All posts by Eric

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Stages of Enlightenment

families like mine which owe everything to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. (Rimbaud, “Bad Blood”) Above my cradle loomed the bookcase where / Latin ashes and the dust of Greece / Mingled with novels, history, and verse / In one dark Babel. I was folio-high / When I first heard the voices.  (Baudelaire, “The Voice”)

“The Voice” always reminds me that Baudelaire’s father, a former priest, was the Directorate’s Assistant Commissioner “for the selection of books from the libraries of convents, émigrés or condemned persons” – he dissolved, commingled and dispersed private libraries for the revolutionary regime. Osip Mandelstam grew up outside the Pale of Settlement, in Imperial Petersburg, a middle-class Jew enrolled in the “military, privileged, almost aristocratic” Tenishev School (Nabokov went there too).  In The Noise of Time Mandelstam wrote that in the jumble of his parents’ bookcase he could discern the strata of their different “spiritual efforts.” His father, a leather merchant born in a shtetl, owned Schiller, Goethe, and the Tieck Shakespeare — “all this was my father fighting his way as an autodidact into the German world out of the Talmudic wilds.” Mandelstam’s mother was “the first in her family to achieve the pure and clear Russian sounds”; the household’s Pushkin set was the prize-book of a proud schoolgirl.

Among my father’s books there were no classics but Bunyan and the Bible – The Pilgrim’s Progress in imitation leather, and a strange paperback printing of the New Testament called Soul Food, whose cover showed black teenagers gathered around a picnic table, grinning broadly under their afros. My father’s library was a collection of atlases, encyclopedias, heavily illustrated histories, and glossy museum catalogues. A library of vicarious travel, famed vistas. All that the photography of the time could capture and relay. The library of a rural youth, one of the last products of segregated Southern schooling; dyslexic, mocked, called retarded, ever-remedial, a Bible college scholarship athlete, a basketball recruit tutored by white girlfriends who upon graduation headed to Los Angeles, there to be startled by California’s commingling of peoples, by revisions of textbook history heard on left-wing radio, by a trip across Europe – Paris to Croatian ports – and ever after given to lament all that he’d not been “exposed to” as a boy. He didn’t hear about the Holocaust until he visited Poland. Whether he acquired his books as souvenirs of his exposure, or guarantees of mine, I could never tell. The gatherer of this expansive knowledge, this explorer’s library, has been for decades remote, or when present, rancorous. He has ranted, and taunted, but he has rarely spoken.

I’ve heard attributed to Winston Churchill the axiom that one develops a taste for history when young, or never. Reading Gibbon in the library of Blenheim Palace is an auspicious way of acquiring the taste. I made due with the kind of library newly middle-class Americans once ordered at a swoop, often as furniture – the Time-Life Books shipped in installments and the illustrated volumes available to subscribers of National Geographic Magazine. My favorite, the book I kept in my room, was Men, Ships, and the Sea, by Alan Villiers. I never needed another adventure book. Between the prologue picture of a naked aboriginal standing on a raft of mangrove logs, and a culminating helicopter shot of the nuclear Nimitz underway, its dress-white sailors formed to spell E=mc2 across the flight-deck, I found an unforgettable album of dangerous poses. Boys need heroes. Mine were calm captains. The whalemen in old engravings never flinch or falter – they are flung, pardonably helpless, or they stand in the monster’s wroth, coolly spearing. The whalemen were white; the image of an American crew as a racial motley of laborers “federated along one keel” would have to wait until I was old enough for Melville. In Farragut at Mobile Bay, by the English naval painter William Overend, the Admiral leans out from the Hartford‘s rigging, looks down on his ship’s meeting of muzzles with those of the rebel ironclad as if it were a cockfight at his feet. Prominent down on deck is a black gunner, his broad back to the viewer; his head is wrapped in a bright kerchief; there’s a cutlass strapped around his narrow waist, and a ramrod in his hands. In the civil war to restore the United States and destroy slavery, the Federal government’s batteries and regiments of foot were segregated, but its warships sailed with mixed crews. I recall asking my father, who won the Civil War? “We did,” he said.

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The Time-Life books were little museums. The French Revolution and the American Civil War weren’t slats on a timeline, but chests of coats and weapons. Paging through them now – when I’m sure he won’t be home – I admire the mingling of heroic period prints and forensic photographs of the blunt tools – grim old guns, heavy-looking blades, riddled banners and bloodstained tunics. Such a mingling might prepare young readers for the dissonance of accounts, prepare them to discern hard times in moonlit memoirs, butchery in utopian slogans.

