The Casual Reader

André Bernard

Melville: His World and Work. By Andrew Delbanco. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 448 pp. $30.00.

In the 1840s New York City had a population of six hundred thousand, almost a third of whom were children under the age of fifteen (and many of whom were desperately poor or orphaned). Half of the city’s inhabitants were foreign-born. Clogged with garbage and awash with raw sewage which, when it dried and turned to dust, was blown into every eye and face by the winds, New York was dangerous, groaning with slums, prostitutes, murderous thieves, swindlers, and vermin. And it was noisy. The sounds of steamboats whistling, trolleys scraping, carriages rattling, drivers and touts shouting, even iron-shod horses clattering on the cobblestones, filled the air with a never-ending and terrible din. A city seemingly on the verge of collapse, even as it grew alarmingly larger by the year, New York suffered from waves of disease and violent crime, xenophobia, and a widening, undemocratic gulf between the poor, who grew poorer, and the rich, whose excesses began to resemble those of the hated European aristocracy.

In the midst of these near-medieval conditions, New York was also the center of the birth of a new sense of Americanism, an increasingly sophisticated belief in the endlessly bright potential of a young country to foster and develop a cultural sense of itself beyond what it had, to date, been borrowing from England and from Europe. Nurtured by such writers as William Cullen Bryant, Charles A. Dana, William Ellery Channing, and Edgar Allen Poe, among others, the small but ambitious literary community that was awakening began to ask not just whether America could fashion its own image through letters, but larger questions as well: Who would read the new American writing and take it seriously, and could a writer survive financially by dedicating himself only to his chosen craft?

It was into this world that Herman Melville landed, the child of a distinguished but now impoverished family, who had gone to sea for want of better employment. He returned to New York having written a novel, Typee, based on his adventures in the South Pacific, and its combination of exoticism, freshness, and salaciousness made him a celebrity. Newly married to Elizabeth Shaw, herself from a famous Boston family, flush with the earnings from his tale, handsome and gregarious, Melville was, briefly, a star. The dismal circumstances of the rest of his life are well- known. None of his subsequent books ever achieved the same level of fame or financial success. Indeed, the book on which he staked the most, Moby-Dick, earned less than six hundred dollars in his entire lifetime and was considered a failure as soon as it appeared. His eldest son committed suicide, his youngest died of a mysterious illness in his mid-thirties. Melville drifted downwards quickly, unable to persuade publishers to take a chance on his writing—what had seemed so fresh and galvanizing at the beginning of his career came quickly to be seen as odd, unfocused, even deranged. A potential career as a lecturer, pursued with such success by such writers as Charles Dickens, wilted the instant he set foot on a stage, thanks to his inability to connect with an audience or even to project his voice beyond the first few rows of a theater. Unable to support his family by art, he toiled for several decades as a minor customs official on the New York docks, surrounded by a level of venality and corruption that surprised even this connoisseur of the low tastes of his fellow citizens. Bedeviled by drink, he lapsed into obscurity, his very name unrecognized in his lifetime by such dedicated contemporary readers as Edith Wharton and completely forgotten by the general public. A fire at his publisher’s warehouse destroyed all unsold copies of his existing books—and most were, alas, unsold. Even his end was undignified; the line announcing his death in the New York Times identified him as Henry Melville.

Yet today he is considered one of the most important of American writers, a prophetic genius whose innovations are considered to have paved the way for Joyce’s fiction as well as for the flowering in the twentieth century of a national American literature. Moby-Dick, the book that may well have laid his reputation in its grave when it was published, is acknowledged to be among the greatest of all American novels, and his stories are recognized to have few, if any, peers. What happened?

Read this book to find out. Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, is one of our most interesting and most gifted scholars. From Lincoln to Satan, from Emerson to the Puritans and beyond, Delbanco writes on American cultural history with a style and grace—and always with the most rigorous scholarship—that makes his subjects vivid, alive, and crucial to our understanding. His abilities have not failed him here, as he explores Melville’s life and meaning. In the past few years I have read many biographies of writers, and only two have stood out as superlative works. Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of John O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges (2003), was one; the other is Delbanco’s Melville, which is the very model of what a great literary biography should be.

