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“Nature did not make him a poet,” an anonymous reviewer wrote of Herman Melville in the September 6, 1866, issue of The Nation. While praising his “literary reputation” and “experience and cultivation”—somewhat challenging today’s cliché that Melville’s talents went completely unrecognized until after his 1891 death—the writer nonetheless argued that Melville was only one among “the herd of recent versifiers.”
His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry. Here and there gleams of imaginative power shine out like the grains of gold in a mass of quartz.
Though works like Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno”—the subject of an essay by Nation editorial board member Greg Grandin in next week’s issue—had been in circulation for over a decade by 1866, nothing of Melville’s contributions to American prose is mentioned in the review. It was not until the centenary of Melville’s birth, in August 1919, that a treatment of those works and Melville’s legacy as one of the finest writers this country ever produced appeared in our pages.
It was by a young Columbia lecturer named Raymond Weaver, the so-called “father of Melville criticism,” whose 1921 biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, and sixteen-volume edition of Melville’s works published in 1924 would largely spark the “Melville revival” of the 1920s, which rescued the long-deceased scribe from historical obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.
Commissioned by his English Department colleague and The Nation’s literary editor Carl Van Doren (who according to one scholar of Melville criticism had been recommending as early as 1915 that his students read an old and obscure genre-bending novel about whaling), it was the first piece Weaver wrote about Melville, and it was only after its publication that he decided to commit himself to a full-length biography, according to Clare Spark’s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare & the Melville Revival. The canonization of Melville began with Weaver, and Weaver began with The Nation.
Moby-Dick was “an amazing masterpiece,” Weaver wrote. It “reads like a great opium dream” and “contains some of the most finished comedy in the language.” While seconding the anonymous 1866 reviewer by acknowledging that “as a poet Melville is not distinguished”—a view which has been considerably revised by more recent scholars—Weaver made the case for recognition of Melville as one of the most exemplary American writers yet, while acknowledging that the more disturbing aspects of his vision could render widespread acknowledgment of that claim unattainable, whatever the author’s merits:
It was Melville’s abiding craving to achieve some total and undivined possession of the very heart of reality; his was the quest for the lost Atlantis, the ancient eternal desire of man for the unknown. In the promiscuous exuberance of youth Melville venturesomely sought his El Dorado on the world’s rim….
Essentially, he was a mystic, a treasure-seeker, a mystery-monger, a delver after hidden things spiritual and material. The world to him was a darkly figured hieroglyph; and if he ever deciphered the cabalistic sign, the meaning he found was too terrible, or else too wonderful, to tell….
The versatility and power of his genius was extraordinary. If he does not eventually rank as a writer of overshadowing accomplishment, it will be owing not to any lack of genius, but to the perversity of his rare and lofty gifts.
Interestingly, Weaver’s groundbreaking biography of Melville was greeted with a mixed appraisal in The Nation just three years later. After commenting that Weaver’s work could have benefited from “more time spent in assimilation, a little more ripeness and finish,” as well as less stridency and a greater fidelity to facts—thus anticipating the later consensus about Weaver’s impassioned but unpolished work—the scholar Hoyt Hudson wrote:
In the revival of his fame there are undoubted dangers. One is that he may be overrated; but that, at worst, will be temporary. Another danger is, or was, that he might become the esoteric possession of a few, a group of self-styled “Melvilleans,” who would exchange cryptic passwords from their first editions and resent intrusion of the vulgar. Worst of all, Melville might become just another American author, another photogravure to put up beside [William Cullen] Bryant and Longfellow, every hair of his beard numbered, every fault forgotten, every platitude quoted. Mr. Weaver’s book insures a different future for Herman Melville. Given this biography and Melville’s works, we have the man, vigorous, observant, eloquent, but torn by unending speculations, baffled by sad defeats. To him all those will turn who love the tingle and tang of life yet who do not fear to think. What a storm-beaten tract, yet how fertile and tropical, has been added to the continent of American literature!
In a 1928 review of the Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, published with an introduction by his friend Raymond Weaver, Carl Van Doren wrote that “Benito Cereno,” the subject of Grandin’s essay as well as his new book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, “equals the best of Conrad in the weight of its drama and the skill of its unfolding.” Despite being neglected for over half-a-century, including by the most devoted early-revival Melvilleans like Weaver and himself, Melville’s short novels, Van Doren wrote, “belong, whatever may formerly have been said about them, with the most original and distinguished fiction yet produced on this continent.” The resurrection of Melville was complete.