My reading changed in high school. The poem rose above the tale – the mood above the deed. Changing books I changed calm captains for deranging poets, crisp calls (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”) for doubtful lines; the tight ship for Le Bateau ivre, the adventurous mission – duty always visible through storm and strife – for Baudelaire’s vague voyages to an oblivious Indies. My father’s library, and the volumes of picturesque battles and warplane schematics I had collected in its image, became less important to me, dismissed as remnants of a naïve, merely fact-gathering era of my thinking, and I wondered why we had no literature. The shelves in my friends’ homes displayed distant syllabi, paperback poets, frail, dusty, yellowed, unread for decades and unable to sing before first clearing their throats – the crack of old glued bindings! – but they were nonetheless available to the household, or to any weirdo wallflower invited over. I asked my father what he did with his college classics. He said he tossed them in the dumpster behind his first apartment. This packrat and near-hoarder said he just didn’t need those books anymore. I pretended to accept his explanation. I nodded as if answered. I knew not to press. Literature was a refinement of his humiliation.

 Now I like to think I might reconcile the two stages of reading. For me, for many years, history meant society, meant race; meant blackness, that nightmare from which I was trying to awake into some imaginary homeland of apolitical aestheticism. Only recently – well, since 2009, the year a not-inconsiderable number of white Americans lost their minds,  or revealed just how racist they are, and also the year I happened upon Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, which illuminates this country’s crazy like a slowly falling flare - have I felt the need to situate my person in history. This is an awkward initial essay.

“If I were asked to name the chief event in my life” – Borges – “I should say my father’s library.” It is my event: the platting of the centuries, backwards from my birth, and the slow peopling of the past, with pioneer images, with facts I would relate to other facts, and soon to memories and dreams. 
Like the stereopticon slides Holly salvages from her father’s torched house in Malick’s Badlands, my father’s books were cheap glimpses of the faraway and they whispered that I was just a boy, in California – continent’s edge – with just so many years to live.

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Memoirs of My Life and Writings

Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”

This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.

Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.

As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places(published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.

I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War

betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.

There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.

On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.

On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.

On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…

On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.

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The Unknown Battle of Midway

This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that seem designed to confirm Sartre’s claim that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, which probably damaged the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.

Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.

As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a great military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable – number of dead men.

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Pilots of the Hornet‘s Torpedo Squadron 8. (Each plane carried two other crew members, a gunner and a bombardier.) Ensign Gay, kneeling forth from the right, was the sole survivor of Midway.

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My Russian Professors

Actually there was only one; but he contained such echoes – of Nabokov, of Brodsky – that I attribute his lessons to a larger culture, to a lineage of Russians. Alexander Dolinin announced his fastidious standards in the first lecture. He was skeptical of group identity (“individual genius is all that counts”) and refused to teach verse in translation (“Pushkin in English is not Pushkin”). Dolinin’s survey of Russian prose fiction was my first class at the University of Wisconsin. Outside – the crisp and glittery end of summer on an elm- and maple-wooded isthmus dividing a pair of algae-green glacial lakes. For the next nine months I would always be reading some Englished classic of Russian prose. We followed Dolinin from the faro tables and winter balls of Pushkin’s prose Petersburg to the lustily mown acres of Levin’s estate; from the crowded Crimean pier where Anna Sergeyevna lost her lorgnette to the Arctic reveille of Denisovich and the zeks. The Oxford World and Penguin Classics provided only the silhouettes of Russian writers, and we were yawning undergrads in an early-morning elective, and Dolinin couldn’t go very deep – but nonetheless he was able to model an intellectual sensuousness, an impassioned relation to tradition that I did not encounter elsewhere.

Dolinin’s was a tall frame, usually bagged in a big sweater and loose cords. Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Alexander Korovin, seen in a traveling Mir Iskusstva exhibition, once prompted me to recall his face – the half-haired head, the light eyes, the mouth held in a seemingly pained, tight-lipped sneer-smile that displayed, I thought, the contest of scandalized disgust and patient pedagogy.

Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916
Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916

I saw the sneer when he riffed Humbert-like on a local mattress store (“The Happy Sleeper? The sleeper has no fears, no regrets?”), and when, reaching for some contemporary specimen of Gogolian poshlust, and finding the beloved Titanic, he provoked the howling protest of the entire class. He smiled during forays among us. Despite Pushkinskii Dom and the glasnost editorship of an illustrious émigré he did not hold himself aloof behind podium and pre-typed remarks. Holding a ragged reading copy he would step down and wade out into the hall, darting neo-Platonism, James Joyce and Horatian tags at heads being covertly supplied from a single earbud or bent over an issue of the student newspaper folded many times to isolate the daily crossword in a small, stashable square. Neo-Platonism was for the Silver Age poets; Joyce for the resemblance of Leopold Bloom to one of Babel’s narrators; and Horace’s commonplaces – for centuries pass phrases among the learned – for, well, everything. These digressions or self-annotations held one as much as the testable topoi for traces of which, however garbled or fleeting, the grad student graders combed our Blue Books. Dolinin brought his erudition to bear. His digressions were pitched slightly above our heads – the connections to books beyond the syllabus graspable, but only just. The refusal or inability to completely cut the material to our teenage range was notice of our novitiate status, a subtle spur to further reading.

So spurred, I read Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One in the lamp-lit afternoons of the long winter break. I penciled “Dolinin” next to Mandelstam’s definition of Acmeism: “nostalgia for a world culture.” Mandelstam’s attitude is not, as Brodsky would have it, “distinctly Russian” – Europe’s unity is a mirage common to the intellectuals on its fringes – and as a scholar Dolinin was at home in many literatures as a matter of course. But the passage did strike me, even if it did not explain him. I thought of Dolinin again – recalled his age and his manner – when I came to Brodsky’s elegiac evocation of his 1960s cohort of book-burrowed internal émigrés, “poorly dressed yet somehow still elegant,” with their love for the “non-existent (or existing only in their balding heads) thing called ‘civilization’” – “the only generation of Russians that had found itself, for whom Giotto and Mandelstam were more imperative than their own personal destinies.”

Brodsky's bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.
Brodsky’s bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.

Learning as a personal imperative was precisely what made Dolinin a distinctive teacher. One day, lecturing on We, he asked to whom Zamyatin was alluding when he named a character “Mephisto.” No one answered (or was willing to raise a lone hand). “You all live in a cultural vacuum,” he sneered. To us the idea of being educated to a canon was inconceivable – when not an ideological anathema. And few professors, among the statistically inevitable number of instructors required to staff the nation’s many colleges, would have dared scold us.

 

All I possess are eight slim volumes, / And they contain my native land.

(Khodasevich, on his Pushkin set)

In 1939, Vladislav Khodasevich – for Nabokov “the greatest poet Russia has yet produced in this century” – died of cancer, penniless in Paris. (I see too readily the flat where he was too ill to receive visitors, and the dingy tiles and flimsily screened separate agonies of the municipal ward Nina Berberova after visiting him called “a hell on earth.”)  A decade before his death Khodasevich ceased to write verse. He situated his personal tragedy in a general twilight of Russian literature, as Pushkin’s “long, life-giving ray” (Nabokov, in The Gift) dimmed over the diasporic cities and the younger émigrés. In an obituary Nabokov reminded the émigrés that whatever Khodasevich’s tribulations he was “safely enshrined in timeless Russia.” “Timeless Russia” sounds like an Orthodox iconostasis of the gleaming sainted, but I now picture, after years reading Nabokov (in 1939 poised on his career as a Russian professor), the comprehensive stacks of a North American research library. A miraculous mirage of Russia, a monastic repository untouched by war and upheaval, is how the Waindell College Library appears in Pnin. Timofey Pnin, so awkward in his American milieu, finds refuge in the library where he has his “scriptorium in the stacks…his paradise of Russian lore.” Despite its remote location and warehouse-like steel shelving, Waindell’s Slavic collection is an enchanted portal through which “dewy-eyed Timofey” re-enters his father’s library and handles the same Russian classics in “horrible and pathetic cameo bindings, whose molded profiles of poets” – “Pushkin’s slightly chafed side whisker or Zhukovski’s smudgy nose” – he had idly palpated as a child.

The gratitude announced in Pnin, and obliquely mentioned in Lolita (Humbert’s “nympholeptsy” is quelled, though not cured, by “the solace of research in palatial libraries”), appears again in Nabokov’s 1964 Playboy interview, in which he names “great libraries and its Grand Canyon” among America’s wonders, and says he may return to roam the nation’s “library stacks and mountain passes.” He told the Paris Review that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus” was a “fine milieu for a writer.” In a letter to Edmund Wilson he called Harvard’s libraries “wonderful,” and while researching his Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, marveled at finding in the Widener stacks a copy of the eighteenth century dream manual Tatiana consults in Canto Four.  John Updike said it is pleasant to think of Nabokov working on his Onegin “in the libraries of his adopted land,” “laboring with Janus-faced patriotism” on a bridge “whereby the genius of Pushkin is to cross after him into America.”

