Monday, December 1, 2014


December 1, 2014:

          If it's a choice between eating and reading, said Erasmus, buy books.

          Well, that's a little extreme, I suppose. I bring it up because a brand new book store has opened in Sag Harbor, called Harbor Books, at a time when independent bookstores are closing all over the country, Barnes & Noble can't seem to thrive, and, from my end, as a writer, it's harder and harder to get books published. But here is a sign of hope--a new bookstore, with a young lady as a proprietor. And another sign: a niece of my wife's has let it be known that she, too, collects books, she's a registered nurse, and one doesn't often hear of registered nurses collecting books. Signed copies, in her case. I'm impressed.

          I have signed copies, too. Dozens of them. But then I'm a writer, and writer friends sign copies of their books for me and my wife whenever they appear, or whenever we ask them to. I have thousands of other books, too, but then I'm a writer, mine is a working library, and almost all my books are associated in one way or another with subjects I myself hope to write about someday.

          Which is not to say that I don't collect books. I have been doing that all my adult life and once had a collection of rare books that impressed some people, although it didn't much impress me because so many of my purchases were targets of opportunity. I would find odd or intriguing volumes in the used book stores I  haunted in New York City or wherever else I found myself and snatch them up. One of my favorites--a little volume from the 1850s or so called "How to Be Pretty though Plain"--I bought simply for its title. Another, from just after the Civil War: "Is a Lie Ever Justifiable?" I used that once in a talk I gave before a chapter of the Ethical Culture Society, where I told my audience a story from that book, about a plan Union prisoners had cooked up to escape from the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp in the South. But it involved telling a lie and an essential member of this escape plan refused to do that. On principle. Then I asked the audience what they would have done, and why, and it began a lively discussion which obviated the need for me to lecture them.

          I also have other old books that don't fit a pattern, books I bought because they weren't beyond my means and they were interesting in themselves. My oldest book came from an antique shop in upstate New York where the woman had no idea what it was. It is a small pocket-size edition of one of Cicero's philosophical works, in Latin, of course, it's handsomely bound in its original vellum binding, and it was published by the Aldine Press in Venice in 1546. I take it off the shelf sometimes to show friends what an old book looks like: beautifully printed on hand-made paper with no wood pulp anywhere nearby when it was made, so the paper is still white and fresh. The Aldine Press, founded by Aldus Manutius, was one of the great presses of the Renaissance. I paid $10 for it. Because somebody once used what looks like red crayon on a few pages, it's not worth much, but I don't want to sell it anyway. I was also able to buy quite cheaply at auction many, many years ago a copy of the first, 1710 folio edition of Nicholas Rowe's translation of Lucan's "Pharsalia," his epic poem on the civil wars in Italy between Caesar, Pompey, and the rest. I'll have that until I die, too. The full-leather binding is a mess, but internally the book is fine, it's full of wonderful etchings in great condition, and it gives me pleasure just to look at it once in a while. To get it rebound would cost probably $1,000 or more, which I don't have, so I'm happy to keep it. I've sold most of my rare books, the Modern Firsts, the 17th-century editions of English translations of the classics and the like, but these few I'll keep. And the working library, which I trim once in a while, sometimes dramatically, I have to keep. It's my life.

          But despite the two little hopeful signs I mentioned above, the sense of decline that pervades high culture in this country persists, and grows, and I, for one, feel like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching asteroid that's going to wipe me and my kind off the face of the earth. Anyone who collects books, who thinks that reading, the acquisition of knowledge, intellectual passion, is the highest pleasure life offers, cannot view the creep of ignorance, outright stupidity, and determined anti-intellectualism that seems to be one of the pillars of American self-esteem  penetrate into every corner of our national life without despairing. Young people abjure books. College students don't know who fought the Civil War. Congressmen who ought to be versed in American history don't know anything. In the book collecting world I know so well, rich  people no longer buy anything but the big highlights, "The Great Gatsby" in original dust jacket for two or three hundred thousand dollars (but no other Fitzgerald), "Moby Dick" for an astronomical amount (but no other Melville), "Ulysses" for a small fortune (but nothing else by James Joyce). This is trophy collecting, not book collecting--see, my checkbook is bigger than yours.

          I know, this is an old fart's lament. But it is connected--when Congressmen tell you that they're "not scientists" and therefore won't answer questions about global warming, well, guess what? It's their JOB to educate themselves about issues, however technical (and there's nothing that complicated about global warming), because they vote on them. I consider it my job as a citizen to keep myself informed about issues as well, because I, too, vote on them. And educating yourself means reading books. No other way is so thorough or leads to more knowledge and more understanding. But the dumbing down continues unabated, shamelessly, unconscionably, and the nation seems to be increasingly proud of its ignorance.

          What do you get from reading? A wider world. Insight. Understanding. It's like travel--it broadens the mind. It leads you to think. It can't make you think, but it offers the opportunity. It's like Mark Twain's discovery when he first saw India and the Indian people that their dark skin had a kind of glow to it, and that the colors they wore were beautiful and wild, and that he was utterly entranced.

          If you have to make that choice, in short, between eating and reading, buy books.

Monday, November 10, 2014


November 10, 2014:

          Thanks to my wife's get-up-and-go, she is now the theater reviewer for a local paper, which gets us free tickets to all the local plays, musicals, what-have-yous, and it has been a boon. Yesterday we went to see a production of Hamlet, locally produced but with some professional actors, and to prepare for that we watched the BBC production of Hamlet the night before. It was on CD and it starred Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom, and other English actors. It was magnificent. The local play? Not so much.

          Hamlet is one of those touchstone plays, a measure of greatness in the theater, and everyone wants a shot at it. I've seen it a number of times, both on the stage and in the movies. I saw the Mel Gibson version, out of curiosity, to see what somebody like him would make of the part. I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet in Toronto, on the second evening of his tour in Canada and the U. S. Probably everyone has seen Olivier's movie version. The merit of the BBC production, besides the fact that it is so wonderfully acted, is that it presents the whole play, uncut. Most versions are cut. Uncut, it runs very close to four hours. Yesterday's version ran a little over an hour shorter. Even at that length it's long, and you have to admire the courage of the people who undertook it.

