Alumni, faculty and Bulletin staff members offer reviews of some of their favorite books.
Peter Taylor's final novel, "In the Tennessee Country," examines a life made richer through the understanding of what might have been, but wasn't quite.
The book follows by eight years the author's Pulitzer-Prize-winning "A Summons to Memphis," the account of an aging father's relationship with his children. A companion in a way to Memphis, the new novel is not a sequel but another spare story of coming to terms with family and, for Taylor, self.
Like the earlier book, which circles around a family's move from Nashville to Memphis after a crisis, "In the Tennessee Country" is the story of another trip, a train ride from Washington, D.C., back to a U.S. senator's home state for his burial in Knoxville. As in the earlier novel, the narrator-in this case the senator's grandson-recounts the event once, then realizes there's more to tell, then more to tell, and he keeps revisiting the trip, adding detail each time, shifting perspective, contradicting earlier versions.
Nathan Longfort, the narrator, explains that he's in fact telling the story of another passenger on that funeral train, Aubrey, a bastard cousin taken into the senator's household and now cast adrift by the great man's death. By slowly dropping from sight in the years following the funeral trip, Aubrey has captured Na than' s imagination, as one of those Tennessee gentlemen who suddenly, and somewhat romantically, disappear.
The reader gradually becomes aware that more is at stake for Nathan Longfort than satisfying his curiosity over a lost relative. A more profound loss for Nathan is his failure to develop his modest gifts as a painter or sculptor. Instead, he finds art history and criticism to be an easier path to success.
Bulletin readers will enjoy Nathan's account of his happiest years, spent teaching art at Kenyon, "a little Ohio college," where he "could imagine [him]self in the surroundings of some remote English crossroads." In one intriguing reference, he joins his old teacher John Paul Randelman (is this John Crowe Ransom?) on the faculty. While Taylor offers autobiographical details in this book, however, the story is not his own but, perhaps, that of an alter ego without Taylor's artistic talent and drive.
An artist's life can be dangerous, our narrator explains: "[d]iscovery in art must somehow be linked to his learning about life." So Nathan begins to understand, sometime after the reader does, that his search now for Cousin Aubrey is a thin substitute for the more perilous search, the quest for creative vision. Nathan can only watch, never quite admitting envy, as his own son develops artistic genius.
On one level, this is a novel about frustration. The other characters love more wholly, do better art, or live a mystery. But there aren't really levels in this book; the great strength of the novel is the grace with which it embraces so many of the themes of a man's life and how it moves among those themes so elegantly.
Modem physics tries to reconcile the paradox that the lushest complexity coexists with utterly smooth simplicity. It's an irony perfectly demonstrated in Peter Taylor's fiction. "In the Tennessee Country" isn't as simple as A Summons to Memphis and therefore not as complex, but elaborate textures in smooth silk once again compel the reader's touch.
— Michael Matros, associate editor of the Bulletin
(Note: Another version of this review first appeared in the Columbus Dispatch)
A few years ago, on a summer evening in New York City's West Village, my wife and I went in search of a wonderful Indian restaurant that haunted her memory from her years on the Upper West Side. It was on Bleecker, or was it MacDougal? Near Sixth, or ... no, it must be farther east. We never found the restaurant, which had gone the way of all good Indian food, but as we wandered the city that day in search of the ghost of chana masala, it struck me that we had stumbled upon a metaphor. New York, I decided, feeds its young (when not feeding upon them) not on paratha, but on memory.
This vanishing act that is Manhattan is the subject of two recent novels by Kenyon-affiliated authors: Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" and E.L. Doctorow's "The Waterworks." By a coincidence of inspiration and literary marketing, both novels probe a mystery that turns on a trade in homeless children against the backdrop of "the brilliant heart-quaking civilization of New York" in the years after the Civil War. The city they depict is a mirror, reflecting our own vision of urban decay, with its vast disparities of wealth and poverty, "good society" and immigrant squalor, high culture and human corruption. While both novels are loving evocations of urban decadence past, narrated by that figure of modem romance, the newsman, it is Doctorow's book that lifts its gaze beyond the seductions of history to speak to our own age's fascination with what has vanished and what endures.