In the Slavic stacks of the UW Memorial Library I followed up lecture hall glimpses of this “timeless Russia.” I loved Silver Age memoirs, the necropoles of the Symbolists; and I came to inhabit, alongside the Boston and Bloomsbury of my declared major, Ivanov’s Tower, the Stray Dog Cabaret, and the House of the Arts. Not quite believing I was doing so, I opened a first edition of Nabokov’s first novel (Mashenka, Slovo: Berlin, 1926), a jewel in the general stacks. Its title page was stamped with a little Bronze Horseman – the émigré printer’s nostalgic device.

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I examined editions of Pushkin, some handy and demotic, others monumental, shrines of scholars. Scanning his stanzas I knew that under my ignorant eye the alien Cyrillic signs “reflected and renewed one another, shared each other’s heat, sheen and shadow” – and each line was alive with a secret, hieratic iridescence.

The Pushkin bardolatry is a more ardent tradition of criticism than the one modeled by my excellent English professors who, dwelling in the different centers and centuries of the empire of English, rarely projected the focused, scripturo-tribal intensity I found in the Pushkin criticism of Nabokov, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva and Ahkmatova. I obtained a good literary education eavesdropping on Russian scriptural debates. The critical functions of allusion and parody; the innovations of remembering; the writer’s selection of his sponsors from the mass of predecessors – all first demonstrated to me by Dolinin or by the reading he spurred.

 

My high youth! The great roads in every weather, a supernatural sobriety, a disinterest matched only by the most accomplished beggars, and such pride at having no country, no friends—what idiocy that all was! I’m only realizing it now!

(Rimbaud,  A Season in Hell)

 I finished high school in schiolistic raptures over Pale Fire. For graduation I got every Nabokov book, except Strong Opinions – and so checked into the dorm with a stack of pastel paperbacks; many old emotions are pressed in those pages.

“In hospitals there is still something of an eighteenth century madhouse,” Nabokov told an interviewer. The all-male dormitory is another vestigial Bedlam. There was often shit on the bathroom walls, in childish smears and swoops. My neighbors lounged in grimy underwear, their doors open, swigging gin – Hogarthian tiple! – from plastic bottles, amid the din of video game gunfire. Early one morning my roommate twitched awake, wobbled to his feet, and pissed all over the floor and the small fridge. The water fountain sometimes held a puddle of puke – hearty and stew-like, with burrito bits, or foamy and thin, with a yeasty tang. Whatever this was – and I still don’t know – it was not a place for the fastidious. And I was fastidious.

Because this hive of country boyhoods – let’s call it that – surpassed my experience of squalor, I didn’t believe it was real. The metaphysics of Invitation to a Beheading – the grotesque sham world in which Cincinnatus is imprisoned ruptures and dissolves just before his execution, and he makes his way “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him” –  became mine. I even typed out and pinned to the bulletin board of my dorm desk this passage:

Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is encarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me. But what gleams shine through the night, and what—. It exists, my dream world, it must exist, since, surely, there must be an original of the clumsy copy.

But the book usually open on that desk was The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. I re-read again and again the wistful urban suites of the early 1920s – “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” “A Guide to Berlin” – in which Nabokov celebrates his place of exile with the curiosity, optimism and receptivity he would retain through a further half-century of geographic and linguistic displacement. The night-strolling narrator of “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” delicately registers “an aged Great Dane whose claws rap on the sidewalk,” and locates happiness

in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

City dogs, wet pavement, and dancehalls also appear in Khodasevich’s embittered final collection, European Night (1927) – I encountered a handful of these late poems in David Bethea’s biography of Khodasevich – but not as sources of enchantment: “another [dog] will scratch with its sharp-clawed/paw the well-worn granite”; “the orchestra blares, the ass sings”; “And my rage and grief seethe/ and my walking-stick incessantly taps/ on the alien granite.”

I felt like Khodasevich – but imitated Nabokov. I compiled “A Guide to Madison,” a group of sketches – gratefully lost, entombed in a defunct computer – with which I pushed myself to record, in that awed, wistful tone that grates if at all forced, such delicate trifles of my surroundings as I thought might be redemptively, Nabokovianly “enchanting.” I recall something about a city bus stripping a shower of dead leaves from a low bough; and sparrows wheeling and dipping against a gray-gold winter sunset. But the tone was forced; and the liveliest images of those years are lively from spleen. Of the beery provincial waste that is the setting for Sologub’s The Petty Demon a sneering Dolinin said: “sounds like here!”