          In any case, having seen so many versions of it, I was wondering this morning what it takes an actor to inhabit such a complex part as Hamlet is, as opposed to merely acting it. Hamlet is sly, clever, devious. He is full of passion. He feigns madness, and may sometimes feel mad. He is brilliant. He cannot bring himself to do the thing he knows he must. He is witty. He mourns; he is melancholy; he is intense. He is resolutely indecisive. He loves; he hates. How does an actor transform himself into such a person? The local player yesterday seemed not to know; he was uniformly bland. He had memorized the lines, a feat in itself, he spoke them clearly, and he has trained in England to do Shakespeare, according to his biography, but only a certain emotional depth could prepare a man for this part.
          Emotional depth--and what is that? Tragedy is about emotional depth. It is about suffering, loss of all kinds, the crushing of hopes, running out of time. It is about the acquisition of wisdom. Nations must go through these things to become wise, just as human beings do. Is Hamlet wise at the end? Yes, he is at last. Fully equipped both to act out his revenge, and to bear the burden of the costs entailed in it.  But I wonder whether Americans in general are suited to play this part. We are not as a nation wise, as it is easy to see from the way we conduct foreign policy, our lack of education, the grotesque lack of intelligence in our Congress, our anti-intellectualism. The distance of our image of ourselves from the reality. The actor yesterday did not give the sense of having lived enough. He "got" only one or two aspects of the character. So it all too often is with America. We "get," as a nation and as a public, only one or two aspects of situations that in fact are extremely complex and difficult. We are the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. We aren't ready yet to play the hero in the continuous tragedy of our time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


October 29, 2014:

          No doubt like many of yours, my email inbox has been bombarded with political appeals, almost all of them for money, from the Democratic Party, mostly with scare quotes along the lines of "we're ruined," or "it's too late" or any number of other themes to the effect that my $5 is going to make all the difference. I did at one point give them a small amount of money, which only intensified the whole process. Four, five, ten appeals a day.

          But I can't blame them. In more ways than one, politics is all about money, who has it and who doesn't and how to best implement the getting of it, for one group or another. I was thinking about this at Starbuck's this morning while reading a review of a book about the great English political philosopher Edmund Burke, and the review emphasized the complexity of his thought and this somehow led me to think about the complexity of economies, the enormous minuet of products, buying and selling, worldwide trade, building and tearing down, banks, stocks and bonds, on and on and, well, here I am, wondering how far the Republicans will go if they win both houses of Congress. Because Republicans do not believe in complexity. In the name of what they call the free market, they will do their best to simplify, as they have to been trying to do for many years, the economy, and eliminate as many Federal regulations as they can. And that will be a disaster.

          The free market. What a joke that is. The free market will regulate itself, they claim. Right. Do away with the Food and Drug Administration and its rules and regulations and what will happen? Why, it stands to reason in their minds, evidently, contaminated food will be driven out by uncontaminated food, which will certainly happen in a free market, people being as rational as they supposedly are. So it stands to reason that producers should be allowed to sell contaminated food because the market will take care of it? Really? We should take the federal inspectors out of the meat factories, the state inspectors out of the restaurants, and the drug testers out of their labs, and let the public sort if out on their own? What this means is clear enough. Members of the public will die in the service of this thing called the free market, until the public as a whole finally figures out, WTF--we're  supposed to be guinea pigs for cutthroat capitalism?

         Regulations are not historically something an evil government dreamed up to control our lives, our entrepreneurial instincts. Ultimately regulations come from the public, not the government itself. They come from public demands, developed over time in a host of different industries, for safety and efficiency--for safe meat, safe drugs, safe air travel, safe and efficient roads. Would the Republicans want to eliminate the air traffic regulations that ensure planes don't start crashing into each other? Or is this BS about the free  market, as the cynical among us believe, all about the Koch brothers, the vast sums of money they invest in buying political power, and eliminating the rules that govern carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere? The Koch brothers, it would appear, would happily burn us all into oblivion if it increased their profits on a carload of coal.

          This has been going on for well over a century. Miners died by the thousands until regulations were instituted to make mining  safer for miners. They still die because mine owners ignore those regulations--it's always cheaper to ignore them--and try to get away with it. Does anybody really think that the public all by itself will inquire as to where the coal that fires power plants comes from, thereby singling out bad producers from good, as if that were even possible? We the public demand regulations because it's obvious that industries of all kinds will not police themselves, will not and do not if they can get away with it. Because it's all about money. Industry is not about public service, it's about profit for the owners of industry. The Center for Disease Control--will they want to get rid of that, too? Witness the panic generated by the current Ebola crisis, way out of proportion to the actual danger. The public demands protection. The government complies. All that regulatory paperwork--my Republican brother used to complain about it, on behalf of his business clients--well, the paperwork comes out of business itself, out of its crimes against the public, its indifference to the public good, its exclusive interest in profit.

          In local communities, we take regulation for granted. We have zoning regulations, regulations on the size of houses on lots, school safety regulations, sewer treatment regulations, and we rely on them. I, personally, am not fond of shitting in the woods, and don't want to take a walk in any woods where people do this. So it's against the law, except, perhaps, in Alaska. I want environmental regulations that prevent the fouling of water supplies. In my community I founded and was the first chairman of the local architectural review board and we had the power to deny building applications because the architecture or some other facet of the building did not conform to various standards, including aesthetic standards. One result? Our little village was recently voted by an American planning associations as having one of the ten best main streets in the United States. How many main streets have we all seen made ugly by a community's failure to regulate?

