Skip to content

Julia Child and the Sex of Cooking

     One more thing about Julia Child, please.  It strikes me she is the feminist we will remember.  The French Chef, like the Statue of Liberty, will stand a long time for American values that she had a lot to do with transforming.  Emerging 40-plus years ago, just ahead of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, Julia Child reopened the American kitchen as an arena of Old World sensuality and delight.  At the same time she contributed her own example, on the tube and the cover of Time, of a woman at home in the world, entirely herself.

     The pianist Virginia Eskin first put the notion in my head that Julia was a cultural revolutionary who’d done more than Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Company to show American women a model of power in public and expressive self-discovery at home–no matter that she never called herself a feminist.  “I was never conscious of being downtrodden by the males,” as Julia said.

     It helped, she admitted, to stand more than six feet tall.  She’d had the further benefit of encouraging parents who, when she brought home a 48 on a school paper, would say, “Well, that’s fine, dear.  Maybe next time you’ll get a 50.”  It helped perhaps most to be in love for half a century with a US intelligence officer, Paul Child, who introduced her to French culture and cuisine. 

     Whatever the multiplicity of reasons, Julia always had the qualities Camille Paglia celebrates in the “pre-War feminists” like Amelia Earhart and Katherine Hepburn.  That is, she followed her own cheerful, hard-working instincts along a path so original that she never seemed to be competing with anyone, least of all a man.  And if a souffle fell now and again, she had no urge to blame anyone, least of all herself.

     “Yes, a major American woman,” Paglia had confirmed on the phone from Philadelphia.  Part of “the first wave,” one of the great almost 19th Century dowagers, “the opposite of today’s victim psychology and so on.  In the history of women, Julia Child obviously plays an enormous role.  And the neglect of her career–you know, by the Feminist Establishment, by Women’s Studies, and so on–is very typical.   This very achieving, practical woman–commanding as an admiral on a warship, for heaven’s sake, at the height of the British Empire–naturally doesn’t fit into the narrow view of the callow little Women’s Studies people.  Her heir as a mega-figure is of course Martha Stewart–a personality sui generis, as it were.” 

     The neglect that Paglia noted in conversation several years ago turned up again in those loving Julia obits, I thought.  The true measure of Julia Child is a great deal more than recipes and shtik.  “Obviously,” Paglia had said, “she is one of those figures in history who totally transformed American culture.  This country was a wasteland of Philistinism in terms of food and the preparation of food until Julia Child came on the scene.  You know, her manner–her whole mannish manner!  I mean, she’s a pioneering woman, with no connection to the Gloria Steinem school, the Patricia Ireland school, and all those, like, white upper-middle-class ladies.  I mean, I absolutely adore the whole technology of food preparation, the ritualism of food coming out of Mediterranean culture.  And nothing could be more opposite: food-affirming Julia Child versus the anorexia and bulimia-obsessd victimology of academic studies.”

     The professional cook in the Lydon family, middle-daughter Amanda, picked up in her commentary where Paglia left off.  “The key word Camille didn’t use,” Amanda said, “was pleasure.  Julia Child did open up a new world for women.  She broke the gender code in cooking.  I mean, all the great cooks talk about their mothers and their mothers’ food.  But there are differences.  Home cooking is relaxed and female.  Restaurant cooking is rule-bound, rigid and masculine.  Julia put the Apollonian into the Dionysian, and the Dionysian into the Apollonian.  Fine cuisine, so called, is a masculine tradition.  What Julia Child did is deconstruct this French, classical, rule-based cooking tradition and make it accessible to women as a source of pleasure at home.”

     “What about the guys,” I wondered.

     “The guys are kind of on their own,” Amanda mused.  “That’s my take on it.  Julia pulled off this raid on the cold, clinical preserve of French technique, and now it’s everywhere in American kitchens.  It’s serious stuff–all the French lore and method behind the great stocks and sauces, and she liberated it.  Who knows what we’d be eating but for her?”