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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
On January 8, 1964, nearly fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared in his first State of the Union address that his new administration “today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” The Nation was immediately enthusiastic and supportive, writing in its lead editorial, “The Rediscovery of Poverty,” just after the speech:
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the State of the Union address was that Mr. Johnson not only spoke about poverty, but spoke at length, emphatically, and with the apparent intention of actually meaning to alleviate it. The second most important aspect, gearing into the first, was the suggestion that the money was there for such a program, that it could be hacked out of the military program, and that Mr. Johnson proposed to swing the pickax. All this was said with a Rooseveltian resolution, sincerity and directness that exhilarated some listeners as much as it frightened others—those others who feel that poverty should be neither seen nor heard…
What is amazing is that it took fifteen years to get out from under the incubus of the cold war and to show a decent concern for the victims of industrialism. Now—it is as true as it is hackneyed—words must be followed by deeds. That is not up to the President alone, but he has supplied the words, and they are good.
The rhetorical declaration of war was punctuated by the passage in the summer of 1964 of the Economic Opportunity Act, which contained several work and welfare programs explicitly framed, as Johnson put it, as “a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.” Those programs—combined with the vital additions of Medicare, Medicaid, and other Great Society-era initiatives targeted for severe cuts or even elimination in recent years by Republicans—have made the experience of poverty in America less dire than before 1964.
But there is a still a long way to go before achieving President Johnson’s stated objective: “total victory.” The tragic misadventure in Vietnam distracted the administration and the country from the one war President Johnson actually did declare, and more recent decades have seen the war on poverty co-opted by the proponents of austerity and turned into an unrelenting war on the poor.
There could be no more honorable or productive way for President Obama and his congressional Democratic allies to mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration than to rededicate themselves to passing legislation—a minimum wage increase, universal pre-school access, reversal of recent cuts in food stamps (and expansions beyond the previous levels), job training assistance, and extensions of unemployment insurance, to name a few—which would at least signal a renewal of what President Johnson acknowledged fifty years ago would “not be a short or easy struggle…but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
The Nation, which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war on poverty with a special issue next month, is one of the only American media outlets which maintains a regular poverty beat (with writers like Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty, and Greg Kaufmann), and we are committed to covering this issue and give voice to those most affected until this, the richest nation on Earth, eradicates what President Johnson called “the most ancient of mankind’s enemies” from our midst.
Read Next: Greg Kaufmann's final "This Week in Poverty" entry.
“Not a conventional person” was how Nation publisher and editor-turned-columnist Oswald Garrison Villard bluntly described the man who had just been named Republican and Fusion candidate for mayor of New York City in the summer of 1933. Villard noted La Guardia’s lack of polished sophistication, his flamboyance and tendency “to go off half-cocked” at times. “But Fiorello La Guardia will never for one moment be out of touch with or fail to understand the humble people of New York City and their needs,” Villard concluded, lamenting the absence of socialist Norman Thomas from the race while enthusiastically endorsing the Little Flower.
Asked in a September interview which predecessor he would draw inspiration from if elected, Bill de Blasio responded: “Unquestionably, I would model myself after La Guardia.”
As a tour through The Nation’s coverage of La Guardia’s career confirms, there is much New York’s new progressive mayor can learn from the man who showed that municipal government can be clean, competent and committed to improving the lives of the city’s most disadvantaged residents. Before his mayoralty and after, The Nation repeatedly held La Guardia up as the model of how powerful and progressive a mayor can actually be.
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In a March 1928 installment of the magazine’s recurring series of profiles called “Americans We Like,” the journalist Duff Gilfond wrote of then-Congressman La Guardia:
In spite of his earnestness and the disappointments which such a liberal program necessarily brings, the merry little Major (his title in Washington since the war) has preserved his sense of humor. He persists in introducing bills that cannot pass—for ten years. “They serve for educational purposes,” he says, puffing at his two-and-a-half-cent Manila cigar. “The function of a progressive is to keep on protesting until things get so bad that a reactionary demands reform.”
He attends all his committee meetings, dictates all his letters, and never gives his colleagues a chance to slip a bill through by absenting himself from the floor. If he is not making a speech or an objection his dark little rotund figure is at least conspicuous in the House. He is a great trial to some of his colleagues—especially the rabidly dry and Nordic—but just as great a comfort. One of the very few men who study every bill on the consent calendar, he can invariably answer the questions of his less prepared cohorts. He is the hated and beloved boy who does the homework. La Guardia has affected more bills in the House than any other member. There is not a branch of the Government, from the Shipping Board to the Department of State, that he has not attempted to reform…
He never attends a caucus; he gives White House invitations to the children; taunted with radicalism on the floor, he aptly retorts: “As long as a person talks about great American standards he is applauded; when he asks to put them into practice he is a radical.”
Just a few weeks later, La Guardia himself published the first of three articles he would write for The Nation. In “The Government Must Act!” La Guardia reported on his recent visit to striking miners of Pennsylvania and insisted it was the role of the federal government to establish better working conditions for the miners and better living conditions for their families, as “it is a matter of national concern that men be enabled to live decently and enjoy the freedom which the Constitution of this country guarantees to them.” He concluded:
The very persons all through the country who are now being exploited by coal barons, monopolistic oil companies, and the power trusts would be the first to succumb to propaganda that the “Government should be kept out of business,” that such a solution is “socialistic,” and that it would be contrary to the Constitution. But these monopolies are becoming more powerful, more brazen, more greedy, and more defiant of constitutional law when it stands in their way. It will not be long before the American people will realize that something is fundamentally wrong and they will then be less impressed by oil favoritism, coal “economics,” and power-trust “constitutionality.”