          Republicans seem prepared to let business do whatever it wants, wherever it wants. That's their definition of freedom. This is not freedom, it's license. A totally different thing. We have regulations, rules, laws because we need them, and because we want them. "The main business of America is business," said Calvin Coolidge. Not so, Calvin. Calvin must never have read the founders, who understood perfectly well that a commitment to freedom was not equivalent to a commitment to profit. Jefferson died broke. George Washington gave up profit when he freed his slaves in his will. Things are much more complex than the Republicans want us to think.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


October 9, 2014:

          The other day I sent in to my editor at one of the history magazines I write for an account of the uprising in the Vendee in 1793, which is considered the defining event of the French counter-revolution, the only event during the counter-revolution  in which armed conflict predominated and a real, if short-lived war took place. The French government, then controlled by Jacobins--who would all soon lose their heads when something akin to sanity returned to France--, won this war and followed it with what is thought to be the first modern genocide, in which government troops devastated the Vendee area and killed every man, woman, and child they could find. One officer wrote, with a certain pride, that he had trampled children under his horse's hooves. Another oversaw the drowning of at least 2,000 people in the Loire. They were tied naked to rafts (clothes were booty to the soldiers) that were designed to sink as soon as the stopcocks were pulled out. Livestock was killed, farms were burnt. One expert in Paris suggested that they poison the wells. Another suggested gassing these people.

          This is one reason to read history. It has all happened before. The Vendee had a population of 800,000 people. Estimates of the number killed range from 40,000 to 600,000. Simon Schama, in his history of the French Revolution, thinks the number was about 250,000. That is indeed genocide.

          And now I read that the fanatic ISIS group in Syria and Iraq is busy killing people who are not as fanatic as they are in large numbers, as brutally as possible, and that the Kurds are next in line. Blood baths. Common throughout history.

          What a mess the world is in. Here, in our own country, we have a vast dumbing down, not just of the electorate, but of our own representatives, the people who are supposed to lead us. The Republican party has officially adopted the anti-scientific stance that global warming is a hoax, and those among us who owe nothing to the Koch brothers or the power companies find this astonishing. The scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. On the religious right a similar stance holds strong against evolution, even while the evidence for evolution becomes increasingly incontrovertible and no doubt remains as to its reality. Meanwhile the election of a black president has not, as many of us hoped, been an indication that racism in America was on its way out. On the contrary, the election of a black president has revealed levels of racism in the country that the more hopeful among us thought had been buried decades ago.

          I was not among the more hopeful. I have always believed that racism will decline only when intermarriage is widespread and people are everywhere light brown. History teaches you not to be very hopeful about human beings. History, as the historian Gordon Wood has said, teaches you caution, prudence, and, as I have mentioned before, all about the law of unintended consequences. Things very seldom work out the way we intended. History taught me long ago that Western values are not universal, that you cannot impose democracy from above on tribal people. Just as Native Americans could not be changed into farmers, as Jefferson and many others hoped, Arab tribes cannot be transformed into something called "nations."

          And religious fanaticism cannot be eliminated. Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's Times that the Muslim religion has, for the most part, in its history, been tolerant, and that most Muslims today remain tolerant; but there are always fanatics, true believers, in every religion, every ideology. There are people who cannot abide doubt, even though doubt is THE fundamental consequence of being human, being conscious and self-conscious, because we do not know, cannot know, what happens to us when we die. It is so comforting--or so I imagine, being full of doubt myself--to believe in something like Heaven. A heaven of 72 virgins, if you are sex-obsessed, or a heaven of singing angels and green fields that go on forever, as you presumably will, too. A heaven of universal love, all conflict gone, all opinions moot, with a Father who will be eternally kind. Just read my Book. Etc.

          History goes on and on, both the writing of it and the living of it. It is always messy. There are always wars, there always will be, and the weapons, if not ourselves, will get smarter and smarter. There is always conflict, fanaticism, always people who cannot abide that you think and believe differently from them, that you live a different truth. For them it raises that awful possibility, doubt. For an historian, and I have read a great deal of it, human history is an appalling record of hatreds, futilities, error, interspersed with remarkable feats of heroism, sacrifice, and what is clearly love, the love of doing some good in the world, the love of other people. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that in the end the arc of history leans toward justice. Maybe. We can only hope so.

          But I doubt it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


August 24, 2014:

          My wise daughter used to tell me that it's wasn't lack of talent or ambition that would defeat me. It was living--daily life and its demands. Since my beloved wife, Lorraine, had ankle replacement surgery a couple of weeks ago and I became her chief caretaker, I've gained a new understanding of what my daughter meant. Because the business of caring for someone is nothing but daily life, multiplied by a factor of two. The two of us, Lorraine and I, generally carve up the requirements of living--shopping, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, preparing meals, and all the rest of it--in a loosely efficient manner. She is a writer, she, too, has a career and is totally committed to it, so we share, divide the labor, and only get cranky about it when the work pressure is severe. She likes things neater and cleaner than I care about, while I think when she's cooking she shouldn't try to do two or three things at once, which often doesn't work. Etc. Typical married stuff. We both manage in the end to have large blocs of time free for the reading, correspondence, and actual writing that goes into our working lives.

          But now? Now she's walking around on crutches. Or upstairs, when she manages to get upstairs, pushing herself upstairs backwards on her butt, she uses a walker. Now, when she wants to go outside and sit on the deck and read, she can't do it on her own. Taking a shower means she has to get a plastic sleeve over the cast on her leg, which she can't do without help; she can't do the laundry; she can't drive a car; she can't shop; she can't retrieve things, and every life involves things you regularly have to retrieve, shampoo, books, eye glasses, you name it. And it therefore involves me. So, in order to make time for the book proposal I'm trying to finish in order to get it to my editor before he's swamped with them after Labor Day, I have stopped reading the daily paper. If the Friday or Saturday crossword puzzle is just too challenging to finish quickly I abandon it, and the endless distraction of Facebook is something I'm trying to wean myself from. Even so, it's hard to concentrate. I have to shop for food, do the laundry, hang it on the line, renew the bird seed, mow and water the lawn in this drought, water the plants, weed them, climb the stairs to retrieve something she needs or walk downstairs to do the same. Daily life. Is it worth it? Do we have a choice? It's why, I suppose, people go to artist's colonies--something I always thought was a bit unreal, that disconnect from the way things actually are, not to mention hard on marriages. But I begin to see the point. It's a short period of time where you can enjoy the privilege of the rich without being rich, i.e. have other people take care of your daily life, and you can work free.