     Late in the 1990s, not long before Julia Child left Boston, my daughter Sarah and I took her to dinner at Gordon Hamersly’s Bistro in the South End.  Food, fun and friendship were excuse enough for Julia.  The Queen of the Foodies didn’t eat out often, though she’d been out the night before with Lydia Shire (” a kind of a genius”) and Gordon Hamersley to the New Shanghai in Chinatown.  The old rule of going out was that “it has to be something better, or as good as, home.” A lot of the better tables in town were too noisy for Julia’s taste.  “I can’t hear myself eat,” Julia would say–not complaining, just reporting.  In truth she preferred to eat at home–hers or somebody else’s.  And no, she wasn’t hard to cook for.  “I’m a nice guest to have because I’m always hungry,” she explained. 

     She wasn’t exactly intimidating in a restaurant, but she was no pushover either. 

     “Do you like the wine?” asked the Hamersly’s waiter about a house Pinot Blanc with the soup.  “Not terribly,” said Julia.  And about that chowder with trout, smoked haddock and mussels in it: “There’s smoked fish in the chowder, and a very nice broth with it.  It looks pretty,” she told our server.  But the Vermont common crackers should have been split and buttered, “the way Jasper [White] does them.  These crackers are not good–they’re both tough and chewy, and they’re not crisp the way they should be.” 

     “I’ll let you tell him,” our waitress demurred. 

     Russell Morash, theWGBH producer who made Julia a TV star, was a carpenter’s son and a child of the old Boston, like me. 

     In 1960, on a Saturday night,” he reminded me, “you and I had baked beans and brown bread and franks.  On a Sunday you had pork loins.  And if you asked at the A&P for leeks or a clove of garlic, they would have looked at you funny.  Julia brought new food and new implements to America.  An omelette used to be a French thing.  An edible cheese?  Ground pepper?  Forget it!  Chicken in America was fried.  The Ritz in the late ’50s was serving codfish cakes.  And the world was pointed to food made in factories and sold in cans.  Julia said: start from scratch, and make something memorable.”

     Julia ignited Morash’s genius for how-to television, as in Crockett’s Victory Garden and This Old House, which in spirit are part of Julia’s legacy, too.  Morash, if he did not exactly invent the Julia Child persona, was present at the creation. 

     “It’s August 1961,” as Morash told the story, “and I get a call from a woman I think may be dying from overinhaling Marlboro cigarettes, and she says: ‘I will require a hotplate to cook an omelette on your program.’  I was the cameraman on Professor P. Alfred Duhamel’s program I’ve Been Reading, and he was about to review Julia’s first cookbook.  Maybe 4000 people saw her cook her eggs, and maybe six people out of the 4000 wrote letters saying: ‘This woman is terrific!’  And so Julia came into my life.”

     Even then, Morash remembered, Julia had the first remote-control on her television set, because she hated the commercials.  “It was just a couple of wires and a toggle switch.  She called it her Blab-Off.  And then she was the first kid on her block with a computer, then with a bread-making machine.  And the first to go online.  Julia is so hip.  Julia is tomorrow.  She is vital.  She is bright.  She knows what the hell she is doing.  My wife and I did 20 days of shooting with Julia in Norway a couple of summers ago–working hard, sucking down vodka and wine and salmon and salamis.  Marian and I would hit the rack at quarter to nine and die!  And then the phone would ring and Julia would cry, ‘dearie, let’s go out and get some dinner.’  She will not get old.  She will not get tired.”

     She was the eldest of three McWilliams kids–two girls and a boy.  All grew past six feet.  He mother used to say, “I have 18 and a half feet of children.”  They thrived for more than a quarter of a millenium.

     At Hammersly’s, Julia put it this way:  “I think I’m a good advertisement for my lifestyle.”  Her entree was Gordon’s own signature roast chicken with garlic, lemon and parsley.  Half of it went home with her in a doggy bag, for next day’s lunch.  Her second glass of wine was red, a Pinotage, from South Africa.  “Much better,” she said. 

     As always, she was waiting for the conversation to turn to politics.  Julia Child was a Roosevelt Democrat at home, an Acheson Democrat abroad–an unrepentant celebrant of The Best and The Brightest in politics and government.  “Tell me,” she said, with another of her half-winks, “what happened to the Democratic Party, which seems to have disappeared.”  And why did Hillary Clinton stir up such feeling?  “I think she’s marvellous,” Julia said.  “This is the first time we’ve had a modern young woman as a President’s wife,” not excepting Jacqueline Kennedy.  “She’s kind of a wild woman,” Julia reflected, but the hatred she stirred in Washington was our problem, not Hillary’s.  “With a woman who does something,” she said, “men are afraid and women feel inadequate.  And the reaction to inadequacy is hatred.”

