomenon, but Walsh makes the argument here that maybe it should?

There’s a few different strains of narrative he follows and tries to string together. Van Morrison was indeed in Boston in 1968, Cambridge more precisely, trying to get out of a bad record contract, playing gigs, and writing the material that would go into “Astral Weeks.” He was attracted in part by the Cambridge folk revival scene, which was in collapse by then and an erstwhile member of which, Mel Lyman, was setting up a folk-music-labor-and-sex cult in Roxbury, the Fort Hill Community (or Lyman Family). This all sort of came together around the creation of the Family-backed Boston Tea Party, a concert venue which became a favorite for the Velvet Underground among others. There was a lot of psychedelic stuff going on, from Timothy Leary’s early experiments at Harvard to trippy public tv on WGBH to the countercultural press — like the Fort Hill Community’s magazine “Avatar” — pushing the envelope and getting in free speech fights. There was also the more earth-bound concerns of the time, and Walsh retells the story of how the Boston mayor’s office got James Brown to play a special concert to help keep the kids occupied and not rioting after the MLK assassination.

A reader expecting solely a deep dive into Van Morrison’s world and process might be disappointed by how much of the book isn’t really about him, but Walsh does get the goods in terms of tracking down his collaborators. He also paints a vivid picture of Boston’s music scene at the time, when record company people tried and crashingly failed to promote a “Boston Sound” as a geographical counterpoint to a San Francisco seen as fading out. He gets seemingly every old Boston rock hand talking. One person Walsh doesn’t talk to is Morrison himself. I have it on reasonably good information from a friend of the author that Walsh didn’t even bother to try, knowing that “Van the Man” has driven numerous other rock journalists, like his biographer Clinton Heylin, to distraction and hostility with his evasions and crabbiness.

How successfully does Walsh summon his Boston 1968 gestalt? Does it get across the emotional overtones he wants it to? He’s reasonably successful, I’d say. You don’t get quite the sense of cosmic connection out of the coincidences and crossed paths Walsh documents that you do out of “Astral Weeks,” but it’s harder to do that kind of thing with prose nonfiction. I’m not sure I buy the notion of “Astral Weeks” as a “Boston album.” Yes, Morrison developed the songs in Boston. But he recorded them in New York, with the vital backup of New York jazz session musicians. More importantly, the songs themselves reflect Morrison’s youth in Belfast. “Astral Weeks” has been called the last culturally significant portrait of Belfast before the Troubles. But this, thankfully, is not a thesis heavy book. Mostly, you just sort of take in the gestalt, and Walsh’s efforts to reconstruct it. ****’

Review- Walsh, “Astral Weeks”