          Well, I don't really mind all that much. It won't last, and besides, I love her and want to help and besides that, she's my wife, it's my job, and she's doing her best not to be too demanding. Plus friends are bringing us lots of food, making me feel grateful and humbled by the attention to our needs. It's a lesson in patience. I have no genuine complaints. But I have to say, this past week I went through a bottle of vodka faster than I ever have before. And I've run out.

          Daily life: the poet Yeats said we have to choose between perfection of the life, or of the work. I've generally chosen the latter but sometimes, like now, life simply overwhelms you, and you no longer have a choice. I think that's true for most poor people, that they lack the means to put daily life in its proper place. When I wrote my book about the mental health system I spent eleven days in a mental hospital, faking my way in as if I were crazy, and noticed most of all about the other people there that they couldn't figure out daily life, didn't know how to live it. True, there were some deeply disturbed people on my ward, but for most of them, it was living day by day, in a routine, doing even menial work, that baffled them.

          Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own. I think most of us need not just a room, but time of our own, down time, time to think, to work, to be alone with our minds. I know I need a lot of it. Now it's gone, through nobody's fault, certainly not Lorraine's. It's only temporary, and I don't mind all that much, because in the end she'll be walking without pain for the first time in years and both of our lives are going to be much improved. But it's still hard. And a lesson to me. Simplify.

Friday, June 20, 2014


June 20, 2014:

          Picked up the NYTimes this morning and found a picture of Obama on the front page looking like he'd finally lost hope. I feel a great pity for this man, beset by intractable problems not of his own making, facing an opposition party that refuses to accommodate him in any way, then jumps all over him when he refuses to "work" with them, a party devoted to one purpose, and one purpose only, to make him look bad in any way they possibly can; a man drowning, finally, in the quiet but deep racism of white American Everymen (what? me, a racist? I'm no racist), for whom he's some kind of devil they can feel free to execrate because he was, of course, born in Kenya. Ask any white American evangelist type who the sons of Ham are. Of Noah's three sons it was Ham who saw his father drunk and naked and was cursed for it--hardly his fault; Ham wasn't drunk--and sent to repopulate Africa after the Flood and whose progeny were cursed to be the servants of others in perpetuity. It's in the Bible, which is, after all, the Word of God.

          Please excuse the obvious irony here; it is, I freely admit, more than a little banal. But also quite angry. How can any reasonable human being not feel the pity of Obama's situation? Now it's Iraq again. Blatantly hypocritical, the Republicans are trying to blame him for the disaster they themselves created in that arid desert, and, in the minds of those who already blame him simply for being who he is, they will probably succeed. I have been admiring the caution of Obama's foreign policy since he recognized the need for caution, especially in the Middle East. It is not his fault that after World War I the European powers divided up the deserts of the Middle East into so-called "nations" without any consideration of the natural divisions there among clans, tribes, and Sunni and Shi'ite. It is not his fault that these powers, in their ignorance and arrogance, thought they could "democratize" the people of these countries, whose first and fiercest loyalties for the past 1400 years have been to their particular Muslim sect and their own tribal sheiks and caliphs. The supreme avatars of the West's ignorance in these matters and the arrogance of their attitudes toward these people are surely those four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, all still incapable of reflecting on their own huge mistakes or of any kind of self-doubt. So of course it's Obama's fault for not "staying the course" in Iraq. The whole rest of the country has recognized the folly of their war, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,000 American soldiers--in vain. But not they themselves. For my part, I would like to see them put on trial, convicted, and hanged. For the primary war crime of all, stupidity.

          You could see it Obama's eyes this morning, and in the expression on his face. What next? On the right, fanaticism and staggering ignorance (these are cousins), and bad faith. On the left, ineptitude and loss of faith. One trouble with the left is precisely that they do entertain doubts; and in politics, that's deadly. The left attracts the young, and that's also deadly in this country, because the young have no staying power in American politics. Look at what happened in 2010--the Tea Party! Where were all those young people who put Obama into office in the first place--all those fervent, enthusiastic young? Playing video games? The young, typically, don't get it. Politics is not a rave; to be politically effective requires continuous commitment, not just once every four years. Politics takes place behind the smoke screen of rhetoric. To be effective politically requires a certain amount of dishonesty because the public can't handle the truth. This is no one's fault but the public's. Grow up, I want to say. Entertain doubts; question your own certainties. Read more, look behind the screen, find out who the Wizard really is (a showman from Nebraska), what's really going on. Read a goddamned newspaper, for Christ's sake.

          Born before World War II began, I grew up reading the headlines about the war and going to war movies. I remember hiding under the school desk in training for the Bomb falling on us all. I saw "Night and Fog," still the most powerful documentary about the Holocaust, when I was nineteen years old. I remember Joe McCarthy shaming the United States Senate, the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, the utter, evil disaster of Vietnam, where I was when Kennedy was assassinated (on the 17th floor of a New York office building); I met Cesar Chavez during his fast, I've written a whole lot of history and read much more. I've  lived it, in short, and made it my business to know it, as much as I could.

          And I think I know what Obama is feeling. When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Philadelphia convention in 1787 where the Constitution was written a woman stopped him and asked him what kind of government they had produced. "A republic, Madam," he replied, "if you can keep it."