During the final years of Boss Tweed's rule, Martin Pemberton, the iconoclastic son of a brutal slaver and war profiteer, clings to his principles by working as a "freelance" for the New York Telegram. By embracing poverty, he does penance for his father's tainted wealth. Yet, Martin's critical eye, the skepticism with which he views his own age's complacencies, may be his father's most dangerous legacy, the patrimony of a man who refuses to accept the limits even of his own mortality. And therein lies the tale: on several occasions in the months following his father's death, Martin catches a glimpse of him — sickly, but alive — among a party of old men in black clattering through the streets of Manhattan in a municipal coach. Troubled by this ghostly vision, Martin disappears from his usual haunts, drawing his editor, the book's narrator, in pursuit.
Doctorow's mystery is his metaphor, a gothic plot in service of a historical meditation. His newsmen speak from memory, rejecting the newsroom's culture of immediacy (the excitement of the exclusive story, the pressure to write for the moment each evening when the papers hit the sidewalk) for the sober tone of the memoirist. In doing so, his narrator draws the reader's eye to the transience of history: this world has passed, Doctorow's novel reminds us, even for those who lived it.
What is masterful in this conceit is the resonance between the history that Doctorow evokes and the metaphor of the ghostly father, whose death is less disturbing to Martin than the thought that he still wanders the streets. As in so much of Doctorow's fiction, it is the idea of history that haunts this novel, the vanishing and persistence of a city he loves, deplores, and restores to life in all its painful humanity.
— Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, assistant professor of English
Travelogue and road trip, pilgrimage and historical journey, Hodding Carter's amazing, truthful, often funny account of his travels on the route of Lewis and Clarke from the McDonald's under the arch in St. Louis, Missouri, to the swells o the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon, is a journey of more stamina and determination than the accepted conveniences of modern life might allow us, at first, to admit.
Neither Lewis nor Clark had to put up with trucks or traffic as they strode along the trail. There was little litter in the most scenic places, nor huge industrial river complexes, nor the U.S. Corps of Engineers turning rivers into shipping channels, nor darns diverting a mighty river's flow into irrigation channels so that the river ahead was but two hundred miles of mud.
Carter's sole companion was Preston, an old friend, and the interplay of personalities and mutual frustrations of the odd couple on an inflatable raft are what give the book many of its finer, and most realistic, moments.
Preston turns out to be right about which channel was the right one to follow, at least this time! Carter natters at Preston to keep the map under the tarp and out of the rain. Carter and Preston bicker seriously about who is playing Lewis and who is playing Clark.
It was only after the loss of Haiti as a French colony that Napoleon became serious about what would become, in the United States, the Louisiana Purchase. Now, with another kind of freedom for Haiti, Carter and Preston, like Lewis and Clark, have taken a trip to see what remains of that purchase. What has been realized of Jefferson's great hope for the West, charted partly by Lewis and Clark and retraced for us by Carter and Preston?
Certainly the use of the land has obscured some of its enfolding beauty. Native Americans, now and then, seem curiously and tragically unsettled in a land that will always be, and yet never again be, theirs.
What does seem better is that two young men can set out on a raft powered by a small outboard engine (Lewis and Clark had thirty rowers), and on foot and on horseback, and again in their raft face the perils of a still dangerous journey. They reach the ("Taste it, Preston!") salt water blending into the fresh water of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, due to luck, courage, and the kindness of strangers-the same luck and courage necessary for Lewis and Clark, and the unexpected kindness, this time, of the descendants of the Native Americans who also helped Lewis and Clark.
— Jack Finefrock, bookstore manager and adjunct instructor of classics
Sportswriting is a craft with rules of its own. Hyperbole is virtually de rigueur, and tropes that would be rejected out of hand in other contexts are relished when the subject is baseball, football, or horse racing. It is therefore not surprising that anthologists have found lively treasure when excavating the sports pages.
Jim Reisler has culled the baseball-focused writings of black sportswriters from the 1920s to about 1950 and discovered some gems. More important, he has made available to a wider reading public the work of some largely forgotten journalists. In the summer of 1994, Wendell Smith became the first African-American inducted into the Writers Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This book suggests that others deserve to join him.
Reisler presents the work of eight writers — Smith, Sam Lacy (still alive, although he once shagged flies for Walter Johnson), Frank Young, Joe Bostic, Ches Washington, Rollo Wilson, Dan Burley, and Ed Harris. The samplings are numerous enough to let the reader learn to recognize the characteristic cadences and formulas of each writer. Some pieces are funny, some lyrical, some remorselessly factual.