 

 

 

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General Grant goes around the world

In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous author with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental reporter whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider a third Grant administration) with the honors Europe and Asia were showering on the ex-president. Young notes that while cruising between Malta and Naples on an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

This edition is an abridgement of the popular two-volume coffee table book – or parlor piano-top book – Young published after he got back. Around the World with General Grant was a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer that allowed Americans to glimpse exotic geography, culture and politics over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. In the engravings Grant is familiar and repeated, Gorey-like, talismanic; the beard, the cigar, and the frock coat, though his headgear varies: a bowler while strolling European streets, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.

“Smooth twaddle” is what Henry James would have called Young’s narrative. But Young’s glibness is overpowered by the interest of the historical moment – a moment in which Grant, as the voice of a young New World power whose recent consolidation and display of military prowess has stymied British and French designs, preaches anti-imperial idealism to Asians oppressed by European powers – and by the drama of the witnessed scenes, which show Grant discussing the cares of state with Bismarck; blushing before the dancing girls summoned by the Majaraja of Jeypore; mediating a Sino-Japanese dispute (the chapter on Grant in China is amazing); candidly talking shit about colleague and opponent generals in the American Civil War; and much more.Young’s account for the most part presents an officially masked, phlegmatic and platitudinous Grant, but there are glimpses of the spirited solitary and restless horseman later biographers have revealed:

We had an escort of lepers as we took our places in our wagons, and were glad to hurry away. We kept our journey, our eyes bent toward Jerusalem, and looking with quickened interest as Mr. Hardegg told us that the blue mountains coming in view were the mountains of Judea. Our road is toward the southeast. The rain falls, but it is not an exacting shower. The General has found a horse, and when offered the affectation of an umbrella and urged to swathe his neck in silk, says it is only mist, and gallops ahead.

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“I begin to discern the profile of my death.”

This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think many times of Memoirs of Hadrian – especially the short opening section in which the emperor begins to discern, after a life of warfare and perilous travels, his quiet, domestic death, and in which he describes the abdications of his failing body:

 To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still…if the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of a centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man? … My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and perhaps better than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will.

“Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” said his mother, perhaps hinting only horses could. From his cadet years he was acknowledged the finest horseman in the army, and the mastery of large, spirited, unmanageable-looking mounts was one of the few personal demonstrations this shy man allowed himself. Tellingly, he chose to smoke his doctor-decreed last cigar with a Hudson Valley horse breeder, on a fine autumn day, while they were out having a look at the colts.

Flood’s book is blandly written and strangely organized, but the latter chapters quote a wealth of contextual detail. The get-well letters from schoolchildren, the condolence telegrams from former rebel generals and lodges of Confederate veterans, all the funereal logistics of Manhattan crowd control and mourning fashion (by 4:00pm on the day Grant died Bloomingdale’s was sold out of black crepe; the New York Times noted that “in the narrow streets and the tall crowded buildings where the poor make their homes the sign of grief is nearly on every door post…in many cases it is nothing but a narrow strip of cheap black cambric fluttering in the breeze from the topmost story of some tenement house or a small flag bordered with a piece of folded crepe from a wornout bonnet”) allow the reader to sense the nature and magnitude of Grant’s fame in the twenty years he lived after the war. He was the foremost living symbol of peaceful unity – the nation was locally fraught, but generally at peace; its unity mocked, beset, but not fatally endangered by labor strife in the North, racial terrorism in the South, and, out West, amid the piecemeal settlement, sporadic warfare and nigh-genocidal dispossession. A society confused but mostly functional, its injustice and inequality somehow borne, its ideals regularly betrayed but still vital enough to inspire immigrants and the young, its citizens ever-hopeful of adapting, rising, overcoming; a country always, said Bernard DeVoto, in the process of becoming something it had not been; a welter of souls, strangely channeled, by force, by whim, and deposited somewhere.The semblance of community, and frequently the substance.

The national tributes Grant received in his illness, especially those from old rebels, gave a calm to the “Conclusion” of his Personal Memoirs.  “The expressions of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people.” A prospect of felicitous integration – what he called “a commingling of the people.” The styles of Grant and Yourcenar’s Hardrian intersect at a lyrical legalism, a civic sublimity:

Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers …This is all changed now … The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that…the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.

 

I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace  should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveler might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture…

Yourcenar said that in her wartime hiatus from work on the novel, the emperor, “the most official yet the most hidden form of all,” had gradually emerged from Hadrian’s other selves – “The fact of having lived in a world that was toppling all around us taught me the importance of the Prince.” Grant’s memory was for a long time obscured in his nation’s era of general peace, when unity was assumed, order assured, and rebels romantic; what does his memory mean for us now that the Federal political system of the United States is again broken, again at an impasse?