La Guardia’s next article for The Nation, in the May 23, 1928, issue, argued that a lobbying law then before Congress (blocked in the House, but finally passed as the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946) would do very little to actually combat the sources of corruption in American representative government. “The honest legislator who votes according to his best judgment and conscience will never fear or be tempted by the most skillful lobbyist that ever infested Washington; the other kind of legislator will not be improved by the passage of the law.”
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La Guardia’s candidacy for the mayoralty in 1933 was enthusiastically supported in The Nation’s pages by the prominent civil liberties lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays even before the Republican nomination was secured. In July of that year, Hays wrote of La Guardia:
His lack of swank is one of his identifying characteristics. The Mayor of New York must avoid the rigidity, the self-righteousness, and the bungling ineptness of the merely good-government reformer. He must have in mind a “Who’s Who” of the grafters, chair-warmers, favorite contractors, and the vast and varied medley that prey on the city treasury. La Guardia has held office for twenty years. He knows New York City politics and its politicians.…
La Guardia as mayor can end the banker domination of City Hall; he can begin with federal funds to raze the dingy rookeries of the poor and erect in their place garden apartments; he can drive out the political parasites that drain the city’s blood; he can make transit unification a fact and not a shibboleth…. La Guardia has the personality, the integrity, the record, the program, and the philosophy. In addition he is more likely to be elected than anyone else in sight.
One month later, in the column cited above, Oswald Garrison Villard wrote:
What happens in the metropolis in the next two years will be enormously important and may even influence deeply the conduct of other municipalities. The city’s financial situation is critical. If times do not improve, the keeping alive of foodless and workless citizens will become a problem transcending every other. Never did New York more greatly need a statesman and a man with tolerance, broad vision, and a kindly heart in the mayor’s chair.…
I am heartily for the Major’s election because I believe that he will bring to the mayoralty what it most needs—a warm heart inspired by the opportunity to serve the common people. I hope he realizes that the city of New York is not going to be redeemed by merely giving it another good reform administration; there must be radical changes.
Just before the election, in the issue dated October 25, 1933, Paul Blanshard—muckraking journalist, former Nation associate editor and co-author, with Norman Thomas, of the 1933 book What’s the Matter with New York, discussed in an upcoming Nation essay by London bureau chief D.D. Guttenplan—commented:
From the long-range point of view the coming election in New York is important not only because the election of LaGuardia might bring new faith in the capacity of a city to use democracy intelligently, but because LaGuardia, with his social progressivism, could make out of New York a gigantic laboratory for civic reconstruction. Certainly his record indicates that his elevation to New York’s City Hall might mean a genuine new deal for a long-suffering metropolis.
Blanshard, it turned out, was appointed by La Guardia to become Commissioner of Investigations and Accounts, quickly achieving national prominence as “a critical outsider who has become a political insider,” in The New York Times’s description, and aggressively pursuing corrupt politicians and government officials leftover from the years of Tammany Hall.
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When La Guardia died in 1947, less than two years after stepping down from office after declining to run for a fourth term, The Nation devoted its lead editorial note to his memory:
The genuine sorrow at LaGuardia’s death reflected more than an appreciation of his color and his achievement, though they were great. The tireless, paternal, irascible, cocky, and often vituperative little man who raced to fires, delighted in surprise visits to city institutions, personally investigated the humblest citizen’s complaint, read the “funnies” over the air during a newspaper strike, and, back in 1937, suggested making Hitler a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors was without doubt, as one reporter describes him, “New York’s most colorful mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.” And his long record of accomplishments includes the breaking of Tammany power, the introduction of scrupulously honest municipal government, the unification of a fantastically scrambled transit system, and the building of enough parks, playgrounds, highways, housing projects, markets, and bridges to alter, to its vast improvement, the face of the world’s largest city. But beyond all this was a warmth, a homey informality, and an identification with the people who had elected him that gave LaGuardia the status of a public protector. His utter scorn for party loyalty and “clubhouse loafers,” on the one hand, and for the cold theorizing of traditional reformers, on the other, established a rapport with the voters that became the envy and awe of the professionals. LaGuardia’s mayoralty proved brilliantly that political machines are no more inevitably a part of the modern city than typhoid epidemics.”
Nor, for that matter is rampant economic inequality, as Mayor de Blasio, with La Guardia as his role model, now has the opportunity to show.
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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge “aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire.” Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered “the least” budget the House has ever passed.
Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which—at least temporarily—halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal’s shortcomings, said that its mere existence was “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.” The Economist put it more plainly: “What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one.”
Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking—any deal at all—obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing.
Next week’s all-but-certain confirmation of Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chair presents a crucial opportunity to implement bold, progressive ideas in an institution that has for too long done too little to combat the vast economic inequalities in American society. As The Nation’s longtime national affairs correspondent William Greider wrote in our October 7, 2013 issue, Yellen “well understands that much deeper change must be considered to get the economy back in balance.”
Should the new chair need additional ideas as to what exactly should be changed at the Fed, Greider’s articles in The Nation over the past decade would be a helpful place to start.
In “The One-Eyed Chairman: How Greenspan Has Pushed the Right’s Agenda” (September 19, 2005), Greider lambasted the outgoing chairman’s partisanship, irresponsibility and betrayal of ordinary Americans. It is amazing to read Greider’s warnings, years before the 2008 crash, about the inevitable failure of Greenspan’s policies and the implications that would have for the broader deregulatory ideology of which he was for several decades perhaps the most prominent champion. (Greenspan would concede as much with his famous admission in October 2008 that there was “a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”)
Beware of economic policy-makers who go to extremes in defense of ideological convictions. Essentially, that is the nature of Greenspan’s grave failure. The real world did not cooperate with his right-wing beliefs, but he persisted anyway. In the hydraulics of monetary policy, his posture set in motion deep waves of economic extremes: fabulous personal wealth alongside a deeply indebted populace; extraordinary corporate profits alongside stagnant wages and surplus labor; too much capital and not enough consumer demand. These exaggerated waves, and some others, are still sloshing back and forth in the US economy. They will for years ahead, with more crises to come. Greenspan collected much praise for his swift and daring rescue missions—the nimble fireman rushing from blaze to blaze, putting out fires before they destroyed the economy. What many people did not understand is that it was Greenspan who lit the match.
In 2009, as the Obama administration was reeling from aftereffects of the crash, Greider wrote “Dismantling the Temple: How to Fix the Federal Reserve” (August 3/10, 2009), which outlined a plan for a more democratic, more transparent, and more effective Federal Reserve.
"A reconstituted central bank might keep the famous name and presidentially appointed governors, confirmed by Congress, but it would forfeit the mystique and submit to the usual standards of transparency and public scrutiny. The institution would be directed to concentrate on the Fed’s one great purpose—making monetary policy and controlling credit expansion to produce balanced economic growth and stable money. Most regulatory functions would be located elsewhere, in a new enforcement agency that would oversee regulated commercial banks as well as the “shadow banking” of hedge funds, private equity firms and others.
The Fed would thus be relieved of its conflicted objectives. Bank examiners would be free of the insiders pressures that inevitably emanate from the Fed’s cozy relations with major banks. All of the private-public ambiguities concocted in 1913 would be swept away, including bank ownership of the twelve Federal Reserve banks, which could be reorganized as branch offices with a focus on regional economies.
Altering the central bank would also give Congress an opening to reclaim its primacy in this most important matters. That sounds farfetched to modern sensibilities, and traditionalists will scream that it is a recipe for inflationary disaster. But this is what the Constitution prescribes: “The Congress shall have the power to coin money [and] regulate the value thereof.” It does not grant the president or the treasury secretary this power. Nor does it envision a secretive central bank that interacts murkily with the executive branch."
Finally, in a superb November 2012 essay, “The Fed and the Silence of the Left,” Greider encouraged progressives to be more vocal in their support for the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the economy, especially at a time when conservative voices were trying to convince chairman Ben Bernanke to cut back. Greider approved of Bernanke’s attempts to stimulate lending and spending, but asked “what else can the Fed chair do?” His answer offers many ideas Yellen could consider as a way to take the Fed in a more progressive, democratic direction. “Instead of pumping more money into the banking system,” Greider wrote, “the chairman should figure out how to get it to the sectors of commerce or industry that really need it.” The Fed, he continued,
"...could use its regulatory muscle to unfreeze the risk-averse bankers who are still unwilling to lend—the same bankers whose reckless risk-taking nearly brought down the entire system four years ago. The Fed could create special facilities for directed lending (just as it did for the imperiled banking system) that gets the banks to relax lending terms for credit-starved sectors like small business. If bankers refuse to play, it could offer the same deal to financial institutions that are not banks.
The Fed could help restart the enfeebled housing sector by collaborating on debt reduction for the millions of underwater home mortgages. It could help organize and finance major infrastructure projects, like modernizing the national electrical grid, building high-speed rail systems and cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy—public works that create jobs the old-fashioned way. The Fed could influence the investment decisions of private capital by backstopping public-private bonds needed to finance the long-neglected overhaul of the nation’s common assets."
With Yellen’s installation as the first-ever chairwoman of the Federal Reserve expected in January, one thing is certain: should she fail to steer the bank in a more progressive direction, it won’t be for a lack of actionable ideas.