For example, there is Frank Young's 1946 tribute to Cum Posey, hard-driving former owner of the talent-laden Homestead Grays. "Good Losers," Posey liked to say, "are seldom winners." There is Wendell Smith's 1938 celebration of Buck Leonard, then batting .480. "When [a player] hits .400 or better, he's sticking his nose right into the door that leads to the Hall of Fame." High irony when Smith penned them, these words came true thirty-four years later. There is Sam Lacy's review of the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, in which Lacy systematically criticizes the filmmakers for their errors: exaggerating the on-the-field opposition Robinson faced, while underplaying the range of off-the-field indignities thrown at him.
But what I found most memorable were two other selections. The first is Ches Washington's 1942 letter to Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, in which he asks why, if the U.S. Navy can be integrated, organized baseball can't and to which he appends an innocent postscript that tells it all: "Did you read about the Kansas City Monarchs drawing thirty-thousand in Chicago last Sunday against Dizzy Dean's major-league all stars and beating the stars 3-1 ?"
The second is Joe Bostic's "dream," a parable penned in 1942 in which Bostic sets out to sell Ray Dandridge to the New York Yankees, Showboat Thomas to the New York Giants, and Satchel Paige to the Cleveland Indians (how's that for prescience?), only to be blocked by a quartet of formidable authority comprised of Judge Landis, Thurman Arnold (U.S. assistant attorney general), and Torn Wilson and J.B. Martin ( the presidents of the two Negro leagues).
This is a wonderful book, and I'm glad a Kenyon alumnus is the anthologist.
— Reed S. Browning, professor of history
We all have dim memories of sixth-grade history class, of learning about how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes swept down from the north and east, overrunning the British Isles, conquering the people who lived there, and establishing the "English" nation. Probably few of us ever wondered where this information about England's antique history came from. In the absence of eyewitnesses or written documents, historians have only scattered archaeological evidence of this "dark age," evidence that is capable of enlightening only when placed into context by written records. Much of what is taught about the earliest English history derives from the accounts written by a twelfth-century monk of Malmesbury named William.
William is accepted by modern scholars as a serious historian. Unlike his contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is credited with writing the first legend of King Arthur, William did not "invent lies" or embellish his historical account with fantastic narratives of heroes, magicians, and fabulous monsters. Well, not much anyway. There is the story of the Norman prodigy, the woman with two heads, four arms, and "every other part two-fold down to the navel," and other assorted tales of miracles, witchcraft, and cannibalism.
But these incidents are generally dismissed by modern historians who extrapolate "the facts" from William's narrative. Unfortunately, this means that William can be saved for the modem discipline of history only at the expense of those features of his writing that make him a storyteller. The result is a history that appears to us to be, like most other medieval historical writing, mind-numbingly repetitive and shapeless.
Only recently have historians paused to consider whether their own expectations about historical writing have led them to dismiss the Middle Ages' own historical self-fashioning as either fabulous or dull. Associate Professor of French Jean Blacker contributes significantly to this reevaluation of medieval historical writing in her new book, "The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo-Norman Regnum." Blacker looks with a literary critic's eye at the works of six historians who wrote in both Latin and Old French during the first century of Norman rule in England (roughly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries). She attempts to understand who the audience for these histories would have been and how those audiences' expectations of historical writing might have differed from ours. The very different modes of production and circulation of medieval historical writing may well account for why, in Blacker's words, "fact and fiction often overlapped [in these histories], permitting ghosts, witches, and similar beings to take their place alongside archbishops and kings as part of the continuum of life, each element having its own type of historical validity."
Even more significant than the coexistence of the supernatural and fabulous alongside the mundane in medieval histories, however, is that, while the six historians Blacker examines — which include William and Geoffrey, as well as Orderic Vitalis Wace, Gaimer, and Benoit de Sainte-Maure — chronicle English kings and English history, they write in either Latin or French.
— Laurie A. Finke, associate professor of women's and gender studies
"It is imagination that is the decisive function of the scholar ... It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions, something in which, generally speaking, only he who masters all the methods of his science succeeds." — Hans-Georg Gadamer
"Dialectics and Decadence" is not only an examination of the Greek influence on Marx and Nietzsche, two of the nineteenth century's greatest thinkers; it is also a work that marks Professor of Sociology George McCarthy as one of the most thoughtful and imaginative scholars working in his field today.