     “People love you,” I said to Julia that evening. 

     “I’m not a threat to anybody,” she offered as an explanation. “I’m not driven.  I’m enjoying what I do, and I don’t have any great ambitions.  I just feel I’m lucky to be in this profession that I just adore and meeting all the people I like.  I’m just very fortunate.”

     It was Virginia Eskin, again, who first pointed out to me a certain similarity between Julia Child and the late Boston Pops genius Arthur Fiedler.  They both shared a peculiarly buoyant, American, democratic and practical passion for marketing masterpieces–for translating and demystifying European haute cuisine and haute musique.  They never patronized their subject or their audiences.  Their confidence gave the rest of us confidence. 

     Julia gave me confidence once to prepare a tuna fish lunch for her, in her own kitchen, on camera, for an 80th birthday interview.  “You ask the questions and we’ll see where it goes.  We won’t let it be Dullsville,” she said, typical Julia-speak.  “Hang loose.” 

     She also praised my version of tuna fish salad–with dill, asparagus, green pepper, lemon rind and minced bacon bits–and persuaded me to add capers to the mix.

     When we touched wine glasses that day and toasted our lunch, she corrected my clumsy grip and reminded us what food was all about for her.

     “Hold it by the stem,” she said, “so it will make a nice noise.  Paul calls this sound ‘les carillons de l’amitie,’ –the bells of friendship.”

The Media Transformation

     For my money the wisest of the media watchers, Jay Rosen of NYU and PressThink, made three essential points in conversation this morning about the Democratic convention.

     1.  “The bloggers, for all their faults and shenanigans and self-absorption, really were the news at this convention.  They represented the new.  And that is why they received so much attention.”  For several days, in traditional media, bloggers were the story, because “there’s an arrow over their heads that points forward.  They represent the future, to journalists.”  The traditional press was “going through the motions while the bloggers were defining their motions for the first time.”  Bloggers didn’t change the convention narrative, but neither do the old reporters believe their own narrative anymore.  “People in the blogging world were much more alive and interested and amazed by where they were.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

     2.  The forty-year marriage of political conventions and network television–symbolized by those TV skyboxes high above courtside that spun the broadcast story line–looks in retrospect like a long case of unrequited love.  From 1960 to 2000, as Jay Rosen summed it up, the conventions kept saying: ‘television, we love you.  Look, we’ll change this… we’ll build our podium so it looks like a studio… we’ll sculpt our politicians so they look like actors… we’ll speak in soundbites…’  And television was kind of walking away at the same time.  Now it’s unmistakable.  Three hours, after gavel-to-gavel coverage?  It’s so meagre–it’s crumbs!–that it’s forcing people in politics to think in different ways.  So you saw the explosion of other media at this convention that in the end are going to take the momentum away from these players who aren’t really all that big.”

     3.  The transformation of media continues.  The barriers to entry are not just down, they’re gone.  The tools of the new journalism are cheap, so the conversation is bound to get ever more democratic, expressive, global.  Jay Rosen had his own epiphany writing for PressThink: “I was competing with the newspapers, in a way.  But I felt I had many advantages.  I felt freer than they were… I realized: I can define this event any damn way I want.  I can call a player anyone I regard as a player.  Politics changes when it is subject to freedom of interpretation, which it always should have been.”  Traditional media “may be a little bit empty.  It might lack some conviction.  It certainly doesn’t have a lot of energy and creativity and bounce and belief to it. But it’s still very powerful and very big.”   It says a lot that so many newspapers hired bloggers, or imitated them, at this convention.  “You know you’re getting somewhere,” Jay Rosen said, “when the Big Foots have to acknowledge that there is something out there that they don’t anticipate and that they can’t necessarily control.” 

     It may have been a watershed convention, after all.  Listen here.