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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
Read next: John Nichols on the popular rebellion that tripped up Larry Summers.
Leaders from across the world will gather in South Africa this week to pay tribute to the most extraordinary leader of our lifetime, Nelson Mandela. The chorus of tributes, from across the globe and across the political spectrum, cannot hope to do justice to this remarkable man, who emerged from twenty-seven years in prison with a grace, dignity and will sufficient to transform the brutal apartheid system peacefully and spread hope across the world.
But Mandela was not always universally praised. In fact, US administrations of both parties were far from ardent opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime or supporters of Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress (ANC). Conservatives in particular long saw the apartheid regime as an anti-communist bulwark in the Cold War. After Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, the conservative National Review magazine defended South African courts for sending up “a batch of admitted terrorists to life in the penitentiary.” Conservative Russell Kirk opined that democratic rule in South Africa would bring “the collapse of civilization,” and the resulting government would be “domination by witch doctors…and reckless demagogues.”
President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, believed the apartheid regime was an essential ally that was here to stay, arguing in a secret National Security Council policy study—dubbed the “Tar Baby” report—that the United States shouldn’t risk getting stuck in support of the oppressed majority.
Ronald Reagan branded the ANC a terrorist organization while dismissing apartheid as more of a “tribal policy than a racial policy.” He advocated “constructive engagement” with the regime, calling for closer trade relations while opposing economic sanctions. The emerging new right gleefully joined in labeling the ANC and other African liberation movements communist, while promoting their own “freedom movements,” largely tribal and racialist alternatives. Jack Abramoff, later infamously indicted for illegal lobbying and financial frauds, became president of the International Freedom Foundation, later exposed as a front group for the South African Army, established to discredit the ANC as communists and terrorists. Grover Norquist and others mobilized to counter the divestment movement. (Norquist sported a bumper sticker saying “I’d rather be killing commies.”) In 1990, when Mandela was released from prison and traveled to the United States, the Heritage Foundation called him a terrorist.
“The mere dimensions” of À la recherche du temps perdu, the critic Ernest Boyd wrote in The Nation in 1924, “are sufficient to inspire respect, and to arouse curiosity in that section of the public which likes to talk about books rather than read them…. The result is that there has been much more enthusiasm displayed over Marcel Proust than knowledge of his work.”
Almost ninety years on, that has never been truer than it is now, as some of the writing occasioned by last month’s centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s magnum opus, showed. It is nearly impossible to find an article on the anniversary not containing the word “madeleine.”
From our first notice of Proust to our most recent—the first-ever publication in English, in 1971, of excerpts from Proust’s prefaces to the writings of art critic John Ruskin—The Nation has always displayed both enthusiasm for his work and knowledge of it, consistently marveling over “Proust’s conviction that we recapture the past, with its emotions, not by any effort of the intelligence but through the accidental stimulus of an odor, a musical phrase, an involuntary movement, a flavor upon the tongue” (Dorothy Brewster in 1926), or “his power to communicate an egotistical absorption in the poignancy of a cherished pain” (Joseph Wood Krutch in 1930).
Even our first review of his work, in the December 7, 1921, issue, recognized the permanent impact the Recherche would have upon world literature.
“Of all that has been written of Marcel Proust,” Ellen FitzGerald wrote, “little has been said of what he is contributing to the novel in this growing landmark.”
Some critics dismiss it as a novel of manners; others appreciate it as a product of style. No one has pointed out that this “Recherche du temps perdu” is a reviving and even recreating of old matter and old method into new effects, is what every novel should be—a discovery of something new both in life and art.
This novel has no hero, no dominant character whose destiny is the reader’s concern. Yet unless the reader of these volumes sees that the anonymous, negative, impersonal character of the child, boy, and youth who successively has the place of hero is a triumph of creative skill, all the more powerful because his unobtrusiveness is the very vantage point from which he observes, analyses, projects, paints whole groups, he misses the first marvel of M. Proust’s skill…The prologue, an exquisite bit of reverie, establishes the poetical mood of the hero, how he is to see his world. Memory has perhaps never been so demonstrated to be what Plato called it—the mother of the Muses. The pain, the sensitiveness, the inexplicable suffering of a child have never been distilled into more wistful poetry. Child psychology has something precious in these pages, just as it has in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist.” M. Proust’s method is of the two the more rational…
Poetry deepens as memory penetrates unafraid into the sanctuary of emotion, passion, beauty of every kind. A temperamental, intellectual youth and his world live for us again, a world where the pale cast of thought admits little gaiety but touches instead to new issues a whole epoch where mood gives perspective to all the scenes. How everything expands and deepens because the mental reliving quickens consciousness to an almost wizard power!
