The pieces in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale cover a wide range of topics--the arts under the Bush administration, Obama's presidential campaign, ancient and contemporary Chinese poetry, the color blue, exoticism, the relationship between Samuel Beckett and Octavio Paz--but are knit together by a sensibility that prizes exactitude in its formulations yet is open to the unpredictable complications of the larger world. Put another way: weak prose and parochialism are two of Weinberger's chief enemies. One of the delights of reading his essays is that they reveal the interconnections between the two; the Wittgensteinian idea that the limits of one's language are the limits of one's world becomes, in his hands, a tool for revealing the blind spots common to our culture.
Or our critics. In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, the self-assured yet clueless critic appears in various guises, only to be cut down to size by Weinberger's sharp pen. In his appreciative but tart assessment of Susan Sontag, he applauds her political courage and the cultural shift brought on by her Illness as Metaphor but comes down hard on her self-seriousness and the Eurocentricism of her critical imagination: "Like the old joke about the Oxford don, she knew everything, and nothing about everything else." Reviewing Robert Alter's new edition of the Psalms, Weinberger makes the renowned scholar seem arrestingly blinkered: "Based on the evidence here, Alter seems to know very little about the last hundred years of English-language poetry." Weinberger tends to use his own wide-ranging erudition as the stick by which other writers are measured, found wanting, then roughed up a bit.
Yet the attacks are not personal so much as cultural, a way to question what we value in our critics. The attack on Alter, for instance, is part of a larger, and welcome, brief against the fetish for "fidelity" among academic translators ("the primary task of a translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right--which is the easiest part--but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation-language"). And the review ends evocatively rather than tendentiously, with a panoramic sketch of how the Psalms, in translation over the past five centuries, have set the paradigm for what ecstatic poetry should sound like. There's a refreshing current of irreverence that runs deep through Weinberger's polemics, a Robin Hood-like ethic that has him taking from those with cultural capital to give to those without it: Sontag and Alter may be taken down a few pegs, but less-known figures like Vicente Huidobro, Hans Faverey, Lorine Niedecker and Kenneth Cox are treated, conversely, with handsome admiration.
To be fair, there are moments in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale when Weinberger's assuredness fails him--when he seems to drop his ordinarily careful presentation of a critical case and shift into polemical overdrive. Given the task, in 2002, of introducing E.B. White's 1948 essay "Here Is New York" to the German readers of Lettre International, Weinberger took the occasion to meditate on how White's winsome style reflected his limitations and those of his longtime employer. Weinberger begins by observing that White's New York is "geographically minute"--much of it confined within a fifteen-block radius of The New Yorker's offices on West Forty-third Street--then connects the smallness of White's tour to the small-mindedness of the magazine that published him. The New Yorker, Weinberger observes,
is permanently fixed in an air of bemused detachment, which it expresses in a style whose sentences are pathologically rewritten by its editors, "polished" (as they call it) until every article, whether a report from Rwanda or a portrait of a professional dog-walker, sounds exactly alike, driven by domestic similes and clever turns of phrases that mix colloquial speech with unexpected synonyms. E.B. White was a master of the style, and it is a sign of the magazine's petrification--if it was ever not petrified--that his sentences from fifty years ago might have been published in last week's issue.
Weinberger's essay on White valuably broaches the costs of The New Yorker's cleverness, the mysteries that it can screen out with its likably crisp prose; one wonders how American journalism might have evolved over the past decade if W.G. Sebald, rather than Malcolm Gladwell, offered the most lucrative working model. Yet Weinberger's conclusions also seem exaggerated. Can one essay encapsulate the whole of the magazine's history (especially when the essay in question was published not in The New Yorker but Holiday)? Is the house style of The New Yorker so uniform? (Ask the ghosts of John Updike and Pauline Kael.) And are Jane Mayer's articles about torture, Seymour Hersh's reports on military affairs and Jon Lee Anderson's dispatches from the outposts of the American empire all signs of "petrification"?
Perhaps inevitably, Weinberger the polemicist is a lumper rather than a splitter; sometimes, though, the lumping seems to come merely from his detached, bird's-eye vantage point rather than from an engagement with the complexity of the problem in question. In several essays Weinberger argues that academics in the humanities have lost their way, focusing on critical theory and bean-counting curricular reform at the expense of practical political engagement and aesthetic pleasure. And American writers, partly because of their ties to academia, are no better as citizens of the world:
We are where we are in part because American writers--supposedly the most articulate members of society--have generally had nothing to say about the world for the last thirty years....
After thirty years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now [in 2003] have the government we deserve.
Certainly this conclusion packs a wallop. But it also seems questionable, given that the "globalization" of the American novel has accelerated ever since, say, Russell Banks's Continental Drift (1985), which put an American working-class family and a family of Haitian refugees on an unforgettable and fatal collision course. Whatever one might think of such bestselling literary novels as Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, they have more than "nothing to say about the world." The conclusion is even more questionable since it's presented without much evidence to support it: here Weinberger lets his adversarial tone do all the work of establishing the authority of his argument. (Even Natkira took the trouble to point to a treatise.) He becomes, as he says of E.B. White, a "prisoner of his style"--bound to present himself as the Last Broad-Minded Man in America, bearing lonely witness to the world. Those who already agree with him will nod with pleasure at these takedowns of the American intelligentsia, but those who disagree will be unmoved.