          I don't think we can keep it. Not any more. America has passed its peak and is in decline, and the road downhill is getting steeper. That's the look I saw on Obama's face this morning. He faces not only the problems every President faces but a commitment on the right to making sure he cannot solve them, terrorist threats, global warming, incompetence at all levels of both government and business, and the implacable, immovable ignorance of the American people, who do not understand that the fundamental, inescapable requirement for the survival of a republic is an informed, active electorate. This is what Benjamin Franklin meant. This is why Thomas Jefferson founded a university. We are no longer an active, informed electorate. We no longer even bother to watch the Nightly News. How is it possible to govern such a country, such a people? This is the question that must haunt Obama's dreams.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


April 29, 2014:

          Today is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. I think perhaps the date should be an annual and universal holiday, in celebration of the English language, the new lingua franca worldwide, and of that now unfashionable trait, genius. Genius comes out of nowhere, like Shakespeare, and it is part of its definition that it remakes everything in its path. As did Shakespeare. As has English, and the two of them go together; they are inseparable. We have here in Sag Harbor a professional waiter, working at the American Hotel, whose country of origin is Montenegro, in the Balkans. When he first arrived he took a course in English from a friend of ours, not to better perform his job, he said, but to be able to read Shakespeare. The British Empire spread English all over the globe and Shakespeare was part of that process. Salman Rushdie, raised in India, has written a prequel to Hamlet called "Yorick," Aime Cesaire has rewritten The Tempest. And here in America, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt is involved in trying to "write"--well, dream up in some plausible way--a lost play named Cardenio, which Shakespeare is said in contemporary documents to have written with John Fletcher. But these are merely recent engagements with the man's work. The history of rewriting, reinterpretation, adaptation--fooling around, in short, with Shakespeare's texts--would fill whole libraries. A friend here belongs to a Shakespeare reading group that meets monthly and reads a single play for each meeting. They have, I understand, gone through the entire canon four times.

          I have not read all of Shakespeare. At grad school at Columbia I specialized in 16th century English literature and decided to avoid joining the "bard biz," not wanting to become just another scholar sniffing out the elusive trail of this extraordinary but largely anonymous man. You cannot specialize in that particular field and totally avoid him, of course, but you can direct much of your attention elsewhere, and that is what I did. My attention went to Sir Philip Sidney, to Edmund Spenser, to Thomas Nashe and John Donne and the fascinating figure of Sir Thomas Wyatt, whom I wrote my Master's thesis on. I did read plays. I had already read all of Christopher Marlowe for a seminar in my undergraduate years, I had read some of Shakespeare, including the three parts of Henry VI, for the Marlowe seminar, three separate plays, among Shakespeare's most obscure, and my teacher told me I was one of perhaps a hundred people in the U. S. who had read all three. They are not his best. He was not always great. He collaborated, too; he was part owner of his acting company, writing was a business for him, he became prosperous doing it, and collaboration was an ordinary part of the process. That fact has set generations of scholars to the task of figuring out what part of which plays Shakespeare wrote, and what his collaborators. Most of the plays written under his own name bear little trace of collaboration, but his hand does appear, not that infrequently, in the works of some of his contemporaries. It is here that the idea of genius disabuses itself of its godlike nature. Shakespeare was no solitary genius standing monumentally above his contemporaries. He was part of their world. Collaboration, indeed, is standard in the theater. The playwright writes, but actors, directors, producers and all kinds of other people get involved in putting the work on. How many times have we read of actors insisting on changing lines, or playwrights rewriting whole scenes in response to the way they played on stage? It's quite common in the movies for three, four, or more writers to work on a script. It was not that much different in Shakespeare's time.

          Yet is is quite clear that he was a genius. And he came out of nowhere, a glovemaker's son from Stratford-on-Avon, just as John Keats was the son of a hostler, i.e.someone who takes care of the horses in an inn, and Bob Dylan's family ran a hardware store, and on and on and on. Thus the idiotic but persistent suspicion that Shakespeare could not possibly have written the plays he obviously did, that it must have been someone like Edward de Vere, a nobleman, university educated, or perhaps Francis Bacon or some other notable of the time. Even the remarkable actor Derek Jacobi believes this. We have a good friend who believes it. What they all apparently fail to do is to consider the context--the facts that at the time Shakespeare lived, acting and the writing of plays were not thought of as respectable professions, that no one paid any attention to the personal lives of people in the theater, that literary fame, at a period before novels existed, came from the writing of poetry, and poetry alone. Shakespeare made his bid for that with The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, which are not plays but long narrative poems; and they appear to be the only works of his that he personally saw through the press. The quarto publications of separate Shakespeare plays were made from actor's prompt sheets, and they were unauthorized--i.e., pirated. Shakespeare did not read proof for them. His collected works, which with some of the plays constituted their first publication in book form, came out seven years after his death.

          Part of the problem people have with his authorship is that we know so very little about him, and most of that from legal papers--his testimony in a lawsuit; his application for a coat of arms; things like that. But we know as little about Marlowe and Nashe and John Fletcher and Thomas Kyd and Middleton and Beaumont and on and on and on. Among them all, Ben Jonson was virtually alone in promoting himself in anything like a modern way. The world was not modern yet; the cult of authorial personality had yet to exist; none of these people kept diaries or corresponded with each other in that self-conscious way that looks to ultimate publication. Publication itself was relatively new. Thus this anonymous genius, available only through his work, which is truly transcendent, which displays such incredible insight into human beings and the human condition. Does anyone remember the moment in the movie version of Amadeus where Salieri calls Mozart the voice of God? Oh indeed he was, and yet in the beginning of that movie we first come upon Mozart running around a gathering at some royal palace, giggling, chasing his girlfriend. Of all the modern treatments of Shakespeare the man, I most respect the movie Shakespeare in Love, which makes of him an ordinary person, writing and rewriting while trying to pay his rent and keep his head above water. The fact that Shakespeare didn't do interviews, to put it another way, is a fact to celebrate.

          So: Happy Birthday, Mr. Shakespeare. Thank you for living. Thank you for writing. The whole world owes you a debt. You invented us in a way, opened doors inside us we did not know were there, saw us whole, at our worst, at our best, and did not look away. Because we do not know who you "really" were, you reveal yourself in the only way that counts, in your work. And the work is incomparable. No one you wrote about, none of your characters, seems anything but real. They stick in the mind, like so many of the words you put into the language and into our hearts. That we have you is a glorious gift. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you forever.