Blogger Talk

     Political bloggers remind you of the folk legend about the bumble bee and the MIT engineers.  On precise measurement of such things as wing-span, body weight and overall shape, the aerodynamical experts concluded with certainty that the little bug could never fly.  Fortunately the bumble bees never got the news.

     Neither did the bloggers, who buzz around this Democratic convention as if the Dean campaign had never crashed.  As if, at least, the Internet transformation proceeds apace.  As if the television era is indeed over.  As if the tools and rules of winning politics are in their hands already.  As if identity politics and interest-group power are already being pushed aside by the logic and the technology of networking.  As if John Kerry is a dinosaur–in a good way.  That is, they accept Kerry as the last electable dinosaur but the end of a line of candidates that could be imposed on the party.  “It’s appropriate that this convention is in Boston,” says the Music for America activist Franz Hartl, “because it might be an Irish wake for this whole political establishment.”

     Hear it now.  At the Google party at the Meza restaurant late last night, I wandered with my minidisc recorder, engaging enyone who could be heard over the TV and the DJ.  “What happened to the promise of an Internet democracy?” was my question.  “It never went away,” said Sterling Newberry, who needs no introduction.  “The Internet isn’t a candidate.  The Internet isn’t a political group.  The Internet isn’t a specific campaign.  The Internet is a place where people gather and converse, and the conversation has gone on uninterrupted, and it’s the conversation that’s important.  In Dave Weinberger’s line: ‘we’re more interesting than you are.’  The conversation is more important than the candidate.  The conversation is more important than even the party, because the conversation is what binds everyone together.”

     The Democratic Party is doomed if it doesn’t get the message, said Joe Trippi, the change agent with Howard Dean and now the author of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.  “If the two parties don’t get back to the people on the ground, it’s inevitable that 2 or 3 million Americans will create a $200-million candidacy of a third way.”  In the Internet “they have a way to pool their resources and create that change.”

     Jason Shellen took a bow for Blogger.Com, which proclaimed on T-shirts a couple of years ago that the revolution “will be bloggerized.”  But they never imagined that their software, in the hands of The Baghdad Blogger, would have one of the front row seats in a war.

     Zack Rosen, the 21-year-old tool maker behind the Dean campaign’s digital networks, is inventing again for Civic Space.  The trick is to build simple tool sets that connect the granular cells of issue-oriented politics into a larger movement.  The Kerry campaign is “duct tape–nothing lasting,”  said the boy-wonder of Joe Trippi’s Burlington headequarters.  But meantime a complete rewiring of progressive movement politics is underway. 

     “The interactive moment is just beginning,” said the Texas populist Glenn Smith, hawking his new book about the Bush years, The Politics of Deceit.  Barack Obama’s speech caught the wave brilliantly, Smith said: the new themes of a rebuilding Democratic Party will be mutual responsibility, freedom and conversation.  Listen here.

Forever Amber

     Amber is not indifferent.  She’s just numb.  Listen to her convention commentary in her own voice.

     People ask me continually about the radio talk show legend, the ferociously articulate caller who tangled on the air with the best (including Gore Vidal, Camille Paglia, William Safire, William F. Buckley and Harold Bloom) and bested them all. “How’s Amber?” people want to know.  “What is she thinking? Are you in touch?” 

     Well, we are ever in touch, and she is ever her indomitable, industrious, provocative self. 

     This summer she is reading Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, “the ultimate tale of war and consequences,” and scheming to hand the book directly to Donald Rumsfeld.  

     She is appalled by the machine guns in the hands of the SWAT teams on the Boston transit system during convention week.  “I’m scared stiff,” she says.  For want of identity papers, she says, “I feel like a criminal,” though her only crime is to have been orphaned in Boston 20 years ago, at the age of 11.   So she does not advertise herself, but she could be the smallish brown-skinned beauty sitting next to you, with a backpack, on the subway. 

     Amber typifies for me a sort of uninvited guest at the American feast.  She is the “other” in our midst.  She studies this country with an unrequited fascination.

     This summer, however, she is part of the core audience for politics that has tuned out our hometown Democratic convention. 