The tragic arc of Melville’s life, from the young hopeful man who transformed his eye-opening Pacific experiences into fame, to the forgotten, soup-slurping old man whose wife feared he was insane, is described with a clarity that displays immensely deep understanding of Melville’s literary intentions and ambitions. The inner life of this tormented man, friend to few and intimate of none, except perhaps for his peer Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose personal and professional successes rapidly eclipsed Melville’s, is probed with compassion. And throughout the book Delbanco fulfills the promise of his subtitle, recounting not just the making of a great writer but also painting in wonderfully vivid detail a growing nation facing, nearly perishing in, and recovering from a devastating struggle over the issue of slavery, which culminated in the Civil War; the growth of a city and a civilization; the establishment of American literary culture; and the development of modern publishing. It is a riveting story, one Delbanco tells elegantly and forcefully. It is a tale for anyone interested in art, in America, and in the meaning of it all.

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. By Marilyn Johnson. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 256 pp. $24.95.

The morning ritual: After walking the dog, I brew up a pot of strong coffee, turn on the Today show as background, give a quick glance to the front page of the New York Times, then turn to the real beginning of the day: a close reading of the obituary page. It seems the day just doesn’t get off the ground until I see who’s about to be laid deep in it. Am I morbid? Fearful? An unpleasant person? No—it’s more simple than that. As Marilyn Johnson, the author of this delightful book and a seasoned obituary writer herself, notes, “Why does someone start to read obituaries? She knows dead people. . . . Obituaries have a natural pull, a natural gravity, for those of us who’ve observed that life has a way of ending.” And, “Obit reading is an act of contemplation.”

She’s right. Reading through the life of someone who has died, and who has accomplished something notable enough to be remembered, can be remarkably interesting. Johnson again: “You don’t know how many things you don’t know until you start dawdling over the obituaries.” Inventions useful and ridiculous, explorations of dangerous countries, political machinations, disgraceful marriages—these, as well as the usual heroics and saintly gestures, are what make up the zest of life for any close reader of Trollope or Dickens, and the unfolding of the human panoply, as told in death notices, can be riveting. The Dead Beat is a wonderful account, told by a true connoisseur of the genre, of the writing of obituaries. But it’s much more than that. It is also a survey of the newspapers that run particularly good obits, a look at the men and women whose professional lives are spent recording the life that preceded a death (most are journalists who drift into obit writing in their fifties—naturally), accounts of memorable obituaries of “ordinary” people who were not celebrities, and, perhaps most interesting of all, how a good obituary is constructed and written.

This last item may change the way you read an obituary; it certainly had an effect on my morning time. First of all, the approach to a death notice—that is, how it is treated from the very first sentence—is crucial, and differs from English newspapers to American. Here’s a fine example cited by Johnson of how newspapers in the two countries reported the passing of Billy Carter. The American version is focused on the death:

Billy Carter, the irrepressible gas station proprietor and farmer who vaulted to national celebrity in his brother Jimmy’s successful campaign for President in 1976, died of cancer of the pancreas yesterday.

The British version focuses on the life:

Billy Carter, who has died aged 51, was President Jimmy Carter’s hard-drinking roly-poly brother whose bibulous verandah-chair comments from the peanut township of Plains, Georgia, caused periodic embarrassment at the White House.

So is it the manner of death that is most vital, or the life itself?

Johnson also offers up wonderful sentences from contemporary obits, which, she says, have seen a revival in style and ambition since the late 1980s, when newspapers began competing against each other for readers more aggressively: “Agate, population seventy, is one of those towns people describe as ‘blink and you’ll miss it.’ Lois A. Engel loved living in the blink.” And: “They were married three months later and not because they had to.” And: “Charlie did it all with one eye.”