Friday, March 28, 2014


March 28, 2014:

          Today's NY Times has a review of a biopic about Cesar Chavez, who founded the farmworker's union back in the 1960s and became a cause celebre when the Left thought it was going to change the world. The movie doesn't sound like it's very good and I'm not going to see it, but the review brought him back to mind. I think it was 1968 when I met him. I was working for Sherman Fairchild as his business historian, but as an adjunct to that job I was asked to investigate the U. S. medical system and write a report for the Fairchild Foundation identifying research opportunities for the Foundation to invest in. This was a big job and it sent me to various places around the country. I talked to the heads of the Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, and any number of scientists from New York to San Francisco. At a conference in Boston Ralph Nader tore into me because one of the Fairchild companies had just made a prototype for a super-safe automobile under some sort of Federal contract, but wasn't following up on it by going into the car business; and this seemed to be my fault. I've thought Nader was an asshole ever since.

          I think it was at this same conference in Boston that I met a representative from the farmworkers' union. She was there to ask for help for the medical clinic that the union had set up in Delano, California. She worked for Chavez, or had donated her time to him--I wasn't sure which--and asked  me, if I was going to be in California, to come with her and see him. As it happened I was going to California to talk to some other people, and I agreed to drive up to Delano with her. I flew to Los Angeles, talked to somebody at UCLA, had dinner with this woman one night, and then we drove to Delano the next morning and she took me into Chavez's room. It was the ninth day of his famous fast. The room was absolutely bare except for the narrow cot he was lying on, one chair, and a crucifix on the wall facing the cot.

          She--I wish I could remember her name--sat down on the cot and held his hand while they talked. I simply listened. They talked about non-violence and the importance of sticking to it, worried about another activist who was advocating violence, went over some other problems the union was having. Nothing earth-shaking was said. He was not making a speech for my benefit. He more or less ignored me. He was, of course, very weak. You can't starve for nine days and be anything but weak.

          Yet he glowed. I've never forgotten it. I mean, literally, a kind of glow enveloped him, and it was very, very powerful. Inner strength? Spiritual power? It was transfixing; it silenced whatever was going on in my head; it made me want to cry. You could not help but feel you were in the presence of a saint. You felt as if, if he touched you, you would be healed.

          Back in New York I wrote a memo suggesting that the Fairchild Foundation make a small donation to the farmworkers' clinic. One of the nurses, an Anglo, as they would have called her, came to the city to try to raise funds, and I took her to every foundation exec I knew. I spent six months doing this. All in vain. Nobody would give them a dime. I learned a lot about American charity and its limitations in the process. I also almost got fired by my own charity, which went on, after they ignored all my suggestions as to research opportunities, to give their money to the hospital where Fairchild's own doctor practiced. It was one of my many failures. To be sure, I was a spy in the house of business so shouldn't have been surprised when all that work came to nothing. I understand business, watched it go on around me from the top down. It was an education. Fairchild had two companies on the Fortune 500 list employing 30,000 people; he was a director of IBM, which his father had founded; I saw firsthand the interconnections at the top between business and government. I had by that time long since lost my innocence. But I was no businessman. I didn't have the instincts for it, and you have to be who you are.

          Chavez was no saint, of course, but he did accomplish some of what he set out to do, and his cause was, without question, just. The conditions under which farmworkers did their jobs were unspeakable. Those I talked to afterwards warned me never to eat lettuce that hadn't been thoroughly washed. The owners refused to put Portapotties into the fields and the workers had to use the fields themselves as their bathrooms. I wouldn't be surprised if the same conditions still prevail in agribusiness. Money gets given to charities all the time, but how much charity is there in people's hearts? How much?

          This experience was one of the reasons that I knew early on the Left was not going to change the world.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


March 18, 2014:

          In one of those odd coincidences in which life abounds Yale University Press has sent me a review copy of an enormous book about aerial photography, even though they could not have known that I am an expert on the subject. The title of the book is The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914-1918, it contains more than 500 aerial photographs made during the war, and I spent eight years as a young man working for the aviation pioneer Sherman Fairchild, known in the industry as the "father of aerial photography." I was his personal historian, an odd enough job in its own right. After the Great War was over he invented the first aerial camera accurate enough to be used to make maps, and his company went on to become the premier aerial camera manufacturer in the world. The aerial cameras used in the Great War were not Fairchilds; he designed his cameras to correct their manifold inadequacies. So technically advanced were they that when America went into space, highly sophisticated Fairchild cameras went along. They were used all during World War II, of course, and the company expanded in the 1960s when it pioneered in the development of silicon transistors, which put the world into the computer age. As his historian I studied the cameras that were used in the Great War and know their inadequacies thoroughly. The book is more than welcome. Thank you, Yale.

          But enough about me. The book is welcome, and it's splendid. The Great War was the first war in which airplanes fought and the first to use aerial photography systematically to take pictures of battlefields from the air. This revolutionized warfare. It was no longer possible to move large bodies of troops without being detected. Reconnaissance from the air made artillery fire much more accurate. Trench systems were now fully exposed to enemy scrutiny. The effects of bombardment could now be clearly seen. All of this the book illustrates, in detail, following the course of the war as it stalls in Belgium, northern France, and elsewhere on the Western Front, explaining, using pictures, text, and diagrams, what the pictures reveal, and showing how constant bombardment changed the landscape. Its overall effect is chilling. Whole communities simply disappear from the ground as the war goes on and on, with neither side gaining anything substantial. Cemeteries grow larger and larger. Farmland turns into huge fields of craters, craters turn into defensive positions. The book uses photographs taken from the ground to complement the aerial photographs, and plastic overlays printed with trench lines and other features to help with the interpretation of the photographs underneath them. And it covers the whole course of the war. Indeed, it continues beyond the war. I found one set of photographs in particular quite striking, photos showing the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort on the North Sea at the end of the war, when little is left of it but ruins, and again in 1923, five years later, when it has been almost completely rebuilt.