     She is furious that the Democrats assembled in Boston this week never mention their grand-daddy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

     Months ago Amber told me she hoped the Democrats didn’t win the 2004 election, because they shouldn’t have to clean up George Bush’s mess.  Four more years at this rate, I said, and the country could be unrecognizable.  She said: “Chris, it is unrecognizable.” 

     Amber is unreconciled to the “coup d’etat” of 2000 and the government that cheapened civil liberties and “took us into a war.. that John Kerry voted for.”   

     In a Caribbean grade-school Amber feasted on American heroes like Patrick Henry and slogans like “Give me liberty or give me death!”

     “I’m one of those strange creatures who came to this country from somewhere else, who still believes in those American ideals and who couldn’t believe the U.N. and Jimmy Carter weren’t flying into Florida [in 2000] and declaring this an invalid election–’cause I certainly would have wanted the United States to be calling an election like that in my country invalid.  You think of me as a negative–I think of me as a positive person.  I positively and passionately and with every fiber of my being believe in this country and what it stands for–and I haven’t seen that for years now.”

     But that’s not quite true either.  She says she has fallen in love this summer with New York City–the brilliant shower of accents, colors, voices.  It’s a $10 trip on the Chinatown bus.  And she has wept for the scar of 9.11.  “What scares me,” she says, “is that we’re creating a hundred more 9.11s.  That’s what keeps me awake every night.”

     Amber speaks for herself here.  She may even speak for you.

Forever Amber

What’s Really New in Boston

Listen up. Here’s the story that the newspapers and networks are missing in all the cute coverage of Boston, the Democratic convention city. Ready? For the first time in almost thirty years, Boston is free of the thuggish Bulger brothers.

James, known as Whitey, is the FBI-licensed serial killer, belatedly on the top of the Most Wanted list but also on the lam now because old friends at the FBI tipped him to run before he got arrested. William is the fallen autocrat who ruled the Massachusetts State House for decades with the fear and the power that came, not least, from his brother’s gun.

Our liberation from the Bulgers gets scant mention in the institutional media–perhaps because the best of them (including “60 Minutes” and “The New Yorker”) were in on the cover-up of our Bulger Imprisonment. But the Rise, Reign and Fall of the Bulger Brothers is the biggest Boston story of our times, maybe the only really important political story since the Kennedys. Ask yourself: in how many places could it have been said with authority that the overlord of the drug cartel and the overlord of local politics were brothers and intimates? Medellin perhaps, but that’s in Colombia. Marseilles, but that was France, upon a time. Yes, and Massachusetts, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.

It seems safe enough now to celebrate the good news, so I went over to the Boston Herald today to record a conversation with one of the very few real heroes of this story, the gloriously disreputable, fearless and funny Howie Carr. Howie is the only writer in Boston with the tenacity to learn the whole Bulger story, and the balls to tell it–not only to relate it in infinite detail (look for Howie’s Whitey Watch here) but to laugh in the Bulgers’ faces with jokes about The Caucasian, The Corrupt Midget and the Crime Family. These were jokes that he had to know could have cost him his life. The Bulgers had jokes, too, like the word passed from Whitey’s liquor store in South Boston that they had a dumpster out back with Howie Carr’s name on it. There was a time when a reporter couldn’t laugh at a threat like that. Most reporters just decided not to mention the Bulgers. But let’s not forget them yet.

Think of Whitey Bulger as our neighborhood version of Osama Bin Laden. Both Whitey and Osama were embraced and empowered by the security apparatus of the US government–Whitey by the FBI, ostensibly to get information on the Italian Mafia; Osama by the CIA and Pentagon, to lead the fighting forces of Islam against the Soviet domination of Afghanistan. Both Whitey and Osama grew out of control into much more dangerous monsters, you could argue, than the enemies they’d been enlisted to fight. And then both of them disappeared!

One big difference between them was that Whitey left his kid brother behind–a politician who inspired much the same dread as Whitey, who exercised power in public office behind a veil not of respectability, really, but of silence. In the words of the late John E. Powers, who preceded Bulger in South Boston politics and the Senate presidency, “it’s as if Al Capone’s brother was president of the Illinois State Senate, and everybody pretended not to notice.”