Then there is the nomenclature, not official but terms used by various obit writers for the different elements of their work: the tombstone (how someone died), the song and dance (an especially rich anecdote), the black box (just the facts), friars (juicy quotes), the telegraph (a punch line or ironic moment), and so on. Understanding how seriously a dedicated obituary writer treats not just the subject but the art as well makes the act of reading an obit an art in itself, a bit of stylistic detection.

If I’m making this book sound like a jolly, humorous takeoff on death, it isn’t. It has jolly moments, and Johnson has a wonderfully waspish and self-deprecating style. Together with the marvelous jacket treatment, it lends itself to a reading that is not depressing or overly fraught with emotional weight. But Johnson is serious about her chosen métier, and there is no question of her seriousness in her moving description of how the Times solved, brilliantly and with enormous compassion, the difficulty of recording in some detail each of the lives of the nearly three thousand victims of 9/11. And in her reverence for the Times’ immense files of advance obituaries (“a choir of the not-yet-dead humming under their breath”) patiently awaiting their day to be printed. And in her respect and admiration for what she calls the “empathy and detachment; sensitivity and bluntness” of a good obit writer. For Johnson this is business that matters, and she quotes one such writer who noted of a dead person awaiting his final evaluation, “It may be your five thousandth obit, but it’s his one and only obit.”

The Dead Beat is meat and potatoes for the Casual Reader. An offbeat premise told beautifully, with both hilarious and tender moments, and full of essential friars and song and dance passages, it provides the kind of illumination I didn’t know I needed until now. This morning, over coffee, the lead headline on the Times’ obit page (together with a large and arresting photo of the deceased) read, “Fausto Vitello, 59, Is Dead; Made Skateboarding Gnarly.” And so the day began, made even richer by the insights I had gleaned from this terrific book.

Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. By Verlyn Klinkenborg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 192 pp. $16.95.

Let me say right now that, in my opinion, Verlyn Klinkenborg is our finest writer alive on the natural world. He may also be our finest essayist. His frequent short pieces in the New York Times, quietly reflecting on the birthing season of sheep, the moon rising over a stretch of wild Colorado, the nesting habits of city birds, reminds us in a very moving way of how small our human lives really are, and how we are dwarfed by the ongoing, ever-present motions of a world we know little about. His prose, always beautifully phrased, is economic in style but eloquent and deep in tone and meaning. He reminds us that life is beautiful and strange, and that one can measure the cycles of nature, but a full understanding of what we are measuring exactly can be elusive—and that the natural world is better admired for its beauty and respected for its power rather than nailed down for its meaning.

Klinkenborg has written several books on fairly eclectic subjects, including haying season and the vicissitudes of a small local bar in Buffalo. Timothy could not be more eclectic: it’s a novel in which the narrator is a tortoise. And not just any tortoise; the narrator is Timothy, an eighty-one-year-old tortoise who in real life belonged to the eighteenth-century English curate Gilbert White, author of the classic The Natural History of Selborne. (Timothy made frequent appearances in White’s History, as the two shared a house for more than fifty years.)

The premise of this short book is fairly simple. It is the life tale of a reptile which was found sunning itself on a rocky Mediterranean island in 1740, taken by a sailor and shipped home on a sailing vessel to England, and sold as a curiosity to a villager who gave it to his nephew, the village curate—Gilbert White. Because White spends all of his time, apart from his church duties, studying natural history, it would seem that Timothy, as White christens the tortoise, has had a most fortunate reprieve from a likely fate as a bowl of turtle soup. White gives Timothy the run of a large garden filled with succulent vegetables suitable for a tortoise’s diet, instructs the local villagers to leave the animal in peace, and, over many decades, observes and writes about his movements, and, in an absent-minded way, makes sure no harm comes to Timothy. The seasons and years pass, and other than several forays into the world beyond White’s garden—an “escape” here and there, and a yearly involuntary trip into the village to be weighed—little actually happens. A half century passes, White dies, and Timothy, too, prepares for his own demise.