          The Great War goes on. It destroyed empires, unleashed ethnic and nationalistic forces that still engulf us, made instant enemies of the United States and Russia after the U. S., at the end of the war, intervened in the civil war then being waged in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the so-called White Russians loyal to the Tsar. It unsettled the Middle East when European powers created instant "nations" there without regard to the indigenous population and its tribal divisions. And of course it triggered feelings in Germany that led directly to the rise of fascism and World War II. I just finished a piece for Military History magazine on the English war poets who emerged in the Great War and have written on the civil war in Yugoslavia during the Nazi occupation in World War II for the same publication, and that sideshow, too, came out of the Great War. We are now entering on the centenary of the Great War's beginning in 1914 and already publishers are flooding the market with books describing various aspects of it. But none of them can surpass this book's visual explanation of how it was waged, and what effect it had on the landscape. People are still occasionally killed when their plows run into unexploded ordinance in Flanders. The trench lines ran all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Millions of people died; on one day alone, at the first battle of the Somme, there were 27,000 casualties. War is hell, said General Sherman. Take a look at The Great War From the Air if you want to see what hell looks like.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


March 11, 2014:

          One aspect of being a writer is that you tend to wind up knowing other writers and forming many of your friendships among them. That's especially true here in Sag Harbor, which has attracted writers since John Steinbeck ended his days here, in a house and writing shed overlooking the water. As far as writers, editors and the like are concerned, Sag Harbor is Manhattan East. I suppose it's a clannish thing. We share the experience of struggling with language trying to make it come out right, we have all failed at that, and tried again, and again, and we know how humbling that can be; and we also know how it feels when we do get something right and the world acknowledges it by publishing what you've written. Then, if you're really lucky, you make some money. Usually not much. Mostly you live for that feeling.

          So I'm here today to celebrate the victories in this struggle of two of my friends, Kathryn Levy and Jim McMullan, who have recently, after years of work, each published a book, an exceptional book in both cases, breakthrough books that won't necessarily make a lot of money but that represent for each of them a victory of sorts, a culmination, and a new direction.

          Kathryn is a poet and that alone more or less guarantees that there's no money in what she does, but she has always written poetry, she identifies herself as a poet, she basically has no choice in the matter. It's her calling, her vocation; she was born to it. She doesn't make a fuss about how deeply her life is entwined with poetry but if you quote a line or two of Keats, or Wallace Stevens, or Zbigniew Herbert or almost any poet to her, she's likely to complete the quote. She belongs to a reading group devoted entirely to Shakespeare; the group meets once a month, has done that for many years, and has gone through the complete works four or five times. She has taught poetry to young disadvantaged children in the New York City public schools in a program designed to free their imaginations. She also worked for a long time at the New York City Ballet, running the volunteer department, managing fund-raising benefits, and running a poetry program there, too, for public school students. She knew Balanchine, who's buried in Sag Harbor, and knows his work from the inside out. But she's not a dancer herself. Her real passion has always been writing poetry, and she has been doing that for a very long time.

          But not publishing it. Out of a certain diffidence, out of shyness, perhaps out of fear of failure, she did not go through the process of trying to make her work public. It is, in fact, a miserable process. The poetry world is small, intensely political, cliquish, and often quite nasty. I stopped writing poems myself for this reason; it just didn't seem worth the effort. Her friends have been urging her for years to just do it, take her chances. But poetry often grows out of pain, out of the darkness of early experience, out of bad dreams, losses of all kinds, your world at three o'clock in the morning. Working those parts of yourself into poems, and then exposing them to an indifferent world, is no easy thing.

          A few years ago, however, she finally published her first book, Losing the Moon, with Sag Harbor's occasional publisher Canio's Books. It meant very limited distribution, but it was at least a book, she could hold it in her hand, people could see her work. And now her second book, Reports, is out from New Rivers Press, she is actively publicizing it, it has gathered considerable praise from established figures in the poetry world, and not only that--IT'S REALLY GOOD. The pain, the distilled despair, the darkness at the core of her world is still there in the poems, but now she has turned it into small works of very powerful art, words like drills, words that take unexpectedly subversive directions in your mind. Just a few lines from "Driving All Night":
               You can say I feel free, here
               up in the mountains.
               This air is thin, breathing is hard.
               But I'm free, I feel free.
               Shout it, sing it--
               the air won't mind. It
               has you and it's not
               letting go.

          You have to read whole poems to get the full effect and I don't have the space in my little blog to put them in. But trust me, this is impressive work, written by a poet I'm proud to know. What is a black tulip but a victory in the night? The night has not gone away; but it has produced a flower.

          Jim McMullan is a whole other story, a world-class illustrator who for many years has done the posters for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, who has illustrated children's books for years as well, many of them written by his wife, Kate McMullan, and is also well-known for doing the illustrations in New York Magazine for the story that morphed into the film Saturday Night Fever. Lorraine and I have known the McMullans since 2002. A few years ago I interviewed him for a show on LTV, the local TV channel here in the Hamptons where I occasionally talk to writers and artists about their work. We filmed it in Jim's studio and I was startled by his early work in magazines when he pulled examples of it out of storage. It was edgy and it was dark. Figures loomed out of uneasy backgrounds, smiles were rare, objects, events, portraits did not aim to be pretty. I was not expecting it, but as we got to know him better and he talked about his childhood we began to see where, in a literal sense, he was coming from. He was born in China in the mid-1930s to a British father and a Canadian mother. The family had lived in China for several generations, first as Christian missionaries, then as business people. They had attained a comfort level that included servants and Western luxuries, and the family had founded a prosperous business that gave employment to young girls who had been abandoned as infants--a not uncommon custom in China. But it was the 1930s. Japan was already at war with China. Eventually the war reached Cheefoo, where they were living, and their life changed radically. Jim's father went undercover as a British agent. Jim's mother took him to Canada, to her family, on the next to last boat allowed to leave, then, as the war wound down, to India, where they could see Jim's father, who, shortly after the war was over, was killed when the airplane he was flying in crashed in the Himalayas. Through all of this Jim was growing up, learning firsthand what it means to have your life intersect violently with history, before you're ten years old. To make it that much harder he was a sensitive kid, loved to draw, didn't play sports, wasn't macho, was small, timid, easily bullied. His mother, who descended from time to time into alcoholism, wasn't much help.