One reason people could pretend not to notice was that the media conspired in the sentimental absurdity of a good brother/bad brother story, when the record was clear that they were tight little twins in treachery and intimidation.

The people who were duped and demeaned by William Bulger make an amazing list, as Howie and I totted it up informally today. High in the ranks is Michael Dukakis, who as governor signed Bulger’s vendettas into the state budget. Bulger showed his capacity for gratitude and solidarity by encouraging George H. W. Bush in one of the decisive campaign ploys of the 1988 presidential campaign: the floating diatribe, from a boat in polluted Boston Harbor, against Dukakis’s environmental record. Bulger launched John Silber in the 1990 governor’s race with a grant of the convention votes Silber required to make the Democratic ballot. But no sooner had Silber self-destructed in the final race when Bulger married the Republican winner, Bill Weld. Unce upon a time, as the Federal prosecutor in Boston, Weld had wanted to indict both Bulger brothers, but as governor he learned, he said, to love the Senate President. So much for Weld’s “smell test.”

Nothing is more embarrassing overall than the professional commentary on the Bulger story through the years. Bad enough that Mike Barnicle in his Globe column fronted continually for John Connolly, the FBI hack now in prison for fronting for the Bulgers. Bad enough that Brian McGrory continues the Globe tradition: when Bulger, as UMass president, took the Fifth Amendment before Congress rather than detail his contacts with Whitey, McGrory called it an exercise of “brotherly love,” not public contempt. But astonishingly The New Yorker published a fawning, ignorant profile of William Bulger by Richard Brookhiser that was a bad as any of the local coverage. Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” was worse.

There are genuine stand-up heroes in the Bulger story. Judge George Daher was defiant when Bulger, on a personal pique, tried to unfund his Housing Court, and Governor Dukakis went along. “How’s he going to stand up to the Russians,” Daher famously asked about Dukakis, “when he can’t stand up to the corrupt midget?” Federal Judge Mark Wolf made amends for the sins of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in which he’d served, with an exhaustive inquiry into the corruption of the FBI. We have brave, solid books by now on the Bulger reign of terror: All Souls by Michael McDonald, and Black Mass by the Globe’s Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Alan Dershowitz deserves credit for volunteering to Mitt Romney to serve on the UMass board, if only to hound President Bulger at every trustees’ meeting. Some say this was the threat that persuaded Bulger to quit. But nobody over the years took more chances to tell the story straight than Howie Carr. And nobody gave more people courage and some consolation through the Bulger siege. So here’s to Howie and a hell of a yarn. A piece of it is here.

The State We’re In

     If everything and everyplace in the world can be categorized as either German or French (as Ned Rorem argues), what is Massachusetts?   Or if (as the late Isaiah Berlin had it) all the world is to be divided between foxes and hedgehogs, what is this old Bay State? 

     Robert David Sullivan has offered Democratic convention-goers a passel of fresh numbers, ideas and questions on the matter of the host state’s identity in Commonwealth magazine.  So, here’s my take:

     “Foxy Massachusetts” strikes the right complex chord for this state that knows, and teaches, and does, so many different things.  And (in the famous Isaiah Berlin pairing)  it makes the right contrast with the one-note hedgehog states of the South or the Oil Patch, for example.  Yes, we like to think of ourselves in Massachusetts as multifarious, quirky, entrepreneurial, mercurial–quick like a fox, wily and above all smart. 

    And then there are other parlor-game polarities to consider. 

    Yiddish or Goyish?  Massachusetts falls into my Yiddish column–it must be the asssociation with tradition, professionalism, learning, and the image of Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the original Jewish Brahmin: the all-time model Massachusetts citizen and first Jew on the United States Supreme Court. 

    Catholic or Protestant?  Massachusetts has always felt to me like a Protestant place, probably because the dominant Catholics here of the Irish persuasion have so much Calvinist Puritanism bred into them (us!).  It’s another instance where the best statistics tell you very little.

    From Mars or from Venus?  We’re more Martian at least than our McGovernite reputation–so indeed was the WW2 bomber pilot George McGovern.  Patriots in battle are the stuff of Massachusetts history, starting with Paul Revere.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., on the Supreme Court with Brandeis, had left Harvard College at age 17 to fight in the Civil War. Ted Williams sacrificed his best baseball years to World War 2.  Our temples of learning, too, honor Mars and are funded in turn.  We understood in childhood that MIT was doing the science that would defeat the Nazis.