But, oh! Did I say little happens? What happens is the stuff the world is made of. Cherries are preserved, and bees swarm. Wheat is harvested, swallows prepare to migrate for the winter, lambs are butchered, and asparagus is grown. Fields of turnips are increasingly planted (and affect the taste of the woodcocks which are trapped and eaten). Frost kills hundreds of rooks, whose wings freeze. Owls feed their young, the villagers gather rushes to dip in bacon fat to make fine candles, the house-martins come and go. Butter is churned, pheasants make their nests, rhubarb emerges from the ground, and trout grow fat in their cool, pebbly streams.

All of these events and more, everything that happens in and around a small rural eighteenth-century English village, is observed by Timothy, and recounted in short-of-breath turtle-like (use your imagination) cadences. To Gilbert White, Timothy’s life is a monotonous straight line, a yearly succession of eating cucumbers, dozing for months at a time, and walking a cumbersome trail, always suffering under the heavy weight of a tortoise’s carapace. But White’s understanding is only that of a man. Here is Timothy, who isn’t dozing at all: “I cannot hear everything the foxes hear or smell everything the dogs smell or fear everything the humans fear. But I can sense the remote static of the aurora borealis stretching east to west across the welkin. Feel the stars overhead when the wind drops. Resonant in their silence. Smell the dawn when it is still just a premonition. A stirring in the throat of the earliest songbird. The wakeful rooster.” In fact, Timothy has a most active mental life. He recalls his youth in the warmer, happier climes of the Mediterranean, closely observes the life that surrounds him—the millions of insects, the thousands of birds and mammals going about their ways—and muses on the essence of being not just a reptile, and not just a specific kind of reptile, but being Timothy, a sentient, vital, living being. He rejects the presence of God, and, as the decades pass, comes to hold human life and activity in lower and lower regard. “To live such long lives at such a terrible speed,” he thinks. “And yet each sense dulled by mental acuity. Reason in place of a good nose. Logic instead of a tail. Faith instead of the certain knowledge of instinct. Superstition instead of a shell.”

Solitude, order, meaning, time—these are the issues that permeate this marvelous and truly beautiful book. The nature of being human, the reality of lives different from those people understand, the qualities of patience, kindness, generosity, selfishness, and compassion—Timothy assesses these and more, weaving throughout his philosophical explorations a daily natural world that is beautiful and miraculous to consider. Klinkenborg’s novel is small in size but immense in scope, a most wonderful and unusual testament of a world view that holds life in the highest regard. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It may well change the way you see the world around you.

Entertaining Is Fun! How to Be a Popular Hostess. By Dorothy Draper. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2004. $26.00.

Whenever I’m in a bookstore, one of my very favorite stops is at those tables labeled “Curiosities” or “Did You Know?” They’re always piled with odd-sized volumes on Victorian plumbing, photography books of body parts or weird medical anomalies, accounts of travels to macabre places, or unclassifiable books of sexual lore. Every now and then, though, something pops up that requires a longer look. And that’s just where I found this book. With its Peter Arno-like cartoon cover, and its large and bright pink polka-dot background and endpapers (not to mention the fabulous subtitle), Entertaining Is Fun! seemed like just the thing to browse through, especially if, like me, you gravitate to those dated and essentially unusable, but lovable, cookbooks that frequently turn up at yard sales.