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Timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Swann’s Way last month, Yale University Press published Proust biographer William Carter’s “new, more accurate, and illuminating” revision of the first volume of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation, itself published from 1922 (the year of Proust’s death) through 1930 (the year of Moncrieff’s death), which “corrects previous translating missteps to bring readers closer to Proust’s intentions.”
As early as 1924, The Nation’s Ernest Boyd—a signer of the famous Greenwich Village Bookshop Door—recognized the need for such a revision, arguing in his review of the second Moncrieff volume that he didn’t see it as “anything more than an ordinarily competent piece of translation…an exercise in the manner of Henry James.” Moreover, Boyd wrote, “Mr. Scott Moncrieff is guilty of actual blunders, which are rather elementary in many cases, and indicate, at best, an unfamiliarity with the fine shades of French, which is a serious defect in the translator of a work which rests upon a perfect feeling for the nuances of French speech and manners.” He then went on to skewer a few glaring mistakes—“Mr. Scott Moncrieff’s misfortunes with ‘barbante,’ ‘barbifant,’ and ‘raseurs’ are worthy of a place in a collection of schoolboys’ ‘howlers’ ”—and to declare his work “not the greatest translation,” but adding, “nor is Proust himself, for that matter, the greatest French prose writer of the age.”
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Beginning with The Cities of the Plain, or in the more recent style, Sodom and Gomorrah, in 1928, The Nation’s longtime drama critic (and resident Proustian) Joseph Wood Krutch reviewed each new Moncrieff translation as it was published. (The last, Time Regained, was completed by Frederick A. Blossom after Moncrieff’s 1930 death.) Perhaps the most telling feature of the series of reviews, excerpted below, is that almost every single one calls each successive book under review at least as good, if not better, than its predecessors. One “yields to none of the previous volumes in interest or beauty”; another “is at least an example as striking as any other of the nature of that sensibility peculiar to him”; and another, the last, is “more essential than any of the other single volumes to an understanding of Proust.” Reading Krutch’s (uncollected) reviews of Proust now, one is reawakened not only to the power of Proust’s writing and of the best writing on Proust, but also to the thrill it must have been to read his work, as Krutch wrote, “as they have appeared one by one” rather than “at a single gulp.” Perhaps the closest contemporary readers will get to retrieving that irretrievable experience is in the publication of William Carter’s revised Moncrieff translations, scheduled to be released annually for the next several years. Krutch’s commentaries from the pages of The Nation will be an invaluable aid for newcomers and veteran Proustians alike.
Volume 4: The Cities of the Plain (1928): “One of the earliest English commentators upon the work of Marcel Proust was disturbed by what he regarded as a moral obtuseness on the part of the author…. but he who cannot accept…our author’s willingness to sink the gentleman as well as the man when his curiosity is aroused had best make up his mind once and for all that Proust is not for him, because Proust would not be Proust had he not renounced all the obligations of life at the same time that he renounced life itself…
“When, burying himself in his chamber, [Proust] brought his life as a human being to an end the result was not at all to detach himself from it in the sense of freeing the logical faculties from the bondage of the senses, since his consciousness remained, what it had always been, primarily a realm of finely discriminated sensations, and since he turned not from perceptions to thoughts, but merely from perceptions to the memory of perceptions. But the fact that he was dead in the sense that he no longer planned to take any part in life, that he no longer felt any desires capable of eventuating in an act, not only made it possible for him to live passionately in memory and to approach more nearly than, perhaps, any other man ever did to that ‘total recall’ which is a psychological impossibility, but also made inevitable that disappearance of all ethical or conventional standards which distressed the English commentator.”
Volume 5: The Captive (1929): “Proust was doubtless led to his all but obsessive interest in the contrast between the absolute value of our desires while they last and the rapidity with which they can, nevertheless, utterly disappear, by his own experience with the complexities of the sexual passion. Though assigning a wholly romantic value to this last he nevertheless completely dissociated the idea of love from the idea of permanence, and his realization of the fact that a change in his dominant desire made, in effect, a new person of him led him to notice how many similar if less striking examples of the same phenomenon are to be observed when we consider the interests, opinions, and even manners of a man. And at last it came to seem to him that it was folly to speak of himself, of Albertine, or of Charlus as though any one of them were an entity maintaining its identity while time flowed past, and that a novel could be significant only if it were everywhere dominated by the sense that even the personalities for which the constantly recurring names stand are as fluid as the medium through which they float…. Others have struggled to rescue something from the flood; they have cherished at least the delusion that there are certain rocks around which the waves break. But his is a universe in which every molecule is fluid.”