     Apollonian or Dionysian? This is the key distinction.  The Massachusetts state of mind is modeled on Apollo, the sun god and far-darting bowman, as in Shelley’s Hymn of Apollo:

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine…

    Ted Williams, more like a god than a man, was Apollo in a Red Sox uniform.  Bill Russell of the immortal Celtics drew an uncrossable Apollonian line against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers.  John F. Kennedy was bewitchingly cool Apollonian rationality and restraint in a Massachusetts politician.  Barney Frank and the late Tip O’Neill (in the “Sodom and Begorrah” Congressional delegation) are Dionysian exceptions that prove the Apollonian rule.  Dionysus was the “jolly god,” the god of earth and wine and animal spirits, promoter of civilization and lover of peace.  But the distinctive heroes of Massachusetts mythology, from Emily Dickinson to Pedro Martinez, reenact the Apollonian drama of the mind in triumph over nature. 

    If the nation were more like Massachusetts–and if Massachusetts lived up to its own dream of itself–we would be a much crankier, more expressive, more democratic place than we are.  We would be contending more with the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote (Michael Moore-ishly) in Civil Disobedience, in 1849:  “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?  I answered that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”

    Or we might be digging still deeper for the serenity of Thoreau’s compatriot in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

The Master

     I interviewed the Irish writer Colm Toibin in the Cambridge Cemetery on the chance that we might hear voices from the James family grave.

     We knew that the psychologist William James and his brother Henry, the novelist, were the sort of people who’d oblige us, if they could.  On William’s death in 1910, Henry actually stayed his return to England and lingered for six weeks in his brother’s house in Cambridge, with some hope that William’s spirit would make contact.  Henry was disappointed by the ghost.  So were we.  Yet Colm Toibin’s spookily Jamesian novel The Master very nearly brings Henry alive, as convincingly as a seance or a dream.

    The Master pictures James between 1895 and 1900, in his late fifties, at the far turn of his unflaggingly  productive life.  In January, 1895, in the dark prelude of Toibin’s story, the determined playwright Henry James is being hooted off a stage on the opening night of his ignominious and final theatrical flop, Guy Domville.  Far from crushing him, Guy Domville turned James toward the last three towering home-runs of his career in fiction–in three years, three immortal masterpieces: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and
The Golden Bowl (1904). 

    Toibin catches James precisely in the early autumn that generated also the perfect novella,
“The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), a scathing reflection on the price a man pays for casting off life and love.  John Marcher, the pitiable anti-hero of “The Beast,” is a man who talked himself out of a good woman’s love, arguing that he must reserve himself for a mysterious catastrophe, a lethal beast of prey lurking in his future.  Years later the catastrophe turns out to be nothing but the self-absorption that blinded Marcher to love’s redemption.  Is this the lament of closeted homosexuality?  Is it James’ calculation of his own sacrifice for art?  Is it, as I suppose, a lesson about the power of fear to teach us the wrong stories about who we are and what we can do in life?  “The Beast” marks in any event the mood and the moment in which Colm Toibin tries to penetrate the mist of Henry James’ invention.

    Colm Toibin grew up, as we all do, with the notion that Henry James was an artist without a life–the far opposite in his own time of Oscar Wilde, who was said to have committed his talent to his art, but his genius to his life!  In The Master Colm Toibin is respinning the web of emotional filaments that tied James in every moment of his consciousness to his rich, rampaging, free-thinking father and his extravagantly indulgent mother; to brothers Wilky and Bob who were sacrificed to the Civil War; to his miserably clever and indiscreet sister Alice; and to the brilliant, beloved William James, the elder brother who scorned Henry’s late prose style.