It is McCarthy's aim in his most recent work to "trace the source of the imagination and inspiration for their [Marx and Nietzsche's] ideas back to classical antiquity." Yet Dialectics and Decadence accomplishes more than this. Through a detailed examination of their use of the Greeks, McCarthy is able to reopen, for his readers, some of the most difficult questions with which Marx and Nietzsche wrestled. The reader is able to ask, along with McCarthy: "Why does Marx tum to Aristotle so often?" and "Why does Nietzsche find the figures of Socrates and Kant so troubling?" The reopening of these questions makes it possible for us to ask the same questions of our society and our world that Marx and Nietzsche did-questions that probe the interrelationships of knowledge, economic justice, ethics, social practice, and creativity.
McCarthy details Marx and Nietzsche's explorations of the classical Greek world and its purported successor, the Enlightenment tradition, sources that both philosophers pushed to their limits. The widely divergent paths taken by these two thinkers (Marx to a critique of political economy and Nietzsche to a theory of aesthetics and ethics) suggest to McCarthy complementary attempts to transcend the tyranny and irrationalism of liberalism: "[T]he spiritual heart of both their philosophies rested in a regaining of 'power' and control over their lives, which had previously been surrendered to Christian morality and modern science, and to the philosophies, values, and institutions of liberal politics and classical political economy."
While "Dialectics and Decadence" is far more accessible than some of McCarthy's earlier work on Marx (even to the reader who is not terribly familiar with either Marx or Aristotle), this should not suggest that it is of any less importance to Marxian scholarship. On the contrary, this present work marks the culmination of McCarthy's many years, as a teacher and writer, spent offering subtle and refined readings of Marx. Only such an accomplished scholar could persuasively argue that Capital is best read as a work laying the ethical foundations for a moral economy. Anyone who turns to nineteenth-century social thought for its critical and emancipatory impulse will be wise to consult McCarthy's latest work.
While the extent of Aristotle's influence on Marx is not immediately clear to first-time readers of Marx, thus requiring a talented scholar like McCarthy to make this influence clear, the situation is quite otherwise with Nietzsche. Even first-time readers of Nietzsche will notice the considerable influence of Greek themes on Nietzsche's thought. Indeed, Nietzsche stands toward the end of a long line of German poets and thinkers who attempted to define German culture through an appropriation of Greek themes. One might approach McCarthy's work with the question: "What more is there to say about Nietzsche and the Greeks?" "Plenty," the reader will answer, after reading "Dialectics and Decadence."
McCarthy places Nietzsche's appropriation of the Presocratic thinkers in the context of Nietzsche's critique of Kant. Nietzsche was motivated by the same questions regarding knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics as was Kant, McCarthy argues. Yet Nietzsche turned to the thinkers who came before Plato, who initiated in Nietzsche's mind the entire project of Western philosophy, including perhaps its greatest thinker, Kant. By turning to earlier thinkers, Nietzsche is able to offer radically novel and creative answers to questions about our intellectual, spiritual, and creative responses to the world. Placing Nietzsche in this context is tremendously helpful for readers previously baffled by many of Nietzsche's arguments.
McCarthy also argues in "Dialectics and Decadence" that despite the vast substantive differences between Marx and Nietzsche, there is much to be gained by a joint consideration of their work. "Between them lies the possibility of removing the distance between ethics and sciences, politics and knowledge, equality and moral excellence." Socioeconomic justice and equality are not incompatible with aesthetic and intellectual achievement, McCarthy argues. By expanding the range of questions and categories through which we come to know our world, Marx and Nietzsche help us to envision a society in which such goals can be reconciled.
Finally, "Dialectics and Decadence" is a well-written work. McCarthy's style is lucid and his scholarship responsible. Where appropriate, McCarthy works with the original German texts of Marx and Nietzsche. This is significant because of the questionable posthumous decisions that have been made in the editing and translating of these thinkers' works. Also, McCarthy consistently refers the reader to the appropriate bodies of secondary literature.
Most importantly, McCarthy writes with an honest passion for his work. This is perhaps what his readers will appreciate most, for this passion feeds McCarthy's imagination, and that imagination provides us with a fresh and edifying look at Marx and Nietzsche.