          This is the source, as he himself will tell you, of the dark vision coming from the brush of this kind, sensitive, brilliant artist. Catch the tragic sense of life when you're very young and it marks you. It leaves a message on the heart nothing can erase. A few years ago, going through old papers, he found his father's letters to his mother and himself and he decided to address it, to do a book, an illustrated memoir of his childhood, and it is just out now: Leaving China, from Algonquin Books. Brilliant indeed. The chapters are short, one page, and each one is faced by an illustration, and they work like a team. The illustrations are understated, subtle, and all the stronger for that. The text is straightforward, honest and open, and totally unsentimental. This is how it was; this is what happened. But these are dark events, awful to have lived through, terrible in what they tell us about human nature. To be able to back off from the tragedy of his early life, to see it and make art out of it like this--I don't want to deaden such an achievement with a trite phrase, but the phrase is accurate: a triumph of the spirit. This is what gives all his work its strength. It doesn't blink  at the way things are.

          Yes, they're personal friends, very good friends, and you can dismiss this praise if you want. But I was a book columnist for eighteen years, I have read and written reviews of more than 300 books, I've written about the visual arts, I've written published poetry, and I don't write about books written by friends if I don't like them. This is not about friendship, this is about brilliance and power and dark victories won over experience. All of which are rare. Find these books, read them. They are extraordinary.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


February 9, 2014:

     Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the day I met Lorraine. It was a sunny day, as I remember, at a  Sunday brunch in a ground floor apartment in Manhattan on February 8, 1981. I had just gotten back from California a few days before, having spent a month there researching magazine pieces. I was single at the time, my girl friend having left me six or seven months earlier; she was there at the brunch, but without her new boyfriend, who had set her loose already. I'm not good on my own and had dated people in the meantime, but not successfully. Most of them were ten or fifteen years younger than me and hadn't had children. For me, an uh-oh. I already had two children, both in their teens. I didn't want any more. I was broke in any case and couldn't possibly have afforded more children--so broke, in fact, that two-thirds of the way through my time in California I had to get from Carmel, where I was staying, to Los Angeles and didn't have enough money for gas to make the trip. I was only able to leave because I won $25 in a poker game. Overall, it was not a good time in my life. My ex-wife hated me. I was being sued for libel and invasion of privacy, to the tune of $3.75 million. Stress levels were, shall we say, high.

     But not so high that I didn't notice the unfamiliar blonde woman who was not ten or fifteen years younger than me standing by a couch talking to some guy I also didn't know. I figured they were together. Then an acquaintance, Gael McCarthy, took her by the arm, dragged her over to me, and introduced us. I remember I was standing by the kitchen. We started to talk, about what I have little idea. She was easy to talk to, bright, friendly, attractive. We talked for an hour and a half, until I had to leave to go pick up my daughter at college at SUNY Purchase and take her to dinner. At one point my ex-girl friend walked over and tried to interrupt us, but I think I was rude to her, as in, can't you see I'm busy? Or I just ignored her. But what I do remember clearly, talking with Lorraine, was her telling me she had been seeing some guy for four years, and was going to give him another year. At that I broke into a cold sweat--oh damn, somebody who might be suitable, and she's taken. Just my luck. What she remembers about the conversation is that I didn't react when she told me she had given up a child for adoption and had recently published a book about her experience. I didn't react because I had a cousin who had lived with us when I was eleven and she was seventeen and pregnant and my mother and father had arranged a private adoption for her child. Shit happens. I had, vicariously to be sure, seen how devastating that experience was, I had already walked a mile in her shoes. You learn, if you have any compassion at all, and after looking long and hard at your own mistakes, not to make snap judgments about other people.

     Besides, I'm cool. So I got her phone number and called her Monday or Tuesday and suggested lunch. I didn't expect anything; I just liked her, I wanted a friend, I've always liked having women friends. She hesitated when I called, but agreed finally to lunch in Manhattan (I was living in Ossining) on Thursday. We met, found a quiet place to eat, a gay bar, in fact, on the East Side, and had a wonderful time. Talked for two hours. She told me all about her boyfriend. I thought she was nuts to give him another year (after four? are you serious?), and I told her more about myself: my current poverty, my work, my first marriage, the whole nine yards. After lunch I walked around the East Side with her while she did some errands. When we parted she reached up and pecked me on the lips. I thought, well, that was strange, but the truth is, I didn't think it meant anything. I never expected to hear from her again.

     Friday, a week later, she called me in Ossining. At the moment she called I was trying to work up the courage to call a woman I had had one date with, a double date, that had been, oh, kind of nothing. I was deeply lonely. Ultimately I don't think I would have made that call, but I didn't have to. The phone rang, it was Lorraine, and before she could say anything, I said, "Hi, do you want to have dinner tomorrow night?"

     She did. At dinner she told me she had ditched the boyfriend. Mr. No-I-Can't-Commit. This time I was speechless--uh oh, this is not just dinner with a new friend, this is a DATE. But after a couple of cognacs at One Fifth Avenue afterwards I loosened up, and we have not been apart since. Within a few days we were living together; within two weeks we were engaged, and on September 20, 1981, we got married.

     Is this not a sweet story? I think it is. Not that it's been sweetness ever since. We have different styles, different, deeply ingrained habits, and we're both strong personalities and have fought often over silly things and sometimes serious things. But happiness isn't the absence of conflict. Two people are happy together when they understand each other and accept each other for who they are, not who they want the other to be. Conflict is inevitable, and you have to accept it and face it and get through it. You do that by making the  fundamental commitment to listen, to admit your own faults and weaknesses and fears (even if only to yourself sometimes), and to understand--most of all, to understand. We had each lived full lives when we met, we each knew something about pain. There was an emotional depth we sensed in each other. And it in in those depths that we love each other, and believe in each other, and share the essence of our lives. It is in those depths that we're happy.