Volume 6: The Sweet Cheat Gone (1932): “Disillusioned enough he was with many things, with morals for example, and he had neither any code nor any standards besides those which his tastes supplied. Yet there were capacities and faiths which he still retained. He still believed, for example, in the sufficiency of the senses and in the value of art. He never, like so many moderns, found himself in a world limited and debased by the impossibility of escape from psychology, anthropology, and Freudianism. The world was still absorbingly, still amazingly, interesting. Women, most women, were to him magical and mysterious. Conversations were witty, salons were thrilling, and artists—even contemporary artists—incalculably great. In a word, he respected his desires, his tastes, and his amusements, and hence, though experience might be predominantly painful, it was neither meaningless nor mean. And that perhaps is the secret of the individual charm of his world. It is one viewed with the critical freedom of modern thought and one in which skepticism rules. Yet it is somehow glamorous as well.”
Volume 7: The Past Recaptured (1932): “Once [the Recherche] has been read, it is literally unforgettable. The experiences which it affords become never-to-be-lost parts of one’s own experience. Half a dozen of the individual characters, as well as the conception as a whole, are solid, unescapable, and like some event of history they are always there whether one approves or disapproves, admires or despises. No student of literature, whatever his opinions or his tastes, can forget its existence, and it could no more be done away with in response to an aesthetic whim than a pyramid or a cathedral could be done away with by some advocate of an exclusively “modern” world. Of how many other books written during the last thirty years can that be said?
Krutch’s status as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Proust in his time—and perhaps any time—was affirmed in 1934, when he provided the introduction to the four-volume Random House edition of Moncrieff’s translation—described by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf as “one of the typographical masterpieces of 1934” and “one of the most successful publishing projects in the history of Random House”—which was reviewed in The Nation by Krutch’s close friend (and former literary editor of the magazine) Mark Van Doren. Though he dutifully complimented a “compact and beautiful introduction,” Van Doren wrote that Proust’s work itself would probably not survive the advance of his novel’s great subject, Time. Van Doren’s self-described “minority report” argued that Proust—the hero of whose books “spends most of his time in bed with three women—his mother, his grandmother, and [his housekeeper] Francois—always there to caress him and indulge him, to kiss him goodnight, to draw his curtains in the morning, to roast him a delicious fowl when he is hungry, and to tiptoe out of hearing when he wants to think”—was “preposterously, insufferably, spoiled,” and therefore condemned to supply his readers with an incomplete world stocked with incomplete characters.” The Recherche, Van Doren concluded, would not be popular forever, and seemed upon reflection “both wonderful and trivial, both mammoth and minor.”
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Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.
On March 24, 1987, the activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) gathered in front of Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City for its first ever demonstration. The flyer advertising the event was crammed with damning facts (“AIDS is the biggest killer in New York City of young men and women”), indictments (“President Reagan, nobody is in charge!”) and the desperate rage of people who were done being ignored (“AIDS is everybody’s business now”).
Of course, ACT UP took to the streets precisely because, in the 1980s, AIDS wasn’t seen as everybody’s business. Before it was a global epidemic, many thought of AIDS as the problem of—and even (capital) punishment for—the already marginalized gay communities living in cities such as New York and San Francisco. As movingly chronicled in last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, it wasn’t until sick and dying activists, with literally nothing left to lose, raised hell that intransigent government agencies and drug companies were finally forced to act.
Thirty years later, as another World AIDS Day passes, there’s been an enormous amount of progress. According to UNAIDS, the number of new HIV infections has declined by one-third in the last 12 years. Since 2005, there’s been an almost 30 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths, and since 2001, new infections in children have fallen 52 percent, thanks to treatments that prevent mother-to-child transmission. Access to antiretroviral treatment around the world has increased exponentially.
Yet, sadly, as musician and activist Elton John reminds us in his book Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS, the AIDS epidemic is far from over. As John persuasively argues, the same inequalities and stigmas that spread the disease in the 1980s prevent its eradication today.
Eighty-two years after being pulled off a Memphis-bound freight train, accused of raping two white women, threatened with lynching and subjected to years of blatant miscarriages of justice, the three Scottsboro Boys who had not yet been acquitted or pardoned were cleared by the state of Alabama on November 21. “Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong,” said State Senator Arthur Orr, who sponsored a bill to create a legal framework for the pardon. But however important as a symbolic gesture, the overdue action only underscored the fact that justice delayed is by definition justice denied: Clarence Norris, the last of the Scottsboro Boys, died in 1989.
Edited and published at the time by NAACP co-founder Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation immediately recognized Scottsboro as a vital front in the battle for civil rights and dispatched associate editor Dorothy Van Doren to Alabama to report on the case. Eight of the nine boys arrested had been charged in a snap trial lasting less than two weeks and were scheduled to hang in June 1931, but that date was postponed as a motion for a new trial was granted. They would remain in legal limbo, enduring numerous retrials and new convictions at the hands of all-white juries—even after one of the accusers admitted her allegation was a lie—for years.