    In The Master and in our
gab at the graveside Colm Toibin takes up the modern charge that two other woman suffered painfully, perhaps fatally, for Henry James’ monomania.  His doomed but radiant cousin Minny Temple was always known as the inspiration for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and for Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove.  But  in her brief tubercular real life Minny Temple was the fragile young woman who begged Henry to take her with him on his first trip to Rome.  Henry refused her. Minny died.  In The Master, it is James’ friend, by then a famous judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who blames Henry for abandoning Minny:  “When she did not hear from you,” says Holmes to James, “she turned her face to the wall.”  Many years later Constance Fenimore Woolson, an expatriate American novelist who’d confided, traveled and commiserated with Henry James over many years, committed suicide in Venice, not long after he’d rebuffed her invitations to join him there.  

Too late to save her, he rushed to commandeer her apartment and destroy all evidence of their connection.  The Woolson story–so close to the agony of “The Beast in the Jungle”–was a topic that Henry James assiduously avoided with his friends, one that Toibin pursues in gruesome detail but with no condemnation.

    It’s the astonishing body of work that redeems Henry James in the end, no matter what.  But Colm Toibin’s subtle portrait of an infinitely subtle man is a pleasure in its own right.  I’ve come to imagine that inside the puffy cartoon of James as a marshmallow mountain of effete logorrhea there was a man of steel.  Colm Toibin has found him.  I hope the movie part goes to Sean Connery.  Listen in

Radio Talk in the Heartland

     We are drilling deeper into local/global conversation in the heartland this week. Try us out at Minnesota Public Radio. The strongest impression in four weeks on the air here is the strength of the radio culture that MPR has been building for more than 35 years. One measure is the cool ease with with MPR raised $1.9 million in the last week from their listeners. Another is the savvy and strong spontaneous constructive sound from callers on all subjects, every day. Short form: Hubert Humphrey lives! The thread is a kind of Humphreyesqe enthusiasm for public activism, for the public space itself. Public transportation is poor in the Twin Cities. But public radio is extraordinarily good.

     It helps to have discovered a Minnesota writer of terrific range and heft. Bill Holm is a poet and essayist who observes the hardship and melancholy of the prairies. People hear Walt Whitman in him. In a magnificent essay, “The Music of Failure,” he encompasses Icelandic roots, the wisdom of Gilgamesh and Alcoholics Anonymous, the unlearned lessons of Vietnam and a hands-on familiarity with the greatest piano music, from Haydn to Art Tatum. And he takes it all to transcendental levels. Bill Holm may be the real Garrison Keillor. He may be our living Emerson. In any event please check him out in our conversation Wednesday morning at 11 a.m. EST.

     We will be taking your calls this week… about the gusher of papers from the files of the last Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun… with Brian Rosenberg, the new president of St. Paul’s little gem of higher education, Macalaster College… with David Shipler, on his new book, “The Working Poor”… and marking the centenary of Dr. Seuss. Call us up at 1/800-242-2828 and listen in when you can (10 to noon, EST) at Minnesota Public Radio.

Azar Nafisi: a bloggable radio conversation

     Please listen in at Minnesota Public Radio and call-in at 1-800-242-2828.


     We’re on the radio Friday morning (March 5) at 9 a.m. EST with Azar Nafisi.  She has written the ultimate book-group story of the discoveries that come with deep reading–the connections made obscurely with values of freedom, curiosity, insubordination; issues of eros, independence, Islam.  American readers in astonishing numbers have been eating up the lesson.


     You wouldn’t have bet on Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” to be the New York Times #1 bestseller—but there it is on the paperback list, after most of a year atop the hard-covers. 


     It has drawn a classic modern picture of the immeasurable value of high art and literature: it’s the picture of seven young Iranian women, shedding their veils in an apartment in Tehran through the worst of the puritanical Islamic revolutionary cruelty to women after the worst shelling of the Iran-Iraq war–and talking instead about banned Western books: the novels of Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen, Conrad, the Brontes. 


     “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is about a lot of things we care about: Islam… The polarities of East and West… 


     It’s about: women in fiction, like Daisy Miller and Lolita… And women under oppression as under the Mullahs’ regime in Iran today. 


     It’s about: books that stir up trouble, and books that get you through a crisis, or through the night…


     It’s about Henry James’ rule: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… And I know of no substitute for the force and beauty of its process…”


     It is a book about our Internet world, too.  The Iranian bloggers, the connectivity of cultures, the shrinking world of politics. 


     So check in!