— Lynne Taddeo '93
In their splendid volume, Nathan Scott of the University of Virginia and John Crowe Ransom Professor of English Ronald Sharp have gathered together an international group of scholars who, with care and deep reflection, have offered multiple perspectives on one of the truly great scholars of our time, George Steiner. As both Sharp and Scott eloquently remind us in their contributions to this volume, it is no easy task to interpret this polymathic thinker.
Over the years, Steiner has been variously renowned (or renounced) as an essayist, ethicist, cultural critic, literary critic, novelist, and aesthetic and linguistic philosopher. Through their separate endeavors, the authors in this volume have labored in all of these fields. Taken together, they lay before their readers a number of the complex paths and unifying byways that Steiner has traveled throughout his distinguished career.
Let me mention just a few of these unifying motifs. First, as many of the authors observe, Steiner places the difficulty and struggle inherent in the activity of philosophical reflection and artistic creation in conflict with the conditions of contemporary culture. Rather than providing a facile form of resolution, Steiner often vituperatively exploits this tension in his criticism of popular culture. Second, throughout all of his intellectual and literal sojourns and border-crossings, as a cosmopolitan Jewish thinker, Steiner consistently returns to the circumference of meaning inscribed by the Holocaust.
In his own "responsion" to the essays contained in this volume, Steiner links this event to his interest in tragedy. In his words, absolute tragedy "declares a condition in which men and women are unwelcome guests of life, in which they suffer arbitrary sadism and injustice beyond understanding and theodicy. This may well be a scarcely endurable blueprint, but so are the mere realities of Khmer Rouge massacres, of mass starvation, of the torment of children and animals, of the willful laying waste of the earth which persist, which have accelerated after Auschwitz."
If his tragic sensibility constitutes a third motif examined in this book, his views on language, life, and transcendence offer a fourth. As a philosopher, Steiner constantly meditates on the riddle of human language and life. How, for example, he asks, can human speech be used "both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy, and to annihilate?" In exploring this riddle, Steiner has never given up his fundamental belief that words are the passageway to the world and its truth. For him, the word and the world are indelibly linked. The "transit from words to the Word, from theories of signs to presumptions of substance," he tells us, "has been an inevitable motif' from his first work on Dostoevski and Tolstoy to his most recent publication of "Real Presences."
In sum, "Reading George Steiner" offers its audience a complex but unified image of one of the great literati and critics of our time. It is not only the best introduction, but the most sophisticated reading of his works to date. As a collection of essays, this book admirably portrays the real presence of the extraordinary George Steiner.
— Michael E. Brint, associate professor of humane studies
Thought to be an offshoot of archery, darts — the sport of throwing "hand-held arrows" at a target, writes Chris Carey — has become a popular pastime for many and a profession for a select few.
The sport made its way to the United States from the pubs of England in the late nineteenth century. Since then, its international popularity has soared: the National Darts Association was formed in England in 1924, the American Darts Organization in 1975, the Darts Federation of Australia in 1976, the World Darts Federation also in 1976, and so on. Dozens of countries now have darts organizations and host competitions.
Carey, one of the founders of the American Darts Organization, presents an excellent introduction to the sport in his "Book of Darts." This easy-to-read paperback presents solid information on the history of darts, equipment, techniques for successful play, and — especially helpful for players needing a refresher in the sport — a valuable guide to more than a dozen different games, including the ever-popular Cricket, 301, and 501. The lesser-known games of Baseball, Halve-It, Legs, Round the World, Scram, Shanghai, and others advance the skills of novice and accomplished players alike. Along with explaining the rules of each game, Carey offers tips for doubling-in and doubling-out (hitting specific numbers before play can begin) as well as strategies for closing-out numbers and tallying points.
"The concentric circles and spider pattern of the modem dart board," explains Carey in reference to darts' archery past, "resemble the cracked, weathered cross sections of trees; the bottoms of beer barrels afforded the perfect bull's eye-the cork. Today, the bull's-eye is still called the 'cork."'
As anyone who has played knows, darts is not a game of chance. Hitting the target — be it a single, double, or triple — takes skill. With this handy guide to the sport, Carey hits the inner cork and scores a near-perfect round.
— Thomas L. Bigelow, managing editor of the Bulletin