What an interesting find this turned out to be. Dorothy Draper, about whom I knew nothing (my own ignorance), was the Martha Stewart of her day. An ambitious, driven woman from the affluent enclave of Tuxedo Park, she launched herself as a decorator with her own first-married home, which she did up with such style that it became a sensation (she then promptly sold it, contents and all). In the 1920s and 1930s she rocketed to fame with her ideas—unconventional in their time—for banishing the dark and heavy post-Victorian look that predominated and for using, instead, very bright and often startlingly unmatched colors, big stripes, and odd assortments of stray furniture geared toward comfort, not impressive looks. Dorothy Draper & Company became internationally renowned for style and innovation as Draper, who was to appear on the covers of both Time and Life, took on not just the apartments of the very rich but hotels, resorts (Greenbriar, in West Virginia, was legendary) and even, in the 1950s and 1960s, airplane interiors. “If it looks right, it is right,” she proclaimed, as she opened the door to a fresh new vibrancy in décor. In 1939 she cemented her primacy as most famous designer in America with Decorating Is Fun!, a cheerleading attack on stolid, boring middle-class taste that was aimed at the average (if affluent) bored housewife. Entertaining continued the trend. Here Draper confronted the problem of a dull social life, and she did it with an energy level that is almost exhausting to read.

Almost, but not quite. This is fun stuff. Just a few pages into her book, and then throughout, Draper announces that the primary enemy for everyone, male or female, is “the Will to be Dreary,” a close cousin of “the Will to Fail.” Above all, dreariness must be banished, in house décor, in the choice of meals, in social companionship, in self-evaluation. How to do so? Colors! Paint your floor black and your ceiling pink, and line the shelves with pinkish-red velveteen. And paint your front door a glowing Van Gogh yellow. Change your menus! Serve black bean soup in orange bowls (with a slice of paprika-dusted lemon to set off the darkness of the beans), add radishes to your homely salad, explore strange, exotic dishes like risotto, goulash, and Parmesan cheese. Throw a party! Dress up in Tyrolean outfits, sing old folk songs, have an old-fashioned candy pull, balance a filled water glass on your forehead, analyze the other guests’ handwriting, recreate a hoedown. Fix your surroundings! Saw off the legs of an old kitchen table, paint it with stripes, and turn it into a startling new coffee table. Or buy and plant some dwarf apple trees, or get a radio. You can turn the dullness around—you can get a life!

From an anthropological point of view, Draper’s tips provide a fascinating look at social life among a certain group of affluent, white Easterners of the era. “Can there be anything more dreary than to arrive to stay several days at a house where there is only a bored-looking servant to receive you (and not one who has been taught to smile)?” “Even if you don’t own a country place yet you could rent some land in hilly country and put up a cabin there that would make an ideal spot for skiing weekends.” “Surely there’s no tremendous effort involved in carrying a pretty breakfast tray with fruit, coffee and buttered toast or a hot roll upstairs to the guest’s room. If you have no maid to do this do it yourself.” “If you have the space for them why not start saving up for your own tennis or badminton courts? Playing these games at home is so much more fun than on club courts.” And the food—creamed finnan haddie, kidney stew with rice, canned turtle soup, canned crepes! And the index—“Friends, making new ones”; “Husbands, perfect”; “Conversation, correcting errors”!

On the other hand, I can’t quibble with other suggestions for the good life. Have lots of ashtrays handy (“one extra large to please men guests”), take chances (“Every single thing that makes your life fuller and richer is worth doing”), and above all, drink up (“The first requisite for such a party is good liquor. The second is plenty of it.”). I imagine Dorothy Draper, who turns up on various Internet sites wearing striking hats and who is unaccountably described as being either 5’1″ or 5’11” tall, as someone very much like the character played by Eloise author Kay Thompson in the movie Funny Face (“Think pink!”), dashing about in a madcap but directed way, gathering laurel boughs for the side table, dying table napkins (made by hand from used damask tablecloths) bright blue, liberally pouring out very large drinks for her guests, urging them on to relax, be positive, be friendly, and have fun. The spirit of this book, originally published in 1941 and reissued in a facsimile edition, is pure happiness. It must have been received with relief and delight by her many fans. Realistically, I am aware that you’re not likely to find this on your bedside table. But if retro is your cup of tea, and if you’re in the mood for a light bit of fun, or if you’re looking for a small gift for someone who is taking you on as a weekend guest, Entertaining Is Fun! is, indeed, fun, and gives a frothy peek at a world now long gone.

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