In “Eight Who Must Not Die” (June 3, 1931), Van Doren wrote that precisely what made the accused such ripe targets for a racist and bloodthirsty Alabama judicial system was precisely what made their exoneration—if, as seemed clear to Van Doren and most observers, they were innocent—all the more necessary. In words sure to make twenty-first-century progressives uncomfortable, she wrote of the defendants:
None of them can read or write. All have unsavory reputations. They have been accused of various petty crimes—gambling, thieving, more or less harmful mischief in general. They are not noble characters; it is a safe guess that not one of them will ever amount to much. They are the products of ignorance, of the most wretched and extreme poverty, of dirt, disorder, and race oppression. Yet there is no reason in the world why they should not have every legal right accorded to the finest and most cultivated person in the land. They are poor and ignorant and irresponsible. All the more should the state protect them, all the more should every device of the courts and every safeguard of the law be invoked to the end that justice be served.
Two years later, as the proceedings were moved from Scottsboro to Decatur—“from all reports just a larger Scottsboro”—The Nation wrote in an editorial: “The Scottsboro boys are now more than ever in mortal danger. It is likely that only the pressure of public opinion upon the State of Alabama can save their lives. We hope that that pressure will be increasingly applied, by letter, by telegram, and by widespread publicity.”
In 1936, the great journalist Carleton Beals—who otherwise mostly wrote for The Nation on South and Central American politics—traveled to Alabama to interview Ozie Powell, the Scottsboro defendant who told a judge he had only three months of schooling and who, earlier that year, had been shot in the head by a police officer after pulling out a knife. Beals wrote in his article not only about the accused, but also about their accusers—the Alabaman whites looking for scapegoats:
As one rides through the countryside and sees the shacks in which they live, the boards warped and rotting, the windows broken and stuffed with rags, as one looks at the stony hillsides and the pine trees standing in swampy pools, one realizes that many of these people in America in the twentieth century live worse than most peasants in the Balkans and certainly have fewer cultural attainments. They fear the Negroes. It is an economic fear. It is a physical fear. It is a cultural fear. It is a blind fear.
In 1937, four of the Scottsboro Boys were acquitted of all charges, while the remaining four—Haywood Patterson, Andrew Wright, Charlie Weems and Clarence Norris—were convicted of rape and sentenced to seventy-five years, ninety-nine years, 105 years and death (later commuted to life), respectively. The peculiar and uneven conclusion to the case perplexed outside observers and prompted Morris Shapiro, secretary of the Scottsboro Defense Committee, to write in The Nation: “Alabama justice has yielded to expediency in the Scottsboro case. No other explanation is possible for the farcical finale which left the state in the anomalous position of providing only 50 per cent protection for the ‘flower of Southern womanhood.’”
All of the defendants were out of prison by 1950. Norris had jumped parole and wasn’t found until 1976, in Brooklyn; George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, pardoned him. Many of the others had found life extraordinarily difficult after the hardships they endured: Patterson died in prison after being convicted of manslaughter; Wright, living in Albany, New York, was again falsely accused of rape and later stabbed his wife; his little brother, Roy, just 13 at the time of his arrest, shot his wife and then himself in 1959.
As early as June 1931, Dorothy Van Doren had predicted that even if exonerated the Scottsboro Boys would not have easy lives. This was not so much because of the trauma of their recent ordeal, she wrote, as because of the overwhelmingly hostile and racist world into which they had been born. It was worthwhile, Van Doren wrote,
to consider for a moment to what sort of world they will get out, if they get out. Earnest persons who want to help somewhere and do not quite know how might ponder this point. They will reenter a world of poverty, ignorance, and race repression. Their chances of being in it a credit either to themselves or to their country are not large. Their chances even of living out their lives peaceably and dying in their beds are not large. They are the children of violence, and it is altogether likely that violence will overtake them in the end.
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What are Republicans for? We know they are against healthcare reform. They voted en masse against it, shut down the government to stop it and have voted nearly fifty times to defund it. We know they are against government spending. They’ve voted for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s draconian budgets, which would slash spending so deeply that even some Republicans are in increasingly open revolt. But those budgets don’t go anywhere. So what do Republicans propose that actually addresses the challenges facing the nation or its people?
Republican leaders are clearly concerned that their policy house is largely vacant. In his dissection of the lost 2012 campaign, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus noted that Republicans suffer a “major deficiency”—the “perception that the GOP does not care about people.” He urged a renewed effort to become “the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”
All that advice was lost in the anti-Obama venom that unifies Republicans. But after the government shutdown sent Republican poll numbers plummeting to new depths, a new effort—or at least a new public relations push—has been launched. The early reports make the administration’s botched health-care takeoff look smooth by comparison.
Politico noted that Republicans trooping into House majority leader Eric Cantor’s office received a paper titled “Agenda 2014.” The paper was blank. As of now, Politico reported, details are scant, but Republicans seem to be focused more on identifying the problems than the solutions. “The beginning should always be what are the problems we’re trying to fix,” said Republican policy chair James Lankford (Okla.). Or as a GOP aide involved in the planning sessions was quoted: “Cantor wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is that we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”